Summary: We may have no walls to repair, yet many of us have faced the challenge of restoring a ruined life. Whatever we may encounter, we can find in Nehemiah’s quest the confidence to handle adversity with grace. We can expect God to act--to be present when tr
In the Army, we say that there are 3 kinds of people…
-Those who make things happen;
-Those who watch things happen;
-Those who wonder, “What happened?”
Nehemiah was a leader who--by God’s grace--made things happen.
We may have no walls to repair, yet many of us have faced the challenge of restoring a ruined life. Whatever we may encounter, we can find in Nehemiah’s quest the confidence to handle adversity with grace. We can expect God to act--to be present when troubles arise. We last saw Nehemiah praying and waiting on God to show him the right time to approach the king. “It was hard to get a position in the Persian court, and even harder to get out” (Campbell). He may have waited for a special occasion in which the king would be in a more favorable frame of mind to grant requests.
In these days, no one dared to appear sad in the presence of a Persian king; people wearing symbols of mourning (sackcloth) were barred from the palace. By not covering up his inner unrest, Nehemiah was taking a risk of inciting the king’s wrath. He’d been crushed for months, yet dared not show his distress before the king. And the king was quick to notice his somber countenance. This could have been interpreted as political intrigue, disloyalty, or disapproval of the king. Yet Nehemiah was the king’s trusted advisor, so he chose to overlook Nehemiah’s appearance, and even express concern. He could have just as easily been enraged. Nehemiah has daringly decided to introduce his request by allowing his feelings to be evident. Instead of having Nehemiah executed, the king engages him in conversation. He asks, “Why does your face look so sad?” The Hebrew text literally reads, “Why is your face so bad,” which is an idiom. That the king took an interest in the concerns of a servant is a reflection of his humane character. For Nehemiah, this was a moment of opportunity, God’s open door.
Carefully expressing deep respect (“May the king live forever”), Nehemiah tells the king of the unguarded condition of Jerusalem. What good was it for the Jews to be allowed back to their homeland if it was left vulnerable to attack? Not that Artaxerxes was responsible for correcting this; he was being generous by allowing the captives to simply return home. Moreover, Nehemiah was asking the king to reverse his own policy, which is spelled out in the previous book of Ezra. Nehemiah diplomatically presents his concern as a personal matter, not a political one. He also responds in a very Jewish fashion, answering a question with a question! (“Why do you always answer a question with a question?” “Why not?”) Nehemiah is grieved over the condition of his ancestral home. Jews have great reverence for the graves of their forefathers. Moved by compassion, the king asks Nehemiah what he might wish to do about this matter.
Verse 6 mentions that the queen was present, but the Hebrew says “the royal consort”, more likely a concubine from the harem. We might wonder what influence Esther, the Queen Mother may have had on her son Artaxerxes, which would make the king ethnically Jewish.
The king rightly assumes that Nehemiah has a specific proposal. In the months that Nehemiah had been praying, he also was considering how to fix this problem, and was ready with a plan. I learned in the military that you don’t go to your commander with a predicament unless you had a detailed solution in mind. Those in command are in a position to approve and support a course of action, but they’re not expected to formulate plans. God honors order and organization. We don’t just venture forth haphazardly, making thing up as we go along. Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.
At this critical junction, Nehemiah “gasps a prayer and braces himself to reply” (Kidner). Let’s not gloss over his quick prayer in verse 4. Prayer is where planning starts. He’d been praying for this moment for over four months, but now that it’s here, he quickly adds one more quick prayer. “Quick prayers are valid if one has prayed sufficiently beforehand” (Breneman). Nehemiah understood that God--not the king--was in control. We should “remember to visit with the Lord before facing the world” (Anon). Prayer is taking action. God would answer Nehemiah’s prayer through the assistance of the king.
Can you imagine Nehemiah thinking, “I don’t need to pray; I’ve got this under control”? He was wise and humble enough to recognize that his reliance on help from Above--not his political connectedness--was going to bring about success. Thomas Merton points out: “We do not pray in order to receive just any answer: it must be God’s answer”; and “There is no such thing as prayer in which ‘nothing is done’ or ‘nothing happens’.”