Nehemiah had an important position in the court of Artaxerxes I (465-424 BC), king of Persia: “I was cupbearer to the king” (Nehemiah 1:11). As a Jew who was born in exile, he had a good life, enjoyed the luxury of the court, and relished in the trust of the king as his wine steward. However, when Nehemiah heard about the conditions of Jerusalem and the plight of his people, he was willing to leave all because he knew that God was calling him to return home and help his people. Nehemiah was willing to leave his comfort zone to follow the call of God and to accomplish the work to which God was calling him.
Nehemiah was about to make one of the most important decisions of his life. He was about to change his life, leave the comfort of the palace, and return to a city that was still in ruins. After he heard the news about Jerusalem, Nehemiah prayed: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today” (Nehemiah 1:11).
In his prayer, Nehemiah asked God for success as he came before the king with his special request. Artaxerxes I lived in a magnificent palace in Susa. The king’s palace was decorated with gold, silver, and many precious stones such as lapis lazuli, carnelian, and turquoise. The walls of the places were adorned with ornamentation from different parts of the empire.
As a servant of the king, Nehemiah ate good food, had a great life, and lived in the luxury of the palace. But for the sake of his people in Jerusalem and because of the call of God, Nehemiah chose to leave his safe place and the comfort of the palace. He made a decision to live in discomfort, among his oppressed people, because the situation in Jerusalem was poor and difficult.
Nehemiah was risking his life because he was making a difficult and special request of the king. In the month of Nisan, four months after he received the visit of his brother with the news about the situation of Jerusalem, Nehemiah came before King Artaxerxes, at the time he was serving wine to him. As Nehemiah approached the king, he confessed his anxiety: “I had never been sad in his presence before” (Nehemiah 2:1). He had been praying and fasting for four months for the plight of Jerusalem.
When the king saw Nehemiah’s gloomy face, he asked him, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart” (Nehemiah 2:2). Nehemiah did not explain the reason he was sad but the king realized that it was a “sadness of the heart.” Jerusalem was a city in great trouble; it was a shamed city (Nehemiah 1:3). Nehemiah was concerned about the “disgrace” (Nehemiah 2:17) of Jerusalem’s condition and he wanted to return to rebuild the walls. The rebuilding of the city was a matter of God’s honor and the honor of God’s people.
At the words of the king, Nehemiah became “very much afraid” (Nehemiah 2:2). Maybe Nehemiah was afraid because he did not want to ruin the festive occasion the king was celebrating with his queen and probably other honored guests. Maybe he was afraid because in the past the people of Jerusalem had been rebellious and were involved in sedition against their overlords. It was for this reason Artaxerxes had issued a decree ordering the people of Jerusalem to stop their work of rebuilding the city until he issued another decree allowing the work to resume (Ezra 4:19-21).
Even though Nehemiah was probably aware of Artaxerxes’ decree stopping the rebuilding of Jerusalem, Nehemiah showed his courage by telling the king the truth. He said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (Nehemiah 2:3).
Nehemiah was careful not to mention Jerusalem by name. Rather, he mentioned his “ancestors’ graves” and the destroyed gates of the city. The respect for ancestral graves was based on the belief that the deceased has a continued existence after death. This respect for the dead was prevalent in the Ancient Near East. In Israel when a king died it was said that he “slept with his ancestors and was buried with his ancestors” (1 Kings 14:31).
Nehemiah demonstrated courage by telling the truth to the king, even though he was very afraid of the consequences. God called Nehemiah to be courageous, even as he found himself to be out of his comfort zone. God calls people to situations where they must be courageous if they want to do great things for God.
The king understood that Nehemiah wanted to make a request. So, he invited Nehemiah to tell him how he could help in this tragic situation, “What do you request?” (Nehemiah 2:4). Nehemiah prayed “to the God of heaven” asking for wisdom and guidance before presenting his requests. Nehemiah believed that God would help him make a request that would be acceptable to Artaxerxes.
First, Nehemiah asked for time off. Nehemiah said to the king: “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it” (Nehemiah 2:5). Nehemiah deliberately did not mention Jerusalem; he said he wanted to return to Judah.
The presence of the queen sitting beside the king may indicate that the conversation with Nehemiah was a private meeting. The king wanted to know how long Nehemiah would be gone and when he would return. Nehemiah gave the king a date, even though the time of his absence from the palace was not mentioned by the editor of the book (Nehemiah 2:6 ).
Second, Nehemiah asked for protection. Nehemiah asked for letters addressed to the governors of the provinces granting him safe passage until he arrived in Judah (Nehemiah 2:7). Since Nehemiah’s mission was political, it was necessary to demonstrate to the governors of the provinces that he had the approval of the king.
Third, Nehemiah asked for supplies to rebuild the city. Nehemiah asked for a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, instructing him to give Nehemiah and his people “timber to make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that [he would] occupy” (Nehemiah 2:8).
The king granted Nehemiah what he had asked because “the gracious hand of God was upon him.” Because God had blessed Nehemiah, Nehemiah received more than he had asked from the king. In addition to the items he had requested and in order to ensure that Nehemiah would have a safe trip, the king sent a contingent of soldiers, “officers of the army and cavalry” with Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:9).
The meeting between Nehemiah and the king of Persia reveals much about the character of Nehemiah. Nehemiah is portrayed as a pious Jew, devoted to prayer, and dependent on God to grant the things for which he prayed.
In addition, the meeting between Nehemiah and the king reveals three important characteristics about the person of Nehemiah.
The Significance of His Work
Nehemiah prayed, “Give success to your servant today” (Nehemiah 1:11). God answered Nehemiah’s prayer and granted him success because Nehemiah’s mission was to remove the shame and the disgrace that had come upon God’s people and on God’s honor. Nehemiah recognized the eternal significance of the work he was doing on behalf of God.
Nehemiah’s Connection with God
Before presenting his request to the king, Nehemiah said, “I prayed to the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 2:4). Nehemiah was connected to God in prayer and God honored his prayer. Nehemiah knew that a connection to God was important if he wanted to accomplish his work.
After the king granted his request, Nehemiah said, “the gracious hand of my God was upon me” (Nehemiah 2:8). Nehemiah did not take the credit for what had happened; he gave credit to God for touching the heart of the king,
The video below is the sermon Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois, preached on October 20, 2019. The title of his sermon was “Nehemiah: Courage.” The text for the sermon was Nehemiah 2:1-9. The above post is based on Jeff’s sermon.
Jeff began his sermon by telling the congregation that it is the generosity of people that makes the work of God in the world possible. He emphasized that generosity is a life style; Christians must give the way Jesus gave. Jeff spoke of the generosity of people who are members of The Compass Church who give beyond what is required. Their lifestyle involves giving.
Jeff’s message is a call for people to follow the example of Nehemiah. Nehemiah had a life of comfort in the court of the king of Persia, but for the sake of God Nehemiah was willing to get out of his safe zone in order to help the people of God,
In his sermon Jeff also emphasizes that Christians are called to get out of their safe zone and follow Jesus. The call to follow Jesus is a call to leave our comfort zone. Nehemiah’s courage is revealed in his decision to leave the comfortable life of the palace in order to follow the call of God.
Sermon: “Nehemiah: Courage” by Jeff Griffin
Studies on Nehemiah
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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