v1 It was the month called Nisan in the 20th year of King Artaxerxes’ rule. I was serving the king with wine. I took the wine and I gave it to the king. I had never been sad before when I was with the king. v2So the king said to me, ‘Your face is very sad. But you are not ill. This means that you are sad in your heart.’
Then I was very afraid. v3 And I said to the king, ‘I hope that the king will have a long life. I will tell you why I am sad. The city, where my *ancestors’ graves are, is a heap of stones. Fire has burned its gates.’
When Nehemiah heard the bad news from *Judah, he prayed. He asked God to help him so that he could say the right thing to the king. 4 months later he had his opportunity. He did not waste the 4 months. He continued to pray. In the end, he felt confident about what God wanted him to say.
Nehemiah’s face was sad when he served the wine to the king. He had not been sad before when he was with the king. In those days servants had to be happy when they were with the king (Esther 4:2). They must not make the king sad or angry. The king could kill servants who made him angry.
But Nehemiah was sad that day. And the king could see that Nehemiah was sad. The king might have been very angry and Nehemiah was afraid. But God was in control and so the king was kind to Nehemiah. The king asked Nehemiah why he was sad. So Nehemiah told the king the bad news about Jerusalem.
Nehemiah chose his words carefully. It seems that he did not actually name Jerusalem. In the past, the king had been worried about Jerusalem (Ezra 4:19). At that time, the king did not want the *Jews to rebuild the city. So Nehemiah simply spoke about the city where his *ancestors’ graves were. He mentioned the graves for another reason too. Often, people believe that they should take great care of graves, because of their religion. Nehemiah hoped that the king would feel sympathy for him.
v4 The king asked me, ‘What do you want?’
So I prayed to God in heaven. v5 Then I said to the king, ‘I am your servant. I shall do whatever you want. If your thoughts are favourable towards me, please send me to *Judah. Send me to the city where the graves of my *ancestors are. Then I can rebuild it.’
v6 The queen was sitting next to the king. And the king said to me, ‘How long will your journey take? And when will you return?’ So I told him when I would return. And my plan pleased the king, and he sent me.
The king asked Nehemiah what he wanted. This was Nehemiah’s opportunity, so he prayed. But he only had a moment to pray this prayer. Then Nehemiah told the king what he (Nehemiah) wanted to do. He asked the king to send him to *Judah so that he could build the city again. Nehemiah was very bold to say this. But he believed that God had heard his prayers. So he was confident.
Nehemiah was an important servant to the king. Now Nehemiah was asking the king to send him to *Judah. *Judah was 4 months’ walk from Persia. So he would be away from the king for a long time.
He also was asking the king to change the king’s decision about Jerusalem. Earlier the king had stopped the people who wanted to build the city again (Ezra 4:21).
He was also asking the king to send him away from his comfortable life in Persia. He would have to make a long hard journey. Then he would have to work hard to build Jerusalem again. So he asked the king to send him there.
The king knew that Nehemiah was a good and loyal servant. The king and queen would have liked Nehemiah to remain in the palace. But God wanted Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:8; 2:18). So the king asked Nehemiah how long he would be away from the palace. Nehemiah worked out how long the journey would take. And the king agreed to send Nehemiah to *Judah.
v7 And I said to the king, ‘If the king is willing, please give letters to me. These will be for the government officers of the district beyond the Euphrates river. In these letters, please tell them to let me go through their territory to *Judah. v8 Please also give me a letter to Asaph, who looks after the king’s forests. In this letter, please tell him to give me wood from the trees. I will use this wood to make beams for the gates of the castle that is by the *temple. And I will use it for the gates in the city wall. I will also use some beams to build a house for myself.’ The king did everything that I asked. He did that because God was looking after me.
Nehemiah was confident that God was arranging for him to go to *Judah. So Nehemiah became even bolder. He asked the king for more help. He wanted the king to protect him as he travelled to *Judah. He asked the king for wood for the city gates. Nehemiah already knew what he needed to do. So he was able to explain all the details to the king.
God was looking after Nehemiah. So the king gave to Nehemiah what he asked for.
v9 Then I went to the government officers of the district beyond the Euphrates river. I gave them the king’s letters. The king sent captains of the army and horsemen with me.
v10 But Sanballat from Horon and Tobiah, an official from Ammon, heard about what I was doing. They were very unhappy because I was coming to help the people in *Israel.
Now Nehemiah had letters from the king. This would show people that the king had changed his decision about Jerusalem. People would also see the soldiers that the king sent to protect Nehemiah. Then they would know that the king was helping Nehemiah. But some of the people who lived near *Judah heard about all this. They were angry. Because they were the *Jews’ enemies, they did not want anyone to help the people in *Israel.
v11-12 Then I came to Jerusalem. After three days, I got up during the night and I went out. Only a few men went with me. God had given me the desire to do something for Jerusalem. But I told nobody about this. I took no horses except the horse that I rode on. v13 And I went out at night through the Valley Gate to the Snake Fountain and the Rubbish Gate. I examined the walls of Jerusalem. They were just heaps of stones. And I saw that fire had burned the gates. v14 I went to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool. But I could not continue further because of the heaps of stones. The horse that I was riding could not pass through. v15 So I went up, during the night, by the stream. And I examined the wall. Then I turned back. I went through the Valley Gate. And so I returned. v16 The leaders did not know where I had gone. They did not know what I was doing. I did not tell the *Jews, or the priests, or the chief men. Nor did I tell the officials or the other people who would be doing the work.
Nehemiah wanted to build the city walls as quickly as possible. But there was much to do. He would have to work hard. So he rested for three days after his long journey. God had given him the desire to build Jerusalem again. So Nehemiah wanted to do a good job.
Nehemiah needed to find out the size of the task. But he did not want his enemies to know his plans. So, after three days, he went out at night. He took only a few people with him. Perhaps they were men who had come from Shushan with him. Or maybe they were men who knew Jerusalem well. Nehemiah did not tell anyone else what he was doing.
Nehemiah went all round the city. He saw that the city was a *ruin. He saw that fire had burned the gates. At one place there was so much rubbish that there was no room for his horse to pass. Now he knew that the task, to build the city again, was a big task.
Nehemiah saw that the whole city was in a bad state. And the people’s relationship with God was also in a bad state:
· The most important building in Jerusalem was the *temple. The *Jews had rebuilt the *temple about 70 years before Nehemiah arrived. The first *temple, which Solomon built, was a splendid building. But this later *temple was much poorer.
· Some priests were living in the area. But they were neglecting their special work for God. The people did not know God’s law. And the people were doing many things that the Bible told them not to do.
· There were not many other buildings in the city. Most *Jews who returned to *Judah were living in the villages. Jerusalem was a dangerous place to live. The *Jews had many enemies and there was no security in the city. It had no defences.
· Many *Jews had tried to make agreements with their enemies. Some *Jews had even allowed their children to marry people from other nations. The people from these nations were evil people, and they served false gods. But God wanted the *Jews to be his special people. He had chosen them, and he wanted them to remain separate from the other nations.
Nehemiah saw that the city needed strong walls. And this was the most important task. The walls would make the city a safe place to live. When the walls were complete, people would be able to move into the city. There, the *Jews could live in a place that was separate from the other nations. The priests could start their special work for God in the *temple again. And the people would learn God’s law.
But, without walls, the *Jews would become even weaker. Their enemies would become stronger. The priests would be unable to work for God. And nobody would maintain the *temple.
Jerusalem had been a very great city. Nehemiah realised that he could not rebuild the whole city. Instead, he selected an area to surround with walls. It was a smaller area than the city used to be. But it was the most important part of the city. It included the *temple and the most ancient parts of the city. The area included enough land for everyone who would live there. There were fountains and everything else that people needed. And soon there would be an important market in the city.
v17 Then I said to all the *Jews, ‘You know that we have much difficulty. Jerusalem is a *ruin and fire has burned its gates. Let us build the wall of Jerusalem. Then we will not still be ashamed.’ v18 Then I told them how God had looked after me. Also I told them what the king had said to me. And they replied, ‘Let us start to build!’ So they prepared themselves to do this good work.
v19 But Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem heard about our plan. Sanballat was from Horon. Tobiah was an officer from Ammon. Geshem was an *Arab. They laughed at us and they insulted us. They said, ‘You should not be doing such a thing. You are plotting against the king.’
v20 Then I replied, ‘The God of heaven will give us success. We are his servants and we will begin to build. But you are not citizens of Jerusalem. You have no legal authority here. You have no right to any part of Jerusalem.’
Then Nehemiah told the people in the city about his plan. First, he reminded them of the sad truth. Their city was a *ruin. And they could not be a strong nation while Jerusalem was in such a bad state. So he encouraged them to help him to rebuild the walls. Then he told them some good news. He told them that God wanted them to rebuild the city walls. This was not merely Nehemiah’s plan. Nehemiah was confident that God had sent him (Nehemiah) to lead the people in this task. Already, God was looking after Nehemiah. And even the king had sent him to do this task. This was really good news. So the people agreed that they should start to build the walls.
The people prepared to build the walls. But then their enemies heard about their plans. These enemies could not easily attack the *Jews because the king had sent Nehemiah. The king was very powerful. If Nehemiah’s enemies fought Nehemiah, the king would oppose them. So instead, the enemies laughed at the *Jews. They pretended that they would tell lies to the king about the *Jews. They would say that the *Jews were the enemies of the king.
But Nehemiah was confident. He knew that it was God’s plan to rebuild Jerusalem. So God would help them. The real God of heaven was on their side. God would not let their enemies stop the work. The *Jews would build Jerusalem again. Again, it would be a city for God’s people.