Nehemiah has been in mourning for four months over the state of his people in Jerusalem. He finally takes up this cause and brings it before the king.
A couple of things surprise me in our reading today. The first is how long it took for Nehemiah to actually do something about the problem. When reading the text from our last time with Nehemiah it was said that he “sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven” Nehemiah 1:4b). I believed it was only a matter of days before Nehemiah would make his request known before the king. It was actually four months!
“Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year” (Nehemiah 1:1b) to “In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes” (Nehemiah 2:1a). I did some checking of the Jewish calendar. At first I thought the month of Chislev was actually Cheshvan as it was the only month that started with “ch”. After Googling my question of which month it really is I was informed that it is actually the month Kislev. Makes sense now. I also noted the distance between the two dates we are given. In the Jewish calendar Kislev is the 9th month and Nisan is the 1st. FOUR months pass between our two dates. The Persians used a different calendar and the year had not changed for them so both events took place in the 20th year of King Artaxerxes. This is a LONG time for Nehemiah to be able to hide his pain from the king!
Did Nehemiah utter his prayer we saw last time on the morning prior to the events we witness today or did he pray it daily for those four months? Was he waiting until the right time? Did God prick his spirit that day so he would pray this way? Was there a space of days, weeks or months between the two events? And did his fast continue for FOUR months?! If so, was it a partial fast for he would have been beyond emaciated if not.
The second thing I notice is that Nehemiah doesn’t initiate the conversation about his distress; the king does. For four months Nehemiah has been successfully hiding his pain from the king. “Now I had not been sad in his presence” (verse 1b). But after four months his pain is finally apparent on his face and the king calls him on it. The king also knows the source of Nehemiah’s pain is not physical but emotional. He leaves Nehemiah no course but to tell him straight out what is troubling him.
I’m going to say that it was the hand of God who allowed Nehemiah to hide his pain for so long and also His hand that opened the heart of the king so he could recognize the truth. I have NO doubt that it was also God who inspired the confrontation that we are about to see. GOD knows the proper timing for ALL things. Let’s rejoin Nehemiah in his story.
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Nehemiah, even with his heart as heavy as a stone, continues to faithfully serve the king. Each day he masks his feelings as he goes about his duties. He knows that at some point he is going to have to share his heart with the king. He is waiting for the right moment. He continues to pray daily for mercy in the sight of the king when he does finally bring forth his request. Little does he know that today will be that day.
Nehemiah is at the side of the king as he enjoys his midday meal. The queen has joined him in it. His task, as always, is to keep the king’s cup full.
The queen keeps glancing over at Nehemiah as he goes about his tasks. She is a very perceptive woman and she is aware that there is something different about Nehemiah since that last time she sat with the king at table. This is not a custom that she often partakes in as men and women usually eat separately. Today is her birthday and the king is honoring her in it.
After studying Nehemiah for some time she can hold her tongue no longer. Carefully she whispers her concerns to the king. “My lord, there is something amiss with your servant Nehemiah.”
Artaxerxes look over at Nehemiah and sees nothing out of place or out of the ordinary. “Whatever do you mean my queen?”
“His face my lord. There is a distinct sadness about his eyes. He is haunted by something.”
Artaxerxes looks closer at Nehemiah’s face and begins to see the signs the queen speaks of. He watches him closely for a little longer. He notes that there Nehemiah is not limping or favoring either of his arms. He moves a touch slower but nothing to indicate that he is suffering from an injury or illness. Finally, he can hold his curiosity no longer. As Nehemiah reaches for the wine flask to refill the king’s goblet the king speaks.
“Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick?…” Nehemiah freezes at these words and the king studies his face closer. “…This is nothing but sadness of the heart” (verse 2b).
Nehemiah is afraid to move. He closes his eyes and quickly sends a silent prayer heavenward “Grant me mercy in the sight of this man.” He takes a quick breath before speaking. “Let the king live forever!…” Nehemiah feels the peace of God beginning to grow within him as he continues. “…Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (verse 3).
“What are you requesting” (verse 4a) replied the king with and intense focus on Nehemiah.
Nehemiah prayed again before answering. Confidence began filling Nehemiah and building with each syllable. “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it” (verse 5).
The king sat forward in his place. “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” (verse 6a).
With this response Nehemiah’s courage, confidence and peace spilled over the top! He had to control his excitement though as he needed to be humble in the presence of the king. “It will take some time. If all goes well, we should be able to complete it in five years.”
“That is acceptable. I would suggest you also prepare for things to not go smoothly as most projects seldom run exactly as expected. Keep me informed and swear to me that you will return regardless of the time.”
“As my God lives, I will return to your side after completing the work He has given me to do.”
“What more do you need to complete your task?”
Nehemiah’s heart sang at these words. He knew he would have needs. He prayed that the king would be willing to help. “If it pleases the king, let letters be given to me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy” (verses 7-8a).
“It shall be as you have requested.”
The king called for his scribe. As Nehemiah looked on the king dictated every provision that Nehemiah had voiced. As soon as the ink was dry they were placed into Nehemiah’s hands.
“I trust these will be sufficient” said the king.
“You are most generous my king” replied Nehemiah.
Nehemiah picked up the king’s wine flask and prepared to fill it.
“Nehemiah, go. Go and prepare for your journey. You can pour for me once again when you return from completing the service to your God.”
Nehemiah smiled and set the flask into the hands of another servant. “Thank you my lord. I will not fail you.”
(to be continued)
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God knew exactly when these events needed to take place. He prepared the way and gave Nehemiah patience to wait until just the right time. I had a hard time choosing an amount of time for Nehemiah to request as we are not given that information. It will ultimately take 12 years before he returns to the king even though it only takes 52 days to do the actual work. Nehemiah stays on as governor of Judah.
God knows our beginning and end. He knows the trials we will face in our lives and what we will need to navigate them. And He is there with us in all of them. He knows exactly what we need!
Father God, thank You for walking with me in every circumstance. Thank You for knowing the timing for all the events in my life. And for knowing which ones to prevent me from going through. You just now reminded me of the conversation I had with my husband about the road not taken. I have no idea where I would be today if I had taken different turns. YOU knew my beginning and end and how to get me through this life. I trust You and Your plans for me.