The Twelfth in a Series of Sermons on Ezra-Nehemiah
In the winter of 445 BC, Nehemiah received word of the current situation in Jerusalem. The Jewish exiles who have returned to Jerusalem are struggling. The city’s walls and gates remain in ruins–after eighty years. The ruined city now brings shame upon the people of God–they and their city are an object of ridicule. Deeply saddened by this news, Nehemiah spent the next four months praying to “the God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and is steadfast love,” pleading that YHWH will hear the prayer of his servant and keep his covenant promises. YHWH hears his servant, Nehemiah, and answers his prayer in the most remarkable of ways.
After recounting his heartfelt prayer in the opening chapter, Nehemiah simply tells us,“now I was cupbearer to the king.” The king’s cupbearer was the most trusted member of the royal servants. He was the man responsible for the security of the Persian king Artaxerses, who was, arguably, the most powerful man in the world at that time. The vast Persian empire extended from Asia Minor (Turkey), to the Black Sea (on the northwest) to the coast of Libya on the southwest, to the Indus River (on the East). The Persian empire included remnants of famous empires now fallen, including the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Jewish kingdoms. The book which is the object of our study, Nehemiah, was written by a man who was a Jew–a descendant of those exiled to Babylon in 587 BC. Although far removed from the ancient homeland of his people, news came to him about the great difficulties faced by the Jewish exiles who had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon over the previous eighty years since the city fell to Nebuchanezzar and the Persian king Cyrus issued a decree allowing the Jews to return home. Although a pious Jew, Nehemiah is perhaps the personal servant closest to the Persian king Artaxerses I, tasting his food and drink, and personally responsible for the king’s safety from assassins in his inner circle.
Our text this morning, Nehemiah 2:1-20, is divided into two parts. The first ten verses deal with Nehemiah’s interaction with king Artaxerses, and reveal the first hint of on-going opposition to Nehemiah’s mission to rebuild the walls and fortifications of Jerusalem. Verses 11-20 of Nehemiah 2 recount Nehemiah’s initial efforts to survey the city and its walls. Despite the work which had been completed at the temple, the city’s walls and gates remain in terrible shape. Nehemiah must survey the damage in order to formulate plans as to how to rebuild the city’s fortifications before a disaster occurs.
According to Nehemiah 1:1-3, word about the state of Jerusalem came to Nehemiah while the Persian court was in Susa, where the king maintained his winter palace. One of his brothers informed Nehemiah that “the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile,” were struggling, and that the “remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” This news sent Nehemiah into a state of despair. According to verse 4, Nehemiah explained that “as soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” The balance of the opening chapter includes Nehemiah’s prayer of intercession for God’s people.
But it is the way the opening chapter ends–with what seems to be a innocuous throw-line, “I am the king’s cupbearer”–which actually provides us with the essential piece of information we need to understand how YHWH will answer Nehemiah’s prayer. In the providence of God, it was Nehemiah’s personal relationship with Persia’s king (as his cupbearer) which becomes the means through which God will answer Nehemiah’s prayer for Israel, and open the door for Nehemiah to be the one who will go to Jerusalem and oversee the massive project of rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. This will ensure that the exiles who have returned from Jerusalem will be able to defend themselves from the “people of the land” (Canaanites), and from any possible attack from Persia’s enemies to the southwest, i.e., the Egyptians.
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