Week 2 – Nehemiah 2:1-8
Every good story has some big problem or tension, but when you reread a story it can be hard to truly feel that tension because you know the ending. It’s hard for me to feel like Harry is ever really in jeopardy when I reread a Harry Potter book because I know he always lucks out. The same is true when we reread stories in the Bible—we know that Joseph will get out of prison, Daniel will survive the lion den, and Jesus won’t stay in the grave, so we don’t sweat it. But in our daily life we rarely if ever know specific outcomes ahead of time, so ignoring the tension is virtually impossible. So, as we work through Nehemiah’s request to King Artaxerxes this week, don’t treat it like a reread because you know the ending. Treat it like your own story. Put yourself in Nehemiah’s shoes. In his own words, he was “very much afraid.”(2:2)
Why? Because he was standing before the ruler of the largest empire the world had ever seen. A hundred years before Artaxerxes (Ar-tuh-ZERK-sees), Cyrus the Great (Ezra 1:1), King of Persia, conquered the Babylonian empire, plus a few other empires to boot, and emerged as the only superpower in the region. His successor was Darius the Great, Artaxerxes’ grandfather, and under him the empire spanned from Egypt to modern day Pakistan and up into Turkey. When you’ve got that many people named “the Great” in your family, you know you’re a big deal.
But this was also a different era, one in which emperors ruled with absolute authority. The risk to Nehemiah’s life is understated in the passage—Artaxerxes could’ve had him executed as cruelly as he wished. And that threat was especially palpable because what Nehemiah was about to ask could’ve been considered treasonous. Back in Ezra 4, some regional rulers had convinced Artaxerxes that the effort to rebuild Jerusalem was a threat to the empire and should be terminated. So Nehemiah wasn’t just going to ask Artaxerxes for help—he was going to ask him to change his mind.
Just a reminder, Advance Commitment Night is Tuesday, November 2, and everyone is invited! Get all the details here → vintagenc.com/abound
So of course he was afraid! But Nehemiah still had a reason to ask the question. It had been about four months since he heard the news from his brother Hanani (1:1), and we get every sense that Nehemiah had spent those four months praying, mourning, and planning. Remember his prayer from last week: “O Lord…give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”(1:11b) Nehemiah was looking for an opportunity, and it landed in his lap when the king observed his sadness at a party and asked him, “What’s wrong?” Notice how Nehemiah immediately blurts out what was on his heart, how all these things he’d been stewing over just come spilling out of him. But then the tension gets real. You can imagine Artaxerxes’ eyes narrowing on Nehemiah as he cuts to the chase: “What are you requesting?” He was a shrewd emperor who had survived assassination attempts—he knew the smell of a plot.
And I love what Nehemiah does next. He whispers a little prayer (2:4b). Why? Because he thought that the God of heaven might do something about it. Because he knew that there was One who stood above this mortal emperor, one whose kingdom spans the whole cosmos, who put Artaxerxes on his throne and could take him off of it (Dan. 4:17).
But Nehemiah also asked the question because he knew that God’s vision for his people was incomparably good. Remember chapter 1 again, where Nehemiah calls to mind the promises God made to his people under Moses. “But if you return to me…I will gather [you] and bring [you] to the place I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.”(1:9) Why was Nehemiah willing to risk his life to see Jerusalem rebuilt? Because of the promise of being gathered together by God and having God’s “name dwell there,” an Old Testament phrase for the special presence of God (see Deut. 12:5-6). For Nehemiah, seeing God’s people live as God’s people was a vision worth his very life.
But if we see any one thing this week, let’s see this: Nehemiah didn’t face such a threat because of his strength but because of God’s. This story isn’t about the good hand of Nehemiah—it’s about the good hand of God (2:8). And praise God, his hand was all over this story! He invited Nehemiah to leverage his position as cupbearer to change the mind of the king, and he used the king’s power and resources to kick off the work of rebuilding Jerusalem.
But God used way more than just these two people, and that should encourage us deeply. You and I aren’t emperors or cupbearers—books will not be written about us. But that makes us exactly like the thousands of ordinary people listed in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 who returned to Jerusalem and helped rebuild it. So no matter your position, your skills and experience (or lack thereof), or your self-perception, take this to heart: God can use anyone, and the least likely are his specialty. As we consider how to participate in God’s plan for our city and our individual lives, it might look a lot like blurted out answers and whispered prayers. But God can take those and move mountains.
Questions for Discussion
Quick reminder everyone: Tuesday, November 2, is Advance Commitment Night.
• Would someone read Nehemiah 2:1-8 for us?
• What do you think this conversation was like for Nehemiah?
• Why do you think Nehemiah was willing to risk so much to rebuild Jerusalem?
• What does Nehemiah mean by the “good hand” of God? (verse 8)
• How does God use the people in this story to accomplish his plan?
• What does that tell us about God himself?
• Let’s relate this to our lives—how do you think God wants to use you to accomplish his plan?
• What do you think is your next faithful step in being used by God in this way?