Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence.II.
(1-8) Nehemiah’s appeal to the king.
(1) Nisan.—The old Abib, the first month of the Jewish year, following the vernal equinox. As we are still in the twentieth year of the king, the beginning of his reign must be dated before Chisleu. The record adopts Persian dates, and the two months fell in one year.
Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid,(2) Then I was very sore afraid.—Waiting on Providence, Nehemiah had discharged his duties for three months without being sad in the king’s presence; but on this day his sorrow could not be repressed. His fear sprang from the king’s abrupt inquiry. A sad countenance was never tolerated in the royal presence; and, though Artaxerxes was of a milder character than any other Persian monarch, the tone of his question showed that in this respect he was not an exception.
And said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers' sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?(3) Nehemiah’s family was of Jerusalem. He does not as yet betray to the king the deepest desire of his heart, but simply refers to the desecration of his fathers’ sepulchres, an appeal which had great force with the Persians, who respected the tomb.
Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven.(4) So I prayed to the God of heaven.—The first note of that habit of ejaculatory prayer which is a characteristic of this book.
And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.(6) The queen also sitting by him.—Probably Damaspia, the one legitimate queen: Shegal, as in Ps. 14:13, where, however, she stands as in the presenco of her Divine-human Lord. This was not a public feast, as in that case the queen would not be present (Esther 1:9-12).
I set him a time.—Whatever that was, circumstances afterwards prolonged it.
Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah;(7) To the governors beyond the river.—Between the Euphrates and Susa protection was not needed.
And a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.(8) Keeper of the king’s forest.—Asaph, a Jew, was keeper of an artificial park or pleasure ground near Jerusalem: the Persian pardes, whence our “Paradise.” It was well planted with trees, as timber was to be supplied from it “for the gates of the palace,” rather the fortress, which protected “the house,” or temple, and was known in Roman times as Antonia; also for the city walls; also “for the house that I shall enter into,” that is, Nehemiah’s own house, for his being appointed governor is pre-supposed.
Then I came to the governors beyond the river, and gave them the king's letters. Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen with me.(9-11) His journey to Jerusalem, occupying some three months, and safe under good escort, is passed over in the narrative, as Ezra’s had been. It is mentioned, however, that Sanballat, one of the “governors,” was roused to hostility. After the laborious travelling Nehemiah rested three days, to review the past and prepare for the future.
When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel.(10) Sanballat the Horonite.—Satrap of Samaria under the Persians, whose secretary or minister was “Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite.” Sanballat was from one of the Beth-horons, which had been in Ephraim, and were now in the kingdom of Samaria. His name is seemingly Babylonian, while that of Tobiah is Hebrew. The revival of Jerusalem would be a blow to the recent ascendency of Samaria.
So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days.(11) Three days.—For rest and devotion, after the example of Ezra.
And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon.(12-18) Nehemiah’s cautious preliminaries.
And I went out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire.(13) The gate of the valley, opening on Hinnom, to the south of the city. Nehemiah passed by “the dragon well,” nowhere else mentioned, and not now to be traced, and surveyed the ruins from the “dung port,” whence offal was taken to the valley of Hinnom.
Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king's pool: but there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass.(14) The gate of the fountain of Siloah (Nehemiah 3:15), called also “the king’s pool.”
Then went I up in the night by the brook, and viewed the wall, and turned back, and entered by the gate of the valley, and so returned.(15) By the gate of the valley, and so returned.—The itineration seems to have completed the circuit of the walls.
And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did; neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work.(16) The rest that did the work, that is, afterwards. The caution of this procedure is justified by subsequent events: the city teemed with elements of danger. The nobles and rulers were possessed of no substantial repressive authority.
Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach.(17) Then.—There is no note of time. When his plans were matured, Nehemiah made an earnest appeal to their patriotism.
Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king's words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work.(18) Then I told them.—Nehemiah relates his providential call, with the king’s commission, and the people were thoroughly enlisted in the good cause.
But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?(19) Geshem the Arabian.—This name completes the triumvirate of the leaders of the opposition to the mission of Nehemiah. They were not independent chieftains: Tobiah was Sanballat’s servant and counsellor, while Geshem was probably the leader of an Arabian company mostly in his service. The account of their contemptuous opposition is given in a few touches, as is the contempt with which it was met They charged Nehemiah with rebellion, as afterwards, in chapter 6:6.
Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem.(20) He will prosper us.—The reply is a defiance in the name of the God of heaven. The closing words imply that, as in the days of Zerubbabel, the Samaritan enemies desired really to have their share in the undertaking. Nehemiah makes Zerubbabel’s answer, but strengthens it; they had nothing in common with Jerusalem, not even a place in its memorials, save one of shame.