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.
Verse 1. - In the month Nisan. The fourth month after Chisleu, corresponding nearly to our April. How it came about that Nehemiah did not put the king's favour to the proof until more than three months had gone by we can only conjecture. Perhaps the court had been absent from Susa, passing the winter at Babylon, as it sometimes did, and he had not accompanied it. Perhaps, though present at the court, he had not been called on to discharge his office, his turn not having arrived. Possibly, though performing his duties from time to time, he had found no opportunity of unbosoming himself, the king not having noticed his grief. He. may even have done his best to conceal it, for Persian subjects were expected to be perfectly happy in the presence of their king. He had probably formed no plan, but waited in the confident hope that God's providence would so order events, that some occasion would arise whereof he might take advantage. In the twentieth year of Artaxerxes. Like Daniel, Zechariah, Haggai, and Ezra, Nehemiah dates events by the regnal year of the existing Persian king. His Artaxerxes is, by common consent, the same as Ezra's, and can scarcely be supposed to be any monarch but Longimanus, who reigned from B.C. 465 to B.C. 425. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. Other renderings have been proposed, but this is probably the true meaning. Hitherto I had always worn a cheerful countenance before him - now it was otherwise - my sorrow showed itself in spite of me.
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,
Verse 2. - The king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad? This "kindly question" put by the great king to his humble retainer is his best claim to the favourable judgment of later ages. History puts him before us as a weak monarch, one who could compromise the royal dignity by making terms with a revolted subject, while he disgraced it by breaking faith with a conquered enemy. But if weak as a king, as a man he was kind-hearted and gentle. Few Persian monarchs would have been sufficiently interested in their attendants to notice whether they were sad or no; fewer still would have shown sympathy on such an occasion. A Xerxes might have ordered the culprit to instant execution. Longimanus feels compassion, and wishes to assuage the grief of his servant. Then I was very sore afraid. Notwithstanding the king's kind and compassionate words, Nehemiah feels his danger. He has looked sad in the king's presence. He is about to ask permission to quit the court. These are both sins against the fundamental doctrine of Persian court life, that to bask in the light of the royal countenance is the height of felicity. Will the king be displeased, refuse his request, dismiss him from his post, cast him into prison, or will he pardon his rudeness and allow his request?
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?
Verse 3. - May the king live for ever. A common form of Oriental compliment (1 Kings 1:31; Daniel 2:4; Daniel 3:9, etc. ), but said now with special intention to conciliate, and meant to express a deep interest in the royal life and person. The city, the place of my fathers' sepulchres. We see by this that Nehemiah's family must have belonged to the capital. The Persians, like the Jews, had a great respect for the tomb, and regarded its violation with horror. Artaxerxes would naturally sympathise with the wish of his follower to give security to the city where his ancestors were interred. It would seem that the Persians generally at this time (Herod., 1:140), the kings certainly ('Ancient Monarchies,' vol. 3. p. 231, second edition), buried their dead. Lieth waste. Nehemiah's warmth of feeling exaggerates the fact; but he may have been unconscious of the exaggeration. He repeats the phrase to the chief men of Jerusalem after making his survey of the wall (ver. 17).
Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven.
Verse 4. - Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? Artaxerxes understood that a complaint was contained in Nehemiah's speech, and that he must have a request to make. With gracious kindliness he facilitates its utterance. So I prayed to the God of heaven. Nehemiah was emphatically a man of prayer. In every danger, in every difficulty, still more at any crisis, prayer rose to his lips (see Nehemiah 4:4, 9; Nehemiah 5:19; Nehemiah 6:9, 14; Nehemiah 13:14, etc.). Sometimes, as now, the prayer was offered silently and swiftly.
And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers' sepulchres, that I may build it.
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.
Verse 6. - The queen. It appears from Ctesias ('Exc. Pers.,' § 44) that Artaxerxes Longimanus had but one legitimate wife - a certain Damaspia. Nothing more is known of her besides this mention, and the fact that she died on the same day as her husband. (The Septuagint rendering of hashegal by ἡ παλλακὴ is wrong.) Sitting by him. Not an unusual circumstance. Though, when the monarch entertained guests, the queen remained in her private apartments (Esther 1:9-12), yet on other occasions she frequently took her meals with him ('Ancient Monarchies,' vol. 3. p. 214). I set him a time. Nehemiah probably mentioned some such time as a year, or two years - such a space as would suffice for the double journey, and the restoration of the fortifications. He stayed away, however, as he tells us (Nehemiah 5:14), twelve years, obtaining no doubt from time to time an extension of his leave (Bertheau).
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;
Verse 7. - Let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river. It is not quite clear why no letters were needed to the governors between Susa and the Euphrates. Perhaps, while travelling was safe, at any rate with an escort, in the more central provinces, beyond the river it became unsafe (see Ezra 8:31).
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.
Verse 8. - The king's forest. Patrick supposes the forest on Mount Lebanon to be intended; but Nehemiah would scarcely have desired to transport timber for ordinary building purposes from such a distance. Moreover, the word used is one not applicable to a natural forest, but only to a park, or pleasure-ground planted with trees, and surrounded by a fence or wall. The word is pardes, the Hebrew representative of that Persian term which the Greeks rendered by παράδεισος, whence our "paradise." We must understand a royal park in the vicinity of Jerusalem, of which a Jew, Asaph, was the keeper. The palace which appertained to the house. The "house" here spoken of is undoubtedly the temple; and the birah, appertaining to it is, almost certainly, the fortress at the north-west angle of the temple area, which at once commanded and protected it. Josephus says ('Ant. Jud.,' 15:11, § 4) that this fortress was called Βάρις originally. In Roman times it was known as the "Turris Antonia." The house that I shall enter into. The governor's residence. Nehemiah assumes that the powers for which he asks involve his being appointed governor of Judaea. The king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me. Through God's special favour towards me, the king was induced to grant my request.
CHAPTER 2:9-11 NEHEMIAH'S JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM (Nehemiah 3:9-11). On his way to Jerusalem, Nehemiah would pass through the provinces of various Persian satraps and governors. To those beyond the Euphrates he carried letters, which he took care to deliver, though by doing so he aroused the hostility of San-ballat. Being accompanied by an escort of Persian soldiers, he experienced neither difficulty nor danger by the way, but effected his journey in about three months.
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.
Verse 9. - I came to the governors beyond the river. Josephus gives the name of the satrap, of Syria at this time as Adieus ('Ant. Jud., 11:5, § 6, ad fin), but it is uncertain on what authority. The other "governors" he calls Hipparchs.
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.
Verse 10. - Sanballat. According to Josephus, Sanballat was "satrap of Samaria" under the Persians, and by descent a Cuthaean ('Ant. Jud.,' 11:7, § 2). He was probably included among the governors to whom Nehemiah had brought letters, and learnt the fact that "a man was come to seek the welfare of the children of Israel" by the delivery of the letters to him. The Horonite, Born, i.e., at one of the two Beth-horons, the upper or the lower, mentioned in Joshua (Joshua 16:3, 5) as belonging to Ephraim, and now under Samaria. Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite. It has been usual to regard Tobiah as a native chief of the Ammonites, who, after having been a page or other servant at the Persian court, had been made head of the nation. But it seems to be quite as likely that he was a servant of Sanballat's, who stood high in his favour, gave him counsel, and was perhaps his secretary (Nehemiah 6:17, 19). It grieved them exceedingly. From the time that Zerub-babel rejected the co-operation of the Samaritans in the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 4:3), an enmity set in between the two peoples which continued till the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. The two capitals were too near not to be rivals; and the greater (general) prosperity of Jerusalem made Samaria the bitterer adversary.
So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days.
Verse 11. - I... was there three days. Compare Ezra 8:32. After the long journey, three days of rest were necessary. STEPS TAKEN BY NEHEMIAH PRELIMINARY TO HIS BUILDING OF THE WALL, AND FIRST APPEARANCE OF OPPOSITION (Nehemiah 2:12-20). Hitherto Nehemiah had communicated his purpose to no one but the king and queen of Persia. He expected opposition, and resolved to baffle his opponents, as long as possible, by concealing his exact designs. Even when further concealment was on the point of becoming impossible, he made his survey of the wall by night, that it might escape observation. At last, the time for action being come, he was obliged to lay the matter before the head men of the city (ver. 17), whom he easily persuaded when he assured them of Artaxerxes' consent and goodwill Preparations then began to be made; and immediately murmurs of opposition arose. Three opponents are now spoken of - Sanballat, Tobiah, and an Arabian, Geshem or Gashmu, not previously mentioned. These persons appear to have sent a formal message to the authorities of Jerualem (ver. 19), taxing them with an intention to rebel Nehemiah made no direct reply to this charge, but boldly stated his resolve to "arise and build," and denied Sanballat's right to interfere with him (ver. 20).
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.
Verse 12. - Some few men with me. All the arrangements are made to avoid notice. Nehemiah goes out by night, with few attendants, and with only one beast. He is anxious to see with his own eyes what is the extent of the repair needed, but wishes as few as possible to know of his proceedings.
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.
Verse 13. - The valley gate. A gate on the western or south-western side of Jerusalem, opening towards the valley of Hinnom. There are no means of fixing its exact position. It was one of those which Uzziah fortified (2 Chronicles 26:9). The dragon well. Dean Stanley suggests that "the dragon well" is the spring known generally as "the pool of Siloam," and that the legend, which describes the intermittent flow of the Siloam water as produced by the opening and closing of a dragon s mouth, had already sprung up ('Lectures on the Jewish Church,' Third Series, p. 125); but the Siloam spring seems to lie too far to the eastward to suit the present passage, and is most likely represented by the "king's pool" of ver. 14. The dung port. "The gate outside of which lay the piles of the sweepings and offscourings of the streets" ('Stanley,' 1. s.c.); situated towards the middle of the southern wall
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.
Verse 14. - The gate of the fountain. A gate near the pool of Siloam (which, though bearing that name in Nehemiah 3:15, seems to be here called "the king's pool" ); perhaps the "gate between two walls of 2 Kings 25:4. There was no place for the beast that was under me to pass. The accumulated rubbish blocked the way. The animal could not proceed. Nehemiah therefore dismounted, and "in the night, dark as it was, pursued his way on foot.
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.
Verse 15. - By the brook. "The brook Kidron," which skirted the city on the east. From this he would be able to "look up at the eastern wall" along its whole length, and see its condition. Following the brook, he was brought to the north-eastern angle of the city; on reaching which he seems to have "turned back" towards the point from which he had started, and skirting the northern wall, to have re-entered by the gate of the valley.
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.
Verse 16. - The rulers. On Nehemiah's arrival at Jerusalem he found no single individual exercising authority, but a number of persons, a sort of town-council, whom he calls khorim and saganim. It is not clear that he made his commission known to them at first, or indeed that he divulged it before the interview mentioned in vers. 17 and 18. The rest that did the work This seems to be said by anticipation, and to mean those who subsequently built the wall.
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.
Verse 17. - Then said I unto them. Ewald boldly assumes that this happened the next day; but there is nothing to show that it was so soon. The original contains, no note of time - not even the word "then." Nehemiah simply says, "And I said to them." The distress. Or "affliction," as the word is translated in Nehemiah 1:3. No special suffering seems to be intended, beyond that of lying open to attack, and being a "reproach" in the sight of the heathen. Lieth waste. On this hyperbole see the comment upon ver. 3.
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.
Verse 18. - Then I told them of the hand of my God. Nehemiah sketched the history of his past life, and showed how God's providence had always shielded him and supported him. This, however, would scarcely have had any great effect had he not been able to appeal further to the king's words that he had spoken. These words clearly contained permission to rebuild the wall, and took away the danger of their so doing being regarded as an act of rebellion by the Persians. What others might think was not of very much account. And they said, Let us rise up and build. Nehemiah's address had all the effect he hoped for from it. He was anxious to carry the nation with him, and induce them, one and. all, to engage heartily in the work, which must be accomplished, if it was to be accomplished at all, by something like a burst of enthusiasm. Such a burst he evokes, and its result is seen in the next chapter. Almost the whole people came forward, and set to work with zeal So they strengthened their hands for this good work. The original is briefer, and more emphatic - "And they strengthened their hands for good." They embraced the good cause, took the good part, set themselves to work heartily on the right side.
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?
Verse 19. - Geshem the Arabian, elsewhere called Gashmu (Nehemiah 6:6), may have been an independent sheikh possessing authority in Idumea, or in the desert country adjoining upon Ammon; but it seems quite as likely that he was merely the head of a body of Arab troops maintained by Sanballat at Samaria (Nehemiah 4:7). Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem are united so closely, and act so much together (Nehemiah 4:1-7; Nehemiah 6:1, 2, 6, 12, 14), that it is difficult to suppose them to be three chieftains residing on three sides of Judaea, the north, the east, and the south, merely holding diplomatic intercourse with each other, which is the ordinary idea. Note that Tobiah is present with Sanballat in Samaria on one occasion (Nehemiah 4:3), and that Geshem and Sanballat propose a joint interview with Nehemiah on another (Nehemiah 6:2). They laughed us to scorn, and said. Either by messengers, like Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:17-35), or by a formal written communication, as Ewald supposes ('History of Israel,' vol. 5. p. 154, E. Tr.). Will ye rebel? Compare Nehemiah 6:6; and see also Ezra 4:12-16. Had Artaxerxes not granted permission, Nehemiah's proceedings might naturally have borne this interpretation.
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.
Verse 20. - Then answered I. It is remarkable that Nehemiah takes no notice of the serious charge brought against him, does not say that he had the king's permission, but rather leaves the "adversaries" to suppose that he had not. Perhaps he thought that to reveal the truth would drive them to some desperate attempt, and therefore suppressed it. The God of heaven, he will prosper us. Instead of a human, Nehemiah claims a Divine sanction for his proceedings. He and his brethren will build as servants of the God of heaven. Compare the answer made to Tatnai in Zerubbabel's time - "We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and build the house that was builded these many years ago" (Ezra 5:11). Ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem. As the claim of the Samaritans to interfere in the affairs of the Jews had been disallowed when they came with an offer of aid (Ezra 4:2, 3), so now, when their interference is hostile in character, it is still more fiercely and indignantly rejected. They are told that they have no part in Jerusalem, no right, not even so much as a place in the recollections of the inhabitants. Their interference is officious, impertinent - what have they to do with Nehemiah, or the Israelites, or Jerusalem? Let them be content to manage the affairs of their own idolatrous community, and not trouble the worshippers of the true God. Nehemiah avoids opposition by concealment as long as he can; but when opposition nevertheless appears, he meets it with defiance.