Bible Commentary: Nehemiah 2

You are here

Bible Commentary

Nehemiah 2

Login or Create an Account

With a account you will be able to save items to read and study later!

Sign In | Sign Up


Nehemiah Sent to Rebuild Jerusalem

It is some time before Nehemiah says something about the Judean situation to Artaxerxes. "There was a delay of about four months from Kislev (Nov.-Dec.) [445 B.C.], when Nehemiah first heard the news (Nehemiah 1:1), to Nisan (Mar.-Apr.) [444 B.C.], when he felt prepared to broach the subject to the king. There are various explanations for this. The king may have been absent in his other winter palace at Babylon. Perhaps the king was not in the right mood. Even though Nehemiah was a favorite of the king, he would not have rashly blurted out his request. We know it was politic to make one's requests during auspicious occasions such as birthday parties or when rulers were in a generous mood (Genesis 40:20; Esther 5:6; Mark 6:21-25; Jos[ephus] Antiq[uities of the Jews] XVIII, 289-93 {viii.7}). It is certain that Nehemiah did not ask in haste but carefully bided his time, constantly praying to God to grant the proper opening" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Nehemiah 2:1).

At last an opportunity presents itself when the king asks him about his downcast demeanor. Nehemiah had hidden his feelings up to this point (verses 1-2). Perhaps it was too hard to contain them any longer, though it could well be that he purposely let his feelings show on this occasion to provide a segue into making his request. In any case, the moment is now prime to speak, but Nehemiah is filled with trepidation. As The Nelson Study Bible points out, "Persian monarchs believed that just being in their presence would make any person happy. Yet, Nehemiah was about to request the emperor's permission to go to Jerusalem, suggesting that he would rather be somewhere other than in the emperor's presence. On top of that, it was Artaxerxes himself who had ordered the work on the wall to be stopped (see Ezra 4:21-23). Nehemiah had reason to be afraid" (note on Nehemiah 2:2).

Yet, of course, Nehemiah in reality had more reason to not fear. And despite his concerns, he sets a wonderful example for all of us in dealing with this difficult moment in a manner that gives him the confidence to proceed. He silently prays to the ultimate ruler of heaven and earth, Almighty God, probably asking for the right words to say and that his request is well received (verse 5).

The response of verse 6 is extremely encouraging. Whereas Artaxerxes could have had Nehemiah executed then and there, the king instead asks him how long he would be gone. And then remarkably this king who had ordered the cessation of the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls happily gives permission to Nehemiah to return and resume the construction. Moreover, we are told in Nehemiah 5:14 that Artaxerxes appointed Nehemiah as governor of the land of Judah when he sent him.

There may have been broader political considerations for the king's decision. Recall that the satrap Megabyzus, who had led the region under his authority containing Judea in revolt against Persian rule, had renewed his fealty to the emperor only three years earlier. Thus, "the Syro-Palestinian satrapy was [still] in a very precarious position as far as Artaxerxes was concerned. He knew full well that what had happened once could happen again and that he might be unable to recover his rebellious territories the next time. Clearly he was willing to do anything that might consolidate his position and ensure continued loyalty from his volatile subjects. When Nehemiah volunteered to go to Jerusalem to stabilize the situation there, Artaxerxes saw in the request not only a way to accede to the heartfelt burden of his beloved cupbearer for his Jewish kinfolk, but a way to place someone over Judah whom he could trust to remain loyal to Persia and to achieve a climate of tranquility and order" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, p. 508). Moreover, it was probably in the confusion of Megabyzus' rebellion that Artaxerxes gave the earlier order to halt the refortification of Jerusalem's defenses. Further reports from the region may have revealed the Jews under Ezra as not having sided with the revolt—which would have been more reason to allow them to resume the work of restoring their holy city.

Nehemiah received from the king safe-conduct letters and a military escort. Ezra did not have such an escort on his journey because he would not ask for it lest it appear a lack of faith. Perhaps Nehemiah did not need to ask. Furthermore, this escort would have provided convincing proof of Nehemiah's investiture of authority in his visits to the provincial governors. The king also provided him with requisition orders for obtaining lumber for work in Jerusalem on the gates of the citadel just northwest of the temple (which overlooked the temple complex), on the city wall and on the governor's residence in which he would live.

In verses 9-10 we see that not everyone is pleased with the arrival of Nehemiah and his company. Verse 10 mentions the Samaritan leader Sanballat the Horonite. He "is attested to in the Aramaic papyri of Elephantine [i.e., of the Jewish community on the Nile island of Elephantine in southern Egypt] as having been governor of Samaria in the seventeenth year of Darius II, that is, in 407 [B.C.]. Since by then he had adult sons, it is certainly reasonable that he had been governor forty years earlier [when Nehemiah first arrived]" (Merrill, p. 509). Sanballat being called a Horonite seems to refer to his coming from the city of Beth-Horon, 12 miles northwest of Jerusalem. As this town was within the territory of Judea, it may be that Sanballat's authority had reached into Judea before Nehemiah's arrival—which would give greater impetus to his opposition.

Tobiah is referred to as "the servant, the Ammonite" (KJV). "Servant" probably denotes being a servant of the king—which is why the NKJV gives the word here as "official." The reference to Ammon probably refers not to his ethnicity but to his area of administrative oversight. For Tobiah is actually an Israelite name meaning "Yhwh Is Good." This would seem to make him at least part Jewish. And there is more reason to think so. We elsewhere learn that he was married to a Jewish woman—the daughter of a certain Shechaniah (compare Nehemiah 3:29; Nehemiah 6:18; not the Shechaniah of Ezra 10:2). Tobiah gave an Israelite name to his own son—Jehohanan (meaning "Yhwh Is Merciful"). He too married a Jewish woman—the daughter of Meshullam, son of Berechiah, leader of one of the groups repairing the wall (compare Nehemiah 3:4, Nehemiah 3:30; Nehemiah 6:18). As Expositor's notes on 2:10: "Some scholars speculate that Tobiah descended from an aristocratic [Israelite] family [known as the Tobiads] that owned estates in Gilead and was influential in Transjordan and in Jerusalem even as early as the eighth century B.C." The same commentary goes on to conclude: "Tobiah was no doubt the governor of Ammon or Transjordan under the Persians. His grandson Tobiah is called 'the governor of Ammon.' The site of Araq el-Emir ('caverns of the prince'), about eleven miles west of Amman, was the center of the Tobiads. The visible remains of a large building on top of the hill (Qasr el-'Abd, 'castle of the slave [or servant],' 60 by 120 feet) have been interpreted as a Jewish temple built by a later Tobiad. On two halls are inscriptions with the name Tobiah in Aramaic characters. The date of the inscriptions is much disputed"—but they nonetheless illustrate the persistence of this name among the Ammonite governors during the Persian and Greek periods. Nehemiah 6:18 tells us that many in Judah were pledged to his service, so he too seems to have exercised a significant measure of control within the province.

These men were greatly concerned despite the fact that Nehemiah had not actually told them or even the Judeans why he had really come. To further conceal his intentions, he decides to secretly inspect the city wall by night. "Since Nehemiah had arrived in Jerusalem from the north, he would have seen that side of the wall as he approached the city. If he lived in the southwestern part of the city, he could have had ample time for viewing the western wall. Nehemiah seems to have been concerned with inspecting the southern and eastern walls of Jerusalem. With a few servants, he passed through the Valley Gate into the Valley of Hinnom. He then traveled along the south wall. When the piles of stone and heaps of rubble obstructed his passage, he dismounted his animal and continued on foot up the Kidron valley in order to view the eastern wall" (Nelson, note on verses 12-15). "Apparently the eastern slope of the City of David was in an impassable condition due to collapsed retaining walls and ruined structures" (The Holman Bible Atlas, 1998, p. 172).

We next see that Nehemiah was an inspirational and motivational leader—able to stir the Jews into resuming work on the city wall (verses 17-18). It is wonderful to read the enthusiasm of their response: "Let us rise up and build."

As a side note, it is interesting to consider that no specific mention is made of Ezra at this point, although he could have been among the priests or officials mentioned in verse 16. We do see him later in the book but not until chapter 8. This has led some to question the traditional chronology of Ezra's return preceding that of Nehemiah. Yet the Bible makes it clear that Ezra came to Judea in the seventh year of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:8) while Nehemiah came in the 20th (2:1). It could well be that Ezra was not playing as prominent a role at this later time, 13 years after the prior mention of him in Ezra 10—especially considering the earlier Samaritan action that Artaxerxes ordered against the Jewish rebuilding. Ezra could have been sidelined as governor. Perhaps Sanballat or Tobiah had been given administrative authority over Judea—or possibly just assumed control. Furthermore, as a priest and scribe, Ezra may have decided to devote himself more to his religious duties—and perhaps now deferred to the leadership of the high priest Eliashib (see Nehemiah 3:1). Age and health could also have been factors. Nevertheless, we will see Ezra mentioned again in a spiritual leadership role in Nehemiah 8. And tradition reckons him as the one who established the Hebrew Bible in its present form—a paramount responsibility.

Returning to the story, the renewed work on the city wall provokes ridicule and derision from Sanballat, Tobiah and another foreign leader, Geshem the Arab (spelled Gashmu in the Hebrew of 6:2). This man is "documented outside the Bible.... The primary source of information is a silver bowl discovered in 1947 at Tell el-Mashkutah in Lower [i.e., northern] Egypt. Like three other such bowls it has a dedicatory inscription to the goddess Han'-Ilat; in addition, it has the line, 'that which Qaynu, son of Gašmu, king of Qedar, brought in offering to Han'-Ilat.' Gašmu is the biblical Geshem. On the basis of the particular Aramaic writing, the nature of the bowl, and Athenian coins discovered at the same site, this inscription has been dated [to the right time frame of] around 400 [B.C.]" (Merrill, p. 509). As the king of Qedar or Kedar—a nation of nomads in northern Arabia—Geshem and his people would have "served the Persians by controlling the caravan routes between Palestine and Egypt" ("Lingering Resentment Boils Over," Word in Life Bible, sidebar on 4:7).

These leaders' accusations of defying the emperor (Nehemiah 2:19) were not sincere, as Nehemiah had already given them the royal decree expressing the king's will in this matter (see verse 9). These antagonists were quite resistant "to the reestablishment of Judah as a viable and powerful rival to their own principalities. They had no doubt sided with Megabyzus in his rebellion and now correctly saw Nehemiah as a strong pro-Persian sent among them to police the region as the henchman of Artaxerxes himself. That they dared to interfere with Nehemiah's project shows a certain residue of independence from Persia, especially since the content of Artaxerxes' letter of authorization was well known to them" (Merrill, pp. 509-510).

Nehemiah rebuffed them, confident in God's providential care for His people and His desire to reestablish them in Jerusalem (verse 20).