Neh_2:1-11. Nehemiah receives His Commission
1. Nisan] See note on Neh_1:1. This name only occurs elsewhere in the O.T. in Est_3:7, ‘in the first month, which is the month Nisan,’ cf. Josephus, Ant. xi. 4, 8, ‘The first month, which according to the Macedonians is called Xanthicus, but according to us Nisan.’ Its meaning is uncertain; according to some its root-idea is ‘fruitfulness,’ according to others ‘beginning’ or ‘origin.’ It corresponds to the month of which the older Israelite name was ‘Abib’ (Exo_13:4; Exo_23:15; Exo_34:18; Deu_16:1), ‘the harvest month,’ equivalent to our latter part of March and beginning of April.
The same month appears in the Assyrian dialect as Nisannu, and it is quite possible that the Jews may have adopted the name from Babylonian usage.
the twentieth year of Artaxerxes] 445 b.c.: Artaxerxes reigned 41 years (465–424 b.c.). In the year 445 Pericles had obtained control of Athenian affairs; and a thirty years’ truce was concluded between Athens and Sparta. At Rome the conflict between patricians and plebeians was being waged; the deposition of the Decemvirs had occurred only four years before.
that wine] R.V. when wine. The R.V. shows the connexion of the sentences. The present clause states the occasion, when Nehemiah preferred his request. ‘When wine was before him;’ i.e. when the king was at a repast, and the cupbearers were (or a cupbearer was) in attendance. At such a time the king would naturally remark upon any alteration of demeanour in a favourite ‘cupbearer.’
According to Rawlinson (Ancient Monarchies, vol. iii. p. 214) the Persian king himself rarely dined with his guests. For the most part he dined alone. Sometimes he admitted to his table the queen and two or three of his children. Sometimes at a ‘banquet of wine’ (Est_7:2) a certain number of privileged boon companions were received.
before him] Another reading is found in the LXX. ‘before me,’ (καὶ ἦν ὁ οἶνος ἐνώπιον ἐμοῦ), which is followed in the Arabic version and was known to the translators of the Syriac. The change needed in the Hebrew to give this rendering is very slight, being only the omission of a single letter (vaw), which is read once instead of being repeated (l’phβnβ(y) vaessa instead of l’phβnβv vaessa). It has been very ingeniously maintained that this is the right reading, and that the words ‘when wine was before me’ denote ‘when my turn came round to attend as cupbearer at the royal table.’ According to this explanation, the clause accounts for the delay of three or four months, before Nehemiah made his appeal to the king; it also accounts for the king not having before recognised the sadness of his cupbearer, this being the first occasion on which he had appeared in the royal presence since the sad news arrived in the month Chislev.
But it does not seem likely that a cupbearer, who enjoyed the favour of the king, should have appeared so rarely in his presence as this view supposes. The LXX. reading makes practically no distinction in meaning between the clauses ‘wine was before me’ and ‘I took up the wine,’ and it is a pure assumption, that the former was a phrase for the rotation of the cupbearer’s office.
On the other hand, the Hebrew text gives with great minuteness full circumstances of the event: (1) the month and year; (2) the time of day, at the dinner; (3) the stage at the dinner, when the cupbearer offered the king wine. It distinguishes between ‘wine … before him,’ the occasion of the repast, and ‘I took up … the wine,’ the act of presenting the royal cup.
and I took up] R.V. that I took up. The cupbearer’s duties were to pour out the wine, to taste it so as to prevent any scheme of poisoning, and to present it to the king. Perhaps the words ‘took up’ relate to the reverential gesture with which the goblet was offered.
the wine] ‘The vines of Helbon were cultivated for the special purpose of supplying the Persian king with wine’ (Rawlinson, Anc. Mon., 3. p. 226). Helbon, a village near Damascus (see Eze_27:18), seems to be the place intended by Strabo and Athenaeus, who call it ‘Chalybon.’
Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence] These words have given rise to considerable difficulty. There is nothing to show that this was the first occasion on which Nehemiah had stood before the king since the month Chislev. To suppose that the king had been absent for several months from Shushan would of course get over the difficulty. But we have no evidence upon which to base such an assertion. The passage, as it stands, suggests that Nehemiah was performing his usual duties as on former days. If so, how are we to explain Nehemiah’s words? For surely we may suppose his sadness to have dated from the arrival of the distressing news (ch. Neh_1:2). Various explanations of the words have been attempted; e.g.,
(1) ‘Now I was not evil in his sight,’ i.e. he was well disposed to me. The rendering ‘evil’ instead of ‘sad’ is equally in accordance with the Hebrew, but the use of the same adjective in the sense of ‘sad’ in Neh_2:2 (see note) is fatal to this interpretation.
(2) ‘To suppose that I should not have been sad in his presence!’ Grammatically possible, an exclamation is not a probable turn of the sentence.
(3) ‘And I was not sad in his presence.’ The preterite tense is understood to refer to this particular occasion, and not generally to past time. This interpretation supposes that Nehemiah did not wear a sad countenance, but that the quick eye of his royal master perceived that something was wrong with his favourite. This, it is claimed, would account for the perturbation of Nehemiah described in Neh_2:2. But it is sufficient to object that (a) Neh_2:2, leaves us to suppose that Nehemiah’s sadness was clearly visible; (b) the 1st pers. sing. of the preterite of the auxiliary is used in three other passages in this book and refers to past time indefinitely (Neh_1:1; Neh_1:11, Neh_13:6). Had, Nehemiah wished to say that he was not sad on this occasion he would not have employed the auxiliary at all.
(4) Accepting the English rendering, ‘Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence,’ it seems necessary to assume that Nehemiah chose his opportunity and deliberately gave occasion for the king’s enquiry. It was forbidden for royal servants to appear before the king gloomy and unhappy. It was ill-omened, and suggested discontent and plotting at the court, cf. Est_4:2. Nehemiah had not therefore beforetime been sad in the king’s presence. He had not made up his mind up to this time what steps to take or what petition to present. Now, however, after his prayer to God (ch. Neh_1:5-11), he had been able to resolve upon his course of action. He appeared before the king at the banquet table in a state of sadness and dejection, which could not possibly escape the king’s notice when he stood before him as cupbearer and presented him the cup.
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?
Let the king live for ever] For this formula opening an address to a king see Dan_2:4; Dan_3:9. Cf. 1Ki_1:31.
why should not my countenance be sad?] i.e. how could it be otherwise than sad?
the place of my fathers’ sepulchres] ‘the place,’ literally ‘the house:’ compare 1Sa_25:1; 1Ki_2:34, where Samuel and Joab are said to have been buried each ‘in his own house.’ This is explained by comparing 2Ki_21:18, ‘Manasses … was buried in the garden of his own house,’ with 2Ch_33:20, ‘they buried him (Manasses) in his own house.’ Rich families had their own private places of sepulture (rock-hewn tombs, caves and the like). Nehemiah’s words would be particularly appropriate if he was, as some have supposed, a descendant of the royal house. The tombs of David and the kings of Jerusalem seem to have been cut out of the rock on the S. side of the Ophel hill, cf. Neh_3:16.
consumed] Literally ‘eaten up,’ as in Neh_2:13. The more usual phrase is ‘burned,’ as in Neh_1:3, Neh_2:17.
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 Neh_4:4, Neh_4:9; Neh_5:19; Neh_6:9, Neh_6:14; Neh_13:14, etc.). Sometimes, as now, the prayer was offered silently and swiftly.
If it please the king, and if thy servant, &c.] A double conditional sentence precedes the request. On the king’s approbation of the policy and on the king’s personal favour to Nehemiah must depend the issue.
The words run literally, ‘If it is good before the king and if thy servant be good in thy presence.’ The phrase in the first clause is the same as that used, e.g. in Est_1:19; Est_9:13. The second clause differs from the common phrase ‘to find favour or grace,’ e.g. 1Sa_26:22; Est_2:15. The verb which with this meaning is generally used impersonally, here has a subject; elsewhere this construction is unusual, cf. Est_5:14, ‘the thing pleased Haman;’ Ecc_7:26, ‘whoso pleaseth God,’ literally, ‘is good in the presence of God.’
that I may build it] If, as is most probably the case, Ezr_4:7-24 refers to the events of the reign of Artaxerxes, Nehemiah in alluding to the city of Jerusalem introduces a subject that had some time previously engaged the king’s attention. According to the letters in that chapter the work of ‘building’ the city had been stopped. But the decree, which had stopped the work, also contemplated the possibility of its being resumed: see Ezr_4:21, ‘Make ye now a decree to cause these men to cease and that this city be not builded until a decree shall be made by me.’ Nehemiah makes request that such a decree should be made. The knowledge of this previous edict would have increased his apprehensions. ‘Build’ in this passage is equivalent to ‘building the walls,’ cf. Ezr_4:12; Ezr_4:16.
The account is very condensed. Nehemiah’s request is favourably received, but only the general results of the conversation are related. The king seems at once to have appointed Nehemiah to be ‘governor’ at Jerusalem (cf. Neh_5:14), and to have approved the policy of restoring the walls.
the queen] The royal consort (cf. Psa_45:10; Dan_5:2-3; Dan_5:23) the head of the Harem. She may possibly have been Damaspia, who is mentioned by the historian Ctesias as the consort of Artaxerxes.
sitting by him] It was clearly not a public banquet (cf. Esther 1). The position of the queen sitting by or before the king corresponds with representations in the monuments. Compare especially the representation of Assurbanipal reclining at a banquet, his queen being seated on a chair at the foot of his couch (Brit. Mus.).
and I set him a time] The duration of this period is not stated. And the length of Nehemiah’s first residence in Jerusalem has been much disputed, some holding that he returned to the king’s court immediately after the completion of the walls, others saying that he remained as governor (cf. Neh_5:14) for twelve years, having obtained an extension of the time of absence originally agreed upon.
letters] see note on Ezr_4:8.
the governors beyond the river] The ‘Pekhahs’ of the province on the west bank of the Euphrates (Ezr_8:36). A reference to Ezr_4:7-10; Ezr_4:17 shows the importance of securing the recognition of these provincial governors.
convey me over … into Judah] R.V. let me pass through … unto Judah. Letters of safe conduct through their territory. The governors would not be asked to assist the journey, but to secure that Nehemiah should not be hindered or molested on the way.
Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest] R.V. marg. ‘or park’. The forest or park from which the timber was to be supplied has been identified by some with the forests of Lebanon, by others with the well-wooded ‘plain’ abounding in olives and sycomores (1Ch_27:28) near the coast. In the present day scholars incline to identify it with ‘Solomon’s Garden’ at Etan or Etam, described by Josephus (Ant. VIII. 7.3) as richly wooded and well watered (παραδείσοις … καὶ ναμάτων ἐπιρροαῖς ἐπιτερπὲς ὁμοῦ καὶ πλούσιον) distant about six or seven miles S. from Jerusalem. The ‘pleasure-grounds’ of Solomon may have been handed down as ‘royal domains.’
In a scantily-wooded country like Palestine a well-preserved forest would have constituted a valuable piece of property.
The management of the ‘timber’ was committed to a royal officer, ‘the keeper of the king’s forest’ or ‘park.’ The name Asaph suggests that ‘the keeper’ was a Jew, which would favour the view of the forest being not far from Jerusalem.
‘forest,’ ‘park’ or ‘pleasure-garden.’ The Hebrew word “pardκs” (Gr. παράδεισος = English ‘paradise’) is found in the O.T. only in Son_4:13; Ecc_2:5. It is said to be of Persian (= Zend pairidaιza) origin, signifying an ‘enclosure.’ It seems to have been used especially of ‘the royal parks’ or ‘enclosed hunting-grounds’ of the Persian kings, and in this sense to have been received into Hebrew and Greek literature. It occurs with the meaning of a ‘garden’ in Sir_24:30; Sir_40:17; Sir_40:27, Susann. passim. For its technical usage among the Jews for ‘the abode of the blest,’ see, on Luk_23:43, Lightfoot’s Horae Hebraicae.
that he may give me timber] Nehemiah asks for timber for the purpose of building (1) the castle or citadel of Jerusalem, (2) the walls generally, (3) his own house of residence as governor.
the gates of the palace which appertained to the house] R.V. the gates of the castle which appertaineth to the house. The word ‘Birah’ rendered ‘castle’ by the R.V. is of foreign, possibly Babylonian origin, and is represented in the Greek by Βᾶρις. See note on Neh_1:1.
The building here referred to was destined to play an important part in the later history of Jerusalem. It lay on the north side of the Temple (‘the house’), which it was intended to defend, and with which it communicated. It is not mentioned in Neh_12:39, and therefore probably lay inside the circuit of the wall. A special officer commanded it (Neh_7:2) on account of its great importance.
It was rebuilt by the Asmonean princes (1Ma_13:52), and again by Herod the Great, who gave it the name of ‘Antonia,’ after his friend and patron Mark Antony. Into this castle St Paul was carried by the Roman soldiers, when they rescued him from the hands of the mob in the Temple precincts (Act_21:37; Act_22:24).
the wall of the city] The timber would be required especially for the gates and for the towers which commanded the gates.
the house that I shall enter into] By this is apparently intended Nehemiah’s official residence, where he afterwards so generously entertained, Neh_5:17-18. The old interpretation which explained it to mean the Temple gives no satisfactory meaning to the words ‘that I shall enter into.’ Nehemiah was not a priest; and had no right to enter the Temple (see Neh_6:11).
according to the good hand, &c.] Cf. Neh_2:18; Ezr_7:6; Ezr_8:18-22.
Nehemiah’s appeal. It is implied that Nehemiah having satisfied himself as to the practicability of his plan called an assembly of those mentioned in the previous verse. How soon after his nocturnal ride is not stated.
the distress] R.V. the evil case, the same word as in Neh_1:1
Jerusalem lieth waste, &c.] Cf. Neh_2:3.
that we be no more a reproach] See Neh_1:3, where the words ‘affliction’ and ‘reproach’ are the same as the ‘distress’ or ‘evil case,’ and ‘reproach’ in this verse.
a reproach] i.e. an object of reproach by reason of our inability to defend ourselves, cf. Psa_22:6, ‘a reproach of men, and despised of the people;’ Joe_2:19, ‘I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.’ Eze_22:4.
the hand of my God] Cf. Neh_2:8. The blessing which had so far attended his plan.
as also the king’s words] R.V. as also of, &c. He reported the substance of the king’s words, which the compiler has not given us.
Let us rise up and build] The people responded with enthusiasm.
So they strengthened their hands] The presence of enemies on every side made the undertaking hazardous. At the same time the need of courage will be more obvious if we accept the theory of a recent hostile attack (cf. note on Neh_1:2). The versions render the verb in the passive, LXX. ἐκραταιώθησαν αἱ χεῖρες αὐτῶν, Vulg. confortatae sunt manus eorum, which is followed by Luther, ‘ihre Hδnde wurden gestδrkt.
for this good work] R.V. for the good work. Literally, ‘for the good,’ the same expression as ‘the well-fare’ in Neh_2:10. LXX. εἰς τὸ ἀγαθόν, Vulg. in bono.