As the second chapter of Nehemiah opens, his opportunity has arrived. After four months of prayer the time had come. In his duties before the king as a cupbearer, the anguish he felt within was etched on his face. The king of Persia asked him, “Why does your face look so sad?’ Nehemiah humbly and respectfully told the king he had received word that the city of his ancestors lay in ruins. So the king asked him, “What is it you want?” And I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city of Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it. “Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time.
I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe conduct until I arrive in Judah? And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests. So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent army officers and calvary with me. (vv. 5-9)
Nehemiah had spent a lot of time (four months in thoughful prayer) formulating his needs and requests. His communication was skillful and precise. Twice he refers to the “city of Judah” but never its capital Jerusalem, for Jerusalem had a reputation as a troublesome city, a breeding ground for revolution against the empire. Instead he states, “the city…where my ancestors are buried.” He understood that throughout the Middle East, kings were greatly concerned about their burial. (the evidence of the obsession these persian kings had for their burial sites can still be seen in Iran today. Carved into the mountainside at Naqsh-e-Rustam, is a row of impressive tombs where skilled stone workers labored for decades to create Darius I, Artaxerexes I, Darius III and Xerxes I their final resting places).
Nehemiah understood the Persian psyche well, so when he said, “the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and it’s gates have been destroyed by fire” (vs. 3), he targeted his message on the king’s own interests, tapping into the king’s sympathies, and presenting his case in the best possible light. Nehemiah also asked for suffieient time for his expedition, (not knowing he would actually be gone for 12 years), certain supplies, and security for the journey. So he asked the king for safe-conduct letters for the governors of the provinces he would pass through. Later in Nehemiah, we will see that these letters not only granted him diplomatic immunity but also meant that he was appointed governor of the Persian province of Judah.
What I appreciate about Nehemiah and what we can learn from him is his thoughtful and prayerful persuit to persuade the king of Persia to aid him in his cause and how he communicated his request. When we are facing a difficult, anxious or challenging situation; when we are trying to restore a broken relationship; we need to set aside the time to think seriously and strategically about how to accomplish our goal. We have to ask ourselves what we need if we are to complete our quest. We also may need to write down what we will say and our words intentions. We need to assess the steps we must take and what those steps will cost us. Then, we need to squarely face reality— in order to accomplish the goal of rebuilding. And even when we’ve done all of that, we may still find ourselves like Nehemiah, who arrived in Judah with a full military escort and the authority of Persia behind him, still battling hostility and opposition.
In Spite of Opposition, God is at Work
“When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites” (Neh. 2:10)
Two officials, and later Geshem the Arab, a third opponent, all came to oppose God’s work and afflict Nehemiah as he led the rebuilding effort. Satan and his demonic messengers will come against you and the work God has called you too. DO NOT be distracted by the opposition of evil, masquarading in human form, or the principalities of powers sent to discourage you. Whenever we are doing a restorative good work, be it for ourselves or for our community, there will always be obstacles and resistance in our path.
“In conclusion be strong—not in yourselves but in the Lord, in the power of his boundless resource. Put on God’s complete armour so that you can successfully resist all the devil’s methods of attack. For our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil. Therefore you must wear the whole armour of God that you may be able to resist evil in its day of power, and that even when you have fought to a standstill you may still stand your ground. Take your stand then with truth as your belt, righteousness your breastplate, the Gospel of peace firmly on your feet, salvation as your helmet and in your hand the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. Above all be sure you take faith as your shield, for it can quench every burning missile the enemy hurls at you. Pray at all times with every kind of spiritual prayer, keeping alert and persistent as you pray for all Christ’s men and women.”