Nehemiah acknowledges that the situation of Israel as slaves in Babylon was a result of their own sin while they occupied the promised land. Nehemiah confesses and identifies with the sin of his people. His only hope is God’s mercy. After accepting responsibility for Israel’s captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah prays that God will show mercy by moving in the heart of the king to show mercy to the captives. Then, Nehemiah informs his readers of his relationship with the king. He ends Chapter 1 with the statement, “Now I was cupbearer to the king.” We’re not sure how long Nehemiah’s prayer of confession lasted or how long he prayed for God’s compassionate intervention on their behalf. But when the time was just right, Nehemiah used his role to invoke the mercies of the King. Nehemiah 2:1-2 says, “In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence.  And the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid.”

Nehemiah claims that he maintained the courtesy every servant must show to the king by never being sad in the king’s presence. I’m sure he did his best to hide his fallen countenance. Some think that the wine the king drank made him melancholy and aided his recognition of Nehemiah’s sadness. Others argue that God opened the eyes of Artaxerxes to see the true demeanor of Nehemiah. This would align more logically with the outcome of Nehemiah’s request. He was about to ask the King to let him go back to Israel. I can imagine how difficult this might have been for him. We see how hard he prayed about this situation in Chapter One of the Book. One commentator says, “This reminds me of a friend of mine who wanted to go on a short-term mission trip but was worried that her boss would not give her the time off. Before asking for this favor, she felt exceedingly nervous, if not quite “dreadfully afraid.” But I am sure that Nehemiah found himself in a much more delicate position than my friend, for if he displeased the king, he could lose more than his job—his very life was on the line!”[1]

Nehemiah heard about the dire circumstances in Israel four months earlier. His heart was grieved, and he wanted to do something about it. All he could do was pray. He did that for four months. He trusted God to initiate the action. I suspect that Nehemiah might very well have been a biblically literate individual. He might have thought of Moses’ fear of Pharaoh as he faced the Red Sea on his East and the Egyptian army on his West. He had nowhere to run, and I’m sure he was panicking. God simply told Moses to “stand still,” and he would see the salvation of the Lord. Maybe he knows the verse from the book of Ruth where she is told to “sit still” while Boaz works out the situation for her. Maybe he remembers this Psalmist’s exhortation to “Be Still” and “Know that I am the Lord.” Wiersbe says, “When you wait on the Lord in prayer, you are not wasting your time; you are investing it. God is preparing both you and your circumstances so that His purposes will be accomplished. However, when the right time arrives for us to act by faith, we dare not delay.” God opened the eyes of Artaxerxes to see Nehemiah’s sadness. Once again, the truth of Proverbs 21:1 is confirmed, “The king’s heart is in the hands of the Lord. He turns it any way He wishes.”[2]

[1] Roberts, Mark, and Lloyd J. Ogilvie. 1993. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. Vol. 11. The Preacher’s Commentary Series. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.

[2] Wiersbe, Warren W. 1996. Be Determined. “Be” Commentary Series. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.