The Mission of the Cupbearer
We talk about God’s sovereignty a lot, but we keep running into circumstances that—on the surface—appear to threaten that reality. If God is sovereign, why do his children go through such difficult times? God is about to open a way for Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls, but why were the walls in such disrepair to begin with?
Before we answer that, let’s make the question personal. Some of you have recently recovered from being seriously sick. We praise God for your recovery, but we may also wonder why you were sick in the first place. If God is in control, shouldn’t we always experience health? Shouldn’t God’s people be the most prosperous? We know that isn’t true, but why?
Opposition and sickness are the consequences of living in a world corrupted by sin. It was Israel’s sin of idolatry that led them into Babylonian exile. That doesn’t mean that every trial we go through is the result of personal sin, but they only exist because God’s good design, from the beginning, has been corrupted by sin.
Trials will provoke a variety of negative emotions that have the ability to send us into a downward spiral of despair and frustration.
Trusting the Lord does not eliminate trials, but provides the integrity to face them with courage.
Read Nehemiah 2:1-8.
This morning we will consider three ways that Nehemiah dealt with his trial in a positive manner.
I. Nehemiah Was Honest (1-2)
Presumably, Nehemiah has served the king continually these past several months. What’s different about this occasion is that Nehemiah was no longer able to conceal his depression. He generally kept his sadness in check when he was serving the king (v.1), but it appears his sorrow became overwhelming.
Imagine going through this emotional challenge. Some people wear their heart on their sleeve. Everyone knows when they’re upset. In fact, it seems like they want others to sympathize with them.
There is a term for this, it’s called “Sadfishing”. It is described on Wikipedia as “a behavioral trend where people make exaggerated claims about their emotional problems to generate sympathy.” Maybe you know someone like that, or you experience that tendency yourself from time to time.
Let’s be clear, Nehemiah was not sadfishing King Artaxerxes. His life depended upon him maintaining a professional demeanor before the king. There is the very real possibility that this scene took place during a festival. It would certainly add to the tension if Nehemiah is viewed as Debbie Downer killing the party mood. Or, even worse, is the potential that his sadness could be interpreted as having something against the king (which was actually true). Moping or pouting to gain the king’s sympathy wouldn’t just get him fired, it could possibly get him killed!
That is why Nehemiah “was very much afraid” when Artaxerxes noticed his sadness (v.2). That reaction would be inconsistent with a perfectly safe working environment. Artaxerxes may show his compassionate side in this passage, but we know that he was not afraid of executing people, even those who were close to him. In fact, Artabanus, the commander of the guard, killed Artaxerxes father and then encouraged him to murder his older brother in order to take the throne. After becoming king, Artaxerxes avenged his father’s death by murdering Artabanus.
Nehemiah was also sensing just how much was riding on this moment. He had been preparing for this opportunity for one-third of the year. His fear represents the recognition that he has reached the culmination of that time.
Before we consider Nehemiah’s response, let us reflect upon his integrity. We will see that he was honest in the face of sadness and bold in the face of fear, but let’s pause here for a moment. Note his emotional investment in this project.
What works up your emotions? What makes you sad or fearful? What gets you frustrated? Do you find yourself emotionally invested in purely personal matters, or does the restoration and revival of the church provoke a similar response?
I know that most of us probably do our best to stuff our emotions before they reveal themselves. We think it is a sign of maturity to be unaffected. However, perpetually concealing our emotions is really a sign of immaturity. A truly honest individual will be capable of sharing their heart from time to time. I’m not suggesting that we need to turn everyone we meet into our therapist, but allowing those we trust to see our true selves is part of what it means to have integrity.
The fact that Nehemiah’s heart was beginning to show on his sleeve was a sign that he was actually trusting in the Lord. His willingness to explain the source of his pain reveals a rare combination of honesty and courage.
When did Jesus reveal the strength of his courage? It was in those honest moments of human weakness in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was when his agonizing sweat became like great drops of blood falling from his forehead in anticipation of drinking the cup of God’s wrath upon the cross (Luke 22:42-44). In that moment, God was gracious to send an angel to strengthen him.
Similarly, what we find in the next section, is that God meets Nehemiah’s honesty with courage.
II. Nehemiah Was Courageous (3-6)
Nehemiah was determined to be respectful, but honest with Artaxerxes (v.3). Remember, he knows his complaint is pushing back on the decision this same king had made to put an end to the rebuilding of Jerusalem about a decade earlier (Ezra 4:21). Nehemiah essentially accuses Artaxerxes of being the cause of his sadness.
The king reacts to this news asking, “What are you requesting?” Nehemiah’s honesty opened an opportunity to make his request. Notice what he does before sharing that request; he prays.
This brief prayer indicates Nehemiah’s dependence upon God. He would not think of taking this next step without acknowledging his need for the Lord’s guidance. You almost get the impression that he is unrehearsed.
In fact, I wonder when Nehemiah first realized that he should lead the rebuilding project. The news of the city’s poor condition and the shame of the remnant provoked months of prayer and fasting. At some point during that time Nehemiah understood his mission. But before sharing his request to the king, he turns to the Lord in prayer.
If I were waiting several months to make this request—my scripted answer would have departed my lips before the king could have finished asking his question. “Finally! I thought you would never ask.” And, surely, before I could finish what I wanted to say, the king would call for the gallows.
But Nehemiah pauses—just for a split second—to seek the Lord’s “very present help” (Psalm 46:1). Commenting on this Psalm, Charles Spurgeon writes:
Very few earthly helps could be called “very present”: they are usually far in the seeking, far in the using, and farther still when once used. But as for the Lord our God, He is present when we seek Him, present when we need Him, and present when we have already enjoyed His aid. He is more than “present,” He is very present. More present than the nearest friend can be, for He is in us in our trouble; more present than we are to ourselves, for sometimes we lack presence of mind. He is always present, effectually present, sympathetically present, altogether present.
After months of praying day and night, God finally opened a door for Nehemiah’s heart to be heard by the king. He makes the request to return to Judah, roughly 900 miles away.
It is estimated that his trip would have taken about three months. The caravan that returned with Ezra, including elders and children, took four months. We don’t know how long Nehemiah calculated for his building projects, but he would have had to add another six months just for travel. This was no simple request, but the king was pleased to grant it.
It is interesting that Nehemiah noted the queen’s presence (v.6). Did she play an important part in the king’s decision? We can only speculate.
There is a funny segment of scenes in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where Toula is trying to get out of working in the family restaurant. Her dad did not like the idea and said “the man is the head of the house.” Toula’s mother consoles her saying, “Man is the head, but woman is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants.” This leads to a scheme to get the dad to think that sending Toula to work for her aunt, was his own idea.
Has the queen turned the stiffnecked head of King Artaxerxes to be favorable toward Nehemiah’s request? It’s certainly possible. However, based upon the whole context of the passage, we would need to take it to a much higher level. This decision was ultimately orchestrated by God.
Proverbs 21:1 The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.
Nehemiah was tremendously patient awaiting God’s direction and bold in the face of fear. Think about just how rare this combination of traits must be. People who are patient oftentimes lack boldness. And those who are bold, all too frequently lack patience. Nehemiah is a rare leaders who exemplifies both qualities without any obvious difficulty.
Jesus perfectly manifested these same traits. He maintained complete trust that the Lord would provide for him and protect him. He did not need to test God’s promises as Satan tempted him to do. His victory over every kind of temptation means that he is sufficient to intercede for us in every kind of circumstance.
Prayerful patience is what prevents Christian courage from turning into rash decisions. You might be physically ready for action, but are you spiritually ready? Maybe you’re anxious to make a significant change in your life, but what is leading you to make that change? Is it your distressing circumstances or the Lord? Your prayer life reveals just how much you’re basing your decision upon God’s direction.
Nehemiah’s patience guarded his courage, but it also gave him time to prepare.
III. Nehemiah Was Prepared (7-8)
The first stage of Nehemiah’s second request has to do with potential challenges. Nehemiah anticipates facing roadblocks in particular regions as he travels to Judah. He could have been detained and held for questioning. His trip would potentially be delayed passing through the region “Beyond the River”, the area between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean Sea. This is the heart of the Fertile Crescent.
Nehemiah’s final request is for a healthy donation of the king’s timber. He requested enough for the fortress gates, the wall, and his house. The timber likely came from Lebanon, as it did when the temple rebuilding project began under Ezra (Ezra 3:7).
These may seem like outrageous requests, but they reveal his bold trust in the Lord to make them. These letters would ensure the safe passage of Nehemiah and his goods. He ultimately saw the king’s provision as the good hand of his God. Interestingly, Ezra used similar language when he refused to request the escort of Persian soldiers for safe passage (Ezra 8:21-22). Raymond Brown comments:
One man’s commitment to God precluded the escort; the other welcomed it. Ezra regarded soldiers as a lack of confidence in God’s power; Nehemiah viewed them as evidence of God’s superlative goodness. We must not rigidly stereotype believers into identical patterns of spirituality.
Nehemiah was not simply praying, he was planning. He trusted in the Lord while he made his plans. He trusted that the Spirit of God was guiding his planning. In other words, Nehemiah was diligent. He prayed while he also made every effort in preparation.
Although Nehemiah did not burst out with a rehearsed request, he was prepared to share a target date for the completion of his project. It’s also clear that he had thought through potential challenges he would face on his journey and the resources he would need.
Just as we saw that he was patient and bold, here we see that he was trusting and prepared. Trusting in the Holy Spirit’s guidance doesn’t mean informal and unplanned. It doesn’t mean you have to fly by the seat of your pants. We can trust God in our preparation.
We can have the integrity to face our trials with courage because we know that Jesus Christ was fully willing, fully able, and fully prepared to die in our place. His honesty, courage, and preparation becomes the foundation of our willingness and readiness to glorify him in all that we do.