He was much more than just a butler; he was the Persian king’s cupbearer. As Artaxerexes’ counselor, confidant and constant caregiver, he tasted the food and wine before it was served to his master. If anyone in Susa’s palace was going to be poisoned, it was sure to be Nehemiah. (I don’t want that job.)
On an average, ordinary day, an unusual event occurred: Nehemiah’s brother returned from Judah and Jerusalem with much awaited news. “The remnant in the province, who survived the exile, are in great trouble and disgrace. Jerusalem’s wall has been broken down, and its gates have been burned” (Nehemiah 1:3).
Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The city walls had been demolished, the temple had been reduced to rubble, and the last of the Hebrews were either killed or exiled. In 538 BC, a year after Persia had overthrown Babylon, Cyrus had released Zerubbabel to lead the first exiles to return to Judah. Twenty-two years later, in 516 BC, construction was completed on Jerusalem’s new temple, a much more modest building than Solomon’s. It was 444 BC when Nehemiah’s brother arrived in Susa. Jerusalem’s walls had laid in ruin for 142 years, leaving the weakened city disgracefully unprotected.
When Nehemiah heard the sad news, he “sat down and wept. (He) mourned for a number of days, fasting and praying before the God of the heavens. (He) said, ‘Lord, the God of the heavens, the great and awe-inspiring God who keeps his gracious covenant with those who love him and keep his commands, let your eyes be open and your ears be attentive to hear your servant’s prayer that I now pray to you day and night for your servants, the Israelites’ ”(Nehemiah 1:4–6).
Soon after, Artaxerxes, a pagan king, released faithful Nehemiah to return to his native land. But there was more. Nehemiah requested, “ ‘If it pleases the king, let me have letters written to the governors of the region west of the Euphrates River, so that they will grant me safe passage until I reach Judah. And let me have a letter written to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest, so that he will give me timber to rebuild the gates of the temple’s fortress, the city wall, and the home where I will live.’ The king granted (his) requests, for the gracious hand of my God was on (him). (He) went to the governors of the region west of the Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent officers of the infantry and cavalry with (him)” (Nehemiah 2:7–9). Obviously, God was at work.
In Jerusalem, Nehemiah’s first challenge was to enlist and organize his complacent countrymen. “The God of the heavens is the one who will grant us success. We, his servants, will start building...” (Nehemiah 2:20). The foreign enemies “heard that the repair to the walls of Jerusalem was progressing ... They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 4:7–8).
Under Nehemiah’s extraordinary leadership, the residents of Jerusalem worked together to rebuild the walls of the city. “The laborers who carried the loads worked with one hand and held a weapon with the other” (Nehemiah 4:17). Miraculously, the project was completed in “fifty-two days” (Nehemiah 6:15).
Nehemiah wasn’t a superhero, a great military genius, or a renowned motivational leader. He was a layman, a cupbearer. He was a common guy that God used in an uncommon way. He wasn’t too busy, or too self-absorbed, or too distracted by pleasures and passions. He was available. Are we?
All Scripture quotations, except as otherwise noted, are from
Holman Bible Publishers’ Christian Standard Bible.