Men Seeking God
A Study of Nehemiah
Dr. Jim Denison
The Book of Nehemiah opens and closes with prayer. This is the first of 12 instances of prayer recorded in the Book of Nehemiah, and the most crucial. If God does not answer this prayer, the story of the Hebrew nation ends.
So far we have learned to recognize God’s holiness (v. 5), to pray with humility (v. 6a), and to confess our sin with honesty (vs. 6b-7). Nehemiah has shown us to admit our need of God’s grace (v. 8) and then claim that grace for ourselves and our nation (v. 9). Now, how does Nehemiah approach God with his need? How do we?
Remember all God has done (v. 10)
Verse 10: “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.” “Your servants and your people” echoes a common theme in the Hebrew Bible by which God claims the Jewish nation as his own.
How are they his? He “redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.” “Redeem” in the Hebrew involves the payment of a price to reclaim a slave. God did this in Egypt, and across Jewish history, including at the flooded Jordan River, at Jericho, and in delivering them from Babylon.
How has God redeemed you? Where have you seen his hand in your life? It has been well said, “All that God has done teaches us to trust him for all he will do.”
Pray for all God will do (v. 11)
First, seek his glory. Nehemiah’s request continues: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name.”
Jesus taught us to begin our prayers, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” God acts for his glory, or he commits idolatry. Pray always that he be glorified in answering your request.
Second, pray specifically. Now Nehemiah comes to his specific request: “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”
Artaxerxes was the one man who had stopped the rebuilding project (Ezra 4:21). He alone could reverse his order—there was no higher court. If the Supreme Court were to make a ruling, only the Supreme Court could reverse it. But Nehemiah knew that the king was only a man, “this man,” and that God is the sovereign of the universe.
So Nehemiah prayed for “favor” with the king, literally “compassion” with him. He asked God to do what no human can do—change a human heart. He prayed that God would make the king favorably disposed to him. Asking God to give you favor with a person is always a good way to pray.
Third, follow unconditionally. Having asking God’s favor, Nehemiah finally states his unconditional commitment to follow wherever his God leads: “I was cupbearer to the king.”
Such a person tasted the wine before it was given to the king, ensuring that it was not poisoned. Artwork from ancient Persia pictures a cupbearer with a cup in his right hand and a leaf over his left shoulder for the king to wipe his lips with. The cupbearer would pour wine from its container into a cup, then pour some from the cup into the palm of his left hand and drink it.
In the ancient world where the throne was all-powerful and coups were common, the cupbearer was essential to the safety of the king. It would take only one person in the kitchen to poison the king’s wine. Thus Pharaoh had cupbearers (Genesis 40:2), as did Solomon (1 Kings 10:5; 2 Chrononicles 9:4).
Many cupbearers were eunuchs, as they had personal access both to the king and to his queen and family. But it was by no means true that all were. If Nehemiah were a eunuch, it is extremely unlikely that he would have been able to exercise leadership among the Jewish people. Deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” It is also likely that his opponents would have pointed out this fact in undermining his authority.
By virtue of this crucial position, Nehemiah thus had frequent personal access to the king.
What is more, the king owed his life to Nehemiah. He put his own life at risk, and would be the person most susceptible to bribery and plots against the king.
Because of his constant presence with the king, the cupbearer often became a person of unusual influence and counsel. He obviously would hear much of what the king would hear, and would serve as a source of objective wisdom. He became the king’s most trusted advisor.
Nehemiah adds this point to show us the providential nature of this episode. He was the only person on earth who could have been the human instrument of such a miracle.
But this unusual relationship was a double-edged sword for Nehemiah. At the very least, if his request is granted he will be trading the security and luxury of the greatest throne in human history for an uncertain future of risk and sacrifice. He knows that he will need to leave the king’s palace to go to Jerusalem, and must wonder if his position will still be available when he returns. Nehemiah’s request comes at personal loss.
And perhaps at the risk of his life as well. His request to leave the king could easily be seen as disloyalty to the throne, putting Jerusalem ahead of his own sovereign. It could even be interpreted as an act of intrigue, as if Nehemiah knew of a plot against the king and wanted to escape before it came to fulfillment.
If Artaxerxes viewed Nehemiah’s request with disfavor, he would likely have ordered his execution. If the king could no longer trust the cupbearer, he would have no use for him. Given his knowledge of intimate state secrets, he would become instantly a threat to the throne. If the king refused Nehemiah, he could no longer expect his loyalty and must instead assume his rebellion.