Nehemiah lived in the kingdom of Persia which had earlier taken over Babylon while Israel was in captivity. This book chronicles events many years after Daniel’s time. It was recorded during the reign of King Artaxerxes.
As cupbearer to the king, Nehemiah had all the comforts he needed but on a certain day he became dreadfully sad. It was in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes. He received a group of friends and relatives that had come from Jerusalem; he was eager to know how their homeland was doing.
After they settled and ate, he asked about those Jews who had survived the exile or the remnants. He also asked about the state of Jerusalem. The men’s initial countenance had worried him when he first saw them, but their words confirmed his concerns–they were arrows to his soul.
“The remnant there in the province who survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire” was the answer he got. It was not only the information but the way the men looked when they spoke. Deep sadness saturated their eyes.
After he had taken it in, Nehemiah decided to do what he had always done (when the plight of his people seemed to overwhelm him), he fasted, prayed and sought the Lord. As he did, he mourned the years of captivity, the death of his countrymen and the state of Jerusalem. He confessed his own shortcomings and the sin of his people, he pleaded with God to somehow intervene.
On one of those days, as he poured wine for King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah was asked a question that startled him. And it came from the king himself. “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart”, the monarch said.
We should understand that in ancient times those who stood before kings and served them daily had perilous occupations. Anything could anger the king and he could easily order a servant’s immediate execution. Nehemiah therefore stated, “I was very much afraid” (Nehemiah 2:2).
However, seeing that he could not deny his sadness, he decided to tell the truth. He said, “Let the king live forever! Why shouldn’t my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”
It is clear that Nehemiah was valued by the king because Artaxerxes then asked what he could do to help. The cupbearer took a moment to pray then made his request known to his master.
“If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, [I request] that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.” And he said ( the queen sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?”
After Nehemiah gave these details, King Artaxerxes granted him permission to leave. Nehemiah further asked for sealed letters to governors in various provinces so he could work without hindrance. He was granted everything he needed and knew God had answered his prayer. He experienced great joy in his heart: yes the joy of or from the Lord. Suddenly his strength increased and he was determined to go back and rebuild the wall in Jerusalem.
Through the chapters of this book, we read about his journey back to Jerusalem and the numerous challenges he faced. It took fifty two days to rebuild the wall but one fine day, it was completed. However Nehemiah was not only interested in rebuilding the material he wanted to rebuild the people spiritually. Remember it was their turning from God that caused the city’s destruction in the first place.
He therefore asked the scribe Ezra to read from the book of the law to refresh the people’s mind about God’s precepts. As the scribe read and explained, those assembled were convicted of their sinful lifestyle and became sad. Nehemiah noticed and said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” The wall had been completed so there was reason to rejoice and they listened and did as he said.
Let us revisit the time Nehemiah himself was sad. Reminding you that he went to God and poured out his heart in repentance. Corinthians 7:10 says, “Godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
Indeed Nehemiah’s confession of sin resulted in God’s salvation. And it gave him strength and recalling this he said, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The joy of the Lord can always be found in Him. It gives us new energy to go forward in spite of any challenges we may face. When we turn away from our iniquity and seek God with all our heart, He will release not only salvation but joy and strength with it.