Many studies of Nehemiah, with good reason, emphasize his wisdom. At several points, this man of God had to act carefully in order to accomplish his mission. We read of one such point in today’s passage.
For some background, let us revisit Ezra 4:7–23, where we read about a letter some of the enemies of the Jews wrote to King Arta-xerxes I, the Persian emperor who sent Ezra to teach the law to the returned exiles in Judah (see 7:1–26). This letter alleged that if the Jews rebuilt Jerusalem, they would rebel against their Persian overlords. So Artaxerxes, though he was favorably disposed to the Jews and wanted them to follow the dictates of their religion, ordered that the Jews not rebuild the city until he said otherwise (4:21).
Due to this restriction and the allegations against the Jews, Nehemiah had to approach the king carefully with his request to reconstruct the wall around Jerusalem. Nehemiah 2 shows us that he did so. First, verse 1 explains that he did not approach the king until the month of Nisan (April), which was four months after he first heard the news of Jerusalem’s dire condition during the month of Chislev (December; see 1:1–3). He gave time to prayer—Nehemiah 1:4 says that he spent many days continually fasting and praying before the Lord. And he did this until he found the right moment to address the problem with Artaxerxes. In 1:11, Nehemiah asks for favor “today,” indicating that the prayer in chapter 1, while reflecting what he repeatedly said to God between Nisan and Chislev, was actually uttered the day he approached the king.
Second, Nehemiah did not come directly to the king with his request but waited for the ruler to inquire into what was wrong with him (2:1–2). The sadness Nehemiah felt was evident to Artaxerxes, and perhaps he even used mannerisms to make sure that the king could see his grief. If Nehemiah had directly initiated conversation regarding Jerusalem, the king might have suspected ulterior motives, that Nehemiah wanted to fortify the city in order to prepare for a Jewish rebellion. But Nehemiah’s allowing the king to see his true concern for the Jews’ welfare made Artaxerxes more favorably disposed to grant Nehemiah’s request.
Nehemiah’s approach worked, for the king commissioned him to return to Jerusalem to rebuild it (vv. 3–8). God blessed his wise approach and answered his prayer for success.