As I’ve mentioned earlier, the book of Ezra, at least by the interpretation I’ve been going by (namely that Xerxes and Artaxerxes are Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I respectively), is not chronological. And chapter 4 of Ezra gives us the background to the beginning of Nehemiah.
After Ezra came to Jerusalem with the initial blessing of Artaxerxes, opposition arose. Ezra was told by Artaxerxes to use the gold and silver he had given them in order to buy things for their sacrifices at the temple. Artaxerxes then told Ezra that whatever was left over could be used for whatever seemed best to them (Ezra 7:15-18).
Under Ezra, the people then started to rebuild the walls and foundations of Jerusalem using the money that Artaxerxes had given them. But opposition arose. The enemies of the Jews sent a letter to Artaxerxes telling him that if they were to complete these walls, they would rebel against Persia. They then pointed to Israel’s “history of sedition,” and requested that Artaxerxes look for himself in the Persian records (Ezra 4:14-15).
Artaxerxes did look, and came to the conclusion that the Jews would be a threat if they rebuilt their walls, and so he immediately commanded a stop to this work.
And so we come to Nehemiah. Years had passed, but Artaxerxes was still on the throne, and the walls that Ezra had been building up were now torn down, and the gates were also burnt down leaving the Jews vulnerable to any attacks by their enemies.
Nehemiah was a Jew who was a cupbearer to the king. Basically, he brought wine to the king, and tasted it before giving it to the king to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. Although it may seem a simple job, as a cupbearer, he was considered a high official in the court, and obviously had frequent access to the king. Also, because of the position of trust he was in, he was often taken into the king’s confidence and had influence with the king.
One day Nehemiah’s brother came with news from Jerusalem about the state of trouble the people were in. And when Nehemiah heard this, he wept, prayed, and fasted before God. He confessed the sin of his people, and prayed for favor with the king, namely that his heart towards the Jewish nation would be changed.
This was no small prayer. It was Artaxerxes after all that had ordered the stoppage of the work on the walls.
Yet God answered. Artaxerxes noticed Nehemiah’s troubled face and asked him what was wrong. Nehemiah was frightened because it was actually a capital offense to come before the king with less than a cheerful face. But because of the respect that Artaxerxes had for Nehemiah, he was concerned for his well-being.
With that, Nehemiah breathed a quick prayer for help (I hardly think he prayed for an hour before the king before presenting his request) and told him about the situation in Jerusalem.
And God gave Nehemiah favor in Artaxerxes’ eyes. What changed Artaxerxes’ heart? There’s no explanation for it except that God had heard Nehemiah’s prayer. Perhaps having seen Nehemiah’s humble and loyal service over the years helped sway him. Maybe he felt with Nehemiah in charge of the situation, rebellion would not happen after all. Surely this highly trusted Jew would not make this request if he thought rebellion would be the result. And with that, Artaxerxes gave his blessing.
What can we get from this? I think two things. First, what may seem insignificant to the kingdom of God can turn out to be very significant. If Nehemiah had proven himself untrustworthy to the king in his position as cupbearer, there’s no way Artaxerxes would have trusted him when he made his request. But because Nehemiah had been faithful and loyal as his servant, Artaxerxes trusted him.
You may think that what you’re doing at your job has nothing to do with God’s kingdom. But by serving faithfully, loyally, and with excellence, you show the people around you what a Christian is, and it will make an impact. If on the other hand you are unfaithful, and give less than your best, it will have a negative impact on how people view God.
Second, prayer has the power to change hearts. You may look at your husband, your wife, your boss, or the other people around you and think it’s impossible for God to work in them. But if you pray for them, and you live a consistent example of Christ to them, it gives God a free hand to work in their hearts.
Is there someone in your life that you long to see change in? Be an example to them of what a follower of Christ is. Pray for them. And you will see God work in their lives.