Herodotus called it “the very honorable office” (III:34), referring to the office of cup-bearer. Nehemiah held such an office for Artaxerxes Longimanus (1:11; 2:1). The word translated “cupbearer” here is also elsewhere translated “butler” (i.e., Gen. 40:1). The person who held this office had to be imminently trustworthy for the life of the king was in his hands. Often the cupbearer would be required to taste the drink before it was served so no one could poison the king. Because he was in this trusted position, he had a close relationship to both the king and queen (2:6).
In 446 B. C., Nehemiah received word from Hanani, one of his brethren, about the horrid condition of those Jews still in Jerusalem (1:2,3). It so disturbed Nehemiah that it visibly saddened his countenance and this change was noticeable to the king, Artaxerxes, who permitted Nehemiah his request to go to Jerusalem and build it up (2:5). Nehemiah also gained a military escort and authority from the king to retrieve timber from the royal forests to use in the rebuilding of the Gate and walls of Jerusalem (2:7-9).
Upon his arrival at Jerusalem, after just a full day of rest (2:11), Nehemiah and a few other men, perhaps attendants or guides, went out under cover of night and surveyed the ruins of the walls of Jerusalem. He saw the broken down walls and the gates which had been burned with fire. There he saw the gate of the valley on the south western side of Jerusalem, about fifteen hundred feet before the Dung Gate (3:13). King Uzziah had once built towers there and fortified this gate (II Chron. 26:9). From this gate at that time one could go toward the place later identified in the New Testament as Calvary (Luke 23:33).
At the southern tip, he saw the dung port or the rubbish gate, which led down to the valley of Hinnom, which was the trash dump of the city, right before Tophet, where unfaithful Jews and pagans would burn their children in the fire to false gods (cf., Jer. 7:31,32). Going on further, he saw the gate of the fountain, which was the conduit Hezekiah made which fed the pool of Siloam (II Kings 20:20), where later Jesus gave sight to the man born blind (John 9:6,7). He then, still under cover of the night, finished his survey with the king’s pool or the Pool of Siloam.
Up to this point, Nehemiah had remained silent about his mission. When he finally told the rulers, priests, nobles and people of his purpose, and told them how God had blessed him, he encouraged them, “Come, let us build up the wall of Jerusalem that we be no more a reproach” (2:17). Upon hearing this, they said “Let us rise up an build” and they strengthened their hand for this good work. However, there were forces at work to prevent the walls from being rebuilt.
Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem formed a triad of opposition against Nehemiah. It grieved them greatly that someone would come to Jerusalem seeking to restore it (2:10). Sanballat was a Moabite from the city of Horonaim. Besides being mentioned here, he is mentioned in extra-biblical literature as the governor of Samaria. He was, however, related by marriage to Eliashib the High Priest (13:28). His name means “Sin gives life.” The Sin mentioned here is an Assyrian moon god. Tobiah was probably Sanballat’s Ammonite slave and perhaps Nehemiah’s chief enemy (cf. 6:14). Eliashib had made room for Tobiah in the temple room that had held temple utensils and offerings. And Geshem was an Arabian, who, probably as a chief of a marauding tribe, had an interest in seeing the Jews and their city kept at bay.
These three intended on stopping the work of Nehemiah through whatever means was available to them. At first, they tried ridicule–“they laughed us to scorn” (2:19), hoping this would discourage the workers. But Nehemiah simply reminded them that God was behind his work and that they had “no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem” (2:19). Even through all their mocking, the work continued “for the people had a mind to work” (4:6). When these enemies plotted to attack, Nehemiah had them ready and “with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon” (4:17). They attempted to kill Nehemiah on he plains of Ono and halt the work by appeals to Artaxerxes, but to no avail.
Nehemiah had completed the monumental task of repairing the wall in a mere fifty-two days (6:15). After this work was completed, Ezra the scribe came forward and read the law unto the people from a pulpit of wood (8:1-8). Nehemiah instituted some other reforms among the people and with the conclusion of his work and the prophecies of Malachi the history of the Old Testament comes to a close.
Eric L. Padgett