Wednesday of Week 26 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Nehemiah 2:1-8

Today we begin some readings from the Book of Nehemiah. This is a historical, not a prophetic, book like Haggai and Zechariah. Nehemiah is paired with Ezra and all these books come from the same period.

The Remnant of God’s People has returned from exile in Babylon and is trying to re-establish Jerusalem spiritually, socially and materially. Speaking specifically of Nehemiah, the Jerusalem Bible in its introduction says:

“Nehemiah, though inspired by the same ideals [as Ezra], acts in a different sphere, restoring and repopulating Jerusalem, and making it possible and attractive for its citizens to lead a national life. The record he has left us, more intimate than that of Ezra, reveals a vivid and human personality, ungrudging of effort yet prudent and deliberate, trusting in God, whose help he seeks in frequent prayer. Behind him he left a noble memory, and Ben Sirach sings the praises of him who ‘rebuilt our walls which lay in ruins’ (Sir 49:13). Nehemiah, as he tells us, was a Jew and a cup bearer for the king of Persia.”

The passage also reveals a man of great gentleness and courtesy and a deeply spiritual person. No wonder the king appreciated his services.

It might help to understand today’s reading to give a brief summary of what leads up to it. While Nehemiah was in the Persian city of Susa, a fellow-Jew came to him and described the plight of the Jews who had managed to return to Jerusalem. He was told they were in a very bad and demoralised condition. The walls of the city were in ruins and the gates had been burned down.

On hearing this, Nehemiah broke down and wept. He mourned, fasted and prayed to his God on behalf of his people. He admits to God that they have behaved very badly and have failed miserably in observing the Law they had received through Moses. He then reminds God of his promise: if the people misbehave, they will be scattered everywhere but, if they return to God and keep his commandments, he will bring them back from even the remotest parts.

The reading opens in the month of Nisan, in the 20th year of King Artaxerxes, that is, March-April 445 BC. The time is a little later (though belonging to the same historical period) than that of Ezra, Haggai and Zechariah, whose books we have just been reading.

As the king’s cup bearer, Nehemiah has the right to bring wine to the king. It is four months since he was first told of the plight of his people. The delay in approaching the king has been variously explained: the king may have been in his winter palace in Babylon; he may not have been in the right mood; even though Nehemiah was clearly a court favourite, diplomacy made him bide his time in making his approach.

As he brought the wine to the king, the king commented that he had never seen Nehemiah so depressed before. No matter what one’s personal problems were, the king’s servants would be expected to keep their feelings to themselves and to display a cheerful disposition in the royal presence.

The king shrewdly guesses the source of the problem. As Nehemiah is clearly in good health, his sadness must come from the heart. Nehemiah is alarmed that his inner feelings are so obvious, but then boldly tells the king the reason for his depression:

May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste and its gates have been destroyed by fire?

Nehemiah does not mention Jerusalem by name. He may have wished to arouse the king’s sympathy by stressing first the desecration of ancestral tombs, something the king, from his own culture, could sympathise with. When the king asks him what Nehemiah wants him to do, Nehemiah first makes a short, spontaneous prayer to his God. One of Nehemiah’s striking characteristics in this book is his frequent recourse to prayer. He then makes his bold request:

If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.

Again he does not mention Jerusalem by name but emphasises that the city is where his ancestors are buried. The king – with the queen sitting beside him – asks:

How long will you be gone, and when will you return?

The mention of the queen here is probably significant. The king is clearly fond of Nehemiah; perhaps the queen even more so. And Nehemiah may have timed his approach when he knew the queen would also be present. Ctesias, a Greek who lived at the Persian court, informs us that the name of Artaxerxes’ queen was Damaspia and that the king had at least three concubines. Like Esther, Damaspia may have used her influence with the king (see Esther 5). The Persian court was notorious for the great influence exercised by the royal women. Especially domineering was Amestris, the cruel wife of Xerxes and mother of Artarxerxes I.

As soon as Nehemiah has indicated how long his mission would take, the king gives his immediate approval. Nehemiah probably asked for a brief leave of absence, which he then had extended.

We can infer from Nehemiah 5:14 that he spent 12 years on his first term as governor of Judah. In the 32nd year of Artaxerxes, Nehemiah returned to report to the king and then came back to Judah for a second term (Neh 13:6-7). Next, Nehemiah asks for guarantees of protection from various officials with whom he will have to deal on the way to his mission:

If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah?

A contemporary document from Arsames, the satrap of Egypt who was at the Persian court, to one of his officers who was returning to Egypt orders Persian officials to provide him with food and drink on the stages of his journey.

‘Transeuphrates’ literally means ‘on the other [i.e. western side] of the River Euphrates’. From the Palestinian point of view the land “beyond the river” was Mesopotamia. From the Mesopotamian point of view the land “beyond the River” included the areas of Aram, Phoenicia and Palestine. The Persians also called this area Athura.

Nehemiah also requests that an order be given to the keeper of the king’s forest to supply him with timber for the beams of the gates of the citadel, the city walls, and for the house which Nehemiah will need for his residence. The Hebrew for ‘king’s forest’ is pardes, a loanword from Old Persian meaning ‘enclosure’, a pleasant retreat or park. The word occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament only in Ecclesiastes 2:5 (“parks”) and the Song of Songs 4:13 (“orchard”).

In the Septuagint, the Greek transliteration paradeisos is used here. In the period between the Old and New Testaments, the word acquired the sense of the abode of the blessed dead, i.e. “paradise”. It appears three times in the New Testament (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor 12:4; Rev 2:7).

As to the location of the “king’s forest”, some believe that it was in Lebanon, which was famed for its forests of cedars and other coniferous trees. But a more plausible suggestion is that it should be identified with Solomon’s gardens at Etham, about 10 km south of Jerusalem (see Josephus, Antiquities, 8.7.3). For the city gates, costly imported cedars from Lebanon would not be used but rather indigenous oak, poplar or terebinth.

The “citadel” probably refers to the fortress north of the Temple, the forerunner of the Antonia fortress built by Herod the Great (Josephus, Antiquities). This is probably where Jesus was arraigned before Pontius Pilate (John 18:28) and later Paul would be held there (Acts 22:24). All these requests were granted and Nehemiah attributed this to the kindly hand of God watching over him.

The reading again indicates the benevolent attitude of the “pagan” kings of Persia towards God’s people. As Christians, we know that many of the works we are involved in could not continue without the help of many non-Christian people who share generously of themselves and their goods. Let us today thank God for these people and ask him to bless them.

It will also help us to understand that God’s truth and goodness can be found anywhere. It is important for us to be able to recognise it wherever we see it. Jesus’ words that “the Kingdom of God is near” has many meanings. For those with eyes to see, God’s Kingdom can be discerned everywhere.We might also imitate Nehemiah in his seeing the hand of God in everything he experiences and, before all our decisions, lay them before God first in prayer.

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