In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, 2 so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid–Nehemiah 2:1-2
Nehemiah wasn’t just “afraid”. Nehemiah wasn’t just “much afraid”. Nehemiah was VERY-MUCH-AFRAID! This emotional reaction of fear is a clue for us! This statement is packed with background information just waiting to be dug out for the purpose of revealing liberating truth. Let’s investigate!
“I was very much afraid”. Nehemiah was actually terrified, and I believe he was literally afraid for his very life! We will see that both his actions and words towards Artaxerxes had the potential to put his neck on the chopping block.
WHAT CAUSED NEHEMIAH TO BE SO SUDDENLY GRIPPED WITH FEAR?
1) Members of the King’s Court were expected to maintain a cheery disposition in the King’s presence. Anything less was not tolerated. In the Lange Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, he states, “The exactions of Persian monarchs would not endure any independence of conduct in their presence. Everybody was expected to reflect the sunlight of the king’s majesty”. This was a line of conduct that you didn’t want to cross. It could result in a death sentence.
Here’s something even more interesting…
2) Years before, King Artaxerxes had received a letter about Jerusalem saying, “you will find that this city is a rebellious city, troublesome to kings and provinces, a place with a long history of sedition. That is why this city was destroyed. 16 We inform the king that if this city is built and its walls are restored, you will be left with nothing in Trans-Euphrates!”–Ezra 4:15-16
What was Artaxerxes response to this letter? “Now issue an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order!”–Ezra 4:21. Artaxerxes clearly considered Jerusalem to be a rebel enemy (Ezra 4:19). By the order of Artaxerxes, the walls continued to lay in ruin. Therefore, Artaxerxes was responsible for the condition that Nehemiah was grieving over. Nehemiah’s grief could be viewed as being in direct opposition to the King, and seen as the actions of an enemy.
Now back to the story:
So, was Nehemiah now being called out by the King? When the King says, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart”, is he being compassionate? Maybe the King is worried that the wine is tainted and has had a negative effect on Nehemiah? Or is the King making a case that Nehemiah was breaking the rules? If the King was speaking in sympathetic tones, then why would Nehemiah be suddenly sore afraid if the tone was simply compassionate? You have to look at cause-and-effect. Nehemiah was “very much afraid”; so, it makes me wonder if the King was calling him out for looking depressed in his court and wants an answer.
The facts: Nehemiah was caught red-faced disobeying the rules of conduct in the court, and he was about to ask the King to overturn his previous decision about stopping the restoration of the walls. It was a double death sentence! Are you beginning to understand the dire circumstances that Nehemiah was facing? Are you beginning to catch the emotional strain of this situation? Are you beginning to see why he was VERY-MUCH-AFRAID? It may be good to stop reading for a moment and let it sink in.
BEING SORE AFRAID WAS NOT THE END OF THE STORY FOR NEHEMIAH!
Nehemiah was sorely afraid. Do you know what this means? It means that what Nehemiah did next was highly courageous!
“I was very much afraid, BUT I said to the king…”
Nehemiah does something so bold and courageous. I imagine Nehemiah emotionally calculated that he would likely die ( a sound reason for being sorely afraid), but steps out and does the unthinkable. He openly confesses his sorrow in spite of the rules of the court. He doesn’t hide it but decides to be real about his feelings, regardless of the outcome! He states openly that he is sad about the ruined walls of Jerusalem. Everyone knows that Artaxerxes let the walls stay in ruin, and Nehemiah is complaining directly to the King. Nehemiah is now expressing grief over a city that the King had written down as being a rebellious enemy! Please understand that Nehemiah speaks very respectfully, yet assertively. It is one of the gutsiest confrontations in the bible. Without God’s favor upon Nehemiah (which resulted in a trusted relationship with the King), the next words in scripture would probably be, “Off with his head”.
“Courage is not the absence of fear but rather requires fear. Courage is the willingness to act in spite of your fear.”– Michael Hyatt
“Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway”–John Wayne
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear”–Nelson Mandela
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along”–Eleanor Roosevelt
“When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?”–King David of Israel
What was the direct result of Nehemiah’s courageous act? It lead to unbridled, unhindered, and massive provision. The most powerful man in the world at that time turned to Nehemiah and said these impactful, empowering words: WHAT WOULD YOU REQUEST?
Nehemiah just went from being “very much afraid” to winning the lottery! Nehemiah laid his very life on the line for the people of God in Jerusalem and came away with an abundant outcome. I reminds me of something that Jesus said:
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.