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Nehemiah’s job is to taste the king’s wine and food, checking for poison. Because of these duties, Nehemiah is constantly needed, so he must seek God’s favor so that Artaxerxes I will allow him to travel to Jerusalem.

Four months later, in the spring month of Nisan at the start of our New Year, Artaxerxes had been king 20 years. At a feast, wine was brought to him, and when it had passed my examinations, I gave it to him. Now, you must understand that in the presence of the king it is not my custom to openly express emotion, especially sadness.

Artaxerxes (to Nehemiah): You look disturbed. I know you are not ill. The sadness I see in you is the sadness of the heart. What is wrong?

As I stood there before the king I was very afraid.

Nehemiah: May your life and reign extend forever, King!

Why should my face look anything but sad? My homeland is destroyed; my city is a heap of rubble; its once-mighty gates are nothing more than charred tinder. This is the place where my ancestors are supposed to be at rest, but the very ground where they lie is ruined!

Artaxerxes: What is it you want?

All at once, I prayed to the God of heaven and made my request to the king.

Nehemiah (to God and Artaxerxes): If I have won your favor, my king, and if it is your pleasure, send me to the city where my ancestors are buried. Let me rebuild the city in Judah.

With his queen sitting beside him, the king continued to probe.

Artaxerxes: How long will your journey take, and when may I look for your return?

Then I knew: I had received his blessing. He was sending me. In response to his question, I set a time.

Nehemiah (to the king): If it continues to please you, send me with letters bearing your name. Send me to those men you have appointed to govern the lands beyond the Euphrates River. Then I can be assured I will be safe, escorted to the borders of Judah by your armies. And may I also ask you for a letter to the warden of your forests, Asaph; he will supply timber to me so that I can build gates into the fortress around the temple mount, gates and watchtowers in the walls around the city, and a house for myself.

My True God had heard my prayers and rested His hand of favor and love upon me. The king gave me everything I asked for!

And so I left, journeying to see the governors of the lands beyond the Euphrates River. I gave them the letters the king sent with me. Moreover, I traveled in the company of the king’s army, surrounded by the officers and cavalry. 10 In fact, when Sanballat (the Horonite who governed Samaria) and Tobiah (the Ammonite official under him there) heard about what was happening, they were unnerved, distressed that someone was seeking the good of the Israelites left in the land.

When the Assyrians conquered Israel’s Northern Kingdom in 722 b.c., the Samaritans were exiled to other Assyrian provinces, and other Assyrian prisoners were settled in Samaria. Based on the etymology of their names, Sanballat’s family is probably one of those relocated families who adopted the worship of the Eternal once they moved to Samaria.

Now, almost 300 years later, Sanballat is the first of his family appointed governor of Samaria under the Persians. Following 15 years of political unrest, he has managed to form a loose federation of Persian provinces in the area that includes Jerusalem. Tobiah is a Persian official who has taken care of Jerusalem until a new governor arrived. Now that Nehemiah has arrived, Sanballat’s power over Jerusalem is uncertain. Nehemiah has not agreed to be part of his federation, so Jerusalem could become a threat to it.

11 Nevertheless, my journey continued until I reached Jerusalem. After three days in the city, 12 under the cover of darkness, I was accompanied by a small group of men. The True God had placed a secret plan on my heart, and there I had left it hidden until the time was right. No one knew what it was I imagined for Jerusalem. With my men walking beside me, I mounted and rode around the city. 13 At night I went out of Jerusalem through the valley gate, heading toward the dragon well and down to the potsherd gate where the city dumps its trash. As we went, we examined the walls of Jerusalem: they were as bad as we had heard. No stones remained standing, and fire had consumed the gates. 14 We continued on toward the fountain gate and the pool of the king, but amid the rubble I was unable to continue riding—there was simply no room— 15 and so I dismounted and followed along the valley, still under the cover of night, examining the wall as I went. Finally I had seen enough and turned back toward the valley gate, reentering the city the way I had left. 16 Those who were in charge of Jerusalem did not know where I had gone, much less what I was up to. I had said nothing to anyone—even those who would shortly be doing the work of rebuilding. Everyone was in the dark: common Jews, priests, nobles, and leaders alike.

Nehemiah (to all the Jews): 17 Our trouble is obvious: The wall of Jerusalem has been reduced to piles of rock, and its gates consumed by flame. Let us begin by rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, and in doing so, we will demolish our disgrace because of defeat and exile.

18 I told them how my True God had used His power to favor me, evidenced by what the king had said to me.

Jews: Get up now! It is time to rebuild.

And so they began the good work. 19 Our adversaries lost no time, either. Joining Samaritan Governor Sanballat (the Horonite) and Official Tobiah (the Ammonite) was an Arab named Geshem. When they heard of our plans, they mocked and ridiculed us.

Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem: What do you think you are doing? Are you not rebelling against the king again?

Nehemiah: 20 The True God of heaven will give us success. We are His people, servants who will begin the work of rebuilding our city and this wall. But you have no share in this work because Jerusalem is not yours—civically, legally, or religiously.