HILE the good scribe Ezra was at work finding the books of the Bible, and copying them, and teaching them, another great man was helping God's people in another way. This man was Nehemiah. He was a nobleman of high rank at the court of the great King Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes reigned after Ahasuerus, of whom we read in the story of the beautiful Queen Esther (Story 106).
Nehemiah was "the cup-bearer" to the king of Persia at Shushan. It was his office to take charge of all the wine that was used at the king's table, to pour it out and hand the cup to the king. This was an important office, for he saw the king every day at his meals, and could speak with him, as very few of even the highest princes could speak. Then, too, the life of the king was in his hands, for if he were an enemy he could have allowed poison to be put into the wine to kill the king. So the cup-bearer was always a man whom the king could trust as his friend.
Nehemiah was a Jew, and, like all the Jews, felt a great love for Jerusalem. At one time a Jew named Hanani, and certain of his friends who had come from Jerusalem, visited Nehemiah. Nehemiah asked them, "How are the Jews in Jerusalem doing? How does the city look?"
And they answered, "The people who are living in the land of Judea are very poor, and are looked down upon by all around them. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire."
When Nehemiah heard this he was filled with sorrow for his city and his people. After the Jews left him he sat down for days, and would eat nothing. He fasted, and wept, and prayed. He said, "O Lord God of heaven, the great God, who keeps his promises to those who love him and do his will; hear, O Lord, my prayer for the people of Israel, thy servants. We have done very wickedly, O Lord, and because of our sins thou hast scattered us among the nations. Now, O Lord, give me grace this day in the sight of this man, the king of Persia, and may the king help me to do good and to help my people in the land of Israel."
A few days after this Nehemiah was standing beside the king's table, while the king and queen were seated at their meal. As he poured out the wine the king saw that his face was sad, which was not usual, for Nehemiah was of cheerful spirit, and generally showed a happy face. The king said to him, "Nehemiah, why do you look so sad? You do not seem to be sick. I am sure that there is something that gives you trouble. What is it? Tell me."
Then Nehemiah was afraid that the king might be displeased with him, but he said, "Let the king live for ever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city where my fathers are buried lies waste, with its walls broken down, and its gates burned with fire?"
The king said, "Do you wish to ask of me any favor? Tell me what I can do to help you."
Then Nehemiah lifted up a silent prayer to God, and said, "May it please the king, I would be glad if you would send me to Jerusalem, in the land of Judah, with an order to build the walls."
The king said, "How long will the journey be? And when will you come back?"
Nehemiah fixed upon a time, and told the king how long it would be, and he asked also that he might have letters to the men who ruled the different provinces through which he would pass, for them to give him a safe journey; and also a letter to the keeper of the king's forest, to give him wood for the beams of a house which he wished to build, and for repairing the Temple, and for building the wall. The king was kind to Nehemiah, and he gave him all that he asked.
Nehemiah the cup-bearer before the king and queen
Nehemiah, with a company of horsemen and many friends, made the long journey of almost a thousand miles to Jerusalem. All the people were glad to have a visit from a man of such high rank, and the whole city rejoiced at his coming. But Nehemiah was distressed as he saw how poor and mean and helpless the city lay.
One night, without telling any of the men in the city his purpose, he rose up with a few of his friends, and by the light of the moon rode on his horse around the city. There he saw in how many places the walls were mere heaps of ruins, and gates were broken down and burned. He found great heaps of ashes, and piles of stone, so that in some places his horse could not walk over them. The next day he called together the rulers of the city and the chief priests, and he said to them, "You see how poor and helpless this city lies, without walls, or gates, and open to all its enemies. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, so that no longer other people may look upon us with contempt." Then he told them how God had heard his prayer, and had made the king friendly, and had sent gifts to help them. Then the people and the rulers said, "Let us rise up and build the wall!" So at once they began the work. Each family in Jerusalem agreed to build a part of the wall. The high-priest said that he would build one of the gates, and the wall beside it to a certain tower. Some of the rich men built a long space, and others did very little, and some would do nothing. One man built just as much of the wall as would stand in front of his house, and no more, and another man only as much as fronted upon his own room. One man and his daughters hired workers to build; the goldsmiths built some, and so did the apothecaries, the men who sold medicines; and the merchants built a part. Almost all the men of the city, and some of the women, took part in the building, for the people had a mind to work.
Soon the news went abroad through Judea and the lands around, that the walls of Jerusalem were rising from their ruins. There were many who were far from pleased as they heard this, for they hated the Jews and their God, and they did not wish to see Jerusalem strong, as it had been of old. The leader of these enemies was a man named Sanballat, who came from Samaria, where all the people were jealous of the Jews.
"What are these feeble Jews doing?" said Sanballat. "Do they intend to make their city strong? Will they pile up stones out of the rubbish of the burned city?"
And his servant Tobiah was with him, saying, "Why, if a fox should go up, he could break down their little wall!"
The Arabians from the desert, and the Philistines from Ashdod on the plain, and the Ammonites from the east of Jordan, saw that if the wall should be built they could no more rob and plunder the city. They tried to form an army to come against the city and stop building. But Nehemiah prayed to God for help, and he chose watchmen who should go around the wall, and look out for the coming of the enemies. Half of Nehemiah's men worked on the wall, and the other half held the bows, and spears, and armor of the workers. And in some places a man would hold a spear in one hand while he spread mortar with the other. At other places men worked with their swords hanging at one side, ready for the fight any moment.
Nehemiah rode on his horse around the wall, and his servant walked beside him with a trumpet. He said, "The work is large, and you are apart from each other. Whenever you hear the sound of the trumpet, leave your work, take your arms, and go to the place where it sounds; and there the Lord will fight for us."
But their enemies were not strong enough to fight the Jews; so Sanballat, and Tobiah, and another of their leaders named Geshem, sent a letter to Nehemiah, saying, "Come and meet us in one of the villages on the plain near the Great Sea, and let us talk over this matter."
Now Nehemiah knew that to go to this place and then come back again to Jerusalem would take more than a week; and he sent answer thus, "I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down; why should the work stop, while I leave it, to come down and talk with you?"
Over and over again they sent for Nehemiah, but he refused to come. Finally, Sanballat sent a letter, with this message:
"It is told among all the people, and Geshem says it is a fact, that you are building this city to rebel against the king of Persia, and to set up a kingdom of your own. Come now, and let us talk with you, or trouble may come to you."
Nehemiah wrote back, "You know very well, that there is no truth in all these stories. You have made them up yourselves."
Some of the Jews in the city were friendly to these enemies outside, and these men tried to frighten Nehemiah. One of them made believe that he was a prophet, and said to Nehemiah, "Go into the Temple and hide, for in the night your enemies will come to kill you!"
"Should such a man as I am run away and hide himself?" said Nehemiah. "No; I will not go."
So earnestly did the men of Judah work that in fifty-two days after the work was begun it was finished, and the gates were hung, and guards were placed within, so that no enemies might enter. Thus Jerusalem began to rise from its weakness and helplessness, and once more to be a strong city.