I T was considered a post of great honour in Babylon, at the palace of Shushan, to be cupbearer to the king, to fill the golden goblet with the king's special wine, and to serve him at the royal table. Not only must the cupbearer be an honourable and trustworthy man, but something else also was required of him—he must always show a cheerful face when on duty, for it was thought to be unlucky if sad looks should meet the king's eye.
Now Nehemiah, one of the captive Jews, was cupbearer to the King of Babylon when this story begins. He was a great favourite at court, and did his service cheerfully, although at times his heart was sad when he thought of his own land, and the ruin of his beloved city, Jerusalem.
Very little news ever reached him of that far-away city; but one day a little company of Jews arrived, who brought tidings from Jerusalem, and among them was a near relation of Nehemiah, the king's cupbearer.
It was a day of great excitement for all the Jews in the city: news from home was as welcome as water to a parched land. But this news, alas! brought no refreshing joyfulness. It was a sad account which the men gave of their beloved land. Sorrow and want were everywhere. Jerusalem was laid in ruins, the walls broken down, and the gates burned. It stood there defenceless against any enemy that cared to attack it.
As Nehemiah listened to all this he bowed his head and wept. But what was the use of tears? There was a better thing to do: he would pray to God for help. And as he prayed a splendid plan came into his head.
The king, Artaxerxes, was seated upon his golden couch, and the queen sat beside him, in the great hall whose pavement was of red and blue and white marble. White and blue curtains were fastened by purple cords and silver rings to the marble pillars. From the gardens came the scent of roses and the breath of orange blossoms. Everything was beautiful and pleasing in the king's sight. Only Nehemiah, the king's cupbearer, was at fault. He came forward to present the golden cup, and the king frowned as he looked upon him.
"Why is thy countenance sad?" he asked at once, for Nehemiah had never looked like that before.
For a moment fear clutched at Nehemiah's heart—it was dangerous
to offend the king in the smallest matter; but he answered
"Let the king live for ever," he said. "Why should not my countenance be sad, when Jerusalem, my city, is in ruins, her walls broken down, and her gates burned?"
This was surely the time to speak of his great plan, and in his heart he prayed to God to teach him what words to use, as the king went on to ask him what it was he wanted.
"If it please the king," he said, "that thou wouldest send me unto my own city, that I may build up its walls."
It was a bold thing to ask; but the very boldness of the cupbearer seemed to please the king, and his request was granted. And not only was Nehemiah allowed to go, but he was given letters of safe conduct, and a written order that he should have all the wood he needed from the king's forest for the building which he had planned.
It was a big work for one man to set out to do. But no difficulties daunted Nehemiah: it was work for his country and his God, and that thought strengthened his arm and filled his heart with courage. He had no use for the words "fear" or "failure."
After a long journey across desert and plain, he at last arrived at the ruined city, and found it in even a worse state than he had expected. For three days he rested, and then late at night he secretly and silently slipped out of the city, and went all round its broken-down walls. There, in the dim starlight, he saw the great piles of rubbish lying in dark heaps; the black gaps where no gates stood spoke to him of the desolation of the city; but the sight, instead of discouraging him, only made him keen to begin the work. He had told no one in the city yet what he had come to do; but next day he called all the Jews together, and laid his plans before them.
It is wonderful what one man's enthusiasm can do. All the men who listened to Nehemiah were soon almost as anxious to build up the walls as he was. As they listened to his words, all their love for their country and pride in their city began to stir in their hearts, and they cried out as with one voice, "Let us rise up and build."
"So built we the wall."
Of course, the enemies who lived amongst them and in the country round about were watching what was going on, and they laughed when they heard of the great plan. What could this little handful of weak people do?
But they forgot that behind their weak hands was the strong arm of God, and the stout heart of his servant Nehemiah, who replied to their mocking words the calm assurance, "The God of Heaven, He will prosper us."
And before long their enemies saw that they had mocked too soon. Day by day the walls grew higher and higher. Nehemiah's plan worked well. Everybody was given his own special part to build, and worked with all his might. Even the women helped. The daughters of one of the rulers of the city were toiling there. Then, as now, the women knew that to serve their country was a better thing than to live in dainty ease—that toil-worn, roughened hands were a badge of honour in the great service.
The mocking enemies who watched the work began to be uneasy. The city would soon be a stronghold if this went on. Some plot must be laid to stop the work, some cunning plan of attack thought out to make it a failure.
But they little knew Nehemiah. He was just as good a soldier and general as he was a planner and builder, and he knew how to put courage into the hearts of the people. "Be not ye afraid of them," his voice rang out: "remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses."
Then he divided the people into two companies: one half to be regular soldiers, ready to fight whenever the enemy attacked, and the other half to go steadily on with the building, but with weapons ready too. The men who worked only with one hand held a sword in the other, and those who needed both hands for their work had their swords fastened to their sides.
From the first faint light of dawn to the time when the stars began to come out the people worked, and all night long they watched and waited, ready at the sound of the trumpet call to assemble for the attack and beat back the enemy.
In vain, too, the enemy tried to set a trap for Nehemiah. They pretended to be friendly and to want peace, and they begged him to come and talk things over with them, meaning that he should never return; but he only answered that he was too busy—it was a time for work, not talk. Every plan failed, and always the walls rose higher and higher.
It was not only the city walls which Nehemiah made strong, but during the time the work went on he was trying also to make the people stronger and better, and more fit for victory when it should come. He bade the rich people help the poor, instead of grinding them down; he showed all the workers how they might deny themselves for the common good, and how they should give up everything that hindered the work and was displeasing to God.
No wonder with such a leader the day of victory would not be far off. In a wonderfully short time the walls were finished, the gates were put up, and Jerusalem was a strong and fortified city once more.
Then Nehemiah ordered a great feast should be held—a feast of dedication, or the giving of the walls to God. Two processions of joyful people were formed, and as they swept round under the strong walls, and met in the Temple to give thanks to God, a song of praise and great rejoicing went up, which swelled to such a mighty burst of sound, that it echoed far over the land, and was heard outside the city walls.
So Nehemiah proved what it was possible for a man to do when strengthened by the call of duty to serve his country and his God.