Nehemiah: The Need is the Call
By: Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee
While being “cupbearer” sounds like little more than a glorified waiter, in ancient times it was far more important. Nehemiah’s primary duty was to protect by being the first to taste any food or drink served to the king to guard against poisoning. Just knowing that someone would intercept that means of assassination reduced the efforts to try, so it wasn’t quite as dangerous as it sounds. Beyond that, because the cupbearer was always in the king’s presence, he could be on friendly terms with the king. Because he was there to listen in on even the most intimate and secret conversations, a cupbearer often became a trusted advisor. While anyone could be a taster, that nearby advisor was a role that made the cupbearer highly influential and important in the palace.
What was even more fascinating is that Nehemiah, as a Jew, was considered a foreigner serving in this coveted position. As told in the Book of Esther, the Jews as a people were almost destroyed in a genocide but now, not only had Esther become queen and Mordecai become prime minister, but Nehemiah was now cupbearer.
But despite his high position in the palace, like most Jews that were taken captive by the Babylonians and now serving under the Persians, his heart longed for the Promised Land that now lay in ruins. Some of the Jews had made their way back to rebuild Jerusalem and inhabit what had been the nation of Israel. Their lack of progress was brought into sharp focus when Nehemiah heard news of the condition of things back home. Hanani reported, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (Nehemiah 1:3). A triumphant troop had marched back to rebuild but instead the place remained in ruins.
Nehemiah was heartbroken. He went before the Lord, pleading with Him to provide deliverance for His people. Somewhere along the way, he quit praying for “them,” and started praying for “us.” His security, his prestige, his fame didn’t mean anything. There was nothing more important than that this need be met and increasingly, Nehemiah realized that God meant for him to step up and do something about it. This was no promotion. It was the road of sacrifice paved with opposition and hardship. But the urgency of the task caused Nehemiah to risk everything.
In ancient days, to appear sad or depressed in front of the king was to risk your life. Yet, the heart burden for Nehemiah was so great, he could not hide it. He recorded, “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, but I said to the king, ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’” (Nehemiah 2:2-3). Nehemiah might have signed his own death warrant but instead, God spoke to this pagan king and the doors were opened. How often have people given up without trying because they were concerned with how people would react? If God has laid it on your heart, trust Him to move the unmovable for His own glory.
When Nehemiah made the long trip to Jerusalem, a city he had never seen when it was in its glory, he found heaps of rubble, trash choking it, a people wavering between discouragement and apathy. From the glory of the palace to the poverty of his people, Nehemiah’s call was hardly a sound career move. When a person follows God’s call, it does not mean that there will be a red carpet welcome. Because one is obedient, God will not pave a superhighway to drive on. There is work, hard work, and a lot of it. Jesus was clear. “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). Following means we go where we are led, knowing that His way is better than any other way we might have chosen for ourselves.
What did Nehemiah face?
- The moldy ruins of a once great city
- A people who had forgotten their mission to rebuild
- Building material that was little more than glorified gravel
- Enemies who surrounded and hounded him
- The lure of compromise to do less, be less than God wanted
- Betrayal by those who should have been most loyal
- People whose promises were abandoned when they began to feel the pinch
Yet with all this Nehemiah rallied the troops, set them to the task with specific duties, even the weakest among them. While on their guard, as Nehemiah records, “the people worked with all their heart” (Nehemiah 4:6). From rubble rose a wall in an astounding 52 days, thoroughly confounding the enemies of the Jews.
Yes, Nehemiah might have had a great career and a cushy retirement had he stayed in the palace. And yes, he might never have faced danger, poverty or the trials of working with difficult people. But had he not, there would have been no wall. His most important work was in a faraway place in a place of desolation. But the need was the call. Nehemiah heeded that call of God and was able to see wonders unfold. What will you do?