Nehemiah had some nerve! A conquered foreigner employed in service to an enemy king – a king who worshipped different gods, Nehemiah had the chutzpah to show sadness in front of his monarch. This alone could have gotten him killed on the spot. Persian kings were the partying sort, and sadness was a real downer. Besides, it was a bit of an indictment of the king’s rule. If everyone was happy! happy!, it must have meant that the king was doing a bang-up job on the throne.
But this was no bad-hair day. Nehemiah was measured in his sadness. He had been planning and praying about this show of emotion for four months, ever since he heard about the ruiined condition of his homeland from his brother. Nehemiah showed just enough sadness and dishevelment to get the king’s attention.
Artaxerxes noticed and decided to let Nehemiah live. Bolstered by this success, Nehemiah stepped further out on the limb – he shared his personal problems with the king.
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 fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (Nehemiah 2:2-3)
At this point, the king recognized that he had taken the bait. “What is it you want?” he asked. The king could have said, “Duh! That’s what happens to conquered cities. Get back to work!” But he didn’t. He chose to let Nehemiah make a request. So Nehemiah stepped out further on the limb.
Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.” (Nehemiah 2:4-5)
There are a few remarkable things about this request. First, Nehemiah’s sabbatical would leave the king without one of his most trusted servants and advisors for an extended period. Nehemiah was the guy who tasted the food and drink for poison. Tough to find a good one of those. They have to be trustworthy so that they don’t participate in an assassination plot, and because of this trust, kings often confided in them with matters of state.
Secondly, Nehemiah was asking to rebuild the walls of a conquered city! That’s a risky bit of business for a king. What if you allow them to rebuild their walls and they get the big head and decide to stop paying tribute, thinking their fortified walls will protect them? Then, the king would have to suit up and leave the comfort of his castle for months or years to go conquer the people again. Years before, when the advance team had gone to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, they had been forced to stop for exactly this reason. The king was afraid that they might build walls to the city and then defy him.
Remarkably, Artaxerxes didn’t flinch. “How long will you be gone?” Nehemiah gave him a time and then, as if he weren’t precariously far out on that limb, he took a few more steps.
I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” (Nehemiah 2:7-8)
In other words, “Can I have an all-expense-paid leave of absence under your protection to rebuild a conquered city with your materials? Oh, and I’m going to need a house, too?”
I don’t know what Nehemiah put in the wine that morning, but the king wrote him a blank check right there on the spot. Can you believe it? What was Artaxerxes getting out of this deal?
If the unlikelihood of the king’s approval hasn’t struck you yet, imagine going into your boss today to ask her if she will give you approval to take a year off from work to start up your own business that will compete in the same market. See if she’ll also agree to protect you from attacks from competitors, write you a check for all your office equipment and supplies and pay your mortgage. Unlikely.
So, why was Artaxerxes willing to finance the operation? You might be tempted to think that God was the ventriloquist behind the king puppet, but God doesn’t do that show. Free-will, remember? No, it was something much more risky.
Relationship. Artaxerxes trusted Nehemiah. He liked him. He might have even loved him. Over the years of service to the king, Nehemiah had shown himself trustworthy and dependable. He had demonstrated that he was a man of his word. Nehemiah made deposits in Artaxerxes’ emotional bank account before he was even aware of the implications those deposits would have. When God’s call on Nehemiah’s life became apparent, he had a sizeable balance in the king’s account that made the king willing to write that blank check.
How willing would you or I be to faithfully make those deposits for years if we were in a situation like Nehemiah’s? He worked for an enemy boss who didn’t submit to God and who put Nehemiah’s life in danger three plus times a day. Unlikely. But it shouldn’t be.
Wherever God has us right now, it’s important that we are building relationships and making emotional deposits with those in our sphere of influence. Think of it as saving for a rainy day, because God will give us an opportunity to use those deposits when the time is right. However, if we haven’t made deposits… Worse, if we’ve been making withdrawals… the checks we need to do God’s work might come back marked Non-Sufficient Funds.