Let’s pause here for a history lesson to break the monotony. “A cup-bearer was an officer of high rank in royal courts, whose duty it was to serve the drinks at the royal table. On account of the constant fear of plots and intrigues, a person must be regarded as thoroughly trustworthy to hold this position. He must guard against poison in the king’s cup, and was sometimes required to swallow some of the wine before serving it. His confidential relations with the king often gave him a position of great influence. The position of cup bearer is greatly valued and given to only a select few throughout history. Qualifications for the job were not held lightly but of high esteem, valued for their beauty and even more for their modesty, industriousness and courage.” (Wiki)
So Nehemiah learns that Jerusalem is disgraced – its walls torn down and gates destroyed by fire. Well yeah, but it’s been that way for a long time – since the Babylonians sacked it back in around 587. I guess news traveled slowly before the internet. Anyway, he loudly laments and prays about this tragedy. The SAB says that ‘Nehemiah begins his boring book with a boring prayer’. Well the prayer certainly is boring; I guess we’ll see about the rest of the book.
The king is sympathetic to Nehemiah’s misery and asks what he can do to help. (Is this realistic behavior for a king? Perhaps, if the cup-bearer’s position in the royal court was really held in such high esteem.) Anyway, Nehemiah reports that the king granted him permission to return to Jerusalem, and provisions to assist with restoration, “because the gracious hand of God was on me”. (So does that make Artaxerxes just another of Yahweh’s puppets?)
Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem, inspects the damage, and gathers a work party to start fixing things up. It doesn’t take long for trouble to follow. Three guys show up to object – a Horonite (from a city in Moab); an Ammonite; and an Arab. (I’m reposting the map of this area so you can see where those places are.) They accuse Nehemiah of rebelling against the king. Nehemiah responds “The God of heaven will help us succeed. We, his servants, will start rebuilding this wall. But you have no share, legal right, or historic claim in Jerusalem.” (v 20) And so begins the land conflict in the Middle East.
This chapter isn’t particularly exciting; it just relates the progress of the workers repairing the walls and gates around the city of Jerusalem. But it gives us some insights into the society of the time – the people’s occupations and living arrangements.
The various sections of the wall have names that probably tell us something about what took place there. For example, what was the Dung Gate likely used for? I’d bet it was the route to the city dump. There was also the Sheep Gate, Fish Gate, Broad Wall, Tower of the Furnaces (or Ovens), Horse Gate, and Fountain Gate. The Dung Gate is real and still exists – but it is now used for vehicles.