Secret mission

Nehemiah’s position as Artaxerxes’ cup bearer gave him unique access to the king of Persia. About 13 years after Ezra was sent to repopulate the city of Jerusalem, Nehemiah discovered that the mission was unsuccessful and God’s people were unable to regain the glory they had once experienced in the great city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah was devastated by the news and showed visible signs of his distress when he appeared before the king. Artaxerxes questioned Nehemiah, asking him, “Why is thy countenance sad seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart” (Nehemiah 2:2). The king’s observation of Nehemiah’s sadness and sorrow of heart wasn’t meant to be an expression of care or concern, but rather an objection to Nehemiah’s distraction from his work. Nehemiah was responsible for the king’s welfare and needed to be completely focused on what he was doing. In the moment, when Nehemiah was confronted about his bad behavior, it says in Nehemiah 2:4 that he “prayed to the God of heaven.”

Nehemiah’s sorrow of heart was due to his realization that God’s people were still reaping the consequences of their rebellion against God. Even though they had physically returned to the Promised Land, the Jews still appeared to be spiritually separated from the LORD. As a result of his prayer to God, Nehemiah was prompted to ask Artaxerxes to send him to Jerusalem to rebuild the city’s walls. Nehemiah also asked for an armed escort to go with him, most likely because he wanted the people of the surrounding nations to believe that he was on a mission for the king. Initially, Nehemiah decided to keep the purpose of his mission a secret. It says in Nehemiah 2:12, “And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon.”

Nehemiah’s inspection of the city gates at night indicated his secrecy was probably due to suspicious activity within the Jewish population. It could have been that some of the Jews were cooperating with Israel’s enemies in exchange for special treatment or political favors. Nehemiah had received instructions from the LORD, and yet, he was reluctant to share the information with anyone else. Perhaps, Nehemiah’s greatest concern was that he would be unable to convince the Jews that God wanted to help them and would protect them if they once again put their trust him. The key issue Nehemiah had to deal with was the people’s unbelief. What God had put in Nehemiah’s heart would no doubt require their faith and the belief that Israel’s Messiah would eventually come to Jerusalem, just as God had promised. When Nehemiah finally revealed his secret mission, the Jews responded positively. It says in Nehemiah 2:18, “Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work.”

Whose side are you on?

The prophet Jonah’s ministry to the city of Nineveh made it clear that God’s mercy was not limited to the Israelites (Jonah 3:10). Even though the book of Jonah seems to end without an answer to the question, was the Ninevites repentance sincere? Isaiah’s prophecy about God’s eventual destruction of the Assyrian empire indicates its capital, Nineveh only received a temporary reprieve and would one day experience God’s judgment for their wicked behavior along with the rest of the world.

Describing God’s overthrow of Assyria, Isaiah declared, “The LORD of hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand: that I will break the Assyrian in my land, and upon my mountains tread him under foot: then shall his yoke depart off them, and his burden depart from off their shoulders” (Isaiah 14:24-25). As Sennacherib king of Assyria approached Jerusalem and threatened its destruction, it must have seemed to king Hezekiah that God had changed his mind and would allow Assyria to continue its conquest of the world.

After hearing of Sennacherib’s threat, Hezekiah sent Eliakim, Shebna, “and the elders of the priests covered with sackcloth, unto Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz. And they said unto him, Thus saith Hezekiah, This day is a day of trouble, and of rebuke, and of blashphemy: for the children are come to the birth, and there is not strength to bring them forth” (Isaiah 37:2-3). King Hezekiah knew that Sennacherib was right about his ability to defeat Jerusalem. It was only a matter of time before he would break down the city walls and take the people into captivity.

Isaiah assured Hezekiah that God would not allow Sennacherib to carry out his threat, but Hezekiah’s confidence was shaken when he received a second message from Sennacherib’s servant Rabshakeh.

Let not thy God, in whom thou trustiest, deceive thee, saying, Jerusalem shall not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria…And Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it: and Hezekiah went up unto the house of the LORD, and spread it before the LORD. (Isaiah 37:10,14)

Hezekiah’s action of spreading or displaying the letter before the LORD was similar to presenting evidence. Hezekiah was making a case that Sennacherib had accused God of lying. In Hezekiah’s opinion, Sennacherib had gone too far and God needed to do something about it. As a result of Hezekiah’s prayer, God did more than just stop the Assyrians from attacking Jerusalem. It says in Isaiah 37:36, “Then the angel of the LORD went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses”.