It is sometimes difficult to imagine what life in the court of Persia would have been like in the times of Nehemiah. This article endeavours to create a picture of what may have occurred as the drama unfolded in the Persian palace and attempts to describe the thoughts of Nehemiah as he prepared to take on the work of God in building the wall.

Four months is a long time—120 days in fact. His Excellencyʼs Cup-bearer was becoming anxious. In another month or two, the king would vanish for the seasonʼs battle campaigns and his biennial inspection of the provinces, and all opportunity would be lost for another whole year.

Anxious Service in the Court

Hananiʼs impression of the returned Jewsʼ fragile state was that another year might be too late. It was one thing to read Danielʼs words, that “the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men”, and quite another to believe it. Waiting. One hundred and twenty days of waiting. The ways of God have always been inscrutable. The cup-bearer learnt more about the power of prayer in four months than he might have learnt in forty years. How did this cup-bearer really feel about Jerusalem? Was his distress a fleeting concern that would wilt with time? Would everyday life and his constant palace duties quench his flame?

The palace work had kept the cup-bearer very busy. Between management of the cellars, vineyard owners, order-books, financial accounts, feast timetables, and visiting dignitary dates, it was not a quiet time. The few months when his royal majesty was at home, were always frantic. Normally, in the never-ending hustle and bustle of the palace, personal problems would fade away. But the vivid descriptions of his brethren at home were etched indelibly on his mind. They intruded into the cup-bearerʼs days, and crept like a thief into his dreams, so he could hardly concentrate on his responsibilities at all.

As far as his past service was concerned, the cup-bearer was flawless. A consummate professional. Not a drop spilled. Not a mistake made. Not a deadline missed. The kingʼs trust in his faithful steward was implicit, and justifiably so. He was a generous master and there was no question of his servantʼs loyalty. The king demanded perfection and the cup-bearer knew it. But his heart was wrung with anxiety, and the exhaustion of four months of mental anguish was taking its toll.

The Kingʼs Enquiry

And then on one day the regal glass suddenly stopped in mid-air, and the king politely commanded his servantʼs attention. This pause caused the blood to drain from the cup-bearerʼs face as he wondered what his master was thinking. He sank to his knees. Treachery? He paused but a moment, and then spoke. His effusive gestures and hurried breath were enough to reassure the Monarch of all Persia.

His Excellency was an experienced judge of men. The frightened explanation was the pent up feelings of a distraught exile, and not the casuistry of a disenchanted malcontent. He was first mollified, then intrigued, and then moved in sympathy to a heartfelt tale of distress. The cup-bearerʼs eyes glistened as he told of his nationʼs plight. The city of his ancestors and the place of burial and veneration were in a forsaken state of decay and desecration. Destroyed by the flames of conquest, the strewn stones sat discarded in a far-off land.

The king was moved by the entreating eyes of his servant to enquire as to whether he could aid the situation. To think, the supreme Monarch of the then known world, asking if there was anything he could do!

But here was the answer from heaven the cup-bearer had been waiting for. He knew that the Creator of all things was listening and that the prayers of 120 days might now find an answer. All true servants are constantly aware, in whatever situation of life, of the nearness and accessibility of their Heavenly King. The cup-bearer lowered his eyes for a brief moment, and when he raised them to meet his Excellencyʼs they were penetratingly clear. All traces of tears had vanished. The fear was gone. The pale brow had disappeared. Not forgetting his estate as a servant, he pleaded his cause—a commission, to wit, the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem in far-off Judah.

The cup-bearerʼs eyes moved from the Monarchʼs face to his wifeʼs, as he spoke. There was not a soul alive who did not know of the poise, grace and natural charm of the queen. A woman of rare, if fading beauty, she enjoyed a more privileged position than most Persian queens, a fact due entirely to her integrity which was peerless in the realm. She was a woman of influence and the cup-bearer knew well her inclinations.

Quiet words were exchanged between husband and wife. Then agreement; a nodding of heads. But no Monarch of any stature writes blank cheques. His Excellency inquired into the length of absence from the royal court, the possible need for an armed escort, proposed actions, transport of provisions, and the inevitable cost of the venture. Assured on all points, his Excellency signalled his royal assent by allowing the cup-bearer to kiss the royal sceptre. A thankful bow and seconds later he was gone.

So Much to Do

There was much to plan and precious little time to plan it. With his Excellencyʼs seal to validate his requests, the cup-bearer busied himself with arranging the four month journey. There would be more than enough time en route to plan what he would do in Jerusalem. He fretted to be gone. Each day dragged as the moment of departure drew near. With everything in order, the sizable delegation left the gates of the palace of Susa behind them. Without a backward glance, the cup-bearer settled in his saddle and lowering his eyes, thanked his Heavenly Monarch that at last they were moving.

In his saddle-bag nestled three letters. First, the regal authorization to the rival overlords who governed the unsettled satrapies beyond the river. There had been hostilities in the past, the cup-bearer knew, and the work of rebuilding had previously ceased due to inadequate authorization. Questionable credentials would never hamper this cup-bearerʼs work.

The kingʼs seal also accompanied a letter to the guardian of the royal forest reserves granting permission to use royal fir and cedar to re-establish the gates of the city whose burnt, discarded timbers had haunted the cup-bearerʼs dreams for so long.

As the animal swayed from side to side and the horizon began to stretch out in a painted landscape of endless sand, the cup-bearer fell to wondering just how much the Queen had done on his behalf. The ways of God are truly unsearchable.

The decree to “restore and rebuild Jerusalem”, from which time seventy prophetical weeks would be measured to the cutting off of Israelʼs Messiah, was soon to commence.

The Arrival

No sooner had the royal ambassage arrived, than the cup-bearerʼs fears of hostile opposition were realised. The governor of Samaria, a Horonite, and his loyal deputy, a former Persian slave with priestly links to the nation, were not happy. In fact, they viewed the cup-bearer with haughty scorn, followed by smouldering resentment and finally, as each of their demands was firmly dismissed, with inveterate hatred. The news brought to their itching ears fuelled already anti-Semitic inclinations and their devious minds were fertile with ideas to destabilise the cup-bearerʼs plans. A stronger Jerusalem meant a weaker Samaria. The usurping cup-bearer meddling in affairs far away from his jurisdiction must be stopped.

Opposition can often be the lazy manʼs excuse to do nothing. No great work accomplished in the history of the world has ever been achieved without opposition. The fact that it is achieved despite opposition is often what makes it great.

Undeterred, the cup-bearer set about his plans. First he must “count the cost”. He desperately needed to ascertain the damage before putting any of his carefully planned building schemes into action. But his entourage had attracted no little attention and already he was a well known figure. After resting a few days, the cup-bearer rose at midnight on the third night and saddled his steed. Telling no one of his movements, and taking only a few armed men for protection, he set out to reconnoitre the walls of the city he had never seen before, but already loved.

He needed some quiet time alone for reflection; a fresh approach, unclouded by othersʼ judgment. Midnight was not the best time for assessing the exact extent of the damage, but the cup- bearer rode more in search of inspiration. These abandoned stones told a sorry story of the past. As the sure-footed animal passed out of the Valley Gate into the Valley of Hinnom, he recalled the fateful words of Jeremiah, uttered here 100 years earlier, pronouncing the doom of the city. The city was destined to become “like Tophet”, a rubbish dump, because of lack of faith. The Dragon Spring or Jackal Spring brought more of Jeremiahʼs words to mind—“I will make Jerusalem heaps, and a den of jackals.” As he passed the Dung Gate he remembered these words too—“they shall be as dung upon the face of the earth”.

As the deep blue moonlight cast a velvet sheen over the scattered rubble, the full extent of the destruction was apparent. The cup-bearer was visibly shaken by the desolation. The gates which he had thought to be the main problem were but the tip of a ruinous ʻicebergʼ. The walls were completely broken down and the inhabitants defenceless. The cup-bearer struggled to control his emotions in front of his men, before breaking down and weeping quietly.

In the aura of such fulfilled destruction, could any rebuilding take place here? Could these walls be transformed by a transformed people? Could these defences be reformed by reformed hearts? The scudding clouds partially obscured the scene as the cup-bearer picked his way east to the Gate of the Fountain where he stopped his mount to slake its thirst. Yes, he thought, it was possible for building to take place here, even amid such awful desolation.

Here, by the Pool of Siloam, Hezekiah had launched his revival campaign, by “the waters that go softly”. The cup-bearerʼs plans began to crystallize under the clear night sky. One step at a time; slow but sure. His mind was now clear, and under the Judean stars his eyes glittered bright with excitement once more. Cluttered rubble forced him to follow the Kidron Brook back towards the Mount of Olives so that he could continue his circumnavigation. The sun was melting the horizon as he slipped back into camp, and soon he began to rouse his men. Today was going to be a busy day. Today, the reformation would begin.

First, the people needed to own for themselves the cup-bearerʼs excitement and then agree to put their hand to the work. Excitement would not be enough in itself. It was important to formulate a precise building plan before addressing the people, otherwise idle minds would foster uncertainty. They needed to be convinced, and then put immediately to work. One man could assess the damage, but it would take many to fix it.

The Present Distress

The cup-bearer laid the facts before the people, and was careful to include himself in the distress. The reproach affected every man, woman and child. The fact that the present state of desolation was a direct result of their sin was carefully omitted. Recriminations, though true, do not build walls. The rallying cry to shrug off the reproach that enshrouded the city stirred their hearts. Their current state of apathy should never have been a subject of ridicule from the world and must be rectified. The call went out to rise up and build. Rising up is always the first step. Behind the example of the cup-bearer, the people responded as one.

The surrounding governors heaped scorn upon the motley bunch of ragged builders who were gathered around the cup-bearerʼs quarters, cheering. Fear is a powerful weapon, and inciting the fear of the Persian potentate was the first step in their psychological campaign of destabilisation. The cup-bearerʼs answer was not to produce the authorised letters from Susa that so clearly established his credentials, but to urge the people to put their trust in a Heavenly Monarch. The God of heaven, who before the captivity used to “dwell between the cherubim”, would surely prosper them.

To add insult to injury, the cup-bearer then declared that Samaritan worship was quite unwelcome. They had no physical possession, no jurisdiction, no historical roots in this city, where God had determined to place His Name. There is no point in exposing wolves in sheepʼs clothing once the flock is already ravaged. The Samaritan governor and his confederates were unwelcome. Rebuked, the three guileful men retreated, but only to mass their forces for a stronger and more dangerous assault in the future. The fire of different trials would come later, but the meantime the blaze of reformation had begun!