Nehemiah and Esther

Nehemiah and Esther, Come Follow Me, Pictures glass cups to allude to Nehemiah's job as cupbearer to king

July 18-24

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Nehemiah is a Jew. He is the cupbearer to the King of Persia. In other words, Nehemiah was in charge of making sure the king wasn’t poisoned, and this was a position of great trust. Nehemiah is currently residing in Susa, one of the capitals of Persia where he is watching out for the king. In the first chapter of the book of Nehemiah (even though it’s not technically included in this week’s Come Follow Me readings), we learn that Nehemiah receives a report from his brother on the state of Jerusalem. It is not a pretty report. The walls of Jerusalem are falling apart, and the gates are on fire. The Jews there are suffering tremendously. This touches Nehemiah’s heart, and he gives a beautiful prayer to the Lord (This is also in chapter one; I really, really don’t understand why they didn’t include chapter one in this week’s readings). He asks the Lord to remember the promises He made to the House of Israel: if they would repent, they would be gathered. Nehemiah also asks for help in convincing the king of Persia to help him rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

The king’s heart is softened, and he agrees to help Nehemiah. Now, ponder on this for just a little bit. The king is telling one of his most trusted inner-circle men that he can just leave. But not only can he leave, the king is going to send him with a bunch of materials to go and help a people that the king’s predecessors exiled. Perhaps there was some political advantage to this, but I’m having a hard time seeing it since the Jews didn’t have a lot to offer from a worldly perspective. It’s kinda a big deal that the king is going along with this.

Nehemiah ends up taking a journey to Jerusalem with all the political advantages and resources he needs. He victoriously protects his people from their enemies through inspired stratagem, and the wall of Jerusalem is rebuilt. This wall is actually quite significant because it helps to protect the people and the rebuilding of the temple. 

Let’s look at what we learn from Nehemiah’s life:

The Lord places His people

I wonder why Nehemiah didn’t go with Ezra and his brother to Jerusalem the first time around. He stayed behind when some of the Jews were leaving to gather in the Holy Land. It’s actually pretty significant that he didn’t follow them. He stayed amongst the Gentiles rather than gathering with the Lord’s people.

It could have been for any number of reasons.

Some Jews didn’t go back because they no longer identified as Jews. Some didn’t go back because they were comfortable in Babylon. They didn’t want to make a dangerous trek of 900 miles. Some stayed because they didn’t want to go through the work of rebuilding the entire city and walls when they were perfectly safe and happy where they were. There were some Jews who chose not to go back; however, they donated riches for the temple to be rebuilt.

We don’t know why Nehemiah stayed behind, but we do know how he felt about the inheritance given to his people by the Lord. When Nehemiah received the reports of Jerusalem from his brother, this was how he responded: 

Nehemiah 1:4 And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven,

Nehemiah goes on to pray for help. He acknowledges that the Jews have sinned, and he prays that they will be forgiven and gathered (It really is a beautiful prayer; consider reading it even though it’s not part of this week’s readings). Even if Nehemiah had originally refused to gather for less-honorable reasons, his heart definitely changed. Either his heart was in the right place all along, or it changed for the better along the way. Nehemiah wants his people gathered in Jerusalem, and I assume he wants to be part of that gathering. 

Regardless of why Nehemiah found himself within Babylon, the Lord knew exactly where Nehemiah was and utilized him. There are two potential reasons why Nehemiah did not go to Jerusalem, and both hold lessons for us. 

I must clearly state that Nehemiah’s reasoning for staying behind is personal conjecture; I don’t really know why he didn’t go to Jerusalem. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with examining these people for the humans that they are. It helps us relate to them, and when we can relate to them, we can better learn from them.

Anyway, two potential reasons:

First, let’s surmise that Nehemiah stayed behind for less than honorable reasons. Perhaps he didn’t want to leave his comfy spot next to the king. Perhaps he didn’t want to leave the power and position he held in Babylon. If this was the case, we can know that his heart changed and the Lord still utilized him! If Nehemiah had been stubborn and didn’t want to go back originally, then this story holds a beautiful lesson. Not only does the Lord forgive him and allow him to gather safely to Jerusalem, but the Lord turns his blunder into a gift. He used Nehemiah right where he was. And isn’t that what the Lord does? We can make the worst of mistakes, but because of the atonement, those mistakes and sins turn into lessons that brought us closer to Christ. The bad effects disappear, and we only experience the wisdom that came from those hard lessons. Even if we’re pretty far away from the straight and narrow, if our hearts turn to the Lord, He can start to use us immediately. 

Second, now let’s look at the lessons we can learn if Nehemiah had stayed behind for good reasons. Perhaps Nehemiah had felt prompted to stay behind; perhaps the Spirit whispered for him to stay. The implications of this version of the story are no less significant than the other version. If Nehemiah had wanted to gather to Jerusalem but had felt prompted to stay, then I wonder about the following things:

I wonder if Nehemiah felt frustrated with the Lord. I wonder if he prayed and asked the Lord why he was being told to stay behind when he had these righteous desires to gather. Why was the Lord thwarting him if he was trying to do what was right? I wonder if he second-guessed himself. I wonder if he worried that he was imagining the promptings and doing the wrong thing. I wonder how it affected him when he realized just how perfectly the Lord had used him.

Let me reiterate once more that we don’t really know why Nehemiah stayed behind. However, when we take the time to look at these biblical characters as real and human, their stories become much more powerful and we can learn so much more from them.

Parallel stories

Now. I want to tell the story of Nehemiah again, but I will tell it in a very simplified version so you can tell me if it reminds you of any other stories you might have heard before.

A Jew is placed within the intimate circle of the Gentile king and is very well-trusted by the king. The Jews, as a people, find themselves in trouble. The close-friend-of-the-king-Jew mourns for their people, prays, fasts, and approaches the king for help. The king’s heart is softened, and the Jews are saved. 

If you didn’t catch on, the parallel story is Esther’s.

Nehemiah and Esther have many parallels. Not only do they have parallels, but there is interesting history. In the Old Testament, Esther is placed after the book of Nehemiah. BUT. In real life, Esther occurred 30ish years before Nehemiah. This is significant. This story is not technically about Esther, but then again, it kinda is. 

Now, this next part is really cool, but it is also very confusing because the Persians liked to make it very difficult to pronounce names, and they also liked the names to all sound the same. Let’s not even mention the fact that they all had more than one name.

The king during Nehemiah’s time was Artaxerxes; I’m going to call him Artie to makes things a little less confusing. Artie was the son of Xerxes. Xerxes was the husband of Esther. It is important to note that Artie was not necessarily the son of Esther. However, I don’t think it would be crazy to assume that Artie knew of Esther. Esther’s uncle did save Xerxes life. 

So this is the context of Artie. His father was married to a brave, Jewish woman who saved her people. Artie is approached by his Jewish cupbearer, Nehemiah. Nehemiah asks for help in delivering the Jews again. I can’t imagine that Artie was politically motivated to help the Jews. It doesn’t make any worldly sense as to why Artie would choose to let his cupbearer go, and it definitely doesn’t make any sense as to why he sent his cupbearer with tons of stuff to get there.

I can’t really put this forth as doctrine, but I believe that Esther’s influence was felt by the Jewish people a second time as Artie stepped up to help them. *If you really want your mind blown, see the end of my post for an interesting footnote. I put it as a footnote because it’s a little off in left field.*

Esther was brave and saved her people by stepping up in a dangerous situation. We all know and love this story. I also love the idea that Esther stepped up and saved her people by setting a good example within her household. She was a good influence on Artie as he grew up under his father’s roof. It’s not as striking as facing a near-death situation, but the result was the same. She saved her people. 

We don’t have to stand before kings, magistrates, and rulers. We don’t have to face almost-certain death to have a powerful influence on the world. The most important work we can accomplish truly occurs within the walls of our own home. Esther saved the Jews with her heroic and dangerous deed, and Esther saved the Jews by being a good influence within her home.

I know that the Savior is aware of us. He knows exactly where we’re at, and He is purposefully placing us and following us and influencing us. Even though we cannot often see His hand in our life, He is moving mountains. I know that the Savior can take broken people and turn them into powerful tools. I know that He is wise and if we follow Him, He will place us exactly where we need to be. I know that we can be powerful tools for good in the smallest of ways when we choose to follow Him.

*******Off in left-field note: Nehemiah asks Artaxerxes for help. Then this happens.

Nehemiah 2:6 And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.

Please do not take this as doctrine, but I find it significant that they mentioned the queen. Who cares if the queen was sitting next to him unless that queen was Esther? In a world where Jews very rarely mentioned the women, why did they choose to include the queen’s presence as an important part of this story? Once again, this is off in left field, but I thought it was a cool idea.*******

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