The King’s Pleasure – Nehemiah 2:5-8

Proverbs 21:1 is clearly related to our text. It says – “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” Solomon – himself a king as great as Artaxerxes Longimanus – willingly bowed to God – “I may be a human king, but there is a King greater than I, and His dominion is greater than mine. My power may be seen in domestic laws, in the execution of criminals, in levying taxes and in armies, but Jehovah’s power is often undetected as it works in the hearts of men turning them this way and that.”
This is a hated idea, because we all by nature want to be sovereign over our little dominions – our lives. But this is so commonly taught in the Bible that to deny it is to cast aside the right to be called a “Bible-believing Christian.” Proverbs 16:1 – “The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD.” I believe that Jehovah was preparing the heart of Artaxerxes, and his answer to Nehemiah was of God. In all this we see a blending of God’s will, Nehemiah’s prayers and the will of the king of Persia. Also, I wonder how much the counsel of his wife had to do with the direction of his heart. Is there a reason that she is specifically mentioned in this text? Did God use the queen to influence her husband? Earlier, Ezra praised God with the words, “Blessed be the LORD God of our fathers, which hath put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem: And hath extended mercy unto me before the king, and his counsellors, and before all the king’s mighty princes. And I was strengthened as the hand of the LORD my God was upon me, and I gathered together out of Israel chief men to go up with me.” I believe that all things, good and bad, are controlled, used, limited or amplified by Jehovah – for His glory.
Over the last few years, I have been reading the 12 volume set of biographies, called “A Noble Company. Essays on the Particular-Regular Baptists in America.” I have read about the lives of over 250 godly men and woman from the 17th and 18th centuries. Many of them – I couldn’t tell you now how many – many of them struggled with salvation. Some were under the conviction of the Holy Spirit for a long time. Some of them wanted to be delivered – saved – but they could find no peace for various reasons. Some prayed for salvation; they yearned, they mourned – for months, and in some cases years. Some of them mistakenly tried working for salvation; trying like Pharisees to purify themselves. But then one day the faith and peace of God flooded their souls, and their new lives in Christ began. It was God’s sovereign will to save them – even from before the foundation of the earth. But on the surface of their lives there was an apparent struggle for spiritual control. Their hearts fought the Lord; and the world stepped in; sometimes Satanic forces got involved. But underlaying it all was the sovereign will of God, and that was not going to be thwarted. At the point of God’s choosing, those people were born again – sometimes dramatically.
One of the latest testimonies I read like that was that of Jesse Mercer, who died in 1841. He said, “While on the verge of despair, I was walking alone on a narrow, solitary path in the woods, poring over my helpless case, and saying to myself, “’Wo is me! Wo, wo is me, for I am undone forever! I would I were a beast of the field!” At length I found myself standing with my eyes steadfastly fixed on a small oak that grew by the pathside, and earnestly wishing that I could be like the little oak when it died and crumbled to dust. At that moment light broke into my soul, and I believed in Christ for myself and not another, and went on my way rejoicing.” For months there had been a struggle between Mercer and God, and eventually God won.
I am not sure how successful I will be in expressing myself, but in reading this scripture, I saw two parallels. The first was the sovereignty of God, illustrated in King Artaxerxes, working with the wishes of Nehemiah. The second parallel, I’ll withhold mentioning for a while.
Nehemiah’s desire for Jerusalem faced the apparent obstacle of King Artaxerxes.
But that didn’t keep the man from praying for what appeared to be impossible. Verses 4 and 5, “So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king…..” For the sake our lesson let’s picture King Artaxerxes as representing the Lord. Let’s amend this scripture to read – “So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I PRAYED unto the king.”
And what did Nehemiah pray? “If it please the king“ – verse 5. There was only one way that Nehemiah was going to get to Jerusalem to rebuild her decaying walls. It required the pleasure of King Artaxerxes – “If it please the king.“ Yes, it required the pleasure of the LORD, but that is what I’m trying to illustrate. King Artaxerxes represents Jehovah in this case. Why are so many people not surprised or upset with Nehemiah for saying, “if it please the king“ – but they are when the Bible teaches us to pray, “If it please the LORD“ ?
What would you say is your most important unfulfilled desire? Most of you are born again – children of God – so your #1 desire is not your salvation, as it had been with Jesse Mercer walking through the woods of Georgia. On the other hand, perhaps it is the salvation of a friend or loved-one, or perhaps it is her broken health. Is it that a friend might have a safe place to live; is it a better, more fulfilling, more lucrative job for yourself? You may think of this thing as important – as absolutely critical – even essential. Jesse Mercer looked at his need of salvation in that way – and humanly speaking that was correct – what is more important than a person’s salvation?
Folk, a very, very important lesson for us is that Jehovah is King – and we are not. It is at the pleasure of the King, that we have a nice place to live, food on our tables, and adequate jobs. And when it comes to salvation, it is not at our demand and by our wishes, efforts or works that we are made righteous in the eyes of God. Jesse Mercer might have prayed, “If it PLEASE the King, save my unworthy soul and deliver me from the bondage of this eternal death.”
I am afraid that much modern evangelism is based on the idea that no matter how bad sinners are, they deserve to be saved. Much modern evangelism depicts God as anxiously awaiting to see a bit of sorrow for sin and a tiny seed of faith in the sinner. If man reaches the right level of humility or righteousness then God will grant salvation. That is unbiblical. Salvation from sin is in the sovereign will of the Saviour, and it has been mapped out before creation. “If it please the king“ we will see young men repent, trusting Christ as Saviour and beginning to serve Him.
It was the pleasure of God that “Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.” It pleased the King that “when the Gentiles heard (the gospel), they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “We are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “It pleased the king“ to save those sinful idolaters in Macedonia. But that doesn’t mean that we should not beg God to save us – or to save our loved ones?
Nehemiah wisely and respectfully besought the sovereign will of the king, and then he included an addendum. “If it please the king, AND if thy servant have found FAVOUR in thy sight.” In my research on Nehemiah, I ran into a statement which may or may not be true. The commentator said that one of the highest positions in a king’s court was to be the cup bearer. The job which Nehemiah had was not unimportant or insignificant. Whether true or not, I am reasonably sure that Nehemiah had been fulfilling his duties most admirably. I am sure that during his faithful service, Nehemiah had earned the king’s good wishes, if not his respect. And now this request was presented in the light of the pleasure AND the favorable opinion of the king. Nehemiah based his approach, as lead by the Holy Spirit whom he sought in verse 4, on two points – the pleasure of the king and his favorable opinion.
Again, what had Nehemiah brought to the table? For months, if not years, he had faithfully carried out his responsibilities before the king. It might be argued that he had protected King Artaxerxes from poisons and from murder attempts. He had maintained the dignity, decorum and respect which was expected from a cupbearer. He had never brought unsolicited advice or requests before the throne – it was not his place. “If it PLEASE the king, and if thy servant have found FAVOUR in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah…that I might build it.”
Here we have to leave King Artaxerxes if we want to be Biblically accurate in regard to God. And here I return to Jesse Mercer for my illustration. That young man had nothing positive to offer his King. “While on the verge of despair (he said)… Wo is me! Wo, wo is me, for I am undone forever! I would I were a beast of the field!”
While Nehemiah might have had things which earned Artaxerxes’ favor, the sinner has nothing to offer God. We are so sinful that every good or righteous work we do becomes polluted as it leaves our hand or heart. Like the man with halitosis, even words of praise and thanksgiving are offensive, because of bad breath. “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” in the sight of the infinitely holy God. We can’t come to the Saviour and say, “If I have found favor in thy sight, save my soul.” Our only approach to God must be in abject submission and surrender. “Woe is me! Woe, woe is me, for I am undone forever!” “Nothing in my hand I bring, only to thy cross I cling.”
Salvation from sin should be the desire of every thinking person. Every rational heart should know that as there is punishment for crime there is eternal punishment for sin. “For the wages of sin is death.” “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” Sane people should thirst after peace with God. But they have nothing to offer God in their hopes to obtain that peace. Our only recourse is surrender. Plead with the Lord for grace – “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Now, for a few minutes let’s leave the subject of salvation and move to life in general.
No matter what you hope to do tomorrow, it is subject to the pleasure of the King of kings. Maybe you have things you do every Monday. You will do none of them without the Lord’s gracious permission. “If it pleases the king.“ And maybe you have special plans for tomorrow. I hope you have presented them to the Lord already. In this we see a blending – an intertwining of you and God, His subject and the sovereign King of kings.
During the four months between chapter 1 and chapter 2 Nehemiah had given things a lot of thought. He had a plan in his head; a picture of rebuilt walls and gates; a picture of a joyful city. He was prepared to answer whatever questions the king might have. How long will you be gone? “Twelve years.” Boy, that was a risky answer; that’s a long time. What will you need? “Letters of transport to be presented to the governors between here and there.” “I will need access to the cedars of Lebanon and a letter from you to Asaph the governor of those trees.” Nehemiah was given a military escort to Jerusalem; did he ask for it? He was supplied with animals for transportation; did he plead for them?
While still acknowledging Artaxerxes’ authority, Nehemiah addressed what he perceived to be his needs. And while based on what he considered important, Nehemiah still bowed before the king’s wisdom. He probably spoke with humility in his voice – something which we cannot see through the word on page. But at the same time, it was with boldness. “I need this, and this, this and these things.” It reminds me of Hebrew 4:16 – “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” Just because we are children of God – bought with the precious blood of Christ – this does not shrink the great gulf which exists between the Lord and ourselves.We may approach God boldly with our requests, but it must still be with humility in our voices – with our hearts and our hats in our hands, looking unto Jesus the Mediator.
Everything about our lives are rooted in either God’s grace or His judgment – His providence. That should thrill the child of God, because he knows that the Lord loves him. But it should terrify the rebel, because Jehovah – also known as “Elohim” – the sovereign and omnipotent King – controls every atom of life around us.
Having said all that, I’d like to move to the second parallel the Lord laid on my heart.
In chapter one, Hanani returned from Jerusalem with the news of its disrepair and the people’s despair. Nehemiah took his brother’s words and laid them out like Rabshakah’s letter before the Lord. He humbly walked into the holy of holies, so to speak, with a burden on his heart. I’m going to say that initially, he felt there was nothing he could do about the problem – except to pray. He was trapped in the palace of Artaxerxes, carrying out the honorable job of bearing the cup. But then at some point he heard the voice of the Lord.
Turn to Isaiah 6 – “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”
I believe in the sovereignty of God. It isn’t a matter for theological discussion; I believe it is as important and as practical as your next breath. So when I look at Isaiah, I know that God was in control of that man’s service and his call to service. And going back farther than that, I see God’s sovereignty in the service of Jeremiah. We are told that prophet of God was called to salvation and then to service even before his birth. God said, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” But it is interesting that it took some time before Jeremiah surrendered to God’s sovereignty and call. Eventually “The LORD put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the LORD said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth.” And in essence at that point, Jeremiah said, “Here am I; send me.” Isaiah, Jeremiah and Nehemiah all said, “Here am I; send me.” Nehemiah surrendered to the Lord, and then in our scripture he said to Artaxerxes, “Here am I; send me.”
What is God’s will for you? What does God intend for your life? I am going to assume, and I wish that you did as well, that God intends to save your soul. Why has He set you within a family of Christians, if He didn’t intend for you to become one as well? Why has He given you the gospel these hundreds of times, if it wasn’t so you’d know what to believe? But it is still necessary for you to humbly stutter, “Here am I; SAVE me.” And after that? I can assure you that Jesse Mercer didn’t know that he would go on to do great things for his Saviour. But that was God’s sovereign intention. Unlike Isaiah, Jeremiah and Nehemiah who may have thought they could see God’s will, when the Lord saved ME, I was as near-sighted as mouse. Nevertheless, salvation for me included, “Here am I; send me.”
What is God’s sovereign will for you? You say that you don’t know. That is fine, so long as you still say, “Here am I; send me.” The Lord will reveal His will to you in due time if your heart remains soft and your ears are open to His voice. Lord, do you want me to be a missionary in some foreign land? Do you want me to learn to preach your word in English so that I can be a blessing to my own country? Do you want me to be an inviter, bringing others to hear the gospel? “Here am I; send me.” I’ll be a door-keeper in the house of God; a porter at her doors; a greeter and smiler for Christ. “Here am I; send me.”
God has His will for your life and for your soul, and it WILL be accomplished. There can be no doubt about that. But there is a sense in which you can, and must, say, “Here am I; save me.” And if you are a Christian, you need to add, “Here am I; send me, Lord. Use me in whatever way you choose.” Will you surrender to the Lord this morning?