Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Nehemiah Journeys to Jerusalem with the King's Permission, and Furnished with Royal Letters. He Makes a Survey of the Walls, and Resolves to Undertake the Work of Building Them - Nehemiah 2
Three months after receiving the tidings concerning Jerusalem, Nehemiah perceived a favourable opportunity of making request to the king for leave to undertake a journey to the city of his fathers for the purpose of building it, and obtained the permission he entreated, together with letters to the governors on this side the Euphrates to permit him to pass through their provinces, and to the keeper of the royal forests to supply wood for building the walls and gates, and an escort of captains of the army and horsemen for his protection (Neh 2:1-9), to the great vexation of Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite (Neh 2:10). In the third night after his arrival at Jerusalem, Nehemiah rode round the city to survey the walls, and incited the rulers of the people and the priests to undertake the work of rebuilding them (Neh 2:11-18). Sanballat and other enemies of the Jews expressed their contempt thereat, but Nehemiah encountered their ridicule with serious words (Neh 2:19, Neh 2:20).
In the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, Nehemiah as cupbearer took the wine and handed it to the king. Nisan is, according to the Hebrew calendar, the first month of the year; yet here, as in Neh 1:1-11, the twentieth year of Artaxerxes is named, and the month Chisleu there mentioned (Neh 1:1), which, after the Hebrew method of computing the year, was the ninth month and preceded Nisan by three months, is placed in the same year. This can only be explained on the grounds that either the twentieth year of Artaxerxes did not coincide with the year of the calendar, but began later, or that Nehemiah here uses the computation of time current in anterior Asia, and also among the Jews after the captivity in civil matters, and which made the new year begin in autumn. Of these two views we esteem the latter to be correct, since it cannot be shown that the years of the king's reign would be reckoned from the day of his accession. In chronological statements they were reckoned according to the years of the calendar, so that the commencement of a year of a reign coincided with that of the civil year. If, moreover, the beginning of the year is placed in autumn, Tishri is the first, Chisleu the third, and Nisan the seventh month. The circumstances which induced Nehemiah not to apply to the king till three months after his reception of the tidings which so distressed him, are not stated. It is probable that he himself required some time for deliberation before he could come to a decision as to the best means of remedying the distresses of Jerusalem; then, too, he may not have ventured at once to bring his request before the king from fear of meeting with a refusal, and may therefore have waited till an opportunity favourable to his desires should present itself. לפניו יין, "wine was before the king," is a circumstantial clause explanatory of what follows. The words allude to some banquet at which the king and queen were present. The last sentence, "And I have not been sad before him" (רע according to רעים פּניך of Neh 2:2, of a sad countenance), can neither mean, I had never before been sad before him (de Wette); nor, I was accustomed not to be sad before him; but, I had not been sad before him at the moment of presenting the cup to him (Bertheau), because it would not have been becoming to serve the king with a sad demeanour: comp. Est 4:2. The king, however, noticed his sadness, and inquired: "Why is thy countenance sad, since thou art not sick? this is nothing but sorrow of heart, i.e., thy sadness of countenance can arise only from sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid;" because the unexpected question obliged him to explain the cause of his sorrow, and he could not tell how the king would view the matter, nor whether he would favour his ardent desire to assist his fellow-countrymen in Judah.
He nevertheless openly expressed his desire, prefacing it by the accustomed form of wishing the king prosperity, saying: "Let the king live for ever;" comp. Dan 2:4; Dan 3:9. "Why should not my countenance be sad? for the city, the place of my fathers' sepulchres, lieth waste, and its gates are burned with dire." The question, Why ... ? means: I have certainly sufficient reason for sadness. The reason is, that (אשׁר) the city where are the graves of my fathers lieth waste.
Then the king, feeling interested, asked him: For what dost thou make request? על בּקּשׁ, to make request for or concerning a thing, like Ezr 8:23; Est 4:8; Est 7:7. The question shows that the king was inclined to relieve the distress of Jerusalem which had been just stated to him. "And so I prayed to the God of heaven," to ensure divine assistance in the request he was about to lay before the king. Then Nehemiah answered (Neh 2:5), "If it please the king, and if thy servant is well-pleasing before thee, (I beg) that thou wouldest send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers' sepulchres, that I may build it." לפני ייטב, here and Est 5:14, is of like meaning with בּעיני ייטב or טּוב, Est 8:5; Sa2 18:4 : if thy servant is right in thine eyes, i.e., if he thinks rightly concerning the matter in question. The matter of his request is directly combined with this conditional clause by אשׁר, the connecting term, I beg, being easily supplied from the king's question: For what dost thou beg?
The king and the queen, who was sitting near him (שׁגל, Psa 45:10), grant him permission to depart after he has, in answer to their inquiry, fixed the period of his absence. Nehemiah makes the result of the conversation, "And it pleased the king," etc., follow immediately upon the question of the king and queen: For how long shall thy journey be, and when wilt thou return? before telling us what was his answer to this question, which is not brought in till afterwards, so that זמן לו ואתּנה must be understood as expressing: since I had determined the time.
Hereupon Nehemiah also requested from the king letters to the governors beyond (west of) the river (Euphrates), to allow him to travel unmolested through their provinces to Judah (לי יתּנוּ, let them give me = let there be given me; העביר, to pass or travel through a country, comp. Deu 3:20); and a letter to Asaph, the keeper (inspector) of the royal forests, to give him timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple, and for the walls of the city, and for the governor's own house. These requests were also granted. פּרדּס in Sol 4:13; Ecc 2:5, signifies a park or orchard; it is a word of Aryan origin (in Armenian pardez, the garden round the house, in Greek παράδεισος), and is explained either from the Sanscrit parta-da, a superior district, or (by Haug) from the Zend. pairi-daza, a fenced-in place. In Old-Persian it probably denoted the king's pleasure-grounds, and in our verse a royal wood or forest. Of the situation of this park nothing reliable can be ascertained. As wood for extensive buildings was to be taken from it, the sycamore forest in the low plains, which had been the property of King David (Ch1 27:28), and became, after the overthrow of the Davidic dynasty, first a Babylonian, and then a Persian possession, may be intended.
(Note: Older expositors supposed a regio a Libano ad Antilibanum protensa et arboribus amoenissimus consita to be meant. In this view, indeed, they followed Sol 4:13, but incorrectly. Cler. thought it to be a tractus terrarum in Judaea, qui Paradisus regius dicebatur. Josephus speaks (Ant. viii. 7. 3) of fine gardens and ponds at Etham, seven miles south of Jerusalem, where Solomon often made pleasure excursions. Hence Ewald (Gesch. iv. p. 169, comp. iii. p. 328) thinks that the פּרדּס which belonged to the king must have been Solomon's old royal park at Aetham, which in the time of Nehemiah had become a Persian domain, and that the hill town lying not far to the west of it, and now called by the Arabs Fureidis, i.e., paradisaic, may have received its Hebrew name Beth-Kerem, i.e., house of vineyards, from similar pleasure-grounds. Hereupon Bertheau grounds the further conjecture, that "the whole district from Aetham to the hill of Paradise, situate about a league east-south-east of Aetham, may from its nature have been once covered with forest; and no hesitation would be felt in connecting the name of the mountain Gebel el-Fureidis or el-Feridis (Paradise-hill - hill which rises in a Pardes) with the Pardes in question, if it could be proved that this name was already in existence in prae-Christian times." All these conjectures rest on very uncertain bases. The Dshebel Fureidis is also called the Hill of the Franks. See the description of it in Robinson's Palestine, ii. p. 392f., and Tobler, Topographie von Jerusalem, ii. pp. 565-572.)
לקרות, to timber, to overlay, to cover with beams (comp. Ch2 34:11) the gates of the citadel which belongs to the house, i.e., to the temple. This citadel - בּירה, in Greek Βᾶρις - by the temple is mentioned here for the first time; for in Ch1 29:1, Ch1 29:19, the whole temple is called בּירה. It was certainly situate on the same place where Hyrcanus I, son of Simon Maccabaeus, or the kings of the Asmonean race, built the akro'polis and called it Baris (Jos. Ant. xv. 11. 4, comp. with xviii. 4. 3). This was subsequently rebuilt by Herod when he repaired and enlarged the temple, and named Antonia, in honour of his friend Mark Antony. It was a citadel of considerable size, provided with corner towers, walls, chambers, and spacious courts, built on a north-western side of the external chambers of the temple, for the defence of that edifice, and did not extend the entire length of the north side of the present Haram, as Robinson (see Biblical Researches, p. 300) seeks to show; comp., on the other hand, Tobler, Topographic von Jerusalem, i. p. 688f., and Rosen, Haram von Jerusalem, p. 25f. וּלחומת is coordinate with לקרות: "and for the walls of the city;" the timber not being used for building the wall itself, but for the gates (Neh 3:3, Neh 3:6). "And for the house into which I come (to dwell)." This must be Nehemiah's official residence as Pecha. For though it is not expressly stated in the present chapter that Nehemiah was appointed Pecha (governor) by Artaxerxes, yet Nehemiah himself tells us, Neh 5:14, that he had been Pecha from the twentieth year of Artaxerxes. Former governors had perhaps no official residence becoming their position. By לבּית the temple cannot, as older expositors thought, be intended. This request also was granted by the king, "according to the good hand of my God upon me;" comp. rem. on Ezr 7:6.
Nehemiah delivered the letter when he came to the governors on this side Euphrates. The king had also sent with him captains of the army and horsemen. The second half of Neh 2:9 contains a supplementary remark, so that ויּשׁלח must be expressed by the pluperfect. Ezra had been ashamed to request a military escort from the Persian monarch (Ezr 8:22); but the king gave to the high dignitary called Pecha a guard of soldiers, who certainly remained with him in Jerusalem also for his protection (Ezr 4:17). Besides these, there were in his retinue his brethren, i.e., either relations or fellow-countrymen, and servants, comp. Neh 4:10; Neh 5:10. That this retinue is not mentioned in the present verses, is owing to the fact that the journey itself is not further described, but only indirectly alluded to.
When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite heard of his coming, it caused them great annoyance (להם ירע is strengthened by גּדולה רעה, as in Jon 4:1) that a man (as Nehemiah expresses himself ironically from their point of view) was come to seek the welfare of the children of Israel. Sanballat is called the Horonite either after his birthplace or place of residence, yet certainly not from Horonaim in Moab, as older expositors imagined (Isa 15:5; Jer 48:34), since he would then have been called a Moabite, but from either the upper or nether Beth-horon, formerly belonging to the tribe of Ephraim (Jos 16:3, Jos 16:5; Jos 18:13), and therefore in the time of Nehemiah certainly appertaining to the region of the Samaritans (Berth.). Tobiah the Ammonite is called העבד, the servant, probably as being a servant or official of the Persian king. These two individuals were undoubtedly influential chiefs of the neighbouring hostile nations of Samaritans and Ammonites, and sought by alliances with Jewish nobles (Neh 6:17; Neh 13:4, Neh 13:28) to frustrate, whether by force or stratagem, the efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah for the internal and external security of Judah. Nehemiah mentions thus early their annoyance at his arrival, by way of hinting beforehand at their subsequent machinations to delay the fortifying of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah's arrival at Jerusalem. He surveys the wall, and resolves to restore it. - Neh 2:11 Having arrived at Jerusalem and rested three days (as Ezra had also done, Ezr 8:32), he arose in the night, and some few men with him, to ride round the wall of the city, and get a notion of its condition. His reason for taking but few men with him is given in the following sentence: "I had told no man what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem." Although he had come to Jerusalem with the resolution of fortifying the city by restoring its circumvallation, he spoke of this to no one until he had ascertained, by an inspection of the wall, the magnitude and extent of the work to be accomplished. For, being aware of the hostility of Sanballat and Tobiah, he desired to keep his intention secret until he felt certain of the possibility of carrying it into execution. Hence he made his survey of the wall by night, and took but few men with him, and those on foot, for the sake of not exciting attention. The beast on which he rode was either a horse or a mule.
"And I went out by night by the valley-gate, and towards the dragon-well, and to the dung-gate." אל־פּני, in the direction towards. The dragon-well only occurs here by this name. Judging from its position between the valley-gate and the dung-gate, it is either identical with the well of Gihon (Robinson, Palestine, ii. p. 166), whose waters supply the upper and lower pools in the valley of Gihon, the present Birket el Mamilla and Birket es Sultan, or situate in its immediate neighbourhood. The valley-gate is the modern gate of the city leading to the valley of Gihon, and situated at or near the present Jaffa gate; see rem. on Neh 3:13. The dung-gate (האשׁפּת שׁער), which in Neh 3:13 also is placed next the valley-gate, and was a thousand cubits distant therefrom, must be sought for on the south-western side of Zion, where a road, to the south of Nebi Dd and the Zion gate, now descends into the valley of Hinnom, towards Sr Baher. "And I viewed the walls of Jerusalem which lay broken down, and its gates which were consumed by fire." The word שׁבר, which the lxx read, "I was breaking down," gives no tolerable sense; for it cannot mean, I broke through the walls, or, I made a path through the ruins. Many MSS, however, and several editions, offer שׂבר; and R. Norzi informs us that D. Kimchi and Aben Ezra read שׁבר. שׂבר, of which only the Piel occurs in Hebrew, answers to the Aramaean סבר, to look to something; and to the Arabic sbr, to investigate; and ב סבר means to look on, to consider, to direct the eyes and thoughts to some object. In the open מ of הם Hiller conjectures that there is a trace of another reading, perhaps מפרצים; comp. Neh 1:3.
"And I went on to the fountain-gate, and to the king's pool, and there was no room for the beast to come through under me." The very name of the fountain-or well-gate points to the foundation of Siloah (see rem. on Neh 3:15); hence it lay on the eastern declivity of Zion, but not in the district or neighbourhood of the present Bb el Mogharibeh, in which tradition finds the ancient dung-gate, but much farther south, in the neighbourhood of the pool of Siloah; see rem. on Neh 3:15. The King's pool is probably the same which Josephus (bell. Jud. v. 4. 2) calls Σολομῶνος κολυμβήθρα, and places east of the spring of Siloah, and which is supposed by Robinson (Palestine, ii. pp. 149, 159) and Thenius (das vorexil. Jerus., appendix to a commentary on the books of the Kings, p. 20) to be the present Fountain of the Virgin. Bertheau, however, on the other hand, rightly objects that the Fountain of the Virgin lying deep in the rock, and now reached by a descent of thirty steps, could not properly be designated a pool. He tries rather to identify the King's pool with the outlet of a canal investigated by Tobler (Topogr. i. p. 91f.), which the latter regards as a conduit for rain-water, fluid impurities, or even the blood of sacrificed animals; but Bertheau as an aqueduct which, perhaps at the place where its entrance is now found, once filled a pool, of which, indeed, no trace has as yet been discovered. But apart from the difficulty of calling the outlet of a canal a pool (Arnold in Herzog's Realencycl. xviii. p. 656), the circumstance, that Tobler could find in neither of the above-described canals any trace of high antiquity, tells against this conjecture. Much more may be said in favour of the view of E. G. Schultz (Jerusalem, p. 58f.), that the half-choked-up pool near Ain Silwan may be the King's pool and Solomon's pool; for travellers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mention a piscina grandis foras and natatoria Silo at the mouth of the fountain of Siloah (comp. Leyrer in Herzog's Realencycl. xvi. p. 372). See also rem. on Neh 3:15. Here there was no room for the beast to get through, the road being choked up with the ruins of the walls that had been destroyed, so that Nehemiah was obliged to dismount.
Then I (went on) ascending the valley and viewing the wall, and so entered by the valley-gate, and returned. ואהי with the participle expresses the continuance of an action, and hence in this place the continuous ascent of the valley and survey of the wall. The נחל which he ascended was doubtless the valley of Kidron (קדרון נחל, Sa2 20:23; Kg1 2:37, and elsewhere). ואבוא ואשׁוּב are connected, שׁוּב expressing merely the idea of repetition (Gesenius, heb. Gram. 142, 3): I came again into the valley-gate. Older expositors incorrectly explain these words to mean, I turned round, traversing again the road by which I had come; Bertheau: I turned to go farther in a westerly direction, and after making the circuit of the entire city, I re-entered by the valley-gate. This sense is correct as to fact, but inadmissible, as requiring too much to complete it. If we take אשׁוּב adverbially, these completions are unnecessary. Nehemiah does not give the particulars of the latter portion of his circuit, but merely tells us that after having ascended the valley of Kidron, he re-entered by the valley-gate, and returned to his residence, obviously assuming, that from the upper part of the vale of Kidron he could only return to the valley-gate at the west by passing along the northern part of the wall.
He had spoken to no one of his purpose (Neh 2:12); hence the rulers of the city knew neither whither he was going nor what he was doing (i.e., undertaking) when he rode by night out of the city gate accompanied by a few followers. As yet he had said nothing either to the Jews (the citizens of Jerusalem), the priests, the nobles, the rulers, or the rest who did the work. החרים and הסּגנים are connected, as in Ezr 9:2 השּׂרים and הסּגנים. The nobles (חרים, nobiles) or princes are the heads of the different houses or races of the people; סגנים, the rulers of the town, the authorities. המּלאכה עשׂה, the doers of the work, are the builders; comp. Ezr 3:9. When these are, in comparison with the priests, nobles, and rulers, designated as יתר, the remnant, this is explained by the fact that the priests and rulers of the people were not actively engaged in building. המּלאכה, the work in question, i.e., here the building of the walls. כּן עד, until thus, i.e., until now, until the time apparent from the context. Nehemiah then, having inspected the condition of the ruined walls, and being now persuaded of the possibility of restoring them, made known his resolution to the nobles, the rulers, and the community, i.e., to a public assembly called together for this purpose (Neh 2:17). "Ye see (have before your eyes, know from experience) the distress that we are in, that Jerusalem lieth waste: come (לכוּ), let us build up the walls of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach." In other words: Let us by building our walls put an end to the miserable condition which gives our adversaries occasion to reproach us.
To gain the favourable regard of the assembly for his design, he informs them how God had so far prospered his undertaking: I told them of the hand of my God, that it = that the hand my God had graciously provided for me, i.e., that God had so graciously arranged my journey to Jerusalem; and the king's words that he had spoken to me, sc. with respect to the building of the wall, of which we are told Neh 2:8 only thus much, that the king gave orders to the keeper of the royal forest to give him wood for building. Encouraged by this information, the assembly exclaimed, "Let us arise and build;" and "they strengthened their hands for good," i.e., they vigorously set about the good work.
When the adversaries of the Jews heard this, they derided their resolution. Beside Sanballat and Tobiah (comp. Neh 2:10), Geshem the Arabian is also named as an adversary: so, too, Neh 6:1-2, and Neh 6:6, where Gashmu, the fuller pronunciation of his name, occurs. He was probably the chief of some Arab race dwelling in South Palestine, not far from Jerusalem (comp. the Arabians, Neh 6:1). These enemies ironically exclaimed: What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king? The irony lies in the fact that they did not give the Jews credit for power to build fortifications, so as to be able to rebel. Comp. Neh 6:6, where Sanballat, in an open letter to Nehemiah, again reproaches them with rebellion.
Nehemiah replied with impressive gravity: "The God of heaven, He will prosper us, and we His servants will arise and build; but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial in Jerusalem." צדקה like Sa2 19:29. זכּרון, memorial; only members of the congregation, who may hope to live in their descendants in Jerusalem, can be said to have a memorial there.