When we stopped in the story in my last post, Nehemiah had just received permission and favor from the king whom he served as cupbearer while in exile to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and city. He was granted a letter of safe passage and timber from the king’s own forests to rebuild the gates.
As we read the text in the Bible, the next scene is his arrival in his home city of Jerusalem. The thing I pause to consider is what the text does not include. How far was the journey and how long would it have taken him? It can be so easy for us today to give little thought to the distances from one place to another in the Bible and how long it would likely have taken them.
We would not have been talking highways, speed trains, buses, or planes. Even a roadway would have been primitive by our standards. If a person had the means, he might be blessed to ride on a donkey or perhaps a camel. Most of the time, the travel would be on foot for many of the people of that day.
We know Nehemiah was traveling from Susa, which was in Persia (modern day Iran) to Jerusalem. Historians tell us that he would have most likely taken the long overland route on what was known as the Persian Royal Road into northern Mesopotamia. He would then have needed to head west into Syro-Palestine to Jerusalem. The distance was about 900 miles and would have taken about four months.
The distance and difficulty of such a lengthy trip increases our understanding of why Nehemiah would have needed letters of safe passage through so many regions. Not all of the areas may have been friendly or at peace.
And where was the king’s forest he was permitted to harvest timber from for the gates? Again we look to historians for their guess. It is suspected that the forest was likely in Lebanon, which had been overtaken by the Persians in the sixth century B.C. There were also some areas of the coastal plain of Palestine that may have provided some of the timber needed. During those times the walls would have been made primarily of stone and mud brick, but timber was needed to stabilize the walls and for the gateways into and out of the city.
When I consider the trip, its length, danger, and requirements, I am impacted by the courage, tenacity, passion, and faith of Nehemiah. Prior to his role as a cupbearer, servant/slave of the king, there is no indication of his background. Yet because of his concern for his homeland, his name goes down in history and we hear of him.
How like God to choose an ordinary man whose heart was His to fulfill His purposes!
Today we can be tempted to look for the high profile persons among us for important roles or tasks. Very often these same people seek them for the added prestige it brings them, but not so with God. Time and time again, He demonstrates throughout the Bible that He chooses the youngest, the smallest, the weakest, the most lowly in station.
Clearly God had chosen Nehemiah for the task and the journey. It reminds me of the humbling His choice of any one of us truly is. It also takes my mind to God’s choice of David that we read about in 1 Samuel. Samuel was certain he would find the next king among Jesse’s sons when he arrived at his home. God reminded him in 1 Samuel 16:7 of a characteristic of His election we should all remember:
“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV)
You may doubt your value or usefulness to the Lord for any number of reasons, but look anywhere from Genesis to Revelation and you will discover the truth of God’s words to Samuel.
Join me again next time as we look at another characteristic of Nehemiah as he arrives in Jerusalem.