This week's lesson covers Nehemiah 2:1-10. Since I'm giving the lecture tomorrow I don't want to repeat it here, so instead l'm going to hop down the bunny trail chasing some elusive red herrings, to share some background speculation developed in the course of my preparation for tomorrow.
Nehemiah identifies himself at the end of chapter 1 as the cupbearer to the King. This position was given only to someone whose loyalty was unquestioned. Artaxerxes' father, Xerxes, had been murdered by the captain of his personal bodyguard so Artaxerxes was painfully aware of the potential for treachery in those who were closest to him.
Interestingly, Nehemiah is not Persian but a descendant of Jewish exiles. On the principle "keep your friends close and your enemies closer" the Kings of Babylon and Persia placed members of prominent Jewish families in their court so they could keep an eye on them, insure their loyalty and take advantage of their skills.
Four months passed between the events in chapter 1, which took place at Susa, and Nehemiah's conversation with King Artaxerxes in chapter 2. They were probably not in Susa, which was the winter palace. Courts moved around frequently to take advantage of better weather (too hot in Susa in the spring and summer!) and to reinforce their control over different parts of the empire.
There may have been more than one cupbearer. If so, its possible that Nehemiah did not have a chance to serve the king personally until this encounter. On the other hand maybe he was in the king's presence consistently but sensed (a holy nudge?) that this was the time to invite the king to speak to him by showing sadness. Certainly you did not speak to the king unless spoken to so Nehemiah had to wait for the king to recognize him before he could make his request.
Some commentators have noted that the queen was present at the time of this conversation and speculated that her presence was helpful to Nehemiah and showed that he had a trusted relationship with her as well which would make it a good time to have this discussion with the king. Persian queens had a good deal of influence so she could have been helpful, but scripture doesn't tell us that.
In my research I found speculation that Nehemiah was a eunuch because extra-biblical sources indicate that was required for any male servant who had interaction with the wives and female relatives of the ruler. Nehemiah doesn't mention any family in his memoirs so that could be possible since it was almost unheard of for Jewish males not to marry.
These are some interesting rabbit trails and possible red herrings. But tomorrow I'm going to focus on the two-fold call of God: to faith and service and to a particular task. See you then!