After praying for success and mercy in the sight of [the king] for four months (1.11, 1.1 cf. 2.1), Nehemiah now has his opportunity. Occupying the important and privileged role of cupbearer to the king, he was somewhere between a bodyguard and official wine-taster-poison-preventer. The dates given in these opening chapters might seem trivial, but line them up with Daniel 9.25 and they are spectacularly interesting!
Nehemiah was evidently preoccupied with his prayers and the king notices (v.2). Culturally and contextually, it was almost forbidden to look sad in the presence of the king because, as tradition taught, he was so wonderful that simply being there in his presence would take away any ill-feeling you might have. Nehemiah has his moment to share what is on his heart, and the two talk it over,
I replied to the king, “O king, live forever! Why would I not appear dejected when the city with the graves of my ancestors lies desolate and its gates destroyed by fire?”
4 The king responded, “What is it you are seeking?”
Then I quickly prayed to the God of heaven 5 and said to the king, “If the king is so inclined and if your servant has found favor in your sight, dispatch me to Judah, to the city with the graves of my ancestors, so that I can rebuild it.”
6 Then the king, with his consort sitting beside him, replied, “How long would your trip take, and when would you return?”
Since the king was pleased to send me, I gave him a time. 7 I said to the king, “If the king is so inclined, let him give me letters for the governors of Trans-Euphrates that will enable me to travel safely until I reach Judah, 8 and a letter for Asaph the keeper of the king’s nature preserve, so that he will give me timber for beams for the gates of the fortress adjacent to the temple and for the city wall and for the house to which I go.”
So the king granted me these requests, for the good hand of my God was on me.
We see here that God can work powerfully through the not-yet believers in our lives (v.8). After seeing the need, after being moved to care, after his time of prayer, came his action. Nehemiah then goes, and arrives Beyond the River and presents letters from the king (v.9), but not everyone is so welcoming (v.10). He then arrives in Jerusalem (v.11), and makes an information-gathering journey around the walls alone to find out what needs doing and how he plans to go about it (vv.12-16).
Having established a plan, he seeks the essential buy-in of the people by showing them the vision, by sharing with them the envisioned end goal,
Then I said to them, “You see the problem that we have—Jerusalem is desolate and its gates are burned. Come on! Let’s rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that this reproach will not continue.” 18 Then I related to them how the good hand of my God was on me and what the king had said to me.
Then they replied, “Let’s begin rebuilding right away!” So they readied themselves for this good project.
vv.17-18, (NET), emphasis added
The chapter finishes with some push-back from Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah thee Ammonite servant and Geshem the Arab (vv.10, 19). The first two objectors are, ironically, Jewish and have connections to the priesthood (Nehemiah 13.4, 28). They ought to have been supporting the work, but they are pushing back.
The Word teaches us very clearly that spiritual opposition is a real thing (Ephesians 6.12), and that it can often come in the form of real people (Matthew 16.23).
Thankfully for you and for me, Jesus took on human flesh to experience every possible opposition that we might face (Hebrews 4.15), and then as Paul writes to the Colossians, Jesus has disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame (Colossians 2.15).
This means for you and for me, that when spiritual opposition rises up through the very real people around us, it has no power over you or holds no sway over you, other than that which you allow it to have. This is not a positive-thinking-self-actualising thing, but a straight from the Word of God reality thing. Because Jesus did what He did, and is who He is, our response to spiritual pushback can be the same as Nehemiah here,
The God of heaven will make us to be powerful, to come forcefully against the opposition.