But no; Nehemiah’s heart was in Jerusalem, he preferred Jerusalem above his chief joy. All the time he had been absent he had been hungering for news, and receiving none; there were no posts across the vast deserts, nor did he live in these luxurious days when the heartache of anxiety may be relieved and set at rest by a telegram. What had been going on in his absence? Were the Samaritans quiet, or had Sanballat and Tobiah taken the opportunity afforded by his absence, and invaded Jerusalem? And the people; how were they? Were they keeping the solemn covenant which had been sealed in his presence? Were they continuing to serve and obey the Heavenly King? All this, and much more, Nehemiah longed to hear.
He is therefore only too thankful when, after spending a year in Persia, Artaxerxes gives him leave to return as governor of Jerusalem.
’In the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes, King of Babylon, came I unto the king, and after certain days obtained I leave of the king.
‘After certain days.’ This is a common expression in the Bible for a year. The same Hebrew word is translated a whole year in many other passages, e.g. Lev. xxv. 29, Num. ix. 22. Thus we may safely conclude that a year was the length of time that Nehemiah was absent from Jerusalem.
As soon as he had received the king’s permission, Nehemiah left the lovely City of Lilies behind, and set out once more across the desert for Jerusalem. Probably no one there knew when he was coming, or whether he was coming at all. When Nehemiah left the city he possibly had no idea that he would be allowed to return, but expected that his royal master would again require his services as Rab-shakeh in the palace of Shushan; nor was it likely that any news had reached the city of the permission given him to return. Suddenly, one day, a small cavalcade of camels, mules, and donkeys arrived at the northern gate, and the news spread through the city that Nehemiah the governor had returned. Was this intelligence received with unmixed joy and thankfulness, or were there some in the city to whom it came as anything but pleasant tidings?
No sooner has the governor arrived than he begins to look round the city, to see and to inquire how all has been going on in his absence. He goes up to the temple, and no sooner has he entered the gate leading into the outer court, than he notices that the whole appearance of the place is changed. The temple enclosure looks empty and deserted; a few priests in their white robes are moving about, but where is the company of Levites who used to wait upon them, and help them in their work?
Nehemiah had left no less than 284 Levites in the temple, now he cannot see one of them. And, not only does he miss those Levites, whose duty it was to attend upon the priests, but he misses also the temple singers; the sons of Asaph and their companions are nowhere to be seen. The temple choir has entirely disappeared, and the services have accordingly languished. As Nehemiah looks round the whole place appears to him quiet, empty, and dismal. Nothing seems to be going on, all is apparently at a standstill.