In Nehemiah 2:1-5, we read the following delicate exchange between Nehemiah and the Persian king whom he served, one that has often been fascinating to me on a variety of levels: “And it came to pass in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, that I took the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had never been sad in his presence before. Therefore the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This is nothing but sorrow of heart.” So I became dreadfully afraid, and said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire?” Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.””
For a privileged courtier, Nehemiah was in a delicate position. The Persian ruler whom he served had the power of life and death over his servants, and it was thought that the privilege of serving such a personage as the Persian king was enough that one should not be sad. Yet Nehemiah was sad, because he had reflected upon the ruined state of Jerusalem (see Nehemiah 1) and he knew that Jerusalem remained largely in ruins, even though some of the Jews had returned there decades ago to attempt to rebuilt. Yet Nehemiah, who is nothing if not a quick thinker (certainly with some inspiration from the Holy Spirit here), frames his sadness in terms of a desire to rebuild his ancestral homeland, the place of his fathers’ tombs. Given that this is the only time such a matter is mentioned in the book of Nehemiah, and the previous chapter gives the deeper reasons for his sadness, it has nonetheless struck me as rather peculiar that Nehemiah would think of a place, or talk of a place, as being the place of his fathers’ tombs, a matter that is considerably more unfamiliar to us.
For Nehemiah clearly had other matters in mind. When he went to Jerusalem, for example, among the first things he looked at was the wall, and it was rebuilding the wall to make Jerusalem a defensible site that was a very early order of business for Nehemiah as the provincial governor of Judea. Likewise, Nehemiah was deeply concerned with matters of obedience to God’s laws that threatened the survival of his people, including such matters as exploiting the poor, disregarding the Sabbath, and making political marriages with nonbelievers among the Gentile peoples around. Yet in order to say that he wanted to honor the place of his fathers’ tombs, something that would be within the context of the 5th Commandment, he must have had the matter in mind, or must have realized that it would be easy to use that explanation in order to communicate his own concern for his heritage and place of origin.
For I too ponder, often, the place of my fathers’ tombs. Every time I have been to the area of my birth since 2004, it has been because of a death in the family. In 2006, I traveled to my father’s funeral. The next year, I traveled to the funeral of my paternal grandmother. Now the memorial service of my step-grandfather summons me to the place of my fathers’ tombs, a place where many of my ancestors, particularly on my father’s side, are dead and buried. At least Nehemiah was able to rebuild the waste cities, with the help of God. I am not sure what it would take for my thoughts and memories of my birthplace and the place of my fathers’ tombs to be more pleasant. Perhaps too much has happened at this point, but in the meantime, my attention from time to time, and occasionally even my presence, results from the honor I seek to give to those who came before me. Hopefully that is enough.