In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” Nehemiah 2:1-4
The 3 Ts of Effective Leadership
Nehemiah fasted and prayed for four months before he was asked to bring wine to the king. As the cupbearer, Nehemiah’s sole responsibility in the palace was to bring wine to the king. He was also to taste the wine before giving to the king to make sure it was not poisonous. This meant that Nehemiah was a trusted official in the King’s court. He had to have been a loyal servant with a faithful and impressive character. As the cupbearer, Nehemiah was also responsible for choosing most of the food and wines the king and the court would enjoy. Because of the trust, the king invested in him, Nehemiah spent a lot of time in the presence of the king. The king knew him as well as anyone else. He knew when Nehemiah was happy and when he was sad. It was not unusual for the king to ask his cupbearer’s opinion on different matters coming before the king.
Yet it was unacceptable for anyone to be sad in the presence of the king. A sad countenance suggested that one was not pleased with the king. This would be considered an affront to the king who was thought of as a god by many people in his kingdom. “As was true in the courts of many ancient kings, the idea was that the king was such a wonderful person that merely being in his presence was supposed to make you forget all of your problems. When Nehemiah looked sad, it could have been taken as a terrible insult to the king.” In verse 2, the king asked Nehemiah, why his face looked so sad since Nehemiah did appear to be sick. Knowing Nehemiah as well as he did, the king concluded that Nehemiah suffered from the sadness of the heart. The verse ended with Nehemiah saying he was very afraid.
Nehemiah had a valid reason for being afraid. The fact that his sadness was so evident for the king to notice could have led to his execution. Nehemiah had never been sad or depressed in the presence of the king before. “Nehemiah was also afraid because he knew that he was going to the king for something very important.” This was no ordinary conversation. After four months of fasting and praying, a lot was riding on what was going to happen in response to this question. In verse 3, Nehemiah overcame his fear and presented his request to the king. He began with was probably the standard way of addressing the king, “May the king live forever.” Nehemiah had probably uttered theses word of platitude on countless occasions in the past. Scholars tell us this was probably a familiar slogan among professional cupbearers; “since they tasted the wine and food before the kid did, they naturally wished the king a good long life.”
Nehemiah respectfully responded to the kings’ question by sharing that his sadness was the result of the devastation in the city of his ancestors. Nehemiah used his words carefully. He appealed to the king’s grandeur and royal pride by highlighting that one of the cities in the king’s vast empire was a destroyed and disgraced city. “No one had to tell the king this was a disgraceful state of affairs; he would immediately sympathize with Nehemiah’s concern for the dignity, safety, and well-being of his people.” In his wisdom, Nehemiah refrained from mentioning the name of the city until the opportune time. He knew that a Persian king would naturally have a bad association with the name Jerusalem, which had a reputation of rebellious resistance against the Persians. He waited until he had the sympathy of the king on his side before revealing the name of the city (v. 5).
In his response to the king, Nehemiah demonstrates the three Ts of effective leadership. First, he had great timing. He prayed and fasted for four months. He waited for the king to start the conversation about his sadness before sharing his request with the king.
Second, Nehemiah had great tact. He spoke with the king with reverence, shared his concern, answered the king question, and waited until he got the sympathy of the king before mentioning the name “Jerusalem.” He also spoke of Jerusalem as a disgraced city within the Persian empire to appeal to the king’s sense of grandeur.
Third, he used his talent as a cupbearer effectively. Indeed, Nehemiah provided the king with such excellent service that the king immediately notices the fact that Nehemiah was sad. This indicates Nehemiah was careful to always be on his best behavior and offer the best service to the king.
Nehemiah did all of this while fighting the overwhelming sense of fear he experienced. We should not allow fear to prevent us from moving forward in life and living a purpose-driving life. Fear used wisely is but an existential fuel for accomplishing great things for those whose steps are ordered by God. That type of fear is not chronic or anxiety-prone. It comes from an adrenalin rush that alerts a person about the potential for danger. Indeed, Nehemiah acknowledges the potential danger of going before the king with a sad face. Yet he was determined to make his request known to God despite that fear because his faith was greater than his fear.
Blessed Lord, please guide our steps so our response to the brokenness around us can be Spirit-led.