“Now I was cupbearer to the king…” – Nehemiah 1:11
Imagine a job where having a bad attitude doesn’t just get you reprimanded—it gets you executed.
Fifth century BC: Many of the Jews are still in exile in Persia. The Jerusalem wall has been destroyed, which means the Jews who have returned to Jerusalem are unprotected. They are being persecuted and murdered. They desperately need help from the Persian monarchy. They need an insider.
Nehemiah opens his account of the events by saying, “Now I was cupbearer to the king” (Neh 1:11 NRSV). This simple description reveals that God was already working to change the fate of the Hebrew exiles.
The New Bible Dictionary (NBD) entry on this term traces the history of cupbearers. In Egypt, cupbearers were often called “pure of hands” and, in one instance, “the one who tastes the wine.” Cupbearers protected the life of the Pharaoh. Their job was to detect poison. A cupbearer was a glorified guinea pig for any beverage served to the king. For this reason, cupbearers were often among the king’s most trusted servants.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary (HBD) points out that the Nehemiah story had a literary forerunner: the story of Joseph. The cupbearer to Pharaoh played a critical, providential role in Joseph’s rise. Here we find a biblical theme: God rescues His people by placing an insider in the court of foreign kings.
The king was so familiar with Nehemiah that he immediately read his cupbearer’s expression: “So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid” (Neh 2:2 NRSV). Nehemiah was usually in “good spirits,” even though he was a foreign slave tasked with a lethal duty every night. Was Nehemiah’s joy wine inflicted—an occupational hazard? And why was he afraid? John Peter Lange, in his Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, tells us that in Persian monarchs “everybody was expected to reflect the sunlight of the king’s majesty” (pg. 10). H.G.M. Williamson, in his Word Biblical Commentary, adds that a gloomy face could have been interpreted as plotting against the king (pg. 178). Nehemiah could have been executed. When Nehemiah told the king what was troubling him, and of his desire to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city wall, the king responded with grace. He trusted Nehemiah and his judgment.
Empowered by the king, Nehemiah the slave became Nehemiah the famed rebuilder of the Jerusalem wall. His job title hints at his humility, perseverance and courage. Nehemiah reminds us that no job position is unimportant and no duty is small—everything has a purpose.