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Nehemiah 2:1 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, 2so 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, 3but 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?”

4The king said to me, “What is it you want?”

It went on and the king granted Nehemiah's requests.

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Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

(2) Then I was very sore afraid. His fear sprang from the king's abrupt inquiry. A sad countenance was never tolerated in the royal presence; and, though Artaxerxes was of a milder character than any other Persian monarch, the tone of his question showed that in this respect he was not an exception.

Nehemiah's fear was real and existential. He was afraid that his sad face might incur the wrath of the king. Pulpit went further to mention the possibility of instant death for Nehemiah.

Pulpit Commentary

Verse 2. - Few Persian monarchs would have been sufficiently interested in their attendants to notice whether they were sad or no; fewer still would have shown sympathy on such an occasion. A Xerxes might have ordered the culprit to instant execution. ... Notwithstanding the king's kind and compassionate words, Nehemiah feels his danger. He has looked sad in the king's presence. He is about to ask permission to quit the court. These are both sins against the fundamental doctrine of Persian court life, that to bask in the light of the royal countenance is the height of felicity. Will the king be displeased, refuse his request, dismiss him from his post, cast him into prison, or will he pardon his rudeness and allow his request?

Another example of the seriousness of near the king is in Esther 4:11

"All the king's officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives.

Making a Persian monarch sad could cost you your life. Such was the Persian court life. Medieval monarchs employed court jesters to make them laugh.

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I suspect this is simpler than it appears. The text of Neh 2:1 does NOT say that Nehemiah was afraid of the king, although that may have been part of the reason.

The primary cause of Nehemiah's fear was his overwhelming sense of duty and responsibility to his people and a realization that he had been called of God to do a work for the Jews in Jerusalem. He now has an opportunity to do this and he does not want to miss it.

Thus, I believe Nehemiah was afraid of not being adequate for the job and saying something to king that would spoil his chances of gaining royal approval to help the Jews. Nehemiah' sensed his human inadequacies and wanted to be sensitive to the leading of God.

Benson suggests something similar:

And he feared a disappointment, because his request was great and invidious, and odious to most of the Persian courtiers.

Barnes has a similar idea:

I was very sore afraid - A Persian subject was expected to be perfectly content so long as he had the happiness of being with his king. A request to quit the court was thus a serious matter.

Matthew Poole expresses it this way:

I was very sore afraid; partly, being daunted by the majesty of the king, and the suddenness and sharpness of his question; partly, fearing lest there was arising some jealousy or ill opinion in the king concerning him; partly, because it was an unusual and ungrateful thing to come into the king of Persia’s presence with any badges or tokens of sorrow, Esther 4:2; and principally, from his doubts or fears of disappointment, because his request was great and invidious, and odious to the most of the Persian courtiers, and might be represented as dangerous, and might seem improper for a time of feasting and jollity.

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