After all, a cupbearer was an intimate advisor to the king as well as his personal bodyguard. More than one who pours drink, a cupbearer was in charge of the king’s vineyards, the entire industry and manufacture of the king’s drink, the servants involved, the royal culinary staff, and everything in between. In essence, he was to ensure the well-being of the royal house. In some cultures, cupbearers were to taste everything before the king to guarantee the absence of poisons with their own lives! If this central courtier had a sad or anxious countenance, surely something must be wrong, or perhaps an assassination attempt was in the works.
With the shift in his expression while serving the king, Nehemiah must explain his sad look with the utmost circumspection. He exercises tact in his speech—a quality of a good servant and a good leader. Here are some indications of Nehemiah’s tact:
i. Method: There is a certain art with the way Nehemiah speaks to the king. Firstly, the subjunctive phrase, “Let the king live forever,” is a refutation of any assassination attempt or discontent on Nehemiah’s part. Secondly, instead of defending himself or denying the accusation, Nehemiah responds with another inquiry either to solicit compassion or to convey the burden that God has placed on his heart. Christ never directly parleyed with His opponents, but instead often responded with another question. The method of answering is just as important as the content of the answer itself.
ii. Reason:Nehemiah appeals to the king’s human sympathies. His reference to his fathers’ sepulchers elicits emotions that transcend cultural boundaries, as all cultures mourn for their ancestors. He makes no allusion to politics with a mention of the city’s name (Jerusalem) which might conjure recollections of its controversial history (cf. Ezra 4:19, 20). In the king, rather than a political opponent, Nehemiah sees and responds to a fellow human being.
Tact is not agreeing with everyone around us as “yes-men” or compromisers. Nor does tact mean we lie and deceive. Tact, rather, is based on truth and character. It is understanding how to approach people in the way most likely to bring about the desired course of action. It uses the gifts of discernment to see what is right and wrong, while implementing the gifts of kindness and goodness to make what is right come about in a humane, loving, and godly manner.