|Photo by Anar, British Museum, London|
No sooner to you begin to read the book of Nehemiah, and he receives bad news: Jerusalem’s inhabitants are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire (Nehemiah 1:3b).
Now, Nehemiah is the Persian king’s cupbearer; and the Israelites are suffering back home. This is what he did when he heard the news: I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven (1:4b). This was the correct response.
How often do we respond in the right way?
Many times we react:
- In anger
- With frustration
- Lashing out against God for allowing such a thing into our lives
- Or, we don’t give ourselves time—or permission—to grieve.
Notice again what Nehemiah did, when he heard that the folks back home in the capital city were in a bad way:
- He grieved. (He gave himself several days to do so.)
- He fasted and prayed. (Nehemiah went to God with a very serious attitude, knowing that God could fix the problem, if He chose.)
I love his prayer! I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments. Notice the reverence Nehemiah shows when he prays. He addresses God as the Yahweh of heaven, as great and terrible (meaning “awesome”). Then, Nehemiah credits God with always keeping His promises and showing mercy to those who trust Him. It reminds me of Jesus’ model prayer: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth (Luke 11:2).
Then, Nehemiah tells the Lord what he wants. Look how he begins: I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses (1:6-7). He starts by confessing sin and pleading for his people.
When we get bad news, we usually think more about the news than about why it might be happening. Could it possibly be because of God’s judgment of sin? Even if it’s not, sin in one’s life hinders prayer. If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me (Psalm 66:18). Nehemiah knew he needed a clean heart, so that he could ask great things of God.
Here’s his request: Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand. O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king’s cupbearer (1:10-11). At this point, we’re not sure what Nehemiah is going to ask the king, but he’s asking God to work in the relationship he has with the king of Persia. Nehemiah was his cupbearer—basically the food taster—a position of trust. The king trusted him, just as he would trust a bodyguard. But, Nehemiah wants special consideration for his petition, and he asks God to work.
When Nehemiah received bad news, he grieved, prayed, and he asked God to help him remedy the situation. He planned to act. All he needed was a leave of absence from the king. He asked God to prosper his request.
God did, but in a unique way. In those days, one risked capital punishment for showing personal emotions in the king’s presence. But, Nehemiah couldn’t hide his sorrow, and the king said to him, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? This is nothing else but sorrow of heart (2:2).
Then I was very sore afraid, And said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire? (2:2b-3)
Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? (2:4)
Notice Nehemiah’s response: So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it (2:4b-5).
And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? And when wilt thou return? (2:6a)
And, here’s Nehemiah’s answer to prayer: So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time (2:6b).
What are some of the practical lessons we can learn from Nehemiah’s example?
- Let yourself grieve. It’s natural to do so. Surely he (Jesus) hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4).
- Pray. Be serious about turning to God. Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us. Selah (Psalm 62:8).
- Confess sin. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
- Ask God to work. And the LORD shall help them, and deliver them: he shall deliver them from the wicked, and save them, because they trust in him (Psalm 37:40).
- When God puts you in the position to do something about the problem, do it. So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days (2:11).
- Expect opposition. When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel (2:10).
I firmly believe that life isn’t easy because God wants us to depend upon Him daily. When God smooths the way for us one day, that doesn’t mean it will remain an easy path. This was true for Nehemiah. He had his critics—with armies to back them up—but God was behind Nehemiah and his task, and the Lord protected him. The walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt, and God protected His people.