Nehemiah: A Man of Prayer and Action
Kathleen Nielson writes, “Nehemiah is not only telling the story of the Jewish people. He is telling above all, the story of God at work among His people, accomplishing His sovereign plan to preserve them and bless the nations through them, as He promised Abraham.” (Nehemiah Rebuilt and Rebuilding – page xiii.) At the time of Ezra, the Jewish remnant has re-established the temple, but the rest of the city still remains in ruins. We now meet Nehemiah, the man God used to lead the rebuilding of the city wall. Who was Nehemiah? Unlike Ezra, who was a priest, Nehemiah was a lay-person. He could have been born and raised in Persia. In Nehemiah 1:11, Nehemiah tells us that he was a cupbearer to king Artaxerxes. He protected the king’s life with his own life, tasting the king’s wine for poison. He was trusted. He was in a very influential position. He had access to the king, yet it was also a very dangerous job.
Nehemia 1:2 tells us that Nehemiah received visitors from Judah. Like all expats, he is anxious for news from home. Nehemiah inquired about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s heart was with the people of God. He cared about their welfare despite him being very comfortable in the king’s courts in Persia. He later showed that he not only cared but was willing to risk his life and take action. Nehemiah 1:3 gives us the answer to Nehemiah’s questions: ‘They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”’
Jerusalem was in ruins. Is this not the state of our souls also in ruins apart from Christ? Man made in God’s image is ruined, corrupted by sin, and porous to the effects of the sinful world. In Ephesians chapter 2 verse 1 we read: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” We were dead in sin, walking according to the ways of the world. Sin separated us from God. However, God who is rich in mercy made us alive through Christ. It is God who restores. We like Jerusalem are not able to restore ourselves. None of us can secure our own ‘walls’. Church attendance, good works, baptism, being in a Christian family cannot secure us eternal life. It is only by Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead that we are made alive when we repent of our sins and have a personal relationship with Him. Only in Christ are we secure. We need another to die for us in order to reconcile us to God.
Nehemiah was burdened by the response he got. He could have ignored the report from Hanani and the men who came from Judah, after all he was not directly affected. He could have received the news simply as information. Let us see his reaction in Neh 1:4: “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”
He wept because of what the wall and the gates symbolized. The wall gave them protection from their enemies. The glory of God was also at stake. God’s name was being dragged into the dust. God’s reputation is tied to His people. The world looked at them and questioned where their God was. In Lamentation 2:15-16 we read: ‘“All who pass your way clap their hands at you; they scoff and shake their heads at the Daughter of Jerusalem: “Is this city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole earth?”’
Nehemiah did not just inquire, weep and mourn. He fasted and prayed. He prayed to the One who was able to do something for His people. This was not a brief prayer, Neh 1:4 says ‘for some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven’. From the month of Chislev in Neh 1:1 to the month of Nisan in Neh 2:1 when he appeared before king Artaxerxes, it was four months. Nehemiah mentions the attributes of God as he prays. He is saturated with the word of God, hence was able to pray through the word. How well do we know God’s word to be able to hold Him to His promises? In Neh1:5 Nehemiah begins with ‘O LORD, God of heaven’, the combination of the names of God meaning he is the God of Israel, the covenant keeping God, the character of God, his steadfast love and faithfulness. Look at Nehemiah 6-7: Nehemiah confesses the sins of Israel, his own sins and that of his father’s house. Nehemiah is not judgmental; he includes himself. “We have acted corruptly against you and not kept your commandments.” It was sin that brought them to their present state. He acknowledges that it is sin that has landed them in the state they found themselves in. However, in Neh 1:8-9 Nehemiah reminds God of the covenant He had made with His people. “Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’” The remnant is back in Jerusalem, but their dwelling place is still in ruins.
Nehemiah’s success was answer to prayer. God listens to our prayers and answers prayer. God uses prayer as the means by which he accomplishes his plan. Prayer transforms our hearts and causes us to be dependant on Him.
“Give your servant success today and grant him mercy in the sight of this man” Neh 1:11. The first attempt to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem was stopped. Nehemiah knew that unless God moves the heart of king Artaxerxes, his request will not get a favourable answer. His request might even cost him his job as cupbearer or his life.
In Nehemiah 2 we see that Nehemiah had mapped out a plan of action during the time that he fasted and prayed. Nehemiah planned to go back to Jerusalem. He was willing to leave his comfort and his successful career. Nehemiah the cupbearer was willing to become Nehemiah the builder for God’s glory! However, he knew the journey would not be without obstacles and the work he was going to undertake required resources. Nehemiah prepares for that. He makes requests to the king. We see in Neh 2:4 that even as Nehemiah makes the request, he prays before he gives an answer to the king. “Then the king said to me, ‘What are you requesting?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king….” This short, quick prayer shows that Nehemiah was totally dependant on God.
Having found favour before the king, in Neh 2:5-8 Nehemiah goes ahead and lays his requests before king Artaxerxes. Nehemiah’s requests to the king were: Permission to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. (Nehemiah also set the time, because he had a time frame in mind.) He further asked for letters to the governors of the Trans-Euphrates so that they would provide him safe-conduct until he arrived in Judah; and also a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, so that he would supply Nehemiah with the timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence he would occupy. Notice how bold Nehemiah became later as their conversation progressed—no fear. Neh 2:8 simply starts with “And may I” instead of “if it pleases”.
Nehemiah knew that ultimately, it was God who gave him favour before the king, he acknowledges God’s hand in all this. Neh 2:8(c) “And because of the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests.” Proverbs 21:1 tells us that: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” In Nehemiah 2:9(b) the king gave Nehemiah more than he requested. We read that: “The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me.” In Nehemiah 2:10, Nehemiah encounters early signs of opposition before the work had even kicked off. You will meet Sanballat and Tobiah in the coming chapters. Whatever is done for the LORD is not without opposition.
When facing challenges in life where is your focus? Do you look at how big or difficult the situation is or do you look to God first? Prayer is a believer’s privilege. Do you utilize this prayer in whatever circumstance you find yourself? The Christian life is full of rebuilding of walls – grieving over sin and turning to God in repentance. Like Nehemiah, for whom God provided all that he needed to rebuild the walls, our salvation from first to last is dependant on God. It is Him who builds the walls and restores the city.
And it isn’t just individual wall building the Lord wants us to participate in. The United Christian Church of Dubai has the work of planting a church in RAK before us. The building project is starting from the scratch. Will you participate in building this wall? Will you give financial support? Will you give words of encouragement? Will you pray for protection and success?
Nehemiah was a man of prayer and action. May these things characterize our lives to the glory of God.