Is prayer your first reaction or your last resort? Your first impulse or an afterthought? Some of us sometimes wonder if it is worth it. God knows what I need, so why should I bother Him? Someone else might say, I’ve been disappointed by prayer in the past, so why bother? Our answer to these questions is, because Nehemiah did. We read about him in his memoirs, which we find in our Old Testament. Let me give you some background . . .
It’s 444 BC (before Christ). The Persian empire is now in power and King Artaxerxes was its king. Israel had been in exile in Babylon for their disobedience to God for many, many years. But now, with the Persians coming into power, God sees to it that the first groups of exiles are allowed to return to Jerusalem where they would rebuild the Temple. However, the Babylonians had destroyed the entire city. Jerusalem had no city walls to protect it. The entire infrastructure of the city was in need of a redo.
Enter a Jewish fellow named Nehemiah. One day he asks his brother Hanani (who had just come from Jerusalem) how things were back home. Hanani says, Things are bad. The people are in great trouble and shame. They are being overrun. They have no defense against the enemy. Our nation could be on its way out. We are barely surviving.
Nehemiah is crushed by this news, and he weeps over his beloved Jerusalem. It is breaking his heart. The future of his people is at stake. God’s plan to use them as the blessing to the nations of the world (the light to the nations) could be at risk. Someone has to step up.
The first thing Nehemiah does is to go to his knees. He fasted and prayed for three months, and he waited for God to respond. Fasting is for focus as well as a sign of our penitence and our mourning over sin.
Look at Nehemiah’s prayer. He begins with reoriented prayer as he focuses on the greatness of God, referring to God as God of the heavens, great and awesome, a powerful One who is to be feared and keeps His covenant in steadfast love. He is faithful and hears my prayer. So hear my prayer.
After Nehemiah declares God’s greatness, he declares his own smallness as he moves into a time of confession. He acknowledges not only his people’s sin, but his family’s sin and his personal sin. God, I’m part of the problem here. I know you owe us nothing. So I come empty-handed confessing, seeking your forgiveness.
He also prays Scripture. Remember (a key word here), the word you spoke through Moses way back in the book of Deuteronomy, where you said, “If my people turn away from me, I will punish them. I will gather them and bring them to the place I have chosen to establish my name.” O Lord though they have sinned, they are your people whom you have redeemed. They delight in revering your name. They have rebuilt the Temple; they worship you; they still need your help, Lord. They need you to give them the peace you promised to establish them. So Lord, give success to me – Nehemiah, your servant – and give me mercy in the sight of the king. Use me to do Your will. Amen.
Chapter 1 ends with these words: “At that time, I was cupbearer to the king.” This was an very important position. The king trusted this person. The cupbearer had access to the king and influence. It brought all kinds of benefits. Nehemiah was cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia.
What happens next is amazing! Nehemiah fervently fasted and prayed for three months. One day the king, seeing the troubled look on Nehemiah’s face, asked him, “Why is your face sad?” Nehemiah explained his sadness and his desire to go back to Jerusalem and help his people rebuild the city. The king thinks about it, asks a couple more questions, and consults with his wife who was with him. Then he agrees to Nehemiah’s request. He also gives him letters of passport for safe passage, lumber and materials for the project, and an armed escort. Isn’t that something? Wow! Nehemiah’s prayer is being answered.
When he arrives, Nehemiah and his escorts take a night walk around the city. He examines the walls of the city. Then he sits down with the city officials and gives them a vision and a testimony of how God answered his prayer to come home and repair the city. The leaders buy into the plan and began work to restore the walls of Jerusalem. This battered little community, under Nehemiah’s leadership, eagerly and passionately went to work to restore their holy city.
As we read on in the story, we find it wasn’t an easy task by any means. Some days it seemed impossible. One thing I’ve learned along the way (you probably have too) is carrying out God’s mission is never easy. Nehemiah faced opposition from three men named Samballat, Tobiah, and Geshem who were fearful of losing political and economic control over the area. They didn’t want to see this wall go up and attempted to stop the whole project with a variety of tactics.
• They tried intimidation telling Nehemiah and the people, We’re watching you. You better be afraid.
• They planned an attack on the wall workers, but it was foiled.
• They tried using slander and lies. They spread a rumor about Nehemiah, accusing him of declaring himself a king.
• They tried to assassinate Nehemiah to visit them, by inviting him to visit them, but he refused to come down off the wall saying, “I am doing a great work. I cannot; I will not come down.”
• They tried character assassination. Through an inner person, they encouraged Nehemiah to seek protection in the temple behind closed doors, for he was about to come under attack. They thought that if he hid himself out of fear, his reputation as a leader would be ruined.
The devil was also at work in the form of greed among the rich nobles and officials among the Jews who were taking advantage of the poor. People were forced to hock everything to pay their interest and taxes, keep food on their tables, and work on the wall besides. It was almost impossible! Children were even being taken away as payment. They were just not making it, so they rightfully complained to Nehemiah.
Nehemiah goes after those rich people on the people’s behalf and gets them to give back what they have taken as well as promise to not take advantage of the poor any longer. Even in all of this, Nehemiah was doing this job for no pay. To top it all off, he dug into his own pockets to fund the workers who were ready to quit the project. The strike was averted.
Lo and behold, the wall is done! Completed after only 52 days. Miraculous!
Scripture tells us in Nehemiah chapter 6 that the surrounding nations were fearful, for they knew God had been at work. Hear these words: “And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (vs. 16). God is glorified before the nations!
A very amazing story, isn’t it! I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t made a movie of it yet! How does it apply to each of us?
Nehemiah is the last of the history books in the Old Testament. It is another chapter of God’s redemptive history that began back in Genesis 3 when God said He would crush the head of the serpent, and in Genesis 12 when He promised to make Abraham’s descendants a blessing to the nations of the world. God’s people had been disgraced, and they wondered if God had deserted them to make it on their own. Was this beyond His help?
The good news is, God did not desert His people. Instead, He sent a cupbearer of the king to put things back together again so His great redemptive plans could move on. God is faithful to His people. We see His faithfulness in the story today.
As I said earlier, this is a chapter in a much bigger story. It is a restoration project in the midst of a much bigger restoration project – the restoration of the world! Four hundred years later, a new cupbearer will enter the scene, this restored Jerusalem. He will pray in a garden before His crucifixion, “Father, take this cup from me.” He is talking about the cup of God’s wrath for humanity’s sin. Jesus would step down from His heavenly court to save and restore His people. He, too, would weep over Jerusalem and face all kinds of opposition and enemies as He ushered His rebuilding project – His Father’s kingdom – into this world. On a cross He will build not a wall but a bridge between God and humanity restoring and rescuing His lost people. They will mock Him and invite Him to come down if He was truly the Messiah. He was tempted to give up, but He didn’t. I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down, just like Nehemiah. God raised Him from the grave affirming the new covenant in His blood.
The story continues on. God continues His restoration through the Church – you and me – bringing others into His kingdom. He is slowly, but surely, moving us toward a new Jerusalem, a new heaven and earth at the end. Creation will be totally restored, and God’s work will finally be completed. That, my friends, is one of the great reasons to pray: God’s faithfulness.
This story is not so much about Nehemiah’s leadership and power (though we do learn some important things through his experiences). It’s more about God’s faithfulness and grace, that He gives us as a valuable tool called prayer, and that He answers prayer. This is a prayer-and-hard-work story. He doesn’t just the pray at the beginning of his memoirs, but all the way through the project. He prays for help, strength, training, and for protection as he says, “Remember, O Lord.” God accomplishes great things through obedient servants who pray and answer His call to serve.
This story is written for His workers, those who are in Christ – you and me – our God is unchanging. The same grace and strength is available to you and me as God’s workers in His field, as the Church in mission. He has an unchanging plan to restore His whole creation, to bless all the nations through His Son, Jesus. We are called a called people, empowered by His Spirit to serve out His purposes in bringing people to God’s kingdom.
Our takeaway from this Nehemiah story as missionaries, as servants of God working for the Lord Jesus Christ to bring people into His kingdom is simply this: Pray first and work hard. Amazing things happen with this combination in this order. Prayer, hard work, and God’s faithfulness got the wall built. Jesus operated the same way in His day-to-day ministry. Even before the trial and the cross, Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane.
You might say, Well, that was Nehemiah’s time and Jesus’ time. But can those things actually happen today? Let me tell you a story.
In 2010, a group of eight people from two churches felt called to the Detroit Boulevard neighborhood of Sacramento, California, which was known as one of the most notorious crime-ridden neighborhoods in all of Sacramento. Each house in the neighborhood was a place of danger. Nonetheless, this group of eight decided to walk through the neighborhood and pray over each home for the presence of Christ to reign over violence, addiction, and satanic oppression. As they walked, they prayed and rebuked the demonic strongholds of addiction and violence. One of the eight, a former Sacramento police officer and gang detective, Michael John, reported that each time they prayed, they felt the weight of oppression become lighter. When a woman from one of the houses discovered they were praying for the community, she confronted them and asked for healing, and God healed her. The group soon started what they called Detroit Life Church in the neighborhood.
A couple years later, a local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, reported Detroit Boulevard had no homicides, robberies, or sex crimes and only one assault between 2013 and 2014. This neighborhood had been transformed by a small group of people who began their ministry by praying around houses, streets, and parks for the power of Satan to be vanquished. Kingdom prayer embodied is what it means to be faithfully present to His presence in this world.
When faced with overwhelming problems and odds, Nehemiah’s favorite position was the kneeling position. Then he got up and worked hard. May that also be said of us as individuals and as the Church of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer