Last time, I introduced the book of Nehemiah, and the main subjects, the Jews who were in exile and were beginning to return to Jerusalem. Today, I'm looking at Nehemiah 1:1-2:8.
Immediately, in the first three verses of the book (Nehemiah 1:1-3) we know what the situation is. The walls of Jerusalem are broken down, and its gates destroyed by fire. The messenger tells Nehemiah that the remnant living there are in "great shame."
This is not what God wants for his people. He wants them in the land as he promised, and he wants them to have a house of worship. Nehemiah's immediate reaction to the news is in verse 4:
As soon as I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of Heaven.Nehemiah was sensitive to seriousness of the situation. Had he been less sensitive, perhaps he would have shrugged off this news. The Jews had been taken captive by people of a different culture and religious system. There was a remnant which remained faithful, but there were others who likely gave in and followed along with the beliefs of the captors; not Nehemiah. This news was enough to put him into mourning. It also put him into action.
Nehemiah begins to pray. And it is a great prayer. He opens with worship (v.5) repeating back to God truths about him, that he is a God who keeps covenants. He also acknowledges not only the sin of his people, but his own personal sin (v. 6-7). After his confession, he calls upon God to remember them, and to remember how he has treated them in the past when they have sinned. He refers to a time in the wilderness when Moses, too, had to intercede for the people. Nehemiah is praying with confidence, and his confidence comes from what he knows to be true abot God. This is not the prayer of a man who is uncertain about God. This is a man whose confidence is rooted in the knowledge of God.
That is how our prayers ought to be. We will not be confident in prayer if we don't know we can have confidence in God. If we are weak and faltering, we may not pray, because we will not see the need. Either that, or we will half-hearted prayers that give us no comfort or strength.
Notice Nehemiah's humility. Three times in this passage, he refers to himself as "your servant." He knows not only God, he knows who he is before God. We approach God as his children, but also as his servants. Recognizing who we are before him in prayer increases our dependence upon him.
Nehemiah discerned his call to do something about the walls in Jerusalem. There is a telling little phrase in his prayer. In verse 11, he is asking for God to give him success, and he asks for mercy "in the sight of this man." Nehemiah then follows up by saying he was the cupbearer to the king. Being the cupbearer meant regular access to the King. What was on Nehemiah's mind? Was he already planning to ask the king for leave to go to Jerusalem? How are we at discerning a call when God brings a circumstance into our lives? Are we sensitive to it, or are we so spiritually dry that we don't hear him?
God's Good Hand
Four months later, (Nehemiah 2:1-8) in the month of Nisan, (Nehemiah has been praying for four months!) Nehemiah goes to Artaxerxes. Normally, Nehemiah did not wear a downcast face. People were not supposed to be downcast in front of the king; wasn't the king's very existence a reason for joy? Artaxerxes notices Nehemiah's sad face and recognizes that there is a problem (2:2). Upon questioning, Nehemiah reveals to Artaxerxes his concern.
It is amazingly simple for Nehemiah to get leave from Artaxerxes. This is rather ironic, given the fact that in Ezra 4:20, we're told that it was Artaxerxes who stopped construction on the temple because the enemies of Ezra told Artaxerxes that the Jews were rebellious. And yet, Artaxerxes is open to listening to Nehemiah's problem. Upon being given the freedom to go, Nehemiah says:
And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of God was upon me.Nehemiah knows where his help is coming from. That phrase about God's "good hand" is repeated quite a few times in the book of Ezra as well as here in Nehemiah. The success of Nehemiah's request was not due his respectful conduct, although he was respectful. It was because God's good hand was upon him.
When God calls us to do something, and we respond, his good hand will be upon us to accomplish the task. He never gives us anything we cannot accomplish. We may initially feel daunted by the weight of our call, whether it is to mother our children, to be a wife to our husbands, to work at a particular job, or even to witness to our neghbour or teach a Sunday school class. When we are sensitive to God's calling and we obey, giving ourselves over to prayer, we can be assured that God's good hand is upon us.
Philippians 1:6 reminds us that when God begins a good work in us, he will complete it. If you are a child of God today, you have been called to be his, and to serve him. Whatever it is that he's called you to do, his good hand will be upon you.