Be Aware

Lesson Focus: You will be challenged to be aware of and begin pursuing opportunities to step up and serve the Lord.

Look for the Need: Nehemiah 1:1-3.

[1]  The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the capital,  [2]  that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem.  [3]  And they said to me, "The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire."  [ESV] 

Nehemiah treasured no greater ambition than to be a loyal servant of God; the noun is deliberately repeated throughout the book’s opening narrative [6,7,8,10,11]. This introductory section of his memoirs sets the scene and explains how God’s servant was prepared for new work in far-off Jerusalem. Its story unfolds in five scenes, portraying the attitude of God’s servant. Biblical accounts of a call to God’s work frequently begin with an arresting assertion of the divine initiative, though there are occasions when the call is discerned through a known crisis. Prompted by an overwhelming awareness of need, such people do not decide to serve; they believe the decision has been made for them. Nehemiah’s call was discerned in that way. Born in Persia a century after the ravages of Babylon’s king, he learned of distant Jerusalem only from stories related by fellow-Israelites. He knew of Nebuchadnezzar’s ruthless devastation but, as caravans from other countries visited Susa, Nehemiah heard of Jerusalem’s more recent troubles. A servant of King Artaxerxes, he was aware from court news that one innocent attempt to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls had been dramatically frustrated. At that time, local opponents had written to the Persian king asserting that Jerusalem’s citizens were intent on rebellion and, on the king’s orders, work on the walls was brought to an abrupt end. Nehemiah knew that his contemporary, Ezra, had led a second group of returning exiles and was endeavoring to establish the community with God’s Word at the heart of its spiritual and moral life, but it had not been easy. So, when travelers came from Judah we can understand why, concerned about his people, Nehemiah questioned them about the Jewish remnant who had survived the exile.

As the story begins, Nehemiah is identified as a man of deep concern, with clear priorities. First, the narrative illustrates Nehemiah’s concern. Anxious for the welfare of the returned exiles, he inquires about the condition of the city where they lived. Throughout Christian history, men and women with a deep love for others have been used to transform the face of society. Evident need constituted their call. Secondly, the narrative identifies Nehemiah’s priorities. People mattered more than things. He was naturally troubled about the physical condition of the city. Broken walls meant frightening insecurity, negligible commercial development and serious economic deprivation, but the depressed people within the city were infinitely more important than its shattered walls. The history of Christian work and witness across the centuries is an inspiring record of sacrificial people who did not think primarily about their own well-being but gave top priority to God’s will and the needs of others.

Look for the Reason: Nehemiah 1:4-7.

[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.  [5]  And I said, "O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments,  [6]  let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned.  [7]  We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.  [ESV]

Nehemiah’s immediate reaction to the news of his people’s troubles was to go into the presence of God. Throughout the book this gifted leader is vividly portrayed as a man of earnest prayer, and this, the first of his nine recorded prayers, offers several perspectives on the quality of Nehemiah’s prayer-life.

He was committed to prayer. For Nehemiah, prayer was natural, immediate and spontaneous [4]. He turned instinctively to God. In Nehemiah’s life, far from being a conventional religious exercise, prayer was a vital daily experience. Nothing mattered more than entering the Lord’s presence to express his anguish about his people’s needs, confess his inadequacy, reflect on his personal response to the news from Jerusalem, and seek for guidance about what might and must be done.

Nehemiah was genuine in prayer. Deeply grieved to learn such distressing news, he identifies with the dejection of Jerusalem’s citizens: he sat down and wept. Though separated from them by a vast desert, their needs were close to his heart.

Nehemiah was sacrificial in prayer. He believed there was nothing better he could do for his people than pray for them so, in order to give undisturbed time to his intercessions, he denied himself food for several days: he continued fasting. In ancient near-eastern countries, meals were not the hurried affairs of busy contemporary life. Normally, they were relaxed and extended opportunities for social contact and leisurely conversation. Missing a meal released an hour or two for undisturbed prayer.

Nehemiah was persistent in prayer. For days he continued to seek God; day and night [6] he poured out his soul to the Lord. Nehemiah knocked repeatedly at God’s door because there was no one else to whom he could turn for help. Prayer is the most eloquent expression of our priorities. It confesses our total reliance upon God, exercises our personal faith and demonstrates our love for others. As he approaches God, Nehemiah divests himself of every distracting thought so that he can concentrate his mind entirely on the one who has promised to listen to everyone who calls upon Him.

Nehemiah was encouraged in prayer. Dependent believers of earlier generations have entered the holy place before him, and phrases and themes from their prayers inspire, inform and shape his own. If by prayer these intercessors had received cleansing, found peace, obtained strength and gained confidence, so could Nehemiah. He is not simply inspired by their example; his prayer is enriched by their language. The words they used, preserved in Scripture, became the inspiration of his heart and mind as he entered the divine presence. The great prayers of Scripture ought to be incentives and models for our own.

He was confident in prayer. As Nehemiah exalts God, he focuses on eight highly relevant aspects of God’s nature. The prayer becomes an adoring octave of divine omnipotence. Although Jerusalem‘s need has driven him into the presence of God, the city’s problem is soon dwarfed by an awesome sense of God’s majestic glory. Within moments he is exalting a God who is sovereign, mighty, holy, loving, faithful, vocal, attentive, and merciful. With a sense of submissive awe, Nehemiah approaches his sovereign God. He prayed before the God of heaven and said, O Lord God of heaven. God of heaven was a brilliantly graphic expression of the universal supremacy of the only true God. Although Nehemiah is deeply troubled, he affirms his commitment to the God of heaven, knowing that life’s bewildering adversities are all under His sovereign control. Moreover, although sovereign, God is not remote and distant, untouched by humanity’s everyday events, ruling in heaven but detached from life on earth.

Nehemiah also enters the presence of an awesome God, believing that He is not only powerful but holy. Nehemiah is especially conscious of the divine holiness and comes before God with adoring reverence. It is the holiness of God which identifies and exposes sin as sin. Confronted by a holy Father, we see sin for the offensive thing it is, recognize its malevolent and destructive power, and beg an awesome God’s forgiveness.

Nehemiah rejoices that his holy God is also compassionate. He identifies his needs in the presence of a God of infinite grace who has made a covenant of love with His people. Further, God’s love is not fickle and changeable but constant and reliable. He is a faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him. His people have not been what they ought to have been, but God has never acted unlovingly towards them. His chastisement has always been purposive, corrective and remedial. He has stood by them during long periods when they were far too preoccupied with marginal things to love him and keep his commandments. During the demanding and dangerous assignment which lay ahead, Nehemiah found himself constantly fortified by the faithfulness of a loving God who would never let him down.

God’s servant also worships a vocal God. He is not a silent deity like the gods of the surrounding nations. He has spoken eloquently, patiently and persistently through His servants, as men like Moses faithfully transmitted God’s commands to His people. A God who has spoken so relevantly and persuasively across the centuries is not going to leave Nehemiah without direct and relevant commands concerning his future work. This compassionate self-revealing God did not only speak; He listened. Israel’s God was not like the deaf idols of other nations. Throughout their history His people heard His voice, and He loved to hear theirs. Nehemiah asks that his Lord’s ear be attentive and … eyes open, to hear the prayer His servant was praying day and night. Nehemiah knew that, whatever the problems which lay ahead, the way of prayer was always open and, as he prayed, help certainly came.

Nehemiah offered this prayer knowing that he was addressing a merciful God. His own sins and those of both his rebellious forefathers and disobedient contemporaries must be acknowledged and forgiven before he could embark on any enterprise of God. His servants must be cleansed before they are used. Quiet reflection on God’s character intensified His servant’s awareness of unforgiven sin.

God’s servant’s exaltation of God’s nature prompts a sorrowing acknowledgment of sin. The words of his prayer reveal the intensity, honesty, realism and urgency of Nehemiah’s confession. Overwhelmed by the rebelliousness of human sin, Nehemiah gives himself to prolonged petition and intercession; day and night he poured out his soul to God. Since he heard of Jerusalem’s distress, he had been haunted by the recollection of the people’s failure to honor God and, scarcely able to think of anything else, spent every moment of available time in God’s presence. He made no attempt to excuse the Israelite people, nor did he pray for them as a man detached from the enormity of their past transgressions and repeated failure: confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. As he surveyed the grim record of Israel’s past and present failure, he knew he was not exempt from blame. Nehemiah recognized that he was as great a sinner as anyone else in Judah. Nehemiah knew that the people’s frequently overlooked sins of omission were just as serious as the obvious sins of commission. The glaring iniquities, the things done that offended God had to be confessed, but the many things they had failed to do were equally offensive to a holy God. Nehemiah knew that to do nothing when he had heard of such a crying need would be a serious transgression. He realized that earnest confession must be followed by willing obedience.

It was vital to seek God’s face, for in the commandments, the statutes, and the rules of Scripture he had been taught that sin is not merely a stubborn refusal to obey certain rules which harm the life of an individual or community. It is a defiant act of aggressive personal rebellion towards God. In Nehemiah’s eyes sin is not regarded primarily as a failure to meet standards, but as a breaking off of personal relations with God. Nehemiah was sensitive to the fact that all sin, things blatantly or carelessly done, or things selfishly or heedlessly left undone, need to be identified, acknowledged and pardoned. He knew that all such sin can be fully, immediately and eternally forgiven. The Lord is always more eager to forgive our sins than we are to confess them.

Look for the Possibility: Nehemiah 1:8-11.

[8]  Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples,  [9]  but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your dispersed be under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’  [10]  They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand.  [11]  O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man." Now I was cupbearer to the king.  [ESV]

[8-9]  Nehemiah recalls the realistic words of Moses about the danger of Israel’s apostasy and the promise of divine mercy. The words are a skillfully arranged mosaic of great Old Testament warnings and promises originally given to Moses and repeated by Solomon at the dedication of the temple. God has spoken clearly and unmistakably to His people and will not change His mind: I will scatter … I will gather. The penitent exiles had returned first under Zerubbabel and then, eighty years later, under Ezra. Nehemiah realized that now he too must follow their steps, but there were insuperable obstacles. Those earlier returnees had left not only with the permission but encouragement of the Persian king. They were at liberty to make the long journey, but Nehemiah was not a free agent. He was employed by the king and court at Susa. Yet, if God had spoken so clearly in Scripture about gathering His people from the farthest horizon, promising to bring them to the place He had chosen as a dwelling for His Name, then He was capable of fulfilling that promise in the personal experience of Nehemiah, whatever the human obstacles, political problems and natural difficulties. Those who venture on a work for God recall the unchanging promise of unfailing resources. What God has said He always does.

[10-11]  But, however inspiring and reassuring, words alone are rarely enough. God demonstrates the reliability of His Word by the excellence of His deeds. To the great theme of revelation is added the complementary truth of redemption. Nehemiah recalls that his contemporaries are God’s servants: They are your servants and your people. For all their undoubted failings, the Israelites are a redeemed community. God acted decisively in their history, doing exactly what He promised. At the burning bush He told Moses that He was going to deliver them, and did everything He said. Uncertain of the future, Nehemiah remembers the past. He looks back to the great exodus-event as an undeniable demonstration of God’s pledge to keep His promise and demonstrate His power. Nehemiah’s prayer moved from the recollection of what God had said and done to the contemplation of what He will say and do in a new situation. Encouraged by the Lord’s former mercies he is assured of present grace.

Now Nehemiah reveals his position in the court. He held the important position of cupbearer in the royal palace. The cupbearer was a man of recognized dignity in court circles, entirely trustworthy, the king’s confidant and next in rank to princes. Nehemiah knew the protocol which surrounded an eastern court and realized that a huge responsibility now lay on his shoulders. He was to ask King Artaxerxes to change his mind about  Jerusalem’s wall-building program. At this crucial moment in his life, Nehemiah was in urgent need of God’s specific direction. Whatever could he do about Jerusalem’s need? His immediate response was to pray. He cast himself utterly upon God, believing that, however great the obstacles, he would be clearly led and given all the resources necessary for total obedience to God’s will.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What do we learn about Nehemiah in verses 1-4? What does Nehemiah’s reaction to the news about Jerusalem tell you about the man?

2.         Analyze Nehemiah’s prayer in verses 5-11. What do we learn about his prayer life? His view of God? The effect of sin on one’s relationship with God?

3.         What do you learn from Nehemiah’s prayer that you can use in your own prayer life?


Nehemiah, Mervin Breneman, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Nehemiah, Raymond Brown, Inter-Varsity Press.

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