Lesson Focus: This lesson will urge you to take to heart the opportunities God gives you to serve Him and make the necessary preparations to carry out the service.

Invest Your Heart: Nehemiah 2:1-3.

[1]  In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence.  [2]  And the king said to me, "Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart." Then I was very much afraid.  [3]  I said to the king, "Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?"  [ESV]

[1]  As Nehemiah’s story unfolds, it moves from the private aspects of his life to his public duties. We turn from personal times of prayer and fasting to his daily work in a pagan environment, from what he prayed to God to what he said to the king. Nehemiah was a man of decisive action, and when he prayed it was natural for him to ask God to provide an early, if not immediate, opportunity for him to speak to the king: give success to your servant today [1:11]. But as he went from his prayer to daily work in the Persian court, he began to realize that, although today was his preferred day, it might not be the right day for making such a huge request. Well over a hundred days came and went as Nehemiah waited for the best moment. It is likely that the more Nehemiah prayed, the more he realized that he must patiently wait for the right opportunity. He must guard against hurrying into the king’s presence with a request he had not considered carefully in advance. Given his great desire to get started with the work of repairing the walls of Jerusalem, patient waiting would hardly come easily to Nehemiah. But the additional time spent in prayer with God during this time of waiting better prepared him for the great task that lay ahead of him. In the quiet place of prayer, faith was renewed in a God who knows the best time for everything. Believers constantly need to accept that behind life’s frustrations lies a divine purpose; something can be learnt from our most difficult experiences. Waiting time is not wasted time. Quiet reflection may have provided Nehemiah with fresh thought about how to present his case to the king. The month of Nisan was the Persian new year. And it appears that special favors were granted by the king at the feast celebrating the new year. Thus Nehemiah considered the time right to act. He no longer hides his sadness from the king.

[2-3]   Looking into such an unhappy face, Artaxerxes asked his cupbearer to explain his despondency. Then a terrible fear came over Nehemiah as he prepared to present his request to the king; a request that was totally against the king’s earlier edict concerning the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. But in the midst of his fears, Nehemiah was given the grace to look up and speak out to the king. He had waited for weeks and now the moment had arrived. He was looking into the clouded face of a bewildered king. The praying months had prepared him for these crucial minutes. He trusted God, and in that moment the courage came. He told the king that it was no longer possible for him to hide his grief. The place where his ancestors were buried had become a desolate waste and fire had ravaged a holy city. The thought of desecrated burial places touched a sensitive chord in the royal mind. It was a wise approach. The Persians revered their ancestors and graves were sacred places. Referring simply to a city, Nehemiah carefully avoided raising the king’s suspicions by mentioning Jerusalem by name and so reminding him of his earlier decree, though of course the king knew Nehemiah’s background. Nehemiah showed his great ability in communication and delicate diplomacy. He first had to get the king’s sympathy before going on to details.

Set Clear Goals: Nehemiah 2:4-8.

[4]  Then the king said to me, "What are you requesting?" So I prayed to the God of heaven.  [5]  And I said to the king, "If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it."  [6]  And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), "How long will you be gone, and when will you return?" So it pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time.  [7]  And I said to the king, "If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah,  [8]  and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy." And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.  [ESV]

[4]  The king knew that Nehemiah wanted to make a request. This question could be the first hint that the king would listen favorably. Quick prayers are possible and valid if one has prayed sufficiently beforehand. In this case Nehemiah’s prayer is evidence of a life lived in constant communion with God. Nehemiah had prayed for months, but he knew he was completely dependent on God’s work in the king’s heart at this moment. His prayer emphasizes the necessity of prayer. Although he had prayed at every available opportunity during the past four months, he could not face this critical moment in the conversation without once more looking to God to meet his needs. There is no need for us to get away to a particular place, or wait until we can set aside prolonged time for undisturbed reflection. At any moment we can talk to God. Although Nehemiah had spent hours in prayer over the waiting weeks, to pray again at that crucial moment was the instinctive reaction of a dependent believer. There was hardly time for words; the sigh became a supplication. Between one breath and another he was in the audience chamber of God, assured that he would not lack anything necessary in his daring venture. Here we see the confidence of prayer. He was communing with the God of heaven, the God of unique sovereignty, comforting omniscience and limitless resources. The quick petition was immediately answered. The unfailing Lord was at his side. Within seconds, the right and best words were on his lips and, in the same moment, the God of heaven caused generous thoughts to enter Artaxerxes’ enquiring mind.

[5-8]  Nehemiah had lifted his heart to God; now he must open his mouth to the king. Time and again he had asked the Lord to guide his thinking as he endeavored to shape an effective strategy. Now, all that rigorous thinking must become vocal as he shared with the king what he had planned for God. There were all manner of things which Nehemiah would like to have done during the four month period of tedious delay, but he did what he could: he prayed, trusted and thought for God, and now he could see how crucial those waiting weeks had been. Because he had given so much time to careful thinking and meticulous planning, he knew exactly how to describe the city’s need, answer the king’s questions, plan the hazardous journey and obtain the necessary resources. Nehemiah appealed to the Persian respect for the dead rather than Israelite concern for the living. He spoke first about graves and then about gates. Reference to Jerusalem’s severely damaged defenses might have produced a quick emotive response from a king who had earlier issued an order preventing a rebuilding enterprise in a city with a long history of revolt against kings. Artaxerxes had issued an order that any rebuilding work of Jerusalem must cease, until he so ordered [Ezra 4:21]. There was the loophole. Nehemiah had prayed that this might be the moment for the ban to be lifted, but it was an audacious request. Nehemiah had planned carefully and knew his precise needs. eHeHeHe was also realistic, giving God the credit for causing the king to grant his requests. Because Nehemiah was sure this was of God, he had no problem accepting what the king offered. In the Bible, God often uses the king of a country in the divine plan. God’s work and our planning are not contradictory. Prayer is where planning starts. Nehemiah modeled good leadership; he prayed, planned, and acted in dependence on God and submission to His guidance. Neither is research contrary to dependence on God. Nehemiah knew who the officials were with whom he would have to deal, so he requested the credentials he would need as the project progressed.

Enlist Support: Nehemiah 2:11-18.

[11]  So I went to Jerusalem and was there three days.  [12]  Then I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. And I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. There was no animal with me but the one on which I rode.  [13]  I went out by night by the Valley Gate to the Dragon Spring and to the Dung Gate, and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that were broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire.  [14]  Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool, but there was no room for the animal that was under me to pass.  [15]  Then I went up in the night by the valley and inspected the wall, and I turned back and entered by the Valley Gate, and so returned.  [16]  And the officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, and I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest who were to do the work.  [17]  Then I said to them, "You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision."  [18]  And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, "Let us rise up and build." So they strengthened their hands for the good work.  [ESV]

[11-12]  The long journey over, Nehemiah sees Jerusalem for the first time in his life. The change and challenge is humanly overwhelming, but he confronts the fresh scene with a clear strategy. The story portrays exemplary leadership qualities as we see God’s servant in action. As he approached Jerusalem, Nehemiah could appreciate why Hanani had been such a despondent messenger when he came to Susa. He too became overwhelmed when he saw the city’s shattered walls and useless gates, but at this stage he was not in a hurry to look more closely at the extensive damage. Instead he waited three days, resting from the long journey. Over the eight months of preparation and travel, he became increasingly sensitive to creative thoughts which the Lord fed into his receptive heart and mind: what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem.

[13-16]  Now it was time for Nehemiah to survey the walls and estimate the likely size of the team and the materials necessary for such a mammoth task. Sanballat and Tobiah were greatly displeased [2:10] at Nehemiah’s mission and they were not the only opponents. These men doubtless had their spies in Jerusalem, and it was important for Nehemiah not to disclose his plans until he had mobilized his physical and material resources. One night, he set off to survey the damaged walls and gates with a few trusted colleagues. A night journey would ensure that Jerusalem’s people would not ask too many questions as to why this visitor from Persia was inspecting their desolate city. The secret exploration made Nehemiah aware of the extent of the damage and enabled him fully to grasp the opportunities, demands and dangers of his challenging assignment. He must look at each section of the wall so that every detail of the repair could be organized expertly and effectively. Night travel was essential; hidden enemies were all too eager to frustrate Nehemiah’s plans for restoration. For this reason he said nothing to anyone beyond his colleagues on the small reconnaissance team. The careless leakage of information at this early stage might bring the work to the same abrupt end that had wrecked the earlier rebuilding venture.

[17]  In some way not mentioned in the narrative, Nehemiah gathered together a large company of prospective partners. A natural administrator, he soon enlisted the willing help of reliable associates who would accept responsibility for different sections of the work. How a newcomer in an unfamiliar situation was able to muster such an energetic task force is an informative commentary on his leadership skills. First, Nehemiah identifies with the workers. He is passionately involved in the city’s welfare and feels its need as acutely as though he had been living in the desolate city all his life. Next, he presents spiritual perspectives. Far more serious than the physical desolation is the spiritual disgrace. It is a reproach to the name of God, a matter for scorn and abuse among Jerusalem’s pagan neighbors and visitors. The sight of those collapsed walls for well over a century has created the impression in the pagan mind that Israel’s God has abandoned His rebellious people and is no longer on their side. So Nehemiah draws the prospective workers’ attention to spiritual values and ideals. Here is a man who is not only ready to work for God but knows exactly why he is doing it. Nehemiah is in no doubt whatever about his objective, and knows exactly why those walls must be rebuilt. It is not simply to defend the city’s fortifications and improve its economy. God’s Name is at stake in the enterprise, not simply Jerusalem’s welfare. Then, he invites immediate action. Everybody knows exactly what is required and everyone realizes that the task must begin without further delay. He is making a considerable demand on the dispirited citizens and their fellow-Israelites throughout the region. It will be a highly sacrificial enterprise, for while they are working on the walls they cannot be earning their living. How long is it likely to take? How will their families fare in their absence? Who will protect them if they are intimidated by the project’s opponents? Before people can respond they need the assurance that, for all his gifts, someone greater than Nehemiah is behind the venture.

[18]  Nehemiah has mentioned the walls but his central theme is the sufficiency of God. His mind dwells on the Lord’s greatness as he shares his spiritual ideals with those he wants to work alongside him. They must relate well to one another as fellow workers, but their greatest need is to be united in the things which matter most – their confidence in, dependence on, and love for God. Nehemiah was convinced that he had reached Jerusalem because God had been a sovereign provider. Furthermore, because the Lord had done that for Nehemiah he knew it might help others if he talked about it. The whole chapter is a testimony, a written and vocal affirmation of confidence in a God who hears, guides, instructs and sustains His people. Nehemiah’s testimony captured those two vital elements in any rich doctrine of God: transcendence and immanence. He acknowledges his transcendence as he worships the God of heaven, but his God is not remote and distant. The Lord puts creative thoughts into the minds of His people and His gracious hand is upon them in everyday life. Those two attributes of the character of God must never be separated. God’s eternal transcendence guards us against irreverence; his immanence and immediate involvement save us from despair. The team can be assured that God is with them but that must never be taken for granted. There is an eternal throne as well as a loving hand. Encouraged by Nehemiah’s testimony the people were ready for immediate service: let us rise up and build.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Like Nehemiah, we want God to answer our prayers today. But He often makes us wait. When God makes us wait, He is not telling us to give up but to keep trusting and praying. How can we put our waiting time to good use like Nehemiah did?

2.         In the midst of all his effort to get the king to release him from service and to supply his needs, Nehemiah realized that all his success was due to the good hand of my God. What do we learn here about the relationship between God’s sovereign action in our lives and the need for us to exert all of our abilities to accomplish our goals?

3.         What qualities of wise leadership do we see in Nehemiah upon his arrival to Jerusalem? What can we learn from Nehemiah’s example that we can apply to leadership opportunities God may provide to us in His Church?

4.         Why are transcendence and immanence two vital elements for a rich doctrine of God?


Nehemiah, Mervin Breneman, NAC, Broadman.

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

Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts