Week of July 29, 2018
The Point: Serving God requires intentionality.
Nehemiah Sent to Judah: Nehemiah 2:1-18.
 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.  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.  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?”  Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.  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.”  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.  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,  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.  Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen.  But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.  So I went to Jerusalem and was there three days.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.”  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]
“To Jerusalem [2:1-8]. Do you want to be useful for God but don’t see how you can be in your present circumstances? The section of Scripture that we are studying here is an example of what every Christian can do regardless of how humdrum or constrained his or her present existence may be. Meet Nehemiah: a man of immense integrity, a gifted leader, a passionate advocate for the cause of God and His kingdom, whose zeal could sometimes appear excessive, even intimidating, but was always for the kingdom of God and never for his own personal self-elevation. Many of these qualities have yet to manifest themselves, of course, but already, as cupbearer to the king , he has shown his mettle: to be trusted with the well-being of King Artaxerxes, ensuring that his food and drink were poison-free, was a task that could be given only to one whose trustworthiness was beyond question. In addition Nehemiah has begun a vigil of sustained, twice-daily prayer. Taking note of the two dates mentioned in Nehemiah 1:1 and 2:1, the interval of time from the moment Nehemiah began to pray in this sustained, formal manner to the time when God responds, we note that three to five months have passed by. The Lord has been teaching Nehemiah patience even when his prayer suggested that God’s reputation was on the line. Even though the prayer has asked for an answer today , God’s “today” is often on a different timetable from our own. Waiting on the Lord is a characteristic of believers who cast their troubles on the Lord and His timetable, knowing that fretful anxiety accomplishes nothing and is a sign of distrust and unbelief. The narrative now shows how Nehemiah’s prayer was answered [2:1-8]. The manner in which Nehemiah’s prayer was answered reveals several important lessons that need careful unpacking. The first has to do with God’s providence.
God Moves in a Mysterious Way. Sometimes prayer becomes an excuse for inaction. What God intends for us to do is clear enough and the way to do it is open, but what is lacking is the will to do it; we convince ourselves that the time is not yet right. There are also occasions when impatience with God’s timing can mean that prayer is regarded as insufficient action and that God’s providence is seen to need “jump-starting” by inappropriate action on our part. How exactly was God going to answer Nehemiah’s prayer? His prayer included the possibility that he would be the answer to his own prayer and the instrument for reform in Jerusalem. But on a human level, such a prayer was pointless. Nehemiah was a servant to the most powerful man in the world. To ask to be released from this position was a right that he did not possess, and requesting to leave could signal disloyalty – something that could result in his imprisonment or even death. Cupbearers performed their duty without conversation. They were not expected (or allowed) to speak unless they were spoken to. The king notices that Nehemiah looks sad, something that Nehemiah is careful to say had not occurred before [2:1]. The fact that he looked sad on this particular day may have been due to the burden of having waited so long without receiving an answer to his prayer. Persian palace etiquette required servants to look happy. Being caught looking sad was a dangerous thing, and the king concludes that it is a matter of the heart – a sadness of the heart [2:2]. Providence has led Nehemiah into an alarmingly dangerous place. All that he has wished for now hangs in the balance. When the king notices his glum expression, Nehemiah was understandably very much afraid. Nehemiah 2:4 contains one of the most brief but monumentally important statements to be found anywhere in Scripture. The king has asked Nehemiah what is wrong with him, and Nehemiah has responded immediately by saying, 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? [2:3]. This in itself is a bold statement. Though true enough, what Nehemiah is saying in the subtext is all too clear: “Jerusalem is in a mess all because you, King Artaxerxes, put a stop to the rebuilding of the city’s walls!” Nehemiah knew it, and the king knew it, too. It must have been a heart-stopping moment, therefore, when the king then said, What are you requesting? [2:4]. It is at this point, with Nehemiah’s heart perhaps pounding within his chest, that the text adds, somewhat matter-of-factly, So I prayed to the God of heaven [2:4]. Like a winged messenger, Nehemiah’s silent but urgent prayer ascended to heaven in an instant. Several comments are worth making. First, be assured that short prayers are to be considered as effective as regular, lengthy ones. There are some wonderfully effective short prayers in the Bible. Second, Nehemiah’s prayer demonstrates the absolute necessity of prayer. Nehemiah had been praying for this opportunity to transpire for several months, but when the moment arrived to make his request to the king, he still felt it appropriate to seek the Lord about it. Third, the prayer shows Nehemiah’s heart. Instant prayer of this nature arose only because Nehemiah had taught himself the value of prayer by a consistent life of prayer. Such reflex responses as this do not just occur; they are the result of a life lived in God’s presence day by day. Nehemiah prayed this way because he was always praying this way. This was not the first time he had sent up an arrow-like prayer to heaven. Fourth, it is an example of a prayer that is immediately answered. Nehemiah’s previous prayers had met the response “Not yet.” This one received an instantaneous response in the affirmative.
The Good Hand of God. As the weeks had gone by, Nehemiah had given some thought to how his initial prayer might be answered given the right set of circumstances. Though the means to bring about a successful outcome to his desires was beyond his ability to achieve, he could give attention to the most likely way in which God would accomplish it and what the consequences might mean in terms of his own responsibilities. For Nehemiah to secure safe passage, he would need letters. So when the time came to speak up before the king, Nehemiah not only told him his request to be sent to Jerusalem, but also asked that such letters be given him from the king to ensure that his reception among the governors of the province Beyond the River [2:7] went smoothly. And he would need a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest in order to get the wood necessary to build the gates and wall of the city. The audaciousness of the request is breathtaking! There is evidence of planning and forethought here. Nehemiah even had an answer to the question of how long this project might take and therefore how long Nehemiah was expected to be gone. Mention of the house he would occupy, in Nehemiah 2:8, suggests that Nehemiah went to Jerusalem as an official of the king – as a governor. The entire request involved a complete reversal of the king’s policy with respect to the building of the city’s defenses. Nothing in the king’s recent policies would have suggested to Nehemiah that this was likely to occur. Little wonder, then, that Nehemiah attributes the entire outcome to the good hand of my God [2:8]. At least three lessons are contained in this concluding verse. First, that God is altogether sovereign and that the power of a Persian dictator is no match for the power of the God of heaven. Second, what happened that day in Susa was an example of the goodness of God. God is good by nature. But there are times of special goodness – the goodness of God’s divine interruptions in the course of things, interruptions designed to bring us blessing and further God’s kingdom. Third, it is a mark of Nehemiah’s godly leadership that he attributes the entirety of his success to the Lord’s hand. He is careful that God receives all the glory. Is this the way you see the events that unfold in your life? Are you this careful to acknowledge God’s hand in your life? Are you giving Him the glory that is due to His holy name?
Inspection [2:9-18]. Having been granted permission to return to Jerusalem in a time of lethargy and loss of vision, Nehemiah galvanized the doom-laden inhabitants of the city into action that did not stop until the task that he had been given authority to oversee was completed. Nehemiah did two specific things that showed his qualities as a leader in a difficult situation. Careful planning was Nehemiah’s first strategy. Three days after getting to Jerusalem and taking on the role of Jerusalem’s chief administrator, Nehemiah went on an unannounced nighttime expedition, riding on houseback or mule through the city, accompanied by a few others, to assess the state of the walls. Having received reports from others was all very well, but he needed to see the damage for himself and get a sense of proportion concerning the work that needed to be done. Nehemiah’s tour took in only about half the city, but it was sufficient for him to make certain judgments concerning a reasonable rebuilding strategy. Two particular features are worth noting, which, when combined, reveal the focus of Nehemiah’s planning: the journey was by night, and it was in secret. At this stage, Nehemiah wasn’t sure whom he could trust, and a preannounced expedition might have alarmed his enemies into a preemptive strike at supplies that Nehemiah might need for the project. At this juncture, the exact purpose of Nehemiah’s arrival was perhaps unclear; the Persian officials knew only that he had arrived as the city’s administrator with personal letters of authority from the king himself. In the case of the Jews, who had also been kept in the dark, Nehemiah might have wanted to present to them a cogent plan from their first meeting, something that he could do only after having first thoroughly inspected the city. To come to his own people with a workable plan would instill a sense of confidence and put to rest suspicions that he didn’t really know what he was talking about. Nehemiah, after all, had never lived in Jerusalem. He did not know its architectural layout or the problems that local topographical details might add to the difficulty of the task without seeing it for himself. And what would a cupbearer know about civil engineering? It was important for him to hit the ground running, and this could be achieved only from a position of expertise and good research. In embarking on this secret night expedition, Nehemiah specifically informs us, I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem [2:12]. God had put it in Nehemiah’s heart to do this thing, but that did not prevent him from careful planning. It is doubtful that God had told Nehemiah how exactly he was to accomplish the task of rebuilding the wall. For that, Nehemiah was asked to exercise his own judgment, trusting that the Lord was in the decisions he would make. Knowing that God is sovereign did not cripple him into inertia but motivated him to act prudently and wisely. Nehemiah was a leader of men who knew how to inspire action. The strategy now was to make those under his authority think that the task of rebuilding the walls had really been their idea all along, saying 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 [2:17]. Nehemiah completely identified with the Jews as one of them. The motivation was in part one of honor and a sense of ethnic and national pride. The urgency of the call to build was indicative that enough time had already been lost because of their procrastination and lack of focus. The prospect of facing derision (that is, disgrace) was the motivator that Nehemiah employed. The rest of the world, in effect, was laughing at Israel. With all their talk of being the people of God and the invincibility of Jerusalem, the Israelites had spent the past century and a half in servitude to foreign empires, which had subjected them to much shame and brought their existence and sense of identity to the brink of extinction. Nehemiah reminded them of their identity in order to motivate them to action and a sense of duty. It is a principle that the Bible is at pains to underline in both Testaments. The imperative, as it is often stated, is based on the indicative. The disgrace comes as a result of not recalling who they truly are. However powerful the motivation might be to behave as the people of God, Nehemiah adds another, arguably even more powerful motivation: the promise of divine approval and divine help in the task before them. The plan to rebuild the walls was not merely Nehemiah’s or theirs; it was God who had put it into Nehemiah’s heart [2:12]. Nehemiah reassured the people that this was indeed the case, saying, I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good [2:18]. Nothing could have signaled God’s hand more clearly than the fact that Artaxerxes had himself given written, documented support for the work! Of this they could be certain: God was in this project, no matter how difficult it might be and no matter what threats might exist against their persons if they were to undertake it. The sufficiency of God is a powerful motivator. Nehemiah is a leader whose vision is filled with the greatness of God. No task is too difficult when the Creator of heaven and earth is the One orchestrating it and in whose hands you are but a tool. A God who can turn the sea into dry land, and cause a bush to burn without its being consumed, is not going to balk at a Sanballat, a Tobiah, or a Geshem. These motivations were enough for the exiles, and Nehemiah records for us in summary fashion the response: And they said, ‘Let us rise up and build.’ So they strengthened their hands for the good work [2:18].If there is one particular lesson that this section of Nehemiah is meant to teach us, it is that we should trust God more than we do. In matters in which His will is made clear to us, we are not to reckon on the forces of opposition arrayed against us, however great these may be; rather, we are to put our confidence resolutely in the Lord. If we trust God, we have nothing to fear.” [Thomas, pp. 215-236].
Questions for Discussion:
- We read in chapter 1 Nehemiah’s prayer. What was the content of Nehemiah’s prayer? How does God now answer Nehemiah’s prayer? How long did Nehemiah wait for God’s answer? What did Nehemiah do while waiting for God’s answer? What lessons can we learn from Nehemiah’s actions here?
- What four observations does Thomas make from Nehemiah’s short, silent prayer in 2:4? How can these observations help you in your prayer life? Are you so attuned to God’s presence in your life that you automatically utter short, silent prayers whenever the need arises?
- In verses 8 and 18 Nehemiah refers to the hand of my God. What does Nehemiah means by the hand of God? How do we see God at work in the events of this chapter? Is this the way you see the events that unfold in your life? Are you this careful to acknowledge God’s hand in your life? Are you giving Him the glory that is due to His holy name?
Ezra, Nehemiah Esther, Mervin Breneman, NAC, B & H Publishing.
The Message of Nehemiah, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.
Ezra & Nehemiah, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.