We are in Nehemiah 1 and 2 today. Almost 600 years had passed since King David led Israel in its golden age. It was after David’s death, during the reign of his son and successor, that the long decline had begun. Worship practices were abandoned. Idolatry crept in. Immorality was on the rise. There were opportunities to stem the tide, under great teachers and good kings and, for a while, things would look hopeful. But then the decline would resume, more steeply than before.
The decline ended with a plunge into exile and disaster. But God gave his people a fresh start. A small number of exiles, a few thousand, returned to their homeland to begin again, and God was with them. Under the wise leadership of Joshua and Zerubbabel, and the good teaching of Haggai and Zechariah, the temple was rebuilt.
But that was ancient history by the time Nehemiah arrived. The return from exile had been close to a hundred years earlier. Joshua, Zerubbabel, Haggai, Zechariah – they were all long gone. Discouragement had settled in, and hostility was all around. They tried to rebuild the city walls, but the government stopped them. People needed a fresh start.
The Lord is a God of fresh starts. He started fresh with Noah, and then again with Abraham, and then again with Moses. If you need a fresh start, the Lord is the one who can provide it.
In our series on prayer, we have seen that when God is about to launch something new, he taps a person who knows how to pray. When Israel needed a fresh start, God found such a person in Nehemiah. He was living almost a thousand miles away from where the action would be, but a thousand miles is like a yard to the God for whom a thousand years is like a day. God did not choose Nehemiah because of his proximity but because of his prayerfulness.
We see Nehemiah praying on twelve different occasions in the course of this short book. God was not concerned about how long it would take to get Nehemiah to Jerusalem because he knew how quickly Nehemiah would get to his knees.
Imagine that God wants to start something fresh and new in our church or community. We know who he will tap for such an assignment: a person who prays. Would you be that person?
There are things about Nehemiah that we should notice. First, he chose to live in God’s world and not in his own bubble. It was a comfortable bubble. He was one of the king’s most trusted men. He had a cushy job: spent summers in the palace at Persepolis and winters in the magnificent palace of Susa. But Nehemiah oriented himself to God’s will, not to his own comfort.
So, when his brother Hanani came to Susa, Nehemiah asked him about the situation in Jerusalem, the holy city. Asking questions is a dangerous thing, for the answers might just pop your bubble. But Nehemiah asked. His commitment to God was stronger than his commitment to comfort.
That Nehemiah asked showed that he had a heart for others. It distressed him that God’s people were, verse 3, “in great trouble and disgrace.” He felt their pain and their shame. He mourned over what was happening to them.
A second thing to notice: after Nehemiah asked, he sat down. How profound is that? But think about it. We rush around. He sat down. Many of us don’t sit down because we don’t want to face the hard stuff. Nehemiah could have kept going too. He had more than enough responsibilities and opportunities to distract himself. But he sat down and faced reality.
A few years ago, The Week published a little piece on a South Carolina funeral home that was opening what it called a “Coffee Corner,” with Starbucks coffee, WiFi, a fireplace, and a television. The funeral director said that he hoped it would help mourners “get their minds off what’s going on.” That’s what Americans do. But we’ll never become people of prayer that way.
Nehemiah asked because he cared about others. He sat because he refused to run from reality. And (third thing to notice) he wept.
When Al Hsu had laser surgery to correct his 20/400 vision, it brought it to 20/40 – much better, but not what he’d hoped. At worship one day, singing with a thousand other Christ followers, his eyes welled up with tears. He blinked a couple of times, and suddenly realized he could see the words on the screen perfectly. His tears, acting like a contact lens, sharpened his vision. Weeping, I suspect, did something similar for Nehemiah’s – and might do the same for us.
Nehemiah asked. He sat. He wept. And (fourth thing) he prayed. And what a prayer! He starts, as Jesus taught us to start, by hallowing God’s name. “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying…” (Nehemiah 1:5-6a).
Nehemiah didn’t start his prayer with his problems. Had he done so, his problems would have eclipsed everything else. Instead, he hallowed God’s name first, which gave him a heavenly perspective and reduced his troubles to their proper proportion. When we see God for who he is, everything else is put in its place. If your problems seem so great that you doubt that even God can handle them, it’s a pretty good sign that you are starting your prayers in the wrong place. Always mount up to heaven first. Start your prayers there. Hallow God’s name.
When Nehemiah remembered the covenant-keeping God, he confessed his and his people’s covenant-breaking sins. He didn’t try to bargain with God, and neither should we. We come to God empty handed, but we don’t come uninvited. Nehemiah stood on God’s word and was confident that God would answer him.
Look at the end of Nehemiah’s prayer, recorded in verse 11: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name.” At this point, his prayer takes a sudden turn, from past sins to present opportunities. “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”
It is as this point that Nehemiah drops a bombshell. He informs his readers: “I was cupbearer to the king.” To understand why that is important, we need to understand what it means. The cupbearer was an official and important position in the ancient world. He was one of the most trusted men in any kingdom. He had access to the king that filled governors and commanders and satraps with envy. Some cupbearers even served as king’s counselor.
Why is that important? Because the God who sees everything from heaven had placed this man’s family in the Babylonian and then Medo-Persian empires nearly 150 years earlier and had orchestrated things so that Nehemiah would be perfectly positioned to act when the right time came.
I wonder how many people God has perfectly positioned, arranging and orchestrating affairs for centuries, so that they could act when the time came. Perhaps I am among them people. Perhaps you are too. But it will be not enough if we stay in our bubble and don’t ask, stay on the move and don’t sit, keep our eyes dry and don’t see, make small talk but don’t pray. We’ll be in the right place at time right, but we we’ll be the wrong people.
Nehemiah was the right person in the right place at the right time. Let’s read the text, starting with chapter 2, verse 1: “In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before; so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king…”
We don’t know how long Nehemiah had served the king, but it was long enough for the king to notice that something was wrong with him, and he asked him about it. Nehemiah says that the king’s question made him “very much afraid.” Why? Because Nehemiah had resolved to ask the king to send him to rebuild Jerusalem, but it was on the king’s order that the rebuilding of Jerusalem had been halted.
Nehemiah was about to ask a Persian sovereign to do an about face, a 180 degree turn. The request itself might be taken as an insult. Nehemiah could be fired—or worse. He had good reason to be “very much afraid.”
But the God who had prepared Nehemiah had also prepared the king. The proverb says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (Proverbs 21:1). So, the king, because he trusted Nehemiah’s judgment, asked: “What is it you want?”
What follows is one of the most famous passages in Nehemiah, often referred to as the arrow prayer: “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king…” This is prayer in real time, prayer in real life. What a skill to have: this ability to pray to God at the very moment that you are talking to people – to listen for God while you are listening to people. It’s a skill that takes time to develop.
I remember when I first started to play the guitar. The whole trick is in learning to do one thing with your right hand – strum the strings in rhythm – and to do something entirely different with your left hand – form chord patterns on the guitars neck. I would sometimes get frustrated because I couldn’t seem to do both at the same time. I learned the chord structures, but I still had to think about them. And while I was thinking about my left hand, my right hand would forget what to do. It took practice – lots of it – before I could do both at the same time.
And it takes practice to be able to listen to God and to people at the same time. That brings us back to what we saw a couple of weeks ago when we looked at Colossians 4. If we don’t set aside blocks of time for prayer, our spontaneous prayers will flounder. An effective prayer life requires both regular, dedicated prayer times and spontaneous prayers. They are synergetic; the one energizes the other.
There is something important here that we are liable to miss. It was during this time of the year, in the month of Kislev (our November/December), that Nehemiah first learned about the state of Jerusalem and began to pray. It was in the month of Nisan (our April) that he finally spoke to the king. That means that four months passed during which time Nehemiah prayed. The ESV bring this out in its translation of 1:5: “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.”
It was Nehemiah’s long private prayers that powered his 0-to-60 prayer in front of the king. We need both kinds. Prayers like the one in 2:4 flow from prayer times like the one in 1:5-11. Think of prayer like an electric vehicle. It can’t be driven until it’s charged. It is those regular, Scripture-infused prayer times that charge our faith so that our spontaneous prayers go somewhere when we need them. Otherwise, like an electric car that is out of power, we hit the accelerator and nothing happens. Our prayers don’t go anywhere.
But surely it doesn’t take four months of praying to get an answer from God – does it? That question betrays a misunderstanding of how prayer works. We are thinking of prayer as something that starts with us and our need. But effective, transforming prayer doesn’t start with us and our need; it starts with God and his plan. Prayer is not our way of enlisting God in our cause but God’s way of enlisting us in his.
The great prayers always start in heaven with the motion of God’s will, then catch us up and carry us on its tide. If we get this wrong, we’ll miss the tide and leave yet another answer to prayer stranded in heaven because we didn’t know to ask.
This way of praying is revolutionary. We talked about it in an earlier sermon, so I won’t go into detail again, only point you back to that sermon on Romans 8:26-28, which you can find on the website under “Media” and dated July 24, 2022. If we will pray in the Romans 8:26 way, we will see answers to prayer and experience God’s power in everyday life.
But what did Nehemiah pray all those months? Did he just say the same thing over and over and wait for God to finally answer? No, he engaged with God through the Scriptures – he quotes Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 30 as he prays – and God’s Spirit guided him in his requests.
Do you know what that is like? Have you had the experience? You are praying and idea comes to mind – this just happened to me on Thursday and again on Saturday. I pay attention to those ideas. I don’t assume they are from God – knowing myself, I wouldn’t dare – but I explore the possibility. I pray about it. And some of those ideas bear fruit – they ripen into something good.
That “ripening” takes time. It might take from Kislev to Nisan, or even longer. As we pray, God directs our prayers into unexplored, previously unthought, places. You can see how this happened with Nehemiah. He asked. He sat. He wept. He prayed. At first, I expect, his prayer was all lamentation. But as he prayed, an idea occurred to him: “the Lord wants me to do something about this.” And so, he redirected his prayer toward that new thought. Then came another idea (v. 5) about asking the king to send him and make it official; he prayed about that. Then came (verse 6) an idea about how long it would take. Then (verse 7) he thought of the opposition he would face from the Trans-Euphrates satraps and prayed about that. And then (verse 8) his mind went to supplies that would be needed, so he prayed about that.
The prayer Nehemiah began in 1:5 kept evolving, and changing, and coming more clearly into focus over the months. Why? Because God’s Spirit was in and with Nehemiah gradually aligning his prayer with God’s will. He was being lifted and carried on the tide.
But remember: Nehemiah was willing to be a part of the answer to his own prayer. He was willing to leave the bubble and face the uncertainty. If we are unwilling – we just want God to do the work for us, as if he were our servant – we will probably not see many answers to prayer. It’s not that God cannot or does not answer prayers apart from anything we do. It’s that he doesn’t answer prayers for people who refuse to do anything. If they are willing to obey him, God is willing to do more than they can ask or imagine.
So, how do we apply? First, set aside a regular time for Scripture-saturated praying. This is how you charge up the battery – faith – that energizes your prayers.
Second, stick with your prayers. One and done is not the way to see answers. God will guide as you keep praying.
I spent a year working at a greenhouse raising tomatoes. At the end of the growing season, we picked every tomato on the vine, even if it was egg-sized, green, and hard as a rock. Those tomatoes would be gassed with ethylene to turn them red and then sold. Instead of letting them ripen, sweeten, and become what they were meant to be, we hurried them. Don’t do that with your prayers. They need to ripen.
Finally, be ready to act. Prayer is not a substitute for, but a stimulus to, action. If you are unwilling to respond to God with obedience, don’t expect him to respond to you with answers.
 The Week, “The Week contest—Funeral home cafes,” (7-26-12)
 Derek Kidner, Tyndale Commentary on the Old Testament: Ezra and Nehemiah.