Pray, Plan, Pledge, Persevere
There are no audio or video file uploads at this time
A few weeks ago we were looking at the story of Jacob’s family. Joseph and his brothers. One of the things we talked about and one of the things which the story of Joseph really shows is that we live between divine sovereignty and human agency. What this means is that we live under God who is all-powerful, and whose plans cannot and will not be thwarted. At the same time, we’re invited to take part in the work of God. Remember the words from God that we read from the prophet Haggai – “take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts…” (Hag 2:4) We live in utter dependence on God, and are called to take action.
I said at the time that there’s a line in Nehemiah 4 describing the days in which Nehemiah and the people were in the process of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. They are under threat from neighbouring people groups who don’t want them to build the walls. Nehemiah says, “So we prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” (Neh 4:9)
So we prayed and set a guard. Nehemiah is now striding onto the scene. We get this great sense of the man through the memoir form here which will continue all the way to chapter 7. Nehemiah – his name means “God has comforted.” A man whose faith in God has been described as “solicitous, serious, and above all sincere.” God grant that we would all have faith like that, from church leaders on down. He was a leader. A lay leader as we would say in church terms. He was neither a scribe nor a priest. He had a deep trust in God and was skilled in planning, organization, and energetic action. Nehemiah.
His task was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Our task has something to do with a kind of wall too, but we’ll get to that in a little while. Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at the beginning of the book named for Nehemiah.
1:1-4 The scene has shifted now to Susa. The year is 446 into 445 BC – almost a hundred years from where we began in Ezra 1. Susa was the winter palace of the Persian king. In modern-day Iran 150 miles north of the Persian Gulf. The survivors who have escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire. There is an existential crisis going on, and by existential, I simply mean a threat to their existence. If you can say that’s simple in any way. We are facing questions about our existence as the people of God here at Blythwood. We are tasked here at Blythwood with building a wall, or I should rather say being built into a spiritual wall. The same can be said for any faith family. We’re all stones in a spiritual wall. 1 Peter 2:1-6. The wall is in crisis. We learn in Ezra 4:21-23 that some years earlier, Artaxerxes had ordered all construction stopped until such time as he might decree otherwise (his mind was as changeable as the weather). Construction was stopped by force and power (and hence fire and destruction). The situation for the people of God is dire. This is the news which Nehemiah’s brother brings him when he travels to Susa.
It’s enough to make Nehemiah weep. He has a deep care and concern for the people of God. There’s a great line in Psalm 16:3 – “As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.” The Contemporary English Version puts it like this – “Your people are wonderful, and they make me happy.” We’re praying for God to stir our hearts and I pray that God stirs our hearts to be concerned about one another. His concern causes Nehemiah to sit and weep and fast.
Pray – Read 1:5-11a
Prayer is not something that comes naturally to many of us. It’s something that we need to learn. Even the people who had been hanging around Jesus constantly had to ask him – “Teach us how to pray.” Let’s stop here with this prayer from Nehemiah then, and examine what it has to teach us about how we pray. Nehemiah is in deep distress. He has deep concerns for the future of the people of God in Jerusalem, who are living in a situation of precarity – things are dicey for them. The walls and gates of the city have been destroyed and they are surrounded (on three sides we’ll soon find out) by people who would very much like their destruction – people for whom the prior status quo was great thanks very much.
Nehemiah starts with God. In much the same way our Lord started with God. Our Father in heaven. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your name is holy. May your name be glorified, made known. So Nehemiah starts “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, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you…” (5-6a). Nehemiah starts where we must always start. With God. With the broadest possible point. Let us come to God when we pray in wonder and in thanks that we need only come to God with empty hands. I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer posture lately. Coming to God on our knees, or prostrating ourselves on the ground before God. I’m liking coming to God like this (palms up) lately. Coming to God empty-handed, completely dependent on him, but not uninvited. Empty-handed but not uninvited. Invited to approach God’s throne of grace boldly in the grace of Christ Jesus. Let that not be an invitation which we ignore.
Gracious and merciful eternal God. How great is your steadfast love for us. Nehemiah starts with God and goes on to focus on the human aspect of things. Focussing on God first may put some of the human aspect of things in its proper place too. Focussing on the eternal may give us a new perspective on our fleeting troubles.
Next, Nehemiah confesses. We talked about this at length last week of course. He identifies himself and his family (and if his brother Hanani is still with him here he might have been saying “Amen”) with the people of Israel. We have failed to keep your commands. Lord have mercy on us.
Nehemiah uses the scripture to pray. He asks God to remember what God had said to Moses. Remember your promise O God. Remember your promise to bring us back. Remember the people whom you have saved with your strong hand and outstretched arm. What promises of God do we need to be asking God to remember in our prayers? We don’t do this to remind God as much as to remind ourselves of God’s promises and to rest in them. Speaking of which, how about “O Lord you promised that all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens may come to you and find rest. Give us this rest.” Or “Lord you promised to give us peace that the world doesn’t give. Grant us your peace.” Or “Lord you promise to direct our paths when we acknowledge you in all our ways. Direct our paths. Teach us what it means to acknowledge you in all our ways.” Remember your people. Remember your promise. Of course with that last one we’re getting into the asking part of praying to God. “Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!” If we want to learn how to pray, the Psalms is a really good school. This last line here brings Psalm 90 to mind. Listen to how it ends – “Let the favour of the Lord be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!”
It’s rarely about one thing, as I like to say. It’s not solely about prayer for Nehemiah, and it’s not for us either. It’s always about prayer, make no mistake, but that’s not all. We find out that Nehemiah had work. “At the time,” the chapter ends, “I was cupbearer to the king.” If we didn’t know this already we might go “Duh duh duh” in the manner of an old time movie or radio serial. Nehemiah has juice – he has the ear of the king! Read 2:1-6. Nehemiah keeps praying. There’s an element of risk in what Nehemiah is asking. Artaxerxes’ last order on this building project was “Put an end to it.” Nehemiah sends up one of his famous “arrow prayers” – “Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. (4)
We don’t know that Nehemiah prayed, but it might have been something like “Lord help me.” This is surely one of the most concise and most necessary prayers in the Bible (Matthew 15).
Note the mention of the month in 1:1 and 2:1. “Why this detail?” you ask, and I say “I’m glad you asked!” This scene with the king ch. 2 is happening in the month of Nisan (March/April). Four months have passed since the story started (it started in Chislev – Nov/Dec). Apparently, fasting and praying is not all that Nehemiah has been doing. He’s a man of faith and a man of action (and may God make us woman and men and girls and boys of faith and action). “How long will you be gone, and when will you return” asks the king, and Nehemiah writes – “So it pleased the king to send me…” Then you get this amazing series of verses, and if I were staging this scene, Nehemiah would at this point reach into his robe, unfurl a long scroll and (7-8)…“Then I said to the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah, and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, directing him to give me timber to make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, and for the wall of city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” “So if I could get you to sign off on this, that would be great.” “ And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.”
Nehemiah prayed and he planned. Not only did he fast and pray, but he made plans. Nehemiah figured out what he would need for the task of wall rebuilding. He lived between divine sovereignty and human agency. Speaking of agents, when he arrives in Jerusalem, Nehemiah goes on a secret reconnaissance mission. Not before resting for three days – like Ezra, Nehemiah knew the importance of stopping and resting. Read – 2:11-16.
May we be wise in our tasks like Nehemiah. Nehemiah didn’t want their enemies to find out what he was doing. He needed to find out what the situation was “on the ground,” as they say. He needed to gather information. He needed to find out what ways were blocked. He didn’t want to present plans (to the people for whom he cared so much, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work) which were half-finished or half-baked.
Let us come to Him, our living stone, and like living stones, let ourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood (all of us!), to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Is this something that we could commit to here at Blythwood? Then they said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good. I pray that the same may be said of us here.
May such commitment not wane in the face of opposition either. I think a lot of our opposition comes from the powers and principalities. I think a lot of our opposition comes from the liar, the accuser, the deceiver. We have at the end of the chapter this mocking and ridiculing that comes from the people’s enemies – Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. “What is this that you’re doing?” they say. “Are you rebelling against the king?” Who are we to rebel against the voices of the age? The voices which say you are what you produce and consume. Your value is in what you look like. It’s all about you and your rights, not the common good. “What are these feeble Jews doing?” they’ll say in ch 4. “Will they restore things? Will they sacrifice? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish?” “That stone wall they are building,” they’ll say, “Any fox going upon it would break it down!”
Do you ever hear those voices? The voices that say “What’s the use?” “What are 18 people gathering in a parking lot going to do?” “Give up.” “Quit.” I hear them.
The thing is, we’re not rebuilding or restoring or renewing anything. It’s God’s work and God is asking us to join him in it. “The God of heaven is the one who is going to give us success, and we his servants are going to start building.” To be against this means to have no share or claim or right to this wall of living stones. So let the enemy mock. We’ll keep praying and working. May God stir our hearts to be a people as committed as those who surrounded Nehemiah. May this be true for all of us.