Key Verse 2:4
“Then I prayed to the God of heaven.”
Nehemiah was grief-stricken when he heard the bad news. The people who had returned to Jerusalem after 70 years of exile were in trouble. They were disgraced, stripped of all dignity as once a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Jerusalem, the capital city of the once mighty kingdom of Judah lay in ruins. Its walls broken as a sign of its utter defeat. It happened to them when they abandoned God and the faith. For 70 years now, they had been in exile. But finally and according to prophesy, it was time for God to restore them. So many of them had genuinely repented and sought after God. And God in his mercy forgave them and began his healing process in their lives. Only a few years ago God had moved the heart of their oppressor to send some of them home to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. The prophet Ezra was one of the returnees. In time, the temple was rebuilt, but the walls of the city were still broken, a testimony of their wicked past and a cause of their utter humiliation. But God would not abandon them now. He raised a man of God and put it in his heart to return and rebuild those broken walls. His name of Nehemiah. And his story is remarkable.
It begins when Nehemiah receives news about the condition of the city of Jerusalem and of the people who had returned. And the news was not good. But that was the very thing that stirred his heart and started this great mission to rebuild the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Outwardly it was rebuilding walls that had been broken down by the enemy. But in essence Nehemiah ended up rebuilding the broken down dignity that had once characterized the people of Israel as God’s precious and holy people. A rebuilding of the confidence, the faith, and the hope which once set them apart as a people chosen and called to serve God’s purpose and to bring his name to the ends of the earth. When we trace his story through the Book of Nehemiah, there are certain things about him that every Christian should aspire to. In the first chapter, we see him mourning, deeply anguished. And there is something very significant about Nehemiah’s anguish.
Look at 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.” Nearly 4 months had gone by since the last chapter. What has he been doing all this time? We have no doubt that the man had been given to prayer. He had been in the king’s presence many times since he was the official cup bearer to the king. But in all this time, he had not once asked the king’s favor. He had waited and waited for the opportune time to make his request of the king. And perhaps no opportunity had come for him to bring to the king the request he was to make. God had pressed it on his heart to do a certain mission. But the time was not right. How patient he had been in all these months! And how easy it would have been for him to simply take a moment in all the hours spent with the king to ask the king’s favor. But there is record that Nehemiah had initiated the request. It is a testimony of his faith in God— to know that sovereign God who has a purpose for Nehemiah would himself bring about the right time for the request to be made. And the right time had finally come now after four months of quiet and patient prayer.
The opportunity came in a most unusual way. Look at verse 2. “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.” One day he came into the presence of the king and the king noticed that Nehemiah’s face looked very sad. It seems that Nehemiah’s months long prayer had finally taken a toll on his appearance. He may have tried to hide his anguish from the king in all these months. But this day his anguish had been visible, especially to the king who was very familiar with Nehemiah. Amazingly Nehemiah’s anguish did not lessen in all these months, but grew to something visible.
That the king himself noticed Nehemiah’s sadness tells us that there was something special about this king. He was not a selfish king, but one who was very familiar with his attendants. He was concerned about them enough to notice their distress. For some reason unknown to the king, Nehemiah was overly dejected on this day. The soreness of his heart must have overflowed into his whole being. His sorrow was almost palpable. You could see it on his face. Now, a man with a broken heart stood before the king. The king had never seen Nehemiah in this condition before. He sensed that Nehemiah his cup bearer was grieving over something. He could have easily ignored Nehemiah’s distress as none of his concern. The king did not have to even inquire of him. But he asks him what was bothering him. It was the very opportunity which Nehemiah had been waiting for the last four months.
But before we consider Nehemiah’s response, the last word which Nehemiah records in verse 2 are very interesting. He tells us that he was very much afraid. The opportunity had finally come, but that did not mean that it was going to be easy. Regardless of the close relationship that Nehemiah and the king may have had, Nehemiah admits that he was “very much afraid”. There are several things that we can learn here. Nehemiah wasn’t ashamed to admit his fear. Also he was afraid but its clear that he did not let his fear paralyze him nor hinder him from taking this opportunity which God had given him. He was a afraid, but he was not a captive to fear. He did not become a slave to his fear, and then become useless in the mission that was entrusted to him. Fear, if it is allowed to rule the heart paralyzes people, even God’s people when caught by their fears become paralyzed. Abraham was afraid of the king of Egypt, Pharaoh. In his fear he had to lie about his wife saying that she was his sister. When the Pharaoh took her from him, Abraham was powerless to do anything, powerless to rescue his wife, and powerless to leave Egypt. God had to finally rescue him with divine intervention.
Nehemiah too was afraid. But he refused to allow fear to stop him from doing what God had called him to do. There are always tasks that God would have his people do. Especially the task of bringing the Gospel to the people of our generation. Jesus once said: “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few, therefore ask the lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.” God calls us to be workers in his harvest field. But most often it is not so easy. At times it is even fearful. Fear has paralyzed many from serving God’s purpose by allowing all kinds of excuses not fulfill the task God would have us
Nehemiah was afraid. He had no idea how the king would respond to what he was about to tell him. It was fearful to even ask. But he spoke up what’s on his heart. And what did he tell the king about what was on his heart? Read verse . “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?” he confessed to the king about the anguish of his heart.
Several things to consider when we observe Nehemiah’s anguish.
Nehemiah was able to express his anguish because at that moment, in his heart, there was nothing more important in the world to Nehemiah than the condition of the people and of the city of Jerusalem. And Nehemiah’s anguished heart brought about a historical event — it yielded the fruit of God’s glory. There are many in God’s history who openly expressed their sorrow and anguish without shame. there is Nothing shameful about expressing one’s sorrow. Jesus did not hide and conceal his sorrow and anguish from God. Nor did he hide it from his disciples. When he prayed he prayed that he was broken and in pain. David was a man who sorrowed a lot in his life, and expressed it in the many psalms that speak of his anguish. People hide their anguish for many reasons— for shame or propriety or even pride. But then at some point their inner pain turns against them. While Others express their anguish, and they experience the hand of God in their lives.
It is not wrong to anguish over things that matter. Over things that count in our lives. Nehemiah’s anguish was not personal for selfish reasons. the anguish that Nehemiah experienced was not selfish, nor personal. It was rooted in the love that he held for God and for God’s people and for the dwelling place of God. it was the kind of anguish that Paul spoke of to mourn with the those who mourn: (Romans 12:15) To mourn for one’s own misfortunes is understandable but to mourn for others’ misfortunes is the very essence of what was on God’s heart when God commanded us “Love God and love others as yourself”. Nehemiah anguish was godly anguish. It reflected God’s own anguish over his people and his city. God loved that city because in all the world, the place that held God’s name and his honor was Jerusalem and the temple. God disciplined them because he is true to his word. And he disciplined them because they deserved discipline. But God was not happy to do that. God mourned with his people who had degenerated into a sinful and godlessness people.
Nehemiah shared and reflected God’s anguish very well. There are many who do not share God’s heart. the Pharisees believed that they were right in the sight of God and condemned and cursed those whom they called sinners and tax collectors. They knew the bible well, but they did not know the heart of God well. God did not want them to judge these people nor the city where his name dwells. God wanted them to share in his anguish over sinners and then pray for them and go as far as to shepherd them. When they did not, Jesus did not give up. Jesus raised shepherds and taught them how to share in the heart and mind of God. the disciples eventually grew to anguish over sinners. Paul anguished over his own people and deeply cared for them. we too have a nation steeped in sin, and bearing the marks of God’s judgment. What does God want from us? He wants us to anguish over them as Nehemiah anguished over his people and city. When we genuinely anguish over the condition of lost sinners, God is moved and reveal to us his plan on how to bring them back to God.
When Nehemiah expressed his sorrow, how did the king respond? Read verse 4. “The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven.” The king asked Nehemiah “What is it you want?” The king understood that Nehemiah’s sorrow was not random but purposed. It seems that God had already prepared the king’s heart to respond favorably according to Nehemiah’s anguish and prayer. this two times the king was able to discern Nehemiah’s heart and respond to it. What could possibly make a king willing other than the very hand of God! it was an impossible situation. Nehemiah was a cup bearer to the king. He was not the king’s advisor nor the royal engineer. What could he possibly do for the people and the city. Actually Only God would know what needs to be done. And how to do it.
Look at verse 4b. “then I prayed to the God of heaven.” summarizes Nehemiah’s faith in a glorious way. He had expressed his sorrow and was called to answer the king’s question “What is it you want?” at those words, Nehemiah understood that the Lord had given him an opportunity to bring his heart’s conviction— the task God laid upon him — before the king. God had opened the way. But he did not rush into telling the king about it. He took time to pray. It was a step by step prayer before God. 8 times throughout the book we witness this on-the-spot prayer. this the faith that believes that This was not his plan. That it was God’s plan— the mission God had given him. And he treated it so. He believed that God had a plan and that God wants to do it in his own way. The issue of my way versus God’s way is such a problem in our lives. Christians often neglect doing things in God’s way. When God puts a task on our hearts, we pray one time and then proceed to do things according to our own wisdom and effort. Some hardly stop to seek God’s guidance in matters which God himself had pressed upon them.
A man is having problems with his son. God lays it on his heart to spend time with his son. So he proceeds to do so, but he never asked God to show him what God wants him to do during the time he spends with his son. When God would have had him spend leisure time, he does it his own way by imposing bible reading time together. When the efforts fail, they do not fail because God’s plan was no good, but they fail because we proceed to carry out God’s plan in our own way.
Nehemiah knew the tremendous task God laid on his heart. It was as unattainable as restoring a backslider to the life of faith. So Nehemiah prayed. What might he have prayed for? He wanted God’s direction. He wanted God’s strength. He wanted God’s blessing. Most of all he wanted God involved in every step of his life and mission. So He prayed to the God of heaven.
What was his request of the king? Read verse 5. “and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.” Nehemiah boldly laid down before the king the mission God had called him to serve. After he prayed, he was convinced that this was the right time to share with the king the burden God had laid on his heart. It wasn’t an easy request. It was an unlikely that the king would allow it. But as far fetched as this hope may have been, Nehemiah trusted that God would work to fulfill his purpose. And If the king refused. Nehemiah would have understood that it was not the right time.
Read verse 6. “Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me so I set a time.”
Nehemiah tells us “it pleased the king to send me.”. his bold request received the king’s approval. The only question the king had was how long will this take, and when will you be coming back! He had the king’s blessing. He needed to set a time, and he did. Nehemiah does not tell us the time he set for his mission. but we know that he spent 12 years in Jerusalem fulfilling the Lord’s mission.
Read verses (7-8) I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah?
8 And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests.” The man who had started out by saying “I was very much afraid” now went further than requesting a leave of absence to fulfill his mission. he makes other requests of the king. His fears had subsided. His faith grew with every step of the way.. He asked the king for letters to be written to the governors of the provinces Nehemiah’s team would have to pass through on their way to Jerusalem. The journey was not a small and easy one. It was a vast distance he would have to cross over land before reaching his destination. The journey would be fraught with danger. The governors would have questions as to the nature of his journey. They should also provide him with enough protection to reach his destination. When he arrived, he would need timber for the rebuilding of the walls. So he requested all that would necessary for him to make the journey and during the time he would be there. He obviously had good organizational skills. But what he requested of the king seems to have been something he had thoroughly thought of ahead of time. it reveals the confidence he had all along in the success of his mission. He prayed. He planned. He carried it out.
And he says: “And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests.” Nehemiah knew who God was. He was the “God of heaven, the great and awesome God.” He also knew that God rules all things in heaven and on earth, and that all things answer to his sovereign will. Consequently, Nehemiah knew that the events that have thus far occurred in history, both the exile and the return, as well as the king’s favorable disposition towards Nehemiah, were part of God’s plan to restore his people along with Jerusalem. Nehemiah knew that he was only an instrument in the hand of this mighty God, who used him to bring about his purpose. And he gave glory and honor to God.
Look as verses 9-10. The men who are mentioned in verse 10, Sanbalat and Tobiah are mentioned with negative undertones, one an ammonite and the other a horonite, both aggressors towards the Israelites whom they regarded with contempt. While the Israelites were suffering in their exile, these people rejoiced and celebrated the misery of the Israelites. When Ezra the prophet returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, these peoples opposed the rebuilding of the temple and became a hindrance and snare to the builders. For a while the persecution was so severe that the rebuilding project was halted for a long time. only then did they relent and ease their opposition. But the mighty hand of God was already moving to restore a broken and disciplined nation. So God raised another man of power in Persia who promoted the welfare of the Israelites and the temple rebuilding project was completed. Then years later, God again moved his hand and touched the heart of the Persian king to allow Nehemiah to fulfill yet another rebuilding project. And once again the enemies of God were disturbed that someone was again promoting the welfare of the Israelites.
The bible teaches us that every time God was doing something marvelous in history, the enemies of God and of his work became disturbed and intent on causing trouble. But they never prevailed over God and the people whom God had chosen to fulfill his purpose. We are living in a generation so completely opposed to God and to his work that hindrances, pitfalls, hardship and difficulties are rampant. But we must believe that regardless of how much Satan and his servants are disturbed, the work God has given us to do must go on, and that he would prevail. But we must remember as the saint Paul says: our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the forces of darkness that wage war against our soul and the souls of those we love. Our enemy today is not Sanbalat nor Tobiah, but rather fears and doubts, anxiety and despair, indifference and complacency, hedonism and selfishness and all the temptations that assail our hearts and minds to distract us from what God would have us do. And God would have us build and rebuild, rebuild and then build again. He would have us trust him in all things, especially in working out a plan we need only pray about and embrace.