Stephen Caswell © 2000
Pray for Strength — Phillips Brooks
Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger people! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your world shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle. Everyday you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God. This is how Nehemiah prayed!
The setting for the Book of Nehemiah is 444 bc. There were three different groups of Jews that returned from exile. In 538 bc Zerubbabel lead a group back following Cyrus’ decree. They faced great opposition from the Samaritans living in Judea. They began to rebuild the temple in 536 bc and finally completed it in 515 bc. Later in 458 bc, Ezra lead a second group of exiles back to Jerusalem. He was a priest who taught the Law. Ezra did much to reform the people spiritually. Fourteen years later Nehemiah lead a third group back and rebuilt the walls. The Book of Nehemiah deals with this return and the struggle to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. The name Nehemiah means the Lord comforts. Nehemiah certainly brought the Lord’s comfort to Israel. Nehemiah was certainly a man of action since he accomplished much in spite of great opposition. But this was because Nehemiah was a great man of prayer also. Chapter one divides into two main parts.
I. The Report From Jerusalem & II. The Response Of Nehemiah
I. The Report From Jerusalem
a. The Concern Of Nehemiah
Nehemiah 1:1-2 The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. It came to pass in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the citadel, that Hanani one of my brethren came with men from Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who had survived the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem.
In the twentieth year of the Kings reign men came from Judah to Shushan in Persia. The King reigning at that time was Artaxerxes, who began his reign in 464 bc. Therefore the year was 444 bc. Hanani, Nehemiah’s brother was among these men. Shushan was in Persia. The Kings of Persia would spend the winter in Shushan because the climate was comfortable there. But it was very hot in summer. Although many Jews had returned to Judah under Zerubbabel and Ezra most remained in exile. The Book of Esther describes some of their history in Persia.
Nehemiah was committed to his people and very concerned about them. Even though they were hundreds of miles away they were often in his thoughts and prayers. Verse 2 tells us that he asked two questions about the situation in Judah. He asked them concerning the Citizens and the City. Nehemiah had access to some information because of his position in the royal court. But he wanted information that was first hand. They answered him in verse 3.
Nehemiah 1:3a And they said to me, “The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach.
b. The Citizens Reproach
Firstly the citizens were in great distress. The words great distress mean affliction, adversity or trouble. Life in Judah was very difficult. The Samaritans were constantly provoking them. The word reproach means shame, or rebuke. Because of their constant adversity they were not able to accomplish much as a nation. This in turn brought shame upon them.
c. The City In Ruins
Neh 1:3b The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.”
The wall of Jerusalem was broken down and its six gates burned with fire. This was the main reason for the distress and reproach felt by the people. Without a city wall, Jerusalem was defenseless. They were constantly open to enemy attacks. Life was very uncertain and there was no real peace. The people had been rebuilding the walls but were stopped by Artaxerxes who had been pressured by Rehum, his commanding officer there. Ezra 4:12-17 describes this. The Samaritans sent a letter to the King claiming that the Jews were rebuilding their walls so that they could rebel against him. The King then ordered them to cease rebuilding.
Because of his position in the court Nehemiah must have been aware of this letter and the kings subsequent response. However he probably didn’t know the outcome in Jerusalem. After hearing an accurate report on Jerusalem, Nehemiah felt deep regret and despair.
There are so many needs in the Christian Church but how can we help when we are so far away? By being informed. Are you like Nehemiah, anxious to know the truth even about the worst situations? Nehemiah was concerned for his people all along. But when the opportunity to find out specific details came he grabbed it. He was concerned for their physical and spiritual well being. Are you concerned for the needs of the Church overseas? Are you concerned enough to ask about them? Is your interest born of concern or idle curiosity? Are you receiving prayer letters from mission agencies? Are you burdened for them and the work? Do you give financially to help them? Do you care?
II. The Response Of Nehemiah
a. He Wept Before God
Nehemiah 1:4 So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
1. Sat Down
The first thing that Nehemiah did was to sit down and weep. It was customary for the Jews to sit down when they mourned (Ezra 9:1–4; 2:13). Unconsciously, Nehemiah was imitating the grieving Jewish captives who had been exiled in Babylon years before (Ps. 137:1). Being seated revealed his humble position. It showed that he considered himself to have been brought down low. Nehemiah humbled himself before God.
2. He Wept And Mourned For Many Days
There is probably not a great deal of difference between weeping and mourning. Weeping usually refers to crying over a tragic situation. We cry for a time and then get on with life. Mourning seems to refer to the state of a heart that has been grieved. Whilst Nehemiah probably only cried for a short time, he mourned for several days. His heart was broken over the situation in Jerusalem. This reveals how much he cared for his people. To feel this upset reveals sincerity and great concern.
3. He Fasted
During this time Nehemiah didn’t eat. Because of his intense grief and concern for his people he wouldn’t eat. Food is considered to be one of the pleasures of life. Nehemiah denied himself such things. Fasting was required of the Jews only once a year, on the annual Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29); but Nehemiah spent several days fasting, weeping, and praying. He knew that somebody had to do something to rescue Jerusalem, and he was willing to go.He fasted and prayed out of deep concern for Israel. Obviously he was not serving the King at this time because the king’s cup bearer cannot fast.
Isaiah 58:5-6 Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, And to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, And an acceptable day to the Lord? “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? Nehemiah humbled himself before the Lord on behalf of his people. All of these actions show how Nehemiah identified himself with his people. He didn’t allow his comfortable situation at court to shield himself from his people’s distress. He earnestly sought the Lord’s help.
b. He Prayed Before God
Nehemiah 1:4b I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
During this time when Nehemiah afflicted his soul he poured out his heart unto God in prayer. He prayed before the God of heaven. This title refers to His sovereignty over all. He made the heavens and lives there. Nehemiah recognized that God is exalted and rules from heaven yet He is attentive to humble people. Isaiah 57:15 For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, To revive the spirit of the humble, And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
The words pray, praying, prayer and confess are used 10 times in 11 verses. Nehemiah faces many obstacles in completing God’s work but every time he does so he prays. He prays and then takes action relying on God’s strength, wisdom and help. His prayer is simple and yet structured in three parts. Firstly, He Recalls God’s Greatness, Secondly, He Repents Of Israel’s Sinand Thirdly He Requests God’s Help.Like Daniel, Nehemiah probably had a private room where he prayed to God with his face toward Jerusalem (Dan. 6:10; 1 Kings 8:28–30).
1. He Recalled God’s Greatness
Nehemiah 1:5 And I said: “I pray, Lord God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments,
Nehemiah acknowledged that God was great and awesome. This of course is true and we should pray this way and give God the glory due to His name. Not that God doesn’t know this or needs reminding. But we need reminding. Others need to hear this too. We often forget how great and awesome our God is. Particularly when problems come our way. Nehemiah could have easily been consumed with grief, yet He chose to praise His awesome God.
Praise to God
A sacrifice of praise will always cost you something. It will be a difficult thing to do. It requires trading in our pride, our anger, and most valued of all, our human logic. We will be compelled to voice our words of praise firmly and precisely, even as our logic screams that God has no idea what he’s doing. Most of the verses written about praise in God’s Word were penned by men and women who faced crushing heartaches, injustice, treachery, slander, and scores of other intolerable situations. — Joni Eareckson Tada
The title Lord refers to His covenant relationship with Israel. The Lord keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him. He is merciful to those who obey His commandments. The Lord is sovereign and has awesome power to deliver His people when they call. Surely the Lord, God of Heaven was able to help Israel if they sought Him faithfully?
2. He Repented Of Israel’s Sin
Nehemiah 1:6-7 “please let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night, for the children of Israel Your servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel which we have sinned against You. Both my father’s house and I have sinned. “We have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses.
Nehemiah asked the Lord to be attentive to His prayer. He prayed earnestly night and day for the children of Israel. Nehemiah confessed their sins to the Lord. By using the pronoun we, Nehemiah included himself with the people. Daniel had prayed in a similar way 100 years earlier. Now Ezra prayed like this as well.Nehemiah shared the responsibility for their corrupt behavior. Through out this prayer he says I have sinned with my father’s house. The nation had broken their covenant with God. They had not kept His commandments, statutes or ordinances. This threefold designation is a comprehensive description of the Law of God.
When one Jewish soldier, Achan, sinned at Jericho, God said that “the children of Israel committed a trespass” and that “Israel” sinned and transgressed the covenant (Josh. 7:1, 11). Since the sin of one man was the sin of the whole nation, it brought shame and defeat to the whole nation. Once that sin had been dealt with, God could again bless His people with victory. Nehemiah didn’t make excuses or blame his forbears for their sin. He didn’t try to hide it but honestly admitted it. Rather he accepted responsibility along with the nation.
He was humble before God calling himself and the people God’s servants. The Lord was their rightful Master. Before God could bless them they needed to deal with their sin. Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. The word confess in the New Testament means to agree with God on a matter. If God calls something sin then we must acknowledge this too. Only after confessing our sin can God restore our relationship. 1 John 1:8-9 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The Lord promises to restore us after we humbly confess our sin.
3. He Requested God’s Help.
Nehemiah 1:8-11 “Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; ‘but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name.’ “Now these are Your servants and Your people, whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand. “O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” For I was the king’s cupbearer.
Having confessed the nation’s sin, Nehemiah reminded the Lord of His covenant with Israel. It’s not that God had forgotten it. But Nehemiah wanted God to act on it. The Lord had said that He would disperse them from their homeland if they were unfaithful. But that if they obeyed Him, He would regather them from exile and bless them. Nehemiah was asking God to act on behalf of His people once more. He had enabled them to return to the land but they were living in shameful conditions. Nehemiah pleaded to the Lord that He might be attentive to his prayer. He asked God to help him.
This prayer reveals that Nehemiah knew the Law. He quoted from it asking God to fulfill His covenant. God wants us to claim the promises of His Word and pray according to His will. 1 John 5:14-15 Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him. Are you studying God’s Word?
Humanly speaking there was one man who could enable Nehemiah to help the Jews. This man of course was King Artaxerxes. Years earlier he had issued a decree to stop the construction of Jerusalem’s walls. He could certainly issue a decree to build them now. Nehemiah believed that God was able to overrule in this too. That is why he calls him this man. God was far greater than this earthly king. He asked God for help in approaching the king. The Lord could grant him favor in the King’s presence. Nehemiah was the cup bearer to the king and therefore had frequent access to him.
An intercessor means one who is in such vital contact with God and with his fellowmen that he is like a live wire closing the gap between the saving power of God and the sinful men who have been cut off from that power. — Hannah Hurnard
It has well been said that prayer is not getting man’s will done in heaven but getting God’s will done on earth. However, for God’s will to be done on earth, He needs people to be available for Him to use. God does exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us. If God is going to answer prayer, He must start by working in the one doing the praying! He works in us and through us to help us see our prayers answered.
While Nehemiah was praying, his burden for Jerusalem became greater and his vision of what needed to be done became clearer. Real prayer keeps your heart and your head in balance so your burden doesn’t make you impatient to run ahead of the Lord and ruin everything. As we pray, God tells us what to do, when to do it, and how to do it; and all are important to the accomplishing of the will of God. Nehemiah was willing to take on an impossible task. And with the help of God, he did it! In fifty-two days, the walls were rebuilt, the gates were restored, and the people were rejoicing! And it all started with a man who cared.
Abraham cared and rescued Lot from Sodom (Gen. 18–19). Moses cared and delivered the Israelites from Egypt. David cared and brought the nation and the kingdom back to the Lord. Esther cared and risked her life to save her nation from genocide. Paul cared and took the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. Jesus cared and died on the cross for a lost world. God is still looking for people who care, people like Nehemiah, who cared enough to ask for the facts, weep over the needs, pray for God’s help, and then volunteer to get the job done. “Here am I, Lord—send me!”
Too often, we plan our projects and then ask God to bless them; but Nehemiah didn’t make that mistake. He sat down and wept (Neh. 1:4), knelt down and prayed, and then stood up and worked because he knew he had the blessing of the Lord on what he was doing.
Do you weep with those who are suffering for their faith? Are you grieved when you hear that our brothers are suffering? Do you recognize that God is sovereign and can help them? Do you realize that God longs to help them through our prayers? Do you confess you sin and humble yourself before God so that He will hear you? Do you earnestly pray for others? Do you claim God’s promises? Are you learning God’s Word so that you can? Are you willing to go if God should send you? Do you seek the Lord before you make your plans?
Today we saw: I. The Report From Jerusalem & II. The Response Of Nehemiah
Nehemiah was concerned enough to ask. Then out of concern he wept fasted, prayed and offered to help. He was genuine and did something to help! Do we do this for those in need?
Num 6:24-26 The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.