What is your first response to disturbing news? When bad news comes to you, what is your initial reaction? We are going to look at these questions in just a moment. We are returning to our theme for our Sunday evenings in 2022 called Return, Rebuild, and Renew. For our theme we have looked at the book of Ezra and we are going to continue by looking at the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah teaches us about handling adversity and pressing forward when dealing bad news and hard times. The book is intended to give us to courage to return to the Lord, be renewed by the Lord, and be rebuilt by the Lord to go forward in life. So this will be our book to carry us through the rest of the summer as we look to the Lord to rebuild and renew us.
Prayer Preparation (1:1-11)
The book of Nehemiah continues the unique characteristic that we found in the second half of the book of Ezra. From Ezra 7 forward, Ezra speaks in the first person, recording his personal experiences. In the book of Nehemiah you will see Nehemiah speaking in the first person about his personal experiences. Verse 1 of Nehemiah 1 tells us that these are the words of Nehemiah. So when you read the words “I” and “me” you should hear Nehemiah speaking. Nehemiah is living in the palace of the king in Persia’s winter capital, Susa. Governmental news from the Persian Empire comes to Nehemiah in about 445 BC. The news is that the remnant who survived the exile are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down and the gates are destroyed by fire. The city of God, the city of Jerusalem is in shambles. The report seems to indicate that this is something more than what happened in 587 BC when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. It would not be news to report to Nehemiah the destroyed condition of the city from 140 years earlier. The problems and opposition that we read about in the book of Ezra have caused Jerusalem to be wrecked again.
But I want us to notice Nehemiah’s first reaction. He cries, he fasts, and he prays (1:4). Now as we consider this prayer, I want us to see that he is not praying this one time. In verse 6 that Nehemiah is praying day and night about this. Further, the timing given to us from Nehemiah 1:1 to 2:1 is between a 3-5 month period. So this is a record of what Nehemiah is praying day and night for months before the Lord.
Nehemiah shows us that it all starts with prayer and continues with prayer. When bad news hits, Nehemiah is overcome with emotions and moved to prayer. All of life starts with prayer and continues with prayer. Nehemiah prepares with prayer. Notice the four things Nehemiah prays. First, Nehemiah prays based on God’s character (1:5). Nehemiah starts with who God is. You are the God of heaven. You are the great and awesome God. You are the God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commands.
Next, Nehemiah prays a confession of sins (1:6-7). Nehemiah says that the people have sinned. He himself has sinned. His family has sinned. We have all acted corruptly and not kept your rules. Sin is the problem. Sin is always the problem. Third, Nehemiah prays based on God’s character for the Lord to keep his promises (1:8-10). Nehemiah recalls God’s promise. God promised to scatter the people among the nations when they became unfaithful. God did it. But look at verse 9. God promised that if we return to him and obey his commands, then he will gather them to the place he chose and put his name there. Keep your promise to bring us back and have your presence, your name, with us.
Finally, Nehemiah prays for success (1:11). Nehemiah prays for success before the king. Nehemiah has a desire to act. Nehemiah wants to do something based on the news he has heard about the condition of Jerusalem. Give me mercy and success before the king. So this is what Nehemiah is praying. Nehemiah is going to do something. But he prepares with prayer.
Now here is something that I love about Nehemiah. Nehemiah does not bemoan the situation. He does not wonder why no one is doing anything. He does not complain. He does not judge. He wants to be the solution. He is praying for the opportunity to do the work for the Lord. Nehemiah is having an Isaiah, “Here I am, send me” moment. Is there something I can do? Let me pray about it. May the Lord use me to do the work for him.
The first chapter ends with another important piece of information about Nehemiah. Nehemiah is the cupbearer to the king. He is a trusted official in Artaxerxes’ palace. The Greek historian Xenophon describes the act of the cupbearer. He takes a ladle and draws some of the wine from the king’s cup, pours it in his left hand, and drinks it so that he can detect any poison. The cupbearer was not someone who you did not care died or not. He was a trusted advisor. His loyalty to the king was never in doubt. Sometimes cupbearers were financial managers. He had amazing access to the king.
Prayer Leads To Action (2:1-8)
So a few months go by and Nehemiah is bringing the wine to the king like he always does. But this time the king notices something in Nehemiah. There is something different about Nehemiah. Nehemiah appears to be sad. Now this is not something you do in the royal court (2:1). Court etiquette required a cheerful demeanor. You see in Nehemiah 2:2 that Nehemiah is afraid when the king notices this. He is also afraid about what he is going to say. Remember that it is this very king, Artaxerxes, who stopped the work in Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 4:7-23). But Nehemiah says it. Nehemiah is sad because the city of his heritage is in ruins and destroyed by fire. So the king asks what Nehemiah wants. What will Nehemiah do? Look at verse 4. Nehemiah prayed. It is unlikely that Nehemiah went into another room, closed his eyes, and prayed for a few minutes. It seems likely that this is a momentary prayer seeking God’s help and boldness in this moment.
So Nehemiah makes his request. After preparing with prayer, his prayers have led to action in the moment. He asks to be sent to Judah to rebuild the city. The king asks how long he will be gone and when he will return. After setting an agreed upon time, the king agreed to send Nehemiah to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah also asks for letters to allow him to pass through the various provinces until he gets to Judah as well as timber from the king’s forest for the work.
Look For God’s Good Hand (2:8-20)
This brings us to the final point of these first two chapters. Look for God’s good hand. The king grants what Nehemiah requests because the good hand of God was on him. A sad situation and a fearful situation as turned into a great opportunity because the good hand of God was on him. Nehemiah makes the trip and we are immediately told that this is not going to be an easy work. Verse 10 tells us that two men in particular were greatly displeased that he had come to seek the welfare of the people. Nehemiah rides into Jerusalem, tours the city at night, and does not tell anyone exactly why he is there. His inspection of the city reveals that the city walls are in ruins.
After his inspection, he gathers everyone in verse 17 to encourage them to the work. “Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” Notice he does not merely say that we need to get to work. Look at verse 18. Nehemiah told them about the good hand of God being on him. God has answered his prayers and the king has allowed for this work to occur. “Let us rise up and build!” So everyone was encouraged to do the work.
But there will always be opposition and detractors. When Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem heard of it, they scoffed and despised them. They slander them declaring that they are rebelling against the king (2:19). How will the people respond? Look at verse 20. “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build.” But you scoffers will have no part or right to Jerusalem. In short, God is with us and he will give us success to do this work.
God Gives Success
Nehemiah shows us three amazing pictures. After hearing the news regarding Jerusalem, he prepares with prayer, his prayer leads to action, and then he looks for God’s good hand to give him success. Pray for success. Work for success. Look for success. We must start with prayer and continue with prayer because it is only by God’s grace and good hand that we will have success as we work for the Lord. God is the giver of success. Nehemiah proclaims to his opposition that the God of heaven will make us prosper and give us success (2:20).
But I want us to see the picture of our savior, Jesus. Nehemiah foreshadows the work of Jesus in the world. Jesus saw our problem, interceded, and acted for the welfare of the people. He leaves the throne of heaven to come to the common people. He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, examining the city, with the plan to restore and rebuild his people. He comes to remove our shame because we are broken down because of our sinning. When we look at the life of Jesus, we see a life that is saturated with prayer. He will go alone to desolate places to pray. Before acting he would pray. Before his arrest he is praying. While on the cross he is praying. He taught us to pray and lived a prayer filled life. It starts with prayer and continues with prayer. Pray through your sadness. Pray through your obstacles. Pray through your fears. Prepare with prayer.