NEHEMIAH’S MISSION Nehemiah 1–3“Send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so I can rebuild it” (Neh. 2:5).Nehemiah’s concern for the state of the city of Jerusalem was in fact concern for the glory of God. The Holy City was in disrepair. Nehemiah’s mission was to restore the city that God had chosen to represent His name.
In the ancient world a city without walls was vulnerable to enemy attack, and thus insignificant. Only a walled city was considered respectable. This perception explains Nehemiah’s grief when he heard that Jerusalem’s walls were broken down and its gates burned, and also explains Nehemiah’s references to the Jews’ “troubles” and “disgrace.” By rebuilding the walls of the city, Nehemiah would force the surrounding peoples to respect the Jews and to respect Israel’s God.
Nehemiah was moved at a report of Jerusalem’s ruined condition (1:1–4). After prayer (vv. 5–11), he begged King Artaxerxes to appoint him governor of Judah (2:1–10). In Judah he rallied local support (vv. 11–20) and set the people to work rebuilding the city walls (3:1–32).
Understanding the Text
“I mourned and fasted and prayed” Neh. 1:1–4. Nehemiah was secure in an important position in Susa, then the capital of the Persian Empire. Yet when he heard about conditions in Judah, he was broken-hearted. Not every Christian can be a wall-builder. But each of us can have Nehemiah’s concern for the welfare of fellow believers. First Corinthians 12 calls on us to view the church as a body, in which each believer is intimately linked with every other Christian. Thus the apostle writes, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (v. 26). Not every Christian can be a wall-builder. But each of us can pray. When we hear of others in need, the most important thing we can do for them may well be to follow Nehemiah’s lead, and express our concern in heartfelt prayer. And let’s remember. Nehemiah’s great ministry began with this prayer. If you or I wish to become spiritual leaders, we must begin where Nehemiah began. With prayer. “The place . . . chosen as a dwelling for My Name” Neh. 1:5–11. Nehemiah’s prayer acknowledged the sin which led to Jerusalem’s destruction. Yet Nehemiah remembered that God had chosen Jerusalem as a “dwelling for My Name.” The phrase means that God had chosen to identify Himself with the Holy City. Thus the glory of God was intimately linked with the condition of the city. The ruined condition of the city walls not only indicated hardships experienced by the Jews in Judah, but also cast a shadow that disguised the glory of God. This is another important aspect of prayer. Prayer rightly expresses concern for brothers and sisters in need. But prayer is also to reflect concern for the glory of God. We urge God to act, not only that we may be blessed, but that He may be glorified. First John observes that “if we ask anything according to [God’s] will, He hears us” (5:14). Nehemiah gives us a simple way to check whether our prayers are in God’s will. Does a prayer express concern for others? Does a prayer seek an answer which will glorify God? If the answer to these questions is yes, we can be confident that our prayer is in God’s will. “I was cupbearer to the king” Neh. 2:1–6. In ancient times the “cupbearer” had an important post in the administration of an empire. The holder of the office had direct access to the king, symbolized by the privilege of handing the ruler his cup at official banquets and functions. Thus Nehemiah was a very important person in Persia, whose services were highly valued by the king. How fascinating that Nehemiah was willing to exchange the honor of this post for the relatively insignificant title of governor of tiny Judah! Yet Nehemiah did not look at it this way. To him the importance of the post depended on the importance of the person he served. In Susa he served the ruler of the mighty Persian Empire. But in tiny Judah, Nehemiah would serve God. Let’s remember this truth and grasp its meaning for us. The simplest Sunday School teacher is far more significant than a person on the President’s staff, for the God he or she serves is far greater than any mere man. “The king granted my requests” Neh. 2:7–10. Nehemiah attributed the king’s permission to go to Judah and rebuild its walls to God’s favor. We can thank others who help us. But when our requests have been preceded by earnest prayer we realize the help is evidence of God’s grace. “I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said” Neh. 2:11–20. When Nehemiah arrived, he surveyed the walls to discover how great the ruin was. Despite the heaps of shattered stone and burned timbers, Nehemiah then challenged the Jews to “come . . . rebuild the wall.” How did Nehemiah succeed in enlisting their aid? Rather than order, he encouraged. And he encouraged by (1) telling what God had already done, and (2) confidently predicting that “the God of heaven will give us success.” Effective spiritual leaders realistically evaluate difficulties. But they keep the attention of everyone on the Lord, seeking to build confidence in Him. “The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa” Neh. 3:1–32. Nehemiah showed effective leadership in his plan for rebuilding. Teams were formed and given specific responsibilities. The fact that each team is named here shows that Nehemiah was careful to give credit for accomplishments. Effective leaders learn from Nehemiah to assign ministry teams specific missions, and to give them credit by name for all they accomplish.
Spiritually Prepared (Neh. 1:1–2:6)
One of the sermons I remember hearing when I was young was on Nehemiah 2:3–4. Our pastor pointed out that Nehemiah must have been a fast prayer. The king asked him a question, “What is it you want?” And the text says, “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king.” You can bet Nehemiah didn’t keep the king waiting for an answer for two minutes while he slipped out to pray. What Nehemiah did was to aim a quick prayer toward heaven, and answer the king immediately. As I remember, the point of the sermon was to encourage frequent, brief prayers offered during the day. Something like my wife’s habit of asking God for a parking space when she drives to the mall. And her more significant prayer for protection as she watches five or six cars on our dangerous Highway 19 zoom through an intersection after the light has changed. I think the point is well taken. Prayers can be brief, pointed, and frequent. But looking at Nehemiah we realize that the brief, pointed prayer is not really enough. Nehemiah himself says that “for some days I mourned and fasted and prayed” before seeking permission to go to Judah. Yes, standing there holding the king’s cup, Nehemiah did offer a brief prayer. But Nehemiah had prepared spiritually for that critical moment during the preceding days. Brief prayers are important. But they can never be the whole of our prayer life. It is taking significant time alone with God that provides the spiritual preparation we need to meet the emergencies of our life.
A vital prayer life prepares us to meet emergencies successfully.