Thirteen years have passed since Ezra made his way to Jerusalem. Some had been accomplished: issue of mixed marriages resolved (at least temporarily); improvement in religious life of community – priests, Levites, other temple servants and teachers functioning in God-appointed roles. But much was still not as it ought to be within the community: the city itself insecure; economy plagued with abuses; personal holiness of average citizens in woeful condition.
Delegation sent from Judah to Persian court – purpose to report on current conditions. As far as anything good was concerned, the Jewish settlement in Jerusalem/Judah appeared to be abandoned by relatives in Babylon, friends in the Persian court. Had God’s covenant people finally been relegated to the back burner, status of second or even third-class citizens, destined to live in hardship? Or would God remember the covenant promise he made to Moses? How would he show that he remembered?
As we consider our text from Nehemiah 1, we are presented with a demoralized settlement in Jerusalem, a discouraged group of men who found a dedicated servant-leader in Nehemiah, and a determined Sovereign intent on carrying out his eternal purpose.
A. a demoralized settlement v.1-3
Jerusalem, the crown jewel of the Jewish world. Center of social (annual feasts), religious (yearly sacrifice), political (royal throne, Sanhedrin) life from time of David onward. Where God had promised Solomon – 2 Chron. 7:16 “I have now chosen and consecrated this temple so that My name may be there forever; My eyes and My heart will be there at all times.” HCSB
Just as much a part of Jewish identity as White House or Statue of Liberty for Americans. Nearly 100 years after Cyrus’ edict, 70 years after completion of temple, city still basically as had been left by Nebuchadnezzar’s general. Jerusalem was essentially dysfunctional – apparently no “leadership team” in place. God had sent Ezra a decade earlier to work on getting the spiritual house in order. Political, economic and judicial aspects of community life in serious disarray; family life not in great shape either.
Life at every level – hard! “Survivors who survived” is how Hanani describes Jerusalem residents. Hardship piled up on hardship; experiencing “great distress”, “considerable adversity” in the city. Attending to basic needs, making it from one day to next a serious challenge. Like living in New Orleans after Katrina, Port au Prince after earthquake – constantly working/walking around piles of rubble, damaged buildings, infrastructure in a shambles.
Adding to distress – lack of standing in larger community; with immediate neighbors: Samaritans; further neighbors: coastal economic centers of Tyre & Sidon, Memphis in Egypt, trade center of Carchemish in modern Turkey. Jerusalem an object of scorn by merchants in these cities, experiencing great reproach and shame because of condition and reputation of city. At a severe disadvantage when trying to carry on commerce.
Major contributor to shame, poor economic position – non-existent security of city. Government failure on two fronts: protect the righteous, deter or punish those who would do evil. No one interested in investing in such a risky location/situation: securities at level of junk-bond status, mortgage rates outrageously high. For the most part, every man for himself and real justice for no one. Needed a leader who would bring about change: reestablish a functional government committed to promoting justice; reform the economic system to bring an end to abuses; restore secure borders around the community for physical safety and moral good of citizens.
In a word, a shepherd: one who would care for the flock of God according to biblical principles.
Mark 6:34 And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd.
B. a dedicated servant-leader v.4-11
Nehemiah’s moral character seen in response to Hanani’s report: wept, mourned, fasting, praying for days. First response: grief and compassion. Grief over circumstances of brethren in Jerusalem, condition of city, reputation of his God; compassion for those suffering great hardship. No indication here that Nehemiah viewed Jerusalem predicament as opportunity for personal advancement. Making a fortune or a name for himself not on his radar screen, rather, quite the opposite.
Obvious from verse 4 prayer integral to Nehemiah’s life – from this text and following chapters, prayer as natural as breathing to him. Prayer recorded or referred to 13x in 13 chapters; as long as 34 verses, as short as 3 Hebrew words. The book opens with prayer and closes in same way. Each prayer adapted to specific circumstances – sentence prayers requesting particular help or favor; more extensive prayer that includes “standard elements of prayer: ACTS”.
adoration of God v.5
using Bible language, quoting from portions of Deuteronomy, Daniel, Kings, Chronicles
demonstrating knowledge of God and his Word
basing his approach to King of Heaven’s throne on King’s faithfulness, mercy and love
eventually framing his request in the context of a reminder: what God himself had promised through Moses (v.8-9)
confession of sin v.6-7
following example of Psalmist (Psa. 130:2) – be attentive, hear my prayer of confession
national sins – children of Israel
family sins – my father’s house
personal sins – I have sinned
identifying with fellow Jews – we have sinned, we have acted very corruptly
thanksgiving for blessings received v.10
the objects of Your special redemptive attention – brought out of captivity by God’s power, God’s hand of direction and protection
supplication for personal needs and on behalf of others v.11
listen attentively to me
listen attentively to the prayers of your other servants
particular request: I have a plan to help my people; grant my plan success and cause the king to look favorably on it.
No small request here! No generic “Lord, please help the Christians” petition from Nehemiah. William Carey, 19th century missionary to India, was by no means the first to “[ask] great things of a great God and [attempt] great things in reliance on him.”Breneman
Not an offhand “if you think of it, if you feel like it, would you maybe do it” kind of prayer either. Extended period of focused meditation – prayer and fasting for days. Persistent, fervent, passionate praying from someone who intended to prevail with God at any cost.
Prayer pulls the rope below, and the great bell rings above in the ear of God. Some scarcely stir the bell, for they pray so languidly [without spirit]; others give an occasional pluck at the rope: but he who wins with heaven is the man who grasps the rope boldly, and pulls continuously with all his might.—Spurgeon.
C. a determined Sovereign v.8-10
Key to Nehemiah’s prevailing in prayer had little to do with the prayer itself. Prayer has absolutely no power! For praying to accomplish anything, it MUST be accomplished by the one to whom the prayer is addressed. The power is not in the prayer, it is in the God to whom we pray. Nehemiah’s praying accomplished great things…. because God moved in response to his praying.
God was determined to do good to his people when they repented and turned back to him. He was also determined to do that good in response to the request of his people, the prayers of his people for help and blessing. God promised the Israelites through Moses that after they had been taken into captivity, when they returned to him, he would restore them to their homeland. They had repented, God had restored them, but they had begun to rely on themselves again instead of depending on God.
Now there’s Nehemiah, remembered the promises, knew God’s character, was committed to prayer as part of lifestyle. When he and other faithful Jews began to pray, God answered – moving forward in his sovereign plan of redemption. All of this in anticipation of coming Messiah, son of David, lion of tribe of Judah, Holy One of Israel who would save his people from their sin. As God was preparing his people for that great event, showed once again his plan for society: strong church supported by sound community in secure city.
The means God has given us to remind him of his covenant promises? To remind ourselves of continuing dependence on him? To avail ourselves of his blessing? Prayer: persistent, unrelenting, fervent prayer. James 4:2-3 “You desire and do not have;… You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives.” LEB It is “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” James 5:16 Let us determine to be like Nehemiah, people of prayer who receive what we ask because we ask with right motives. May we come often to our Father’s throne, making our wants and wishes known to him in prayer, that he by his grace may grant our requests.