Bible Studies for Life, Aug. 2
Peter Kendrick, professor of theology and culture
New Orleans Seminary, North GA
It wasn’t the first time he had heard the news. However, this time something changed in him.
Nehemiah had never set foot in Jerusalem but he had heard of Jerusalem, the “city of Peace.” He longed for it. At end of every Seder (Passover), he would hear and recite the words: “Shana Haba B’yerushalayim – Next Year in Jerusalem.” For the Jews, it was the reminder of their suffering in captivity and the hopes for peace and freedom for all in the future.
It is now about 445 B.C. Artaxerxes is the Persian King (some think he is the stepson of Esther). Nehemiah (“Yahweh Comforts”) is his cup bearer. It has been 141 years since Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, 33 years since Esther had become the Queen of Persia and 13 years since Ezra led a second group of exiles back to Judah. Nehemiah had heard the news that the remnant, those Jews who had survived the exile and were now living in Judah, were in great trouble and disgrace. Even more, the walls of Jerusalem, the city of God, where God had chosen to make His name known (Neh 1:9), were broken down and the gates had been burned with fire.
This probably was not the first time Nehemiah had heard the news that the city was still in ruins. However, this time something changed in him. This time God reached down to use one man to change the history of His people.
It only takes one person to change history. Perhaps not the history of an entire nation, but certainly the history of a denomination, a church, or the life of an individual. Perhaps as you read this, you may discover that you are that one person God wants to use to change history.
Acknowledge trouble, distress
God uses broken people to change history. Notice Nehemiah’s reaction. When Nehemiah heard the report by his brother, he said, “I wept, I mourned and I fasted.” From the time he received the news to when he approaches the King, Nehemiah spends four months (from the month of Kislev [1:1] to the month of Nisan [2:1] in weeping, mourning, fasting, and praying.
Weeping is often an involuntary emotional response of heart-wrenching pain. Jesus wept at the news of the death of Lazarus (Matt. 11:35) and over Jerusalem (Lk. 19:41). Mourning is acknowledgement that there is something horribly wrong. Nehemiah cries out in his prayer: “we have sinned … we have acted corruptly … we have not kept the commands, statues and ordinances You gave” (1:6-7). Paul would say, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal 6:7).
So overwhelmed in his spiritual struggle, Nehemiah ate nothing. Likewise, during those 40 days of loneliness, satanic attack, and the presence of wild beasts, Jesus fasted (Matt. 4:1-11).
What news have you heard that breaks your heart and drives you to weep, mourn, fast, and pray? What is there in your life that breaks the heart of God for which you should weep, mourn, fast, and pray?
Respond to troubles by turning to God
God uses praying people to change history. Behind every great work of God, behind every great miracle, behind every great revival and awakening of God there is a someone prostrate upon his face praying.
Nehemiah prayed. Nehemiah’s prayer is in striking contrast to the casual prayers of today. First, notice to whom Nehemiah prays. He says, “I beseech thee, O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible God” (1:5). Like Isaiah, he acknowledges the awe-inspiring majesty and glory of an unequaled God (Is. 6:1-7).
God does not serve us; we serve Him.
Casual Christianity has forgotten our relationship to God. God does not serve us; we serve Him. Nehemiah uses the term “your servant” or “servants” at least six times in this short prayer to refer to himself, Moses, and the Israelites. We must never forget that the God we serve is the “great and terrible God,” the “Great I AM!”
Second, Nehemiah remembers that “the great and terrible God” is at the same time one who remembers and keeps His promises “to those that love him and observe his commandments” (2:5). That is to say, God keeps His promise to those who keep His commandments.
Third, the news so grieved Nehemiah that he persists in praying “day and night.” Prayer is not said once and done – it is persistent! When was the last time you prayed day and night?
Confess sin, seek restoration
God uses people who repent of their sin and are committed to a right relationship with Him to change history. The greater part of Nehemiah’s prayer is devoted to confession of sin (1:6-7), personal and corporate. Sin is a willful disobedience to the Word of God. However, here is the promise to which Nehemiah was clinging: “But if you turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them … yet will I gather them … and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen” (2:9). When we repent or turn unto God, there is the promise of forgiveness and restoration.
On March 1863, President Lincoln established the “National Day of Prayer and humiliation.” He wrote these words: “We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.”
Perhaps as never before, we need to acknowledge what has happened to us, to our nation, to our world and then weep, mourn, fast, and pray. Nehemiah arose from his prayer, approached the King, and was granted the chance to change the history of Israel. Perhaps God is calling upon you to be that Nehemiah for our time.