This verse sums up Nehemiah’s style well. He was not only a humble man of prayer but also a practical man of action. Nehemiah’s effective, well-balanced attitude and practice have much to teach us.
Early in the sixth century BC, Judah, the last remnant of David’s once mighty kingdom of Israel, had been crushed by the Babylonians and its population largely deported to Babylon. Later that century the Persians overthrew the Babylonians. So in the fifth century we find Nehemiah the Jew (short for someone from Judah) serving in the Persian court. Under their rule repatriation was encouraged. However, the remnant of Jews already back in Jerusalem were in a sorry state, they were ‘“in great affliction and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.”’(Nehemiah 1:3)
Through a combination of prayerfulness and readiness to act, Nehemiah obtained permission from Artaxerxes, King of Persia, to return to Jerusalem and organise rebuilding of the city walls. Once mobilised he persevered in this God given task despite opposition and difficulties. Under God he succeeded not only in rebuilding the city walls, but importantly bringing about moral and religious reformation too. The Jewish society thus established became the womb from which God brought forth His ultimate king in the line of David, the messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ.
If we’re keen for God to use us in His amazing plans for Jesus’ kingdom today, it’s helpful to reflect for a while on Nehemiah’s effective example of prayerful dependence on God and application to his God given tasks.
Firstly he was concerned to find out about God’s work in the world. ‘Hanani, one of my brothers, came, he and certain men out of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem’(Nehemiah 1:2). Then, having found out he was moved to pray: ‘I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days; and I fasted and prayed before the God of heaven… “listen to the prayer of your servant, which I pray before you at this time, day and night, for the children of Israel”’(Nehemiah 1:4-6). The first step to getting involved in God’s kingdom is to find out what’s going on, engage with our hearts, and pray.
But Nehemiah didn’t stop there. True prayer helps us connect with God’s will, our will becoming moulded into his: ‘“‘your will be done’”’(Matthew 6:10). In his prayer Nehemiah realised God’s will: ‘“‘though your outcasts were in the uttermost part of the heavens, yet will I gather them from there, and will bring them to the place that I have chosen, to cause my name to dwell there’”’(Nehemiah 1:9). Given his organisational and leadership skills learnt at the Persian court, and knowing what God had lain on his heart, Nehemiah suspected what God was calling him to do. Then, having tested the water further through prayer: ‘I prayed to the God of heaven’(Nehemiah 2:4) and practical request: ‘I said to the king, “… send me to Judah… that I may build it”’(Nehemiah 2:5), he took the king’s favourable response as confirmation from an even higher authority that he was now on a mission backed by God: ‘The king granted my requests, because of the good hand of my God on me’(Nehemiah 2:8). It’s always encouraging to discern God’s blessing on our projects, since ‘Unless Yahweh [God] builds the house, they labour in vain who build it. Unless Yahweh watches over the city, the watchman guards it in vain.’(Psalm 127:1)
Having established in his mind that this endeavour was God’s will, Nehemiah was not then surprised or discouraged by opposition or difficulty, and neither should we be: ‘consider him [Jesus] who has endured such contradiction… that you don’t grow weary, fainting in your souls’(Hebrews 12:3). When faced with the threat of attack, as our study verse says, the Jews under Nehemiah prayed to God, set up appropriate defences, and then got on with the work.
Finally, Nehemiah’s prayers and activities were not limited to physical structures. He was concerned for the Jews’ moral and religious up-building too, as the later chapters of Nehemiah show. Such spiritual building work should especially be our concern, who ‘are fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom the whole building, fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit.’(Ephesians 2:19-22)