Nehemiah 1:1-2:5 

Nehemiah 1:1-2:5 

SERIES:  Godly Leaderhip

Kneehemiah, Man of Prayer, or Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There


Introduction:  The crisis hits in your life….

         You are informed that your company doesn’t need your service any longer.

Or, you discover that your father is leaving your mother and their thirty-five year marriage.

         Or, in the happy aftermath of the birth of your new baby, the pediatrician 

                  lets you know there is a problem.

Perhaps, it’s one of the more common everyday crises ….

         You run out of money before you run out of month.

         Or, your school board turns a deaf ear to teaching creation, although they 

                  include every other theory.

         Or, you’re responsible for a church ministry, but you can’t find willing 

                  workers who will serve.

How do you respond to the crisis in your life, or in your world? Some of us may be stymied—and just freeze, unable to do anything of consequence, like the person crossing a quiet street who looks up to see a car bearing down on him, and can’t make his legs move. Many more of us in this congregation probably spring into action; we plunge into planning our way out of the predicament. We follow the adage, don’t just stand there, do something!

Too bad crises don’t come neatly bundled with the label, “crisis, handle with prayer!”  Even when we do pray, we sometimes act as if we hadn’t prayed. The story is told of a small town in which there were no liquor stores. Eventually, though, a nightclub was built right on Main Street. Members of one of the churches in the area were so disturbed that they conducted several all night prayer meetings, and some even asked the Lord to burn down that den of iniquity. 

Lightning struck the tavern a short time later, and it was completely destroyed by fire. The owner, knowing how the church people had prayed, sued them for damages. His attorney claimed that their prayers had caused the loss. The congregation, on the other hand, hired a lawyer and fought the charges. After deliberating, the judge declared, “It’s the opinion of the court that wherever the guilt may lie, the tavern keeper is the one who really believes in prayer while the church members do not!”

I believe there is a word from the Lord for us today, from a manager who dealt with a crisis and who was known as a man of action: Nehemiah. He turned that adage around when he heard word of the crisis in Jerusalem. He didn’t just get to work; he didn’t just do something, he stood there—or actually, verse 4, he sat down for a while, because he knew that real answers come from above.

Today, we continue our study of two great reformers whom God used to re-establish the covenant people in Jerusalem—Ezra and Nehemiah. Following our recent study about Ezra, the spiritual leader who called the people to repentance and who spent his years teaching God’s law, the focus now shifts to Nehemiah, the political leader and project manager. They were contemporaries, with Ezra preceding Nehemiah to a decimated Jerusalem by about thirteen years. Nehemiah turns his attention to a seemingly less spiritual and more physical—or practical—matter, the rebuilding of a wall.

Nehemiah had an active, aggressive leadership style; Ezra had been more passive, praying and waiting until the people were moved to ask for guidance. God used both styles of leadership in renewing His people.

Nehemiah wrote his personal account of his administration as governor of Judah. These memoirs exhibit one of the most practical messages in the Old Testament. As we read his first-person account, we discover a leader who actually leads from his knees. If we remember nothing else from Nehemiah, let’s understand clearly that a godly leader is, first of all, a person of prayer.

Within the first four verses, we see that …

Problems dropped Nehemiah to his knees. (1:1-4)

The events of Nehemiah are right at the end of Old Testament history. Because of the sin and rejection of God’s rule, the Hebrew nation had disintegrated, dividing first into two kingdoms, followed by the demise of both Israel and Judah. Masses of the Jewish people were captured and forcibly resettled. After seventy years, King Cyrus gave permission for an initial group of exiles to return. A second group accompanied Ezra about eighty years later. Ezra found the people to be in a deplorable spiritual condition, so he began a widespread teaching ministry.  A third group returned with Nehemiah.

The scene begins when Hanani, Nehemiah’s brother, and some other men from Judah visit the winter capital of Persia, called Susa. Nehemiah, still an exiled Jew doesn’t mention to us that he is an advisor of the king. He asks about conditions in Jerusalem, where his heart really is, and he is appalled by the report. Those who returned from exile to rebuild are in great trouble and disgrace. Even the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and the gates have been burned. (1:3)

         The crisis of crumbling walls. Without a wall to protect them, the people were being harassed. At this time, cities depended on strong walls for defense and for security. The gates served as the checkpoints for a safe zone, like our airport Xray machines. For the lack of a wall, the Jews were facing threats from their enemies and assimilation into the culture of their neighbors. 

Walls meant protection. Wall-lessness meant lawlessness. Bands of raiders came down from the hills regularly. To be in a city without walls symbolized indecency and disgrace—a third-class city. As a result, very few of the population lived within the city (Neh. 11:1). They had scattered among other people in small villages outside Jerusalem, and they were losing their identity through intermarriage and acceptance of the pagan culture. Even more troubling was …

         The condition of spiritual neglect.  To the Jewish people of that day, the physical condition of Jerusalem, and specifically here the walls, were symbolic of the state of their relationship with God. The crumbling walls reflected the crushed covenant and contempt for the things of God.

They had neglected the house of God; their rebuilding had bogged down; they were ignoring God’s law. The rich were exploiting the poor, and the same sins of idolatry which had led to their capitivity 150 years earlier were again being practiced.

Nehemiah’s visitors also share …

         The concern for social disgrace. Evidently, the returned exiles were the subject of ridicule and reproach. The word translated disgrace or reproach here means “sharp” or “cutting”—in other words, suffering from cutting words. They lost status in the eyes of their neighbors, and they lost their own self-respect.

Turn with me to Isaiah 60:18 to discover what the walls of Jerusalem should really mean to the covenant people: “You will call your walls Salvation (or Protection) and your gates Praise.” No wonder their sad condition sent Nehemiah to prayer.

Even though Nehemiah was in a high position in the Persian Empire, he was deeply concerned for the state of God’s people and for the Lord’s work.

Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, who says he was a materialistic and happy pagan when God confronted him (and who now measures every activity in his life by whether it will help fulfill the Great Commission in this generation) puts believers on the spot by asking, “Are you more concerned for your own prosperity than for the Lord’s work?”

Burdened by the news from Jerusalem, Nehemiah sat down and wept, and then dropped to his knees to pray. And this was not just a puny prayer.

Prayer kept Nehemiah on his knees. (1:4-11)

As we’ll see later in this book, Nehemiah was a man of action. He planned, he did his homework, he used tact, he carefully prepared. But, that’s not where he began.

All too often, you and I see a need and begin to stew and to figure and to plan, and only after we think we have it all analyzed do we come to God to ask Him to endorse our plan. There is nosubstitute for prayer—we’ve tried, too many times.

But Nehemiah gets it right. He lets himself feel the emotion. And he lets it drive him first to prayer. “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Nehemiah right away turns to God; he doesn’t waste time here on trivial pursuits or get bogged down in master planning—that comes later. He first aligns himself with God’s perspective.

The prayer we see in verses 5-11 is apparently a summary or a composite of his extended praying. Notice what he says in 1:4: “for some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” He took the matter repeatedly and passionately to God.

We can see four elements in his praying. 

         Praise based on God’s character. Notice how he describes God in verse 5:  “Great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant.” Nehemiah acknowledges who God is and why he can approach Him—not because of his own goodness, but simply because God is faithful and still stands ready to keep His covenant. Even the name used here for God, Yahweh, usually translated LORD God, is the one that specifically emphasizes His covenant relationship.

Nehemiah began with praise. He began by recognizing the sovereign and awesome God he was approaching. He continued with …

         Confession based on the people’s covenant failure. When we reflect on who God is, we will always be humbled by who we are. The only appropriate response is to admit, to agree with God, that we are not righteous in and of ourselves. As we saw in the last chapters of Ezra, we must take sin seriously and be prepared to repent, to change, and to be changed.

At the same time, I see no indication in this text or elsewhere in Scripture that we are to berate ourselves or to recite blindly a “laundry list” confession of generic sins. We are to let the light of God’s law and God’s Word reveal our sin. We are to be specific and honest. We are to think of ourselves with sober judgment, according to Romans 12:3, neither higher nor lower than God’s view.

As he prays, though, Nehemiah is not content to confess the sins of other people; he also confesses his part, and his family’s part, in the problem. He admits the unfaithfulness and the disobedience of previous generations, as well as his present day.

Besides being a man of prayer, Nehemiah is a student of God’s Word. That’s why he prays his …

         Petition based on God’s promises. Turn to the fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy and let’s read 4:27-30: “The LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the LORD will drive you. 28 There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell. 29 But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul. 30 When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the LORD your God and obey him.”                          

Consider also Deut. 30:1-4: “When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, 2and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. 4 Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back.”

Now notice Nehemiah’s petition in verses 8-9:  “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses … ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you …, but if you return to me, … I will gather (your exiled people).” He was taking up God’s offer. Although this re-gathering of God’s people had begun a century earlier, he knew the promise had not yet been completely fulfilled. He longed for the covenant people and their uncompromising worship to be restored.

If we want to pray effectively, we will submit to the study of God’s Word, to know what God deems important, to know what He has promised, to know Him.

Dr. F.B. Meyer learned the secret of appropriating God’s promises when he was addressing a large group of children who became unruly. On the verge of losing his temper, he prayed in his heart, “Thy patience, Lord!” He found his anger and annoyance subsiding. From then on he used the same formula for every difficult situation. When he felt lonely, he said, “Thy companionship, Lord!” When he was afraid, “Thy serenity, Lord!” When he felt critical of others, “Thy love, Lord!” He found these sentence prayers to help at his time of need, based on the character of His Saviour and the promises of God. Nehemiah remembered God’s promises.

Now, as Nehemiah prayed, there emerged …

         A plan based on prolonged supplication. “Prolonged” does not mean just a couple of mentions in prayer, or a couple of prayer bulletin requests. He prayed and fasted “for some days” (v. 4) and he prayed “day and night” (v. 6).

In fact, it appears that Nehemiah continued praying for four months before he took any action. (1:1 Kislev was November/December; 2:1 Nisan was March/April.) How often do we prevail for more than four minutes! This time prepared Nehemiah to be open to God.

His prayer was not easy. He was engaged in spiritual warfare as he mourned and prayed in earnest. Should any of us doubt that sustained praying is warfare, I call us to remember Rich Schumacher’s testimony this Spring. He recounted the ordeals of his illness and thanked the congregation for sixteen months of earnest prayer as we shared in his battle.

The final sentence of this prayer sounds like Nehemiah had a plan already in mind, but remember that this prayer is a summary of four months of diligent praying. Along the way, his thinking was sharpened and a plan began to unfold.

What did Nehemiah expect when he prayed? That God would make the repairs without human involvement? That the king would come up with a solution? Or, did he come to realize that he himself might have a role?

Over these months, Nehemiah became impressed that he was to be part of the answer to his praying; he then prayed for success in bringing a request to the King. 

Prayer raised Nehemiah to action. (2:1-5)

Not until the end of chapter 1 does Nehemiah reveal his position in government. Now, at first “cupbearer” doesn’t sound too impressive to us; it sounds too much like “waiter” or “dishwasher.” But in these days of court intrigues and assassinations, the cupbearer was the king’s most trusted assistant. He put his life on the line, tasting the food and the drink—so that a dead cupbearer would serve as a hint that the king had a few enemies. (No, Mike, I don’t want to test your coffee!). The cupbearer was somewhat like a chief of staff or an administrator.

So, Nehemiah risked his position at the top, realizing that God has raised him up for a time such as this—to make a difference at Jerusalem. It’s been said that Nehemiah “did not act without prayer and he did not pray without acting.” 

After he had become convinced that God had a mission for him, he developed his …

         Approach to King Artaxerxes. Nehemiah took the risk of allowing his sorrow to show in the presence of King Artaxerxes. Officials were expected to be cheerful around the king; sometimes assistants were executed for giving negative news, or even for appearing sad in the presence of the great king. The cupbearer’s appearance drew the king’s question about “his sad face” and “sadness of heart” (2:2).

Nehemiah wrote that he was “afraid” (2:2) to bring up his agenda. After all, this same king had ordered that work on the walls of Jerusalem be stopped after the protest of Rehum and Shimshai (see the “flash forward” of Ezra 4). They had used force on the workers to compel them to stop and had probably torn down what little had been built up. The king had declared Jerusalem to be a city of “revoltrebellion, and sedition” (Ezra 4:19).

Now, Nehemiah was ready to approach the same king for permission to resume the work that had been seen as a rebellion. He approached the subject delicately, speaking of the disgrace of his ancestral home and his deep sadness. He didn’t mention the name of the city.

The king took the bait and asked what Nehemiah would like. Now, Nehemiah shot an …

         “Arrow” prayer in a crucial moment. We call them “arrow” prayers because they are “shot” up to heaven when there is little time to do anything else. When he sensed an opening in the king’s attitude, he employed the best antidote to his fear—he prayed. This is just one of ten “arrow” prayers recorded in the book of Nehemiah. It reminds me of a saying on a church sign: “When your knees knock together, kneel on them.”

This sentence prayer of the moment does not stand alone, however. Nehemiah had already prayed consistently and repeatedly. If we rely on “arrow” prayers alone, our arrows won’t hit their mark. There is no substitute for sustained, committed, diligent prayer.

As we will see next Lord’s Day, by the time this opening came, Nehemiah was prepared—not only with a request, but with a plan. He had done his homework and had a complete proposal for the king to approve.

And notice in 2:8 who gets the credit: “Because the gracious hand of my God was upon me.”

Let’s conclude by reviewing …

Practical praying principles to consider

First, we need to be willing to …

         Wait. Prayer puts our efforts into perspective. Why would we want to proceed under our own power when we have the power of God available?

Praying and waiting work together. Chuck Swindoll comments that, “You have never really prayed until you’ve learned to wait, and to wait with release. Abandon yourself—let God change the king’s heart. This is tough; it cuts across the grain of our human nature. But stand firmly. Give up your own homemade solutions and run the risk of letting God take charge.” [i]

Second, …

         Reflect and be quiet. We are so ready to develop solutions, but often we need to stand back and get the bigger picture, asking God to clear our vision. All problems are not handed to us for quick solution. We need to meditate, study God’s Word, and get away from the noise and rush of one-minute managers and thirty-day diets.

As a father, I need to spend more time reflecting on my family and listening to God. In a few moments, Eric Jost will be sharing about the spiritual influence of his father’s prayers for him. There is no greater gift that a father can give than praying for his children.

Third, be prepared to …

         Be available. If you find that you are deeply touched and concerned about a situation, there’s a strong likelihood that God will lead you to be part of the answer. Your praying will be stunted if you say, “Here’s a problem, Lord, but don’t send me!” R.C. Trench said that “prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance; it is laying hold of His highest willingness.” 

Dr. Elva McAllaster, a beloved English professor and poet at the Christian college where I studied, contemplated how God works through prayer and wrote, “When next, I wonder, will I have an opportunity to be an answer to someone’s praying?” Do you ever think about that? When will the Lord be using you to answer someone else’s prayer?

I want to conclude by telling you a little-known side of how God led one of our people to play a key role in the building program. You may recall that, in the Spring of 1990, after the Building Committee had developed a preliminary concept that would make maximum use of our property, George Peters, the chairman, felt that he had served to the extent that God had enabled him and he moved off of the committee.

While we needed skillful management of the building process, it was not yet apparent to the church leadership who should succeed George. During this time, our Deacon Chairman was praying about the need, as were others. The more he prayed about it, the more he felt impressed by the challenge—not that he aspired to be chairman, but God was laying the concern on his heart.

By the time he talked with me, Rich Keffer could not escape the sense that he should make himself available. He took an objective look (a “sober estimate”) at who could best continue the work—and found that, in spite of his reluctance, he was the one.

Once Rich was willing, the elders quickly confirmed God’s leading. That left a leadership need on the Deacon Board, which was very capably filled by our present Deacon chairman, Joe Burnett. I believe most of us can now see how God raised up a new Building Chairman who was uniquely qualified and enabled to meet some of our unique challenges. I’m glad Rich Keffer was open to God’s call.

Often, these leadings do not develop over night, nor can the believer be satisfied with continually refusing God’s call. The best advice is to pray … and be available.

Conclusion: In a nutshell, the godly leader, the genuine disciple, turns early, and often, to prayer—and then listens for God’s leading. It’s that simple.

Father, teach us Your way. Help us to walk more by faith, less by sight. Teach us to pray, and move us to pray. Our highest moments are when we are on our knees. Call us to pray, in the name of our Lord Jesus.

DATE:  June 21, 1992   






[i] Charles R. Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick, 55.