If you have never read the book of Nehemiah in the Old Testament, you should. If you have read it, you might want to read it again, because it is a most amazing story. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are paired together, following the historical books of Kings and Chronicles. In the Hebrew Bible, Ezra and Nehemiah are one book entitled Ezra-Nehemiah, but the Christian canon separates them into two different books.
In the fifth century B.C., the Israelites continued to emerge from their exile in the Persian Empire. They were invaded and conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., with Jerusalem and its temple destroyed in the process. God’s chosen people found themselves scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire and eventually witnessed Babylonian’s own fall to Persia.
With the Persian overthrow of Babylon, the Israelites found themselves living under a regime that was more accepting of God’s people and willing to let them return home to rebuild their nation. God raised up a series of leaders to take charge of that homegoing. Two of these were Ezra, the priest, and Nehemiah who became the governor of Judah.
The Book of Nehemiah is basically a memoir, written by Nehemiah himself and preserved and edited by later Jewish scribes. His story picks up around 445 B.C. when he was the cup-bearer and presumably trusted advisor to the Persian king, Artaxerxes I. Though the entire memoir of Nehemiah is a worthy read, I want to focus our attention on the beginning of the story…
In the month of Kislev (Autumn), Nehemiah learned that his countrymen were in trouble and that Jerusalem’s walls and gates were still in ruins. Nehemiah’s response? In his words:
As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:4, ESV)
His prayer, captured in verses 5-11, reads like any number of Psalms. Starting by appealing to God’s covenant loyalty (see Hesed and Emet), Nehemiah called on him to “let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants” (verse 6). Continuing in a typical psalmist motif, he confesses the sins of the Israelites, employing the inclusive “we.” He closed his prayer with a specific request that, as the cup-bearer, God would grant him favor with the king.
In Chapter 2, the story picks up in the month of Nisan (March-Aprilish), 4-5 months after Nehemiah received and prayed about Jerusalem’s condition. God granted Nehemiah favor with the king, possibly surpassing his own hopes. (I think of the Apostle Paul’s prayer “to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…” [Ephesians 3:20]). The story in a nutshell…
The king noticed Nehemiah’s melancholy countenance and asked what was troubling him. In fear, he shared with the king his lamentation over the fact that Jerusalem lay in rubble. The king asked, “What are you requesting?” Nehemiah’s response to this most favorable question:
So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it. (Nehemiah 2:4-5, ESV)
Nehemiah then proceeded to lay out a time frame as well as a plan to rebuild the city, starting with the walls and gates. He audaciously asked Artaxerxes that the provincial governors ensure his safe travel. He also asked for kingdom resources, like timbers for beams to rebuild the gates. The king granted Nehemiah’s requests and topped it off with an army escort back to Jerusalem.
So I prayed…and I said
This is where I want to park for a bit. I have heard many a sermon suggest that Nehemiah prayed and God, in that moment, gave him the exact words to say along with the plans. There is certainly something to that, but I fear it’s too simplistic and doesn’t do justice to the God/human relationship we see throughout the biblical narrative.
Consider this: Nehemiah had 4+ months to ponder the situation back in Jerusalem. I can imagine him repeatedly asking the question, “What might it take?” as he pondered his God-inspired vision to repair the walls and reinvigorate the city. I think Dallas Willard’s description of prayer (“Talking with God about what we are doing together”) is apropos. Though rhetorical in nature, “What might it take?” could have been the ongoing prayer as Nehemiah talked with God about his vision.
I suspect Nehemiah’s response to the king’s question “What are you requesting?” was a natural outcome of months of pondering, talking with God, and asking “What might it take?”
I actually experience something similar 25 years ago. We had moved to a community with the task of reviving its 30-year-old Young Life ministry that was in disarray (rubble?) – to the point that major stakeholders questioned its continued viability. Six weeks into my tenure, I visited the monthly meeting of the community’s youth ministers. After introductions, I was asked to tell a bit of my story – my youth ministry background, what led to my taking the Young Life position, etc.
One of the youth ministers asked a question I did not anticipate: “How might we, as youth ministers, help Young Life get back on track in our community?” I suddenly realized how Nehemiah might have felt! So I prayed and I said, “Send your best kids to Young Life – those who need to be in mission; those who need a neutral place to invite their friends. Young Life can be that place for them.”
I had pondered for years (talking with God!) about how I might work alongside a ministry like Young Life, should I ever join a church staff as the youth minister. I didn’t know exactly what it might look like, but I did know that I would want to make sure my best kids were aware that such a great neutral option was available to them, so they could minister to friends.
And the result? The initial responses were looks of surprise, maybe even shock. But two of the ten youth ministers took me up on the offer. We saw weekly attendance immediately increase from a few to about 100, continuing for the duration of my tenure. I suspect the impact of the question has had a far-reaching impact – far more than the asker dreamed or imagined.