EZRA/NEHEMIAH, Part 6

ANSWERED PRAYER

Nehemiah 2:1—8

Some four months had elapsed since Nehemiah was given the devastating news that much of Jerusalem, including the walls and gates, remained in a state of ruin. This was the worst possible news a faithful Jew could have received, and Nehemiah was properly exorcised. He fasted and prayed, interceding to the God of Heaven on behalf of his people. His prayer stands as a classic example of what true intercessory prayer looks like, and in chapter 2, we see how God answered it.

1. Setting the scene, verse 1a

In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king.

The first thing we notice about this verse is its importance to Bible prophecy. In the book of Daniel, his vision of the 70 Weeks begins “in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes.” So, this particular month of Nisan is important for a couple of reasons.

Nehemiah had just spent four months in prayer about the situation up in Jerusalem, praying in secret, earnestly pleading with God, yet in public up until now, he gave no indication that anything was on his mind. This shows us the quality of Nehemiah’s character; long before Jesus gave this teaching, our royal cupbearer was practising it:

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (Matthew 6:5—7)

Nehemiah kept doing his job and nobody knew what was on his heart; he was able to keep his sorrow and concern to himself. So, on the the one hand, we have to give Nehemiah some credit, but on the other hand, sometimes help can be found in the strangest places when our needs are made known. In keeping our needs to ourselves, we may well be forestalling the very blessing we desire so much! While we don’t want to play the hypocrite in public claiming everything is alright with us, we don’t want to run around playing on people’s emotions to elicit help from them. Honesty is the best policy; when somebody asks you if you have a need, it’s best to be honest with them.

Nehemiah was not the only cupbearer, which may explain why it took almost four months before he was able to broach the subject to the king.

2. A startling question, 1b—2a

I had not been sad in his presence before, so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.”

So far, Nehemiah had been able to keep his feelings to himself. Perhaps the Lord had helped the cupbearer to control his emotions, and this would have been to his benefit. Those who came into to a Persian king’s presence, even a cupbearer, did so with great respect, placing their right hand over their mouth so as not to defile the king with their breath! Not only that, those who came to see the king did so rejoicing, in a happy and joyful state. Regardless of their personal feelings, anybody in the king’s presence were expected to keep their problems away from him. But for Nehemiah, this was no longer possible.

Artaxerxes seemed to have a good relationship with Nehemiah; he expressed genuine concern for this cupbearer. The text suggests there was more conversation than what is recorded. It seems as though the king had a conversation with Nehemiah, concluding that he was not sick and that he looked sad for some other reason.

The king had opened the door, Nehemiah didn’t have to push the subject. He didn’t have to whine or put on a big show to get the king’s attention. In God’s providence, Nehemiah found favor in Artaxerxes eyes. They were probably friends in some way. So, the door was open a crack and in faith, Nehemiah was poised to walk through.

3. An honest answer, verses 2b—3

I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”

It took a lot of courage and faith for the king’s cupbearer to give this honest answer, and Nehemiah was fearful. The NAB translates the last phrase of verse 2 this way:

I was seized with great fear.

This describes perfectly what Nehemiah felt when the king confronted him. Fear and anxiety had gripped him. Of what was Nehemiah afraid? It wasn’t the question that he was afraid of, but rather he was afraid of the answer he would now have to give. It was God’s will that Jerusalem be rebuilt and the remnant was definitely in a state of disobedience in leaving large portions of the city untouched. But there was a reason why the building had stalled:

Now issue an order to these people to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order. Be careful not to neglect this matter. Why let this threat grow, to the detriment of the royal interests? As soon as the copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read to Rehum and Shimshai the secretary and their associates, they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them by force to stop. (Ezra 4:21—23)

No wonder Nehemiah was so fearful; Artaxerxes was behind the work stoppage! How could Nehemiah express his sorrow for something that was basically the fault of the King? To his amazement, he told the truth and found the king to be in a favorable mood. As the Lord had moved on the heart of Cyrus (Ezra 1:1), so He must have moved on Artaxerxes heart. Note, though, the cleverness of Nehemiah’s answer. He did not mention Jerusalem by name, referring only to “the city where my ancestors are buried.” The Persians were very respectful of tombs and burial places and the desecration of any tomb would have aroused sympathy from the king. Nehemiah was clever and tactful; he knew how to talk to this pagan king.

4. A critical moment, verse 4

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven

If the king’s first question filled him with fear, this second question must have filled Nehemiah with astonishment! The king had opened the door a crack with the first question, but now that door is swinging wide open! This is the providence of God at work. This is a broad question the king asked Nehemiah. We might well imagine what thoughts rushed through Nehemiah’s mind. Was this the answer to his prayer? Was Artaxerxes the tool in God’s hands that would make Jerusalem prosper again? Was Nehemiah witnessing a great miracle of salvation wrought through this king? Had the time finally arrived when all the desires of his heart were about to be met in Artaxerxes? What a golden opportunity had just presented itself!

What did Nehemiah do? If we have learned anything about this man, it is that he was a man of prayer. Nehemiah was a man of God first and foremost, and he knew that what was going on in Jerusalem was God’s business, not his and not Artaxerxes, so he did what any man of God would have done: he prayed again. This time, though, it wasn’t a long intercessory prayer with fasting and mourning. No, this was the first of many “arrow prayers” Nehemiah prayed—short, pointed prayers sent up to God in a moment of need. Right there, in the presence of the king, Nehemiah shot up a quick prayer to the Lord.

Had this man of God not been living and walking in the Spirit in the first place, he probably wouldn’t have thought about praying at this particular moment. In this brief moment, we see Nehemiah’s true character. Even when caught off-guard, his first impulse was to pray. When God is that important to us, we’ll do that too. When God becomes our greatest reality, nothing will be more natural than prayer. Very often we hear Christians say things like, “I just don’t have time to pray these days.” Believers that have that attitude don’t understand the true nature of prayer. Nehemiah found time to pray while he was standing in front of a pagan Persian potentate.

5. A great request

Having gained the favor of the king—both the Kings of Heaven and of Persia—this cupbearer was ready to ask for two big things.

(1)   If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it. (verse 5)

The first thing Nehemiah asked of the king was to allowed to leave the king’s presence so that he could go to Jerusalem to help rebuild it. Now, as far as we know, Nehemiah was not a roofer or a bricklayer; he was a politician, so his request reveals even more about his character. This devoted servant of God not only prayed for his people and his city, but he had so consecrated himself to God, that he was ready to be used by Him as soon as the opportunity presented itself in whatever capacity the Lord deemed fit. Just like Isaiah, Nehemiah could say, “Here I am, send me!”

How can believers expect God to do great things for us or through us if we are not prepared to make a sacrifice for Him? Faith that costs nothing is worth exactly that. To be sure, our prayers would take on a whole new dimension if we offered them with a spirit of sacrifice, as Nehemiah did.

(2)   “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” (verses 7, 8a)

This is an interesting request. Obviously Nehemiah was a man of faith who trusted the Lord, but he had no problem, as a government official, asking for help and protection that only the government could provide. God provides what His people need in a variety of ways, but we must never forget what James said:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)

It doesn’t matter where the “good and perfect gift” seems to come from, if it is received by a Christian, then it has come from God.

6. An abundant answer, verses 8b, 9

And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests. So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me.

Nehemiah had asked much of the king, and the king gave Nehemiah everything he asked for, but this man of God never lost sight of his Source: God. The secret of success in serving the Lord lies right here. When a believer’s life is in “the gracious hand” of God, signs and wonders will be done. The measure of blessing will be according to the power of that hand that is upon them. God’s gracious Hand gripped Nehemiah the day he sat down, wept, and prayed for his people. Unlike Jacob, who wrestled with God and was touched by God in humiliation, Nehemiah had yielded himself completely to God’s heavy, yet gracious Hand.

Like Ezra before him and countless believers after him, Nehemiah was conscious that the Hand of God was on him. He knew that he was an instrument by which God would accomplish His will for His people.

In looking at how God worked with these two men, Ezra and Nehemiah, we can see how the Lord calls all kinds of different people to do His work and how different people express their faith. Ezra, you will recall, had told his king that God would lead him and take of him and his people on the perilous journey from Persia to Jerusalem. When his king offered him protection, Ezra turned him down, preferring to trust in God. Nehemiah, a different kind of believer, thought nothing of asking his king for help and protection. Both of these men were towering men of God and men of faith, yet both fulfilled their callings in very different ways, both to the glory of God.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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