The Lord’s Day Evening
August 22, 2004
“The Nike® Approach to Vocation–Just Do It!”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me in your Bibles to the book of Nehemiah,
and the opening chapter. This summer, these past number of weeks, and for one
more week following this evening, we’ve been examining the issue of
“Guidance”–how the Lord guides His people; the promises and reassurances that
Scripture gives us of His guidance, His care of us.
The Reformers looked for three things in Scripture:
they looked first of all to the law, or precepts; those things which God
approves of and disapproves of. They also looked to what they called the
promises of Scripture: promises in particular of divine assurance of guidance,
that He truly does promise to guide His people. And thirdly, the Reformers
looked to the Scriptures for examples of godly behavior, and particularly, I
think, in the Old Testament. The Old Testament more than the New Testament
seems to pause every now and then and reflect, and give, as it were, a fuller
representation of biblical characters, as though the Old Testament were pointing
out to us models of Christ-like, godly behavior.
We’ve looked at guidance in terms of divine counsels
which God gives within the framework of the covenant of grace, and we’ve looked
in these last couple of weeks at a particular set of examples. We saw Abraham
looking, sending his beloved servant to look for a wife for his son Isaac.
Before that we looked briefly at Jonah, in the opening chapter–Jonah, who flew
in the very opposite direction to the way God was guiding him. And now this
evening I want us to look at Nehemiah. Nehemiah actually provides for us a
wonderful example of God’s guidance.
Nehemiah is a second Moses-like figure in the Old
Testament. He rises up and is immediately a leader of God’s people. He’s
responsible for getting God’s people to refocus on things which are important
when God’s people are in a mess. When they’re in disarray, God raises up
Nehemiah to lead and guide His people. He comes at a crucial moment in Israel’s
history. He’s not a preacher. He’s not a prophet. He went to Mississippi
State and studied engineering, and he’s a builder, and maybe in the coming
months we might employ the talents of Nehemiah here at First Presbyterian
Church–“watch this space.”
He’s important here in this particular series in
Guidance because he’s a man who answers God’s call for ministry, for service,
for action at a particular moment. At a decisive moment in a particular context
of need, Nehemiah answers the call. We’ll see this evening how he looks to
God’s law, how he looks to Scripture, how he obeys what we might call the
general principles of godliness. And we’ve seen how important that is in
discerning the will of God for us in a general way.
But we’ll also see tonight in Nehemiah what we might
call “the nudge factor” of guidance. God nudges Nehemiah. What God
does is place upon his conscience a particular burden, a burden that he can’t
get rid of: a burden that demands of Nehemiah that he does something, and does
something very specific. And it’s the work of God. It’s the work of the
Holy Spirit in the mind and the heart, in the soul, in the dispositional
complex, if I can use big words for a minute, of who Nehemiah was. The Holy
Spirit nudged him in a certain direction, and he obeyed.
Now, let’s turn our hearts, then, and our minds and
thoughts, to this reading of the first chapter of Nehemiah. We’ll be reading
into the second chapter to the end of verse four, but before we do that, let’s
come before God in prayer. Let’s pray.
Our God and our Father, we stand this evening in
need once again of Your word. We find ourselves bereft when Your word is not
before us. We are a needy people. We particularly feel the need for You to
guide us in so many aspects of our live;, some here this evening, perhaps, in
particular aspects of their lives. We thank You, as we learned earlier with the
young children, how You know everything, and You know our hearts and You know
our needs, and You know our circumstances. And we pray, Lord, make us
teachable, and give us the grace of obedience to do Your will, no matter what.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Now hear with me the word of God.
The words of Nehemiah the son
of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, while
I was in Susa the capitol, that Hanani, one of my brothers, and some men from
Judah came; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped and had
survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They said to me, “The remnant there
in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach,
and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.”
When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was
fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, “I beseech You, O LORD
God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and loving
kindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear now be
attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am
praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your
servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against
You; I and my father’s house have sinned. “We have acted very corruptly against
You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances
which You commanded Your servant Moses. “Remember the word which You commanded
Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the
peoples; but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though
those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the
heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I
have chosen to cause My name to dwell.’
“They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power
and by Your strong hand. “O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to
the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere
Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion
before this man.” Now I was the cupbearer to the king. And it came about in the
month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him,
and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his
presence. So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad though you are not
sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I
said to the king, “Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when
the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been
consumed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What would you request?” So I
prayed to the God of heaven
Amen. May God add His blessing to the reading of His holy
and inerrant word.
How does someone move from being a servant in a
Persian palace to being governor of Jerusalem, with all that accompanies such a
post? How does someone discover the guidance of God? That’s our question,
isn’t it? That’s been our theme these past number of weeks, and here in this
wonderful story we discover an answer to that question: how one man discerns the
guidance of God. And he discerns it along five lines of thought. The five
points of guidance.
I. Be concerned more for God’s
glory than your own.
The first one is this. Let me put it in the
imperative. Be concerned more for God’s glory than your own. Be more concerned
for God’s glory than for your own. Here’s the principle. It’s the great text of
Romans 12:1,2. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the
renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and discern what God’s
will is.” That’s what Paul says. Don’t conform to this world, but be
transformed by the renewing of your mind, and then you will test and discern
what the will of God is.
Now you see that in almost everything that we learn
about this man Nehemiah, but especially something that he says in his prayer in
verse 11. He talks about himself, and he’s also talking about others along with
him, who, he says, “…delight in revering Your name.” That’s how he describes
himself and his companions–as someone who delights in revering, reverencing,
the name of God; that willing identification of Nehemiah to be singled out as
one who reveres the name of God.
You’ll find there are many comparisons between this
chapter, especially the prayer, and Daniel 9. Daniel was a little earlier than
Nehemiah in Babylon, of course, and Daniel also records that great model prayer
in which he says also something very similar to what Nehemiah says here. He is
someone who reveres the name of God. He’s concerned about God’s name, this
astonishing name that God has given to His people; the name that you and I take
up. As though Nehemiah was saying that the people of God wear tee-shirts which
emblazon the name of God. That’s what identifies them as a people who revered
the name of God. Every Christian bears God’s name. They are baptized into that
name, the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
And here is Nehemiah, and…how can I put it? He’s
someone who takes delight in serving this God. He’s someone who’s out-and-out
for the Lord. His whole mindset, the whole bent of his being is towards the
Lord. That’s his great concern. He’s a man who’s devoted, consecrated, if you
like, to God and the glory of God. If you want God to nudge you, if
you…let me put it the other way round…if you want to discern the spiritual
nudges of the Holy Spirit, then you have got to be one who is focused on the
things of God. You’ve got to be focused on the divine name. You’ve got to
be focused on the glory of God. And Nehemiah is describing himself as somebody
who lived out his day-to-day life with the concern of God and of the kingdom of
God uppermost in his mind and heart.
You see that in Paul. You remember in Acts 22–it’s
one of those chapters in the Acts of the Apostles where Paul gives an account of
his conversion, which of course occurred earlier in the Acts of the Apostles,
but it’s one of those chapters in which you discern Paul’s testimony–his story
of his conversion. He’s in Jerusalem. There’s a ruckus. A mob tries to kill
him. Soldiers come running from a quarter of Jerusalem near to the temple; they
rescue the Apostle Paul, Paul goes on preaching. He talks about his conversion
and he says immediately after he was converted on the Damascus Road…what were
his first words? “What shall I do, Lord?” What shall I do, Lord? That was
the evidence of Paul’s conversion. He wanted God’s will to be done, not his own
will to be done.
Some of you will remember that little ditty, “Our
life to live, t’will soon be past; Only what’s done for Jesus will last.” Our
life will soon be past, but only what’s done for Jesus will last, and that seems
to be what Nehemiah was all about. He was somebody who was concerned for the
kingdom of God, for the name of God, for the glory of God, the concerns of God’s
covenantal purposes in this world. It’s what Jesus says, isn’t it, in the
Sermon on the Mount. It’s what characterizes the Christian life. It’s part of
the ABC of being a Christian: Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and the
righteousness that belongs to that kingdom. Here’s a man with a passion for the
Lord. Here’s a God-centered man. As though the song that Nehemiah would be
singing would be Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee. Take
my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise. He’s concerned
for God. He’s concerned for the glory of God.
Be more concerned for God’s glory than your own.
Don’t be surprised if you’re in a muddle about guidance. Don’t be surprised if
you’re in a muddle about what God wants you to do, if you’re more concerned
about you and your comforts, and the things that occupy your day-to-day
existence more than the things of God, and the glory of God, and the name of
God. That, first of all.
II. Secondly, be sensitive
to the need that exists.
Be sensitive to the need that exists. This sounds
so trivial, it sounds so simple I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but you know
99% of guidance is discerning a need and meeting it. God makes needs known.
That’s exactly what happened in the life of Nehemiah. This man Hanani–he’s
described as a brother of Nehemiah. Some commentators believe, though there
isn’t much evidence of it, but some commentators believe that he was a blood
brother, that he was actually a brother of Nehemiah who had gone back with a
group of exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem.
Now we need to do some background historical context
stuff. The Babylonians, you remember, had captured Judah and Jerusalem and had
destroyed the temple in that great year
586 BC. And many of the leading young men, especially,
like Daniel and Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego, had been taken prisoner.
They had gone as captives to Babylon for that 70-year exile. Then, in 539 BC,
Babylon collapses. It collapses to the onslaught of the rising Persian Empire.
From that moment onwards, groups of exiles trickled back to Jerusalem. By 516
BC the temple, after some difficulty… but the temple had been rebuilt. You
read all about that in the prophet Haggai.
But the temple and Jerusalem itself needed defensive
walls. The Babylonians had destroyed the outer walls of Jerusalem, and
construction needed to begin on the outer walls of the city. By 458 BC (this is
almost 90 years or so, almost a century after the Babylonians had taken
Jerusalem captive) the walls of Jerusalem are still not built. Things are in
disarray. Things are not good in Jerusalem. This is the report that Hanani
brings back, that still the gates of the city are destroyed by fire, from a
century ago. You can still see the black, charred embers of the original gates,
and they are still there, and nothing has been done. The progress in the
rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, the city of God, the center of God’s
redemptive purposes in the Old Testament–the work is in disarray. This is the
news that Nehemiah hears. And it’s a need. There’s a need in Jerusalem.
Somebody needs to go and do this work of instilling morale amongst the people
of God, giving leadership, being a threatening, powerful force to the enemies
and the carpers and the critics who are in abundance in Jerusalem.
Need is an opportunity for God’s call. He gives
this knowledge to Nehemiah. He learns this need. It may be that you’ll read a
prayer letter about Uganda or Malawi, or England, and you see this great need:
“come over and help us.” The Macedonian cry will be heard. There’s a need.
Reflect on that need. You want to know what God’s guidance is? Then see the
That’s precisely what happened in the case of
Nehemiah. Jerusalem needed a man of vitality. It needed a man of tremendous
forcefulness in personality. It needed a leader. And here’s a man that God
III. Thirdly, be fervent in
Be fervent in prayer. Now, Nehemiah is overcome by
this news. For days he’s overcome by it. He fasts and he prays. He goes
without food, and he’s consumed by this news. Its affected him deeply. And
what does he do? He falls on his knees and he prays. Have you trials and
temptations; is there trouble anywhere? You should never be discouraged: take
it to the Lord in prayer. Here is a man who is concerned for God’s glory.
Here’s a man who hears news and sees a need, and is burdened by it, and as a
consequence he takes this need to the Lord in prayer. He prays about this
Now let’s remember that Nehemiah was…well, a
powerful figure. Now, to be sure, he was a servant. He was a lackey of the King
of Persia, but he was a cupbearer. That’s why this strange little verse occurs
at the end of chapter one: “Now I was cupbearer to the king.” Now think about
it. If you’re the king and you have this fear, a very considerable fear, and in
many cases a very considerable reality that somebody was out to poison you…it
wasn’t just a conspiracy in many of these regimes…who do you employ to taste
your food and drink your wine? Somebody that you trust; somebody of enormous
integrity; somebody of complete and utter dependence and usefulness and
resourcefulness. And here’s this man, and what does he do? He takes it to the
Now there are two kinds of prayer recorded here in
Nehemiah. In chapter two and verse four, we read of this ‘arrow-like’ prayer.
I’m running ahead in the story, you understand, but he’s looking sad, and you
understand that cupbearers weren’t supposed to look sad. They were there to
look joyful. They weren’t there to draw attention to themselves; they weren’t
there to be wringing their hands and moaning and groaning in the background of
the king. You could get your head chopped off! But he’s sad. He’s overcome,
burdened by this news about God’s kingdom, and the king says to him, “What do
you want me to do?”
And at the end of verse four, “…so I prayed to the
God of heaven.” And verse five, which we didn’t read, goes on to say, “And I
said to the king….” It’s one of those prayers that lasted for half a
second. It was an arrow-like prayer that shot up to the Lord. But in contrast
with that, in chapter one you have the model prayer, the almost liturgical
prayer. It’s one of the great prayers of the Bible. It’s like Daniel, chapter
You want to learn how to pray? Read this
prayer. Study this prayer. Look at the forms of this prayer. Look at the
words which Nehemiah employs. Look at the way he begins. Look at the worship of
the prayer. Look at the great confession of sin of the prayer. Look at the
appeals that Nehemiah makes to the covenant of God and the promises of God. Look
at the use that he makes of Scripture, quoting from something that he’s read in
his Bible. You understand his Bible was the Books of Moses.) And he’s read
something in the Books of Moses, something that God has written, and he’s taking
that word of God and he’s saying, “Lord, you wrote this. This is Your promise,
and Your threat.” And he takes that to the Lord.
Now there’s a very important lesson here.
Daniel can pray like that in chapter one, and you’re given a clue in chapter two
and verse four, that prayer was something instinctive in Nehemiah’s life.
He was like that in terms of this model prayer because in his life he was
always a man of prayer, and in a moment of crisis it is his instinctive response
to pray to the Lord.
Now, it would be worth analyzing–I don’t have time
this evening–but it would be worth analyzing all of the various aspects of this
prayer, particularly the invocation of God’s majesty with which the prayer
begins. Prayer should always begin like that, invoking the majesty and the
glory of God. That’s how Jesus taught His disciples to pray, saying “Our
Father, who art in heaven….” You remind yourself that you are on earth, and
God is in heaven, and that there is a distinction between the Creator and the
creature. And you remind yourself of the greatness and the power and the glory
and the otherness of God.
You see the confession of sin and of the
sins of God’s people that is a central part of this prayer. Nehemiah
is coming before God to ask something. He wants to know God’s guidance. He has
this burden, and he’s making it known to the Lord, but he’s also saying, ‘If You
are going to make it possible for me to go back to Jerusalem, then it’s got to
be Your work and not mine.’ Because it was impossible for him. He was just a
servant in the king’s palace, at the mercy and behest of the King of Persia, and
he has nothing. He has no rights to come before God and demand of Him. And
thus he confesses his sin, and his unworthiness.
Look at the great plea that he makes to
the covenant of God in that prayer, that God has made certain promises to His
people. That’s how we pray, isn’t it, for our children. That’s how
we pray for individuals who have professed faith and joined the church, but are
straying and are falling into sin. We plead the covenant promises of God with
regard to His people. That’s the way to pray. You want to be a prayerful man?
You want to discover God’s guidance? Then be a prayerful man, a prayerful
IV. Fourthly, be a student of
Let me take just a minute to make that point.
I’m not going to elaborate on it in any great detail, but be a student of
Scripture. Do you notice in this prayer how he quotes Moses, at the end of
verse seven, something that Moses has written? You get the impression, here’s a
man who knew his Bible. He wants guidance, and he’s not looking for something
supernatural. He’s not looking for God to do some sort of miracle. He’s coming
before God and he’s saying, “Lord, fulfill what You have written in Your word.”
That is 99% of guidance. There’s a need in Africa.
There’s a need in England. God has His covenant promise to build His church,
and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it, and into that church
will flow peoples from every tribe and tongue and nation, and people. That’s
something that God has written! You don’t need something outside of the Bible
to know that, and Nehemiah is coming and is pleading the Scriptures, he’s
pleading the word of God.
Many of us tonight can echo, in different
circumstances, to be sure, but many of us have come before God, and a passage
of Scripture has been burdened our hearts, it’s burdened our consciences…and
we’ve brought that passage of Scripture before God, and wrestled with God in
prayer over this passage of Scripture, and we’ve asked questions like, ‘Well,
what is my relationship to this promise? What is my relationship to this part
of Your covenant outworking?’
V. Watch for God’s providential
Well, of course, all of those factors have to
be joined with a fifth factor, and that is watching God in providential
ordering. Because what happens as a result of Nehemiah’s prayer is that
you see God at work. God opens a door. What the Apostle Paul calls elsewhere ‘a
door of opportunity.’ It becomes possible now for him to return to Jerusalem.
It’s the nudging of God and the nudging of the Holy Sprit placing this burden
upon his heart and soul, and now opening the doors and enabling Nehemiah to
actually get back with safe passage to Jerusalem.
Now commentators are divided as to whether Nehemiah
had planned this business of looking sad in the presence of the king, and
whether this was something that he had sort of thought about and planned. And
actually, when you read the text, I’m not persuaded of that at all.
But here is Nehemiah, and he’s a man who’s
sensitive; sensitive first of all to the name of God, the glory of God, and
sensitive, too, in the sense that he’s consulted others. The prayer is actually
in the plural, and he talks about other servants of the Lord, and it’s as though
Nehemiah as discussed some of these things with others, with his friends, and
he’s concerned about the glory of God more than his own glory and more than his
own circumstances. And he’s been burdened by it. He’s been burdened so much
that he’s come before God in reverent, godly prayer, pouring out his heart and
soul before the Lord. Reading the Scriptures, bringing the Scriptures into the
presence of God, and what do you see? What you see is God providentially
ordering his footsteps so that he can make his way to Jerusalem, to become this
great Moses-like leader in a time of great need in the city of Jerusalem.
Well, my friends, that’s guidance. It’s not flashy.
It’s just the plain ABC’s of guidance. You see a need; you’re burdened by that
need; you pray about that need; and in the providence of God, He enables you to
be the fulfillment of that need. And when that happens, my friends, when that
happens, when that door of opportunity opens, be very, very careful that you
obey. Be very, very careful that you don’t do a Jonah, and that you don’t run
in the opposite direction to the direction that God in His providence is opening
before you. May God give each one of us hearts that beat in tune with His.
Let’s pray together.
Our God and our Father, we thank you for the
simplicity of Scripture, the way in which You give us these wonderful examples
like Nehemiah, who discerned Your providential ordering and guiding. Make us,
we pray, sensitive to the needs of Your kingdom, and give us, we pray, hearts
that are open and willing to Your guiding and directing. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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