Nehemiah: To Jerusalem

Sermon by on July 27, 2008

Nehemiah 1:11b-2:8

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The Lord’s Day
Evening

July 27, 2008

Nehemiah 1:11b-2:8

“To Jerusalem”

Dr. Derek W.
H. Thomas

Now last Sunday evening we began (as we had finished
the book of Ezra and moved into the book of Nehemiah)… we began to examine this
first chapter. We are in the year 445 BC, and the Persian King Artaxerxes is in
his palace in Susa. His cupbearer, the man in charge of insuring that his wine
isn’t poisoned and his food isn’t poisoned, is Nehemiah. And Nehemiah, as you
recall, has had a visit from a man by the name of Hanani, a brother. He may be a
literal brother, a genetic brother. He may just be a brother in the Lord, but
many commentators, because of something that is said elsewhere in chapter 7 of
Nehemiah, think that this may well be his literal brother. And he and some
others have come and brought news of events that have transpired since the close
of Ezra and the beginning of Nehemiah. In that span — a decade or so or a little
more, between the end of Ezra and the beginning of Nehemiah — something has
happened that Scripture doesn’t record. But the walls of Jerusalem…(the temple
of course had been rebuilt and finished back in 516 BC, so it’s been up and
running for 70-80 years)…but the walls had not been rebuilt. The walls were
still razed to the ground from the time of the sacking of Jerusalem by
Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. For 150 years, the walls of the city had been in
ruins.

But evidently news has come that the walls are in
some state of disrepair and damage that has shocked Nehemiah. Now, the fact that
they were damaged from the time of Nebuchadnezzar would not be a shock to him.
They’d have been there for 150 years. So something has happened. And it looks as
though the walls had begun to be rebuilt, but that Artaxerxes had issued a
decree to stop it, to prevent it — perhaps because of the obvious. Why would
they be building walls? Who were they defending the city against? The Persians,
perhaps! And perhaps this was seen by Artaxerxes, and in some ways
understandably, as a none too subtle attempt at a kind of military coup.

Nehemiah is the cupbearer. There are only certain
things that he could do. It is not a nine-to-five job, you understand. Whenever
the king ate — and it could be early in the morning or it could be at midnight —
Nehemiah was expected to be there. I don’t think there was a day off. He was a
servant. Now, we saw last week that in order to be the cupbearer to King
Artaxerxes…it is staggering that Artaxerxes would choose, not a member of his
own ethnic identity, but a Jew; a member of a race of people that he has
conquered, and who would have every right to attempt to bring this king down. It
tells us of the immense integrity, the character of Nehemiah that he had been
chosen for this task.

Well, at the end of chapter 1 of Nehemiah we saw how
Nehemiah had begun a vigil of prayer, and we are given a summary of that prayer.
The prayer, as we’ll see in a minute, lasted for upwards of at least three and
possibly five months, depending on whether the dates are at the beginning or end
of the month. It could be as much as five months. The prayer ended by asking God
(verse 11),

“Let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of
Your servants who delight to fear Your name (1:11), and give success to Your
servant today….”

Now a couple of things to notice before we read the
rest of the chapter and go to chapter 2. Two things: one, Nehemiah was asking
in this prayer that God would do something today.
And the next day he
would pray “today.” And the next day he would pray “today.” And on and on it
went, asking each day that God would intervene. Nehemiah had to learn some
patience, then, in how God answers prayer.

But notice that Nehemiah is asking in this prayer
that God would not only do something about the situation in Jerusalem, but that
He would use Nehemiah to do it: “Give success to Your servant today.”
That’s
an amazing thing to pray. How in the world was Nehemiah going to get to
Jerusalem? Even if he was gifted, even if he was qualified, even if he was the
best man for the job — and perhaps Hanani and the others had said that he was —
how would those circumstances ever be brought about that a servant to the
Persian king would find himself a thousand miles away on a task that actually
took twelve years? Perhaps Nehemiah didn’t know the answer to that himself.
Perhaps this is one of those prayers that I’ve certainly uttered, and I’m pretty
sure you may also have uttered: “Lord, I’m not even sure what I’m asking for
here, and I’m not even sure how You’re going to answer this prayer, but this is
what I want. This is how I see it. And You are sovereign.”

Well, let’s pick up the prayer at the end of verse
11, and before we do so let’s look to God in prayer now and ask for His
blessing.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures, and thank
You especially that every word of it You have given: You breathed it out. And we
pray again, as we read the Scriptures tonight and as we study it together, that
by Your Spirit You would instruct our hearts; that we might this evening not
only be hearers of the word, but that truly we might be doers of it also. And
this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

At the end of verse 11, chapter 1:

“Now I was cupbearer to the king.

“In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes,
when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had
not been sad in his presence. And the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad,
seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.’ Then I was
very much afraid. I said to the king, ‘Let the king live forever! Why should not
my face be sad, when the city, the place of my father’s graves, lies in ruins,
and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’ Then the king said to me, ‘What are
you requesting?’ 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 father’s graves, that I may rebuild it.’ And
the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), ‘How long will you be gone,
and when will you return?’ So it pleased the king to send me when I had given
him a time. And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, let letters be
given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me
pass through until I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the
king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the
fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I
shall occupy.’ And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God
was upon me.”

Amen. May God add His blessing to that reading of His holy,
inerrant word.

Well, as we were saying, Nehemiah has been keeping
this vigil of prayer.
The summary of it is given in chapter 1–this prayer
that looks to God and that extols God’s majesty, that confesses the sins of the
people of Israel, that asks God to remember His promises. And it’s the sort of
prayer that says in effect, ‘Lord, You know, if You don’t remember Your promises
to Your people whom You have redeemed, You’re going to look silly.’ [I’m not
just making that up!] Read the prayer. That’s what Nehemiah is saying. He’s
turning God’s promises back to Him and saying, ‘Look, if You don’t keep these
promises it’s going to look bad for You.’

I remember reading something in Thomas Brooks, the
Puritan, and he was quoting one of the church fathers — Basil,1
I think — who said in effect this: that we ought to pray in such a manner that
we make God ashamed if He doesn’t answer; throwing back God’s promises to Him
saying, ‘Lord, You promised. Now fulfill Your promise. Otherwise, it’s going to
look bad for You, and it’s going to look bad to all those around You, because
they’re going to say this God of the Jews, this God of Jerusalem, He doesn’t
keep His word.’

Well, five months — at least for three, and possibly
five — Nehemiah has been praying this prayer, until suddenly in the month of
Nisan (somewhere between the month of March and April of the following year, 444
BC) events come together in the providence of God. How would God answer this
prayer of Nehemiah’s? How in the world is it going to be possible for a servant,
effectively a slave, to be released from his duties to the most powerful man in
the world to be sent on a task that looks to all intents and purposes as though
it’s an act of insurrection? To defend the walls of Jerusalem against who,
unless it’s the Persians? How is God going to answer that prayer? Watch! And
learn…the amazing providence of our God, yours and mine.

I. Nehemiah had to learn
patience as he waited upon the Lord.

The first thing I want us to see is that
Nehemiah had to learn patience as he waited upon the Lord. You know the Psalms
often say “I waited upon the Lord…I waited upon the Lord…” and for Nehemiah,
when he prayed this prayer night and day saying “today,” he was learning to
wait.

You know, sometimes prayer can be an excuse for
not doing something.
Sometimes prayers are an excuse for not doing
something. When the moral obligation is perfectly obvious, but we say, “Well,
let’s pray a little more” because we just don’t want to do it, we fool ourselves
that we’re in some kind of quasi-spiritual mode of existence, waiting on God to
say something to us and move us in some way, when what we need to do is
perfectly obvious and plain. Sometimes prayer can be thought of as
insufficient.
Do you remember Naomi? You know, she had prayed after she had
lost her husband and her two sons. She had prayed, you remember, that Ruth would
find a husband. She’d also prayed that Orpah would find a husband…but she had
prayed that these two daughters-in-law of hers would find husbands. And see,
when Ruth came back, you remember, with news that she had met this man, a
kinsman redeemer by the name of Boaz, and you could see the wheels spinning in
Naomi’s mind? She could not wait to try and run ahead of God’s providence and
find in her own hands and manipulation the answer to her prayer…sending Ruth,
you remember, by midnight, perfumed, to where Boaz was lying, and to place
herself, you know, underneath the edge of his blanket. (She had lost her mind!)
But she was trying to answer her own prayer.

I’m not sure how much Nehemiah understood the way
in which God would answer this prayer.
It may be that he had planned it to
some degree, that when the opportunity presents itself he would suddenly look
sad. It begins by saying there was wine before him. Perhaps we’re meant to
understand that the king was in a relatively good mood. We’re told in a
parenthetical remark in verse 6 that the queen was sitting beside him, and this
could be a reference to the queen herself or it could be a reference to the
queen mother. And it could be a reference to the chief of the king’s harem. [And
you may understand therefore why he would be in a particularly good mood. We
won’t go into it.] Perhaps he was waiting for that opportunity…you know: ‘When
the king is in a really good mood, I’ll do something. I’ll try and do what I can
to try to provoke the king to ask me this question, and I’ll have the answer.’
Maybe. Maybe we’re meant to see that.

And maybe not. Maybe not. Because at the end of verse
2, what actually transpires is the king says to him, “Why is your face sad,
seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” The word
sadness
in Hebrew is a word that sounds exactly like the word evil,
and the king isn’t just saying “Why are you sad?” But the king may well have
been saying “You’re plotting something. There’s some evil intent in your heart”–
which helps us understand why at the end of verse 2 Nehemiah is “very much
afraid.”

Now you understand what’s going on. There was a book
of etiquette about how cupbearers should behave in the king’s presence, and Rule
No. 1 was “You never look sad.” You don’t want somebody who’s in charge of your
wine to make sure it isn’t poisoned looking sad. You want somebody who looks
happy. You want somebody who gives you an air of confidence that what you’re
about to drink isn’t going to kill you. There are historical incidents of
cupbearers who were summarily executed for doing less than this.

You see, I don’t know whether Nehemiah realized
that in order for God to answer this prayer he would be brought into the very
edge of almost disaster; that God would put him in the most difficult
circumstance imaginable in order to answer the prayer that Nehemiah has been
praying.
You can understand why Nehemiah has had to learn to be patient.
Whether he had thought through and perhaps in a small measure instigated and
precipitated the event, or, as I rather think, he didn’t intend to look sad. The
statement at the end of verse 1, “Now I had not been sad in his presence….” [And
I know that some of you have the NIV and it says, ‘I hadn’t been sad before
in his presence,” implying that he now was intending to look sad, but that’s a
mistranslation.] “Now I had not been sad in his presence.” He didn’t intend to
be sad, but the king saw it because he couldn’t help it…because the events in
Jerusalem had so weighed him down that in the end his concern for the kingdom of
God and the purposes of God were now beginning to show. And he suddenly finds
himself in this extraordinarily difficult, tense, situation where his life is in
danger.

II. Nehemiah prays by instinct
because he is given to prayer.

So the second thing that we see here is just the
sheer instinct that Nehemiah has for prayer.
When the king asks him in verse
4, “What are you requesting?” he’s answered the king saying, “Let the king live
forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’
graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” and the king
has said, ‘Now what exactly are you saying? What exactly are you asking for?’
And it’s a tense moment. It’s an incredibly tense moment.

What does Nehemiah do? “I prayed to the God of
heaven.” He has an instinct for prayer. Now, do you understand what’s
happening here? He’s standing before the king. He may have a cup in his
hand…he’s about to hand it to the king, he’s looking sad; the king has accused
him perhaps of evil intent. And he says to the king, ‘Can you wait a minute
while I have a little prayer time?’ and he bows his head and he begins in Hebrew
to utter this prayer that you find… No! That’s not what happened. There was no,
I think, conscious moment between the king’s asking and Nehemiah’s answering. If
Nehemiah had hesitated in answering the question it wouldn’t have looked well
for him.

So this is a prayer, but it’s an arrow-like prayer.
It’s the kind of prayer you utter when you’re on I-55 and somebody in an SUV has
just cut you off! And you’ve got to swerve, you’ve got to do something, you’ve
got a millisecond to do it, and you just throw up this prayer, “Lord, help me!
Save me!” You haven’t time for the Lord’s Prayer here. You haven’t time for
Ezra’s prayer in chapter 9. This is a few words: “Lord, help me now. Give me
grace now. Thank You, Lord. Be near to me. I need You now like I’ve never needed
You before.” Perhaps even that’s too many words.

You see, we think, you and I, that if we found
ourselves in this circumstance that’s what we would do. We would pray like that,
consciously. “So I prayed to the Lord.” But, my friends, we need to
understand that the only reason Nehemiah had an
instinct of prayer in a critical moment is because he had a life of prayer.
It’s because he was always praying. This statement about his instinct for
prayer in chapter 2 and verse 4 is only true because in chapter 1 we have seen
that for five months Nehemiah was a man of prayer. He was always praying…he was
always praying.

Now let me turn that around. You see, if you’re not
always praying, if you don’t have the pattern of disciplined prayer you cannot
guarantee that in a moment of crisis your instinct is going to be one of prayer.

Application.

Now let me say a couple of things by way of
application, and the first is obvious:

Short prayers can be effective prayers. That’s not
an excuse for not having a disciplined life of prayer, you understand, but short
prayers can be effective prayers. This is not the prayer of Abraham. This is not
the prayer of Moses in the Bible. This is not Daniel’s prayer. This is not one
of Paul’s prayers. We don’t even know what the prayer was, for all we can
conjecture is that it couldn’t have lasted for more than half a second, but it
was a prayer that took flight…it had wings. It flew right into heaven into the
ears of Almighty God and solicited an immediate response. Angels took that
prayer, cleansed by the blood of Jesus, the Jesus foretold in the old covenant.
And immediately — immediately! — a messenger was sent to answer that prayer

It says something about the necessity of prayer.
Doesn’t this underline that in everything by prayer and supplication we are to
make our requests known unto God? In everything? In everything! You’ve
been asked a question; you’ve got to answer this question in the right way, and
you send up this arrow-like prayer. Maybe it’s your boss asking you something,
and you don’t want to look…you know…stupid. And you send up this arrow-like
prayer. For Nehemiah, his life is in danger. His very life is in danger, but he
dare not answer, he dare not utter a word unless he is conscious that the Lord
is with him.

You see, it shows…. You know we were thinking this
morning of Mary and the alabaster flask of spikenard, that it showed her heart.
It showed her heart. This shows Nehemiah’s heart. If you want to know what
Nehemiah’s heart looks like, it looks like this. He was a man of prayer and he
had an instinct of prayer because he had a life of prayer.

“Have we trials and temptations?

Is there trouble anywhere?

We should never be discouraged;

Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

My friends, if we learn nothing else tonight, let’s try and
learn that lesson, that God would imprint in our hearts the very instinct of
prayer. But the only way that that’s going to happen is that He also gives us a
burden for a life of prayer. Are you praying, friend? Are you praying? Do you
speak to God? Do you talk to Him? Do you commune with Him?

You know, some of us talk to ourselves. You know, you
walk along the corridor — I was doing it tonight. It was actually being
recorded! I’d forgotten I had the thing on, and I’m walking down the corridor
and I’m talking away to myself, and Jeremy can tell you what’s on it. [You have
to erase what I said!] I don’t think it was anything bad. But that’s the way we
should live — talking to God every day, every moment of the day, no matter what
we’re doing…in our work, in surgery, driving a car, in the shopping mall,
getting groceries, opportunities that present themselves where you have to speak
— maybe to give a witness, a testimony, to be nice, to speak for Jesus: “Lord,
help me now.” I can’t say, “Wait a minute, stop the clock! I need ten minutes
out here.” No. “Right now, I need Your help right here, right now.” Are you
praying?

But the third thing — and it’s a beautiful thing that we
see of Nehemiah here — is his carefulness to give God all the glory.
You
know, as we were seeing in Ezra, and we see it here in Nehemiah, this story of
course is being written after the fact. It’s been written so it appears to be
from Nehemiah’s diary, his memoirs. He’s thinking back, reflecting on that
moment. It’s a moment you never forget. He was standing before King Artaxerxes.
And do you know what he said? The audacity of what he said? What did he say?

He wants first of all “…letters to be given me to the
governors of the province Beyond the River.” So that when he gets beyond the
river and into Judah, and the satraps, the underlings of King Artaxerxes that he
would have to report to as an official of King Artaxerxes. You see, he wants
everything. He doesn’t just want to be sent to Jerusalem; he wants to be sent to
Jerusalem as the governor of King Artaxerxes. Did you notice…[I love this! I’ve
been reading this all week!]…the audacity of Nehemiah to say that he wants
letters not only for the governors, but also for Asaph, the keeper of the king’s
forest? He’s going to need wood to build the twelve gates of the city. He’s
going to need lots of wood — gates for the fortress of the temple. The temple
had been built, but the walls surrounding the temple hadn’t been built. “And…”
[and you’ve got to smile…you’ve got to smile here] “for the house that I shall
occupy.” I love that! You know, “in for a penny, in for a pound!” You know, “I’m
on a roll now, so I might as well ask for everything.” [Laughter] “I know
my life’s in danger, but I’m going to be your representative. I need a house. I
need the governor’s house. We need to build it. And I need letters to the keeper
of the king’s forest.” [Isn’t that a beautiful title, by the way? I’d love to
have that title: The Keeper of the King’s Forest!]

What audaciousness! What courage, in some ways; what
bravery; what audacity. But when he’s writing his memoirs and he’s thinking back
and he’s recording this — and God is in this and it becomes part of Holy
Scripture — do you notice how he puts it? “The king granted me what I asked,
for the good hand of my God was upon me.”

It was all of God. It was all of God. ‘I
could have been killed. It could have all been over in a moment, in a heartbeat.
And you know, it was fifty percent me and fifty percent God [as a good Arminian
would say]’. But Nehemiah says, no, it was all the hand of my God. God was in
it.

Some of you have found yourselves in incredibly
difficult circumstances, providences that are so intricate that it would take
you an hour or two to relate.

“God moves in a mysterious way,

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the
sea,

And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never-failing skill,

He treasures up His bright
designs

And works His sovereign will.”

God was in it. You want to tell me what happened in your
life, and you say, ‘Look. At the end of the day — actually, at the beginning of
the day, in the middle of the day, and the end of the day — it was all God. God
did that. The Lord did it.’

Yes, Nehemiah was the one who spoke. Nehemiah was
the one who prayed. But you know, when he comes to write the story, “It was the
good hand of God that was upon me.” That’s how you live, my friends.
That’s
how you live. That’s how you go about facing this week: in the sure and absolute
certainty that no matter what circumstance you find yourselves in, God’s hand is
there. And in this instance, it was the “good hand of God.” And the providence
was good, and the providence was sweet; but sometimes the providence isn’t
good
, and sometimes the providence isn’t sweet. It works together for my
good, but the providence itself is bitter.

But still it is from my Lord. Still it is from my
blessed Jesus
. And teach me…teach me the perspective that Nehemiah has to
see everything in the light of the absolute sovereignty of my Lord who loves me
and cares for me.

He was a Shorter Catechism man:

“What is the chief end of man? To glorify God
and enjoy Him forever.”

And Nehemiah does both. He’ll talk about joy — we’ll come
to that in a few weeks. But he was careful to give God all the glory.

Do you know, my friends? If you don’t do that it
turns you into the equivalent of a wrinkled prune. If you’re not careful to give
God all the glory, it turns you in upon yourself and you become something that
isn’t attractive and isn’t pleasant.

Let’s pray together.

Father, we thank You now for the Scriptures, and
thank You for this man Nehemiah, but we want to thank You. We want to thank You
for every evidence in our own lives of Your mighty hand at work weaving,
planning, contributing, preventing, bringing to pass Your perfect will. Help us
to be such Christians as give You all the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand. Receive the Lord’s benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

1. Thomas Brooks. The Secret Key of Heaven. “Those
that would be masters of their requests, must, like the importunate widow, press
God so far as to put him to an holy blush, as I may say with reverence: they
must with an holy impudence, as Basil speaks, make God ashamed to look them in
the face, if he should deny the importunity of their souls.”

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