“There are some realities that you can only see through eyes that have been cleansed by tears.” Nehemiah embodies this statement from Pope Francis. Nehemiah was a man driven by compassion for his city—the city of Jerusalem.
In the opening chapter we learn that Nehemiah was the author. We read that the book contains “The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah.” Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book. Ezra told the story of the rebuilding of Israel’s temple; Nehemiah tells the story of the rebuilding of the city walls. They serve as historical memoirs but—if they were alive today—these two books would serve as the first “TED Talks.” These men were innovators and leaders of their day, and through them we see God’s plan for restoration.
When we first meet Nehemiah, he is living in relative luxury in Persia. If we jump down to verse 11, we read: “Now I was cupbearer to the king.” This was more than just a butler. His primary responsibility was to taste the king’s food and drink in the event that someone tried to poison him. But this placed him in such close proximity to the king that he became the king’s unofficial political advisor. He was probably handsome, cultured, sophisticated. And above all, he occupied a place of power, privilege, and influence rarely seen by any of his fellow Jews.
So it shouldn’t escape our notice that from the very start, we see this man as deeply burdened for his people. Starting in verse 1 we read:
Now it happened in the month of Chislev [that would be late November or early December, by our calendars], in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the citadel, 2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. 3 And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” (Nehemiah 1:1b-3)
Here we have our first lesson from Nehemiah: change begins only when discontent triumphs over indifference. Under the decree of Cyrus, some Jews returned; some stayed. Nehemiah was among those who stayed. Hanani—who may have been Nehemiah’s biological relation, or simply a Jewish “brother”—was among those who returned. Prophets such as Jeremiah had commanded God’s people to “flee Babylon,” but many—including Nehemiah—found chose comfort over conviction. Now, confronted by this news, Nehemiah could only weep over the fate of his people. In verse 4 he confesses: “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.”
For most of us, it’s far too easy to hear news about our city and respond with either laughter or hostility. “Only in Hagerstown,” we might say. More than 20 years ago cultural analyst Neil Postman compared the nightly news to a bad game of “peek-a-boo,” where negative stories flash before our eyes and then quickly disappear. This “peek-a-boo” world is only magnified in an age where news literally flashes before us through our Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s like the scene in the film Hotel Rwanda, where the Rwandan hotel owner thanks the American journalist for courageously covering the recent atrocities. But the journalist apologetically tells him, “I think if people see this footage they’ll say, ‘oh…that’s horrible,’ and the go on eating their dinners.”
No more. No more saying “Only in Hagerstown.” No more shaking our heads rather than bowing them in prayer. No more clenching our fists in anger than opening them in love. God never loved his people at a distance. The gospel is a message of a God who sent his Son into our world, and likewise sends his followers into the world as his representatives, his ambassadors. The gospel therefore stirs within us a form of “holy discontent,” a discontent that triumphs over our tendency toward silence and our propensity toward indifference.
For Nehemiah, the discontent stirred in his heart led him to his knees. Most of chapter one is an extended prayer that the God of the universe would intervene, and that he might be used for the good of the city. When we get to chapter 2, we’ll learn that four months go by. Most of chapter one is just an extended prayer. In his commentary on Nehemiah, Raymond Brown helps us see examine this prayer and see that Nehemiah’s prayer life contained several specific features.
- First, Nehemiah began with praise for God. In verse 5, we read: “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments…” Praise matters because through worship, our hearts are directed away from earthly comforts toward the source of all goodness. Only then can we truly have our hearts beat in time with the God of the universe.
- Second, Nehemiah sought God’s attention. He says, “6 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…” We can be thankful that through the finished work of Christ, we can freely approach the throne of grace and bring our needs before the God of the universe.
- Third, Nehemiah confessed sin. He says that he is “confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.” Nehemiah didn’t cast blame; he took ownership. Now, we can’t always say that all human suffering is the result of human wrongdoing. But we can at least acknowledge that before we move forward we must acknowledge our past failures.
- Fourth, Nehemiah appealed to God’s character. Look in verse 8: “Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, 9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ 10 They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand.” Nehemiah, of course, is referencing the promises laid out through Moses. The Lord’s promise to Abraham was unconditional: Israel would receive God’s blessing because of his character. But to fully enjoy God’s blessing Israel was called to conform to God’s character through obedience to the Mosaic Law. Today, we live by a different covenant, a different set of promises. We look back not to Moses but to Jesus, whose death promises us forgiveness and transformation. So like Nehemiah, we look back to God’s activity in the past for confidence in our present and hope for our future.
- Finally, Nehemiah makes a specific request. Look at verse 11: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” I find that bold. We don’t see him saying, “if it be your will” or any of the clauses that you and I might attach to our prayers, instead choosing to share his request with boldness and honesty.
We need that. We need that for our nation, we need that for our church, we need that for our city. But it starts with us, and that’s the second point to be learned from Nehemiah: prayer transforms us from critics to crusaders. If you follow Jesus, you are said to be united with Christ. Jesus inhabits our city through you, through me, through the body of Christ, his people, the Church. Through prayer we re-orient ourselves to this greater, awesome reality, and move away from the tendency to criticize our city’s flaws but to allow the love of Christ to well up inside us and overflow into our homes, into our neighborhoods, and into our streets. We need that, the world needs that, because now, more than ever, our world isn’t asking whether Christianity is true, but whether Christianity is good. The actions of the “body of Christ” may well be the only gospel your neighbors ever hear.
Our application, therefore, is that we pray for our city—diligently and compassionately. God is for our city, and together we proclaim his goodness so that we may lift high the name of Christ, and God would use these actions to draw all men to himself.