Date: 28 Feb 2016
Text: Nehemiah 1 & 2
Over the last three Sundays we’ve spent time looking at the first two chapters of Nehemiah, this fascinating book that is a mixture of Jewish history, an autobiography and a journal. I find Nehemiah to be a fascinating individual who found himself almost thrust into a position of leadership. Up until the time the story starts, he had been working for King Artaxerxes as a cupbearer. Whilst going about his very important duties he received a visit from a brother and some friends and they told him of the dire state of the walls and gates of Jerusalem. Scripture makes it very clear that Jerusalem, the Holy City, was, and still is, very important to the Jewish people. From that moment on Nehemiah’s life was turned upside down as he moved from being a servant to being a leader; from being told what to do to telling others what to do. He was deeply upset about the reported state of Jerusalem but rather than simply decrying that situation he turned to prayer as he sought God’s help with, what to him, was a major problem. Then, rather than doing nothing, he decided that he must go to Jerusalem and do something; with God’s help of course.
As we review what we have learned over the last three weeks I want to consider Nehemiah’s utter reliance on prayer; his relationships with God and with others; his amazing patience; and the fact that this short book of 13 chapters may well have been the first handbook on management and leadership ever written. It could also be seen as a handbook or guide on to how and when to pray.
Nehemiah’s first prayer runs from 1:5 to 1:11 and seems to be organised in various sections. The substantive part comes in the final sentence where Nehemiah sought God’s help in talking to the King and seeking his support for the plans that he was developing. Importantly the prayer also includes a confession in which Nehemiah talks of all the bad things that had happened to Judah and Israel as a result of their waywardness and the disobedience that they showed towards God. All of these events happened before Nehemiah was born and yet it didn’t prevent him from confessing those sins and in that part of the prayer he referred to “we”, “myself” and “my family”; he never talked of “they” in this context but included himself in the whole confession.
The second prayer that we came across is in 2:4 and it is different to that first prayer in that it is impromptu and therefore unstructured. Nehemiah doesn’t actually tell us what he prayed only that he did pray. We are left to figure out for ourselves that it was a prayer that once again sought God’s help with speaking to the King.
The important thing with these first two prayers is that before doing anything important, Nehemiah turned to God in prayer; he didn’t attempt to do something unsupported by God. How often do we do that? How often do we offer God a prayer before undertaking a difficult or challenging task? I’ll wager that it is very rarely if at all! We are all guilty of such an omission and as a result what we attempt doesn’t always work.
We can also see from these first two chapters just how good and important Nehemiah’s relationships were. We can tell from the prayers that he prayed that he had a good relationship with God. Consequently he was able to talk to those he was enlisting to help with the rebuilding project and tell them about, “the gracious hand of my God on me” (2:18). Later in 2:20 he was able to tell his opponents and detractors that, “the God of heaven will give us success”. Those weren’t idle claims; Nehemiah knew that he had God on his side and that He would always be there to help, guide and support Nehemiah in all that he did. That only came about because of the close and loving relationship that Nehemiah had with God.
Nehemiah’s second strong relationship was very obviously with his employer, King Artaxerxes. How many of us can, or could, say that about our relationship with an employer? Before the story started Nehemiah had obviously been working for the King for some time and established a trusting relationship with him. Let’s face it, Nehemiah had the King’s life in his hands since he could very easily have slipped a “Mickey Finn” into the King’s wine and killed him! The King trusted him and knew that Nehemiah would take care of him and protect him. Such was the relationship that Nehemiah felt able to decide to approach the King and seek his help in doing something to resolve Jerusalem’s problems. Such was the relationship that we can see from 2:2 that the King knew and understood Nehemiah well enough to be able to recognise when something was wrong. Notice the King’s comment to Nehemiah in that verse, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” Such personal observations can only come from a warm and friendly relationship rather than the usual King-servant relationship.
Nehemiah also showed great diplomacy when talking to the king about his problem. He knew that in the past there had been difficulties between Persia and Jerusalem as a result of the actions of a few rebellious groups in Jerusalem. That is why when Nehemiah was explaining his problem to the King he didn’t mention Jerusalem by name and only spoke of, “the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried” (2:3b).
A further close relationship is implied rather than clearly laid out. Although Nehemiah hadn’t been born in Jerusalem it was the “city where his ancestors were buried” (2:3b). Notice Nehemiah’s reaction in 1:4 after hearing the news of the parlous state of the walls and gates of the Holy City, “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept”. Those aren’t the actions of someone who has no feelings for his ancestral home; rather they are the actions of someone who cares deeply about the city. Not only did he weep upon hearing that terrible news but then, “For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed” (2:4). We may find it strange that anyone could have such a close relationship with a place that they had never visited and yet Nehemiah was able to feel very close indeed to Jerusalem given that it was the city of his ancestors. Nehemiah may have been born and lived in exile but it didn’t stop him having that close affinity with Jerusalem.
I have observed on many occasions that we are an impatient people; we are so used to instant coffee, fast food, instant Internet response on our various computer gadgets and television on demand, that we expect everything to happen NOW, not later. We get annoyed if we have to wait too long for a bus or a train. We get annoyed with time wasted sitting in traffic jams, especially when we are not legally allowed to use our mobile devices! We get annoyed with having to wait for service in a restaurant or for a meal to cook. It is all down to an underlying lack of patience.
Sadly we are the same with prayer. We speak to God in prayer and ask Him for something or for help with a decision or help with a problem, and we expect Him to answer more or less immediately. When He doesn’t we get annoyed with Him. We also get annoyed if He doesn’t give us the answer that we wanted and get impatient with the answer that He does give. I’m right aren’t I? We are all guilty of that at some time in our walk with Christ.
Contrast that attitude with how Nehemiah felt and behaved. The story started in the month of Kislev, mid November to mid December, when Nehemiah prayed that first prayer in 1:5-11. The answer to that prayer came in 2:4a during the month of Nisan, mid March to mid April. We don’t read of Nehemiah getting angry or impatient at having to wait so long for a reply, rather we get the impression that he simply carried on with his duties as cupbearer and carried on with his regular prayer life.
Having had that first prayer answered, Nehemiah started his important conversation with the King by offering a very short, and no doubt simple, prayer to God. Given that Artaxerxes listened to Nehemiah’s request and offered his help, I think it is safe to say that that prayer was answered almost instantly. God doesn’t always take a while to answer our prayers it’s just that some get answered more quickly than others. It is God’s choice as to how and when He answers and He will always give an answer that is in our best interests based on what He has planned for us. Don’t lose sight of the fact that God has a plan for each and every one of us and that was most definitely true of Nehemiah.
Having had answers to prayers, I’ve no doubt that Nehemiah was champing at the bit to get started on this vital work. However, he knew that he needed to get organised in terms of gathering together the resources that he needed to complete the task. There was also the little matter of the 800 miles between Susa and Jerusalem, no small distance given the time all of this took place. Whether or not Nehemiah knew how long the journey would take is difficult to know but we do know that it eventually took four months. That journey must have been arduous and painful and dreadfully slow. Because of the terrain and the heat, Nehemiah and his party could only travel 8 or 9 miles a day. Such slow progress would have taxed the patience of Job and yet we don’t read of Nehemiah ever growing impatient, in fact we read nothing at all about the details of the journey. All we do know is that once he got to Jerusalem he rested for three days, something which surely demonstrates real patience on Nehemiah’s part. We can perhaps surmise that he would have spent the non-travelling time in prayer, thus ensuring that God was involved in every step.
There are many who suggest that this short book is the first Management Handbook ever written since it discusses many of the fundamentals of management. Nehemiah was a cupbearer and without wishing to belittle such an important position, I think we can safely say that the role didn’t involve construction work of any sort in any way!
No doubt guided by God though, Nehemiah was able to spend time planning exactly what needed to be done. In the four months between his original prayer and actually speaking to the King, he determined that he would need travel documents to ensure a safe journey and he would need timber to rebuild the gates. That’s all we are told about although I’m sure that since he also wanted to rebuild the walls he would have thought about the bricks and stones that would be needed as well as the manpower to actually carry out the work. Although Nehemiah may not have considered the security of himself and his accompanying party, the King did, which is why we read in 2:9b, “The King also sent army officers and cavalry with me.” Nehemiah wasn’t alone in planning this project!
Following his three days of rest, Nehemiah then embarked on a detailed site survey, something that is vital to the success of any project. It is very important to know the nature of the task that lies ahead, the materials and manpower that may be needed, the terrain on which the work is to be carried out and the potential pitfalls that they may encounter along the way. Nehemiah considered all this before even cutting the first piece of timber or laying the first brick. The Gates that he initially visited are listed in 2:13-15, and, as I mentioned last week, form only part of the area to be rebuilt. Given the size of Jerusalem, I’m sure that the remainder of the wall and gates would have also been inspected on the following nights.
Having completed that survey Nehemiah seems to have been in a position to make a start. It was only at that point that he shared his plans and his vision with the people who he hoped would be involved. Nehemiah had this project close to his heart and was full of enthusiasm for it to be started and then completed successfully. It is interesting, therefore, to see the reaction of the people after Nehemiah had shared his plans with them, “They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.” (2:18b). Nehemiah knew what lay ahead, he knew the scale of the project and yet through passing on his enthusiasm he was able to motivate the people to want to join him and get Jerusalem back to being great again.
In just a few verses we can see a number of aspects of management at work. Nehemiah had planned what needed to be done, he had obtained the necessary resources, he had carried out a detailed site survey and he had motivated the workforce to start the work. As we continue our progress through the book after Easter we will see how he organised the people into groups to carry out specific parts of the rebuilding work, how he dealt with the detractors and how he kept the project on track and on time despite the vehement opposition that he faced.
There is so much that we can learn from just these first two chapters of Nehemiah. Nehemiah took everything to God in prayer, not just odd bits and pieces occasionally but everything all of the time. He built good relationships with people and places and felt for them during the hard times. He displayed immense patience as he waited for God to answer his prayers and as he made that long journey to Jerusalem. Finally he displayed amazing management skills in how he planned and organised himself and his resources.
We need to follow Nehemiah’s example and take everything to God in prayer. We need to emulate Nehemiah’s patience and wait for God to answer in His time. We need to establish and maintain close and honest relationships with people so that we can all work together for the furtherance of the kingdom of God. We need to develop and use good management skills as we work for Him. There is absolutely nothing wrong in being “professional” in the way that we work for God, in fact, it is almost incumbent on us to do so. Working in such a way does not usurp the power of the Holy Spirit. Since Paul is talking in 1 Corinthians 14 about orderliness in worship this quote may be slightly out of context, but Paul tells the Corinthians in 14:40, “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” I don’t think it is stretching things too far to suggest that that injunction should apply to everything we do for God.
I commend these two chapters to you in the hope that you will also feel some of Nehemiah’s enthusiasm and want to follow his example more closely.