When I Heard, I Wept and Prayed
July 4, 2021 / No. 4096
Today we are going to begin a series on the Old Testament book of the Bible called Nehemiah. The theme of this book of Holy Scripture is given in the second chapter, verse 10. There we read, “When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel.” The man Nehemiah is presented on the pages of Holy Scripture as a man who sought the welfare of God’s people and church, a man who was committed to God’s cause, God’s people, God’s church on earth, and who lived seeking their welfare. Therefore he is given for our example, our encouragement, and our admonition.
Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem in the year 445 BC and was part of the end of the Old Testament days after the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity, when the glories of David and Solomon and of the world-power that the Jews had once been were long in the past, and God’s covenant people were accounted the offscouring, the ragtag group in Palestine. God’s people were characterized by weariness, by loss of hope, and by many inroads of sin among them.
God now raises up Nehemiah. His name means “the Lord comforts.” He is the instrument to promote the welfare of God’s people, to put things back into God-honoring order, to lead the people of God, and to establish them in the hope of Jesus Christ. Nehemiah was a man whom God calls from a palace. He was cupbearer to the king of Persia. He was in a position of luxury, opulence, renown, and earthly splendor. He had prestige and he was trusted. Upon him came the burden of the cause of God and God’s people.
Nehemiah was no prophet, though he spoke the word of God forthrightly, firmly, and in holy passion. Nehemiah was no priest, though he lived his life in the presence of God, was devoted to God’s church, and lived his life in prayer. Nehemiah was no king, though he had courage, and God used him to inspire His people to do good.
Nehemiah was unknown in the world of his day. His contemporaries were Demosthenes and Plato. Nehemiah is not known in the records of history. He was a man who never wore a crown, never conquered a country, and never developed a philosophy. Yet, by the grace of God, as a fruit of the redeeming grace of God in Christ, he served God in his generation. He sought the things of God and the honor of God. He was a great instrument of God for the good of the church.
So, why do I choose this book of Nehemiah? For one reason: commitment. That is so sorely and desperately needed—spiritual commitment to God’s cause, to the church, to God’s name, to God’s people, to God’s honor. Nehemiah represents commitment to God’s cause and truth and church and people.
Nehemiah was a Jew of the dispersion. He was the cupbearer to the king of Persia, Artaxerxses. Therefore Nehemiah lived in Shushan the palace. He had a very prestigious position. We read in Nehemiah 1:2 that Hanani, one of his brothers (perhaps Nehemiah’s physical brother), came with certain men of Judah. Nehemiah asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, what was left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. The answer given was most distressing. We read, “And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity [and he is referring there to the captivity of the people of God—that group who had returned to Jerusalem] there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire” (v. 3). The report was that great shame hung over the people of God—poverty, oppression, lack of unity, and a failure to put things in proper order. The walls were not rebuilt. The doors and the gates of the walls were not hung. Everything was strewn about in rubble, and Jerusalem was a picture of reproach and devastation.
All of this had had its effect upon the soul of the people of God. And the report of it now had a most powerful effect also upon Nehemiah. We read, “And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven” (v. 4).
Now picture that. The picture is not this: a question is asked, “Well, how are things back in the old country where we grew up? How are things back there in the church?” And the answer: “Oh, not good at all. No preaching. No Sabbath observance. Toleration of all types of ungodliness. Things are in a spiritual shambles.” And then the response was not this: “Oh, too bad. Oh, well. Back to my life. I have a meeting at 2:00 on the schedule of the royal calendar for the year. Then, at 3:30 there’s going to be a garden party in the royal gardens. Then, tonight, my friends and I are having dinner on the Tigris River near the hanging gardens.” That was not Nehemiah’s response. Nor was Nehemiah’s response, when he heard the devastating news of God’s church, that he pulled up the robes of self-righteousness and said, “Oh, those moral lepers! I’ll get on the phone and I’ll talk forty minutes with my friend about the liberalism in the church.” No, that was not the response.
The response was that the man was shattered. He wept. He fasted. He prayed. The love of his heart, the hope of his life, was in great need. If you do not love the church, if you do not love the people of God, and then you hear distressing news about the church, well, you will either shrug your shoulders and go back to your life, or you will arise up and say, “Shame on them!”
Let us pause. Nehemiah was not asking for news as a disinterested spectator. He was not looking for something to gossip about over the coffee table. Deep veins of love for God’s church and people had been deposited in his heart by grace.
Why was that news so devastating to Nehemiah, the news that Jerusalem was in shambles and the walls were not built? Was it that he was a patriot, a fifth-columnist in Persia? Was he a zealot for Judah’s national honor? The answer is, No. The answer is found in what the walls of Jerusalem represented and in what the distressed people in Jerusalem represented. The walls of Jerusalem are very significant. We read, for instance, in Psalm 48: “Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion…walk about Zion…tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces” (vv. 2, 12, 13). Or we read in Isaiah 26, “In that day shall this song be sung in the land of Judah; We have a strong city; salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks” (v. 1). The walls represented the safety of God’s people. The walls represented that which kept back the vicious hatred of those who sought their destruction. They represented her order. They revealed that all was in place, that inside these walls the people were organized as the saints of God upon the earth, that they were cared for. The walls represented the things of salvation, the things that God had unfolded to them, their spiritual defense. God’s people were the ones who were given the truths of God’s word.
Today those walls represent the establishment and the growth of the church of Jesus Christ. They represent the things of salvation. They represent those things that God has given to defend us from the inroads of sin and those things that God has given us to build up the church in the true and holy faith. They represent the truth of God’s Word, specifically the Reformed, biblical truth summed and confessed by faithful creeds. These are the stones, these are the walls of the church. They represent the marks of the church: the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of loving Christian discipline. They represent the communion of saints. They represent prayer and Bible study and church life. They represent well-ordered Christian families.
How are the walls of Zion today? Look about. The walls are broken down around God’s church in Zion.
There is the denial of Holy Scripture—denial of the inspiration by the theories of evolution taking over in the church. There is the abandoning of expository preaching. Instead of expository preaching from many a pulpit there is the “cheer-up and smile” message. There is the “happy-clappy” service. There is no longer a reverence for the living and the lovely God. There is minimal church attendance. There is the cancellation of Sunday evening services. There is the desire that religion be what suits me, and the desire to merge with this world.
What about us? Is there within you a spirit of apathy and detachment concerning the well-being of God’s glorious church? Do your children see that you are burdened in love for the cause of God on earth? Do you have commitment? Do you have compassion for the needy in the church? What is the motivating force of your life? Are the bricks of God’s truth being formed up as walls in your heart? Or are the truths of God like a brickyard after an explosion—everything scattered around? There is no structure in your mind. You do not care about the truths of God’s Word except, perhaps, occasionally to pick up a brick of God’s truth and fling it at someone.
Nehemiah was burdened. He was burdened because he wanted the walls of truth and godliness to be built up around God’s church. So it drove him to his knees.
In the rest of the first chapter we read of Nehemiah’s passionate prayer. There are things that stand out in this prayer. It was steeped in Scripture. Nehemiah drew from Moses and from Solomon and from David and from Daniel and from Ezra. He shows that his prayer is formed out of an intimate knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Oh, how applicable to today! Let us understand that prayer must not be rote repetition. The language and the attitude and the reverence of prayer must all flow from acquaintance with the Word of God.
Nehemiah’s prayer, if you would read it, will be found to be intense and sincere. Nehemiah was committed to prayer. He went on persistently for three months, praying to God concerning this need.
Let us look very briefly at a few elements of his prayer.
First of all, in his prayer Nehemiah looked up to God in dependence (vv. 5, 6). “I beseech thee, O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible [that is, majestic] God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments: Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant.” He is praying out of a new principle, the new principle of grace. He is humbled before God. To him God was and is great. He is the God of covenant mercy. And Nehemiah said, “I am utterly dependent upon Thee.”
Second, in his prayer Nehemiah not only looked up to God in dependence, but he also looked up to God in repentance (vv. 6, 7): “…and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.” He made no attempt at excuses. He made no clever attempt to distance himself. He did not say, “Well, Lord, you really know that others are responsible for the state of the affairs of the church. I wasn’t there. I can hardly be included. I’m not guilty.” No, he reviewed what had happened to his fathers and he understood that there was only one reason for it: sin. They had departed from the living God. And then he confessed: “I’m just the same. I’m their offspring. Of myself I am no different. I am the same apostate sinner who, by nature, goes a-whoring from God.” And he focused there upon their sin of omission. “We have dealt corruptly against Thee, we have not kept Thy commandments. It is not only in what we did that we have offended Thee, O God, but in what we failed to do. Here is our failure. It is our lack. It is what we have not done.”
Then his prayer looked back in gratitude to God, to encourage himself concerning the future. He said (v. 8), “Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, [and then he brings up God’s promise to a repentant people].”
Nehemiah then, when he heard the news of the walls of Jerusalem still in ruins and the spiritual shambles of the people of God, turned to God in a prayer of dependence, of repentance, and of gratitude to God who would be faithful to His promises.
This is very important for us today. Let us pause and consider some lessons that we can learn.
First of all, this lesson. Behold the direction of Nehemiah’s life. What was the motivating force? And what is the motivating force in your life? What are you really concerned about? What do you want to see prosper? You would not need to ask Nehemiah. It is very plain that the church of Jesus Christ held the center of his heart. God’s cause, God’s people, God’s honor, God’s Christ, the well-being of the cause of God on earth, and the well-being of those who confessed that cause—that was the center of this man’s life. Is it yours? Is it mine?
Nehemiah, remember, was the king’s cupbearer. That means that he had climbed the ladder of success. Cupbearer to a king? That was recognized dignity. He wore fancy clothes. He was next in rank to princes. He had influence in the court. In today’s terms, he had an office on the 92nd floor of the Standard Oil building. His name was on the door. He was a face and a force to be reckoned with. He had a social life that was the envy of many. He had friends in high places. He was a man of gifts and abilities. He was a man of force of character. He was driven around by a chauffeur.
But his heart was not set on those things. His life was not wrapped up in those things that men count dear and important. His love was directed elsewhere. It was upon the things of God and of His Christ. It was upon the things of the church and His people. It was toward those things that his heart and his life moved. This is what mattered to him. Did Zion prosper? Were the walls going up? Did the people of God live in unity, truth, and holiness? In a day of woe, you could not cheer Nehemiah up if you brought him the latest court gossip or the stock prices or told him that the oil futures had doubled. This would not be his encouragement. But you would have to speak to him about the church and the affairs of the church.
So, the question is: What is the direction of your life? What counts for you? Home, finance, business, things, pleasure, self? Or the house of God? Do you involve yourself in the church? Do you shoulder your responsibility? Do you value membership in a Bible-believing, true church? Do you use your talents to build up the walls of faith and truth? Or are earthly ambitions, wealth, and fame the motivating force of your heart? Or is it the things of Jesus Christ that move you?
Young people, let me ask you: Where are you headed? To what have you made your commitment, the commitment of your heart? Towards yourself, pleasure, things, drink, sex? Toward finding men and women of the world who are exciting? Are you afraid of being considered narrow-minded as a follower of Jesus Christ? Do you hang on by a thread to the church? Throw in your heart to the only cause that is glorious, the only cause that matters—the cause of God’s church and truth on the earth.
Then the second lesson is this. Behold this man’s natural identity with God’s people. Nehemiah thought corporately. Or you can put it this way: Nehemiah thought covenantally. He did not think independently. This is the vital lesson that is needed today concerning the church of Jesus Christ. We must not think independently. Nehemiah said, “Both I and my fathers have sinned. Hear the prayer of thy servants.”
We must not think this way, “Well, what are those guys in the church doing over there? What are those guys doing as elders and deacons? What are the other people doing? What did the church do for me lately? The problem is this and this. Well, if those problems weren’t there, then I would be a part of it.” Nehemiah did not think that way. He knew the covenant union of God’s people. When he heard about the church, he thought this way: “I’m part of the body of Jesus Christ. When the body suffers, I suffer. When the body rejoices, I rejoice.” We live in a world of individualism: Me, me! But that is not the way it must be in the church of Jesus Christ. It is not Me. It is not My! But it is We and it is Our. Those guys, those elders, those deacons, those other people in the church are Us. We must be united as the body of the Lord in the truth.
Finally, behold the God in whom Nehemiah believed. Nehemiah’s God, as you read the first chapter of Nehemiah, was not a “wanna-be” God—that is, if only you will let Him be God. Nehemiah’s God was the great and the universal sovereign, the God of heaven. Nehemiah’s God was totally reliable. He kept covenant and mercy. Nehemiah’s God was unutterably holy. He had no fellowship with sin. Nehemiah’s God was compassionate and merciful to bring His people back even though they did not deserve it. Nehemiah’s God was glorious in power. He had a strong hand to accomplish His will. Nehemiah’s God was intimately near to him. Nehemiah stood in the presence of God. There is the secret of the man! There is the secret of Nehemiah. It is really no secret. It is found in his God. Nehemiah loved and lived for the living God. And because he loved and lived for the living God, the cause of God lay claim to his being and to his soul and to his heart. He sought the things of God’s kingdom.
Is that what lays claim to your heart?
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word. Bless us as we begin this series of studies on the book of Nehemiah. May it be a great blessing to us. In Jesus’ name do we pray, Amen.