It is the briefest prayer recorded on the pages of Holy Scripture, with the possible exception of the apostle Peter’s prayer while he was sinking through the waves of the Sea of Galilee and cried out, “Lord, save me!” The prayer to which I am referring lasted as long as the time between the question of an earthly king and the response of his subject, perhaps one or two seconds. The king never noticed it. He did not know the act of worship to the God of heaven that had just flashed before him. But God took notice of it.
The prayer might not have been spoken in words. There might not have been time for address, “Our Father, who art in heaven”; and there might not have been the word “Amen.” In fact, it might have been only a groan of the heart: “Lord, help me!” But it was a beautiful prayer. It was a powerful prayer. It was a complete prayer. It was prayer at its finest moment: in the words of the psalmist, “Lord, all my desire is before Thee. I lift up my eye to Thee.”
I am referring to the prayer of Nehemiah in chapter 2, recorded in verses 1-10, when the king of Persia said unto Nehemiah his cupbearer, “For what do you make a request?” And we read: “So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king….” The king asked a question. Nehemiah prayed, and said! A brief prayer in which all of Nehemiah’s desire went before the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Do you live in prayer that way? I am not asking if you have formal moments of prayer at the table. You should. You must. But do you have this type of prayer, while people are before you, while you are under great stress? Do you live in prayer without ceasing? No type of prayer is more important. This is living, this is walking in prayer. This is covenant fellowship with God.
We say, “Don’t rely on your own strength. Go to God!” What does that mean? Right here is the answer. It is in Nehemiah’s brief prayer. Between the question of a king and his response as a subject, Nehemiah prayed.
Nehemiah, we saw last week, was the man who is upon the pages of Scripture as our example of a believing commitment to the cause of God on earth, the cause of God’s church. Nehemiah was the king’s cupbearer in Persia. He received the distressing news that the walls of Jerusalem were still in shambles. In fact, the people were spiritually in shambles. Nehemiah comes upon the pages of Scripture in order that we might see a man who came to seek the welfare of the children of Israel, a man who will leave his position for a time as cupbearer to a king in order to journey to a ragtag, desolate group of people in Palestine and guide them in the building of the walls.
In the first chapter of Nehemiah we learned that Hanani, Nehemiah’s brother, came to Nehemiah to tell him of the distressing condition of the people of God who had returned from the Babylonian captivity, and of how the walls of Jerusalem had not yet been built. We saw there the great distress of Nehemiah, how he wept when he heard that and how he prayed to God a prayer of intense confession and supplication.
Now, in chapter 2 of Nehemiah, we see that a period of time (three to four months) has elapsed, during which time Nehemiah had continued his prayer. It becomes plain that during that time Nehemiah begins to plan to go to Jerusalem in order to give his hand to the rebuilding of the walls. Yet, for 90-120 days he remains in his task before the king, Artaxerxses. He waits to bring his request to the king.
We might ask, “Why did he wait? Why didn’t he say immediately to the king, ‘I have to go to Palestine. I must go to Jerusalem and see that these walls are built. This is upon my heart'”? He waited. Why? Perhaps he sought a proper occasion that did not immediately present itself. We should remember that one could not simply barge in on a king and blurt out a request. God had placed Nehemiah under authority, and he had a calling to exercise prudence before this king.
But Nehemiah is waiting especially upon the Lord, to give him the opportunity to bring his request to the king. This is very instructive. This is very striking. A word about the call to wait. That is always a part of the Lord’s call, you know, to wait upon the Lord. Waiting is not wasted time for the child of God. It is necessary time. It is crucial time. Nehemiah needed to spend time in prayer, to be strengthened, to be weaned from his own impetuousness, and to be taught dependence. That is how God will lead you. Perhaps there is something upon your heart. You want to rush in. God says, “Slow down. Wait upon Me. Learn to wait upon Me.”
The opportunity was brought by God to Nehemiah. It came this way. We read in chapter 2, verse 1 that he was performing his duties of pouring out wine before the king of Persia. Evidently the queen also was sitting beside the king. Nehemiah was attempting to perform his labors as a cupbearer to the great king and queen in as unobtrusive a way as possible—to act as if he was not even there. That was a good cupbearer. He was not even noticed. But the king began to notice that Nehemiah was very sad. We read, “Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart.”
Nehemiah, though he went about his duties, nevertheless could not hide the burden of his soul. He could not endure that God’s city—the city of God, Zion, the cause of God—was a ruinous heap. This cause had not been off his mind for four months. Jerusalem was painted on his spiritual eyeballs. We read in verse 1 that Nehemiah acknowledges, too, that when the king asked him the question about the sorrow of his heart, he was sore afraid. Literally, a terrible fear came over him.
Why was that? The answer was not that Nehemiah was a man who was prone to be scared easily. We will be seeing that the very opposite is the case. But more to the point would be this, that it is the normal spiritual reaction of a child of God who sees himself come to the place that he has prayed about, the place where he must now act and do, that fear comes upon him. Let me use this illustration. You have prayed to be parents. Now the baby that you prayed for is given to you and that little child is in your arms. Oh, what joy. But did it not make you tremble as the responsibility from God came upon you? Or you have been called to office in the church. You have been appointed to be an elder or deacon. When that finally falls upon you, there is the sense of responsibility. Did it not cause you to tremble in your heart? Or you have asked for an opportunity to witness, you have prayed that you might witness to this person, and now this person has given you the opportunity under the providence of God. He has asked you a question about your faith, about Jesus. Does not a certain fear fall upon you? So Nehemiah’s being afraid is understandable.
Nehemiah answered the king: “Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchers, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?” Because it so lived upon his heart, he was able to tell the king the reason for his sadness in straightforward terms. Nehemiah always used straightforward terms. “King, the cause and place that God has given me to love is a reproach. And because it is suffering, I suffer with it—because my heart is identified with the cause of God.”
The king interpreted Nehemiah’s response correctly as having something more behind it, something behind it that he was going to ask for—that Nehemiah had a remedy in mind. So the king said, “For what dost thou make request?”
Now the moment has come, the moment for which Nehemiah had been waiting. The opportunity has arisen for him to speak of what was the inmost desire of his heart, and we read, “So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king….” He does not mean that he absented himself to go into a closet, fold his hands, and spend five minutes with the Lord. Rather, it was a very short prayer. The king did not notice it. There was barely a pause. There was no hesitation in the answer that he gave to the king. The king asked the question, “For what do you ask?” So I prayed to the Lord and I said. In that one or two-second interval Nehemiah sought God’s presence for strength, for wisdom, for guidance to answer the king. In one flash of a second he brought his entire heart and all of his desires to God. He confessed eloquently his dependence upon God. He acknowledged wonderfully God as God alone, who must be worshiped. He laid praise upon the altar and he committed his entire way and word to the Lord. It was beautiful. It was prayer at its finest, I say. It was the fruit of the cross of Jesus Christ that has given us instant access into the grace wherein we stand.
Children, is prayer only when we fold our hands? Is prayer only when we bow our heads? Is prayer uttered only in sentences with subject, verb, and object, and periods? Prayer is seeking God. Through faith it translates our souls into the presence of God. Can I not deliver this radio message and at the same time pray? Can you not pray as you listen and not lose the train of thought of my message to you at this time? Can you not pray as your friend is speaking to you, as your wife asks you a question? Your wife asks you a question—you are about to get into a squabble. Can you not pray before you answer her? Can you not pray as the brother speaks? Can you not pray before you speak?
Nehemiah, of course, is not alone in this type of prayer. I referred at the beginning to Simon Peter as he sank into the waves on the Sea of Galilee. He prayed, “Lord, help me.” But also Daniel’s three friends stood before a king—the king of Babylon—a king who was not sympathetic to them, a king who was furious, a king who was threatening them. And we read that they answered this way, “The God before whom we stand is able to deliver us from the burning, fiery furnace.” Daniel’s three friends prayed all the way to the king, they prayed before the king, they prayed all the way to the furnace. And that does not mean that they asked to stop for a few moments to be alone in prayer. This is the spirit of prayer. Do you know this kind of prayer?
Nehemiah, of course, could have become flustered. Who would not be? His flesh would have his tongue tied. He might have begun to hem and haw: “Well, ah, well, king, you ask me about why I’m sad…and what I would like. Well, it’s like, uh….” No. He prayed and he said.
You can do that. You say to me, “Well, in my line of work I need to be sharp. The boss wants the answer right now. My mind’s got to be on the business. There are dollars involved.” You say to me, “Well, my teenager is walking out the door wearing what I told her yesterday she may not wear. I don’t have time for prayer at this point. I’m in a place of great stress. I need to say something right now. It’s no time for prayer!”
Beloved, I believe that those moments come and, yes, that you must say something to your daughter. You have to be responsible to your boss, yes. Your mind has got to be on the particulars at that very moment. You are under stress. Your mind has to be focused. You are placed in stressful situations. But you have not been placed in the stress of being a cupbearer to the king of Persia. So careful must be one’s words, one’s tone, one’s appearance before a king. Yet, here is a man who stood before the king of Persia and prayed to the God of heaven, and said…. That is prayer. You answer your boss. You look up from your desk as he walks in with the question. You look up and into the eyes of God in faith. And then you speak. Your daughter is on the way out of the house wearing those clothes. Yes, you say something…after you see God and say, “Lord, now help me.” That is prayer. Prayer is living in the presence of God.
As Nehemiah’s prayer was in an instant, so also God’s answer and the gift of grace to him were in an instant. We read in Isaiah 65:24, “And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.” There was sufficient grace given to Nehemiah, first of all, in that he was able to speak and to describe to the king the needs of Jerusalem and what he desired to do. Jesus has promised that the Holy Spirit will be given to you and you shall be able to say what is needed to be said. God gave Nehemiah the strength to do that. There were things that had been upon his heart. He had thought over how he would make his request many times. He had chosen the words. But when the moment came, it was God who supplied grace to speak. It was God who gave him to stand before the king for God’s sake and, without shame, speak of Zion’s need. “If it please the king,” we read, “and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchers, that I may build it.” I want to build the walls of Zion. I am one who is devoted to the cause of the living God on earth. My devotion is to Him and to His cause. In the words of the apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” It was sufficient grace to answer the king’s question.
The king went on. “For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return?” Nehemiah was prepared for the question. So, “If it please the king to send me, I will set him a time.”
It was sufficient grace to plan for what he needed to have (v. 7): “Moreover I said unto the king,…let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah.” He asked for written authorization of his mission—authorization from the king to grant him passage through the various checkpoints and border crossings of the kingdoms in order that he might come to Jerusalem. He planned the necessary resources. He made his list of building materials for the job. He estimated the time the project would take. He asked for the official documents authorizing his activities.
Why is all of that included here, do you think? Was not the emphasis to be made that he was not to do any thinking, just pray and then speak? No. All of those details Nehemiah had thought out. This teaches us that prayer produces in us responsibility and care and prudence. It was not (this is not a good phrase—Nehemiah was not one who would advocate the phrase I am about to say), Nehemiah did not ‘let-go and let-God.’ It was not, “Well, the Lord will provide, so throw away the spreadsheet.” No, it was all God’s work and Nehemiah knew it. So Nehemiah set himself to be a diligent and faithful servant. He knew that plans needed to be made. He knew that if God’s grace brought him to the point that the king was going to give permission, then he had to be ready to answer the specific questions the king would ask. How long? What kind of materials? Why are you going to do this? So Nehemiah lived in dependence and prayed to God, and he did his homework. He was ready. He was diligent. But he depended upon God.
Nehemiah, you see, had a profound conviction about God’s church and the cause of God. He believed that he must spend himself in that cause. He believed that everything in that cause was due to God’s arrangement. Those two things go together. He was careful in his planning. He was diligent in his responsibilities. But he knew his plans could accomplish nothing. Unless the Lord build the house, we read, they labor in vain that build it. Unless the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. It is God’s grace that brings good to the church. And we are to depend upon God. So, pray! The sufficiency is not of us, but of God.
Do you understand these things—as an elder? As a father and a husband? As a parent? All you who love the Lord, all you who would, by His grace, say, “I seek His honor to do His will. I desire His cause to prosper”—do you know that you are utterly dependent upon His sufficient grace?
Once again, there are some practical lessons for us to learn from all of this.
First of all, let us live in the spirit of prayer. If God’s eye is upon you every moment of every day, an eye of pity, compassion, love, and faithfulness, then ought not the eye of your heart be directed constantly to Him? Ought not little prayers, glances heavenward, become the blessed habit of your life? How much distress, lack of spiritual composure, loss of enjoyment of His all-sufficient presence, how much of that is not ours because, in moments of sorrow, trial, distress, and stress we look in and not out? We look down and not up. You may pray—always, anywhere. While we oppose all the irreverence, the flippancy, and the blasphemy that is being brought into the prayer life of Christians, the error of irreverence must not keep us from the right of prayer. The way is open to you. In the business of every day, and under the obligations of every day, and under the stress of every day, you may pray. You may go immediately in your thoughts to God. That is not irreverent. You may pray as you walk. You may pray as you drive. You may pray as you entertain your friends. You may pray as you visit. You may pray all the day. You may cast on Him those cares that come back to you time after time—those tears, those burdens, those questions. You may constantly be casting them upon the Lord. He will sustain you. Go to Him!
Second, let us trust the gracious providence of God. Nehemiah saw the good hand of God upon him. He saw it all the way. He saw that God was working. He saw what only faith could give him to see—the almighty hand of God controlling everything—not making him irresponsible, but giving him confidence and peace.
So, the king asked a question. And the subject prayed and said.
Let us pray that way, always. In a moment let our heart and our desire go to God. And let us live this way, that we may see the good hand of God upon us.
Let us pray.
Father, bless this message to our hearts. Apply it to the walk of life that we have. Forgive us of our sins. In Jesus’ name, Amen.