François Fénelon, a seventeenth century Roman Catholic Frenchman said this about prayer:
Tell God all that is in your heart, as one unloads one’s heart, its pleasures and its pains, to a dear friend. Tell Him your troubles, that He may comfort you; tell Him your joys, that He may sober them; tell Him your longings, that He may purify them; tell Him your dislikes, that He may help you to conquer them; talk to Him of your temptations, that He may shield you from them; show Him the wounds of your heart, that He may heal them; lay bare your indifference to good, your depraved taste for evil, your instability. Tell Him how self-love makes you unjust to others, how vanity tempts you to be insincere, how pride disguises you to yourself and others.
If you thus pour all your weaknesses, needs, troubles, there will be no lack of what to say. You will never exhaust the subject. It is continually being renewed. People who have no secrets from each other never want for subject of conversation. They do not weigh their words, for there is nothing to be held back; neither do they seek for something to say. They talk out of the abundance of the heart, without consideration they say just what they think. Blessed are they who attain to such familiar, unreserved intercourse with God.
I. THE PLIGHT OF THE NATION VV. 1-3
In our terms the date of this conversation, which set in motion the great events in the leadership of Nehemiah, was between mid November and mid-December, 446BC. Nehemiah approached the king as recorded in chapter 2 in the following March/April, 445. Both are reckoned here to fall within the twentieth year of the rule of king Artaxerxes, who reigned from 464 to 423BC.
Like most people in leadership position, Nehemiah continually faced impossible circumstances. You will remember that he was eight hundred miles from the concern of his heart: his people who lived in the midst of the destruction in Jerusalem. To live fifteen or twenty miles from where you work is one thing, but Nehemiah was faced with a sixteen-hundred-mile round trip!
To complicate matters, Nehemiah answered to an unbeliever—King Artaxerxes. Before Nehemiah could leave his post to go to Jerusalem to build the walls that lay in ruin, something had to be done in the heart of Artaxerxes. Nehemiah should be able to persuade him. The King’s heart must be changed but who and what could change his heart? When Nehemiah received the distressing news about the broken walls of Jerusalem and the vulnerability of his people, he did not rush into the king’s oval office and give him the mandate, “Three years’ leave of absence or I quit!” Instead, he went before God in prayer and trusted Him to open the doors and change the heart of his boss.
Nehemiah describes himself simply as the son of Hacaliah, a man whose name does not appear elsewhere in the pages of Scriptures. Nehemiah gave his occupation in verse 11 of the opening chapter: “I was the cupbearer to the king.” That is all that we know about Nehemiah’s earthly credentials. He was the cupbearer to the king, and he was the son of Hacaliah. The position of a cupbearer was an important one in those days. A king was discrete, used wisdom and discernment in appointing a cupbearer. The cupbearer was the food and wine taster. He had to taste the food and the wine before the king ate or drank. He was the screen between the public and the king. It was a position of intimacy and trust.
Nehemiah lived in Susa, the capital city of the Medo-Persian Empire—the Washington, D.C., of the day. The Jews recognized Susa as the capital city of the then known world. It was a center of activity, the place of ultimate decision-making; often late-breaking news of the empire came to King Artaxerxes’s attention through the mouth of the cupbearer. Nehemiah was the king’s right hand man.
In verse 2, Hanani, one of Nehemiah’s brothers and some men from Judah came. Note the rest of the verse: “and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped and had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem.” It has been said that a true Jew never completely forgets Jerusalem. This was certainly true of Nehemiah. He wanted to know about the people; he wanted to know the condition of the beloved city. Nehemiah puts many of us to shame. How many of us are concerned about our respective countries in Africa? How many of us care for our people back home? Some of you do not remit your poor parents and siblings back home. Some of you are living the American dream while your people back home are living in misery and poverty. Some of you do not even call home once a while to find out how your parents are doing. Nehemiah was living in a city of prosperity. Nevertheless, he did not forget his heritage. He did not forget where he came from. Some of you in time of affluence and opportunity soon forget the backdrop from which the Lord has brought you.
The people returning from Judah told Nehemiah: “The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.” The Hebrew word translated great distress means “misery and calamity.” This was bad news and shattering blow to Nehemiah. It was a shattering blow because the remnant that was trying to put the piece back together was open to hostile neighboring attacks and foreign invasion. The city wall and its gates were destroyed; therefore, there was no protection for residents of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was not only disarmed; it was also on its own. The men added, they were under reproach. The Hebrew word means, “sharp, cutting, penetrating, or piercing.” The idea is one of withstanding the worst of cutting words. The Jews were being criticized and slandered by people who were enemies of the faith. When Nehemiah heard the news, he was brokenhearted.
II. THE PRAYER OF NEHEMIAH VV. 4-11
Verses 4 through 11 contain the reaction of Nehemiah, and it is here that we begin to see his gift of leadership unfold. By nature, Nehemiah had a bent for swift and decisive action. Therefore, his behavior here is quite remarkable because he did not rush to action. Another remarkable thing about Nehemiah is that he was in a high-ranking position in the world, and yet he had a heart that was tender toward God. It is always a tough and rare combination to find a person who holds a high position in the sight of the world, who has a heart for God. Perhaps some of you are in a position of great importance. It is a vulnerable place to live. Each promotion further endangers your spiritual life; your position threatens your walk with God. It does not have to cripple your walk, but it can be, and often it is damaging. All through Scripture there are accounts of people who were promoted from one level to the next and suffered from “promotion erosion”—they slowly became lost in pride. Some of you earn substantial income in the corporate world and because of that pride can set in, and by the time you come back to yourself the bottom has fallen out.
Touched by the need of his people, Nehemiah “sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (v. 4). Four important things we need to learn from Nehemiah’s experience that should mark the life of a competent spiritual leader.
- A Leader Has a Clear Recognition of the Needs.
The beginning of verse 4 reads: “When I heard these words.” Nehemiah was not preoccupied; he did not live in a dream world, opposed to reality. He asked, “What is the condition?” They replied, “It is a miserable situation.” He heard what they said. He recognized there was a great need to be met back home in Israel. Are you concerned about the pressing needs of your people, your country? We are to have a clear recognition of the needs but we must also be cautious. A person can be so problem-oriented that problems are all he/she can think about—and that is not good either. You have to maintain a balance. Are you aware of needs? How about needs in your own family?
- A Leader Is Personally Concerned with the Need.
Nehemiah moved a step beyond recognition of the problem. He not only heard these matters, but he also sat down and identified with them.
Alan Redpath once wrote:
Let us learn this lesson from Nehemiah: you never lighten the load unless first you have felt the pressure in your own soul. You are never used of God to bring blessing until God has opened your eyes and made you see things as they are.
There is no better preparation for Christian service than that. Nehemiah was called to build the wall, but first he wept over the ruins. Men are desensitized from shedding tears today. People say, “Men do not cry.” Jesus was man’s man and yet He wept at the tomb of Lazarus; He wept over the city of Jerusalem. The apostle Paul shed tears when he ministered to the Ephesians (Acts 20:19). In his weeping, Nehemiah was saying, “The walls are down. Oh, God! How can these walls be down and these people continue in safety?” Nehemiah identified himself with the plight of his people. You all know the story of Eli who refused to recognize a specific family need. The story is recorded in 1 Samuel 3. God could not speak to Eli about the way his children were behaving, so he spoke to the boy Samuel and this is what God said: And the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which both ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. In that day I will carry out against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end” (1 Sam. 3:11-12). Why was God going to do this. Find God’s answer in verse 13.
Fathers, God has appointed us to one of the most difficult leadership positions in the entire world: to lead our home. We are to motivate, set pace, give guidance and encouragement, and handle discipline. Eli knew all these but he would not rebuke his sons when they disobeyed God. Maybe he thought that the leaders in the temple would straighten out the kids. It is tragic how many people leave the job of child rearing to the church, and therefore the church lives under the constant indictment, “The worst kids in the world are church kids.” The church gets the blame. However, it is not a church problem; it is a home problem. The church can seldom resurrect what the home has put to death.
See that in Nehemiah 1:4, Nehemiah was “fasting and praying.” What does it mean to fast? It means to miss a meal for one purpose: focusing on your walk with God. Some people fast one day a week. Some people fast a day a month. Some never fast. Fasting is mentioned frequently in Scripture. When your motive is right fasting can reap spiritual dividends that nothing else can. Give a suggestion on fasting and public appearance. Nehemiah was a man of prayer. The primary foundation for spiritual leadership is prayer.
- A Serious Leader Goes First to God with the Problem.
In verse 5, Nehemiah prayed. What is your first response when a need comes to your attention? Nehemiah took his need to God in prayer. Whatever problem you are going through would not be solved until you take it to God in prayer. Nehemiah began his prayer with praise as Jesus has taught us in the Model prayer (v. 5). Nehemiah’s prayer immediately mounts to heaven, where the perspective will be right, and it reflects on the character of God—first of all for His majesty which puts man, whether friend or foe, in his place. Nehemiah knew that he was not coming to just another man, but rather to the God of heaven. Nehemiah worked for the king. Was the king great and mighty on earth? He was mightiest then! But compared to God, King Artaxerxes was nothing. Therefore, it stands to reason that when you go to God in prayer put things into proper perspective. Whatever problem or burden you are bearing, take them to the throne of God. Time does not permit me to deal exhaustively with this passage. Therefore, I will highlight the gist of Nehemiah’s prayer. Nehemiah begins with praise and continues with confession, he claims God’s promise, and he concludes with his petition before God.
- A Leader Is Available to Meet the Need Himself.
“Make me successful. Grant me compassion in his eyes.” Nehemiah recognized the need clearly. He got involved in it. He took it to God. Now he was available to meet the need, if that was what God desired. Prayer that gets the job done include the conviction, “I am available, Lord—ready and willing.”
Benefits of Prayer
Prayer makes me wait. I cannot pray and work at the same time. I have to wait to act until I finish praying. Prayer forces me to leave the situation with God; it makes me wait.
Prayer clears my vision. When you first face a situation, is it foggy? Prayer will cut through the fog. Your vision will clear so you can see through God’s eyes.
Prayer quiets the heart. I cannot worry and pray at the same time. I am doing one or the other. Prayer makes me quiet. It replaces anxiety with a quiet spirit. Kneels do not knock when we kneel with them.
Prayer activates faith. After praying, I am more prone to trust God.