Nehemiah: Meet Nehemiah

Sermon by on July 20, 2008

Nehemiah 1:1-11a

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The Lord’s Day
Evening

July 20,
2008

Nehemiah 1:1-11

“Meet Nehemiah”

Dr. Derek W. H.
Thomas

Please be seated. Now after spending I think it was
nineteen weeks in the book of Ezra, we move now into the next book, the book of
Nehemiah. It’s only “the next book” in our English Bibles. In the Hebrew Bible
and in the version of the Scriptures that the Apostles largely read, a Greek
translation of the Old Testament, Ezra and Nehemiah were, in fact, one book.

And the story line of course continues, although we
jump forward (as I’ll explain in a moment or two) thirteen years. From the close
of Ezra 10 to the beginning of Nehemiah 1, we’ve gone ahead. We’ve seen in the
book of Ezra itself how on certain occasions we move forward a little, and now
we’re moving forward to the year 445 BC, still in the reign of King Artaxerxes,
who had been on the throne in the latter chapters of the book of Ezra and will
in fact remain on the throne for some time to come.

Before we read the chapter, and because it’s going to
be important in a few minutes, turn back just for a second to Ezra 4. I don’t
expect you to remember all the details of it now. We looked at it in some detail
at the time, but Ezra did one of those strange things where it suddenly leapt
forward in time and then came back in time. It’s quoting — and I won’t go into
all the details, but it was quoting from two letters, one from a previous king
named Xerxes, and one from King Artaxerxes who is the king now ruling in the
first chapter of Nehemiah. Both of these kings had written very similar letters,
and there was a somewhat strange reference in verse 23 of Ezra 4 which is going
to become clear, hopefully, tonight. We read in verse 23 of Ezra 4,

“Then, when the copy of King Artaxerxes’ letter
was read….”

[Now it wasn’t read in the timeframe of Ezra 4; it’s
actually looking forward to something that happens a little later.]

“…When the copy of King Artaxerxes’
letter was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their associates, they
went in haste to the Jews at Jerusalem and by force and power made them cease.”

Made them cease from what? Made them cease, as the
context would make clear, the building of the walls of Jerusalem. Chapter 4 of
Ezra is largely concerned with the building of the temple in Jerusalem,
something that was completed in 516 BC, but this is an incident that took place
somewhere around 450, just a few years before what takes place in the first
chapter of Nehemiah. Something happens at the end of Ezra and before the
beginning of Nehemiah where the walls of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed in
the time of Nebuchadnezzar back in 587 BC. … they begin to rebuild the walls of
the city.

You can understand how King Artaxerxes might have
been a little nervous. It was one thing to build a temple; it was another thing
to build defensive walls of the city. Who were the Jews defending themselves
against? Well, the Persians, perhaps! And you can understand why Artaxerxes has
the building of the walls of Jerusalem stop. Well, that has taken place
somewhere in the gap between Ezra 10 and Nehemiah 1.

Now let’s turn to God’s word, and before we read the
first chapter of Nehemiah together, let’s look to God in prayer. Let’s pray.

Our Father in heaven, we once again are thankful
to You for the Scriptures. Thank You that it is a word that is able to make us
wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Grant Your
blessing now as we read the Scriptures. Illuminate our minds. Grant the light of
Your Spirit, that we might not only read, but understand that which we read, and
profit from it. And we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Now this is God’s holy and inerrant word:

“The words of Nehemiah the son of
Hacaliah.

“Now it happened in
the month of Chislev…”

[That’s somewhere between the middle of November and the
middle of December.]

“…It happened in the month of Chislev in
the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the capital, 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. 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.’

“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. And I said, ‘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, 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, confessing the sins of the people of Israel,
which we have sinned against You. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We
have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, the
statutes, and the rules that you commanded Your servant Moses. Remember the word
that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will
scatter you among the people, 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.’ They are Your servants and Your people, whom You have
redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand. 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.’

“Now I was cupbearer to the
king.”

Amen. May the Lord add His blessing to that reading of His
word.

Now Nehemiah appears here in the first chapter of the
book that goes by his name as a man at the top of his profession, but we know
nothing of how he got there. We don’t know where he was born, we don’t know
anything about his upbringing, we don’t know anything about his teenage years,
or how he came to be the cupbearer of King Artaxerxes. We’ve jumped ahead, as I
said, thirteen years from the close of Ezra to the beginning of the book of
Nehemiah. It’s the year 445 BC.

We’re in a place called Susa — “Susa the capital.”
Most of your translations are going to have little footnotes with an alternative
reading “the fortified city.” It wasn’t the capital of Babylon; it wasn’t the
capital of the empire, but it was the citadel. It was the winter residence of
the Persian kings. It is perhaps one of the most ancient cities in the world,
about 150 miles east of the Tigris River, about 250 miles west of Babylon. It’s
on the edge of the border of Iran, and it’s in Iran today. You can go there;
there have been some wonderful excavations done about the ancient city of Susa
in recent days. (I imagine you won’t be going to Iran in the next year or two
perhaps, but you can certainly look at pictures of this city.) It had been
captured by Cyrus just about the time when the first wave of exiles had come
back, and that’s almost now a hundred years in the past. It’s a huge city, 250
acres; and the citadel, the palace, was itself situated on some mountains
overlooking a river — a grand palace with 72 columns, upward of 70-80 feet in
height. It was a wonderful place in winter for the Persian kings like Artaxerxes
to winter in.

And Nehemiah is a cupbearer. It is a phenomenally
important job. The thing that Persian kings feared the most was poisoning. If
you wanted to depose a king or get rid of a king, one of the ways of doing it
was poison. So you’d hire — or you’d have someone that you trusted — and you’d
have to trust this man implicitly. You trusted this man with your life. Wherever
the king was, the cupbearer was. Whenever the king ate — and he ate several
times a day, the cupbearer was there. He drank wine, and the Persians have a
history of winemaking. Nehemiah was chosen as that person — the cupbearer. A Jew
— imagine that! One of the people that you conquered, you trust with your life.
It says something of great fascination for perhaps another time about how the
Jews took to exile. Later, 150 B. or so, there’s a revolt of the Jews against
Antiochus Epiphanes. Judas Maccabeus…you’ll know the music if you don’t remember
all the history…but Judas Maccabeus arose in revolt against something that
Antiochus Epiphanes had done to desecrate the temple — slaughtering pigs, among
other things, and offering them to Greek gods. And there was a revolt.

But there is no such revolt in the time of the
Persians. Nehemiah is a man of immense integrity. You can’t exaggerate the
trustworthiness of Nehemiah. The king trusted his life into the hands of
Nehemiah. He would drink…he would pour some of the wine into the cup of his hand
and he’d drink it. And they’d wait a few seconds, maybe a few minutes, to see
whether he dropped on the floor, and if he didn’t, the wine was fine. He was a
food taster. He was the wine taster. But it says to us an enormous amount about
Nehemiah’s character.

You want to ask all kinds of questions, as I do. And
those of us who love the Bible (and every Christian loves the Bible), we’re
inquisitive. We want to know as much as we can, and we’d love to ask questions:
How did he reach this position? Who are his parents? What were the influences on
this man’s life, because we also know that he’s a godly man and a prayerful man?

But the chapter really isn’t about that tonight. Some
of that is going to appear later. We’re going to see something of Nehemiah’s
character…strong character…temperamental character at times. We’re going to
have to deal with an incident later in Nehemiah when he pulls out the hair of a
certain individual, he’s so angry with him. But tonight we want to see Nehemiah
as a man of prayer…a man of prayer. This is one particular feature of Nehemiah —
and there are several features of Nehemiah, but there’s one feature of Nehemiah
that stands out and shines above the others. It’s this: he was a man of prayer.

I. The setting for prayer.

Let us see first of all the setting for prayer.
One of the brothers (verse 2) … “…One of my brothers…” a man named Hanani.
He may be a literal brother. Commentators vacillate. He may just be a brother in
the sense that he’s a fellow Jew, but he may also…because of something later in
chapter 7 where’s he’s referred to as “my brother,” many commentators believe
that it’s all too likely that this man actually was his brother. And he’s come
along with others from Jerusalem to Susa.

What does Nehemiah do? He’s never been in Jerusalem.
He’s never seen the city; he’s never seen the temple. He probably knew those who
had left under the time of Ezra, 13-14 years in the past. He would have known
those. He may have been too young to go with them at the time. It may not have
been possible because he was the cupbearer to the king even perhaps at that
time. Perhaps he’s been in this job since he was a teenager.

But what does he do when he meets his brother and his
fellow Jews who have come from Jerusalem? He seems to have asked them all kinds
of questions: How are they doing? How is so—and-so? But how is the Lord’s work
prospering? Tell me about “the church” in Jerusalem. Tell me about the people of
God. Tell me about the preaching of Ezra. Ezra was a noted preacher before he
went to Jerusalem; tell me about his preaching. What’s he preaching on? Is it
Numbers or Deuteronomy, or Exodus or Genesis? He’s preaching on the books of
Moses; how is the preaching being received? Are they taking notes? Are they
asking good questions? Are they growing? Are they thriving?

Christians should be like that. God’s people should
be like that. When you hear about a city, some city in Europe, some city on the
Adriatic coast, some city in North Africa, you ask about the church. You ask
about the people of God. You ask about the Lord’s work. It’s like William Carey,
when he was a cobbler and a part-time teacher, and he’d been reading Captain
Cook’s travel dialogues about far off exotic places, and he bought a map and put
it on the wall behind him. And on that map he’d write all kinds of statistics
and figures about the church, about the people of God, about those who needed to
hear the gospel. That’s the kind of man Nehemiah was.

And what has he heard? Bad news. Things are not going
well. The walls of the city are still razed to the ground. There’s evidence of
them having been burnt. It’s not a reference, I think, to Nebuchadnezzar in 587,
120-140 years in the past. There’d be no surprise on Nehemiah’s part if that’s
what he was saying. No, this is something that emerges from that fourth chapter
of Ezra. This is something that happened in between Ezra and Nehemiah. The work
had begun, but it’s stopped. Artaxerxes has stopped this work. And Nehemiah is
burdened. His heart is heavy. He’s concerned about the kingdom. He’s concerned
about the cause of God. He can do nothing about it. He’s the cupbearer — he
can’t take a week off. He can’t, say, put on Facebook and say ‘I’m going to be
away for a couple of weeks.’ The king ate every day, and every day Nehemiah
would be there doing the king’s bidding, looking the part, playing the role. So
what does he do?

II. The response of prayer.

And we see, secondly, the response of prayer.
We see it in verses 4ff. From the date in verse 1 to the date in the first verse
of chapter 2, which is the month of Nisan (which is mid-March to mid-April), it
could be as short as three months and it could be as long as five months. For
five months, he’s praying. We have the form in Scripture of the prayers. He
writes in his memoirs as he keeps his diary, and he reflects on what it was he’d
been praying over this extended period of time. He gives us a form, a certain
structure of the prayer.

Initially his response is to sit down. But, you
understand, there comes a time when you have to stand up and pray. He had to
pray when he was doing his work. He had to pray when he got up in the morning.
He had to pray when he was before the king. It was all that he could do, and yet
it was everything that he could do. It wasn’t “all that he could do” in the
sense of this was the last resort. It was the first thing that he did. It was
the instinct of his heart; it was the disposition of his redeemed nature to pour
out his soul to Almighty God.

You see several things here. You see his patience —
the patience of prayer, the stickability of prayer. For five months — between
three and five months — he’s praying. And in the prayer he’s saying “day and
night” (you see the reference in verse 6). Over and over and over, he’s praying.
He’s praying. Perhaps he’s beginning to think…maybe his brothers had said
something like “You would be a good man to come to Jerusalem.” [“I can’t come!
I’m the cupbearer, how could I possibly come? If I’m going to come, then
something extraordinary must happen. Circumstances must change. Artaxerxes must
die — something must happen. I must be released.”] He daren’t mention any of
that in the king’s presence, so he’s praying…not knowing, not understanding what
his role in the future would be. Whatever his desires may be, he has no idea at
this stage how God is going to use him, and if God is only going to use him as a
vehicle of prayer. But he continues praying, day and night for three months,
four months, perhaps five months.

God’s timetable is perfect. He’s never early and He’s
never late. When things happen, they happen right on schedule. God’s guidance is
not like air travel: planes are late; you think you’re going, you taxi, you sit
there in the airplane…you’re waiting to take off for a couple of hours. It’s
not like that. God’s timing is absolutely perfect. He’s never early and He’s
never late. And here is Nehemiah: he’s disciplined, patient in prayer.

Don’t give up. Don’t give up praying. That burden,
that soul that you’re praying for – don’t give up until God gives you a
revelation that you’re to give up. Don’t do it. And the only revelation that you
will ever have is when that person dies. Keep on praying. Don’t stop.

III. The structure of prayer.

But there’s a third thing I want us to see.
Not only the circumstances of this prayer, not only the response of prayer, but
the form or the structure of prayer.

Now we could park here for an hour. There are so many
connections between what Ligon was saying this morning in Psalm 95 in a
corporate setting and what Nehemiah is doing here in a personal setting. And
you might think that because in a corporate setting you have form and structure,
and the prayer has a certain shape to it, that when it comes to my personal
devotional life — all bets are off. And it’s not like that. Nehemiah’s prayer —
and maybe he didn’t pray exactly these words every single day, but over the long
term this was the general shape of his praying, and it has shape. It has form.
It has structure.

Now are you struggling with prayer? Hands up, those
who are not struggling with prayer! I could humble you in a second, just
talking about prayer. I can humble myself in second, in a heartbeat, just
talking about prayer.

What a blessing! What an extraordinary blessing that
God gives us in the Bible little models! Now there are 150 of them in the book
of Psalms, don’t ever forget that. But every now and then you’re given these
models, these templates of prayer. This is one of the great prayers of the
Bible. Are you struggling with prayer? Let me suggest you get a new card and you
write out — don’t use your laptop, don’t type this, write it out the old
fashioned way — and stick it in your Bible and use it for the next week, the
next two weeks, the next month as a kind of prompt, as a kind of guide, as a
kind of cheat-sheet for prayer. Look at the structure. Learn from the structure.

Ask, how is Nehemiah shaping this prayer? How does it
begin? With adoration:

“O Lord God of heaven.”

[That’s a favorite designation of Nehemiah’s, by the way.]

“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….”

It begins with God! How does the prayer end? With God:

“…With those who delight to fear Your name.”

What a beautiful and “un-twenty-first-century”
statement that is. What are the people of God like? They are those who delight
to fear God’s name. “Delight” and “fear” in the same sentence, in the same
phrase! I love that.

It’s all about God. When the disciples ask Jesus,
“Lord, teach us how to pray.” We’re struggling with prayer. Help us. How are we
supposed to pray? Now, He could have said, ‘Go and read Nehemiah 1.’ What did He
say?

“Pray like this. Our Father, who art in
heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it
is in heaven.”

That’s how you pray; you begin with God.

We’ve had a transformation in our prayer meeting over
the last couple of months. If you haven’t been to the prayer meeting in the last
couple of months, come and witness. There’s been some extraordinary praying. I’m
almost frightened to talk about it, lest the spirit go away, but God has been
good to us. We’ve had men and women praying absolutely beautiful prayers from
the heart with form and structure, and not just the “organ recital” (you know,
the kidneys and the heart and the liver); not just praying for people who are
sick, but worshiping God, extolling God, revering God, hallowing God’s name;
basking for a few minutes in the presence of Almighty God.

Then it moves to confession. It moves from
adoration to confession of sin. Verse 7: “We’ve acted very corruptly.”

And notice what Nehemiah does. It’s not just Israel
that have sinned, but he himself has sinned. There’s “Israel” and then there’s
“we” and then there’s “I.” He puts himself right with them. He takes collective
responsibility for the sins of God’s people. The reason why they’re in the mess
that they’re in now, the reason why there’s trouble in Jerusalem is because
they’ve sinned. And he’s confessing sin as Jesus taught His disciples:

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our
debtors.”

And there’s repentance. There’s talk here
about repentance, about just as sin is the cause of the trouble, so the way back
to blessing is to repent of that sin, to turn from that sin and to cleave unto
the Lord. There’s this open confession of sin.

But then, there’s a request, and the request
is summarized in verse 11: “Have mercy.”

“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.”

In the sight of Artaxerxes, who has stopped the
rebuilding work in Jerusalem. And Nehemiah understands, do you see, that he’s in
an extraordinary position of influence with the king. He’s with him every day.
And I’m not sure if Nehemiah fully understood how God was going to answer this,
because it’s breathtaking — and we’ll look at it next week. It’s a
heart-stopping moment when Nehemiah actually has to address the king, and his
life is probably in danger. ‘Have mercy. Have mercy. Remember Your word.
Remember Your promises to Your people.’ Do you notice how many times he says
they are “Your people”? ‘You have redeemed them by Your great power, by Your
strong hand. Do this for Your sake.’

You know, if this was a prayer the other side of John
the Baptist, it might say something like this: “Do this for Jesus’ sake. Do this
for the sake of what Jesus did for us on the cross. Do this for the sake of His
blood, for the sake of His honor, for the sake of His integrity.”

But all that is going to come, and now he’s waiting.

“I waited patiently for the Lord, and He
inclined unto me and heard my prayer.”

He’s waiting. Waiting in prayer, waiting before the
presence of God.

My dear friend, is that where you are tonight in your
own personal life? You are waiting before God in prayer with a burden on your
heart. Well, take courage from Nehemiah. What an extraordinary, encouraging
thing it is to see God having mercy, stepping in, remembering His word, coming
to the aid of His people, answering Nehemiah’s prayer. But be careful what you
pray for. Be careful what you pray for, because God was going to use Nehemiah to
answer the very prayer that he was praying.

Let’s look to God in prayer.

Father, we thank You as we just begin to scratch
the surface of this extraordinary, marvelous prayer of Nehemiah. Teach us in
these coming weeks and months to grow to be more like Nehemiah and to be more
like Jesus. Father, we ask that You’d hide Your word within our hearts for
Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand. Receive the Lord’s benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

[Congregational hymn:
O for a Closer Walk with God]

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