In Nehemiah we’re introduced to this eminent person, the problem he becomes aware of, then we listen in on the prayer he prays before he acts using the position he’s in.
The book is mostly Nehemiah’s autobiography and reads like his journal. That’s one thing I’m resolving to start doing again this year, as it begins. I’m going to write a little journal entry every day. I’ve tried it on and off over the years, but it’s a discipline I easily fall out of. If I can do it every day in January, I’ll have gotten into it as a very positive new habit that all evidence suggests is good for your mental health, as well as your spiritual life. I am going to start writing out some praises, problems, prophecies, processes, and prayers this year. Like Nehemiah did.
(Read Nehemiah 1:1)
Context of Nehemiah
This story begins in 445 BC, in the winter palace of King Artaxerxes, ruler of the vast Persian empire. Nehemiah is a man of integrity in the Persian government though he’s Jewish by background. Nehemiah’s people having long been in exile and scattered since they were invaded and conquered by Babylon decades before and reduced the Temple that Solomon had built to rubble. Eventually God punished the Babylonian Empire for what they did, allowing the Persian Empire to defeat them in turn.
The Persians were much more liberal in how they treated nations after their conquest, so long as they didn’t rebel. God moved the previous king’s heart to let 50,000 Jews travel back to Jerusalem, with a priest called Ezra, and he provided everything they needed to rebuild the Second Temple, on the same spot and with the same dimensions but in many ways quite different—which often happens in a rebuild. The main difference the Rabbis say is that the Holy Spirit and Shekinah glory never filled that new temple, it was an empty space waiting for Messiah to come. Work started in 515 BC and it was there right through to Jesus’ time, until it was also destroyed just as he prophesied.
But for Nehemiah and all the children of Israel wherever they were scattered, the Temple and Jerusalem were their hearts true home, because that was where they had their roots not only in history and identity but in worship of the one true God. The city of David, the city of God. But Nehemiah has a good life in Persia in the palace where he’s powerful, prosperous, and protected. He lived in success, security, and was all about safety.
In verse 11 he tells us his job was “cupbearer to the king,” and that did not mean he was a butler! He was a key adviser trusted with access to the most powerful man in the world as Home Secretary, Chief of Staff, or head of security, because the only way you got rid of someone in power those days was not by voting them out, but killing them off.
This particular king’s father (Esther’s husband, if you’re interested) and his older brother Darius had both been murdered. It was a risky job to be king, and Nehemiah was trusted to test whatever the king ate by sampling it first, you never got a second chance with that, so Nehemiah had to trace through the supply chain of everything in the palace, protecting against perils, poison, and plots, both foreign and domestic. His whole life motto would be “stay safe.”Until …
Something happens that day, when news reaches him that disturbs him, though really it need not affect him. News about what life is like for other people, back in the homeland.
(Read Nehemiah 1:2-3)
We don’t know if this was his real brother, the word used here means “relative.” But rather than walk back to his comfortable office, he asked more questions. He didn’t just let it wash over him, like so often I do.
George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.” Nehemiah was not indifferent, he knew he had to make a difference. It started when rather than walking on, he leaned in. Rather than walk away he listened. Rather than get busy with something else to distract him he learned more—until he found out all the detail on news that broke his heart, the situation, the call to stand up and be counted that changed his whole life.
This was the need he could not ignore, even though this problem was seven hundred miles away. Rather than ignore that (and them), he let it get up close and personal. This decision was life changing. God took him out of his very comfortable zone. Because in career terms, remember Nehemiah had made it.
The British Museum has an exhibition about the wealth of Persia based on archaeological finds. Let me quote from that:
A vast and powerful empire, it stretched from the Mediterranean to the River Indus. Breathtaking cities. [P]alace entrances guarded by life-sized statues of animals. Walls and carpets decorated with friezes in floral and geometric designs. The palaces contained huge quantities of valuable ornaments, decorations and luxurious furniture. Vaults packed full of gold and silver, ivory and gems.
You get the picture? He’s living in luxury, and as long as he keeps his head down and does his job right, keeps the king happy and above all safe, he gets everything he wants and has everything going for him. At any point in his life he could have rejoined his people, the Jews, back in their homeland of Jerusalem, but instead he had worked his way to the top in the royal court.
Because through asking that question, God was going to challenge him, to change him. To take him from comfort to courage. From courage to construction of those broken walls and because of that construction there would be much conflict. But that was how he would make his life’s greatest contribution.
God takes us too from a life of security, for ourselves, to lives of significance for God and others, forever! Every year at Ivy church I spend some time seeking God for a word to guide us, something prophetic that can hold us as well as mold our futures together as a community and church family. It was months ago that I knew I was meant to take us through the life and times of Nehemiah as a church at the start of the year. But it’s only been more recently that I’ve felt that after all that’s gone on here and the changes in the nation and the signs of what could or will happen going forward, whatever you may have gone through or God will lead us to, this is going to be our year of Rebuilding.
The dictionary defines it this way: re:building = “to make, restore, construct, to build or form again.” That was the call on Nehemiah’s life and I believe it’s the call for everyone.
Nehemiah was shaken from the report he heard as he confronted a reality, he could not ignore. Now we hear news all the time, and then something else comes on the news cycle so we are permanently distracted enough to be absolutely useless feeling powerless to make a change ourselves. But this got Nehemiah. What is it that gets you? We get so distracted by so many things.
When I heard Tim Nelson, from Hope For Justice, speak about the plight of trafficked people at a men’s breakfast, I could no longer ignore my own complicity in that evil trade by my buying choices and something broke again inside me to want to help see something done. I’m praying now what that might look like.
I know many of our young people put us to shame with their passion for the environment. Why? Because it gets them!
Even more than being aware of and reading the news, we need to read this Book to get the truth. The more I read Scripture and compare it with the news the more things “get me”!
Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself.” When I read about how God says we’re to treat refugees and strangers, and compare it with what we do it gets me. And I want it to get me more.
In Matthew 25:25-36, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”When I read here about how much God loves the poor and that Jesus will judge us chiefly on how we treat people who are homeless or imprisoned, not how loud we sing in church, it gets me. I want it to get me to change.
What is life like here in Britain for the poor? With Universal Credit cut, falling benefits, and rising cost of living? I need that to get me, before God gets to use me. For so many people in our nation, the walls are down and the gates are burned with fire. What can I do? God only gets to use people who let something get them like it gets him.
Remnant, Reproach, and Ruins
I’ll sum up the problem in a three-word headline. There were raiding parties all around the city that kept coming and causing trouble and stealing whatever gains the people had managed to eke out to survive so that meant there was a remnant, suffering reproach, living in the ruins of the former glory.
A small remnant of people are left, grieving survivors who had escaped, though many had been lost. They feel all alone. There’s no comfort that the Temple is there, and that calls to mind for me a picture of the institution of church becoming an empty religious shell in our land. Churches are becoming monuments to past days of glory when its influence was real, vital, and prophetic; not conditional, traditional, and pathetic.
As a result, God’s people were reproached by the neighbors who mocked and gloated, “Oh you thought God would look after you did you? Doesn’t look like it does it? If this is how God treats his friends, I’d hate to see his enemies!”
What got Nehemiah most, was that whenever they would try to start over, to have a life again, because the walls were now in ruins and even the gates that were meant to protect them had been burnt, it just kept happening over and over again.
I think it’s a good time for us to look at Nehemiah don’t you?
The church and nation are continually reeling from the pandemic. But nobody is immune from the tears, tragedies, and troubles arising. Doesn’t it seem like every time we feel like we can breathe, hope, or dream again, some other trauma comes marauding through?
So let’s look at what Nehemiah did and how Nehemiah acted as a leader during these tumultuous times. Instead of jumping straight to the plans how to get on with the rebuilding, Nehemiah slows down. There’s wisdom in that. I once heard someone say, “Don’t just do something – sit there!” Sit there and think and pray. That’s what Nehemiah did when he heard the bad news.
(Read Nehemiah 1:4-10)
Slow Down – Fast, Pray, Lament
We can work out those “days” to refer to the months from December to April. Four months of weeping, praying, and lots of fasting. As we start a new year, I want to ask and invite us to do that too. Not necessarily for four months. But I want to fast and pray more this week, at the start of the year to lament.
That’s an important part of being a God worshipper. Two out of three of the Psalms are laments, someone wrote down what was going on and how it “got them.” They name the pain before God. Expressing hurts, heartbreaks, and feelings of hopelessness.
God is big enough to cry on and that’s lament. It’s how he brings beauty out of ashes. Because God will wreck you, for what he wants to use you to rebuild. God will give you what gets him because he wants to get you to be an answer, and that only comes when you’ve stopped and considered the question.
Nehemiah was torn on the insides by the story of what was, but he was also stirred to action. His own prayer reminded himself that God is great and awesome no matter what and replaying back to God his own promises and plan to rescue, restore, and to rebuild.
Will you let your heart be broken for what breaks God’s heart? What walls are down? Who will help? Who will rebuild?
What you feel in those moments is him wanting to share his heart for where the hurting is with you, so that he can use you to be part of his healing there too. That compassion Jesus felt when he looked at the city and he saw the people “like sheep without a shepherd” and he wept over them. Let’s not get distracted again.
Whatever you think of resolutions, will you resolve now to take some time, today, this week, before another year gets too busy to again. Fast. It’s very powerful to fuel our prayers.
Lament what’s been ruined. The plans, hopes, dreams of yesterday. Lament the losses. Lament the loneliness. Lament how people near and far are feeling fearful, suffering poverty or want. Lament the confusion that comes when we don’t understand either what’s happening or why God allowed what he allowed and we don’t have answers for ourselves let alone anyone else who might want to reproach us to somehow make themselves feel better.
Nehemiah fasted and wept, lamented and prayed, and wrote out his prayer and you can see an example of what he prayed there for himself and on behalf of his people and nation.
But the chapter doesn’t finish there. The last verse says, “And I was cupbearer to the king.” Why does he say that? Because he’s making a resolution. Not the kind of resolutions I so often make that are often self-centered. Like “I’m going to go to the gym” or “I’m going to eat or drink less.”
Nehemiah resolves to do something, about what God wants to see resolved. He’s not a builder, but he’s resolved to rebuild the broken walls. He’s not a carpenter, but he’s resolved to get those gates back in place. He’s not going to let what he doesn’t know stop him from doing what he knows he’s got to do.
He prays so long because he can’t do any of it alone and he’s got a lot to learn, he’ll have to become a surveyor, an architect, and a project manager. He will also have to become a manager and a politician and a general. But for now, he's cupbearer to the king, and he’s going to use that. He offers who he is back to God saying “If you can use anyone, use me!”
Then he’ll get started, because we can never start anywhere other than where we are right now. There’s no point wasting our time and lives and opportunity wishing we were somebody else or somewhere else doing something else, thinking If I was there, doing that, then I’d serve God and do something for him.
Start now. Start today. Start praying and fasting and if you weep, take it all to God. Then get ready to wipe your face when you hear God say, “Okay, stand up, you’ve seen the problem, you’ve shared my heart for it, you have prayed that I will do something, Now I’ve been preparing YOU because I AM going to do something about it and I want to use you!”
As our year of Rebuilding begins , it starts with God’s challenge for us all to pray a dangerous prayer, a prayer I guarantee God will answer: Use me!
If we say it sincerely, because as he looks at the world right now there’s a lot of rubble, ruin, and wrecked lives and he wants us to use us to rebuild.
The rebuilding starts in us when we return to him.
I was talking to my wife, Zoe, about this passage and she said to me, “We’re all cupbearers to the King aren’t we?” Wow. Whatever we do, we get to offer it to him. Taking Communion together when we gather is a great way of remembering that when we eat the bread and share the cup, it’s not just us, but we do it all for the King of kings.
When we take Communion, we are saying, “I’m giving all of me back to you Lord! Everything for you. Whatever you have given me I want to give it all back to you gratefully in worship now.”
Will you pray a dangerous prayer today with me? For this new year. It’s not complicated, you don’t have to write it out. Just two words. Two words that when we pray them change our lives because when they’re answered, God changes the world. What’s the prayer? “Use me.”
That’s how Nehemiah finished. He got started. He gets up off his knees, rolls up his sleeves, and says, “I’ll take whatever you’ve given me so far, and give it all back to you. I’m cupbearer to the king, but I serve the King of kings—So, Lord, use me.”
Anthony Delaney is a Leader at Ivy Church in Manchester. He is also the leader for New Thing and the LAUNCH conference. He is an author and hosts the television show “Transforming Life.”