When the main character starts the story in tears and depression, you typically know you are not reading a comedy. And Nehemiah is not one for sure. Today’s reading (Nehemiah 2) starts with Nehemiah despondent, having been in tears the chapter before when he learned the news that Jerusalem’s wall and gates had been destroyed and the remnant of Jews who had survived the exile were in disgrace. Approximately 150 years prior to Nehemiah, King Nebuchadnezzar had violently charged through Jerusalem destroying the city, its walls, and countless Jewish lives, leaving it the heap of rubble and ruin Jeremiah had warned Judah about. Those still there were in affliction.
Sometimes we can mask our pain and sorrow. Sometimes we blast it on social media. And sometimes it is just too raw to hide from those closest to us. In this case, Nehemiah was at work and he was not himself. Many of us have had those days. He was working as cupbearer to the king which was the interesting career of being an entrusted, royal official charged with serving the wine, protecting it from those wanting to poison the king, at times tasting it first to ensure it was safe. And in this story, the king, who was close enough to him to recognize a broken spirit, asked what was wrong. Nehemiah explained,
“May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (Nehemiah 2:3)
And then the king asks what he wants of him. All in all, it seems like the king was acting like a pretty good boss on this occasion. I’ve had the privilege of working for some wonderful bosses over the years, and it is so nice when they do recognize when things aren’t okay, listen to you, and ask how to help. Same with teachers, family, and friends. I was struck with Nehemiah’s response being a little different than I had remembered though. For some reason what had stuck with me from different sermons and lessons on Nehemiah over the years was how Nehemiah had been willing to ask for specific things, and how he was bold yet humble, and how he rebuilt walls. All of those things are true and noteworthy in Nehemiah. But, what I forgot were the incredibly important few little words tucked away at the end of verse 4.
The king said to me, “What is it you want?”
Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king,
I personally don’t think it matters as much what Nehemiah said after that or how he said it, but rather what he did prior to making the request. He prayed to the God of heaven. Before expressing his own highly emotionally-charged thoughts on the subject, he prayed to God. And in the chapter prior, when he learned of the state of Jerusalem, he wept and prayed to God. Nehemiah is remembered for rebuilding walls, and our chapter today is the start of his journey to rebuild and restore. But, Nehemiah knows it wasn’t possible because he put on the just-right-amount-of-depression-and-attention-seeking face and earned the king’s sympathy, nor was it because he was very concrete in his request and willing to ask for just what he wanted. Nehemiah gets it.
“And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests” (v.8).
How different the world could be if we each prayerfully considered our words, our requests, and our actions. If we trusted God most and sought God first. If we went to God with our concerns and problems before others, prayed before answering others, and lived a life consistently casting our cares on Him rather than casting judgment or personal opinions so flippantly.
Nehemiah was a rebuilder, a cupbearer, and he did ask for something specific in a humble way. But, let’s also remember that he was a man of prayer. As was our Messiah.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Can you think of a time (or two) when you didn’t stop to think – and more importantly – pray before speaking and your words caused problems or weren’t received as you had hoped. How could pausing a quick moment to pray have changed what you said, how you said it or the response you received? How can you remember to pray next time?
- What do you generally do when you are in pain and sorrow? What helps? What does not?
- How can you be more aware of those around you who are hurting? What do you have that you can share with those in pain and sorrow (both material -a cup of coffee and a spot on my couch – and spiritual encouragement and support)?
- Would others know you to be a person of prayer? Does God consider you a person of prayer like Nehemiah? Any changes you want to make? How?