That they prayed is recorded. What they prayed is not. Watching them work with tools and weapons in hand, leads us to an obvious conclusion.
Unrelentingly, the enemy is furiously plotting against God’s people. Their goal is to fight against, and throw Jerusalem into confusion (Nehemiah 4.8). Under Nehemiah’s leadership “we prayed and stationed a guard because of them day and night” (4.9). Enemies don’t relent at our convenience.
Despite the prayers and preparation, morale is not uniformly high. What can be and will be, is never as visually influential as what is. Walking by sight and not faith is easier. In Judah they say: “The strength of the laborer fails, since there is so much rubble. We will never be able to rebuild the wall” (4.10). Confusion over the goal’s attainability can be emotionally debilitating. The enemies say, “They won’t know or see anything until we’re among them and can kill them and stop the work” (4.11). Impending fear can be psychologically devastating. More than just a campaign of words and emotions, the Jews nearby show the present reality of fear, “Everywhere you turn, they attack us.”
Waging a campaign of words himself – but not just words – Nehemiah restores morale. Nehemiah responds with more protection and encouragement: “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the great and awe-inspiring Lord, and fight for your countrymen, your sons and daughters, your wives and homes” (4.14). Recalling the reasons we fight to survive can be uplifting and inspiring.
Read Nehemiah 4:15-23. It is one of the most thorough examples of reliance on God and one another. Notice how their energy is restored because they knew and their enemies knew “God had frustrated” their enemies’ scheme (4.15). When God is on our side, anything can be accomplished. That thought permeates Genesis through Revelation. Under God and with Nehemiah, all work with either one hand holding tools while wearing weapons; or wielding and watching by standing guard for one another. Spiritually speaking, we should follow suit and be prepared for all, never resting from the relentlessness of Satan’s schemes. God, leadership, prayer, tools, weapons, brotherhood and perseverance all will lead to success for God’s people. Today, when doing God’s work we use weapons of righteousness.
Although unstated, obviously these wall builders prayed for protection and perseverance. Against our enemy Satan, that must be our prayer too. Even if others don’t hear us, can they tell what is in our heart and on our lips to our God? Do our actions declare our prayers? Are our prayers in line with our goals? Neither protection nor perseverance is possible with prayer.
Prayer Challenge: Along with “pray without ceasing” add “work without ceasing.”
Not everyone wants others to succeed. Some wish and work for the failure of others for no good reason, maybe even for no reason at all. They are unreasonable in their reasoning. Sadly, they look at the achievement of others as indicative of their own personal failures. Evilly, they are envious of accomplishment. What should we do when others desire our failure? Pray for their failure.
Did that answer startle you? Admittedly it does me. Is such against the code of the Christian? Nehemiah and God’s remnant are rebuilding the wall (4.1). Such a work is the plan of the King of All, and the command of the Persian king, Artaxerxes. When Sanballat the Horonite, one of the inhabitants of the land, hears about this, “he became furious” (4.1). Cruelly, he mocks the Jews before his colleagues and the powerful Samaritans: “What are these pathetic Jews doing? Can they restore it by themselves? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they ever finish it? Can they bring these burnt stones back to life from the mounds of rubble?” (4.2). Tobiah the Ammonite, who is beside him, joins in sarcastically: “Indeed, even if a fox climbed up what they are building, he would break down their stone wall!” (4.3). It is easier to mob hate in a crowd of haters.
Nehemiah discovers this and prays: (4) Listen, our God, for we are despised. Make their insults return on their own heads and let them be taken as plunder to a land of captivity. (5) Do not cover their guilt or let their sin be erased from Your sight, because they have provoked the builders (4.4-5). Nehemiah has not done anything to provoke these haters; and will not act out against them in hatred. Nehemiah goes to God for God to mete out the justice. Nehemiah is wishing on them what God did to the nation of Judah. The result for Judah is national repentance.
Ever pray like Nehemiah, for God not to forgive? Let’s ask some important questions: Whose people are they despising? God’s. Whose people are they insulting? God’s. Whose people are they calling incompetent? God’s. Whose people are they wishing to fail? God’s. These enemies of the Jews are more importantly enemies of God.
While there are times to pray, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing;” Jesus prays this after His enemies crucify Him, unknowingly according to God’s plan. A difference is this; in Nehemiah, God’s plan is still being worked by His people. While we might think it better to pray that the enemies repent; in their unrepentant state the prayer is that their craving for God’s failure will fail. Nehemiah is asking for God to remove the stumbling blocks (Mk.9.42). Just as the enemies were enemies of God when against God’s people; praying for the failure of those wishing our failure is praying for Satan to fail. That is very Christ-like. Who knows, it might even lead to their repentance.
Prayer Challenge: When others wish our failure when doing God’s work, they are wishing for God’s failure. Pray for their failure and eventual repentance.
“Help!” Ever pray that concisely and clearly? A good friend said many of his prayers are just that – a one word exclamation begging for divine intervention.
Most likely Nehemiah has been praying for 4 months before being questioned by the king (1.1; 2.1). Most likely part of his praying is pleading for an opportune time. Privately he is praying, but publically he has never been sad in the king’s presence (2.1). His job description as cupbearer does not include sharing his personal feelings with the king.
Imagine the weariness of having to fake and pretend for all to see – so as to not see – not being burdened. Many have no need to imagine; we have lived or are living this. Then one day, the protected, hidden burden leaks from our soul onto our face, shoulders, and gait. Something is wrong, and now anyone who cares can see.
When King Artaxerxes asks, “Why are you sad, when you aren’t sick? This is nothing but depression,” Nehemiah is “overwhelmed with fear” (2.2). Persian kings were autocratic (Esther 4.11). Coming into their presence and ruining their good mood could be lethal! Nehemiah explains, “May the king live forever! Why should I not be sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (2.3). Do you remember in A Christmas Movie when finally, the mother asks Ralphie what he wants for Christmas? Ralphie: “I want a Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle. Oooooooh!” He’s thinking, “That was too direct.” Mother: “No, you’ll shoot your eye out.” Finally Nehemiah has his opportune time. Does he ruin it with such an abrupt answer? We have no idea if there is a pause after this emotional expulsion before the king speaks (2.3-4). Even if it was for one second, we can imagine that one second seemingly lasting way too long. Four months of praying and this is it. No doubt Nehemiah had rehearsed what he would say if given the chance; such is only natural, and I’ve done it myself. Verses 6-8 shows he was prepared.
Providentially the king asks, “What is your request?” (2.4). “So I prayed to the God of heaven and answered the king” (2.4-5). Think Nehemiah tells the king, “Let me get back to you on that after I pray?” Does anyone picture this: Nehemiah gets down on his knees to pray, making the king wait? Or, is this an example of a prayer in a blink of an eye – or with eyes wide open – silently screaming “Help!” or maybe “Thanks!”
Communication to God can be physically demonstrative, prostrate, kneeling, standing, or raising hands. Sometimes it can be solemn, eyes closed, closing out the world. Then there are the times when there is no time for anything but “Help!” If so, pray “Help!”
Prayer Challenge: Prayer doesn’t have to be time-consuming; but understand there is always time for prayer, even if it is just “Help!” or “Thanks!”
Inundated by emails and cell phones, it is nigh impossible to experience the isolation distance brings. Nehemiah is in Persia, the remnant in Jerusalem. When his brother returns he eagerly asks concerning their welfare. Unwanted news (Nehemiah 1.1-3). Being distraught should lead to prayer; prayer is often more than mere words. Nehemiah weeps and mourns for days, his mourning includes fasting (1.4). Analyzing the prayer we see: 1) God is not the source of problem (v.5); 2) Sin is the source of problem (vv.6‑7); 3) God is the source of solution (vv.8‑9). Analyzing deeper we see how to effectively pray:
- Effective Prayer Must Be Directed to God (1.5). We cannot expect God to answer a prayer never said. Never be too proud to pray! God is always the answer.
- Effective Prayer Must Be Preceded By Knowledge of a Need (1.3). Ask people about their needs. Be aware of your own. Nothing is too big or small.
- Effective Prayer is Based upon Scripture (1.5,7-9). Nehemiah knows God’s word, mentioning the covenant, commands and promises.
- Effective Prayer is Persistent (1.6b). It is very likely Nehemiah prays for four months (1.1; 2.1). He prays longer than it will take to accomplish the goal of rebuilding the walls (6.15).
- Effective Prayer is based upon God’s Promises (1.8-9). These promises of God are both positive and negative. God is merciful, and God is just. I find it intriguing that Biblical prayers often include “reminders” of God’s promises.
- Effective Prayer Includes Adoration (1.5). Nehemiah’s thanksgiving is based upon the character of God. Do we ask more than we praise?
- Effective Prayer Pleads (1.6a). Nehemiah knew as we should that God wants to hear us pray. God is the greatest giver.
- Effective Prayer Includes Confession (1.6c-7). As did Ezra, Nehemiah includes himself as one with the nation, and not separate or better than those who sinned the nations into captivity.
- Effective Prayer is Submissive and Dependent (1.11). Anything good we do is because God is working through and for us.
- Effective Prayer Accepts God’s Time Table and Answer. Nehemiah prays 4 months before seeing results. Sometimes God has us wait.
If we feel isolated from God, Nehemiah teaches how to effectively communicate to God. The distance between us and God is as small as a prayer.
Prayer Challenge: Not every prayer needs all the above every time; but such does help us examine our prayers. Are we effective prayers? Pray to be effective.
Big sins often begin with small steps. Returning from exile, never again do the Jews commit idolatry. But they easily could have, had it not been for Ezra. The leaders report, “the Israelite men have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons;” and “the leaders and officials have taken the lead in this unfaithfulness” (Ezra 9.1-2). Lust, sex, and convenience often lead to sin. Big sins often begin with small leaders.
What follows is Ezra’s demonstrative devastation by his tearing his tunic and robe and pulling out some of the hair from his head and beard (9.3). Ezra had just recently arrived. This national sin is not Ezra’s fault, nor is he overwhelmed by his own sin. Repentance often begins with the right leaders.
The Holy Spirit records Ezra’s sorrowful supplication (vv.6-15). Unlike our American individualism, Ezra does not consider himself apart from the masses: “My God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face toward You, my God, because our iniquities are higher than our heads and our guilt is as high as the heaven” (9.6). Solid leadership often begins with solidarity. There is no blaming God for past suffering: “Because of our iniquities we have been handed over, along with our kings and priests, to the surrounding kings, and to the sword, captivity, plundering and open shame” (9.7). Healing often begins with honesty. God is not only the purveyor of punishment, but is the giver of grace: “But now, for a brief moment, grace has come from Yahweh our God to preserve a remnant for us and give us a stake in His holy place. Even in our slavery, God has given us new life and light to our eyes” (9.8). Growth often begins with gratitude. Despite great grace, these survivors again commit the same sins of their fathers, which eventually led to idolatry and expulsion (9.10-15). Being saved does not save us from repeating sins, and possible future punishment (9.14). Even recognizing we have been punished less than our sins deserve and have been allowed to survive isn’t enough incentive to keep us pure (9.13). Too often we want to forget the past instead of allowing it to caution our steps. Warnings often lead to wise decisions.
Following Ezra’s leadership, the Israelites do the necessary and difficult. After Ezra confessed for them, they now confess themselves: “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women” (10.2). These great sinners amazingly still believe in the greatness of God’s grace: “but there is still hope for Israel in spite of this” (10.2). They know God prefers forgiveness over punishment! Their confession is accompanied by action: “Let it be done according to the law” (10.3). Their action is accompanied by cooperation: “Get up, for this matter is your responsibility, and we support you. Be strong and take action” (10.4). Big revivals often begin with small steps.
Prayer Challenge: Whether a leader or not, don’t be overwhelmed by the gravity of any sin. In prayer small steps can lead to big changes.
The phrase is not written in Scripture, but the idea is: Traveling Grace. The idea is spiritual and simple, asking God for safe travels. Most times, most of us probably are too harried by preparation – and kids – and exhausted from the trip upon return, to immediately ask or thank God for “traveling grace.” I prayed more riding my motorcycle than driving my car – I was more conscious how precarious is life. Such a habit, if more than a habit, is commendable. Let’s examine a deeper purpose for traveling grace. Be honest, when praying for a safe journey, or thanking God for one, what is the focus? Is it just about point A to point B? Let’s refocus; there is more to traveling grace, it is traveling for and with God.
Ezra is a meticulous planner, and a mighty believer in God. His success is God’s: “since the gracious hand of our God was on us” (Ezra 8.18). Gathered at the river of Ahava to begin his journey, Ezra continues to organize the trip. Included is spiritual organization, preparing people by fasting and prayer (8.21): “I proclaimed a fast by the Ahava River, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask Him for a safe journey for us, our children, and all our possessions.” In modern parlance, Ezra is praying for traveling grace.
This is more than asking that camels being surefooted. Ezra is on a mission. Implied is that safety is needed to complete God’s assignment. That is the first deeper meaning for traveling grace. Whether traveling to do God’s work, visiting relatives, or going on vacation, keep in mind and prayer we are on earth to serve. Consider the following description of David as applying to us too: “For David, after serving his own generation in God’s plan, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and decayed” (Acts 13.36). Jesus’ prayer, “Your will not mine be done” is the purpose of traveling grace. If God grants His grace, bestows his favor, and extends our lives past our trip, the purpose is not just God providing safety to us, but us providing service to God. Traveling grace is traveling for and with God.
Not just implied but stated is the second deeper meaning for traveling grace. Referring to the fasting and prayer, Ezra comments, “I did this because I was ashamed to ask the king for infantry and cavalry to protect us from enemies during the journey, since we had told him, ‘The hand of our God is gracious to all who seek Him, but His great anger is against all who abandon Him” (8.22). The trip itself was declared a glory to God and an act of faith in God. There are Biblical examples of God’s servants using protective service, or being providentially given such. The point is not that good Christians should eschew help. The point is everything Ezra does is not about Ezra: “So we fasted and pleaded with our God about this, and He granted our request” (8.23). Traveling grace is traveling for and with God.
Prayer Challenge: When praying for traveling grace, focus more on serving than safety.
“God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called.” Ever hear that? Along those lines, good hearted people encourage others by showing the shortcomings of God’s greatest servants: Abraham was a liar; Sarah a mocker; Jacob a cheater; Moses an excuse maker; Miriam a racist; David a sex maniac; Jonah was prejudiced; Gideon was insecure; Martha a worrier; and Paul a murderer. If we want to get really dramatic we could even say God called Lazarus and Lazarus was dead! Moving from morally unqualified to technically unqualified, Jesus called the untrained to be His apostles. Four were fishermen, another a Roman sympathizer and Jewish traitor who collected taxes, and even a revolutionary political zealot. No wonder people triumphantly proclaim, “God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called!” But is this always true? Does God sometimes call the qualified?
Ezra is a priest (Ezra 7.1-5), and teacher; “a scribe skilled in the law of Moses” (7.6). No doubt such took many hours of discipline and diligent study. The record also says Ezra possessed that which was beyond his control: “The king had granted him everything he requested because the hand of Yahweh his God was on him” (7.6). After being divinely chosen to return to Jerusalem, God’s servant makes the 500 mile, 4 month trek from Babylon (7.9). “The gracious hand of God was on him” (7.9). Despite his qualifications, this is the second mention of God being the reason for Ezra’s achievements.
Ezra had prepared himself both morally and technically: “Now Ezra had determined in his heart to study the law of the LORD, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel” (7.10). When Ezra makes the trip, he comes with a letter from the king (7.11-26). Again, Ezra is prepared for succeeding in God’s work.
When Ezra reaches the re-promised land, he prays: “Praise Yahweh the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king’s mind to glorify the house of the LORD in Jerusalem, and who has shown favor to me before the king, his counselors, and all his powerful officers” (7.27-28). Then Ezra adds, “So I took courage because I was strengthened by Yahweh my God, and I gathered Israelite leaders to return with me.” Ezra became qualified to be called; and still gave all glory to God.
Nowadays it seems we emphasize an unbalanced biblical view. Now the spiritual plan is to not have a plan; just “walk by faith and not by sight” (a misuse of that text). It seems we are afraid that if we get qualified, we are getting the credit. Somehow we have been convinced faith and humility means not preparing, not making plans, and not doing whatever is in our power. Sure, there are times to spiritually “wing it,” relying totally on God. But when we can prepare, we can still rely totally on God. So while God qualifies the called; God also calls the qualified.
Prayer Challenge: Pray to be qualified while giving God all the credit and glory.
Imagine what it had to be like. No, I don’t think it possible. It’s good to try, sometimes. Sometimes we just need to accept instead of explaining and failing. Hoping to help by empathizing, compassion ignorantly says, “I know how you feel.” Thankfully most don’t know the tragedy personally. “If I were you,” some boldly say; but we aren’t. Experience is often the only true teacher. Young and old experience the same situation, reacting diametrically differently; based on their own past experiences. Un-experienced emotions are hard to imagine. Not all tears are equal. Not all joy the same.
Although powerful, think of the human imagination as a mental and emotional painting that cannot faithfully reproduce the unseen. Can you imagine being a Jew tattooed as an undesirable? Can you relive the atrocity when American soldiers first saw the unimaginable rumors confirmed? Can you envision losing everything – including your nation – then getting it back? Join me in this impossible journey of God’s people returning home to rebuild the temple.
Try to place yourself emotionally where your nation has been not only destroyed, but humiliated. This event is spiritually a decapitation, where the head of your religion allows Himself to be crushed, and allows the victors to glory in His disgrace. Then remember, you are responsible. For 70 years you either lived with the shame, or were born into that shame. Are you there mentally?
More amazing than God’s shunning, is His merciful grace in welcoming you back home. He allows His captivated people to return for another chance. Inventory of people, animals, and religious articles are meticulous (Ezra 1-2). Despite the national imprisonment, personal heritage remains confirmed; but for others it is lost (2.61-63). This is another blow to your identity. Who you are is no longer relevant.
Unlike your ancestors, when you finally reach home, you respect God through worship. This includes rebuilding His shattered home on earth; the home you or your parents beforehand did not care to keep holy. Just the foundation is laid, but that is enough for now. “The priests, dressed in their robes and holding trumpets, and the Levites descended from Asaph, holding cymbals, took their positions to praise the LORD, as King David of Israel had instructed” (3.10). Among the worshippers, there is no bitterness of a punishment undeserved. There is praise and song, “For He is good; His faithful love to Israel endures forever” (3.11). Then people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD (3.11). Try to imagine being so full emotionally shouting your prayer! Those who had seen the old temple weep loudly; the younger ones shout joyfully (3.12). Not all tears are equal. Not all prayers are joyful. Some are filled with sadness at what was. Some are filled with regret. I cannot faithfully imagine what it was like for either.
Prayer Challenge: Experience your prayers as only you can, whether in tears or joy.
When Abram and Lot separate, the part of Canaan Lot chooses is compared to the Garden/gaan of Eden (Genesis 13:10). This is an inspired clue that this story is a repeat. So is this the only narrative comparison? Or are we supposed to see history repeating itself? As I have said again and again, the Holy Spirit keeps telling the same stories over again and again just with different people. Some of these comparisons are linguistic, others conceptual, and admittedly some might be a stretch – but only because of all the other undeniable similarities.
- Abraham returns to the land given by God (13:1); Eden is the first land given by God (2:8).
- Abram was rich in silver and gold (13:2); Eden has a river which leads to a land of gold along with other earthly wealth (2:11).
- Abram’s offspring would be like the dust of the land (13:16); Adam was created from the dust of the earth (2:7).
- Abram called on the name of Yahweh (13:4); Yahweh spoke to Adam (2:16).
- Part of Canaan was well watered (13:10); Eden was well watered (2:6,10).
- “East” is where God placed Eden (2:8); “East” is where Lot chose (13:11).
- Abram and Lot “separated/parad” (13:9); The river in Eden “separated/parad” (2:10).
- Land insufficient for Abram and Lot’s livestock (13:6-7); Animals insufficient for Adam’s companionship (2:19-20).
- The land was unable to support (13:6); the land was able to support (2:15-16).
- Abram and Lot divided (13:11); Eve is divided from Adam (2:21-22).
- Lot is called Abram’s “brother” (13:8); Eve is called Adam’s “bone of bone, flesh of my flesh” (2:23).
- Lot “saw/raah” (13:10); Eve “saw/raah” (3:6).
- Lot lifted up his “eyes/ayin” (13:10); Fruit would open “eyes/ayin” and was good to the eyes (3:5-7)
- There is a seed promise made to Abram (13:16); There is a seed promise made to Satan (3:15).
- The men of Sodom sinned against God (13:13); Eve then Adam sinned against God (3:6).
- Lot chose unwisely (13:11); Eve and Adam chose unwisely (3:6).
- Genesis 13 foreshadows destruction (13:10); Genesis 2 foreshadows death (2:17).
- Genesis 13 is about Abram, his wife, and someone causing strife (13:1); Genesis 2-3 is about Adam, his wife, and someone causing strife (3:1).
Here is one final “comparison” but one only between the Hebrew and English. So that means this last one is just for fun. God made Eve from Adam’s rib (2:21-22). The Hebrew word for strife between Abram’s herdsmen and Lot’s is “rib” (13:7).
OK, it bothers me. It’s not there and should be. Have you ever felt that way about a Bible story; that something essential is missing? It is recorded about lesser kings; even mostly evil ones. It is recorded about equally great kings; even emphasized. So why is it missing in Josiah’s story? Maybe it isn’t. Let’s see if we can find Josiah praying.
King Josiah “did what was right in the LORD’s sight and walked in the ways of his ancestor David; he did not turn aside to the right or the left” (2 Chronicles 34.2). David was a prayerful man; and this same comparative praise to David was used of Hezekiah, a man of prayer (29.2). Could Josiah walk in God’s ways without praying?
When about 20, “Josiah began to seek the God of his ancestor David” (34.3). Seeking God often includes prayer. During this seeking he demolishes the idols violating the cleanliness of God’s land (34.3-7). When about 30, Josiah begins repairing the temple. Again unstated, but no doubt prayer is involved. While in this endeavor Hilkiah finds the book of the law, written by the hand of Moses (34.14-15). When Josiah “heard the words of the law, he tore his clothes” (34.19). Repentance is seeking God, usually involving prayer. Still, no specifics of Josiah praying; just a lifestyle linked to prayer.
Then the king commands “Go. Ask Yahweh for me and for those remaining in Israel and Judah, concerning the words of the book that was found” (34.21). Asking another for their prayers is vicarious prayer, an imitable practice. The servants go to Huldah the prophetess to inquire of God (34.22). Her answer implies Josiah is involved in the divine communiqué: “Say this to the king of Judah who sent you to ask Yahweh…” (34.26).
Then God’s language gets very intriguing: “…because you humbled yourself before Me, and you tore your clothes and wept before Me, I Myself have heard” (34.29). God doesn’t say, “seen,” God answers Josiah’s actions as if the actions were prayers.
After this, the king “went up” (34.30) to the temple; another action like unto prayer. There he reads the words of the covenant to all the people, stands at his post and “made a covenant in the LORD’s presence to follow the LORD…with all his heart, and with all his soul in order to carry out the words of the covenant written in this book” (34.31). Since this was a promise to God made in the presence of others, isn’t this another acted out prayer?
God “heard” Josiah’s actions as a prayer. Reminds me of the song “Father God” – “May my steps be worship, May my thoughts be praise, May my words bring honor to Your Name.” May we be Christians whom others know we pray, even if not seeing us. May God hear our actions even when the word prayer is not used. May our life be a prayer.
Prayer Request: Pray to act like we know God is hearing our life as a prayer.