Irish novelist George Moore tells the story about Irish peasants who were put to work during the Great Depression. They were asked to build government roads. For a time, the men were great workers who really enjoyed the work during tough economic times, even singing songs as they worked. In addition, they felt like they were contributing to the good of the nation.
But little by little, it began to dawn on them that the roads they were building were going nowhere. It became clear that they had been put to work so the government would have an excuse for feeding them. They were doing pointless busywork. Pretty soon, the men grew weary and the songs were sung no more. Moore concludes that the “roads to nowhere are difficult to build.”
This is what the world is doing. They are building lives that lead to nowhere…nowhere good anyway. And if you ever said yes to Jesus, that was not just fire insurance. It is not just a “get out of hell free” card. He calls you to serve Him and do His work. We may have secular jobs, family and other responsibilities, but for the child of God, he/she is called to the work for God. I am not talking about just full-time ministry, but I am talking about living life purposefully and investing it in the stuff that matters and the stuff that is going to last. Paul told the Corinthians, because Jesus is raised from the dead and we have victory through him, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). I want to do abounding work in the Lord and for the Lord. We got one shot at this thing called life and if we are not on board now, we are building a road that is going nowhere.
We have been talking these weeks about how God prepares His people for His work. God has work for us to do here and He wants to use us. But before He can use us, He wants to make us usable. But very rarely is God going to come to you in a vision or a dream and say, “I want you to do this work for me.” Even if God does that, He has still been preparing you up to that point. But most of the time, He likes to quietly prepare people. Moses, for example, was called to serve God at age 80. Why couldn’t he call Moses earlier? Because He was preparing him. Even when he was shepherding stubborn sheep for 40 years in the desert, God used it as training in his life, for he will eventually have to shepherd the stubborn sheep of Israel for 40 years. What about even Jesus? What was he doing for 30 years? He could have saved so many people! He could have healed countless and delivered so many during that time. I think it was a lesson for us that Jesus being fully God, yet also fully man, still had preparation time.
We talked about God starting with a burden in our hearts which results in our hearts breaking. When was the last time the Lord broke your heart for the things which God’s heart breaks? This broken heart is given back to the Lord in prayer and He takes it, makes it a bigger heart than ever before and prepares it for His blessing. This is what happened to Nehemiah. He is an ordinary man working a job, but who loved God, His Word, His people and who wanted God’s glory. He does not want to work independently of the Lord. He wants to work alongside Him. He wants God to do something great for His name, and then asks God for an opportunity to be part of that process. God uses him because he was usable for the Lord.
But there is more to God preparing us! Preparation entails more work. After we pray, then what? A miracle?! At this point at the end of Nehemiah 1, we might think, “Ok. Nehemiah prayed and now God will answer it. I wish my prayers worked like that.” Before we jump to that conclusion, look at Neh. 2:1 and notice that the next events happen, “in the month of Nisan.” This would be our March or April time. Nehemiah received the news about the walls and the people four months prior (Neh. 1:1). This brings us to our first principle today:
I. Praying for God’s will requires persevering until God’s timing (Neh. 2:1)
We read of nothing of Nehemiah’s journal entries from January to April. What happened in January Nehemiah? Nothing. What happened in February? Nothing. What about March? Umm, nothing. Beloved, God’s delays are not God’s denials. Nehemiah had to wait for God’s timing.
When we go back to his prayer in Neh. 1:11, he seems to have so much confidence that God was going to answer his prayer that day. But for some reason, he did not go through with it. Perhaps he realized he needed more time and wanted to wait until God opened a door. Actually now 100 days have gone by and he is still waiting.
Let’s pick up the story in Neh. 2:1. Four months have passed. We find that Nehemiah is still working and he is still alive. Remember he was the cupbearer for the King. This meant he tasted the food and wine before the King did just in case anyone tried to assassinate the king by poisoning the food. Now four months later, despite a broken heart over his people’s welfare, he is still working faithfully. I find this really hard to do, apart from the grace of God. It is really hard to keep doing what is in front of you when your heart is elsewhere. But we can learn from Nehemiah, that until God’s timing comes to fruition for whatever we are waiting for, let us commit to faithfully doing what is in front of us.
I remember when I lost my job at Moody and Jenny was several months pregnant and we were still waiting on what God would have us next. When the baby arrived and Jenny had to go back to work, I can remember several times I was sitting at my in-laws’ house with a baby in my arms, struggling with trusting God. I had several times of wallowing in self-pity. I didn’t understand this then that what God wanted me to do was to be a father and husband. I had to do what was in front of me. In looking back, we are thankful God does not always answer prayer in our timing, for I would seriously doubt His wisdom if He did!
Nehemiah was persevering all of this time. During the past four months, Nehemiah says he was not sad in the king’s presence. In that culture, if you were in the King’s presence, you were not allowed to wear your emotions on your sleeve. If he happens to be in a bad mood himself, you might die. But it was an insult to look sad in his presence. Even if things were going rough, you were expected to “put on a happy face” because just being in the King’s presence should bring you joy. Anything less might suggest that you are dissatisfied with him. I am so glad God doesn’t ask us to pretend before Him. We can come to Him just as we are!
I do not think for a moment that it was easy for Nehemiah to wait. First of all, he seemed ready to go to the king in Neh. 1:11, pretty soon after he heard the terrible news. Secondly, throughout the book, we can see that he is a very bold and ready-aim-fire kind-of-guy. He is always making quick decisions. If he is that type-A kind of personality, it must have driven him nuts that nothing was happening for four months!
As one commentator notes here, “Waiting time is not wasted time.” A newly converted young man named William Booth, after his internship was over, could not find work for an entire year. It was the most difficult trial in his entire life. It perplexed him that God was not answering this persistent prayer of his. He even had a widowed mother who desperately needed help financially. But by the grace of God, he persevered. Later, William Booth founded The Salvation Army, a ministry which required identifying with thousands of deprived people all around the world.
We must persevere and as we wait, we do what we do have before us. Yes, being single is hard, especially once you are done with college. Praying for God’s will requires that you persevere until His timing. Yes, being unemployed is tough. But praying for God’s will requires that you persevere until His timing. Secondly,
II. Praying for God’s will requires more praying (Neh.2:2-4)
Look at Neh. 2:2. It would be particularly troubling for the king if his cupbearer looked agitated right? I mean you are living every day in dread of being poisoned (especially since King Artaxerxes’ own father was assassinated) and all of a sudden you notice something is bothering the guy who is supposed to make sure everything is alright. Up to this point, Nehemiah did a great job of playing the part. But everyone has a breaking point. And on this day, Nehemiah couldn’t keep it in anymore. The burden, the brokenness and the long waiting was taking its toll. So the king says, “You are not yourself today Nehemiah. I can tell something is bothering you. What’s going on?”
Nehemiah says, “I was very much afraid.” Well, yeah! Not only are you not supposed to look gloomy in front of the king because the king can banish or even kill you for it, but Nehemiah now knows this is it! God has provided the opportunity for him to ask the king about reversing or at least revising his foreign policy. But you don’t go up to the king and just ask that kind of stuff. If you remember, the King had issued a decree against rebuilding the walls back in Ezra 4:17-24. Let’s just also hope he has not been arguing with the queen that day or was not too fond of the latest casserole. So you can bet he was scared for his life.
This is particularly encouraging for me. Jot this down: there is no such thing as a fearless leader. Even Nehemiah will have moments of fear throughout this story. Perhaps the reason why you do not step up in any certain area is because you are afraid and Hollywood or your own perception about leadership is that leaders are not to be afraid. Understand this: it is not that leaders are fearless, but that even in the midst of fear, godly leaders find their courage in the Lord.
In Joshua 1, for example, Moses has died. Joshua is up to lead next. Do you know in that chapter, in the first nine verses alone God says, “Be strong and courageous”? Three times! (Josh. 1:6, 7, 9). Why did God have to say it three times? Because Joshua was not strong or courageous! He needed to hear it several times. I pray that encourages you today.
Nehemiah, with his stomach in knots, his lips quivering and his knees shaking, says what is on his heart in Neh. 2:3. He says respectfully, “King, it is not you.” Interestingly, he does not say Jerusalem, the city’s name. Most likely, Nehemiah does not want to trigger any unwanted nerves by saying the name. He doesn’t mention the walls either, but just the gates. He also makes it about respecting the dead, which was very important in the Ancient Near East.
I am not sure if this is what Nehemiah always wanted to say if the issue was ever brought up or if he was fumbling for words and it all came out wrong or if he is just being super cautious and phrasing it in a way to test and see how the King will respond. I would lean toward the latter, but we are not sure. But he did make it a personal matter and not a political one to earn the king’s sympathy.
Look at Neh. 2:4. The king responded, “What are you requesting?” In other words, “What are you getting at? What is this really about?” Wow! So far so good! Here you go, Nehemiah. The door is wide open! So what is this courageous, decisive, bold, powerful, influential man going to do? Look at the text: “So I prayed to the God of heaven.”
Loved ones, praying for God’s will requires more praying. Praying is not just preparing for the work. It is the work. Here is a man who knows how to seek God. Although his body is in Susa, Persia, his heart is really always with the Lord. There is also a good lesson about prayer here. It is not about how long you go in prayer, but how strong you go. It is not the length of the prayer, but the strength of it that counts. You can go long and not be strong, as Jesus said about the Pharisees (Matt. 6:7).
Here we are not told what he prayed, but I am sure it was something like, “Heelllllllllllp!” It was an SOS, or 911 prayer. Short prayers like this in public are best preceded by long prayers in private. Because Nehemiah had been communing with the Lord for all of this time, he did not have to say very much to the Lord. He is constantly needy and always standing in the need of prayer. This is a great posture to be in! Ray Brown observes here that “The destiny of thousands of fellow-Israelites might turn on the way he [the King] spoke in the next few minutes. It was a far too big a responsibility for him to take on his own. He needed help from beyond.”
Maybe you have been praying for God’s will and you have been persevering until His timing. The opportunity suddenly arrives and what do you do? You pray some more. You will need prayer more than ever!
Having been married almost five years now, Jenny and I are realizing more and more how we start to transform into really one person. You become one when you exchange your vows, but the rest of your life you are finding out what that means experientially. So now both of us can be in a crowded room and I can be in one end and she can be in the other, but with just a quick glance at each other, we can have a conversation without saying a word. Each of us will know how the other is thinking and feeling. We are still growing towards this, but I think this is a picture of what the Lord wants from us. Paul says in Philippians, “I want to know Him…” (Phil. 3:10). Wait, doesn’t he know the Lord already? The word “know” means deep, intimate knowledge by experience. As love for your spouse leads you to know that person more and more, love for your Savior should lead you to know Him more and more. The riches in Him are unending and I want to grow in such a way that as I walk with Him and talk with Him, even if I am “crowded” by so much around me, I can just lift my heart in a glance toward Him and know His heart and sense His presence. I want to know what He’s thinking and what He’s feeling.
A friend, who is getting married this summer, was saying how stressful it is with all the wedding plans in his life and I am sure lots of people are praying for their wedding. But I told him that the wedding plans are the easy part, the marriage planning is what you will really need prayer for. Praying for God’s will requires more praying. You are unemployed and asking for prayer for a job? Great! But remind people to pray another prayer for you once you have a job, which may cause you to be too busy for God and if you are making money, to be able to handle it well. You’ve been praying to get into college? Great? But now you will need more prayer as you get in. Perhaps you have been praying for the right person to come along to spend the rest of your life with, but also pray that you will be faithful to that person for the rest of your life. I guess this is why Paul says, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17)!
Nehemiah is not done praying. He has been praying for God’s will and has persevered until God’s timing. But when that door finally opened, he shows us that it is time for more prayer! Thirdly,
III. Praying for God’s will also requires careful planning (Neh. 2:5-7)
Nehemiah responds graciously in Neh. 2:5. He did not say, “Thanks for asking King. God’s called me to go. I need a leave of absence. I’ll be done with when God tells me I’m done. Do you have a problem with that?” Nehemiah trusts God to move in the heart of the King. I wonder if one of his favorite proverbs is Prov. 21:1 which says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”
Again he does not mention the city, but the province. He might be trying to not to draw too much attention to the city. And again he talks about the city “of my fathers’ grave,” but he finally says his intentions are to rebuild the city.
What is the king going to say? Nehemiah adds the phrase that the queen was sitting beside him. We are not sure why he would add that here. We are also not sure if this was the official queen or one of his favorite women from his harem. But most likely, this is inserted to show that this was not a public banquet, but more of a private meal. This is because the queen is rarely present a public banquet. Or perhaps Nehemiah is emphasizing how amazing God was in that this ridiculous request he is going to present is made not only in front of the king, but also in front of his queen. It is one thing to offend the king, but it is another thing to offend him in front of his missus.
Here is another testimony of Nehemiah’s faithfulness as an excellent worker to the king. The king wants to know how long he will take and when he will come back. That is a good sign when your boss wants you back! We are not told how long Nehemiah gave him, but notice that Nehemiah did give him a time. It will probably take at least four months to even get to Jerusalem and four months back, so we are looking close to a whole year at least. We will find out that from Neh. 5:14 and Neh. 13:6 that he will be away from Persia at least for 12 years! Commentator Derek Kidner suggests that he probably reported back to the king after the dedication of the walls, within the year, and then his appointment as governor was renewed.
But how was Nehemiah able to give him a time? Because while he was dependently praying for God’s will, he was also deliberately planning the details of it. You need both. You need dependent praying, but you also need deliberate planning as well. This is confirmed further in Neh. 2:7-8. He says to the king that he will also need protection and provision. This is a daring request! In essence, he is saying, “King, I want to go rebuild a city you hate and have recently decreed work should be stopped. Reverse that policy. But I will need you to give me free access all the way there and when I get there, I will need permission to use your own resources to fund this project. Oh yeah, by the way, I will also need some money for a house to stay in, while I am there.” This is equivalent to the mayor and the town council not only agreeing on a church’s expansion plans, but also voting to fund the entire project! And the king here says yes! What? How in the world? No wonder he had to include this in his journal. It’s a miracle!
Notice how precise and chosen his words are for his presentation. The king seems to be in a good mood and he has one shot at this. How was he able to do that? Because while he was praying, he was also planning. How did Nehemiah know that he will need written permission to travel from Susa to Jerusalem for 900 miles? Because while he was praying, he was also planning. How did Nehemiah know that the keeper of the lumber yard’s name is Asaph and how much he will need to fund this? Because while he was praying, he was also planning.
I can just picture him the previous four months. From the day he heard about the troubling news, he’s probably lying awake at night. How am I going to do this God? Wow, that’s going to take a lot of resources! Probably an x amount of lumber will be needed. Help Lord! I am here Lord! I know enemies will be waiting for me at each province to stop me. God, how am I going to pull it off?
Do you see what he’s doing? From that picture I just painted, would you say he was he was planning or was he praying? And in what order? The answer is both and in no particular order. The power is always in the balance. Some people are prayers. They have an incredible amount of faith and they just simply trust God. However, the devil can pervert that and make you think that you never need a plan, causing you to be lazy and ineffective when the time comes.
Prayer and planning go together. If you are the kind who is laid back about things and often say, “I’m just trusting the Lord” or “Wherever the Lord leads,” which is often interpreted, “I have no idea what I’m doing,” the Lord would want you to step up in planning. Have some goals for your life or get around people who plan things and learn from them. God’s sovereignty is not an excuse for laziness or inactivity. For example, you cannot party all weekend and then ask God to help you with an exam. Do you have to teach Sunday School or come up with a lesson plan for youth ministry? Pray hard and then prepare hard and pray some more.
Others are planners. You love excel, charts and graphs. These people can be equally duped by the Enemy. Most often they come up with a plan and say, “Ok God, now go do it. Bless it Lord.” Then it blows up in their face and they are on their knees before the Lord. The power is always in the balance. You pray before you plan, as you plan and after you plan. Praying and planning go hand-in-hand.
Imagine if Nehemiah was just a prayer and not a planner. Even if the King said, “yes you can go,” what will happen once he gets to the first province? Border patrol will harass him and send him home. Then he will have to approach the king asking for passports and who knows if the king will be in a good mood that day as he is now? That can easily send Nehemiah to the gallows. Then if he gets the passports and gets to Asaph and asks for the lumber, what will Asaph say? He will say, “I need the King’s permission.” And Nehemiah will have to travel to get that from the king. The point here is that planning is just as spiritual as praying. They go together. Nehemiah prayed a lot and planned a lot.
I want to close with a final thought here. We said praying for God’s will means we persevere until God’s timing and even when that time comes, we pray more and while we are praying, we are also planning to carry out God’s purposes in our lives. But let’s remember this as well:
IV. Praying for God’s will requires we give God all the glory (Neh 2:8)
Nehemiah says at the end here that the king granted him everything he asked, why? “For the good hand of my God was upon me.” Nehemiah says it wasn’t because he was smart, but that God was sovereign. It wasn’t because Nehemiah was great, but because God was gracious. It wasn’t because Nehemiah was articulate, but because God was awesome. Yes, he planned really well. But that plan was written in pencil and the eraser was in God’s hands.
Lord, do something in our midst where you alone would get the glory! Nehemiah gave all the credit to God. Actually there is more preparation to be done as we will find out next week. Samuel Brengle, a great leader in the work of God, once said:
“The axe cannot boast of the trees it has cut down. It could do nothing, but for the woodsman. He made it. He sharpened it. He uses it. The moment the woodsman throws the ax aside, it becomes only old iron. Oh, that I may never lose sight of this.”
How does God prepare His people for His work? He gives you a burden in your heart, breaks your heart with the burden, puts you in a position to give the burden back to God, where He makes your heart bigger to receive a blessing bigger than the burden. But even before the blessing comes, He calls you to persevere and plan until His timing, where He will blow you away with nothing less than a miracle. That my friends, is what it’s like building a road that is going somewhere.
 Quoted in Knute Larson and Kathy Dahlen, Max Anders, ed. The Holman Old Testament Commentary: Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther, 151 (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2005).
John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures, 1:675 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-c1985).
Raymond Brown, The Message of Nehemiah in The Bible Speaks Today series, ed. J.A. Motyer, 44 (Downers Grove, Il:Intervarsity Press, 1998).
Stephen Davey, Nehemiah: Memoirs of an Ordinary Man, 39 (Greenville,SC: Ambassador, 2005).
H. G. M. Willamson, vol. 16, Word Biblical Commentary : Ezra-Nehemiah, Word Biblical Commentary, 179 (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002).
Raymond Brown, 47.
Stephen Davey, 42.
Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 81 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1979).
Stephen Davey, 45.