January 23, 1994
Miles away from Jerusalem, the news of its disgraceful condition moved Nehemiah to tears—but also to prayer. Alistair Begg teaches that Nehemiah’s prayer helps us establish a framework for how we can approach God. Nehemiah displayed a God-centered perspective in his continuous prayer and a God-dependent trust in his practical planning. Likewise, we can impact our generation if we come before the Lord in humble prayer and patient dependence.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you once again to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn to Nehemiah together.
And as you turn there, let’s pause for a moment and ask God’s help as we study this passage:
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me thyself within thy Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
As we study the Scriptures together, we recognize that God speaks to us through them as individuals, and we believe that he would speak to us through them as a church family. And at this point in our church’s development, we believe ourselves, in unique ways and for specific reasons, to be at a very strategic point in our development. It is clear, in relationship to the way our services are building and in relationship to so many factors that become apparent to us, that we have so much to be thankful for about the past, and realistically, we have a tremendous amount to be excited about as we consider the future.
In relationship to these things, we determined a little while ago that studying Nehemiah together would be helpful for us, insofar as it sets forward the necessary principles involved in anybody seeking to do God’s work in God’s way. And what we hope to be able to build out of these studies are not simply truths on an individualistic level but truths which have apparent and immediate applicability to Parkside Church. Our focus is very clearly this, and rightly so, realistically so.
So, when you’re thinking along these lines, please be praying to that end: that God would be confirming and convincing us as a church family about the nature of these things.
Last time, in chapter 1, we set out to notice three things concerning Nehemiah. First of all, the reaction of Nehemiah, which was to the news of the sorry state of affairs in Jerusalem, to sit down and burst into tears. And his mourning was indicative of his reaction. Now, we know that it wasn’t because the walls were broken down. It really would be a little extreme to get that upset just because some of the stones had toppled over. It surely was because of what was represented in the destruction of the walls—namely, that God’s glory, which was to be established in Jerusalem, was really being dragged into the dust of the Judean hillside. And that was his reaction to it. It was a reaction which marked him out from others, who seemed to have grown acquiescent to the state of affairs.
We then went on to look at his counteraction. And still there in verse 4, we were discovering that he “fasted” and he “prayed.” And indeed, any attempt to explain what happens in the book of Nehemiah but for that dependence upon God that Nehemiah displays is going to be a flawed explanation.
Now, I want for a moment this morning to consider this prayer with you as it is there for us in chapter 1, and then to move immediately into chapter 2.
One of the questions that is often asked, especially by younger believers, is “How do you pray? Is there a way that you can help me to pray? Because when I close my eyes, my mind wanders. I’m not really sure what I should say, I don’t have any real pattern to what I do, and so I find myself either just saying the same thing over and over again, or else I dry up very, very quickly.”
Well, one of the things that has been helpful to many of us (and certainly in my life; I’ve used it since I was smaller) is to use the little acronym or acrostic ACTS, A-C-T-S, and the four words that build from it: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. That is one helpful facet of it.
The other helpful element is to establish your own prayer diary—either Sunday through Sunday or on a monthly cycle or whatever you determine—and to begin to enter names and concerns against those particular days. If, for example, you determine that you’re going to pray for your mum and dad on a Tuesday, then write that down for your prayer on Tuesday morning. And when you come to the s in the ACTS word, for supplication, on Tuesday morning, you’re not in any doubt about what you’re going to seek God for. One of the things you’re going to ask him about, and always will, on Tuesday mornings is his blessing upon your mum and dad. If you are concerned about some friends at school, then put them down for Wednesday, or for Thursday, or whatever it is. And before you know where you are, you will build up a compendium of prayer which will begin to work as a means towards the end of purposeful praying.
Now, underpinning all of that is the notion of the constituent elements of prayer. And I want to show you from this prayer that the ACTS acronym works in relationship to Nehemiah’s prayer.
First of all, notice his adoration. What does it mean to adore somebody? It means to magnify them, to tell them that we love them, to extol them, to declare their greatness. It means to cherish them, which is another wonderful, older-fashioned word that comes from the wedding service: “To love and to cherish till death us do part.”
Well, at the very beginning of our prayers, we want to tell the Lord how much we appreciate him. And we should start our prayer every morning by singing
Have I told you lately that I love you?
Have I told you [that] there’s no one else above you?
You fill my [life] with gladness,
and so on. “I love you, Lord.” That’s adoration.
And we don’t just love him because we’ve got a feeling in our tummy, but we love him because of the characteristics that he has chosen to reveal to us, such as: he adores him, you will notice in verse 5, because he is a “great and [an] awesome God.” God is worthy of our praise, as we sing here: “Worthy of worship, worthy of praise, worthy of glory and honor.” And Nehemiah recognizes that: “God, I adore you. You are great, and you’re awesome. God, I adore you. You keep your promises.” Still in verse 5: “You are a God of covenant love. You always abide by the things that you’ve said concerning your people.” “God, I adore you,” thirdly, “because you are a righteous God, and you demand love and obedience. God, I adore you,” fourthly, “because,” in verse 6, “you listen to the cry of your children.”
Now, you see, there we go. All of a sudden, we’ve got a structure for our prayers. Put that down for a Monday. You need another prayer for Tuesday? Go into the book of Ephesians and take the first of Paul’s prayer for the church at Ephesus and break out from that the elements of adoration and confession and thanksgiving. Go into the second prayer for the church at Ephesus and do the same thing. Go to Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9. Go find prayers in the Bible. Go get with people who pray. That’s how we’ll learn how to pray. And Nehemiah is a classic and wonderful example here.
And in his adoration, he manifests two things.
One: a God-centered perspective, not a man-centered perspective. This isn’t “I, me, me, mine.” This is Nehemiah saying, “When I consider [your] heavens, the work of [your] fingers, the moon and the stars, [that you have] ordained; What is man, that [you are] mindful of him?” Nehemiah’s world begins with God; it doesn’t begin with Nehemiah. We’ll never know what it is to really pray as long as my world begins with me. Because as long as I am the champion of my world, the author of my destiny, in charge of my future, then why would I need to talk to anybody else? If I’ve got it all buttoned down, why would I need to get down on my knees and talk to someone that I cannot see? But when I understand the nature of God’s revelation to me and how finite I am and how hopeless in myself, especially when you think about some of the big projects in which we would like to engage, then it drives us to our knees. So he has a God-centered perspective.
We need to pray, incidentally, for a God-centered perspective in our lives and in our church, ’cause it’s very possible for us to become very man-centered. We think in terms of individuals or groups, and we determine that as long as we have these individuals or these groups, then all will be well. God looks down, and he may choose to remove individuals or groups in order to prove to us that we don’t need these people, and definitely that we shouldn’t depend upon them.
You take, for example, how it’s illustrated with the preoccupation with the Hubble Telescope. “Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble, cauldron boil and cauldron bubble”! Shakespeare didn’t know about that kind of Hubble, but we’ve got the Hubble. And what a hullabaloo about the Hubble, and all the “Hubble this” and “Hubble that.” And that’s fine. You know, it’s a wonderful telescope! As far as telescopes go, that’s really good. But here’s the deal, folks: God has seen all this stuff from every angle it’s possible to see. He’s seen it when he created it. He’s seen it from every conceivable point. And what we ought to be saying is “Isn’t it amazing that God in his providence has allowed us to grow smart enough to be able to design one of these things that allows us to begin to probe into the vastness of our solar system and begin to scratch the surface of what God in his infinite wisdom has been able to do all along?”
But we’re so man-centered. We look up at our buildings; we walk through our cities, our proud achievements: “I did all this!” Then you go out into the park and you hear the birds sing, and you say, “Uh-oh! I didn’t do that.” And then you see the ducks coming down; you say, “Uh-oh! And we didn’t do them.” And then you see these little puppies born, and you say, “I can’t do that.” And then you take a child in your arms and say, “We didn’t do this.” (That rings a bell!)
A God-centered perspective and a God-centered trust. “Some trust in chariots,” says the psalmist—Psalm 20:7. It’s a good verse, a good memory verse. “Some trust in chariots and … in horse[men], but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
Now, the way in which we manifest our trust is in our prayer life. You spend time with me and I with you, and I can tell you who you trust, because we will reveal it in the way that we come before God. When we really have a God-centered perspective and a God-centered trust, then obstacles won’t daunt us, delays won’t depress us, and disappointments won’t finish us off. But when I am relying upon myself and upon my own ingenuity, then those delays and those disappointments and those obstacles can be enough to close down the operation.
Now, Nehemiah, in adoring God in this prayer, manifests his submission to the mind of God because he recognizes that God’s thoughts are greater than his own. That’s part one: adoration.
Secondly, confession, in verse 6. He says, “I confess [to you] the sins we Israelites, … and my father’s house, have committed against you.” Now, if you’re looking in your Bible, you’ll notice that I’ve left out a key phrase. It’s relatively easy to say, “I confess the sins that we Americans have committed against you. I confess the sins that my father’s family have committed against you.” The part that sticks in your throat is “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself…” Me. The old children’s song goes, “It’s not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” I need prayer. And if you’re honest, so do you.
And when I pray, I need to pray in honest confession. Before God would ever move in revival in the life of an individual—and what is revival? It is to breathe life into a body threatening to become a corpse. And some of our spiritual experiences are very akin to that.
We’re almost embalmed. We look like that thing that… We look like Lenin, that they dragged him out the other day, gave him a quick spring clean, and put him back in his box again. I mean, everything is apparently there, but he ain’t mounting no revolution anymore. No way! Because he’s dead. And there’s no revival that’s going to sort him. And he’s going to stand at the judgment seat; he’s got a big shake-up coming. But beyond that, he’s there and he’s done.
And some of us are just like that. We’re almost embalmed. I stand in my office, and I watch the people come in and leave church buildings on Sunday mornings. It’s a revelation to see your faces. Now, it’s a revelation to see my face as well, so don’t feel in any sense, you know, put upon by this. But I look at you come, and I say, “God, what are we supposed to do with these people?” I mean, here they come, with a bundle of aspirations and hopes and disappointments and fears and failures and everything else, and they make their way down the pathways and into here.
And some of us are just trapped in a complete, stuck routine, and we need revival. And we’re thinking that God is going to come and revive us by giving us some little blessing that comes from the top down, as it were. But I want to tell you this: when Isaiah received the commissioning, in Isaiah 6 (Remember? He got a live coal from the altar that came and touched his lips), it was within the context of confession. “[I confess],” he said, “[that] I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”
You see, the challenge in confessional praying is to be honest. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, the Scottish Presbyterian, who died at the age of twenty-nine, said he recognized that the seeds of every sin known to humanity existed in his heart. Now, you’re not supposed to expect that from your pastor. He told his congregation, “Every sin that anybody ever did, I have ’em in here.” You probably would want to get rid of somebody like that, wouldn’t you? But it’s true!
Never in the history of God’s dealings has there been a revival amongst the people of God without genuine, honest confession of sin—and not generic sins (“O Lord, we are sinful”) but this: “Lord, I confess to you today that I am guilty of unbelief. I do not believe your Bible. Lord, I confess to you today that pride fills my heart. Lord, I confess to you today that it’s real easy to become a gossip. Lord, I confess to you today that I am a grumbler, and everyone knows that I am a grumbler, and I am making other people grumble because I’m so good at doing it,” and so on. When we start to name sin and call it for what it is and confess it for what it does, then we start to make progress. Because up until that time, we’re just playing around. ’Cause God knows we’re sinful. And we know we’re sinful. But let’s call it like it really is.
Okay, confession, and then thanksgiving. Thanksgiving. Verses 8–10, he recounts the wonders of God’s promises. These verses in 8–10 are similar to what you find in 2 Timothy 2:11: “If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, [with him] we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will disown us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, [because] he cannot disown himself.” And as Nehemiah recounts a similar sort of parameter, he utters his thanksgiving to God.
So, how much adoration is there in your praying? Do you have an adoration section? Do I have an adoration section? Or does it go straight to the shopping list? “Lord, I worship you this morning. Now, let’s get down to business, Lord. We’ve got a few things here to talk about.” He understands that, but he doesn’t like it.
I love it when my kids want to come, they just want to snuggle: “Can I just snuggle you, Dad?”
“You mean, you don’t want anything?”
“No, I just want to snuggle you.”
“Sure, let’s go.” Now, in certain cases, it crushes the life out of me nowadays. But it’s still a lot of fun.
Adoration, confession, thanksgiving. How much thanksgiving is there in our prayers? The General Confession in the Church of England liturgy is matched by the General Thanksgiving. It goes something like this:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you our humble and heartfelt thanks for all of your goodness and loving-kindness to us. We praise you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but above all for your amazing love and our redemption. We pray that you will give us such an awareness of your goodness that our hearts may be truly thankful and that we may declare your praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving ourselves in your service and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days.
You want to know what God’s will for your life is? I can tell you in three phrases. First Thessalonians 5:16: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” So I know three things that he expects to be true of all of us and therefore three things that should permeate a church family: joy, prayer, and thanksgiving.
You want to pray for our church? You want to put it on Monday? Frankly, put it on every day of the week. We need it! Put it on every day of the week: “Lord, make our church, make Parkside Church, joyful, prayerful, thankful”—so when people come to our church, it’s a joyful experience, it’s a prayerful experience, and they are caught up in the thankfulness of folks around them. They’re not bellyaching about how bad it is and what didn’t happen and where we’re not going and the next thing. They are just thankful people. They’re not unrealistic, but they’re thankful. They’re not stupid. They recognize, through their tears, that there is pain, there is disappointment, but they have a joy that pervades all of that. And at the very heart of it all, when you touch them anywhere, they’re always praying. They’re always praying.
The fourth element in prayer is what we refer to as supplication. That’s the s in the word ACTS: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. And his supplication comes in verse 11. You’ll notice that there are ten verses before he ever gets to asking what he wants. So he goes ten verses on A, C, and T, and then he comes to the main point in verse 11: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name.” And here it comes. It is as bold as it is specific, and it is as reverent as it is clear: “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”
He asks specifically that God will give him favor in the presence of his boss: “I have this boss. I’m going to talk to my boss the first chance I get. And Lord, I’m talking to you first, to see if you couldn’t be at work in his life, because I know that would make a big difference.” However, if we do not believe that God is able to work in the heart of a pagan king or in the mind of a pagan boss, then we will be on our feet all the time, in human ingenuity, trying to find ways to make it happen. But when we truly trust in God, we can shut up on our feet and open up on our knees, so that we will discover that God moves man through prayer. When I don’t believe that he moves man through prayer, I will be constantly on my feet, trying to move man myself. It’s a great challenge. A great challenge for our church!
Now, there is an obvious link between the length of time that Nehemiah takes seeking the face of God and then the specific way in which he approaches the face of Artaxerxes. And what I’d like to do is give you just five words now, in the remainder of our time, that charts our progress through the first ten verses of chapter 2.
Verse 1 of chapter 2 reads, “In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes…” What in the world does that mean? You read one of those phrases, and you say, “Uh-huh? So, now, that’s good. ‘In the month of Nisan’—sounds like a car—‘in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes.’ What does that mean? I haven’t the foggiest idea.” Let me tell you what it means. You can write across your Bible: “One day in April, four months later…” That’s what it means. “One day in April, four months later…”
Now, this is significant. Because it reminds us of the amount of time that Nehemiah has been prepared to stay in the waiting room. He’s obviously a very purposeful kind of character.
He’s not sitting on his hands. He knows what he wants to achieve. He’s clear, as we will see, in his planning. But he recognizes that unless he waits upon the Lord, he will never renew his strength. Unless he waits upon the Lord, he will never mount up with wings as eagles. Unless he waits upon the Lord, he will never run and not be weary. Unless he waits upon the Lord, he will never walk and not be faint. “Lord, I want to walk and not be faint. I don’t want to wait upon you. Lord, I want to fly like an eagle. I don’t want to wait upon you. Lord, I want to be able to soar up on the hills, but I don’t want to wait upon you.” And the Lord says, “You can’t do it!”
And some of the things that we face as a church family are so elementary. They are so obvious and fundamental. At the heart of it all is this: we can go no further than our dependent commitment to God in prayer. It is fixed with God that a work which is not founded upon prayer will never be accomplished. Okay? People ask all the time, “Well, how much did this building cost?” and “How did you raise the money?” and “How did you sell the stuff?” and “Did you have bake sales?” and all these other things. The answer is no. To the glory of God, no. We just looked at the potential plans for phase two. Phase two is bigger than phase one in square footage, in drawing out the things that exist that we need. “Bigger than phase one!” Look at your faces! I wish I had a video camera panning all around. “Good night! We’ll never do that!” You’re right! We won’t—unless God does. We won’t even start it, of course. We won’t even conceive of it. We won’t even finalize it. We won’t do anything with it without God. But “with God all things are possible.”
Now, four months later, he comes before the king. He’s doing his thing, which is bringing out the drinks. You know what his job is. He’s the cupbearer. He gets a little drink of everything that the king and the queen are going to drink—which is good insofar as the stuff is good. If, of course, it happens to be poisoned, Nehemiah is in deep trouble, but long live the king. That’s the way it’s supposed to go. As I’ve said, it’s a great job for someone who likes culinary things and a high-risk experience, because that’s exactly what it is.
He takes the wine in, and he gives it to the king. And notice this little phrase at the end of verse 1: “I had not been sad in his presence before.” “I had not been sad in his presence before.” How long have you been working in your present job? Every single day you’ve gone into your job, have you ever looked, like, really bad? I mean, have you ever been… Your secretary said, “So, what is wrong with you, Mr. X,” or “Miss X,” or “Mrs. X?” And you just look like nothing on earth. Or are you a very joyful person? Do you go about your business daily, happily, thankfully, joyfully, prayerfully? Nehemiah obviously did. A long time in the service, and he had never once looked sad in front of the king.
Now, there was a good reason not to look sad in front of the king, in fairness to ourselves. Because if you looked sad as a cupbearer, that may be an indication of a sinister plot. It may be that you’re looking pained in your face because as you give him the stuff, you know: he gets it, he’s gone. And so the king would look at the cupbearer’s eyes very carefully to make sure he wasn’t reading any funny business in his eyes, because if he had sad eyes, there may be a sinister plot, and a sinister plot, you get this. So he had never been sad in the king’s presence, but he was sad today.
So the king conducts an investigation. That’s the first of five words. These are very brief. Relax. Word one: investigation.
Look at it in verse 2: “So the king asked me, ‘Why does your face look … sad when you[’re] not ill?’” Okay, that’s the first thing. You come down. You’ve got this white face. You don’t look really good. Question: “Are you ill?” Answer: “No, I’m not ill.” “Well then, if you’re not ill, what’s wrong with you? It’s got to be something inside of you that’s making you look like this on the outside.” And it was. There’s something in that’s coming out. You go in your office, you can read people’s insides, without taking X-rays, on the basis of what’s outside. Especially if you have any kind of discernment of human personality at all, you can tell something’s up.
And Nehemiah is living and revealing himself in such a way that the king conducts the investigation: “This can be nothing,” he says, “but sadness of heart.” “Why does your face look … sad when you[’re] not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” So he knows now: there’s either a girl in it, or he lost money somewhere, or something went bad on him. ’Cause his heart is bust up. Okay? Investigation.
Second word: consternation. The last phrase of verse 2: “I was very much afraid.”
I like this. I love this, actually. This is my favorite phrase so far, in chapter 2: “I was very much afraid.” Because it reveals the down-to-earthness of Nehemiah. I told you at the beginning that he’s an ordinary guy with an extraordinary task, right? He’s not Mr. Fearless. He’s not Mr. Successful. He’s not Mr. Triumphant. He’s not Mr. Never-Have-the-Blues. He’s just Mr. Nehemiah. And although he has been so much looking forward to the opportunity to say what he’s about to say, when he gets the chance to say it, his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth, he begins to perspire, and he is honest enough to say, “The king said, ‘So, what’s the deal?’ and I said, ‘I’m scared.’”
You see, seeking God in prayer doesn’t remove our natural fears. It may allay our fears, but it’s not going to remove them, because we still live in the world we live in. You see those rock climbers in Yorkshire, and they go up these great limestone faces of rock, and you say to yourself, “My! They must be the bravest people in the world. They don’t seem to be afraid.” Talk to them. They’re scared spitless! I mean, they’re completely scared. They’re scared! So what is bravery? Bravery is not the absence of fear. Bravery is the conquering of fear. And with the help of the Lord, to whom he prayed, although he was afraid, he goes for it.
Now, the Pharisee in us says, “Oh, wait a minute, Nehemiah. I wouldn’t have been like that. After all, if I had been fasting and praying and mourning for four months and the king had spoken to me, I wouldn’t be afraid.” Yeah you would. First of all, we wouldn’t have been praying for four months to start with, right? Consternation.
Thirdly, explanation. So he gives the explanation: “I said to the king, ‘May the king live forever!’” Good start, especially with your boss. You want to tell him, “I have a very nice boss. May you live forever! And may you be in this job forever. And let’s just start there.” But in actual fact, without blowing it by, it’s an expression of respect. And what he says is “May the king live forever!” He gives honor where honor is due.
Sometimes, when we think in terms of our Christian responsibilities and our concerns for righteousness, especially in relationship to the pagan world, we fall foul of an absence of respect. We don’t give respect where it should be due. It is true that these people and their actions deny God’s law and denigrate him, but nevertheless, God has instituted government for the punishment of those who do wrong and for the well-being of those who do right. He is sovereign in his purposes. And therefore, the president is the president, and the vice president is the vice president. So we have no mandate to do anything other than to say, “Yes, sir, Mr. President. May you live forever.” Now, we can say under our breath, “May your policies go down the drain.” But we’ve got to say, “May you live forever,” because they’re worthy of respect. And some of us are so concerned for righteousness that we’re very unrighteous in the way we endeavor to talk about our righteous concerns. And then our lives say so much that our words cannot be heard.
Now, the interesting thing is that now Nehemiah reveals his passion. He reveals his passion: “Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” I think he blurted it out. I mean, I don’t think he said it slowly. I think he just got it out: “Why should my face not be sad when…” And the guy goes, “Hey, what do you want?”
See, Nehemiah was a man with a mission, a person with a purpose, a guy with a goal, a chap with a challenge, a fellow with a focus, a bloke with a burden. He knew what he was on about! You’re a salesman, and you have one product line, and someone says, “What’s your deal?” you tell them! “This is my product line. This is what I want to do with it.” If someone asks you and you don’t know, you’re not a salesman, and you ought to be fired.
“Nehemiah, what’s the deal? You haven’t been in looking like this before. I see your face is sad. What’s the scoop?”
“The scoop is: my face is sad because Jerusalem is smashed up, and I don’t like it.”
Then verse 4: “Well, what do you want?” God is at work in the pagan king. God is at work in the pagan king. If Nehemiah had messed up the first question, “Why is your face so sad?” then he never would have had the follow-on question.
So, are you with me? Investigation on the part of the king. Consternation on the part of Nehemiah. Explanation on Nehemiah’s part.
And now application on Nehemiah’s part. “What is it you want?” Then he does a little arrow prayer: “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king.” “O Lord, here we go! All that stuff we’ve been talking about for four months, it’s coming down. We are going now.” All right?
Now, if he hadn’t been talking for four months, he would have had nothing to rely on. And that’s where some of us are. There’s been no prayer, no planning—no prayerful planning, no planning prayer. Okay? So when we go, we go cold: “O Lord, help!” And God in his mercy sometimes intervenes. But we go much more confidently, far more strongly based, if we have a backlog of four months of anticipated praying that goes along with it.
So, he didn’t have to go into a big, long explanation to the Lord. He said, “Okay, Lord, here we go.” And so he applies for a sabbatical leave. Verse 5: “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.”
Now, the quality of his service is obvious in the response in verse 6. Because “with the queen sitting beside him,” the king said, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” Now, if you and I apply for a sabbatical leave and they basically say to us, “Oh, you can have as long as you want; I mean, you can have forever, if you want,” then you know they’re not too keen to have you back. You go into your boss and say, “I was wondering if I could have three weeks leave of absence?” and your boss says, “Why not three months? I mean, why not three years? Now, why not three forevers? Why not just clear off?” Okay? When your boss says, “Well, wait a minute; I’m prepared to think about it, but when are you coming back?” then you know that your service is valued. And Nehemiah’s service was valued.
And so “it pleased the king to send me; [and] so I set a time.” And he enters in a contractual obligation in terms of when he will return. Realizing that the hand of God is on him, he gets on a roll now. And so he says, “Right! Here we go, Lord. We’ll get through the whole business now in a oner.”
“Okay, King, I want to go.”
“Two, I’d like to have some letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe conduct until I arrive in Judah.”
“Hey, Nehemiah, how did you think that up? Boy, can you think on your feet! You think fast, Nehemiah. You’re good!”
“Nah,” said Nehemiah. “I’ve been thinking about it for months. When I got down on my knees and I prayed to the Lord and he began to stir in my heart, he made me really sensible. He made me really practical. And in my spirit I knew: if I don’t have a passport at the first point of entry, they’ll send me back to Susa for one. So I knew that when this day dawned, not only was I going to ask if I could go, but I was going to ask if I could have letters so that I wouldn’t get stopped at the first border.”
Secondly—and he asks in here—he was going to have “a letter for Asaph.” ’Cause Asaph wasn’t just going to be throwing lumber around to any old Tom, Dick, or Harry. And so he would need a letter—which he got—so that he would have “timber to make [the] beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple … for the city wall” and for his house. He already knew he was going to have a house!
Do you ever come up across these Christians, say, “Oh, I don’t care about these things. I don’t know about these things. Spirituality is impracticality. I take my children, just walk out in the streets and show how holy I am.” Bogus nonsense! Nehemiah said, “If I go to Jerusalem, I’ll have to stay somewhere. I’m not just going to gate-crash on somebody. So when I ask for wood for the walls, I’ll get some for a house. I’ll put a little house together in Jerusalem. I’m going to have to have somewhere to stay.”
“And God was gracious, granted my request.” Verse 9: “So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates …[I] gave them the king’s letters.” And as a little bonus, “the king … also sent army officers and cavalry with me.” Hey, heavy duty! You get a limo and a whole bunch of cars going in front of you—the Harleys with the stuff going in front.
They’re coming down; the people are going, “Who’s this?”
They said, “Wait, and we’ll see when he gets out.”
Door opens up: “Nehemiah!”
“Yeah, we’re going through.”
“No, you’re not going through. You need papers to go through.”
“Oh yeah, the papers? You mean, like, from Artaxerxes?”
“Yeah! Okay, drive on.” So they drive on.
“Hey, Asaph! Get some of the trees in the back of this operation, would you, please? We’re going to Jerusalem.”
“Not without the papers you’re not.”
“Oh, you mean, the Artaxerxes papers?”
So do you think Nehemiah had a big head? What was the explanation? Verse 8’s the explanation: “because the gracious hand of my God was upon me.”
What’s the explanation of your life to this point? God’s gracious hand. Why are you still breathing? God’s gracious hand. Why do you still have usefulness in the kingdom? God’s gracious hand. Why does our church exist? God’s gracious hand. What is the future of our church? God’s gracious hand. What can we hope to achieve? God’s gracious hand. From start to finish, it was God’s gracious hand.
Was Nehemiah practical? Intensely. Did his theology make him impractical? No, his theology made him more practical. None of this nonsense about “Because you trust God, you don’t do anything.” He trusted God and did everything. He did everything, and he trusted God. Swindoll says of him that he was marked by four things. He was marked by the fact that he “realized his own limitations,” he “turned to God” in prayer, he “organized” and implemented a “plan,” and he “pressed on, despite … opposition.”
That, incidentally, is the fifth word, which I didn’t mention. When you get to verse 10, you find that he’s opposed. Sanballat and Tobiah—we’ll come back to these characters, unsavory characters—didn’t share his vision, didn’t share his dream, so they decided they would oppose him.
Any time that you do something for God, you’ll be opposed. Any time that you walk with the eyes of faith, you will be opposed by those who walk with the eyes of sight. And the opposition may be so severe that you figure you’ll never achieve it. And the reason why some of us are less than what we might be is not because of the absence of God’s power; it’s because we just have not focused and realized that God is willing to use an ordinary person like you and me in my office, in my street, in my home, in my school, in my environment.
The first time—and with this I close—the first time I ever went to an American football game was in Bushey, in Hertfordshire, in England. They were playing football there because it was a US Air Force base. And I’d never seen anything like it in my life. It was a sunny afternoon, and I watched. I hadn’t a clue what was going on. And I was also intrigued by the cheerleaders. I’d never seen cheerleaders before. It wasn’t because of how they looked. I don’t remember how they looked, but I remember what they said, and I remember they had these ridiculous things that they shook while they were saying what they were saying.
And this is what they were saying. The team would run up and down the field, and they said, in an American accent, they said, “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” I remember they said that: “You cayn, you cayn!” as opposed to “You can! You can!”—or, if you come from London, “You cahn! You cahn!” So, they’re yelling, “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” And they couldn’t do it! They couldn’t do it! They stunk! They couldn’t do anything! “You can do it, you can do it! You can! You can!” I said, “We got a major gap here between this sideline stuff and what’s going on on the field.”
That’s exactly what we’ve got in the church: we’ve got a major gap between the Word of God, by the Spirit of God, which, unlike the cheerleaders—they’re just talking off the top of their heads—but God’s Word says, “By my Spirit, you can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” You can witness to your boss. You can love that person in your office. You can make a difference in your school. You can build the wall. You can affect the kingdom. You can make an impact in your generation—just you. Why? Because of the gracious hand of God that rests upon those who, like Nehemiah, are prepared to come to him in humble dependence and prayer. May God make us those kind of people and increasingly make Parkside that kind of church.
Let us pray:
Our Father, we want to ask you this morning that you will take these principles, convince us of their rightness, and empower us by your Spirit to live as Nehemiah did. Despite the opposition he faced, despite the consternation within his own fearfulness, he was prayerful, he was thankful, he was joyful, he was bold. Hear our prayers, and let our cry come unto you.
And may grace and mercy and peace from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943).
 Van Morrison “Have I Told You Lately” (1989).
 Terry W. York, “Worthy of Worship” (1988). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Psalm 8:3–4 (KJV).
 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 4.1.
 See Isaiah 6:6–7.
 Isaiah 6:5 (KJV).
 Robert Murray M’Cheyne, quoted in Andrew A. Bonar, Memoirs and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1844), 201. Paraphrased.
 The Book of Common Prayer. Paraphrased.
 See Isaiah 40:31.
 Matthew 19:26 (NIV 1984). See also Mark 10:27.
 Charles R. Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1978), 57.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.