Beyond the Lectionary Text: Nehemiah 1:1 – 2:6
by Sam Perry
If one reads the Bible with a view for the whole it is clear that God has a heart for the city. Jesus talks about cities as he says to his followers, “you are the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.” He says that in the city there should be a city within the city, the church who, filled with His Spirit lives according to God’s Word, by Grace. Jesus says that while there is darkness in cities like the ones in which we live, His people are to be light for all to see. This isn’t unique to the New Testament. Even after God’s people have been told they will be taken into exile for unfaithfulness in Jeremiah 29, God tells them to seek the peace and prosperity of the city where they are exiled and to pray for it, because if it prospers, they will prosper.”
As we read Nehemiah about a city in shambles, we see it is actually about more than building walls. It is about building a home for God’s people to gather, to worship together, to read Scripture together, all so they can be a city within the city working for the prosperity of the city. Today the church is called to the same plan. To love the city. So Nehemiah has a lot of insight for how God’s people can be a city within the city, a light on a hill as a community. In fact the book of Nehemiah doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if we insist on reading it in terms of our North American individualism. Throughout the book Nehemiah speaks in terms of the people of God. He cares passionately for God’s people. He is distressed when they are not doing well, even when his situation is one of high rank and great privilege and influence. He remembers the promises of God and when he exercises leadership, he knows with whom he must work, whom it is he has to influence and what ways must be found to get to the goal by displaying a passion for the glory of God and good for God’s people.
Upon hearing the remnant of his people in Jerusalem aren’t doing well and that the city is still broken, he is driven to weep and fast and pray for an extended period of time. It is clear that as this time of fasting and praying goes on (around four months) Nehemiah is not simply going through motions. This isn’t mere distant professionalism, but rather a passionate, deep identification with the people of God and God’s city.
John Stott points out that this is a common trait in those who follow God both in the Old Testament and the New. Paul, for example, in Romans or II Corinthians isn’t only concerned with his own person as he faces ship-wrecks and prison. In fact he dismisses these things as light and momentary afflictions. Instead Paul’s great concern is for the well-being of God’s people, and God’s church that God might be glorified. So he asks rhetorical questions like, “Who is wounded and I do not hurt?” Paul is grieved to the core over abject spiritual poverty and idolatry.
The question any one of us can ask is when is the last time any of us went into any city and were grieved to the very core of our being for the tragic emptiness of the church of God in our day and generation? To be so moved requires God’s Spirit at work in our lives. This is what marked Nehemiah. We would all do well to ask that God would give us this kind of heart, that we might weep and fast and pray over the state of God’s people in the church today. New studies come out regularly that demonstrate the state of the church. Statistics recently have said that every year roughly three and a half thousand churches die and close every year (mostly mainline churches and church plants). Roughly 80% of churches in North America have plateaued in their membership or are declining. Who will weep for Christ’s church? Who will mourn for churches like the one I encountered in Kalamazoo many years ago where the pastor I met was bemoaning a steady ten-year decline. I asked him how often he talks about the grace of God in Christ crucified for broken and sinful people. He replied, “Oh no, we don’t talk about Jesus like that here. I find all that sin and salvation business too controversial; we have a post Jesus theology.”
If these conditions continue one doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that without a significant move of God’s Spirit in this country, we aren’t all that far away from repeating the demise of the church that has been seen in Western Europe. Who will ask that God’s name be glorified in His churches here? Who will ask God to give His people such a heart for their cities and the people of God in those cities that our hearts would be like that of Jesus Christ, broken for the city? Would that we would be content with nothing less than thriving churches for the good of the city like Nehemiah.
The prayer demonstrates that Nehemiah knows God. It contains adoration and reflection on the character of God. When we are in great distress, is this how we typically approach God? I am convinced that it is especially when we are distressed that we ought to remember first that God is in control. He is great and awesome and is the God of Heaven. This is the way to move forward with hope in the face of discouragement.
The prayer also contains confession and it is worth noting that it isn’t the ordinary personal confession. It is very communal confession on behalf of his people and himself. This is very much in line with how Paul talks about the church as one body so that if one suffers we all suffer. It is extremely counter-cultural to think like this today in 21st century North America. It is far easier to be taken up by the spirit of the age that says I am responsible for me and me only. It is terribly easy to look at the problems in the church today and simply point fingers saying, “It’s the conservatives who are ruining the church, or it is the liberals who are to blame” when the cold hard truth is that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, so we all individually and collectively have sin that undermines the health of the church and the city.
Nehemiah’s confession also shows that he knows God. Almost like a child reminding his father, “You promised!” Nehemiah prays the promises of God, seeking to see God’s name made great in the city and amongst His people.
Only after Adoration and Confession does Nehemiah really get to petition as he prays for success. He isn’t simply emotionally ranting his distress to God in prayer. He isn’t simply complaining to God. Nehemiah has been fasting and praying for months and has determined what it will take to accomplish the rebuilding project which is nothing less than the reversal of Artaxerxes decree made years prior. But Nehemiah began his prayer recognizing the sovereignty of God. He knows as proverbs says, “the heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord.”
Who will take leadership in prayer like this on behalf of God’s people? Cyril J. Barber, in his book, Nehemiah and the Dynamics of Effective Leadership, says, “The self-sufficient do not pray; they merely talk to themselves. The self-satisfied will not pray; they have no knowledge of their need. The self-righteous cannot pray; they have no basis on which to approach God.”
Nehemiah serves the Persian king Artaxerxis. He lives a little more than a century after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. The Persians have since overthrown the Babylonians so by this time there have already been two movements back to Jerusalem on the part of the people of God (recorded in Ezra 1-6 and 7-10). When the Babylonians conquered, they would send the leaders and the best and brightest of a conquered people away. They thought that when the threefold chord of land, people and local gods was maintained, rebellion would be less likely. However removing large groups of leaders from their land and their gods also broke up the tax base because the people would be starting over from scratch and it would take time to rebuild any significant wealth. So the Persians reversed this. They allowed people to go back home, so Nehemiah begins with people returning, but the remnant isn’t doing well.
It is said that prayer made Abraham Lincoln the man he was. Lincoln said about prayer, “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of those about me seemed insufficient for the day.”
Nehemiah points to Christ as he weeps for God’s people. Christ Himself wept over the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s deep anguish reminds us of Christ’s final evening of prayer to His Father. However where Nehemiah risked his life going before the king to get approval for the rescuing of God’s city, Jesus Christ was taken out of the city and lost his life for the salvation of His people.