Big Problem; Bigger God

Posted: March 23, 2011 in Nehemiah

Nehemiah 1-2, “Big Problems; Bigger God”

The Bible is filled with stories of how God uses people in unexpected positions for His glory.  From the ancient land of Ur, God called a pagan moon-worshiper to step out in faith & become the father of many nations (Abraham).  In Midian, God called a murderer & current shepherd in hiding to go to the land of Egypt & free the Hebrews (Moses).  In Israel, God called a shepherd boy & runt of the litter to be king & made a promise with him to bring forth the Messiah (David).  Now in Persia, God calls a Jewish slave & food-taster to become governor of Judah & to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah).

Things seem to have been relatively easy for Nehemiah prior to the events recorded for us.  He may have been a servant, but he served in the palace of the king of Persia…a luxurious job no matter how we look at it.  Everything was provided for him & he could have easily relaxed there believing that God had blessed him with whatever he needed for the rest of his life.  Yet when the need in Jerusalem was made known, God strengthened this man for the task ahead & forged him into a leader that the Jews desperately needed.  Nehemiah was willing to step out in faith, and God blessed the step!

Nehemiah 1 (NKJV)

1 The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. It came to pass in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the citadel, 2 that Hanani one of my brethren came with men from Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who had survived the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem.

  1. The book opens with great context regarding the date.  Scholars do debate the dating somewhat, but it seems to be clear that Nehemiah was a servant of Artaxerxes I, serving in the Persian palace (citadel) in Shushan (or “Susa”).  The 20th year seems to be the year 444 BC, which places these events 94 years after the 1st wave of return under Zerubbabel. (Zerub = 538 BC, Ezra = 458 BC)  The temple had been rebuilt & people have been living in the land of Israel for decades now.  The previous Persian kings had given permission for any Jew who wanted to go back to actually go to Israel, but only a relative few had taken the journey back home.
  2. Apparently some of the Jews went back & forth to Persia (perhaps trading or sending messages?), and when a group had come back, Nehemiah was anxious to hear what had been happening back in Jerusalem.
    1. A couple of questions remain unanswered here.  (1) Why was Nehemiah still in Persia himself?  Was he one of the ones who was just comfortable where he was?  (2) Why was he so interested in Jerusalem when he had the comforts of the palace? Scripture doesn’t tell us the answer to either question, though the 2nd is easier to imagine.  The covenant God had made with Abraham included a people, the Messiah, and the land.  God made Abraham into a great nation (the people) – God promised to bless the entire world through Abraham (the Messiah) – and God promised to give the people a home (the land).  Jews have a natural tie & interest in the land of Israel, and no matter where they may be, Israel is their home because God is the one who gave it to them.
    2. We ought to feel the same way about heaven.  We may be here for now (as long as God has us here), but this world is not our home…  We ought not get too attached to it…


3 And they said to me, “The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.”

  1. Bad news!  The city wall was a city’s primary source of protection & apparently Jerusalem had none.  It was broken down & burned, and thus the families of Jerusalem were left vulnerable to their enemies around them.
  2. Why was it broken?  Possibly a remnant of the original captivity…  Possibly the work of Israel’s enemies (Ez 4).  A local commander of the Persian armies (Rehum & a coalition of people) were uncomfortable with the reconstruction of the city & had written to the king for it to stop, with the remembrance that Jerusalem had been a rebellious city.  The king sent a “cease & desist” letter & Rehum went up “by force of arms” to stop the work (Ezra 4:23).  Possibly they destroyed what construction of the wall had already taken place.
  3. The better question is why hadn’t the wall been rebuilt by the time Nehemiah heard about it?  After all, if a window in your house breaks, you don’t let it sit there for months (or years) on end – you fix it.  Why hadn’t the people already living in Jerusalem fixed the wall? It’s possible that they hadn’t yet received their renewed permission from the king.  An earlier king (King Darius) had given clarified his permission for the Jews to rebuild the temple, but perhaps similar clarity had not yet come regarding the wall in light of the latest opposition.  The current king (Artaxerxes) was actually the one that had commanded the city construction cease (Ez 4:21) – which obviously made Nehemiah’s situation a bit more delicate.


4 So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.

  1. Upon hearing the news, Nehemiah didn’t get mad – he didn’t act rashly by running straight for the king – instead, he humbled himself before God in fasting & prayer.  Remember Ezra had done the same thing when he learned of the sin of the leaders of Israel intermarrying with the pagans around them (Ez 10:6).
  2. Although the words seem dramatic, it’s important to realize that Nehemiah wasn’t putting on a show for the crowd.  The men from Jerusalem aren’t even mentioned at this point; instead Nehemiah’s attention is focused upon “the God of heaven.”  Often, this is where people get fasting wrong.  People brag about their fasts & speak of what they’re giving up…  Jesus specifically warned against that practice! Matthew 6:16–18 “(16) “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. (17) But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, (18) so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” []
  3. Fasting is fundamentally about humbling ourselves before Almighty God.  It’s not an attempt to manipulate God by our “super-spiritual” practices – it’s not a religious ritual to do just because “everyone else is doing it” (though people can certainly fast in tandem with one another).  It’s about personal & sincere humility before the Lord.  (Sincerity is a key concept!  God had chastised the Israelites for attempting to fast while at the same time allowing injustice to go on unchecked in the land.  Isa 58:5-7)  For Nehemiah, the news he heard absolutely grieved him & so he poured his heart out to the Lord.  Fasting was an appropriate way to do that.
    1. Be careful of writing off fasting as something “some other denominations or churches do.”  When we fast with the right heart & attitude, it can be a wonderful practice that feeds our spirit, even while our bodies go without food.  It can help take us to the feet of Jesus in prayer…
    2. It might say something about the state of revival (or disarray) within the Church today because of the lack of sincere prayer & fasting among the people of God.  Perhaps when we pray for revival, we do so casually without thought…  May we be those who sincerely seek the Lord & to ask His will be done!


–          Nehemiah’s prayer…

5 And I said: “I pray, LORD God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments, 6 please let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night, for the children of Israel Your servants, …

  1. Nehemiah prays to God based upon God’s character.  God is the “LORD God of heaven” – our Creator who loves us & knows us by name.  He is the Almighty – the “great and awesome God” – there is none like Him in heaven or on earth.  There is only one God in the universe to whom Nehemiah could appeal: the Lord God of heaven.
  2. Nehemiah petitions God based upon covenant relationship.  This God was not a stranger to the people of Israel; He had covenant relationship with them.  They were HIS servants – the ones that God had promised to protect & provide for.  Nehemiah could call upon God in prayer because God was HIS God, the sovereign protector of Israel.
  3. We do the same thing in our own prayers.  We pray to God based upon His character (He’s our Father – the faithful God whom invites us to pray, and has given us the spirit of adoption).  We also pray to God based upon covenant relationship with Him.  Our relationship with God is based upon the unfathomable work of Jesus at the cross.  When Jesus shed His blood, it was the blood of the new covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of sin.  Because God is faithful to His Son – because Jesus has purchased us with His own blood – we have been brought into covenant relationship with God.  Now we can go boldly before the throne of grace to find grace in our time of need!


… and confess the sins of the children of Israel which we have sinned against You. Both my father’s house and I have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses.

  1. Nehemiah is honest in his prayers, confessing national sins. Nehemiah did not exclude himself from the confession (“Both my father’s house and I have sinned.”), yet primarily this was a prayer of national confession.  As a people, they had sinned & ended up in captivity.  God was their covenant King, but Israel had repeatedly broken & disregarded the covenant in traitorous rebellion.  Nehemiah was simply admitting the truth.
  2. Ultimately, this is all confession is: agreeing with God that our sin is indeed sinful.  Confession is not something that we need to be legalistic about (“Maybe I missed a sin I committed at 6:53 this morning!”), but it IS something that needs to be done.  Unconfessed sin is always going to hamper our relationship with God…always. []  God is ready to forgive & Jesus has already made the provision for our forgiveness, but we need to humble ourselves before God & ask for it.  (Receiving His cleansing, in return!)


8 Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; 9 but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name.’

  1. Nehemiah’s prayer is based upon God’s promises.  In Lev 26, God had promised to scatter the children of Israel if they were unfaithful.  Yet in Deut 30, God promised to bring them back to the land if they turned back to God.  God had already shown Himself to be true on both counts: He had taken them out of the land & into captivity for over 70 years – and God had already brought many of the people back into the land according to His great promise.  Nehemiah is basically praying that God’s promise would come to its full completion with the wall being finished.
  2. We always have a solid foundation for prayer when we’re basing our prayers upon the word of God.  That’s not to say that we can use the Bible as a book of incantations whereby if we just claim a promise of God forcefully enough, He’s bound to act upon our prayer according to our expectations. (Name it & claim it, etc.)  God will always act in accordance with His word, but He’ll do so in His will – which isn’t necessarily ours.  That said, sometimes we sometimes shy away from boldly praying according to the promises revealed in the Bible – and there’s simply no reason for doing so.  God promised wisdom for those who ask (Jas 1:5), thus we can boldly ask for it.  God has promised peace when we pray with thanksgiving & make our requests of God (Phil 4:7), thus we can expect that peace.  In many cases, God has already told us how He will respond, if we but ask…we need to ask!


10 Now these are Your servants and Your people, whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand.

  1. Nehemiah reminds God of His sovereign work.  Obviously, it’s not that God forgot (He’s omniscient; it would be an impossibility!), but Nehemiah brings up the past work of God in the life of Israel as an appeal that God would continue His work.  God had already redeemed His people out of the land of Egypt & out of the hands of Babylon & Persia – there’s no reason that God would not continue the work.
  2. Likewise with us.  We’ve already been given so much in that we’ve been redeemed by the work of Jesus Christ.  God will not give up on His children – we can be assured of that!  He who has begun a good work in you will be faithful to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).  When we go to the Lord in prayer in the name of Christ, we can be confident that because of Christ, God will act in accordance with His will.


11 O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” For I was the king’s cupbearer.

  1. Nehemiah finishes the prayer by finally laying out his petition.  He asks that God would hear him – that God would bless/prosper him – that God would give him mercy in the sight of the king.  It’s a simple enough petition, yet goes straight to the heart of what was needed. 
    1. The ratio is interesting!  It took 6 verses for Nehemiah to actually get to his request.  Our prayers are usually 90% petition, and 10% praise (if this much!); Nehemiah spent much more time in praise, confession, and assurance of the promises of God than he did on the actual petition.
  2. What was a cupbearer?  As implied, he would be the one to bring the wine to the king.  More than a table waiter, the cupbearer was actually charged with tasting the wine to ensure it wasn’t poisoned prior to the king drinking it.  It was certainly a position given to a servant (someone who might be expendable), but it was also a position of immense trust.  Nehemiah would have frequent audiences with the king & an established relationship with him.


Nehemiah 2 (NKJV)

1 And it came to pass in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, that I took the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had never been sad in his presence before.

  1. Four months pass, and Nehemiah is finally in the presence of the king again.  Why 4 months?  Some scholars suggest that perhaps Shusan was the winter palace of the king, and the king went to Babylon at other times, so this would have been Nehemiah’s next available opportunity.  Others suggest that Nehemiah spent 4 months in prayer before God gave him the opportunity to actually lay this request before the king. (Talk about sincere prayer!)  Whatever the reason, there was a bit of a delay – yet as we’ll see, Nehemiah’s meeting came at the perfect time when the king was ready to respond.
    1. What may seem to be delays might just be God’s provision.  We need to remember that God is sovereign over all things!
  2. We get a reminder of when this all took place: “in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes.”  Interestingly enough, although Nehemiah follows Ezra in our Bibles, chronologically speaking, there’s actually a book that comes in-between the events: Esther.  Artaxerxes was the son of Ahasuerus, who married Esther…ultimately making her queen & the step-mother of Artaxerxes.  By this point in history, the Jewish people had almost been exterminated, but had been saved by God’s use of Esther at exactly the appropriate time. Artaxerxes would have been familiar with all of this, and likely predisposed to show favor to the Jews – again, showing the perfect timing of God!
  3. Nehemiah was still saddened by the news at Jerusalem, and apparently it affected his work, which was noticed by the king.  See vs. 2…


2 Therefore the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This is nothing but sorrow of heart.” So I became dreadfully afraid, 3 and said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire?”

  1. Being sad in the king’s presence was a dangerous thing!  A servant was supposed to be happy in his king’s presence, as it was a reflection of the wonderful rule & favor of the king.  An unhappy servant implied he was displeased with the king…which could lead to imprisonment (or worse).  In addition, an unhappy servant may be aware of a plot against the king’s life (such as the one Mordecai discovered against King Ahasuerus, Esther 2:21).  Withholding that information would be considered treason. All in all, Nehemiah had good reason to be “dreadfully afraid!
  2. Nehemiah’s response?  Simple honesty.  He doesn’t attempt to lie about his situation, or make light of it – instead, he’s honest before the king & tells him about the situation in Jerusalem.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that Nehemiah couldn’t be wise in how he told the king, which he was.  (1) The Persians apparently had a high value on the tombs of their relatives.  To state that the Jewish tombs were lying waste would have appealed to an area that mattered to the king.  (2) Nehemiah never specifically mentions the city name of “Jerusalem.”  Although the city’s name would be made known eventually, the city was known for rebellion, and there was no reason to bring it up at this point.
    1. Wise as serpents, harmless as doves… (Mt 10:16)


4 Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.

  1. I love this simple line!  Obviously Nehemiah didn’t have the chance to spend another 4 months in prayer, or even go back to his own room for a few minutes.  He just quickly prayed (either in his heart or under his breath) & jumped forward.
  2. Of course we don’t want ALL of our prayers to be short little statements like this, but it’s helpful to see Nehemiah pray both in length & in brevity.  There’s not just “one way” to pray – Scripture shows us all kinds of prayer.  They range from outline (the Lord’s prayer) – the formal group prayers (Solomon’s prayer of dedication at the temple) – the quick “arrow” prayers (Nehemiah & Peter, “Lord, save me!”  The point isn’t so much the length or formality of our prayers, it’s that we PRAY.


5 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.”

  1. Nehemiah jumps at the opportunity by faith!  He request that the king would give him a personal commission to go to Judah & rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
  2. This is astounding when we stop to consider it.  Here’s a man that’s a trusted servant of the king, but he’s a cupbearer, not an architect.  He is a man of influence (in his position before the king), but there’s no indication he was a great leader of people prior to this time.  Yet when presented with a blank check from the king, Nehemiah doesn’t attempt to push off the responsibility or shy away from the opportunity God had given him; he boldly grabbed hold of it.  Like Queen Esther before him, God had raised him up for such a time as this, and Nehemiah wasn’t going to waste it, wringing his hands wondering what to do under the guise of false piety.
    1. How many opportunities do we miss out on simply because we don’t walk by faith? “Lord, give me someone to witness to! But surely not that guy there…”  Nehemiah had been praying for this very opportunity; it would have been foolish (if not outright sin) for him to waste the open door God gave him.  By all means, pray bold prayers!  But then be ready to respond when God answers.


6 Then the king said to me (the queen also sitting beside him), “How long will your journey be? And when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.

  1. What’s interesting here is that Nehemiah didn’t have to go back to his room & plan out the amount of weeks & months he would be gone.  During the 4 months of waiting, Nehemiah had been putting together a plan & knew exactly what would be needed for the project of rebuilding.  Before he even knew if or when he would get an opportunity to ask the king to go, Nehemiah was already putting together a plan in case God gave him the opportunity.  That’s faith!


7 Furthermore I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given to me for the governors of the region beyond the River, that they must permit me to pass through till I come to Judah, 8 and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he must give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel which pertains to the temple, for the city wall, and for the house that I will occupy.” And the king granted them to me according to the good hand of my God upon me.

  1. He asked for protection.  It was a dangerous road to travel, and Nehemiah needed permission to go through certain lands. Notice this is exactly the opposite of Ezra.  Ezra had travelled back to Israel without a military guard specifically to demonstrate the grace of God. (Ez 8:21-23)  Does this mean that Nehemiah had less faith than Ezra?  Not at all.  It simply shows that God works differently with different people.  Nehemiah had a different mission than Ezra, and thus had different needs.  Ezra was leading a large group of Jews back to the land – they needed to see the protection of God at work as they went back into the land of promise.  Nehemiah was going on a construction project & he needed to move quickly without delay.
    1. Be careful about judging your own walk with the Lord by someone else’s life.  Sometimes we can fall into a trap of comparison…  The only standards we have by which to judge our walk with the Lord is the Scripture & Christ Jesus Himself.  Don’t worry about another man’s servant – concentrate on what the Lord has given you to do.
  2. He asked for provision.  Who better to ask for timber & finances than the guy who has authority over all the kingdom?  Nehemiah took full advantage of the opportunity God had given him to ask for everything that was required. (Both for the wall & for his own personal house while he was there.)


9 Then I went to the governors in the region beyond the River, and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen with me. 10 When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard of it, they were deeply disturbed that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel.

  1. Sanballat & Tobiah are going to be thorns in Nehemiah’s side for a long time to come.  As a “Horonite,” Sanballat was likely a Samaritan, and Ammonites had been enemies of Israel for centuries.  Obviously they did not want Israel to succeed at anything & they were going to get in the way of Nehemiah as much as they could.
  2. Our own enemy has a name as well: not Sanballat, but Satan.  And likewise, Satan is disturbed any time someone seeks the well-being of God’s people.  We can count on spiritual attack during any time of ministry.


11 So I came to Jerusalem and was there three days. 12 Then I arose in the night, I and a few men with me; I told no one what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem; nor was there any animal with me, except the one on which I rode.

  1. We’re not told much about the trip, but when Nehemiah actually arrives in Jerusalem, he does so quietly.  He takes 3 days to casually but carefully investigate the city.  He doesn’t raise suspicions about himself, because he wants to see things for how they really are, without any well-meaning officials in Jerusalem sugar-coating anything.


13 And I went out by night through the Valley Gate to the Serpent Well and the Refuse Gate, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were burned with fire. 14 Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool, but there was no room for the animal under me to pass. 15 So I went up in the night by the valley, and viewed the wall; then I turned back and entered by the Valley Gate, and so returned. 16 And the officials did not know where I had gone or what I had done; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, or the others who did the work.

  1. He got an honest assessment of the work.  It was so bad in some locations that his animal couldn’t even pass through.  Thus far, the situation was exactly as he had been told (back in Ch 1).
  2. This assessment was absolutely necessary.  A problem can’t be fixed until it’s defined. [] Are we brutally honest with ourselves regarding problems that need fixing?  So many times we sugar-coat sin in an attempt to make it more palatable to us.  “I don’t have a problem with rage; it’s just a slight temper…”  “It’s not adulterous lust; it’s just appreciating a beautiful body…” “It’s not idolatry; I just like stuff…”  Let’s be honest – call it what it is, so it can be dealt with!


17 Then I said to them, “You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach.” 18 And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me, and also of the king’s words that he had spoken to me. So they said, “Let us rise up and build.” Then they set their hands to this good work.

  1. It’s interesting how quickly & eagerly the leaders & other people of Jerusalem responded to Nehemiah.  Apparently they had just been waiting to be led, and now that a leader had arrived that was unwilling to compromise, they were ready to start the work. It goes to demonstrate that God’s timing was absolutely perfect.  God not only raised up the man for the job, He raised up the men needed to come alongside him.
  2. What was the news that made the difference?  After all, they could see the ruined wall with their own eyes…  They were willing to work after Nehemiah told them “of the hand of my God which had been good upon me, and also of the king’s words that he had spoken.”  The work of God made all the difference!  It’s one thing to do something because it seems like a good idea; it’s another to do something that the Lord has blessed!
    1. How important this is when it comes to the Church!  There is much temptation to do things simply because they seem attractive.  (Business models – Entertainment models, etc.)  Yet just because they may be attractive doesn’t mean they’re worth doing.  The work & word of God is what makes all the difference!


19 But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they laughed at us and despised us, and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Will you rebel against the king?” 20 So I answered them, and said to them, “The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no heritage or right or memorial in Jerusalem.”

  1. A triad of enemies (now including Geshem the Arab) scoff at the Jews, attempting to implant doubt.
  2. How does Nehemiah respond?  He affirms their faith!  God had called them to the work – God would prosper them in the work – thus they would do the work, trusting upon the Lord.  Their enemies had no right to work or live in Jerusalem at all; it had been given them by God & they weren’t going to relinquish their gift from God to anyone.



What was laid out in front of Nehemiah was an absolutely massive task.  Thousands of miles away, his home city (which he likely had never visited) lay unprotected & in ruins.  How could he help?  He was just a cupbearer to the king.  This was a big problem – yet he served a bigger God. 

Nehemiah reacted in faith.

  1. He poured out his heart to God in faith through fasting, confession, and prayer… 
  2. He stepped out in faith when God granted him a miraculous opportunity…
  3. He acted upon that faith when he went to Jerusalem – and gave the people there an opportunity to join him in this step of faith…


What do we do when faced with massive overwhelming tasks?  The same thing as Nehemiah: through faith, cast ourselves upon the grace & mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ – and then act upon the provisions He gives us.

Maybe there’s something on your heart tonight that you need to take before the Lord.  Perhaps a problem that seems overwhelming – perhaps an opportunity that seems too big…  Whatever it is, take it to the Lord tonight (and don’t just stop with tonight) – and then wait for the opportunity to act according to the Lord’s work.


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