How God Prepares His Workers for His Work Part 2 (Neh. 1:4-11)
Last time we looked at how God prepares His workers for His work. We said two things. First of all, it begins by God:
I. Birthing a burden in our hearts (Neh. 1:1-3). Nehemiah, far removed in distance and generations from his people, after finding out that the wall of Jerusalem was still broken down and not fixed, even after some of the Jews had returned, was moved with compassion. A burden was birthed in his heart. God’s work requires taking on God’s heart and God’s burden. Secondly:
II. Breaking our hearts with the burden (Neh. 1:4a). Not only does the burden weigh heavy on our heart, but it causes our hearts to break. If you remember, we said that whoever wants to rebuild the walls, cannot do so until he/she has first wept over the ruins.
Thirdly God prepares His workers for His work by us:
III. Bringing the burden to God (Neh. 1:4-10)
It is interesting how this works. A burdened God looks for believers who can carry His burden. He births a burden in their heart. This burden then breaks their heart. Then he desires them to roll the burden back to Him to see His power and experience His joy and leave with confidence and trust that He will turn the burden into a blessing. This seems like common sense to bring our burdens to God, but dying to self-sufficiency and this “I can handle it” attitude is a big struggle for us. Cyril J. Barber, the author of a very valuable study of Nehemiah, has written wisely, “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, as big a position he had, still found it necessary to go to God in prayer. If you remember from the overview, this book is saturated with prayer. There are 10 instances of prayer in 13 chapters of this book. It even begins and ends in prayer. We are going to look at this beginning prayer today.
Do you want to know how God prepares His workers for His work? He first teaches them to be pleaders, before they can become leaders. Someone asked author Stephen Davey, “How does prayer work?” I like his response: “I don’t know how prayer works, I just know that prayer is work! And those who work at prayer discover that prayer works!”
Nehemiah is a great example of someone who is working at prayer. What does it mean to bring our burden to God? Bringing our burden to God means:
a) Look up and grasp His greatness (Neh. 1:4-5)
Notice his prayer. How many of you ever heard of the ACTS acronym on how to pray? “A” stands for Adoration. “C” stands for Confession. “T” for Thanksgiving and “S” for Supplication. We will see elements of each in Nehemiah’s prayer here.
Notice how he begins his prayer with praise. He starts off invoking the personal name of God: Yahweh. “God of Heaven” was a common use by the Persians when they talked about their pagan gods. But by putting it next to LORD, Nehemiah is saying that one true God of Heaven is the one who had a personal relationship with them through the covenant God had made with His people. When Nehemiah calls God the “God of Heaven,” and when we say, “Our Father who art in Heaven”, it is not so much that it is God’s address, but more about God’s attributes. “Of Heaven” refers to God being transcendent, majestic, and sovereign. As such, Nehemiah is acknowledging that God is above even the greatest empire of that time, Persia and above the greatest tragedy of the Captivity and exile.
Notice He is the “great and awesome God.” As one commentator notes, “God’s awesomeness is the impression his total character and person leaves on all who encounter him.” We would be wise to reserve the word “awesome” to God alone. We tend to ascribe that word to a music band, chocolate, a ball game or a movie we just saw. But truly nothing and nobody is awesome like God!
He says this great and awesome God is also a promise-keeping God. This is what he means as he says “who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments.” He is referring the covenant God made with the people of Israel. We will talk more about that in a second.
See the words “steadfast love.” If you remember our Ruth series, this is a very popular word in the Old Testament. Write in your margin the word “hesed.” This is a great word! Let’s review this word again. It is found 246x in the OT and 127x (over half in the Psalms). The only problem is that there is no real good English equivalent for it. Probably the best is “God’s loyal covenant-keeping love for His people.” Some translations call it “lovingkindness” or “mercy” or “kindness” or “steadfast love.” It is most often mentioned with God as the subject and His people or humanity as the object (3:1). Humans also can also show “hesed” to one another.
On one website, the author defined “hesed” as “the consistent, ever-faithful, relentless, constantly-pursuing, lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, furious love of our Father God!” I really like that! Nehemiah here is appealing to that love. He knows his people did not keep their end of the bargain, but He is recalling God who has been faithful, even when God’s people were unfaithful.
Do you see what Nehemiah’s doing here? He is grasping the greatness of God. Praise comes before petition. He is not coming to God and saying, “Here I am!” but instead, “There you are!” God was not some genie who will give you three wishes if you rub hard enough on the prayer lamp. He was not some “gumball machine” into which you insert the prayer quarter and get some candy. But God, you are Sovereign! Notice how many times he refers to either himself or God’s people as servants in this chapter! Eight times in 11 verses! He knew his place before God and he knew God’s place before him. God was on the throne. His servant was at his feet. Sure he is probably really close to the King of Persia as a cupbearer, and in front of the world’s eyes, the second most important person, but before God, he is just a servant and God is the sovereign ruler of the Universe.
I could certainly work on adoration more in my life, but I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have felt really heavy burdens on my heart weighing me down and then coming to God in prayer and then when I just start to worship and praise Him for who He is, how God gives my heart wings! Sometimes by the time I get to petition, I forget what the burdens even were!
We could work on adoring the Lord more. We may know so many verses and songs that deal with us, but very little that just talk about how great God is. For example, finish this verse: “Be still and know…” Most of you probably know the rest of that sentence—“that I am God”—but how many know the rest of that verse? The rest of the verse from Ps. 46:10 says, “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted among the earth.” If you are one who likes to underline verses in your Bible, I wonder what percentage are verses about us (which is not wrong to underline by the way) and what percentage is solely about God? How do you bring your burdens to God? Start by looking up and grasping His greatness. Learn to spend time in adoration. Read Psalms like Ps 145 or 136 to help you. Secondly,
b) Look in and grasp our sin (Neh. 1:6-7)
In Neh. 1:6, Nehemiah asks God for “his ear to be attentive and his eyes open.” If you and I are speaking and my ears are very attentive to you and my eyes are wide open and looking straight at you, this means that you have my full, maximum attention. This is what Nehemiah is asking of God. He wants God’s maximum attention. But how is he going to get it?
The way he will get the maximum attention of God is by giving his maximum attention to God. If you want God to be available to you, you must be available to Him. Nehemiah says, “I feel your broken heart Lord, caused by our sin. Here’s my heart, Lord. Do what it takes for you to act!” Once Nehemiah had the proper priority of his and God’s place, he then had the proper perspective of sin. It always works that way doesn’t it? Isaiah pronounces judgment to every nation around him in Isaiah 1-5, but in Isaiah 6, he sees God high and lifted up and the angels crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Is. 6:3) and he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips….” (Is. 6:4). Peter sees the miraculous catch of fish in Luke 5 and he says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). John, who had leaned on Jesus’ bosom all his life, but sees Jesus in His glory and falls at His feet as though dead (Rev. 1:17).
Before Nehemiah says, “GIVE me,” He says, “FORGIVE me.” Notice the pronouns “we” and “I.” He does not say, “Look at what my forefathers have done.” Like Daniel 100 years before (Dan. 9:4-6) and Ezra (Ez. 9:6-15), he identifies with his people and shares the responsibility of his people’s sins. One cannot be a pleader before God without recognizing sin and identifying with God’s people. Nehemiah does make any excuses. The man or woman who is going to do God’s work and be blessed by God must be one who acknowledges sin as “our sin.” We may be quick to criticize or even identify EFCC’s weaknesses, but are we just as quick to confess sins as our sin?
I like how Nehemiah calls sin in Neh. 1:7: we “acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded…” He calls it corruption, disobedience and breaking God’s law. He is genuine and authentic in his confession. Notice the word “kept” here in Neh. 1:7 and the word “keep” in Neh. 1:5. God has kept all of His promises. His people have broken all of theirs.
I remember in college once I was doing the laundry. One kid came in with this huge sack of laundry that he heaped over his shoulder. Apparently he had not done laundry for a long time! I thought for a second how cool it would be have a washer and dryer where you can just throw the whole sack in and get it washed and dried. This way, you didn’t have to sit there and sort each piece of clothing. But you know something? That’s what we do with sin. We come to God with such general confessions. We accumulate it for awhile and it is like taking a huge bag of laundry and throwing it at God. “God, forgive me. I messed up today.”We need to be specific in our confession. “Lord I have been angry today. I have sinned against you. Lord, today I have been jealous. I have sinned against you.” Granted Nehemiah was general in his confession here, but he is explicit in admitting his family’s and his own responsibility. No excuses here! Because God does not forgive excuses, He forgives sin.
Max Lucado says, “Confession does for the soul what preparing the land does for the field. Before the farmer sows the seed he works the acreage, removing the rocks and pulling the stumps. He knows that seed grows better if the land is prepared. Confession is the act of inviting God to walk the acreage of our hearts. ‘There is a rock of greed over here Father, I can’t budge it. And that tree of guilt near the fence? Its roots are long and deep. And may I show you some dry soil, too crusty for seed?’ God’s seed grows better if the soil of the heart is cleared.” Some of us have a big laundry bag you are heaving over your shoulder today. Won’t you heave it on to him whose Word says, “If you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive you of your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness”? (1 John 1:9)
c) Look back and grasp His goodness (Neh. 1:8-10)
He moves from adoration, confession to now thanksgiving. He does not wallow in sin. We are often feeling defeated at this point and may even stop praying. But Nehemiah finds his comfort in the word of God. “God said it, I believe it and that settles it,” seems to be his motivation. Remember your word, Nehemiah says. That word “remember” happens a lot in this book. It does not mean God forgot and needs his memory jolted, but more like “Consider this God and by considering it, may it cause you to act on behalf of your people!”
Nehemiah does two things here. He appeals to what God has said and he appeals to what God has done, two unchanging realities. If you want to learn how to bring your burden to God, learn what God has said and remember what God has done. Have you ever read Psalms or even Acts and read portions where the people of God are going over their history? This past week I was reading Stephen’s sermon in front of the Jewish leaders in Acts 7 and at first I was thinking, “Why do you have to go through this long speech Steve? Just get to the point!” But then I thought, “Wow, Stephen knows so much Scripture and when he was put under severe trial and facing execution, Scripture just poured out of him like water! I wonder if he goes through all of those Scriptures not so much for their sake, but for his sake as he reminds himself that the God who was faithful then, will be faithful even now as he stands up for his Savior. No wonder his face was shining like an angel!
Nehemiah appeals to several Scriptures. He remembers Leviticus 26:33 where God said, “If you disobey, I will scatter you.” Choose to sin, choose to suffer. You’re right God! This is why we are in Persia right now. But you alsosaid God, that in Deut. 30:2 and 4 “You will gather us if we repent.” And I love this line: “…though your dispersed be under the farthest skies.” There is no place too far you can end up that is too far from the reach of God. AMEN! He adds that this promise was for God’s glory and God’s praise to come up again as His name dwells in Jerusalem again. It will be really hard for God to refuse a prayer that is based on His Word and centered around His glory!
Do you see how Nehemiah having gone through the Scriptures, now has Scripture gone through him? Some of us know movie lines and sports stats more than Scripture. The Bible is not so much as an answer book as it is a promise book. We would do well to know His promises. Peter tells us that God has given us everything we need to live in godliness by giving us precious and very great promises! (2 Pet. 1:3-4). Neh. 1:10 has Nehemiah appealing to what God has done. As great as their failings were, greater still is God’s faithfulness, love and power demonstrated in their life. Notice the progression of the word “great” in this chapter. In Neh. 1:3 the report came and the trouble was seen as “great.” But as Nehemiah prays, he sees that in Neh. 1:3 that God is “great.” Now toward the end, he remembers that this great God has “great power” in Neh. 1:10. Prayer gives us perspective as it gives us wings to soar above our situation and see things from God’s perspective. Some of us need to pray for better memories because we, like the Israelites in the wilderness, easily forget what God has done for us as we face current trials.
God prepares His workers for His work as they grow in bringing their burdens to God. This happens as they are looking up and grasping God’s greatness, looking in and grasping their sin and looking back and grasping His goodness by word and deed.
Our last thought for us today is this: God prepares His workers for His work by us:
IV. Believing this burden will bring God’s blessing (Neh. 1:11)
Nehemiah is encouraged by the Lord here and He has given him confidence to move forward. Notice here that thelast thing Nehemiah did was ask a request. How often do we only have requests in prayer? As he poured his heart before God and gave his maximum attention to God, he received the maximum attention of God. And notice he is not the only one praying. We do not know who these people that he mentions here as “your servants who delight to fear your name.” It could be that he has a sense of solidarity with all those other believers near and far who too want to see God’s glory again in the land.
What is amazing here is that Nehemiah is volunteering himself as a solution to the problem he has been so burdened about! Lord, I am so burdened about all this brokenness, but make me usable in your hands as a solution or an answer to the need. He is about to ask his boss, the great King Artaxerxes, if he can go to Jerusalem as we will see, Lord willing next week. Remember this was the same King who had earlier forbidden the walls be rebuilt during Ezra’s trip (Ez. 4:17-23). Nehemiah lived in world where these kings were treated as almost semi-divine beings. But notice after his prayer, how he sees the King: “this man” and nothing more. King Artaxerxes, powerful king of Persia, you are still just a man. You are not in control, the God of Heaven, the God of the Universe is! Prayer has broadened his perspective, granted him confidence with the faith that this burden is really a blessing in disguise!
We will look at chapter 2 next week, Lord willing. In Neh. 2:1, the next part of the story happens in the month of Nisan. If you look back at Neh. 1:1, Nehemiah heard the bad report in the month of Chislev. Chislev is around November/December time. Nisan is March/April time. Four months have passed! This means Nehemiah has been in prayer for four months!
Nehemiah, what are you doing? You wasted four months in prayer?! Oswald Chambers said it best when he said, “Prayer does not fit us for greater works; prayer is the greater work.” As it has been often said, “when we work, we work. But when we pray, God works!” I firmly believe God is more ready to bless than we are to receive the blessing. I want to pray for greater things still to come and greater things yet to be done at EFCC. I firmly believe the best years of EFCC are not behind us, but still ahead of us! But are we ready to handle it? Are we usable? When God looks at EFCC, does he see a bunch of Nehemiah’s craving for His glory?
In his sermon “The Disciple’s Prayer,” Haddon Robinson recalls: When our children were small, we played a game. I’d take some coins in my fist. They’d sit on my lap and work to get my fingers open. According to the international rules of finger opening, once the finger was open, it couldn’t be closed again. They would work at it, until they got the pennies in my hand. They would jump down and run away, filled with glee and delight. Just kids. Just a game. Sometimes when we come to God, we come for the pennies in his hand.
“Lord, I need a passing grade. Help me to study.”
“Lord, I need a job.”
“Lord, my mother is ill.”
We reach for the pennies. When God grants the request, we push the hand away. More important than the pennies in God’s hand is the hand of God himself. That’s what prayer is about.
I don’t want to keep playing these games before God. Stephen Davey adds: “Isn’t it shocking that the average Christian really does not want the maximum attention of God? What he really wants to do is get by with giving God his minimum attention. He would rather someone else be a part of the solution. After all the problem is not really that bad.
Is it any wonder why we would rather play religious games for an hour or two on Sunday, than set about to restore and rebuild broken lives? Acting concerned once a week does not require anguish over our own sin or the sins of others. Putting on the “Sunday smile” does not really mean we are available for God to hammer at our own hardened heart and then use us to build up some broken walls in someone’s else’s world. The Sunday game rarely requires any commitment from us to set about repairing our broken world for Christ on Monday.”
But the good news is what Pastor Jim Cymbala of Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York has said about ministry, when he was at a really low point and when he couldn’t even preach anymore, he said: “I discovered an astonishing truth: God is attracted to weakness. He can’t resist those who humbly and honestly admit how desperately they need him. Our weakness, in fact, makes room for his power.”
Lord, do what it takes to bring us there.
Barber, Nehemiah and the Dynamics of Effective Leadership, 22–23 quoted in James Montgomery Boice,Nehemiah : An Expositional Commentary, 18 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: BakerBooks, 2005).
Stephen Davey, Nehemiah: Memoirs of an Ordinary Man, 21 (Greenville, SC: Ambassador, 2005).
Mervin Breneman, vol. 10, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary, 171 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1993).
Stephen Davey, 24.
Mervin Breneman, Ibid.
Baer, D.A., and R.P. Gordon. “Hesed.” NIDOTTE, 2:211-18.
 http://www.hesed.com/heseddef.htm accessed 29 May 2009.
 Max Lucado, In the Grip of Grace, 121 (Dallas, Tex.: Word Pub., 1996).
 Raymond Brown, The Message of Nehemiah in The Bible Speaks Today series, ed. J.A. Motyer, 42 (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 1998).
Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest: Selections for the Year, October 17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 1993, c1935).
http://www.streamingfaith.com/community/devotional/devotional.a spx?DevotionalId=524&bhcp=1 accessed 30 May 30, 2009.
Craig Brian Larson, 750 Engaging Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers & Writers, 414 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002).
Jim Cymbala, Fresh Wind Fresh Fire, 19 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997).