*2018 Pre-synodical sermon, June 11, 2018
One thing that stands out in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah is Nehemiah’s heartfelt love for God’s cause. Nehemiah received word of the great affliction and reproach suffered by those who had returned to the promised land, and his heart burned within him for grief. But Nehemiah also laid hold of the gospel promise.
God had said that He would gather His people from wherever they had been cast and would bring them to the place where He had chosen to set His name. We understand, too, that the promised inheritance was not simply Jerusalem or the land of Judah, but something far greater, the heavenly glory of which Jerusalem was only a type, and the promises that would be fulfilled in the coming Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. That explains why Jerusalem and the promised land were so important, and why the commitment to God’s cause as seen in Nehemiah is a commitment that must be ours as well, even as we approach the labors of Synod 2018.
Nehemiah prayed that God would use him. It is evident already in that last verse of Nehemiah 1 that Nehemiah had in mind leaving his comfortable position as the king’s cupbearer, that he himself might make the journey to Jerusalem. He prayed: “Prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king’s cupbearer.”
Now in chapter 2 we find the answer to that prayer. As we consider the first 8 verses of Nehemiah chapter 2, I take as the theme of this text, “Compelled to Action.”
Constrained to serve
Nehemiah’s love for God constrained him to serve God’s cause.
Let us not overlook the amazing providence of God when it comes to Nehemiah’s office as the king’s cupbearer.
We always do well to stand in awe before God’s work. That, in fact, is where we must begin. For God’s work always leads to and comes to culmination in the revelation of His own dear Son as our Savior.
God would use Nehemiah for a very important work, as we shall see. But for the sake of that work, God had installed him into that office within the king’s court, the office of the king’s cupbearer. God does such things for the sake of His church.
In Nehemiah’s calling as the king’s cupbearer, he had labored faithfully. He had done so, not only as a servant of Artaxerxes the king, but as a servant of Jehovah. That is evident from his relationship to the king, the trust that the king could give him, and Nehemiah’s faithfulness in his office as the king’s cupbearer. If he had not shown himself faithful in his daily labor, he could not have been counted on for the weighty labors that God had in store for him in Jerusalem. Had he not shown himself faithful as the king’s cupbearer, had he not gained the highest esteem from the king, Nehemiah would never have been able to make the request for a leave of absence that he had to make to king Artaxerxes.
That is a good reminder to us that how we live from day to day in the various callings God has given us is a direct reflection on our relationship to God Himself, and the place that He and His cause occupy in our own minds and hearts. But Nehemiah’s desire to serve God went far beyond the daily place and calling that God had given him personally and by which he received his income and social status.
Nehemiah’s constraint to serve was compelled by a heartfelt desire to see the good of God’s cause and God’s people. That must be our motivation as well in our labors at synod.
Nehemiah’s love for God was based on knowledge, the knowledge of faith. Nehemiah understood the Scriptures. He remembered from the Psalms that Jerusalem was the city that God had chosen for His habitation. He had chosen to set His name there and to reveal His covenant to His people, that covenant of grace which is the fellowship of His life and love by faith in Christ Jesus. But what was prophesied concerning God’s purpose for Jerusalem could not be a reality while Jerusalem was in ruins.
In the last verse of chapter 1 there is reference not only to the prayer of Nehemiah that God might open the door for him to travel to Jerusalem to labor “hands on” in God’s cause, but there is also reference to the prayers of others to that end. “O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants….”
This would indicate that Nehemiah had spoken to godly friends who also loved God and God’s cause, and had sought their input concerning whether there would be a place for him to seek leave from the king and to go to Jerusalem to labor in the building project that was presently languishing. It may well be that these fellow believers gave counsel to him, and encouraged him to go. But one thing they certainly did: They joined in prayer with Nehemiah about this matter.
Certainly as delegates we have prayed for God’s blessings upon our labors at synod. But God’s people have joined us, and continue in prayer for us in the deliberations before us and the significance of the decisions that we must make.
God answered those prayers in providing Nehemiah the opportunity to speak about this matter to the king.
It happened one day when Nehemiah was called to serve the king and the queen in his calling as the king’s cupbearer. The king noticed that Nehemiah was troubled by something. “Sad” is the term used. It was expected that to be in the presence of the king would necessarily produce happiness. To look sad, therefore, could be viewed as an insult to the royal majesty of the king. It was life-endangering—which is why, when the king said to Nehemiah, “Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? This is nothing else but sorrow of heart,” Nehemiah writes, “Then I was very sore afraid.”
He “said to the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my father’s sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?”
There, it was finally out. That which burned within him, his love for God’s cause, was finally known to the king.
What would be the king’s response? “Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request?” The moment has come. Nehemiah must now express his deepest desire, that he might be granted absence from the king’s court, to seek the glory of God in Jerusalem.
Nehemiah felt constrained to serve God’s cause in building the walls of Jerusalem. But how would the king respond? After all, Artaxerxes must grant approval to what Nehemiah was about to request of him, or Nehemiah would not be able, no matter how compelled he might feel, to serve God at Jerusalem.
Bolstered by prayer
Nehemiah’s compulsion to action as established in his heart by the Holy Spirit was also bolstered by prayer.
Notice that before Nehemiah answered the king’s question, we read this: “So I prayed to the God of heaven.”
Before Nehemiah spoke, before he answered the king, he prayed. This prayer, mind you, took place right in the presence of the king. It was so brief that the king would not even have noticed. But in those flashing thoughts of crying unto God, Nehemiah confessed his humble dependence upon the God of heaven, the God far exalted above all earthly creatures, including kings.
Nehemiah in his love for God desired to go to Jerusalem to labor for God’s cause in the rebuilding of the walls of His holy city. Now the prayer of Nehemiah was for wisdom and guidance in answering the question of king Artaxerxes.
The king had just asked a question. We might think that even a moment of pause might be viewed negatively by the king. If we were in such a situation, we might even excuse the omission of prayer. But to Nehemiah, a momentary pause to pray was necessary. Nehemiah lived in the presence of God, as do you and I who are in Christ Jesus.
The Spirit carried Nehemiah’s prayer to the throne of Him who rules over all, and who turns the hearts of the kings like the rivers of water. So when Nehemiah answered the king, “If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my father’s sepulchres, that I may build it,” the king answered, “For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.”
Bolstered by God’s answer to his prayer, Nehemiah continued. “Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come to Judah; and a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.”
Nehemiah recognized what was happening here. God was at work. No less than when He had raised up Cyrus to decree the return of the children of the captivity to the promised land, so here God was at work providing for the needs of His people and the cause of His kingdom.
Blessed by God
The blessing of God upon Nehemiah was evident not only by this answer to Nehemiah’s many prayers, prayers that culminated in this silent prayer for the moment, but also in the way in which Nehemiah’s petition was answered. Verse 6 simply states, “So it pleased the king to send me.”
What was involved in that sending? We might think initially that the sentence simply means, “It pleased the king to let me go to Judah for a time.” But that word send signifies much more.
We learn in chapter 5, verse 14, that the king appointed Nehemiah governor in the land of Judah. God gave him an office for the service of His church in Judah. That appointment began here, during this twentieth year of the reign of Artaxerxes.
That explains too the granted provision. God was providing here for His people. There was a greater King than Artaxerxes at work here. The king of Persia was only a servant of the King of kings, who rules all things for the sake of His church. What is recorded in this first part of Nehemiah 2 is another small part of the wonder work of God and His faithfulness to His church for the sake of the coming of Christ.
In this text we are reminded too that, while we as delegates to the synod of 2018 are called to commitment to God’s cause and truth, all our activity depends upon God’s blessing.
All our labors must be in that consciousness too. Commitment to God’s cause requires us to labor for the welfare of God’s cause, and not only to maintain but also to develop the truth that He has revealed to us. When you read the Book of Nehemiah you cannot help but be struck by the fact that there was never an easy period in Nehemiah’s life as governor in Judah. He was always facing trials, and the burdens of his labors would most certainly have overwhelmed him if not for God’s sustaining grace and repeated answers to Nehemiah’s prayers. But Nehemiah committed himself to the work—not for any personal gain, but for the glory of God.
Pray and work. Do so in complete dependence upon Him. Do so in thankfulness for the covenant of grace He has established with us and realized in us by faith in Jesus Christ. He who has redeemed His people with the blood of His own dear Son also calls us to action in seeking the welfare of His cause. May our prayers as well as our activities as a synod be motivated by our commitment to God’s cause and truth. Amen.