Nehemiah was a descendant of Abraham. A thousand miles away from home. In the backwash of Israel’s exile. Somehow, he had come to serve as cupbearer to Artaxerxes, king of the mighty Persian Empire. And Nehemiah had just heard heartbreaking news.
“The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” As soon as I heard these words… (Neh 1:3-4a)
What comes to mind when you think of Nehemiah? If you’re familiar with the story contained in the book of the Bible that bears his name, I’m guessing you think of the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. After all, fifty-two days? That’s an incredible feat, especially when we remember the intense opposition he and his people faced. And the work involved so much more than rebuilding the walls. Sacred observances had to be reestablished. Sins had to be confessed. The covenant had to be revisited. Reforms upon reforms. Through it all, Nehemiah proves to be an admirable leader, modeling principles that continue to be talked about centuries later. But before it all is this first chapter.
As soon as I heard these words…
What did Nehemiah do? As cupbearer to the king, he has access to the most powerful man on the planet. His heart’s desire is to go home, back to Jerusalem. Maybe he can have an impact? Perhaps he can do some good. What’s the plan? Where does it start? When can we get to it? It’s time to get busy. Spring into action. Get things done.
Could I encourage you to slow down long enough to notice what may be the most easily overlooked (and indispensable?) “leadership lesson” of all.
As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days…
Nehemiah allowed himself time to feel.
…and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
Nehemiah knew who was needed more than anyone. Higher help than Artaxerxes. Greater wisdom than any scribe. Infinitely more important than himself and his own ideas.
And I said, “O LORD God of heaven…”
This is who you have revealed yourself to be.
“…the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments…”
I’m asking you to hear me.
“…let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants…”
I and my people are unworthy of your attention, compassion, and intervention.
“…confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.”
But I’m humbly asking you to remember your promises. They are all I have to cling to. All I have to build upon.
“Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.'”
You are our Redeemer. Our gracious Savior in the past. Our only hope in the present.
“They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand.”
I believe you can change this heartbreaking, uncertain, frightening situation, and I am willing to play my part in whatever ways you are willing to use me.
“O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name…”
Please, be with me as I have a crucial conversation with the most powerful person I have ever known.
“…give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”
Nehemiah knew his people needed more than Nehemiah. Nehemiah believed the God of heaven would be more critical to his success than the King of earth. And that’s the reason. Before a well-reasoned appeal. Before travel plans. Before wall blueprints. Before a stirring speech in Jerusalem. Before the logistics. Before the reforms. Before it all, Nehemiah took the time to feel, to grieve, and to pray. Without it, I’m guessing we wouldn’t have Nehemiah 2-13.
Which makes me wonder. What chapters of potential, perspective, and power fail to get written in our own lives because we arrogantly, shortsightedly skip Chapter 1?
As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.