Prayer-Fueled Courage in Covenantal Crisis
Let’s turn to Nehemiah 1. If you’re not already there, there are Bibles around you. You can grab one. I would encourage everyone — here, at home, wherever you’re hearing or watching this — to have a Bible in front of you, if possible. We’re going to work our way through 1:1 – 2:8 rather briskly. And hopefully many of you have the outline as well. You can get that online.
A covenantal crisis. What is a covenantal crisis? It is when we get what we wanted, but we lose what we need. We get what we want, but we lose what we need. God is giving us what we crave, but it is not ultimately what we need. And we see this, whether it comes in the form of stunning levels of capitalistic prosperity or whether it comes in massive movements of socialistic equality. The more we get the more we seem to lose. Our cravings are insatiable. Listen to what Dr. Charles Malik, a Lebanese philosopher and diplomat, wrote:
“Are you perplexed? Do you ‘feel’ the crisis? Do you ‘feel’ something profoundly wrong, both in your life and in the affairs of the world? Do you, as it were, ‘hold your heart in your hand,’ fearing that at almost the next moment something terrible is going to break out — both in you and the world? Have you reached the state where you simply do not quite trust the processes of the world (including nature, science, economics, politics, and even the best good will), suspecting that there is in them a flaw somewhere, a false note, an imminent principle of darkness, destruction, and death?”
Most of us, if we’re honest, would say, “Yeah, we see what you’re talking about. We know there are bad people up to bad things.” But then what Dr. Malik does at this point is quite shocking. He says,
“At its deepest levels, the crisis is caused by Christ.”
Jesus Christ, the One who holds all things together, gives us what we want so that we will see ultimately what we need. You see, when we turn from Christ, it is not as though we are turning away from gospels. We are turning away from THE gospel, but we are believing gospels. It is not as though we become irreligious. We are turning away from the true God. We are worshiping gods of our own making. Mark Sayers, in his book “Reappearing Church,” summarizes the elements of what he calls “Post-Christian Personal Renewal.” And he outlines four steps of what we could call the “Romans Road” of secular salvation. Do you know what I mean by the Romans road? Steps of getting saved as a nonbeliever.
- We are born innocent, happy, and whole. Our inner child or inner self is good.
- Families, bad experiences, binding commitments, externally-given identities, cultural, traditional, and religious restrictions make us unhappy, giving us low self-esteem. [So, you see creation, now the fall.]
- [Redemption] Through escaping from these binding commitments, externally-given identities, traditions, and religious restrictions, we discover our inner self, which is good, and can guide us. [That’s redemption from a secular perspective.]
- Through finding a missing element such as a soulmate, meaningful career, enjoyable experiences, material things, or through exercising our self-expression, our lives can be filled with pleasure and meaning. [Restoration.]
Creation, fall, redemption, restoration. This is the secular salvation story. And the biggest problem with this renewal plan is not when it fails but when it succeeds. As Mark Sayers concludes,
“As secular people push toward cultural, moral, and political renewal, they only expose more brokenness and sin.”
Have you noticed that? The solutions that are coming our way today typically just bring different problems with them.
“Our culture lurches from attempts at renewal to reaction and back again in a feverish sickness. All programs of progress, without the presence [that is of God in Christ], create chaos and crisis.”
All programs of progress without the presence of God in Christ will create (ultimately) chaos and crisis. And Dr. Malik was arguing that this is not accidental or unusual. This is caused by Christ giving us what we want (which is a form of judgment) so that we would ultimately see what we need.
Nehemiah 1 is describing a covenantal crisis. Around 140 years previous to Nehemiah 1, Israel craved to be like the nations. They wanted to worship as the nations worshiped. So, God gave them what they wanted, and in exile they were scattered among the nations. They got what they wanted, but they lost what they needed. And yet, by God’s grace, they began to realize this. They craved and prayed for renewal and restoration. And they have at this point experienced several, as Ryan pointed out last week, several partial renewals — like under Zerubbabel and then under Ezra. But in Nehemiah 1, he is in the palace or the citadel at Susa. This is the winter home for the kings of Persia. It’s about 150 miles north of the Persian Gulf, a thousand miles if you go from the left circle, Jerusalem, (I know it’s hard to read that) to the right circle, Susa. That’s about a thousand miles straight across. That’s where Nehemiah is, in the right circle, Susa. It’s the 20th year of Artaxerxes, the king of Persia. Hanani, which is Nehemiah’s brother, delivers devastating news in verse 2. The remnant, the Jews that are still in Jerusalem, and all those that through these partial restorations had returned are in (verse 3) “great trouble and shame.” The city of Jerusalem, which is Israel’s identity, the center of Israel’s identity and worship, is defenseless and dismantled. This predicament is the reality of Ezra 4 when the partial renewal that was beginning to restore the city was crushed and ended by the king’s edict.
The big idea here in Nehemiah 1:1 – 2:8 is this: Responding to covenantal crisis with prayer-fueled courage. Responding to a covenantal crisis with prayer-fueled courage. Nehemiah’s response is a message for all of us who are in (in our country) the churches in a covenantal crisis. So, we do well to hear how he responds so that we can learn how to respond. Notice his immediate reaction in 4-11 and then his subsequent action in 2:1-8. Let’s look at the first, his immediate reaction. Verse 4,
“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.”
His prayer is then described in the following verses, and there are four vital parts to this prayer. He realigns, he repents, he reminds, he requests. Let’s look at those one at a time.
He realigns. What do I mean by realigns? He realigns his perspective. To realign is to readjust, to put things in their proper order. When we experience a crisis, whether it’s a spiritual crisis — you know you’re singing a song, and suddenly you wonder, “Do I believe any of this?” Or a moral crisis where you come face-to-face with the fact that your life is a big fat lie. Or a financial crisis or a medical crisis, any kind of crisis that you experience can leave you disoriented, dizzy, spiritually concussed to where you’re not sure which is up, and which way is down. And at that moment, it’s very easy to spiral down into either a state of self-pity or self-reliance.
Think about Nehemiah. He could have very easily done this. He could have spun off into self-pity. The dude was born in slavery. His family long ago had been kidnapped, exiled to a foreign country, probably many of them killed. He’s grown up in bondage. When he hears about Jerusalem he could have very easily thought, “Now, I feel bad for Jerusalem, but I have my own problems. I’ve never known freedom.” Self-pity.
Or self-reliance. “Hey, I think it’s really tragic what’s happening in Jerusalem, but I’ve got a pretty good gig. If you’re going to be a slave, to be a cupbearer, at least I get to live in the king’s house. I get to taste some sweet wine. I’ve got it going. I care about Jerusalem, but I don’t want to risk my current situation by doing anything radical that could cause me to lose my position. So, I’m just going to keep my nose clean.” Self-reliance. But he doesn’t do either of these. His perspective isn’t about him. Notice where he begins. Verse 5,
“O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God.”
This is such a miracle because you’ve got to understand, Nehemiah is swimming in a sea of Zoroastrianism. That’s the religion of Persia. It’s a synchronistic religion. What is synchronistic? It merges together. It’s a combo platter of religions. We’re all for the God of Israel. That’s great. And, you know, the god of Persia, that’s great. And all the gods, kind of like what’s taught in secular universities today. They’re all saying the same thing, they’re all leading ultimately to the same place. A version of that is what he is swimming in. But that’s not how he prays at all. The Lord God of heaven, the — not a — the great and awesome God. He goes on. The God who keeps covenant. Every word here is significant. Keeps — shamar — guards, maintains, keeps covenant in the middle of a covenantal crisis. He keeps covenant with those who keep his commandments. God is a great God. He’s the great and awesome God. God is a good God. He keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commitments. He loves them, they respond with love. He speaks, they respond by listening. It’s a real relationship.
Every morning when we get up and pray the way Jesus taught us to pray, he is realigning our perspective. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be ‘my name.’ No, hallowed be your name.” Notice all the yours in the first three statements. God, I want your name to be made holy today. Everything can go my way today, but it will be a failure if your name is not made holy. It is not about my name. It’s not about my little kingdom. It’s your kingdom come. Your will be done (not my will be done) on earth as it is in heaven. You see, before I’m asking for bread or forgiveness, before I’m begging for protection from temptation, that you would lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. My perspective is realigned with the God of heaven. This is a radically God-centered way of praying. And I fear that many of us are bored in prayer because our prayers are about us. And you may look cool, you may have a great Spotify list, but you’re boring compared to God. Do you believe that? Do you know that deep down? I’m not talking just in church. I mean, deep in your heart, do you realize, “God, you are way more interesting to me.” One of the reasons I get bored in prayer is my prayers so often center around me, and I’ve lost a vision of the God of heaven who is the great and awesome one. So, right in the middle of a crisis, right in the middle of a time where Nehemiah could slip into self-pity, he’s realigned to the God who keeps covenant and steadfast love, who is the great and awesome one. Brothers and sisters, we can practice idolatry in our praying. We need to be realigned, to learn how to pray to God and not be spiritually dyslexic and think that it is ultimately about us. He realigns.
Number 2, he repents. Verses 6-7, he repents of his sin.
“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, [Notice here he’s] confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. [He confesses his own sin.] Even I and my father’s house have sinned. [He is looking back at the whole cause of the exile.] We have acted very corruptly against you [verse 7] and have not … [shamar. There’s that word again. Remember he just said God is a God who shamars, who keeps covenant. You keep covenant. We have not kept covenant. We have not kept your words. We have not done what you’ve told us to do. We have not responded to you. As a matter of fact, we’ve acted very corruptly.] … not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.”
Without repentance, we will never experience renewal or revival. We will be doomed to get what we want, never what we need. Can you imagine a worse condition? Your life can be the ultimate American dream. You can have everything you want and be under the judgment of God. That very provision can be a judgment, showing you this will never satisfy you. This is not it. We must come to the end of our own resources and cry out to the God we need more than anything else. He repents.
Number 3, he reminds. He reminds in verses 8-10, God of two things. First of all, he reminds God of his promises. This is huge. I know you say, “Well, God doesn’t need to be reminded of his promises.” We need to remind God of his promises so that we will be reminded of what God will never forget. Look at verse 8,
“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.’”
What is Nehemiah doing? He’s quoting God’s words back to God. He is acknowledging that we have craved to be like the nations. And you have done what you told us you would do when we did that. You promised we would be judged, and that in that judgment we would get what we want, but it would not satisfy us. Let me give you an example. Deuteronomy 28, God promised through Moses, when Israel rejected him.
“The Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul. Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day, you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life. In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at the evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see.”
Do you feel how insatiable that condition is? It’s like when you crave sleep, and you’re tossing and turning. “Oh, if I’m on my right side that’ll help. No, left side, no, front side, back side.” Just tossing and turning spiritually, and nothing will satisfy. God his saying, “I’m giving you what you want, but it is not what you need.” But then Nehemiah prayed the promise of God, the God who is faithful to judge is also faithful to save. And when Israel repented, Deuteronomy 30:4,
“If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of the heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring [In other words, this isn’t just going to be an external change. This is going to be an internal change.], so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” an abundant, satisfying life.
What is Nehemiah doing here? I’m afraid some of us try to make prayer more complicated than it is. Nehemiah is praying God’s words back to God. You can do that. A child can do that. “You said this, God. Please, do what you said. I’m hearing what you’ve said and I’m responding in humility to what you have said.’ Nehemiah is reminding God of his promises, but also of his people. Verse 10, notice all the second person pronouns.
“They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand.”
Just like Moses did in Deuteronomy 9, Nehemiah’s like, “Hey, I can’t carry this on my back. These are your people. You started this. You’re going to have to finish it.” That’s what prayer does. I’m casting this burden, this care on you, because you alone can do what you do. This is a radically God-centered prayer. Look at what he requests, verse 11. He asked for three things: attention, success, mercy.
“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.”
Everyone will fear his name, every knee will bow, every tongue will confess. But what Nehemiah is referring to here is that there are people who actually get up in the morning and delight to see his name hallowed, find joy in gathering in worship and realizing this is not about me, this is about God. We are going to see God glorified as his Word is proclaimed, and we hear it. We’re going to see God glorified as we cry out to him in praise and worship. It is not about what my favorite song is or isn’t. It’s not about who sees me here or who doesn’t. It is about God. I delight to fear his name. So, he asks, “Please, Lord, give attention to those who delight to fear your name.”
Give success. Secondly, he asks for success. And by the way, this is the same word that’s used in Psalm 1 of the blessed man who does not walk, stand, sit in the counsel of the ungodly. But instead,
“his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He’s like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he [what?] prospers,” succeeds. Same word.
And then third, “grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” And when you first read that, you’re kind of taken back. This man? What man? “Now I was the cupbearer to the king.” Oh, that man, the king. That’s a big request. The person praying is a cupbearer. It doesn’t mean he’s just walking around with random cups. But he is bearing cups to the king. He is highly trusted, often in some courts he is a CFO kind of figure, a confidant of the king. But he holds a rather prestigious and simultaneously extraneous position. His job is to sip the wine, and then everybody just kind of watches him to see if he drops to the floor. If he doesn’t die, then they know the wine isn’t poisoned, so the king can drink it. Prestigious, extraneous.
The last sentence is the hinge between Nehemiah’s prayer and Nehemiah’s response. We’re about to see a beautiful example of how prayer transforms position into mission. Prayer transforms position (he has a position as a cupbearer) into a mission God is calling him to accomplish. So, let’s see what that is in the beginning of chapter 2. The action is four months later, 1:1 to 2:1. Chislev to Nisan is similar to our Christmas to Easter. It’s about four months, same period of time. Nehemiah has been praying, planning. And it’s time to step up. He does four things.
Number 1, he served faithfully. In verses 1 and 2, notice he just kind of casually says, “I took up the wine and I gave it to the king.” What is he saying? I did what I always do. But on this day, he looked sad. Now, this is a big point, I believe, because if Nehemiah always was a grump, it would undermine this point. Right? He would have been terminated, literally terminated earlier. But the fact that he is characteristically joyful at work, responsible, encouraging, the fact that he works his job as worship, set him up for this moment so that when he was uncharacteristically sad, it elicited a question from the king. “What’s going on, Nehemiah?”
Number 2, he served faithfully. He also spoke fearlessly. And this may seem like an odd statement to make in light of the end of verse 2, “I was very much afraid.” And by the way, Nehemiah had a lot to be afraid about. King Artaxerxes killed his father’s assassin when he was 18. He hunted down his brother Darius and executed him. He defeated another brother in battle to establish his reign, his rule. He subjugated over the last two decades several major revolts in the kingdom. He was not a king to be trifled with. So, Nehemiah had real reason to be afraid. But you’ll see in verse 3, he spoke fearlessly, respectfully. “Let the king live forever!” Then,
“Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”
Big point here for all of us: If you wait to be courageous until you have no fear, you will die scared. If you wait to be courageous until you have no fear, you will die scared.
God calls people who are afraid to do courageous things, not because they can muster up courage from within. Because humanly speaking, doing what he is doing is insane in an ancient eastern court before the king. But see, remember, this is inseparably tied to the prayer he just prayed. He stands in awe of the great and awesome God. So, in light of the great and awesome God, King Artxerxes is not nearly as fearful. We fight fear with fear. We stand in awe of God. Therefore, we don’t stand in awe of people. He spoke fearlessly.
And then he prayed spontaneously. And I love that he throws this in in verse 4. When the king asked him, “What are you requesting?” Nehemiah shot up one of those arrow prayers. You know, spontaneous prayer to the God of heaven. Don’t forget that unplanned prayer is parented by planned prayer. As we spend this time alone with God praying his Word back to him, we are planting these seeds and realigning our posture so that when we have these moments of external crisis where we’re on the stand, if you will. We shoot up these prayers that are the overflow of our secret times with God. It’s not one or the other. I know there are people, “I don’t really spend planned prayer time with God. I pray all the time.” That’s wonderful. But your planned prayer parents your unplanned prayer. They feed one another.
And then finally, he requested strategically. In verses 5-8, after spending four months praying and strategizing, he knew he would have one shot before the king. So, he makes these two requests. Verse 5, “If it pleases the king … send me.” Send me. They talk timetable. Verse 7, “If it pleases the king …” send letters “to the governors … to Asaph … to the keeper of the king’s forests … for gates … walls … and the house.” We’ve got to get wood. He has one chance before the king. He’s not sloppy. He has laid out a plan. He knows he’s going to need the king’s credit card, so he asks for it all. And remarkably, the king says, yes. And notice how Nehemiah attributes it not to his planning, not to his eloquent speech, convincing rhetoric. Verse 8,
“The king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.”
For the good hand of my God was upon me. So, when Nehemiah first heard about the crisis (1:4-11), what did he do? He prayed. When he begins to address the crisis (2:4), what did he do? He prayed. And then when he begins to see progress in the crisis, what did he do? He gave God all the credit. The good hand of God is upon me.
Nehemiah is responding to this covenantal crisis with prayer-fueled courage. And over the next few weeks, we’re going to see some amazingly practical, powerful lessons from Nehemiah — how to deal with toxic people, the kind of opposition that Nehemiah encounters, injustice, so many other leadership lessons — all of this. But I want to leave you today with one thing to do. Will you pray God’s Word until you pray? Will you pray God’s Word until you pray? We pray God’s Word back to God until you are praying. What do I mean, “Pray God’s Word”? Don’t overcomplicate it. What did Nehemiah do? Nehemiah went to the promises of God and talked those back to God, prayed those. And I say, “until you pray” because this is more than just quoting scripture. It’s more than just launching into prayer with a verse. You’re having a conversation with the great and awesome God, and I think most powerfully, with your community, with your brothers and sisters praying God’s promises back to God together. It is life-changing because we as a church — and I’m talking about the church in America — are in covenantal crisis. And we must have our thinking realigned so that we see the solutions not merely politically or culturally or selfishly, but from God’s perspective. Our hearts must be shaped by God’s Word. Pray God’s Word until you pray. And as we cry out, we will be realigning our perspective, repenting of our sin, reminding God of his promises, requesting for needs to be met.
Let’s pray. Father, you are the great and awesome God. The nations that are so powerful are just like a drop in the bucket. They’re just like a speck of dust on a scale. The leaders that seem so strong and irresistible are emptiness to you. You are the one who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments. So, we come to you, Lord, as the one we need. We repent of our self-gratifying perspective.
Lord, you know, I look at everything based on how I will be seen, how it will benefit or not benefit me. I desperately need your realignment, to seek first your kingdom, to know that you will add all things. We crave things like money and sex and political power and comfort, and we end up just tossing and turning on a bed of insatiable restlessness, Lord. We want to be well thought of more than we want your name hallowed. Forgive us. Even right now, hear cries, hundreds of prayers, asking forgiveness. And we do this confidently knowing that you have invited us, that you have invited us to “come to me all who labor and are heavy laden.” And you’re ready to give us a rest. You’ve promised that “if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face” and turn from our wicked ways, you will hear from heaven and you will forgive our sin and heal our land.
And so, God, we ask for forgiveness, not reluctantly but boldly, knowing that, Jesus, you have through the blood of your eternal covenant, you have paid for our covenantal crisis. You took it. You’ve put it on your back. You died. You rose from the dead. And if you are for us, who can be against us? God, you did not spare your own Son, but you gave him up for us all. How will you not then with him graciously give us all things? So, Father, as you realign our perspective, we begin to see that you are the one we need, that your blessing overshadows and transforms all other blessings, that you fill our mornings with hope, our evenings with gratefulness. We don’t want to go anywhere without you. Your presence is our good. Thank you, in Jesus’ name, amen.