In the late sixth century B.C. God fulfilled his promise to bring his people home to Judah from exile in Babylon. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the return of the children of Israel to their promised land.
When this book opens, the restoration of Jerusalem has been going on for nearly a hundred years. The returning exiles have gradually settled in and have rebuilt the temple. The reconstruction of Jerusalem is proceeding very slowly, with much opposition from the people who had been settled there by the conquering Assyrians.
Nehemiah is a Jewish exile in Babylon. He is a high official in the court and a faithful servant to King Artaxerxes I, but his heart is with his people in Jerusalem. One day he learns that the city walls are still broken down and the “remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame” (Neh. 1:3).
What follows is an inspiring account of the joining of prayer and action as Nehemiah responds to the disheartening news. It is a word for all of us who pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
The potential failure of what he most longed for is a devastating blow to Nehemiah. We know how that feels—when I learn that someone in my family is struggling with an intractable situation, I wonder if God has given up on us. It is very tempting to put on a brave face, to suppress my fears and disappointment, and to think I can manage on my own.
Not Nehemiah! He is not afraid to show his great distress. He weeps and mourns; and as he weeps, he prays, for his tears are opening his heart to the Lord.
In his prayer Nehemiah remembers God’s faithfulness, promises, and steadfast love. Nehemiah confesses the sin of his fellow Israelites and his own as well, and he asks the Lord to give him success, not because of his people’s or his own merit but because he trusts in the promises of God.
We may not always know if our prayers are in line with God’s will, but when we tell the truth about ourselves and remember God’s abundant mercy and steadfast love, then we know that, whatever the outcome, “it is well with my soul.”
Nehemiah lets each step lead to the next, praying constantly as he inspects the sites, rallies the Jews, and fends off the enemies. The opposition is especially powerful with taunts and threats, the insidious undermining of confidence: “What are these feeble Jews doing?” (Neh. 4:2) Human beings can defeat one another in this way, but even worse discouragement comes from our own minds as we spin out worries. It is not only the enemies of Israel who jeer at Nehemiah, but the Jews themselves say “the strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble” (Neh. 4:10).
Nehemiah does not pay attention to fear. He exhorts the people to “remember the Lord, who is great and awesome” (Neh. 4:14). And he puts them to work—half the people building, the rest standing guard, some even working with one hand while holding a weapon with the other. This is the way of courage: to remember the Lord and do the task he has sent us. The fear provoking words, whether from inside or outside, cannot abide in God’s presence, and the work before us is his gift to set us free from fear and give us the joy of seeing God’s will accomplished through our hands.