Summary: Nehemiah prays before acting, does his research, then Nehemiah identifies himself with the people of Jerusalem, and so the leaders commit themselves to the common good
The stage is set. The actors are all in place. Nehemiah has finally come to the moment he’s been working towards as he’s prayed and fasted over the previous days or weeks.
Nehemiah enters, stage right, with the jug of wine for the king, as he does every day. But unlike every other day before this, this time his face is downcast. It was, of course, palace protocol that those who served the king should always appear happy in his presence. He had enough to worry about without having servants bringing a cloud of gloom over the royal proceedings. So Nehemiah is taking a big risk by letting his feelings show so openly.
If you were here last week you’ll remember that I talked about how, as Nehemiah had prayed and fasted God had put a plan in his mind; a plan to do something about the situation in Jerusalem. I pointed out that Nehemiah was first and foremost a man of prayer. But what we discover today is that he was also a strategic thinker, a leader who was able to think through the possibilities and come up with an approach that would overcome the hurdles in his way. And enhancing those two characteristics, his prayerfulness and his strategic thinking, was a strong faith in God. There’s been a debate in the church over the past 30 or 40 years about the place of management techniques, strategic thinking, the focus on efficiency, etc., in the leadership of the church. Countless books have been written on Christian leadership using secular management principles. And some people have criticised this approach as being too based on secular principles, preferring a more “spiritual” approach of waiting on God to show us the way. But here in Nehemiah we find that both approaches go hand in hand. Nehemiah prays at length for God’s guidance, but then he uses his mind to think through what steps he should take. In fact we see in this chapter three elements to Nehemiah’s approach to leadership.
1 Forethought in Prayer.
We noted last week that Nehemiah spends a long period of time in prayer and fasting, praying and listening to God. As he does so he comes up with a plan. It’s not a foolproof plan, mind you. As I just said it involves considerable risk. That’s why he prays that God would grant him mercy in the sight of the king. He doesn’t know how the king will respond. It could be the end of his career; but he trusts that God will clear the way for him to make his request.
And so the drama unfolds. “2So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’” Suddenly his heart is racing. His ploy has worked but it still isn’t clear whether the king is concerned for him or angry with him. In fact he says “Then I was very much afraid.” No doubt, as he’s tossed this plan around in his mind over the preceding weeks, he’s realised that there are two ways this could go. It could mean the end for him, literally, or it could result in the king giving him what he’s after.
So he says to the king: “3May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” No doubt these are words he’s rehearsed many times as he’s thought about what might happen here. But notice that there’s nothing manipulative in the way he speaks. Rather he’s straightforward and honest. There’s no political manoeuvring, no appeal to the king’s vanity or political interests. He just says what’s on his heart. There a certain honest integrity in the way he begins to present his case that the king responds to.
He says “What is it you want?” You can imagine Nehemiah taking a deep breath at that point. So far so good, he’s no doubt thinking. At that point he could have jumped in with his requests in a burst of self-confidence, but no, he remembers that his success is still dependent on God and so he prays what we call a bullet prayer to God for his continued help. Then he makes his request.
He asks that he be sent to Jerusalem so that he might rebuild it. If you think about it, it’s an audacious request isn’t it? He wants to rebuild the city that a few centuries before was the major power base of the region, that resisted the power of the Assyrians for years. Yet the king agrees. All he wants to know is how long it’ll take before he’ll be back.
Now at this point it’s worth stopping to think about the way Nehemiah has thought all of this through. He’s worked out roughly how long it will take, so he has an answer for the king. He’s thought out how he’ll get the king to raise the subject in the first place. And he’s even thought about the setting for this little drama.