Nehemiah 2:1 Now, I (Nehemiah) had never been sad in (the king’s) presence before. 2 So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. 3 I said to the king, “May 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?” 4 Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5 Then I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.” 6 The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date.
The book of Nehemiah continues the story begun in the book of Ezra. In fact, these were originally one work, but were later divided into two – much like the books of Luke and Acts in the New Testament.
The book of Ezra told us how the Israelites, who had been in exile in Babylon many years, returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. By the time of Nehemiah, the effort had stalled and Jerusalem was in ruins again. This time, apparently, destroyed by fire.
Nehemiah was a cup-bearer to the king, which meant he had intimate access to the king. When Nehemiah heard that Jerusalem was again in ruins, he was greatly distressed. Apparently, his sadness was plain to see because the king asked him about it. Nehemiah took this opportunity to ask permission to go to Jerusalem himself. But before he did so, he did something else.
4 Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5 Then I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.
I’m sure I’ve read this passage several times before, but this one short sentence never caught my eye like it did today. This sentence offers some things for us to think about this morning:
1. Despite being in exile in Babylon for many years, God’s people had not forgotten about God, nor God about them.
2. As a servant of the king, it would have been Nehemiah’s job to focus his attention on the king and queen, not the other way around. This inquiry from the king asking about Nehemiah would have been unusual.
3. Nehemiah recognized this exchange as an opportunity to DO SOMETHING about what was happening in Jerusalem. If things went well, he would go back to the land of his people. If things went badly, the king would be offended at his desire to leave and could have him severely punished – or worse.
4. Most importantly, by offering this short prayer to God before speaking, Nehemiah was recognizing who was in control in this situation – and it wasn’t Nehemiah. It was God. Hence, his fate was out of his hands… and in God’s hands.
It’s easy for me to imagine my life as in my own hands. That I am in control of my situation. I am not. Nor are you. From time to time I can deceive myself into thinking I have things under control, but then an unexpected challenge will emerge – something I never saw coming – to throw me for a loop and remind me of the truth. Let me say it again:
I am not in control. Nor are you.
Nehemiah was aware of this reality as he was in conversation with the king. This is why he “prayed to the God of heaven” before he spoke. In essence, Nehemiah was acknowledging reality – that the outcome of the conversation was out of his hands and in God’s hands. And, understanding this reality, Nehemiah could have peace whatever the outcome. If the king granted his wish, it would be because God opened this door for him. If the king refused, it would be because God had not opened the door for him – that the idea of going to Jerusalem was not part of God’s plan. If it was not part of God’s plan, Nehemiah didn’t want to go.
Which brings me to some questions for you today:
1. Are you anxious because of an important choice or decision facing you – and you’re not sure which way to go?
2. How might your view of your situation change if you recognized God as the one in control and not you?
3. What if, instead of logically assessing your options and then committing to one of them (decision-making), you let God show you which way you should go (discernment)?
This would take the decision out of your hands and put it into God’s hands.
4. What signs might you look for in your situation that would indicate God’s leading in a particular direction?
Lord God, lead us. Guide us. Give us grace to submit to your will and your ways. Help us get out of our own way. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.