I’ve always had mixed feelings about Nehemiah, ever since reading books early in my Christian life about how wonderful he is as a leader. I think I’ve seen him as a bit self–justifying, and as an example of ‘leadership by shouting at people,’ but in today’s reading at least, I can see a lot to admire.
Nehemiah is a fascinating balance of prayer and action. He’s not a religious professional, but a civil servant (which includes being a royal butler, in his case) to a pagan king. In these first four chapters, one of which is mainly a list of names, he records four of his prayers. Of course, he may have refined the wording a bit when writing them down for history, but it’s clear that prayer was vital to his approach to life and leadership.
First he records his prayer for Jerusalem, on hearing that the work of the Temple-builders had ground to a halt and the whole return from exile was in danger of failure. His prayer is made up of phrases that echo from everything I’ve been reading over the last few months – Nehemiah has obviously taken the words of Scripture to heart and they provide the phrases of his prayer. They are also the source of its content – Nehemiah prays on the basis of God’s promises of faithfulness and of mercy. Secure on this foundation, he prays for the opportunity to use his position for good and speak to the king. Perhaps it would do me good to commit more phrases from the Bible to heart and memory to make my prayers a bit stronger.
Second, when the king asks why he looks sad, and asks what he wants the king to do, before answering Nehemiah prays before he speaks. This time he doesn’t record his words, but mentions only in passing that he prayed. It seems that prayer is such a part of his life that he assumes that it’s the natural thing to do. Yet for me, as I suspect for most of us, to pray before answering doesn’t always come naturally. It’s enough of a challenge sometimes to think before answering…
Then we see Nehemiah’s practicality, as he encourages and organises the returned exiles to rebuild the walls of the city. As the work carries on, and Israel’s enemies begin to organise their opposition, Nehemiah brings prayer and practicality together. In response to their taunts in 4:1-5, he prays in anger – the side of him I don’t warm to! Perhaps there’s a reason why at his best Nehemiah prays in the words he’s learned from the Bible – his own words aren’t so profound or moving!
And then comes Nehemiah’s fourth prayer in these chapters. In a wonderful balance of response to the threat of violence against the builders, he records that ‘we prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.’ (4:9). Prayer and action are not usually alternatives, but best used together.
Perhaps I have more to learn from Nehemiah than I thought.