Ora et labora.
—a Benedictine proverb
No, my friend, there is no contradiction between the
sovereign decrees of God and fervent, believing prayer.
—John Reisinger, The Sovereignty of God and Prayer (2002)
The Moment Of Crisis
It was a calculated move and a dangerous one. It was most certainly an act of faith. Nehemiah stood before the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes, and offered him his cup. But Nehemiah was sad — visibly sad. Artaxerxes looked into his face and read there his deep sorrow. Artaxerxes was surprised.
For the Persians, such sorrow was improper, even insulting. To stand before the emperor was the greatest honor this earth could afford. Such a privilege should occasion joy and thankfulness. The man who wore a sad or sullen countenance to an imperial audience was an ingrate and a candidate for summary execution.
It was with this in mind that Artaxerxes looked at his cupbearer and said: “Why is your countenance sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing else but sorrow of heart” (Neh. 2:2).
Nehemiah writes, “Then I was very sore afraid.”
Nehemiah had walked into this lion’s den deliberately. The whole thing had begun four months earlier when a kinsman had returned from Judea with news of Jerusalem. The news was bad. God’s people were in great affliction. They were persecuted and held in contempt by the neighboring peoples. Jerusalem’s walls were broken down and her gates had been burned with fire (1:3).
These were fairly recent matters. After Israel returned from Babylon, the people set to work rebuilding the Temple and the city. They had begun to rebuild the walls as well. Samaritan interference had put a halt to the progress. Nehemiah had received confirmation of their success.
He was greatly moved by this news. He sat down in heaviness and wept. He continued his mourning for days, fasting and praying to God.
His prayer was somber. First, he recognized God for who He is: great, awesome, and keeping covenant with those who love and obey Him (1:5). Then he asked God to hear his prayer of repentance on behalf of himself, his father’s house, and all of Israel (v. 6). He spoke plainly of Israel’s corruptions, of her many violations of God’s statutes and commandments.
Nehemiah prayed the very language of Scripture back to God. He reminded God of His covenant promises. Yes, God had promised destruction and exile for sin, but He had also promised mercy and restoration when Israel truly repented. Finally, Nehemiah asked for mercy in the sight of the emperor, “For I was the king’s cupbearer” (v. 11).
The king’s cupbearer was responsible for choosing the king’s wine, making sure it was safe, and presenting it to the king on public occasions. This was a high profile job. It had about it some of the responsibilities of a bodyguard or secret service agent. The cupbearer necessarily had the highest security clearance. He also had the king’s ear.
When Nehemiah heard of the desolation of Jerusalem, he recognized immediately that he was in a unique position to help. He had dreamed no dreams, seen no vision, heard no prophetic oracle in his ear or in his heart. But Nehemiah, like Esther, saw that he had providentially come to his position “for such a time as this.”
But think about it. No prophetic promptings. No word from heaven. And so Nehemiah continued to pray. He prayed, and he fasted, and he mourned. Meanwhile, he worked the logistics and prepared the task maps. He did the research and filled out the necessary paperwork. He combined preparation and prayer.
He took four months to get ready. He prayed and worked. And then, when all was in place, he went into the emperor’s presence, wearing a deliberately sorrowful countenance.
The Rest of the Story
Nehemiah was afraid because he understood the import of the emperor’s question. His office and perhaps his life were on the line. But as far as he could see, Jerusalem’s fortunes were also at stake. Nehemiah didn’t want to slip up. He gave his prepared answer: “Let the king live forever! 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?” (2:3, ESV).
Artaxerxes said, “What are you asking for?”
Nehemiah writes, “So I prayed to the God of heaven” (v. 4).
Nehemiah had no time to fumble through the pages of a prayer book. He had no time to get down on his knees and lift his hands toward heaven. In fact, he was in no place to say anything. His prayer was under his breath or in his heart. It was quick and pointed, but it was real. He prayed for God’s help and favor. Only then did he answer the emperor’s question.
Nehemiah laid out his plan. With the emperor’s blessing, he would go to Jerusalem and rebuild its walls. He had his timetable and supplies list ready. He knew what he needed, and he asked for it. “And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me” (2:8, ESV).
Prayer and the Kingdom of God
Prayer and work both have their place in the kingdom of God. They both flow from the decrees of God and are governed by His providence. He ordains the ends and the means. One of His chief means is fervent, believing prayer (Jas. 5:13-16; Eph. 6:18). But the God who calls us to pray without ceasing also command us to work (Ex. 20:9; Phil. 2:12). He commands us to work wisely and well (Eccl. 9:10; 10:10). But the blessing is in His hand. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), in explaining two of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, summarizes the relationship between prayer and human responsibility like this:
Grant that we and all men may renounce our own will, and without murmuring obey thy will, which is only good; that every one may attend to, and perform the duties of his station and calling, as willingly and faithfully as the angels do in heaven.
Be pleased to provide us with all things necessary for the body, that we may thereby acknowledge thee to be the only fountain of all good, and that neither our care nor industry, nor even thy gifts, can profit us without thy blessing; and therefore that we may withdraw our trust from all creatures, and place it alone in thee.
We ask God for the desire to work hard and for the ability to perform our duties well; we also acknowledge that only God can bless the outcome of our labors.
This was the very practical theology of Nehemiah. It should be ours, too.