If you are not content with a Christianity characterized by minimal devotion to God, Nehemiah is your book. It is a book for those who do not want to “just get by” in the Christian life. It is for those who are not content with a numb, mechanical, affectionless Christianity, where the reality of God and our relationship with him is taken for granted as ordinary. I love this book because I hate the idea of talking about God through yawns. I shudder at the idea of being a bored Christian. Another way of saying this is that I long for revival—a revival that cannot be reduced to emotional manipulation or gimmicks or ear-tickling. And Nehemiah shows us what true revival looks like.
Oh, that we would be a Church perpetually awestruck by the majesty of God—a people who are conscious of the fact that the God we worship—the God who loves us and has come near to befriend us—is all-powerful, all-sufficient, all-wise, unchanging, undiminished in his holiness and righteousness and glory.
Oh, that we would be a Bible people, who trust in the sufficiency of God’s word. We don’t have to fret and worry about what God is like and what he desires from us—he has told us!
Oh, to be a people who trust this word with our whole lives because the God who speaks with it is totally trustworthy.
If we were to be such a people, we would find an absolute unwillingness to make peace with our sin. We would grieve and mourn and lament over our sin. We would have so little regard for our self-image that we would find ourselves more than willing to openly confess our sin. We would induce the vomit to get it out, with no regard for how disgusting it looks coming out, or how undignified we look doubled over the trash can. We just wouldn’t care, because we would hate having it in our system so much and would want restoration and communion with God so badly.
Oh, to come to God in prayer, not as a last resort, but as a reflex! In times of famine and times of plenty—in times of sorrow and times of rejoicing. How wonderful would it be to stay in constant communication with God because we are conscious of who he is and who we are—how helpless we are and how mighty and able he is?
Oh, to be the kind of people who are faithful throughout our entire exile here on earth. God forbid we ever settle down into a spirit of at-homeness in this age. For this is not our Kingdom. We belong to another. We live in the already/not-yet—our eternal dwelling with God is secure, but we are not yet there. We are sojourners and strangers in a foreign land, and we want to be the kind of people whose hearts are set in our heavenly homeland, where we will commune bodily with Christ forever and ever. May our allegiances be set there.
And in the midst of all those, “Oh’s,” much to our surprise, God gives us Nehemiah. If we would have ears to hear, Nehemiah’s very first prayer in the book begins to shape us into such a people.
Nehemiah’s Prayer Acknowledges the Sovereignty of God
“O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God” (1:5)— Nehemiah prays to no mere tribal deity—a god among gods, whose skills happen to apply to Nehemiah’s need. No, this is the LORD God of heaven—the great and awesome God. This is a big God, sovereign over all the nations. Interestingly, Nehemiah knows something about being in the presence of greatness even more so than the average person, simply by virtue of being cupbearer to Persia’s King. But even as he shows proper respect to King Artexerxes, reverence and awe is reserved for his God alone. This is because this God is sovereign even over the most powerful man on the planet. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD,” Proverbs 21:1 tells us, “he turns it wherever he will.”
Nehemiah’s Prayer Recognizes the Sinfulness of Sin
As Nehemiah brings his lamentation into the presence of this great and awesome God, his conscience is tenderized and the awareness of his sin increases. This always happens, by the way. Deep and intimate prayer has never co-existed with unacknowledged sin. It can’t. If we are able to harbor and cherish sins in the presence of God, we are asleep to what is truly happening. His holiness is like a spotlight that exposes all of our sinfulness, and if we would desire to enjoy communion with him, we will confess and forsake those sins out of hatred of them and love for him. It’s the most natural thing in the world for creatures who revel in the holiness of God to confess their own sinfulness. It stings, but in a relieving way. Confession of sin hurts. Exposing yourself to the heat of God’s holy presence to burn your conscience until you acknowledge and deal with your sins is truly a painful process. But the cost of having an undisturbed conscience is far too great than any of us should pay. The price is relational alienation from God, and it’s simply not worth it.
Nehemiah’s Prayer Hangs on the Promises of God
Most of this prayer is Nehemiah speaking God’s words back to him. He does not presume to come into the presence of God and request for God’s deliverance thoughtlessly. He does not predicate his request on anything but the promises of God himself. These are bold requests, but God himself has invited such boldness by sealing his promises within the context of his own covenant faithfulness. This is why Nehemiah puts no stock in his own eloquence or righteousness; the reason for this prayer is God’s own merciful nature.
What Time Is It?
When reading the Scriptures—especially Old Testament books—we have to always ask the question: what time is it? Where is this passage situated within the overarching story that God is telling through the Scriptures? We ask this question because, as Christians, we don’t believe that history is a pointless, random sequence of unrelated events. Rather, we should have a theological view of history. As Christians, we believe that human history is a story whose Author is God himself—you and are in this story; we are characters alongside Nehemiah and Israel and everyone else in the Scripture. We also believe that the most climactic event in the story of human history—the “big reveal”—happened two thousand years ago with the gospel of Jesus Christ: the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Every other event in history orbits around that point. Everything prior anticipated it, and everything after is affected by it. So the question, “What time is it?” is, in a real sense, “Where does this story take place in relation to Christ?”
So then, what time is it? Nehemiah banked his prayer on the gracious nature of God as revealed to him within the context of a very specific covenant—the covenant from Sinai. Nehemiah had great hope that God would deliver his people from their sin and the consequences of their sins, and he had great reason to believe that God would deliver his people in some way from looking backward on his timeline. But in his wildest dreams, he could never imagine what this delivery would look like in its fullest sense. Nehemiah was longing for a manifestation of God’s grace that was still a future to him, but we who have received the grace of our Lord Jesus live in the substance that was a mere shadow for Nehemiah.
The covenant-making, covenant-keeping God we pray to is the very same one Nehemiah prayed to, only the promises we cling to are secured within a far better covenant. The problem that Nehemiah and his people continually faced was that the law—that which they had to obey in order to receive God’s covenant-blessings—could not make its way in their hearts. It stood outside them, as a boundary. Compelled by their sinful hearts, this boundary they transgressed over and over again, resulting in covenant-curses over and over again.
But thanks be to God, when Christ came, he came to enact a far better covenant. A central promise in this covenant is the promise that God himself will put his law and his Spirit within our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33-34). “But as it is,” the author of Hebrews tells us, “Christ has obtained a ministry that is more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it was enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). These, then, are the terms and conditions of the covenant to which every Christian belongs: Christ achieves all your covenant faithfulness for you.
This covenant does not depend on our compliance to God’s law—compliance to God’s law is a blessing included in the covenant. Obedience to God is a New Covenant product, not a New Covenant prerequisite. This covenant does not have covenant blessings emended within covenant curses; it doesn’t need them. It doesn’t even have a list of covenant-curses, since Christ himself was cursed on our behalf. It’s just all blessings all the time. Even the conviction of sin that compels us to confess is itself a blessing. Rather than being the condemning sentence of an indignant judge, conviction of sin, for the Christian, is the firm correction of an invested father. This covenant is not mediated by sinful men who have to seek atonement for their own sin when they intercede on behalf of their people—Jesus Christ is the better Mediator, whose intercession, unlike Moses and Nehemiah, is perfect because he is perfect. This, then, is where any revival worth mentioning must begin: a laser-like focus on Jesus Christ and his mediation.