An initial answer to prayer
The beginning of chapter two in Nehemiah’s book says,
“And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.’ Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, ‘Let the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?’” (Neh. 2:1-3)
As a cupbearer, Nehemiah knew the risk what he planned to ask of the king. In his prayer, he asked God to show favor because to anger the king could mean his death. Putting myself in his shoes, I imagine psyching myself out before I walk into the same room as the king. “Okay, okay, you can do this. Just tell him what’s going on. He’ll understand.” But would he understand? Essentially, Nehemiah would ask the king to give him the authority of a ruler. Ever wonder if the janitor asks for a promotion to an executive position?
Then, when the king saw Nehemiah’s face, he knew that his attendant dealt with an inner struggle. I wonder if the king wrongly suspected Nehemiah of betrayal. It was the job of a cupbearer to test the king’s goblet for poison. The position required absolute trust from the king, so of course the king would ask that Nehemiah share his thoughts.
I wonder if Nehemiah suspected this possible suspicion. If they were just buddies, wouldn’t the king’s question about a “sadness of heart” sound like concern? Why would that cause him to fear?
Nehemiah proclaimed, “May the king live forever!” Or, as I read it, “I don’t want you to die! I’m for you, not against you!” Since his body language gave away his emotion, Nehemiah had no choice but to explain the meaning of his sadness, namely the ruin of Jerusalem.
Verse four has two important parts. First, the king responds to the news of Jerusalem by asking, “What would you request?” God is answering Nehemiah’s prayer! He had asked for favor, and here the king opens a discussion.
Because Nehemiah had requested favor in his first prayer, I believe he knew what he wanted. He wanted to go rebuild Jerusalem. But even when we have been gripped by the vision God gives, we can’t assume that we know how to make the vision a reality. This leads me to point out the second have of verse four, where Nehemiah throws an aside into the text, “So I prayed to the God of heaven.”
It’s crucial to understand the importance of prayer in a situation like this. The king and queen are sitting there, waiting for an answer, and Nehemiah has his chance. Instead of simply asking for what he desired, he took a moment to pray.
Have you ever done the right thing the wrong way? There have been times where I’m so certain of the direction and vision that God has given me that I will run over anyone that gets in my way. I’ll hurt family and loved ones. I’ll trumpet the vision to people who would of course ridicule me, which makes me think I can justify calling my pride “righteous anger”. I’ll even forget that God, who gave me a vision in the first place, has to show me the steps I need to take in order to get there. But even in a situation of pressure, Nehemiah prayed.
In verses 5-8, Nehemiah requests a letter giving him authority, assurance of safe passage, and the right to surrounding resources for his project. The guy works as a wine butler, as you may recall. What an insane request! But the king showed him favor. Nehemiah says in verse 8, “And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me.”
Grand Rapids used to have the greatest all ages venue in human history. My friends Mirf and Annette opened Skelletones in 2000 in the Heartside District on South Division, setting up shop right next to the homeless shelters, working girls, and hustlers. The day after they opened, I was about a mile away at the community college taking my SAT exam. Because I was too arrogant to bother myself with preparation tests, and because I find it difficult to skim while I read, I thought for sure I bombed what everyone called the most important test of my life.
Afterwards, I walked south on Division Avenue toward a hole in the wall record shop I’d spotted once when I wandered around the city. The owner, an old man named Dodd, roused himself from what may have been a sleeping position when I walked in the door. He mumbled out a “hello” and I braced myself for an hour of flipping through unorganized piles of dusty records. Before long, I found a sealed copy of Anthrax’s Attack of the Killer B’s, factory stickers and all. When I paid the man at the counter, he looked at the record as if he vaguely remembered having it in stock for fifteen years.
My friend Justin called me on my way out the door. “What are you doing right now?” he asked.
“I’m at Dodd’s trying to buy happiness after failing the SAT.” I exaggerated.
“Dude, I’m right down the street. Mirf and Annette opened a coffee shop. I stopped by for lunch. Come over.”
From then, I hung out at Skelletones just about every weekend if not every day. Within a few weeks of opening their doors, Mirf began booking shows. A couple named Bob and Marcia would bring a PA and microphones for bands that didn’t have their own sound system. Bands had to do all of their own advertising. Skelletones had essentially provided the space and opportunity for young bands to play.
At first, this seemed familiar to underground musicians in Grand Rapids. We had played all sorts of places like barns, basement and garage parties, rented halls on the brink of condemnation, financially unstable coffee shops, and uninviting bars. Nobody expected Skelletones to last any longer than those other places. Mirf told me a story about a guy who worked at one of the bigger venues predicting his failure because he wanted Skelletones to be an all ages venue instead of a bar. “You won’t last six months,” said the guy. “Not without a liquor license.”
On top of this, many people knew that Mirf and Annette were Christians. They prayed before opening every day. They played Christian punk and hardcore records on the stereo. Even though they let just about anybody play on the weekends, rumors spread that Skelletones was a Christian venue that only booked Christian bands. I heard people making fun and even expressing their hate for a few years over Skelletones.
But the vision Mirf and Annette had for South Division began to work. Shows got bigger. Bands from all over the country began to stop there on their tours. Businesses began to open in the old, abandoned buildings up and down the block. Still the haters kept talking.
Like Nehemiah, though, Mirf had been gripped by a vision. Even when the city of Grand Rapids made it purposefully difficult for him to open, he kept going because God had given him work to do. And when people within the Skelletones family made mistakes or lost heart, he and his wife challenged them, comforted them, and many times reawakened the vision in them.
Every good story has an antagonist. Nehemiah had a handful. Some of these haters are introduced in verses 9 and 10.
“Then I came to the governors of the provinces beyond the River and gave them the king's letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about it, it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel.” (Neh. 2:9-10)
Already, Nehemiah saw the benefits of asking God for direction before leaving on his mission. He had asked the king for a letter of authority because of other territorial governors like Sanballat and Tobiah. It’s possible they would have killed Nehemiah had he not presented a letter from the king or found protection with the army escort.
It amazes me how God works in perfect time but we always feel like He’s late. Graham Cooke once said, “God is never late. He just misses a lot of opportunities to be early.” For Nehemiah, it seems that God broke down the steps for him by prompting him to ask for a letter of authority and the right to natural resources. It prepared him for obstacles he may not have foreseen. I sometimes wonder if God prepares people for their own preparations.
As we read on, Nehemiah prepared for the work of his vision very carefully. He stayed in Jerusalem for three days before even inspecting the walls. One night, with only a few men and one riding animal, he walked around the perimeter of the city to take the full range of ruin into account. He had not told the people of his vision at this time, which would explain the undercover walk at night. A few men and one animal wouldn’t make a lot of noise to draw attention.
In those first three days, I believe Nehemiah also had time to survey the ruin of the peoples’ hearts. Why were they held in contempt? Why had they not begun the restoration themselves? The prophet Haggai had once called these people out on their priorities. The people kept saying, “It’s not time to build the temple of the Lord yet.” Instead, they tried to establish their homes and businesses before taking care of God’s house and serving Him. Haggai said, “Now therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Consider your ways! You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes.’ Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Consider your ways! Go up to the mountains, bring wood and rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified,’ says the LORD.” (Haggai 1:5-8)
I think he also wanted to make sure people had time to recognize him as the king’s ruler. That kind of recognition isn’t simply a matter of knowing who’s in charge, either. My punk rock heart often resists trusting an authority based solely on appointment and title. I have to witness qualities of leadership that cause me to trust the person. But don’t worry, people, I still pray for them. I still remember Romans 13:1. My point is that I respond better toward authority I’ve come to trust.
Again, this isn’t an authoritative commentary on the book of Nehemiah. You’re basically reading my inner monologue as I read the book. Maybe the people were so downtrodden that they’d accept authority from anyone bearing the king’s seal. Maybe. But look at the reaction they gave Nehemiah when he told them of his plan in verses 17-18.
“Then I said to them, ‘You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach.’ I told them how the hand of my God had been favorable to me and also about the king’s words which he had spoken to me. Then they said, ‘Let us arise and build.’ So they put their hands to the good work.”
Nehemiah had made sure to know the full extent of the situation and offer assurance of the king’s pleasure in the work. He spoke to the heart of their condition, addressing the gates and walls “so that we will no longer be a reproach”. I love how he cut short this part of the address. Surely, after weeping over this situation for so many days, he must have had so much to tell the people of Jerusalem. Instead, he says, “you see it already”. It’s two sentences to describe what they need to do in order to become the city God intended. He cut to the chase. It’s “Banned In D.C.” vs. “Sister Ray”. One says it all before you realized anyone said anything. The other goes on and on until you beg for the end of the record.
“Banned In D.C.” has another application here. The surrounding rulers were pissed when they saw that Jerusalem began to rebuild. At first, the rulers tried using ridicule laced with threats to shame the workers.
When Skelletones opened, a large anti-Christian music sentiment began to creep into the music scene along with the rumors that Mirf would only book Christian bands. Some other coffee shop owners mocked Skelletones for its punk image and Christian ties. I remember one flyer where a coffee shop (that had the permit for smoking indoors) took a picture of Jesus carrying the cross and dubbed a cigarette into his fingers. The caption read, “Sometimes, you just need a smoke.” The city of Grand Rapids halted the restoration of the building housing Skelletones because of a supposed violation of code. The back door had to open at least eighteen inches wide. The inspector claimed that the last stair in the atrium stairwell prevented the door from opening all the way. This stalemate went on for weeks until Mirf measured the distance for himself. Eighteen inches. The work began again the next day.
I respect the hell out of Mirf. You might hear me say his name an annoying amount of times. He loved people and still knew how to stand up for himself and others.
Nehemiah’s response to the ridicule and threats was no less direct. Verse 20 says, “So I answered them and said to them, ‘The God of heaven will give us success; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem.’”
Nobody actually waged war here, but clear battle lines had been drawn. Although I believe the Church should show compassion, extending love and grace, I also wish it had Nehemiah’s spirit. When opposition comes, claim God’s promises and stand in the face of opposition. And I’m not talking in terms of political platform. The “Good Work” set before us is to spread the gospel and build the Kingdom of God. So many things try to shame us from this work, to threaten us. I think Christians throughout history into the present day have listened to those rulers in their own lives, bringing the work to a grinding halt.
So listen up! You see the condition we are in. God’s favor is on His servants. He will glorify Himself and has commissioned His church to do this good work on earth. But enthusiasm isn’t enough for adventure. It’s the thing that encourages people to begin.
This is the beginning of Nehemiah’s adventure.