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Lesson 2: The Realities of Serving God (Nehemiah 2:1-20)

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One of the refreshing marks of young people is their idealism. Even if you know from years of experience that a young person’s ideals are not practical, his zest can inspire faith and hope in those of us who may have lost our vision somewhere in the many battles of life. Someone has said, “Ideals are like the stars. We never reach them but, like the mariners on the sea, we chart our course by them” (Carl Schurz, Reader’s Digest [5/84], p. 66).

But as you mature, you learn that the real world isn’t quite as perfect as you had once envisioned. One jaded pastor put it, “Originally my life’s goal was a huge silver banner with the words, ‘Win the World for Christ!’ Eventually it became, ‘Win one or two people.’ Now it’s, ‘Try not to lose too many.’” While it is overly pessimistic, there is a grain of wisdom buried in his comment and we would do well to think about it before we rush into any service for the Lord.

We’ve all heard of Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” There are many variations of it:

“The other line moves faster. This applies to all lines: bank, supermarket, tollbooth, customs. If you change lines, then the line that you were originally in moves faster!”

“All papers that you save will never be needed until such time as they are disposed of, when they become essential.”

“When you’re working on your car, any tool dropped will roll under the car to the car’s geographic center.”

Or, as one wag summed up, “Murphy was an optimist!”

All of these statements are exaggerations, of course. But they make us chuckle because they resemble somewhat the real world we live in. Things don’t always go smoothly, even when we have prayed about it beforehand. Following Jesus does not guarantee a trouble-free life. In fact, it often gets us into deeper trouble. But, part of maturity is learning to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

That applies in the realm of Christian service. It’s easy for a young person or a new Christian to become very idealistic about serving the Lord. Whether it is an opportunity to teach Sunday School, to serve on a church committee, to work with the youth group, to go on a short-term missions trip, or to go into some kind of full-time Christian work, it’s easy to get stars in your eyes. “It will be wonderful to serve the Lord! I’ll be working with other Christians who also love the Lord. It will be so different from my job in the world working with all those worldly pagans!” And so we jump in, only to find out that the water isn’t just warm; sometimes it is scalding hot! Not anticipating the realities, many grow disillusioned and quit. One of the main reasons missionaries return from the mission field is conflicts with their fellow workers.

Nehemiah 2 has some helpful insights on the realities of serving God. Even though Nehemiah was doing God’s will, it wasn’t all smooth and rosy. Studying his life will help us, on the one hand, not to be overly idealistic and thus vulnerable to disillusionment; and, on the other hand, to be realistic while not giving in to cynicism and dropping out. Nehemiah faced real problems, but he moved through them to great accomplishments. Our chapter shows us three things:

To serve God realistically, we must learn to wait on Him, to work with people, and to wrestle wisely with problems.

Waiting on God, working with people of all sorts, and wrestling wisely with a steady stream of problems are essentials of finishing the course that God has set before us.

1. To serve God realistically, we must learn to wait on Him.

The chapter begins with a chronological note that, compared with 1:1, shows us that four months elapsed between the time that Nehemiah heard the report of Jerusalem until his opportunity to speak to the king. During that time, Nehemiah was so burdened by the news that he wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed for God to do something about the grievous situation in Jerusalem.

Compared to other men in the Bible whom God used, four months was a pretty short wait. Abraham waited over 25 years for God to give him Isaac. Joseph spent time as Potiphar’s slave and then two years in prison before God elevated him to second beneath Pharaoh. Israel was enslaved for 400 years in Egypt. Moses spent 40 years in the desert before God used him to bring Israel out of Egypt. Then the nation spent 40 more years in the wilderness. David spent his twenties running from King Saul. The apostle Paul spent three years alone in Arabia and more years in obscurity in Tarsus before the Lord began to use him in a more significant manner. Those whom God uses must learn to wait on Him.

Waiting is hard! It seems like life is too short, anyway. Time’s a wasting! And then, God puts you on hold. What do you do while you wait? Nehemiah did three things.

A. While waiting, Nehemiah prayed.

The prayer that we looked at last week (1:5-11) was not a one-shot deal. It is a summary of what Nehemiah prayed over and over again during those four months as the burden for God’s glory and God’s people in Jerusalem weighed upon him. Throughout the book, we find Nehemiah praying no less than 11 times in 13 chapters (1:5-11; 2:4; 4:4, 9; 5:19; 6:9, 14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31).

Many of these are just sentence prayers, like the one in our text (2:4), but they reflect the fact that in any and every situation, Nehemiah looked to God in prayer. He is an example of a man who prayed without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). The Greek word translated “without ceasing” does not mean without any break, which would be impossible. It is used of a hacking cough and of repeated military assaults. It means that prayer should be something we return to again and again until we obtain an answer.

Note Nehemiah’s prayer in 2:4. The king notices that Nehemiah is sad in his presence, which was a breach of protocol. Kings liked to be surrounded by happy people. This could have caused Nehemiah to lose his job or even his life. Some think that he deliberately staged this sadness, in light of his prayer in 1:11. Or, I think that his request in 1:11 was a daily prayer for four months, but on this particular day, Nehemiah inadvertently let his sorrow over Jerusalem show on his face, leading to this encounter. The gravity of his situation is seen in that he was “very much afraid” (2:2). It was the opportunity that he had been waiting for, but when it actually came, he was terrified. How did he handle it?

“So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king….” It had to be a silent, instantaneous cry of “Help, Lord!” Or, “Lord, give me wisdom now!” This quick sentence prayer rested on four months of extended praying. It shows that Nehemiah depended on the Lord in every situation. As 2:8 shows, Nehemiah didn’t attribute the king’s favorable response to good luck. Rather, “the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me.” As Proverbs 21:1 states, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes.” Or, as Hudson Taylor said, “It is possible to move men through God by prayer alone” (cited by Charles Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick [Thomas Nelson Publishers], p. 43).

One reason God makes us wait on Him is to teach us to depend on Him in prayer. If He immediately granted everything we ask for, we’d grab the goodies and forget God. But when we wait on God in prayer, we learn to seek God Himself and to depend upon Him in ways that we never would learn any other way. And, when the answer finally comes, we realize that it is because of one reason: “the good hand of our God was upon us.” Thus we give Him all the glory He deserves.

B. While waiting, Nehemiah developed patience.

Waiting reveals our impatience and teaches us to be patient. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit that God wants to develop in all of His children, but especially in leaders. An impatient leader can cause a lot of problems if he reacts impetuously in a crisis.

Derek Kidner (Ezra & Nehemiah Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p. 78) observes that Nehemiah’s waiting on God in prayer in chapter 1 was remarkable in light of his natural bent for swift, decisive action, and “it shows where his priorities lay.” He didn’t hear about the scene in Jerusalem and immediately rush into the king’s presence asking for a year’s leave of absence because God had called him to Jerusalem. For four months he concealed this heavy burden from the king and presented it to God in private, until God finally opened the opportunity to talk with the king. Only then did Nehemiah move ahead.

His patience is also seen when he arrived in Jerusalem. He could have ridden into town with his retinue of soldiers and announced, “I have come to help you rebuild the wall! We’ll have a meeting in one hour to disclose my plan!” But he waited three days before doing anything, and even then he moved cautiously, keeping his purpose concealed until the right moment.

Many pastors, especially when they’re fresh out of seminary, bursting with great ideas for reforming the church, move too quickly and meet resistance. The metaphor of sowing and reaping should teach us that we need patiently to sow God’s Word into lives, and that change takes time. Nehemiah prayed and he was patient as he waited on God to work.

C. While waiting, Nehemiah planned.

The chapter shows that Nehemiah had been doing a lot of advance thinking and planning. When the king asked how long he would be gone, Nehemiah didn’t vaguely say, “Well, that’s up to the Lord!” He gave him a definite time. While we later learn (5:14) that he was in Jerusalem for 12 years, probably he finished the wall, then returned to report to Artaxerxes, and then came back to serve as governor.

Not only did Nehemiah give the king a definite time, he also laid out some definite requests that show that he had been doing some careful planning (2:7-8). He requested letters from the king to the governors of the provinces to allow him to pass through their territory. He asked for a letter to the keeper of the king’s forest, to get timber for making repairs to the walls and gates, and for a house for himself. When he got to Jerusalem, he assessed the situation firsthand and obviously did some thoughtful planning as to how to approach the project.

Prayer and planning are not at odds with each other. Many Christians think that it’s unspiritual to plan. They will say, “Let’s just trust the Lord,” which being interpreted means, “I don’t have a clue about how we’re going to move from here to there!” It’s true that we can go to the other extreme of being so elaborate in our plans that we trust the plans, not the Lord. But Nehemiah shows the biblical balance of waiting on God in prayer, but also thinking and planning about what he would do when God opened the door.

Thus while you wait on the Lord, you pray, you develop patience, and you plan.

2. To serve God realistically, we must learn to work with people.

It’s easy to be idealistic about serving God until you meet the actual people that you have to work with! Suddenly you realize the truth that Linus shouted, “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand!” I often joke that the ministry would be great if it weren’t for the people! Sometimes I envy those guys with a radio ministry. They just talk into a microphone in a quiet studio and never have to relate to all the cranky people in their radio audience!

But the ministry involves people. Many pastors bomb out of ministry because they’ve never learned how to work with people. They’re abrasive or insensitive and when people react against them, they develop a persecution complex. But Nehemiah was sensitive to people and he responded with tact. But when needed, he confronted with uncompromising strength. There are three types of people he dealt with in our chapter:

First, Nehemiah knew how to work with an unbelieving king. This was an especially difficult situation in that the king was Nehemiah’s boss who literally had the power to make Nehemiah’s head roll! That’s why Nehemiah was very much afraid when the king asked him why he was sad in his presence. You didn’t rain on this man’s parade without sometimes severe consequences! Also, the king had previously stopped the work on the wall in Jerusalem (Ezra 4:21). The decrees of the kings of the Medes and Persians were proverbial about being unchangeable. Now Nehemiah wants to convince this Persian king to reverse his policy about Jerusalem! It was no easy task!

How did Nehemiah do it? As we’ve seen, he moved the king through private prayer. It is amazing how God can soften the hearts of the most difficult people if we will spend time asking Him to do so! Talk to God before you go to talk to a difficult person.

Also, Nehemiah had gained the king’s respect through his competence on the job. The king’s inquiry about how soon Nehemiah could return shows that he wanted him to come back! Nehemiah’s trustworthy character and his loyalty to the king had been obvious over the time that he had worked for the king. Every Christian should be a witness on the job first by godly character and competence, and only second by verbal witness.

Also, Nehemiah was tactful and sensitive in how he spoke to the king. He never mentions Jerusalem by name—that would have been a sore spot with the king! He refers to it in personal terms, as the place of his fathers’ tombs, a point that this pagan king could relate to. If you have to speak to an unbelieving boss about a difficult subject, think about how he will receive it and speak in a manner that he is certain to identify with.

Also, Nehemiah knew how to relate to demoralized believers. The Jews in Jerusalem believed in God and His covenant promises, at least intellectually. But they had lost hope. They had tried to rebuild the wall, but had been shot down. They were likely to resist this outsider coming in and telling them to try something that they knew could not be done. Some may not even have seen the need. Others would warn that if you tried to rebuild the wall, you’re only going to stir up the opposition of the surrounding governors.

Nehemiah’s careful, secretive preparations once he got to Jerusalem show that he anticipated some resistance to his proposal. So he spent three days doing his homework and thinking about how to present this in a way that would overcome the objections. After that he called the Jewish leaders and people together and began by stating the problem very plainly (2:17): “You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire.” He also identified himself with them in the problem. It wasn’t their problem; it was our problem. He didn’t blame them for things but neither did he gloss over the fact that we have a problem.

Then, he appealed to a need that they all felt, “that we may no longer be a reproach.” They all knew that a defenseless Jerusalem was a joke to the surrounding neighbors. They sensed that Nehemiah had come to seek their welfare (2:10). Finally, he told them how God already had been favorable as seen in the king’s favorable response. Perhaps he showed them the letters from the king and the requisition for the timber. Their instant response was that of hope: “Let us arise and build!”

There’s an art to working with people and learning to motivate them to accomplish great things for God. Some leaders err by becoming people-pleasing politicians. They want everyone’s approval, so they tell people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. But they erode trust because people quickly realize that they are manipulative and do not speak the truth.

Other leaders err by telling it like it is, but without sensitivity and tact. They don’t take the time to listen to people and understand where they’re at and how they feel about things. When people react against their leadership, they label them as disobedient and move on. Nehemiah should teach us to combine wisdom and tact with plain truth.

The third group of people that Nehemiah had to work with was the enemies. Sanballat was the governor of Samaria to the north. Tobiah, whose name is Jewish (“Yah is good”), ruled the Ammonites to the east. Geshem was the leader of the Arabs to the south. They all opposed a fortified Jerusalem because it threatened their political positions. They didn’t care at all about the plight of the Jews, much less about the name of the Lord being exalted in Jerusalem. So they were very displeased (2:10) and joined together to ridicule the project and accuse the people of rebellion against the king (2:19).

Nehemiah demonstrates both wisdom and courage in dealing with these enemies. He was wise in that he sensed, “This is no time for diplomacy. I need to meet these enemies head-on.” Any meeting to hear their concerns or to work out a compromise would have been a mistake. So Nehemiah courageously confronted them and drew the line between them and God’s people so that they could not join the project with the goal of sabotaging it. He didn’t use the clout of the king’s letters, but rather spiritual clout: “The God of heaven will give us success” (2:20).

Any time God’s people say, “Let’s arise and build,” the enemy will say, “Let’s arise and stop them.” J. Sidlow Baxter writes, “There is no winning without working and warring. There is no opportunity without opposition” (Explore the Book, Six Volumes in One [Zondervan], 2:230). A godly leader must have the discernment to know when to work with people and when to confront and oppose them. Early in my ministry, a veteran pastor, Ray Ortlund, told me, “You’ve got to decide where you want to give blood.” It is good counsel!

Thus to serve God realistically, you must learn to wait on Him and to work with people. Finally,

3. To serve God realistically, we must learn to wrestle with problems.

Any time you try to do anything significant for God, there will be problems. The enemy will see to that! We’ve already seen how Nehemiah dealt with the problem of the enemies. But also, he had to face the problem of the destroyed wall.

He began with a realistic firsthand appraisal of the situation. In one place, the rubble was so bad that he couldn’t ride his horse or mule through the debris. As the leader, he needed to know exactly how bad things were so that he could develop a realistic, practical plan of action. Nehemiah didn’t gloss over the problems. He describes it to the people as “a bad situation.”

Again, we need balance here. Some leaders are so sanguine that they refuse to acknowledge how bad things are. People in the trenches feel that he’s out of touch and it undermines his leadership. Other leaders are so engulfed by the problems that they lose hope. Nehemiah realistically saw the problem and, as we will see, broke it down into manageable units in order to get the job done.

Conclusion

So to serve God realistically, we must wait on Him for His timing, work with different sorts of people, and wrestle with problems. Just because it is the Lord’s work and He is on our side does not mean that everything will work out smoothly and effortlessly. We need both the idealism of what God wants to do and the realism that there will be major hurdles to overcome. But it’s worth all the hassles. My parents used to have the little plaque on the wall by the door that said, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” I hope that all of you will know the joy of serving Him in spite of the inevitable difficulties.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we guard ourselves from disappointment and cynicism when things do not go well in our service for God?
  2. When do we cross the line from proper planning to excessive planning? What factors can we watch out for?
  3. How can a person who does not work well with people learn this essential skill? What steps would you advise?
  4. How can you know when to be diplomatic and when to confront boldly? What guidelines should we follow? (Check out Jesus’ various interactions with people in this regard.)

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Relationships, Spiritual Formation, Spiritual Life