Then I Prayed to the God of Heaven Back to all sermons

Date: May 18, 2014

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Scripture: Nehemiah 1:1–2:10

Tags: God’s attributes, praise, confession, intercession, prayer

Synopsis: Life is full of problems. We all know that. But it is how we respond to the problems that makes all the difference. In Nehemiah 1-2, Nehemiah was faced with a huge problem. How did he respond? And what was the result? As we join Nehemiah on his knees in this message (Then I Prayed to the God of Heaven) we not only learn the importance of making prayer our first response (rather than our last resort), but we learn a valuable 4-point outline to guide our praying.

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Life is full of problems. You didn’t need me to tell you that. You already know that. Everywhere we turn, we are faced with problems of one kind or another. Problems come in different shapes and sizes. Some are small, garden variety annoyances. Some are huge and life-threatening. Big and small, problems are a fact of life.

I want you to think of the word “PROBLEM” as the first factor in a mathematical equation. Write it on a piece of paper. Now write “+ RESPONSE”. When we face a problem, we then respond to it in some way. We can ignore it. We can panic. We can get angry that the problem has come. We can look for solutions or look for someone to blame. There is a wide variety of responses to any problem. Then add to the formula “= RESULT”.

Now I know this isn’t rocket science here. It’s simple life reality. Any time we are confronted with a problem, we respond to it in some way. And it is the problem plus the response that produces the result. What I want to do in this message is to challenge you at the level of your response. In most cases, we don’t choose our problems. We may often create them, but we rarely choose them! They come to us uninvited. But we do choose our response. How do you respond to problems? How are you responding to the problems you are facing in your life right now? Is there another way to respond that will produce a different result?

As you ponder those questions, I want you to turn with me to the Book of Nehemiah. The Book of Nehemiah tells us the story of the return of another group of exiles to Jerusalem. Last week we looked at earlier return under the leadership of Ezra the scribe. The book of Nehemiah takes place around 13 years later. Between the first return under Zerubbabel and the return of Nehemiah, a span of 90 years has passed. All during that time, the walls of Jerusalem have lain in ruins.

This then, becomes The Problem that confronted Nehemiah. Let’s read Nehemiah 1:1-3.

The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah:

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.
3 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (in NIV)

It occurred to me as I read that, that there are different kinds of problems in life. There are personal problems. These are problems where the primary impact is on us, or on the immediate circle of our family. These are real problems. They are significant. They matter. And the truths I am going to share today apply to these problems. But there is another category that I would refer to as kingdom challenges. These are problems that relate to the building of God’s kingdom and the carrying out of his purposes in the world. In this case, the problem that confronted Nehemiah fell in this second category.

How do we respond when we are faced with a problem? Either a personal problem or a kingdom challenge? Let’s look at how Nehemiah responded. The Response of Nehemiah is recorded in verse 4. When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.

Is that how you respond to problems? Nehemiah faced reality and the reality was painful, so he sat down and wept. But that isn’t all he did. His mourning became fasting and prayer before God.

Problem: the walls of Jerusalem are still in ruins. Response: prayer, intense prayer, fervent prayer, extended prayer. We’ll come back to the content of his prayer in just a moment, but I want to follow up with the formula for a moment. Problem + Response = Result. What was The Result?

Nehemiah prayed, and what happened? Are you ready for this? Absolutely nothing! At least for the first 4 months. How do we know this? Well, in verse 1, we’re told he received the news in the month of Kislev in the Jewish calendar, which overlaps November/December in our calendar. He began immediately to mourn and fast and pray. The next time reference is found in Neh. 2:1, which refers to the month of Nisan, which overlaps March/April. That’s four months and nothing changed. At least nothing that was visible. In the meantime, Nehemiah kept on praying and he kept on about his official duties. We are told that he was the king’s cupbearer. It was a position of trust. He had direct access to the king. He had the responsibility of not only choosing and providing the wine, but also of tasting it before he served it to be sure that it was not poisoned or tainted in any way. And for 4 months he carried on as usual.

Then God acted. Chapter 2 picks up the story. Nehemiah was serving wine to the king one day, when out of the blue the king asked him: “Why do you look sad today?” Nehemiah was terrified at the question. In the palace of an absolute ruler like Artaxerxes, only the king was allowed to have emotions. Everyone else was expected to maintain a pleasant, happy demeanor. In fact, we’re told that in all the years of service to the king, Nehemiah had never shown a sad face before. Such a breech in protocol could cost Nehemiah not only his job, but possibly even his life. Yet the king’s question was also an opportunity to speak of the matter that was upon his heart. It was a huge risk. It was an opportunity to lose all or gain all. And because of his months of prayer and seeking God’s face, Nehemiah was ready.

That takes me back to my earlier point, when I asked what was the result of Nehemiah’s prayer, and I answered, “Nothing.” I did add to that sentence: “at least nothing visible.” Because I believe something did happen during those months of prayer. God shaped Nehemiah and prepared him for the task. Nehemiah acquired boldness. He formed a plan. He knew what he was going to ask for. He just didn’t know when he was going to have a chance to present his request. Now, the opportunity is before him, and he seizes it. He attributes his sorrow to the sad condition of his home city. The king then asks him what he wants.

I love the next sentence in the text, in verse 4-5: Then I prayed to the God of heaven and I answered the king. There wasn’t time for much of a prayer. Just a quick “Help me now, God!” Then he spoke to the king and asked for permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls.

Now when you think about it, this is a hugely audacious request. First of all, what did a cupbearer know about building city walls? What’s more, if we go back to the royal correspondence recorded in the Book of Ezra, we find that this request was flying in the face of a long history of decrees against the work in Jerusalem – including a letter by Artaxerxes himself. Nehemiah was actually asking him to contradict himself and rescind his order. But on the power of his prayer, he asked, and God answered.

In verse 6, Nehemiah records: It pleased the king to send me. What is more, Nehemiah is bold enough to keep on asking for letters of permission and for supplies and an escort back to Jerusalem. The king granted all of his requests and even more beside. Nehemiah understood the real reason behind the king’s generosity. He records it in verse 8: And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests.

What a wonderful result. Problem + Response = Result. Putting Nehemiah’s response in the form of a principle, we can put it this way: WHEN WE RESPOND TO PROBLEMS WITH PRAYER, GOD ACTS. That is the simple formula; the simple and profound truth. But as simple and basic as it is, I suspect many of you are like me and tend to forget to apply it when facing problems. Maybe we even forgot it during this past week. Or if we did pray, it was only after we had exhausted all our other strategies and alternatives. Nehemiah started with prayer, and he continued patiently in prayer until he saw God act. WHEN WE RESPOND TO PROBLEMS WITH PRAYER, GOD ACTS.

Before we leave this passage, however, I promised we would look at the words of Nehemiah’s prayer itself. That’s where we will spend the rest of this message, because Nehemiah’s prayer is really a wonderful model for prayer. Let me read it from Nehemiah 1:5-11.

Then I said:

“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.

8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’

10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”

I see 4 basic components in Nehemiah’s prayer which I think make a helpful outline for our prayers, when we face problems, whether they are personal problems or kingdom challenges. I would capture those components with this formula: You are…We are…You said…We need…

You are. Nehemiah begins his prayer be reflecting on the character and person of God. All effective prayer begins with a clear understanding and view of the One to whom we are speaking.

I remember reading once that “we cannot separate our prayer life from our concept of God.”

What was Nehemiah’s concept of God? Look at his words: O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes be open to the prayer your servant is praying.

He begins by calling him the God of heaven. It’s interesting that this title is repeated 3 times in these 2 chapters. It’s used back in verse 4, where he says he prayed to the God of heaven. It is used in this opening to his prayer. It is repeated again in 2:4 where he says I prayed to the God of heaven and I answered the king.

Why this emphasis on the God of heaven? It’s really rather simple. When you are about to talk to a king, an emperor, the most powerful human being on earth at that time, where are you going to go to find a power or authority that outranks his power and authority? Nowhere on earth. But what about the God of heaven? Does he outrank the king? You better believe it! And that’s where Nehemiah started his prayer. Reflecting back that fact. LORD, you are the God of heaven, the great and awesome God.

Do you remember how Jesus taught his disciples to pray? Our Father who art in heaven… Does that sound familiar?

But that’s not all. God not only has power and authority, but in his character he is a God who loves to help and intervene on behalf of his people. Who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands. Know who you speaking to. Express that in your prayers. Our hope rests in the character of the God to whom we are praying. You are…

We are… Nehemiah continued his prayer with confession in v. 6-7. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.

Nehemiah confesses the sins of the nation, as well as his own personal acts of transgression. This aspect of prayer can include various forms of confession. It can be personal. It can be corporate. It can be sins of commission (things we have done that we should not have done) and sins of omission (things we have failed to do that we should have done). It can also include a confession of our own weakness and lack of resources and our dependence on God. I have used the words “we are” because that is how Nehemiah prayed, but the words “I am” would also be appropriate. It’s our time to be honest with God and to make things right with him.

You are…We are…You said… The next thing Nehemiah did was to quote Scripture, particularly the promises of God in v.8-10.

Let’s read these again:

8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’
10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.

In this part of his prayer, Nehemiah quotes the two sides of God’s covenant with Israel. God had made his covenant with his people and it included both warnings and promises, both cursing and blessing. If they sinned, he would send them into captivity, but if they repented, then he would restore them to the land. Now, Nehemiah says, you carried out the warning. It’s time to carry out the promise and restore your people to the land and to restore Jerusalem to peace and security. He claims that promise for the returned exiles.

Using Scripture in prayer is a common practice in almost all Biblical prayers. Prayer is really a way of holding God to his promises. Only we quote Scripture, not because God has forgotten what we said, but because we have a tendency to forget it. If we know that we are asking God to do something he has already promised to do, it adds great authority and confidence to our praying. As the New Testament says in 1 John 5:14-15: This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him. What better way to know that we are asking “according to his will” than to quote his promises? Learn to quote the Scriptures as you pray, or even better, to study the Scriptures and then turn them into prayers.

You are…We are…You said…We need.

In light of the first three parts of his prayer, Nehemiah was now ready to petition God and to tell him what he needed. He starts generally and then becomes very specific: O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.

Through prayer he had formulated his plan. He knew he had to talk to the king. He knew he had been given a unique position of access to the king. But he also knew that his only chance of success lay in the intervention of God. So he asked very specifically: Grant me favor in the presence of the king. It was a bold prayer, and it may be that we will have to spend some time on our knees before we see clearly what God’s plan is and what we need to ask for. But when it becomes clear, we are to ask and ask specifically for what we need to face our problems or to meet the kingdom challenges that confront us.

There it is. A simple outline for effective prayer. You are…We are…You said…We need. Problem + Response = Result. The challenge for all of us is to make prayer our first response, not our last resort in a crisis. Intense prayer. Patient prayer. Fasting and prayer if need be. Because when we respond to problems with prayer, God acts.

Let me close, though, with one final challenge. I have said that this fundamental truth applies to both personal problems and what I referred to as “kingdom challenges.” And that is true. We can and should and must pray when personal problems crowd in around us. But here’s my challenge. Is that the only thing we pray about? How much time do we spend praying about “kingdom challenges”?

I was thinking about that as I read about Nehemiah’s response in the opening verses of chapter 1. He gets the report about the walls of Jerusalem still in ruins. Do you know what he could have said? “I’m glad I don’t live there!” I can’t help but wonder if I would have responded just that way. After all, life was good for Nehemiah. He had a good job, prestige, influence, security. Why should he worry about the condition of Jerusalem, over 800 miles away? He and his family hadn’t lived there for over 150 years.

But it mattered to the kingdom of God, and the purposes of God. As Nehemiah says in his prayer, Jerusalem was “the place God had chosen as a dwelling for his name.” As long as the walls of Jerusalem lay in ruins, God’s reputation was at stake. And Nehemiah cared about God’s reputation, about the condition of God’s people, and about the fulfilling of God’s purposes in the world. We should care as well. That’s why Jesus taught his followers to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name (may your name be honored and held in reverence). May your kingdom come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I trust that you do meet life’s problems with prayer. But the challenge for us all is to go beyond that, and to also spend time on our knees praying about kingdom challenges.