T. Pierce Brown
In Nehemiah 1 we find that Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the king. We are, in a sense, cupbearers to the King. When James and John wanted to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus, He asked them “Are ye able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” When they replied that they were, “He saith unto them, My cup indeed ye shall drink” (Matthew20:23). They drank of the cup in the sense that they endured the bitter affliction and suffering that came as a result of following him. To the extent that we suffer for the cause of Christ, we also drink of that cup. Most of us may not do more than sniff the contents of it. The same basic thought is in the expression in Luke 14:27, “Whosoever doth not bear his own cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” It may be that some of us, instead of taking it up, merely drag it along behind, but we are supposed to be cup bearers and cross bearers. With that in mind, a study of this chapter became more personal to me.
First, I was impressed with his sympathetic inquiry in verse 2. He did not allow his prominence, promotion, position, prestige or power to turn his heart in selfishness to his own interests and become indifferent to the interests and welfare of his brethren. That may happen to cupbearers today. We may become more interested in building gymnasiums or cathedrals for our own selfish purposes than we are in the walls that have been broken down, the gates that have been burned and the streets deserted in the spiritual house of God.
Six months later the walls were rebuilt. How had this happened? It was not that a prophet like Elijah had come and stirred the people. Nor had a warrior like Gideon or David overthrown the enemy. It was simply a picture of one man who was so concerned that he wept, prayed, fasted and worked. There is no way to overemphasize the power that God can exercise through one man who cares that much and is willing to be personally involved.
Nehemiah did not merely go back home and give a little more money, or get others to do so. He did not merely find fault with those who were slack in their duty. He did not simply appoint a committee that could find a dozen reasons for not doing what God wanted done. He did not call a business meeting to see whether the budget would allow it.
His first response was that he sat down, wept, mourned with prayer and fasting (v. 4). Probably one of the greatest reasons for our failure to do so many things that God wants done is that we do not really care that much. We do considerable preaching and feasting, but not much prayer and fasting. We see Jesus weeping overJerusalem(Luke19:41) and Paul who ceased not to warn everyone night and day with tears (Acts20:31). How many do you know, including the preachers you may think are so great, who really care enough about lost souls and the sad condition of the church to cry about it?
The value and nature of that kind of prayer should commend itself to us. Here was unquestionable earnestness. Here was no stilted, formal, mechanical muttering of phrases without real meaning, or thumping on a pulpit. Here was the outcome of a soul stirred to its depths, who knew what he wanted and knew that God was the only source of those specific things. Many times our prayers are so general as to be almost meaningless. Many times have I prayed or heard prayers like this, “God, forgive us of our many sins and shortcomings and bless us as thou knowest we stand in need.” Since there is no particular sin of which we confess, there is no correction we intend to make. Since there is no particular blessing we desire, the statement of James may apply. “Ye have not because ye ask not” (James 4:2).
What do you think would happen if your child asked you for things as he hears Christians ask God for things? You ask him what he really wants. He says, “Bless me.” What would you do?
The second thing we notice about Nehemiah’s words is his reverent and humble attitude. He did not overlook the severity and justice of God as he considered His goodness and mercy. Most persons in denominations and many connected with the church of the Lord do not seem to believe in the justice of God. They only want to think of His grace and mercy. Nehemiah recognized both. Paul put it in Romans11:22, “Behold then the goodness and severity of God: toward them that fell, severity; but toward thee God’s goodness, if thou continue in His goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.”
There was importunity or constancy in prayer. Note verse 6, “Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hearken unto the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee at this time, day and night.” Why do you think God wants us to keep asking, as he teaches in Luke 11:8, Luke 18:2 and various other places? One probable reason is that only in that attitude of earnest caring will we be fit to receive the answer.
Notice again, the confession he made. “Both I and my father’s house have sinned. We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses” (vs. 6 & 7). The confession was individual and personal. It was not “Some of us may have sinned.” It was particular and specific, not general and vague. There may be some value in our saying, “Forgive us of our many sins, whether or omission or commission” but the value of naming them and dealing with each individual one is greater than making a vague reference. The reason is simple. We will not do anything specific about correcting a sin if we are unwilling to specify that sin.
The modest and diffident language of verse 11 is striking. “Let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants who desire to fear thy name.” Although most of us who preach may have emphasized that good intentions are not satisfactory substitutes for obedient actions, we need to be aware that desire may be more basic and decisive than actions.
The reason is that actions may be counterfeited, but desire cannot. We may be forced to act. We cannot be forced to will. Actions may simply be outward responses or ritualistic performances. Desires are not. Desire will be one of the things God will consider in His final judgment. This is why so much emphasis is put on such things as “Worship in spirit” and “Obey from the heart” for if the desire is not right, no action is acceptable.
Many of our prayers may be without value because we do not desire to completely yield to God’s will and live for the glory of His name. James says, “Ye ask and receive not because ye ask to consume it on your own lusts” (James 4:3). The desire is wrong in such a case.
In any case, all the grief, the desire, the fasting, the confession are of little value until and unless it leads us to try to do that which God requires. We still have brethren who argue about whether God demands perfect obedience, or saves by His grace in spite of the fact that we fail to obey perfectly. Part of the problem is a semantic one. None of us can deny that we have not obeyed perfectly, or we would not even need to be saved. So, from that standpoint, if God demanded perfect obedience in order for us to be saved, then none of us could be saved. Yet, speaking of perfect obedience in a different way, we must realize that God demands perfect obedience. This may illustrate what I mean. God says, “Except ye repent, ye shall perish.” Suppose one should say, “I have not completely repented, for no one can be perfect, but God will accept partial and imperfect repentance.” This is not so! God says, “Be baptized for the remission of your sins.” I may reply, “I did not really understand that baptism is immersion, but no one is perfect, so my sprinkling will suffice.” Those kinds of responses are wrong. Although a person may not understand all of the reasons why God commanded repentance, or baptism, or many other things about them, when a person has done what God has said, that is perfect obedience. That does not mean he has had perfect obedience up to that time, for in that case he would not be guilty of sin. It does not mean that he will have perfect obedience after that time or he will be lost, for in that case none could be saved, as we all sin and fall short of the glory of God even after we have been born into God’s family. It does mean, however, that when God says to do something, we have no right to say, “God knows that man can not be perfect, so I will not be concerned about doing exactly what God says do, the way he says do it, when and where he says do it. His grace will take care of all that.”
When we have sinned and repent that is perfect at that point, for that is what God said do. If we are alien sinners and believe that Christ is the Son of God, if we repent and are baptized for the remission of sins, that is perfect at that point. If we are children of God who have sinned, and we repent, confess our sins and pray God for His forgiveness, that is perfect obedience at that point. God demands that kind of perfect obedience.