Nehemiah chapter 2, it's our second study this morning in this series that I've entitled 'Building For God', and the title of this morning's message is 'Preparation For The Work', preparation for the work.
Beginning at verse 1: "And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid, And said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers' sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire? Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers' sepulchres, that I may build it. And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time. Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah; And a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me. Then I came to the governors beyond the river, and gave them the king's letters. Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen with me. When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel. So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days. And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon. And I went out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire. Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king's pool: but there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass. Then went I up in the night by the brook, and viewed the wall, and turned back, and entered by the gate of the valley, and so returned. And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did; neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work. Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach. Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king's words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work. But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? Will ye rebel against the king? Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem".
Since chapter 1, and since Nehemiah's prayer where he asked God for help with regards to the awful news that he heard from his homeland, brought by his brother, that Jerusalem was in an awful desolation; and since the time that many of the Jews had returned, there had not been a great deal of work taken place to restore the temple and also to restore the city and the walls. Four months had passed, four months were by - we read in chapter 1, without going over old ground - where Nehemiah had wept, cried, fasted, sought his God day and night in prayer that God would hear him, and that God would grant him relief to leave the king's side as his cupbearer and go back to Judah, Jerusalem, and be the builder of the city walls. Four months he waited for God's answer that would allow him to approach the king.
Now this is interesting, because we saw that there is a great lesson here in prayer and we'll see it again this morning - that prayer and patience come together. If you think that God's way of working in prayer is like a slot machine, where you put the prayer in and you pull the arm, and God's requests just come flying out at will - you've another thing coming, and you will be gravely disappointed in your life of prayer. Those who have gone through the school of prayer will know that prayer and patience for prayer's answers always are inextricably linked together. In fact, there's one very interesting verse - we don't have time to look at it this morning - found in Isaiah 28:16, which goes like this: 'Whoever believes will not act hastily'. Whoever believes will not act hastily, and one thing you will learn if you are a man of prayer is that God works within your heart a supernatural patience to wait with assurance for God's answer that you believe in faith He will give you. In fact, in Hebrews 6 verse 12 we also read: 'Be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises'. All the men and women of God in the past did not just have faith, and did not just exercise prayer, but they had patience in faith and prayer to wait and to pray through God's answer.
Now, leaving chapter 1 we come to Nehemiah's preparation for the work. There are several things I want you to see in Nehemiah's life, and especially perhaps if you're here today and you're preparing to do some great work for God. Maybe you're thinking about going overseas and serving the Lord on the mission field, long-term or short-term, it matters not. Maybe you feel that God's calling you to preach the Gospel as an evangelist, or feed God's people in a pastoral ministry. Maybe it's the work in the Hall among the children, or the young people, or your fellowship wherever you frequent - but you feel that God is putting His hand on your life, and He's asking you to do some work for Him. Really by right all of us should feel like that, for He calls us all to go into the world and preach the Gospel in one way or another.
But how should you, or I, prepare for the work that God is calling us to? Well, there are three scenes in this chapter where we see Nehemiah being prepared - two really, and one where he's preparing other people. The first is at the Royal Palace in verses 1 through to 8, 9, or ten perhaps. Then we look at the preparation where Nehemiah crosses over the river, and there he is at the ruined walls in Jerusalem. So there's preparation first of all at the Royal Palace, and then we find there is further preparation for the work before he lays a finger on the wall, at the actual ruins in Jerusalem. Then thirdly and finally, if time permits us, then that allowed Nehemiah to make a preparation for the remnant people; and he began to speak to them in verse 17 to the end of the chapter, how they ought to prepare together for the work that God had called them to.
So let's look at the first, and I just sat down this week with a pen and paper before God and before God's word, and asked Him to reveal to me the various lessons here, and there are many many points that I believe God has given to me - so bear with me as I give them to you, and I pray that you'll note them in your mind and in your heart for the betterment of the work that you do for the Lord. Look at the second part of verse 1 - here's the first preparation that Nehemiah was given at the Royal Palace. It says that the king was before a cup of wine that the cupbearer, Nehemiah, was holding. Then Nehemiah says: 'I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king', after tasting it of course, to make sure it was drinkable, 'Now I had not been beforetime sad in the king's presence. Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart'.
Now we saw last week that Nehemiah was a man of burden, he was a man of prayer, and he was a man of action. That is what made him a man for the hour. But here we still see that this burden that Nehemiah had, it didn't just miraculously lift off him after he did something for God, but he is continually receiving God's burden in his life. Now, if you are preparing to do a work for God you need to also be prepared to receive a burden from the Lord. You need also to be prepared for the implications of that burden that the Lord puts on you. Now there's no greater example that I can give to you than our Lord Jesus Christ of this very thing, for we read prophetically that the Lord Jesus would be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. We all know, if we're saved today, what it meant for the Lord Jesus Christ to leave the realms of heaven, and say: 'Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written, to do thy will O God' - and to leave all the splendour and the glory that He had, to come to earth as a servant, to bleed and die on a cross, to be buried and to rise again of course victoriously - but you and I both know the implications of the burden that the Son of God had on His heart. If you don't know, all you need to do is look at Gethsemane, and then read on and find out about Calvary.
Now the lesson that we can derive from Nehemiah, but chiefly the Lord Jesus Christ, is this: burden always necessitates the crucifixion of self. Have you got that? It means being crucified. To have a burden for the work of God means laying down your life for other people who are in need of Christ. This great burden that Nehemiah had led him from a life of privilege in the Palace, to a life of service in the midst of awful ruin and desolation. It took him from attending the high Emperor to helping the lowly and despised Jews just out of captivity. Now listen, if you're wanting to do a work for God in no matter how small or large a capacity you feel it may be, you need to be prepared and even in the place to receive a burden from the Lord.
Here's the second thing: taking risks. Nehemiah took a risk by even entering into conversation with the king on this matter, because the king right away could have slew him and had him executed. The fact of the matter is that when you try to begin to serve the Lord, people sometimes get suspicious - especially if you're young. They wonder what your motives are, why you want to do the work, especially if you're going to take risks in doing the work - they feel that you're glory hunting, or that you're trying to make a name for yourself, or you've lost your marbles and in some way you're fanatical, you're misguided in your zeal. But the fact of the matter is this: Oh that we had more passion and more zeal for the work of God than we do today, oh that there were more burdened among God's people to do God's work! I'm talking about the burden that takes risks! Sure what risks do we take today for the Lord Jesus Christ?
Elisha in the Old Testament, you remember, when Elijah came and put his mantle upon him to say that he would be his successor in his prophetic ministry - what did Elisha do? He didn't say: 'Well, I'll keep this yoke of oxen just in case it doesn't work out, and if the preaching doesn't have any success, well I'll come back to my farming' - not a bit of it! It says that he slew his oxen, he broke up his yoke, and he lit that fire as a sacrifice with the oxen on it unto God to say: 'I've burned my bridges, it's going to be all or nothing, I'm going to take risks for God'. I think that's the kind of ministry that God blesses - in fact, I think that's the only kind of ministry.
I think the story is, I can't remember exactly right, but I think the story is of Campbell Morgan, the great preacher in Westminster Chapel many years ago, that a young man came to him into his study and wanted to speak with him about serving the Lord. He came out with this statement: 'I think, Mr Morgan, that God is calling me to the ministry'. Mr Morgan's answer was: 'For God's sake son, stay out of it if you only think that God is calling you!'. We don't need people who think, or suspect, or who wonder, what God needs are men of burden, and men who are willing to take risks and leave all - because it is burden that drives you into God's work. That's what I think a call is: being driven that you can do none other! Remember Luther, leading the Reformation: 'Here I stand', after the papists called him to recant, 'I can do no other'.
I know there is zeal without knowledge often found in the young, but I know this much: it was the devil in Peter the apostle that tried to say to the Lord Jesus Christ, 'Look don't be going to the cross, don't have all this talk about risks and laying down your life, and all this blood - you can do it another way! Far be it from you Lord!'. And the Lord rebukes him, and the Lord still rebukes those who try to discourage people from taking risks in the ministry of the word of God and the gospel. The fact of the matter is: here is Nehemiah in the presence of the king, and he could have lost his life for looking sad and being burdened, but he couldn't be indifferent to what was going on! He couldn't put on a hypocritical mask and face, he couldn't act it up. Here's the question friends: do we act up in our Christianity? Do we portray a facade in the sense that we are spiritual when we are really not spiritual?
The fact of the matter is, Nehemiah couldn't do the opposite, he couldn't ignore or hide this burden - and that's what happens when you do have a burden, you can't hide it from other people. But here's the difference in Nehemiah: he didn't stand aside and write a wee pamphlet about the demise of his brethren, or denounce them for backsliding - he did something about it! He had a burden, and he took a risk! My friends, he didn't wash his hands of the matter and say: 'Well, it's a sign of the times. It's only to be expected these days. Our people have been led into captivity, it's going to take a while' - but his deep grief, his genuine grief and burden, led him to do something about it. He had a desire deep within his soul to be an instrument in the hand of God for a revival of truth and the recovery of God's people and the derelict city of Jerusalem where God used to put His name and His glory.
He kept receiving God's burden, there's the first preparation in the palace. The second: he took risks for God and he couldn't hide his burden, and no matter what anybody said or did he just pressed on ahead. Here's the third, in the palace still - we mightn't get any further than the palace! - verse 4: 'Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven'. Now please see this: he received God's burden, he took risks for God, but he continued in prayer. Do you see it? He's looking sad because of his burden, he takes a risk in telling the king why he is sad in his very presence, and the king - here's his answer to prayer, I hope you noted it - the king said: 'What would you request of me now that I know the plight that your people are in in Jerusalem?'. What did Nehemiah do? Did he say: 'Oh here's the answer, bingo!', and ask the king right away? What did he do? 'Then prayed I to the God of heaven'.
Now is it not true, dear folk this morning in the Iron Hall, that we only really give lip service to prayer, and to continuing in prayer? It's like reward at the end of our lives, we believe in it but we don't really live in the light of it. We believe in prayer, we believe in constant prayer, this man lived in an atmosphere of prayer that surrounded him wherever he went. It was his constant resource throughout all his varied experiences good and bad, and he walked with God, and he was called of God, because he talked with God! Because of his continuation in prayer do you know what happened? He began to see things the way God sees them - how do I know that? You look at this verse, verse 4, he calls God 'the God of heaven'. You find that in the book of Ezra, you find that in some of the prayers of Daniel, and do you know what that means? That God is no longer being seen by the prophet as the God of Jerusalem or the God of the land, it is if God has taken His glory away from the planet and gone back to heaven, He's now the God of heaven! Do you see it? His displeasure with the people, and Nehemiah is seeing it, and that's the reason for this ejaculatory prayer - like a little arrow that goes right up to the heart of God.
Do you ever pray like that when you're in dire need? Just before you do something? I used to read about a man, and I try to practise it, before he even lifted the phone, before he opened a letter, he would send a little prayer to heaven to prepare him for whatever news it was - an ejaculatory prayer to glory, a little arrow to God. But this man was doing this, and this wasn't his prayer life, I heard somebody say not so long ago: 'Well, I pray to God all day. I mightn't have a quiet time, I mightn't have constant times of prayer, but I just pray from I get up till I go to bed' - that's a lot of nonsense. If you're doing that as well as continual prayer, well that's something to give yourself a pat on the back with. This man prayed like this after four months constant weeping, praying, crying to God day and night without ceasing!
You would have thought that was enough, wouldn't you? He had prayed four months day and night, you would have thought he wouldn't need to pray at the last minute here. Do you know what this tells me? This is for the preparation of the work now: no prayer is enough prayer. Let us never get into the mentality that as a church, as long as we have a prayer meeting - and we're very spiritual here, we have two - that that's enough. Not in God's book! Not in the book of prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ, for He said - you remember this now - 'Men ought always to pray and not to faint', prayer and patience hand-in-hand. I want to ask you in the light of this context and your life: is there someone in your life or something in your experience that you fear is going to hinder you serving the Lord and doing what you believe God is calling you to? I don't know what that particular thing is, but I know this much - as I said to you last week, the words of Hudson Taylor, that great pioneer missionary to China: 'It is possible to move men through God by prayer alone'.
Now you watch it! It doesn't matter who that man or woman is, how important they are, or how close they are, God can turn the tables, God can change the seasons, and God changing hearts is a speciality of His. A little prayer on the foundation of four months prayer, and God answered the prayer in changing the heart of this king.
Now I'm never going to get through this, we're only going to get through his preparation in the Royal Palace, but can I ask you before we go any further: do you have a belief in prayer like this? Sometimes I think when I talk about prayer, and when other believers talk about prayer, there are some sceptics sitting around and they're thinking: 'That's alright, but when the rubber hits the road in real life and in reality, those things don't happened, or you don't expect them to happen - if they happen it's a bonus, but don't be expecting great things through prayer!'. Listen: this man saw the king's heart changed! Proverbs 21 verse 1 says: 'The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will'. God can do anything! I'm asking you: do you believe that? Not do you have a theology of it in your head, do you believe that God can do anything?
Well, the fact of the matter is, because Nehemiah believed that, he discerned the answer when it came - and in verse 5, right away after that prayer he said unto the king: 'If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers' sepulchres, that I may build it. And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,)' - probably giving him a bit of advice now and again! - 'For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time. Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah; And a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into'.
Isn't this remarkable? He discerns the answer to prayer that God had given him. Now here's a lesson for us all: often we pray with regards to God's work, and when God answers our prayer we don't even see it! Yet it's glaring us in the face. Let me give you a personal example, I didn't plan on doing this. Many years ago, before I came near the place as a pastor, you were looking for a plot of land, and the men were in Inverary Avenue doing it. I was in Portadown, so it was nothing to do with me, but I didn't like the idea - Iron Hall being here all the years, and God calling us to do a work here. I know that some of you didn't like the idea, and the men didn't either - but there was nowhere to build! And God provided the second time, first refusal, second time a piece of land over here for 35,000 pounds - where have you heard of that in inner-city Belfast? God's will! The planners pass, the planners pass the plans! When everybody was nearly going to have to come in bicycles, and be pushed down in prams because we had no parking space - it's not happening anywhere else, as far as I can see, that someone is allowed to build a building without even a question asked - but that happened! Now I could go on on a few other things, yet there are still folk when they see prayer being answered they don't discern it!
My friends, God answers prayer - but we ought to discern God's answering of prayers. The king's word here fulfilled, I'm sure that perhaps Nehemiah knew these words in Daniel 9:25 spoken by the prophet: 'Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times'. Daniel prophesied the exact time when the wall would be built - Artaxerxes didn't even know it, as he was speaking those words he was fulfilling God's word, but Nehemiah knew it, do you know why? He knew God's word. Not only did he know God's word, he was praying God's word. We saw in chapter 1 that he was laying hold of the promises of God, look at verse 8 of chapter 1, he said to God: 'Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them', and so on.
He was invoking God's word, and saying 'Lord, this is Your word, You fulfil it - I didn't write it, You wrote it, You fulfil it for Your glory'. That's why, when the answer came, he noticed it, because he was the man praying for it. He was the man up all night pleading and weeping and fasting for it! Well, this is what happens when God lays burdens on us. I think it was John Owen, or Calvin, I can't remember, who said: 'When God wants to bless His people He sets them a-praying'. God doesn't lay burdens on you to make you miserable - some of you here are doing that without the burdens! God lays burdens on your heart to set you a-praying, so that you might pray to fulfil God's will which is enshrined in God's word - that's all the more reason that when we're praying, and when we feel the burden to pray, we should be looking for God answers - because He sets us to pray to fulfil His will!
Do we claim the promises of God in prayer? Do you know what would be a good exercise for you, if you're reading through the Bible this year - or no matter how much you're reading of it - take a highlighter of one colour or another, and highlight every promise in God's book. George Mueller did this, and I've tried to do it, highlight every promise and write them down - different promises for different things - and then when you're in prayer before God, and you have a need, you can plead those promises. As Spurgeon said, it's the cheque-book of the bank of faith, where you cash in these words and you get God's will back.
Do we discern God answers? Here's the last thing of his preparation in the palace, and next week we'll go to the ruined walls, and go to his preparation of the remnant people. The last thing I want you to note - we have noted, if you've missed it: receiving God's burden, taking risks, continuing in prayer, discerning the answers - this isn't the last one, I told a lie there: accumulating all possible resources. He asked the king, after being asked what he would request, he accumulated all possible resources. He got everything he could get together for that work before he did it. Remember the Lord saying about preparing for war, and making sure that you have the army to fight? Well, here's John Wesley's three points on the subject of giving to God's work in preparation - very simple: one, earn all you can; two, save all you can; three, give all you can - isn't that good? Earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can!
There was one time in our history of the United Kingdom that we had dark clouds over us of war, and there was the threat of Nazi Germany destroying our civilisation and our Christian heritage as they were doing right across the whole of Europe. There was a man, I believe, of God - I don't know whether he was a believer or not - but he was raised of God, just like Nehemiah, to meet that foe. That was Winston Churchill, and those who have heard his speeches could tell that his speeches were like an army in and of themselves. Just as the soldiers were about to wilt on the battlefield, the speeches would bring life and vitality into them. Well, when the Americans were just about to join the second world war near the end, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill directed these dynamite words to President Roosevelt - listen to this: 'Give us the tools, and we'll finish the job'. You can hear him say it, can't you? Give us the tools, and we'll finish the job! Like Nehemiah's request to Artaxerxes, Nehemiah said: 'Give me permission to build, give me the timber to build, give me safe passage to build, and we'll finish the job'.
Here's the final preparation at the royal palace, he was looking in all of this and recognising God's hand of blessing in it all. Nehemiah was so sure of God's blessing that we read - we haven't time nearly to read it - at the end of verse 6: 'So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time'. He was so expectant of the blessing and the answer to prayer, that he had already worked out in his mind when he was going to go, all that he would need in preparation, and when he was going to come back again. He worked out all the materials that he needed - why? Because he knew that God's hand was upon him. Look at the end of verse 8: 'And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me'. God's strong hand was his good hand.
Now let me ask you a few questions: what are you doing practically to make sure you've got God's hand on you? Are you receiving a burden from God? Are you taking risks in it? Are you continuing in prayer? Do you look for the answers? Do you accumulate all the possible resources for the work of God? And are you looking for God's hand and recognising it as upon you? Do you see until you do that, and that's not all as we'll find out next week, until you do that you're not prepared for the work, and you're not prepared to give any advice on it either! But if you have God's hand on you, it will be proved in the blessing of the resources spiritually that He gives you.
Maybe between this week and next week you could start to implement some of those preparatory factors in your life that we have heard this morning, so that next week we can take up where we have left off and implement more. But it's only then, when you get near to that cross, that cross of pain and agony and sorrow, that you start to feel the burden and you start to do the work that Jesus would have you do.
Father, help us: who is sufficient for these things? We all feel our inadequacy and our falling far short of all of these matters. We pray that, Lord, You'll forgive us as we confess our sins to Thee, and all our backsliding at times where we're not in a position or a place to really do the work that God would want us to do - but Lord, get us to that place soon, like Nehemiah, and give us a burden, and help us to take risks, and help us to pray through the answers of God. Help us to do the work for Jesus that is ready at our hand, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the second tape in his 'Building For God' series, entitled "Preparation For The Work" - Transcribed by Preach The Word.
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