Praying Through the Bible project
Prayer and Our Responsibility to Act
(Neh 2.4)
Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.
What is the connection between prayer and action? Between God’s actions and our responsibility? This story of Nehemiah and his prayers gives us the answers to those questions.

Background

Nehemiah was struggling with the news of his people in Jerusalem and had been praying about it for a month. One day, when he appeared before the King and Queen during his duties, the King noted that he seemed sad, and asked him what was wrong. Nehemiah told him of the troubles that his people were experiencing in Jerusalem. When the king asked him what he would like to do, Nehemiah prayed to God and then told the king that he would like to go and help his people rebuild the wall.

The king granted him leave to go. Emboldened, Nehemiah asked him also for letters of passage, and letters to obtain wood from the king’s forest, he did that as well.

Meaning

When the king asked what was wrong, Nehemiah did not ask him to help him, he merely told him what made him so sad. Was this a sign of his trust in God? That he would not ask right now, because he was not sure what God wanted him to do? So he simply told the king the facts.

When the king asked what he wanted, Nehemiah prayed to God, as he had been for weeks. Notice the connection between this mention of prayer and the prayers he had already been offering: “the God of Heaven” (1.4, 5). He’d been preparing for this moment for a month.

Once Nehemiah knew that God had given him an opening, he became bold, and not only asked if he could go to Jerusalem to help, but also made further requests from the king to help him achieve his goal of rebuilding the wall. He had apparently been thinking about what he would ask for, should God open the door with the king.

Important for our purposes here is how Nehemiah prepared. A need of God’s people was brought before him, and he wanted to act. But what did God require of him, of anything? So he prayed about it, asking God to open doors. He also thought about it, and what he would need to ask for if that door did open.

Yet he was also patient, waiting patiently for God to open that door. He did not force it, he did not approach the king, but merely went about his business, waiting for the opportunity. He trusts God, and so, he “waits on the Lord.”

Could he have approached the king on his own initiative? Perhaps, in another situation, that might have been the proper thing to do. But in this case, Nehemiah was not even sure he was the one God wanted to accomplish the rebuilding. The wall, and the people, were in Jerusalem. He was the cupbearer to the king in Persia. So in this situation, he waited for God to show up.

Notice, however, that once God acted through the king’s inquiry, Nehemiah did not hesitate. Knowing God was behind it, he pressed forward with all boldness.

This is the practicality of prayer. It is not just words between us and God, it is not just mental intimacy. It leads to action: waiting, watching, and planning. Human responsibility, guided by the hand of God.

That is prayer as it should be.


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