January 17, 2020
4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?”
Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.”
Let me reset the stage again. Nehemiah has been mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and the plight of his people. It’s brought him to such a point of extreme sorrow that the King notices and asks him about it. Nehemiah lays it out on the table – the city of Jerusalem is in ruins and its gates have been burned with fire. He’s risking his position, his livelihood, and in fact his life. Ancient kings were considered god-like, if not actual gods. Their presence was supposed to bring joy and make you forget all of your troubles. So Nehemiah remaining sad at the king’s table was a terrible insult. But Nehemiah can’t contain his sorrow and explains why. Again, if this was a movie, there would be an extremely pregnant pause, while the fate of Nehemiah hangs in the balance.
And then, the unexpected response from the King. “What is it you want?” This question comes with the authority and ability to say YES to almost any request Nehemiah could imagine. The Persian empire was larger than any previous empire in history. And Artaxerxes, as the king, was literally the most powerful person in the world. There is so much riding on Nehemiah’s next words – because if the king says “no” to his request, that’s the end of the line. There’s no appeal process, no outside consultant to hire, no lobbyist to start knocking on doors. In that moment, what does Nehemiah do?
“Then I prayed to the God of heaven”
His first instinct is the same as we saw in chapter 1. He goes straight to prayer. What’s the last high stakes situation you remember being in? A mistake at work? A fight with your spouse? A child melting down in the grocery aisle? What about a dissertation defense or your first time trying a medical procedure? What was your first instinct in that moment before you plunged in? If it wasn’t the instinct to pray, what was it?
Our experience of Nehemiah so far shows us that going to prayer first was something he had practiced over and over and over. When it finally all hits the fan, it’s not the time to try and create a new habit. So where can we start? Today when you find yourself frustrated, angry, or anxious, practice stopping to pray – just a short prayer. Take 3 seconds to take a deep breath, and as you exhale, offer a prayer to God. Let’s do that now to begin our day.