Do you ever feel you are in a hopeless situation? That the challenges which lie before you are just too massive? You may sometimes feel as though you can’t do anything to change the situations that are causing you concern or even distress.
We can learn a lot on how to cope with difficult situations as we look at the Old Testament story of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was faced with a great problem. However we need to understand the historical situation in which he lived. So here is a one minute summary of centuries of Israelite history.
The nation of Israel was once a United Kingdom under Saul then David and then Solomon. Then in 931BC it divided into 2 kingdoms. One was the Northern Kingdom Of Israel based in Samaria. The other was the Southern Kingdom Of Judah based in Jerusalem. In 722 the Northern Kingdom Of Israel was defeated by Assyria.
However in 586 the Southern Kingdom Of Judah was defeated by Babylon and many of the inhabitants of the kingdom were taken into exile in Babylon.
In 539 Babylon was defeated by the Persian King Cyrus and the following year he allowed many of the people to return to Jerusalem. The temple was rebuilt between approximately 536 and 516.
In 458 there was a Second Return Of Exiles Under Ezra and the walls of Jerusalem were being rebuilt. But the work was stopped due to opposition by the surrounding peoples. .
In 445 Nehemiah hears about Jerusalem that its walls have been broken down as its gates burned with fire. This is the background to Nehemiah chapter 1.
FACING LIFE’S CHALLENGES
When we are faced with difficult situation we can either react negatively in and unhealthy way (eg., (I’m a victim! Woe is me! My life is over!) Or we can learn to respond to situations in a healthy way. (eg., I can get through this! I can cope! I can even conquer with God’s help!)
We can learn from the example of Nehemiah how to respond in a positive healthy way in difficult situations.
THE CHALLENGES THAT CAME TO NEHEMIAH. Neh 1:1-3
He was told that the survivors in Jerusalem were “in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” He could have felt overwhelmed by the knowledge he had received. The people over there in Jerusalem were in great trouble and shame. Perhaps their enemies were saying to them something like this, “You say you belong to Yahweh the God of heaven but He hasn’t protected you. Look the walls you built are broken down and there are no gates to keep your enemies out. It seems as though Your God can’t or won’t protect you!”
I’m going to take you out of your suspense and tell you that God did do something about their situation. In Chapter 7 we read that the walls had been rebuilt and the gates restored.
But how did it happen? We see the answers in the life of Nehemiah. We can learn 4 lessons from his example. They are summarised below.
How To Respond To Difficult Situations
- KNOWLEDGE (about those in need) should lead to COMPASSION
- COMPASSION (for those in need) should lead to PRAYER
- PRAYER (for those in need) should lead to CHANGES BY GOD
- CHANGES BY GOD should be twofold. a). Blessings On Those For Whom We Pray and b). Glory To Him
We now look at these 4 lessons as they relate to the story of Nehemiah.
1). THE KNOWLEDGE (about those in need) THAT LEADS TO COMPASSION
There are depths of concern that we may have as humans for those in need. It is possible for people to sympathise with others who are going through difficult times. Eg., Sympathy means “to suffer with” such as “I feel so sad for you!” We are moved to some extent but not enough to become deeply involved.
Empathy is a deeper emotion. It can mean putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and trying to imagine what they are going through. (“I feel so sad for you. It must be horrible for you. How can I help?”)
The word “empathy” is not found in New Testament but the concept certainly is. The nearest Greek New Testament word is “compassion” the feeling that comes from deep within a person.
Nehemiah’s knowledge about the difficulties for the people in Jerusalem led to compassion on his part. Neh 1:4 “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”
He was trying to imagine what they were going through. Putting himself in their shoes.
“Weeping” because his people were going through distress and pain.
“Mourning” because they had failed to live as they should have lived as the people of God and were missing out on His blessing and protection.
“Fasting and praying”, setting aside time to bring the problem before God as there was no obvious answer to the problem in Jerusalem. (See Note 1 for an interesting connection between these words for “weeping” and “mourning” in verse 4 and the use of the same words in Neh 8:9.)
2). THE COMPASSION (for those in need) THAT LEADS TO PRAYER
Nehemiah was deeply concerned for his people. He could have spent hours upon hours working out what God could do to bring about changes in the situation. He could have spent days wondering if there was anything he could do to help. He could have eventually panicked when he realised the situation was beyond his control.
But he did what we all must do. He handed the whole situation over to God in sincere prayer.
His compassion for the remnant “over there” in Jerusalem led him to pray compassionately for them in their need.
3) THE PRAYER THAT BRINGS CHANGES
Notice how he prayed. He didn’t focus on the problem. He focussed on the God who could solve the problem. In our Healing Ministry in Sydney we used to hold Cancer Weekends for those with cancer and we also invited their carers. We found that the weekends were physically and emotionally draining even for the Healing Ministry team. Then we decided that we would give the first sessions over to letting the people talk about their challenge with cancer. Many of them needed to. (A lot of folk don’t know how to relate to those who have cancer and distance themselves from even their friends when the latter are diagnosed with cancer)
Then we would try to gently change the language from “Why me Lord?” to “What now, with God’s help.” We tried to introduce Christian hope for those who felt they had no hope.
We need to get the focus right as we face difficult situations! To focus on the solution and not remain focussed on the problem.
Let’s see how his prayer brought changes from God.
i). Nehemiah Affirmed The Greatness Of God. His Character And His Steadfast Love
Neh 1:5 “And I said, “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments.”
Nehemiah’s words as he prayed expressed his belief that God was great and awesome. He could do things in His power. He was a faithful God who would always be true to His covenant promises. He would always show steadfast love to those who loved Him and showed their love in obeying Him.
ii). He Repented before God. He Confessed The Sin Of The People
Neh 1:6 “let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned.”
Nehemiah wasn’t being judgmental about the people of Israel. He knew they had sinned. He knew that because he knew the sinfulness of sin. He knew that he and his father’s house had also sinned against God. He confessed specifically how they had sinned. Neh 1:7 “We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.” In other words he was praying, “Lord You asked us to love you and obey you, but we didn’t! I repent before You on behalf of myself and my people!”
It’s true that the closer you draw near to the light of God the more aware you become of the darkness of sin within. The wonderful hymn “At Even E’er The Sun Was Set….” has a verse with these words, “And none, O Lord, have perfect rest, For none are wholly free from sin; And they who fain would serve Thee best , Are conscious most of wrong within.” People who are conscious of the sinfulness of the human heart are living in reality. Those who think they are almost sinless (in their own eyes) are out of touch with reality and living in denial.
iii). He Appealed To God’s Forgiving Nature And Promises
Neh 1:8 “Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, 9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ 10 They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand.”
The people had been unfaithful. They had been scattered as God said they would be. But God had promised that if that were to happen, He would reach out to them to restore them. Nehemiah was relying on that promise of God as he prayed for his own people in Jerusalem.
iv). A Prayer Thanking God for hearing his prayer and for the answer He would bring. Neh 1:11 “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” Now I was cupbearer to the king.” It seems that as Nehemiah prayed, God gave him a plan because he asked God for success. The plan seemed to be dependent on the king’s willingness to allow the plan to be put into action. He was seeking God’s blessing on the plan that God had placed in His heart.
4). THE CHANGES GOD BROUGHT IN ANSWER TO NEHEMIAH’S PRAYER
The end result? Nehemiah was allowed return to Jerusalem with the King’s blessing and help. In chapters 1-6 we see God at work through Nehemiah and the changes that followed.
What were the changes brought through prayer?
a). The people for whom Nehemiah prayed got the blessing.
The wall was finished. Neh 6:15 So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. God had given them victory. They now had rebuilt walls and new gates. They had experienced a personal demonstration of the love and power of God in enabling them to rebuild in spite of all the difficulties they faced.
b). God got the glory. Neh 6:15 So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. 16 And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.
Ie., It was as though their enemies were saying, “Their God DOES exist! He DID help them. Even though we tried to stop them from rebuilding time after time, they still did it with His help. He IS faithful to them. HE IS powerful! We are so weak in comparison with Him!”
He was being glorified in the sight of their enemies.
But how about us and our challenges?
LEARNING TO COPE AND CONQUER IN DIFFICULT SITUATIONS
We may not be facing the incredible challenges that Nehemiah faced. But the challenges we face are just as real to us. Are there family situations that are causing us a lot of anxiety? Are there relationship problems? Are there financial challenges? Are there health issues we are facing?
What do you do when the challenges seem to be too great to face, let alone conquer? We have to learn to respond as Nehemiah did, by turning the whole situation over to God and trusting Him to work on our behalf.
St Paul knew that truth. He wrote in Phil 4:6-7, “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Phil 4:6-7, “Have no anxiety about anything. The knowledge we have about difficulties makes us consider all sorts of possibilities. In fact our minds can be in a twirl as we consider this possibility or that possibility. The word for “anxiety” (merimna) comes from (meros) meaning a part or a division. When we are anxious are minds are divided, thinking about this scenario and then that scenario. We begin to look beyond ourselves for the answer.
Paul wrote “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” We see the need to make it known to Him. He knows about it but He needs us to tell Him that we need His help. He never forces His blessings on us against our will.
What’s His promise to those who hand their concerns over to Him? Php 4:7 ”And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The anxiety, the stress, the dis-ease can go and we can know an inner peace that has to be experienced to be believed. That peace can guard our hearts (our emotions and our wills) and our minds (so we can retain our sanity) so that we can make the right decisions about what we need to do.
What challenge that faces us do we need to hand over to God? The story of Nehemiah reminds us that if we are humble enough to hand all our concerns over to God, He can be trusted to work on our behalf in His mercy, grace, love and power to do that which may seem to be impossible to us at the moment.
[Note 1. In Nehemiah chapter 1 verse 4 we read these words, “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” When we come to chapter 8 we see that Nehemiah’s prayer had been abundantly answered. But look at the difference in the use of the words. In 1:4, “Wept” is from (bakah) in the Hebrew and means “wailing” coming from deep grief. Nehemiah had been deeply grieved for the situation in Jerusalem. “Mourned” is from the Hebrew (abal) which expresses the ongoing nature of the grief he felt. That led Nehemiah to fasting and praying.
But in chapter 8 the situation is different. God had worked a miracle for the people in Jerusalem. The walls had been rebuilt. Gates had been restored. The people were under the protection of their God. Neh 8:9 “And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” Nehemiah in chapter 1 is weeping and mourning. Now in chapter 8 he uses the same words for “weep” and “mourn” and tells the people they were not to weep or mourn. It was inappropriate because God had blessed them. It was now a time for rejoicing!
There should come a time after we have handed all our concerns over to God that intercession is replaced by praise and thanksgiving for answered prayer. We get the blessing He gets the glory!
Blog No.169. Jim Holbeck. Posted Monday 11th January 2016