A Culture in Need of Intercessors
A Study of Nehemiah
Dr. Jim Denison
The crisis: The walls to Jerusalem are down, the city is indefensible, and the king is at fault (Ezra 4:18-22). When the walls around us are tumbling down, what is our response? Let’s learn from Nehemiah.
Nehemiah’s first response was to turn to God, not man: “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4).
Here’s the breakdown of what Nehemiah did:
Sat down and wept: Though he was 700 miles away, this became his personal concern and passion. He “sat down” for an extended time of weeping. Ezra wept for the state of the nation (Ezra 10:1); Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41); Paul wept over the Jews (Acts 20:19). What makes you weep? Ask God to break your heart with what breaks his heart.
Mourned: as for a death; typically done while sitting. Jews often tore their clothes when they were in mourning.
Fasted: required only on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29), often evidenced a person’s distraught condition. David fasted when his child with Bathsheba was ill (2 Samuel 12:16).
“Prayed before the God of heaven”: Before going to the “god of the earth,” the king of Persia, he went first to the true God of all the universe. Nine prayers of Nehemiah are recorded in this book. Jesus prayed before performing miracles, before beginning his Galilean ministry, and all night before choosing his Twelve. If we went to God first, we would find his power first.
“For some days”: Nehemiah 2:1 states that he finally went to the king “in the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes.” This is March/April of 443 B.C., four months after receiving the news. God’s will and God’s timing are both crucial.
Why he did it.
He knew that he must have God’s help before he needed man’s help.
He knew that only God could transform the king and thus save the nation.
He knew the risk he was taking—if rejected by the king, his position would never be the same. Since he was asking the king to reverse himself, he might even be seen as criticizing the throne and a threat to its future.
Jesus gave an example to his followers of how we should petition the Father. Luke 11:5-8 is one of the most fascinating and misused stories Jesus ever told. The problem is not the setting of the parable itself, for it was one of the most common of his time.
The first man in our story has a problem, much more of a crisis in Jesus’ day than in ours. A traveler has come to his home at midnight—not at all uncommon, since most people traveled at night to avoid the day’s heat. This man should have baked enough bread for anyone who might come to his home that night, as hospitality was and is a sacred responsibility in the Middle East.
To have someone come to your home and have nothing to feed them is for us an inconvenience; for them it was a very major failure. If you were to invite your family over for Easter dinner, then forget and have nothing to feed them when they arrived, you’d be in this man’s situation.
So he goes to his neighbor at midnight for help. He knows that his neighbor will likely have baked enough bread to solve this crisis, and apparently believes that he would want to help. But the man’s door is locked (v. 7), a very significant detail in the story. People didn’t usually lock their doors for security, as they had little worth stealing and lived in homes which were easily vandalized (cf. Matt. 6:19). They locked their doors only when they wanted privacy. The man and his family have gone to sleep and do not want to be awakened. A locked door was their “Do Not Disturb” sign. Cultural customs required the neighbor to honor their wish.
The reason was simple. Common homes in Jesus’ day were one room, with one window and a door. The front two-thirds of the room had a dirt floor where the animals slept for the night. The back one-third was a raised wooden platform with a charcoal stove around which the entire family slept. For this man to get up at midnight he must awaken his family, then his animals, just to get to the door.
All this to give the neighbor what he was already required by social custom to have. If your family came for Easter dinner and you were unprepared, so you went to your neighbor and asked her to give you her meal so you could serve your guests, you might anticipate her reaction.
In Jesus’ story, the neighbor gets up despite all this—the rudeness, the inconvenience, the breach of social custom—because of the man’s “boldness.” The Greek word means “shameless refusal to quit.” The neighbor simply will not go away until the man gives him what he wants. And so he does. Jesus concludes: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (v. 9).
How is Jesus’ story yours? Why do you need bread at midnight? Where do you need help only your Father can provide? Nehemiah’s God is our God today.
What does Jesus’ parable mean for us? How does it help us understand the logic of praying to an omniscient God? Let’s begin by dismissing what it doesn’t mean.
First, Jesus is not teaching that prayer notifies God of our need. In the parable, the man had no idea that his neighbor needed bread for a midnight guest, and would not have learned of the neighbor’s problem if it had not been made clear to him. But the man in the story bears little likeness to the omniscient God of the universe. Just as God knew about Nehemiah’s crisis before Nehemiah prayed, he knows our need before we seek him.
Second, Jesus is not teaching that we can wear God out if we ask for something with enough persistence. At first reading, it seems that God is the man inside the house asleep; if we bang on his door loud enough and long enough he will give us what we want. Even if he doesn’t want to, if we keep asking eventually we’ll receive what we want. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that very theology preached: if you have enough faith, God will give you whatever you ask. Whether you want to be healed, or wealthy, or anything at all, just ask in enough faith and it’s yours.
That assertion is absolutely not the point here. Jesus is using a very common rabbinic teaching technique known in the Hebrew as the qal wahomer; it translates literally, “from the lesser to the greater.” Applied here, the point is this: if a neighbor at midnight would give you what you ask if you ask him, how much more will God answer our requests when we bring them to him.
You see the qal wahomer again in verse 13: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven given the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Jesus does not mean that we must inform and persuade God as the man informed and persuaded his neighbor. To the contrary, he means that your Father in heaven is even more willing to help you than the disgruntled man in the story.
If Jesus is not teaching us that prayer informs God or persuades him, what does he intend us to understand about praying to our Father? Here’s a principle which has been very significant for me: Prayer positions us to receive all that grace intends to give.
We all know the frustration of wanting to help people who won’t let us. If they’d only ask, we’d be happy to do what we can. Their request would not inform us of their need, or persuade us to meet it. Rather, their request would enable them to receive what we already wanted to give. So it is with praying to an all-knowing Father who loves his children but will not force them to accept his grace.
Nehemiah’s prayer doesn’t earn God’s favor any more than our prayers do. Prayer is not works righteousness or legalism. Nor does prayer inform an omniscient God about our problem. Praying opens our hands to his help. It allows our Father to guide and bless his child. If I will not receive his grace, he will honor my refusal, to his pain and my loss. Then I have not because I ask not (James 4:2). But if I will knock, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7). Not because I deserved God’s favor, but because I was willing to receive it.
The same God who helped Nehemiah when the walls were tumbling down all around him wants to help us when our walls are tumbling down.
So we pray because praying enables us to receive what God wants to give and because praying changes us.
The necessity of intercession:
Required by God: “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).
He will not violate our freedom.
The practice of intercession:
Seek God’s glory.
Seek spiritual lessons.
Seek eternal good.
Be consistent (God may be preparing in ways you cannot see).
People of intercession:
For your family.
For your country: 1 Timothy 2:1-4.
For your church: Ephesians 6:18.
For your spiritual leaders: Ephesians 6:19-20).
Nehemiah’s first impulse was to pray. Is yours?