And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.”
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.
— Nehemiah 1:3-4 (emphasis added)
When you think about remarkable leadership stories, I hope the name of Nehemiah is in the top ten on your list. If his name sounds unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend studying through the book of Nehemiah now. It is both inspiring and relevant for just an extraordinary time such as 2020. When the world is aching for bold, audacious leadership, an unlikely, but strategically positioned “cupbearer” stood in the gap and prayed this prayer — “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 today, and grant him FAVOR in the sight of this man.” And the man to which he was referring was King Artexerxes, the ruler of Persia. And as the story goes, the LORD answers his prayers BIG TIME, and within months, Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem, and alongside the prophet Ezra, calls God’s people BACK into covenant with their God.
Countless lessons of God’s sovereign character, His judgment on sin, and His unfailing mercy bubble through the narrative of Nehemiah, as well as, the incredible insights into the dynamics of a great leader.
The mistake we can make, at this point, is to attribute Nehemiah’s favor with the LORD to a simple prayer. I believe the key to understanding the power of his prayer for favor is in the word found in verse 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.”
It doesn’t say that Nehemiah STARTED to fast and pray when he heard the devastating news of Jerusalem and the people there; it doesn’t say that he fasted and prayed BECAUSE of the bad news delivered to him; it doesn’t even say that he fasted and prayed DESPITE the horrible situation. But there’s this sense that he was ALREADY doing it before the news, and now continues to do it presently and will keep fasting and praying into the future. The only reaction from the news is in the “sitting down, weeping, and mourning.” That’s a normal reaction to bad news, isn’t it? Or is it?
I know that when I hear of injustices, or tragedies, or crimes that happen in the “third person” in cities that I don’t live in, I must admit that I don’t normally “sit down, weep, and mourn.” Nehemiah did. And perhaps, it’s not necessarily because he was abnormally empathetic. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. But one thing we do know is that the LORD was preparing him with a heart that was conditioned through fasting and praying. And when the time was right, the news of God’s people and their home being in ruins, wrecked him to the core. Why? Because his heart was primed to beat like God’s heart beats. So, when it came time, he prayed with the power of man and a leader who was ready to do anything and everything possible to be part of the solution to the problem. God answered him with the power of heaven at His disposal. Nehemiah prayed bold prayers holding God to His covenant character, all the while confessing his sins, and the sins of his fathers.
The world is aching for bold, audacious leaders. Leaders who are willing to CONTINUE in fasting and praying, so that we will be ready to be “wrecked” about something that God is wrecked about. Could it be now? Absolutely!
LORD, I pray that we would have a heart like Nehemiah’s. Help us to be faithful in our pursuit of You and Your holiness. We live in times that require us, as leaders, to be faithful in fasting and praying, being in Your Word, so that our hearts will beat with Your heart. Wreck us about things that wreck You! Help us to be leaders like Nehemiah, as well. No longer do we want to merely talk about action, but we want to be active leaders! Grant us favor so that we may accomplish Your work in building Your kingdom! Amen.
Ministry Director at Harvard Law School
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