Asking the King for a Favor

Last week’s post on the historical detail found within the Hezekiah and Sennacherib narrative is a stark contrast to what we know about events and timing in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. These amazing and painful stories of return, repentance and restoration reveal both God’s commitment to His promises and the cost of obedience. Yet, even with all the material in these books, I’ve chosen to do only three simple things today.

 

First, I want to emphasize the primary topic of these two books. Even a quick overview reveals a strong connection between them. In fact, the earliest manuscripts list these two books as two parts of the same story and it is easy to see why. Ezra was sent to rebuild the people; Nehemiah was sent to rebuild the walls; both stories are about rebuilding the community and identity of God’s people. Ezra and Nehemiah had a God-given passion to strengthen God’s people in their understanding of who they were and what they were called to do. We can easily see this connection with Ezra, but how does it fit with Nehemiah?

 

In ancient times, a city’s walls were not just there to keep unwanted people out; they existed to give the people of that city a unique identity. Jerusalem was the ultimate symbol of Israel’s national calling. It was the City of David and the place where God had chosen for His Name to dwell. Broken walls were a symbol of national disgrace and a barrier to the building of communal identity. Temple restoration was just the first step. In order to take the next step in energizing community, the walls had to be repaired. Nehemiah’s story is much more than the example of how to overcome opposition and accomplish a complex task.

 

Second, I want to offer a simple timeline: if you dig a little bit you will find other suggestions for what-happened and when it happened (including one where Ezra comes after Nehemiah), but this is the one that makes most sense to me because it puts the priority for the sequence on the biblical text while borrowing from history for the specific dates.

 

Cyrus allows the Jews to return to Jerusalem:                538 B.C.

Temple is completed:                                                         516 B.C.

Ezra leads a group of exiles to Jerusalem:                      458 B.C.

Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem:                                           444 B.C.

 

As a linear thinker, this helps me better understand how things fit so I thought it might help a few others too.

 

Finally, I thought I’d close with a question that popped off the page for me while reading Nehemiah 2:12 (“I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do.”). After reading it, I paused and began reviewing the decades in my life, looking for those places where God put something in my heart to do. Surrender my life to Christ as Savior. Go to a summer project with Cru. Surrender my life to Christ as the One and Only Lord of my life and universe. Go to seminary. Give my attention to discipling others in the faith.

 

On and on the examples appeared. Some were simple and some were hard to see but as I stepped back I noticed a common thread among them all. Each time the Lord put something on my heart to do it seemed like the new thing was more difficult than the one that preceded it. A summer project (or staff) costs how much? I can’t raise that much support! Forget about Hebrew, will I even be able to learn Greek? Be a pastor at Covenant? There is no way I have the horsepower for that call! Four years of intense study, reading and writing capped by a 250 page paper? That’s not something I can do, Lord! You are asking me to become the senior pastor of a thriving university congregation? Are you sure of that? Each moment concluded in about the same way—“Okay Lord, if you open the door I’ll step through it.”

 

How many other times in Nehemiah’s life did God put something in his heart to do and how many times did he agree to give it a shot? My guess is that he had to walk through a number of doors before he became the king’s trusted cupbearer. As it was for him, so it is for us.

 

It seems to me that our loving Creator is always working for our growth by putting things on our hearts and inviting us to step into the unknown with our eyes on Him. Nehemiah was required to show a happy countenance before the king yet on one day he took the chance to show the king what was really going on in him. After much prayer, he entered Artaxerxes’ presence with a downcast expression. When asked about it, he offered an immediate prayer and stepped through the door, willing to accept whatever result would come his way (Nehemiah 2:4, 5).

It seems to me that our loving Creator is always working for our growth by putting things on our hearts and inviting us to step into the unknown with our eyes on Him. Nehemiah was required to show a happy countenance before the king yet on one day he took the chance to show the king what was really going on in him. After much prayer, he entered Artaxerxes’ presence with a downcast expression. When asked about it, he offered an immediate prayer and stepped through the door, willing to accept whatever result would come his way (Nehemiah 2:4, 5).

 

God does not call each of us to do history-changing things, but He does put on our hearts things that help us grow as His people, if we trust Him enough to step through the door. Most times those desires are wrapped in what are thought by many to be the mundane things of life. But Scripture teaches that God uses the ordinary in some very extraordinary ways.

 

What has God put on your heart to do? You know your heart’s desire is from Him if it aligns with His Word and just won’t go away. How long have you had this desire? What barriers or risks stand in the way? If you have something on your heart, take it regularly to the Lord in prayer and then be alert for a possible next step—even if it means asking the king for a favor.

 

Pondering with you,

 

Rob