Lesson 1 – Pray and Watch
Nehemiah 4:9 (YLT)
And we pray unto our God,
and appoint a watch against them,
by day and by night.
A broken down stone wall. What do you see?
- Hard work
- Not my wall, not my problem
This series of studies will be based on the book of Nehemiah, describing the action taken to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Like many other passages, this account is both historical and symbolic.
A bit of history: the Babylonians conquered Israel and carried off the wealthiest, strongest and brightest of her people to a geographically and culturally distant land. The poorest, oldest and weakest were left behind to scrape out a meagre living amid the war-torn rubble.
In time (almost 50 years), Persia overran Babylon. Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, was a master conqueror and administrator. He allowed displaced people to return to their homes.
Nehemiah, one of the exiles, found his niche serving deep in the culture of his adopted home. Nehemiah’s body was in Persia, but his heart was in Israel. Through prayer, he connected with God and his homeland.
Nehemiah 1:2-7 (NLT)
Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.
They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”
When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said,
“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.
Jerusalem was a real place, with a real wall torn asunder and real gates reduced to scorched timbers. But the book is steeped in symbolism. Jerusalem was the center of Jewish faith, home to the Temple and the Holy of Holies. It represents the place of faith in our culture. The wall represents security, protection from evil. The gates allow for passage between the secular and the sacred, access to Almighty God.
Do you see the symbolic personal and corporate parallels? Jerusalem represents faith in God, the wall is the boundary between good and evil, the gates open to salvation and intimacy with God. Gates close out the enemy and his plan for our destruction.
The great city of Jerusalem was in ruins. It was a shell of its former glory. Without gates and walls, the poor souls back there were vulnerable to attack.
Nehemiah didn’t think, “It’s not my problem.” He prayed. Not just a “God bless Jerusalem” prayer in passing, but a 100%, all-in prayer. He took personal responsibility before God for a disaster not of his own making.
What broken walls break your heart? Pour your broken heart into prayer.
Early the following spring, in the month of Nisan, during the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was serving the king his wine. I had never before appeared sad in his presence. So the king asked me, “Why are you looking so sad? You don’t look sick to me. You must be deeply troubled.”
Then I was terrified, but I replied, “Long live the king! How can I not be sad? For the city where my ancestors are buried is in ruins, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”
The king asked, “Well, how can I help you?”
With a prayer to the God of heaven, I replied, “If it please the king, and if you are pleased with me, your servant, send me to Judah to rebuild the city where my ancestors are buried.”
The king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked, “How long will you be gone? When will you return?” After I told him how long I would be gone, the king agreed to my request.
Nehemiah trusted God for an open door to repair the broken gates and wall. As should you.
When you read the context (and I urge you to read the whole book), you find Nehemiah in Jerusalem checking for himself—in the dark of night—on the state of the walls. He added facts to his prayers. He looked before he talked.
The city officials did not know I had been out there or what I was doing, for I had not yet said anything to anyone about my plans . . . But now I said to them, “You know very well what trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire. Let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and end this disgrace!” Then I told them about how the gracious hand of God had been on me, and about my conversation with the king.
They replied at once, “Yes, let’s rebuild the wall!” So they began the good work.
It was a big project. Needed to be done for years, but Nehemiah was first with the vision that made it doable.
Benjamin and Hasshub repaired the section across from their house, and Azariah son of Maaseiah and grandson of Ananiah repaired the section across from his house.
Start at home. Move the stones in front of your house.
Don’t think that because it is God-ordained, your assignment will be easy.
Nehemiah 4:7-9, 16-17
But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs, Ammonites, and Ashdodites heard that the work was going ahead and that the gaps in the wall of Jerusalem were being repaired, they were furious. They all made plans to come and fight against Jerusalem and throw us into confusion. But we prayed to our God and guarded the city day and night to protect ourselves . . . from then on, only half my men worked while the other half stood guard with spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. The leaders stationed themselves behind the people of Judah who were building the wall. The laborers carried on their work with one hand supporting their load and one hand holding a weapon.
Don’t give up when you meet resistance. Be all the more wise and diligent.
The wall was finished–just fifty-two days after we had begun.
Prayer-driven action works. Expect good from God.
Our world is full of problems. You can’t possibly pray for all of them.
Start by praying for the rubble in your own yard, the issues closest to your heart. Pray first for nearby boundaries.
What does that look like for me?
I work in healthcare. God calls me to use my knowledge of the body and my heart for spiritual wholeness to pray beyond physical healing. I pray for hearts right with God, for people to breathe in the power of the Spirit, for strength to stand up for what is right, for feet to run away from temptation.
I commute an hour to and from work. I pray for safety on our highways and bridges. I ask God to watch over drivers who take risky chances. I ask God to protect the flagman with his stop sign and the man mowing alongside the road.
My commute takes me past children walking to school and waiting for the bus. I pray for their safety, for sound minds and the ability to learn, for their relationships with family, friends and God.
I have a son who teaches. I pray that he and other teachers will have the mind of Christ. I pray that they will pray for their students themselves. I ask him about students who need my prayers. I pray for them by name and for unknown students who share their issues. I pray for my son’s school in California and for schools in my New Jersey community.
Do you see how this works? You pray for the stones you trip over in your own yard. God will bring issues to you. Pray, and if the Lord leads, take action.
In your daily walk, you may happen upon someone laboring in prayer over an issue. You come alongside and help carry that rock. Watch for opportunities to pray with others.
Our prayers make a difference. Nehemiah accomplished in 52 days what had gone undone for 50 years. The walls were built on a foundation of prayer.
God may call you to lead an international project. You may be a Nehemiah. Or he may call you to work by your own front door. You may be an Azariah. All are essential to rebuilding the walls and restoring the boundaries.
One of my all-time favorite preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, preached on this very topic. You can read his sermon for yourself here.
“It does not say that Nehemiah set a watch, and then prayed; but ‘nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch.’ Prayer must always be the fore horse of the team. Do whatever else is wise, but not until thou hast prayed.”
We will dig deeper into Nehemiah in coming lessons, and we’ll look at different topics and methods of prayer.