Nehemiah was cupbearer to the King of Persia, living 800 miles from Jerusalem, when he received the grim report that the most precious icons and monuments of his homeland had been destroyed. Undoubtedly, friends and family of Nehemiah were casualties of the attack that destroyed Jerusalem.
It is difficult to measure precisely what Nehemiah lost when the city of his homeland was destroyed, but we can safely conclude that the loss was profound, and his pain, acute.
Nehemiah handles this tragic news in a manner that is both balanced and inspiring. For this reason, I commend the example of Nehemiah to all who suffer today. Whether we face the challenge of a personal illness, the anguish of a strained or severed personal relationship, or whether we feel the burden of a loved one’s pain, Nehemiah’s example can help our response to suffering.
Looking to the book that bears his name, from 1:1 to 2:8, Nehemiah models a three-pronged response to suffering:
We read about Nehemiah’s initial response to the tragic news in 1:4, “I sat down and wept and mourned for days.“
Nehemiah is not in denial about his pain. Friends are dead. Things that were important to him have been completely destroyed. Nehemiah hurts badly. I think it is normal, natural, and even helpful, that before doing anything else Nehemiah grieves.
Nehemiah did not unduly linger in his grief, but rather, he eventually transitions into a time of prayer and fasting (1:4-1:11). Chapter 2 begins, three months after receiving the report, and Nehemiah is still praying. But now, he’s back on duty, serving wine to the king who notices Nehemiah’s somber disposition and asks if he can be of any help.
What follows is inspiring: “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king” (2:4).
Picture it: Nehemiah is standing before the King of the Persian Empire with cup in hand; he has already admitted to the reader in 2:2 that he “was very much afraid“, and yet he pauses to pray. It was probably not a long prayer; the king probably did not even notice the pause, but it was long enough for Nehemiah to call upon the God of the Universe for help.
Nehemiah demonstrates for us that God was often on his mind, and that no time was the wrong time; no time was too short a time, to pray to the Lord for help.
Nehemiah initially spent much of his time grieving, and then he spent a great deal of time praying, but his response to his suffering did not end here. Nehemiah was poised and prepared for action.
He asks the king for a leave of absence in order to return to Jerusalem and personally oversee the rebuilding of the city. The remainder of the book describes Nehemiah’s leadership in the reconstruction of Jerusalem. The improbable rebuild is successful. Suffering gives way to celebration.
We want that, don’t we?
We don’t want to linger in a season of suffering any longer than we need to. Nehemiah shows us the way–He shows us a balanced way. We grieve. We pray. And then we go out and do something about our situation. Having prayed, we act in anticipation of God acting on our behalf.
Are you presently suffering in some way? Are you facing a daunting challenge? I urge you then, let Nehemiah show the way–let Nehemiah serve as your exemplary response to suffering.
“Nehemiah: Passion For Change”, based on Nehemiah 1:1-2:8, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 19, 2011.