The books of Ezra and Nehemiah offer us a little glimpse into the hearts of men who truly loved their God and desired the best for His people. And if we pay attention, we can learn from them. How to lead, how to serve, how to trust, and how to pray.
Both of these books are journals of sorts, with the men’s thoughts and prayers put to paper. They are both attributed to Ezra, but Nehemiah’s own personal notes are recorded. So are many detailed genealogies and important historical letters. I have omitted them to shorten the passages, but I highly encourage you to read these short books for yourself. 🙂
Some historical context: the kingdom of Judah had been taken captive to Babylon, where they remained for seventy years. Once Babylon was conquered by the Medo-Persian empire, the Persian kings began allowing the captives to return to their homelands. Ezra and Nehemiah each made this trek, at different times, for there were multiple groups who returned over the course of many years, and during the reign of several kings.
“Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah…the son of Aaron the chief priest– this Ezra came up from Babylon; and he was a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given. The king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him…On the first day of the first month he began his journey from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, according to the good hand of his God upon him. For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” ~ Ezra 7:1a, 5b-6, 9-10
Ezra gave all the credit to HIS God. And he prepared his heart to seek after God’s Word, to do it and to teach it.
“Blessed be the LORD God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem, and has extended mercy to me before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty princes. So I was encouraged, as the hand of the LORD my God was upon me; and I gathered leading men of Israel to go up with me.” ~ Ezra 7:27-28
This was not in quotations, like some sort of public prayer announcement. This is written in Ezra’s narrative, as a regular, ordinary part of the story of his life.
“Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, ‘The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him.’ So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer…And the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambush along the road.” ~ Ezra 8:21-23, 31b
Don’t we sometimes boast in our God, and then worry sheepishly that He may not provide? Ezra admitted his shame, and he went directly to God, asking for protection. And then he recorded God’s faithfulness in answered prayer.
“…and I sat astonished until the evening sacrifice. At the evening sacrifice I arose from my fasting; and having torn my garment and my robe, I fell on my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God. And I said: ‘O my God, I am too ashamed and humilitated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens…And now for a little while grace has been shown from the LORD our God…And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments…O LORD God of Israel, You are righteous, for we are left as a remnant, as it is this day. Here we are before You, in our guilt, though no one can stand before You because of this!’ ” ~ Ezra 9:4b-6, 8a, 10, 15
When Ezra arrived at Jerusalem, he was devastated to find that the people who had returned before him were disobeying God’s laws grievously. Taking their sin on himself, he mourned and grieved publicly. And then he apologized to God on their behalf. He confessed the sins of his nation, acknowledging their guilt before the Holy God. Oh, how we need this attitude today for our own country.
On to Nehemiah. I like how he prayed regularly. It is woven throughout this book, inserted conversationally amongst the details of his comings and goings. Isn’t that really how we ought to pray? Lacing it into the pattern of our day, like breathing and smiling and loving? “Pray without ceasing.” ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:17 “We give thanks to God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you,” ~ Colossians 1:3
“I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who had survived the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, ‘The survivors…are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.’ So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days. I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven…’O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.’ For I was the king’s cupbearer…Now I had never been sad in his presence before. Therefore the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This is nothing but sorrow of heart.’ So I became dreadfully afraid…So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.’…And the king granted them to me according to the good hand of my God upon me.” ~ Nehemiah 1:2b-4, 11; 2:1b-2, 4b-5, 8b
Nehemiah heard the terrible news about his own people being in distress and suffering. He had empathy and compassion for them, to the point that he desired to go and help them. His mourning was noticeable to the king himself– a powerful and very dangerous man who could have Nehemiah killed on a whim. In his dreadful fear, he prayed to “the God of heaven.” And God helped him with His “good hand”. I need to turn to my God immediately when I am afraid. And remember to be of good courage when faced with a seemingly impossible situation.
“So I came to Jerusalem…And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me, and also of the king’s words that he had spoken to me….Hear, O our God, for we are despised…Nevertheless we made our prayer to our God…’Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome, and fight for your brethren, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses.’…’Our God will fight for us.’…Remember me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people…Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands…’Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’…Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for its services!…Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of Your mercy!…Remember me, O my God, for good!” ~ Nehemiah 2:11a, 18; 4:4a, 9a, 14b, 20b; 5:19; 6:9b; 8:10b; 13:14, 22b, 31b
Nehemiah immediately testified of God’s goodness and answered prayer. And then he turned once more to God for help. The remnant of Israel faced great peril and opposition from the people living around them. Yet Nehemiah trusted in God–depended wholly upon Him– and encouraged those around him to remember and trust God, as well. He continually turned to Him and asked Him to remember him for good.
God was faithful and heard the prayers of Ezra, Nehemiah, and His children. As He always will.
“I waited patiently for the LORD; and He inclined to me, and heard my cry.” ~ Psalm 40:1
“But certainly God has heard me; He has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, who has not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me!” ~ Psalm 66:19-20