Not a very pious prayer
Job 11: Should this kind of loose talk be permitted?
When Job finishes responding to Bildad he addresses the Almighty, Himself. His words in chapter 10 are that prayer, but it isn’t a very pious one. Job, in his misery, cries out to God, demanding to know why his life has taken such a terrible turn. He complains that, apparently, he’s accidentally missed some step and is being punished for it even though he has no idea of why. If this is how things are, Job decides, it would be better to never live at all. Zophar, but not God, responds to this prayer of complaint. He’s scandalized; maybe backing away lest the bolt of lightning he’s sure is coming doesn’t hit him too. In his thinking bad things happen to us because we deserve it. This is no time to complain to God, it’s a time to repent and admit wrong doing so God will let up. Listen, Job’s prayer is the right prayer here because it’s his heart’s cry. God doesn’t want to hear us pray little fake prayers that pretend things about ourselves and our relationship with him. He’d rather hear an honest prayer of complaint than a dishonest prayer of contrition. It may be that we Christians have so narrowly defined how prayer should sound that we’ve defused it of much of its power.
Take Away: A dishonest prayer is more posturing than it is praying.
The extended scepter
Esther 5: He was pleased to see her, the king extended the gold scepter in his hand.
The first great hurdle for Esther is getting an audience with King Xerxes. It sounds crazy to us, but in that kingdom Xerxes is treated like a god. Even his own queen can come into his presence only when summoned. If she or anyone else breaks that rule they can be put to death. However, the king, himself, can grant a sort of “instant reprieve” if he wants to simply by extending his scepter to the uninvited person. Xerxes is just a man, and, apparently, a rather insecure one at that, but that’s how it is in his kingdom. Esther tells Mordecai that she hasn’t been summoned by the king for more than a month, and, in light of what happened to the previous queen when she didn’t come when summoned, Esther is taking a real risk here. However, it’s a necessary one. If Xerxes is unworthy of such deference, there is a King who is King of kings who is worthy of all that and more. However, his relationship to me is so much better than that of Xerxes to his subjects. In fact, I have a standing invitation to come into his Presence any time. This King extended the scepter to me and everyone else long ago, declaring his throne room open for all who will come.
Take Away: We have a standing invitation to enter the throne room, let’s take advantage of it.
Summing up a good man’s life
Nehemiah 13: Remember me, O my God.
As I reach the conclusion of Nehemiah’s story I find myself reflecting on this man’s life. One thing that stands out is his leadership and vision. Even from far off Babylon Nehemiah envisions the great project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He organizes the work and stays on course through all kinds of distractions and discouragements. A second thing that comes to mind is his love for, and trust in, God. Nehemiah isn’t driven by desire for power or to leave some sort of legacy. Instead, his eye is always on the God he serves. Finally, I see the third outstanding thing about Nehemiah. That is his spontaneous prayer life. Nehemiah doesn’t wait until some specified time to pray, although it’s clear that he does honor the scheduled worship times. For him, prayer is like breathing; a natural and necessary part of life. In the final words of his story, written by his own hand, three times he inserts short bursts of prayer, asking for God’s favor in light of his faithfulness. I get the feeling that this is not just for the official record of his work but an example of what it was like to be around Nehemiah. Here’s a man who practices the constant presence of God in his life and it’s not unusual to hear him address the Almighty right in the middle of a conversation. This, I think, is the greatest lesson of all I can learn from this good man.
Take Away: Practice prayer until it becomes as natural for you as is breathing.
When the enemy throws everything at you
Nehemiah 6: I prayed, “Give me strength.”
As the rebuilding project nears completion the enemies of Nehemiah desperately try to stop it. Since Nehemiah doesn’t fall for their “let’s meet” ploy they try slandering him. Their rumor is that Nehemiah’s about to set up a private kingdom behind the walls of Jerusalem and they threaten to send this word to Artaxerxes, himself. Nehemiah can’t stop them from their lies, but he can pray. Their next effort is to hire Shemaish son of Delaiah to pose as a prophet of God. Shemaish comes to Nehemiah pretending to be his friend. He’s heard from God that this very night people are coming to take his life. According to Shemaish, Nehemiah’s only hope is to hide in the part of the Temple reserved only for priests of God. It’s there that he’ll be safe. In spite of the credibility of this warning, Nehemiah decides that this “prophecy” doesn’t add up. For one thing, he’s not a priest and his going into that part of the Temple would be an act of desecration. Nehemiah refuses to cooperate and continues rebuilding the wall. The effort of Tobiah and Sanballat to stop Nehemiah from doing what God called him to do serves as a sort of spiritual warfare field manual for us. The enemy of our souls uses all these ploys to distract us from serving the Lord. First, they mock Nehemiah and his crew, telling them that they’ll never be able to finish what they’ve started. When that fails, they threaten them with personal violence. Next, they pretend compromise. After that there are lies and insinuation. Finally, they pretend to be the Voice of God. Nehemiah’s defenses are: a firm belief that he’s doing God’s will, absolute commitment to the task, an abundance of common sense, and lots of prayer. Fifty-two days later, Jerusalem is once again a walled city.
Take Away: The more committed you are to doing the will of the Lord the more committed his enemies will be to stop you from doing just that.
Preparedness and perseverance
Nehemiah 4: The common laborers held a tool in one hand and a spear in the other.
Nehemiah thinks the threats of his enemies to attack the builders are more than just hot air. Prayer is backed up by planning. He stations armed guards, divides the work crew up into builders and defenders, and distributes weapons to every worker. He also assigns trumpeters to each work crew so that they can quickly call for help if an attack comes. Some are given double duty: they’re guards at night and workmen by day. They sleep in their clothes with weapons at hand. A key phrase is: “and so we kept working.” Nehemiah and his crew’s commitment to the task is impressive. Even without the threat of an attack their job is a daunting one as they attempt to build a great wall out of rubble. Great accomplishments often include working through opposition and discouragement. It might be said that the greater the goal the more difficult the task. How do I respond in such situations? Do I work with “a tool in one hand and a spear in the other” or do I decide it’s too hard and find an easier route? Nehemiah’s story teaches us the importance of preparedness and perseverance.
Take Away: Preparedness, perseverance, and prayerfulness: these three are keys to accomplishing great things in the Name of the Lord.
The real work
Nehemiah 4: We countered with prayer to our God and set a round-the-clock guard against them.
The enemies of Nehemiah and his rebuilding project first try to discourage the workers by making fun of their effort. When that doesn’t work they begin to prepare for more concrete action, or at least threaten an attack. Nehemiah takes this threat seriously and organizes two defense efforts. One is to post guards to keep watch. The other is to organize prayer. This reliance on prayer isn’t unusual for Nehemiah at all. Often we find him responding to problems by praying. While posting guards is a practical thing to do, I think the most practical thing he does is to pray. I tend to treat prayer as a last ditch effort to be used when all else has failed, or something to be done by people who are unable for some reason to get involved in the “real work.” Know what? It’s prayer that’s the real work. Nehemiah goes ahead and arms the workers for self-defense but the attack never comes. The reason is that he and his team first countered the threat with prayer. Thank God for prayer “warriors” who fight and win battles in prayer.
Take Away: Its prayer that’s the real work.
Two sides of the same coin
Nehemiah 1: The wall of Jerusalem is still rubble; the city gates are still cinders.
The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah are actually two sides of the same coin. Ezra returns to Jerusalem as priest and teacher. His mission is to reestablish worship and teach God’s Law to the returned exiles there. Nehemiah returns as a builder. He brings building and organizational skills to bear on the pile of rubble that is Jerusalem. Together these two men are used by God to accomplish a fresh start for the people of Israel. If I’m ever tempted to divide “sacred” from “secular” in my life I need to spend some time thinking about Ezra and Nehemiah. Nehemiah’s work is every bit as necessary and Spirit-driven as is that of Ezra. When Nehemiah hears of the conditions in distant Jerusalem he immediately prepares to do something about it; not by organizing work crews and accumulating building materials, but by praying. As God’s people, everything we do, even building walls, is done “unto the Lord” and therefore, falls under the “sacred” category.
Take Away: Everything we do as a people of the Lord has a sacred flavor to it.
The power of intercessory prayer
Ezra 9: My dear God, I’m so totally ashamed, I can’t bear to face you.
Ezra and his large caravan of returning exiles are very welcome in Jerusalem. However, it’s not long before Ezra learns that there’s a big problem. The Jews already in the area have intermingled with the other peoples of the area to the point of intermarrying. This is a clear violation of the Law of God and Ezra’s devastated by such blatant failure. He came to Jerusalem to teach people who he believed wanted to learn how to worship God. He assumed that they were already the “people of God” and that they only needed someone to teach them how to live as the people of God. Now he finds that they’ve broken the covenant with the Lord in the most basic way by allowing themselves to be absorbed into the cultures around them. Ezra mourns this situation and then begins to pray. Here’s the thing: his prayer isn’t for “them” as much as it’s for “us.” Their sin, in his eyes is shared by all of their people and his prayer is a cooperate prayer. How often do I pray that way? I pray about “those” bad people who are attacking and tearing down moral values in my society and I pray that I might be protected from “those” evil people who would do me and those I love harm. There’s a time and a place for such prayers, but, taking my cue from Ezra, there’s also a place for cooperate confession. Ezra isn’t married a heathen woman, yet he comes to God “totally ashamed” by this breaking of God’s Law. He tells the Lord, “We have thrown your commands to the wind” and confesses that “we” are “openly guilty.” As he prays this prayer of confession others began to weep and repent – others who have actually done the sinning! Here, I think, is the power of genuine intercession. Ezra identifies himself with their sin and then, they identify themselves with his repentance.
Take Away: There’s power in intercessory prayer.
Putting your money where your mouth is
Ezra 8: I proclaimed a fast there beside the Ahava Canal.
Ezra tells us his own story starting in the middle of chapter 7. His desire to join the returned exiles in Jerusalem is infectious. Several Jewish families are ready to join him in this great adventure. Beyond that, Artaxerxes the king becomes excited about the project and gives Ezra all the support needed for him to go to Jerusalem, to rule there, and to oversee the worship of Jehovah God there. Even people who aren’t relocating to Jerusalem make generous donations. Ezra puts out word that the great caravan will be formed at the Ahava Canal and people begin to gather. At first a few, then more, and then a great flood of people come, all with their families and their belongings. Suddenly Ezra realizes what an undertaking this is. In some ways he’s like Moses about to lead the people to the Promised Land. They have hundreds of miles to travel across sometimes desolate and lawless territory. He knows he ought to ask for a military escort, but can’t bring himself to do that because he’s told Artaxerxes how God’s hand is on his people and how God blesses and protects those who serve him. At this point Ezra decides he must practice what he preaches. Instead of calling for soldiers he calls for a fast. Before beginning this possibly perilous journey, they’ll call on the Name of the Lord asking for his guidance and protection. I think that not only is the king impressed by Ezra’s trust in the Lord, but that God is pleased too. Decades earlier the ancestors of these exiles had turned to military alliances with Egypt and other nations when faced with great danger. Ezra gets this enterprise started on the right foot: he calls on God.
Take Away: Better to have the protection of the Lord than to be surrounded by all the armies of the earth.
Better late than never
2 Chronicles 33: As he prayed, God was touched.
Manasseh’s father, Hezekiah, made some mistakes, but his leadership of Judah was, by and large, pleasing to God and to his people. Now it’s Manasseh’s turn. He messes up – “royally!” Under his leadership the descendants of Abraham turn back to the idol worship of the past. He even brings disgusting idols right into the Temple his father had so carefully restored. It’s as Manasseh’s doing these stupid things that we find a chilling statement. The Scripture reports: “And God was angry.” Tell you what; if you’re doing your own thing and ignoring God you really don’t want to hear these words! The result is that God allows Assyria to accomplish what they were kept from accomplishing before. Jerusalem falls before this regional power. Manasseh, himself, is led off like a farm animal to distant Babylon, likely destined for execution. To Manasseh it seems that this just might be a good time to pray! Well, to be honest about it, it is way past time for him to pray; but pray he does. He falls on his knees and cries out to God, repenting “totally” of his sins. If one thing you really don’t want to hear about yourself is that “God is angry” the sweetest sound that can fall upon the ear is what we read here: “As he prayed, God was touched.” Manasseh shouldn’t have messed up in the first place. His life would have been vastly better had he been true to the God of his father. However, once he messed up, the next best thing was to pray a prayer of absolute, from-the-heart repentance. Such prayers always touch the heart of God. It’s true for Manasseh. It’s true for you and me.
Take Away: Better to not mess up in the first place, but if you’ve messed up it’s time to pray like you’ve never prayed before.