In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign,[a] I was at the fortress of Susa. 2 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.
3 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.”
4 When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. (NLT)
Nehemiah was one of the exiled Israelites who lived in Susa. He was the cup bearer to the King which meant he tasted everything the King drank to make sure it had not been poisoned. He probably had never seen his homeland of Israel or, if he had, it had been a very long time. We are not sure why he did not return to Israel after the decree from Cyrus allowing the exiles to go back, but he had not yet gone. Yet his heart was deeply touched at the news of the state of his home. So much so he sat down and wept. He mourned and fasted and prayed at the thought of his beloved City of David being in ruins!
2 In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, 2 so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.”
I was very much afraid, 3 but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”
Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” (NIV)
4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?”
Nehemiah’s heart was broken! He mourned, and prayed, and fasted for four months. He called out to the Lord continuously over the brokenness of Israel. He wanted to do something about it and was relentless in his appeal to God. Have you ever cried out to God in distress and it became such a focus that was all you could think about? So much so that it affected your appearance and others started to notice? Here he was serving the king as he did every day and one day the king noticed his countenance and asked him about what was going on in his life. I don’t really picture a king taking notice of a servant unless God has been working on that king’s heart. As Nehemiah continued to fast and pray, not seeing any answer to his prayer, God was at work.
I love Nehemiah’s response to the king. Even though he was afraid, he answered the king but before he made his request he “prayed to the God of heaven”. He had been praying to be the one to rebuild the city. He needed the king’s favor. He needed passes to get to the city, he needed materials, and he had been working out a plan in his head of how he would undertake this God-sized task. God sent Nehemiah to rebuild the city and had the king help finance it.
Prayer is such an important part of our walk with God. It is how we communicate with Him. It is how we develop intimacy with Him. As we pray and devote time to Him, He reveals Himself to us! Historically, prayer and fasting seem to be how our country sought answers to direction for our country. Have you ever seen some of the older films of the founding fathers with their powdered wigs sitting in church fasting and praying? Or, recently, I was watching “It’s a Beautiful Life” where George Bailey prayed and fasted when the country was at war. There is a blending of mind, body, and spirit when we fast and pray—an intentionality of true focus on God with the realization that only He can resolve something. Prayer and fasting generally has a specific focus as it did for Nehemiah.
8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.
Revelation gives us a picture of what happens to our prayers. It is such a beautiful thought to picture my prayers being presented to God as incense in a golden bowl. They aren’t lost in the cosmos somewhere, they are presented to God! Nehemiah’s prayer was heard and answered. To God be the glory!
Oh Father, thank you for hearing our prayers. They can range anywhere from asking for help to find a parking spot to healing a loved one. They can be praises to You for the beauty of Your nature to asking for the favor of a king to send us to rebuild a city. We bring You the desires of our hearts and the joys and sorrows of our lives. I am so thankful to live in this time, after the veil was torn, so we have access to you through Jesus. He sits at your right hand and intercedes for us. Our prayers are incense in golden bowls presented to you. Hear our prayers, oh Lord! Amen