This morning I began reading the great book of Nehemiah, the “sequel” to Ezra and one of my favorite books in the Bible. So this week, I’ll be sharing a few lessons from Nehemiah.
Nehemiah was the cupbearer to Artaxerxes, king of Persia, and a very trusted part of the king’s court. His job was to make sure no one was poisoning the king’s wine; this would often include swallowing some of the wine before serving it. Nehemiah regularly put his life on the line for the king.
He was also one of the Jewish exiles, sent into captivity because of Israel’s apostasy.
When his brother Hanani arrived to bring him news of Jerusalem, his heart broke, and he wept and mourned for the destroyed city of of his fathers. After much mourning, Nehemiah prayed for the mercy of the Lord to fall on him and the exiles, that they might rebuild the walls of the city and that the king would have mercy on him when he would ask to do this very thing.
Four months later, he approached the king. He had not been sad in the king’s presence (since part of his job was to be uplifting and encouraging), but now he could not hide the condition of his heart. And he was afraid. Asking to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls could be seen as disloyalty to the king—the punishment for this: Death. And Nehemiah prayed to God, then made his request. Mercifully, God softened Artaxerxes’ heart, and Nehemiah was permitted to return to the city of his fathers to rebuild the walls.
From the first chapter and a half of Nehemiah, we learn about character; and more specifically, humility.
Nehemiah exemplified submission to authority. 1 Peter 2:18 says that we are to “be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” He was a member of a captive people, who worked with godliness, and became one of the most trusted members of Artaxerxes’ court—by virtue of his background, Nehemiah should not have been in this position. Yet, providentially he was. Why? Because he was subject to his master with all respect.
We need to treat our employers in the same way, whether they’re godly or ungodly people. As Christians, if our boss is a great man or woman, we need to work hard and do the best job we can. If our boss is a jerk, a liar, hypocrite, whatever—we need to work hard and do the best job we can. Our aim should be that “those who revile your good behavior in Christ [would] be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:16 b). This is part of what it means when Scripture says that we are to be above reproach.
In submitting to ungodly authority the same way we would godly authority, we show the grace of God to unbelievers. It is humility that allows us to submit to authority, even when we don’t think that authority deserves our submission.
Humility also allows us to submit to God’s authority. Humility makes repentance possible for the Christian. What is one of the most humble prayers in all of Scripture? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 9:14 b). Nehemiah offers a prayer of heartfelt repentance, not just for himself, but for his people in Nehemiah 1:5-10:
And I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”
Humility does not allow us to stand on anything but the mercy of God. Our position, our actions are meaningless if our heart is not inclined to Jesus. Repentance—true, heartfelt repentance—is the key to putting pride, arguably the mother of all sins, to death.
Humility also allows us to understand that God is supreme. Psalm 135:6 tells us that “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” He is absolutely sovereign over all things in heaven and on earth. But we don’t always believe that. Instead, we try to create persuasive arguments or concoct schemes to take charge, as is we could. Nehemiah could have done this, instead, what did he do?
He prayed to God. It was a short prayer, but it was a good one. It was good because Nehemiah wasn’t ordering God to do anything, he was submitting himself to God’s authority. Humility allows us to pray rightly. And humility allows us to trust that God will do what’s right.
So how are we doing with this? Are we submitting to the authorities over us or do we find ourselves rebelling? Do we trust that God will do what’s right, or do we rebel and take matters into our own hands?
Are we pursuing humility or are we proud?