From Failure to Success
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From Failure to Success

Nehemiah 1:4  (ID: 1715)

Rubble and bricks had replaced Jerusalem’s fortified walls, and there seemed no imminent hope for the restoration of God’s people within God’s city. Hundreds of miles away, Nehemiah received this bleak news and wept. His reaction revealed his heart for God’s glory and his devotion to God’s people. Alistair Begg encourages us to consider when, if ever, we have wept for God’s glory or the predicament facing His people.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Nehemiah, Volume 1

God’s Work, God’s Way Nehemiah 1:1–7:3 Series ID: 11601

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you once again to take your Bible, and we’ll turn to Nehemiah chapter 1. In beginning this series on Nehemiah last Sunday morning, we encouraged one another to see this as a potential watershed in the development of our church at this point in history—not that any particular portion of the Bible is any more significant than any other, but we recognize that there are peculiar circumstances which we’re currently facing, and this particular section of Scripture seems so apt in relationship to so much. So we encourage one another to see it in those terms.

We also recognize that if we were going to benefit from studying the book together—and this is true, incidentally, of all the study in which we engage—then a number of things would need to happen. Number one, we would need to commit ourselves to being prayerful in our preparation—in other words, that we would perhaps read the passage the night before; we would at least include it in our prayers at the outset of the day; we would ask that God would be speaking to us as individuals and as a church through his Word. That will perhaps come as a reminder to some of us who recognized it last Sunday morning, made a note of it, said, “That’s a strikingly good idea,” and, if we’re honest, did absolutely nothing about it—in which case, we flunked, you know, one quarter, 25 percent, already. But that’s all right.

We need to prepare prayerfully. We need to come regularly, attend regularly—so, you’re here. We need to listen expectantly. And we need to apply the truth vigorously. To the degree that that takes place, we said that we can look to the Spirit of God to do his work and to surprise us in response.

Now, in opening up the study, we also identified five characteristics which we said were representative of a variety of responses to our unique opportunities right now as a church. You may recall, one was relaxation, then investigation, agitation, expectation, and organization. I’m told that this sparked a fair amount of interest and that people were beginning to identify themselves in relationship to these various characteristics. No one, I think, went the length of having a baseball hat made with their identifying tag on the top, but there’s still time. Seemingly, people were saying to one another, “Hello, I’m Bill, and I’m a founder member of the bureau of relaxation,” or “Hello, my name is Brenda, and I head up the committee on investigation,” or seeing themselves in terms of “My name is Colin, and I am an agitating expecter,” or “I am Roger, and I am an expectational organizer.”

Certainly, people had fun with this. And it became clear, I think, to the congregation that we are very, very different—that both by personality, by calling, by interest, by response, we really differ. And the reason we need one another is because we are different in all these variety of ways. And indeed, that’s the whole plan and purpose of the Spirit of God: to take a diverse group of people, to create a unity within the framework of that diversity, so that as a result of our unity and diversity, we may be far more effective than any one of us could ever be left to ourselves.

So, when we consider the historical record, as we attempted to do somewhat last Sunday morning (the historical record which introduces us to the part played in the purposes of God by Nehemiah), we began to see what we will underscore throughout this series of studies—namely, that this book reminds us that there are basic principles which must be adhered to in every generation if there is ever to be anything of lasting worth accomplished for God. Despite the fact that we live in very different circumstances from the day of Nehemiah, despite the clamor of many voices telling us that if you don’t do things in this particular way, you will never be effective, we need to hold on to the underpinning truths of God’s Word—these basic principles. It is a book about those basic principles.

It is also a book about the basic people whom God chooses to use in a project like this. And this is, of course, a great encouragement to many of us. Not all of us are able to cope with chaos in the same way as others. Some seem to thrive in chaos. The more crazy it gets, the more adventuresome they become. For others, they just crawl into a shell and wait for it all to pass by them. Some react simply by creating an inventory of all the variety of ways in which our disorganization is apparent. And there are some who, within the church, seem to have taken that on as a particular spiritual gift, so that they can let us know just how disorganized we are on so many different levels—which, of course, is a helpful thing: historically kind of chronicling what’s going on. But in terms of actually helping set forward stuff, it’s really nonexistent.

So, what is needed—what was needed then and now—was that there would be people with the characteristic of Nehemiah, who could cope in the middle of ruin and despair; who could forge ahead—who can forge ahead—despite the threat of constant turmoil. And God had been fashioning Nehemiah for just such a project. He was an ordinary man with an extraordinary gift for an out-of-the-ordinary responsibility. And in that respect, again, he ought to stand out as an encouragement to many of us.

Now, in the opening three verses, we have the record of his inquiry of his brother Hanani concerning the circumstances of his countrymen in Jerusalem. It may well be that Nehemiah had been a wee bit idealistic. After all, he knew that a party had already gone by—recorded in the first six chapters of the book of Ezra—who had gone up to Jerusalem, and they were beginning the restructuring of the temple area, particularly the sacrificial system. And word of that had filtered back to those who remained in exile. And now, as he inquires as to how it’s all going on, he discovers that there had been subsequent intervention, and the project has once again come to a grinding halt. And in halting, as with every other work, it does not simply sit stationary or idle, but it begins to disintegrate. For it is either going forward or it is going back, but it certainly isn’t staying still.

And so the word is that the circumstances can be described in terms of—and you’ll note the words here in verse 3—“trouble,” “disgrace,” “broken, “burned.” And to whatever degree Nehemiah was marked by idealism, this report gives him a fairly large dose of realism. While he may have hoped to hear news of the secrets of the success back in Jerusalem, he is reminded of the facts of their failure.

And where we pick it up, in the fourth verse this morning, is just at the point where we’re about to observe the reaction of Nehemiah to this news. And what we’ll do is we will note his reaction, and then his counteraction, and then just look as we anticipate Nehemiah going into action. So, it’s fairly easy: reaction, counteraction, into action. Those are the three points. We’ll never reach the third one, so don’t worry about it. All right? At least we won’t just now.

Nehemiah’s Reaction

Reaction. We always teach our children—we try to teach ourselves—that we are responsible for our reactions. Right? That we cannot control the actions of other people. They cut us off in traffic; we’re the ones who react. They are unkind to us at parties; we’re the ones who react. We don’t get what we think we deserve; we’re the ones who react. And indeed, that principle is so right that we reveal a tremendous amount about ourselves in the way in which we react to any given set of circumstances. And no less is this true in relationship to Nehemiah as he responds to the information that he has received.

It’s vitally important that we are clear concerning this, especially as it relates to the responsibility of leadership. None of us lives to ourselves; none of us dies to ourselves. The way in which we react to circumstances impinges upon the people around us, whoever they may be—my wife, my husband, my girlfriend, my kids, my teacher, whatever it is—and especially so if we’re placed in a position of leadership. Because those who are being led are going to take a read from the leader. At least under normal circumstances this is the case.

If you are flying at thirty-three thousand feet, and the plane hits a major air pocket and drops instantaneously a hundred and fifty or two hundred feet, or even worse, you do not expect to hear from the cockpit the sound of “Whoa!” you know. The only reason you don’t hear that most of the time, in talking with pilots, is simply because they don’t have the thing turned on. True or false? No acknowledgement from the air traffic control this morning. All right. But the fact of the matter is, we love to hear those deep tones of the voice saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, everything is absolutely wonderful,” you know. And you go, “Oh, that’s good!” you know, “because I was beginning to wonder there for a moment.” You don’t want the kind of reaction that instills fear on the part of those who are under the care of leadership. And in the same way, in the record of biblical history, the response of leadership to circumstances determined the way in which the people of God moved. It’s true of nations. It’s true of churches. It’s certainly true of the history of the people of God.

Let me illustrate it for you back in the book of Numbers. If you take a moment and turn back—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, the fourth book of the Old Testament—you got this wonderful record there of Moses being told by the Lord to send up a group of spies into the land of Canaan.[1] Canaan is where they’re going. The Lord has promised that they’re going to Canaan. So the question is not “Will we be going to Canaan?” The question is “What is Canaan going to be like when we get there?” They didn’t have the responsibility to determine whether they were going or not. They were just up there to do a reconnaissance mission.

And so they are sent out—Numbers 13:3—into the Desert of Paran. And all of the chaps who went “were leaders of the Israelites,” and their names follow—verse 4 running through verse 15. Their mission was clear: they were to “go up through the Negev and on into the hill country. See what the land is like”—this is verse 18—what the people who live there are like, whether they’re “strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? [Do] they [have walls? Are they] fortified? How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? [Is there irrigation?] Are there trees …? [And] bring … some fruit [back if you get the chance.]”[2] Okay?

So, off they went to fulfill their brief. And they came back. Verse 26: “[Then] they came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh.” Now we’re going to find out what their reaction to the journey was: “[And] there they reported to them and to the whole assembly.” So there’s not a sense where they are in a tent, as it were, at the level of leadership, but the whole assembly is hearing the news of the report. Therefore, the way in which they are about to react is going to have an impact on all the people who are gathered. And so “they gave Moses this account: ‘We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.’” So far, so good. “‘But…’” And you’ll notice there is a “But” here, verse 28: “‘But…’” And then they launch into a very negative statement concerning the potential of living in this country. And their reaction is not solid, it’s certainly not positive, and it’s going to impact the people, as we’re about to see.

Caleb, in contrast, reacts to the reaction. And in reacting to the reaction, we’re told he “silenced the people”—verse 30—“before Moses,” and he “said, ‘We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.’” Caleb marks himself out as distinct from the others, insofar as he has a concept of what God is able to accomplish. The other ten were only able to see the problems that were there. And it is necessary that God raises up individuals who can look at all of the circumstances as they are faced and still say, “We’re going forward here.”

Now, the ten people who don’t like that idea get ticked. Because they start to say, “Who does Caleb think he is? Who does Joshua think he is? After all, there were twelve of us went up. We haven’t all had a chance to give our report. We’re only on report number four. Caleb sticks his big foot in it and says, ‘Hey, chill out. We can do it.’ Who does he think he is?” He’s someone in whose heart God has instilled a sense of his greatness and his glory.

Now, did it matter that the leadership reacted in this way? Absolutely! You read from verse 31 to the end of the chapter, and again, the leadership, the ten out of the twelve, sow seeds of discouragement and discord. Verse 32: “And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored,” and they scared them with talk of giants and various other things. Consequently, “that night”—14:1—“all the people of the community raised their voices,” and they “wept aloud,” and “all the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly…”[3] So they were crying in their beds, and they were grumbling on their feet, and it was on account of the reaction of leadership.

Make no mistake about it, loved ones: whether you are leading a group of three people in your office, leading your Sunday school class, or whatever else it is, our colleagues and our friends gain more from the way in which we react than from, many times, our public pronouncements of what is about to take place. One of the things that ought to strengthen convictions on the part of the people in relationship to leadership is, apart from anything else, sheer persistence, stickability—the fact that day after day and week after week and month after month, there is still a commitment on the part of leadership. They may not be brilliant, but they’re committed. They may not be the most advanced, progressive, organizational thinkers, but for the time being, like Caleb and Joshua and Nehemiah, they were committed.

Now, if you go on into chapter 14—we’ll go back to Nehemiah in just a moment—you will notice that in 14:10, “the whole assembly talked about stoning” the leaders. Why? The answer is back in 14:4: “They said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’” “We want to go back.” See, the agitators had won the day. They got them all mixed up, talking about giants. They got them all concerned about how they wouldn’t be able to cope. They got them so confused that they began to think that the place out of which they’d come, where they were getting literally beaten to death, was more attractive than the prospect of going to live in Canaan. It’s quite unbelievable that that can happen! But that is the impact of the wrong kind of reaction on the part of leadership.

And Nehemiah’s day had presumably seen much of that. Back to Nehemiah. His reaction is described for us in one poignant sentence: “When I heard these things, I sat down and [I] wept.” This reveals to us the depth of his devotion, the extent of his compassion. Passion and compassion are usually linked. If you care passionately about something or someone, and you lose that something or the someone, you are more than likely to be very compassionately involved in its loss. If you don’t care about the thing or the individual, then its loss will not mean that much to you. If you have fifteen pens, and you lose one pen out of fifteen, and they’re all the same, you lost a pen. There are fourteen more. But if you have a pen that was given to you twenty-five years ago by your mother or your great-uncle or something, and it’s very significant, then your reaction to its loss will be directly related to the passion with which you cared for that thing. So when you get superficial responses to great predicaments confronting the people of God, by our reaction we reveal just the depth of our understanding. And that’s why we need people like Nehemiah to respond in such a way that we say, “You know what? He’s right!”

You see, Nehemiah wasn’t concerned about architecture, primarily. It’s not that he was a builder and he didn’t like to see things messy, but rather that the mess of the broken-down walls in Jerusalem was indicative of the beleaguered situation in relationship to God’s glory. He wasn’t a professional mourner. He genuinely cared, and he expresses it here. The desolation of the people of God makes him cry.

Do tears come easily to you? Are you a crier? Do you cry when you watch Anne of Green Gables? Do you cry at old James Stewart movies? Or are you of the stiff-upper-lip brigade? You don’t cry about much. You don’t cry about funerals. You don’t cry when you see dogs run over in the street. You just don’t cry.

There never will be a revival amongst the people of God without tears.

Okay, well, whether you cry a lot or you don’t cry much, whether you are a natural tearjerker or not, let me ask you the question that I asked myself this week: Apart from the natural reaction to circumstances that may pain us in our lives, when, if ever, did we sit down and weep out of a spiritual concern for God’s glory? Now, this is a realistic question. When, if ever, did we find ourselves reduced to tears because of the predicament facing the church of God and the work of God? Well, we’ve read about it. We’ve read about it in biblical history. We know that Paul was moved in this way. We know that Christ certainly was. We’ve read in missionary biographies of others who did. We have heard that Spurgeon preached through tears. We have listened to the cries of others. But how about us?

Sunday afternoons, my father used to play these horrible—well, I shouldn’t say horrible—he played these dreadful, long-playing records in our house in Scotland. We had one of those newfangled, wonderful stereos that had that prong that stuck up further than for the 45 RPM single, so that you could load these babies on, you know. I think you could get six on, a bit like a contemporary CD changer. And so Sunday afternoons, he would drag these puppies out—unbelievable groups like the Crystal River Boys and names that are just unimaginable, with music that was even worse than the names. And then he got really hip at one point and got into Jim Reeves and a gospel album by Jim Reeves. And he never, ever heard the things. That was what galled me. He would fall asleep within about three tracks, and he would stay asleep as long as the music played. If you ever turned it off, he woke up instantaneously. So you were stuck with it. So I know all these words off by heart. And just when you thought it was over, another one would drop down and start up again. It’s like a nightmare. But anyway.

There was a song by Jim Reeves; it said,

How long has it been since you talked with the Lord
And told him your heart’s hidden secrets?
How long since you prayed?
How long since you stayed
On your knees till the [dawn broke] through?[4]

I used to think about it then, and I thought about it again this week, in relationship to prayer, in relationship to reaction.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that there never will be a revival amongst the people of God without tears. There never has been, and there never will be. They can’t be the tears of human ingenuity or external manufacture. They’ve got to be God-created tears. Therefore, we actually need to pray that God would make us cry about the right things if he’s going to make us do the right kind of things in response to the cries of our hearts.

So let me ask you again: When, if ever, have you wept for God and for his glory? When, if ever, have we wept for our friends who are lost without Christ? When have we realistically wept for the unbelievable perplexity of the nation in which we live, where it is increasingly impossible even to watch television commercials, let alone programs, without the invasion of the private moral purity of our children and beyond? Now, we can get up on our hind legs and shout about it, but does it make us cry? Does it make us cry out to God?

I don’t think that we should get very far from this question, because if it is as foundational as the Scriptures appear to say it is, then until we answer it, there’s no real sense in going forward.

Somebody listening to George Whitefield preach on one occasion heard him preach on John 3:16 on the Monday night. The Tuesday night, they came back; he preached on John 3:16. On the Wednesday night, they came back; he preached on John 3:16. They asked him, “Mr. Whitefield, are you planning on doing another sermon anytime?” Whitefield said, “I will start a new sermon when you start doing what I told you about in the first sermon.”

I find myself greatly challenged by the fact that it is very difficult to identify with Nehemiah 1:4 and far too easy to identify with Luke chapter 18 and the description that is provided there. You may want to turn to it with me. I’ll read it for you.

Luke chapter 18. Jesus is moving through the crowd. He’s on his way. He’s heading towards Jericho. He’s not there yet. He’s on the outskirts of Jericho, and “a blind man was sitting by the roadside,” and he was “begging.”[5] The man was helpless. The man was hopeless. He could do nothing to change his circumstances unless somebody else intervened on his part. And given the fact that he couldn’t see, any kind of commotion caused by a crowd would be a matter of intrigue to him. And so, Luke 18:36: “When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening,” and “they told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’” And so “he called out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” That’s the honest cry of someone’s heart.

Now, look at the response: “Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet.” Far from the response of the crowd to the predicament of the man producing tears in them, it produced rebukes.

“Jesus! Can you do anything for me, an old blind beggar? Jesus!”

“Would you shut up? You know that we’re going to Jericho? Do you know how long we’ve been walking here? Do you know how busy Jesus is? Do you know that we’ve been at the front of this line for ages?”


See, half the time, we don’t hear the cries of the crowd ’cause we’re so caught up in the march. We got our church thing down so good, we can’t hear people shouting in the streets. We can’t hear the cries in the music of our day. We don’t hear the cries in the young people’s voices. We’re missing the cries of the things that made Christ weep.

See, reaction reveals it all. And when Jesus saw the crowd, he was what? Moved with compassion. For when he saw them, he saw them as “sheep without a shepherd.”[6] He saw them in need of that which he came to provide. He didn’t just simply see a crowd.

And when the people in Jerusalem, who’d been living there all that time, looked to the walls, all they saw were walls. “Hey, what’s going on in Jerusalem? How are the walls doing?” “Ah, man. They’re all falling down.” Picture the scene. They’ve all broken down. Weeds have begun to grow up in them. Part of them have actually started to form lawns in them. If you go to ruins in Britain, go to the bust-up castle in Carlisle, in between Scotland and England, you can have a wonderful picnic there on those broken-down walls. And the walls have been broken for so long that they’re all filled in with grass and with shrubbery, and they actually started to plant flowers in them. And what they were saying was, “They’re broken, and they’re broken for good. So we may as well join it.” And the people had grown accustomed to it.

But when Nehemiah heard about it—he hadn’t even saw it yet—he started to cry. I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on you or induce a guilt trip in myself, but I can’t get past the question: How much of the spirit of Nehemiah is in me, for the glory of God and for his purposes? And how much of the spirit of the guys that led the charge at the beginning of Luke 18 pervades my heart?

And what about our church? What about our church? Do you think that we exist simply to listen to sermons, gather in groups to study the Bible, scratch each other’s backs, and turn us all into wonderful little families? Did God put you on the face of the earth to become a good dad? You’re saying, “What, we’re not supposed to be good dads?” Of course we’re supposed to be good dads! But that’s not an end. That’s only a means to an end. That’s in order to give us a stabilized credibility so that when we speak to others who are wrestling with predicaments of family life, we may be able to speak to them concerning Jesus.

You want to talk about a youth ministry? What do you want in your youth ministry? A bunch of nice little guys with nice little haircuts and nice little girls that you would always be glad to have home to your house? You want it safe? Or do you want to really go and reach some of the kids that are shouting out, “Jesus!”? Now, they may not be using his name anything other than in vain, but they are using his name. You want to go get ’em? And what about the business guys? “Jesus, can you do anything for me?” “Shut up!” The reaction reveals the heart.

“Nehemiah, it’s all bust up”—and he sat down, and he wept. He didn’t say, “I wonder who the clowns are, running the thing up in Jerusalem?” That would have been a reaction. There’s no sense of self-assertiveness on the part of Nehemiah here either. He doesn’t say, “You know, they’ve got a bunch of yo-yos up there in Jerusalem. I’m going to have to get up there, sort that thing out.” No! He weeps.

Nehemiah’s Counteraction

Now, that’s his reaction. Let’s go to his counteraction. His counteraction. What about his reaction following his reaction? What do you do with it, after you’ve reacted in that way? What is the picture for us this morning? “Well, what we learned from the pastor this morning is you’re supposed to go home, find a chair, and see if you can’t burst into tears. Because seemingly, this is the key to spirituality. It is only if you’re crying, you’re moving. So I’m going to go home, I’m going to try and think of something really sad, and then I’ll be getting going from there.” No, that’s acting. That’s acting! His counteraction is that he “fasted,” and he “prayed.”

Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. It is laying hold of God’s willingness.

In other words, first of all, in fasting, he set aside his normal intake of food and the routine attached to taking in that food for the express purpose of seeking God. Now, for some people, that is a spiritual discipline that is totally absent in our lives. Others of us, it is an infrequent involvement. For some of us, it is a regular element of our Christian experience. There’s no fuss or bother about it, we’re not making a big deal of it, but there is an element in our lives that is directly related to this. And for some, it is on account of express conditions that are apparently peculiarly significant. But he did that. And the Bible has a lot to say about fasting. We can talk about it on another occasion.

His prayer, then, “before the God of heaven,” lasted for a number of days. Why did he pray? Why would anybody pray? Why do you pray, if you pray? Do you pray? Why would we pray?

Some of us pray out of a sense of “Well, I don’t know what you’re supposed to do, but I believe you close your eyes and say things, and something happens. I’ve got no concept, but…”

Others of us pray because we’re supposed to pray. We got in this deal here, and you pray. I mean, before, we never prayed. And now we got involved with this nice group of people, and they pray, so we pray. So it’s purely as a result of external constraints. The way we know that is as soon as we remove the external constraints, we don’t pray anymore. As soon as you take the group away, we don’t pray. We’re away by ourselves, we go in a hotel—we’re here, there, wherever it is—we just don’t pray.

The person who really prays, prays because they understand that “if I don’t pray, God won’t work.” Prayer is not manipulating God to give us something that he doesn’t want to give. It is actually recognizing that God is very willing to give us stuff. It is a means, said Luther, of obtaining blessings God is already willing to bestow, not of manipulating him to do things he doesn’t really want to do. It is not overcoming God’s reluctance; it is laying hold of God’s willingness.

And Nehemiah understood that. He knew that nothing could happen unless God did it. After all, these blooming walls had been broken down forever, hadn’t they? I mean, this was status quo. He said, “Jerusalem?” He said, “Broken-down walls.” Said, “Jerusalem?” Said, “The people are gone.” And he’s eight hundred miles away from it, and he has a full-time job. There’s no way in the world he’s ever going to get there. And frankly, if he got there, what would he do? Because he has no power in and of himself. So the prospect of doing anything worthwhile and seeing God’s glory restored, the kingdom reestablished, is absolutely incredible! I mean, it’s totally unrealistic—unless God does it. And how would God do it? Well, that would bring him into the realm of prayer.

If the city of Jerusalem was going to rise again, Nehemiah knew that it would rise again as a result of God’s intervention. If the Spirit of God would pour out in revival upon America again, as in the eighteenth century, it will only come as a result of God doing it.

Listen: I have observed now, from a distance and present, twelve years of Republican domination in the White House. I have listened to all manner of stories about how we can ride on the back and on the coattails of this and usher in the kingdom for Christ. It hasn’t happened! It’s certainly not going to happen under the present regime. When will people wake up, the church wake up, and realize that our counteraction must be prayer? We can do more than pray, after, but not until.

The reason we don’t pray is because of one of three things. Either, as Barber said, we are self-sufficient, and therefore, we don’t pray; we just talk to ourselves. Or we are self-satisfied, and consequently, we have no knowledge of our need. Or thirdly, we are self-righteous, and we don’t pray, we can’t pray, because we have no basis upon which to approach God.[7]

Now, don’t get hung up here about times of prayer and all that kind of thing. Some of you are sitting there going, “Okay, where do we go now? We’ve got the five-thirty prayer meeting that’s coming up any second now. We’re going to get the big bass drum out. We’re going to get the jungle drums out for five thirty.” Well, that would be fine, but that’s not it. The issue is not about when we’re praying or how we’re praying; the issue is about whether we’re praying.

This past week, in Canada, I was with a lot of severely old people. I mean, these people were ancient. And they are lovely people, but they were ancient. And in conversation with them, a lot of the time they were talking about the glory days of the past—you know, “We remember Jerusalem when the wall was up,” that kind of stuff—and bemoaning the situation, and not in an unkind way, but basically bellyaching about the absence of the next generation to step up to the plate, and not least of all in relationship to prayer.

But if you had heard their conversations, they were so funny. You know, like, I had one man who was eating the meal, and he says, “You know, I went to this new church, and they have their prayer meeting”—this is fact—“I mean, they have their prayer meeting on Tuesday night.” So I’m just eating. I said, “What is this? I mean, is this significant in any way? I don’t know.” I said, “Mm-hm.” And someone else said, “Oh, really?” Then I said, “Man, I’m missing something here.” And he goes, “Yeah! Who ever heard of a church praying on Tuesday night? I mean, churches pray on Wednesday nights, for goodness’ sake!” Then we had this big thing about whether you pray on Wednesday or Tuesday or whatever it was.

Then it went on from there about how you pray—you know, “Young people, they don’t pray with reverence anymore.” Now, what they mean by that is young people don’t pray like Polonius anymore—you know, Polonius from Hamlet, you know, who’s a complete flannel merchant. They don’t pray, like, from Genesis through Revelation, flip back through the book of Isaiah, a little touch of Romans chapter 6, you know. They don’t do that. They go, “O God, this is a really bad week. My homework stinks. I hate my brother. Please help me. Amen.” And the elderly people are saying, “We don’t want this kind of praying in our church. I mean…” You know? And so the young people come in, and they said, “Well, I can’t do that.” I mean, it’s just, like, disconnect. Major disconnect!

We had a prayer meeting on a Monday night—which I should have told him about, ’cause it would really have freaked him out! We had a prayer meeting on a Monday night in Scotland, and we had some real guys in there that could pray up a storm, you know. They prayed a thing all the way through all the books of the Bible, and all the names of the kings, and everything else, you know. You didn’t know where you were. And we had a lady called Martha who had a major battle with the bottle, if we might put it that way. I mean, I think it was Martha who coined the phrase “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” But she was a piece of work, was Martha!

And she had a tremendous capacity to cut through anything that was bogus. And so when the prayer, some old brother was going on… He was just coming through the minor prophets, you know. We hadn’t even reached the intertestamental period with this guy. And Martha had this deal where she would go—she’d would wait for him just to take a breath, and she’d go, “Amen!” And when she said “Amen,” everyone else thought he was over. They said, “Amen,” shut the guy up, man. He’s just down like a shot. Bam! History! It wasn’t that she didn’t want to pray. It was that through her, you know—when the alcohol content began to dissipate enough for her, she’d realize, “I don’t know what these guys are doing in here.”

So, the thing is this: You’re a boy at school. Do you pray? Do you have any plan to pray? Do you pray once a day, none-ce a day; once a week, none-ce a week? I mean, do you pray? Are you going to pray? You call yourself a Christian. Do you pray? Do you have a prayer diary? Do you have any kind of diary? Do you have a plan? Do you have an exercise plan?

Dave Camera, when he encountered me—the young fellow who just went off to Wheaton—and he looked me over, he wrote me out an exercise plan. It hasn’t done very much for me, because it’s in the ashtray of my car. What good is it in there? It’s written in his own hand on a big piece of legal pad. It says, “So many abs this, and zibs that, and dubs this,” and things. It’s got names I don’t even understand. But I keep it in there. It makes me feel good. I know it’s in there. But it doesn’t do squat for me, because I never use it! Some of our shelves are lined with E. M. Bounds, and Mr. So-and-So, and old Brother This, and Mary Slessor that, who did this. And we think if we just kind of rub up against these things every so often, that’ll be enough. But we don’t pray.

Can you think what would happen if a group like this got really serious about praying for this church? Praying for the immediate community around here? Praying for actual streets? Praying for the people in the houses that we’ve never met? Praying for complete sectors of our environment? Praying the Spirit of God to be at work within the lives of people? Asking God to lay within us a burden for those who do not know him? If we ever got serious about that, who knows but God wouldn’t just open the windows of heaven and pour us out a blessing that there isn’t room enough to contain.[8] But until we get serious, to that kind of level, God presumably recognizes that he should do something some other place, because we are either self-righteous, self-satisfied, or self-contented.

His prayer will be considered next time, but let me tell you this: from Nehemiah 1:1 to Nehemiah 2:1 is a space of between 90 and 120 days. It’s a gap of between three or four months. So when he says, “For some days, I sat down, I wept, I fasted, and I prayed,” he’s talking here about a gap between hearing what was going on in Jerusalem and taking action. There is a gap of four months between reaction and into action.

When he goes into action, you’ll find, when we get to 6:15, that they completed the actual building project in fifty-two days. Now, you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to work out that it took them less than 50 percent of the time to actually do the building that they actually spent in praying. They spent three or four months praying and fifty-two days building. There’s got to be a lesson in that somewhere.

Do you think there’s any significance in the fact that the only time we ever called our church to prayer and fasting was the night before we finally got the building permit for this building? I don’t want to play spiritual gymnastics with it, but there’s always the thought that if we’d been more diligent in that respect earlier on, we might have spent more time praying and less time waiting. And what about all of our future plans?

You want a little story to read in the afternoon? Read Luke 11:1–10. The disciples come to Jesus, and they say, “Teach us [how] to pray.”[9] Jesus gives them a model prayer, and then he gives them a story. It’s a great story. A fellow shows up at his friend’s house at midnight, says, “Hey, I need some bread. My friend came over on a journey, and I don’t have anything.” His friend gives him a real nice reaction: he says, “Take off, buddy. Don’t bother me! The door’s locked. My children are all in bed.”[10] Luke 11:7: “[And] I can’t get up and give you anything.”

That’s the kind of reaction you get from a friend, isn’t it? I mean, think it out. I mean, if somebody you don’t know embarrassed you at midnight—you know, some lady, seven houses away or two streets away, she comes and says, “Excuse me? I’ve got a bit of a problem,” whatever—your sense of sort of middle-class orthodoxy would respond to that. But one of your close friends bugs you in the middle of the night, when you’ve already shut the whole place down and you’ve gone to sleep, there’s a more than even chance you’re going to tell them, “Hey, you’ve got to have rocks in your head! You think I’m getting up to start going looking for bread at this time of night? Take off!”

You say, “I don’t understand you. Friends wouldn’t do that.” Well, you’ve just never had a friend like me! You come try that on me, I’ll tell you straight up! You say, “Well, that’s not very nice.” Well, it may be not very nice. You can come back five minutes later, try it again; I’ll tell you the same thing. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, increments of five minutes. Eventually, you just wear me down; I get up, give you the bread, you take off. But it wasn’t because of a great warmth in my heart. It was because of your importunity, or because of your boldness, or because you wouldn’t quit. Jesus says, “That’s the point.” It is not that God is unwilling. The lesson he’s teaching is: don’t quit! Don’t quit!

You remember the other Sunday night, I read you the story from Australia of the guy who was divorced? Not divorced; separated from his wife for seven years. And today, they’re happily married, and he’s a pastor in a church, and they have two children in medical school, about to become missionaries, and two other wee boys that are going on with Christ. And what was that about? It was about importunity. It was about praying and not quitting.

How many people have we been praying for that we quit on? Circumstances that we gave up on? “Oh, the walls will always be like that. Might as well just plant flowers in ’em. It’s history!” Then God puts it in the heart of someone, and they pray.

I often say my prayers;
But do I ever pray?
And do the [feelings] of my heart
Go with the words I say?

I [might] as well [bow] down
And worship gods of stone
As offer to the living God
A prayer of words alone.[11]

And we say with the disciples, “Lord, teach us how to pray.”

Gracious God, we thank you for your Word and for your servant. Thank you for the intense practicality of it as it forces us to think in serious terms about our reaction to people and to circumstances, as it reminds us of the important part that we play in leading our home or in leading others in whatever endeavor in life—for we all lead in some degree by the influence we bring to bear. It reminds us that there are fundamental principles and that it is fixed with you that there really can be no lasting work of God without that we seek you in prayer.

Save us from going overboard on this now and planning to get up at two o’clock in the morning and doing this major prayer thing that won’t last the length of ourselves. Give us realistic goals, sensible plans, so that we don’t try and go from totally skinny to completely bulked out in about fifteen or twenty minutes, but that we just try and make steady gains on spiritual maturity. Help us to help each other in this, to be willing to learn from one another. Save us from the spirit of those who led the crowd when they heard the cry, and give us the spirit of Nehemiah, who sat down and wept, and got up and prayed, and took off and did.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit watch over and protect and provide for us in the hours of this day and in the days of this week. To the glory of Christ’s great name we ask it. Amen.

[1] See Numbers 13:1–2.

[2] Numbers 13:19–20 (NIV 1984).

[3] Numbers 14:2 (NIV 1984).

[4] Jim Reeves, “How Long Has It Been?” (1959).

[5] Luke 18:35 (NIV 1984).

[6] Matthew 9:36; Mark 6:34 (NIV 1984).

[7] Cyril J. Barber, Nehemiah and the Dynamics of Effective Leadership (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1980), 22–23.

[8] See Malachi 3:10.

[9] Luke 11:1 (NIV 1984).

[10] Luke 11:5–7 (paraphrased).

[11] John Burton, “I Often Say My Prayers.”

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.