Does Trusting God Mean Turning to Prayer, Taking “Practical” Action, or Both? (Nehemiah 1:11-4:23)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The last line of Nehemiah 1 identifies him as “cupbearer to the king” (Neh. 1:11). This means not only that he had immediate access to the king as the one who tested and served his beverages, but also that Nehemiah was a trusted advisor and high-ranking Persian official.[1]He would use his professional experience and position to great advantage as he embarked upon the work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem.

When the king granted him permission to oversee the rebuilding project, Nehemiah asked for letters to the governors through whose territory he would pass on his trip to Jerusalem (Neh. 2:7). In Nehemiah’s view, the king granted this request “for the gracious hand of my God was upon me” (Neh. 2:8). Apparently, Nehemiah did not believe that trusting God meant he should not seek the king’s protection for his journey. Moreover, he was pleased to have “officers of the army and cavalry” escort him safely to Jerusalem (Neh. 2:9).

The text of Nehemiah does not suggest there was anything wrong with Nehemiah’s decision to seek and accept the king’s protection. In fact, it claims that God’s blessing accounted for this bit of royal assistance. It is striking to note how different Nehemiah’s approach to this issue was from Ezra’s. Whereas Ezra believed that trusting God meant he should not ask for royal protection, Nehemiah saw the offer of such protection as evidence of God’s gracious hand of blessing. This disagreement demonstrates how easy it is for godly people to come to different conclusions about what it means to trust God in their work. Perhaps each was simply doing what he was most familiar with. Ezra was a priest, familiar with the habitation of the Lord’s presence. Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the king, familiar with the exercise of royal power. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were seeking to be faithful in their labors. Both were godly, prayerful leaders. But they understood trusting God for protection differently. For Ezra, it meant journeying without the king’s guard. For Nehemiah, it meant accepting the offer of royal help as evidence of God’s own blessing.

We find signs in several places that Nehemiah was what we could call a “pragmatic believer.” In Nehemiah 2, for example, Nehemiah secretly surveyed the rubble of the former wall before even announcing his plans to the residents of Jerusalem (Neh. 2:11-17). Apparently he wanted to know the size and scope of the work he was taking on before he publicly committed to doing it. Yet, after explaining the purpose of his coming to Jerusalem and pointing to God’s gracious hand upon him, when some local officials mocked and accused him, Nehemiah answered, “The God of heaven is the one who will give us success” (Neh. 2:20). God would give this success, in part, through Nehemiah’s clever and well-informed leadership. The fact that success came from the Lord did not mean Nehemiah could sit back and relax. Quite to the contrary, Nehemiah was about to commence an arduous and demanding task.

His leadership involved delegation of parts of the wall-building project to a wide variety of people, including “Eliashib, the high priest, [and] his fellow-priests” (Neh. 3:1), “the Tekoites,” minus their nobles who didn’t want to submit to the supervisors (Neh. 3:5), “Uzziel the son of Harhaiah, one of the goldsmiths” and “Hananiah, one of the perfumers” (Neh. 3:8), “Shallum, …ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, [and] his daughters” (Neh. 3:12), and many others. Nehemiah was able to inspire collegiality and to organize the project effectively.

But then, just as in the story of the rebuilding of the temple in Ezra, opposition arose. Leaders of local peoples attempted to hinder the Jewish effort through ridicule, but “the people had a mind to work” (Neh. 4:6). When their words did not stop the wall from being rebuilt, the local leaders “all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it” (Neh. 4:8).

So what did Nehemiah lead his people to do? Pray and trust God? Or arm themselves for battle? Predictably, the pragmatic believer led them to do both: “We prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night” (Neh. 4:9). In fact, when threats against the wall-builders mounted, Nehemiah also stationed guards at key positions. He encouraged his people not to lose heart because of their opponents: “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and terrible, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes” (Neh. 4:14). Because of their faith, the people were to fight. Then, not long thereafter, Nehemiah added a further word of encouragement, “Our God will fight for us!” (Neh. 4:20). Yet this was not an invitation to the Jews to put down their weapons and focus on building, trusting in supernatural protection alone. Rather, God would fight for his people by assisting them in battle. He would be at work in and through his people as they worked.

We Christians sometimes seem to act as if there were a rigid wall between actively pursuing our own agenda and passively waiting for God to act. We are aware that this is a false duality, which is why, for example, orthodox/historic Christian theology rejects the Christian Science premise that medical treatments are acts of unfaithfulness to God. Yet, at moments, we are tempted to become passive while waiting for God to act. If you are unemployed, yes, God wants you to have a job. To get the job God wants you to have, you have to write a resume, conduct a search, apply for positions, interview, and get rejected dozens of times before finding that job, just as everyone else has to do. If you are a parent, yes, God wants you to have enjoyment in raising your children. But you will still have to set and enforce limits, be available at times when it’s inconvenient, discuss difficult topics with them, cry and suffer with them through bumps, broken bones, and broken hearts, do homework with them, ask their forgiveness when you are wrong, and offer them forgiveness when they fail. You don’t get time off as a reward for good behavior such as taking your kids to church. Nehemiah and company’s arduous work warns us that trusting God does not equate with sitting on our hands waiting for magical solutions for our difficulties.

“Nehemiah (person)” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992).