Praying Through Dark Times

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Nehemiah is one of my favorite Old Testament characters. His story begins “in the month of Kislev in the twentieth year” of the reign of King Artaxerxes (Neh. 1:1). That’s when Nehemiah learns that Jerusalem’s wall has been broken down and the gates burned. Nehemiah sits down and weeps. “For some days” (1:4) he mourns and fasts and prays before the Lord. He says that he is praying “day and night” (1:6) for the people of Israel.

How long did he pray? The next scene takes place “in the month of Nisan” (2:1), when he asks the king for permission to return to Jerusalem. The Hebrew month of Nisan is March/April by our calendar. The month of Kislev is November/December. Nehemiah has been praying four months! Day and night, for four months, Nehemiah has persevered in prayer before taking action to return to Jerusalem.

Once there, Nehemiah surveys Jerusalem and organizes the community to repair the wall. Along the way, they face opposition from outsiders as well as from within their own ranks. He battles political intrigue and handles dissension and disgruntled workers. All the while, they work “from the first light of dawn till the stars come out” (4:21). He organizes shifts so they “can serve us as guards by night and workmen by day” (4:22). They don’t even change their clothes, so they will be ready to defend their work at a moment’s notice.

With amazing speed, “the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days” (6:15). Elul is August/September. So Nehemiah and his team worked nonstop day and night, in hard outdoor labor, during some of the hottest months of the year. And they finished their colossal task in less than two months. No wonder their enemies from surrounding nations “were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of God” (6:16). Nehemiah spent less time doing the actual work than he spent praying for and preparing for the work. Perhaps that’s why the work went so well.

Nehemiah continued on as governor of Jerusalem until the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes (13:6), meaning that he governed for twelve years, longer than many of us stay in our jobs. Nehemiah persevered in his work, in both short-term projects as well as in long-term governance.

After his twelve-year administration, he returned to Babylon, presumably to serve the king there. “Some time later” (13:7), and we don’t know how long, Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem. Perhaps he is an old man now, at an age when he should be taking it easy. But he sees the people ignoring some of the reforms that he instituted. So he takes action—and not merely to preserve his own legacy. He takes action to ensure that his people persevere in the mission, identity, and calling that God has given them. He reminds the Israelites: Do not forget your commitments to God.

We remember Nehemiah today as a model of organization and visionary leadership. We sometimes forget his perseverance as he worked to realize God's will for himself and his community. He was faithful throughout his life, persevering in faith and action to the very end. May God enable us to do likewise.

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