Artaxerxes ruled the Persian Empire, the dominate world power of his time, and was the most powerful person on earth. Nehemiah was an important servant of King Artaxerxes; he was the king’s cup-bearer. Wherever Artaxerxes was, Nehemiah would be nearby.
At the moment, they were at the winter palace in the capital city, the fortress of Susa. It was late November in Susa, a pleasant time of rains and lower temperatures after the scorching dry summer months. Although Nehemiah lived in Persia, his heart dwelt in Judah, home of Jerusalem and God’s Temple.
Nehemiah must have been grateful for the good things in his life—peace, prosperity, relative freedom, and a sense of accomplishment in his work. This late November day was an especially happy one for Nehemiah. His brother, along with other men, had arrived from Judah for a visit, and they would have news of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah could barely contain his excitement. Upon seeing the group, he asked almost immediately about “how things were going in Jerusalem. They said, ‘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 burned’” (Neh. 1:3).
And with those words, Nehemiah’s world came crashing down. No walls and no gates meant that the city and its residents were completely vulnerable to their enemies, and they had plenty of those. Nehemiah wept and mourned for days. His spirit was broken; he was overwhelmed, for there was no easy answer for his homeland and its people, whom he loved.
In the midst of this crushing sorrow, Nehemiah prayed, “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer!” (Neh. 1:5-6). Nehemiah hurt to the depth of his soul, but he recognized one great truth. God, who possesses all power, loved him, would hear, and would help.
Nehemiah didn’t know how God would solve this situation, or when, but he believed God could and would. He bolstered his confidence by recalling God’s promise to the Israelites that “even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored” (Neh. 1:9).
Nehemiah prayed for days. Knowing that he did not have the ability to change this situation on his own, he made plans to do what he could. Those plans included talking to King Artaxerxes. He prayed again, asking God to “please grant me success now as I go to ask the king for a great favor. Put it into his heart to be kind to me” (Neh. 1:11).
His prayer for the king’s kindness was no idle request. Although Nehemiah would have been in the king’s presence each day as his cup-bearer, as a servant, he could not speak without an invitation from the king. So Nehemiah waited for his opportunity to approach the king. And then he waited and waited some more. Six months later Nehemiah was still waiting, still praying, and still downcast by the knowledge that things were only worsening in Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s plan took patience and trust in God’s timing.
Finally the day came for which Nehemiah had waited. Artaxerxes asked, “Why are you so sad? You look like a man with deep troubles” (Neh. 2:2). Those words, even if quietly spoken, would have resounded in that room, for to show sorrow before the king was the equivalent of putting your life on the line. And now that Nehemiah was being given the exact thing for which he had prayed, he was frightened. But after a lifetime of trusting God, Nehemiah did what came naturally to him when he was frightened: he silently prayed for help in choosing his words, just as he had prayed for God’s help to provide the opportunity.
Nehemiah answered the king. Silent tension ricocheted in the room as everyone waited for Artaxerxes’ reaction. And then the king spoke, “Well, how can I help you?” (Neh. 2:4). And with those words, plans were made to renew Jerusalem’s security—and honor—by rebuilding her walls and gates. The long wait was over.
Have you ever felt crushed by life’s circumstances? Maybe you feel like that now or recognize the likelihood of it in the future. There are many life situations where it would be unnatural not to feel sorrow, pain, fear, or shock.
In the midst of deep distress, we should use Nehemiah’s example as a wise path to follow. We need to pray earnestly and honestly, and if our situation leaves us unable to pray, we should rest in Jesus’ prayers on our behalf until we can resume praying. As we pray, we need to remember that Nehemiah was never condemned by God for mourning over what caused him distress, and neither will we be. We need to cling to the knowledge of God’s love for us. We need to remember His promises pertaining to our situation. We need to do what we can, but wait—if we must—for God’s timing and answers.
Waiting is hard. Waiting can be frightening as we try to cope and try to make sense of our situations. Waiting can make us impatient, angry, and feeling abandoned by God. Waiting can make it difficult to remember God’s love and promises. But ultimately, waiting can be used by God to increase our trust, teach us valuable lessons, and help our faith to become stable.
Life can be hard, but God is always faithful, loving, and able to be trusted. He is truly Emmanuel—God with us—during the hard times and the long waits.
© 2010 Arlina Yates