Arise and Rebuild Series
The Book of Nehemiah
“Rebuilding Requires Passionate Prayer”
We are continuing our study of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. If you are just joining us,
Nehemiah was an Israelite who wore three hats: a cupbearer for King Artaxerxes, a wall-builder for the
people of Israel, and the governor of the province of Judah. The name Nehemiah means “Yahweh
Comforts” or “Yahweh has comforted.” Nehemiah is an example of a man who, like others before him,
God used because he lived and walked by faith. This book spans about 15 years, with most of the activity
taking place in the mid-440s B.C. When we look at the stories contained in this book, just like every
other book of the Bible, we must remember that they exist to show the glory of God. These stories exist
to make God’s name known. This week is no different.
Last week, Daniel walked us through chapter 8, where we learn about the necessity of keeping
God’s word central to everything we do. After the wall had been rebuilt (which is the focus of chapters 1
through 6), Nehemiah turns his attention to rebuilding the people (chapters 7 through 14). In chapter 8,
it’s almost as if there is a spiritual revival going on. The people had gathered for hours at a time to hear
the reading of God’s word. The response to the reading of the word was to rejoice. We heard about the
people feasting during the feast of tabernacles, which helped them remember God’s blessing and
provision during the wilderness years of the exodus.
That brings us to this week, Nehemiah, chapter 9. Let’s unpack this scripture. As you listened to the
scripture being read, Nehemiah 9 is often seen as the fullest re-telling of the Old Testament in the Old
Testament. If you were to break up this chapter, you could identify three major chunks: preparation for
prayer, the confession of sin, and the acknowledgment God’s greatness and grace.
Preparation for Prayer
The people of Israel had just finished with the Feast of Tabernacles, but now they find
themselves on a different day, with much different feelings. They had begun fasting, wearing sack cloth,
and putting dirt or ash on their heads. They also separated themselves from others who were not
Israelites. All of these actions are all consistent with mourning in that culture. They had just been read
the book of the Law of Moses, and are now in a place where they are deeply mourning not only their
actions, but the actions and behaviors of their ancestors. Their intent was not to free them of the guilt of
their sins, but to identify the completeness of the sin that characterized them as a people. When you
read this section, it says that the Levites (who were the designated assistants to the Priests) read from
the book of Law for a quarter of a day, and that they spent another quarter of a day confessing their
sins. Look, this wasn’t a one-hour church service. If we were to put our times of day to this, it would be
6:00 AM to 9:00 AM reading the Law, and 9:00 AM until 12 noon in confession. Clearly, the confession of
their sin was linked directly to the reading of God’s word.
The Levites, who were the designated assistants to the Priests, began the prayer by instructing
the people to “stand up and praise the LORD your God who is from everlasting to everlasting.” (9.5b)
Then they get into a series of praises for His absolute power. They say “You alone are the LORD,” (9.6)
which is in all capitals. When we see LORD in all capitals, this is like saying His proper name, or Yahweh.
It identifies him as the complete creator. Exodus 3:14 reads “God said to Moses “I AM WHO I AM.” This
is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.” When the Levites say this in their
prayer, they are recognizing that God is the penultimate – He is the great I am. There is none before
Him, and there is nothing greater than Him. The Levites list a series of characteristics of God that lead to
us experiencing his covenant loyalty in verses 6 through 15.
In verse 6 they declare him the God of creation and designer of life. (9.6) Verse 7 shows that he
is the God of election and transformation. (9.7) Verse 8: the God of covenant promise and faithfulness.
(9.8) Verse 9 and 10: the God of compassion and miraculous redemption. (9.9-10) Verse 11 shows us
that he is the God of deliverance and vengeance. (9.11) Verse 12, the God of guidance and presence.
(9.12) Verses 13 and 14 that he is the God of revelation and righteousness. (9.13-14) And finally, in verse
15 that he is the God of provision and everlasting inheritance. (9.15)
When we read these initial verses in chapter 9, you might be wondering what could be making
them feel so mournful? Just two days earlier they had been rejoicing and celebrating. Let’s jump ahead
to the end of the chapter, verses 32-37.
Confession of Sin
The end of verse 37 says “…we are in great distress.” (9.37b) Look, this isn’t like “Oh, I forgot my
phone at home,” or “I just got into a fender bender.” This is great distress. The Hebrew word used here
in the scripture is ṣārâ (tsaw-raw’) which is also translated throughout the Bible as trouble, affliction,
adversity, anguish, tribulation, or adversary. I spent some time reflecting on that word and feeling,
trying to think if I’ve ever been in that sort of emotional state. Nothing immediately came to mind, but I
did think of a person who may have had that sort of distress at one point in his life.
In my job, we have the distinct opportunity to be able to talk to people about the experiences
they have gone through so that we can train others to get through their own distress or adversity. One
of those people is named Brian Udell, and his experience happened in April 1995. Then Captain Udell
was flying in his F-15 fighter aircraft in the dark of night, over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North
Carolina. Through a series of compounding aircraft malfunctions, Captain Udell discovered his airplane
was inverted, and heading straight towards the ocean approaching 800 miles per hour. His aircraft
descended from 17000 feet to 10000 feet in five seconds. He had no time to waste. He pulled the
ejection handles at 6000 feet, the canopy blew off at 4500 feet, his weapons officer ejected at 3000
feet, and finally he was out of the aircraft with a parachute over his head at 1500 feet above sea level.
They were traveling so fast that had he waited a half-second longer, he would have impacted the ocean
still in his ejection seat in the airplane. The force of the ejection was extreme. It ripped the helmet from
his head, breaking all the blood vessels in his face…he was left blinded and with lips the size of
cucumbers, and his head swelled up to the size of a basketball. The force of the wind caused flailing
injuries in three of four limbs. I’ll spare you the details and say that only his right arm worked. As he
worked through his post-ejection checklist, his seat kit automatically deployed with a life raft tethered
down below him. His life preservers, however, were completely shredded. He knew he needed to get a
hold of his raft before landing in the water. He managed to bring the life raft (which was connected to
his parachute harness) up to him going from hand-to-teeth. As he grabbed the raft in his hand, he
landed in the 60 degree ocean water. He tried over and over to get into his life raft with no success, and
this is when he first felt like he was going to die. He thought about his pregnant wife and unborn baby
and realized he had to try again. In the midst of 5 foot seas in 60 degree water, after ejecting from his
airplane at Mach 1.2, Captain Udell stopped everything and started praying saying “God, I need some
help,” and tried one more time. You know what happened…he was able to get into the raft. Captain
Udell spent four hours in the raft trying to stay alive before he was rescued. This story is the best I can
think of that describes the deep level of distress and anguish that the Israelites must have been feeling.
That they were literally to the point where they felt like “this is it.” Like maybe they are in a spot where
they thought there was no saving them. That they’d gone too far.
The people were suffering. Why? Look just a few words earlier…”Because of our sins.” With
Captain Udell, he was brought into a situation of great distress and anguish because of a series of
mechanical malfunctions of an airplane…things completely out of his control. But this distress that the
Israelites is different…they have brought it upon themselves! They were now slaves in the land that God
had given their ancestors; the good things it produces all go to the kings who oversee them. They say
“they rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please.” The Israelites, God’s chosen people, have
committed sin after sin after sin, and they are anguishing over it. I wonder how many of us have been to
this point – where we do something, or a series of somethings, and eventually (or immediately) feel this
sort of anguish? As if there’s no getting over this one. It is a tough spot to be in because it was our
choices that brought us to this point. It would be easy for any of us to get to a point where we are upset
with the consequences of our actions.
But they are not complaining about their treatment from God! In verse 33 we read: “In all that
has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.”
Isn’t that amazing? They are confessing their sins to God in response to hearing the book of the
Law read to them, and they admit to God that He is just to have them where they are. They admit that
God is righteous, God is faithful, and they, along with their ancestors, are wicked.
Confession of Sin
Brothers and sisters, we are no different. Psalm 51:5 says “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from
the time my mother conceived me.” Romans 3:23 is a familiar verse that reads “…for all have sinned and
fall short of the glory of God.” That should be a sobering reminder for all of us. None of us are immune
to the attacks of the enemy, and he will take every opportunity to get us to accept sin in our lives. I
recently heard about these little “pet sins” that we hold onto, like little baby lion cubs, easy to control
because they’re so small. Eventually those baby cubs grow up and we are ‘surprised’ when we hear
about someone being mauled or killed by this animal they’ve known for its whole life. It’s a lion!! Of
course it can cause death. Why is this such a surprise? Brothers and sisters, sin is the same. James 1
verse 14 and 15 says “…but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire
and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives
birth to death.” It’s not like people wake up one day and say “Wow, what a great day to start an affair.”
Or “No time like the present to steal a car.” It’s always something small. Fudging the numbers on the
budget a little to get a little more of a cut. Or buying coffee one day with your “work friend.” Perhaps
scrolling through social media and seeing that picture of someone from “back in the day” that perhaps
reveals more than it should and digging more than you should. Brothers and sisters, eventually that little
lion grows up. Peter says “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to
devour” (1 Peter 5:8). When we harbor these pet sins, they will only end up devouring and destroying.
When we are living in sin and accepting it in our lives, we are not building up, but breaking apart. There
is no doubt about that. When you get to that point, you have two options: you can try as best as you can
to rebuild it (“I’ve got this!”), or you can look at the instruction manual that God provided for us. “No
temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you
be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so you
can endure it.” (1 Cor 10:13)
When it is time to rebuild, we start with passionate prayer. Like the Levites in Nehemiah, we
recognize God for who he is – the great I Am. We recognize those characteristics that make God God,
because He is the God of creation and life, of election and transformation, of covenant promise and
faithfulness, of compassion and miraculous redemption, of deliverance and vengeance, of guidance and
abiding presence, of revelation and righteousness, and the God of provision and everlasting inheritance.
That is our God! When we truly recognize all of that, we should be immediately moved to confess the
sin that is keeping us from having a right relationship with Him. And we need to recognize the fact that
in all things, God is just and faithful.
God’s Goodness Six Times over
The bad news is I am worse than I thought. The good news is that God’s grace through Christ is
greater than I ever imagined. God made a covenant with Abram, and God kept his promise because He
is righteous (v.8). Our God is a God of promise-keeping, He is a God of provision, He is a God of
blessings, and He is a God of goodness in the face of our constant failures and wickedness.
Six times throughout this chapter we read of ways in which the people of Israel failed, but God
was just and merciful. In verse 16, his chosen people became arrogant and did not obey his commands.
And in verse 17, God did not desert them. In verse 18, his chosen people made the image of a calf, but in
verse 19 he did not abandon them in the wilderness. In verse 26, his chosen people were disobedient,
murderers, and blasphemers. In verse 27 we see God’s punishment (remember God is just), followed by
rescuing the people from the hands of their enemies. In verse 28 his chosen people did evil again, but
God heard them cry out and he delivered them once again. In verse 29 his chosen people were
disobedient and stiff-necked, but he warned them through the prophets. And finally in verse 30, his
chosen people paid no attention, and God delivered them into the hands of the neighboring people.
Then in verse 31, we read of God’s great mercy in not putting an end to them and not abandoning them.
Six times we see rebellion by God’s chosen people, and six times we see God’s great mercy.
Many of us, like the Israelites, are seemingly in a cycle where we can’t break free. We sin, we
confess and repent, and yet we sin again. On Pentecost Sunday, Pastor Brian talked about the
immediate change and continual growth into the image of Christ. We will continue to stumble and sin,
but we must press on towards the prize that is in Christ Jesus.
In order to rebuild, we must pray. Our prayer should recognize God as the Great I Am. Then we
should confess our sins. And finally, we should have a repentant heart and turn away from the things
that separate us from God. Thankfully, we have moved away from the Old Testament days of burnt
offerings and animal sacrifices, and we have the finished work of Christ Jesus which should be the focus
of everything we say and do.
Jesus and Nehemiah
Sin keeps us from God, plain and simple. All of us are broken and in need of rebuilding. And the
way to make that happen is only through a relationship with the Father through His Son, Jesus Christ,
with the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes to the Ephesians “For it is by grace you have been saved,
through faith…” (Eph 2:8). Paul continues to say that this grace is a gift from God. When we put our faith
in Jesus Christ, the rebuilding process happens in three steps: justification, salvation, and sanctification.
We begin by being justified – we are forgiven – we are cleared of all guilt and of the penalty that we
deserve for our sins, because Jesus did that for us (Gal 2:16). This justification leads to our salvation.
When Jesus ascended to sit at the right hand of God the Father almighty, he took the place to intercede
for each and every one of us who believe in Him. The author of Hebrews writes (in chapter 7 verse 25)
“Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to
intercede for them” (thanks be to God). And finally, we move into the process of sanctification – the
process of becoming more divine. We will never reach perfection, but “His divine power has given us
everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and
goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you
may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”
(2 Peter 1:3-4).
Look at the problems we are facing in the world today. Abuse, violence, addiction, racism, sexual
immorality, human trafficking, disease, death, broken relationships, fatherlessness, the list goes on.
Every single one of these are a result of our sinful nature. Perhaps we need to take a closer look and
identify the sin that we are living with currently. The sin in our private lives. The baby lion that we think
we have control of at the moment. The sin that we cover up with other things like personal or
professional success. Brothers and sisters, sin in our lives breaks us down like the walls around the city
had been broken down. We all need to be rebuilt, and rebuilding starts with prayer. We have to talk to
God. We must marvel at his majesty and power. We must confess our sin. And we must remember that
He is righteous, He is just, and He is faithful. The rebuilding starts when we pray for our lives to fall into
complete submission to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He wants to rebuild us to bring glory to the
Father, because this is His story, not ours. Let us pray.
Call to Prayer
“Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and
afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire
besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion
forever. Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for
me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.”
Ephesians 3:17-20; Colossians 3:16-17; Jude 24-25;