|Volume 24 Number 4 April 2022
T. Pierce Brown
In Nehemiah 1, we find that Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the king. We are, in a sense, cupbearers to the King. When James and John wanted to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus, He asked them, “…Are ye able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matthew 20:22 NKJV). When they replied that they were, our Lord replied, “You will indeed drink My cup” (Matthew 20:23). They drank of the cup in the sense that they endured the bitter affliction and suffering that came as a result of following Him. To the extent that we suffer for the cause of Christ, we also drink of that cup. Most of us may not do more than sniff the contents of it. The same basic thought is in the expression in Luke 14:27, which reads, “And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” It may be that some of us, instead of taking it up, merely drag it along behind, but we are supposed to be cupbearers and cross bearers. With that in mind, a study of Nehemiah 1 became more personal to me.
First, I was impressed with Nehemiah’s sympathetic inquiry in Nehemiah1:2. He did not allow his prominence, promotion, position, prestige or power to turn his heart in selfishness to his own interests and become indifferent to the interests and welfare of his brethren. That may happen to cupbearers today. We may become more interested in building gymnasiums or cathedrals for our own selfish purposes than we are in the walls that have been broken down, the gates that have been burned and the streets that have been deserted in the spiritual house of God.
Six months later, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt. How had this happened? It was not that a prophet like Elijah had come and stirred the people. Nor had a warrior like Gideon or David overthrown the enemy. It was simply a picture of one man who was so concerned that he wept, prayed, fasted and worked. There is no way to overemphasize the power that God can exercise through one man who cares that much and is willing to be personally involved.
Nehemiah did not merely go back home and give a little more money or get others to do so. He did not merely find fault with those who were slack in their duty. He did not simply appoint a committee that could find a dozen reasons for not doing what God wanted done. He did not call a business meeting to see whether the budget would allow it.
His first response was that he sat down, wept, mourned with prayer and fasted (v. 4). Probably one of the greatest reasons for our failure to do so many things that God wants done is that we do not really care that much. We do considerable preaching and feasting but not much prayer and fasting. We see Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) and Paul who ceased not to warn everyone night and day with tears (Acts 20:31). How many do you know, including the preachers you may think are so great, who really care enough about lost souls and the sad condition of the church to cry about it?
The value and nature of that kind of prayer should commend itself to us. Here was unquestionable earnestness. Here was no stilted, formal, mechanical muttering of phrases without real meaning or thumping on a pulpit. Here was the outcome of a soul stirred to its depths, who knew what he wanted and knew that God was the only source of those specific things. Many times, our prayers are so general as to be almost meaningless. Often, I have prayed or heard prayers like this, “God, forgive us of our many sins and shortcomings and bless us as thou knowest we stand in need.” Since there is no particular sin of which we confess, there is no correction we intend to make. While there is no particular blessing we desire, the statement of James may apply. “Ye have not because ye ask not” (James 4:2).
What do you think would happen if your child asked you for things as he hears Christians ask God for things? You ask him what he really wants. He says, “Bless me.” What would you do?
The second thing we notice about Nehemiah’s words are his reverent and humble attitude. He did not overlook the severity and justice of God as he considered His goodness and mercy. Most persons in denominations and many connected with the church of the Lord do not seem to believe in the justice of God. They only want to think of His grace and mercy. Nehemiah recognized both. Paul put it in Romans 11:22, “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.”
There was importunity or constancy in prayer. Note Nehemiah 1:6, which reads, “Please let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night…” Why do you think God wants us to keep asking, as He taught in Luke 11:8, Luke 18:2 and various other places? One probable reason is that only in that attitude of earnest caring will we be fit to receive the answer.
Notice again, the confession he made. “…Both my father's house and I have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses” (Nehemiah 1:6-7). The confession was individual and personal. It was not, “Some of us may have sinned.” It was particular and specific, not general and vague. There may be some value in our saying, “Forgive us of our many sins, whether of omission or commission,” but the value of naming them and dealing with each individual one is greater than merely making a vague reference to sins. The reason is simple. We will not do anything specific about correcting a sin if we are unwilling to specify that sin.
The modest and diffident language of Nehemiah 1:11 is striking. “O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king's cupbearer.” Although most of us who preach may have emphasized that good intentions are not satisfactory substitutes for obedient actions, we need to be aware that desire may be more basic and decisive than actions.
The reason is that actions may be counterfeited but desire cannot. We may be forced to act. We cannot be forced to will. Actions may simply be outward responses or ritualistic performances. Desires are not. Desire will be one of the things God will consider in His final judgment. This is why so much emphasis is put on such things as “worship in spirit” (John 4:24) and ‘obey from the heart’ (Romans 6:17) for if the desire is not right, no action is acceptable.
Many of our prayers may be without value because we do not desire to completely yield to God’s will and live for the glory of His name. James says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:3). The desire is wrong in such a case.
In any case, all the grief, the desire, the fasting and the confession are of little value until and unless it leads us to try to do what God requires. We still have brethren who argue about whether God demands perfect obedience or saves by His grace in spite of the fact that we fail to obey perfectly. Part of the problem is a semantic one. None of us can deny that we have not obeyed perfectly, or we would not even need to be saved. So, from that standpoint, if God demanded perfect obedience in order for us to be saved, then none of us could be saved.
Yet, speaking of perfect obedience in a different way, we must realize that God demands perfect obedience. This may illustrate what I mean. God says, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). Suppose one should say, “I have not completely repented, for no one can be perfect, but God will accept partial and imperfect repentance.” This is not so! God says, “…Be baptized… for the remission of sins…” (Acts 2:38). I may reply, “I did not really understand that baptism is immersion, but no one is perfect, and so my sprinkling will suffice.” Those kinds of responses are wrong. Although a person may not understand all of the reasons why God commanded repentance, baptism or many other things about them, when a person has done what God has said, that is perfect obedience. That does not mean he has had perfect obedience up to that time, for in that case he would not be guilty of sin. It does not mean that he will have perfect obedience after that time or he will be lost, for in that case, none could be saved, as we all sin and fall short of the glory of God even after we have been born into God’s family (Romans 3:10, 23; 1 John 1:8, 10). It does mean, however, that when God says to do something, we have no right to say, “God knows that man cannot be perfect, so I will not be concerned about doing exactly what God says do, the way he says do it, as well as when and where he says do it. His grace will take care of all that.”
When we have sinned and repent, that is perfect at that point, for that is what God said do. If we are alien sinners and believe that Christ is the Son of God, if we repent and are baptized for the remission of sins, that is perfect at that point. If we are children of God who have sinned, and we repent, confess our sins and pray to God for His forgiveness, that is perfect obedience at that point. God demands that kind of perfect obedience.
[Editor’s Note: Obedience and perfection are not precisely identical. Obedience is the sincere and honest effort to do what God says to do, in the way God says to do it and, if applicable, when and where God says to do it. Perfection, though, would be sinlessness, in which case, one would not need a Redeemer – Jesus Christ – to forgive him. Further, even if a soul formerly needed forgiveness prior to his conversion, he still could not correctly claim sinlessness after becoming a child of God. I have heard a brother adamantly claim that he (and other faithful Christians) does not commit any sins. However, you and I rather must accept the inspired text, which says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him [Jesus] a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:8, 10). Those verses were written to Christians. We may not be aware of specific sins of which we may be guilty, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Faithful Christians repent and pray for the sins of which they are aware (Acts 8:22) and have the confidence that Jesus Christ cleanses Christians from the sins of which they are not aware. Obedience is not perfection, and fortunately for humankind, Jesus Christ is “…author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). ~ Louis Rushmore, Editor]