“And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” (Neh. 4:9)
If falling on your knees in prayer is so powerful, why endure that vomit-inducing totally-debilitating chemotherapy? If God promises to give you the words to speak, why would you spend so much midnight-oil reading the Bible and trying to understand its message? If you run a kids ministry, why not just pray that the children would be protected, and not worry about security and safety in your inner-city afternoon kids-club? If God will grow his kingdom, increase our godliness, or bring about our good in all things, then isn’t prayer enough?
On the other side of the argument, what is the point of prayer? Isn’t dripping sweat, resolute godly courage and wise skilled hands really what counts?
Contradictory voices orbit the Christian world-view and try to pull away from balanced Biblical revelation. “Let go and let God” competes with “God helps those who help themselves”. There is some truth in both; but also a lie.
The smallest word from an obscure book in a shadowy part of the Old Testament story made all the difference to me. A-N-D. “We prayed to our God A-N-D set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” (Neh. 4:9)
A fellow brother and sufferer, someone who had also lost a child showed me this verse; and he ministered to me in deep ways. This word wasn’t nestled in an abstract, theoretical discussion about prayer, but in a practical situation of fear, uncertainty and action.
That was ok, more than ok. Most of us face real issues and we often draw great strength by examples. Our theology must be lived-out in the hospital, court-room, metaphoric ditch or even when we build a literal wall.
The Jews were standing in the promises of God. After the devastation of their country, having returned to the rubble, finally they were rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple. Nehemiah’s mission was to build the defensive wall.
When God opens a great door of opportunity, a pattern emerges, there is usually serious opposition (1 Cor. 16:9). Sanballat, the Samaritan, and Tobias, the Ammonite, rallied their people in defiance, threatening to attack, destroy the wall as it was being built. “And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” (Neh. 4:8-9)
Notice the logical priority of the prayer. Rather than being a backstop catching anything that wasn’t protected by the guarding, prayer is integral to the whole activity. Could any other Psalm touch more closely to the topic at hand?
Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. (Psa. 127:1)
God’s action and the people’s action are not in opposition. Prayer often calls God to bless the works of our hands, to work in and through our activity. They were to hold a spear while praying.
Also, what a difference would be communicated if the word was ‘but’. We prayed, but we also guarded the wall. Do we want to hedge our bets? Maybe we can trust God, but not completely. I will pray for healing, but in case it doesn’t happen I will also seek medical advice. I will ask God for a new job, but will also put in a few applications and go to a few interviews in case God isn’t able to answer my prayer. God calls us to lean on him and walk in his ways at the same time.
Rather than just being one isolated verse, the whole arc of Nehemiah’s story is about prayer and action wed together. Our lives can also be this integrated. In chapter 1 and 2, Nehemiah hears about the bad state of the wall. Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the Persian king, prays to God and acts.
Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favour in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.” … And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me. (Neh. 2:4-5,8)
Later in chapter 4, confident that any battle would be the in Lord’s hands, they also prepare themselves militarily.
And I said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another. In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.” So we laboured at the work, and half of them held the spears from the break of dawn until the stars came out. (Neh. 4:19-21)
The book opens with prayer, finishes with prayer and there is more recorded prayer than almost any other book of the Bible (see esp. Neh. 9:6-38;13:29-31). And yet there are no miracles, just ordinary people serving God in very hard times. It is neither merely “let go and let God” nor “God helps those who help themselves”. Nehemiah was a man of planning and action, but also completely dependent on God. While we can learn how the two work together in theory, it is only in practice that this combination makes sense.
When we turn to the New Testament we find a greater city builder who actively works for God’s plans and also prays. The two go together in his own life. Jesus heals the sick and also leaves the crowds to pray. He gives himself on the cross and is full of intercessionary cries to God. And on the night of his trial, he first spends time in prayer.
He calls the same of his disciples. “And [Jesus] said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:37-38) Notice the word, A-N-D. Could it be that Jesus is calling on his disciples to do two things here?
There are also other New Testament issues, affecting all believers, that perhaps we need to learn from Nehemiah’s AND. Here are three.
1. Don’t just pray for unbelievers
Even though it is an established part of evangelical practice, there is no command in the New Testament for us to pray by name for our unbelieving friends. I hope I’m not rocking you to the core; and I’m certainly not suggesting that you stop.
Perhaps even more surprising is the lack of examples in the New Testament. I can only find two examples in Paul’s ministry of praying for named unbelievers. Both are obscure. The first is his heartfelt, but self-acknowledged impossible, prayer for the salvation of all Jews (Romans 9:3). The second is his prayer for Herod Agrippa.
And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” (Acts 26:26-29)
What is striking about these prayers, is that Paul is actively trying to speak to these people while praying for them. We need to the learn the A-N-D from Nehemiah’s wall.
The appeals that Paul makes for prayer are very apt.
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (Col. 4:2-4)
Perhaps when you pray for your unbelieving friends, you could be praying that God would open a door for you or someone else to speak to them. We also could be praying for opportunities with others. The best evangelists I know are those who pray AND watch to take the opportunities.
2. Don’t just pray to be godly.
We are nowhere commanded to pray to be obedient. We are called to live out our new lives. Sometimes in our evangelical piety we fall short of a real repentance because we think we have prayed about it. Remember, it is prayer AND.
You’ve had a great Bible Study and you are convicted of soul-destroying sin. You rightly confess that sin and pray for forgiveness and then hand it over to God. And you think that is the end of the application. With the greatest respect, the application is what you do next, how you treat your room mate, how much beer you consume, whether you forgive your repentant mum, express your thankfulness to God in words, or finally get around to being generous. The wise woman is not someone who recognised her need to obey Jesus, not even the one who prayed about it. She is the one who heard his word and put it into practice (Matthew 7:24-27).
Yes, there are deep models of prayers for growing in the knowledge of God that leads to godliness (Phil. 1:9-11; Eph. 3:14-21). But these prayers are all about so grasping Christ so that real obedience will follow. Also note that each of Paul’s letters may start with a prayer but end with calls for action. We must not do either/or. Merely praying about godliness can be a way of delaying or avoiding taking the real action God requires. Nehemiah’s men were not just to pray, but to take up their spears.
3. Don’t just struggle and suffer
But on the other side, we endure great suffering, sometimes sickness or loss. And we seek remedies, medication, new-employment, safety from a violent person, respite or more advice. That is a good thing to do.
Some Christians think it wrong to take medication; as it displays a lack of faith. But why didn’t Paul just urge Timothy to pray. Rather he said, “no longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (1 Tim. 5:23)? Why did Paul want his cloak delivered (1 Tim. 4:13)? Couldn’t he just have prayed to keep warm? We are bodily creatures and responsible image bearers of God. God doesn’t treat us as spiritual brains-in-a-vat, he calls us to take action when we need it. Science, medicine and technology are ways that we can express dominion over creation. Therefore we should do all we can in hard times, but we must not forget the AND.
We are called to pray, not as a backup, but as our essential response of faith. Remember that James calls us to pray for wisdom when we suffer. (Jam. 1:5). He puts it even simpler at the end of his book. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” (Jam. 5:13)
Hard work, planning and skill mesh with prayer. Remember the AND. Let this simple word in the book of Nehemiah rebuke two sorts of people: the super-spiritual and the super-pragmatic, those who only pray and those who only do. Let it also rebuke the lazy, who do neither. God calls us to do both.
Let it transform the reductionistic thinking of “let go and let God” as well as “God helps those who help themselves”. Wisdom leads us to pray; that same wisdom calls us to action. Man the wall, brothers and sisters; and at the same time, pray.