Overview of the story of Esther. How do you know that God is there for you when you can’t feel His presence and you are under attack? The book of Esther answers this question. Esther was a young Jewish woman in exile who won a beauty contest that allowed her to marry the Persian king Xerxes, aka Ahasuerus (486-465 B.C.). When the villain Haman plotted to destroy the Jews, Esther risked her life and her position to serve God and save her people. The Jewish author of Esther is unknown. But it is one of the most well-known stories of the Old Testament. The story takes place in between 516 B.C., when the Jews completed the Temple during the reign of King Darius I (Ezra 6:13-15), and 458 B.C., when God appointed Ezra to lead a new wave of Jews to the Promised Land during the reign of Persian King Artaxerxes Longimanus I (circa 464 – 423 B.C.) (Ezra 7:1-5). Ezra’s story is exciting, fast paced, and it is easy to read. It is an inspiring example about what ordinary people can do when they serve in faith. It is also the last of the historical books of the Old Testament before the beginning of the wisdom books.
Searching for the hidden meanings in the story Esther. Esther is also famous for being one of only two books of the Bible where God’s name does not appear, the other being called the Song of Solomon. Esther is also never quoted in the New Testament. For these and other reasons, Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, opposed having it canonized. He succeeded in challenging the Roman Catholic Church’s decision to canonize the book of Maccabees, but he thankfully failed in his efforts to remove Esther. God warned in advance that He would hide His face if His people forsook Him (Dt. 31:16-18). In Esther, believers are called upon to discover God’s invisible hand guiding the events. “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” (Prov. 25:2). This story was originally referred to as the “scroll of Esther”. But the Jews typically called it just “the scroll” or the Megillah. During a Jewish feast called Purim (which is explained in this book), a Jewish person is to go to the synagogue for the reading of the Megillah, a shortened name for the scroll of Esther (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 1a). In Hebrew, the word scroll “megillah” contains the root word gagah, which means to “uncover” or “remove.” The root Hebrew letters “g-l-h” also mean to reveal. In this story, Esther’s Jewish birth name of “Hadasseh” (“Myrtle”) was also changed to “Esther.” For the Persians, this would have appeared similar to their name for star “stara” or even the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Yet, in Hebrew, the similar word Hester means “hidden.” Both Esther and Hester contain the same, the root letters “s-t-r”, which means “to hide” or “conceal.” Thus, to the Jews, Esther’s name meant to hide or conceal. Together, what the Jews call the “Megillah Esther” could mean “the Revealing of the Hidden.” Esther concealed her Jewish identity so that God could use her as His instrument to save His people. This story also conceals God’s important hidden messages for His people to survive during the end times.
The seven themes of the story of Esther. The events of Esther are historical. Yet, as God’s inspired Word (2 Tim. 3:16), the text also contains lessons for believers in any time period:
1) God is sovereign and faithful to keep His promises. Haman cast a lot to randomly pick the day of the Jews’ planned destruction (Esther 3:7). But God showed how He was in control by selecting this same day to deliver the Jews (Esther 9:24). In Esther, God showed that He was in control through seemingly impossible coincidences. God also tells the story around eight feasts, with the evil feasts in the beginning of the story replaced by righteous feasts at the end. The story is told “chiastically”, using a Hebrew literary device where each feast or event mirrors the other inversely. God promised that He will never forget His Covenant with His people (Dt. 4:31). Through Moses, He even promised to protect the Jews when they were in their future captivity (Lev. 26:44-45). The prophet Isaiah later foretold of King Cyrus II of Persia’s future victory over Babylon 150 years before he was even born (Is. 44:28-45:5). Because God is faithful, He later raised up Esther and Mordecai to protect the Jews who returned to the Promised Land and those who stayed behind. Daniel explained: “It is He [God] who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men and knowledge to men of understanding.” (Dan. 2:21; Job 12:23; Is. 40:15). Moses told the Jews to “Be strong and courageous, . . . , for the Lord your God is the One who is going with you. He will not desert you or abandon you.” (Dt. 31:6). God will also never leave or forsake you (Heb. 13:5). Even when believers are a persecuted minority, He will never abandon His people.
2) The anti-christ seeks to destroy God’s people. The antagonist Haman was an Agagite (Esther 3:1). The Agagites were descendants of the Amalekites. God’s elect line to Jesus ran through Jacob’s grandson Perez (Gen. 38:26-29; Ruth 4:18-22; Matt. 1:3-6). In contrast, the line of the flesh ran through Esau’s grandson Amalek (Gen. 36:12). While Jacob’s elect line symbolized the promise of the Spirit, Esau’s line symbolized the evil line of the flesh. “For the desire of the flesh is against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, . . .” (Gal. 5:17). The Bible foreshadowed the defeat of the Amalekites and the flesh when Abraham “conquered all the country of the Amalekites”, long before the Amalekites even existed (Gen. 14:7). According to Messianic Rabbi Zev Porat, there are exactly 12,110 Hebrew letters between that point in Genesis and the time when Amalek is first introduced as the offspring of Esau’s son and a concubine (Gen. 36:12). Not without coincidence, there are exactly 12,110 Hebrew letters in the book of Esther. In the book of Exodus, God promised to wipe out the Amalekites (Ex. 17:14). God then used Balaam to prophesize about the future destruction of the Amalekites (Nu. 24:20). Just before the Jews invaded the Promised Land, Moses reminded the Jews of their obligation to blot out the Amalekites (Dt. 25:19). But the Jews let the Amalekites survive. Through the prophet Samuel, God later ordered King Saul to wipe out all the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:2-3). But Saul also allowed the Amalekites to survive (1 Sam. 15:9). God then judged Saul and removed his kingdom from him (1 Sam. 15:26). If Saul had complied with God’s Word, Haman would never have been alive to threaten the Jews. Haman was one of many anti-christs who have existed throughout time. Many of these anti-christs have come to try to kill off the Jews and preach anti-Semitism. These include, but are not limited to, Pharaoh, Haman, and Hitler. For the Jews living in the Persian empire, they were a persecuted minority. Many of the Jews adopted the worldly ways of their captors, and God would have felt distant to some of the faithful who remained. These events will sadly repeat themselves during the end times. Believers are warned that the spirit of the antichrist will rise in an even more dangerous man who will unite the world in opposition to God’s people. The antichrist will then again try to wipe out God’s people. Yet, the Bible tells us that he will fail again. Just as the story of Esther ends in a happy banquet after Haman was killed, believers will celebrate in a joyful banquet before Jesus in heaven after Satan is finally vanquished.
3) God frequently uses believers as the instruments of His deliverance. The story of Esther is also about God’s deliverance. Haman announced the future day of the Jews’ destruction one day before Passover (Esther 3:7-15). Passover celebrated when God delivered the Jews from a threatened extinction in Egypt (Ex. 12:1-51). The Jews needed to have faith that God would deliver them again. God used visible miracles in Egypt, including 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea to deliver His people (Dt. 4:34). But He more frequently uses people like Esther with courage in their faith to deliver His people. Esther was willing to sacrifice her position and her life for others. God blessed those who stood for the Jews (Esther and Mordecai) and cursed those who tried to destroy the Jews, including Haman (Gen. 12:3(a)). Today, those who have tried and failed to exterminate the Jews have found that God still keeps His promises.
4) God places believers in places of influence and then calls upon them to serve. In one of the book’s most famous verses, Mordecai told Esther that she had been raised up to be queen for the purpose of delivering the Jews: “And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14(b)). The stories Esther, Daniel, and Joseph all demonstrate that God sometimes places believers in positions of influence to accomplish His purposes. Although God is sovereign, He gives people free will. Esther, Daniel, and Joseph all showed their faith by using their positions to serve God. Believers must also be obedient to their calling.
5) God uses imperfect people to accomplish His plans. Esther and Mordecai were faithful and courageous. But they were still imperfect people. In 538 B.C., God influenced King Cyrus I to issue a decree that gave the Jewish captives in Babylon the right to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1:1-4; 5:13-17). While some courageous Jews immigrated back to the Promised Land in 538 B.C., only a small percentage of the Jews were willing to leave behind their new lives in Persia. Esther and Mordecai were among the majority who stayed behind. God also wanted His people to remain separated from the nations around them (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7). To keep His people holy and from turning their hearts away from Him, God prohibited the Jews from marrying any pagan person (Dt. 7:3-4). Mordecai’s decision to have Esther conceal her identity so that she could compete to marry King Xerxes was directly contrary to God’s law (Esther 2:10). Likewise, there is no evidence that Esther observed any of the dietary laws in King Xerxes’ court as Daniel did in Babylon. She also lacked forgiveness when Haman pleaded for mercy. But God still used these imperfect people to accomplish His plans.
6) God’s deliverance was based on grace. When the Jews rebelled, God removed His protection, and the Jews experienced oppression (Neh. 9:26). When the Jews then cried out, God delivered them (Jdgs. 2:16; Neh. 9:27). But each time God delivered the Jews, they returned to their sins (Neh. 9:28-30; Jdgs. 2:17-22; Jer. 11:10; 2 Chr. 7:22; 1 Kgs. 14:9; Jer. 9:3; Ro. 1:28). God’s mercy and grace, however, was greater than the Jews’ ongoing rebellions against Him (Neh. 9:31). In the book of Esther, the Jews again did nothing to earn their deliverance.
7) The foreshadow of Jesus in the Feast of Purim. For the Jews, the story of Esther is also important because it explains the origin of the Feast of Purim (Esther 9:24-28). “Purim” is the plural of the Hebrew word “pur”, which means a lot. The day is called “lots” or Purim to remind the Jews that God is in control of history, and He is faithful to protect His people. For most Christians, this is an unimportant Jewish holiday. Yet, the Feasts of the Old Testament all reveal the “shadows” of Jesus (Col. 2:17). The “holy convocations” or “miqras” can also be translated as “rehearsals.” (Lev. 23:2). With the Feast of Purim, the Jews unknowingly rehearsed for the arrival of their deliverer, the Messiah. The Feast of Purim is a time for Christians to prepare for His return. Thus, believers should study Purim as a chance to honor Jesus for their deliverance.
Introduction: In Esther 1, the Bible reveals King Xerxes’ evil at the height of his power. There is no mention of God, His people, His laws, or His plan for mankind. Thus, many see this chapter as merely setting the stage for Esther’s future candidacy to become the Queen of Persia. But the first chapter does more than merely lay the foundation for Esther’s arrival. As the beginning of the end of the Old Testament historical books, this chapter also describes the beginning of the end of time. There will soon come a time when one ruler controls the world. During this one-world government, God’s name will not be mentioned, His laws will not be followed and God’s people will be hiding out of fear of persecution. From this account, God reveals seven types of evils that will dominate in the end times, including: (1) pride, (2) covetousness, (3) carnality, (4) wrathfulness, (5) worldliness, (6) selfishness, and (7) suffering.
First, Xerxes ruled most of the then known world. Out of pride, he held a banquet for all of his servants to honor him. His pride would lead to other sins and later weaken the Persian empire. During the end times, a one-world government will exist, and pride will be glorified as a virtue. Second, out of his covetousness, Xerxes displayed his wealth for 180 days for all to marvel. During the end times, covetousness will also be glorified. Third, Xerxes would frequently get drunk at his banquets, and at one point he summoned his queen to display her like a piece of property. During the end times, mankind will also celebrate its carnal desires. Fourth, when his queen refused to be paraded in front of his guests like a piece of meat, Xerxes became filled with rage. He was known to be a despot with an irrational temper. During the end times, mankind will also be filled with hatred. Fifth, Xerxes sought worldly advice for dealing with his queen. During the end times, mankind will also embrace worldliness over God and His Word. Sixth, Xerxes’ advisors counseled him that the queen’s actions might encourage women everywhere to assert the right to be treated with dignity. They only cared about themselves. During the end times, mankind will become self-centered and callous towards others. Finally, in his rage, Xerxes banished his queen and ordered all wives to obey their husbands, no matter the circumstance. During the end times, unchecked evil will also cause suffering and misery.
Xerxes’ power. After the conquests of Cyrus II, Cambyses II, and Darius I, Ahasuerus (aka Xerxes) inherited a Persian empire that covered most of the known world: “Now it happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Cush over 127 provinces, 2 in those days as King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne which was at the citadel in Susa, 3 in the third year of his reign he held a banquet for all his officials and attendants, the army officers of Persia and Media, the nobles and the officials of his provinces, in his presence.” (Esther 1:1-3). With the exception of Greece, Xerxes controlled the known world. In 483 B.C., the third year of his reign, he held a great banquet at Susa, his capital. The purpose of his banquet was to display his power to the nobles and officials from the 127 provinces that he ruled. He was prideful and wanted the nobles and leaders from throughout his kingdom to pay homage to him. This was also believed to be an opportunity for him to raise troops and commitments to fight a war against Greece (480-479 B.C.). Jesus later declared that this is how mankind leads without God: “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles domineer over them, and those in high position exercise authority over them.”’ (Matt. 20:25). Xerxes’ pride would, however, lead to the many sins recorded in chapter. His pride would further lead to both his military defeat and the decline of Persia.
The height of the empire of King Ahasuerus (aka Xerxes)1
Xerxes’ pride in inheriting an empire that others had built. Persia reached its peak power under Xerxes’ father, Darius I (522-486 B.C.). Although he was not the oldest son, Xerxes succeeded Darius I to the throne (486-465 B.C.). During his first three years, his reign started off well. He put down a rebellion in Egypt that began at the end of King Darius I’s reign. Xerxes then called for a banquet to honor himself and his power. The kingdom that he inherited extended from northwestern India to Sudan and Turkey. He also built a massive temple to himself with the following inscription: “I am Xerxes, the great king. The only king of countries (which speak) all kinds of languages, the king of this big and far-reaching Earth . . .Thus speaks King Xerxes: These are the countries – in addition to Persia – over which I am king under the ‘shadow’ of Aburamazda, over which I hold sway, which are bringing tribute to me – whatever is commanded them to me, that they do and abide by my law: [list omitted].” (Mervin Breneman, The New American Commentary, Vol. 10, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (B&H Publishing Group 1993) p. 279).
Xerxes’ pride led to other sins and the future demise of the Persian empire. Through his pride, Xerxes committed one of the sins that God “hates”: “ . . . pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverted mouth, I hate.” (Prov. 8:13). While Xerxes’ father Darius I “the Great” was known as a wise and compassionate ruler, Xerxes had “only a love of opulent display which progressively sapped his moral fiber.” (Breneman p. 279; G. Ricciotti, The History of Israel, vol. II (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1955), p. 16). Others record that Xerxes “had the weakness, tyrannical character, and a love of luxury to be expected in a prince reared at court.” (Breneman p. 279; C.E. Van Sickle, A Political and Cultural History of the Ancient World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947), p. 151). The events of chapter one take place at the height of his debauchery. God used his drunken and arrogant behavior to create an opening for Esther to become queen. God also used his pride to allow for the future discontent that would enable Mordecai to uncover a plot to kill Xerxes. Because Xerxes exalted himself, God humbled him in battle. “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” (Matt. 23:12; Job 22:29; Jam. 4:6). In between 480 and 479 B.C., during a gap in the Esther text between this feast during the third year of his reign (Esther 1:3) and the seventh year of his reign (Esther 4:6), he led a military campaign against the Greeks at Eurymedon on the coast of Pamphylia. His pride caused him to initiate this war against the Greeks because they would not submit to him. Yet, Xerxes lacked the proper naval forces and supply lines to fight this war. Thus, his war ended in failure. Out of pride, he then launched another war against the Greeks. In 470 B.C., the Greeks defeated the Persians at Salamis in Cyprus. This caused the Persians to lose control over their Greek colonies in Asia Minor. One of these defeats also likely fueled the conspiracy to overthrow Xerxes that Mordecai uncovered. If Xerxes had read the book of Daniel, he would have known not to provoke the Greeks: “And now I will tell you the truth. Behold, three more kings are going to arise in Persia. Then a fourth will gain far more riches than all of them; as soon as he becomes strong through his riches, he will stir up the entire empire against the realm of Greece.” (Dan. 11:2). In 465 B.C., another conspiracy would result in his death, causing his son Artaxerxes I to take the throne. The events from Ezra 7 through the end of Nehemiah take place during his reign. The Greek victories over Xerxes later inspired Alexander the Great to defeat all of Persia. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” (Prov. 16:18). “A man’s pride will bring him low, . . .” (Prov. 29:23). Xerxes’ pride deceived him into thinking that he was able to defeat any nation: ‘“ . . . The arrogance of your heart has deceived you,’ . . . declares the LORD.” (Jer. 49:16). Like Xerxes, when you are prideful, your heart will also deceive you.
During the end times, mankind will glorify pride in itself. During the end times, Satan will raise up an anti-christ and seek to be worshiped (Rev. 13:8-12). The day of judgment will come after Satan again “exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God.” (2 Thess. 2:1-4). Satan will also remove the stigma of pride. People will also celebrate their pride in things that God expressly condemns. Have you examined yourself to see if you are prideful about your looks, wealth, or accomplishments?
Xerxes displays his splendor for 180 days. To accommodate his many far-flung subjects, Xerxes held a rotating banquet for 180 days for people to travel and marvel at his wealth: “4 At that time he displayed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor of his great majesty for many days, 180 days. 5 When these days were finished, the king held a banquet lasting seven days for all the people who were present at the citadel in Susa, from the greatest to the least, in the courtyard of the garden of the king’s palace. 6 There were curtains of fine white and violet linen held by cords of fine purple linen on silver rings and marble columns, and couches of gold and silver on a mosaic floor of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and mineral stones.” (Esther 1:4-6). Xerxes loved to gaze at his wealth. Greek historians recorded that they also discovered his gold couch at a camp that Xerxes fled from following a military defeat. His opulent furniture, linens, and special stone floors at his palace in Susa were meant to remind his visitors that he was the richest ruler in the world. His lust for wealth and power, however, could not be satisfied.
Xerxes held a banquet to display his wealth2
In the end times, people will also be blinded by their vanity and materialism. Through his love for his treasures, Xerxes also violated God’s Tenth Commandment (Ex. 20:17; Dt. 5:21). Like Xerxes, people during the end times will become vain regarding their material possessions: “For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy,” (2 Tim. 3:2). “For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:21). Do you find joy in displaying your wealth or expensive things for others to see?
Guard yourself against greed and covetousness, which can defile you before God. Solomon was the wisest man alive (1 Kgs. 4:30). But he coveted first wealth and then women. His coveting led him to take 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kgs. 11:3). His lusts and his pagan wives then turned his heart away from God (1 Kgs. 11:4). He then began to serve other gods and did evil in God’s eyes (1 Kgs. 11:5-6). Jesus warned believers to stay vigilant to guard their hearts against greed and any form of covetousness: “Then He said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.”’ (Lk. 12:15). Coveting, like the other Ten Commandments, is a sin of the heart that defiles you: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” (Mk. 7:21-23). “A man with an evil eye hastens after wealth and does not know that want will come upon him.” (Prov. 28:22). Thus, if you covet and refuse to repent, you are defiling yourself before God.
Through God’s testing, Solomon ultimately lamented his covetousness. Solomon also acquired incredible wealth and a stronger nation of Israel than ever existed again: “I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself;” (Ecc. 2:4). Yet, before his death, he lamented that his actions were wasted vanity. “I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.” (Ecc. 1:14-15). Are you chasing after vain accomplishments, wealth, or power?
Xerxes becomes drunk and demands that his queen be displayed. At one of his parties, Xerxes became drunk and demanded that his beautiful queen be paraded before his guests like his treasures of gold and silver: “7 Drinks were served in golden vessels of various kinds, and the royal wine was plentiful in proportion to the king’s bounty. 8 But the drinking was done according to the royal law; there was no compulsion, for so the king had given orders to each official of his household, that he was to do as each person pleased. 9 Queen Vashti also held a banquet for the women in the palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus. 10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was cheerful with wine, he ordered Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal turban in order to display her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful.” (Esther 1:7-11). Although the queen held a separate banquet, Persians did not require the separation of men and women. Her separate banquet instead demonstrated that she had independent rights as the queen. The Greek historian Herodotus recorded that Xerxes’ queen was named Amestris. Some argue that Vashti was another name for the Amestris. Or, Vashti (translated as “sweetheart”) may have been her descriptive name. (J.S. Wright, “The Historicity of the Book of Esther,” in New Perspectives on the Old Testament, (Waco: Word Books, 1970), pgs. 40-41).
Xerxes became drunk and demanded to display his beautiful queen3
The king likely demanded for the queen to be displayed nude. The reason for the queen’s refusal to comply with the king’s demands are not stated (Esther 1:12). Knowing his temper, she must have had a compelling reason to refuse him and risk being punished. The Jewish Targums or interpretive guides declare that a dispute arose as to which of the subject nations had the most beautiful women. Xerxes tried to settle the matter by commanding Vashti to appear either naked or with only her crown. (B. Grossfeld, The Two Targums of Esther, The Aramaic Bible, vol. 18 (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1991), pgs. 34-35). This would be consistent with the drunken, tyrannical king who saw his queen as his property. “The king suffered from his obsession with manipulative power while Vashti and Esther exhibited the power of righteousness.” (Breneman, P. 307-8).
During the end times, people will also glorify their carnal desires. Just as it was in Xerxes’ banquets, people living in the end times will also celebrate drunkenness, drugs, and sexual perversion: “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For people will be . . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,” (2 Tim. 3:1-4). “Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts,” (2 Pet. 3:3). “For we also once were . . . enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, . . .” (Titus 3:3). Moreover, sexual practices that God condemns will be celebrated. Although not politically popular to hear, God warns: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; . . .” (Is. 5:20).
Xerxes becomes filled with anger at his queen’s refusal to obey him. After Queen Vashti refused Xerxes’ drunken demands, he burned with wrathful anger: “12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s order delivered by the eunuchs. So the king became very angry, and his wrath burned within him.” (Esther 1:12). Xerxes’ anger may have been in part driven by the fact that the banquet was designed to inspire confidence in his subjects and for them to contribute troops for his planned Greek war. But his drunken rage was not a one-time event. It was something that he displayed against anyone who questioned his orders. As one commentator observes “Xerxes was a cruel, sensual, and capricious despot . . . The [Bible’s] character of Xerxes (Ahasuerus) is consistent with what is known about him through secular historians such as Herodotus, Aeschylus, and Juvenal (e.g., his sumptuous drinking parties, extravagant gifts, irrational temper).” (Frank Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, 1, 2 Kings, 1, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Zondervan Publishing House 1988) p. 785, 89).
Queen Vashti refused to comply with King Xerxes’ demands4
During the end times, people will be unforgiving and violent toward each other. During the end times, God’s teachings of mercy and forgiveness will be ignored. “1 But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. 2 For people will be . . . 3 unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, 4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, . . .,” (2 Tim. 3:1-4). Like Xerxes, people will become “without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful;” (Ro. 1:31). When God’s love and mercy are removed, the end times will be filled with acts of violence, wrath, vengeance, hatred, and betrayal, the same way Xerxes treated others.
Xerxes’ worldly counsel. Xerxes mostly likely knew that his drunken demands could not be justified. Thus, he looked to his royal advisors to justify his rage under Persian law: “13 Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times—for it was the custom of the king to speak this way before all who knew Persian law and justice 14 and were close to him, namely, Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven officials of Persia and Media who had access to the king’s presence and sat in the first place in the kingdom— 15 ‘According to law, what is to be done with Queen Vashti, since she did not obey the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?’” (Esther 1:13-15). Ezra also recorded the existence of the seven royal advisors for the next Persian king (Ezra 7:14). Although the Persians had extensive laws, nothing existed to address the king’s drunken demands against his queen.
During the end times, people will embrace ungodly counsel. During the end times, people will reject God’s Word for worldly values. Although worldly values are celebrated today, God calls the open embrace of worldly ways of living as demonic: “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons,” (1 Tim. 4:1). “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.” (2 Pet. 2:1). Are you voting for leaders who will uphold God’s laws and His standards of morality?
Solomon learned through his mistakes that wisdom comes from fearing God. Through his many mistakes, Solomon learned that God’s wisdom required fearing Him: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov. 1:7; 2:5). “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.” (Ecc. 12:13; Ps. 111:10; 1 Sam. 12:24). Solomon defined the fear of the Lord as “hating” evil (Prov. 8:13). Solomon was the wisest and richest man to ever live (1 Kgs. 3:12, 4:30; 10:23). “I said to myself, ‘Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.”’ (Ecc. 1:16). Yet, without the fear of God, Solomon’s great wisdom, knowledge, and wealth could not prevent him from descending into covetousness, licentiousness, rebellion, and idolatry. His life should be a warning to every believer. Unless you cling to Jesus, knowledge, wisdom, and wealth cannot save you from drifting in your walk from Him.
Xerxes’ advisors worry about their power over their wives. Xerxes’ advisors gave him the cover he sought and also sought to protect their own interests: “16 And in the presence of the king and the other officials, Memucan said, ‘Queen Vashti has wronged not only the king but also all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. 17 For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women so as to make their own husbands despicable in their sight, when they say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded that Queen Vashti be brought in to his presence, but she did not come.’ 18 And this day the wives of the officials of Persia and Media who have heard about the queen’s conduct will talk about it to all the king’s officials, and there will be plenty of contempt and anger.” (Esther 1:16-18). Unlike God’s prophets, Xerxes’ advisor Memucan sought to gain favor with the King by justifying Xerxes’ irrational outburst of anger. He also sought to protect the influence of other Persian men over their wives.
In the end times, people will also be self-centered and uncaring. Like Xerxes and his advisors, people during the end times will become selfish and cruel: “For men will be lovers of self, . .. ” (2 Tim. 3:2). “And because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will become cold.” (Matt. 24:12). “For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:21). Are you lacking love and compassion for the lost?
The Queen’s punishment and the King’s decree. Xerxes used the advice of his advisors to banish his queen and order wives everywhere to obey their husbands: “19 If it pleases the king, let a royal edict be issued by him and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media so that it cannot be repealed, that Vashti may not come into the presence of King Ahasuerus, and let the king give her royal position to another who is more worthy than she. 20 When the king’s edict which he will make is heard throughout his kingdom, great as it is, then all women will give honor to their husbands, great and small.’ 21 Now this word pleased the king and the officials, and the king did as Memucan proposed. 22 So he sent letters to all the king’s provinces, to each province according to its script and to every people according to their language, that every man was to be the ruler in his own house and the one who speaks in the language of his own people.” (Esther 1:19-22). Xerxes felt it was more important to justify his drunken rage than his wife’s dignity. Thus, he banished her and issued his decree: “When King Ahasuerus heeded this advice from Memucan, he showed himself to be unreasonable and wrong. He should have honored the dignity of his Queen. Yet, history’s profile of Ahasuerus shows him to be an unreasonable and foolish man in many cases. On one occasion, Ahasuerus executed the builders of a bridge because an ocean storm destroyed it; then he commanded that the water and waves be whipped and chained to punish the sea.” (David Guzik on Esther 1).5
Xerxes’ decree was the opposite of a Biblical decree. Xerxes’ decree was in no way similar to Biblical rules of spousal submission. In the New Testament, wives are only urged to submit to their husbands when their husbands are leading as Jesus submitted for His Church: “and subject yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ. Wives, subject yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” (Eph. 5:21-22; Col. 3:18). Husbands are to lead like Jesus, who put the needs of others before His own “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her,” (Eph. 5:25).
During the end times, people will also live in strife against each other. The book of Revelation reveals that the end times will be filled with strife and misery. “For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, . . . spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.” (Titus 3:3). This will include massive wars (Matt. 24:7; Rev. 6:4); famine (Matt. 24:7; Rev. 6:5-6), massive earthquakes (Lk. 21:11), epidemics of horrible diseases (Lk. 21:11), and ungodly values (2 Tim. 3:1-4).
God used Xerxes’ evil heart to protect His people. Near the beginning of his reign when Xerxes put down a rebellion in Egypt, God’s enemies also sent letters from Samara to make false accusations that the Jews were also enemies of the Persian empire: “Now in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.” (Ezra 4:6). Thus, Xerxes would have had no immediate interest in replacing his Persian queen for a Jewish one. Yet, even though God is not mentioned in this account, He silently used the actions of this evil king to allow for a concealed Jew to become the future queen where she could deliver the Jews from Haman’s future plans to exterminate them: “Whether it was the passion or the policy of the king that was served by this edict, God’s providence served its own purpose by it, which was to make way for Esther to the crown.” (Matthew Henry on Esther 1).6
Introduction: In 538 B.C., God influenced the Persian King Cyrus II to issue a decree to allow the Jews to return from their Babylonian captivity to the Promised Land (Ezra 1:1-2; 5:13-17). Sheshbazzar led a small group of exiles to Jerusalem and laid the foundations of the second Temple (Ezra 1:11; 5:16). Zerubbabel was the Jews’ leader upon arrival (Ezra 2:2; 3:2). The Jews, however, faced opposition and delays as they tried to rebuild the Temple. In 458 B.C., the seventh year of King Artaxerxes I’s reign, Ezra arrived in Jerusalem (Ezra 7:7-8). He led the people in restoring proper worship and in restoring God’s Word as the foundation for holy living. In 445 B.C., the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes I’s reign, Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem (Neh. 2:1). Between 445 B.C. and 425 B.C., Nehemiah led the Jews in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. This book focuses on how God used Nehemiah to lead and revitalize the Jews.
Nehemiah chapter 1 focuses on one of the things that made Nehemiah God’s anointed leader, his prayer life. Through his example, God reveals several attributes of an effective intercessory prayer warrior. An effective prayer intercessor should have: (1) a love for all God’s sheep, (2) reverent praise, (3) continual prayer, (4) repentance, (5) gratitude, (6) faith, and (7) service.
First, Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the Persian king, loved God’s people and was deeply grieved and prayed for the Jews upon learning that the Jews in the Promised Land were in great distress and disgrace. From Nehemiah’s example, God reveals that an effective prayer intercessor loves and prays for God’s sheep. Second, Nehemiah began his intercessory prayer with reverent praise for God. Jesus later revealed in the Lord’s Prayer that an effective prayer warrior begins with reverent praise for God. Third, Nehemiah prayed continually for God’s people. From his example, God reveals that an effective intercessory prayer warrior prays continually. Fourth, Nehemiah’s prayer included a prayer of repentance for all the Jews’ sins. From his example, God reveals that an effective prayer warrior should also repent for the nation’s sins. Fifth, Nehemiah prayed in gratitude for God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His promises. An effective prayer warrior should also gratefully thank God for His faithfulness in fulfilling His promises. Sixth, Nehemiah prayed in faith for God to protect him as he planned to approach the King of Persia for assistance. From Nehemiah’s example, God reveals that an effective prayer warrior has faith in God’s power to deliver. Finally, Nehemiah was not afraid to give up his position of influence as the cupbearer for the Persian King for God’s people. An effective prayer warrior should also be willing to sacrifice and use their talents for God.
Nehemiah deeply loved God’s people. Despite living in a place of honor and privilege as the cupbearer to the King of Persia, Nehemiah loved his people and deeply grieved upon learning of their distress and disgrace in Jerusalem: “The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol, 2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, and some men from Judah came; and I asked them about the Jews who had escaped and had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem. 3 And they said to me, ‘The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and disgrace, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates have been burned with fire.’ 4 Now when I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” (Neh. 1:1-4). The name Nehemiah means “The Lord comforts.” God planned on using him to comfort and encourage God’s people. At the time God called him to service, Nehemiah was the cupbearer for Artaxerxes I in the city of Susa, Persia. Esther also married King Ahasuerus “at the citadel in Susa,” (Esther 1:2). Daniel also saw a vision of himself “in the citadel of Susa . . .” (Dan. 8:2). This was the winter palace for the Persian kings, located 150 miles (241 km.) north of the Persian Gulf. The city of “Ecbatana” was the summer palace for the kings. Hananiah was Nehemiah’s brother (Neh. 1:2). Because Nehemiah trusted him, he later “put Hanani my brother, and Hananiah the commander of the fortress, in charge of Jerusalem, for he was a faithful man and feared God more than many.” (Neh. 7:2). Nehemiah showed himself to be a future leader for his people because he loved them. Thus, he first asked his brother for news regarding the people. He then prayed after learning of their distress and disgrace.
Nehemiah wept, prayed, and he fasted for God’s people7
Walls symbolized order and protection from evil. Nehemiah grieved over the broken walls around Jerusalem (Neh. 1:3). Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the walls in 587 B.C. When the exiles returned to rebuild of the Temple and the infrastructure of Jerusalem, two local officials named Rehum and Shimshai wrote King Artaxerxes I to stop them: “let it be known to the king that the Jews who came up from you have come to us at Jerusalem; they are rebuilding the rebellious and evil city and are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations” (Ezra 4:12, 23). Solomon revealed that walls were a symbol of order and protection from evil: “Like a city that is broken into and without walls is a man who has no control over his spirit.” (Prov. 25:28). Whenever Jerusalem’s walls were broken, it indicated that evil enemy forces had overrun God’s people: “Then Joash king of Israel captured Amaziah king of Judah, the son of Joash the son of Jehoahaz, at Beth-shemesh, and brought him to Jerusalem and tore down the wall of Jerusalem from the Gate of Ephraim to the Corner Gate, 400 cubits.” (2 Chr. 25:23). “So all the army of the Chaldeans who were with the captain of the guard broke down the walls around Jerusalem.” (2 Kgs. 25:10; Jer. 39:8; 52:14; Lam. 2:9). Conversely, the rebuilding the walls symbolized spiritual restoration: “And he [Hezekiah] took courage and rebuilt all the wall that had been broken down and erected towers on it, and built another outside wall and strengthened the Millo in the city of David, . . .” (2 Chr. 32:5). Nehemiah grieved because over 150 years had passed since the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, and the city and walls were still mostly in ruin. Only God’s Temple had been rebuilt. Without the walls, the people lived in fear that enemies could attack at any moment.
Nehemiah grieved over the Jews “distress” and “disgrace”. Nehemiah showed his love for his people by grieving over the Jews’ “great distress and disgrace.” (Neh. 1:3). Ezra also grieved deeply over the Jews’ sins in marrying pagan wives: “When I heard about this matter, I tore my garment and my robe, and pulled some of the hair from my head and my beard, and sat down appalled.” (Ezra 9:3). A true shepherd loves God’s people and grieves when they are in distress. Do you grieve for those in distress around you?
Nehemiah found strength and direction by depending upon God. Although Nehemiah was a man of great power and influence as the cupbearer to the King of Persia, he let God be the source of his strength through prayer and fasting: “I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” (Neh. 1:4). Prayer and fasting were important for Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 8:21; 9:6-15; Neh. 2:4-5; 5:19; 9:5-37; 13:14, 22, 31). Both depended upon God, not strong leaders. Living without their own king forced the Jews to pray to God instead of depending upon their kings to deliver them as they had done in the past.
God seeks shepherds who love His sheep. The prophet Jeremiah foresaw that God would send shepherds for His sheep: “Then I will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding.” (Jer. 3:15). Ezra and Nehemiah were among God’s promised shepherds. Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of this promise. “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” (Jo. 10:11). Jesus, however, fulfills this promise today through His leaders. Thus, He told Peter to show his love for Him by being a shepherd to His sheep: “He [Jesus] said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me?’ Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, ‘Do you love Me?’ And he said to Him, ‘Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend My sheep.”’ (John 21:17). “ . . . shepherd the flock of God among you, . . .” (1 Pet. 5:2). “Know well the condition of your flocks, and pay attention to your herds;” (Prov. 27:23). Are you a shepherd to Jesus’ lost sheep? Do you pray for those around you trapped in sin, illness, or despair?
Nehemiah began his intercessory prayer with reverence. Nehemiah began by professing God’s awesome power and His faithfulness to keep His covenant promises: “5 I said, ‘Please, Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps the covenant and faithfulness for those who love Him and keep His commandments:’” (Neh. 1:5). Being led by the Spirit, Nehemiah followed what Jesus later revealed to be the model for prayer.
The model prayer should begin by professing God’s holiness. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray (Lk. 11:1), He gave a template for the elements of a model prayer, called today “the Lord’s prayer.” Like Nehemiah, Jesus began by professing God’s holiness: “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. . .” (Matt. 6:9). The Greek word “hagiazo” translated as “Hallowed” means “to make, render, or declare as sacred or holy, or to mentally venerate or revere.” Thus, Jesus reveals that your prayer should begin by declaring that God is holy and showing reverence that He is in authority over your life. Do your prayers profess God’s holiness?
God is awe inspiring. Nehemiah professed that God is awe inspiring or “awesome” (Neh. 1:5). The word “awesome” in Hebrew is literally translated as “He is the one to be feared.” (Frank Gaebelein, The Expositors Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, 1, 2 Kings, 1, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Zondervan Publishing House 1988) p. 682). Moses also referred to God as awe inspiring or “awesome”: “You shall not dread them, for the LORD your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God.” (Dt. 7:21). The psalmists also referred to God as being awesome: in glory, power, and majesty: “Say to God, ‘How awesome are Your works! . . . .Come and see the works of God, who is awesome in His deeds toward the sons of men.”’ (Ps. 66:3, 5). “O God, You are awesome from Your sanctuary. The God of Israel Himself gives strength and power to the people. Blessed be God!” (Ps. 68:35). “Men shall speak of the power of Your awesome acts, and I will tell of Your greatness.” (Ps. 145:6; 106:22; Is. 64:3). “For the LORD most high is to be feared, a great King over all the earth.” (Ps. 47:2). “I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed and said, ‘Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments,”’ (Dan. 9:4). Many people causally use the term “awesome” to express approval for a good outcome to a situation. But this misuses a word that was reserved for God’s amazing power. In your prayers, are you professing awe at God’s amazing power?
God is faithful. Nehemiah then praised God’s faithfulness (Neh. 1:5). Moses also celebrated His faithfulness: “Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments;” (Dt. 7:9). “ . . . I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, . . . showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Ex. 20:5-6). “and I will remember My covenant, . . .” (Gen. 9:15). Do your prayers praise God’s faithfulness?
Jesus is faithful. Jesus is also faithful to keep His promises to you: “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:9). He is faithful, even when we are not: “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Tim. 2:13). How are you thanking Him?
Respond to Jesus’ faithfulness by obeying His commandments. Jesus revealed Himself to be the great “I AM” who gave Moses the Ten Commandments at Mount Horeb (Jo. 8:58; Ex. 3:4)). He warned: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (Jo. 14:15). Out of love for Jesus, are you voluntarily keeping His Ten Commandments?
Nehemiah prayed continually as an intercessory prayer warrior. Nehemiah prayed continually for God to see and hear the prayers of His sinful people: ‘“ 6a let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open, to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants,”’ (Neh. 1:6 a). Nehemiah made this prayer because the Jews’ sins had separated them from God: “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God . . .” (Isaiah 59:2(a)). Without Jesus, everyone faces the same dilemma.
Today, sin can also “hinder” your prayers to God. In the Old Testament, God warned that, as a consequence of the separation caused by sin, He would not hear the prayers of sinners: “So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.” (Is. 1:15). “And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken falsehood, your tongue mutters wickedness.” (Is. 59:2-3(b)). “We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but He does listen to anyone who worships Him and does His will.” (Jo. 9:31; Prov. 15:29; 8:9; Ps. 66:18). In the New Testament, He warns that sin can “hinder” a believer’s prayers (1 Pet. 3:7). Thus, you should always repent of your sins. When you repent and pray in humility, God will hear your prayers: “He has regarded the prayer of the destitute and has not despised their prayer.” (Ps. 102:17). Is there anything in your life that might hinder your prayers to God?
The effective fervent prayer of the righteous can accomplish great things. God acted upon Nehemiah’s prayers because he first repented. He then prayed fervently and in faith: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” (Ja. 5:16). In a similar way, God heard Elijah’s prayers to both stop and later restart the rain in Israel: “17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.” (Ja. 5:17-18). God also wants you to pray fervently to Him to intervene when you need deliverance.
Plea as an intercessor for God to help others. God later honored Nehemiah’s prayers as an intercessor for the Jewish nation. Another man of great faith, Abraham, also used his faith to plead with God as an intercessor to spare any innocent people in Sodom and Gomorra (Gen. 18:23). God also spared the Jewish nation in response to Moses’ faithful prayers after they made the golden calf (Ex. 32:11-14). He again spared the Jews in response to Moses’ prayers after they rebelled at the edge of the Promised Land (Nu. 14:18-22). God again spared the Jews in response to the prayers of Moses and Aaron after Korah, 250 men of renown, and 14,700 Jews rebelled (Nu. 16:21-24). As an intercessor, Samuel also promised to continue to pray for the people’s sins (1 Sam. 12:23). David also prayed as an intercessor for God to spare the Jews after 70,000 men across all of Israel died in a plague that came about because of his sins (2 Sam. 24:17). Elijah also cried out to God in faith for God to raise a widow’s son from the dead (1 Kgs. 17:21-22). Jonah also made a plea as an intercessor when his disobedience caused the men in his boat to suffer (Jo. 1:12). The apostles also continually prayed for others (2 Tim. 1:3; Col. 1:9; Eph. 1:16). “as we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face, . . .” (1 Thess. 3:10). You are part of Jesus’ holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6). As His appointed priest, you too have the power of intercessory prayer. Yet, it doesn’t work if you lack faith. “But he must ask in faith without any doubting, . . .” (Jam. 1:6). Are you praying as an intercessor for those whose in need?
Nehemiah’s intercessory prayer included a prayer of repentance. Nehemiah’s intercessory prayer also included a confession of the sins of all of Israel: ‘“6b confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have committed against You; I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses.”’ (Neh. 1:6b-7). Nehemiah did not attempt to claim that the sins were limited to other people. Instead, he confessed that all had sinned before God.
All have fallen short and are in need of salvation. Solomon, the wisest man on Earth, revealed that none could keep themselves free from sin: “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” (Ecc. 7:20). “Who can say, ‘I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin’?” (Prov. 20:9). “[T]here is no one who does good.” (Ps. 14:1; 53:1). “Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you.” (Ps. 143:2). Paul later quoted from these verses to reveal two of the central tenants of our faith, universal sin and the need for salvation (Ro. 3:23). If you could be saved because of your works, Jesus died needlessly (Gal. 2:21).
Confess the nation’s sins. Ezra also led the people in a humble prayer during which he repented for the Jews’ sins: “6 and I said, ‘O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens.”’ (Ezra 9:6). In preparation for Jesus, John the Baptist also called all sinners to repent. ‘“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”’ (Matt. 3:2). Jesus also began His ministry with a call to repentance: “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”’ (Matt. 4:17; Lk. 18:13.) If you say that you are without sin, the truth is not in you (1 Jo. 1:8). Yet, if you confess your sins, Jesus will forgive you: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jo. 1:9). Have you confessed your sins? Are you confessing the nation’s sins?
If a nation repents and turns back to God, He will deliver it. God promises to deliver any nation trapped in sin if it repents: “and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chr. 7:14). It is the role of the Church to pray and be His salt and light in leading the nation to repent. Is your church fasting and praying for your nation to repent?
Nehemiah praised God for His faithfulness. Nehemiah then prayed in gratitude for God’s faithfulness in keeping His promises: ‘“8 Remember, please, the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; 9 but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place where I have chosen to have My name dwell.’ 10 They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand.” (Neh. 1:8-10). Nehemiah did not ask God to “remember” His promises out of fear that God would forget His promises. Instead, Nehemiah recited God’s promises to boost his own faith as he prayed. He also knew that God had not finished His plan to restore the Jews. God did not mean for the Jews to live in a broken-down city without walls. He wanted the Jews to find order and protection.
God was faithful to keep His promise to return the Jews to the Promised Land. Before the Jews even entered the Promised Land, God revealed to Moses both the Jews’ future exile and His plan to remember His covenant by restoring them to the Promised Land: “I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies-- or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land.” (Lev. 26:41-42). “then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. . . The Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will be good to you and make you more numerous than your fathers.” (Dt. 30:3, 5). Through Ezekiel, God repeated His promise to remember His covenant to the Jews: “Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you.” (Ezek. 16:60). God’s use of King Cyrus II to return the Jews proved His faithfulness (Ezra 1:1-2; 5:13-17). But God’s restoration was not yet complete.
Know God’s Word and pray for His promises to be fulfilled. Nehemiah also partially quoted from Deuteronomy as part of his prayer: “Yet they are Your people, even Your inheritance, whom You have brought out by Your great power and Your outstretched arm.” (Dt. 9:29). Nehemiah demonstrated the importance of knowing God’s promises in the Bible. You need to know them to pray for God to fulfill them: “even though Nehemiah, like all of us, had to come before God empty-handed, with nothing deserving the Lord’s favor or even attention (indeed, just the opposite), he nevertheless did not come uninvited. . . Nehemiah challenges us to prayer based on an understanding of God’s purpose and will as found in His Word. He also reminds us that we can always begin again in our relationship with God if we return to Him in humility.” (Mervin Breneman, The New American Commentary, Vol. 10, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (B&H Publishing Group 1993) p. 173). “This, no doubt, is the secret to great power in prayer: to plead the promises of God.” (David Guzik on Nehemiah 1) (italics in original).8 Do you know God’s promises? If so, are you praying in faith over God’s promises to be fulfilled?
Nehemiah’s intercessory prayer for protection before the King of Persia. After praying for months, Nehemiah then humbly prayed in faith for God to protect him as he acted upon a calling that God put on his life to confront the King of Persia: “11a Please, Lord, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and please make Your servant successful today and grant him mercy before this man.’” (Neh. 1:11a). The word “today” shows that God put on Nehemiah’s heart to act at that moment without any delay. Nehemiah was obedient. More importantly, he had the faith to risk his life and position to serve God’s people.
Nehemiah needed faith to overcome the risk of death. Nehemiah prayed for mercy because King Artaxerxes I was the most powerful man in the world. He could have killed Nehemiah for approaching him with an unsolicited request for assistance to help the Jews rebuild. This same king had previously issued an order to stop all the rebuilding of Jerusalem: ‘“So, now issue a decree to make these men stop work, that this city may not be rebuilt until a decree is issued by me”’ (Ezra 4:21). The Persians would have also been suspicious of Nehemiah because he was a foreigner with close access to the king. “Xerxes, father of Artaxerxes I, was killed in his own bedchamber by Artabanus, a courtier.” (Gaebelein, p. 683). After many costly battles with the Greeks and other revolts, Artaxerxes I previously feared a Jewish revolt and withheld tribute. Without God, Nehemiah would have had many reasons to be afraid. He faced death in challenging the king. Having faith is also a condition precedent to God’s willingness to use you: “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” (Heb. 11:6). Do you trust God to protect you when you step out in faith to serve Him?
Prayer is needed to accomplish any important task for God. The book of Nehemiah is often called a book about leadership. Nehemiah could not rebuild the walls on his own. One commentator observes: “Prayer is essential to leadership. If your vision is so big that only God can accomplish it, then you obviously must pray. If prayer isn't absolutely necessary to accomplish your vision, your goal isn't big enough. It appears that Nehemiah prayed for four months before he did anything. Later, when the work of rebuilding the walls actually begins, it only takes 52 days to finish the job. But that 52-day project had a four-month foundation of prayer.” (David Guzik on Nehemiah 1). Are you in prayer for God to accomplish something that you could not do on your own?
Read God’s Word and pray to let the Holy Spirit guide your actions. Implicit in Nehemiah’s request was God’s response to Nehemiah’s first prayer. God responded to Nehemiah’s prayer by selecting him to be the instrument of God’s will. God also wants you to seek His guidance through prayer and the Word. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105; 2 Pet. 1:19). When you read God’s Word and pray, the Holy Spirit can speak to you: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (Jo. 14:16). “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” (Jo. 16:13). Are you reading the Word and praying on a daily basis to allow the Holy Spirit to guide you?
Depend upon God to deliver you and God’s people. Nehemiah prayed in humility. He did not plan on convincing the King of Persia to help him through his own wise arguments. Instead, he put his trust in God to soften the king’s heart. Paul also found his strength by depending upon Jesus, not himself: “I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Cor. 12:9). Living without a king forced the Jews to pray to God instead of depending upon a king to deliver them as they had done in the past. “Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146:3). “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.” (Ps. 118:8). “How blessed is the man who has made the LORD his trust, and has not turned to the proud, nor to those who lapse into falsehood.” (Ps. 40:4). Are you turning to Jesus for your needs? Or, have you put your trust in your own abilities, powerful people, or your political party to deliver you?
God exalts those who humble themselves before Him. God wants His leaders to humble themselves before Him, like Nehemiah did, so that He can exalt them: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble.” (Lk. 1:52). God will also humble you before He exalts you: “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” (Jam. 4:10). “So that He sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety.” (Job 5:11). God will also heal a nation when it humbles itself (2 Chr. 7:14). Are you praying in humility for God’s deliverance?
Nehemiah used his position of influence as an intercessor for God’s people. Finally, Nehemiah stated the least important fact for God’s intervention, his privileged position as a confidant to the king: “Now I was the cupbearer to the king.” (Neh. 1:11b). He knew that he could not boast or claim that he could use his position to do God a favor. Instead, like Moses, Nehemiah had to be willing to sacrifice his position of influence to serve God’s people. Like Esther, God had placed him in a position of influence to help his people, even if he risked his own death (Esther 4:12-14). God also did not send Moses to live in Pharaoh’s home to bring him comfort while his people suffered. Instead, God prepared him with the finest education in the ancient world to be His future law giver: “And after he had been set outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him away and nurtured him as her own son. Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians, and he was a man of power in words and deeds.” (Acts 7:21-22).
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Use your talents for His glory, not your own. Like Nehemiah, every good and perfect gift in your life is from above. “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (Jam. 1:7). “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” (Luke 12:48). Are you using the education, abilities, and wealth that God has given you for His glory? Or, are you using God’s gifts to hoard your own treasures?
To find your life, you must be willing to lose it. If the king did not kill him, Nehemiah was ready to give up his life of privilege to serve the Jews. Moses also gave up his life of privilege in Pharaoh’s house to serve the Jews. Paul gave up his privilege and influence to serve Jesus. Jesus also put aside His grandeur to die a humble servant to save mankind: “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:6-7). You must also be willing to lose your worldly life to find Jesus: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 10:39; 16:25). “‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.’” (Lk. 9:23; Mk. 8:34). Paul later realized that his prior accomplishments were nothing compared to the value of his relationship with Christ: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” (Phil. 3:7; same, Heb. 13:13). Do you value the things of God more than your wealth and worldly accomplishments?
God cares for His people and is looking for people like Nehemiah to serve. When He called Moses, God said that He heard the cries of His people (Ex. 2:23-25). God cannot ignore our suffering: “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.” (Is. 49:15). But God is looking for people like Nehemiah, Ezra, Moses, and Paul, who are willing to respond without delay to His calls and give up their lives of influence and privilege to serve. “And He was saying to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”’ (Luke 10:2). Are you willing to put aside your positions of influence and privilege to serve?
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