Today in much of the world we are bombarded constantly with new information and news. It comes in ways and forms unheard of not that many years ago. Many of our grandfathers relied on newspapers and radios to hear the news. Then came the television and news magazines that added to and sped up how quickly we learned of something. And now we see many things in real time on computers, phones, iPads, and more. In the cacophony of it all, I wonder what we really hear. Has it all become background noise where we pay little attention? Does it come so quickly that we have knee-jerk reactions rather than more reasoned consideration as we did when newspapers were the only source?
It can be hard for us who are adults to imagine what it would have been like before these things were common in our daily life. Imagine the difference of waiting for the news even 50 years ago. That one is not hard for me. When my husband served in the military in Vietnam, our communication was initially limited to letters that took at least a week to arrive. Then we had small reel-to-reel tape recorders to send audio messages back and forth (We were not quite at the point of cassette tape recorders.) and those still took a week.
If we go back even farther in history and time, we can readily see how long someone needed to wait to hear the news of what was happening. When it was heard, it was often incomplete. The waiting must have been very hard, but perhaps it netted more thoughtful and reasoned responses.
I want to invite you to look back to the Middle East in the fifth century B.C. with me to a story that has much we can learn from today. Lack of faithfulness to God had resulted in the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel (known also as Ephraim) and exile of the Jewish people of the southern kingdom (known as Judah) to Babylon. The sacred city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and the city trampled with walls broken down.
One of the exiles, Nehemiah, served as the cupbearer to the king in the Persian city of Susa in the area we now know as Iran. Each day it meant Nehemiah’s life was put on the line, as he tasted the wine to assure there was no poison within it meant to destroy the king’s life. As a cupbearer, Nehemiah would have been one of the king’s most trusted servants and he would have spent much time in the king’s presence. Even so, he was a slave.
It is unlikely we would have heard of Nehemiah had it not been for one primary thing. He heard news of his homeland and the condition of the city of Jerusalem. Scripture tells us that he wept, fasted, and prayed. The news saddened him to such a degree that scripture says his face showed such sadness that the king noticed. The king, Artaxerxes I, must have been quite observant to notice his servant’s face and ask him about his expression. Such an observation created fear in the heart of Nehemiah because he knew his fate lay in the king’s hands and he had never sought to displease him. The king could have believed Nehemiah was involved in some plot to cause him damage and perhaps order his execution.
Let’s not skip the key to this man’s life. When he heard the bad news, he wept, fasted, and prayed.
It seems likely that because Nehemiah had fasted and prayed at the news, he chose to risk being honest with the king and told him that his sad expression was due to the poor situation in Jerusalem and that he wanted to return there to rebuild the walls of the city so those few inhabitants there could live in safety.
How unusual it must have been that this servant and slave received favor from the king! He was not only given permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city, but he also received letters from the king giving him safe passage through the areas he would need to travel and to obtain the timber from the king’s own forest for the gates and walls of Jerusalem.
It seems evident that Nehemiah was a godly man because of how he responded to the news. He heard. His emotional response was to weep from the sadness he felt. His decisional response was to fast and pray. The scripture account does not indicate he began to ring his hands, start telling everyone, or criticize those who had destroyed his homeland and most holy city.
What is our response to news that grieves our hearts?
An initial emotional response is normal and healthy, but do we stop there or act from that place of reactive emotion?
This ancient story of Nehemiah tucked in the Old Testament has much to offer us for our lives today. I want to spend several posts sharing some of the applications we can see from this story. I hope you will join me.
Nehemiah shows us that a godly leader prays.