Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Prayer That Changed a King

Today is the third day in our 49th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Nehemiah 1-3; Revelation 5.

Throughout the Bible, people approach kings and leaders with their problems.  Abraham's sons go to Pharaoh for grain; Moses goes to the Egyptian king saying, "Let my people go"; the wise men go to Herod seeking the Messiah; Paul appeals to Caesar for justice.  But since when did kings inquire of common people, just so see how they're doing?  World leaders are generally far too preoccupied with matters of state to worry about ordinary people's everyday lives.  But in today's Old Testament reading, we see an exception to this rule.  Nehemiah 2:1-8 says:

In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid.  I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers' graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”  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 favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers' graves, that I may rebuild it.”  And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time.  And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah,  and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.

Artaxerxes 1, Longimanus
About Artaxerxes, Enclyclopedia of the Bible says: 

...The Artaxerxes of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah was Artaxerxes I Longimanus, the son and successor of Xerxes I (the Ahasuerus of Ezra 4:6 and the Book of Esther). He is prob. the Artaxerxes of Ezra 4:7-23, but this identification presupposes that vv. 6-23 are somewhat parenthetical, providing further information on the subject of opposition from a later period (for a defense of such an understanding of that problematic passage, cf. ibid., pp. 17-26). It should be added that several years after the events of Ezra 4:7-23, Artaxerxes was generous to the Jews in general and to Ezra and Nehemiah in particular. The latter was even the royal cupbearer. It was Artaxerxes’ decree (445b.c.) permitting Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem as governor of civil affairs and to rebuild the walls and fortifications (Neh 2) that marked the beginning of the seventy “weeks” of Daniel 9:24-27 (cf. Walvoord’s comments on these vv.).
Bibliography A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (1948); J. S. Wright, The Date of Ezra’s Coming to Jerusalem (1958); J. Bright, A History of Israel (1959); A History of Israel reviewed by K. A. Kitchen, Supplement to the Theological Students’ Fellowship Bulletin (Summer, 1964), particularly pp. vi, vii; J. F. Walvoord, Daniel(1970).

This Persian king, called Longimanus because allegedly his right hand was longer than his left hand, ascended the throne through bloodshed.  He knew warfare in Egypt and in Greece, and was a hard man by any account.  For Artaxerxes to even notice the downcast demeanor of his cupbearer is remarkable.  For him to inquire of Nehemiah's welbeing is incredible.  For Artaxerxes to listen with compassion to the plight of the Jewish people in Jerusalem, and then for him to grant his cupbearer's request is inconceivable.  Yet this is exactly what happened.  Why?  Because in chapter one, Nehemiah prayed.  His prayer is recorded in 1:5b-11a:

“O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments,  let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father's house have sinned.  We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.  Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples,  but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’  They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand.  O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”

Because Nehemiah wept, fasted, and prayed before the Lord, God granted him a personal audience with the king.  The cupbearer had always been a piece of Artaxerxes' furniture before, but because of Nehemiah's prayer, God favorably disposed the heart of the king towards him.

While it's unusual that Artaxerxes miraculously began to view Nehemiah as a human being with emotional needs and real problems, it's also unusual when common people view their leaders as real people with real hopes, fears, dreams, and discouragements.  God's Word tells us to remember our leaders, and consider them as the fragile human beings that they are.

...I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior (1 Timothy 2:1-3).

Just as you wish that governmental leaders would consider you as a person and not just as a taxpayer or voter, God wants us to consider the needs of those who are over us.  I hope that you'll pray for those in authority over you--because it's amazing what our prayers can accomplish. 

*All scripture is taken from the ESV.

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