Friday, May 9, 2014

Why is Thy Countenance Sad?

Christians will often find themselves with burdens for the things of God. They feel as if a problem needs solving and feel God working in their heart to provide them with a solution. These burdens can be simply looking to adopt a child from a third-world country, or going into that third-world country permanently as a missionary to help all the little orphans that are there. Either way, these burdens are always truly a great blessing to have placed in your life.

The beginning of the book of Nehemiah tells us a lot about how to handle our burdens. In it, we learn that Nehemiah hears of the plight of the Jews that had returned to Jerusalem during the Persian captivity. He learns that,
"The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the walls of Jerusalem is also broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire."

Upon hearing these words, Nehemiah immediately is burdened by the needs of his brethren the Jews. He wants to be able to do something about it. Wisely, he prays, confessing the sins of the children of Israel, committing the problem to the Lord, and asking,
"Oh, Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man." 

You see, Nehemiah was the King Artaxerxes' cupbearer, and as such, was in a prime position to be used of God to help the struggling Jews in Jerusalem. And that is exactly what Nehemiah wanted to do. So as we all so well know, in the next chapter, Nehemiah finds himself in the presence of the king with the opportunity to actually present the king with his burden and do something about it! In fact, Nehemiah is so obviously burdened that he doesn't have to broach the subject with the king! Artaxerxes asks him,
"Why is thy countenance sad seeing thou art not sick? This is nothing else but sorrow of heart."

And then just a short amount of time after being burdened, Nehemiah is given the opportunity by God to go to Jerusalem to help the people there rebuild the walls, regain their lands, and reestablish their relationship with the Lord. That's how it goes right?

Well, not exactly. This image that most people receive upon reading the book of Nehemiah (myself included, and I memorized it!) is not actually quite the case. Sure all the events, and quotations that I just gave to you come directly from the book of Nehemiah, but what we all fail to realize is the amount of time between Nehemiah's burden and when he was able to act upon it.

In Nehemiah 1:1, we learn that we are in the twentieth year. We further know that it is the month Chisleu. When we research out the Jewish/Babylonian calendar, we learn that this is the first month of the civil year, and would take place during November or December of the Gregorian calendar we use today. This is when Nehemiah learns of the wall being torn down. It is just beginning to cool down for the winter months, Hanukkah is happening, or since I'm not Jewish, it's Christmas season! Nehemiah is now burdened with the news of the Jewish people at Jerusalem.

However, he would have to carry that burden until an opportunity comes to come before the king (remember how in Esther, we learn that it is dangerous to enter into the king's presence uninvited; this is the self-same kingdom). We tend to assume since there is no verse between 1:11, where Nehemiah prays for mercy in the sight of Artaxerxes and 2:1 where he comes into the presence of the king, that there is only a short amount of time between them. But you have probably figured out by now that this blog post would be written in a completely different way should that actually have been the case.

In Nehemiah 2:1, we see that it is still the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, but now it is the month Nisan. The month Nisan also goes by the Hebrew name, Aviv, which means "Spring." It matches with our Gregorian calendar during the months of March or April, and is famous for celebrations like Passover and Easter. This is then when Nehemiah is given the opportunity to do something about his burden for the remnant of the captivity.

A far cry from the week or so we typically imagine, Nehemiah sat festering with his burden for 4-5 months (depending on whether the twentieth year of Artaxerxes was a leap year).

This certainly makes the fact that Nehemiah was still so burdened by the situation that it could still be noticed by the king all the more impressive. Here we have someone who would have had other difficulties of his own throughout this entire situation, and would have had ample reason to forget about this burden, still with a sad countenance over the plight of the Jewish people.

I don't know about you, but I tend to forget my burdens much more easily than that. I mean how often do we give up on our New Year's Resolutions after only one week? But Nehemiah's example shows us that it is possible (and probably should happen all the time) to have a burden so lasting that 4-5 months later, people still wonder what has changed in our countenance. Now I wouldn't advise that you go around all the time with a frown on your face, so people ask you what's wrong. But there ought to be something in your life that makes you so burdened you can't forget about it, even if you tried.

And that something shouldn't be a death in a book, it shouldn't be the destruction of a tv series, it shouldn't be anything of this world. Instead it should be something of the things of God.

Furthermore, the 4-5 month period of time that Nehemiah waited teaches us that the Lord's timing might not always be as quick as we would like it to be.

The Lord most certainly did not work right away in the life of Nehemiah, but Nehemiah stayed patient and trusted in the Lord fully. It could have been easy for Nehemiah to find his own way in the crisis - to just enter the presence of the king without being called. What would have happened should Nehemiah actually did try his own timing is uncertain.

I'm sure though that Nehemiah grappled with the notion - that he prayed about the possibility. We see later on in the chapter that he is a man of action when the Lord wants him to be, but here he decides to wait on the Lord. He trusts that the Lord will give him the opportunity to work with his burden at some point and patiently waits for the Lord's timing.

I think we could truly learn from the man Nehemiah here. I think too often we think that when the Lord gives us a burden, we HAVE to do something about it right NOW! We don't want to carry it around for a while; we want to get our tasks done. There is just something magical about being able to strike tasks off your to-do list. That's our mentality. But perhaps we should consider whether the Lord is telling us to be patient - to put that on the backburner and trust in his timing as he works through this situation.

I urge you to look to the words of Psalm 27:14,
"Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord."

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