In my Bible reading the other day I came across a most encouraging and thought-provoking verse in Nehemiah. The context is that Nehemiah is busy rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem amidst some strong opposition from the non-Jewish inhabitants of the land. As the wall started to get higher, and the breaches started to get smaller, the opponents threatened to cause confusion in Jerusalem and even fight against it directly. The Israelites who were rebuilding were far fewer in number and more poorly armed than their opponents.
So how did Nehemiah and the people of Israel respond to the threat? We read this in Neh 4:9:
9 And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night. (Neh 4:9 ESV)
It is a most fascinating balance. They kept on working, refusing to be stopped by their opponents as they were doing what God wanted of them. And to deal with the threat of an attack, they did two distinct things: they prayed, and they set a guard.
This raises some interesting questions in our minds. Does the fact that they didn’t just pray, but that they set a guard, mean that they didn’t believe that God would in fact protect them without a guard? Does this mean that prayer is ineffective? On the other hand, it is significant that they prayed and did not simply set a guard without praying. They did take the time to ask their Father for help.
The balance we see in Nehemiah 4:9 is not unusual in the Bible. So often we see people cry out to their God yet still do something to help their situation. Let me give you some examples:
- The people of Israel were promised the land of Canaan to be their own. However, they did not simply pray and the Canaanite peoples fell down dead! They needed to pray, and to fight, and we are told over and over that God gives the victory.
- Moses was told to stretch out his hand over the Sea for it to part. Could God have simply parted it without the need for Moses? Of course! But both are present: God’s action, and Moses as God’s agent.
- Christians are encouraged to pray for their friends and relatives to come to Jesus, yet they are also encouraged to share the gospel with them. If someone comes to know Jesus through their witness, who made that happen? God, of course. But God was gracious to use them as agents of God’s work in the world.
God acts, usually through his people. Just because God is our Father doesn’t mean we are not called to make wise decisions, to act, to evangelize, and to work. But if we do all these things with no prayer, we are denying the fact that all the results that come through these things come from God and not from us. We will be in danger of thinking too highly of ourselves, attributing good outcomes from our work or evangelism or our decision-making to us instead of to God.
I think all of this is remarkably encouraging! Even frail people like me can be used as agents in God’s work! God is so gracious to use people and not just ‘zap’ and it is done.
But I need to pray. If all I do is “set a guard” and not pray, I am acting like it is all due to me. And, thankfully for everyone, it is not.
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