Nehemiah 4:8-9: Secularism and Prayer

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

Only we would see and in italics, because we’re used to thinking of God’s activity and our activity in opposition. That means if God is working, then we must be passive, sitting around, spectators. On the other hand, if we need one of those things done that God doesn’t really get involved in, like choosing courses for next semester or looking for a place to live, we get to work ourselves. However, Nehemiah–and the whole Bible really–teach us this isn’t the way to view things. “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain” (Psalm 127:1). It’s when we align ourselves with God’s action by us acting that big things can happen. In Nehemiah’s case, saving Jerusalem: both praying to God and posting a guard, without the and. In our own case, maybe it’s praying to God and posting resumes, praying to God and calling your estranged dad, or praying to God and stepping on a plane. Because the space of our competence does not chew up the space of God’s power. This is the false dichotomy of secularism. If we think this way, then God slowly gets edged out the more we can do, and finally disappears altogether. Instead, God gives the success to our actions, sometimes even to a little beleaguered band of returned exiles called Israel. (There are a couple caveats. Like, for one, only God can raise the dead or do other miracles. This is why secular folk must explain away or deny such things. And second, success does not necessarily mean God is behind you. It might just mean God is indulging your pride for a while. For both, read Psalms 120-127.)

3 thoughts on “Nehemiah 4:8-9: Secularism and Prayer

  1. “Solomon here wishes to sanction work, but to reject worry and covetousness. He does not say, “The Lord builds the house, so no one need labor at it.” He does say, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” [Ps. 127:1a]. This is as if he were to say: Man must work, but that work is in vain if it stands alone and thinks it can sustain itself. Work cannot do this; God must do it.” Nice.

    This here is the one he’s talking about?

  2. “And so we find that all our labor is nothing more than the finding and collecting of God’s gifts.” Lovely.

    “If you will look at the history of the kingdoms of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome,26 and all the rest, you will find there exactly what this verse says. All their splendor is nothing more than God’s little puppet show. He has allowed them to rise for a time, but he has invariably overthrown them, one after the other.”

    “Indeed, one could very well say that the course of the world, and especially the doing of his saints, are God’s mask, under which he conceals himself and so marvelously exercises dominion and introduces disorder in the world.”

    Gosh I love Luther.

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