And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night. (Nehemiah 4:9)
The cynic might say that Nehemiah and the people were hedging their bets here. They’ve worked with all their hearts to rebuild the city wall of Jerusalem to half its height all the way round. But now they’re under threat from Sanballat, Tobia and their various other enemies, who plot together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble (v 7-8).
Turning to prayer in the face of this threat seems like a good and godly response. But is this a genuine prayer of faith or one tainted by doubt and unbelief? If you ask God for protection and then post your own guard, surely this proves that you’re not really trusting God at all. Doesn’t it?
Well it is possible, of course, to pray and then set about trying to do God’s work for him. So let’s say I pray about a particular situation – a promotion I’m applying for at work perhaps, or wisdom for someone in authority who’s making a decision that will impact my life. The act of praying is a good indication that I’m exercising faith in God. But if I then do everything humanly possible to manipulate the outcome in my favour, this surely proves that actually I’m trusting in myself rather than the Lord.
Going to the other extreme is equally wrong, of course. For example, I’ve heard some Christians claim that if you pray for physical healing and then take medication or visit a doctor, this shows that you ‘lack faith’ in God. But presumably on that basis, you would also lack faith if you pray for a job and then submit some applications, or pray for success in exams and then revise for them!
So what, then, are we to make of this prayer in Nehemiah? Were the people right to pray and to post a guard? Well, it seems to me that this is a great example of God’s sovereignty going hand in hand with human responsibility. In response to their enemies’ plot to come and fight against them, the people pray for God’s help. And in response to their enemies’ plot to come and fight against them, the people post a guard. They trust in God’s sovereign power to protect them. But they also recognize that they have a responsibility to keep watch and to defend themselves (with God’s help).
I’m not married, but I imagine that Christian parents will pray sometimes (or maybe often) for God’s protection over their children. But I assume that doesn’t mean they would then let them wander the streets alone in the middle of the night, or that they wouldn’t bother to keep an eye on them at the supermarket or on a visit to a theme park. Parents pray and watch, don’t they? It’s both and, not either or.
Jesus clearly believes that prayer and action go hand in hand. So in the Garden of Gethsemane, he urges his disciples to “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). So what’s the key to their not falling into temptation – is it prayer or is it watching? Again it’s both and, not either or.
As a new week begins, let’s resolve to pray. And let’s also resolve to act. Sure, we might need wisdom to know when to pray and when to act. But let’s not be deceived into thinking that somehow prayer and action are mutually exclusive.