Part 5 of series: A Theology of Work in Ezra and Nehemiah
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In the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, chapter 1 introduces the main character and sets up the story of the book. Nehemiah is a Jewish man who worked as the cupbearer for the Persian king Artaxerxes. While serving the king in his winter residence at Susa, Nehemiah received a report about the state of his fellow Jews who had returned to Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon. The report was dire, focusing especially on the vulnerability of the city because its walls had been destroyed.

In response to this intelligence, Nehemiah “sat down and wept.” Then, for says he “mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven” (1:4). In this prayer Nehemiah confessed God’s covenant faithfulness and the covenant unfaithfulness of the Jews. He asked for God’s help with his plan, yet unexplained, that would require the support of the king (1:11).
Nehemiah 1 introduces his work as cupbearer in the final verse. Thus the chapter leaves to the reader to fill in the blanks concerning this assignment. As I explained in yesterday’s post, the cupbearer was a committed servant to the king and often a trusted adviser. Nehemiah’s work was in support of a pagan king, and would have required full commitment as well as countless hours of service.
Nehemiah 1 also presents Nehemiah as a person of faith, a man of prayer. In fact, his passion for the people of God is powerful enough to lead Nehemiah to risk his life and radically change his career path.
The introduction of Nehemiah illustrates how work and prayer can be joined in our lives. Surely, Nehemiah became the king’s cupbearer because of his excellence in royal service. Yet this consummate professional was also a man of deep religious conviction. We do not see in Nehemiah a tension between secular employment and devotion to God. Rather, they appear to go hand-in-hand. (Photo: A sign outside of the Benedictine Monastery in Rudy, Poland.)
Nehemiah 1 presents the man Nehemiah as a potential poster child for the Benedictine Order, the motto of which is ora et labora (“prayer and work” in Latin. This, by the way, was apparently not stated by St. Benedict himself, but rather reflects a 19th condensation of Benedict’s emphases.) Nehemiah works and Nehemiah prays. Both are expressions of his covenantal relationship with God. Both are ways Nehemiah lives out his faith. Both will be used by God in his effort to bring restoration to the Jewish people.
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