When God Breaks Your Heart, What Then?

when God breaks your heart

Nehemiah was called by God to “build that wall”.  What characteristics made Nehemiah the perfect man for the task?  Well, at the beginning of the story; Nehemiah was the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes.  Content to stay behind, he was comfortable in the prestigious job he had.  As the book opens, something shook up his contentment.  Indeed, God broke his heart for His people.  That broken-hearted state became the catalyst to transforming this layman into a powerful man of God. Hearing God’s call,  He rebuilt the wall. Then, as governor  he guided the people back into a place of political, social, and economic stability. Furthermore, he  lead the people to trust God, once more.  The faithful followers of God  no longer remained the target of ridicule and abuse.

Ezra accomplished the spiritual establishment of the new community, whereas Nehemiah succeeded in giving it physical stability…The project (building the wall) was completed in the remarkably short time of 52 days.  During this endeavor he faced determined opposition: mockery (Neh 2:19, 4:1-3), armed raids (4:7-12), a ruse to draw him outside the city, without doubt to murder him (6:1-4), blackmail (6:5-9); and finally, a prophet hired to foretell his death.  In every case he met the challenge with courage, wisdom, and an invincible determination to complete the task for which God had called him.1

What happened to transform Nehemiah’s heart; propelling him to hear God’s call, heed the call and have the fortitude to complete the task against so much opposition?


The book of Nehemiah begins with his receiving news from his brother. His brother came to the palace at Shushan with other men from Judah.  Nehemiah saw him passing by and asked concerning  the people in Jerusalem. When they answered, “The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach; the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire” (Nehemiah 1:3).

How did Nehemiah respond? “And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4).  Suddenly, Nehemiah’s heart broke for the people.  No, longer could he enjoy the comforts of his own life, knowing the suffering of the few faithful who had returned to Jerusalem. Is your heart broken for those who are suffering? Or for the lost? What breaks your heart for the kingdom of God?

The prayer that follows in verses 5 to 11, richly holds 7 essential keys to hearing God’s call, answering God’s call, and the fortitude to complete God’s call.  Before I embark on detailing those 7 characteristics of his prayer, I would like to address what I believe to be a misconception.  Some would try to say that Nehemiah had always been a man of devout prayer or even refer to his prayer as ritualistic; however, I see him as a man content with the status quo and his life.  Perhaps knowing of God; however, not too concerned otherwise.  Much like many Christians today.  Happy with their life; occasionally picking up their Bible—at least on Sunday, attending church when it is convenient; and merrily going about their lives until something breaks their heart.

Ritualistic Prayer? I Think Not, But some do

Some look at the first chapter of Nehemiah, assuming he was a man already devoted to prayer. However, that idea leads one to question why he had not already returned to Jerusalem.  Could it be, God first opened the eyes of Nehemiah’s heart that day when he inquired of Hanani “concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 1:2)?   Gerald A and Chantal Klingbeil argue that Nehemiah’s prayer was ritualistic in nature.  They elude to this idea first in a statement within a question. “What triggers Nehemiah’s prayer (which should be considered a ritual act) in Neh 1,5-11?”2 The idea is further presented when they describe his response to the sad news as having “triggered a strong ritual response by Nehemiah.”3 These examples infer that Nehemiah had been accustomed to praying in this manner.

A similar sentiment is presented by Richard J. Bautch: “there is a ceremony of covenant renewal. The ceremony is thought to be a crisis ritual.”4 He further declared that “Nehemiah 1:5-11 is a prayer with a clear function to motivate God.”5 However, knowing God is more concerned with a man’s heart than his rituals (Psalm 51:16-17, Matthew 5:20); there must be more to Nehemiah’s prayer than mere ritual.


Although, his prayer demonstrates a knowledge of the history of God’s Covenant and a familiarity with the scripture; it does not present evidence of his having been accustomed to prayer.   Having an intellectual knowledge about scripture does not confirm one as having a close relationship with God, or any relationship with God for that matter.  Marc Rasell wrote of the Jewish people being described in Isaiah 1:10-23 as follows: “They called upon the Lord in a ritualistic fashion: fasting, worshipping, praying, observing feasts, and making offerings. The problem was that it was all for themselves. The root of selfishness had not been cured.”

Perhaps, Nehemiah had never heard or responded to God’s Call on his life before that day.  A ritualistic common response of prayer by Nehemiah, would not have been sufficient to transform his heart.  There was a power much greater in his prayer that day, causing a contented laborer to hear God’s call and to say: “yes, Lord, send me: ‘thy servant today’” (Nehemiah 1:11).

“The people who returned to the Land of Promise were publicly acknowledging that they believed God would reestablish the nation and usher in a time of kingdom blessing.”7 Yet, Nehemiah had stayed when others had left. He tells us that it was the “twentieth year” (Nehemiah 1:1) of King Artaxerxes reign when he began this prayer.  That is clearly “14 years after Ezra’s return to Jerusalem.”8


“Nehemiah could have returned to the land, but for some reason he did not.  He took a job instead.”4 He held a prestigious position of honor as the “king’s cupbearer” (Nehemiah 1:11).  In that position, he must have been aware of King Artaxerxes decree, stopping the Jewish people from rebuilding Jerusalem. The decree of King Artaxerexes: “Give ye now commandment to cause these men to cease, and that this city be not builded, until another commandment shall be given from me” (Ezra 4:21). There is no evidence, Nehemiah wept for his people then.  In fact, Nehemiah confesses, “I had not been beforetime sad in his (King Artaxerxes) presence” (Nehemiah 2:1).

Yet, Nehemiah, now broken hearted for his people; turns to God to pray.


Next time we will go deeper into that prayer of Nehemiah and the 7 essential characteristics found there to help anyone hear God’s call, heed God’s call and have the fortitude to complete God’s call.  God needed Nehemiah to build the wall.  God chose Nehemiah for the task. But, before Nehemiah would heed that command, God broke his heart with a burden for the people.

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©Effie Darlene Barba, 2017

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1 Jerry Falwell, ed., The Liberty Annotated Study Bible, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson,1988),776

2 Gerald A Klingbeil and Chantal Klingbeil, “Eyes to hear: Nehemiah 1,6 from a pragmatics and ritual theory perspective,” Biblica  91, no. 1, 94

3 Ibid., 94

4 Richard J. Bautch, Glory and Power, Ritual and Relationship, (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2009), 71

5 Ibid.,62

6 Marc Rasell, Nehemiah The Sabbath Reformer, (n.p.: lulu.com, 2012), 33, Kindle

 7Falwell, Liberty Study Bible, 755

8 Ibid.,776

 9 McGee, Through the Bible: Volume II, 503

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