It All Begins With A Burden

Bible Book: Nehemiah  1 : 1-4
Subject: Burden, Nehemiah's; Brokenness
Series: Nehemiah

In many ways, Nehemiah had it made. He was the “king’s cupbearer” (1:11), a position that afforded him a home in the palace, closeness to the king, and a life of relative luxury compared to most of his Jewish counterparts.

The “frowning providence” of God that had driven his people from their homeland in Jerusalem had concealed a “smiling face” for Nehemiah, who had grown up in the Babylonian capitol, and had enjoyed the privileges of being among the king’s court.

Nevertheless, when we read the opening verses of his book, Nehemiah makes it clear that the comforts of Babylon were not enough to overrule his concern for the things of God and His people. Nehemiah was a man who became consumed with a burden. In his example, we are reminded that whenever God uses a person to accomplish His work, it all begins with a burden.

“…you never lighten the load unless first you have felt the pressure in your own soul. You are never used of God to bring blessing until God has opened your eyes and made you see things as they are…Nehemiah was called to build to the wall, but first he had to weep over the ruins.”[i] – Alan Redpath

Today, we usually only talk of burdens as something to lay down, or to be rid of, as quickly as possible. Yet, God uses burdens of a certain kind to motivate His people into action.

It is not fame or fortune, greed or glory that compels a missionary to leave all for a foreign land. It is a burden. The real work of God is not accomplished by those who are at ease in Zion. It is accomplished by those who are pushed to their knees about Zion.

As we see Nehemiah stirred in these opening verses, we are reminded of some factors involved in the life of a burdened person. First of all, we see:


In verse 1, Nehemiah says, “And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace.” As we have noted, this was not a bad place to be. Yet, in spite of the luxury of his surroundings and situation, we read in verse 4, “…I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days…”

What is it that led Nehemiah to this brokenness? Where did Nehemiah become a burdened person? In this passage we find that there were certain factors that led to Nehemiah’s burden. He reminds us that a burdened person does not reach that condition accidentally, or unpredictably.

Where does a burdened person start? First of all, Nehemiah reminds us that a spiritual burden begins:

A. With a concern

It is at least likely that Nehemiah had never even seen the city of Jerusalem. The exile was 70 years long, and Nehemiah was living a number of years after the first remnant had returned to the city, marking the end of the exile.

All Nehemiah knew about Jerusalem had been related to him through relatives and friends. In spite of this apparent disconnect from the city of his fathers, we find that Nehemiah had a concern for that place. Verse 2 says, “That Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem.” Nehemiah was concerned for the condition of the people and the city itself. His burden was birthed from that concern.

Ours could be described as an age of apathy. It is rare that anyone is truly concerned with anything beyond themselves and their own little lives.

Nehemiah reminds us not only that burdened person begins with a concern, but also:

B. With a call

Though it is not plainly stated in these opening verses, the book reveals that what was going in the heart of Nehemiah was the call of God upon him. Later, Nehemiah would describe his mission as, “…what my God had put in my heart to do (2:12)…”

It was not just emotion, patriotism, or religious zeal that so stirred the heart of Nehemiah. He was being called by God! The opening chapter records no audible call, but (as one old preacher put it) it was clearly louder than that.

“…he could hardly have sustained [his work] had he not been sustained himself by a strong sense that God had sent him to fulfill it and was standing by him as he discharged it.”[ii] – J.I. Packer

In Nehemiah we see that a burdened person starts not only with a concern, and with a call, but also:

C. With a capability

Whether you see it that God placed Nehemiah in the palace for the work he was going to do, or that God called Nehemiah because of where he was in relation to the king, either way, there is no denying that Nehemiah’s position as cupbearer made him uniquely qualified to initiate the work God had put in his heart.

In other words, God burdened Nehemiah’s heart because Nehemiah had the opportunity and capability of doing the very thing to which God had called him.

Some people claim to be burdened and even called for a particular ministry, but if they are in no position to fulfill that call, it may be that God has not actually called them to that particular purpose.

If a burden and a call from God are genuine, somehow and somewhere the capability and opportunity to fulfill that call will become a reality. The capability to do something about a burden will often reveal the difference between merely being stirred and concerned about something, and truly being burdened and called about it. A burden person starts with a concern, a call, and a capability to respond to both.

Notice something further Nehemiah teaches us in these opening verses about having a burden. Notice not only where a burdened person starts, but notice also:


Look at verse 3, and notice the report that Nehemiah’s brother and his companions give to him. “And they said unto me, 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.”

This apparently affected Nehemiah to a greater degree than it did those who shared it with him. While I am sure that none of the Jews liked the way things were in Jerusalem, we read of only who was so deeply troubled by it.

Nehemiah’s burden was connected to what he saw in the situation of the Jewish remnant and their city. There is an insight that precedes and produces Nehemiah’s burden.

What does a burdened person see? Nehemiah reminds that first of all, they see:

A. The reality

This was more than just a bad report. It was more than just sad news. Nehemiah hears the words “great affliction and reproach,” and “broken down” and “burned”, and immediately, Nehemiah sees the reality of the situation.

There is no effort to put a positive spin on it. Nehemiah does not say, “I hate to hear that, but at least the Temple is rebuilt.” He does not minimize the situation. He sees the reality of it, and is burdened by that reality.

We will never have a holy burden until we have an honest view of how bad the need really is. Those who are always looking for the bright side can at times be blinded by their own optimism. There are many situations in which the good news can not be seen until the bad news has first been completely and honestly comprehended.

A burdened person will clearly see not only the reality, but notice also that they will see:

B. The ramifications

Nehemiah’s burden in these opening verses stems not from nostalgia or nationalism. His concern is not primarily for the historic city, or even the status of his nation. Nehemiah’s concern is with what the broken-down city means for the glory of God.

“Nehemiah had asked anxiously after the state of things in Jerusalem, because he cared so much about the glory of God and the good of souls there…”[iii] It was one thing to be concerned for a city and its inhabitants to be in distress, but when that city and those people are God’s, the burden suddenly takes on a new perspective.

A spiritual burden is weighted with more than just social or personal concerns. A spiritual burden bears the weight of concern over the glory of God and His work. The burdened person sees not just broken down walls and struggling people, but the larger spiritual issues involved.

“…more than…broken walls, the cause of Nehemiah’s grief was bound up with the honor of the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The glory of Israel and of Israel’s God was at stake.”[iv] – S.E. Anderson

A burdened person will see the reality and the ramifications. Notice also that they will see:

C. The responsibility

Though Nehemiah is 800 miles from Jerusalem, and has never actually seen the city, he stills feels a connection to it, and a responsibility for it. He is moved and burdened personally.

It is so easy to detach ourselves from the larger work of God, and to miss the personal responsibility that rests upon us to participate in what God is doing. Nehemiah’s burden comes from him being able to see his only responsibility to God and to His work. He is so stirred because he recognized his connection to the need. “…when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days…” It is as if Nehemiah is already sitting among the rubble, rather than in the palace.

“It never dawns upon some of us to take personal responsibility.”[v] Those with a burden see not only the problem, but the role they play in the solution.

In these opening verses, we learn from Nehemiah, not only where a burdened person starts, and what a burdened person sees, but also thirdly:


Once a burden has firmly settled upon a person, what do they do then? Where do they take that burden? To whom do they turn? Nehemiah points us to the answer when he says in verse 4, “…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 reminds us here that when we are moved by a burden, before we act upon it, we must seek God about His will, and what He intends for us to do about that which He has laid upon our hearts.

We learn in this text that a burdened person seeks:

A. The heart of God

In verse, Nehemiah mourns for several days. Then he adds that he “fasted”. In both the act of mourning, and the discipline of fasting, we see Nehemiah trying to draw close to the heart of God.

“What does it mean to fast? It means to miss a meal for one major purpose: zeroing in on your walk with God.”[vi] In fasting, we purposely set aside our physical needs and wants, in an effort to draw close to God, and to demonstrate to Him our desire for Him.

Nehemiah is truly burdened, and he is willing to seek the Lord, even at the expense of his comfort. He reminds us about seeking the heart of God. Note also, that a burdened person will seek:

B. The hearing of God

In verse 4, Nehemiah says that he fasted, and he likewise “prayed.” Fasting is not an individual exercise. It is little more than a diet if it is not accompanied by prayer. It is obvious that Nehemiah was a man of prayer. He is constantly turning to God, seeking a hearing with the One he knew to be critical to the success of the work.

The weight of a burden should push us to our knees before it propels us into action. If we have fully seen the need, then we will likewise seek the answer to that need in prayer.

“You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” – John Bunyan

Someone else has well said, “Prayer does not prepare us for a greater work. Prayer is the greater work.”

Those who have a burden will seek the heart of God, the hearing of God, and also:

C. The help of God

Before Nehemiah turns to the king of Persia, He turns to the God who rules above all earthly powers. He is conscious that he will need the help of the king, but the help of the king is worthless without the help of God.

Those with a burden recognize that apart from the help and grace of God, nothing can be accomplished. If He does not help us with that which is upon our hearts, our burdens have no hope of being lifted, and our efforts have no hope of succeeding.

“He was in Susa and his problem was in far-off Jerusalem, but both cities – one rich the other poor, one strong the other weak, one proud the other broken – were like tiny specks of dust under the canopy of God’s heaven.”[vii] – Raymond Brown

Those with a burden seek the help of the God of heaven, recognizing that His supreme authority and ability can accomplish what men cannot alone.

It all starts with a burden. Nehemiah points us to the necessity of heavy hearts, bended knees, empty stomachs, and moist eyes.

“We are fit for the work of God only when we have wept over it, prayed about it, and then we are enabled by Him to tackle the job that needs to be done. May God give us hearts that bleed, eyes that are wide open to see, minds that are clear to interpret God’s purpose, wills that are obedient, and a determination that is unflinching as we set about the tasks He would have us do.”[viii] – Alan Redpath


[i] Redpath, Alan, Victorious Christian Service, (Fleming H. Revell Co., Westwood, NJ, 1958), p. 19-20

[ii] Packer, J.I., A Passion for Faithfulness, (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 1995), p. 58

[iii] Packer, J.I., p. 59

[iv] Anderson, S.E., Nehemiah for us Now, (Fundamental Publishers, Glenwood, IL, 1973), p. 18

[v] Hawkins, O.S., Rebuilding, (Annuity Board, Nashville, 1999), p. 22

[vi] Swindoll, Charles R., Hand Me Another Brick, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1990), p. 35

[vii] Brown, Raymond, The Message of Nehemiah, (IVP, Downers Grove, IL, 1998), p. 34

[viii] Redpath, Alan, p. 25