A Searching Question

Arthur Pink, 1943

"For what do you make request?" Nehemiah 2:4

Nehemiah was a man whom many would envy. His environment was attractive and he occupied a position of prominence and honor. He dwelt "in the palace" (1:1) and was "the king's cupbearer" (1:11). Nevertheless he was far from being happy. Ah, my reader, material things cannot satisfy—neither wealth nor honors supply contentment to their possessors. But Nehemiah was stricken with something more than natural discontent—his spirit was grieved because of the dishonor which had been done the Lord, because of the reproach which lay upon His cause, because of the woeful condition of His people. Jerusalem was in ruins—the temple was desolate. Israel were captives in a strange land, suffering because of the sins of their fathers. Nehemiah was deeply exercised, so that he "sat down and wept and mourned certain days and fasted" (1:4). Then he poured out his heart in contrite prayer and earnest supplication (1:5-11). Having prevailed with God, chapter 2 shows us how he prevailed with the king of Persia.

When Nehemiah appeared again before the king to serve him with wine, his countenance reflected the anguish of his soul. Whereupon his royal master inquired as to the cause of his sadness. For a moment Nehemiah was affrighted, sought the help of God, and then, like a man, told the king the cause of his grief. So far from being angry, the king asked, "For what do you make request?" That is—the privilege of offering petition unto me is yours—what is it you would have me to do for you? God touched the heart of this monarch, showing that "the king's heart is a water channel in the Lord’s hand: He directs it wherever He chooses" (Proverbs 21:1). The Lord had given His servant favor in the eyes of this august ruler. It is beautiful to behold the sequel. Nehemiah refused to take personal advantage of such an opportunity and seek his own aggrandizement. Instead of asking for higher honors and emoluments for himself—he sought that which was for the glory of God and the good of His people.

"For what do you make request?" It is surely not a straining of this passage to apply it to the subject of prayer. Doing so, we may observe here:

First, a call to solemn consideration when we are about to engage in this holy exercise. It is not an equal whom you are approaching—but the Majesty of Heaven. It is the Most High God, the King of kings, the ineffably Holy One—whom you are going to address. A realization of that fact should deeply impress the soul. Even though I am a real Christian, that gives me no license to rush into the Lord's presence with unfitting familiarity and unholy irreverence. If Nehemiah was afraid in the presence of Artaxerxes, how much more cause have I to tremble before the Almighty God—not with the trembling of servile dread—but with the awe of His sovereignty, His infiniteness, His omniscience. Far be it from God's children to offer the "sacrifice of fools" unto Him before whom the very seraphim veil their faces. This searching question, then, bids us remove the shoes of carnality, approach with humility, and weigh beforehand the petitions we propose to present. Is my request suited to the character of Him whom I supplicate?

"For what do you make request?" Second, this is a call to definiteness. May we not legitimately take this as the King of Zion making similar inquiry of us? You seek unto His Throne of Grace—you desire an audience with His sacred Majesty—for what purpose? Why, to unburden your heart before Him, to obtain grace to help in time of need. But if you are not to insult Him, and if your quest is not to be profitless, He requires definiteness. He stops you, as it were, on the threshold with this challenge, "for what do you make request?" Vague and undefined desires, indefinite and general petitions will get you nowhere. It is very necessary that we should put this question to ourselves before we bow the knee before the Lord—"exactly what is it I am going to ask for?" Suppose that you were limited to a single request, for what would it be? If you might ask for one thing only, what would you select? Much of our praying fails, because of lack of this definiteness. Can you remember the chief thing for which you supplicated even yesterday? If not, is there any wonder your praying accomplishes so little?

"For what do you make request?" Third, this is a test of the state of our souls. That for which we make request—supplies an index to our inward condition, for "out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." The natural man will ask for natural (material) things, the selfish will ask for that which will serve his own gratification—he asks amiss, that he may "consume it upon his own lusts." But the spiritual person will ask for spiritual mercies, that he may honor God and glorify Christ. He will ask for a heart which hates sin and loves holiness. He will ask for the subjugation of that which rises up in rebellion against the Lord. That He will "subdue his iniquities." He will ask for God's love to be shed more abundantly in his heart and His Law to be written more deeply in his mind. He will ask for the strengthening of his graces, "quicken me according to Your Word." He will beg the Divine Gardener to make him a more fruitful branch of the Vine.

"For what do you make request?" Fourth, this puts to the proof the breadth of our affections. The prayers of a genuine Christian are by no means restricted to the supply of his own personal need—but are concerned with those of his brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus our requests not only reveal the state of our hearts—but the breadth of them. How we need to pray "Lord, enlarge my heart" (Psalm 119:32), deliver me from a selfish and sectarian spirit. What a word is that, "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints" (Eph. 6:18). "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren" (1 John 3:14), many of whom we have never seen in the flesh, and are not even acquainted with their names! And how do we evidence our love for them? Because we find they are laid on our hearts—because we make their cause and welfare our own—because we daily make request for their blessing.

For what ought I to make request? What should be the chief theme of my petitions? Is not the reply furnished in the two prayers of the Lord Jesus—the one which He gave to His disciples (Matthew 6), and the other which He offered Himself (John 17)? A pondering of them in the light of our present inquiry reveals three things.

First, that we should make the honor of God our chief concern, that His glory might be more and more manifested in us and by us and through us. That is where our Redeemer began, "When you pray say, 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name" (Matt 6:9) and "Father the hour is come, glorify Your Son that Your Son also may glorify You" (John 17:1) This is what lay nearest His heart and should it not ours, too?

Second, that we should supplicate for the whole Household of Faith. The prayer which He taught His disciples is the Family Prayer—all its pronouns are in the plural number. It is not "my Father" but "our Father." It is not "give me and forgive me," but "give us and forgive us." Our hearts are to take in and go out to all our brothers and sisters. We behold the same thing in the petitions of our great High Priest, "I pray for them—I pray not for the world" (John 17:9). Six times over in that prayer, we find Him making mention of the company "given to Him"—it was (and is) for the whole election of grace He intercedes.

Third, that we should ask chiefly, though not solely, for spiritual blessings upon our fellow-saints. Only one of the petitions of Matthew 6 relates to the supply of temporal needs. In John 17 Christ prays for the preservation (v. 12), the joy (v. 13), the sanctification (v. 17), the unification, (v. 21), the perfecting (v. 23) and the glorification (v. 24) of the elect.