Devoted to Prayer (Nehemiah 1)
I. Nehemiah’s Context
Around 600 B.C. the people of God went into Babylonian Captivity where they spent 70 years in exile. During this time the temple was leveled and their homeland was laid waste by Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrian armies. Meanwhile, God raised up Cyrus, king of Persia, to defeat the Babylonians, and in his first year as king he issued an edict that allowed the people of God to return to their homeland (Ezra 1:1-4). In fact, he went a step further by even demanding that others fund the rebuilding efforts. Originally, it was Zerubbabel and Joshua who led the charge, and then, 60 years later, Ezra is sent to Jerusalem. On that first trip, the temple was actually completed, but it was nothing compared to the original glory of Solomon’s temple. Not only that, but since the entirety of the city had been leveled and was now unprotected, there was no guarantee that this new temple would not find itself under siege from one of Israel’s enemies.
So, this is where we find ourselves in the book of Nehemiah. The temple is standing in Jerusalem, but the walls of the city are still scattered piles of rubble. The danger of a siege lurks and their enemies continue to knock at the door of the city gates. It is reported to Nehemiah in verse 3, “The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.”
II. Nehemiah’s Response
What would Nehemiah do regarding this devastating news? His response is simply to pray… and pray… and pray. For four months, Nehemiah prayed! (v. 2:1) Just as prayer was the necessary response for Nehemiah, so also it is vital for all Christians. Put plainly, Christians pray. Like water to fish, milk to an infant, or oxygen to lungs, so is prayer to the Christian. John Bunyan describes prayer as “a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the soul to God, through Christ, by the strength or assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or, according to His Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.”
Prayer is often difficult for us, but not because God has put his almighty power to use making it nearly impossible to accomplish. Instead, it is difficult because we are so reluctant to humility, dependence, and honesty before God. Nehemiah, however, immediately recognized that prayer was the only right response, and so he devoted himself to earnest prayer.
III. Nehemiah’s Prayer
Nehemiah’s prayer can be broken down into four parts. First, he addresses and acknowledges God (vv 5-6a). He recognizes that he is praying to the Lord of heaven, the great and awesome God, the One who keeps His covenant, who is faithful to show lovingkindness, who is attentive to the prayers of His people, and who intimately sees His people’s needs. Nehemiah’s awareness of God’s character fueled his earnestness and persistence in prayer. Second, he confesses his sin. Not only does he confess his own sin, but their corporate sins: “…we have sinned against You.” (v. 6b-7). Third, he recalls the promises of God (verses 8-9). He pleads with the Lord to “remember” the promise to gather His people back when they return to Him. Fourth, he makes a specific petition before God (vv. 10-11). He asks that God give him compassion and mercy in the king’s eyes. And after four months of day-and-night praying, God heard his prayers (chapter 2).
When Nehemiah shared his plan with the people in 2:17-18, they responded and followed Nehemiah’s lead in rebuilding the walls. In other words, they took practical steps in order to bring about God’s purpose for His people. The reluctance that people often have towards practical steps in the fight for godliness and the battle against sin is very unfortunate. So many have been duped into believing that taking any form of practical measures will somehow remove the spiritual benefit. But Jesus couldn’t disagree more! (c.f. Matthew 5:29-30) We must both labor in prayer, and also labor in obedience. We cannot view it as an “either…or” scenario, but as a “both…and.”
- This account must be more than mere history for us. It must be motivation and incentive to “make every request known to God” and to “pray without ceasing.” What about your current situation necessitates communion with God through prayer? What about your current needs in life make it clear that you can’t handle them alone? Do you find that your understanding of God’s sovereignty wrongly quenches your prayers due to a fatalistic notion that He will accomplish His will with or without you and your prayers? An accurate understanding of our present-day situation, as well as our individual circumstances, is proof enough that our need of Him is more than words can adequately express.