Return to Prayer

The Point:  Move forward by retreating into prayer.

Nehemiah’s Prayer:  Nehemiah 1:1-11.

[1]  The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the capital, [2]  that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. [3]  And they said to me, "The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire." [4]  As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. [5]  And I said, "O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, [6]  let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. [7]  We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. [8]  Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, [9]  but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ [10]  They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. [11]  O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man." Now I was cupbearer to the king.  [ESV]

“Nehemiah treasured no greater ambition than to be a loyal servant of God. This introductory section of his memoirs sets the scene and explains how God’s servant was prepared for new work in far-off Jerusalem. Its story unfolds in five scenes, portraying the attitude of God’s servants.  Looking out in compassion [1-3].  Biblical accounts of a call to God’s work frequently begin with an arresting assertion of the divine initiative, though there are occasions when the call is discerned through a known crisis. Prompted by an overwhelming awareness of need, such people do not decide to serve; they believe the decision has been made for them. Nehemiah’s call was discerned in that way. Born in Persia a century after the ravages of Babylon’s king, he learned of distant Jerusalem only from stories related by fellow-Israelites. He knew of Nebuchadnezzar’s ruthless devastation but, as caravans from other countries visited Susa, Nehemiah heard of Jerusalem’s more recent troubles. A servant of King Artaxerxes, he was aware from court news that one innocent attempt to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls had been dramatically frustrated. At that time, local opponents had written to the Persian king asserting that Jerusalem’s citizens were intent on rebellion and, on the king’s orders, work on the walls was brought to an abrupt end [Ezra 4:6-23]. Nehemiah knew that his contemporary, Ezra, had led a second group of returning exiles and was endeavoring to establish the community with God’s Word at the heart of its spiritual and moral life, but it had not been easy. So, when travelers came from Judah we can understand why, concerned about his people, Nehemiah asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem [2].As the story begins, Nehemiah is identified as a man of deep concern, with clear priorities. First, the narrative illustrates Nehemiah’s concern. Although he had a highly responsible job, in a secure environment in a fine Persian city, noted for its opulence and prosperity, magnificent buildings and spacious gardens, he is not remotely preoccupied with himself. Anxious for the welfare of the returned exiles, he inquires about the condition of the city where they lived. Secondly, the narrative identifies Nehemiah’s priorities. People mattered more than things. He was naturally troubled about the physical condition of the city. But the depressed people within the city were infinitely more important than its shattered walls. Nehemiah heard the report from the travelers that the remnant who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame [3]. Looking up in dependence [4-6a].  Nehemiah’s immediate reaction to the news of his people’s troubles was to go into the presence of God. Throughout the book this gifted leader is vividly portrayed as a man of earnest prayer, and this, the first of his nine recorded prayers, offers several perspectives on the quality of Nehemiah’s prayer-life. (1) Nehemiah was committed to prayer. For Nehemiah, prayer was natural, immediate and spontaneous [4]. He turned instinctively to God. In Nehemiah’s life, prayer was a vital daily experience. Nothing mattered more than entering the Lord’s presence to express his anguish about his people’s needs, confess his inadequacy, reflect on his personal response to the news from Jerusalem, and seek for guidance about what might and must be done. (2) Nehemiah was genuine in prayer. Deeply grieved to learn such distressing news, he identifies with the dejection of Jerusalem’s citizens: he sat down and wept [4]. Though separated from them by a vast desert, their needs were close to his heart. (3) Nehemiah was sacrificial in prayer. He believed there was nothing better he could do for his people than pray for them so, in order to give undisturbed time to his intercessions, he denied himself food for several days. (4) Nehemiah was persistent in prayer. For some days he continued to seek God; day and night [6] he poured out his soul to the Lord. Prayer is the most eloquent expression of our priorities. It confesses our total reliance upon God, exercises our personal faith and demonstrates our love for others. As he approaches God, Nehemiah divests himself of every distracting thought so that he can concentrate his mind entirely on the one whom has promised to listen to everyone who calls upon Him. (5) Nehemiah was encouraged in prayer by the prayers of those who went before him. The great prayers of Scripture ought to be incentives and models for our own prayers. (6) Nehemiah was confident in prayer. As he exalts God, Nehemiah focuses on eight highly relevant aspects of God’s nature. The prayer becomes an adoring octave of divine omnipotence. Although Jerusalem’s need has driven him into the presence of God, the city’s problem is soon dwarfed by an awesome sense of God’s majestic glory. Within moments he is exalting a God who is sovereign, mighty, holy, loving, faithful, vocal, attentive and merciful. God of heaven was a brilliantly graphic expression of the universal supremacy of the only true God. Although Nehemiah is deeply troubled, he affirms his commitment to the God of Heaven, knowing that life’s bewildering adversities are all under His sovereign control. Moreover, although sovereign, God is not remote and distant, untouched by humanity’s everyday events, ruling in heaven but detached from life on earth. Nehemiah knows his God is almighty, the great God [5] whose power has been evident throughout Israel’s precarious history. Nehemiah also enters the presence of an awesome God [5], believing that He is not only powerful but holy. Nehemiah is specially conscious of the divine holiness and comes before God with adoring reverence. It is the holiness of God which identifies and exposes sin as sin. Nehemiah rejoices that his holy God is also compassionate. He identifies his needs in the presence of a God of infinite grace who has made and keeps covenant and steadfast love [5] with His people. Scripture enriches Nehemiah’s adoration, supplication, petition and intercession. Whatever the contemporary adversities of Jerusalem’s citizens, a God of infinite compassion is eager to meet their needs and deepens Nehemiah’s love for others in order to initiate His purposes. Further, God’s love is not fickle and changeable but constant and reliable. He is a faithful God who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments. His people have not been what they ought to have been, but God has never acted unlovingly towards them. His chastisement has always been purposive, corrective and remedial. During the demanding and dangerous assignment which lay ahead, Nehemiah found himself constantly fortified by the faithfulness of a loving God who would never let him down. God’s servant also worships a vocal God. He is not a silent deity like the gods of the surrounding nations. He has spoken eloquently, patiently and persistently through His servants. A God who has spoken so relevantly and persuasively across the centuries is not going to leave Nehemiah without direct and relevant commands concerning His future work. This compassionate self-revealing God did not only speak; He listened. Nehemiah asks that the Lord’s ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant [6]. Nehemiah knew that, whatever the problems which lay ahead, the way of prayer was always open and, as he prayed, help certainly came. Nehemiah offered this prayer knowing that he was addressing a merciful God. His own sins and those of both his rebellious forefathers and disobedient contemporaries must be acknowledge and forgiven before he could embark on any enterprise for God. His servants must be cleansed before they are used. Quiet reflection on God’s character intensified His servant’s awareness of unforgiven sin. Looking inward with penitence [6b-7].  God’s servant’s exaltation of God’s nature prompts a sorrowing acknowledgement of sin. The words of his prayer reveal the intensity, honesty, realism and urgency of Nehemiah‘s confession. There was an intensity about his confession. Overwhelmed by the rebelliousness of human sin, Nehemiah gives himself to prolonged petition and intercession; day and night he poured out his soul to God. Since he heard of Jerusalem’s distress, he had been haunted by the recollection of the people’s failure to honor God and, scarcely able to think of anything else, spent every moment of available time in God’s presence. There was an honesty about his confession. He made no attempt to excuse the Israelite people, nor did he pray for them as a man detached from the enormity of their past transgressions and repeated failure: confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned [6]. As he surveyed the grim record of Israel’s past and present failure, he knew he was not exempt from blame. Nehemiah recognized that he was as great a sinner as anyone else in Judah. There was a realism about his confession. Nehemiah knew that the people’s frequently overlooked sins of omission were just as serious as the obvious sins of commission [7]. The glaring iniquities, the things done that offended God had to be confessed, but the many things they had failed to do were equally offensive to a holy God. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin [James 4:17]. There was an urgency about Nehemiah’s confession. It was vital to seek God’s face, for in Scripture’s commandments, statutes, and rules he had been taught that sin is not merely a stubborn refusal to obey certain rules which harm the life of an individual or community. It is a defiant act of aggressive personal rebellion towards God. Nehemiah was sensitive to the fact that all sin, things blatantly or carelessly done, or things selfishly or heedlessly left undone, need to be identified, acknowledged and pardoned. He knew that all such sin can be fully, immediately and eternally forgiven. Looking back with gratitude [8-10].  Though sin must be confessed, Nehemiah does not wallow in a prolonged introspective examination of his failures and those of his fellow-Israelites. His mind continues to be informed by great passages from Deuteronomy [cf. 4:27-31; 9:29; 12:5; 28:58-64; 30:1-5] as he reflects on God’s greatness and unmerited mercy. His prayer focuses not on his undoubted guilt, bruised conscience or vacillating feelings, but on two unchanging historical realities: what God has said and what He has done. Within the narrow compass of these brief verses are the two great scriptural dimensions of revelation [8-9] and redemption [10]. As Nehemiah prays, he is not only inspired by the experience, example and language of Israel’s prayerful personalities. Something greater takes hold of his mind than the enriching thought that others have prayed – the colossal truth that God has spoken and acted decisively in history, both addressing His people and saving them. (1) What God has said [8-9]. Nehemiah recalls the realistic words of Moses about the danger of Israel’s apostasy and the promise of divine mercy. The words are a skillfully arranged mosaic of great Old Testament warnings and promises originally given to Moses and repeated by Solomon at the dedication of the temple [Lev. 26:33-45; 2 Chron. 6:36-39]. Encouraged by the past, Nehemiah faces the future. God has spoken clearly and unmistakably to His people and will not change His mind: I will scatter … I will gather [8-9]. He had said that if they broke the covenant they would be exiled. They disregarded the warning and His word was fulfilled; their presence in Persia proved the reliability of His word. He also knew they would regret their disobedience, and He made generous provision for their penitent return. Nehemiah felt he was at the uttermost parts in Susa, but God was with him and His promise would never be broken. He had returned to God in a prayer of confession and dependence, and now sought reassurance through the promises of God’s unchanging Word. (2) What God has done [10]. But, however inspiring and reassuring, words alone are rarely enough. God demonstrates the reliability of His Word by the excellence of His deeds. To the great theme of revelation is added the complementary truth of redemption. Nehemiah recalls that his contemporaries are God’s servants: your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. For all their undoubted failings, the Israelites are a redeemed community. God acted decisively in their history, doing exactly what He promised. At the burning bush He told Moses that He was going to deliver them, and did everything He said. Uncertain of the future, Nehemiah remembers the past. Like thousands of his fellow-Israelites, he looks back to the great exodus-event as an undeniable demonstration of God’s pledge to keep His promise and demonstrate His power. The descriptive language about God’s enslaved people brought out of Egypt by His great power and by your strong hand deliberately recalls the prayer of Moses in a time of immense distress. Now Nehemiah was pleading with the God of Moses, the God of transforming wonders. He was asking that the Lord who acted so dynamically then for a vast community would now do the same for a solitary individual. If he was to make his journey to that same land he too would need a miracle of mercy. God’s words and deeds in the past fortified his spirit as he faced the future. Looking forward with confidence [11].  Nehemiah’s prayer moved from the recollection of what God had said and done to the contemplation of what He will say and do in a new situation. Encouraged by the Lord’s former mercies he is assured of present grace. Yesterday had its innumerable blessings but Nehemiah is concerned about today with its different needs. Though it was essential to give his best mind to what Scripture taught, now was the time for something to be done but every action must be preceded by prayer. It would be foolish to rush into the king’s presence with the wrong request at any inopportune moment. Guidance was essential so, though it was tempting to push ahead with ideas and plans, Nehemiah must continue to wait upon God. Believers have not always found it easy to maintain that essential balance between waiting and working. Waiting upon God prepares us for work in the world. On the threshold of his special mission Nehemiah prepared himself by earnest, sacrificial and sustained prayer. Nehemiah entered the unknown future with a deeper experience of God, a greater indebtedness to his partners, and a wider perspective on his problem. He enjoyed a deeper experience of God. News of Jerusalem’s trouble had driven him into the Lord’s presence and given him a more alert sense of life’s priorities. He would find his greatest delight in revering God’s name. Nehemiah had a greater indebtedness to his partners. God has heard not just Nehemiah’s plea but the prayer of your servants; they too delight in revering God’s name and are equally ready for God’s will and work. Others have joined him in the ministry of prayer. As he prayed, the realization of partnership with God’s people became more inspiring and supportive than ever. Nehemiah has a wider perspective on his problem. He held the important position of cupbearer in the royal palace. The cupbearer’s office was highly esteemed among the Persian people. Nehemiah knew the protocol which surrounded an eastern court and realized that a huge responsibility now lay on his shoulders. He was to ask King Artaxerxes to change his mind about Jerusalem’s wall-building program. Nehemiah wanted to recommence the work the king had earlier forbidden. It was an immense undertaking, and his first obstacle was reversing the king’s previous orders. He knew that God could and would direct the heart of Artaxerxes in order to accomplish His sovereign purposes, so Nehemiah confidently prayed, give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. Nehemiah cast himself utterly upon God, believing that, however great the obstacles, he would be clearly led and given all the resources necessary for total obedience to God’s will.”  [Brown, pp. 31-42]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What picture of Nehemiah is given in these eleven verses? What concerns and desires motivated him? What important job did he hold in Susa? Describe his relationship with God.

2.         Describe Nehemiah’s prayer life. What six terms does Brown use to describe Nehemiah’s prayer life? What role did Nehemiah’s quiet reflection on God’s character play on his prayer life? What do you learn about how you can improve your prayer life?

3.         Describe what is going on in the five scenes of these eleven verses. What titles does Brown use to describe the scenes? Brown states that these five scenes portrays “the attitude of God’s servants.” Measure yourself against these five descriptions of a servant’s attitude: compassion, dependence, penitence, gratitude and confidence.


Nehemiah, Mervin Breneman, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Nehemiah, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.

The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, F. Charles Fensham, Eerdmans.

A Passion for Faithfulness, J. I. Packer, Crossway.

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