We are beginning a new series in the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah is one of those fascinating books in the Old Testament that tell us something about the history of Israel, but also give us an insight into the life of an individual. Nehemiah is the key character of this book, hence the reason why it has been named after him.
If you can remember something of the history of the Jewish people, you will know that the kingdom of Israel reached its high point under King David and his son Solomon. But things went down hill after that. The people were sinful and for the most part the kings who succeeded David and Solomon, were increasingly wicked, and lead their people to forsake the one true God, and instead worship Baal and Asherah.
God exercised judgement on his people, just as he had warned through the prophets, and he allowed the Babylonians to take the people of Jerusalem into exile about 600 years before the coming of Christ. Jerusalem was destroyed. Its walls were broken down. The temple became a pile of rubble, and the city was plundered. We read of people like Daniel who were taken captive at that time and then served for years in the Babylonian administration.
God did however remembered his people, and after punishing them for their disobedience, he brought back a small group, a remnant, to Jerusalem who began rebuilding the temple around 450 years before Christ. That was at the time of the Persian Empire. And Nehemiah who we are reading about now was cupbearer to the king of Persia. He was an important official in the Persian Empire; an empire which extended over a large area including Susa, Babylon and Jerusalem.
Most of this book is Nehemiah’s own words. It is a record of his experience of returning to Jerusalem and leading the people in the rebuilding of the walls. The book therefore gives us a fascinating insight into Nehemiah’s life, his relationship with God and his abilities as a leader. It does however make it a bit tricky to know how to handle and apply it to our situation.
The reason this book is in the Bible is because it forms part of the story of God dealing with his people. God did not give us this book because Nehemiah was a sinless perfect leader. In other words this book is a record of Nehemiah’s sin and errors as a leader just as much as it is a record of his great achievements and impressive trust in God.
So as we work our way through it over the next few weeks we’ll need to have our heads screwed on and evaluate Nehemiah’s actions in the light of the rest of the Bible, learning from the good and avoiding the sin.
Having said that, the very fact that he was not perfect makes him a much more useful model, since he is so much more like you and me. And in particular now, as we look at chapter one, I am going to point us to his example of prayer, which I think is a very good one.
And I would like us to strive to grow in our praying as we examine the way in which Nehemiah prays. So please have Nehemiah chapter one open in front of you and I am going to work my way through these verses making a few observations about his prayer as we go. That way we can learn from the good things about the way in which Nehemiah prays.
We pick up the story at the point at which Nehemiah hears a report via his brother that makes him aware that the exiles who have returned to Jerusalem:
3 … are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Nehemiah 1)
IDENTIFY WITH THE NEED
Let me direct your attention first to how Nehemiah is affected by the report that he hears. Have a look at verse 4.
4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
Nehemiah hears the need and is deeply affected by the report. God lays a concern and burden on his heart which leads him to mourn and fast and pray. He identifies with the need of the people in Jerusalem. He reminds me of Moses, who was often found on his knees pleading for God’s people, or standing in the gap on behalf of Israel. Nehemiah in a similar way is concerned for God’s honour and for the welfare of God’s people.
The wall itself is important to Nehemiah because it preserves the identity of the people of Israel. I suppose it is a bit like having a China Town in the middle of a city. Having a designated area of Newcastle (for all its disadvantages has the advantage of preserving Chinese food and culture). In a similar way having a wall around Jerusalem provided a clear identifiable area in which the people of God could be found.
For the wall of Jerusalem to be in ruins would have been nearly as much of an insult to God’s reputation as for the temple to have remained a pile of rubble. There would have been no way to identify God’s people, and God’s people would have remained weak and insignificant, and God would have been dishonoured. Nehemiah is deeply troubled. He identifies with the need.
It might not find you and me quite so deeply moved by the prayer needs of the people around us. We have probably not been weeping and fasting today over the needs of children’s ministry or home group work or even the wider needs of God’s church or this world.
But really there should be a sense in which we identify with the needs that we hear today, as we talk with one another, as we read the mission partner prayer letters, as we watch the news on TV. We should like Nehemiah feel strongly – particularly where the prayer needs concern God’s honour or the welfare of God’s people. That might mean thinking yourself into the situation of a persecuted Christian who is afraid for his life, or trying to share something of the pain of a childless couple as they cry out to God to provide, or imaging the devastation experienced by the recent flood victims.
Through prayer, like Nehemiah, we should be seeking God’s intervention because we feel strongly about it. So I want to encourage you, number one, to identify with the need.
TURN TO GOD
The next thing I want to highlight in this passage is Nehemiah’s awareness of God’s presence. Nehemiah knows the God to whom he is praying, and he knows that God is listening. Look at verses 5 and 6. Nehemiah prays:
5 … “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel…
Nehemiah turns to the Lord God with his need. He addresses the LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God. A god who is powerful and loving. A god who hears and responds to the prayers of his people. A god who is present. In fact the only God. Nehemiah brings his request to the LORD, the God of heaven, who is present and listening.
So again I want to encourage you as you pray to turn to God in prayer. When you hear a need from a fellow brother or sister in Christ, when the prayer needs of the church are mentioned from the front, as you work through the prayer diary, first of all identify with the need, but number two, turn to God in prayer.
That applies as well to your own individual needs and struggles, your own areas in which you need help, your own concerns. Turn to the one who is present, listening and able to do something about it. Turn to God in prayer.
That might seem so obvious and yet if you are anything like me you probably find that the first thing you do is worry about the problem, and the next thing you do is try and solve it yourself. That of course leads to anxiety and more often than not a sense of helplessness. So Nehemiah’s example is useful in that it reminds you and me to be quick to turn to God in prayer.
PREPARE YOUR HEART
And look how Nehemiah’s prayer continues, verses 6 and 7:
6 … I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
Nehemiah humbles himself before this great and awesome God – acknowledges his sin and the sin of the people. In other words he prepares his heart to pray. He comes before God penitently. He knows were the fault lies in relation to the broken down walls. He knows that God’s people have brought God’s judgement upon themselves. And even now they continue to need forgiveness and God’s grace and mercy.
Again I think Nehemiah serves as a useful example to us and our praying – in church, at home, in small groups. Just as we are to prepare our hearts for worship, you and I should prepare ourselves to pray – confess our sin, ask for forgiveness, ensure that we are in right relationship with God.
And there are times when like Nehemiah we will need to confess the sin of our church or our country or our world. That perhaps might be in a situation for instance where a church comes to recognise that it has not been faithful to God’s commands. Maybe in relation to the way members have treated one another, or the neglect of the poor, or failing to faithfully teach the Bible. In such a situation we are to humble ourselves and plead for God’s mercy rather than his just judgement.
So number one, identify with the need. Number two, turn to God in prayer. And thirdly, prepare your heart to pray. Prepare your heart to pray.
PRAY IN LINE WITH GOD’S CHARACTER AND WILL
Perhaps the thing that I find most helpful about Nehemiah’s prayer is his example in verses 8 to 10, of how to pray in line with God’s character and will. Have a look at verse 8 and following. Nehemiah prays to God saying:
8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’
10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.
Nehemiah appeals to God’s character and God’s promises. He makes sure that he aligns himself with God’s will as he prepares to present his petition. He is going to ask for something that is consistent with Israel being God’s chosen people, that is consistent with God’s promise to gather back his scattered exiles, and that is consistent with the name of God being honoured, verse 9.
If you and I want our petitions to be granted we also need to pray in a way that is consistent with God’s character and will. Nehemiah bases his prayer on God’s promises, and is therefore able to ask with confidence. You and I can do the same. We can pray with confidence when we pray in line with God’s character and will.
It is a bit like if you have a friend who has promised to give you a meal the next time you need one. He has promised to feed you. Well if you go up to him and say you want to borrow his car, there is no guarantee that he will lend it to you. He hasn’t promised you a car. He might be able to, he might be generous, he might think you need it and give you the car, but there is no guarantee at the outset.
However if you go to your friend and say, I need a meal today. Your friend will feed you because it is something he has already promised, already agreed to. He is willing.
In a similar way, we today can pray with confidence whenever we ask God for something he has already promised. Whenever we pray in line with God’s character and will. But how do we do that?
You could base your prayers for the church on God’s promise to build his church (to save people). Or you and I could pray for ourselves and others in the church based on God’s promise to work in the lives of his people to make us more and more like Jesus (to sanctify us). Or we could pray for situations of sickness and death based on God’s promise to bring us into our eternal dwelling (the new heavens and earth, free from sorrow, sickness and pain).
It is a good discipline to think about the things we are praying for and ask how we best pray for them in a way that is consistent with God’s character and will.
Yes, we can pray generally for the success of an event, or on a more personal level success in a job interview or important meeting. But actually we should be wanting the church event to go well so that God’s name is honoured, his church built. We should want our job interview to work out so that God provides us with enough to live on, our daily food. Those are reasons that are consistent with God’s character and will. And I think like Nehemiah we would do better to pray with God’s character and will in mind.
So when it comes to prayer: number one, identify with the need; number two, turn to God in prayer; number three, prepare your heart; and number four, pray in line with God’s character and will.
PRESENT YOUR PETITION
And then there is Nehemiah’s petition itself. He does eventually get round to specifically asking God for something. Look at verse 11:
11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of this man.”
Nehemiah’s specific petition concerns his meeting with the King. He wants the King to grant him permission to go to Jerusalem and lead the rebuilding of the walls. It is a bit like the situation with Queen Esther. You might remember how, at the risk of her own life, she approached King Xerxes on behalf of her people.
Nehemiah is risking his life in making this request. Such kings as these were not noted for their tolerance of a sad face in their court, or their willingness to grant a request to rebuild a rebellious city. Nehemiah knows that he needs God’s help and he asks specifically for favour in the presence of the king.
Sometimes when we are praying as Christians, there can be a tendency in our prayer language to say something like “Lord, we pray for such and such an event, and we pray for the leaders, and we pray for those attending. Amen”, without every specifically asking God for anything. We don’t actual request anything specific. We don’t actually present a petition.
I am sure that is fine and that God understands our underlying desire, but surely it would be more consistent with Nehemiah’s prayer to pray “Lord, we know your desire is to save people and to build your church. So please work in the lives of those attending this Christianity Explored event so that many of them come to faith in you.”
Or in a similar way to pray for a fellow Christian saying something along the lines of “Lord, I know that you have promised to work in our lives as Christians to make us holy. Please may you work in my friend’s life during this difficult time, to make her more like Jesus. Please give her patience and strength, help her to know your love and demonstrate that love to those around her.” Those would be examples of presenting a specific petition.
There are many other things that I could mention about Nehemiah and his prayers, but that is probably enough for one sermon. However let me just point out that a few verses later we have a brilliant example of a short prayer rather than a longer one. If you have a look at verse 4 of chapter 2 you can see how the king asks Nehemiah what he wants, and Nehemiah prays and answers the king, in almost the same breath. Prayer and action simultaneously when the occasion demanded it.
Perhaps over the next couple of weeks as we work our way through the rest of the book of Nehemiah you could watch out for how he prays in different situations. But as you pray today and throughout the coming week; as you pray for yourself, for your family, for the needs of your friends, for this church, and for our world, bear in mind at least the things I have highlighted today.
Nehemiah 1) identified with the need, 2) he turned to the Lord God in prayer, 3) he prepared his heart, 4) he prayed in line with God’s character and will, and 5) presented his petition (his specific request).