Nehemiah starts off with bad news. People return to Persia with news regarding the state of affairs in Jerusalem. The wall is in ruins and the people have been shamefully treated. This breaks Nehemiah’s heart. His response is found in 1:4,
“When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.“
Have you ever been so sad you didn’t just weep. You wept so hard you had to sit down. I am sure we have all had our moments like that. The diagnosis or prognosis is poor. The job was lost, the promotion never came. Maybe it was the Christmas bonus that was a Jelly of the month club membership that got you bent out of shape.
Nehemiah not only weeps. He prays. Now, if I am in his shoes my prayer would be almost all supplication/request. I would be begging God to fix this situation. Nehemiah doesn’t start there. He starts with adoration (anyone else thing this prayer is similar to the Lord’s prayer in its structure). He begins praising God. He recognizes God’s awesomeness and covenant faithfulness.
“Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 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.” (1:5-6a)
A wrongly directed prayer might then go straight to supplication. Once you let God know how great He is then get on with the request. Not Nehemiah. Nehemiah moves from adoring God to a confession of his own personal sinfulness, his families sinfulness and the sinfulness of the people of Israel. Recognizing God’s awesomeness and holiness leads into a recognition of our own sinfulness. Not only does Nehemiah recognize their sinfulness, he also connects their sinfulness with their current state of disarray and shame. He gives God a “you told us so.” The “you told us so” also comes with a glimmer of hope,
“I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, 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. “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.’” (1:6b-9)
The glimmer of hope is that in giving the warnings of disobedience God had also provided provision of deliverance for repentance. Nehemiah is identifying his petition with the repentance God said would trigger or begin the path to future deliverance. Nehemiah is reminding God of what God said and calling on God to act.
When Nehemiah finally calls on God to act, Nehemiah recognizes that he may well play a crucial role in the solution.
“‘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 favor in the presence of this man.’ 11 I was cupbearer to the king.” (1:10-11)
The prayer ends at verse 10. Verse 11 gives us some insight about who “this man” is at the end of the prayer. “This man” is the king of Persia and it just so happens that Nehemiah has direct access to him. I don’t know that there is anything to it but the way the prayer is worded makes me wonder if Nehemiah is not praying this silently to himself while in the presence of the king. That is pure speculation but I find the wording interesting.
There are times we want God to fix things or someone else to do it. Nehemiah recognizes his unique position as cupbearer to the king and knows that he has been placed there as part of the solution. When we pray we need to be open to the possibility that God may use us to be a part of the solution. I have always felt bad complaining about things I wasn’t willing to help fix. We see that in Nehemiah’s prayer.
Prayer is an appropriate start to the book of Nehemiah. It is also an appropriate start to troubles that we go through that we pray to God about. Let us learn from Nehemiah’s example to keep God first, recognize our own sinfulness and call on God to help…fully expecting He may use us to be a part of the solution.