NEHEMIAH, ANOTHER MAN OF PRAYER

Remnants of part of the walls of Jerusalem restored by Nehemiah,

Nehemiah was a man of prayer, but he wasn’t perfect. When God’s people began their Babylonian captivity, God’s Word to them through the prophets was that it would eventually come to an end; eventually they would be allowed to return to their land. Seventy years after the Captivity began, Cyrus, king of Persia, ended it. By royal decree throughout his empire, all Jews were permitted to return to Judah and rebuild their homes. However, while there were millions of Jews scattered throughout the kingdom of the Medes and Persians, very few wanted to leave and go back home. In fact, there were probably only 65,000 Jews who were obedient to God’s will and chose to go home. The vast majority chose to remain in Persia, where they had built their lives and were enjoying safety and prosperity. One of those who decided to say put was Nehemiah. Clearly, he was living outside of God’s will.

Having said that, we can understand why it would have been so difficult for Nehemiah and others to go back home. He was part of the generation that had been born in Persia; he had no connection whatsoever to Jerusalem. Nehemiah and those other captivity babies had never seen Solomon’s Temple. They may have heard the stories from their parents and grandparents, but the only world they knew was the world of Persia. Nehemiah had been born to educated, wealthy parents and he had a good job: he worked in the palace for the king! He was a high government official.

In spite of that, Nehemiah was not aloof from his people. Though he was outside of God’s will, Nehemiah still loved God and was faithful to Him as he lived and worked in the palace. Nehemiah was also empathic to the those who chose to go back home. There were a lot of problems with resettling in Judah and Jerusalem. Those who chose to go back encountered problem after problem, set back after set back. Nehemiah felt their pain and their burdens were his. God moved on Nehemiah’s heart and Nehemiah decided he needed to do something to help his people, and the very first thing he did was to pray. His prayer is magnificent and we may learn a lot about the nature of prayer as we study his.

1. Concern

Before Nehemiah prayed for the exiles and their return to Jerusalem, he was made aware of just how bad things were for them:

The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Nehemiah 1:1—3)

The picture Nehemiah’s brother painted of life in Jerusalem was not a pretty one. Things were tough and getting tougher. Now Nehemiah, hundreds of miles from Jerusalem, living in luxury, could have spoken any number of cliches when he heard the news. However, Nehemiah was a man of honor and this bad news moved him:

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven… (verse 4)

Nehemiah was so concerned about the plight of his people back in Jerusalem, he couldn’t work and he couldn’t eat. He fasted and prayed for days and days. It took a while, but Nehemiah got a heavy burden for his people.

This is a rare thing in the Church these days. We are very quick to take our needs to the Lord in prayer, as we should, but most of us rarely have a burden for a particular need or situation like Nehemiah had for those who went back to Jerusalem. Do you know what a “prayer burden” feels like? Don’t be ashamed if you don’t; not many Christians do. A “prayer burden” feels like a spiritual weight you can’t shake. It’s a heaviness of heart, a drag on one’s emotions, a spirit of mourning, or a feeling of restlessness that arises because you can’t seem to get your mind off a certain need. This comes directly from the Lord; it doesn’t originate in you or in your emotions. A burden of prayer is the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in a believer.

2. Intercession

Praying for the needs of others, or on behalf of others, is arguably the highest form of prayer. Paul stated the importance of the prayer of intercession like this:

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. (Ephesians 6:18)

Notice that serious prayers “for all the saints” are part of praying in the Spirit. What is praying in the Spirit? It’s a prayer that is prayed by the Holy Spirit through an individual. Like Nehemiah, we are not perfect. We don’t always have a lock on God’s will even though we are supposed pray for God’s will to be accomplished! Romans 8:26, 27 helps us understand what it is to pray in the Spirit:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.

Nehemiah began his prayer with a sense of reverence:

Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God… (verse 5a)

His was a prayer prayed with the understanding that God was far, far above the world He created. Nehemiah’s view of God was impressive and “awesome.” And yet, as huge and as mighty as God was, He wasn’t so far away as to miss one word of this prayer:

...let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying… (verse 6)

So, Nehemiah’s big and busy God was “attentive” and “open” enough to hear Nehemiah pray. This tells us that as far as Nehemiah was concerned, God may have been the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and the “national God of Israel,” but He was still a personal God who listened to a persona prayer. This is a pretty significant attitude for an Israelite, living in Persia, to adopt. No formal, liturgical prayers for Nehemiah! He slaughtered no animal and made no offering.

That’s not to suggest this prayer was easy an easy prayer to pray.

...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. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. (verse 6)

Notice three points. First, Nehemiah prayed “day and night.” In other words, this royal cupbearer didn’t just pray about this situation in the morning before he wen to work or at night before he drifted off to sleep. He literally prayed all the time as he went about his daily duties in and around the palace. He prayed not only from his lips but also from his heart. This is something the great apostle Paul would pick up on in his letter to the church at Thessalonica:

…pray continually… (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

This is a two word (or three word in the KJV) verse that should form the basis of the Christian lifestyle! A mature believer is one who “walks in prayer” all the time. It’s an attitude of prayer; it’s a burden of prayer that is always “in the back of your mind,” wherever you are, whatever you are doing.

The second point is that Nehemiah recognized Israel—all Israelites including himself—had sinned. Sin is something we don’t hear much about in church these days. It’s a very unpopular subject; it is not a topic that draws the crowds. Who wants to hear how bad they really are? The fact is, God wants you to admit how sinful you are; it’s important that when we approach God, we recognize His perfection and our sinful state. However, Nehemiah didn’t stay there, and neither should we:

Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 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.’ (verses 8, 9)

The third point of Nehemiah’s prayer is an important point. He acknowledged God’s will concerning the Israelites and he acknowledged God’s promises concerning Israel. In Israel’s case, His will and His promises were two sides of the same coin. The nation had sinned and as God said would happen, they were exiled from their homeland. However, God promised that exile wouldn’t last forever; it would come to an end, and Nehemiah reminded God of that great promise. It’s important to remember God’s promises and to claim God’s promises concerning you.

I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24)

It’s good to remind God of what He said; it can lead to salvation!

3. Submission

This prayer of Nehemiah’s was remarkable and it certainly got God’s attention. But Nehemiah was moved to pray about a particular situation. His prayer was not the end of his burden. He acted upon his prayer; his prayer led him to do something about those he was praying for:

Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man… (verse 11b)

What is this verse referring to? Who is the “this man” referred to? The last sentence of chapter one tells us:

I was cupbearer to the king.

In other words, Nehemiah was about to and speak to the king about the situation. He didn’t just pray about, he was going to do something about it by going right to the top on behalf of his people. The cupbearer will talk to king about how he may be able to help the Israelites who went home.

How many of us pray about something or pray for somebody but then leave it there? Now, sometimes we may not be able to do anything, but, sometimes was can. For example, have you ever prayed for the salvation of a family member or friend or co-worker? That’s a good prayer to pray, by the way. But have you ever approached them about the subject? Have you ever actually shared the Gospel with them?  It’s fine to pray for them, but there are times when “doing” is better than praying.

We all know what Jesus said in Matthew 9:38—

Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.

But a lot of us don’t what He said a few sentences later:

Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. (Matthew 10:6)

Our Lord said to pray and ask God to send missionaries out to save the lost, then He told those same people to go and do that very work! This is exactly what Nehemiah did:

…and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” (Nehemiah 2:5)

So our cupbearer asked his boss for a “leave of absence” to go and help his people rebuild their city. Nehemiah not only prayed but he did. He submitted to the will of God and went to a part of the answer to his prayer.

(c)  2012 WitzEnd
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