Nehemiah’s Prayer for God’s Kingdom
For the next few weeks, I’ve decided to make a quick study of the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah is a book about building. It therefore teaches us how to serve God.
However, before we begin Nehemiah, it would probably be a good idea to review Old Testament history so that we can understand exactly where the it fits in.
Nehemiah lived in the fifth century before Christ. Abraham, Moses and David had died a long time before this. When David lived (about five hundred years earlier), the kingdom was at its peak militarily, politically and religiously. But all of this started to change with Solomon. He not only lost some of the territory that his father had won, he disgraced his office by his flagrant sin and burdened his own people with excessive demands. His foolishness ended up splitting the kingdom during the reign of his son. The ten northern tribes never had a good king and were eventually removed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. The southern tribes fared a little better. Although most of their kings were also evil, some (e.g., Asa, Hezekiah and Josiah) were better than others. God protected them as much as he did for the sake of David. But even this did not mean that they were free from chastisement. So, when Manasseh sacrificed his son to Molech, God announced that he would send the southern tribes into a seventy-year captivity. The Babylonians raided Judah three times between 605 and 586 BC. Their last raid resulted in the complete destruction of Jerusalem, including its protective wall.
When the seventy years of captivity came to an end, the Persians, who had conquered the Babylonians, allowed some of the Jews to return to their homeland. Zerubbabel led the first group. His mission was to rebuild the temple. Ezra was in charge of the next group. As a priest, his job was to teach the people true religion. The third group returned under Nehemiah.
The Needs of God’s Kingdom
We don’t know very much about Nehemiah other than what we find in his book. His name (נְחֶמְיָה) means “Jehovah comforts,” and the Lord certainly used him to comfort his fellow Jews. His father’s name, according to verse 1, was Hachaliah; and his brother, as we see in the next verse, was Hanani. Since Nehemiah recorded their names, they were probably fairly well known in their day, although we know virtually nothing about them. And we also know that Nehemiah was the cupbearer of the Persian king Artaxerxes. In the ancient world, this was a position of tremendous importance. The cupbearer tasted the king’s food and drink before the king did. If the cupbearer survived, then the food or drink was considered safe. Thus, the cupbearer had to be a man whose integrity and commitment to service were unquestioned. Nehemiah was just such a man.
Now, let’s look at what Nehemiah wrote. His books begins: And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace, that Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah (ch. 1:1–2). This information gives us a very accurate date for what follows. Kislev is the ninth month of the Jewish calendar and corresponds and corresponds to late November or early December on our calendar. This is also confirmed by the fact that Nehemiah was with the king at palace in Susa when his brother approached him. Susa was where the Persian kings often spent their winters (cf. Esth. 1:2 and Dan. 8:1–2). Further, Nehemiah tells us that this took place in the twentieth year, that is, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes became king in 465 BC, so this puts Hanani’s visit to Nehemiah in November or December of 445 BC.
When Hanani came to the palace, having just returned from a trip to Jerusalem, Nehemiah asked him two very specific questions, which revealed his inmost concerns. Whether Hanani had taken the scenic route or enjoyed his travels was not very high on Nehemiah’s list of concerns. But he did want to know the condition of the men who had escaped the captivity, and he wanted to know the physical condition of Jerusalem, which, since the days of David, had been inextricably tied to the kingdom itself. Thus, Nehemiah stands as an example of one who sought first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. The Lord instructs us to do the same and promises that, if we do, he add unto us many other blessings as well (Matt. 6:33).
Hanani and company wasted no time answering Nehemiah’s questions. The situation in Judah was really bad. They found their brethren in in great affliction and reproach. Zerubbabel had been authorized to rebuild the temple and private homes, but the walls and gates of the city still lay in ruins. The city was, therefore, unprotected. Occasionally, the Jews had had tried to rebuild the walls, but were never very serious about it. The last attempt had been stopped by Artaxerxes himself, who had been pressured by the Samaritans to put an end to the project.
The affliction that Hanani described was bad. It had been a hundred and forty years since Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem. The Jews’ attempts to rebuild were only half-hearted at best. They had built themselves houses of cedar, complained the prophet Haggai, while they let the Lord’s house lie in waste. That had been remedied, but they still had little interest in rebuilding the wall even after all this time.
Little wonder, then, that Nehemiah sunk into a deep discouragement when he heard the bad news. Verse 4 says, And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven. How could a godly man, who longed to see the good of Jerusalem, do anything but weep under these circumstances?
Less godly men might have tried to rationalize Jerusalem’s condition. Sure, it was bad, they might have said, but other people have been in far worse shape. And this, of course, would have been true. Or they could have said that their chastening was well deserved. The Jews, and especially their kings, had not obeyed God’s law. The Lord had chastened them with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men, just as he had promised David he would do to a wayward son (II Sam. 7:14). This also was true. But it also misses the point. Jerusalem’s condition, even though it was a relatively small town in the fifth and sixth centuries before Christ, was far more important than other cities. It was more important, for example, than the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Why? Because God had chosen to bind Jerusalem to the kingdom that it represented for David’s sake. Immediately after promising to chasten wayward sons with the rod of men, God assured David, But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever (II Sam. 7:15–16). The good of Jerusalem anticipated the coming of the Messiah, whose reign would never end.
Therefore, Nehemiah wept. He wept when he first heard the news from Judah, and then he wept thereafter for several days. He also fasted. Not too many people fast nowadays, but there are occasions when it is appropriate, particularly in times of crisis. However, the mere fact that we abstain from satisfying our normal physical needs does not guarantee God’s blessing. The purpose of fasting is to remove ourselves from all earthly supports and find our rest wholly in the Savior. Fasting and prayer are, therefore, frequently tied together. Nehemiah did both. The last thing that verse 4 says is that he prayed before the God of heaven.
Prayer for God’s Kingdom
Nehemiah recorded the details of his prayer for us in the remainder of our text. Whether this was his entire prayer or just a summary of it, we do not know. Either way it again reveals the heart of a man who loved God’s kingdom and righteousness.
Nehemiah addressed God at the very beginning of his prayer (v. 5). He prayed to the Lord, Jehovah, I am that I am, i.e., the faithful God of the covenant. His did this purposely since throughout his prayer he highlights the special relationship that God has with his people. God is the one who, according to the end of this verse, keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments. But, of course, this is only part of God’s covenant. Nehemiah words reflect Deuteronomy 7:9–10, where Moses wrote, Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations; and repayeth them that hate him to their face, to destroy them: he will not be slack to him that hateth him, he will repay him to his face. Nehemiah recognized that God had already kept the latter part of this promise by driving the people into captivity after they sinned. He is about to call on him to be faithful to the first part, viz., to show mercy once again.
In addition to calling on the Lord as Jehovah, Nehemiah also acknowledged him to be the God of heaven and the great and terrible God. The fact that God is the God of heaven means several things: To begin with, the name God or Elohim (אֱלֹהֵי) indicates power. Jehovah has the power to accomplish his will. Further, the fact that he dwells in heaven and reigns from heaven means that he is wholly unlike the gods that men make and choose for themselves. The gods of the natural man are made of earthly things — wood, stone or men’s imaginations — and they remain on the earth. If they are unable to do anything on earth, they certainly cannot do anything elsewhere. But Jehovah is the God of heaven, who rules over all creation. Everything serves his purposes. All of this must have been an especially precious comfort to Nehemiah as reflected on the news he had just heard.
Jehovah is also the great and terrible God. He demonstrates his greatness in his great acts of power — such things as creation, the flood, the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. But even more, God demonstrates his greatness in his righteous judgments. For this reason, he is also a terrible God. The word translated terrible (וְהַנּוֹרָא from יָרֵא) literally means fearful, dreadful and awesome. Just as God struck fear into the nations during the exodus, the absolute righteousness of his judgments must produce a deep reverence in the hearts of his people. We must approach God with a full awareness that he is the Creator and Judge of all mankind, and we are his servants.
Nehemiah then begged Jehovah, the God of heaven, to hear his prayer (v. 6). He again begged God to hear him at the end of his prayer. He said, O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name (v. 11).
We might wonder why this godly man thought it necessary to plead with God to hear his prayer. Wasn’t he aware that Proverbs 15 says that the prayer of the upright is his delight (v. 8) and that God heareth the prayer of the righteous (v. 29)? Had he never heard the invitation to prayer that God spoke through Jeremiah? Jeremiah wrote, Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not (Jer. 33:3). Although Nehemiah lived before Christ, surely he knew that the Messiah would restore our access to the Father, so that we might come boldly unto the throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:15–16).
Of course, Nehemiah understood these things. He didn’t beg God to hear his prayers because he doubted that God’s favor. He begged God because he knew both God and himself: God is the sovereign of all creation, and he was a sinner who, apart from God’s mercy, would have remained captive to and condemned by his sin.
But one other thing stands out in his prayer. Just as he wept for many days, he also prayed many days. But that’s not all. In his prayer, he reminded God that he had prayed day and night for the children of Israel. It’s the fervency of his prayer that should catch our attention here.
This kind of committed day-and-night prayer is exactly how God expects us to pray for his kingdom. We see it also in our Lord’s parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18. Luke introduced us to this parable with these words: And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint (v. 1). Then the parable itself describes a widow, who appeared before the same unjust judge day after day, complaining about the crimes of her adversary, until the judge finally gave her what she wanted only because he was weary of her constant complaints. We learn from this the necessity of persevering in prayer. That’s exactly what Jesus said: And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. (vv. 7–8).
Nehemiah’s prayer continues with a confession of sin. He boldly owned not only his own sin, but also the sins of his people. Verse 6 says that he confessed the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. The destruction of Jerusalem was, of course, not the result of Nehemiah’s sin. He wasn’t even born until well after it had happened. But his fathers were at fault, and Nehemiah had to suffer the consequences of their sin — just as the children of a drunkard often live in poverty due to their father’s preference for alcohol over the welfare of his family. But this is not what Nehemiah meant. We do not confess the consequences of sin; we confess our acts of sin. And this is what Nehemiah confessed in verse 7: We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses. Nehemiah and all the Jews of his day had broken God’s law.
But what was the sin that he had in mind? There was apparently more than one offense. Note that the commandments, statutes and judgments that Nehemiah and the Jews had violated are all plural. And yet in the immediate context one sin seems to stand out above all others. The Jews had failed to show proper consideration for the welfare of their own people, their restoration in the land of promise and the worship of God. Until Nehemiah heard his brother’s report, even he had not made much of an effort to find out how things were going in Judah. In a foreign land, conditions back home were out of sight and out of mind.
This is a danger for us, too. We have been raised up with Jesus Christ and are now seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). Like Abraham, we desire a better country and a better city than what we have here (Heb. 11:16; 12:22). But let’s not forget that we still live here and that we have a responsibility to the church on earth. Do you support and encourage one another in the faith? Do you plead with God to bless the church’s ministry and outreach? Is the purity of the church something you work for every day of your lives? Do you have compassion on those who suffer for Christ or are disheartened by his unpleasant providences? Are your gifts and talents cheerfully used for the advantage and welfare of other members?
These are not academic questions and we should not treat them as such. They are a barometer of our spiritual condition. Nehemiah confessed that his barometer was not where it should have been. He and his contemporaries had fallen short. They needed to repent and, by God’s everlasting kindness to them, they did so. Similarly, everyone here today should examine his or her life. Fix the things that fall short, and strengthen the areas where we are doing well.
After confessing his sin, Nehemiah turned his attention to God’s promises, focusing in particular on the curses and the blessings of the covenant. The Lord had been true to his word. When the people turned away from the covenant, God scattered them like the wind. This is the situation that the Jews had found themselves in for a century and a half. But Nehemiah looked for God to gather his people from the farthest reaches of the galaxy once again. Why? Was it because they were better now? Had they taken some self-improvement courses at the local community college? No, Nehemiah’s confession showed that this wasn’t so. According to verse 10, it was because they belonged to the Lord. They were his people. God had redeemed them by his great power and by his strong hand. He had redeemed them to be his own special possession. And now that he had begun to work his grace in them once again, he would renew his favor toward them.
Nehemiah based his appeal on the fact that God had called the Jews to a very special enjoyment of his favor. They were his servants. And God does not forsake his own.
As Reformed believers, we cherish the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. It is our profoundest comfort to know that we belong to Jesus Christ and nothing whatsoever can ever snatch us out of the Father’s hand. But let’s never separate this promise from the reason why God causes his grace to persist in us. It’s because God has chosen to love us for the sake of his Son. He has been pleased to make us his beloved.
Notice what Nehemiah did here. He prayed God’s promise. God said that he would deal with his people a certain way. Nehemiah asked him to do only what he had said he would do. We can never go wrong praying like this. This kind of prayer is, by definition, praying according to the will of God.
The Lord called Nehemiah to undertake a very special task — rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. That wall by itself could never protect either the people of God or the sanctity of his worship. Only the Lord can do that. But it was a symbol of God’s protection and, therefore, of God’s purpose to send the Messiah to bear our sins.
Nehemiah was God’s servant, and so are we. Nehemiah teaches us how to engage in God’s servants, especially in difficult times. First, we must understand the need. The Lord calls us to service. We need to know what he wants us to do. Second, we must make God’s concern our own. It’s not enough to know that things could be done, we must feel the burden of making them so. Has God laid a particular ministry or service on your heart? And third, we must pray for God to bless our labors. Apart from his blessing, neither our cares nor labors can profit us.
This, too, is the work of Christ’s kingdom. His kingdom advances and conquers as his people serve him. May this be the desire of each one of us here today. Amen.