The God Who Keeps Covenant
As God restores His people to the land, He does not put them on a fast track. The process has many blessed moments, and a number of setbacks. This book of Nehemiah begins in the middle of one such setback.
The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. 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; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. . . (Nehemiah1:1-11).
Nehemiah was a Jew, the son of Hachaliah (v. 1). He was a cupbearer for the Persian king (v. 11), serving in the palace of Shushan (v. 1). This happens “in the twentieth year” but it does not say the twentieth year of what. Remember that we are following a short chronology, which means that this may refer to twenty years after the first waves of return under Ezra. A brother or kinsman of Nehemiah comes, a man named Hanani, and Nehemiah asked him for news of Jerusalem. The answer was not good (v. 3). When he heard this, Nehemiah mourned, fasted and prayed for a number of days (v. 4). In this frame, Nehemiah offers up his prayer, a foundation for all that follows. He beseeches God, the God who keeps covenant (v. 5). He asks God to hear his confession of sin (v. 6). Specifically, he mentions the sin of having disobeyed the law of Moses (v. 7). But the law of Moses not only promised exile for disobedience (v. 8), but it also promised the grace of a return from exile (v. 9). And so he pleads with the Lord again to hear him (v. 10). He asks that God would prosper him in his desire to fear the name of the Lord, and to give him mercy in the sight of of the king (v. 11).
The Wall of Jerusalem Was Broken Down:
We should recall that in Ezra the altar had been established (Ezra 3:2-3), the foundation of the Temple had been laid (Ezra 3:10), the Temple had been built (Ezra 4:1), and, according to their enemies anyway, some work had been done on the walls (Ezra 4:12-13, 16; 5: 8-9). There had apparently been some work done on the walls under Ezra, because Nehemiah would scarcely been so affected if the news had been that Nebuchadnezzer had broken down that walls many years before. That was hardly news. But neither should we think that we are about a century after Ezra (for reasons already stated). This would mean more of a drastic interruption in the promised return, instead of a slow return with attendant setbacks.
The God Who Keeps Covenant:
Nehemiah begins by acknowledging the revealed character of the God to whom he prays. He pleads with this God. He addresses Him as the “great and terrible God.” But this terrible God is not terrible in the modern sense. Why? He keeps covenant and mercy for those who love Him and who observe His commandments (v. 5).
On this basis, Nehemiah pleads with God to have His ear be attentive, and to open His eyes, in order that He might hear the prayer of Nehemiah His servant. Nehemiah offered this basic prayer up to God both day and night, on behalf of the children of Israel. He interceded for them, and he confessed their sins. Nehemiah confessed that both he and his father’s house had participated in the sin.
Notice the pattern. Adoration is a reminder of who God is. This is the theology of the salutation. He then proceeds to confess sin. This is the same pattern that we seek to follow here. Worship and adoration, then confession, and then the particulars of our petitions.
Praying the Scriptures:
What Nehemiah does here, wonderfully, is pray back to the Lord what the Lord has promised to do. This is covenantal praying. God commits Himself to certain things in writing, and His people are invited (commanded) to plead for that which has been promised. This, and only this, is what separates faith from presumption.
When someone on the outside looks at what you pray for, if it is big, they can accuse you of presumption. Who do you think you are? Asking for the walls of Jerusalem to be restored? You are just a cupbearer! But the issue ought never to be how big it is, but rather how promised it is. The issue ought never to be how small the prayer is (he is always very small), but rather whether the “great and terrible God” has promised to do something. If He has in fact promised it, it would be hubris and arrogance to refuse to ask for it.
We see this principle in play just before the promise of the virgin birth. “Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD. And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?” (Is. 7: 11-13). Ahaz thought that he was “not tempting” the Lord. But he was actually wearying Him.
But We Still Hesitate:
We hesitate at this point for various reasons. One is the kind of thing mentioned above. The promises in Scripture are great, and the God who promised them is “great and terrible,” but we relegate it all to some kind of “spiritual truth” category. Of course, we all know that God so loved the “world,” but you sound like you believe that God so loved the world. In this, we fail to understand (really) the character of God. We do not comprehend how gracious He has been to us in our sinful condition.
And equally, on the other side of the coin, we fail to understand the character of God in other respects. This is why we are frequently reluctant to pray the psalms of imprecation. But in imprecation, we are simply asking God to do what He in His Word has promised repeatedly to do. If we are praying “negatively” apart from the Word, then we are simply using the Christian equivalent of a voodoo doll. But if, contrary to the invitation of the Word, we refuse to pray that way, we become like Ahaz, and are exasperating the Lord.
Praying About How to Pray:
Nehemiah prays that God would be attentive (v. 11). We define contradiction by the Word, and not by unaided human reason. Why ask God to do things He has promised to do? Because He requires it. But Nehemiah goes further than this. Nehemiah and God’s other servants desired to fear the name of God. This is like the prayer of the man in the gospels—“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” They desired to fear God’s name, and in effect this was a prayer that He would prosper them. The assumption is that if God prospered them, and showed them mercy in the sight of their rulers, He was in fact giving to them what they desired, which was a true fear of God.
We want to pray the Scriptures back to God. We want Him to reveal to us what the Scriptures actually teach, so that we are praying to Him what He actually has promised, and not what we casually assumed that He promised. And in this we find the key to future reformation in the Church. God is capable of giving to us beyond what we could ask or imagine.