Nehemiah 1 – Nehemiah’s Prayer
A. Nehemiah hears of Jerusalem’s crisis condition.
1. Some 1,000 years after the time of Moses and some 400 years before the birth of Jesus, the nation of Israel and the Jewish people were in a desperate state.
a. Their nations were destroyed, first the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel and then the southern Jewish kingdom of Judah. The city of Jerusalem was completely conquered by the Babylonians and the once glorious temple of Solomon was destroyed.
b. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they deported almost everyone from the city and the region – for some 70 years, Jerusalem was something of a ghost town, with the potential to end up like many ancient cities – completely forgotten except to history.
c. When the Jews were deported to Babylon, they began to make homes for themselves there. They settled down, and many still followed the God of their fathers, but they did it from Babylon, with no desire to return to the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
i. Some of these faithful Jews were raised up to places of prominence in the governments they were deported to. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego became leaders in Babylon; Esther was made queen in the courts of a Persian king.
d. But after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, they were given the opportunity to return to their homeland, the Promised Land. Out of some two or three million Jews deported from the land, only 50,000 decided to return to the Promised Land – approximately only 2%. But they did return, and in the days of Ezra, they rebuilt the temple and laid a spiritual foundation for Israel once again.
e. The Book of Nehemiah begins 15 years after the Book of Ezra ends; almost 100 years after the first captives came back to the Promised Land and some 150 years after the city of Jerusalem was destroyed. After this long time, the walls of the city of Jerusalem were still in rubble.
i. Before this, the citizens of Jerusalem had tried to rebuild the walls but had failed. In Ezra 4:6-23, we see that some 75 years before they tried to rebuild the walls but were stopped by their enemies. No one thought this obstacle could be overcome, so the walls lay in ruins and the people were still vulnerable.
2. (1-3) Nehemiah hears of Jerusalem’s condition.
The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. It came to pass in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the citadel, that Hanani one of my brethren came with men from Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who had survived the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, “The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.”
a. In Shushan the citadel: Nehemiah lived in Shushan, the capital city of the Persians, and he lived in the citadel – that is, the fortified palace of the Persians. Right away, we know Nehemiah is someone important, living in the palace of the king of Persia.
b. I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who had survived the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem: Nehemiah’s body was in Persia, but his heart and his interest were in Jerusalem – 800 miles (1,300 km) away. He wanted to know from those returning how the people and the city were doing.
i. We might think that a prominent man like Nehemiah had more important things to think about than a distant city he had never been to, and a people he was a stranger to. Yet, because his heart was for the things of God, his heart was not for himself, but for others.
ii. Nehemiah had the heart of Psalm 137:5-6: If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth; if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy. If Jerusalem was special to God, then it would also be special to Nehemiah.
c. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire: The news he received was not encouraging. The people were called survivors; this was not a hopeful title. They were in great distress and reproach, and the walls of the city itself were broken down and the city gates were burned with fire.
i. The bad state of the people and the bad state of the city walls were intimately connected. In the ancient world, a city without walls was a city completely open and vulnerable to its enemies. They had no defense, no protection at all.
ii. An unwalled city was always vulnerable, unable to safely house people and valuables. If there were anything of value in an unwalled city, it could be stolen away easily because there was no defense to stop it.
iii. Those living in an unwalled city lived in constant stress and tension; they never knew when they might be attacked and brutalized. Every man lived in constant fear for his wife and children. The temple could be rebuilt, but never made beautiful, because anything valuable would be taken easily.
iv. No wonder the people lived in constant distress, in constant disgrace (reproach), living only as survivors. God has more for us than to be mere survivors. God not only wants us to be conquerors, but more than conquerors through Him who loved us (Romans 8:37).
3. (4) Nehemiah’s reaction to the news about Jerusalem and its people.
So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
a. I sat down and wept: Nehemiah’s immediate reaction was extreme. He didn’t just feel bad for Jerusalem and its people; right away, there was no strength in his legs (I sat down), and he began to weep and to mourn.
b. Mourned for many days: God was going to use Nehemiah to do something about this situation. But first, God did something in Nehemiah. Any great work of God begins with God doing a great work in somebody.
i. God prepared this long ago, with Nehemiah’s important position in Persia, with a heart curious about the welfare of Jerusalem and its people. Now we see that he had a heart that broke over their needy state.
ii. God saw the need in heaven, but little would be done until the right man also felt the need. God would do something great to meet that need through Nehemiah.
iii. But there is no way Nehemiah could do this alone. He had to be a leader – one who influences other people – to get this job done. Nehemiah is a book all about leadership – something we obviously need today. Since leadership is influence, leadership applies to everyone. Everyone has an area of leadership. In some way, each one is a leader; the question is if they are a good leader or a bad leader.
iv. Leaders must prepare themselves for difficult work because it won’t be easy. “There is no winning without warfare; there is no opportunity without opposition; there is no victory without vigilance. For whenever the people of God say, ‘Let us arise and build,’ Satan says, ‘Let me arise and oppose.’” (Redpath)
v. Leaders must have a big vision, and Nehemiah had one. His mentality seemed to be, “Through me, God is going to correct a problem that’s been around a hundred and fifty years. Through me, God is going to do something that completely failed before.” We must have a vision, a goal, that is big enough.
c. I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven: Nehemiah’s reaction went beyond an immediate emotion. Many times, a concern will come over us in a flush, and then quickly pass. But if it is from the Lord, it will abide and grow, and the burden will remain until the problem that prompted the burden is solved.
i. We should note as well what Nehemiah did not do: he did not complain, whine, or “see who could fix this problem.” He immediately did what he knew he could do – pray, and intensely seek God in this situation.
d. The God of heaven: Nehemiah also had a clear understanding of whom he fasted and prayed to. There are many “gods” people trust in but only the God of heaven can really meet our needs.
B. Nehemiah’s prayer.
1. (5-7) Nehemiah prays to God in humility.
And I said: “I pray, LORD God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments, please let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night, for the children of Israel Your servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel which we have sinned against You. Both my father’s house and I have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses.”
a. I pray: Prayer is essential to leadership. If your vision is so big that only God can accomplish it, then you obviously must pray. If prayer isn’t absolutely necessary to accomplish your vision, your goal isn’t big enough.
i. It appears that Nehemiah prayed for four months before he did anything (Nehemiah 1:1-4 and 2:1). Later, when the work of rebuilding the walls began, it only took 52 days to finish the job. Yet that 52-day project had a four-month foundation of prayer.
ii. Nehemiah took his pain and stress to God in prayer – and seemingly, was able to leave it there. Prayer will relieve your stress. You may be trying to relieve stress through entertainment, but all that does is divert your attention. Entertainment doesn’t give any solutions to stress. Prayer will give you strength; when you wait on the Lord in prayer, He will renew your strength (Isaiah 40:31).
b. I pray, LORD God of heaven: Humility begins by simply understanding there is a God enthroned in the heavens, and I am not Him. Nehemiah recognized exactly who God is, describing Him with many magnificent titles: LORD God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You.
c. Please let Your ear be attentive: Humility also understands my complete dependence on God. When Nehemiah desperately asked God to hear the prayer of Your servant (let Your ear be attentive…Your eyes open), it reflected his complete dependence on the LORD. Only God could help, and if God would only hear, Nehemiah knew He would help.
i. God will allow you to be fruitless to expose your need for total dependence.
d. Confess the sins…which we have sinned against You. Both my father’s house and I have sinned: Humility will also confess sin openly. Nehemiah plainly and simply confessed sin, without any attempt at excusing the sin.
i. We must always avoid excusing ourselves in the confession of our sin. May we never say, “Lord, if I sinned” or “Lord, I’m sorry, but You know how hard it was” or other such nonsense. We can find great freedom in open, honest confession, without any attempt at excuse or wondering “if” I sinned or not.
e. Both my father’s house and I have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You: Humility identifies with the needy. Obviously, Nehemiah was a godly man; but he openly and passionately identified with his father’s house and prayed by using “we” instead of “they.”
i. “You never lighten the load unless first you have felt the pressure in your own soul. You are never used of God to bring blessing until God has opened your eyes and made you see things as they are.” (Redpath)
2. (8-10) Nehemiah comes to God looking to God’s promises.
“Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name.’ Now these are Your servants and Your people, whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand.”
a. Remember: This is a powerful way to come to God, asking Him to remember His promises. Nehemiah said, “LORD, You made a promise to Moses and this nation, I ask you now to make good on it.” Nehemiah quoted from both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 30.
i. This, no doubt, is the secret to great power in prayer: to plead the promises of God. We may be a bit annoyed when one of our children comes to us saying “Daddy, you promised”; but our Father in heaven delights in it – and often demands it before prayer becomes effective.
ii. In Psalm 81:10 God says to His people, open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. God will not open His storehouse until we open our mouths in asking Him to perform His promises.
b. If you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them: Nehemiah quoted a conditional promise. The condition was returning to God and keeping His commandments. He really couldn’t know if the nation was keeping the commandments, but he knew that he was keeping them, and because he had identified himself with the nation in their sin the nation could also identify itself with Nehemiah in his godly fulfillment of these conditions.
3. (11) Nehemiah prays with a heart ready to do something.
“O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” For I was the king’s cupbearer.
a. Grant him mercy in the sight of this man: Nehemiah concluded by asking God to bless him when he would soon speak to the king of Persia about the matter. Nehemiah was going to do something about the tragic state of Jerusalem’s walls and people, and he knew that without God’s intervention, he could do nothing.
b. Let Your servant prosper this day: This is a prayer of a man of action, not a sideline critic. Nehemiah does not pray “God, make it all better” or “God, get someone else moving on this problem.” Instead, his prayer is “God, use me to make it better.”
i. “Recognition of need must be followed by earnest, persistent waiting upon God until the overwhelming sense of world need becomes a specific burden in my soul for one particular piece of work which God would have me do.” (Redpath)
ii. “Laying the matter to heart, he did not begin to speak with other people about what they would do, nor did he draw up a wonderful scheme about what might be done if so many thousand people joined in the enterprise; but it occurred to him that he would do something himself.” (Spurgeon)