When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: “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, 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. 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, 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.’ “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. 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.” I was cupbearer to the king. Nehemiah 1:4-11
The Characteristics Of An Effective Prayer
Nehemiah’s emotional response to the report from Hanani and the brethren about the condition of the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and about Jerusalem, demonstrates his love for his country and his countrymen. Verse 4 says he sat down and wept. This is an extreme expression of grief which highlights the way most God-fearing Jews felt about the city of God. That Nehemiah sat down and wept to highlight the sense of defeat that most exile Jews experienced during their Babylonian captivity. Even an influential person like Nehemiah with access to the king felt defeated. Nehemiah resigned himself to mourn, fast, and pray before the God of heaven as a coping mechanism for his ethnocentric melancholy. He prayed because the sense of defeatism he experienced was overwhelming. Nehemiah also prayed because he knew that only God could help the Jews out of their desperate condition. Without a plan to address the desperate circumstance of his people and his homeland, prayer was the only option available to Nehemiah at that time.
The structure of Nehemiah’s prayer that begins in verse 5 is quite informative and theological dynamic. Nehemiah’s prayer speaks volumes about his faith in God, his patriotism, his understanding of the covenantal relationship between God and the Jews, his spiritual maturity, and his temperament. It is a sincere and profound prayer that contains central tenets of effective prayer: humility, confession, repentance, intercession, and supplication. Nehemiah begins his prayer by acknowledging the awesomeness of God as “the Lord, the God of heaven.” He demonstrates reverence to God and complete dependence on the Lord. The humble tone and tenor of the beginning of Nehemiah’s prayer says a lot about his understanding of who God is and humanity’s dependency on God. The language of verse 5 captures one of the most salient characteristics of God’s divine attributes. Nehemiah underscores the faithfulness of God. He acknowledges that God keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments. The covenantal language is central to Jewish theology.
In verse 6, Nehemiah switches the tenor of his language to offer a heartfelt confession to the Lord. Nehemiah’s confession, however, is not just for himself. He also confesses the sins of his family and countrymen. After all, it is because of the sinful disobedience of the Israelites that God allowed the Babylonians to take them into captivity and destroy the city of God. The confession extends into verse 7, where Nehemiah speaks specifically to the nature of the Israelites sin against God. He says “We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses” Notice that Nehemiah does not absolve himself of the wickedness of the Israelites. He traces the disobedience of the Israelites to the time of Moses. This demonstrates an awareness of the long history of disobedience of the Israelites. In verse 8, Nehemiah amplifies the covenantal language of his prayer by quoting both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 30. In doing so, Nehemiah is appealing to and pleading for the promises that God made to the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land. Nehemiah is certain that God will not go back on his word. The Lord is faithful to fulfill all his promises despite the disobedience of the Israelites.
In verse 9, Nehemiah acknowledges that God’s promises are always conditional. In this instance, the condition was returning to God and keeping His commandments. The defeat of the Jews at the hands of the Babylonians and their extended captivity in Babylon confirms that the Israelites had not honored their covenantal agreement with God. Yet he was assured that if the Israelites were to repent and return to God, the Almighty would restore them and their homeland. In verse 10, Nehemiah reaffirms the identity of the Israelites as God’s people. He reminds the Lord of the great exodus miracles he performed to establish the Israelites into the Promised Land according to his covenantal agreement with the Jewish Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses). Indeed, it was by the great strength of God the Israelites survived 40 years in the wilderness and defeated all their enemies to take possession of the Promised Land. At the beginning of verse 11, Nehemiah petitions God for divine favor as he prepares to go before the king. With so much on the line, Nehemiah is very deliberate in his prayer and wants to make sure he covers all his spiritual bases. He beseeches God to incline his ears to his prayer because of what is at stake. In addition, he petitions the Lord for divine favor in the presence of the king.
Nehemiah teaches us the keys to effective prayer in times of need. During a period of four months, he fasted and prayed to beseech the mercy and the favor of God on behalf of his people. He humbly interceded on behalf of his people, while confessing his sins as well as the historical sins of the Israelites. His prayer is devoid of any arrogance and pride as he reverently appealed to the awesomeness of God. Whatever our circumstance, we must approach God with fear and trembling. For, the Almighty does not owe us anything. It is because of his grace and mercy that we are not consumed. All our hardships are the results of sinful choices. Whereas God is faithful to deliver us, we must own up to our sinfulness and beseech his mercy.
Nehemiah was in no hurry to communicate his need and the needs of his people before God. Too often, we are in a hurry to get God’s attention. Indeed, many people approach God with a drive-thru attitude. We want God to hear and answer our prayers even as we are praying. We do not like to wait, and we seldom take responsibility for contributing to our own detriment. Our failsafe measure is to blame the devil for everything, instead of confessing and repenting from our disobedience to God.
Nehemiah did not try to play the victim. He owned up to the historical failures of the Israelites, even as he reminded God of his covenantal promises to the patriarchs. In as much as he was stirred to help his people and his homeland, he sought the favor of the Lord first. Many of us failed in our life’s pursuit because we only invite God in our affairs after things have spiraled out of control. Any plans that are not faith-based and Holy Spirit led is doomed to fail. Unless the Lord ordains our steps and favors our plans, we cannot succeed.
Nehemiah knew he would not succeed in approaching the King without the favor of God. With so much on the line, he did not rely on his relationship with the king or his position in the king’s court. Instead, he turned to prayer and fasting to obtain the favor of the Lord before going before the king. We should not put our trust in our talents, connections, or positions. In everything, we should look to the Lord for his mercy and favor so we can be established in everything we do.
Blessed Lord, we confess our sins and beseech your mercy as we strive to live a life that is pleasing in your sight.