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"So I Prayed to the God of Heaven"
(Nehemiah 2:4)

by

Kevin L. Moore

As the book of Nehemiah is read, one has to be impressed by the great emphasis on prayer. No fewer than fifty-five verses in this treatise mention, allude to, or record the prayers of Nehemiah and his people. What can we learn about prayer from this marvellous volume?

Occasions of Prayer
In the book of Nehemiah, we see that prayers were offered in a variety of situations. Nehemiah prayed "day and night" (1: 6), setting a good example for those of us who have been admonished to "pray without ceasing"(I Thessalonians 5:17). But there were also specific occasions in which prayers were offered.

Before making his request to King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah prayed to the God of heaven (2: 4). As was the custom of our Lord (Mark 1: 35-38; Luke 6:12-13), when we are faced with major decisions or events in our lives, God ought to be the first one to whom we turn.
Nehemiah prayed as he was suffering great emotional anguish over the condition of Jerusalem and his people (1: 3-11). During times of personal struggle or anxiety we, too, should pray; "casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you" (I Peter 5: 7).

Nehemiah and his people prayed during times of conflict and persecution (4: 4, 9; 6: 9). Whenever we face external trials, we need to know that God is always there to listen and to help. "Trust in Him at all times, you people; Pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us" (Psalm 62: 8).

Prayer was also offered during worship when the Book of the Law was read (8: 5-6). This continues to be an important part of our worship today (Acts 2: 42; 12: 5), and we must always take care to approach God's word with a prayerful attitude. "Blessed are You, O Lord! Teach me Your statutes" (Psalm 119:12).

Prayer was offered when repentance was called for (1: 6-7; 9:1ff). Our sins draw us away from God, but prayer gives the child of God an opportunity to confess and make things right with Him (Acts 8: 22; I John 1: 8-10). "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions" (Psalm 51: 1).

Content of Prayer
We also learn from Nehemiah what was included in those prayers. First and foremost, God was acknowledged and praised (1: 5; 5:13, 15; 8: 6; 9: 5-15, 32). He was remembered and honoured simply for who He is (9: 5-6a), as creator and sustainer (9: 6), for His wisdom and faithfulness (9: 7-8), for His deliverance (9: 9-11, 27-28), for His guidance (9:12-14, 19-20, 30), for His providence (9:15, 20-25), for His mercy (9:17-19, 27-31), and for His justice and discipline (9: 27-30, 33). Instead of impatiently bursting into heaven demanding God's attention, we ought to take the time to honour and praise Him.

The prayers in the book of Nehemiah also included thanksgiving (11:17; 12: 24, 27). Too often we get so caught up in asking God for things that we fail to express appreciation for all that He's already done! The psalmist conveyed it this way: "Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!" (Psalm 107: 8). We, of all people, should be thankful and always ready to express our gratitude to the Source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). "Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving" (Col. 4: 2).

There were also prayers of petition, involving personal requests (1:11; 5:19; 6:9; 13:14, 22, 31), supplications for brethren (1: 6; 9: 32), and entreaties against enemies (4: 4-5; 6:14; 13: 29). When Nehemiah prayed concerning his opponents, he appears to have been asking that they be caught in their own folly, according to the will of God (cf. Psalm 7:15-16; 9:15-16; 10: 2; etc.). The prayers of the New Covenant include personal requests (Philippians 4: 6) and petitions for others (I Timothy 2:1), but when it comes to our adversaries, the Lord instructs: "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matthew 5: 44).

Attitudes of Prayer.
In the book of Nehemiah prayers were offered with an attitude of humility: "Here we are, servants today!" (9: 36). Nehemiah acknowledged his own personal weakness and frailty when he prayed: "Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands" (6: 9). Instead of arrogantly dealing with his foes in his own self-reliance, Nehemiah humbly turned his problems over to God (4: 4-5; 6:14).

Another attitude which accompanied the prayers in Nehemiah was that of a contrite heart: "we have sinned against You . . ." (1: 6-7); "the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads" (9:1). God hates sin, but He despises even more the proud sinner who revels in his iniquity and stubbornly refuses to repent (Psalm 5: 4-6). David affirmed: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart -- these, O God, You will not despise" (Psalm 51:17).

The prayers of the people were also coupled with a willingness and a desire to listen to God (5:13; 8: 5-6). They were apparently aware that the Lord only hearkens unto the prayers of the righteous (Psalm 34:15; 66:18), so throughout the book of Nehemiah we find them making commitments, covenants and oaths to obey the Lord (1: 8-11; 8:18; 9: 38-10:1ff, 29; 13: 3).
These people of God were willing to put their prayers into action (2: 20; 4: 6, 9, 14; 5:13; 10:1-39). They didn't just sit back in idleness and expect God to do all the work. While God has always been there to take up the slack and to do for man what man is incapable of doing for himself, God has always expected man to do his part. Certainly we ought to pray for widows and orphans, but aren't we the very instruments God uses to care for their needs? (James 1: 27). Why pray for knowledge of God's will if we are not prepared to study God's word? (II Timothy 2:15). We shouldn't pray for strength to avoid temptations unless we intend to look for and utilise the way of escape (I Corinthians 10:13). It doesn't accomplish much if we pray for the lost but are unwilling to share God's message with the lost (I Thessalonians 2:4).

Prayers were offered in faith: "The God of heaven Himself will prosper us . . ." (2: 20). Nehemiah had no doubt that he was doing the will of God, and he had confidence that God hears and answers prayer. Prayers without faith are powerless (Mark 9: 23; 11: 24; James 1: 6-8).

Answers to Prayer.
Nehemiah knew that the king's favourable response to his request was an answer to prayer, i.e. according to the good hand of God upon him (2: 4, 8, 18). What seemed to many to be an impossible task was accomplished by the Lord as an answer to prayer: "the wall was finished . . . for they perceived that this work was done by God" (6:15-16). The evil scheme of Nehemiah's enemies was brought to nothing as an answer to prayer (4: 4-5, 15). God turned apparent defeat and discouragement (4:10-12) into victorious rejoicing (8: 9-12; 12: 43). No less than four times Nehemiah prayed that God would remember him for his good deeds (5:17; 13:14, 22, 31), and God has answered that prayer for over 2400 years as the book that bears Nehemiah's name continues to hold a prominent place in the sacred Scriptures. If we learn nothing else from the book of Nehemiah, let us know for certain that God answers prayer! "Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him" (1 John 5:14-15).

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