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Nehemiah 1: Who You Know, How You Pray Print E-mail
Sunday, 17 April 2016

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What we believe about God will inform how we pray to Him. Our theology drives our prayers. This is true no matter what circumstances we might face. If things are going well, then we know that all thanksgiving belongs to the Lord. When things are difficult, we know that He hears our cries and never leaves us alone. At the end of our days, we will pray expectantly: ‘Lord, bring us home to you.’ Theology shapes the way we approach God in prayer.

This was true of Nehemiah. The Lord brought him back to Jerusalem around thirteen years after Ezra, the priest, had begun teaching the Word to the people. We read of the circumstances surrounding his return in verses 1-3. Look at those with me. Nehemiah is living in Susa with Artaxerxes, the king of Persia, who spent his winters in that city. While there, Nehemiah receives a report about how things are going in Jerusalem. And it is not good news. What is the problem? The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire. This was bad news indeed because it was hard to feel safe in a city with no walls. The temple was rebuilt and the people were seeking to follow the Law under the ministry of Ezra. But the whole endeavor was threatened by the fact that the city had little to no physical protection. Something needed to be done about the wall. So what does Nehemiah do first? He does the same thing that Ezra did when he heard about the intermarriage problem (see Ezra 9:6-15), he prays. Look at verse 4. Both these men knew that what they wanted could not be accomplished apart from the Lord. Thus, before they begin their work, they began with prayer. And their theology informs their prayers. Let’s consider this in Nehemiah’s prayer, as we break it into three sections: sincere praise, honest confession, and confident petition.

Sincere praise (v. 5)

Nehemiah’s prayer begins with praise. Look at verse 5. He addresses God as ‘Yahweh Elohim,’ the LORD God. He is the God of Israel, the God of the heavens. The God who spoke the whole world into existence. The One who is great and awesome. The God who is to be feared above all others. He is the God of Abraham and Moses and David. He is the God of Israel, and He is worthy of praise. Nehemiah knows the God that he is praying to and he knows that He is worthy of praise and adoration.

Specifically, Nehemiah praises God for two attributes. As we noted, Yahweh is great and awesome. God is powerful. He is sovereign over the universe, including the king of Persia. Nehemiah knows that this God has the ability to answer prayer. He does not lack the power to do anything. He is great and awesome. Second, He is the God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and obey his commandments. God is faithful to His people. He is faithful to the covenant. He is full of ‘hesed’, covenant love for His people. He will not abandon His own. He loves His people with steadfast love.

When you put these two attributes together, you see the sovereign goodness of our God. He is able and He is loving. He is great and powerful, but that does not mean that He is distant. He is good and kind, but that does not mean that He is weak. He is sovereign and He is good. If He lacks either of these attributes or if we lack the faith to believe them, then prayer becomes futile. Why pray to a god who has no power? Why pray to a god who is not sovereign? Likewise, why pray to a god who does not care? Why cry out to one who does not listen or delight in doing good. But if He is both sovereign and good and if we do believe this to be the case, then we can begin our prayers to Him with sincere praise and adoration. Nehemiah’s theology teaches him to cry out to the LORD God of heaven. Ours should teach us to do the same.

Honest confession (v. 6-7)

As with Ezra, Nehemiah offers confession of sin to God in his prayer. Look at verses 6-7. The first thing we see is that just like Ezra, Nehemiah does not just blame the people, but admits his own rebellion in the confession. It is not ‘all those sinners out there’ but ‘all those sinners including me.’ He confesses his own sin. He owns the fact that he is not guiltless. He intercedes on behalf of the people of Israel, but he does so as one of them who has sinned. And how does he define sin? He states: We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, that statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. Nehemiah knew that disobey the Word was to sin against God. He knew that he could not just pretend like he did not know any better. They knew what the Word said and they did not do it. They knew the commandments of God and they ignored them. God did not leave them guessing. And he has not left us guessing either. If we want to know what sin is in our day, then we simply need to read the Word. The New Testament makes plain what is sin. We do not have to make up rules or guess at them. The Lord in His kindness has clearly defined right and wrong in His Word.

I am amazed at the honest confession of both Ezra and Nehemiah. In Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 1, we see two men who long for the restoration of Israel confessing the sins of the people and joining themselves in that confession. Why did they do this? Why pray this way? Their prayers reveal at least two truths that they believe about God.

First, they believed that He is all-knowing, or omniscient. There was no reason to try to hide from God. There was no way to keep Him from knowing the truth. Lying to God is the essence of futility. He sees all and knows all, so we should be honest in our confession.

Second, they believed that He is gracious and willing to forgive sin. Lying to God is futile because you cannot get away with it and you don’t have to! Our God is so loving and so gracious that He is willing to forgive all your sin. How do I know? Because I have seen the work of Christ. The Lord Jesus did not die so that we could try to conceal our sin or pretend like it is no big deal. No, He died so that we could own it through honest confession and know that it is paid for by His sacrifice. Stop trying to look better than you are! Stop trying to hide your sin and excuse your guilt! The omniscient One will never be fooled. And besides, He sent Jesus to pay for every wicked act that you have or will commit. Ezra and Nehemiah were banking on God’s grace to forgive. They staked their lives and ministry on it. We should do the same. The amazing grace we meet at the cross should always lead to honest confession of sin.

Confident petitions (v. 8-11)

What is it that Nehemiah wants? What is his request to God? We see that in verses 8-11. Look at verses 8-10. Nehemiah is praying for the restoration of Israel. And what is the basis for such a prayer? It is the Word of God. Nehemiah knew Deuteronomy 30:1-4, where the Lord tells his people that if they repent after being taken into exile, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord you God has scattered you (v. 3). He believed that God would be faithful to this promise, after all He is a God who keeps covenant. Nehemiah believed that God would be true to the Word that He had spoken and so he prayed for the restoration of Israel. They were His people. They were the ones that He had rescued and redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. The people of Israel belonged to the Lord and Nehemiah asked for His continual blessing to be upon them as they turned from their sin.

Nehemiah also prays for favor with the king of Persia. Look at verse 11. Nehemiah prays for the big things, namely the restoration of Israel, but he also prays for the immediate need, namely give me favor in the sight of this man. Who was this man? He tells us with the next sentence and we see it in the next chapter: Artaxerxes the king of Persia. Nehemiah prays for favor with this king. We have seen God answer this prayer again and again in the book of Ezra and we will see Him answer it again in the life of Nehemiah.

Why does Nehemiah make these specific petitions? Why does he pray for future restoration and present favor? He prays because He knows that God loves His people and delights in doing their good. He prays because he believes that the heart of the king is in the hands of God, as we have seen again and again. He knows the character of God and his theology informs and directs his prayers. His knowledge of God gives him confidence as he asks the Lord for his requests.

How can we pray like this in our day? How can we come before the Lord with sincere praise and honest confession and confident petitions? If we are to pray like Ezra and Nehemiah, or like Peter and Paul, then we must begin with theology. Like them, we must know that God is mighty and powerful. We must believe that He can do all things. We must believe that He is the sovereign Lord of the universe. Otherwise, how will we have any confidence in asking Him to do anything? Likewise, we must believe and know that He is good and compassionate and gracious toward His people. We must know that He loves the Church far more than we ever will. He wants her sanctification is absolutely committed to making that happen. All those who have turned from their sins and trusted in Jesus as their Savior belong to Him. He has redeemed them through the blood of His own Son, through His great power and His strong hand. Thus, as Christ taught, when we pray in His name with His priorities, then we can know that He will hear and answer our petitions (see John 14:12-14 and Matthew 5:7-8).

And how do we build such theology? How do we encourage such belief in our own souls? We read the stories of men like Ezra and Nehemiah. We read of God’s grace in the lives of David and Paul and Peter. We read of His power to save in the life of Moses and Joshua. And we read of it all in the life of Christ, our Savior. The Mighty One, who walked on water and raised the dead, humbled Himself to death upon a cross so that God could justly justify all who turn from their sins and trust in Him. He will one Day return to gather His Bride to Himself to dwell forever. This is the sovereign goodness of our God. Every prayer we pray should be informed by His character and His purposes and His plans. Such prayers will contain sincere praise, honest confession, and confident petitions, just like we see from Nehemiah. Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 26 April 2016 )

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