As I was reading through the book of Nehemiah recently, my attention went toward Nehemiah’s habit of praying through every circumstance he faced. Amidst the fascinating story of the return of Jewish exiles to rebuild the ravaged city of Jerusalem, there is this portrait of a leader who constantly relies upon God’s strength, protection and favor. He is a true man of prayer.
The first instance is when Nehemiah learns of the suffering and devastation overcoming the Jewish people in their homeland. He “sat down and wept and mourned for days… fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (1:4). He spoke to Yahweh as though they had a longstanding and intimate connection. And yet, Nehemiah’s tone was one of awe, reverence and the right kind of fear of God. He interceded, confessing the sins of Israel, pleading for God’s mercy, and asking for favor with the Persian king to permit him to undertake a mission trip to Jerusalem. During his audience with the king, he prayed silently again, and the LORD answered. Lo and behold, “it pleased the king to send me” (2:6).
The next example occurs when Nehemiah and his construction crews encounter extreme hostility and opposition from some of the local leaders in Jerusalem. Sanballat and Tobiah were the ringleaders, taunting and threatening the Jewish builders. Nehemiah’s response? “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night” (4:9). The answer of God was to “frustrate” the plan of their enemies, and “we all returned to the wall, each to his work” (4:15). Nehemiah implements the strategy of providing the workers with a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other, with a sword strapped to their sides.
In the next chapter, the text cites Nehemiah’s godly, wise leadership when conflict arises within the Jewish population. Because of his habit of seeking the Lord’s counsel at every turn, he is able to quickly and effectively arbitrate these conflicts. In response to his judiciousness, “all the assembly said ‘Amen” and praised the LORD” and “did as they had promised” (5:5).
The local troublemakers continue to plot against Nehemiah and his team, seeking not only to stop the work, but to destroy Nehemiah’s reputation and fill him with fear. In prayer, Nehemiah expresses his trust in the LORD to administer justice and protect him from every form of harm. And thus, the work was completed “with the help of our God” (6:16).
Then another amazing God-thing happens! Ezra the priest shows up with the book of the Law; the priests and Levites begin preaching and teaching “both men and women and all who could understand what they heard” (8:2). Nehemiah recognizes when the Spirit of God begins to move powerfully among the people. He is a mature believer, having trained his senses through prayer. He knows how to steward and shepherd people in the revival that breaks out in response to the hearing of the word of God. It is a glorious time!
As is often true during revival, celebration and deep repentance occur simultaneously amidst the Israelites. Nehemiah recounts for the people the history of God’s goodness and forbearance with them. In his public prayer, he reminds God, “You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (9:17). The conviction that comes to the people leads them to return in their hearts to their ancient covenant with Yahweh. They agree to separate themselves from pagan nations and their idolatrous practices. They pledged “to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord and his rules and his statutes” (11:29). The priests and Levites were also transformed, promising, “We will not neglect the house of our God” (11:39).
Having restored order and beauty to the city and temple, Nehemiah next presides over the establishment of worship in the manner of David’s tabernacle. Sacrifices, dedications, and purification rituals are instituted with the background music of two grand choirs, and “the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away” (13:43). This is a picture of complete restoration of a place and a people. It could not have happened without the leadership and authentic prayerfulness of this extraordinary man, Nehemiah.
In summary, Nehemiah demonstrated many types of prayer on many occasions. He prayed intercessory prayers, prayers of repentance, prayers for favor and protection, prayers of trust and submission, prayers for wisdom, prayers for revival, prayers of remembrance, prayers of dedication, and prayers of consecration. How wonderful. His story teaches us that prayer is always necessary, and always appropriate. There is no time when crying out to God is a bad idea. It is prayer to God that sends, upholds, strengthens, and ultimately rewards God’s people. Because God delights to hear our prayers.
Lord, please make us people of constant prayer, like Nehemiah. Train us in your ways. Remind us, O Lord, to seek your face in every circumstance. Amen.