The Prayer the Lord Hears

Nehemiah 1[i]

Jerusalem lay in ruins for 70 years.

Nebuchadnezzar and his army tore down the walls, burned the houses, destroyed the temple, and those they did not kill, they took captive to Babylon.

Then Cyrus issued a decree, and fifty thousand Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.

Fifty thousand is a small number compared to the people and nations already occupying the territory to which the Jews returned.

In spite of opposition, the temple was rebuilt, being completed on March 21, 516 B.C.[ii]

The time from 538 B.C. to 516 B.C. represents 22 years during which the Jews labored in the rebuilding of the temple.

Nehemiah 1:1 dates itself as being in the 20th year of King Artaxerxes’ reign.  This puts the events of Nehemiah 1 at 446 B.C.  This means another 70 years have passed since the end of the Jewish Exile.

Nehemiah works for the King.  He is the King’s cupbearer.  (Nehemiah 1:11) The cupbearer was a high-ranking official.  The cupbearer served the drinks at the royal table, and he guarded against the king being poisoned. In order to protect the king from poison, it was the job of the cupbearer to swallow some of the drink before serving it to the king.  (A nice job to have unless someone tried to poison the king.)

Nehemiah 1:2-4 says:
Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah.  I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.

They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah.  They are in great trouble and disgrace.  The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”

When I heard this, I sat down and wept.  In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.

Have you ever received news that caused you to mourn, fast and pray for days?

We all face these moments in life. 

Where do you turn?

When Nehemiah heard that Jerusalem still lay in ruins, he was devastated.  He mourned, fasted and prayed for days.  The prayer recorded in Nehemiah 1 takes less than 5 minutes to read.  Therefore, we can assume it is a synopsis of his prayers.  It is an actual prayer, but I am sure it grew out of days of struggling in his heart.

God caused this prayer to be recorded for our instruction.  It is not the only example of prayer in Scripture, and much needs to be learned about prayer by experience and applying the whole of Scripture.  However, by examining this prayer we can discover principles that will help us grow in our prayer life. 

The Apostle Paul taught us that we should never stop praying.  In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 he tells us:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  ESV[iii]

Let’s take this instruction seriously, and see what principle we can apply from Nehemiah’s example.

The first principle we learn is that we should pray fervently.

We see this principle in Nehemiah 1:4.
When I heard this, I sat down and wept.  In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.

Nehemiah’s petition was not half-hearted nor was he detached emotionally.

James 5:16 says, “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.”

Our Lord Jesus addressed our desires when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”  (Matthew 5:6, ESV)

From these two passages of Scripture and others, we can see that our desires and emotions are involved in prayer.

E. M. Bounds wrote:
Desire is not merely a simple wish; it is a deep seated craving; an intense longing, for attainment.  In the realm of spiritual affairs, it is an important adjunct to prayer.  So important is it, that one might say, almost, that desire is an absolute essential of prayer.  Desire precedes prayer, accompanies it, is followed by it.  Desire goes before prayer, and by it, created and intensified. Prayer is the oral expression of desire.[iv]

The intensity of our desire is not what brings an answer.  Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”  (John 15:7, ESV)  Abiding in Jesus and in His word creates in us spiritual desires and a “hungering and thirsting after righteousness.”  When Jesus prayed in the Garden, He prayed that the cup might pass from Him, but then He appended this request with “Not my will but thine be done.”  This shows us the nature of a spiritual hunger that wishes for the will of God to be accomplished above all else.

This is not a cold mechanical thing.  It is a fervent desire born of days of mourning, fasting and prayer.  God does not want us cold.  He said to the Church of Laodicea, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot.  Would that you were either cold or hot!”  (Revelation 3:15, ESV)

We need to abide in Jesus and let His word abide in us to the point that our desires are in line with God’s desires.  This brings about fervent prayer. 

In addition to praying fervently, we also see that we must pray with humility.  This is the next principle we see in Nehemiah’s prayer.  We must pray with humility.

Nehemiah prayed with humility when he said:
“O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer!  Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel.  I confess that we have sinned against you.  Yes, even my own family and I have sinned!  We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.  (Nehemiah 1:5-7)

Two aspects of humility are apparent in this part of Nehemiah’s prayer.

First, he acknowledges who God is.  Nothing can keep us humble like acknowledging that God is the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love.

When Isaiah saw the glory of God he said, "It's all over!  I am doomed, for I am a sinful man.  I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips.  Yet I have seen the King, the LORD of Heaven's Armies."  (Isaiah 6:5)

The first aspect of humility is acknowledging who God is.  The second aspect of humility follows naturally from this acknowledgement.  The second aspect of humility is the confession of our own sin and sinfulness.

In regard to his sin, David said, “Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight.  You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just.”  (Psalm 51:4)  When a person sees God for who God is, that person then understands that God’s judgement is just. 

Nehemiah saw the sinfulness of his ancestors, and saw their sinful attitudes and practices in himself.  He did not try to find someone else to blame.  He did not point the finger at anyone else.  He confessed his own sin and sinfulness.

If we cannot take responsibility and admit our sin, we cannot be right with God.  1 John 1:8 says, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth.” 

Prayer starts with desire and continues with humility.  The next principle we see is that prayer requires faith.

When I say faith, I do not mean blind, leap-off-a-cliff hope.  Faith is the substance of things hoped for according to Hebrews 11:1.  We see faith expressed in Nehemiah’s prayer when he prays:
“Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations.  But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’”  (Nehemiah 1:8-9)

Nehemiah is praying based on God’s revealed will, God’s word.

Romans 10:17 says:
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.  ESV

Faith is based on an understanding of what God has said and then trusting that God will do what He has said.  Effective prayer is based on the word of God.  Nehemiah prayed with confidence because he prayed according to God’s word.

Desire, humility and faith are principles of prayer that we see in Nehemiah’s prayer.  Obedience is the final principle that ties these all together.  Nehemiah prays:
“The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants.  O Lord, please hear my prayer!  Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you.”  (Nehemiah 1:10-11)

Nehemiah began by acknowledging that God is “the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands…”  (Nehemiah 1:5)  He ends his prayer by pointing out they are God’s servants and that they delight in honoring God.

When God’s people refused to pursue Him with fervency, acknowledge Him in humility and approach Him with faith, God did not hear their prayers and instead sent them away into exile. 

Romans 8:28 is a favorite verse for many.  Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”  This verse does not promise that God causes everything to work together for the good of everybody.  Things did not work out for the good of Pharaoh.  Things did not work out well for Haman.  Things will not work out well for any persons who set themselves in opposition to God. 

The promise of Romans 8:28 is for those who love God.  Psalm 37:4 says, “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you your heart's desires.”  The requirement here is that one takes delight in the Lord.

When we love God and take delight in Him, obedience is a natural outgrowth of our relationship with Him.  We naturally love His commands and want to do what pleases Him.

When God’s children pursue Him with fervency, acknowledge him with humility, approach him and faith and love Him in obedience, He hears, He listens and He answers.

[i] Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation.  Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation.  Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188.  All rights reserved.
[ii] NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI.  copyright 1985, 1995, 2002.  pg. 679
[iii] Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version) copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.
[iv] The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds on Prayer.  Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI.  copyright 1990. pg. 29


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