When You Can't Fold Your Hands
Prayer in the Life of Nehemiah It should come as no surprise that the Bible is filled with prayers from cover to cover. What is surprising is how different these prayers can be from each other. Some of them are long and poetic; others are short and concise. Many of King David’s prayers beg for judgment to rain down on his enemies while the tax collector prays for nothing but the mercy of God in Jesus’ parable. In form and content the prayers of the Bible cover a lot of ground, but the praise of God and the desire for His will to be done is seen throughout them all.
The contrast in the different forms of prayer is perhaps at its greatest on the first page of Nehemiah. Nehemiah had been exiled from Judah at a time when the fate of Jerusalem, and the Jews, was uncertain. After going without news from his homeland for a considerable amount of time, Nehemiah finally hears from freshly exiled Jews that Jerusalem has indeed been destroyed. To make matters worse, the people still there are in no better shape than their city. Upon hearing this news, Nehemiah fasts and mourns for several days. This leads him into an intense and powerful prayer, and this prayer has all the features. Praise, confession, intercession, and petition are all present in this prayer (Neh. 1:4-11). Nehemiah also claims a promise of God and applies it relevantly to his own situation. This is what a godly prayer life looks like. Not only did he have the right ingredients, but Nehemiah also had passion and determination to pray the way he did.
In the next chapter, we catch a different angle of Nehemiah’s prayer life. Now, through his time meditating and mourning, Nehemiah had a new goal in mind. He would ask the king to be released from his duties, and he would return to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall and set the city back in order. This may sound simple, but that was certainly not the case. As a foreigner, Nehemiah basically held the privileges of a slave, and as the king’s cupbearer, he had gained the king’s trust through his service and would not be easily replaced. Furthermore, there is the political side of things which included him returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding it with the possibility, at least in the king’s mind, of someday challenging him in battle and conquest. Through the eyes of mankind, the request was futile, but this was Nehemiah’s aim.
Eventually the day came for Nehemiah to ask the king for his request. Over the course of time, Nehemiah had undoubtedly rehearsed his miniature speech hundreds, if not a thousand times. He knew what he needed to say by now. But when the king asks Nehemiah what he wants, talking is not his first response. Verse 4 of chapter 2 makes it clear that prayer was:
And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. (Neh. 2:2-4)
This certainly would not have been the same type of prayer as chapter 1, but rather a quick, internal prayer, asking God for the wisdom to know how to approach the situation. To break out into fervent prayer on bended knee to his God, in front of a man who figured himself to be God, would have meant execution for Nehemiah. His quick prayer goes unnoticed in the presence of the king and Nehemiah reveals both what is truly on his heart, and it reveals his sure-fire tendency to pray in all circumstances to us. After asking the king to return home, Nehemiah was granted his request, and the physical and spiritual rebuilding of Jerusalem would soon take place.
It is easy to miss this small detail in the story of Nehemiah, as it is not the central point of the story, the completion of the wall, and the repentance of the people of Israel that takes center stage in the book. However, none of this progress that comes at the end of the story should be separated from Nehemiah’s prayers in the beginning. God’s sovereign hand is certainly all over this narrative, but Nehemiah’s prayers also impacted the outcome. Had Nehemiah not poured out his heart to God for days of mourning and prayer, he may not have resolved to go back and rebuild Jerusalem, and if he failed to pray while he was before the king, he may have faltered in the moment and never have received his request. But rather Nehemiah was a man that got much accomplished because of how he prayed, whether in private or in the presence of others.
The gleanings from this biblical truth are many in our own lives. First, we see from Nehemiah that the importance we put on prayer reveals how dependent we are on God. Both in preparation and in the moment, Nehemiah relied on God to lead him and to act on his behalf, and God surely did not disappoint. So it is with us. Do we seek God in all of our decisions in life or just simply “enough” of them? When we act, do we do it with our wisdom and strength or with the wisdom and strength that he supplies?
This idea of praying at any time as Nehemiah did also has many practical applications for us. Praying with bowed head, closed eyes, and folded hands is deemed proper posture in our culture, and there is no real reason to buck against that, but that does not mean it is the only way to pray. Praying throughout the day, whether at work, in conversation or in your leisure, is a tremendous blessing to the soul. Perhaps this means setting a weekly schedule in which you resolve to pray for a certain area of your life each day of the week. This may be while you go about your day at work or wait for the next class to start. By this, your faith interacts with your whole life and helps us better understand that there is no shut-off time from our faith.
Furthermore, there will be situations in life where we will find ourselves in far deeper than our own strength or wisdom can get us out of. Think to pray in those moments. Whether it is a teaching moment with your child or an exhausting day that drains your vigor for serving God, think to pray. Always be in communication with God. By doing so, you will find that your Savior is always nearer to you than you first thought.