“As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand.” (Nehemiah 1:4–10).
Nehemiah quickly responded to the news from Hanani, the news of the brokenness of the city, with his own inward brokenness. The conditions in and around Jerusalem began to mirror the conditions in his inner man. He wept and mourned for days. Not religious mourning, a sort of obligatory external show of grief, but genuine hurt within. Nehemiah's pain played out in fasting and prayer. He couldn’t bring himself to take a meal. He could only bring himself to cry out to God. The burden of his heart had truly run deep.
As we will observe later in the book of Nehemiah, this man was no wimp. He was a tough man with thick skin. He had an ability to navigate harsh critics, overwhelming obstacles, and treacherous betrayal. Through it all, he pushed on with God’s strength. He was no weakling, a frail or tender man who wilts at the slightest suggestion of pressure. No, Nehemiah represents the strongest of humans, dependent upon God in every way, unyielding in the face of adversity. So the response of Nehemiah to the news from Hanani was not the response of a weak person, but a person of considerable might. He was moved by what he heard. And why, we must ask? Why was this man so shaken by this report?
Nehemiah seems to have readily understood the gap between what God intended for His people and the current state of things. He saw a deep chasm, a divide, from the potential glory of God in Jerusalem and the broken and inglorious conditions which existed there. He had heard of the past glory of this city, the boisterous worship in and around her temple, the unmatched majesty of her kings, and the obvious hand of blessing bestowed upon her by the God. Hanani’s report represented a far cry from those glorious days. They had fallen so far short. Nehemiah was broken over what could have been but wasn’t.
For generations, God’s choice servants have seen the gap Nehemiah saw. They have seen the difference between the current state of things and the potential as found in God. They have observed and been broken over the incompleteness experienced amongst God’s people. They have longed for more. More than that, they have worked for more. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” and these people have mourned the brokenness caused by their own sin and the sin of others (Matthew 5:4). Like Jesus they would weep and cry, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42). Nothing happens without this mourning, and Nehemiah had it. It drove him.
Note also that Nehemiah prayed with power before God. In many ways, this prayer would become the bedrock for Nehemiah’s entire life. The branches and fruit of the rest of the book of Nehemiah are rooted in this prayer. Nehemiah’s desire for righteousness, positionally and practically, along with his belief in the impossible, are birthed in this prayer before God. You could conclude that the next twelve chapters of Nehemiah would not have been possible without the prayer of the first chapter. So what had Nehemiah so powerfully prayed?
First, observe to whom he prayed. He cried out to the “Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God.” He started with God’s power, God’s ability, God’s unlimited energy and strength. Nehemiah prayed to a big God. It wasn’t that God needed reminding about who He was or how far His power extended, but Nehemiah did. Nehemiah needed to center himself upon the God who was bigger than any problem he had encountered, certainly stronger than any broken wall or burnt gate.
Jesus taught us to pray in this way. We pray, “Our Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9). We set our minds and hearts upon the eternal and omnipotent God. Our worries are deflated, and our faith blooms when we obtain a correct view of the power of our God. The early church prayed like this during a season of persecution. They asked God for boldness, but not before crying out to Him as the “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (Acts 4:24). They fixated upon the divine creative power of God, His ability to create something from nothing, an ability no man has ever possessed. This would lift their spirits and fill them with faith. Nehemiah prayed this way. He set his mind and heart on the ability of God. The only alternative would have been to focus on his own inability, but like Abraham before him, who “did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead,” Nehemiah would not consider only his own weakness or deadness, but also the power of God in spite of his personal weakness.
Get your eyes on your God! Remember His strong ability and great power. As you go before him in prayer, recollect his faithfulness towards you and previous generations of his children. Remember the wonderful victories he won for Israel in the Old Testament era. Recount his great faithfulness to the early church in the book of Acts. Say it to him. Declare who he is. He needs no reminder, but your soul does. Be reminded of the power of the living God. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7).
Second, observe his prayerful confession before God. Much of Nehemiah’s prayer centered around confession. He confessed the sins of the people of Israel, but he included himself with the sins of the nation, saying, “even I and my father’s house have sinned.” He openly confessed that they had broken the law as it had been given to Moses. He did not blame God for the current conditions in Jerusalem or Israel, but took responsibility for his actions, remembering that God had covenanted this particular brand of discipline to the nation if they persisted in disobedience.
Nehemiah’s confession was not a manipulative word before God. He didn’t think he could make God move because of some mechanical and empty repentance. No, Nehemiah sincerely felt the gravity of his sin and the sin of the nation. His confession was an extremely important step in the process of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. God was looking for this brand of broken-heartedness, this brand of contrition. God wasn’t looking for another self-defender, but for a man who would humble himself in his site and take ownership for his actions. This confession was an absolute prerequisite.
Don’t allow pride to keep you from confession! Allow the Holy Spirit to search your heart and your mind, and lay down your sin before the Lord. In an age of self-justification and the rejection of personal responsibility, go to God humbly and repent of any and all known sin. For the child of God, this will become a regular part of life, a freeing grace allowing us to be cleansed by the wonderful ministry of the blood of Christ and the Spirit of God.
You may be reading this, however, as a person who has not confessed anything to the Lord or to your fellow Christian for quite some time. Perhaps you are living in the dark or the grey, caught up in a secret sin, enslaved by your passions. For you, confession is going to be a big deal. I would encourage you to get alone with the Lord, write down every sin you can remember, and confess it to God. Then confess to your wife, your godly friend, and a pastor. Get into the light as quickly as possible. Be not enslaved. Be free.
Third, observe his appeal to God’s nature. Nehemiah praised God for keeping His covenant with the people, a covenant the people had in many ways long forgotten. He worshipped God for His steadfast love for His obedient followers. Near the back end of his prayer, Nehemiah asked God to “remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there” (Nehemiah 1: ). In other words, Nehemiah declared to God His very nature, appealing to the covenantal God to remember with kindness His people.
Had Nehemiah been ignorant of the character and nature of God it is possible he would have never prayed in the first place. He had read, however, of God’s promises and faithfulness and grace. He believed God to be benevolent and kind. He knew God had covenanted with Israel for their great good, not for their great torture. He sensed he had a listening ear with the God of heaven. Knowing this of God enabled Nehemiah to act and ask incredibly boldly.
We, of course, have the greatest testimony of the gracious nature of our God. While Nehemiah had the covenants handed down from previous generations, the memories of past victories won for Israel, and the history of glory within the nation, we have the life and death of Jesus Christ. By observing Jesus we observe God. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. ..” (Hebrews 1:1–3). In Jesus, we see “the exact imprint of God’s nature,” so we can be confident of His great love for His people and this world, especially as we gaze upon the cross of Christ.
Remember the nature of God. Remember His deep heart for you. I can only guess at the walls which must be rebuilt in your life and with your hands, but God knows them intimately. His care runs deep. As a believer, covered by the blood of Jesus, you can say with Paul, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31–32). Run quickly and cry out boldly before God. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16).