Nehemiah’s passionate prayer and the 7 elements that made it great.
Nehemiah was devastated. His brother Hanani had just returned from Judah and given him news of how his Israelite brothers and sisters were faring, those who had left Persia and returned to the land of Judah to rebuild Jerusalem and the walls that protected their cities. Hanani’s report was “The survivors in the province who have survived the captivity are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned in the fire.” This news broke Nehemiah’s heart. “When I heard these words, I sat and wept and mourned for days, and I was fasting and praying before the God of the heavens.”
It had been 90 years since King Cyrus decreed that the Jewish people were allowed to return to their homeland. In that time Zerubbabel and Joshua, and then Ezra, had attempted to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem without success. Their efforts were hampered by many things. A great number of Isrealites chose to stay in Persia for fear of enemies in Judah, so they were short-handed (Ezra 4:1-4). The people’s priorities were not focused on rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, or the city walls. (Hag 1). On top of all this, earlier in King Artaxerxes reign he denied them some of the necessary permissions needed to complete their work (Ezra 4:7-23).
Nehemiah cared deeply about his people, and he longed for Jerusalem to be rebuilt so that his nation could be restored to its former glory before Babylonian captivity. He fasted and mourned for days and prayed this prayer to God.
5 “O Yahweh God of the heavens, the great and awesome one who keeps the covenant and loyal love for the ones who love him and for those who keep his commands. 6 Please, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I am praying before you by day and by night for your servants, the Israelites, and confessing the sins of the Israelites that we have sinned against you. I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have certainly offended you and have not kept the commands, regulations, and judgments that you have commanded your servant Moses. 8 Please, remember the word that you have commanded to your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you act unfaithfully I will scatter you all among the nations. 9 But if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, even though all of your outcasts are at the furthest parts of heaven, I will gather them and bring them to the place which I have chosen to make my name dwell.’ 10 They are your servants and your people whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. 11 O Lord, please let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight to revere in your name. Please, let your servant be successful this day and give him compassion before this man.” Nehemiah 1:5-11
Nehemiah continued to pray for another four months, and finally his prayers were answered. Nehemiah spent a great deal of time in the presence of the king, as he was the cupbearer of Artaxerxes. Being the person responsible to test the king’s drink every day to ensure it hasn’t been poisoned allowed Nehemiah to gain the king’s respect and trust. It was on this fateful day that Nehemiah’s sorrow was so great that he was unable to hide it as he carried wine and gave it to the king. The king noticed and addressed Nehemiah. “Why is your face sad since you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” (Neh 2:2)
Nehemiah always tried hard to remain professional. He was embarrassed and afraid that the king had noticed his sorrow, but he swallowed hard and poured out his heart. “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad when the city of my ancestors’ burial site is ruined and her gates are consumed by fire?” Seeing how much this meant to Nehemiah the king replied “What is your request?” After shooting up a quick prayer for heavenly guidance Nehemiah said “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your presence, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ burial sites, so that I may rebuild it.” King Artaxerxes agreed to this request and gave Nehemiah permission to make the journey.
Nehemiah was given letters from the king to each of the governors in territories along his journey allowing him to pass safely. When he arrived in Jerusalem he inspected it’s broken walls and then set to rebuilding them right away. Despite being bullied and teased by naysayers, and having to constantly watch for attackers, Nehemiah and his workers finished rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in a record 52 days. At the temple’s dedication Ezra read aloud all of Moses' law and a great revival spread among the Jews as they celebrated an extended Feast of Tabernacles.
The 7 Elements of Nehemiah’s Prayer
It’s obvious from the results that God heard Nehemiah’s prayer and answered it in a powerful way. There are seven distinct elements that made it powerful.
Just like the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 Nehemiah opened his prayer with praise. Nehemiah acknowledges that God is powerful, merciful, and faithful.
5 O Yahweh God of the heavens, the great and awesome one who keeps the covenant and loyal love for the ones who love him and for those who keep his commands.
Before Nehemiah makes his request to God he first asks for God’s attention.
6 Please, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I am praying before you by day and by night for your servants, the Israelites...
We know God is always paying attention, but Nehemiah doesn’t want to take any chances so he specifically prays for God’s attention. When he says “that I am praying before you by day and by night” we also know Nehemiah is anxious for God to answer and committed to keep asking.
Nehemiah openly admits that God’s people haven’t been obeying the laws He gave them.
6 ...confessing the sins of the Israelites that we have sinned against you. I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have certainly offended you and have not kept the commands, regulations, and judgments that you have commanded your servant Moses.
In our own prayers it is also important to admit our mistakes and ask for forgiveness, as there is no way to hide our sins from God.
Nehemiah continues by bringing up the promises that God made to His people a long ago. He wants God to remain faithful to his promises despite the Israelites disobedience.
8 Please, remember the word that you have commanded to your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you act unfaithfully I will scatter you all among the nations. 9 But if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, even though all of your outcasts are at the furthest parts of heaven, I will gather them and bring them to the place which I have chosen to make my name dwell.’
God knows every promise He has made to us. We don’t remind God of His promises because he forgot, but because we are claiming the terms of that promise apply to the request we are making. If the terms of the promise apply to our situation then there’s no reason God should say no.
10 They are your servants and your people whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand.
Nehemiah humbly acknowledges that God is always the source of redemption. Even today we can humbly acknowledge that Jesus delivered us from all sin, and also claim it when we ask for deliverance from specific lusts of the flesh that we struggle with personally.
After all of this build-up in the previous 5 steps Nehemiah petitions God to hear one more time before finally making his request.
11 O Lord, please let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight to revere in your name. Please, let your servant be successful this day and give him compassion before this man.
It’s important to note that speaking this prayer wasn’t the only action of Nehemiah. Though he may have been in despair, his days of weeping and mourning were accompanied by praying and fasting. That means he kept praying to God continually and even practiced fasting to focus his mind and body on this situation for which he had such deep concern. Even though the book of Nehemiah leaves this part out, it’s not hard to imagine that Nehemiah was still praying about the situation for the next four months up until he had the opportunity to speak to the king about it. Nehemiah may have been praying this awesome prayer to God, but his prayer wasn’t answered immediately. He still had to be patient, keep praying, and wait for God to answer his prayer at the perfect time.
But Wait, There’s More!
There is one essential element missing from Nehemiah’s prayer, something he didn’t even have available in his time, and that is the ability to make our requests in the name of Jesus.
And whatever you ask in my name, I will do this, in order that the Father may be glorified in the Son. John 4:13
We’re also told in Matthew 21:22 “And whatever you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive.” Nehemiah clearly believed that God would do what he promised, and we can too. We must truly believe in His promises and end our prayers with “in Jesus name” so He can be glorified.
How do I use this?
While Nehemiah’s prayer isn’t a cookie cutter for how every prayer should be constructed, these elements are useful tools we can use to enhance our prayers. This is also not a prayer to be recited word-for-word. God is more interested in our open, honest expression than hearing us recite somebody else’s prayer.
Notice that even though Nehemiah’s prayer is beautifully crafted it is still an open and honest request that he is making of God. He was speaking this prayer from a place of despair while mourning and weeping, so you better believe there were raw moments when this prayer didn’t sound beautiful because the sentences were spoken among sobs of grief. Sometimes those are the moments we feel closest to God, and we have to humbly speak our hearts (just like Nehemiah), and God understands our concern no matter what we say.
James 5:16 tells us “the fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much,” and Nehemiah definitely prayed fervently. His prayer moved God’s heart, and he was allowed to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls with the King’s blessing, accomplishing what several people had failed to accomplish before. Your prayers can move God too.
Whatever you’re going through, allow Nehemiah’s example to inspire your next talk with God so that you too can experience some miracle breakthroughs.