When you receive bad news what is your first response? Do you get angry? Do you get depressed? Or do you experience a little of both? Does disappointment provoke you to become angry with God or others whom you perceive to get in your way? Do you panic? How do you respond when bad things happen? There are many different ways to respond, but in the first chapter of Nehemiah we see the best response of all—prayer.
Stop. Before you continue, read Nehemiah 1:1:-11.
In the providence of God, Nehemiah was given a tough assignment. His burden was to regather the Jews who had returned to Judah after the exile to Babylon, rebuild God’s city, and return the people of God to the Word of God. When he first heard the bad news concerning his fellow Jews and city, he could have become angry or slip into depression. Instead he prayed, and God answered, and God used Nehemiah to bring comfort and hope to His people.
In his example, we see 4 essential elements of compelling prayer.
Be consecrated in body and mind (v. 4).
As soon as Nehemiah heard the bad news, he prayed; prayer was his immediate response. Long before it was written, Nehemiah understood the admonition given in the NT: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). The text says he “wept and mourned for days” and “continued fasting and praying.” He was moved with compassion for his people, which compelled him to pray with fasting.
In OT times, fasting was an outward manifestation of an inner affliction of the soul. This affliction may have been the result of grief over loss, or deep sorrow over the ugliness of one’s sin. When the humiliation was deep and profound, fasting was usually accompanied by tearing one’s clothes, putting on sackcloth (a course fabric made of goat’s hair), and sprinkling ashes on the head. Prayer often accompanied fasting, and facilitated increased concentration in prayer (See, for example, Daniel 9:3 and 2 Samuel 12).
However, fasting was not only present in the Old Testament. We see a number of examples in the New Testament, as well. John the Baptist directed his disciples to fast. Jesus said, “When you fast,” which implies He expected His disciples to fast at times. Probably the most memorable NT example is when the church of Antioch prayed and fasted to discern God’s will in regard to sending out servants into the harvest. It was when they had fasted and prayed, the Spirit directed the whole congregation to send out Barnabas and Paul (Acts 13).
What all of these examples teach is this: Fasting sometimes accompanied prayer as a demonstration of humility and deep intent to seek the will of God and surrender to it in humility,
Be confident in God’s character and promises (vv. 5, 8-10).
The title “the great and awesome God” indicates Nehemiah’s appreciation of who God is: the one whom Nehemiah feared and the source and object of his deep faith. “God’s awesomeness is the impression his total character and person leaves on all who encounter him. Those who know and trust God are those who fear him” (Brenemen). This same fear of God is modeled in Psalm 86:1-10.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my plea for grace.In the day of my trouble I call upon you,for you answer me.There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,nor are there any works like yours.All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord,and shall glorify your name.For you are great and do wondrous things;you alone are God.
Nehemiah prayed, “Remember the word.” This does not imply that God forgets, but is a way of saying, “Lord, I believe You. I trust you to keep your Word, to fulfill your promises.” To ask God to remember is to ask Him to intervene. Therefore, Nehemiah was asking God to intervene on his behalf, and on behalf of the people whom He had redeemed from Egyptian bondage. Before they entered the Promised Land, God warned them through Moses (Deut. 24:25-27). He had promised to chastise them because of their sin. However, God also promised to restore them once chastening had done its work of bringing them to repentance (Jeremiah 29:10-13). Nehemiah prayed with confidence because he trusted in God, that He is faithful to honor His Word and fulfill every promise He has ever made.
Be contrite in spirit when confessing sin (vv.6-7).
When Nehemiah approached God in prayer, he did so as God’s “servant;” i.e. with humility and meekness. He then proceeded to confess his and their sins to God. The Bible celebrates a contrite spirit. In Isaiah 66:2, the Lord says, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” And in Psalm 51:17, as King David confessed his sin before God, he said, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
The Hebrew and Greek words often translated contrite mean “crushed, crippled, or broken.” A contrite heart refers to a conscience that is crushed under the weight of its own guilt. God draws near to the person who has a contrite spirit. In Isaiah 57:15, God says, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15). In contrast, God turns His ear away from the proud heart. The psalmist confessed, “If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear” (Ps 66:18). Unconfessed sin short-circuits prayer, but brokenness and humble confession open the door to answered prayer.
Be courageous to make big requests (v. 11).
Nehemiah asked God to grant him favor in the eyes of the king. Now read Nehemiah 2:1-8 to see God’s answer. Nehemiah took a big risk when he showed his transparent sadness before the king, but God went before him—He prepared the way—because this servant prayed.
Sometimes we fail to bring big requests to God because deep-down we believe whatever we long for is not possible, or that God is somehow less than good. What is your “impossible”?
- Maybe it is the salvation of a hardhearted friend or family member
- Or restoration of a marriage (yours or someone else’s)
- The return of a prodigal son or daughter
- Or an employment need
- Perhaps it is for the Lord to overcome your infertility
- You name it…
Whatever your “impossible” is, know this: Scripture testifies that nothing is impossible for the Lord (Genesis 18:14). God says, “I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jer. 32:27).
God is good, too. “You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:68). “The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Psalm 145:9). There is nothing God cannot do, and He is surpassingly good. Therefore, do not fear. Bring your big requests to Him.
[This post is an abbreviated summary of this past Sunday’s sermon preached at Cornerstone Community Church in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.]
If you desire to grow in the spiritual discipline of prayer, you may be consider reading one of my books on prayer: