“So I prayed to the God of heaven.” (Nehemiah 2:4)
Nehemiah traveled from Babylon to Jerusalem with the call to build the wall. Years earlier the wall of Jerusalem had been broken down, the temple destroyed, and the people taken into exile. But God in His steadfast love would pave the way for His people to return to the Promised Land. The disobedience of the people would not derail His covenant promises.
Nehemiah faced a daunting task, not unlike the leaders of local churches in our day. He had to strategize, mobilize, and energize the people for the task before them. He had to deal with oppression from the outside and opposition from within. He led by personal example, by direction of the word of God, and by pervasive prayer.
Prayer is prominent throughout the book of Nehemiah. So much so that we can rightfully dub the book “Knee-hemiah.” My first pastor mentor used to say to the congregation, “A church moves forward on its knees.” In so doing, he was highlighting the necessity of prayer. He was bringing to bear Isaiah’s assessment, “All we have accomplished, You have done for us” (Is. 26:12). He was reflecting the heart of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah’s response to the plight of Jerusalem was prayer. Through a grief-stricken heart and tear-filled eyes, he turned to God. His prayer was not perfunctory but filled with persistence and passion, praying “day and night,” confessing his own sins and the sins of the people (Neh. 1:3-10). He closes with these words: “O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day” (Neh. 1:11). The prosperity Nehemiah sought was not his own; it was the mission of God.
When Nehemiah, who was cupbearer to the king, approached the ruler for permission to return to the Promised Land, he prefaced the request of his tongue with the regard of his heart: “Then the king said to me, ‘What do you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven” (Neh. 2:4). Success was contingent on supplication. When the king granted Nehemiah his request, Nehemiah recognized that the good hand of God was upon him (Neh. 2.8).
Evidence of communion with God and recognition of His presence fills the book of Nehemiah. Progress on the wall discerns not only the hands of the workers but the hand of God.
When facing opposition, Nehemiah again cries out to God: “Hear, O our God, for we are despised; turn their reproach on their own heads” (Neh. 4:4). The action of prayer was coupled with the action of preparation: “We made our prayer to our God, and because of them we set a watch against them day and night” (Neh. 4:9). Prayer does not preclude action but often includes it in dependence upon God. The result was that God frustrated the plans of their opponents (Neh. 4:15) and the work of building prospered.
Nehemiah led the people in prayer and praise (Neh. 5:13). He recognized his desperate and ongoing need for God, asking Him to strengthen his hands (Neh. 6:9). A leader must himself find his sufficiency in God and lift the eyes of those he leads to the God they serve and honor, as he attends to himself and to the flock under his care.
Nehemiah 9 records an extended prayer of confession and commitment to God while extolling the tender mercies and steadfast love of the Lord. This prayer makes it clear that Nehemiah’s primary concern was not for reconstruction of a wall but for reclaiming the promises of God and recapturing the hearts of the people.
Our churches cannot be about a church building but about building the church. And the central means given us for that building is prayer, prayer for Christ to build His church, prayer that reminds us whose church it is and whose mission we are on.
The last words of the book of Nehemiah are a prayer carrying the theme of Nehemiah’s opening prayer where he asked God to bless his efforts (Neh. 1:11). He concludes: “Remember me, O my God, for good” (Neh. 13:31). This prayer is reminiscent of the psalm of Moses to “establish the work of our hands” (Ps. 90:17).
Nehemiah shows us two things for the work God has given His church. One, he shows us pervasive prayer as the animating feature of kingdom building. Two, he shows us the remarkable working of God in response to that prayer.
- In what way is prayer basic to kingdom building?
- What do you suppose made prayer so natural and so necessary for Nehemiah?
O Lord our God, forgive us for our prayerlessness. Pour out upon us a spirit of grace and supplication. May the holy murmur of prayer sound in the machinery of mission wherever Your church is found.
Scripture quotations marked NKJV are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Those marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.