Since I’m on vacation this week with the family, it seems good to pause and look at a “big picture” theme that is prevalent in Nehemiah. Early in my preparation for this study, I ran into the statistic that 11% of the book of Nehemiah is prayer, and now that we’ve made it through chapter nine’s longest prayer in the Old Testament, it’s easy to see where that figure comes from. It turns out that Nehemiah himself does a significant amount of praying in these pages that bear his name. Because I’m making a concerted effort to let God breathe life into my own praying this year, I’ve spent some time re-reading Nehemiah’s words to the God of heaven: Nehemiah 1:5-11; 2:4; 4:4, 5; 5:19; 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31. Read them for yourself, and see if you find these three categories or voices of prayer that I heard in Nehemiah’s prayer life: Arrow prayers: If you take a look at these passages, you will see a rather lengthy prayer in chapter one, but after that, Nehemiah is a man on the move. His recorded prayers reflect that. They also demonstrate the fact that Nehemiah knew where to begin. Oswald Chambers expresses this mindset very well:
“Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.”
Nehemiah had made prayer foundational to his conversation with King Artaxerxes in chapter one, but then in chapter 2 he shot a final arrow-prayer before opening his mouth once the king had begun probing for information. If only I could get that sequence imprinted on my own brain: Pray first. Speak second. Remember me prayers: Nehemiah knew where to look for affirmation. Four different times, he prayed, “Remember me, O my God,” in reference to some work that he had accomplished for his people. One of my sons has very big brown eyes, and I see them whenever I read Nehemiah’s “remember me” prayers, because it didn’t matter whether he was crouched behind home plate or playing his saxophone with the band, my son’s eyes would be on us, his mum and dad, checking to make sure that we had seen him catch the pop fly or that we had heard his amazing tones. The whole audience was watching, but he wanted to know that we saw. Nehemiah did a lot of good for the people of Israel, and he could have shown off if he had wanted to. (I’m picturing place cards at his dining room table: “This sumptuous feast is provided courtesy of your governor.”) However, because his righteousness was done before God, it was God’s approval he sought. He foreshadows Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, because a thank you note or a flowery testimonial from his dinner guests just wouldn’t do it for Nehemiah (“for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven”). His eyes were looking to “his Father who sees in secret.” I’ve HAD IT, prayers: We’ve all been there.
“I’m so done with this person, Lord! Help!” “God, I’ve had it with this situation!”
In his commentary on the imprecatory psalms, Derek Kidner notes that this kind of harsh prayer from the mouths of biblical characters is typically a cry against injustice, and that the speaker is asking God to take vengeance (rather than doing it himself). We really see this with Nehemiah’s words: “We look to you!” Once again, Nehemiah’s prayer life reveals that his eyes are in the right place. Nehemiah made no claims of being a theologian, but his prayer life reveals a doctrine of God based on a correct understanding of Scripture. In his chapter one prayer he fully expects God to act consistently with His own nature and with His actions in the past. He cedes control of the situation to a Sovereign higher than the king he served, and waits for Him to act. Prayer can feel very risky that way, and I’ve never spoken to anyone who was satisfied with his or her prayer life. Right now I have two books on my bureau about prayer, and I expect to learn from both of them (and to write about them here on the blog), but doing prayer is the only way to get better at it. Here is the challenge, then, from the life of an Old Testament builder:
- Is prayer the main thing or is it just a means to an end?
- Where are your eyes today?
- When you’ve HAD IT, do you pick up your phone to complain to a friend, snarl at your family, or lay the situation out before One who is sovereign and perfectly just?
This is the twenty-second in a series of posts in which I ponder “just one thing” each week from my study of the book of Nehemiah, travelling slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class. If you’d like to make a comment or leave a link to your own blog post about your wall-building stories, I’d love to read it. If you want to catch up with previous posts, here’s the link: https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/.