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Nehemiah's Silent Prayer

INTRODUCTION: There are some very short prayers in the Bible that demonstrate that effective fervent prayer need not be extensive or intricate in detail. However, there is often evidence of a precursor of long term and humble relationship with the true and living God for those who need only to make quick request when the situation is immediate. The brief prayer uttered silently within the heart of Nehemiah from chapter two is an example, and the backdrop of his devotion and concern for things of the Lord is provided in chapter one. The Bible text is taken from the Modern King James Version. It is only possible to appreciate the true significance of the brief and silent prayer, by examining the prior patterns of the man who prayed it.

Nehemiah 1:1-3 (MKJV)

1 The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it happened in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace, 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came, he and men of Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. 3 And they said to me, The remnant left of the captivity there in the province is in great affliction and shame. And the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.

COMMENTS: The Bible text identifies a time frame with the year of the king's reign, and the month in the Jewish calendar, which will be a useful reference for chapter two. We are not told Nehemiah's age at this time, or why this information about conditions that have existed in Jerusalem for many years now seems to have such strong impact on him. Perhaps he thought restoration would have been well underway since Cyrus, an earlier reigning king, had allowed captive Jews to return to Jerusalem. We should be aware that Nehemiah was born in exile, since seventy years were fulfilled before Cyrus decreed the return, and Nehemiah is now serving in the twentieth year of a king who was not an immediate successor to Cyrus.

Nehemiah 1:4 (MKJV)

4 And it happened when I heard these words, I sat down and wept. And I mourned for days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of Heaven.

COMMENTS: Nehemiah reacts to the news by the sorrow of weeping and mourning; and he turns in humility to the God of heaven with fasting and prayer for a period of days. This was no brief and fleeting emotional reaction.

Nehemiah 1:5-6 (MKJV)

5 And I said, I pray You, O LORD God of Heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and mercy for those who love Him and keep His commandments; 6 let Your ear now be open, and Your eyes open, so that You may hear the prayer of Your servant, which I pray before You now, day and night, for the sons of Israel Your servants, and confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You. Both I and my father's house have sinned.

COMMENTS: Nehemiah makes his prayer very personal as he confesses that he and his father's house have sinned as part of the general group referred to as the sons of Israel, but his request is based on the character of God, not any worthiness of Israel. There is not sufficient genealogy in scripture to determine whether Nehemiah was of the royal family, or in any other way part of a leadership group for the nation Israel. His father's name means "whom Jehovah enlightens", and this name appears only twice in the Old Testament, both times identifying the father of Nehemiah. Nehemiah's Hebrew name means "Jehovah comforts". If the Holy Spirit wanted to demonstrate his action through these men, the meaning of their names probably holds important significance. Nehemiah does not minimize his family's responsibility for the sin of the nation as he prays to the God of heaven, probably taught about things of the Lord by his father. Nehemiah's months of prayer may have been why the Lord place him before King Artaxerxes to become an instrument of "Jehovah's comfort" for Israel.

Just as a side note, Abraham was the first one recorded in scripture to use the phrase "God of heaven", then it is absent until Cyrus of Persia used the term as he decreed return for the captives. It also appears in four books after the days of glory had passed for Israel: Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, and Jonah. Among the one hundred fifty Psalms, the phrase appears only in Psalm 136, and finally it appears twice in Revelation. And it is quite interesting that the forever enduring mercy of the Lord is the closing thought in Psalm 136.
"136:26 Oh give thanks to the God of Heaven; for His mercy [endures] forever."

Nehemiah 1:7-9 (MKJV)

7 We have acted very wickedly against You, and have not kept the commandments nor the statutes nor the judgments which You commanded Your servant Moses. 8 I pray You, remember the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, If you sin, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 but if you turn to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though you were cast out to the outermost part of the heavens, yet I will gather you from there and will bring you to the place that I have chosen to set My name there.

COMMENTS: Nehemiah is praying from scripture, and making personal application as he identifies himself as part of the nation of Israel, acknowledging that they have disobeyed God's commands. He prays not for a personal request, but for the promises the Lord God had made to the whole nation. His faith tells him that just as God delivered the consequences for sin by scattering, he will also deliver the remedy as he promised, so he continues his prayer.

Nehemiah 1:10-11 (MKJV)

10 And these are Your servants and Your people whom You have redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand. 11 O LORD, I pray You, let now Your ear be open to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name. And I pray You, bless Your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. (For I was the king's cupbearer.)

COMMENTS: This passage seems to indicate that Nehemiah prayed not alone, and requested some opening for entreaty before King Artaxerxes on a repetitive basis, while waiting for an answer. If we are not careful to notice the significance of the month in chapter one, and the month listed in chapter two, we can miss the length of time Nehemiah persisted in prayer.

Nehemiah 2:1 (MKJV)

1 And it happened in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, wine was before him. And I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence before.

COMMENTS: Since this is about four months after the extended period of prayer began for Nehemiah, we have only conjecture to explain why he is now openly sad before the king, and had not been earlier, or at least had not been noticed. But we can be sure that the timing was just as the Lord desired.

Nehemiah 2:2-3 (MKJV)

2 And the king said to me, Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This is nothing but sorrow of heart. Then I was very much afraid. 3 And I said to the king, Let the king live forever. Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers' tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire?

COMMENTS: Nehemiah was frightened by the attention of the king to his display of sadness. This king had the power of life or death over his subjects, and he need not explain to anyone if he became displeased with one of them. Nehemiah uses a form of address that appears elsewhere in scripture as he begins with, "Let the king live forever.", and he then answers the king very honestly from his heart.

Nehemiah 2:4-5 (MKJV)

4 And the king said to me, For what do you ask? So I prayed to the God of Heaven, 5 and I said to the king, If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, I pray that you would send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers' tombs, so that I may build it.

COMMENTS: The king is very direct with Nehemiah, knowing that Nehemiah desires to see a change in the situation, but Nehemiah cannot be sure how the king will respond now that the conversation has started. So, Nehemiah prays to the God of heaven, then answers the king. This was not a time to delay an answer, so how brief was the silent prayer, and what was the content? We cannot know, but we do know that Nehemiah proceeded with his conversation and made a bold request to leave the king.

Nehemiah 2:6 (MKJV)

6 And the king said to me (the queen also sitting by him), For how long shall your journey be? And when will you return? So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a time.

COMMENTS: This king continues to be very direct as he simply asks how long the journey and when will be the return? Nehemiah has the advantage over us as he knows the ways of the king, and he can read the body language in this conversation, so he is confident that the king is approving the request and gives the king a time frame. The queen beside the king might have been Esther, and she may have been influential, subtly or otherwise, in the king's decision. We have no absolutes, for either the book of Nehemiah or for the book of Esther, about the importance of this detail in the passage. The queen's presence is stated, and then the text moves on.

Nehemiah 2:7-8 (MKJV)

7 And I said to the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors Beyond the River, so that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, 8 and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the kings forest, so that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which belong to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house into which I shall enter. And the king granted me what I asked, according to the good hand of my God upon me.

COMMENTS: Nehemiah significantly expands his request with several additional favors of the king, and when his requests are granted, he knows within himself that the king of kings has kept the hand of favor upon him in this situation. This last statement in the passage is a moving indication of Nehemiah's heart for the Lord.

--- Reflections in prayer ---

Lord, the continual pattern of wandering by the people called by your name in both testament periods of the bible is evident by observation according to your Word, and I have been party to this in my life. We have frequently forgotten your commands and sought our own path. But you tell your church through the New Testament, as you did with Israel in the Old Testament, that if we confess our sin, you are faithful and just to forgive and cleanse. May I be broken by the overwhelming rejection of your kingdom glory during my lifetime; and may I be in continual prayer that your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Prepare my heart Lord to use any opportunities that you present to me before men in the world. And may I emulate Nehemiah by immediately acknowledging your presence each time you accomplish your perfect will. You are the God of heaven and your mercy does endure forever! Amen.

Published 25 February 2005