Nehemiah chapter 1 captures the essence of Nehemiahʼs most intense desire—a wonderful concern for the people of the covenant and a yearning for the fulfilment of Godʼs covenants of promise made to the fathers of old. In subsequent chapters we see this yearning outworking itself in diligent activity to produce a great man of prayer and action.

Nehemiahʼs Desire for the People of Yahweh

The divine narrative commences with his earnest prayer for the re-gathering of Godʼs people and for the reestablishment of true worship in Jerusalem. He does nothing without first consulting God.

The calling of Nehemiah to the work of God and the way in which God chose him as an instrument to fulfill his purpose is intriguing. There was no voice from heaven stating the mission. Instead it all came about by Nehemiah directly aligning himself with Godʼs purpose and allowing His providential hand to steer Nehemiah into a course of activity which would actively fulfil his inspirational prayer.

As the Kingʼs cup bearer, Nehemiah was a highly placed servant in Shushan the palace, capital of the Medo-Persian Empire. Thirteen years prior to this, Ezra appears to have returned from Jerusalem after his involvement in rebuilding the Temple. The reason for saying this is because Ezra does not reappear in the record until the walls have been completed.

Ezra had performed a great work in the service of God. From the record of 2 Kings 25:8–12 we learn that Nebuchadnezzar had broken down the walls of Jerusalem and burnt the city with fire, leaving only the poor “to be vinedressers and husbandmen”. Ezraʼs party returning from captivity would therefore have joined with those who had “escaped, which were left of the captivity” and worked with them to build the house of God once more. Their leaders toiling with them in the dust and ruins had inspired this remnant. But now that faithful remnant had lost its enthusiasm.

Nehemiah is first introduced asking his brother Hanani about the Jews and the condition of the city of Jerusalem. It appears that Hanani might have been part of the group that left with Ezra many years previously.

We can picture Nehemiah listening to the “great affliction and reproach” that was present on every hand. His questions show his concern for the city of the Great King and this anxiety is further expressed in his subsequent prayer.

The remnant was under much pressure from the surrounding occupiers of the land to withdraw from Jerusalem. The surrounding towns and settlements were occupied by foreigners who spoke other languages and practised abominable customs. The Edomites were in the south, Philistines in the west, Samaritans in the north and Moabites in the east.

Enthusiasm had given way to disillusion, hardship had conquered zeal. As a consequence the people generally had become slack in their responsibilities, particularly in their worship, and in Temple dedications and priestly tithings. From the books of Haggai (1:4–11; 2:16–19), Malachi (3:10–12) and Nehemiah (5:2,3) we read of repeated famines in the land because they neglected to worship God in spirit and in truth.

Clearly it was a difficult time for those who had returned to the Land, but it is in times of trial that characters are perfected. The lessons of the times of the Judges where suffering and oppression turned the minds of the children of Israel to seek their God was an example that could be drawn upon. Unknown to Israel, God was about to unleash another spiritual reformation amongst then; this time under the hand of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah was distressed to hear that the wall was broken down, and the gates wereburned with fire. The project to rebuild Jerusalem had been stalled. Given that Darius had made a decree (Ezra 6:8–12) against any that opposed the work, Nehemiah would have been hoping for the restoration work to have prospered (cp Psa 79:7). Instead he would have felt frustration and anguish at the way in which the work had been neglected.

Verse 4 states: “when I heard these things, I sat down and wept and mourned…and fasted and prayed certain days”. His response shows his yearning for the restoration of Israel. He was aware of the prophecies given by Jeremiah (Jer 29:10; Dan 9:2) relating to the seventy years of desolation and the subsequent re-gathering of the people to their homeland again.

This period of mourning, fasting and prayer lasted for approximately four months (cp v1 with 2:1) and deeply affected him, so much so that his mood was apparent to the king when he served him (2:2). Nehemiahʼs response was similar to that of Ezraʼs when he heard of the corrupt practices of the Jews in the Land (Ezra 9:3). The same spiritual outlook guided them both.

Nehemiahʼs Prayer (verses 5–11)

The prayer that has been recorded for us appears to be a single ʻsnapshotʼ, typical of all the prayers that he would have offered daily during his four month period of fasting. It was from this foundation that he would have drawn confidence when facing the kingʼs scrutiny (2:2). It was not a prayer offered to God when all else failed.

At this great time of hardship, Nehemiah draws strength and courage from others that went before him who experienced similar trials . The examples of Daniel and Solomon appear to have provided him with the greatest comfort and support, whilst also drawing on the covenants God made with His people before they entered the Land of Promise. In fact, the following table illustrates the great diversity of Scriptural references Nehemiah had in mind (see over page).

He was clearly more than just a cupbearer; he was a highly spiritual man, well-versed in the things of God.

9-6

To begin his prayer, Nehemiah shows his humility and recognition of his position before his God. He ascribes appropriate honour to his heavenly Father, calling on the Yahweh Name in an almost word for word recital of the beginning of Danielʼs prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem (Dan 9:4).

He described God as One who “keepeth covenant and mercy”. Moses used this phrase as he instructed the people about

  • who Yahweh was
  • the significance of the covenant of promise He had made with their fathers
  • their redemption from Egypt by a “mighty hand” (Deut 7:8,9,17,21).

Nehemiah was calling on God to deal with the heathen dwelling in the Land as He had done with the Egyptians and the Canaanites in the past so that the establishment of the Kingdom of God could be achieved.

The Prayer of Solomon (1 Kings 8, 2 Chron 6)

Nehemiah appeals to God using Solomonʼs prayer at the dedication of the Temple as a foundation thought. Solomonʼs prayer spoke of those who were taken into captivity because of their wickedness and appeals to them to repent and make prayer and supplication to Him. He pleaded that God would “hear… and forgive the sins of the people” and remember “the place of which thou hast said, My name shall be there” (1 Kings 8:29).

These two men of faith draw on Godʼs promise He made through Moses His servant that He would never forget His people even when they were driven out “to the outmost parts of heaven” (Deut 30:1–5).

This is a token of Godʼs commitment to His people. They are His “witnesses” and the fact that they are a nation today is His visible commitment to us that “he is faithful that promised”. So “let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering” (Heb 10:23). The establishment of the Kingdom on earth is a certainty and it is “by patient continuance in well doing” that we through the eye of faith “seek for glory and honour and immortality” (Rom 2:7).

Danielʼs Prayer (Daniel 9)

Nehemiah also alluded to Danielʼs prayer which spoke about Godʼs deliverance of His people by a “mighty hand” (Dan 9:15). He pleaded for the forgiveness of sins on behalf of the people and included himself when referring to the sins and failure of Israel in the past. He identified himself with

his people and related to their problems regardless of who or where they were. He empathises with them and expresses the true qualities of love listed in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7.

Nehemiah felt the same way and this is a challenge to us in the way we speak of others. It is so much easier to highlight the faults of others and talk about what “they do” instead of seeing our collective responsibility to edify the body of Christ.

Nehemiah spoke of Israel “whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power” (verse 10). This phrase again is a reminder of their great deliverance out of Egypt by Godʼs “strong hand” (cp Psalm 136:11,12) and is a reminder to us of how we, too, have been called out of darkness and need to appreciate the redemptive power of God in every aspect of life.

The remnant were a people “who desire to fear thy name”. They are the group who are able to say,

“Yea, in the way of thy judgments, O Yahweh, have we waited for thee; the desire of our soul is to thy name, and to the remembrance of thee. With my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea, with my spirit within me will I seek thee early: for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness” (Isa 26:8).

Fearing Godʼs Name is being aware of His greatness and humbly standing in awe of His majesty. As God continues to take out of the world a people for His name He will develop them through trial until the time comes when Godʼs judgments are in the earth.

He asks God: “Grant me mercy in the sight of this man”. He was a man of action, but a man who was dependent on Godʼs grace. His activity was not achieved in his own strength. In the ensuing chapters we see the providential hand of God working both to fulfill His will and to bring to pass those things that God had “put in his heart” (2:12). His own needs and fears were his last priority.

Conclusion

Nehemiahʼs pleasure was focused on the fulfilment of Godʼs purpose. This purpose will only be complete when the full restoration of Israel occurs and Davidʼs thrown is re-established in Jerusalem. When “…all the earth shall be filled with the glory of Yahweh” (Num 14:21).

His prayer to see the fulfilment of Godʼs covenant is an example for us all. He identified himself with the sins of the people. He was not superior to them, simply a minister amongst them. In associating himself with the sins of others he was a type of the Messiah (“he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin” 2 Cor 5:21). His example teaches us that we ought to work together with the same purpose.

We must never think that God cannot forgive us for the sins we have committed. God promised to Solomon that if any sought forgiveness, He would hear them. How much more then should we have “boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way…” (Heb 10:19,20). He has promised that “their sins and iniquities will He remember no more” (Heb 10:17). He has indicated that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–10)

His prayer was a totally unselfish prayer. All his desires aligned themselves with Godʼs and therefore his prayer was answered. Are our prayers offered with this in mind? Do we know what it is that God wants us to do in our life? Are our prayers offered with the purpose of the furtherance of His will? These are things that donʼt just happen in our prayers. They only come with careful preparation and meditation.

God will bless those who pray for the peace of Jerusalem. He will also bless those who labour for the glory of His Name. May we be amongst those who support the work both in prayer and practice.