Nehemiah's Experience of Prayer


“Nehemiah’s Experience of Prayer”

So, for the second in our series on Nehemiah, we come to his experience of prayer. But before we consider that, have you ever heard any of these phrases, or perhaps used them yourself:

 “Prayer is boring!” “I can’t pray out loud!” “Why bother to pray?” “I leave praying to those who need that kind of crutch!” “I tried praying, but God didn’t answer my prayer!”

Let’s consider these before we look at Nehemiah’s experience of prayer.

 “Prayer is boring!” I wonder why any of us – especially Christians would say such a thing?

Two Sunday evenings ago, the Church that I am part of, cancelled the planned evening Service, and instead, held an ‘emergency prayer time’ for a family who needed the Church Family to hold them in prayer because of something they were going through.

The Church came together to call on the Name of the Lord for this Family, and more than twice the normal number for a Sunday evening came together, and what a time it was. You certainly couldn’t say it was boring, and people prayed from the heart. Afterward, one person said that he had never been to a prayer meeting like it ever since he had been at the Church, a number of years ago. It was suggested that we should have emergency prayer meetings more often! What a shame prayer meetings aren’t always like that.

“I can’t pray out loud!”

I wonder why many Christians struggle with praying out loud? One reason is that many of us were never taught how to pray out loud. In Church life it is assumed that because you are a Christian you can pray out loud. Wrong and poor assumption! Someone once said that our public prayers are only a reflection of our personal prayer life. Oh, I do hope that’s not true, because often there are long silences in ‘open prayer’, and those praying out loud is usually a smaller percentage of those present, and those present are a very small percentage of the Church Family.

I went to Christian Endeavour when I was a boy, and teenager, and it was there that we were taught, and expected to pray out loud – at every meeting!

“Why bother to pray?” I think this is partly to do with God not answering our prayers in the way we want! For example, if we are holding an outdoor event we pray for fine weather, and if it’s fine we say “God answered our prayer”, but if it rains we don’t say a word! So is there any point or purpose in praying?

“I leave praying to those who need that kind of crutch.”

What a sad statement if it’s true. Is Prayer only a crutch that helps keep us upright, in our walk with God? Or at least for those who pray?

“I tried praying, but God didn’t answer my prayer!”

Maybe we need to ask why He didn’t, or whether He answered it in a different way to what we expected.

Or maybe we prayed for the wrong things, or for the wrong motives.

Well, that’s the introduction! Let’s see now what we can learn about Nehemiah’s Experience of Prayer.

There are at least 11 occasions when he prayed, throughout the Book of his name. He is perhaps most well-known for what have come to be known as ‘arrow prayers’ (2:4b), but these are not, and must never become a substitute, or the norm, for praying Christians (whether in a large group or on our own). They eventually are a very poor diet, and ‘arrow prayers’ are good and useful when they arise from a life of prayer, such as we see demonstrated by Nehemiah.

But where was he, and what caused him to pray? He was in exile, and grieving over his homeland (which he may have never seen). He had received news from Judah that Jerusalem was in a mess, because the city walls were broken down, and the gates had been burned with fire (1:2 – 3). In other words, Jerusalem was very vulnerable and in a state of disgrace.

This news didn’t leave him wallowing in self-pity, but moved him to pray, and that praying catapulted him into a ministry to the work the Lord gave him to do. He first committed himself to real, earnest prayer (1:5ff), which over a period of time drove him to action.

Please note, that it was a result of his praying, over many days, with weeping and fasting (1:4),that he was then able to offer his so-called ‘arrow’ prayer, when the king of Susa asked him why he was so sad (2:1 – 4).

One thing we must notice is that Nehemiah’s prayer to the living God reminds us of a strange truth that God often calls us to be the answer to our own prayers, which came about as Nehemiah ‘wrestled’ with the problem in  God’s presence. So be careful what you pray for – you may be the answer to your own prayers!

One of the things that strikes you about Nehemiah’s prayer life, as one writer has pointed out is its breadth and scope. Listen to these different kinds of prayer:

Adoration (8:6; 9:3, 5); Thanksgiving (12:24, 27, 31, 40, 46); Confession (1:4 – 7; 9:33 – 34); Petition (1:11; 2:4); and Intercession (1:6).

How much do these headings reflect our own prayer lives? Or are our prayer lives simply a kind of shopping list: God bless so-and-so; God help Mr this; Please give Mrs that what she needs.

Not only was Nehemiah’s prayer life well balanced, with these different kinds of prayer, they also expressed anguish (4:4 – 5; 6:14; 13:29); joy (12:43); for protection (4:9); prayers for dependence (6:9); and commitment (13:14, 22, 31).

His prayers are compassionate (1:4); persistent (same verse); personal (1:6); and corporate (1:7).

Here, then is a believer in God who hurried to the place of prayer to share his present griefs (1:4); he confessed his past failures (1:6 – 7); and discovered his future work (1:11).

Wow! What a prayer life!

How does my/your/our prayer life match up to that? Yet, was he any different to you and me? Was Nehemiah ‘super-spiritual’? No! But, as we have seen, he was devoted to God and to prayer. Of course, we must guard against comparing ourselves to him, but how about us?

The same opportunities for prayer, and of prayer, are available to us. So I wonder why we are so slow in doing it as fervently as Nehemiah seemed to do? Why is it that Church Prayer Meetings in the UK are, generally, the least attended meetings in the life of the Church? I can’t answer that, but it’s sad that that’s the way it is.

Looking at Nehemiah’s prayer life isn’t a means of making us feel guilty, so that we pray more even though our hearts aren’t in it. No! But what an example he has set us, and what a challenge God’s Word is to us today. By all means let’s use arrow prayers, as and when we need to, but such a prayer life of only arrow prayers should never be the staple diet of the Christian.

Jesus Himself prayed regularly, and taught His disciples what to say in prayer – what we refer to as The Lord’s Prayer, which is a great model for prayer – but our prayer lives need to develop to become more earnest, more real, more honest, more committed, have more depth, and then wait and see, with great expectancy, what the Lord is going to do!

Or maybe become more aware of what He has already done, and is doing.

In Nehemiah’s life, far from being a conventional religious exercise, prayer was a vital daily experience. He was genuine in prayer. He was deeply grieved when he heard about the state that Jerusalem was in, and he sat down and wept (1:4). He was a thousand miles away, beyond a vast desert, but the needs of his fellow-countrymen were close to his heart.

He wasn’t the last person to ‘weep over Jerusalem’ – Jesus did too.

Let’s ask ourselves: when was the last time we prayerfully wept over our village, town, city?

Nehemiah was sacrificial and intense in prayer. There was nothing better he could do than pray for them, denying himself food for several days so that he could concentrate on his prayers for others.

He was persistent in prayer. He prayed ‘for some days’ (1:4), day and night (1:6). Nehemiah was patient in prayer. Well over 100 days came and went as Nehemiah waited for the right moment to approach the King, in Susa, where he was the king’s cup-bearer: he would easily have the ear of the king, but it had to be the right moment. Waiting time is not wasted time: many of us are in too much of a hurry, and in this instant society, we want God to respond instantly!

There is so much more we could reflect on from the prayer life of Nehemiah but our time is going far too fast, but let’s not just sit here and listen, but as James says in his letter, “Don’t just be hearers of the Word, but do-ers of the Word.”

Let’s be quiet and reflect on God’s Word for each one of us today, personally and even corporately.

Malcolm Brown