For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. – Nehemiah 1:4
The king said to me, “What is it you want?”
Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king. – Nehemiah 2:4-5
Nehemiah was both a man of prayer and a man of action. The task for which we remember him is the rebuilding of the Jerusalem city wall after the exile. But underlying this consummate piece of organized labour is the action that looks like no action: prayer.
In the opening chapters of the book that bears his name, Nehemiah prays twice. Remote in history though the story may seem, these prayers are together a basic piece of instruction in speaking to God.
Just as we might tend to construct dichotomies about people being either people of prayer or of action, people of science or of faith, we are easily tempted to split prayer into something formally done versus something spontaneous. Whole church traditions seem to be built on the assumption that these kinds of prayer are mutually exclusive. But didn’t the same Jesus who taught us the Our Father as a model for our prayers also simply and spontaneously cry out his agony to the Father the night before his crucifixion?
Nehemiah 1, in which Nehemiah prepares to ask the Persian king for permission to return to Jerusalem, shows us the place of formal, well thought out, prayer. This is the prayer from the place of quiet, of deliberation. It’s the prayer that argues thoughtfully from God’s promise to the current trouble. It’s the prayer that carefully, step-by-step proceeds from praise to confession to supplication. It’s a prayer that might well shape the ones we pray.
- Praise (1:5-6a) – Nehemiah addresses the merciful, gracious God who is known to his people, ascribes praises to him, and humbly approaches him as one who would share his concerns.
- Confession (1:6b-7) – Nehemiah confesses not just his personal sins (though he certainly includes those), but the sins of the whole people. He gathers the community’s need up into his prayer and brings it honestly to God.
- Recollection of God’s promise (1:8-9) – One element of prayer that is often forgotten (perhaps because we are less confident in our own grasp of Scripture than previous generations were) is that of making a case for our request based on God’s own promises. Here Nehemiah remembers and reminds God of what he has promised to do when his people return to him. (This is something of what Jesus meant when he said that whatever we ask in his name God will grant: we must ask in accordance with God’s own will and promises, a will that is incarnated in Jesus himself.) This lays the groundwork for the final part of Nehemiah’s prayer.
- Request (1:10-11) – Finally, Nehemiah humbly but confidently requests that the Lord hear his prayer and grant him what he needs—in this case, a successful hearing from the king.
We can learn much about our own prayers from the model we see in Nehemiah’s. But what about the moments when life is in crisis, when we need God’s help but do not have the luxury of praying at length or in a formal setting? Do we wait until we can find a closet to hide in or a bed to kneel beside? Do we wait to talk to God the next time we are in a church or a chapel?
Nehemiah was facing a scary task (2:2). He had to ask King Artaxerxes to let him go back to Judah to fix the wall. Not only that he was about to ask the king for a fair number of other aids to the plan (2:7-9). Nehemiah was justifiably afraid.
When the king asked him, “What is it you want?” Nehemiah did more than just take a deep breath and plunge in. In a phrase brief enough that it’s easy to miss its significance, Nehemiah tells us, “Then I prayed to the God of heaven.” Does this mean he excused himself to “say prayers,” or should we suppose he turned aside, got down on his knees and closed his eyes in front of the king? We can be fairly sure that it means that Nehemiah quietly breathed the prayer, acknowledging in his heart that he was not strong enough to do this job on his own. So he asked God for help.
And so can we. The Lord has promised to be with us in every situation. Whether good or bad things are coming our way, the God who deserves thanks and who gives help is very near. He wants to hear from us in those times too, just as he calls us to set apart those times when we are able to devote our who attention, body and spirit, to prayer.