Knowing How to Pray

Nehemiah 1

September 10, 2000 | Brian Bill

I want to give you a Bible quiz.  I’ll give you a hint – all the questions have to do with the Old Testament.

Who was the greatest comedian in the Bible?

Samson.  He brought the house down.

Who was the greatest male financier in the Bible?

Noah.  He was floating his stock while everyone else was in liquidation.

Who was the greatest female financier?

Pharaoh’s daughter.  She went down to the bank of the Nile and drew out a little prophet.

Who is the greatest babysitter mentioned in the Bible?

David.  He rocked Goliath to a very deep sleep.

Who is the shortest man in the Bible?


This morning we’re kicking off an 11-part series based on the book of Nehemiah that we’re calling, “A Time to Build.”  Nehemiah is one of the great characters of the Old Testament, but perhaps not as well known as some others.  

I’d like to give you an assignment at the beginning of the message today.  I’d like you to read a tantalizing trilogy – begin with the book of Esther, where you will discover how God first began to move in the midst of Israel’s captivity by raising up Esther, a young Jewish maiden, to the throne in Persia.  It was her husband who is Artaxerxes in the opening chapters of Nehemiah.  Then, read the book of Ezra, which in the Hebrew Bible is linked with the book of Nehemiah as the same book.  When you’re finished with Ezra, then jump into Nehemiah and read it carefully.  Because of the richness of this book, you will get more out of this series if you do some homework each week.

A History Lesson

Let me briefly set the historical context.  In Genesis 12, God called Abram to leave his country and to follow Him to another land.  As Abraham obeyed, his descendents multiplied.   The Israelites were later enslaved in Egypt for over 400 years until God called them out under the leadership of Moses.

Eventually they were allowed to enter the land God had promised them, Canaan.  Hundreds of years passed during which the nation experienced struggles, faithlessness, and wrestling with God.  The high point of Israel’s history came when David, a godly king, was called to sit on the throne.  For forty years David expanded the nation in both breadth of influence and knowledge of God. 

But things went downhill from there.  After his son, King Solomon died; Israel was split into two kingdoms.  The Northern Kingdom had ten tribes and was referred to as Israel.  The Southern Kingdom had two tribes and was referred to as Judah.  Because of their disobedience, the Assyrians conquered Israel and the ten tribes were scattered and became known as the “ten lost tribes of Israel.”

Even though the southern tribes saw all this happen, they, too, continued to rebel against God.  In 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army captured the Jews, Jerusalem was destroyed, the walls were knocked down, and the temple was burned.  The people were deported and were forced into slavery again.  Their history had come full circle.  The city was left in ruins.  Here’s a picture of some of the devastation of Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped.  I imagine Jerusalem looking a lot like this.

It must have been a traumatic thing for the Jews to see death and destruction and then be forced to leave their homeland and travel about 1,000 miles to a foreign country.  Many of God’s prophets predicted that this captivity would not destroy the nation; it would eventually end and the people would be allowed to go back home.  Daniel understood this truth when he was reading the book of Jeremiah.   

God did not forsake His people.  He allowed the Persians to take over the Babylonians and he moved King Cyrus to make a decree to let some of the Jews return.  And in three stages, over about a hundred years, they were allowed to migrate back to Jerusalem, only to discover the city was still demolished and desolate.  Living there was dangerous and difficult and sorrowful.  

After the decree of Cyrus, 50,000 Israelites returned to Judah with Zerubbabel and began rebuilding the temple.  Unfortunately, they got discouraged and quit.  God then sent them the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage them to finish the project.  Ezra was also sent to help restore their spiritual fervor.

Finally Nehemiah tells his story in the twentieth year of the reign of Artaxerxes.  By now Persia had replaced Babylon as the region’s great power, and the Persians ruled with a very different means of control.  The commitment of the Persians was to resettle captured people in their native lands.  Conquered peoples could act with a degree of autonomy as long as they supported the state and paid their taxes.  As we start the book of Nehemiah, God is about to instigate another movement back to the Promised Land.

The book falls into several divisions.  The first six chapters cover the rebuilding of the wall, while chapters 7 through 10 deal with the renewing of Jerusalem’s worship with the final chapters addressing the repopulation and revival of God’s people.

Are you ready to dive in?  I can hardly wait!  This morning we’re going to begin exactly where we should always begin – with an emphasis upon prayer.  Someone asked me this week what I was preaching on.  When I told him that it was on prayer, he said, “Didn’t you just preach on prayer a couple months ago?”  I told him yes but that we can never get enough of it.

Prayer is one of the overriding themes of the book and the secret to Nehemiah’s success.  The prayer in chapter one is the first of 12 different prayers recorded in the book.  It begins with prayer in Persia and closes with prayer in Jerusalem.  His prayers are filled with adoration in chapters 8 and 9; thanksgiving in chapter 12; confession in chapters 1 and 9; petition in chapters 1 and 2.  There are prayers of anguish, joy, protection, dependence and commitment.  It’s a story of compassionate, persistent, personal and corporate prayer.  Prayer gives Nehemiah perspective; it widens his horizons, sharpens his vision and dwarfs his anxieties.

He knew that only ventures that are begun in prayer and bathed in prayer throughout are likely to be blessed

Nehemiah’s public life was the outflow of his personal life, which was steeped in, and shaped by, a lifestyle of prayer.  His devotion to God, his dependence on Him for everything, and his desire for the glory of God found equal expression.  He knew that only ventures that are begun in prayer and bathed in prayer throughout are likely to be blessed.

The Process of Prayer

I want to suggest this morning that Nehemiah went through a process of prayer that has great application and relevance to us today.  Please turn in your Bible to Nehemiah 1.  

The first place Nehemiah started was with a concern about the problem in verses 1-4.

1. CONCERN About the Problem.

We know from verse 11 that Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king.  His job was to taste the king’s wine before the king drank it to make sure it was not poisoned.  I jokingly told some of the people in the parade that I was the cupbearer when I was sucking down a pop-ice while I was walking!  I didn’t want anyone to get poisoned so I just sampled all 4,000 of them!

As cupbearer, Nehemiah had a great job.  He had intimate access to royalty, political standing, and a place to live in the palace.  It was a cushy job that provided everything he needed.  And yet, when one of his brothers returned from a road trip to Jerusalem, verse 2 says that Nehemiah “questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.”  The word, “question” means “to inquire or demand” an answer.  Nehemiah was greatly concerned about what was happening in Jerusalem.  He could have insulated himself if he chose to, but he didn’t.  He sought them out and wanted to hear the first-hand report.

This is an important starting point.  It’s so easy for us to stay uninvolved and unaware.  Some of us don’t want to even think about stuff that’s going on in our own lives, much less take the time to investigate what is happening in the lives of others.  Even though Nehemiah had never been to Jerusalem, he had heard stories about it, and knew that his ancestors had been led away in chains when Babylon destroyed it.  He was doing what Jeremiah 51:50 instructed the exiles to do: “…Remember the Lord in a distant land, and think on Jerusalem.”

As he thought on Jerusalem, he listened to the report in verse 3 that the survivors were in great trouble and disgrace, that the wall of Jerusalem was in shambles and that its gates had been burned with fire.  As he tried to imagine the shame in the city of David, he could barely stand it.  The phrase, “great trouble” meant that the people had “broken down and were falling to pieces.”  Three words summarize the bad news: remnant, ruin, and reproach.

Are you ready to allow God to do some rebuilding?

Nehemiah was broken over the complacency of the people of Jerusalem.  They were living in ruins and they accepted it.  They were willing to walk around the devastation instead of being concerned enough to do something about their situation.  Friends, nothing is ever going to change in your life, in the life of this church, or for that matter, our nation, until we become concerned about the problem.  Some of you have become complacent about the way your life is going.  You’re living with rubble and it doesn’t even bother you any more.  Are you ready to allow God to do some rebuilding?  If so, you need to become concerned about the problem by listening to the facts – even if you don’t want to hear them.

When he heard this report, he hit the ground and began to weep in verse 4.  The meaning behind this word is that he “bemoaned and lamented,” much like Jesus did when he cried out in painful tears when he observed the hard hearts of those in Jerusalem (Luke 19:41).  He also fasted.  In the Old Testament, fasting was only required once a year, but here we see Nehemiah refraining from food for several days.  In fact, we know from comparing the different dates in this book that he wept, fasted, and prayed for four months!  These are all signs of humility and show his deep concern for the problem.

Do you need some rebuilding today?  Are your defenses broken down such that you are allowing some practices and sins to control your life?  Before you can ask God to rebuild, you must first become concerned about the problem.

2. CONVICTION about God’s Character. 

After Nehemiah becomes concerned, he next expresses his conviction of God’s character in verse 5: “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and obey His commands.” 

Nehemiah called God “Lord.”  He recognized the Lord as his master – in verse 6, he refers to himself as God’s servant.  He then refers to His Lord as the “God of Heaven.”  He acknowledged that his God was beyond the earthly realm and above all other gods.  He next refers to Him as “great and awesome.”  God deserves to be honored, revered and feared by all because of who He is.  Finally, Nehemiah describes God as the one who “keeps His covenant of love.”  God is truthful, faithful and can be trusted. 

His boss, the king, was the greatest and mightiest on earth, but compared to God, Artaxerxes was nothing.  Nehemiah was in Susa and his concern is in far off-Jerusalem, but both cities – one rich, the other poor, one strong the other weak, one proud, the other broken – were like tiny specks of dust under the vast canopy of God’s heaven.  Friends, when we go to God in prayer, things get put into their proper perspective. 

Because of his conviction about God’s character, Nehemiah knew that God was not only able, but also willing to respond to his prayer.  But he also knew that he did not deserve to have God treat him favorably.  That’s why the next phase of his prayer is a confession of sin.  Like Job, his encounter with an awesome God brings him to the place of repentance and confession.   Job writes in 42:5-6: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

3. CONFESSION of sin. 

After becoming concerned about the problem, and expressing his conviction about God’s character, Nehemiah is now moved to admit his sin and the sins of his people in verses 6-7: “Let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel.  I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you.  We have acted very wickedly toward you.  We have not obeyed the commands, decrees, and laws you gave your servant Moses.”

It’s one thing to be concerned and to even have a firm conviction of who God is.  It’s another thing to actually confess.  Many of us never get this far.  We might feel bad about our sins or be concerned about how things are going.  Our theology may even be correct.  We know things are bad and that God is good but we hesitate at this next step.  

Nehemiah boldly asks God to hear his prayer, which literally means, “to hear intelligently with great attention.”  I see at least three key ingredients in his confession of sin.

  • Intensity.  Overwhelmed by concern about sin and in awe of God’s character, Nehemiah gave himself to prolonged petition and intercession.  He prayed day and night, spending every moment of time in God’s presence.  This is very similar to Psalm 88:1 where we read, “O Lord, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you.”
  • Honesty.  Nehemiah made no attempt to excuse the Israelites for their sin and actually owned his part in their culpability.  He surveyed the grim record of Israel’s past and present failure, and he knew that he was not exempt from blame.  Notice that he prays, “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself…we have acted very wickedly…we have not obeyed…”  This is remarkable to me.  It would have been easy for Nehemiah to look back and blame his ancestors but instead he looked within and blamed himself.  It’s so easy for us to blame others, isn’t it?  We need to learn from Nehemiah and confess honestly, “Lord, I am wrong.  I not only want to be part of the answer, I confess that I’m part of the problem.”
  • Urgency.  Nehemiah recognized that sin is not merely a stubborn refusal to obey certain rules, but is also a defiant act of aggressive personal rebellion against a holy God.  He knows that they  “have acted very wickedly.”  He didn’t try to candy-coat his sin.  He owned it and called it what it was.

The story is told about some Boeing employees who decided to steal a life raft from one of the 747s they were working on.  They were successful in getting it out of the plant but they forgot one thing.  The raft comes with an emergency locator that is automatically activated when the raft is inflated.  So, when they took the raft out on the Stilliguamish River, they were quite surprised by a Coast Guard helicopter homing in on the emergency locator.

Trying to hide our sins from God is impossible.  He knows all about them.  Numbers 32:23 reminds us that, “…you may be sure that your sin will find you out.” Friends, we need to recognize that all sin, those things we have blatantly done or carelessly committed, or those things that we have left undone, must be identified and then confessed.  Are you trying to hide anything today?  It’s better to confess it now than to wait until your sin exposes you!

4. CONFIDENCE in God’s Promises. 

While Nehemiah spends time in broken confession, he doesn’t wallow in a prolonged introspective examination of his failures and those of his brothers and sisters.  He owns what he did wrong and then he quickly expresses confidence in God’s promises in verses 8-10: “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and mighty hand.”

In this part of his prayer, Nehemiah recalls the words of Moses about the danger of Israel’s apostasy and the promise of divine mercy.  His words are a skillful mosaic of great Old Testament warnings and promises, with quotes coming from Leviticus, Deuteronomy, 1 Kings, 2 Chronicles and Psalm 130.

What was the promise Nehemiah was getting at?  It was twofold.  First, if Israel disobeyed, they would be sent to a foreign land.  That had been fulfilled.  The second part was that when the captivity was over God would send them back to Jerusalem.  They were still waiting for that to be fulfilled.  Nehemiah prayed, “Lord, the first part is true.  We’ve disobeyed and we’re in captivity.  But Lord, you’ve made a promise to bring us back home and protect us there – and that has not happened yet.  I’m claiming your promise that you’ll make it happen.”

Someone has calculated that there are over 7,000 promises in the Bible.  The better we know the Word of God, the better we’ll be able to pray with confidence in God’s promises.  1 John 5:14 says, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.”

Are you as confident of God’s promises as Nehemiah was?  If God said it in His Word, you can believe it and claim it.  Nehemiah knew God would keep His covenant of love with his people.  He also knew that, even though God did not need his help, he was ready to make a commitment to get involved.

5. COMMITMENT to get involved. 

Do you see the progression in Nehemiah’s prayer?  His concern about the problem led him to brokenness.  While he was weeping and fasting, he expressed his conviction about God’s character.  As he focused on the greatness and awesomeness of His holy God, he was quickly reminded of his own wickedness and therefore cried out in confession.  After owning his role in the nation’s depravity, he prayed boldly and with confidence in God’s promises.  This then leads him to a commitment to get involved.

We see this in verse 11: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name.  Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.  I was cupbearer to the king.”

It has been said that prayer is not getting man’s will done in heaven but getting God’s will done on earth.  However, for God’s will to be done on earth, He needs people to be available for Him to use.  While Nehemiah was praying, his burden for Jerusalem became greater and his vision of what needed to be done became clearer.  He didn’t pray for God to send someone else – he simply said, “Here am I, send me!”  He knew that he would have to approach the king and request a 3-year leave of absence and so asked God for “success,” which means “to break out or push forward.”  He wanted to see God break out on his behalf when he goes in front of the king to make his request.  He was claiming yet another promise from Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; He directs it like a watercourse where He pleases.”

Someone has said that the key word in this book is the word, “so,” which occurs 32 different times.  Again and again, Nehemiah assesses the situation, is moved to concern and “so” is compelled to action.  The true measure of our concern is whether or not we are willing to make a commitment to get involved.  Martin Luther said, “Pray as if everything depends on God, then work as if everything depends on you.”


George W. Bush had an embarrassing moment this week when a live microphone picked up a private comment.  That reminds me of a college choir which was all set to present a concert in a large church which was to be carried live by a local radio station.  When everything appeared to be ready, the announcer made his final introduction and waited for the choir director to begin.

A tenor was not yet ready, however, so the director refused to raise his baton.  All this time, nothing but silence was being broadcast.  Growing very nervous, the announcer, forgetting that his microphone was still on and that he could be heard in the church and on the air, said in exasperation, “Get on with it, you old goat!”

Later in the week, the radio station got a letter from one of its listeners–a man who had tuned in to listen to the music from the comfort of his easy chair.  When he heard “Get on with it, you old goat!” he took the message personally.  He had been doing nothing to further God’s work, and this startling message was enough to convict him and get him going again.    

Sometimes we need a wake-up call, don’t we?  Maybe you’ve received that call this morning and God is saying to you, “Get on with it, you old goat…or young goat.”  Where are you in this prayer process right now?

  • Are you concerned about your problems?
  • Do you have a conviction about God’s holy character?
  • Are you ready to confess your sins?
  • Do you have confidence in God’s promises?
  • Are you ready to make a commitment to get involved in God’s kingdom work

Brothers and sisters, It’s Time to Build!

It’s also a time to rebuild.  When we have the courage to admit that we’ve messed up, when we become concerned enough about the way we’ve been living that we confess our sins, we know that God will do his rebuilding work – He’s promised to do so. 

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?