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Book of Nehemiah: Rebuilding Our Faith

The Bible Teacher's Commentary


Prayers that change the world

Nehemiah 1:4-11

Paul J. Bucknell


Prayers that Change the World 1:4-11 | Reading | Powerpoint | Video
Nehemiah 1:1-11 Prayer
| Nehemiah 1:5-11
Solomon's Prayer 2 Chronicles 6-7 | Quality Devotions Prayers | Development of Prayer
Nehemiah Theme | Nehemiah Outline and Index| Nehemiah Historical Background

Because we grieve, we mournfully pray (Nehemiah 1:4)
Because we hope, we worshipfully ask (Nehemiah 1:5)
Because we sinned, we humbly confess Nehemiah (1:6-7)
Because we believe, we persistently intercede (Nehemiah 1:8-11)

It was not Nehemiah’s great leadership skills that accomplished all that Nehemiah had done. His gifting, skills and resources all had an important place, of course, but they played a secondary part. The major thing needed was prayer, a certain kind of prayer, prayers that change the world.

Prayers that change the world

Nehemiah’s prayers change the world. What happened? The world changed. We do not have time to go into details here. Upcoming messages will discuss how his prayers changed the world.

Nehemiah was not doubt convinced of the importance of prayer. This is the reason this section on Nehemiah’s prayer is located right here at the beginning of the book. But it is also why Nehemiah’s prayers are recorded throughout the book. There are actually seven ‘Remember’ prayers throughout the Book of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah’s prayers, through God’s grace and favor, changed the world.

I would like to venture a challenge to you. God wants to further change the world through your prayers. The Bible is written for our instruction. God provides this Book of Nehemiah largely to show how He accomplishes His great plans so that we might be encouraged and engage ourselves in His great works.

When we get at the bottom of things, we see that all this is quite simple. God wants to accomplish His great plans. (Yes, He has one sovereign plan but for our sake let us think about its many components, that is, plans). He seeks about for His people who are willing to pray His will into being.

God takes those prayers and brings about the people, resources, miracles, accidents, burdens needed to accomplish His plan. Listen to John.

“14 And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him” (1 John 5:14-15).

God is ever so willing to work His will through our lives. Much of the Christian life is unfortunately spent requiring God to so carefully position our lives so that we would finally care about what God wants and ask God for those things that God wants to accomplish. May we put down our resistance to what God wants and share the heart and passion of God.

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But why didn’t prayer work?

If you have paid close attention to the beginning verses of Nehemiah, you might just wonder about a possible conflict. Perhaps you think, if God is so able and willing to hear His people pray, then why did Jerusalem fall into enemy hands?

Yes, it is true the people could have prayed to turn about the judgment, but they did not. The problem is never what God could have done but what God’s people have not done. They have not obeyed the Lord and sought Him out.

God is so attuned to His people’s tendency not to seek Him that He even wrote a provision for it in the Law, the Book of Moses. He made a provision for His people to pray to Him even when they have failed Him and were scattered among the nations. We will look at this passage more later.

We might better ask ourselves, “Why didn’t Nehemiah and others earlier on plead God for help?” Again, we should not blame God for the problems but ourselves.

When things begin to go bad, we should right then ask the Lord two questions.

Recently I have had two months of many things going wrong. I have several times examined my own heart and life. I am not just going to quickly dismiss these things to be a row of accidents or the devil (though he is obviously involved). But what if I am doing something that the Lord is not pleased with and He is trying to get my attention?

He will allow trouble into my life. I must carefully examine my life less I too like Solomon allow my heart drift away from God. (In this case, though, I do not see it to be my hardness but distraction from my upcoming ministry trip. It is still good to examine our lives, though.)

So genuine prayers do work, but God’s people simply did not pray.

What about God’s sovereignty and prayers?

Another issue that comes up when discussing the power of prayer is how it connects with God’s sovereignty. On the one hand we have God’s sovereign will that refuses to be thwarted. On the other hand is that God is waiting for us to pray before He acts.

Do not let this trouble you. Allow both to be true. Both are seen here in Nehemiah. God on the one hand is exercising His will to rebuild Jerusalem, but He also used Nehemiah’s prayers, and no doubt the prayers of others, to rebuild the walls. The Lord incorporates man’s prayers into His activities.

In a sense, one can say God limits Himself through His people’s prayers. This is one of the befuddling facts about our God. He has so much power but is willing for things to fall apart and even deteriorate, if needed, just so He can get us to the point of prayer. Desperation leads us to prayer because we have no other resources.

Some from this might think God is rather impotent but quite the opposite is true. God displays much more potent power by being able to pick up the millions of scattered pieces and reassemble it into an even more remarkable picture. This is what the Lord did here as He brings His people back scattered among the nations.

God is sovereign but shows it through weakness and patience in order to accomplish a great plan through His people.

Why does it take so long for us to cry out to Him in prayer?

We do not know if Nehemiah and his friends first tried other things. If they are anything like us, we can be sure they did. They tried mobilizing their people, pooling resources, etc. Before desperately seeking God in prayer. God already had done much through Ezra, but after these many years the wall had not yet been built.

I am not against good leadership or social organizations, but we need to remember what the world needs is God’s amazing work of grace.

Let me point out an example of this. The morals in our society are falling ever so quickly. We have drugs given as medicine, murder is used to preserve our rights, gambling, which just a few years ago was illegal, is now called gaming. What was forbidden by law for generations is now accepted: easy divorce, adultery, homosexuality, etc.

We can rightly ask Nehemiah why they did not earlier pray if they could escape their trouble, but why not ask that with ourselves! Here our world has morally collapsed, the church of Jesus Christ is looked at as a piece of litter from the past. Why don’t we pray? Do you pray? Do you or I pray as Nehemiah?

Do we refuse to pray because we do not believe God can really do anything? Or is it that we do not think God is involved?

I used to pray with a group of pastors and Christian leaders over the past. During those years, we saw God do many great things within this city (Pittsburgh, PA). We saw great things happen that I never saw before. Churches reconciled, joint prayers, large groups of people praying, and even a large Jesus parades where thousands came out. This was the past, however. The pastors no longer meet. Congregations no longer prayer. Instead we have had more corruption move in, casinos decorate our city.

How many filthy things will you watch on the screen before you cry? How many divorces will you hear about and not cry out to God? Is it possible that our hearts are too closely affiliated with the world and its pleasures?

I was speaking with someone about the Lord’s return. Someone overheard me and said, “Oh, don’t talk about that.” I am not too sure what that person was thinking, but does that sound like you? Too much to experience here on earth. No time for heavenly things.

Or maybe you pray but do not see God working. You wonder how you are suppose to pray.

Our opportunity to pray

Every significant work in our lives will begin with prayer. Isaiah touches on this very point.

“18 Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you, And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you. For the LORD is a God of justice; How blessed are all those who long for Him. 19 O people in Zion, inhabitant in Jerusalem, you will weep no longer. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when He hears it, He will answer you” (Isaiah 30:18-19).

Do you see the connection? God is gracious. Waiting for us to cry out to Him and pray! This is where today’s message leads us - right to the throne of God. Nothing is too big. No problem is too large.

This has to do with the small and large things in our lives, our personal lives, marriages, church or society. Now is the day of grace. God will hear our prayers.

If we choose not to pray, then we are making a choice to try our own resources. Yes, we are so talented, educated, often in wealthy circumstances and even more. We have personal contacts with the right people. But this is part of the problem. Good intentions without the right vision and means end up with disappointing results and accelerate the fall into disarray. There will be signs of advance but only to fall further into deterioration.

Churches often operate with good intentions. Families hope for great families. Marriages start off with a great bang. Careers start with careful planning and hard work. These things, however, even salted with a little prayer here and there, are not what should be at the base of our areas of concern. God has deeper and more rich plans for our lives and our churches.

Making our lives count

Our lives really only begin when we are able to observe what God wants and to accomplish it. The biggest problem is that our eye is on what we want to do rather than what God wants to do. God will use our jobs, skills, education, wealth, etc., but all of these need to be tailored to what God wants for our lives.

This is what you see about great saints. They started off engaged in the world as all of us but then caught a vision of what God wanted.

But please do not misunderstand me. God will take some of us and through our prayers of desperation and change the world. The world will know our names and our lives be written up in the history books. Other people will get to know them. But although people like Nehemiah might become great as far as the world counts it, this would include just a few of us.

Most of us, however, have the same opportunity to change the world through our prayers, even though we might live in obscurity. Do not make the false assumption that God rarely only works and then only with great people and through their great prayers. No. We all start in the same way through awful circumstances, broken hearts and humble prayers. We probably will not get to know such people here on earth.

My hope through this passage is that you (1) will catch a desire to do God’s will, to see it come into completion and (2) that you will pray those prayers that change the world. I know this is what God wants for us as His children, otherwise He would not have made the promise, “Ask whatever you want, and I will grant it” to all of us.

So what will you do with this priceless promise, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you”? (John 15:7).

From hindsight we can see that it was exactly such a prayer that brought God’s intervening grace into this dark world to accomplish some good act. Let us see what is needed for world-changing prayers by carefully examining Nehemiah’s prayer. We have four aspects of life-changing prayers.

“Now it came about when I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4).

Because we grieve, we mournfully pray (Nehemiah 1:4)

The Lord first shows that we need to be able to rightly see the world as He sees it. Remember how Jesus saw Jerusalem from afar and wept over it? “And when He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it” (Luke 19:41).

There are many things that trouble me about this city of ours. We have so many glorious glances of our glorious city from bridges and mountaintops. But why doesn’t my heart want to cry out. Is it that I want to be impressed. Or I just want to forget and get on with my life.

PrayerWe see, but we don’t see. It is very doubtful that Nehemiah had never heard of the circumstances that surrounded Jerusalem before. He was right there serving the emperor day and night. In a respected position like that, he undoubtedly had heard these things before. But something was different and special. Maybe he started that day praying that God would use him or that God would help him see whom he could help that day.

Grieve as God grieves

God opened his eyes in a startling way. He saw as he never saw before. When he heard, he responded in weeping, mourning, fasting and praying. Nehemiah saw the need and responded. He finally got to see how bad things were and how things could be so much better.

Become personally involved

God had His part in preparing Nehemiah’s heart. At just the right time the Lord had that delegation make the report how bad things were in Jerusalem. These reports might seem to be unimportant but it is by reporting such needs that often God stirs up His people to what is happening.

This is the reasons we have revival services and mission conferences. We are trying to open up the hearts of God’s people by showing them the real need.

Fast and pray seeking God’s intervention

But you say, “But being exposed to the real need does not always move us in the same way.” You are right, but this is where the individual believer must prepare his or her heart to hear. This is why we personally meet with God to make our hearts soft to what He would want to say to us. I trust you are not so distant from God that you do not daily meet with Him or that you harbor bitterness in your soul.

In our times with God we prepare our hearts, build up our trust in His good purposes, find hope and place our lives at His command. The first step here is the change of heart which comes from gaining God’s view of things.

Reflections

Because we hope, we worshipfully ask (Nehemiah 1:5)

“And I said, “I beseech Thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Nehemiah 1:5).

God’s change agents know God

If we are ever going to be God’s change agents, we will need to know God better. As much as some dismiss theology, what we know and believe about God shapes our responses. Let me provide you some examples.

#1 Give up attitude

Did you ever hear someone (or your own heart) say, “I guess I can’t do anything about it.” If we were a person in the world, we could understand this, but this is not the case with believers. As believers, we can ask anything according to God’s will and it will be done!

When the believer accepts the lie that “I guess I can’t...” then we see his theology is warped. He doesn’t believe God is able and willing to accomplish these things. And so he lives in light of his belief and just stays put.

Let’s contrast this with Nehemiah’s prayer in verse 5.

#2 God, you can do it

When we think the right things about God, then we come to Him in prayer. That is what Nehemiah did. He beseeched God. Why? Not because the problem was not so bad but because God was so willing and able. Let’s look carefully at the adjectives Nehemiah uses to describe the Lord.

O LORD - this is calling out God’s Name - Yahweh. God gave us His name. We are not praying to any God but to a personal God who revealed His Name to us in the scriptures - fully revealed in Jesus Christ (John 1:13-14).

God of heaven - This phrase speaks of God’s power and control over all things. The idea is this. If God controls heaven, then He surely controls the earth. Nothing is impossible for Him to do. He is the supernatural God not bound to laws and time on earth.

The great and awesome God - Notice the honor and glory Nehemiah attributes to God. He is able. He has done great things and distinguishes Himself by regularly doing great things.

Who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness - God has bound Himself to work by the covenant. When someone loves and obeys God’s Word, then God acts. This does not mean that Nehemiah or the Israelites deserve God to lead Israel but it is something that God does do and delight in.

Can we see how our knowledge and understanding of God shapes our hope? As Nehemiah prays repeating the truths about God, his eyes are further opened to the character and will of God.

Sometimes we want God to change us before we pray. Help me and then I will pray. This is not biblical. It is common, however, to see those like Nehemiah come to God as he is but then repeating the truths of God in a way that brings glory to Him. It is then our eyes are further happened, which is most probable what happened in Nehemiah’s case.

God was working over those days of mourning and fasting and praying. When we live a holy life before God, God will hear our prayers. “The prayers of a righteous man availeth much.”

Application

What do you know and deeply believe about God? Do you really believe it or just say you do? How do you know?

Because we sinned, we humbly confess (1:6-7)

“6 Let Thine ear now be attentive and Thine eyes open to hear the prayer of Thy servant which I am praying before Thee now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Thy servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against Thee; I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against Thee and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which Thou didst command Thy servant Moses.” (Nehemiah 1:6-7).

In many cases we have failed God. Most the scriptures record God’s people astray from Him. The Israelites in Nehemiah are living under God’s curse far away from Jerusalem.

The evil one won’t make it any easier either. In fact, where God means it as a temporary shaping time, the evil one wants us to give up on God. “Oh you? Ha. You can’t do anything for God. You are nothing. You are a failure.”

Notice that many of these things are true but God does not handle our lives in this way. Look at how Nehemiah responded.

(1) He asked God to hear His prayer.

“Let Thine ear now be attentive” 1:6

(2) He told God he was not being selfish but interceding on the behalf of others.

“Praying before Thee now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel” 1:6

(3) He confessed the sins of God’s people.

”We have acted very corruptly against Thee” 1:7

The right understanding of God brings us to God in hopeful prayer. But when we are there speaking to God, we are all of a sudden aware of our motives and failures. So Nehemiah affirms he was doing this not for some personal gain but the sake of others. He did not want his own personal comfort be thrust in the way. Later we see this so true.

But even more relevant is his daring request to God. After all, God has judged His people. What could be more clear than that? When we come before God, we are often made aware of some sin. It is here we must be very careful.

The evil one, our accuser, would have us give up. “Oh, you are no good.” The right response to this is to agree. Nehemiah starts in verse 6 and continues right into verse 7.

“Confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against Thee; I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against Thee and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which Thou didst command Thy servant Moses.” (Nehemiah 1:6-7).

What we need to remember is failure and sin does not keep us from change. Satan discourages by our failures so we do not pray. The Spirit of God comes by and encourages us to pray and find forgiveness in Christ. Nehemiah did not cover up their sin. “We have acted very corruptly against Thee.”

As an individual, he prays on behalf of the nation with a “We....” Even though Nehemiah might be considered a righteous man, he still was part of a sinful nation.

We also see he prays on behalf of his wayward family, ‘my house.’ “I and my father’s house have sinned” (Nehemiah 1:6).

When things have broken down and we see all sorts of evil, it is a sign of judgment. We must be honest about our sins and failures before God. But if we know God is gracious, then we can and will come in the Name of Jesus confronting our sins by confessing them before Him.

Application

Do you allow your sins to keep you from God or be the reason you seek God?

Because we believe, we persistently intercede (Nehemiah 1:8-11)

“8 Remember the word which Thou didst command Thy servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; 9 but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.’ 10 “And they are Thy servants and Thy people whom Thou didst redeem by Thy great power and by Thy strong hand. 11 “O Lord, I beseech Thee, may Thine ear be attentive to the prayer of Thy servant and the prayer of Thy servants who delight to revere Thy name, and make Thy servant successful today, and grant him compassion before this man.” Now I was the cupbearer to the king.” (Nehemiah 1:8-11).

Because we believe, we persistently intercede. Real faith changes the way we pray. We are convinced only God can change things. Let’s first look at what Nehemiah said and then explain its significance.

Nehemiah’s insistence

Notice Nehemiah’s first words in verse 8, “Remember the word....”1 Nehemiah is going back to a time in the far past where God told His people that He would listen to them even if they had been scattered among the peoples because of their disobedience.

Nehemiah’s confidence

But each of His children have this awesome promise. It is to use. Whether we use it is dependent upon our vision. We saw in Nehemiah 1:1-4 how God shaped Nehemiah’s vision. Do not assume that the scriptures formed no part of this shaping of Nehemiah’s prayer. By taking a quick look at the prayer, one will quickly discover that Nehemiah had a prayer that was deeply impacted by the scriptures.

Nehemiah even said that his prayer was based on Moses’ law (1:8). (Solomon built his famous prayer on Moses’ text too). The point is that the Word of God was used as a legitimate copy of God’s Word to the point God can be held bound to what was written. In Leviticus 6:33 Moses particularly mentions being scattered.

“You, however, I will scatter among the nations and will draw out a sword after you, as your land becomes desolate and your cities become waste” (Leviticus 6:33).

Nehemiah, however, connected that situation with the general promise found in Leviticus 6. Here is what Moses wrote,

38 ‘But you will perish among the nations, and your enemies’ land will consume you. 39 ‘So those of you who may be left will rot away because of their iniquity in the lands of your enemies; and also because of the iniquities of their forefathers they will rot away with them. 40 ‘If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me-- 41 I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies--or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity,

42 then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land. 43 ‘For the land shall be abandoned by them, and shall make up for its sabbaths while it is made desolate without them. They, meanwhile, shall be making amends for their iniquity, because they rejected My ordinances and their soul abhorred My statutes. 44 ‘Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God. 45 ‘But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the LORD.’”

Although not a direct quote, Nehemiah sure does bring about the strong connection found there in Leviticus (and in 2 Chronicles 6-7).

‘If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; 9 but if you return to Me ..

The first condition unfortunately occurred and the consequences came about. They were scattered. Now Nehemiah wants this second condition to be activated. This is the reason Nehemiah was so seriously confessing their corporate sins before God. Contrite confession was the only real requirement for them to regain God’s favor.

“But if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell” (1:9).

So Nehemiah is asking the God of heavens to listen to his feeble prayer so that He would stir up the people to change the way He was treating the people.

The significance of Nehemiah’s prayer

Remember at this point Nehemiah was only looking to regain God’s favor. This was the first step. Usually it is after this first step, God will then burden people and give favor to accomplish God’s work. God’s work starts in the basement with prayer and sincere confession. Let’s ask a few questions to clarify things.

1) Did Nehemiah believe God’s people had sinned? Yes, surely he knew it. He knew it before too. What changed here? Nehemiah was gripped by the way they as a people had gone astray and offended God.

2) Was Nehemiah in sin too? It seems that he lived as a righteous man and so God worked through him. We see this from his confession - God would hear the prayers of those who love and obey the Lord. Nehemiah sought to live a godly life.

3) But if Nehemiah had not sinned, then why the “We”? Some people in the western world have difficulty understanding how corporate identify works. Nehemiah might have lived as a righteous man, but the Israelites, and he was one of them, had God’s judgment against them due to their piled up sins. Nehemiah speaks forcibly about “we” and therefore can confess their sins.

4) Why is the confession so important? The confession was important because God taught it was important way back in Leviticus. It is important because before confession, His people are acting in hostility to God rather than with God. They are seeking their own will rather than His will. The meaning of “God’s people” loses its meaning. Genuine confession, however, signals a change of heart where man is willing to live according to God’s ways.

Conclusion

What does it mean for us? What kind of prayers are needed to change the world?

God wants to carry out His will through our lives and prayers.

World-changing prayers must include times of confession because the curse or judgment on the situation needing prayer shows that something is desperately wrong (except in cases like Job).

God uses available people who love Him and carry out His commands. The greatest way to seek God’s will for your life is to make yourself available for His service no matter where it will lead. Having a prepared heart allows us to carefully listen.

By the way, if you have such a burden and cannot figure out why everyone else does not see things quite as you do, don’t be surprised. This is often the case. God is leading you. Just follow Him faithfully.

From all indication of Jesus’ person and work, it appears that God would want to do so many more things through our lives if we would just be available. In many cases, we do not have a vision for God’s will to be done. When our greatest passion is to see God’s will done, then we are available for God’s work.

Illustration of Wujya Gospel Garden

Let me give you one example of a church plant. I grew up in anything but a good church. It was an apostate church. But God managed to call me to be His own and then while in university set my heart on missions. We went to Taiwan where we first learned Chinese and worked with a church. But God put church planting on my heart.

In 1985 I took a course on planting churches in suburbia America. This was quite inapplicable to my situation when I would soon go back to Taiwan. Here was a new community of 30,000 of low class families. Only one church that was not actively reaching out was among them.

This class challenged me with what I wanted to happen. I wish I knew more. I would have asked more - a self-replicating church, but I didn’t know. In any case, we faced many challenges but it was the consistent prayer that brought about a church first in our own living room and then in their own building.

God made it happen. We prayed and worked hard too. But the Lord was at work in a marvelous way interweaving our lives with those in a distant foreign city. God’s sovereignty at work in His people’s lives.

Application

Nehemiah made a life-changing prayer. The world was greatly impacted by that prayer. The wall in Jerusalem was built. The people of God could protect their worship culture.

God is so desirous of changing things about us that He wants to use any child of God that would open their hearts to His purposes.

What about you? What does God want to do through your life? Don’t be confused. It has nothing to do with your talent, gifts, wealth, status. God will use you where you are. Most important is that you seek His will and bind Him to His promise. These kind of world and life changing prayers are at the base of all of God’s work here on earth.

Now it is your turn.

And My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14).