Chapter 7: The Prayers of Nehemiah
by Jack Palmer, N. Ireland
The reign of Solomon was marked by outstanding power and prosperity. His time on the throne saw the building of the temple and the establishment of Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God. His fame travelled widely and it attracted a visit from the queen of Sheba to observe "the wisdom of Solomon, and the house that he had built" 2Chron.9.3. All of this was to change ever so quickly and following the decease of Solomon the kingdom was divided into ten northern tribes, known as Israel and the two southern tribes, known as Judah. Israel subsequently fell to the Assyrians and Judah to Babylonish captivity.
The carrying away of Judah to Babylon, permitted by God, represented His judicial response to the failure that marked His people. Their disobedience, defilement and dismissive attitude to the messengers of the Lord, as recorded in detail in 2Chron.36.14-16, resulted in the desecration and destruction of the house of God that Solomon had built and the dismantling of the walls of Jerusalem. Many were taken captive and removed from their homeland to Babylon. It is most likely that Nehemiah’s father would have been numbered amongst the captives at that time and found himself several hundred miles from home and in strange, uncongenial circumstances. On the basis that the people of Judah were to be seventy years in captivity it would be fairly safe to conclude that Nehemiah was born in Babylon.
By the time Nehemiah appears on the pages of our Bible, the Medes and the Persians had overthrown Babylon and under their rule the first group of exiles had been permitted to return to Jerusalem, in keeping with God’s programme communicated to Jeremiah. This group led by Zerubbabel and in partnership with Joshua, the High Priest, began work on the reconstruction of the temple. These initial steps of recovery came to a halt and the ministry of Haggai, the prophet, had a particular relevance to the difficulties encountered at that time.
During the reign of Artaxerxes a further group of exiles, under the leadership of Ezra, returned and a detailed account of their activities is provided in Ezra chapters 7-10. Meanwhile, Nehemiah was engaged as the king’s cupbearer in Shushan the palace. His role embraced the responsible position of being the personal attendant to the king; he had obviously proved his personal integrity in terms of trustworthiness and dependability otherwise he would not have been allowed to serve in such a favoured capacity. He offers a most encouraging example of how to live in a strange land. Others such as Joseph, the little maid that waited upon Naaman’s wife and Daniel come readily to mind.
Nehemiah’s role and responsibility in the palace meant that he had access to both king and queen. When he was so engaged we read in Neh.2.1, "it came to pass". The significance of this will be considered later. References to the month Chisleu and the twentieth year of the reign of king Artaxerxes, Neh.1.1, are also worthy of note and indicate that God is working out His purpose in His own time. While God can act independently of any, it is most encouraging to note that Nehemiah is to be permitted to have a vital role in the restoration work to be undertaken at Jerusalem. The record of Nehemiah offers a highly instructive example of what can be achieved for God in the most difficult and trying circumstances. It would be profitable to reflect on his many commendable qualities such as his perception of need, his practical competence and his ability to work in partnership with others but the specific purpose of this chapter is to consider his prayers. His prayers in many ways present a very pertinent insight into the spiritual life and motivation of the man himself and are very much in keeping with all that is expressed in his name, which means "the comfort of the Lord".
Before considering the context and content of each of Nehemiah’s prayers some general observations are appropriate.
The fact that he prayed so regularly and spontaneously demonstrates that he lived a life of communion with God and in this connection it is important to note the regard that he had for "the book of the law of Moses" Neh.8.1. This shows that communion with God through prayer and the Word of God were vital to his spiritual astuteness and advancement.
His prayers were usually, Elijah-like, linked to specific needs or circumstances, giving a clear endorsement of the fact that our God has a deep interest in the everyday affairs of life.
His prayers were brief and very much to the point; providing an excellent example in how to pray and what to pray for.
His prayers arose from his heart in the most unusual places, verifying that he could bring God with him into all avenues of his life and activities and confirming that he was always in the habit of praying and so was continually in touch with God. In many ways he had characteristics similar to Paul who exhorted, "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints" Eph.6.18.
While he was a practical man, full of energy and determination, his prayers reveal an underlying dependence on God. Again he manifests similar features to Paul who stated, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" Phil.4.13.
A reflection on the prayer life of Nehemiah offers a precious confirmation that God not only hears but answers prayer in His own perfect way and time.
Nehemiah grants every available encouragement to engage regularly in prayer and to live a life of constant dependency on God.
There are some ten prayers of Nehemiah recorded in Scripture. Each holds a particular interest in terms of its circumstances and content and is full of valuable instruction. We shall deal with each prayer as we find them in the book of Nehemiah.
As noted in the introduction to this chapter Nehemiah was a courtier with access to both the king and queen. While engaged in his daily affairs in the palace "in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year … Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem" Neh.1.1,2. The request on the part of Nehemiah reveals that, though he had a responsible position and most likely a reasonable standard of living, he never overlooked his links with the land of his posterity nor the significance of Jerusalem to God or His people. His exercise about conditions is most commendable when it would have been much easier to disregard them. He could have been excused had he opted for a much easier way of life and had he slipped into the culture of blame and claimed that he was in no way responsible for the current state of things. Rather, he had a deep-seated concern about conditions and the need for recovery. The Scriptures offer many examples of God working following the exercises of His people about prevailing conditions and this is particularly relevant to the various stages of recovery enjoyed during the time of the Judges. It comes as a challenge to each of us and would cause us to question the extent to which we are burdened and exercised before God about present, spiritual conditions.
The report he received brought added intensity to his burden and concern. The report revealed three issues:
"The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach" Neh.1.3. "Affliction" (Strong 7471) suggests adversity, calamity, displeasure, distress and evil. "Great affliction" emphasises the severity of the hardship they encountered. "Reproach" (Strong 2781) speaks of disgrace, rebuke and shame.
"The wall of Jerusalem also is broken down" Neh.1.3. E. Dennett1 explains that the wall is a symbol of separation and C. T. Lacey2 points out the wall "served the dual purpose of keeping the evil of the world out and the rightful inhabitants of the city safe within". When distinctiveness is lost, the purpose of God has been severely compromised. The teaching of the law and vow of the Nazarite as presented in Numbers chapter 6 would have much to teach us on the importance of separation.
- 1 Dennett, E. "An Exposition of Ezra and Nehemiah." Bible Truth publishers, reprinted 1977.
2 Lacey, C.T. In "What the Bible Teaches – Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther." John Ritchie Ltd. 2009.
"The gates thereof are burned with fire" Neh.1.3. The gate was the place of public administration where matters of judgment and justice were executed transparently. The destruction of the gates therefore represented the loss of authority and administration.
In every aspect the tidings that reached the ears of Nehemiah were bleak and most depressing. How did he react? His posture is most significant; he says, "I sat down" Neh.1.4. He reacted in a manner similar to Ezra when he, too, heard of the breakdown in separation. In Ezra 9.3, it is recorded, "And when I heard this thing, I rent my garments and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonied." His pathos is reflected in the fact that Nehemiah "wept, and mourned certain days and fasted" Neh.1.4. It would be very difficult not to be impressed by his heartfelt sorrow and self-denial. There was no question of him gloating in failure or talking loosely about conditions. The situation was much too serious for that kind of conduct.
Nehemiah did not discuss his distress or inner longings with the king as he would have had opportunity so to do, but rather it is written of him that he "prayed before the God of heaven, … the great and terrible God that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love Him and observe [keep R.V.] His commandments" Neh.1.4. To him, access to an earthly monarch was irrelevant when he had access to a heavenly throne. The words of Heb.4.16, "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need", would seem to sum up the experience of Nehemiah. How precious to remember that we have access to the same throne.
It is instructive to note in 1.4 that Nehemiah, in the circumstances he was facing, addressed God as Elohim (plural), Jehovah Elohim and El (singular) and so doing displayed an intelligent understanding of the greatness of God. Later, when in the palace and in the presence of an earthly king he will address the "God of heaven", or, according to Newberry and J.N.D., "the God of the heavens" Neh.2.4, once again showing that his approach to God is appropriate to the current circumstances.
The content of his request to the God of heaven details his:
Appeal to be Heard – He says, "Let Thine ear now be attentive, and Thine eyes open, that Thou mayest hear the prayer of Thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night …" Neh.1.6. Nehemiah discloses the character and consistency of his prayer, recognising his true position as a servant in the presence of One Who is infinitely superior.
Acknowledgement of Sin – He mentions and confesses "the sins of the children of Israel" Neh.1.6. In this way he is not only open about the failures of the people but provides a clear indication that the nation, although divided at that time, had its place and will continue to have its place as Israel in the purpose of God.
Association with Sin – He now goes beyond speaking about the sin of others and includes himself in association with their failure by stating, "… we have sinned against Thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned" Neh.1.6. In this way he shows his true spiritual stature and put himself on a par, for example with Moses, who repeatedly was not reluctant to associate himself with the sin and failure of those he was raised up of God to lead.
Articulation of Failure – He mentions their defilement, "We have dealt very corruptly against Thee", and their disobedience "and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which Thou commandedst Thy servant Moses" Neh.1.7.
Advancement of Scripture – He recognises the consequences of disobeying the commandments given to Moses by stating, "If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations" Neh.1.8. On the other hand he is clear that "… if ye return unto Me and keep My commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set My name there" Neh.1.9. Nehemiah confirms that prayer ought to be in keeping with and based upon the Word of God.
Awareness of Divine Purpose and Power – Before concluding his prayer Nehemiah makes a further appeal. This recognises what the people, although wayward and disobedient, mean to God and in His presence he pleads, "Now these are Thy servants and Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed by Thy power and by Thy strong hand" Neh.1.10. Nehemiah appreciates that God is slow to give up on His wayward people. Having been before the Lord, sorrowful of heart and supplicatory in spirit, he makes a specific request that he would find favour and "mercy in the sight of this man" Neh.1.11.
Reflection on this prayer magnifies Nehemiah’s concern about conditions, his exercise about returning to Jerusalem to support the recovery and his total dependence upon God to create such an opportunity. The fact that the permission he needed was in the gift of an earthly monarch did not dilute his confidence in the true God.
The report of the destruction at Jerusalem, received in the month Chisleu, Neh.1.1, had a big impact on Nehemiah. From then on, deeply burdened about the state of things there, he was continually in prayer to God. Up to four months later, from Chisleu to Nisan, we read the highly significant statement, "And it came to pass" Neh.2.1. On this particular day, when it is likely that the commencement of the Persian year was the cause of the celebrations in the palace, it would have been part of Nehemiah’s secular responsibilities to serve wine to king Artaxerxes. Being sad of countenance would not have been tolerated, neither had Nehemiah shown any previous outward indication of inner anguish or concern in the presence of the king. However, on this occasion his facial expression was such that the king said unto him "Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick?" Neh.2.2. The king was sufficiently discerning to detect that "this is nothing else but sorrow of heart" Neh.2.2.
Nehemiah’s response was quite remarkable and he was "…very sore afraid" Neh.2.2. Later he was to show outstanding courage and tenacity in the face of all the opposing enemies but now extreme fear gripped him. Perhaps this is understandable as he contemplated the possibility of missing out on the opportunity that God was about to present to him. Regardless of his fear he retained his composure, accorded the king his rightful place and asked, "… why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?" Neh.2.3. In response the king said unto Nehemiah, "For what does thou make request?" Neh.2.4.
Faced with the immediacy and pressure of that situation we read, "So I prayed to the God of heaven" Neh.2.5. The circumstances demanded that the prayer be brief, and Scripture is silent on its detail. The fact that Nehemiah instinctively prayed demonstrates his habit of being constantly in communion with God and that he was filled with a sense of his own inadequacy at such a critical moment. Guided and sustained by God, Nehemiah requested, "… that thou wouldest send me to Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it" Neh.2.5. There was no fudging of the matter and the king was left in no doubt about what Nehemiah so much desired. His courage and clarity before the king are most commendable.
With permission granted and the time of his absence agreed, Nehemiah makes further request of the king for letters of authority and for the materials necessary for the re-building work to commence. The king granted all these, along with captains and horsemen, but Nehemiah was swift to acknowledge that it was "according to the good hand of my God upon me" Neh.2.8. Surely this is a precious example of God exceeding our requirements and a clear reminder that we lose so much through failure in not spreading out before God in greater detail the various needs that we constantly meet.
While this prayer from the palace reveals the importance of intimate communion with God, it also highlights that Nehemiah had the practical awareness to anticipate the journey to Jerusalem and the materials that he would need when he arrived there. This would teach us that sound practical judgements are not out of place in the overruling purposes of God. May we be preserved from turning to God asking Him to do for us what we could well do for ourselves.
Scripture is silent on the journey to Jerusalem but the details of Nehemiah’s arrival and his night-time viewing of the destruction are most instructive in the context of the mountainous task that confronted him. While others were asleep he was out assessing, in dangerous and difficult circumstances, what needed to be done if progress was to be made in the vital matter of recovery. All this took place before the account of the restoration of the gates is given in much detail, but perhaps it is rather surprising that there is no mention of him or his fellow workers engaging in prayer during this phase of the work. It is inconceivable to think that they did not pray during this important stage of recovery, particularly as Nehemiah had been in the habit of praying "night and day" Neh.1.6, when burdened about the state of things at Jerusalem. The fact is that there is no record of his or the prayers of others during this specific period.
News that the building of the wall had started provoked much anger and opposition. The opposition was led in the first instance by Sanballat, Tobiah and others but such opposition is not surprising as it has always been, and will be the case, that once a work for God is in hand the enemy will also begin to work. The enemy’s tactics in the first place were to rain mockery, scorn and derision upon "these feeble Jews" Neh.4.2. They also belittled the materials and dismissively suggested that "if a fox go up, he shall even breakdown the stone wall" Neh.4.3. Faced with this barrage of abuse and opposition Nehemiah and his fellow builders turned to the Lord. They prayed, "Hear, O our God: for we are despised: and turn their reproach upon their own head, and give them for a prey in the land of captivity: and cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before Thee for they have provoked Thee to anger before the builders" Neh.4.4,5. As they prayed they continued to work. The Divine record is encouraging, "So built we the wall: and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work" Neh.4.6.
The tone and the specific request of this prayer have generated debate and indeed elements of surprise. Some will ask, if it was spiritually appropriate for Nehemiah to seek revenge and that the sin of those who opposed the building of the wall remain before God. In this connection the comments of Edward Dennett are helpful. He writes, "Two things should be remembered: first, the dispensation under which the people were, and secondly, that the enemies of Israel were the enemies of God. Sanballat and Tobiah were deliberately setting themselves in opposition to the work of the Spirit of God. And all may learn from this prayer, as Saul afterwards had to learn in another way, what a solemn thing it is to persecute God’s people, and to hinder His work. Thus the ground on which Nehemiah urges his petitions: "They have provoked Thee to anger before the builders". The cause of these despised builders was the cause of God: and it was in this confidence that Nehemiah found, as all believers who are in fellowship with the mind of God in their labours may find, encouragement to invoke His aid as against their foes."
The evidence that Nehemiah and his workers were determined to build and the sight of the wall emerging led to more vigorous opposition in the shape of an evil conspiracy, drawing together "Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites" Neh.4.7. At this stage the combined enemies were "very wroth" Neh.4.7, and equally determined "to hinder" the work, Neh.4.8.
Nehemiah, confronted with such a conspiracy of evil and the threat of intensifying opposition, states "we made our prayer unto our God" Neh.4.9. It would appear that this prayer came, not only from Nehemiah and those directly involved in the building, but from the Jewish people more generally. They were undoubtedly following the example of Nehemiah but, faced with such adversity and hostility they were drawn together into dependence upon God. It is always helpful to note how God allows circumstances to arise to bring His people together in prayer and into dependence on Him.
Not only did they come together in prayer but they "set a watch against them day and night" Neh.4.9. The remainder of chapter 4 sets out in impressive and instructive detail how prayer was complemented by watchfulness, labour and steadfastness. Space prohibits any detailed examination of these commendable features and activities but they provide a striking illustration of Paul’s exhortation in regard to "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints" Eph.6.18. How often the enemy strikes in that unguarded and unsuspecting moment and may we be marked with similar tenacity and watchfulness.
Nehemiah was one of those who led by personal example and refrained from asking others to do something he was not prepared to do himself. He was conscious of his role as the appointed governor, Neh.5.14, and in this capacity he met many and varied problems. Like many a godly leader, before him and since then, he had to contend with internal grumbling and discontent. Somehow external opposition is one thing and is in many ways to be expected but it must have hurt deeply when difficulties emerged from within.
The opening verses of chapter 5 show that these difficulties were about land, possessions, money and relationships. The enemy still employs similar issues to create tensions and divisions. Paul warned against "the love of money" 1Tim.6.10, and could offer himself as a personal example when he informed the Ephesian elders, "I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel … I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, It is more blessed to give than to receive" Acts 20.33-35.
Nehemiah’s first reaction was one of understandable anger, but this he kept under control and instead of moving hastily in a spirit of revenge he took time to reflect on the situation. His response was measured having "consulted with myself" Neh.5.7. In these circumstances it is difficult to appreciate the awesome burden that he carried and at the same time commend him for the approach that he adopted. Leaders in local assemblies could learn much from Nehemiah by taking time and care to fully assess problems and move prayerfully before God.
When Nehemiah moved to deal with the difficulties amongst the people he displayed outstanding leadership qualities. By going right to the heart of the matter with courage and conviction and by acting "because of the fear of God" Neh.5.15, the potentially dangerous issue was averted. It is quite remarkable that while he was sorting out these internal issues he "continued in the work of this wall" Neh.5.16. A lesser person would have allowed the problems that developed within the ranks to have diverted him from the main task of reconstructing the wall; something that Satan would love to have happened.
Against such a backdrop Nehemiah again resorts to prayer and pleads, "Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people" Neh.5.19. Some may well have thought that in making such a request he was being boastful but such a suggestion would be most unkind to a man whose interests lay solely in promoting the glory of God through the restoration of all that had been lost in departure at Jerusalem. There is certainly no record whatsoever of him ever having boasted before men of what he had done but rather, with honesty and humility he could speak to God about it. This prayer rather reveals the heart and hand of a true leader. Paul, like Nehemiah, was never afraid to call upon God to witness his labour and conduct in the work of the Lord. Paul wrote, "Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe" 1Thess.2.10.
Having coped with the very real difficulties that emerged from within and having reached the stage where the building of the wall had been completed, although the gates had still to be hung, the scene was set for a fresh attack by the enemy. The attack will not now come in visible opposition but through craft and subtlety. The enemies remain the same and their objective has never changed but they are very skilful in adjusting their tactics. Nehemiah and his contemporaries will be tested through the diplomatic route with the suggestion of an offsite meeting in "some one of the villages in the plain of Ono" Neh.6.2. Nehemiah was quick to discern their evil intent and he repelled this approach "saying, I am doing a great work, so I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you" Neh.6.3. A similar approach was made four times and was met with the same resolute response.
Following such a subtle approach, the next attack came in the guise of an open letter seeking to discredit Nehemiah by questioning his motives and suggesting that he was intent on making himself king. In other words, he was being accused of being in the business of pursuing his own advancement and that he was using the work of God to that end. The enemy is relentless but again Nehemiah stood firm by rejecting these allegations and proclaiming, "thou feignest them out of thine own heart" Neh.6.8. While these attacks were repulsed, they did have the undesirable impact of causing fear and weakening their hands in the work. It was at this point that Nehemiah turned to God, "Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands" Neh.6.9. Some have thought that because the words "O God" are not in the original Hebrew text that this fell short of being a prayer but was rather a statement recognising the need for strengthening. The R.V. offers the alternative rendering, "I will strengthen my hands". It is most likely, given Nehemiah’s habitual dependence on God and the manner in which he responded to previous situations of great pressure that, on this occasion, he turned to God for the strengthening he so much needed. It is important to appreciate that we cannot face our foes in our own natural strength. We do well to learn from the example of David who went forth to fight against Goliath "in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel Whom thou hast defied" 1Sam.17.45. Peter discovered to his cost that he, in his own energy, was no match for "a certain maid" Lk.22.56. May we have the grace of Nehemiah and turn to God in such times of need.
The variety of methods engaged against Nehemiah is quite remarkable. They are clever and inventive but all designed to catch him off guard. The enemies viewed him as the main obstacle that stood in the way of the success of their evil intent. Their next approach will be through one who appeared to be a friend and who gave the distinct impression that he was concerned about Nehemiah’s safety. His name was Shemaiah and we read, "Afterward I came unto the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah the son of Mehetabeel" Neh.6.10. Little is known about this individual but it is clear that he had the confidence of Nehemiah who appeared to be at liberty to visit his home. At the time of the visit Shemaiah was confined to his house and gave Nehemiah to believe that they were both in danger. His evil scheme was that they should find safety in the temple, claiming that his enemies would come in the night with murderous intent. All of this was played out in the name of friendship and supposed concern for Nehemiah’s safety. How treacherous can the enemy be! Paul warned the saints at Corinth to be on the alert for "false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ" 2Cor.11.13. Paul, in the same letter, counselled them not to be surprised about such a possibility "for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light" 2Cor.11.14.
It is well that Nehemiah was a man of courage and more importantly perception: "And, lo, I had perceived that God had not sent him: but that he pronounced this prophecy against me: for Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him" Neh.6.12. Nehemiah was equally satisfied that their aim was "that I should be sore afraid, and do so, and sin, that they might reproach me" Neh.6.13. The hurt desired, the damage intended and the deceitfulness attempted show how much we need to be on guard if we are to be preserved.
Again this brings Nehemiah into the presence of God. It would seem that he is almost beyond making request and with unreserved trust cries out "My God, think Thou upon Tobiah and Sanballat according to these their works, and on the prophetess Noadiah, and the rest of the prophets, that would have put me in fear" Neh.6.14. How good it would be if we were marked by the discerning ability to "try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" 1Jn.4.1.
It must have filled the heart of Nehemiah with deep satisfaction and gratitude to have witnessed the dedication of the wall, to have reinstated the offices of the priests and Levites in keeping with the rediscovered book of the law of Moses and to have listened to the "songs of praise and thanksgiving unto God" Neh.12.46. With these precious memories filling his mind he returned to Babylon. It must not have been easy for him to go back but he had been given leave for a certain period and as a man of principle he honoured his commitment to the king. Although back in Babylon, there can be little doubt that his thoughts and desires were still towards Jerusalem, and we read "after certain days obtained I leave of the king: And I came to Jerusalem" Neh.13.6,7. It is not clear how long Nehemiah had been away from Jerusalem but his absence was of sufficient duration to allow the serious spiritual disease of departure to reoccur. On returning he discovered that Eliashib "the priest, having the oversight of the chamber of the house of our God, was allied unto Tobiah" Neh.13.4. Eliashib would have been well known to Nehemiah in his priestly capacity and to learn that he not only was in association with Tobiah, but had actually "prepared him a chamber in the courts of God" Neh.13.7, must have been a cause of tremendous grief and disappointment. The influence of a godly leader is often measured by what takes place during the time of his absence.
Motivated by such grief and most likely an element of anger, Nehemiah moved quickly and "cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber … and cleansed the chambers; and thither brought I again the vessels of the house of God, with the meat offering and the frankincense" Neh.13.8,9. In so acting Nehemiah foreshadowed the Lord Jesus when He, as recorded in Jn.2.13-17, purged the temple of evil merchandise.
The corruption of the house of God also led to neglect in the support for "the Levites and the singers" Neh.13.10. One wrong step leads to another and once again Nehemiah was required to act quickly and decisively to arrest the departure and initiate recovery. When all of this was done Nehemiah turned to God in prayer, " Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof" Neh.13.14. In asking God not to wipe out his good works he was not boasting in any sense but was before God in humility beseeching Him that the recovery granted would be preserved. Experience had taught Nehemiah how quickly departure can come and he was therefore looking to God that what he had seen in restoration would not be undone.
The departure in relation to the house and its administration was compounded by a blatant disregard for the sabbath. When Nehemiah returned he observed "some treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses: as also wine, grapes, and figs and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day" Neh.13.15. The outside world detected an opportunity and "There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware; and sold on the sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem" Neh.13.16.
Nehemiah was consistent in his stand against evil. His challenge was unforgiving and he contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, "What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? Yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath" Neh.13.17,18. He follows this by displaying fearless conduct when he controlled the opening and closure of the gates so that the commercial activity on the sabbath would be interrupted. He also commanded the Levites "that they should … come and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day" Neh.13.22. The fact that these evil practices were brought to an end demonstrates the stature of Nehemiah and the authority that he so skilfully exercised.
Once more Nehemiah brings everything to God in prayer. He is conscious that God was his God, as revealed by his request "Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of Thy mercy" Neh.13.22. Again he is seeking the face of God, having dealt with the problem of the profanity of the sabbath, that he will not be called upon to deal with a similar situation in the future. It is good when we can act in keeping with God’s mind and we can ask His blessing upon our activities.
There does not appear to be any end to the difficulties that Nehemiah faced. No sooner had he dealt with the unhealthy alliance with Tobiah, the neglect of the Levites and the defamation of the sabbath when another significant problem arose. It must have been heart rending for him to see his people taking wives "of Ashdod, Ammon and of Moab" Neh.13.23. Such relationships were forbidden and were the cause of much grief. Similar grief had been brought to Ezra previously and now such a sinful practice was being repeated. Once more Nehemiah stood firmly against such practices and held up the example of Solomon so that they would learn from the consequences that ensued in his experiences. Above all he was forthright in making it clear that conduct of this kind was "to transgress against our God in marrying strange wives" Neh.13.27. Looking upon such departure and amalgamation Nehemiah yet again turns to God. He contended with the offenders and pronounced a curse upon them but now in the presence of God his plea is "Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites" Neh.13.29. It would appear that he is telling God that he has done all that he could to stay the tide of evil and now he is leaving them in His hands. There is a very close parallel with the attitude of Paul to the elders at Ephesus when he could say to them, "And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified" Acts 20.32.
Having considered the prayers of Nehemiah, it is perhaps a little surprising that the concluding prayer makes no reference to the construction of the wall, the opposition faced from various quarters or the failures of so many of his contemporaries. On the other hand it is characteristic and appropriate that his last recorded words in the book of Nehemiah should be a short and personal prayer demonstrating his dependence on God at every stage of his life and labour. After stating that he had cleansed the priesthood and had made arrangements for the functioning of the altar and the offering of the firstfruits, Nehemiah draws near again to God with the simple but precious plea "Remember me, O my God, for good" Neh.13.31. He was a practical man to the end and it is highly significant that it is only in the book of Nehemiah that we twice read about "the wood offering" Neh.10.34, 13.31, demonstrating that he recognised the continual need for wood to service the altar.
Earlier prayers had been about others and about the work in which he had been engaged but this final prayer is by far the most personal of them all. There is something telling about the expression "Remember me" and when Nehemiah addresses God as "O my God" he reveals a very clear indication of the intimate way he had come to know God. In his first prayer we noted that his language and tone were somewhat different. On that occasion he prayed, "I beseech Thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love Him and observe His commandments" Neh.1.5. How precious to learn that Nehemiah developed a much closer relationship with and an appreciation of God. May we too be marked with that same spirit of dependency and increasing awareness of God and all that is revealed of Him in His Word. This can only come through following the delightful example of Nehemiah, who without the slightest exaggeration can be rightly described as a man of prayer. It is impossible to have spent so much time in the presence of God and not become more godly in character just as Nehemiah did during his lifetime.
- Beyond our utmost wants
- His love and power can bless:
- To praying souls He always grants
- More than they can express.
- (John Newton)