The Prayer


What is it about prayer that makes us feel better? Why does it still our fears, worries, and hesitations? Why does it make sense? We call it a conversation but we know deep down that God won’t answer back immediately. He’s not gonna pull us over and assure us at that moment that everything will be okay. His answer is most often given over time, yet it sure seems to work quickly. Prayer worked for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane calming Him before His trial and death. Prayer worked Jonah in the belly of that beast by giving him an opportunity to confess wrongdoing and affording him a chance to rededicate his life. Prayer has worked for countless others through the years and it still works today. Prayer finds people at their weakest and most humble and has a way of funneling their frustrations into a healthy dialogue with God. That’s why it works. We let go in prayer and we let God take control.

The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.  

James 5:16 

Nehemiah was a man of prayer. In fact, his memoir contains twelve unique moments of prayer (see also 2:4; 4:4,9;5:19; 6:9,14; 9:5; 13:14,22,29,31). Human beings always need encouragement, and in just a few short verses, Nehemiah shows us that prayer is the greatest source of encouragement this world has ever known. His honest plea to God sets the stage for everything else he does, and when we see and understand where his prayer came from and what his prayer asked for, we will understand the man behind it even better.

The prayer itself contains several different pleas on behalf of God’s people by Nehemiah. While we assume he is speaking privately away from everyone,({much like Daniel in Daniel 6:10) we quickly notice that this prayer is inherently benevolent and directed elsewhere. It’s not selfish like most prayers, instead, it’s a prayer on behalf of his people and their needs. I truly believe this prayer comes straight from his broken heart. It doesn’t seem to be rehearsed or particularly formal. It seems to merely be a person letting go of their heartache and casting it upon God. 

I pray, Lord God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments,  please let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night, for the children of Israel Your servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel which we have sinned against You. Both my father’s house and I have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses.

Nehemiah 1:5-7

Notice that Nehemiah reached out to God asking for forgiveness. There’s a sense of irony found in his statements when you realize that he wasn’t the one who rejected the prophets. He wasn’t the one who offered pagan sacrifices. He was, for all we know, faithful to God under circumstances significantly worse than his forefathers. In their comfort, they had openly mocked and rejected God not knowing the pain their descendant would bear. They were oblivious, but not Nehemiah.

In this prayer, he takes upon himself the guilt of a nation and willfully confessed to his own involvement in their sin. By praying in that manner, he identified with their condition and their helpless situation.¹ We should notice that this prayer sounds very similar to one Ezra prayed as he learned of the continuing iniquity of those who had returned with him to Jerusalem. In that incident, Ezra tore off his clothes, ripped out some of his hair and sat in disgust until he uttered these words:

O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens.

Ezra 9:6

Neither Nehemiah or Ezra was responsible for the sin they confessed to, on the contrary, it was communal. It was bigger than them. Their brothers had let God down and by association, our heroes had as well. The communal aspect of their prayers is one that sometimes gets lost today. We are quick to pray for our wants, wishes, needs, and blessings, while inadvertently removing ourselves from the community of God we are affiliated with. One idea should be stated loud and clear here – while we do sin individually and let God down, even those who are faithful can sin against God when our community fails to live righteously. Pray diligently that the failures of your community will be forgiven and put in the past so you can move ahead with whatever task is at hand. I strongly feel that Nehemiah’s example should be emulated by us more and more today. He asked for forgiveness knowing he was a part of the greater community that had let God down, and so should we.

Hopefully, you’ve noticed throughout this short study of Nehemiah that he prayed to God for many things but his reason for praying never changed – he knew that no one but God could accomplish what needed to happen.² A simple lesson can be learned here that still holds true today – when you disappoint God, ask for forgiveness, own the mistakes you’ve made, and you’ll find the forgiveness you seek.

Another characteristic of this prayer worth highlighting is the incredible amount of honesty that comes to the forefront. The honesty I’m thinking of is found in Nehemiah’s connection with the refugees. In this prayer, we see him take responsibility for his people and their future. It should be respected that he honors the principle of solidarity with them. He is one of them, so his sins are their sins and their sins are his as well. He doesn’t make any effort to distance himself from them,³ even though he could have and no one would have been the wiser. He could have stepped back and said “that’s what they deserve” or “I didn’t have anything to do with it so why start now,” but he didn’t. He honestly accepted them as his people and didn’t shy away from that claim or their predicament. The next few verses of this prayer give some insight into what the situation in Jerusalem had done to him.

Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name.”

Nehemiah 1:8,9 

Nehemiah realized that he was living out the fulfillment of God’s promise to scatter Israel and exile them among the nations. He had experienced the exile, and at this moment he prayed to experience what God had in store for the children of Israel when he gathered them back.4 

Like Nehemiah, when we pray, we ask for something. Often times those requests are personal but sometimes they’re genuinely benevolent. At this time in his life, Nehemiah had every right to pray for his personal deliverance but that wasn’t the thought of this prayer. His prayer was full of thoughts for others before a single thought for himself was uttered. Today, as we pray for the well-being of those we know or love or even have yet to meet we pray benevolently as well. When we ask God for patience, care, and a favorable outcome for those who are sick or facing difficult situations and when we pray for those who need God’s help more than we do, we pray as Nehemiah did that day.

Nehemiah, at that moment in his life, was much like you and I. He has purpose, position, and a level of peace that most of his brethren could only dream about. Yet, he felt hurt, deeply convicted, and was motivated to repent. What Nehemiah wanted, more than anything, was the return of a genuine relationship between God and his people. While rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem wouldn’t ensure that return, it was a crucial step along the way.

He seemed to be calling for a passage found in Deuteronomy 30:1-4 in this prayer. That passage says:

Now it shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God drives you, and you return to the Lord your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul, that the Lord your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the Lord your God has scattered you. If any of you are driven out to the farthest parts under heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you. 

While Nehemiah doesn’t quote it directly, in this shortened form, his prayer is a true reflection of those verses in Deuteronomy.5  His brethren had rejected God and God had scattered them, but at that moment, they had a chance to find redemption back in the promised land. These few verses are the heart of the prayer, where Nehemiah felt comfortable declaring to God that the lesson had been learned and the people were ready to move on.6

Considering what he had learned, it might seem reasonable to hear Nehemiah ask for additional help or even a miracle. Instead, he asked for an opportunity. Learn something about prayer from this moment. Instead of asking God to remove our problems – perhaps a better prayer would merely be to ask for the opportunity to remove them ourselves. I truly believe that God wants us to follow him so we can lead ourselves and eventually, others. Think of all the times He has told characters in Scripture to be “strong and courageous” in the face of obstacles. How many times has he encouraged us to be patient, long-suffering, and faithful to the end? He’s always ready to lead us, but not without the reasonable expectation that we will follow diligently.

The leaders of God’s people in this world need to be motivated by a devotion to God and enthused by a desire to lead others. Nehemiah was a man devoted to God and motivated to make a difference. Someone has described a genuine leader as a person marked by diligent faithfulness in the midst of any given task. That faithfulness is more than passive inclination, its demonstrated by being personally involved in meeting the needs before them.7 Nehemiah was a genuine leader of God’s people and his prayer life showed it before anything else. 

We need to remember that in many instances, God may have more confidence in us than we have in ourselves and our prayer life should be a reflection of that. Maybe we ask for too much and cheapen genuine requests by never really trying to find the answer ourselves to those problems God has provided an answer for already. God’s children need to remember that the prayer that often gets the job done includes the following conviction, “I’m available Lord – ready and willing.”8 Nehemiah could have pleaded for someone else to go, instead, he asked for the opportunity to go to Jerusalem himself and fix the problem.

Now these are Your servants and Your people, whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand. O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”

Nehemiah 1:10 

While we don’t hear the exact words, we know what Nehemiah means in this prayer when he references “this man.” He was going to seek the permission of Artaxerxes, but before he did that, he wanted God’s blessing. That blessing might seem redundant until you remember that God is the one behind this whole story. He “spoke” to Cyrus who then enabled the first refugees to go back. It was God who orchestrated the circumstances Nehemiah found himself in that day, and he knew he would only find himself in Jerusalem if that was where God wanted him to be.

We love the confidence of this prayer. He knew that if God’s Will was for him to go, Artaxerxes couldn’t stand in the way. He knew that he was the king’s servant, but more importantly, he knew that he was God’s child.

This prayer shows us that Nehemiah was a man of perspective. He understood what a servant should look like, how a servant should address his master, and how a servant should behave. His prayer is all the evidence we need to know that God was his true master, not this Persian king. With the expression “this man” at the end of the prayer, Nehemiah showed the big difference between his reverence for God and his master. In the eyes of the world, Artaxerxes was an important person, a man with influence, who could decide life or death. But in the eyes of Nehemiah, he was still just a man. He understood it was the Lord who makes decisions and not Artaxerxes.9 When he knew what he had to do – he went to the source of the solution. He went to God with his pain and found the courage to ask for an opportunity to restore hope to those in Jerusalem.

In must be noted that this passage has a direct connection to one found in the New Testament.

So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.                                                  

Luke 11:9,10 

As we continue to study Nehemiah and his role in God’s great fixer-upper, the prayer he uttered must be held in high regard. His pain was noteworthy, his plan exhaustive, and his patience is worth revering. In the end, however, it is his prayer that must be truly honored and emulated. He asked and God answered. He sought out an opportunity and God granted it. He knocked on the door of His Master and God said: “come on in.” His prayer should be honored as one of the greatest examples we find in all of Scripture. It should be studied, preached, and doted over.

We can pray as he did that day as long as our heart is humble and our confidence in God is unmatched. Remember those ideas and your prayer will be one like Nehemiah’s – it will be a prayer that gets things done.


¹ Mark A. Throntveit, Ezra-Nehemiah, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989), 64.

² James Montgomery Boice, Nehemiah, An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990), 17.

³ Boice, Nehemiah, 19.

4 James M. Hamilton, Jr., Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah, (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2014), 101.

5 F. Charles Fenshem, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), 156.

6 Throntviet, Ezra-Nehemiah, 65.

7 Charles R. Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 33

8 Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick, 33.

9 Fenshem, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, 157.

Scripture taken from New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Originally published on October 16, 2016, by Neal Mathis and Matthew Higginbotham.