Nehemiah was used by God to bring great blessing to the Jewish people. The nation had turned away from Jehovah. God delivered them into captivity in Babylon. At the end of seventy years over 40,000 of the Jews returned from Babylon to Jerusalem.
Their first task was the building of a temple to replace Solomon’s temple which had been destroyed at the beginning of their captivity in Babylon. The temple was completed in twenty years in spite of delays stemming from opposition from the Samaritans dwelling in the land. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah, with messages from God, stirred up the people to complete the temple project.
Seventy-eight years after the first Jews returned to the land, Ezra came from Babylon with about 5000 more exiles. Eleven years later, Nehemiah also came to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls. These two godly men were a great blessing to the Jewish people in their day.
Nehemiah was of the royal seed, a descendant of David. He was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, a high position in the king’s administration. From his brother, Hanani, he learned of the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem where, eighty-nine years after the first Jews returned from Babylon, the walls and gates of the city still lay in rubble and ruin (Neh 1:3). He was deeply stirred by this news and he “wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (1:4).
He prayed for four months until a day when he stood before the king. The king marked his sad countenance and inquired of the cause of his sorrow. To be sad in the king’s presence could have meant his death in that era and he “was very sore afraid” (2:2). He informed the king of the desolate state of Jerusalem, the city of his fathers. The king asked, “For what dost thou make request?” Nehemiah prayed to the God of heaven” (2:4), then requested to be sent to Jerusalem so he could relieve the suffering of God’s people.
In a most remarkable way that request was honored by the king. Nehemiah was sent to Judea as the governor of the province with letters instructing other officials to cooperate with him and assist him in the project of building the walls and a house for his own use. This incident illustrates perfectly the truth of Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will.”
When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, without disclosing why he had come, he viewed the desolation of the city walls. Then he called his countrymen to him and told his mission and how the king had commissioned him to do the work of rebuilding the walls. “And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work” (2:18). In spite of bitter opposition, slander, intrigue, and even the threat of military attack, the rebuilding of the wall was completed in the remarkable time of 52 days.
Nehemiah, the Man of Prayer
The hand of God is very manifestly seen in this book. Nehemiah was a “man of action” who had God with him. There can be no doubt this is the reason for the remarkable evidence of God’s hand with him in his labors for the welfare of God’s people. He was a man of prayer.
The first of Nehemiah’s prayers is found in chapter one (vv 4-11) when his compassions were stirred for his people upon learning of their plight in Jerusalem. His own personal circumstances were luxurious and untouched by adversity but he prayed earnestly for his countrymen. This prayer is marked by entreaty for them (vv 5-6), confession of sin (vv 6-7), claiming of divine promises (vv 8-10), and a specific request for favor with the king. In his confession of sins, he prays corporately. He does not except himself. There is no smug self-satisfaction here but true humility.
There is a second, even longer prayer recorded in chapter 9. We are not told who led in this prayer. It could have been either Ezra or Nehemiah but we are not told this. It begins with praise and worship (vv 6-15) and was also marked by confession of Israel’s sins in contrast to God’s mercy and goodness to His people (vv 16-26). This prayer rehearses the righteousness of God’s judgments that led to their captivity and ends with the acknowledgment they are God’s servants (vv 37-38). All these elements are worth meditating on for insights into how Christians also should pray.
Nehemiah was also marked by the habit of short concise prayers right at the point when a need arose. When King Artaxerxes graciously asked him what he would request of the king, he prayed before he answered the king. Surely he did not excuse himself, go into his closet and spend some time in prayer before responding. He was always “in touch.” Instances such as chapters 4:9, 5:19, 6:9, 14, and 13:14 are examples of such short pointed prayers and illustrate our Savior’s words in Luke 18:1, “that men ought always to pray, and not to faint.”
Lessons for Us Today
Nehemiah provides abundant lessons for us today. We may mark his exercise over an extended time period behind his first prayer. Out of his exercise came also his resolve to do the work of building the wall when God opened the way for him to do it.
We also do well to cultivate a prayerful spirit that links us to God’s throne at any given moment we are in need. Like the Jews of old, we are marked by great weakness, spiritually, but who can tell what great things God can and will do for us? Like the Jews, we face much opposition from the world outside but our God is limitless in His power to effect His purposes through His people who will carry out His will.
“Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed” (Heb 12:12-13).