Nehemiah’s Prayer of Anguish

Here’s a Biblical model for prayer that has application for each of us today facing hurt, pain, confusion, and remorse. ◊

A man cries out in anguish and weeps. He mourns  for days. He’s received news that fellow citizens are still in disarray and upheaval even long after a horrible, decimating attack.

On their behalf he fervently prays.

But rather than pray for comfort and solace, he confesses to God and asks for forgiveness of their sins of corruption and disobedience to the commandments and statutes they all should have known.

Seems odd, doesn’t it? Even callous to our own sensibilities. Is this a modern tale – a story ripped out of today’s newspaper headlines?

No, it’s the opening chapter of the Book of Nehemiah, a fascinating historical and personal account of one man’s conviction to intervene on behalf of his broken kinsmen of Israel. In this opening chapter we see a godly and heartfelt response that goes well beyond platitudes and angst in the midst of human tragedy.

Even in 445 B.C., Nehemiah’s prayer in Chapter 1 has application for each of us today facing hurt, pain, confusion, and remorse.

What’s Going On?
Nehemiah was a Jewish man of standing serving the King of Persia, Artaxerxes I, several hundred years before the birth of Christ, and 140 years after the destruction of Israel and its Temple in the late 6th century B.C. by the Babylonians.

As a result of their refusal to listen to the prophets and their overt disobedience to God, the Kingdom of Judah and city of Jerusalem was allowed to be destroyed and dispersed with large portions of the population taken into Babylonian captivity. (For context, the prophet Daniel was one of the young ones taken into captivity by the Babylonians.) After 70 years the Jews are allowed back into their homeland and capital city, Jerusalem, as predicted by the prophet Jeremiah (29:10) in a passage just before that popular Jeremiah 29:11 passage:

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. – (Jeremiah 29:10-11)

Yet after those 70 years, while the Jews are now back in Jerusalem and have even rebuilt their Temple (dedicated in 516 B.C.),  the walls of the city are still in rubble around them and they are vulnerable to attack by enemies in surrounding regions.

It is in this sorry state that the Book of Nehemiah opens.

A Passionate and Anguished Prayer
By 445 B.C., Nehemiah, as cupbearer, had access and influence as a trusted and faithful servant to the king. While in Susa, a city in Persia 850 miles away from Jerusalem, he is confronted with the news that his kinsmen in Jerusalem are “in great trouble and shame, the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” (Nehemiah 1:3)

He identifies with their suffering and takes it hard. Here’s the passage that reflects his response and prayer:

When I hears this words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days; and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said, “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 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 family, 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.

“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 your mighty hand. 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.” (Nehemiah 1:4-10)

Nehemiah knew the history of his people and their rise and demise. He also knew the God of Israel that loves, chastises, redeems, and restores. He made no excuses nor deflected blame to anyone or thing apart from their own unfaithfulness and rejection of God’s ways, laws and ordinances. He petitioned God and reminded Him of his promises to restore (not that God needed reminding), and submitted himself as a vessel for God’s purposes.

The rest of the Book of Nehemiah lays out exactly how God used a submissive man in all his strengths and abilities. The restoration of the walls and psyche of the city of Jerusalem is a great testament to God’s long view and able reconstruction and redirection of lives and nations. Indeed it’s a long play with many actors (us) that have choices in which roles and actions we play and execute.

In any event, our prayers of thankfulness and even those of anguish, like Nehemiah’s, are not lost in the ether but heard by a great and awesome God who now, post-Christ, has plans for all of us (Jews and Gentiles) to give us hope and a future.

How’s your prayer perspective?
And then the people of Israel prayed this prayer: “You, Lord, you alone are Lordyou made the heavens and the stars of the sky. You made land and sea and everything in them; you gave life to all. The heavenly powers bow down and worship you.” – Nehemiah 9:6

Categories: Calling, Devotion, Faith, Forgiveness, Old Testament, Prayer, Purpose, Suffering

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