By Joseph Ametepe
Once a year in the life of the nation of Israel, the people of Israel humbled themselves before God. This took place in the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, on the tenth day of the month (Leviticus 16:29-34; 23:26-32). This day, which fell in the month equivalent to our September/October, is called the Day of Atonement (or Yom Kippur). It was set aside as a day of public fasting and humiliation on which atonement for the people's sins was made by the high priest. The Day of Atonement was and is a solemn day for the people of Israel. On this day, the people of Israel sought God for the forgiveness of their sins as a nation under God's rule.
On April 17th 1952, a bill proclaiming the National Day of Prayer (NDP) was unanimously passed by both houses of congress. President Truman signed it into law. It required the president to select a day for national prayer each year. However, it was in 1988 that a bill was introduced to Congress which fixed the annual NDP at the first Thursday in May. It received broad bipartisan sponsorship and support, and became Public Law 100-307. It was signed into law by President Reagan on May 5th 1988. Actually, the idea for the day of prayer for the nation dates back to 1775 when the Continental Congress designated a time for prayer in forming a new nation. Believers living in this nation should take advantage of this day and join with others of the same faith to call upon God on behalf of this great nation. Christians must unite to seek the One and Only True God on behalf of the people of the United States of America. Sure, we can pray on any given day for this nation. However, when God's people are united in heart to pray specifically for the nation on such a day, set aside for such a specific purpose, God is moved by His people's united prayer for the land.
One of the greatest prayers recorded in the Bible for a nation is the prayer of Nehemiah. This prayer is recorded in Nehemiah 1. It is one of my favorite prayers in the Bible because of its simplicity and straightforwardness.
In Nehemiah's Spirit-led prayer for the nation of Israel, we learn several useful principles of prayer. We can also apply these principles in our prayers today for this nation. Nehemiah's prayer moved the heart and the hand of God to act on behalf of Israel at a critical juncture in her history. In fact, one can say that the stories and events recorded in the rest of the book Nehemiah were a result of the prayer in chapter 1. In response to Nehemiah's prayer, God moved in the heart of an ungodly king to give him favor. The king not only granted Nehemiah permission to make the long trip from Susa to Jerusalem, but also gave provisions for the work Nehemiah was called to do. Certainly, Nehemiah experienced the truth of 2 Samuel 21:14b; 24:25 where the Bible says: "God was moved by prayer for the land."
The prayer of Nehemiah is a powerful illustration of 2 Chronicles 7:14, which says, "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land" (NIV). His prayer teaches us what it means to humble ourselves before God, pray, seek His face, and turn from our wicked ways for God to hear and forgive our sins and heal our land. In other words, Nehemiah did not only talk the talk, he walked the walk. He lived out what it means to humble oneself before God, pray and seek His face and turn from one's wicked ways. He didn't just piously recite this verse but he purposefully practiced it. Oh may God save us from merely reciting Scripture with our lips but not submitting to the Holy Spirit to assist us to live it out!
If we are going to pray to move the heart and the hand of God to bring repentance, renewal, and revival to this nation, then we must pray as Nehemiah prayed by applying the principles preserved in his prayer. First of all, in this article, the circumstances leading to Nehemiah's prayer will be discussed. Secondly, his concern for the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel will be considered. Thirdly, his calling on God with earnestness of heart on behalf of his country will be closely examined. Fourthly, his confession of Israel's sins will be carefully looked at. Fifthly, his counting on God's promises will be our deliberation. Finally, his confidence in God's compassionate character to hear and act will conclude this article. Let's now begin to look at each of these major points in detail!
I. Circumstances leading to the prayer of Nehemiah (vv. 1-3).
The circumstances leading to Nehemiah's prayer are recorded for us in Nehemiah 1:1-3. The conditions of the people of Judah and Jerusalem were deeply disheartening. The Bible vividly describes the sad state of affairs in Israel in these words:
"The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol, that Hanani, one of my brothers, and some men from Judah came; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped and had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They said to me, "The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire" Nehemiah 1:1-3 (NASB).
The name "Nehemiah" means "the Lord is consolation" or "comfort of Yahweh." What an appropriate name for the man God used to bring both physical and spiritual restoration and revival to the nation of Israel! For sure, Nehemiah was a Jew. By the addition "son of Hacaliah," Nehemiah is distinguished from others bearing the same name (e.g., from Nehemiah the son of Azbuk, Nehemiah 3:16). Another Nehemiah, too, returned from captivity with Zerubbabel, Ezra 2:2. Nothing is known of Hacaliah, Nehemiah's father except that his name is mentioned again in Nehemiah 10:1. Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the Persian King Artaxerxes I who ruled over the Medo-Persian world empire from 464-423 B.C. Being a cupbearer (Nehemiah 1:11), Nehemiah "held a position of great responsibility and influence in the Persian court. Not only did he drink first of the king's wine to guard against poisoning, but he also kept accounts and exercised other administrative responsibilities. Only a person of exceptional trustworthiness would be given such a post" - Hughes and Laney: New Bible Companion.
How wonderful it is to see that at the most critical juncture in Judah's restoration, God raised up Nehemiah to exercise one of the most trusted roles in the empire, the king's cupbearer and confidant! God would use Nehemiah like He used Joseph, Esther, and Daniel, who also had attained significant roles in the empires that ruled the ancient world of their generations.
Chislev is the ninth month in the Hebrew calendar. It corresponds to mid-November to mid-December on our calendar. The twentieth year of the Persian King Artaxerxes was 445 B.C. The city of Susa the capitol was located east of Babylon, about 150 miles north of the Persian Gulf. It was destroyed after the rise of the Babylonian world empire, but was later rebuilt and became the winter residence of the Medo-Persian kings. By the way, Susa was the setting of the Book of Esther. The site is present-day Shush, in southwestern Iran.
"Hanani" whose name means "gracious gift of the Lord," and certain men from Judah came down to Susa. Upon their arrival, Nehemiah inquired about the conditions of his fellow countrymen and the city. In the twentieth year, that is 445 B.C., many Jews had already returned from captivity. The first Jewish exiles returned from the Babylonian captivity under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Joshua, and Sheshbazzar the prince in about 538 B.C. Another return occurred after this, in 458 B.C., under the leadership of Ezra, the priest and scribe. Upon return, Zerubbabel, Joshua, and Sheshbazzar led in the work of rebuilding the temple until the work was brought to a halt for a long time. Finally, it was completed in 516 B.C. Attacks to rebuild Jerusalem continued long after the temple was rebuilt. As a result, the wall of Jerusalem was still lying in ruins and its gates burned. What this means is that Jerusalem was exposed to attacks of all kinds and to all insults of hostile neighbors. Nehemiah was deeply grieved about this. Almost thirteen years had past since the second return under the leadership of Ezra, the priest and scribe. From the first return, it had been nearly 93 years now. So much could have been accomplished by now to restore God's people and God's chosen land. But unfortunately that was not the case. God's people were under reproach. This would become a burden for Nehemiah to carry. Actually, Nehemiah would lead the third return to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem in 445 B.C.
The word "reproach" is variously translated as "disgrace" and "despised." It is repeated several times in Nehemiah (1:3; 2:17; 4:4; 5:9). The word reflects more than a tragic state of disrepair. It also reflects an attitude of God. The reproach was grounded in God's judgment upon His sinful people.
The enemies of the Jews had successfully thwarted the Jews' efforts to reestablish Jerusalem as a distinctively Jewish city capable of defending itself against their enemies' attacks and assaults. As stated above, the Jews had been severely opposed by their enemies who did not want them rebuild the temple. But with God's help, they overcame the opposition to rebuild the temple. However, there was more work to do. This is where Nehemiah came into the story. Would God's work and cause progress among His people? Would God's people experience a fresh start? Would they experience a renewal among them? Would revival come among them to remove the cloud of reproach from their lives? These questions, arising from the sad condition of the Jewish exiles, must have been weighing heavily on the mind of Nehemiah.
II. Concern for the spiritual condition of our country (v. 4).
Nehemiah was neither a prophet nor a priest. He was not a preacher or a pastor. He was a layperson. But here he was expressing heartfelt, sincere, and deep concern for the nation of Israel. God would use him to do a great work of restoration in Israel. In other words, Nehemiah became an agent of God’s will for national renewal. You can also become an agent of God's will for national revival in this land. I do believe that even in our day God can and will raise up a layperson to do a great work. Could it be you? You don't have to be a pastor, preacher, or a prophet before God can use you. He wants a person whose heart is yielded and wholly available to Him. Such was the heart of Nehemiah. He had a deep sense of Jerusalem's significance to God and was greatly distressed and disturbed about its sad and sorry condition. The Bible briefly and vividly records his deep sense of concern for the people of God and the cause of God.
"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 (NASB).
When Nehemiah heard the sad report, he could have said; "Brothers, I'm very sorry to hear this. It's too bad what's going on in Jerusalem and Judah. As you know very well, I'm working in the king's palace. I'm really busy with my job. But I'll put this on my prayer list and pray about this the next time it comes to my mind. God bless the people of Judah and Jerusalem." He could have used other pious platitudes and religious clichés. "I know God will take care of His people." Nehemiah could have said, "You know brothers, I've been working hard for years to get a promotion. I really can't jeopardize my plans for promotion. As soon as I get my promotion, I'll do something about what you've just said to me. But as things stand now, I simply can't do anything." Nehemiah could have been totally indifferent to the sorry plight of the people. He could have hidden behind his trusted position as a cupbearer and cared less. He could have indulged himself in criticism of the leaders and the people. He could have indicted the people for their lack of desire and zeal in seeking after God. "The princes, priests, and the people should have done this, or they should have done that. Why have they neglected the Lord after returning to the land? Why have they not been following the Law? What's wrong with them? Why are they so slow to learn?" However, Nehemiah did none of these. Rather, he became extremely concerned about this sad report given to him by his brother and other men from Judea.
I wonder what we would have done if we were in Nehemiah's shoes. Would we have continued to do "business as usual"? Would we have walked away and felt no sense of responsibility to intercede for our fellow Christians and for our country? To be honest with you, I think our response to such a sad report will be completely different than Nehemiah. How do I know that? We hear daily reports of the sorry plight of others, but few if any of us, are burdened to seek God on their behalf.
There is no doubt that Nehemiah had a great concern for God's work. He was deeply concerned about God's cause. When Nehemiah heard the report of the conditions of the Jews who had returned to the land, it greatly impacted him. It immediately plunged him into deep affliction. His heart ached. The sorry plight of God's people greatly burdened Nehemiah's heart. The sad condition of the Jewish exiles in Jerusalem and Judah brought him so much anguish of soul.
Please notice carefully that the Bible reveals five specific ways in which Nehemiah expressed his concern for God's people and the city of God. First of all, Nehemiah "sat down." This was Nehemiah's way of saying "I slowed down." He recognized that he could not do "business as usual." He slowed down from the hustle and bustle at the king's palace. This is hard for us to do in our fast-paced modern way of living. It's hard for us to slow down to ponder the gravity of spiritual and eternal matters. The only "slow down" we know is when the traffic lights are red. We "slow down" to avoid crashing into others or being crashed ourselves. It is sad that we have become slaves to the modern fast-paced life, thinking that we are accomplishing a lot by being always in a hurry without slowing down! The fact is, most of what we accomplish in our fast-paced way of life will not count for eternity. They are simply wood, hay, and straw (1 Corinthians 3:12). Secondly, we are told that Nehemiah "wept." He did not sit down to take a coffee break. He sat down and wept because he was extremely concerned for the people and their sorry plight. Remember, Nehemiah was a cupbearer of the king. He was therefore on state business. But this did not keep him from sitting down and weeping before the Lord. Thirdly, he expressed his concern in mourning. He mourned for God's people and God's land. Nehemiah was deeply moved. His heart was grieving for the cause of God among His people. Fourthly, he fasted. He set aside food for the sole purpose of seeking God for His people. He was serious. His concern was sincere. He was not fasting for show. He fasted because he genuinely cared for the physical and spiritual welfare of God's people. Fifthly, Nehemiah prayed. He stormed the throne of God who alone has power to intervene in the lives of His people. The Bible makes it clear that this was not a one time prayer session. He wept, mourned, fasted and prayed for days. Only a man with a deep concern for the cause of God and His work could sacrifice days in weeping, mourning, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. Actually, the title, "the God of heaven," is a common designation of God in the Books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel. It is also used in the Books of Genesis, 2 Chronicles, and the Psalms (Genesis 24:3, 7; 2 Chronicles 36:23; Ps. 136:26). Although, He is the God of heaven, Nehemiah believed that He works on earth among men. He takes interest in the affairs of men on earth. He intervenes in the lives of His people here on earth. He is not sitting in heaven unconcerned about the plight of men on earth. He is actively involved in our lives directing and shaping history on earth.
The concern expressed by Nehemiah is similar to that of Ezra who also wept, fasted and prayed when he heard of the unfaithfulness of God's people who had returned to the land from their captivity in Babylon (see Ezra 9:1-15; 10:1). The Lord Jesus Himself expressed deep concern for the plight of Israel and Jerusalem when He wept over Jerusalem (see Luke 13:34-35; 19:41). Paul also had a deep concern for the welfare of his fellow countrymen who did not know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. He expressed this concern in earnest and unceasing prayer (see Romans 9:1-5; 10:1). But what about us? Are we known as people who express heartfelt concern for the people of God and the cause of God? Do we care to bring the plight of others before the God of heaven who has power to act both in heaven and on earth? Or are our hearts cold and closed to the plight of fellow believers and fellow human beings? I believe with all my heart that if we would make ourselves available to God as Nehemiah availed himself to God, He can and is able to use us in ways beyond our wildest imaginations.
Now, would you please take note of this! Nehemiah was not just concerned about the physical restoration of Jerusalem. He was also deeply concerned for the spiritual renewal of God's people. This can be seen later in his involvement in the gathering of the people at the water gate where they sought the Lord and confessed their sins and prayed to the Lord (see Nehemiah 9). Also, throughout the book, Nehemiah was concerned that God's people should obey God's Law so that the nation could be pure in God's sight (Nehemiah 1:5, 7-9; 5:7, 9; 8:2, 9, 17; 9:3; 10:28-29; 13:1-3). It's clear that the work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem led to spiritual renewal and revival among the returnees to Israel. Nehemiah understood that the ruined wall of Jerusalem and its burned gates actually symbolized a relationship in ruins and was a symptom of it. Therefore, Nehemiah's work did not stop at building the wall of Jerusalem. It led to the rebuilding of the spiritual lives of God's people. Nehemiah saw the ruined city as a sign of God's reproach and disgrace for the nation's sins. He saw it as his responsibility to help remove that disgrace in the light of God's covenant promises to His people.
Bible commentators Hughes and Laney clearly and candidly express this thought further.
"It was terrible for the city of Jerusalem to look as if it was still under disgrace. The temple had been rebuilt for more than seventy-five years, and God had given his blessings, release, and restoration to the people of Israel. For the city to appear as if it was still under God's judgment was to insult God and to demean the dignity of his people. The reproach was not just landscaping and construction problem. Rather, it involved the theological implications of judgment upon sinful people. Although the nation of Israel could not conquer the entire land again, it could make all the necessary efforts to show that the city of God's presence was rebuilt, inhabited, and prosperous." - Hughes and Laney: The New Bible Companion.
The restoration of God's people, not just the rebuilding of the wall, was Nehemiah's deep concern. He expressed this concern through days of weeping, mourning, fasting and praying. God would honor him. Nehemiah could have been indifferent to the sad condition of his people. Had he been indifferent, he would not have been mentioned in the record of God. We do not read of Nehemiah outside of the Book of Nehemiah. In other words, we would never have heard of him had he not expressed heartfelt concern for the plight of God's people and made himself available for God to use in whatever way He chose. He became the agent of God's will for national renewal. Do we want to become agents of God's will for national revival? Do we also desire to make a difference in our generation? We may not be preachers, prophets, pastors. But God is able and can use us to make an eternal difference for His cause in our time. It begins with making ourselves available to Him and expressing concern for His cause among men.
III. Calling on God with earnestness of heart on behalf of our country (vv. 5-6b).
Not only did Nehemiah expressed deep concern for the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel, he also called on God in all earnestness of heart on behalf of Israel. In other words, his concern led to a passionate calling on God for Israel. His calling on God is preserved in these heartfelt words:
"I said, "I beseech You, 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, let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants" Nehemiah 1:5-6b (NASB).
The expression, "I beseech You," expresses the earnestness and fervency with which Nehemiah called on God. This expression is from a single Hebrew word,'anna'. It is a strong particle (a short, usually invariable part of speech, as an article, preposition, etc.) of entreaty. It denotes an earnest request. Nehemiah's heart was deeply stirred within him as he approached the throne of God on behalf of his country. In calling out to God on behalf of Judah and Jerusalem, Nehemiah's spirit was so moved, saying, "Ah, now! I beseech You." His was not a casual calling on God. His was a stirring, deep, earnest, passionate, and fervent calling on God with all his heart. What about us? Is our heart deeply stirred within us to call onto God on behalf of our nation? Is our spirit so moved to approach God's throne for our land? Do we cry out to God on behalf of our country with a stirring, fervent, and passionate heart?
Please notice that on calling on God, Nehemiah first of all magnified and adored the Person of God. Using three distinct terms, Nehemiah exalted the Person of God in his prayer. The first descriptive phrase he used in magnifying the Person of God is the "LORD God of heaven." In adoring the Person of God, Nehemiah first addressed Him as "LORD" (Yahweh or Jehovah) which is the covenant name of God. He coupled that with the title "the God of heaven", which is used four times in the Book of Nehemiah (1:4, 5; 2:4, 20). Nehemiah acknowledged God's exalted position. He is over all, far above all, and rules over all. He is preeminent in His person, power, and position. And yet Nehemiah knew that this Preeminent Being works in the affairs of men here on earth. Nehemiah believed that the government of the world rests squarely on the shoulder of the God of heaven. Like Daniel, he knew God to be the Most High God who rules the realm of men and bestows it upon whom He wishes (see Daniel 4:17).
The second and third descriptive terms Nehemiah used in adoring the Person of God Himself are "the great and awesome God." This was one of Nehemiah's favorite ways of speaking of God. He later used it in Nehemiah 4:14 in pointing God's people to Him in a time of opposition and in the revival prayer in Nehemiah 9:32.
In exalting the Person of God, Nehemiah also focused on the preserving character of God. He glowingly spoke of Him as the God who preserves His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love and obey Him. Nehemiah understood God to be One who honors those who honor Him. He understood Him to be the God who never fails to keep His word to those who submit themselves to it. He understood God to be One who keeps His promises to those who live by His precepts and principles. Nehemiah had seen God's track record of preserving His covenant to His people. Nehemiah remembered that after seventy years of captivity in Babylon, God made good on His promise to restore His people to the Promised Land. He brought the remnant back to the land. The process of restoration had started under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Sheshbazzar and later under Ezra, the priest and scribe. But from the sad report he heard, the promise seemed to be failing. Therefore Nehemiah called on God, appealing to His character and covenant as the basis by which He must intervene and accomplish His promises, purposes, plans, and pledges to His people.
As Nehemiah earnestly called on God, the Spirit led him to present a passionate plea to Him. He pleaded earnestly with God to be attentive to his prayer which he was praying before Him day and night. He was pressing God. If you please, he was putting full court pressure on God to hear his prayers to Him and act on behalf of Jerusalem and Judah. Nehemiah was following in the footsteps of King Solomon who offered one of the longest recorded prayers in the Bible at the dedication of the first temple. In his prayer, Solomon fervently pleaded with God to let His eyes be open and His ears attentive to the prayer offered in the temple (see 2 Chronicles 6:40; 7:15).
I like Nehemiah. He approached God with a strong sense of His abiding presence. Notice he said, "before You." He was practicing the presence of God in prayer. He had earlier spoken of God as "the God heaven." But that does not mean that God was afar and aloof. He believed in the nearness of God and expected God to hear his prayers which he repeatedly lifted up to the throne of God. Nehemiah was not expressing a passing concern as we often do and walk away from the presence of God. Nehemiah persevered in calling on God, day and night. He kept at beseeching the throne of God. He persisted in the presence of God. The concern for the spiritual welfare of Israel weighed heavily on him. He pressed on in prayer pleading with God to be attentive and hear him. He believed that the true God hears the prayers of His people. Nehemiah held God to this truth. He let God know that he expected Him to listen to his plea. It is one thing to approach God believing that He hears prayer. But I believe God is delighted to see His child take a step further. "Lord, I know and I thank You that You hear the prayers of Your people. But God, I am pleading with You to listen to the prayer I am presenting to You now. O God, I am expecting You to be attentive to me. Please, turn Your ear to the prayer of Your child."
If we are going to pray to God like Nehemiah did, calling on God with all earnestness of heart on behalf of Israel, then we must approach the throne of God adoring His Person. We must focus on the fact that our God preserves and keeps His covenant. In other words, we must appeal to His character and covenant as the basis by which we call on Him to intervene and carry out His purposes for our nation. Also, we must not take for granted that God hears our prayers. We must press Him with all sense of urgency to listen to our prayers and use them to advance His purposes for our land. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we must also press on and persevere in prayer for the country, not just on the National Day of Prayer, but throughout the year.
IV. Confessing our sins to God (vv. 6c-7).
One thing is common to all the prayers God received from men of God and used to bring national renewal and revival in the history of the nation of Israel. Confession of sins featured prominently in these prayers. Daniel identified himself in the confession of the sins of the nation of Israel (Daniel 9:1-19). In fact, he spent considerable time on the confession of the sins of Israel, naming each specific sin they had committed against God. God responded powerfully to this prayer and fulfilled His promise of restoring Israel to the Promised Land. Ezra, the priest and scribe, also identified himself with God's people in confessing the sins of Israel (Ezra 9:1-15; 10:1). Now, Nehemiah whose prayer God used to bring revival among the Jews who had returned to the Promised Land, is seen identifying himself with God's people in the confession of their sins to God. Nehemiah and Ezra would later team up in identifying themselves with the rest of the nation of Israel in confessing the sins of Israel leading to a national revival in Israel. In this later confession, we are told that the people spent one fourth of the day confessing their sins (Nehemiah 9:2-3). Throughout the history of God's people, renewal and revival broke out because some of God's people who were burdened for their land, chose to identify themselves with their country to confess the sins of their nation. In fact, one can say categorically that there can be no national revival without sincere confession of sins and a turning away from them.
Knowing the importance of confession of the sins of God's people, and that the greatness of God made their guilt more reprehensible, Nehemiah sincerely lifted up his heart to God confessing the sins of the nation. He knew that the nation of Israel was in dire need of confession. He knew that if God's people repented and returned to Him and made a fresh commitment to Him, it would trigger God's gracious intervention on their behalf. Therefore, Nehemiah didn't allow "a holier-than-thou" attitude to consume his heart. He did not approach the throne of God saying, "God, I'm here today to confess the sins they have sinned against You." Neither did he give room for a self-righteous attitude that trusts in oneself and views others with contempt to fester in his heart. Nehemiah was no self-righteous Pharisaic onlooker. Rather, he humbly and honestly identified himself with the nation in confessing their sins. This is what the Bible reveals of his confession of Israel's sins:
"confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father's house have sinned. "We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses" Nehemiah 1:6c-7 (NASB).
This prayer represents one of the Bible's most moving confessions before God. Please notice very carefully that Nehemiah's confession was simple, sincere, specific, and straight to the point. In his sincerity and simplicity, Nehemiah says, "God, I am a sinner. My father's house has sinned. The nation has sinned." He acknowledged before God how deeply penetrated he was by the feeling of his own sin and guilt. Furthermore, Nehemiah spelt out in specific terms the sins he and Israel had committed against the God of heaven, the great and awesome God. He stated that they had acted very corruptly, ruinously, arrogantly or audaciously [Hebrew: chabal] against God and did not obey His laws. This is the bottom line of sin. It is acting very corrupting against God and disregarding His laws. Israel's dealing corrupting against God consists in not having kept His laws. Israel had disregarded the commandments, statutes, and ordinances recorded for them in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In Ezra 9 and 10, we are told that those who had returned to the land were already flouting God's laws. Perhaps Nehemiah believed that the sins of the returnees had prompted God to change His mind and withhold His favor from them. There was therefore an urgent need for confession and forsaking of their sins. This burden became Nehemiah's and he bore it faithfully.
If we are honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that we as a nation we are acting very corruptly against God as well. We are disregarding His precepts and principles. We are throwing out His laws out of the public square. God's truth is being trampled under foot. May I say to us that God will be justified in withholding His favor from us! But that is not His first choice of action. It is often His last choice. He wants those who know Him and are savingly related to Him to see that there is an urgent need for confession and forsaking of the sins of this nation. But the question is: Are we going to rise up to the challenge of identifying ourselves with the people of this country in confessing our many sins?
I love Nehemiah. Like Daniel and Ezra, he did not criticize the people to God. He did not complain to others about the sins committed by Israel. Neither did hecondemn his people by pointing accusing fingers at them, nor did he close his eyes on the sins they had committed as a nation. Rather, he confessed them all to God. Nehemiah identified himself with the rest of Israel in confession.
The words translated “confess” in the Old Testament and New Testament are powerful terms. The Hebrew “yada’” has the basic meaning of “to know.” In certain contexts, though,“yada’” goes further: it means to know and respond to what one knows.” Thus, someone knows God’s goodness and declares or confesses it. Or someone knows the seriousness of his or her sin and confesses it.The Greek “homologeo” means literally “to say the same.” When translated “confess,” both “yada’” and “homologeo” portray the believer in action, boldly declaring his or her faith, or openly acknowledging failure and sin.
Nehemiah knew that God was well aware of all the sins of the nation. It would therefore be futile to think that somehow, God was not aware of them. He knew all their sins, small and big. For Nehemiah, confession is agreeing with God about our sin. No sin could be hidden from Him. Nehemiah understood the Scripture which says, "He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion" Proverbs 28:13 (NASB). He also knew too well, the experience of David: "When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy on me; my vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the LORD'; and You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah." Psalms 32:3-5 (NASB). Nehemiah realized that as long as God's people kept silent about their sins, the nation would waste away. As long as they tried to conceal their sins, they would not prosper. He was therefore deeply moved to confession. He knew that when God's people sincerely accepted responsibility for their sins and specifically acknowledged them to God, He would forgive. Nehemiah knew that this was not the time for Israel to regard wickedness in their heart because the Lord would not hear (see Psalm 66:18). I believe Nehemiah was motivated by God's promise: "If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared" Psalm 130:3-4 (NASB). With this promise rising up in his heart, Nehemiah made a confession of a lifetime for his nation.
Certainly, Nehemiah recalled the promise of confession given by God in Leviticus 26:40-42. The context of this promise reveals that God blesses obedience to Him and brings about His discipline on His disobedient children. In this context, God spells out the way to returning to His favor after sinning against Him in verses 40-42, which definitely motivated Nehemiah's simple, sincere, and specific confession. We read:
"If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting against Me-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 make amends for their iniquity, 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" Leviticus 26:40-42 (NASB).
Standing on this promise that God would remember the land when His people confess the sins nations, Nehemiah brought the sins of Israel to God. We can also stand on this promise and others like Psalm 130:3-4, 2 Chronicles 7:14, and 1 John 1:9 to confess the sins of our land. Please remember that when we confess our sins to God, we are not telling Him anything He does not already know. But our confession is a demonstration of a change of heart. With lawlessness increasing in the land, are we going to spend time criticizing, and condemning others? Are we going to complain about how things are going from bad to worse? Are we choosing to close our eyes on the sins of this nation in such a time as this? Or are we going to be known as people who confess the sins of our country to God believing His promise to forgive and heal our land? Are we going to agree with God about our national sins? That was what Nehemiah believed. And he was not disappointed. True prayer is strengthened by heartfelt sincere confession. May we be known as people whose prayers are strengthened by sincere confession of our sins to God! Fasick writes:
"If we would know God's power to heal And cleanse us from within, We must acknowledge when we're wrong- Confessing it as sin." -Fasick
Do we as God's people know God's power to heal and cleanse us from within? Do we know that this nation is in dire need of confession? Do we not know that the greatness of God make our guilt more reprehensible? Oh may the Spirit of God help us rise to the challenge of making sincere, simple, and specific confession of the sins of this land in order to trigger God's gracious intervention on behalf of this country!
V. Counting on God's promises (vv. 8-9).
Having identified himself in confessing the sins of the nation, Nehemiah now counted on God's promises. He would hold God to His Word. He would take God at His Word. He would remind God of His own promises which cannot fail. Please take careful note of this! Nehemiah could not have taken God at His Word if he had not trusted God's Word. He could not have held God to His Word if he had not believed in God's Word. I believe one of the reasons some Christians have difficulty holding God to His promises is that they really do not believe them. It is easy for us to believe what our doctors tell us about our health. However, trusting God's Word is not easy for us. God is reliable and so are His promises. He is trustworthy. He is dependable. Yet we find it difficult to take God at His Word. This is appalling. We doubt the most trustworthy Person in the entire universe instead of faithfully trusting His Word to us. How sad! How tragic! I thank God for men like Nehemiah who resolutely counted on every word God spoke to His people. Would you please now notice how Nehemiah counted on God's promises in his prayer on behalf of his nation!
"Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; 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'" Nehemiah 1:8-9 (NASB).
Please remember that Nehemiah was not a preacher, or a priest, or a prophet. He was a layperson, serving as a cupbearer in the palace of an ungodly king. But here we see his passion for the Word of God. He was a man who carefully searched the Scriptures. Not only that, I believe that despite his daily tasks in the palace, he constantly took time to study God's Word. Nehemiah saturated his heart with the Word of God. Because he continually immersed himself in the Scriptures, Nehemiah had grown in the area of counting on God's promises. He counted on God's precious promises and that is why he prayed this way.
Notice he specifically asked God to remember His word. God is delighted when His believing children recount His promises to Him. Please understand that when Nehemiah said "remember the word," this is not a reminder to God as if He had forgotten what He said, but rather, this is an earnest plea to God to fulfill His Word. Counting on God's promise, Nehemiah said to the Lord, "You said that You would scatter us if we disobeyed You. Indeed, we have disobeyed You and have been scattered to the nations. I am praying to You in a foreign land. But Lord, You also said that if we repented and returned to You, that even though we were scattered to the farthest end of heaven, You would bring us back to the land and restore us. I am therefore holding You to this word. I know that Your word which goes forth from Your mouth does not return to You empty without accomplishing what You desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which You sent it. You said it and I believe it to be true. I'm counting on it."
The word which Nehemiah is recounting to God comes from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In other words, Nehemiah was bringing to God a summary of various writings of Moses. On scattering, see Leviticus 26:33 and Deuteronomy 4:25-28; 28:63-65. On returning and regathering, see Deuteronomy 4:29-31; 30:1-5. Please listen! Nehemiah's study of the Word was not merely an intellectual exercise. It penetrated his heart. He believed it. Applied it. Trusted it. Claimed it. Clung to it. And he counted on it.
If we are going to pray like Nehemiah prayed and experienced God's powerful response on behalf of his nation, then we must also study God's Word. We must believe it. We must apply it. We must cling to it. We must claim it. And we must count on it. But you say, "Nehemiah could count on God's promises because they were specifically given to Israel. But I don't see any promise given specifically in the Bible for the United States of America." Your concern is legitimate. But the Word of God has a specific answer for your concern. The Bible says that God is not the God of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles (Romans 3:29). It goes on to say, "For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instructions, so that through the perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11). What's the point of all this? The Scriptures are given to instruct and encourage us to know what promises of God to count on for this nation. We must not let anything rob us from counting on the promises of God. We must hold God to them. We must take God at His word as we pray on behalf of this great nation. Personally, to lay claim to God's promises, cling to and count on them, I simply pray through the Bible. That way, the Holy Spirit brings promises He wants me to count on and principles to apply to my life and to others in my intercession for them.
VI. Confidence in God's compassionate character to hear and act (vv. 10-11).
As the Holy Spirit led Nehemiah to bring his prayer to a close, we see him exuberantly expressing confidence in God's compassionate character to hear and act. We read:
"They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand. "O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man." Now I was the cupbearer to the king" Nehemiah 1:10-11 (NASB).
Nehemiah brought to God's attention that those now dwelling in Judah and Jerusalem, who had returned from exile, are His servants and His people whom He Himself had redeemed with His great power. This allusion to the Exodus redemption of the nation of Israel (Exodus 6:6; 13:3; Deuteronomy 7:8; 9:26, 29) actually recalled the faithful and strong hand of God which had brought Israel out of bondage once before. Recalling this past powerful work of God significantly strengthened Nehemiah's confidence in God's power. This became the basis of his appeal for another deliverance that would be successful as the former. Recalling past deliverances of God helps strengthen and boost one's faith and confidence in God for present challenges. This is a principle David and Apostle Paul also employed in seeking God for His deliverance in present crisis in their lives. Recalling God's past work of deliverance greatly boosted their confidence in God's ability to rescue them in their present crisis. Recalling God's deliverance of him from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, David expressed confidence in God's ability to deliver him in his fight against Goliath (see 1 Samuel 17:37). Also recounting God's past deliverance of him, Paul expressed unshakable faith in God's ability to deliver him in his present crisis (see 2 Corinthians 1:8-10). Nehemiah's confidence in God was greatly boosted as he recalled how God displayed great power in bringing Israel out of Egyptian bondage. That was an impossible situation, but God pulled it off.
Nehemiah therefore ventured to reason with God. Since the exodus redemption constituted a proof of God's covenant commitment to His people, He should once again act on behalf of His people. In effect, Nehemiah is saying, "The bond forged between You and Israel by the exodus covered not only the first generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt, but also every generation in turn down to the present. Therefore, we expect You to act again in honor of Your covenant bond with us."
With overflowing confidence in God's compassionate character to hear and act, and referring to himself as "Your servant," Nehemiah reiterated his plea that God would be attentive to his prayer, and to the prayer of His servants who fear His name. Nehemiah did not think that he was the only one praying. There were others like him who had a holy fear of God, who were earnestly praying that God would redeem Israel from all his troubles and restore them to Him. For himself in particular, Nehemiah also presented a specific request to God. He asked God to grant him favor or compassion in the sight of the king, for a bold plan to be of help to his fellow countrymen was taking shape in his mind. For days Nehemiah prayed and pleaded his case before the God of heaven, the great and awesome God. "He offered his prayer day after day over a period of months, that eachtoday might provide the opportunity for the mission he proposed to materialize, so that he could be the agent of God's will for national renewal as revealed in the Torah. Yet the decision would not lie with the king, who was just a man, but with God, who was ultimately in control... So God's favor was what was really required. In terms of Hebrews 4:16, he needed grace to help in time of need... For some reason Nehemiah had to wait for four months after receiving the bad news about Jerusalem, before his chance came to present his case to the king." - Allen and Laniak: New International Biblical Commentary.
Nehemiah 2:1 reveals that it was in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that God opened the door for Nehemiah to receive the answer to his prayers. The month of Nisan corresponds to mid-March to mid-April. So it really took four months for Nehemiah to begin experiencing God's answer to his prayers and that of other Jews who feared Him. This is important to note. God is sovereign. He does all things beautiful in His time. As we pray for renewal for this land, we must allow God to answer us in His own time. We must not be tempted to quit crying out to God on behalf of this nation just because His answer seems long in coming. We must persevere like Nehemiah did. In God's time, He will answer our prayers and do even "far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us" Ephesians 3:20 (NASB). When He does so, all the glory will be His.
I really like what the late Dr. McGee said of Nehemiah. "Nehemiah is willing and wants to be used of God. But he is not running ahead of God; he prays about it. He says, "If you want to use me, I am making myself available." ...Nehemiah does not want to run ahead of God, and so he goes to Him first in prayer." -Dr. McGee:Thru the Bible.
Are we available for God to use us? Do we want God to use us as He used Nehemiah in his generation? Do we desire to be agents of God's will for national renewal and revival which He promised in His Word? If so, we must rely on the power and presence of the Person of the Holy Spirit living in us to pray. In the Spirit's strength, we must apply the principles of prayer employed by Nehemiah and others like Daniel, whose prayers were used to bring national revival and renewal. We must know the seriousness of the times in which we live. We must express genuine concern for God's people, God's purpose, and God's cause for our times. We must no longer do "business as usual." We must be burdened to call on God on behalf of this country. We must realize that this nation is in dire need of sincere and specific confession of her sins. We must count on the promises of God. We must express confidence in His compassionate character to hear and respond to our prayers.
We are living in desperate and distressful times. The only one who can turn the tide of moral decay and decline, spiritual deadness and darkness in this country is God Almighty, the Lord of lords, the only Sovereign, the only wise God, the Blessed and only Ruler. He acts in response to believing prayer. If we fail to pray, we will have ourselves to blame. Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Samuel, and other godly men and women of prayer had put God to the test and found Him faithful. It is now our turn. Let us rise in the power of the same Holy Spirit who inspired in them faith to pray to move the heart and the hand of God. Remember God's word: "God was moved by prayer for the land" (2 Samuel 21:14b; 24:25). Would it be said that on our watch "God was moved by prayer for this land and acted on behalf of the land?" History will reveal the answer to this question.
"Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen" Romans 16:25-27 (NASB).