The Power of Prevailing Prayer
The book of Nehemiah is a book of action, adventure, accomplishment, and advancement. It is a book that challenges us to exercise faith in the face of the overwhelming, to persevere in the face of problems, and to stand firm in the face of opposition. But behind the stirring scenes of this great book we find a great man on his knees before a great and awesome God.
Nehemiah was a man of prayer. He was a man who understood the importance of spending time with God in prayer. Someone has said that the self-sufficient do not pray but merely talk to themselves, the self-satisfied will not pray because they have no knowledge of their need, and the self-righteous will not pray because they have no basis on which to approach God. Nehemiah was not that kind of individual. He was a man whose life and activities were successful because he was a man of prayer.
The book of Nehemiah opens with the first of Nehemiah’s eleven prayers and shows us the power of prevailing prayer.
The Person and Position of Nehemiah
Nehemiah 1:1 and 11
Who was Nehemiah? According to Nehemiah 1:1 he was the son of Hacaliah. Although we do not know anything about his childhood, youth, or family background, we can surmise at least four things about him. First, his family had been taken into captivity when Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar and he was probably born in captivity. Second, his family had not availed themselves of the opportunity to return to Judah with either Zerubbabel or Ezra. Third, his parents were probably godly people because they named their son Nehem-Yah, which means “comfort of Yahweh.” Fourth, Nehemiah remained deeply devoted to God although he grew up in a pagan land filled with corrupting influences.
What was his position? According to Nehemiah 1:11, Nehemiah was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. While that does not sound very impressive, it was a very important position. As cupbearer, Nehemiah was responsible for tasting the king’s food and wine to insure that it was not poisoned, guarding the king’s sleeping quarters, and held the role of prime minister and master of ceremonies rolled into one. Ancient historians suggest that the cupbearer, like no one other than the queen, was in a position to influence the king.
The Plight of the Jews in Jerusalem
The story of the book of Nehemiah opens in the winter time in 445 B.C. At that time, Nehemiah was approached by a delegation made up of his brother Hanani and some important men from Judah. Nehemiah asked these men about the welfare of the Jews (repatriates) who had returned to Judah and Jerusalem.
The reply of the messengers was brief, to the point, and came as a blow to Nehemiah. They reported to him about the condition of the people saying, “The people are in great distress and reproach.” The Jews were the objects of ridicule and taunting by their enemies.
They also reported to him about the condition of the city walls saying, “The wall of Jerusalem is still torn down and the gates are burned.” [Read Ezra 4:7-23 for more information on how the walls were torn down and the gates burned.]
The Prevailing Prayer of Nehemiah
Nehemiah’s response to the distressing news from Jerusalem reveals the depth of his concern, sensitivity, and compassion for his people. According to Nehemiah 1:4, Nehemiah’s grief was intense (“I sat down and wept”), enduring (“and mourned for days”), and self-denying (“and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven”).
Bad news drives people to do many things. Some people are driven to anger, some to drink, others to denial, and still others to depression. But bad news drove Nehemiah to his knees in prayer. The kneeling position is a good position to be in when facing problems. Someone has said that knees don’t knock when you kneel on them!
Notice five things about Nehemiah’s prayer.
First, Nehemiah began his prayer by focusing on God rather than on the problem that distressed him. He recognized God as the One who kept His word and showed mercy.
Second, notice that Nehemiah, like Ezra (Ezra 9:5-15), identified himself with Israel in the confession of sin. He did not just point the finger at others, he identified himself as part of the problem.
Third, notice Nehemiah’s persistence in prayer. According to Nehemiah 1:6, he prayed before God day and night (see I Thessalonians 5:17).
Fourth, Nehemiah claimed God’s promise to Moses. He had seen God restore His people to Jerusalem after the captivity and fully expected God to bring about the rebuilding of the walls and the restoration of Jerusalem’s prestige.
Finally, notice the impact that Nehemiah’s prevailing prayer had on his own life. He was given a new perspective on the problem as he began to understand the role he would play in answer to his own prayer. He was also led to reestablish his priorities as he was willing to leave the comforts and security of the royal court to help his people. He was further given a new purpose in life as he prepared to invest himself in a project bigger than himself.
Problems present us with an opportunity to pray.
When Nehemiah learned of the plight of the Jews in Jerusalem, he took the matter to the Lord in prayer. As stated in our lesson, bad news drives people to do many things, but bad news should always drive the Christian to the Lord in prayer.
Prayer gives us a new perspective on problems.
It was while on his knees in prayer that Nehemiah received a new perspective on the problem. Prayer reminded Nehemiah of the greatness of God and thus put the concern of his heart in proper perspective. As one commentator noted, “The greater God becomes to him, the smaller becomes his problem.”
We should pray and not lose heart.
We read in Luke 18:1 that Jesus taught His disciples “that at all times they ought to pray and not lose heart.” Nehemiah teaches us the importance of persistence in prayer. He prayed about the plight of the Jews in Jerusalem for four months. Swindoll comments, “The prayer warrior quickly learns the patience of waiting. And so Nehemiah was doing just that – waiting. In the diary he kept, nothing was entered for those four months because nothing happened. He waited. There was no visible glimmer of hope, no change. He kept waiting and trusting and counting on God to move the heart of his superior.” We would be well advised to heed Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17).