5 Then 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, 6 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.7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 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.’
10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. 11 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.”
I was cupbearer to the king.
(Nehemiah 1:5-11 NIV)
As we began the book of Nehemiah, we learned that Nehemiah, a Jewish exile, is a high-ranking government official in the Persian empire, in the king’s inner circle.
Nehemiah’s brother Hanani comes to visit Nehemiah; he gives him an update on the state of Jerusalem and its inhabitants. It’s been 140 years since the first group of exiles returned to Jerusalem; Nehemiah expected great news of progress, safety, and success. Instead, the news is the exact opposite of Nehemiah’s expectations. The city walls are still not rebuilt, and the people are in distress. Worst of all, this news reflects badly on God – He is no longer seen as the great, mighty, and powerful God of the Hebrews.
These realizations cause great heartache for Nehemiah, expressed outwardly through weeping and mourning, and driving Nehemiah to go before the Lord in prayer and fasting.
Today’s passage is Nehemiah’s prayer before the Lord. Nehemiah begins by thanking God for His covenant relationship with His people and His love toward them (v. 5).
Nehemiah wastes no time in confessing the corporate sins of the nation before the Lord, including himself and his family among the sinners. Like Ezra, Nehemiah did not distance himself from the nation when he cried out to the Lord (v. 6). Nehemiah calls out the wickedness of people’s hearts, and their disobedience to God’s Laws, again including himself and his family among the guilty (v. 7).
When we are confronted with and reminded of the holiness, greatness, and awesomeness of God, it reveals the sinfulness of our humanity, doesn’t it?
Nehemiah recalls God’s words concerning the consequences of not obeying God’s Laws, and also of the blessings of a restored relationship with Him (vv. 8-9). Regardless of their sinfulness or obedience, Nehemiah rests in the fact that he and the rest of the Jews are still God’s people, God’s own possession (Exodus 19:5-6). This gives Nehemiah both comfort and hope to continue on and not give up.
In closing his prayer, Nehemiah recognizes the sovereignty of God and the humanity of the king, and asks God’s favor as he approaches the king about the state of Jerusalem and its people. Nehemiah is throwing himself on God’s mercy, not on his abilities, his relationship with the king, or even the king’s benevolence. God’s mercy and sovereignty will be what changes the king’s mind.
Finally, Nehemiah reveals his position – that of cupbearer to the king. This was a position of high authority and responsibility, requiring integrity. This was often considered the number two position in the kingdom, demanding utmost loyalty to the king.
While we may not be in such a position of authority or responsibility like Nehemiah, we can still relate to Nehemiah and his prayer for the welfare of others. Nehemiah lived unselfishly, and his concern for the city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants was evident in his response to the bad news.
What grips our hearts and moves us to prayer and fasting?
What drives us to the throne of God, asking God to intervene on behalf of someone or something bigger than ourselves or our ability to take action?
What causes us to take the time to confess our sin before the Lord, both individually and corporately?
May our confidence be in the Lord and not in other people, in ourselves, in relationships, in government, or in anything or anyone else. May our commitment and trust be in Him and to Him alone.
May we, like Nehemiah, come before the Lord with nothing to offer, seeking only His mercy and His love.