Monday, February 11, 2013

The prayer that changed a nation's story

Nehemiah praying - Nehemiah 1
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Nehemiah 1:1-11

TO CHEW ON:
"And so it was, when I heard these words that I sat down and wept and mourned for many days' I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven." - Nehemiah 1:4


The word economy of the Bible quickly gets us to the crux of the matter in this story that takes place at the end of the Old Testament time. The described state of his fellow Hebrews in Jerusalem distresses Nehemiah (who is a servant of Persian King Artaxerxes) immensely. So he does what we should all do when we're distressed—goes to the One who can help.

Nehemiah 1:5-11 is Nehemiah's heartfelt prayer. Let's look closely at it to see what we can learn about prayer from it.

1. Nehemiah begins by addressing God: "Lord God of heaven, O great and awesome God..." His beginning puts him in his place and vaults God to His. By saying these faith-building words (Nehemiah 1:5) Nehemiah also reminds himself of God's power and ability to answer.

2. Nehemiah includes himself with the people (Nehemiah 1:6-7).  Though he is many miles away and probably hasn't participated personally in the sins he confesses, he stands in solidarity with his countrymen. His identification with them also shows his understanding of how God works in and through nations.

3. He prays God's words back to Him.
Nehemiah 1:8-9 are a paraphrase a Moses' words in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, recalling words of warning and blessing to Israel from centuries earlier (see Leviticus 26:33 and Deuteronomy 4:25-27, 29-3; 28:63-67; 30:4).

4. He names his request. He reminds God of the investment He has already made in Israel (Nehemiah 1:10) and pleads for mercy, for himself (from his boss, the King of Persia; 'would God move the heart of a king to give him favor?') and in that, also for all of Israel (Nehemiah 1:11).

The rest of the book of Nehemiah tells the story of how King Artaxerxes releases Nehemiah from his duties, finances and equips his trip to Jerusalem, and then how Nehemiah leads the rebuilding of the Jerusalem wall and eventually a spiritual revival.

What large and small things are troubling us today? Let's pray about them. Let's pray remembering how big and capable God is in contrast to our own neediness, frailty, and unworthiness. Let's pray God's words—His promises—back to Him, naming our requests with all the passion and emotion they bring up in his.

PRAYER:
Dear God, thank You for prayer. Help me to realize that a burden about a situation or person is also an invitation to pray about it. Help me to pray from my heart,  with faith in You and Your power. Amen.

MORE: Nehemiah's prayer

Nehemiah's prayer is considered one of the twelve Great Prayers of the Old Testament. Walter Brueggemann in his chapter on this prayer draws our attention to the fact that prayer can impact international events:

"Except for the imagination of faith exhibited in this prayer, one would not think to connect "mercy" and "empire." But that is the way of daring prayer. Because everything in the prayer is uttered under the aegis of the creator God, matters are connected and interfaced and intertwined in ways that can never be apart from the rule of God" - Walter Brueggemann, Great Prayers of the Old Testament,  p.105 (emphasis added).




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