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Desperation in Prayer

March 29, 2020 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Devoted to Prayer

Topic: Expository Passage: Nehemiah 1:4-11


The next 2 Sundays I want to revisit our theme for the year, “Devoted to Prayer.” I’d like to study a couple of OT examples of how we should pray. This morning, we are going to consider a prayer from Nehemiah. I’ve been planning to preach this text since long before all of the quarantines began, but it is especially appropriate for our times. We need to be­­­ praying right now for the many needs around us, but as well, while we are isolated from each other, what a blessing it is to know that we are not isolated from God. He promises to draw near to us, when we draw near to him. So, if you are lonely, pray (read). To really appreciate this prayer, we need understand the background to Nehemiah’s prayer. Specifically, we have to appreciate the fact that Nehemiah prayed in a time of crisis.

I.  Background (vv. 1–3)

Timing (445 BC): 2:1 tells us that Nehemiah’s story begins in the 20th year of King Artaxerxes, which would be 445 B.C. As you can see on the chart, Artaxerxes was the 4th great king of the Persian Empire. Hopefully you can see his name on the right side of the chart, and just below that, you can see where Nehemiah’s story fits in the final period of OT history.

And notice that Nehemiah’s story happens during a bleak time for Israel. It’s been roughly 140 years, since Nebuchadnezzar shattered the Israelite spirit by burning Jerusalem and tearing down the temple and the city walls

But then just as God had promised, in 538 B.C., a group of Israelites returned to Jerusalem and they finished rebuilding the temple in 516 B.C. It was a huge moment! However, the city was still mostly in ruins, and the few people living there were struggling under the pressure of surrounding enemies.

But finally, there was renewed hope in 458 B.C. when Ezra led the 2nd He quickly went to work making spiritual and practical reforms. But much remained to be done. It was still a dark time for godly Israelites. It’s roughly 13 years later that we are introduced to Nehemiah.

Nehemiah: We learn in v. 11 that...

Nehemiah was Artaxerxes’ Cupbearer (v. 11). The cupbearer tasted the king’s wine and food to make sure it was safe; however, Nehemiah was much more than a test dummy. rather, he was significant leader. The cupbearer typically had important administrative responsibilities, and he was usually a close confidant of the king. So, Nehemiah had a significant position.

Nehemiah was a godly man. Nehemiah may not be among the best known of the biblical characters, but he was probably among the godliest. We’re going to see that he was zealous for the people of God. He knew the Scriptures. He trusted the Lord with his life, and he was a man of prayer. So, Nehemiah is a great example of how to walk with the Lord and how to be a godly leader. Notice also that Nehemiah’s prayer comes in the context of…

Hanani’s Report (vv. 2–3): Nehemiah was with the king in Susa, when Hanani visits him from Jerusalem. As a zealous Israelite, Nehemiah is eager to hear what is happening in their homeland. He surely hoped Ezra’s return had drastically changed the situation. But sadly, Hanani doesn’t have any good news to report (v. 3).

It had been 140 years since Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem’s walls, so most scholars agree that Nehemiah’s distress was over something different. Most likely, Hanani told Nehemiah about the events recorded in Ezra 4:7–23.

According to this passage a group of Jews had attempted to rebuild the wall following Ezra’s return, but local enemies sent a false report to Artaxerxes saying that Israel was rebuilding the wall because they intended to rebel. When Artaxerxes saw the report, he ordered the Jews to stop building. So, not only was Jerusalem defenseless, but the Jews had lost of the favor of Artaxerxes. It was a crushing blow.

When Nehemiah hears the news, he is crushed over the state of his nation. Of course, we also are facing a time of crisis. It has severely affected some of you, and we should grieve over how the entire world is being affected by the curse of COVID-19.

And we should be eager to see how Nehemiah responded so that in some sense we can follow his example, not just during the current crisis but in every crisis that we will face in the future. In vv. 4 –11 Nehemiah provides a wonderful model prayer, and I’d like to point out 5 characteristics of his prayer. The 1st characteristic is…

II.  Devotion (v. 4): Notice…

Nehemiah’s Grief: When Nehemiah heard Hanani’s report, Nehemiah reports, “I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days.” That’s some significant grief. Even though Nehemiah was himself secure and comfortable, he was torn up over what was happening in Jerusalem.

Therefore, even if your life is secure and smooth, you should grieve when others endure the effects of the curse. We should grieve when evil reigns, when God’s people suffer, and sinners reject the gospel. But what is particularly important is that our grief must lead us to pray.

Nehemiah’s Response: Nehemiah reports, “For many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” It’s worth noting that he was still serving the king, so he did more than just fast and pray. But for several days he devoted every available moment to prayer and fasting.

That’s challenging in a couple of ways. First, my first impulse in a time of crisis is to worry and then to begin scheming a solution. But not Nehemiah, his first impulse was to pray. And if there was ever a time when we should be a praying people, it’s today. Yes, make wise plans and work hard to fulfill your responsibility, but do so with a spirit of dependence and humility, recognizing that we need God above all else.

Second, I’m challenged by the depth of Nehemiah’s devotion. For many days, he fasted and devoted large chunks of time to focused prayer. That’s challenging, because I don’t think most of us have any idea what it’s like to give ourselves to prayer like that. We are so busy and so distracted by our technology and hobbies that we don’t know how to give ourselves to prayer like Nehemiah did.

But the Scriptures are clear that we will never know the Lord and experience the fullness of his grace, unless we learn to pray like Nehemiah.

I’m reminded of a story in Mark 9. The disciples attempted to cast out a demon, but were unable. Notice what is said in vv. 28–29. Jesus is clear that God doesn’t hand out his unusual blessing like candy. Rather, God’s full power only comes through whole-hearted devotion to prayer.

And there’s no question that we need the hand of God! We need God to move in our community and our church for the sake of the gospel. We should long to see God use these troubled times to reap a harvest of souls. And Jesus is clear that this kind of power only comes through serious prayer.

So, I’d challenge you to give yourself to prayer. Yes, life is busy, but if we’re honest, there’s probably a lot in our lives that we could give up and we would give up if we really sensed our need for the Lord. We need God, so by his grace, let’s devote ourselves to prayer like Nehemiah. The 2nd characteristic we see in Nehemiah’s prayer is…

III.  Reverence (v. 5)

Verses 5–11 record Nehemiah’s prayer at the end of his extended time of prayer and fasting. It was time to appeal to the king, but first, Nehemiah prayed this prayer.

And Nehemiah begins like most biblical prayers, with praise and worship to the Lord. He doesn’t come to God brashly, making demands based on what he believes God must do. Instead, he begins by acknowledging God’s greatness and by acknowledging that he couldn’t demand anything from God. He could only appeal to the love and faithfulness of God.

First, he addresses God as, “Lord God of heaven.” Lord is a translation of God’s covenant name, Yahweh or Jehovah. And “God of heaven” is an acknowledgment that God dwells in heaven, high above mankind who lives on the earth.

Second, he worships the “great and awesome God.” This phrase focuses on creation’s response to God’s glory. The idea is that the true glory and beauty of God is “awe-inspiring” and amazing. God is not awesome like a great athletic feat, nice gesture from a friend, or even a beautiful scene in nature. God is awesome beyond our wildest imaginations.

Third, Nehemiah worships God as the one, “Who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments.” This statement reflects on God’s special relationship with Israel, his covenant people. So, Nehemiah worships the Lord as being faithful, compassionate, and merciful to his people. Praise the Lord that if you know Christ, you can bank on the fact that God will keep every promise and his love and mercy will always be near. Our God is faithful to his people.

But what is especially significant for us is the fact that even in a moment of crisis (Nehemiah was going to risk his life with his appeal to the king), he didn’t jump immediately to his petition. Instead, Nehemiah begins his prayer, like most biblical prayers, with praise and adoration. He worshipped the Lord, and he anchored his heart in the character of God.

That’s so important, because we don’t pray to an automated answering service, a vending machine, or a genie in a bottle. We pray to our Father in heaven. It’s essential that we always approach him with reverence and thankfulness and that we come primarily to spend time with the one whom we love, not merely to ask for something or to fulfill a duty.

So, when you pray, learn to slow down and to simply gaze at the awesome, beautiful face of our Lord. Praise him for his glory and thank him for his grace. It honors him, it will enrich your experience in prayer, and it will provide an essential framework for your requests. The 3rd characteristic of Nehemiah’s prayer is…

IV.  Humility (vv. 6–7)

I’d like to point out 3 ways that Nehemiah serves as an example for us.

Nehemiah did not demand aid. This one is pretty simple. After exalting the Lord for his glory and power in v. 5, notice the humility with which he opens v. 6 (read). Nehemiah will ultimately boldly appeal the Lord.

But we must never forget that when we pray, we are coming into the presence of an almighty, all-knowing, and holy God. And there is nothing in me that demands his attention or his answer. I should always be amazed that he would hear me, and I must always come crying fundamentally that his perfect will would be accomplished, not my limited, sin-skewed one. 2nd

Nehemiah identified with Israel’s sin. One of the things that stands out to most people about vv. 6–7 is that Nehemiah includes himself in the confession. He says he is “confess(ing) the sins of the children of Israel which we have sinned against You. Both my father’s house and I have sinned.We have acted very corruptly against You.”

It’s striking, because Nehemiah was not the problem. He was a righteous man. He knew the Scriptures, he loved the Lord, and he was devoted to God’s Law. He was not the reason for God’s judgment. So, why does Nehemiah include himself in this confession?

The simple answer is that while Nehemiah was not a pagan idolater, he was still a sinner. He may not have been as bad as many of his countrymen, but he was still contributing to the sum of Israel’s sin.

As a result, he provides an important example to us of humility before God and in prayer. It’s so easy, especially in times like we are enduring right now, to notice the speck in everyone else’s eye. We see all the evil in our culture, and maybe you’ve even fumed in the last couple of weeks over how their evil is causing the pandemic and economic crash we are all enduring.

But the reality is that we are all sinners. And in Luke 13, Jesus said that even if we never face any great hardship in this world and even if we are among the most moral people in the culture, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (vv. 3, 5). Jesus said that we all deserve the judgment of God, and we all are in desperate need of the grace Jesus provided on the cross. So, if you have always banked on your own righteousness to save you from God’s judgment, please heed the warning of Christ and repent. We’d love to talk to you about how you can know that you safe in the salvation Jesus provides.

And for those of us who are saved, Nehemiah reminds us that we all contribute to the evil in the world, our nation, our community, and even this church. And godly man, is always far more aware of his own sinfulness than he is the sins of others.

I’m reminded of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Don’t be like the Pharisee, who looks down his nose at everyone else; instead, live before the Lord like the tax collector crying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13)! The 3rd way Nehemiah serves as an example is…

Nehemiah confessed Israel’s sin. Nehemiah is pretty blunt in v. 7 about Israel’s sin. They had acted “very corruptly,” and they had disobeyed God’s commandments. Very often, we sugarcoat our sin, but what Nehemiah says here is true of all of us. We are all corrupt, disobedient sinners.

And Jesus was clear in the Lord’s Prayer that confessing this sin debt is an essential aspect of prayer. Our sin offends God. It is evil, and we need to acknowledge it for what is. That’s what it means to confess.

True, confession is not the most enjoyable part of prayer, but the only way you will ever truly appreciate the grace of God is if you see the darkness of your own heart and intentionally lean in on the grace of God. Godly confession will do nothing but enrich your experience of God in prayer.

So, Nehemiah sets an important example. If confession is not an important part of your prayer routine, I’d urge you intentionally reflect on where you have sinned, ask the Lord to forgive, ask for grace to change, and rest in the grace he promises. The 4th characteristic of Nehemiah’s prayer is…

V.  Boldness (vv. 8–11a)

These verses provide an important balance to what we have said about humility and reverence. Yes, Nehemiah came as a beggar in need of grace, but he is not sheepish in his requests. However, this boldness has nothing to do with Nehemiah. Rather, Nehemiah was bold in prayer, because…

Nehemiah prayed according to God’s revealed will. This prayer reflects the fact that Nehemiah was well-versed in the Law. He knew what God required, and he knew what God had promised. I say this, because vv. 8–10 consist almost entirely of quotations from the Law or summaries of multiple biblical statements. Look again at his appeal in vv. 8–9. It’s all Scripture.

That’s so important, because many Christian groups urge you to boldly ask God for whatever you want. Prayer is about bending God’s will to mine. So, people boldly demand all sorts of things rooted in selfish interest, human sentiment, or emotion. They pray for what I want, based on what I love.

But Nehemiah’s prayer is different, because his boldness is not based on what he wants but on what God had already revealed in Scripture. He is calling on God to act based on God’s promises and based on God’s purpose to glorify himself. That’s very different from making a selfish demand of God and essentially challenging him to do what I want.

So, let’s think about how this applies to the current crisis. If I am praying purely based on my concerns, I may pray, “Lord, keep me healthy, keep my family healthy, and help me not to lose any money.” And we should pray those kinds of prayers (Phil 4:6–7).

But more importantly, I ought to be thinking, “What does the Bible say about what is most important to God right now? What promises has he given that apply to this moment.” And based on what I find in Scripture, I should boldly pray for God to work in keeping with his purpose. We should be praying, “Lord, glorify yourself in the earth. Save souls in our community. Revive your church. Sanctify me whether through abundance or hardship.”

So, I’d challenge you to dig into God’s Word. Know the heart and mind of God, and learn to pray based on God’s revealed will. We’re actually going to spend the entire lesson this evening developing that concept. Notice also that based on the fact that Nehemiah prayed according to God’s will…

Nehemiah boldly called on the Lord to be faithful. Notice Nehemiah’s appeal in v. 10. He’s not sheepish, is he? Again, it’s not because Nehemiah is being brash or demanding. Rather, Nehemiah is bold, because he knows who God is and what God has promised, he appeals to God to act accordingly.

We should do the same. We should pray like we really believe that God is good, all-knowing, and sovereign. We should pray like we really believe that God is committed to his promises and that they are true.

So often, we are afraid to really appeal to God to work. We don’t want to be pushy or irreverent. But when you can ground a prayer in Scripture, be bold and have faith that God will answer.

I hope that you have been boldly praying that God would do great things for the sake of his glory, the spread of the gospel, and the growth of his people. And I hope you believe that God will work. Let’s be a people who know the Word, who know the mind of God, and who pray with faith that God answers prayer. The fifth characteristic of Nehemiah’s prayer is…

VI.  Specificity (v. 11)

I’d like to make 3 points from this verse. First…

Nehemiah believed that God had placed him in a position of influence. Like Joseph and Esther, Nehemiah didn’t view his cushy job as a way to protect him from harm. Rather, he saw it as a God-ordained opportunity to appeal to Artaxerxes. He wanted to use God’s blessing to serve, not to build a wall of protection around himself. Second…

Nehemiah took a great risk. It was a capital offense to be sad in the king’s presence. Not only that, Nehemiah was going to challenge the king to reverse his prior decree about building the wall. That’s pretty risky, because egotistical leaders don’t like to admit they are wrong. So, Nehemiah knows that he is about to take his own life into his hands or at the very least, he is risking his cushy job. Notice his final words before going to the king (v. 11).

Nehemiah asked the Lord for a specific answer. Again, Nehemiah expresses reverence and humility before the Lord, and then he asks the Lord for two basic things. He says, “Make your servant successful today” and “grant him compassion before this man.” In others words, “I’ve confessed our sins, I’ve appealed to your promises, and now based on what I know you to be, act for the good of your people.”

It’s bold and it’s specific, but again it is based in the character and promises of God. And when we have a burden on our heart that we believe is just before God, we should be just as bold and just as specific. We don’t honor God by praying bland, toothless prayers. Instead, we honor him when we pray with real faith in who God is and what he has said, and we ask God to act very specifically.

So, what burdens are weighing on your heart based on godly, Spirit-driven desires? God says that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask. Boldly and specifically plead with God to work. Of course, God will not always say yes. But I wonder what he would do, if we prayed more like Nehemiah and then we took bold steps of faith like Nehemiah does in chapter 2?


In conclusion, the challenge of Nehemiah 1 is, “Devote yourself to reverent, humble, and bold prayer.” Let’s pray in a manner that honors the Lord and expects him to work, and then let’s see what God will do.

More in Devoted to Prayer

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