“The Prayer Life of a Desperate Man”
August 30, 2009
Let your needs drive you to your knees, in set times of prayer and spontaneous cries for help.
I. The Need (Nehemiah 1:1-4)
II. The Set-time Prayer (Nehemiah 1:5-11)
III. The Spontaneous Prayer (Nehemiah 2:1-5)
Someplace, front and center or maybe over in the corner of your heart, there is a need that has gripped you. Like a shark that takes hold and won’t let go, some human situation, yours or someone else’s, has hold of you, makes your stomach sink, and at least for a while dominates your thoughts and images.
Maybe it’s someone else’s health situation, maybe it’s your own marriage, or one of your children who is struggling, or a friend in an abusive relationship. Maybe it’s financial need in your home, or concern over a friend who needs a job, or a single mom who can’t make ends meet. Maybe a larger situation that’s earned its own label in our society, like abortion, health care, AIDS or orphans. Maybe you’ve got a bunch of these sharks, gnawing at your heart.
What do you do when need grips you? You probably worry, or pray or act, or some mixture of these three. You probably worry better than you do the others. But what’s the Biblical answer when need grips your heart? Isn’t it to turn your worry into prayer, and given an opportunity, your prayer into action?
This morning we begin a series in the book of Nehemiah, a book that tells one of the most dramatic stories of the Old Testament, the struggles and victories of God’s people returning from exile in Babylon. This story is focused on and told by Nehemiah, who with God’s help makes a real difference for God’s people. And it begins with a need that grips Nehemiah’s heart. Chapter one of Nehemiah shows how a godly man turns worry into prayer, leading him to turn prayer into action. But the big idea today is to let your needs drive you to your knees, in set times of prayer and spontaneous cries for help.
I. The Need (Nehemiah 1:1-4)
We begin with the setting, and with the need that grips Nehemiah’s heart. Chapter 1, verses 1-4: The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, 2Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. 3They said to me, "Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire." 4When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed to the God of heaven.
Nehemiah’s book is an account of his expedition to rebuild Jerusalem and of his subsequent leadership there. The walls of Jerusalem had been demolished in 586 BC when the Babylonians ran out of patience with the Jews and finished destroying and dispersing their nation. Fifty years later when the Babylonians were taken over by the Medes and Persians. The new emperor, Cyrus, allowed some Jews living in Babylon to return to Jerusalem in 538 BC, led by Zerubbabel. Over several years, hindered by opposition and discouragement, they succeeded in rebuilding the temple, completing it in 516 BC, though it was only a shadow of its glory in Solomon’s day..
Sixty years later, in 458 B.C., a second group returned, led by Ezra. They found the Jews in moral decay, intermarrying with the unbelieving peoples around them, and adopting pagan practices. Through Ezra’s teaching, the majority turned from their sins and followed God. Yet they were still in poverty, unable to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall, to make it a safer, more livable city.
Twelve more years have passed when the book of Nehemiah opens in 446 BC. Verse 1 tells us it was the twentieth year of Artaxerxes; the Hebrew month was ‘Chislev’. This can be nailed pretty clearly to late 446 BC, though there is some debate about the correlation of Jewish and Persian calendars. The setting is the citadel at Susa, the winter palace and city of the Persian kings.
Nehemiah, a Jew, had risen to prominence in Persia, just as Daniel had risen in Babylonia, Joseph in Egypt. Nehemiah served the Persian king Artaxerxes as personal cupbearer, one who tasted the wine before serving to check for poison. This required a man who was wise, discreet, honest and trustworthy.
In late November or early December a report from Judah came to Nehemiah by a man named Hanani. He may simply be a kinsman, a fellow Jew, but he may be Nehemiah’s actual brother: in chapter 7 he’ll be second-in-command in rebuilt Jerusalem. Here he brings a report that things had not improved for Jerusalem, though the Jews had re-occupied it for many years. The people lived in poverty and disgrace. The city was still a ruin – or it may have been ruined again by opposition and official oppression during the time of Ezra.
Though he had never lived in Jerusalem, and though he couldn’t have been really surprised by the report these needs gripped Nehemiah’s heart. You know how that happens some times – you hear a prayer request or simply a news item, or a report from a family member and it just pierces you. How does Nehemiah respond? Verse 4 says that he wept, he mourned, he fasted, he prayed. All four are valid heart responses. When something deeply touches us, it’s okay to weep, it’s okay to mourn, it may be very helpful to fast.
II. The Set-time Prayer (Nehemiah 1:5-11)
Fasting would be significant in that leisurely culture: it would free several hours a day to focus on God, which is, after all, the purpose of a fast. In simplest terms, fasting should lead to prayer. Nehemiah’s heart is touched by this need and he turns the anxiety it brings into a focus on God: Verses 5 to 11: 5Then I said: "O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6let 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 house, have committed against you. 7We 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, 9but 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. 11O 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."
It’s obvious this prayer is carefully organized and thought out, the kind of prayer that might result from prayer journaling. Conversely, it’s not the kind of prayer that just happens in passing, in fifteen seconds before you go to bed or thirty seconds in your morning routine. So this prayer begins with praise and remains focused on God even as it moves into confession and petition. Verse 5: “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands.”
Like other Biblical authors, Nehemiah grounds his prayer in Scripture. “God of Heaven” is a phrase often used by Ezra, but also as early as Genesis. ‘Great and awesome God’ is from Deuteronomy. 10:17 says “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.”
“Keeping the covenant of love” is also from Deuteronomy: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.” Nehemiah does one of the greatest things we can do to turns the needs that grip our hearts from anxiety to trust: He addresses God in praise and in truth using God’s own words as the basis for his prayers.
Having recognized God as great, awesome and faithful, we can boldly enter his presence. Verse 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.” If these phrases sound a little odd to our ears, it’s only because we don’t know Scripture as well as Nehemiah did. This request is almost an exact quote of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, the prayer in which Solomon looked ahead and saw the sinfulness of God’s people and asked the Lord to hear when they repented and turned to him.
So, are your prayers weighted with Scripture? When you sit down to pray about your heart concerns, do your prayers engage you with the God who is both great and good? Our friends the Puritans were masters at this. Gail recently gave me a compilation of Puritan prayers called ‘The Valley of Vision,’ and it’s all about God’s character and addressing God in his own words.
Let me quote a Puritan pastor, Oliver Heywood: “Search the Scriptures; this is both the rule and substance of prayer: if you be mighty in the Scriptures, you will be mighty in prayer: God loves to be spoken to in his own language: study Scripture precepts and turn them into prayers. Study Scripture promises and turn them into pleas, and study Scripture patterns for imitation. . .”
But, you’ll say to me, ‘I don’t know that much Scripture. When I try to do this I come up blank.’ Well, I have an easy answer. As you take these needs before God, don’t pray with your eyes closed and your head bowed, at least not the whole time. Instead pray with your Bible open and eyes open. Pick a Psalm or prayer of Paul or words of Jesus that fit the need of your heart, and weave them into your prayer. God loves to be spoken to in His own language.
Nehemiah starts with this praise, but soon moves to God-centered confession. The end of 6: “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.” Nehemiah recognizes his own sin and takes responsibility for it. Notice that. Some would put Nehemiah on a pedestal as a human hero, but Nehemiah knows himself to be a sinner in need of grace. The hero of the story is God who rescues: Nehemiah, like you and me, is dependent on Him.
Nehemiah confesses, for himself and his people: ‘We have not obeyed.’ Even as the redeemed, we still fail daily to do what we know God wants. We fall into sin by our thoughts, our words and our actions. Like Nehemiah, we need to confess, to recognize that our own sins, whatever they are, whatever the consequences, are done against the Holy God who loves us.
Also like Nehemiah, we need to be aware of sins as a family, a church, a community, and a nation. This is not to point the finger at others, but to live in community before God, where we all take responsibility for what we do and have done, and where we all receive his un-earned compassion.
After this praise and confession, Nehemiah begins his petition - and it is weighted with Scripture. Listen again to 8 and 9: Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 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.” Nehemiah draws on several passages in Deuteronomy, in chapters 28, 30, and 12. He reminds God of his repeated promises of restoration.
Then in verse 10 he quotes Deuteronomy 9:29, the words in which Moses had pleaded for Israel on Mt. Sinai, calling God to stand by his own and fulfill the work he had so strenuously begun. In other words, like Moses, he asks God to be true to his own redemptive and rescuing character. This is a wise thing to do when praying for the needs that grip your heart.
Finally, do not fail to ask God how you can be involved in meeting this need. Verse 11: “O 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.” ‘This man’ is Artaxerxes, Nehemiah’s boss. Nehemiah is praying that he will be used by God as part of the answer to his larger prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem and her people. Some say that when you pray you’ve got to be prepared to have God use you as part of the answer.
So we’ve seen praise, confession, and petition based on Scripture. When a need grips your heart, go to your knees, or to your desk, or to your prayer closet, or to your window, and in that set time of prayer put the need in Biblical perspective: how has God dealt with needs like this in the past? How have God’s people dealt with this? Above all, where is God’s redemptive heart relative to this need? Pray after God’s own heart, his compassion and caring.
In order to turn your worry into prayers, you need focused prayer, God-centered prayer, extended prayer. Nehemiah prayed this way for months before talking to the king. To do that you’ve got to be intentional, committed and regular in your prayers that lift up these compelling concerns to God.
But if you’re like me, that kind of praying alone will not always satisfy your heart or build your relationship with God. The cries of the heart are spontaneous, they are moment by moment dependence on and love for God. Prayer is the cry of a heart in relationship to God. Nehemiah also models this well.
III. The Spontaneous Prayer (Nehemiah 2:1-5)
Chapter 2, verses 1 to 5: In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before; 2so the king asked me, "Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart." I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, "May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?" The king said to me, "What is it you want?" Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5and I answered the king, "If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it."
Nehemiah 1:1 was in the Hebrew month of Kislev, December. Nehemiah 2 occurs during Nisan, April. Nehemiah prayed and planned four months, but now he will risk an active role in seeking the answer to his prayers. Chapter 1:11’s, ‘this day’ and ‘in the presence of this man,’ imply that Nehemiah had decided he need to get the king’s attention and make the matter known.
So while Nehemiah is serving at a royal meal his face reveals – he probably allows it to reveal - the torment of his soul, and the king asks about it. Nehemiah’s response is fear: much as he’d prayed and planned, he was still frightened to bring this to the king. It may have been this same Artaxerxes who had ruled some years before against construction in Jerusalem.
So Nehemiah had every reason to fear his desire would be frustrated by his boss. Still, he answers plainly: ‘Why shouldn’t my heart be concerned when the ancient city of my people, where my fathers lie buried, is in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire.” Nehemiah lays it out, makes it so clear the king asks “What do you want?”
Now notice the next phrase, at the end of verse 4. This is why I stretched into chapter 2 this morning: “Then I prayed to the God of heaven.” Nehemiah had been praying consistently in his set times of prayer and planning for this moment. But when the moment came, he didn’t just jump to his solution, as we might have done. First he prayed, prayed to the same God he’d been addressing daily. The heart that has known God in consist Scripture study and prayer also cries out to God spontaneously, moment by moment.
What did he pray? We don’t know. Probably something simple like ‘God of heaven, help me!’ It was a short, spontaneous prayer. Those of you who hang around me know what I call ‘the prayer.’ I’ll be working on something and I’ll say to Tina or Michael ‘pray the prayer’ and they’ll say “O Lord, let this work.” Nehemiah prayed that prayer from the heart.
How much of a parallel to that is there in your own life? Do you have a spontaneous prayer life that lifts the cries of your heart to God whenever and wherever you are? Do you have a conversation going on with God at some level of your thinking, whether you are at work or commuting or at home with the kids? If prayer is the soul’s communion with God, then you and I need this conversation. We need to be people who almost instinctively take the cries and the emotions and thoughts of our hearts to God.
The Puritans encouraged all kinds of prayer. Thomas Jacomb said: “There's secret prayer, that's excellent; O for the soul to be with God alone, treating with him in private, about its everlasting concerns, spreading its particular corruptions, temptations, and burdens before him, Jacob-like wrestling with him for this and that blessing; surely this is excellent. There's public prayer, when the Saints go together in a body and offer holy violence to the kingdom of heaven; this is excellent. Family prayer comes between these: it is private, and yet in part it is public. This is excellent too.
Like Nehemiah, the Puritans weighted their prayers with Scripture and saw the need for praise and confession. Richard Baxter, a great Puritan pastor, writes: “Praising God is the work of angels and saints in heaven, and will be our own everlasting work; and if we were more in it now, we would be more like what we shall be then.” One of the Puritan writers, Michael Sparks said “besides our more special devotions at set times, we must use spontaneous prayers at all times, upon every good occasion, these being the short desires of our hearts, lifted up to God with great fervency.”
But I think Thomas Horton’s words are among the best I’ve read on prayer: “The life of our life consists in our communion with God, which we maintain not only by the set performances of prayer, morning and evening, . . .but we maintain this communion more especially by a daily and hourly and frequent and constant lifting up of our hearts to God in sighs or groans, and so clinging to him we will not let him go, or be one moment out of our sights.”
The life of our life consists in our communion with God, which we maintain not only by the set performances of prayer, morning and evening, but we maintain this communion more especially by a daily, and hourly, and frequent, and constant lifting up of our hearts to God.
When a need grips your heart, the instinctive response of a believer is to bring it to God, the Father whom they know to be both powerful and redemptive. We live in shark infested waters; there are needs all around us, and the godly response is to turn our worries into long term prayer that speaks to God in his own language and into the spontaneous cries of a heart that knows him.