Although Nehemiah was far away and the status of the project was discouraging, he was not content with mediocrity. His courage and desire for God’s glory ultimately drove him to his knees. The secret to Nehemiah’s leadership and courage was his dependence on prayer. The first chapter’s prayer has four components.
Nehemiah addresses God with many titles (“Lord God of heaven,” “the great and terrible God,” the One “that keepeth covenant and mercy”). These titles contextualize the greatness of God for us, and the smallness of our own problems.
Throughout the prayer, the second-person pronouns “you/thee,” “your/thy,” etc. overshadow the first-person pronouns “I,” “we,” and “my.” The prayer is theocentric (God-centered), not anthropocentric (or “pray-er-centric”) In fact, the only time Nehemiah uses the first person is in confessing sins.
Sin is a barrier to God (Isa. 59:1, 2). Nehemiah makes sure that his sins and all of Israel’s sins are forgiven. Though Jesus will not arrive for hundreds of years, his faith stands upon this future contingency.
As evidenced by Nehemiah’s prayer, confession can be general as well as specific. Interestingly, he places himself in the category of sinning against God. He could have been confessing his sins of indifference, personal disregard of God’s commandments, or perhaps ignoring the call to return to Jerusalem and remaining in the courts of Susa. Regardless, Nehemiah seeks pure motives and identifies personally with the corporate sin of Israel. This act of a godly leader taking on the spiritual liability of the people is found also in other Bible greats.
Believing that God would be faithful to His Word, Nehemiah repeats to God what He stated in the past (1:8). Jesus did likewise, quoting the Old Testament during His temptations. With assurance in God’s faithfulness, one can be bold with God Himself regarding His promises.
In chapter 1:8, 9, Nehemiah summarizes the blessings and curses of the promises found in Deuteronomy 30 and Leviticus 26. Though these seem incompatible with modern sensibilities, it is clear that obedience is the basis for God’s blessings. Paul later emphasizes that it is Christ’s obedience that became the basis for God’s promises of blessing and that “in Him” we can partake in the same blessings while enjoying the removal of the curses. Whether looking forward as did Nehemiah or as we today look backward, the point is to look toward Christ as the Promise-keeper.
Through prayer, priorities are reestablished and a purpose forms in Nehemiah’s heart. He realizes that God has sent him to the palace for this purpose. Through prayer, Nehemiah understood his role as cupbearer to the King and a vision to meet the need started to form in his mind.
The Medes and Persians had a very high view for law—once passed, it was impossible to change (Dan. 6:15). With laws that prevented the restoration of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:17–24), reconstruction seemed impossible. However, rather than focusing on impossibilities, Nehemiah looked to God for answers. Nehemiah prayed for days (1:4) until something happened. It was four months before he received an answer (from Chisleu (December/January) to Nisan (April/May) in chapter 2:1).