COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
Neh 1:5 “And said, I beseech Thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love Him and observe His commandments: 6 Let Thine ear now be attentive, and Thine eyes open, that Thou mayest hear the prayer of Thy servant, which I pray before Thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel Thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against Thee: both I and my father's house have sinned.” (Nehemiah 1:5-6)
One of the significant means of acquainting us with the nature of God and the manner of His Kingdom is the prayer of the saints. These prayers are placed in Scripture by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and are designed to familiarize us with the way great men of God have approached Him, and why there prayers were answered. The prayers of such saints as Abraham, Moses, Hannah, Samuel, Elisha, Hezekiah, Isaiah, Ezra, Daniel, Jonah, the Apostles, and the Lord Jesus Himself, are written for our learning. Our text introduces one of the prayers of Nehemiah. It was prayed during a time of difficulty, when the people of God were oppressed and the city of God was in shambles. It will acquaint us with how faith reacts under such circumstances, and show us one of the secrets of perseverance under stress. This prayer is seven verses long (1:5-11). It contains no less than 38 immediate references to God Himself, mentioning His residence, nature, covenant, mercy, commandments, ear, eyes, statutes, judgments, Name, servants, people, redemption, power, and strong hand. It is apparent that effective prayer is dominated by an acute consciousness of who the Lord is, what He has done, and what He has purposed. Nehemiah’s prayer is offered in crisis, but it is not driven by crisis. He prays because He is acquainted with the Lord, His covenant, His promises, and His ,merciful disposition.
“And said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love Him and observe His commandments.” According to the text, this is not a one-time prayer. Nehemiah said he “sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” NKJV (v 4). Perhaps this is a summation of his supplications. What is noteworthy is the manner in which he prays. It is a sterling example of ordering our cause before the Lord, and filling our mouth with arguments (Job 23:4). God once said through Isaiah, “Put Me in remembrance; let us argue our case together, State your cause, that you may be proved right” NASB (Isa 43:26). Again He said, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isa 1:18). Here is an area of prayer in which we can become more proficient, and in which a greater degree of fellowship with the Lord can be experienced.
I BESEECH THEE. The word “beseech” is an urgent one, and carries not a hint of casualness. Literally, the word means “oh now,” or “I pray now.” These words are driven by faith, and are fed by a fervent desire for immediate Divine intervention. These words were used in prayer by Moses (Ex 33:18), David (2 Sam 24:10), Hezekiah (2 Kgs 19:19), Daniel (Dan 9:16), and Amos (Amos 7:2). They denote a sense or urgency, and absolute dependency upon the Lord. In them acknowledgment is made that no other help is available. No one can pray effectively who does not pray with a sense or urgency and utter reliance upon the Lord.
LORD GOD OF HEAVEN. The “God of heaven” is referred to no less than twenty-four times in Scripture. It is an acknowledgment that “the heavens do rule” (Dan 4:26), with the earth and all circumstances in it being administered by God. The phrase carries the idea of the petitioner being lifted out of the quagmire of trouble into more lofty realms, where trouble does not exist, and nothing is “too hard for the Lord” (Gen 18:14). Effective prayer is wrapped with a keen sense of where God resides, as well as who He is.
GREAT AND TERRIBLE GOD. Other versions read, “great and awesome God,” NKJV “the great God, greatly to be feared,” BBE and “the great and awe-inspiring God.” NJB The word “great” speaks of the magnitude and superiority of the Lord. He outshines all with whom He is compared, and, when properly perceived, overshadows all circumstances and personalities. “The Lord is great” shouted the Psalmist (Psa 96:4; 99:2; 135:5), thereby confessing the smallness and insignificance of everything and everyone opposed to Him.
The word “terrible” signifies to make afraid, or produce reverence. It is a term that denotes the drying up of all human resources , and the removal of all trust in self, when the Lord is seen. No one has ever perceived the slightest degree of Divine glory without being smitten with sobriety, fear, and helplessness. “The LORD most high is terrible,” or “awesome,” NKJV or “to be feared” NASB (Psa 47:2). The word “awesome” has become fashionable in religion today, but it is not always accompanied with “godly fear” (Heb 12:28) and a resolve to speak properly and with proper words in the presence of the Lord. When God’s Person consciously confronts our person, natural strength withers, and flesh becomes abhorrent and contemptible.
KEEPS COVENANT. Nehemiah acknowledges this Divine quality: He who “cannot lie” keeps His covenant! Moses said of the Lord, “the LORD thy God, He is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love Him and keepHis commandments to a thousand generations” (Deut 7:9) – the very words used by Nehemiah. Solomon also referred to God as keeping covenant (1 Kgs 8:23). When referring to the promise, or covenant, that God made with Abraham, the Spirit declared, “Wherein God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath” (Heb 6:17). Nehemiah focuses upon the Lord’s commitment to Abraham, and bases his plea upon God’s faithfulness to that promise. He knew God did not “change” (Mal 3:6). When we pray with God’s covenant and promises in mind, it has a way of shaping what we say.
KEEPS MERCY FOR. When God revealed His glory to Moses, He presented Himself as One who is “keeping mercy for thousands” (Ex 34:7). Keeping His covenant and reserving mercy is something belonging to those who “love Him and keep His commandments.” God’s nature has not changed. Those who keep His commandments are the ones who truly love Him (1 John 5:3). Such are dwelling in Him, and He in them (1 John 3:24). For such, there are great reserves of Divine tender mercies and lovingkindness. When life brings sorrow and heartache to them, God will bring mercy to them. It is reserved, or kept, for them. Ordinarily, men think of mercy for those who have sinned. Here it is presented as for those who “love Him and keep His commandments.” It is never vain to focus your attention upon the Living God!
PLEADING WITH THE LORD
“ Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night.” It is one thing to pray. It is quite another for prayer to be honored by the Lord. Such honor, or response, is not to be taken for granted. Faith is willing to plead with God, to continue wrestling, as it were, until the blessing is received.
AN ATTENTIVE EAR. Of course, this is not intended to suggest that God has a form, or body, for “God is a Spirit” (John 4:24). This way of speaking personalizes God, viewing Him as possessing the capability and inclination to listen to the petitions of fallen men. Solomon referred to this as God having “respect” unto prayer, and “hearkening” or responding, to it (1 Kgs 8:28-29). He also asked that God’s “ears be attentive” to the prayers offered in the Temple (2 Chron 6:40). Of the righteous, the Psalmist declared, “His ears are open unto their cry” (Psa 34:15). Yet, He did not take that fact for granted. Thus he prayed, “Lord, hear my voice: let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications” (Psa 130:2). Likewise, Daniel prayed, “hear the prayer of Thy servant, and his supplications . . . incline Thine ear, and hear” (Dan 9:17-18). Faith pleads for God to do what He has declared. That does not make sense to flesh, but is perfectly reasonable to those who believe. When God’s ear is attentive, He considers the words that are spoken, and the heart that pushes them.
OPEN EYES. Here Nehemiah pleads with God to look upon their situation – to behold it in accordance with both His covenant and His mercy. The eyes of the Lord are upon the haughty, to bring them down (2 Sam 23:28). But they do not pray for God to look upon them, seeking rather to hide from Him. The righteous, on the other hand, appeal earnestly for the Lord
to look upon them, causing His face to shine upon them (Psa 67:1).
“The eyes of the Lord” refer to God focusing His attention upon someone – as when “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen 6:8). “The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous” (Psa 34:15), looking for an opportunity to bless them, guide them, and deliver them. Yet, the people of God are not to take this Divine interest for granted, supposing that the goodness of God is given to us by determination. It rather comes to us through fellowship, or involvement with the Lord. Nehemiah is praying in the aftermath of the Babylonian captivity. He is beseeching the Lord after hearing of the miserable state in which the people of God existed, and the horrible condition of “the holy city.” Those conditions seemed to belie the revealed inclination of God to behold His people and hear their cries. Nehemiah, had he been driven by unbelief, might very well have reasoned that God had broken His promise, or no longer was inclined to His people. He might have responded to the circumstances by becoming “angry with God,” something that has become fashionable in our day. But that is not what he did. Rather, he made a strong appeal to the nature of God, rising above the circumstances in a fervent quest for mercy.
HEARING PRAYER. God hears prayer when His eyes are focused upon the one praying, and when His ears are listening with merciful intent to what is being said. While there is a sense in which God hears all prayers, Nehemiah refers to the Divine inclination to favorably respond to the prayers. Seven times in Solomon’s dedicatory prayer for the Temple, He said, “hear Thou in heaven” (1 Kgs 8:30,32,34,36,39,43,45). Repeatedly, David supplicated, “hear my prayer” (Psa 4:1; Psa 39:12; 54:2, etc.). John reminded us, “And if we know that He hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of Him” (1 John 5:15). Nehemiah is not asking that God simply listen to what he is saying, but that his prayer be honored and answered. It was in this sense that David referred to the Lord as “You who hear prayer” NKJV (Psa 65:2).
PRAYING DAY AND NIGHT. Nehemiah devoted himself both day and night to raising this prayer up to God. Such fervency in prayer was found in others, like Samuel, who cried out to God all night (1 Sam 15:11), and David, who cried day and night unto the Lord (Psa 88:1). Jesus spoke of God as avenging His own elect, though they “cry day and night unto Him” (Lk 18:7). There are some matters that are so weighty they cannot be satisfied with a single supplication. There are thorns about which repeated prayer must be made (2 Cor 12:8). On the night of His betrayal, Jesus prayed three times, using the “same words” (Matt 26:44). The notion that repeated prayers are evidence of unbelief is foolish. Such prayers are rather the evidence of faith, and are so depicted in Scripture. Such prayers are thought out, driven by faith, and fueled by hope. Such prayer is like Jacob wrestling until he received the blessing (Gen 32:26). It is like Moses praying for forty days and nights that God would not destroy Israel (Deut 9:25). Oh, that such prayers were more frequent!
THE ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF SIN
“ . . . for the children of Israel Thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against Thee: both I and my father's house have sinned.” One of the traits of godly men and women is that they do not live for themselves. Nehemiah is not praying for himself. He is an official in the king’s palace, and things are going well for him, as men count things. It is not news about his immediate family that had moved him to such boldness and tenacity in prayer. It was not a threat of being removed from his position that constrained such spiritual nobility. Rather, it was the news of the people of God, located in another place, and with whom he had no contact. Blessed is the person who lives close enough to God to be touched by difficult news concerning those who wear His name. Such a quality is rare, but indispensable to the survival of the elect.
FOR THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL. Nehemiah pleads for Israel like Moses did (Ex 32:11-12). He prays for the covenanted people like Solomon did (1 Kgs 8:30-38). Like Samuel, he sees intercession for the people as essential, and failing to do so as a sin (1 Sam 12:23). He has strong desires for them like the Apostle Paul (Rom 10:1). He prays because he associates these people with the name of the Lord, and with the covenant He made with Abraham. Unlike many sophists of our day, Nehemiah knows the name of the Lord is at stake in His dealings with Israel. Like Moses, he knew others would hear, and draw wrong conclusions about the God of heaven (Ex 32:12). Hear how Moses reasoned with the Lord. “Then the Egyptians shall hear it . . . then the nations which have heard the fame of Thee will speak, saying, Because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land which He sware unto them, therefore He hath slain them in the wilderness” (Num 14:13-16). That is the kind of mind-set that dominates Nehemiah. He is not driven by sentimentality, but by the persuasion of God’s covenant with this people. They have been justly punished in the Babylonian captivity. Now, God will be honored by granting mercy to them.
CONFESSING SINS. In order for the blessing of God to be realized, sin must be acknowledged. Thus God said through Jeremiah, “Only acknowledge thine iniquity, that thou hast transgressed against the LORD thy God, and hast scattered thy ways to the strangers under every green tree, and ye have not obeyed my voice, saith the LORD” (Jer 3:13). There are, however, times when the people are so beaten down, that another must stand in the gap for them. In fact, God looks for such an individual (Ezek 22:30). Once, through Isaiah, God said “He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor” (Isa 59:16). On another occasion, the Lord urged Jeremiah, “Run ye to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and seek in the broad places thereof, if ye can find a man, if there be any that executeth judgment, that seeketh the truth; and I will pardon it” (Jer 5:1).
It is God’s manner to receive the prayers of a righteous person in the behalf of those who are not. Thus He spared Israel because of Moses’ prayer (Ex 32:14), Lot because of Abraham’s prayer (Gen 18:23-32), Abimelech and his wife because of Abraham’s prayer (Gen 20:17), and Israel for the sake of Samuel’s prayer (1 Sam 7:5-13). This circumstance also is declared under the New Covenant. “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life” (1 John 5:16).
Holy men have not recoiled from acknowledging the sins of those with whom they were identified. Although himself a godly man, Ezra acknowledged, “I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens” (Ezra 9:6). Daniel, against whom not a single sin is recorded, prayed, “We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments” (Dan 9:5,8,11,15). Isaiah prayed in the same manner: “behold, Thou art wroth; for we have sinned” (Isa 64:5). Jeremiah did the same: “We lie down in our shame, and our confusion covereth us: for we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even unto this day, and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God” (Jer 3:25).
An effective intercessor identifies with those for whom he intercedes. He raises his prayer in the behalf of the afflicted. This is the very spirit of Jesus, who identified with the people for whom He died. Isaiah declared this to be a Divine quality: “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them: in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He bare them, and carried them all the days of old” (Isa 63:9). Thus, Nehemiah reveals his own faith, taking up the case of an oppressed people who seemed to be unable to pray for themselves. Blessed is the person who is keen enough to recognize such opportunities, and is willing to stand in the gap and plead for the people.