COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
Neh 1:10 “Now these are Thy servants and Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed by Thy great power, and by Thy strong hand. 11 O Lord, I beseech Thee, let now Thine ear be attentive to the prayer of Thy servant, and to the prayer of Thy servants, who desire to fear Thy name: and prosper, I pray Thee, Thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king's cupbearer.” (Nehemiah 1:10-11)
In this text, the strong faith of Nehemiah rises to its peak. He is dominated by his thoughts and persuasions of God Himself. These two verses, the conclusion of Nehemiah’s prayer, contain no less than thirteen immediate references to the Lord. While the man of God is deeply concerned about the condition of Jerusalem and its walls, it has not clouded the greatness of the Lord. In spite of a heavy heart, his faith rises very high, where the Lord Himself, not the problem, becomes dominant. In this, Nehemiah sets a notable example for us all. God has not called us to solve difficulties on our own. It is true that we are kings, but we are priests as well (Rev 1:5). That means we carry out our responsibilities while in fellowship with the King of kings and Lord of lords. By “fellowship with the King of kings,” I mean everything must be seen from His perspective. That only occurs when God Himself captures our attention. Men may report deplorable conditions to us, but we dare not allow our minds to be shaped by their report alone. We must know what to do with what we hear, and how to approach matters that cause grief. I do not know that Nehemiah would have conducted himself so fervently if the palace in Shushan was in shambles, even though that is where he lived, any more than Jesus would have wept over Rome or Tarsus.
THE SERVANTS WHOM GOD REDEEMED
“Now these are Thy servants and Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed by Thy great power, and by Thy strong hand.” Here Nehemiah recognizes the people for whom he prays. He does not pray for them as friends, or merely as an oppressed people. He does not pray for them as fleshly relatives, or as fellow citizens. While such a prayer is not necessarily wrong, it is on a lower level, and cannot be buttressed with the Word of God as solidly as praying for a people with whom God has identified Himself. If it is true that Christ’s continual intercession is for those who “come unto God by Him” (Heb 7:25), then our prayers should also reflect that concern and commitment.
THY SERVANTS. Beginning with their deliverance from Egypt, God referred to the Israelites as His servants. “For unto Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 25:55). Now Nehemiah appeals to that very word. He does not call the oppressed Jews God’s servants because of their faithfulness, but because of God’s Word. He is able to associate the people with God, even though they are oppressed, their city is in shambles, and its walls broken down. He knows God chose them to be His servants, and in that capacity he prays for them.
THY PEOPLE. Nehemiah knew the Israelites could only be accounted for as a people, or nation, because of the Living God. They were appointed as His people. Thus, while yet in Egyptian bondage, God said “I have surely seen the affliction of My people” (Ex 3:7). In the name of the Lord, Pharaoh was told, “Let My people go” (Ex 5:1; 7:16; 8:1,20,21,22,23; 9:1,13,17; 10:3,4). Later, during the period of the judges, God referred to them as “Israel My people” (1 Sam 2:29), and “My people Israel” (1 Sam 9:16). The Lord said to Solomon, “And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel” (1 Kgs 6:13). When speaking to Hezekiah, the Lord referred to Israel as “My people” (2 Kgs 20:5). Even when speaking against them and chastening them for their sin and insolence He said, “Hear, O My people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God” (Psa 50:7). When they were spiritually obtuse, and did even come to Him, He referred to them as “My people” (Isa 1:3). Over 150 times the Lord refers the Israelites as “My people.”
Nehemiah knew the Word of the Lord. “For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto Himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth” (Deut 7:6). That word shaped the prayers of this man of God. Blessed is the person who can pray for the people of God while dominated by what God has said about them. He is putting God in remembrance of what He has said, a practice followed by holy men of old (Judges 6:36-37; 2 Sam 7:25; 1 Chron 17:23; Psa 27:8). The early church also added this perspective to their prayers (Acts 4:24-30). Because it is not fashionable, this approach to prayer requires a considerable amount of effort. At some point, the people of God must be more impressed with God and His Word than they are with the adverse circumstances that surround them.
THOU HAST REDEEMED. Nehemiah is praying around the year 445 B.C. However, His appeal is to an event that occurred over one thousand years earlier, in 1462 B.C. He knows God cannot be moved toward Israel by their present circumstances, for He is a God of truth. Thus Nehemiah’s faith reaches back to the time of Israel’s redemption, when the Lord “redeemed” the people for Himself. Again, he is knowledgeable of the Word of God. As soon as Israel had crossed the Red Sea, and their enemies had bee drowned, Israel sang, “Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people which Thou hast redeemed” (Ex 15:13). In his valedictory address to Israel, Moses exhorted them, “remember . . . the LORD thy God redeemed thee” (Deut 15:15). When praying for the people, David cried out to the Lord, “Remember Thy congregation, which Thou hast purchased of old; the rod of Thine inheritance, which Thou hast redeemed” (Psa 74:2). Nehemiah knew God had purchased this people, redeeming them out of the hands of their enemies.
BY THY GREAT POWER AND BY THY STRONG HAND. The redemption of Israel was not something God negotiated. He accomplished it by His “great power” and “strong hand.” He overpowered the enemy, making them release His people. Before delivering Israel, God told Moses this is what He was going to do (Ex 6:1). After delivering them, God reminded the people, “for with a strong hand hath the LORD brought thee out of Egypt” (Ex 13:9). David confessed God brought the people out of Egypt “with a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm” (Psa 136:12). Daniel also confessed the same (Dan 9:15). Nehemiah is going to ask God to make something happen. That is why he prays in this manner.
PLEADING FOR DIVINE ATTENTIVENESS
“ O Lord, I beseech Thee, let now Thine ear be attentive to the prayer of Thy servant, and to the prayer of Thy servants, who desire to fear Thy name . . . ” The worthiness of Nehemiah’s prayer can be seen in this fervent petition. He knows that God can make the heaven like brass, through which even prayers cannot penetrate (Deut 28:23). He is also aware that God can be so offended by a people that He “will not hear” their prayers (Isa 1:15). Perhaps he recalls the word of the Lord to Jeremiah over 175 years earlier. “Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to Me: for I will not hear thee” (Jer 7:16). His faith, however, presses in to the throne room, making his petition known and pleading for Divine attention.
I BESEECH THEE. This is the third time in this prayer that Nehemiah beseeches the Lord. “I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven,” verse 5 “Remember, I beseech thee,” verse 8 and “O Lord, I beseech thee.” Others who besought the Lord include Moses (Num 12:13), David (2 Sam 24:10), Hezekiah (2 Kgs 19:19), Solomon (2 Chron 6:40), Daniel (Dan 9:16), and Amos (Amos 7:2). When the man with a possessed child asked Jesus to help them, he said, “Master, I beseech thee” (Lk 9:38). Beseeching occurs when a heart dominated by faith pushes the words out of the mouth. Such prayers are not casual.
AN ATTENTIVE EAR. This is the second time in this very prayer when Nehemiah calls upon the Lord to be “attentive” (1:6). I am sure Nehemiah knew there was a sense in which God is aware of everything that is said – even in the heart. In Malachi’s day, the Lord knew of Israel’s “words” which had been “stout,” or harsh, against Him (Mal 3:13). However, Nehemiah is not asking the Lord to merely listen to what he is saying, but to weigh it, think upon it, and dwell upon it. That very plea reveals the degree of faith that Nehemiah possessed. It is most fortunate that God does not give special attentiveness to certain prayers that are offered to Him. Often prayer is attended by ignorance, selfishness, and shortsightedness. Prayer can be corrupted by men to such a degree that God says, “when ye make many prayers, I will not hear” (Isa 1:15).
Faith earnestly desires to be heard by God. Six times the Psalms record the words, “hear my prayer” (4:1; 39:12; 54:2; 84:8; 102:1; 143:1). Solomon asked God to “hear” the prayers of His people (1 Kgs 8:45,49), and Daniel did as well (Dan 9:17). Like Jacob, faith is not willing to let the matter go until a blessing is received Gen 32:26).
THE PRAYER. Just as there are certain works that excel others, so there are certain prayers that stand out because of their criticality in the Divine scheme of things. Even as there came a time when Esther’s presence before the king was more crucial than others (Esth 4:14), so there are certain prayers that actually determine the direction of the work of the Lord. Peter knew when to pray for the replacement of Judas’ bishopric (Acts 1:24-26). The prayer of the early church during its first opposition set the stage for a great outbreak of spiritual power and consideration (Acts 4:24-37). It was during a time of prayer that Barnabas and Saul were called to the work of the Lord (Acts 13:2). There are prayers that are pivotal, central, and of greater significance than others. And there are times to pray them.
Nehemiah pleads for the Lord to give heed to a particular prayer, a specific petition: “the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants.” Nehemiah and his brethren were in accord on this matter. His prayer was their prayer, and their prayer was his. During the time of the Old Covenant, such agreement did not surface often. In fact, the words “our prayer” occur only three times from Genesis through Malachi (Neh 4:9; Lam 3:44; Dan 9:13). Only Nehemiah refers to “the prayer of thy servants.” Yet, the unusualness of such prayer is no cause to think it cannot occur. Those who live by faith will, like Nehemiah and his friends, be able to agree in insightful prayer, thereby obtaining the blessing (Matt 18:19).
DESIRING TO FEAR HIS NAME. The words “desire to fear Thy name” do not indicate that the people did not really fear His name, but wanted to. Rather, the words denote the delight and uplifting that was experienced by the people when they feared the name of the Lord. Thus other versions read, “Thy servants who delight to revere Thy name” NASB/NIV/NRSV They did not fear the Lord’s name out of a sense of obligation, but because they took delight in doing so. To fear the name of the Lord is to have a high regard for His reputation and glory. In their prayers, Nehemiah and his brethren were seeking for God to be honored by the rebuilding of His city, and the strengthening of His people. They had lived with their own name being reproached, but they could not live with the name of the Lord being disdained, or His promises being viewed as vain. Thus, in their prayer, they bared their hearts, hiding nothing from the Lord.
ASKING FOR MERCY BEFORE A MAN
“ . . . and prosper, I pray Thee, Thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king's cupbearer.” The prayer of Nehemiah began in verse six. There are 238 words in this prayer. The actual request is contained in a single sentence of 18 words: “prosper, I pray Thee, Thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” For whatever it is worth, the actual request comprised 7.5% of the prayer. Perhaps many prayers are not answered because they are not preceded by strong and insightful reasoning. It is also possible for the Word of God to have such a miniscule part in our prayers that, they cannot be in accord with the truth.
Ponder what Nehemiah included in his prayer. •He pleads for God’s ear to be attentive. •He asks that God’s eyes be open. •He mentions that his prayer has been day and night. •He focuses on the children of Israel. •He confesses the sin of the people. •He acknowledges they have not been obedient. •He pleads for God to remember His promises. •He recalls how God has redeemed the people, making them His own. He was ordering His cause before the Lord, and producing his arguments (Job 23:4).
PROSPER. Here, the word “prosper” has nothing whatsoever to do with wealth or possessions. Among many, the word “prosperity” only means money and belongings. However, that is not the use of the word here. In Scripture, the more prominent meaning of “prosper” is success. Other versions read, “make Thy servant successful,” NASB and “Give your servant success.” NIV Thus the Word speaks of God prospering a way(Gen 24:40), and everything that is done (Gen 29:9). The Lord even refers to His Word prospering (Isa 55:11). Hence, Nehemiah is praying for the Lord to bless a specific endeavor of his, causing him to be successful in it. He is praying for his intentions to actually be realized.
THIS DAY. There is a general sense in which we desire for the prosperity of God’s people – that whatever they put their hand to, will be honored by God, and be successful. However, this is not the manner in which Nehemiah now prays. He does not pray for a lengthy project at this point, but for something he will do “today.” Faith can benefit from the past. It can project into the future. But it also works “today.”
MERCY IN THE KING’S SIGHT. Right here we gain some insight into the manner of the Kingdom, and how faith approaches a matter. Nehemiah’s faith is in God, yet he is going to set out to do something about the deteriorated condition of Jerusalem and its walls. He knows “Except the LORD build the house, they labor in vain that build” (Prov 127:1). However, for him, that does not mean there is no place for men to engage in noble initiatives. He is also going to take his case before king Artaxerxes. It does not take it to the king first, but neither does he leave the king out of the matter. This is an aspect of working together with God that is too often unknown among professing believers. They use their knowledge of the power of God as an excuse for not having an initiative themselves.
Because Nehemiah knows the “king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will” (Prov 21:1), he calls upon the Lord to determine how the king will respond to him. In order to confirm he realizes the king can do nothing of himself, he refers to him as “this man.” He asks the Lord to cause his presence before the king to be a favorable one, unattended by any skepticism or irritation. Other versions read, “Put it into his heart to be kind to me,” NLT and “granting him favor in the presence of this man.” NIB Jacob sought this precise blessing when sending his sons back to Egypt, not knowing the ruler was his own son Joseph: “And God Almighty give you mercy before the man” (Gen 43:10). Scripture records how God stirred up the Persian king Cyrus to so His work (Ezra 1:1; 7:6,27,28). Here is an area of Divine working we must know.
Many a timorous soul never reckons on God being able to give them favor in the sight of those social superiors with whom they deal. If God can make our enemies be at peace with us (Prov 16:7), He can surely give us special favor before those with whom we have to do. This understanding adds weight to our prayers.
I suggest that it is noble to consider how those touching our lives can be used to further the work of the Lord. Nehemiah reasoned on this wise, and we do well to do the same. Paul, after being rejected by his own countrymen, also experienced this kind of consideration from a Roman centurion named Julius (Acts 27:1-3).
THE CUPBEARER. Nehemiah is not going to barge into the presence of the king. Like Esther, he knows such a thing is foolish. He will rather use his position, as Esther did, to make an appeal. The “cupbearer,” or “butler” (Gen 40:20) was there to assure no poison was mingled in the king’s drink. It was trusted position, and here Nehemiah sanctifed it.