Nehemiah is known for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. But the walls weren't built just with stones and morter. They were built with constant prayers. What Stephen reminds us in this message, as he takes us through this study of Nehemiah's life and ministry, is that prayer provides the building blocks for faith. If you want to take a stand for God . . . you have to stay on your knees!
The Prayer Path . . . Step One
We’ve discovered thus far in the Book of Nehemiah a man who deeply wanted the maximum attention of God. He wept profusely, he fasted only because he had lost his appetite for food; he mourned as one mourned over the death of loved ones, and he prayed a lamenting prayer for four months..
He was a man who was deeply burdened over the condition of broken people.
The burden of Nehemiah should become our burden as well as we seek to represent glory of God in restoring a fallen, broken world.
Nehemiah’s burden is best defined with three components that sort of fill out a complete picture of what a godly burden looks like:
A godly burden is:
- an overwhelming concern with some aspect of human distress or sin.
I got a call from an attorney in our church a few days ago who said, “Stephen, after studying Nehemiah’s distress and burden over broken people, God convicted me. I’ve always been interested in helping Indians on one particular Indians reservation in North Dakota – took a cross country trip some time ago and visited – couldn’t believe the poverty – the spiritual need – the brokeness – do you think God may want me to spend time on that reservation helping, serving and in whatever way possible communicating the Gospel?
A godly burden interrupts life. Rarely, if ever, is it convenient – in fact, it’s most often discomforting.
Secondly, a godly burden includes:
- An irresistible conviction that God has an available remedy.
Third, a godly burden surrenders with:
- An unreserved compliance that God use me to deliver the remedy.
When you gain the attention of God you share the anguish of God over a fallen world. Jesus Christ wept over Jerusalem.
A godly burden has a way of disrupting your life.
The average Christian is burdened about nothing because it will cost him something.
For Nehemiah, his burden will cost him everything.
He seems to know it will.
And so he prays, “Let Thine ear be attentive and Thine eyes open to hear the prayer of They servant…” (v. 6)
Does he think that God isn’t always listening? Does Nehemiah think that God’s eyes aren’t always open – that He’s somehow absent minded about His universe? Again in verse 11 “O Lord I beseech Thee, (v. 11) may Thine ear be attentive to the prayer of Thy servant…"
What’s happening is that Nehemiah doesn’t want to take another step until he knows that he has the maximum attention of God. Maximum attention that could be described as that intimacy and communion and fellowship with God that God will reward with courage and strength and resources necessary to restore some part of a broken world.
Before any man or woman can walk the path of a restorer and rebuilder, he or she must first, like Nehemiah, travel the path to God, in prayer.
The secret to service is discovered in secret. What made Nehemiah successful in public before mankind was that he was successful in private with God.
Chapter 1 is the public record of Nehemiah’s private life. This is what he prayed in secret.
For the purpose of our study, I want us to view the prayer of Nehemiah as if it were a path to God. Four stepping stones along this path gained for this believer, and every believer since, the maximum attention of God.
The first step along the Prayer path is a clear priority of Sovereignty
Notice how Nehemiah’s prayer begins in verse 5. “I beseech Thee, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God.”
Prayer that gets past the living room ceiling is prayer that recognizes first and foremost that God is the sovereign and man is the servant. Proper praying places God on His throne and mankind at His feet.
You see, prayer is not us having our way with God, it is God having His way with us. Prayer isn’t us manipulating and controlling Him, it’s God manipulating and controlling us. Prayer is not when we pressure God, it’s when God pressures us. And if you really don’t want the pressure, whatever you do, don’t pray.
Donald Grey Barnhouse once shocked his congregation by beginning a sermon on prayer by saying these words, “Prayer changes nothing.” You could have heard a pin drop. His comment, of course, was designed to make Christians think about the sovereignty of God. That God is seated in the heavens, that nothing ever surprises Him or falls outside of His control. God cannot be bribed, cajoled, convinced, or impressed to change. That which is recorded in scripture where God seemed to change His mind was actually part of His sovereign plan. He is unchangeable. I would add to Barnhouse’s statement to say, Prayer changes nothing of God, and everything of us.
And until you’re ready to pray, not so that you can change God, but so that God can change you, you are note yet ready to really pray.
Nehemiah began, “O Lord God of heaven.”
By the way, the Lord Jesus taught his disciples to pray after the same model – the prayer He taught His disciples in Matthew chapter 6 verse 9 began with the words, “Our Father who art in heaven.”
Nehemiah prayed, “O Lord God of heaven.” It is the same priority of sovereignty that introduces the prayer of an Old Testament believer and a New Testament believer. The phrase, “who art in heaven; or, “O Lord God of heaven” is not so much a reference to God’s address as it is to His attributes. “In the heavens” refers to His elevation above all creation. He is transcendent, above, majestic, sovereign. Although we happen to come boldly to this heavenly Father, we acknowledge He is a holy Father who is righteous in all His ways.
That’s what David meant when he composed Psalm 99: (we read it a few moments ago together) “The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble. He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake…Exalt the Lord our God and worship at His footstool, Holy is He.”
This has a way of reshaping the way you pray because it reshapes your view of God.
This is the living God who told Job that He thundered with His voice; He wore the clothing of dignity and eminence, honor and majesty; He commanded the morning and made the dawn to know it’s place; He laid the foundations of the earth and created its measurements: He entered the currents of the sea and walked the recesses of the deep ocean; This is the Sovereign God who knows where the light lives and the way of the east wind; He is the one who has created the purposes of floods and thunderbolts, ice and hail. He leads forth the constellations – He determines the orbits of planets. He counts the clouds and tips the water jars of heaven. He has created the animals with their instincts; He is the one who has spread the heavens like a mirror. He is the one exalted in power and surrounded by majesty.
Try praying to this One. This God is not a genie who will give you three wishes if you rub hard enough upon the lamp of prayer; He is not a doting grandfather with lollipops in His pockets; He is not, as one man called Him, “a gumball machine” and if you insert your prayer quarter you will get some candy.
This One is seated in the heavens; this One is both loving and terrifying; He is both gracious and holy; He is merciful and at the same time merciless;
As you pray, picture Him high and lifted up upon His great and majestic throne, with angels hovering about Him chanting continuously, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” How can you picture that – how can you describe Him - Nehemiah could only say in that next phrase, ‘…the great and awesome God.’ That’s the best he could do.
J.I.Packer wrote that Nehemiah “…had grasped the greatness of God.” J.I.Packer A Passion For Faithfulness p. 39
This kind of perspective leads to this kind of priority of God’s ownership and ruler-ship – I want to go on to say that a confession of God’s sovereignty always leads to and always involves a confession of sin.
In fact, this is the second step along the path of prayer. And Nehemiah takes this step.
Not only does gaining God’s maximum attention require the priority of sovereignty it also includes:
A contrite acknowledgement of sin.
One of the reasons we tolerate sin in our lives is because we do not understand the priority of God’s sovereignty and ownership over our lives.
Isaiah saw a vision of God’s glory and he immediately confessed, “I am a man of unclean lips and I live in the midst of unclean people” (Isaiah 6:5)
Paul progressed in his own spiritual walk with Christ, and near the end of his life he remarked “I am the chief of sinners.” (I Timothy 1:15)
A person who doesn’t have a clear priority of God’s sovereignty will never pray with a clear understanding of his own sin. Thus the path of prayer is cut short of all it’s rich benefits.
Nehemiah in verse 6 prays, “Let Thine ear now be attentive and Thine eyes open to hear the prayer of Thy servant which I am praying before Thee now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Thy servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against Thee; I and my father’s house have sinned. (notice the pronouns – “I” and “we”)
He doesn’t say, “Oh Lord, let me tell you what they’ve done; man did my forefather’s mess everything up.”
No! I and my father’s house have sinned. Perhaps for the first time, Nehemiah was struck by the fact that he wasn’t supposed to be in the Susa, he was supposed to be in Jerusalem. He refers to the covenant in verse 5 and then elaborates on it in verses 8 and 9. He calls God by His covenant keeping name – Yahweh. The covenant with Yahweh he refers to is the Palestinian covenant. . .we’ll deal with that later.
But for now, he begins to confess with a full understanding that he wasn’t where he was supposed to stay. He didn’t belong in the palace, he belonged in Palestine.
(6b.) “I and my father’s house have sinned.”
You want the maximum attention of God? Can you say and do you say, “Oh God I have sinned.”
You notice he didn’t say, “Lord, I’ve made a few mistakes recently . . . I really flubbed up today . . . you know me and my indiscretion . . . you probably heard me tell that little white lie; you know how flexible my expense reports are . . . and I suppose you saw my little episode of righteous indignation. Lord, you know how I am . . .”
God doesn’t forgive excuses – He forgives sin.
And don’t just stop with the word “sin” – if you have trouble saying that little word – notice what Nehemiah goes on to say: v. 7 “We have acted very corruptly against Thee and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which Thou didst command Thy servant Moses.
We’re guilty of sin, of corruption, of disobedience, of breaking the law. Did he leave anything out?!
The people who know how to gain the maximum attention of God are people who know they are sinners. And there are no loopholes in their prayers.
David wrote in his prayer of confession in Psalm 51 “The sacrifices of God . . . (that is, the sacrifice that really gets God’s attention) are a broken and a contrite heart.”
Broken hearted people are used by God to restore a broken world. Why? Because they’ve have come to see His greatness and they’ve come to admit their guilt.
They’ve caught a fresh glimpse of His sovereignty and their own sin. And they’ve admitted to both – they’ve submitted to the consequences of both sovereignty and sin. We don’t usually pray like this.
But the Bible promises to those who do, “If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
My wife came home from the grocery store several months ago with the kind of beef hotdogs, or Franks, we like to eat. No fillers, no by-products – no artificial colors – no added flavors. This way you know that you’re not eating something collected off of 10/10.
Marsha brought home this brand called Hebrew National kosher Beef Franks. As we were eating some of those Kosher dogs, she read to the children the statement on the back of the package that she had noticed in the store. Immediately after she read it I said, “That would make a great sermon illustration somewhere down the line – can I keep the package.” She’s used to this strange behavior and gave it to me. I’ve kept it now for several months in this plastic baggie so that it wouldn’t give my file drawer and my study an unusual smell.
Listen to what this company believes: On the front of the package it reads, “Hebrew National” and underneath is the by line which reads, “We answer to a higher authority.” Then on the back they have a paragraph that reads, “You’ve heard the word KOSHER, but did you know that it literally means ‘fit to eat?’ Hebrew National must follow strict Biblical dietary laws, use only certain cuts of kosher beef, and meet the highest standards for quality. For over 95 years, our commitment to manufacturing products of only the highest quality means that artificial by-products are simply not allowed. Kosher also stands for quality and goodness, and that’s why we believe our franks taste so superior. Hebrew National answers to a higher authority – so that you can enjoy the best.”
Isn’t that great?! Imagine a company so convinced that they answer to a higher authority, it completely governs the way they make hot dogs.
Oh if only every Christian lived as if stamped upon his hands and his feet and his heart the words, “I answer to a higher authority.” I am accountable to a Higher being. And when I go to Him in prayer, I don’t tell Him anything, I answer to Him for everything.
“We answer to a higher authority!” What a great motto for the Christian life.
For those here willing to adopt that as your standard for living, you are well on your way to gaining the maximum attention of God.
And you’re ready to take the next step in this path of prayer.