God-Soaked World Bible Guide – Day 13
March 18, 2017
Saturday, March 18 – Nehemiah 1:1-11
1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, 2 one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. 3 They replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”
4 When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. 5 I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. 7 We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses. 8 Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; 9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.’ 10 They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!”
At the time, I was cupbearer to the king.
Points of Interest:
- In our last narrative from the Old Testament, we fast forward to the fifth century B.C. Both Israel to the north and Judah to the south have been routed by neighboring superpowers to the North and East. Nehemiah is the descendant of one of the many families who were taken into exile in the sixth century when Judah was destroyed by Babylon. Now Nehemiah is a court official in the ascendant global power of Persia, where he serves in the government of the famous king Artaxerxes.
- One day Nehemiah hears the ancient equivalent of a news report. Friends and relatives visit him from the homeland to which he has never been. They tell him how awful the conditions are there. A broken down wall in this time guarantees a city’s vulnerability and poverty and also symbolizes national shame. Nehemiah lets himself be affected by this news – he weeps.
- Nehemiah directs his sadness toward spiritual practice. He fasts, and he prays. Fasting and prayer aren’t antidotes to grief or need. They’re next steps. Fasting gives us a way to embody and focus the hunger and need we feel inside. And prayer is what to do when we fast – it’s telling God our sadness and what we yearn for God to do.
- We’re allowed to vent and blame God and say whatever we want when we pray. We’ll see that next week. But in this case, Nehemiah takes partial responsibility for his culture’s ruin. “I and my family have sinned,” he says. He empathizes with the plight of his larger people group and takes a place of humble solidarity with their spiritual condition and physical need.
- We see in Nehemiah’s prayer, as in so many other prayers of the Bible, Nehemiah reminding God of God’s promises as Nehemiah understands them. Learning God’s promises and reminding God of them seems like an especially recommended form of prayer.
- We don’t see where in Nehemiah’s prayer that he gains a sense of direction. Perhaps he comes into it as he’s praying. But by the end of the prayer, his abstract request has become quite particular. Based on a personal reaction to news he heard, he’s asking God to provide the right moment to talk to his very powerful boss about this and asking God to help that conversation go well.
- In the next chapter, Nehemiah repeats this prayer really quickly when the king asks him how he is doing, and Nehemiah realizes the moment has arrived. From the favorable conversation Nehemiah has with the king of Persia, Nehemiah’s life and the fate of his nation change forever. But that’s a story for another day.
Taking It Home:
- Spiritual Exercise – What personal or public situation is causing you greatest sadness? If you’re not sure, take a moment to ask yourself. If you’re not fasting already for the 40 Days in some way, ask God if it would give direction to your sadness for you to fast and pray. If you’re fasting already, pray about this sadness however your prayers lead you. In your prayers, consider Nehemiah’s example. Take spiritual solidarity with others in pain, remind God of any relevant promise of God’s you know. And see if anything else comes to mind for you to pray or do today.
- Prayer for your world – Think of a group of people that you in some way identify with but who are suffering. Perhaps you live in the same city or nation. Perhaps your ancestors were related or you have other cultural ties to this place. Ask God to carry the burden of this people and place’s suffering today.