“When I heard these words, I sat down and wept, and mourned many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” Nehemiah 1:4
There are many prayers in the Bible from which we can learn much. They can be extremely valuable if taken correctly but dangerous if abused. The danger is that we develop a formula based on the words and actions of the one who prayed and expect that the Lord will respond or answer in like manner for us simply because we have followed the model. This is little more than superstitious ritualistic paganism. That it is based on a prayer in the Bible makes no difference.
In this prayer of Nehemiah’s we have worship (v 5), humility (v 6), confession (v 7), reference to God’s covenant (vv 8, 9) and appeal for mercy based on repentance (vv 10, 11). Surely that is a formula worth emulating?
All these elements are extremely important in prayer but the most critical element is missing. The most critical element is that which is quoted in verse four above and it isn’t the fasting and praying. The most critical element is the weeping and mourning over the state of the Lord’s name in the earth. In verse three we read, “The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.”
The report that came to Nehemiah was that the name of the Lord was dishonoured in all the world. The state of the people of God, the city of God and the Temple of God was cause for the nations to scorn the one true God and consider Him weak and powerless. This is what stirred Nehemiah to be so grief stricken in his heart. It is what caused many days of weeping and mourning and it is this aspect that is missing in so many prayers in our time.
A prayer formula can be artificially followed but a broken heart over the state of the name of the Lord in the minds of men cannot be generated artificially. It either exists or it does not. Only the Holy Spirit can generate such a heart and He can only begin to do so when we have a greater care for the name of the Lord than for our own name.
Our prayers will reveal what we think of God. It may be that we think of Him as little more than a Father Christmas, a wishing well, a medical doctor or a limitless overdraft on our bank account. This pattern of prayer may reveal that we are not concerned with His name but with our name and well being.
Nehemiah did not sit down and work out a magic prayer formula that would guarantee he got his wish. Because he truly walked with the Lord and his heart was in tune with the Lord this news report so moved him that he could think on nothing else. It is out of his broken heart for the state of the name of the Lord in Israel and before the world that his weeping, mourning, fasting and prayer come.
Was it the Puritans who prayed for the “gift of tears?” Maybe we would do well to follow their example. The Lord first looks on the heart before He hears our words.