The Good and the Bad of Models

“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.

Attentive to the Word

“The ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” Nehemiah 8:3

Most events in Israel’s history have no direct implication to Christians today but there are certainly aspects from those events that give us understanding in approaching God and walking with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Israel had been in exile for seventy years and the return had been progressive under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah. The temple and worship had been restored and the walls of Jerusalem made sound. It is fitting that the Lord should mark the occasion. Israel was returning to obedience.

As we read the first twelve verses of Nehemiah chapter eight we cannot miss that there is a supernatural motivation in the hearts of the people. They all came together in the open to hear the Word of God read and its understanding given. This would have taken several hours. They were motivated by a desire to please God.

Ezra the scribe (v 4) and priest (v 9) and those who stood with him read the Law and gave the understanding to the people. The people stood for the reading of the Word. As the understanding was given the bowed their heads in worship of the Lord and they mourned and wept over the nation’s sin. The accompanying confession of sin and repentance was a time to “rejoice greatly” (v 12). Their mourning was turned to joy after confession and repentance.

Truly this was a joyous moment in heaven as Israel’s worship of the Lord returned to Jerusalem after an absence of seventy years. It didn’t go unnoticed by the ungodly around the city.

As commendable as standing for the reading of God’s Word may be in our time, without the appropriate heart attitude it will not turn to confession, repentance and worship unless we have allowed the Lord to prepare our hearts before we arrive. This He does by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God as we read, meditate and study it and pray.

When Christians are led by the Spirit to come together for the reading and to be given the understanding of the Word of God there will be confession of sin and repentance from the outward performance to genuine heart worship and obedience. This too will be a joyous moment and it will not go unnoticed by the unbelieving world around us.

Falling Short of the Glory

“So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” Nehemiah 1:4

What would it take for us to have similar concerns for the work, witness and ministry of the Gospel as Nehemiah had for Jerusalem? He wept, mourned, fasted and prayed many days.

Is it possible for Christians today to so have such a heart for the Lord Jesus Christ and His mission to lost people that they weep and mourn over sin and fast and pray for their salvation?

This passage possibly may raise more questions than it gives answers. Certainly we can follow Nehemiah’s process which includes worship, humble repentance, confession, reference to God’s Word and an appeal based on that Word, but it does not provide answers to the matter of the heart. Perhaps the only hint is in verse 11 where he prays, “… your servants who desire to fear your name …”

We cannot artificially manufacture this kind of care for the lost. It will come from Christ in us by the Holy Spirit. He will not provide this for us unless we seek it persistently in faith with genuine desire.

Nehemiah’s passion was for the walls and city of Jerusalem. This may seem trivial in our society but Jerusalem was the centre of Israel’s worship of the Lord, the place of the temple and the Covenant promises. In its fallen state it was a reproach on the Lord and His people giving the surrounding peoples cause to mock and despise the Living God (1:3; 2:17).

The same may be said concerning the fruitless state of the church in our day. Surely the ‘walls’ and the ‘city’ of God are in ruins and we go on as if all is well. It can only be because we are deceived or blind. Why are we not weeping and mourning for the unsaved and why do we not fast and pray for their salvation?

Until we do we cannot lay even a little claim to being obedient to the commandments that Jesus said were the greatest: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).