The book of Nehemiah records two lengthy prayers: first, the private prayer in Chapter 1:4-11; second, Nehemiah Chapter 9 is substantially a long prayer of repentance where the people of God prayed a prayer of confession. Such a long prayer by the people in which they recount the hand of God at work in the life of Israel across the generations is remarkable. The prayer of Chapter 9 seems to allude to the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms, which call for God’s judgment upon the enemy (Ps 69; 83; 137; 139). One is admonished to offer a prayer like that of Nehemiah to plead for God to bring justice to the unjust world.
From Nehemiah Chapter 8:9 one is reminded that the people were commanded not “to mourn and weep” during the festival of booths, yet the people wept and confessed their sins. It was the Levities who read from the book of the law (4), and what they carried out loudly was appetency, the utterance of confession. The Rabbis understood the loud cry of weeping as confessions for “idolatrous practices that are said to have caused the destruction of the sanctuary, the burning of the temple, the murder of the righteous, and the Babylonian exile.” The chapter records eight names of Levites, given in both verses (4, 5)—Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, and Sherebiah.” This prayer shares a common trait with other two penitential prayers in Ezra 9, and Daniel 9 in which confession of sins was offered by both the individual and the group of people.
The prayer begins with the Creator God, who preserves everything (Neh 9:6). It focuses on first, the Creator; second, on protecting lives; third, on the promise keeper. Nehemiah used the term “Creator God” which was a common way of addressing God after the exile. Thirty-four of the thirty-eight verses in Chapter 9 record this unique prayer.
The Rabbinic Literature divides the day into two parts based on Chapter 9 of Nehemiah: the first part, when one should study the weekly portions of the Torah and the haftarah, and the second, when one should confess one’s sins to God.
From Verses 6-37 is a communal confession where it focuses on, first, Abraham, who came out of Ur, based on Genesis 12 (7-8); second, the exodus experience from Egypt (9-12); third, the giving of the Torah at Sinai (13-14); fourth, God’s compassion despite the continued transgression of Israel (16-21); fifth, the conquest and the settlement of Israel (22-25); sixth, the repeated transgression of Israel based on Judges and Kings’ account. The main theme is the forgiveness and forbearance that Nehemiah is invoking as paradigmatic for his situation (26-31. Seventh, the returnees confess their prayers (32-37). Thus, the confession episode includes the whole history of Israel.
In short, Nehemiah was the embodiment of what Christians refer to as a “Prayer Warrior.” It is sad to say that prayer is a very neglected area in the life of the believer today. It is considered the weakest member of the body of truth. Because this facet is weak, it has created a deficiency in every vital organ in the life of the believer. Lack of prayer has shaken the foundation of the Christian life, and eroded one of the strongest pillars of faith. It is an index of the Christian’s spiritual life; most of the troubles, challenges, and dearth that man face can be traced to the poverty of the prayer life of Christ’s followers. Prayer, as seen in Nehemiah’s life, is more an attitude than an action of the lips.
In the state of Georgia, there was once a famous preacher who uttered: “When a man prays for a corn crop, God expects him to say ‘Amen’ with a hoe.” Prayer accompanied by work is what the book of Nehemiah teaches, and what the Lord admonishes us to do.
I like the words of E. M. Bounds, who penned these great words about prayer:
Prayer has to do with the entire man. Prayer takes in. . . . his whole being, mind, soul, body. It takes the whole of man to pray, and prayer affects the whole of man in its gracious results. As the whole nature of man enters into prayer, so also all that belongs to man is the beneficiary of prayer. . . The men of olden times who wrought well in prayer, who brought the largest things to pass, who moved God to do great things, were those who were entirely given over to God in their praying.
As I have studied this week’s lesson, especially as I have read Nehemiah Chapter 9, it energized me to pray as Nehemiah and his people devoted themselves to prayer. Prayer is an essential aspect in the person’s private life, and it is vital in the communal life of the church. Prayer, communication between God and us; it involves the whole person. John Bunyan said, “In prayer, it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart” “Prayer is the voice of faith” according to Martin Luther. M. K. Gandhi penned these words when said, “Prayer needs no speech.” Oswald Chamber once remarked, “Prayer does not equip us for the Greater Work. Prayer is the Greater Work.” Avinash Singh uttered these nice words when said: “Prayer is words of human and acts of Divine.”
Notes & References:
Adele Berline and Marc Zvi Brettler, ed. The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1693.
 “The Levites” [Neh 9:4] Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (SDABC), rev. ed., ed. Francis D. Nichol (Washington, DC: Review & Herald, 1976-1980), 3: 430.
Saint Mary, Breakthrough!: The Bible for Young Catholics : Good News Translation (Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press, 2006), 593.
Haftarah is a “selection from the prophetic books of the Bible chosen to accompany and complement the Torah portion on Shabbath, holidays, and fast days.” [Lainie Blum Cogan and Judy Weiss, Teaching Haftarah: Background, Insights, & Strategies (Millburn, NJ: Behrman House, 2002), xiii].
J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible: Genesis through Revelation (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1984), 220.
E. M. Bounds, The Complete Works of E. M. Bounds on Prayer: Experience the Wonders of God Through Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 5.
Avinash Singh, All about Prayer: From Basic Aspect to Higher Aspect (New Delhi, India: ISPCK, 2008), 43.
Youssry Guirguis currently serves as a full-time Lecturer at Asia-Pacific International University (AIU), Muak Lek, Thailand and also as an adjunct professor at the Adventist Institute for Islamic & Arabic Studies at Middle East University (MEU), Beirut, Lebanon.
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