Praying Through the Bible project

Pray Continually and Do Your Job
(Neh 6.9, 14)

But now, O God, strengthen my hands.

Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.

What does a “life of prayer” mean? What does Paul mean when he wrote “pray continually”? Nehemiah’s story presents an excellent example of one way to use prayer in our lives.

Background

Nehemiah’s project is close to being finished. The wall is complete except for installing the gates. His adversaries, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem had failed to stop him. But they aren’t finished.

First, they send word for Nehemiah to come and meet them. But he knows they intend to harm him, so he refused. Three more times they ask, but he tells them he is too busy. Finally, they tell him that there are rumors that Nehemiah plans on rebelling once the wall is finished, and that he will set himself up as king. Nehemiah responds that he knows they are making up this story. The first prayer above into his story—“But now, O God, strengthen my hands.”

Their next ploy is to get him to enter the Temple, even into the holy of holies, under the guise of protection because his enemies want to kill him. But Nehemiah realized it was a set-up so they could accuse him of breaking the law by entering the Temple as a non-priest. He then inserts a second prayer into the story, asking God to remember what they all did.

Meaning

The first story is clear enough—a seemingly innocent invitation to meet, which, outside the city and his people, they could capture or even kill him. Nehemiah’s response is to call them out on their deceit, but then to ask God to keep him strong.

However, there is a problem here that invites us to do a little deeper digging into the Hebrew text underlying the translation. The words “O God” are not there.1 Literally, the phrase reads, “And now my hands are strengthened.” These attempts are making him resolve even more to finish the wall. Why the translators wanted to make this a prayer is unclear.

The second story is more complex, involving a prophetess, a secret ally of Nehemiah’s enemies, and the rule that only the priests could enter the center of the Temple (and only the High Priest into the Holy of Holies). Their plan is to tell him that a prophetess had a word from God that Nehemiah would be killed; therefore he should escape to the Temple to hide. Whether the plan was to kill him there, when he was alone in the Temple, or to put him in a bad light with the priests because he entered the Temple, is not clear.

Their story does not fool Nehemiah (and he has not seemed the type to run and hide). Once again, he refuses to go, and then offerers the second prayer above, asking God to remember those who plotted against him and his work. Note that this is another of the “Remember” prayers in Nehemiah.2 Rather than taking things into his own hands, he leaves it to God—so he can get back to work on his calling to rebuild the wall.

Application

There are two things in this prayer that we can apply to our own prayers. First, note how, as Nehemiah tells his story, he inserts prayers here and there (even though the first one is not a prayer, he does this in other places). We should seek to have a life of prayer that is in frequent communication with God—not only in formal situations where we “take time to pray,” but also just in the course of our day, like we might speak to a constant companion. This is probably what Paul meant when he wrote, “pray continually” in 1 Thessalonians 5.17.

The second lesson is the more difficult. Anyone who seeks to do God’s will in life will encounter obstacles. It may not be people trying to harm you, but it could come in the form of blocking your actions, access, or processes. To stop you from doing the work you are called to do. Maybe you are ostracized from a certain group. Or it might come in the form of ridicule and belittlement. The reaction of Nehemiah is sound: ignore to the best of your ability, get back to work, and ask God to take care of them. We need not spend time fighting or worrying about those who work against God’s plans.

If Nehemiah can do this in the face of physical danger, surely we can do so in the face of less.

 


  1. So many translations add something like this. “O God” (NRSV, ASV, KJV, ESV); “I prayed” (NIV, NCV, The Message). The New Living Translation, however, has “So I continued to work with even greater determination.”
  2. See also 5.19; 13:14, 22, 29, 31.

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