Praying Through the Bible project
Introduction to the Prayers in Nehemiah
As the book of Ezra focused on rebuilding the Temple and learning to be faithful, so the book of Nehemiah focuses on rebuilding the walls of the city and learning to be faithful. These themes are also found in the prayers, and provide an excellent study for our own prayers when we seek renewal of our faith.
The person of Nehemiah, along with Ezra, are two of the greatest men in Israelite history. They were key figures in bringing the Jews back from Exile and creating a new community after the destruction of the Temple.
There are 17 prayer passages in the book of Nehemiah.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were one book but were separated into two during the third century AD by the theologians Origen and Jerome.
There is some debate about the dates of Ezra and Nehemiah’s work, though most think Nehemiah came to work under Artaxerxes I.
One interesting and unusual aspect of Nehemiah is the passages that are in first person—Nehemiah himself speaking to us. Some of the passages are his verbatim prayers.
Nehemiah was the cupbearer to Artaxerxes I of Persia. He received a report that the exiles in Jerusalem were having difficulties and that the wall protecting the city was in bad repair. He asked the king if he could go to rebuild the city and its walls. The king agreed, and sent him along with letters to the officials there, describing his task and permission to use timber from the forests.
Once there, he began working to rebuild the wall and rebuff many of the surrounding enemies who had been troubling the people.
Nehemiah then encouraged more people to come to the city. He also helped Ezra with purifying the faith and insisting the Temple and the people remain faithful to the practices and laws of the Jews.
He was governor for twelve years, then returned to the king services for a time. When he went back to Jerusalem, he found they had fallen back into their old ways, and he once again purified the temple and the priesthood, reinforcing observance of the laws.
The book of Nehemiah focuses more on the political and social problems than Ezra, but the theological dimensions are connected, of course.
“Remembrance” is a major theme, and found in four of the prayers (5.19; 13.14, 22, 31). The request is for God to remember all Nehemiah has done, but this theme also flows into passages and prayers, where the people are to remember what God has done for them (both in the past and present).
A follower of God is to have a certain “identity:” people should be able to tell a difference between people who follow God and those who do not. Since much of Nehemiah is concerned with faithfulness and living properly before God, much of it (and its prayers) stress the characteristics that God’s people should have. They (and we) are God’s people, who he has saved and redeemed. Therefore, we should live like it.
Connected to the theme of identity is the theme of loyalty to God. The book notes the many times the Israelites have been unfaithful to God, despite all of his love and care (and punishments). The book and its prayers offer a call to remain loyal in all circumstances.
Confidence is also a strong theme of the book. Both Ezra and Nehemiah believedÂ fully in God and what he called them to do, and they do not give up. Rebuilding the wall was difficult—constant attacks from outsiders and insiders were frequent. Yet Nehemiah never gave up, urging the people on in the name of God.Â
The last important theme is one that many of us in the modern world don’t like: rules for living. Modern western culture prefers a more free and open approach to life, with each individual deciding for themselves—no one should tell us what to do! But the message of Nehemiah is that God can tell us what to do—not only because he created us, but because he knows the best way for us to live.
There are 17 prayers in Nehemiah, ranging from mere mentions of prayer to a lengthy section of praises, thanksgivings, and petitions in chapter 9. That prayer (offered by priests, singers, and a long one by Nehemiah) exemplifies all the prayers found in the book.
The focus of the book is rebuilding, protecting, and renewing the people of God. As such, it focuses on confession and repentance for past unfaithfulness, petitions for God to protect them and lead them, vows and curses to hold all accountable, and praises and thanksgivings for the second chance that God has given the people of Israel.
The prayers then stand as excellent examples of prayers when we seek forgiveness, spiritual renewal, and help from God for us to be faithful and devoted.
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