Praying Like Nehemiah

September 28, 2023 | Melissa Riggs

I sat across from someone I loved as they expressed their sadness and rage, and in that moment, I prayed silently, “Lord, give me the words to say.” They weren’t words of panic like a silent SOS, though I have certainly prayed many of those in my lifetime. These words were quick but focused, calling on the God I have spoken to about this exact situation many times. I had been praying for months for wisdom and comfort, and for Him to move in a very difficult situation. In that brief moment of prayer, I was inviting Him to work in and through me…and even despite me. This prayer was one of dependence and invitation in an unanticipated moment.

These last few weeks I have been reading and studying the book of Ezra, and this morning I continued the narrative in Nehemiah. I read chapter one and the beginning of chapter two, and I stopped short at verse four. I have always loved this verse and already had it highlighted in my Bible app, but this time it struck me differently. Nehemiah 2:4 says, “Then the king asked me, ‘What is your request?’ So I prayed to the God of the heavens...”

To back up and give a little bit of context to the story, Nehemiah is serving as cupbearer for the king in Susa. One day, about thirteen years after Ezra returned to Jerusalem, Nehemiah’s brother Hanani arrives with a report about the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem. Nehemiah is so saddened by this devastating news; he weeps and fasts. He also prays, and his prayer is recorded for us in chapter one. It includes acknowledgement of God’s goodness, confession of personal and corporate sin, a request for God to remember His promises, and a plea for favor with the king.

The beginning of chapter two goes on to tell us about how, one day, the king notices Nehemiah is sad and asks him why. This is a big deal because being in the royal court required a cheerful countenance, and the sadness could have been problematic for Nehemiah. This king, Artaxerxes, was the same king who had stopped the rebuilding in Jerusalem years earlier, and he was to be feared. But here is what I had not noticed before: This encounter with the king took place a long time after the prayer in chapter one. Both chapters tell us the month in which they happened, and it turns out they took place about four months apart! Knowing how devastated Nehemiah is in chapter one and the fact that he can’t hide his sadness four months later, we can be safe to assume that he prayed continuously during that time. He submitted to God, pleaded with Him, honored Him, confessed to Him, and asked for favor, most likely over and over.

Another thing I noticed this time around is that Nehemiah didn’t rush right away to ask the king for his request. He waited on God’s good timing, and when it came unexpectedly, he did what came naturally: He prayed. How many times have I tried to force my timing on something God has laid on my heart? For especially difficult situations like this one, it may take some time for God to prepare us through prayer.

I have always loved that the Bible records the fact that Nehemiah threw up a silent prayer before facing a challenging moment, but I now realize how his prayer was the mark of a man who prayed without ceasing. It was the natural thing for him to do because he did it all the time. It was also the invitation of a heart made ready by months of prayer. When the right moment presented itself (one that he did not force with his own timing or agenda), Nehemiah didn’t shrink back or panic. He gathered his strength in the form of a short, silent prayer, and he stepped into the moment boldly.

When we are given moments of opportunity, will our first thought be to pray? If it is, will it be a panicked, “God, help!” or will it be a calm and peaceful invitation made ready by the many prayers that preceded it?