Nehemiah 1 has some very important lessons for us to learn how to pray more effectively and biblically.
Time-bound and fallen creature that I naturally am, I often forget the spiritual and eternal element of reality. That’s why the things that fill my prayers are so regularly absent from the prayers of Apostle Paul—and why the things that fill his prayers are so regularly absent from mine. He has his eyes fixed on eternity. His prayers are spiritual. We need to make ours so, too.
To do that, I want to erase the two words that shut most of our prayers down. Here they are:
If you were to record my prayers, I have a sad suspicion you’d hear a lot of “be with”: “Dear Lord, I pray you will be with Tom as he goes to work, and be with Mary also, who’s having her wisdom teeth removed on Tuesday, and be with… and be with… and be with… and be with us all. Amen.” This is unimaginative. It’s limited. It’s certainly not spiritually ambitious, like Paul is. And it is, I think, unnecessary. Jesus said, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28 v 20). He’s promised to be with Tom and with Mary. It’s a bit of a waste to make the sum total of my prayer for them the request that Jesus would do what he already said he’d do, and has already started doing.
Nehemiah 1 Shows Us How to Pray
Search the Scriptures, and you won’t find a prayer recorded that just asks God to “be with” his people. The prayers of the saints have far more weighty, far more spiritual concerns. Go to Nehemiah. In the opening section of Nehemiah, word comes to him in exile, working as the cupbearer of the Persian king, telling him that the walls of God’s city, Jerusalem, are broken down and the gates are burned with fire. It is a complete fiasco up there. Nehemiah is brokenhearted by this; he decides that he will seek to do something about it. But, of course, he knows the truths we saw in the previous chapter of this book, and so…
As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said…” (Nehemiah 1 v 4-5)
O Lord God, please be with all the people in Jerusalem…
No, he doesn’t say that!