This week, as I finished up Nehemiah, I noted that the thing that separates this book's narrative is the author stopping nine times to pray during it. In looking those nine times over, the prayers separated themselves into three sets of three. And I think we can learn from each one about how to pray in certain situations.
The first group, let's call them the hotline to God. And I do that because they were three prayers that, unlike the others, didn't ask God to keep something in mind, but to act. And that group leads off right at the beginning, in Chapter 1, v5. And it is the longest, for good reason. The situation: Nehemiah had asked a friend about the conditions in Jerusalem (this was just prior to Ezra's rebuilding of the walls), and the report wasn't good. Nehemiah knew the conditions there were a result of Israel's past sins against God. Therefore, it started with a detailed confession of sin. Then he shifted into a prayer of repentance for the people, and finished by asking God to remember His promise to bring the people home if they repented. I think this is important that this is where we need to focus our opening prayers. Looking through our lives at our sin, and confessing it, and repenting of it, is the first thing to do when our situation sucks.
The second was exactly the opposite. This was in 2:4 when he faced King Artaxerxes, wishing to take leave of the court to help his people in Jerusalem. When the moment came to pitch his cause, he paused "to pray to the God of Heaven". We are not told what this prayer was; however, it must have been just a reach out from the heart to God, for the whole thing happened between Artaxerxes asking what was bumming him and his answer- and I doubt he had a lot of time to bow down and formally pray at this point. We learn from this that, in case of immediate need, God requires no more than a deep-seated reflection on our part. Sorry, any of y'all that use the "I didn't have time to pray" excuse. See, he prayed the long prayer in anticipation of going to the king- in anticipation of the troubles ahead- so that when push came to shove, all he had to do is think back and remember the time he had already spent on his knees.
The third of this set occurs in 6:9, when his enemies were trying to weaken his resolve. This too, was a simple prayer, for strength. Nothing elaborate, no long pleas. Just a simple request. And that is all we need at that moment of weakness; remembering, though, that that strength is a "foot in the door", and we should use the reprieve to avail ourselves of God's mercy and strength.
Which is a nice segue into the second set, a set in which Nehemiah consistently asked God to remember his good deeds. I heard a pastor not long ago mention how some people take these prayers as a "salvation through works" excuse, but that this is not what Nehemiah is doing. The first of these occurs in 5:19. The people are poor, they have been taxed heavily in the past and but a ton of work in on the walls. they are about tapped out. But as Governor, Nehemiah has the right to expect lavish treatment, tons of feasting that was described as the "governor's provision." Nehemiah, though, recognizes the state of the people, and refuses to put a greater burden on them. In this prayer, he asks God to remember him "for good, for all I have done for the people". He's not looking at his works winning him salvation; he's putting off the reward that COULD be his in this life, in anticipation of the reward he expects in the next. This is a huge concept, not so much materially as attitudinally; the whole idea of "doing your job as if for the Lord" is based on this very idea- not being upset over the rewards you don't get in this life, but keeping on content that the real reward is yet to come.
The second of this set is in 13:14, where Nehemiah, having completed the Temple project, now looks around and sees all is not well- and it's people who know better causing the problems. The leaders of the people have not been supporting the Levites with tithes- and they have been forced to abandon the Temple and work fields in order to survive. In the meantime, the leaders have been enriching themselves, even renting Public Enemy #2 Tobiah to live in an apartment IN the Temple. He takes them to task, reinstating the tithe, straightening the Temple, and applying foot to the butt of Tobiah. His prayer after all this was to remember his zeal for the Temple, and not to "wipe out his good" from the ledger. The point here is not to look at it as 'God might be forgetful', but the motivation- that God should be glorified through worship. Where the first focuses on the reward of the future, the second focuses on the worship in the present.
The third was his explosion over the city being open for business on the Sabbath. Had the Levites been on the job, closing the gates at Sabbath sundown, this wouldn't have been going on. So after a little judicious threatening of the merchants there to tempt the city, he assigned the Levites to make sure the Sabbath was kept. His prayer after that was to "remember my good and spare me for the greatness of Your Mercy". The Hallmarks of prayer are worship and obedience, and this is the second of those. So in sum Nehemiah teaches us to focus on worship, obedience, and keeping the final reward in mind.
The final set involved a trio of "remember THEM" moments, the 'them' in question being the enemies of God and the people. The first was in 4:5, where Tobias and big buddy Sanballat (Public Enemy #1) basically made fun of their work toward rebuilding the walls. "Why a fox could jump on it, and the whole thing would come down," they said. And they'll say it to you- you don't do enough, it makes no difference, etc. But remember, when they mock the work you do FOR God, they aren't mocking you, they're mocking God. And Nehemiah's prayer focused on that; he asked that God remember them for provoking Him. And where Nehemiah asked to not have his reward wiped out because of his worship, he asks that their deeds here not be wiped out, as they were the opposite of worship.
Second in this set comes at 6:14, where they tried to trick Nehemiah into a murder trap, or at least get him to lose heart and flee from the front lines into the Temple to cower. And here he had another simple prayer: "remember them for their works".
Finally, they had gained an inroad into the priestly ranks by tempting them into marriages with foreign women. Nehemiah knew that this seduction was the most damaging; even Solomon, as wise as he was, fell into this trap. But the crime that upset Nehemiah wasn't the sexual part of it, but that they had allowed the priesthood to be defiled. This, then was the opposite of obedience.
In all three sets we can see, if we look hard enough, a single thread. That thread is Worship, Obedience, and the works that come from them. We learn to focus on worship, which starts with confession and repentance- and beware of those who seek to weaken our worship. We learn to seek after obedience- that starts in worship and being aware of what God requires- and not to be seduced by the world out of it. And we learn that works flow from the first two- requiring us to go to God for the strength to do the work- and not fall for the lies of "you can't do it."