Notice the news that inspired his prayer: “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire” (Nehemiah 1:3). It’s been more than a century since Cyrus decreed that the Jews could return and rebuild Jerusalem, and a large part of the city is still in ruins and without defense. Although the group that left with Zerubbabel finished the construction of the temple and the group that came with Ezra was confirmed in Moses’ Law, Jerusalem remained physically vulnerable to attack and in shameful ruins.
Part of the reason for this state of affairs is their enemies’ success in preventing the rebuilding of the city. We’ve read previously a letter written to Artaxerxes, the reigning king during the book of Nehemiah: “Be it known to the king that the Jews who came up from you to us have gone to Jerusalem. They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. Now be it known to the king that if this city is rebuilt and the walls
finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be impaired” (Ezra 4:12-13). With Artaxerxes' response, the neighboring enemies forcibly stopped the construction of the walls, (Ezra 4:23).
Nehemiah was impacted by the news and presents his request, not to Artaxerxes like his enemies had done, but before the God who has authority even over Artaxerxes: “I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4). His description of Yahweh in Nehemiah 1:5 echoes His revelation to Moses in Exodus 34:5-7 when the latter pleaded for mercy after the idolatry of the golden calf at Mount Sinai. Through this reference and his reference to the covenant, Nehemiah places this new petition firmly in the tradition of Moses’ intercession, here asking Yahweh to forgive the people for their more recent
Just as in Ezra’s confession of sin in our previous reading, Nehemiah identifies himself with the sins of his people: “Hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses” (Nehemiah 1:6-7).
How does Nehemiah dare to seek forgiveness for his people when they deserve Yahweh’s just wrath for their sins? He quotes from Yahweh’s covenant, a
summary of Deuteronomy 30:1-5: “Remember the word that you commanded your
servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there’” (Nehemiah 1:8-9). He rests in the security of Yahweh’s past mercies, specifically in the redemption from slavery in Egypt, for the certainty that He will visit His people in mercy again: “They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand” (Nehemiah
He closes his prayer with his most immediate request: “Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man” (Nehemiah 1:11).
“This man” is Artaxerxes, the most feared and powerful king in all the earth, a king with dominion over numerous cities and peoples; but before Yahweh, he is simply “this man”. In a few months, Yahweh responds to Nehemiah’s request through Artaxerxes, and after a century of ruin, the walls of Jerusalem will be rebuilt in a relatively short time.
The prayer of a righteous person has great power (James 5:16).