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“Nehemiah’s Tutorial on Prayer”

Pentecost 8 – July 25th and 26th, 2009
Nehemiah 1:1-11

If you have ever purchased a computer program, then you know what a tutorial is. Just about every software
program these days comes with a tutorial, a book or a CD with a set of lessons and instructions that teach the
consumer how to use the program. Tutorials are really nice, especially if the program is very complex in nature,
because not only can it provide simple and basic instruction about getting around in the program, but the tutorial
can also equip the user with knowledge to help them make use of some very powerful tools within the program.
Today, we are going to spend some time getting a refresher course, a tutorial, on prayer. Prayer is the means
that God has established so that believers can communicate with him, and therefore is a very powerful tool, one that
is not to be misused or taken for granted. Now, in the Bible, there are several notable and memorable prayers that
are intended to give us insight and instruction, like the prayer of Jonah from the belly of the great sea creature in
Jonah chapter 2, the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and of course, the prayer that ultimately sets the
perfect standard for all prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, which we pray every single week in our worship.
The prayer of Nehemiah is probably one that is unfamiliar to you, maybe so unfamiliar that you may have
never even seen it before, which is why I have chosen it as one of God’s Old Testament gospel gems – indeed a
diamond in the rough. But, even though it isn’t well-known, we will certainly learn some very valuable lessons for
our own prayer life, lessons that will help us make use of that very powerful communication tool that God has given
to us. Today, as a student in God’s classroom, we are going to be tutored in prayer. And Nehemiah’s tutorial has
three lessons. Lesson #1 – Approach regularly with hearts of repentance. Lesson #2 – Appeal meticulously to God’s
faithfulness. And Lesson #3 – Ask confidently for God’s blessings.

I. Approach regularly with hearts of repentance

Lesson #1 – Approach regularly with hearts of repentance. I’m sure you’ve heard people say before, “(Such
and such an activity) is not a right, it’s a privilege.” Parents say that their young teenage drivers all the time,
“Driving is not a right, it’s a privilege.” When people say those things, what they are really saying is this: Don’t get
a sense of entitlement about this activity, that you are entitled to do it simply because you exist. It is a privilege to
(say) drive a vehicle, to have a driver’s license, a privilege is often revoked, either by parents or by the court system,
when the privilege is abused.
Think of that powerful tool of prayer under those same terms: It is not a right, it is a privilege and therefore
we should not get a sense of entitlement when it comes to our prayer life – that we deserve the right to pray simply
because we exist – that we deserve to have an audience with the creator of the universe. Prayer is not a right, it’s a
privilege. Please listen to the first part of Nehemiah’s prayer and on the basis of what is read to you, answer this
question – does he have a sense of entitlement to approach God in prayer, or does he consider it an honor and
privilege to be able to speak to his Lord and master? Listen to verses 5-7:
“5 Then I said: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those
who love him and obey his commands, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is
praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and
my father’s house, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the
commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.”
Does Nehemiah exhibit a sense of entitlement? Surely not! He approaches God in a much different way,
with a repentant heart, unworthy on his own merit to stand before God or inquire of his mercy. Nehemiah was part
of the Israelite nation who was in exile in Babylon because they, as a nation, had embraced the worship of false gods,
mocked the True God with their sinful and guiltless lifestyles, spit on him and his decrees by engaging in all kinds
of revelry and literally crowded the True God out of their lives altogether. The Israelites had become such an
embarrassment that God removed them from the land he had promised them and sent them off into captivity in a
foreign land, Persia, most of them never to return.
We see in Nehemiah’s words, that there is an obvious recognition not only of how sinful the Israelites were,
but also on the basis of their disobedience how unworthy they were to engage in the privilege of prayer, to have an
audience with God. At the same time, though, Nehemiah in his prayer boldly looks to God for forgiveness, as the
one who is faithful to his “covenant of love,” who forgives sinners not on their merits, but through the merits of the
promised Messiah, the Savior who was to come, and who would rescue sinners from the captivity of sin and the exile
of hell through his atoning sacrifice. And there, you have the two parts of repentance which are exhibited in the
prayer of Nehemiah by which he approaches God in prayer: recognition of and sorrow over sin, and trust that God
has forgiven sin through his Messiah.
That’s precisely the way that we are to approach our God in prayer – with a heart of repentance. On our
own merits, because of our sin, understand that we are not worthy to stand in God’s presence and have an audience
with him. The privilege to communicate with God through prayer is one that is granted only to the righteous, to
the holy and the innocent – not to sinners. Still, our God, as a God of grace, has provided the means by which we
are made innocent in his sight, through the merits and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By his wounds on the cross, our
sins were removed, they were crucified with Christ, and as a result, we were made holy and righteous, and innocent
in his sight. And all who look to Jesus in faith, trusting in his atoning sacrifice for forgiveness and salvation, are able
to stand before God clothed in Christ’s righteousness and are able to enjoy the privilege of having communication
with God through prayer, not as a subjugated slave, but as a family member made holy by the blood of Christ. And
as we look at the great price that was paid so that the line of communication between God and man would be re-
established, and see what a great privilege it is to pray, we will most certainly “pray constantly” as Paul says to the
Thessalonian congregation.

II. Appeal meticulously to God’s faithfulness

So, that’s lesson #1 – Approach regularly with a heart of repentance, not viewing prayer as a right given to
every person because they exist, but understanding that it is a privilege given to those who are clothed with
righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. The second lesson in Nehemiah’s prayer tutorial is that when we pray,
we look to God’s faithfulness in the past for confidence that he will deal faithfully and perfectly with us in the
future. Listen now to verses 8 and 9:
“Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among
the nations, 9 but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I
will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’
I’ve heard it said a number of times by psychologists that the best predictor of future behavior is past
behavior. Most often that statement in a negative context, where there is the possibility of substance abuse or when
a husband or wife is cheating on their spouse. But in this context, in Nehemiah’s prayer, the confidence to come
before God and ask him some very specific things comes from knowing how God had been faithful to his promises
in the past.
Nehemiah was a student of Scripture. By the spiritual knowledge the Holy Spirit had given to him through
his Word, Nehemiah was able to look into the past and see all the ways that God had been faithful in the past as
reason to believe that God would continue to fulfill his promises in the future. God said that if the Israelites sinned
against him and worshiped other gods, he would exile them, scattering them among the nations. And that’s exactly
what happened! But he also promised that if they turned back to him, that he would bring the faithful back to the
land of promise, and he did that too!
Even with God, the predictor of future behavior can be determined by his past behavior. When God
promises, he has always fulfilled! And in the Scriptures, we have a rock-solid record of how faithful our God has
been to his promises. How faithful our covenant God was in directing the course of human history, even bringing
back the exiles from Babylon at just the right time so that Jerusalem and the rest of the holy land of Israel would be
ready for the coming Messiah, Jesus. How faithful he was in offering his only begotten Son, the Lamb of God, as
the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, yours and mine.
When we pray, we can appeal to God’s faithfulness as evidence that he will continue to deal with us
according to his gracious will in the future. And in order to make that appeal, we need to be meticulous students of
Scripture, firmly grounded, as Nehemiah was, in the promises of God so that, especially in the worst of times, we
can look to the way that God dealt with mankind through his Son Jesus as evidence of how loving and caring and
compassionate he will be towards us in the future.

III. Ask confidently for God’s blessings

So, that’s lesson #2 – appeal meticulously to God’s faithfulness, being students of Scripture so that we can
look to the way God has acted in the past as evidence of how he will interact with us in the future, by grace. The
final lesson of this prayer tutorial is rather obvious, based upon what we have learned already – that when we pray
we can do so in confidence. Listen to the last couple of verses:
“They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. 11 O
Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering
your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”
When we pray, we can do so with the same level of confidence as Nehemiah. Because God has given us a
gracious audience with him, and we can speak to him not as slaves, but as members of his family, we can ask for
whatever we need, whenever we need it, we can pray for whatever reason, wherever we choose, and with whatever
words, and we can be confident that he will hear our prayers, listen carefully to them and consider them as a father
considers the requests of his children.
Now, one thing to remember is that sometimes children will ask for things that they probably shouldn’t ask
for. In their immaturity, often children forget that when they ask for something, what they ask for might not be
what’s best for them. Sometimes we do that too in our prayer life. People pray to win the lottery (or for large sums
of money)! People pray for fame and celebrity! Please understand, God certainly has the power to grant every single
request that we present to him, but he is not obligated to grant every request as we present it if it is not in our best
interest! God is not a genie! He is our loving and kind and wise heavenly Father.
When we pray, take a lesson from Nehemiah, who prayed that God would direct King Artaxerxes to allow
him to go to Jerusalem to rebuild it for the Jewish people, a request that was granted. When we pray, pray with
confidence, the confidence of a child that knows that our heavenly Father has the power to grant every request, will
hear us and will consider every petition, but also pray with the maturity of a seasoned disciple of Christ, praying not
“my will be done” but always “Thy will be done.”
There you have it – Nehemiah’s 3-lesson tutorial on prayer – Approach God with a repentant heart,
knowing that prayer is not a right given to everyone, it is a privilege given to those whose trust for forgiveness and
salvation is in Jesus Christ. Appeal to God’s faithfulness, being students of Scripture so that we can see evidence of
God’s faithfulness in the past as a reason to trust him in the future. And ask God with confidence – praying with
the trust of a child, but also with the maturity of a student of Scripture, who understands that God’s ultimate plan
for us extends beyond this world into eternity. There you go! 3 lessons on prayer! Now go and make us of that
most powerful communication tool for which the Lord has graciously equipped you! Amen.