The prayer of Nehemiah.

And the need to seek God’s will in our prayer requests.

Back in the ’00s, the prayer of Jabez got a bit of attention with a popular book. Which was quickly followed up by other writers, covetous of The Prayer of Jabez’s success, whose books probably didn’t sell as well for that reason: Books on the Lord’s Prayer and the Jesus Prayer and other tricks to successful prayer.

The only real trick is remembering God can’t be reduced to formulas, and that he has every right to say no. These books don’t necessarily teach this fact. Instead, the idea is if we pray like Jabez, God’ll expand our territory. Pray the Jesus Prayer and receive peace. Pray the St. Christopher prayer and kids get protection; pray the St. Jude prayer and get a yes to your hopeless cause; pray the rosary and get special protection; do X and now God owes us Y.

Doesn’t work like that. And to help that idea sink in a little, I remind you of the Prayer of Nehemiah, offered by Nekhémya bar Khakálya right after he heard what a mess Jerusalem still was.

Nehemiah 1.5-11 KWL
5 I said, “Please LORD, God of heaven, great God,
scary covenant-keeper, lover of those who love you and keep your commands:
6 May your ear now be attentive, your eyes open, to hear your slave’s prayer,
which I pray to your face daily and nightly over Israel’s descendants, your slaves:
I confess the sins Israel’s descendants sinned against you. I and my father’s house sinned.
7 We hurt, hurt you, and didn’t keep the commands, decrees, and rulings you sent your slave Moses.
8 Now remember the word you sent your slave Moses, saying,
When you trespass, I’ll scatter you among the nations.
9 Return to me, keep my commands, do them, and if you’re exiled to the heavens’ edge,
I’ll gather you from there, and return you to the place I chose where my name dwells.’
10 They’re your slaves, your people whom you rescued with your great strength and strong hand.
11 Please Master, have a listening ear for your slave’s prayer,
for your slaves’ prayer—we who wish to respect your name.
Please grant your slave success today. Give me compassion before this man’s face”
for I was the Persian king’s butler.

And though Nehemiah didn’t neatly sum it up as did the author of Chronicles, 1Co 4.10 God went along with his request, and Nehemiah himself got to go to Jerusalem and fix its problems.

Praying for God’s will to be done.

There’s a practice we see in lots of scriptures, and it’s one we oughta bear in mind when we ask God for stuff. One which a lot of Christians do in fact practice. It’s when we quote God to himself. “You said [appropriate verse], so I’m holding you to it: Please answer my request.”

Y’might notice Nehemiah’s quote wasn’t a direct quote. Didn’t have to be. He got the idea exactly right: God said if his people rebel against him, he’d scatter them. Lv 26.33, Dt 4.27, 28.64 But if they repent, he’ll restore them. Lv 26.40-42, Dt 4.30-31, 30.1-5 Y’might also notice those who fixate on the precise wording have a bad habit of getting the context entirely wrong: They don’t care what God meant by those words, but only what they want him to mean. God, on the other hand, knows precisely what he meant, and he’ll just ignore those would-be followers who don’t have the good sense to find out what he did mean.

So if you’re looking for a formula, a way to guarantee you prayed for X and God oughta grant you Y, probably the closest we come to such a thing is praying God’s will be done. Like Jesus stated in the Lord’s Prayer:

Matthew 6.10 KJV
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

If we’ve found God’s legitimate will in the scriptures, and our requests are for things which are God’s will, he has no reason to tell us no. They’ll happen.

Nehemiah recognized he had no righteousness to fall back upon: He sinned, his ancestors sinned; the entire nation was guilty of violating God’s covenant in many nasty ways. That’s why Nehemiah was in Persia instead of Judea, enslaved to a foreign shah instead of voluntarily serving a descendant of David.

He had no karmic bank to draw from, nothing to justify him before God other than his faith. Any chance God might answer him, came entirely from God’s grace.

Which, y’notice, he was praying for like crazy. Even though he quoted God to God, he still didn’t presume God obligated himself, or owed him anything. He knew he was trying to follow God; he didn’t necessarily know how devout his fellow Jews were, or whether they’d repented enough for God to respond. He didn’t presume to demand anything of the Almighty: He did say “please” a lot.

But God is in the redeeming business. If people seriously turn to him, he won’t reject ’em. Jn 6.37 We know that about him. So did Nehemiah. It’s why we bother to pray at all: God’s always available when we really, desperately need him.

In any event, it’s always a good idea to seek God’s will before we ask his will be done. Make his will our own.