Inundated by emails and cell phones, it is nigh impossible to experience the isolation distance brings. Nehemiah is in Persia, the remnant in Jerusalem. When his brother returns he eagerly asks concerning their welfare. Unwanted news (Nehemiah 1.1-3). Being distraught should lead to prayer; prayer is often more than mere words. Nehemiah weeps and mourns for days, his mourning includes fasting (1.4). Analyzing the prayer we see: 1) God is not the source of problem (v.5); 2) Sin is the source of problem (vv.6‑7); 3) God is the source of solution (vv.8‑9). Analyzing deeper we see how to effectively pray:
- Effective Prayer Must Be Directed to God (1.5). We cannot expect God to answer a prayer never said. Never be too proud to pray! God is always the answer.
- Effective Prayer Must Be Preceded By Knowledge of a Need (1.3). Ask people about their needs. Be aware of your own. Nothing is too big or small.
- Effective Prayer is Based upon Scripture (1.5,7-9). Nehemiah knows God’s word, mentioning the covenant, commands and promises.
- Effective Prayer is Persistent (1.6b). It is very likely Nehemiah prays for four months (1.1; 2.1). He prays longer than it will take to accomplish the goal of rebuilding the walls (6.15).
- Effective Prayer is based upon God’s Promises (1.8-9). These promises of God are both positive and negative. God is merciful, and God is just. I find it intriguing that Biblical prayers often include “reminders” of God’s promises.
- Effective Prayer Includes Adoration (1.5). Nehemiah’s thanksgiving is based upon the character of God. Do we ask more than we praise?
- Effective Prayer Pleads (1.6a). Nehemiah knew as we should that God wants to hear us pray. God is the greatest giver.
- Effective Prayer Includes Confession (1.6c-7). As did Ezra, Nehemiah includes himself as one with the nation, and not separate or better than those who sinned the nations into captivity.
- Effective Prayer is Submissive and Dependent (1.11). Anything good we do is because God is working through and for us.
- Effective Prayer Accepts God’s Time Table and Answer. Nehemiah prays 4 months before seeing results. Sometimes God has us wait.
If we feel isolated from God, Nehemiah teaches how to effectively communicate to God. The distance between us and God is as small as a prayer.
Prayer Challenge: Not every prayer needs all the above every time; but such does help us examine our prayers. Are we effective prayers? Pray to be effective.
Big sins often begin with small steps. Returning from exile, never again do the Jews commit idolatry. But they easily could have, had it not been for Ezra. The leaders report, “the Israelite men have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons;” and “the leaders and officials have taken the lead in this unfaithfulness” (Ezra 9.1-2). Lust, sex, and convenience often lead to sin. Big sins often begin with small leaders.
What follows is Ezra’s demonstrative devastation by his tearing his tunic and robe and pulling out some of the hair from his head and beard (9.3). Ezra had just recently arrived. This national sin is not Ezra’s fault, nor is he overwhelmed by his own sin. Repentance often begins with the right leaders.
The Holy Spirit records Ezra’s sorrowful supplication (vv.6-15). Unlike our American individualism, Ezra does not consider himself apart from the masses: “My God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face toward You, my God, because our iniquities are higher than our heads and our guilt is as high as the heaven” (9.6). Solid leadership often begins with solidarity. There is no blaming God for past suffering: “Because of our iniquities we have been handed over, along with our kings and priests, to the surrounding kings, and to the sword, captivity, plundering and open shame” (9.7). Healing often begins with honesty. God is not only the purveyor of punishment, but is the giver of grace: “But now, for a brief moment, grace has come from Yahweh our God to preserve a remnant for us and give us a stake in His holy place. Even in our slavery, God has given us new life and light to our eyes” (9.8). Growth often begins with gratitude. Despite great grace, these survivors again commit the same sins of their fathers, which eventually led to idolatry and expulsion (9.10-15). Being saved does not save us from repeating sins, and possible future punishment (9.14). Even recognizing we have been punished less than our sins deserve and have been allowed to survive isn’t enough incentive to keep us pure (9.13). Too often we want to forget the past instead of allowing it to caution our steps. Warnings often lead to wise decisions.
Following Ezra’s leadership, the Israelites do the necessary and difficult. After Ezra confessed for them, they now confess themselves: “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women” (10.2). These great sinners amazingly still believe in the greatness of God’s grace: “but there is still hope for Israel in spite of this” (10.2). They know God prefers forgiveness over punishment! Their confession is accompanied by action: “Let it be done according to the law” (10.3). Their action is accompanied by cooperation: “Get up, for this matter is your responsibility, and we support you. Be strong and take action” (10.4). Big revivals often begin with small steps.
Prayer Challenge: Whether a leader or not, don’t be overwhelmed by the gravity of any sin. In prayer small steps can lead to big changes.
The phrase is not written in Scripture, but the idea is: Traveling Grace. The idea is spiritual and simple, asking God for safe travels. Most times, most of us probably are too harried by preparation – and kids – and exhausted from the trip upon return, to immediately ask or thank God for “traveling grace.” I prayed more riding my motorcycle than driving my car – I was more conscious how precarious is life. Such a habit, if more than a habit, is commendable. Let’s examine a deeper purpose for traveling grace. Be honest, when praying for a safe journey, or thanking God for one, what is the focus? Is it just about point A to point B? Let’s refocus; there is more to traveling grace, it is traveling for and with God.
Ezra is a meticulous planner, and a mighty believer in God. His success is God’s: “since the gracious hand of our God was on us” (Ezra 8.18). Gathered at the river of Ahava to begin his journey, Ezra continues to organize the trip. Included is spiritual organization, preparing people by fasting and prayer (8.21): “I proclaimed a fast by the Ahava River, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask Him for a safe journey for us, our children, and all our possessions.” In modern parlance, Ezra is praying for traveling grace.
This is more than asking that camels being surefooted. Ezra is on a mission. Implied is that safety is needed to complete God’s assignment. That is the first deeper meaning for traveling grace. Whether traveling to do God’s work, visiting relatives, or going on vacation, keep in mind and prayer we are on earth to serve. Consider the following description of David as applying to us too: “For David, after serving his own generation in God’s plan, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and decayed” (Acts 13.36). Jesus’ prayer, “Your will not mine be done” is the purpose of traveling grace. If God grants His grace, bestows his favor, and extends our lives past our trip, the purpose is not just God providing safety to us, but us providing service to God. Traveling grace is traveling for and with God.
Not just implied but stated is the second deeper meaning for traveling grace. Referring to the fasting and prayer, Ezra comments, “I did this because I was ashamed to ask the king for infantry and cavalry to protect us from enemies during the journey, since we had told him, ‘The hand of our God is gracious to all who seek Him, but His great anger is against all who abandon Him” (8.22). The trip itself was declared a glory to God and an act of faith in God. There are Biblical examples of God’s servants using protective service, or being providentially given such. The point is not that good Christians should eschew help. The point is everything Ezra does is not about Ezra: “So we fasted and pleaded with our God about this, and He granted our request” (8.23). Traveling grace is traveling for and with God.
Prayer Challenge: When praying for traveling grace, focus more on serving than safety.
“God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called.” Ever hear that? Along those lines, good hearted people encourage others by showing the shortcomings of God’s greatest servants: Abraham was a liar; Sarah a mocker; Jacob a cheater; Moses an excuse maker; Miriam a racist; David a sex maniac; Jonah was prejudiced; Gideon was insecure; Martha a worrier; and Paul a murderer. If we want to get really dramatic we could even say God called Lazarus and Lazarus was dead! Moving from morally unqualified to technically unqualified, Jesus called the untrained to be His apostles. Four were fishermen, another a Roman sympathizer and Jewish traitor who collected taxes, and even a revolutionary political zealot. No wonder people triumphantly proclaim, “God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called!” But is this always true? Does God sometimes call the qualified?
Ezra is a priest (Ezra 7.1-5), and teacher; “a scribe skilled in the law of Moses” (7.6). No doubt such took many hours of discipline and diligent study. The record also says Ezra possessed that which was beyond his control: “The king had granted him everything he requested because the hand of Yahweh his God was on him” (7.6). After being divinely chosen to return to Jerusalem, God’s servant makes the 500 mile, 4 month trek from Babylon (7.9). “The gracious hand of God was on him” (7.9). Despite his qualifications, this is the second mention of God being the reason for Ezra’s achievements.
Ezra had prepared himself both morally and technically: “Now Ezra had determined in his heart to study the law of the LORD, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel” (7.10). When Ezra makes the trip, he comes with a letter from the king (7.11-26). Again, Ezra is prepared for succeeding in God’s work.
When Ezra reaches the re-promised land, he prays: “Praise Yahweh the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king’s mind to glorify the house of the LORD in Jerusalem, and who has shown favor to me before the king, his counselors, and all his powerful officers” (7.27-28). Then Ezra adds, “So I took courage because I was strengthened by Yahweh my God, and I gathered Israelite leaders to return with me.” Ezra became qualified to be called; and still gave all glory to God.
Nowadays it seems we emphasize an unbalanced biblical view. Now the spiritual plan is to not have a plan; just “walk by faith and not by sight” (a misuse of that text). It seems we are afraid that if we get qualified, we are getting the credit. Somehow we have been convinced faith and humility means not preparing, not making plans, and not doing whatever is in our power. Sure, there are times to spiritually “wing it,” relying totally on God. But when we can prepare, we can still rely totally on God. So while God qualifies the called; God also calls the qualified.
Prayer Challenge: Pray to be qualified while giving God all the credit and glory.
Imagine what it had to be like. No, I don’t think it possible. It’s good to try, sometimes. Sometimes we just need to accept instead of explaining and failing. Hoping to help by empathizing, compassion ignorantly says, “I know how you feel.” Thankfully most don’t know the tragedy personally. “If I were you,” some boldly say; but we aren’t. Experience is often the only true teacher. Young and old experience the same situation, reacting diametrically differently; based on their own past experiences. Un-experienced emotions are hard to imagine. Not all tears are equal. Not all joy the same.
Although powerful, think of the human imagination as a mental and emotional painting that cannot faithfully reproduce the unseen. Can you imagine being a Jew tattooed as an undesirable? Can you relive the atrocity when American soldiers first saw the unimaginable rumors confirmed? Can you envision losing everything – including your nation – then getting it back? Join me in this impossible journey of God’s people returning home to rebuild the temple.
Try to place yourself emotionally where your nation has been not only destroyed, but humiliated. This event is spiritually a decapitation, where the head of your religion allows Himself to be crushed, and allows the victors to glory in His disgrace. Then remember, you are responsible. For 70 years you either lived with the shame, or were born into that shame. Are you there mentally?
More amazing than God’s shunning, is His merciful grace in welcoming you back home. He allows His captivated people to return for another chance. Inventory of people, animals, and religious articles are meticulous (Ezra 1-2). Despite the national imprisonment, personal heritage remains confirmed; but for others it is lost (2.61-63). This is another blow to your identity. Who you are is no longer relevant.
Unlike your ancestors, when you finally reach home, you respect God through worship. This includes rebuilding His shattered home on earth; the home you or your parents beforehand did not care to keep holy. Just the foundation is laid, but that is enough for now. “The priests, dressed in their robes and holding trumpets, and the Levites descended from Asaph, holding cymbals, took their positions to praise the LORD, as King David of Israel had instructed” (3.10). Among the worshippers, there is no bitterness of a punishment undeserved. There is praise and song, “For He is good; His faithful love to Israel endures forever” (3.11). Then people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD (3.11). Try to imagine being so full emotionally shouting your prayer! Those who had seen the old temple weep loudly; the younger ones shout joyfully (3.12). Not all tears are equal. Not all prayers are joyful. Some are filled with sadness at what was. Some are filled with regret. I cannot faithfully imagine what it was like for either.
Prayer Challenge: Experience your prayers as only you can, whether in tears or joy.
When Abram and Lot separate, the part of Canaan Lot chooses is compared to the Garden/gaan of Eden (Genesis 13:10). This is an inspired clue that this story is a repeat. So is this the only narrative comparison? Or are we supposed to see history repeating itself? As I have said again and again, the Holy Spirit keeps telling the same stories over again and again just with different people. Some of these comparisons are linguistic, others conceptual, and admittedly some might be a stretch – but only because of all the other undeniable similarities.
- Abraham returns to the land given by God (13:1); Eden is the first land given by God (2:8).
- Abram was rich in silver and gold (13:2); Eden has a river which leads to a land of gold along with other earthly wealth (2:11).
- Abram’s offspring would be like the dust of the land (13:16); Adam was created from the dust of the earth (2:7).
- Abram called on the name of Yahweh (13:4); Yahweh spoke to Adam (2:16).
- Part of Canaan was well watered (13:10); Eden was well watered (2:6,10).
- “East” is where God placed Eden (2:8); “East” is where Lot chose (13:11).
- Abram and Lot “separated/parad” (13:9); The river in Eden “separated/parad” (2:10).
- Land insufficient for Abram and Lot’s livestock (13:6-7); Animals insufficient for Adam’s companionship (2:19-20).
- The land was unable to support (13:6); the land was able to support (2:15-16).
- Abram and Lot divided (13:11); Eve is divided from Adam (2:21-22).
- Lot is called Abram’s “brother” (13:8); Eve is called Adam’s “bone of bone, flesh of my flesh” (2:23).
- Lot “saw/raah” (13:10); Eve “saw/raah” (3:6).
- Lot lifted up his “eyes/ayin” (13:10); Fruit would open “eyes/ayin” and was good to the eyes (3:5-7)
- There is a seed promise made to Abram (13:16); There is a seed promise made to Satan (3:15).
- The men of Sodom sinned against God (13:13); Eve then Adam sinned against God (3:6).
- Lot chose unwisely (13:11); Eve and Adam chose unwisely (3:6).
- Genesis 13 foreshadows destruction (13:10); Genesis 2 foreshadows death (2:17).
- Genesis 13 is about Abram, his wife, and someone causing strife (13:1); Genesis 2-3 is about Adam, his wife, and someone causing strife (3:1).
Here is one final “comparison” but one only between the Hebrew and English. So that means this last one is just for fun. God made Eve from Adam’s rib (2:21-22). The Hebrew word for strife between Abram’s herdsmen and Lot’s is “rib” (13:7).
OK, it bothers me. It’s not there and should be. Have you ever felt that way about a Bible story; that something essential is missing? It is recorded about lesser kings; even mostly evil ones. It is recorded about equally great kings; even emphasized. So why is it missing in Josiah’s story? Maybe it isn’t. Let’s see if we can find Josiah praying.
King Josiah “did what was right in the LORD’s sight and walked in the ways of his ancestor David; he did not turn aside to the right or the left” (2 Chronicles 34.2). David was a prayerful man; and this same comparative praise to David was used of Hezekiah, a man of prayer (29.2). Could Josiah walk in God’s ways without praying?
When about 20, “Josiah began to seek the God of his ancestor David” (34.3). Seeking God often includes prayer. During this seeking he demolishes the idols violating the cleanliness of God’s land (34.3-7). When about 30, Josiah begins repairing the temple. Again unstated, but no doubt prayer is involved. While in this endeavor Hilkiah finds the book of the law, written by the hand of Moses (34.14-15). When Josiah “heard the words of the law, he tore his clothes” (34.19). Repentance is seeking God, usually involving prayer. Still, no specifics of Josiah praying; just a lifestyle linked to prayer.
Then the king commands “Go. Ask Yahweh for me and for those remaining in Israel and Judah, concerning the words of the book that was found” (34.21). Asking another for their prayers is vicarious prayer, an imitable practice. The servants go to Huldah the prophetess to inquire of God (34.22). Her answer implies Josiah is involved in the divine communiqué: “Say this to the king of Judah who sent you to ask Yahweh…” (34.26).
Then God’s language gets very intriguing: “…because you humbled yourself before Me, and you tore your clothes and wept before Me, I Myself have heard” (34.29). God doesn’t say, “seen,” God answers Josiah’s actions as if the actions were prayers.
After this, the king “went up” (34.30) to the temple; another action like unto prayer. There he reads the words of the covenant to all the people, stands at his post and “made a covenant in the LORD’s presence to follow the LORD…with all his heart, and with all his soul in order to carry out the words of the covenant written in this book” (34.31). Since this was a promise to God made in the presence of others, isn’t this another acted out prayer?
God “heard” Josiah’s actions as a prayer. Reminds me of the song “Father God” – “May my steps be worship, May my thoughts be praise, May my words bring honor to Your Name.” May we be Christians whom others know we pray, even if not seeing us. May God hear our actions even when the word prayer is not used. May our life be a prayer.
Prayer Request: Pray to act like we know God is hearing our life as a prayer.
Evil. “He did what was evil in the LORD’s sight” (2 Chronicles 33.2). No other word better describes Manasseh; but there are plenty of unworthy contenders. Disappointing. Following one of Judah’s greatest kings, Manasseh reversed his father’s restoration. “He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had torn down” (33.3). Unfaithful. He imitated “the detestable practices of the nations that the LORD had dispossessed before the Israelites (33.2). Blasphemous. Not satisfied with worshipping idols in unholy places, “He built altars in the LORD’s temple” (33.4). Unloving. “He passed his sons through the fire in the valley of Hinnom” (33.6). Occultic. “He practiced witchcraft, divination, and sorcery, and consulted mediums and spiritists” (33.6). “So Manasseh caused Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to stray so that they did worse evil than the nations the LORD had destroyed before the Israelites” (33.9).
Oh, here are some others: Repentant. Humble. Man of prayer. Not exactly expected words; but Manasseh is one of the most surprising stories in the entire Bible. Before we can learn from this surprising end, we need to see how he got there.
Our amazing God had not given up so, “The LORD spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they didn’t listen” (33.10). The hard-hearted reach a point where words mean nothing. God tried to make Manasseh listen through actions. “So He brought against them the military commanders of the king of Assyria. They captured Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze shackles, and took him to Babylon” (33.11). The cynic can see this as God leading Manasseh to rot in a man-made hell. The God-fearer must see more. This is letting Manasseh have one final chance. Manasseh took it.
2 Chronicles 33:12-13 (12) When he was in distress, he sought the favor of Yahweh his God and earnestly humbled himself before the God of his ancestors. (13) He prayed to Him, so He heard his petition and granted his request, and brought him back to Jerusalem, to his kingdom. So Manasseh came to know that Yahweh is God.
The repenting, humbled, man of prayer did not have just a “jail house conversion.” He backed up his prayer words with actions. When free, he threw the idols he had made outside of the city (33.15).
It is in Manasseh’s life we learn a hard lesson if we are parents of an unfaithful child. We need to pray God will do whatever is necessary to get that child to start listening again. We need to pray that God will put them in whatever position is needed for their own good. Hard words to pray; but that prayer of faith might lead to their faithful prayer of godly sorrow. In the end, there is one word that best describes Manasseh. Forgiven.
Prayer Challenge: Pray God will put people where they need to be to learn humility.
So you think you are something, a big shot, someone special? Now, you would never vocalize that out loud, you’re too “humble;” and never even think you think that…at least not consciously. Nonetheless, facts are facts. Pride can manifest itself in many ways: blowhard boasting, walking with an arrogant air, or looking down with disdain upon others. But these are too distasteful, too glaring for someone proudly humble; for someone self-conscious and conscious of God. Satan’s pride can be sneaky. So instead of showing off, you show nothing. You never show or say, “Thank You, God!”
In “those days” Hezekiah’s illness happens (2 Chron.32.24). The king prays and God’s healing answer includes protection from Assyria (2 Kings 20.6), suggesting the illness happens during the siege. The inspired recorder writes, “…so he prayed to the LORD, and He spoke to him and gave him a miraculous sign. However, because his heart was proud, Hezekiah didn’t respond according to the benefit that had come to him” (32.24-25). Hezekiah’s response is nothing; a non-response. He doesn’t say “God, thank You!”
In “those days” we see Hezekiah’s pride resulting from the recovery. Apparently he starts thinking, “I am something, a big shot, and someone special; I must be because the God of all power healed ME.” Much like this great king, the Jews often became arrogant of their elected place. Christians too can become arrogant against the lost. For an “us versus them” mentality, just think of the Pharisee versus Tax Collector in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18.9-14). As incongruous as it might seem, we can even slip into the thought how lucky God is to have us. After all, we make God look good!
God’s response to Hezekiah’s non-response is, “So there was wrath on him, Judah, and Jerusalem” (2 Chron.32:25). Would God allow the Assyrians to conquer Judah because of just one man’s sin? First, the king represented the nation. Blessings often flowed to the nation because of the righteousness of one man. Jesus is our Benefactor and King (Rom.5.15). Second, the nation was already unpunished for its many sins, many times. “But, hadn’t Judah repented?” Yes, but again, does repentance earn us the right not to be punished? No. There is no power in repentance. Mercy is a gift. “Then Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart – he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem – so the LORD’s wrath didn’t come on them during Hezekiah’s lifetime” (32.26).
How easy is it to ask for blessings, and then go on our way too busy or feeling too special to say “Thank you, God!?” Not being grateful is a symptom of pride and being spoiled. How much are we like that unappreciative child who gets a gift but never says, “Thank you?!” Such children are irritating. Do we irritate God? Respond to God. Take time to glorify in prayer with gratitude and praise. Only God is Someone Special.
Prayer Challenge: Remembering to be grateful is important to God and to our own attitude. Find a way to remember to praise God in prayer for answered prayers.
“After these faithful deeds, Sennacherib king of Assyria came and entered Judah. He laid siege to the fortified cities and intended to break into them” (2 Chronicles 32.1-2). The Assyrians were a war-machine to be feared. Sennacherib describes his trap:
“As for Hezekiah, the Judean who did not submit to my yoke, I surrounded and conquered forty-six of his strong-walled towns and innumerable small settlements around them by means of earth ramps and siege-engines and attack by infantry men….I brought out from them and counted 200,150 people of ranks….He himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage….Fear of my lordly splendor overwhelmed that Hezekiah. The warrior and select troops he had brought in to strengthen his royal city Jerusalem did not fight….He sent his messenger to pay tribute and do obeisance” (Price, The Stones Cry Out, 272-273).
Before Hezekiah flees to the temple to pray, Jerusalem prepares practically: stopping up springs, repairing walls, reinforcing militarily, and building the water tunnel (32.1-6). The outward “Broad Wall” is 23 feet wide and 27 feet high (Price 268). The most famous and amazing architectural feat is Hezekiah’s tunnel covering 1,750 feet (Price 267). In these actions, Hezekiah and the Judeans “seem” to be doing everything right. With great personal sacrifice, they even break apart their own houses to reinforce the walls (Isa.22.10). After these works, Hezekiah reassures the people: “be strong and courageous;” and “He has only human strength, but we have Yahweh to fight our battles” (2 Chron.32.7-8). Again, seemingly these are acts and words of faith. Then I discovered God’s opinion was greatly different than mine. Isaiah 22:8-11 condemns works that sound similar to Hezekiah’s self-preservation preparations of 701 BC.
When reliance is placed upon works alone, they become unfaithful. Preparations, praise and platitudes mean nothing without prayer. So far there is no record of Hezekiah praying. Should we do all that we can? Yes, while praying. There is a danger in working that we trust our works. There is a danger in not working that we test God. So pray as if everything depends on God; and work while trusting in nothing we do.
The siege is on. The preparations have not yet been fully tested. Those on the wall could see the smoke rising from Lachish 30 miles southwest. Fear grips Hezekiah, a fear more powerful than his preparations. Finally, “King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz prayed about this and cried out to heaven” (32.20); only after this is Judah saved “by an angel who annihilated every brave warrior, leader and commander in the camp of the king of Assyria” (32.21). Sennacherib is defeated by prayer, not by preparations; defeated by God, not by Hezekiah. Is God waiting for us to pray?
Prayer Challenge: Pray while preparing, not just afterwards; and pray that we totally realize our works and preparations are not our salvation even when commanded.