Nehemiah’s story opens with his inquiry into conditions in the distant city of Jerusalem. His brother’s reply elicits a response from him that highlights critical principles of intercession.
Before we can comprehend these powerful essentials, we need to come to a New Testament perspective on the process. Most people believe, in sincere ignorance, that they ought to “say a prayer,” or “say their prayers.” Today, Facebook is filled with comments like “sending prayers your way.”
The scriptures portray something entirely different. When King Herod kept Peter in prison, “prayer was made” for him by the church. (Acts 12:5) Likewise, Paul went to the riverside near Philippi because “prayer was wont to be made” there. (Acts 16:13)
One of my favorite “Finnisms” (derived from the preaching of my mentor) states, “If you want to have Grandma’s cake, you have to use Grandma’s recipe.” New Testament prayer is a thing that is made, the way a master chef makes a good stew. We have to use all the right ingredients.
Nehemiah is drawn into prayer in a way that portrays for us some of “granny’s fixin’s”:
- Concern. KJV accurately uses a choice of words which is justified more by the spirit of the passage than by literal translation. “I asked them concerning the Jews… and concerning Jerusalem.”
The most fundamental ingredient in offering an “effectual fervent prayer” is concern.
Too often, we Christians come up short in prayer simply because we don’t allow ourselves to be touched by our objective. We cannot offer the “prayer of faith” without bringing our affections to bear on the matter before us.
An indifferent heart will never move the hand of God.
Most of the time, the painful truth is that God doesn’t respond simply because we don’t care. A little “now I lay me down to sleep” ditty cannot draw upon the power of heaven.
Effective prayer always arises from an attitude of concern.
- Jerusalem. The king’s cupbearer lives in the luxurious splendor of the palace in Susa, but he seeks the welfare of impoverished Jerusalem. He has to reset his priorities to align with those of God Himself.
Jerusalem is an Old Testament type, depicting the New Testament anti-type, the Church of the Living God. (Heb.12:22-24, Gal.4:23-26). The prayer of Nehemiah, then, foreshadows the Church’s burden for revival praying. He interceded for the city of God, and for the people of God. We must do likewise.
Hanani gives a sobering report of the conditions in the province. Like the Church today, the people are exposed to trouble and disgrace. The same reasons are readily apparent in both cases:
- The heir of King David is no longer honored upon his throne.
- The walls of prayer are broken down.
- The gates of safe passage into the city of grace are burned with the fiery darts of the wicked one.
- Demonic powers have free access to the holy place.
We must never gloss over the truth of our condition. There is a desperate need for someone to stand in the gap between the righteous indignation of God and the sin of His people.
Where are the Nehemiahs of today? Does anyone even know how to prevail with God for mercy?
- Mourned. Nehemiah is shattered by the evil report. He surrenders himself to his grief in the manner of Babylon. (Ps. 137:1, Dan. 9:3) Weeping and lamenting, he sits down like Job among the ashes. (Job 2:8) Fasting and praying (just like the people of Nineveh–Jonah 3:5-7), he humbles himself in repentance before God.
Powerful intercession is rooted in hearts that break for those things that break God’s heart.
- Certain Days. Shock and grief weigh upon Nehemiah for many days. From the month Chisleu, when he hears the news (Neh. 1:1), till the king commissions the relief of the Holy City in the month Nisan (Neh. 2:1), his soul is burdened for over fifteen weeks.
This principle never changes. With memorable alliteration, Charles Finney expressed it like this:
“Most people come up to Prevailing Prayer by a Protracted Process.”
Intensity of prayer arises from a deliberate course of action. We need consciously and repeatedly to “set our affection on the things above.” (Col 3:2) We do this when we keep on focusing our attention back to the objectives of prayer. [It is the way a man “falls in love,” roots for his favorite sports team, or commits to a political party.] Our affections will naturally rise for the object of our attention.
Our work, our bills, our families—even our churches—will all distract us from intercession. These are good things. Entertainment and relaxation are also necessary to our mental health. In fact, the whole world will conspire, so to speak, to distract us from the King’s business of prevailing prayer.
The honest truth is that human frailty and the cares of the world make it an impossible task.
Fortunately, we have help. “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Rom. 8:26)
- Day and Night. Anguished yearnings of our souls are required for a move of God, as “deep calleth unto deep.” (Ps. 42:7) But we cannot continuously live our lives on that level and still maintain our sanity.
Right here we find the key to prevailing prayer. Revival praying begins and ends with the Spirit of Prayer, Himself.
There is a silly notion in our churches that 2 Chron. 7:14 means that “If my people will organize themselves and hold prayer meetings…,” that God will be impressed and send revival. We have it all backwards!
The moment we think that “we can do this,” we have already failed the humility test. This is the very “wicked way” from which we must first turn. Then, with protracted self-deprecation, we may seek God’s face, beseeching his Spirit to lead us into the place of prevailing prayer. To think, even for a moment, that we can somehow succeed without Him is the height of hubris!
We will never move God by the works of the flesh.
Nehemiah learned to yield to the Spirit of Prayer, who woos us gently, but inconveniently, to pray when He calls. Even in the night watches, every prayer warrior knows, he will call to us, “Rise and pray.”
All this is preparation, before the heart is even ready to start to reach out to God.