Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Nehemiah (4)

Having looked at “spontaneity” and “stamina” as reflective of Nehemiah’s prayer, two more words come to mind: Shape and Structure.

Many Christians are afraid of applying rigorous analysis to the shape of prayer. It seems to call into question the liberty of the Holy Spirit in our praying. It vitiates against some dearly held principles that prayer should be unreflective and spontaneous—an outpouring of the heart to God. Doesn’t the Bible promise somewhere that the Holy Spirit will give us words to say when we pray? Indeed it does and in moments of anguish, when we are beside ourselves and unable to think straight, this is reassurance of the first order. But there are times when we need to reflect on our praying, shape it in a certain way, do what Jesus told his disciples to do when giving them the Lord’s Prayer as a model, “Pray like this…” (Matt. 6:9).

Nehemiah's prayer is, then, a model of how to pray in the sense of providing us with a model as to the shape and structure of our prayers. And what is the shape of this prayer? It starts with worship where Nehemiah traces God's greatness (1:5). Nehemiah's theology—his view of God specifically—moulds his prayer; thoughts about God in God's presence, mined from the Scriptures where he has revealed himself most clearly are turned into worship and adoration and praise. Then, in true “gospel fashion” (thoughts of God remind us of our sin and need) Nehemiah engages in an outpouring of personal and corporate guilt, confessing sin: “We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded “(1:7). The way to pray aright is to remember that apart from the grace of God in the gospel we have no right to pray! Why should God listen to us? And, this side of the empty tomb, we say “in Jesus name” to reinforce the point that it is only because of the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf that we can come into the presence of a holy God. What we ask for is evidently not what we deserve. In place of wrath we need mercy; in place of condemnation we need ongoing assurance that we are forgiven and accepted in Christ; in place of hell which is our deserved destiny we crave for what Philip Doddridge called 'the charming sound' of grace which assures us of salvation, sonship, and security.

Only after worship and confession does Nehemiah ask for anything in particular (1:8ff). This is always the way we should pray on more formal occasions, when we have time for prayer, considered prayer. Worship first, then intercede. It is the weakest part of our praying. We are too quick to ask—like impatient children we think of ourselves too much.

Nehemiah's prayer is a bold one: he calls upon God to remember what he has promised! (1:8). 'Remember' is a key word in the book of Nehemiah (see, 4:14; 5:19; 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31). And here’s a principle we should always bear in mind: that Bible writers were at least as clever as we are! No, Nehemiah did not think that God had actually forgotten. God does not forget! But it is part of the testing of faith that we should have to ask him for what he has already promised. Nehemiah and the people he represented were in covenant with God who had given his word. Nehemiah is basing his request on what God had pledged. No one saw this better than John Calvin. We are 'not to ask any more than God allows. For even though He bids us pour out our hearts before Him, He still does not indiscriminately slacken the reins to stupid and wicked emotions.' (Institutes, 3.20.5).

We are to pray for what God has promised, but only for what he has promised. “To pray rightly is a rare gift,” Calvin concludes, because it demands a sensitivity to the content of Scripture. But when such sensitivity is achieved, how liberating prayer can be! Psalm 119 which rings the changes upon Scripture in 170 out of its 176 verses, is also a lesson in prayer for eleven times its prayerful confidence is based on God's promises: God is to answer 'according to Your word' or 'according to Your promise' (Psa.119: 25, 28, 41, 58, 65, 76, 107, 116, 154, 169, 170).

“But you promised!” That’s a mighty thought, isn’t it?

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