This is the third installment of the first weekly devotional study on the Book of Nehemiah. We are completing the first chapter of this wonderful book. The first two installments brought about the awareness of knowing where we are at, or understanding where someone we know is at in their struggle. We also discovered that we must actively engage in weeping, mourning, fasting and prayer in order to make significant progress toward true repentance. Today, our devotion focuses on the actual prayer of Nehemiah and how we can learn what constitutes our approach before a loving and forgiving Heavenly Father. We should be coming to a point where we are ready, or already actively engaging in prayer, seeking divine counsel and personal revelation. Keep in mind that repentance is not an easy process, however, with the right motivation, the appropriate attitude, repentance will not only be life changing, it can be liberating as we move into the New Year with the intent on rebuilding and restoring our own lives; as well as the lives of those around us.
The remainder of Nehemiah chapter one consists of Nehemiah’s actual prayer (vv. 5-11). The Jewish Study Bible provides this commentary:
Nehemiah employs the formula used by priests in the confession on Yom Kippur when he says: Confessing the sins that we Israelites have committed against You, sins that I and my father’s house have committed.
In addition, the JSB further states:
By recalling the history of Israel, Nehemiah reminds God of the promises made to Israel and also of God’s own compassion at times when the Israelites strayed from their course.
In his sermon (which this devotional study refers to), Ray Stedman offers four principle truths that we find in Nehemiah’s prayer. His recommendation is that we follow this particular pattern that brings us to the beginning of a New Year and with a renewed hope to strengthen our own lives, the lives of our family, and to bring about changes in our homes, communities and hopefully our nation.
Recognition of the Character of God
Stedman shared this thought in his sermon:
The ruin you are concerned with may not always be yours personally. It may be that of someone close to you whose life you see falling apart because of certain habits or attitudes they have allowed to enter their experience. You feel like Nehemiah, and you want to weep and mourn and tell God about it. That is always the place to start. For God is a responsive God. He gives attention to the prayers of his people. And he is a God of power and ability, and, above all, a God of Love.
Recognizing the character of our Heavenly Father is not something new. Upon being asked by the disciples, Jesus Christ instructed them in the manner in which they ought to pray, and the first part of that manner is to recognize the authority and character of our Heavenly Father:
Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9-13).
The reverence and recognition of who God is how our prayers ought to begin. We see this evident in the opening prayer of Nehemiah:
And said, I beseech thee, O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments: Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayset hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night for the children of Israel thy servants … (vv. 5-6a; KJV).
Again, whether we are praying on our behalf and on behalf of the people, our prayers should begin with recognizing the character and reverence of our Heavenly Father. We should not give prayers out of verbatim, but adopt them to our own understanding and appropriate style of language.
Repent of our own sins and the sins of our family, community and nation
As we have engaged in a week long time of weeping, mourning, fasting and praying, the focus should be on the most single aspect of why we are approaching our Heavenly Father in prayer: confession of our sins and seeking forgiveness of those sins. Fathers and Husbands ought to pray, confess, and seek forgiveness for their sins and the sins of their families. This is emulated through the manner in which Nehemiah prays:
…and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandest…(vv. 6b-7).
When we approach our Heavenly Father, we first confess our own sins, and then confess the sins of those around us. A wonderful example of how one wrestled with God prior to receiving a full remission of his sins is Enos. Upon receiving a pardon of his sins, Enos continues to wrestle in prayer for his people because of the desire for their forgiveness. Part of our baptismal covenant into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to mourn with those who mourn (See Mosiah 18:9). This includes mourning with those who are in sin and held in bondage because of their sin.
Nehemiah took upon himself the nature of his own sins as well as the sins of his household and his own nation. He prayed for forgiveness of himself, and his own people. This is the very reflection that Stedman provides in his commentary on these verses:
This is an honest facing of his own guilt. Notice the absence of self-righteousness. He does not say, “Lord, I am thinking of those terrible sinners back there in Jerusalem. Be gracious to them because they have fallen into wrong actions.” No, he puts himself into this picture, saying, “I have contributed to this problem. There are things that I did or did not do that have made this ruin possible. I confess before you, Lord, the sins of myself and my father’s house.” There is no attempt to excuse or to blame others for this. It is a simple acknowledgement of wrong.
It has always been true of the people of God that any degree of self-justification will cancel out recovery. If you try to excuse yourself for what is wrong in your life, you block your own recovery. Just admit it, declare it. This is exactly contrary to the spirit of the age in which we live, but this is God’s way and it is the first step to the process of recovery.
What we come to understand is that we must become a people that own up to our faults, our weaknesses. A quick read through the account of Adam and Eve, we notice that the blame shifted from individual responsibility and accountability. Adam blamed his wife: and the man said, The woman thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. Yes, Adam owned up and admitted that he partook of the forbidden fruit, however, he pointed to the woman and said, but she gave it to me. Turning to the woman, the Lord confronts her and she states: The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat (See Genesis 3:9-13). Observe children who do something and get in trouble for it, what is the typical response? We are much like Adam and Eve when it comes to making mistakes. Here, we learn through Nehemiah’s prayer that we must own up to our part of the problem and our own sinfulness if we are going to make any type of positive change in our own lives, and the lives around us.
Ray Stedman puts it this way: If you try to excuse yourself for what is wrong in your life, you block your own recovery. We all have our agency. We all choose according to our own agency. No one makes those choices for us. Therefore, when we make negative decisions and negative consequences follow as a result of those choices, we must own them and not pass the buck to someone else. Even the adversary knows the power of our moral agency and how we can choose liberty or captivity. He preys on our own vulnerability and weaknesses in order for us to break down and choose those things that may be enticing at first.
Comparing the skillfulness of the fly fisherman, M. Russell Ballard shares this thought:
The goal of the fly fisherman is to catch trout through skillful deception. The adept fisherman studies trout behavior, weather, the water current, and the types of insects trout eat and when those insects hatch. He will often craft by hand the lures he uses. He knows these artificial insects embedded with tiny hooks need to be a perfect deception because the trout will identify even the slightest flaw and reject the fly.
Elder Ballard continues:
The use of artificial lures to fool and catch a fish is an example of the way Lucifer often tempts, deceives, and tries to ensnare us.
In the previous year, we have taken the artificial bait that the adversary skillfully created for each and every one of us. This is because he has studied our behaviors, studied how we operate, and knows our weaknesses and how to exploit those weaknesses: All to bring us down into captivity and misery.
The next thing we read is how Nehemiah reminds God of the promised blessings and cursing that would come upon the nation of Israel. These promised blessings or curses are duly noted throughout all of ancient and modern scriptures:
Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there. Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand (Nehemiah 1:8-10).
This promised blessing is of prosperity, protection, and becoming a choice people where God will dwell. If we want to have the constant companionship of the Holy Spirit, we are reminded to walk in obedience before the Lord, observing all that he has taught and commanded us. Today, many scoff at the idea of obedience, not knowing or even understanding that the New Testament calls all who follow after Christ ought to walk in obedience. It is what gives us the opportunity to show our loyalty and devotion to the Lord. If ye love me, keep my commandments (See John 14:15) is what the Savior told his disciples. If they were counseled to keep the commandments that Christ taught, then how much more ought we to observe the teachings and commandments that He has revealed through ancient and modern prophets since we call ourselves disciples of Christ?
Ray Stedman provides this particular observation that sums up the third aspect of Nehemiah’s prayer:
Nehemiah reminds himself of the nature of God: He is a God of forgiveness, a God of restoration, a God of great power. When the heart is right, God can change all the external circumstances of a situation and make it entirely different. And he will do so. He promises he will!
Doctrine and Covenants section 1, verse 32 reiterates the graciousness of our Heavenly Father: …he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven. Along with this, there is the dire warning: And he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received; for my Spirit shall not always strive with man…
Therefore, as we contemplate upon this first week of our devotional study, the prayer of Nehemiah should become the standard in which we comprehend how we ought to approach this New Year. If we want greater depth of understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must put our faith into action. We must be willing to let go of the past by repenting of those things that maybe holding us back from becoming a better person. It is not an easy process, however, it is a worthwhile process. Through this particular study, the goal is to bring about a renewed hope in ourselves, strengthen and restore marital relationships, family relationships, and develop a greater appreciation for living the Gospel. The question is, what is it worth to each and every one of us to make the necessary changes in our lives?
Thoughts to ponder:
- Nehemiah’s prayer is about accepting responsibility and accountability for his own sins, as well as his family’s sins, and the sins of his people. Are we willing to accept the responsibility of our own sins and transgressions?
- Part of taking responsibility is the willingness to not only accepts, but change particular behaviors and habits that have become the result of our choices. Are we willing to seek out help from family and friends – or, are we willing to support and come alongside someone who needs strengthening and encouraging because of their poor choices?
- Nehemiah is not superficial or casual – his deep sorrow and regret is based on time spent weeping, mourning and then engaging in fasting and prayer. Take this moment to record any thoughts or impressions that you may have about the past year and what sentiments has brought you to mourn over your own failings and weaknesses. How has fasting and prayer helped you gain greater strength to face the necessary changes? What are those changes?
Fasting and prayer goes hand in hand. As we learn in the first chapter of Nehemiah, he did not make this a casual event. It describes that he spent certain days in weeping, mourning, fasting and prayer. The very prayer itself may have been something he prayed on a constant basis during those certain days. As you are taking this first week of the New Year to reflect back on the past year and those things that need to be confessed, overcome, or even reflecting on how to help another person struggling – let us keep our own prayers and thoughts in front of us. Record your own prayer and then actively listening to what impressions, thoughts, or feelings may come to mind. Search the scriptures and focus on those that provide the promised blessings of when we are called to walk in obedience. In addition, make a commitment to strive to become a better disciple and understand what the cost of discipleship is by asking you, what is it worth to you in following the counsel and teachings that have been given through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.