According to any assessment of what makes Christian discipleship healthy, prayer—its presence or absence, vitality or sickness—is critical. Prayer is the most practical test there is in assessing one’s growth in grace (2 Peter 3:18). It is like a thermometer that measures spiritual temperature. And few are more vitally healthy than was Nehemiah.
A highly placed slave in the Persian royal palace, Nehemiah emerges as a giant in prayer, someone who communed with God in a way that shaped his personality and demeanor. If Robert Murray McCheyne’s assessment is true—“What a man is on his knees before God, that he is, and nothing more”—then Nehemiah emerges as a giant among men of faith.
Three key words highlight what Nehemiah teaches us about prayer: shape, spontaneity, and stamina.
Shape. For three months, Nehemiah engaged in prayer on behalf of his brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, ever since he heard of their distress (1:1–3). Space does not allow a detailed examination of Nehemiah’s great prayer in chap. 1, but it is evident that a robust theology of God’s character—God’s greatness and covenant love in particular (1:5)—is present. Then comes an equally robust assertion of the people’s sinfulness (1:6–7). And only after these elements of prayer are expressions of request heard (v. 8: “remember,” a key word in Nehemiah; 4:14; 5:19; 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31).
Spontaneity. Prayer is a Spirit-induced response of the longing of our hearts for communion with God. And when opportunity arises for such fellowship, godly Christians will seize it immediately. Hearing bad news concerning his brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, and at some risk to himself, Nehemiah reacted with evident concern, sufficient to arouse the attention of his master, Artaxerxes. When asked to explain his behavior, Nehemiah immediately “prayed to the God of heaven” (2:4). The prayer could only have lasted a few seconds. It was entirely instinctive. When need arose, his default response was to take it to the Lord. So should we, in every circumstance.
Stamina. The spontaneity evident in Nehemiah’s prayer in the presence of the king hides another more important truth: his spontaneous prayer was the result of life given to prayer (see 1:6, 11). It was an instinct, born of a heart that viewed all of life as under the protection and guidance of a heavenly Father. Spontaneous prayers arose because he had learned to live coram Deo, before God. Stamina—persevering day by day in regular seasons of prayer—is what Jesus asks for (Matt. 7:7). We cannot expect spontaneity unless we are disciplined in prayer on a daily basis.
Great pianists may appear to play effortlessly, but behind this display of seeming spontaneity are years of painstaking practice and discipline. If we only pray when we feel like it, we will never attain the heights that God intends for us.