Nehemiah was a Jew that was exiled after the fall of Jerusalem. He was the cupbearer to the Persian king which meant that he tasted everything that the king was about to drink. This was to keep the king from being poisoned. He was a friend of Ezra the priest but he was what we would call a layman. This book recounts the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem and the return of God's people.
The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.
Nehemiah introduces himself and gives us a date for the start of this book. He also tells us that he was in Iran (citadel of Susa). Men come from Jerusalem and he asks them about the people and the state of the city.
They said to me, 'Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.'
The report of the men from Judah is not good. They report that the city of Jerusalem is defenseless as its walls are torn down. In this time, all the important cities had walls and gates. It was shameful for the city to be in this shape.
When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
His first reaction in the midst of this very bad news was to turn to God. He mourned, fasted, and prayed which is a very good lesson for us today. When we see how nations turn away from faith in Jesus Christ, do we have the same reaction?
Then I said: 'O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.'
Now, Nehemiah lifts up prayers to God for his people. He starts by acknowledging who God is and asks for him to hear the prayers. He then confesses that they have sinned by not obeying the commands that God gave them through Moses. He is humble enough to include himself and his family in those who have sinned.
'Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, "If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name."'
Nehemiah's prayer turns to a promise that God made through Moses. God promised that, if his people would turn back to him, they would again be gathered in Jerusalem. Nehemiah knows that God keeps his promises and that gives him hope for the people and for Jerusalem.
'They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.' I was cupbearer to the king.
The prayer continues as he asks for God to hear the prayers of the people and to be with him as he talks with the king. It is striking in this prayer how little time Nehemiah spends asking God for things and how much time is spent in worship. This is a very difficult time and it seems that he could ask for many things for the people but he simply asks for the very presence of God with him in dealing with the king. We would do well to follow this pattern in our own prayers during difficult times.