Start with Prayer

Feast of St. Simon and St. Jude, Apostles

By Ed Little

A Reading from Nehemiah 1:1-11

1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, 2 one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. 3 They replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

4 When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. 5 I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. 7 We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses. 8 Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; 9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.’ 10 They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!”

At the time, I was cupbearer to the king.


More trouble! Will it ever end? The Jews had finally completed the task of rebuilding the temple, but Jerusalem remained in grave danger. Nehemiah, a Jewish royal official working for Persian King Artaxerxes, receives a report from back home: “The survivors there who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down…” (1:3).  The city’s walls were its protection — against invaders, against hostile external forces — and despite the renovation of Jerusalem, the walls remained unrepaired. Jerusalem was profoundly vulnerable.

We will see in later readings that Nehemiah was a man of action, skilled and politically savvy. But before he did anything, he took the most important first step: he prayed. And, surprisingly, he didn’t begin with a plea for help. Rather, he started with his own shortcomings: “Both I and my family have sinned.” He recognized that the Israelites’ failure to keep covenant with God triggered the chain of events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem, exile, and the city’s current defenseless state. Only after lamenting their sins (including his own) does he turn to the matter at hand, as he prepared to speak with King Artaxerxes: “O Lord… Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!”

Nehemiah’s prayer is a model for us. He starts in exactly the right place. Something’s wrong, he takes responsibility, and he throws himself on the mercy of God. When Christians pray the Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” — we are the spiritual descendants of Nehemiah. Prayer will turn to action. But we begin with a recognition that something’s wrong, and only at the foot of the cross can it be made right.

The Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little II was bishop of Northern Indiana for 16 years after serving parishes in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Joaquin. He is the author of three books; most recently: The Heart of a Leader: St. Paul as Mentor, Model, and Encourager (2020).

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