Toward the end of the book of Nehemiah, after the wall was rebuilt, we see a section where the leaders of Judah help the people to pray in repentance. These prayers are worth seeing. They show us a solid model to follow in how we might ask God for mercy while confessing our own or our nations’ sin.
Nehemiah 9:32-37 – 32 “Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day. 33 Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. 34 Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them. 35 Even in their own kingdom, and amid your great goodness that you gave them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you or turn from their wicked works. 36 Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. 37 And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress.
In verse 32, the prayer begins, Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love.” The people begin a prayer of repentance by properly acknowledging the Lord. They see God in his perfect character, and they praise him. How do they praise? They do not seek things to make up about God to make him sound a certain way. Instead, they just describe who God is, and that puts the prayer in a worshipful context.
The people continue in verse 32 , “let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day.” That prayer is a call for mercy. The people of Judah have suffered. They are continuing to suffer in many ways. And they declare it clearly to the Lord. In all of the biblical prayers for help that we see, we never see people minimizing their own pain or their own previous hardships. Prayer should properly include us declaring the truth of our pain to the Lord. There is nothing to be gained by us pretending that we have not suffered or that we are not sorrowful in certain areas of life. Our God is loving and gracious. He will hear us when we speak truth to him.
Then comes what first caught my attention when reading this passage, verse 33, “Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly.” This is something that is so often missing in the prayers and declarations of modern people. The people declare that, though they have suffered, God is perfectly righteous. Judah knew that, based on the word of God, they had received exactly what God had promised they would receive for rebelling against him. The people knew that enslavement to empires such as Assyria, Babylon, and Persia were the promised consequences for turning against the Lord. And in the verses that follow, we see the people clearly admit to the Lord how they and their leaders had failed to follow the Lord.
Part of a good prayer of confession is to admit what we have done wrong as we acknowledge that the Lord, his ways, and his actions are always right. This does not mean that we do not ask for mercy. This does not mean that we do not ask God to lift from us the consequences we deserve. But a good prayer of confession will always praise the Lord for his justice as we declare the truth of our need for grace.