As in my last post, I will consider what the prayer of returned Jewish exiles to their parents’ homeland can teach us about prayer. In that previous post, we observed the prayer was offered to the God who created the universe and who continues to sustain his people. The exiles, as they continue their prayer, note the legacy of faith(lessness) that led to the praying of this prayer. They pray,
“You are the LORD, the God who chose Abraham and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous” (Neh. 9:7-8).
We pray to a God who takes initiative. God chose Abraham. God made a covenant with Abraham. God reached out to an individual intentionally and revealed to him a plan that would bless humanity. The plan would involve Abraham and his descendants living according to a formal agreement between God and his people whom he had chosen.
We pray to a God who remains faithful even when we do not. The prayer recounts the history of God’s relationship with Israel from Abraham through the Exodus to the exile of Judah to Babylon and the return of the children and grandchildren of those exiles to Palestine. The people pray, “And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea…,you divided the sea before them so they went through the midst of the sea on dry land… ,you led them…, you…gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments…,you gave them bread from heaven for their hunger.. their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell…you gave them kingdoms and peoples….you multiplied their children…, you gave them saviors…, when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many time you delivered them according to your mercies…you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets…you are a gracious and merciful God” (From Neh. 9:9-31). God sustained and protected his people. He provided for both their physical and spiritual needs. He kept his promises.
They noted, however, that “our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them…they rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them…” (From Neh. 9:16-30). They confessed the sins of their ancestors. Even though they themselves had resolved to turn from those sins, and in many cases had not committed those sins themselves individually, they recognized that the sins of their forefathers had created consequences that persisted in their generation. They prayed, “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” (Neh. 9:36). The sins of their ancestors still resonated through their society and caused them harm in their relationships with God and with one another.
We still pray to a God who remains faithful even when we do not. Consequences of sin by previous generations still persist and harm later generations. Almost certainly, some who joined in this prayer of Nehemiah 9 were descended from courageous servants of God who had remained faithful even as the society around them rebelled against the law of God. They still recognized that as part of a people, they shared responsibility for the consequences of sin committed by that people. When we reflect on the prayer of Nehemiah’s people, we learn what it means to be part of the people of God. We learn how to pray when a national legacy in which we share contains both elements that we cherish and elements that we find repulsive. Nehemiah, Ezra, and their contemporaries took pride in their ancestors’ historical relationship with God – God’s covenant with them, his sustaining of their ancestors, their conquest of a land and building of a great nation. They also recognized that many of their ancestors had acted shamefully. They suffered still from those sins of prior generations. Even when some of them did not, others did. I have struggled with praying about sins of previous generations when I have no evidence that I or my family had any part in committing that sin. This prayer made aware that I can pray the consequences of previous generations’ sins may end, even when I have no personal (or perhaps even familial) guilt for that sin. I realize that I share responsibility, if part of a group that sinned in the past, to correct aftereffects of that sin, even if I am not guilty of the sin myself.
The people prayed the prayer of confession in Nehemiah ended it by telling God that they were signing a written commitment to follow his commands. When we are baptized into Christ, we plead to God for a good conscience and we promise that we will follow his commands. When we partake the Lord’s Supper with other Christians, we confirm that we will follow God’s commands. We serve a God whose character does not change. He still creates, protects, and sustains. He still remains faithful even when we do not. Let us pray that, regardless of what previous generations have done or what our contemporaries may do, that we will remain faithful also. Let us pray that we may recognize the shadows of sins from previous generations and bring light where darkness still reigns. Let us pray that peace will replace fear, and that every person will be treated as if his or her life matters. Let us pray that we will review the word of God as Nehemiah and his contemporaries did, then do as they did by confessing the sins whose shadows still darken our lives, and by choosing to live faithfully for God, even when those who have gone before us have not.