The Prayer Of The Cupbearer

The Prayer Of The Cupbearer

I like to stay informed of what’s going on in the world, but the main outlets to learn this information have a way of explaining things in such inflammatory ways that it’s hard to read the news without becoming upset. And that sucks me into a nosedive of frustration and despair that is difficult to recover from. Hours later I’m still trying to refocus my attention. Let me know if any of you have discovered the secret of staying informed without wanting to break something.

Wouldn’t it be great if your first reaction to the news was to pray? I’m not talking about a quick effortless prayer, but the kind of prayer that takes you out of your routine and puts you in a posture of submission before and dependence upon the King of kings and Lord of lords. That’s the example we have in our passage this morning.

Last week, we were introduced to Nehemiah. The first trait about him the text reveals his concern for the people of God. He shows compassion for them by inquiring about their well being. He wanted to know how the people were doing and how the city was holding up. Although he was in a position that was unaffected by the return from exile, his concern was with the people who did return and those who had remained. The Lord had placed his spiritual and ethnic brothers and sisters upon his mind and heart.

Fallen humanity is quite easily driven into fearful self-preservation. News outlets and social media have made their fortunes by stoking these baser reactions. Instead of trusting God, they despise him for putting them in their predicament.

Believers should have a different response.

Distressing news ought to provoke heartfelt prayer that is personal, inspired, and confident.

Read Nehemiah 1:1-11.

I. Pray With  Devotion  (4) 

Nehemiah has just heard the report about the distressing situation in Jerusalem (v.3). The moment he heard the news, he responded with heartfelt prayer. His response did not simply take him out of his routine for a couple of minutes or even a few hours. His routine was wrecked for several days, which led to months of prayer and fasting!

We will find Nehemiah to be a man of superior administrative abilities. He is the kind of person who attacks his work and doesn’t like to let up. He is not an indecisive leader. But before he attempts anything, he cries out to the Lord. 

Nehemiah’s emotional commitment, the depth of his insight, and his patient devotion to prayer builds the foundation for all of the short prayers throughout the book. Which, depending upon how you divide the passages, is anywhere between 9-12 separate prayers.

The devastating news of the state of the city and remnant in Jerusalem left Nehemiah mourning for days which was followed by months of fasting and praying. We know it was about 4-5 months because he began in November/December (“Chislev” 1:1) and continued until March/April (“Nisan” 2:1).

Unfortunately, fasting is so misunderstood today that few Christians practice it properly or with any regularity. Some use it like a lucky charm to try to win God’s favor. But the vast majority of Christians avoid it altogether. Why is that? My guess is that they simply don’t understand it.

I remember asking one of my pastors while we were in seminary if Presbyterians believed in fasting. I genuinely wanted to know because, in the three years I had been attending churches in the PCA, I had never heard about it. Fasting should not be so uncommon that you can’t remember the last time you thought to fast.

Fasting is abstaining from food for various lengths of time and for a particular purpose. It is oftentimes associated with mourning, but it could also relate to a specific burden that is heavy on your heart. You generally do them personally, but there are examples of corporate fasts in Scripture (Ezra 8:21-23Esther 4:16Acts 27:9). Fasting has a lengthy pedigree that is biblical, historical, and commendable.

One simple test to know if you are trusting God is to consider how devoted you are to prayer. Do the concerns of the moment drive you to the throne room of grace? How long do you remain there? Do you pray for a few minutes, a couple of hours? Have you prayed about anything for 5 months?

I know these questions are probably convicting. In fact, some of us probably need to spend considerable time repenting for our lack of devotion to prayer.

Jesus modeled the character and content of prayer and fasting for his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:5-18). He expected his hearers to pray and fast (“When you pray…” and “When you fast…”).

When we invest the time to pray, we are recognizing our dependence upon God and the help of the Holy Spirit.

› As we turn to the content of Nehemiah’s prayer we see characteristics common to biblical prayer. The first of which is “Adoration”.

II. Pray With  Adoration  (5-6a) 

Nehemiah begins his prayer with a few titles and attributes of God. He starts his prayer with an acknowledgment of the One to whom he is praying. He acknowledges God’s greatness, awesomeness, His covenant faithfulness and steadfast love.

Adoration is what prevents our intimacy in prayer from becoming flippancy. Unfortunately, the word “awesome” has been overused to the point that we no longer recognize it’s association with “fear”. God’s awesomeness demands our reverence. 

I often refer to God’s transcendence and immanence. God is far above the creatures of his creation (“God of heaven”), but he also draws near to us through the covenant. The Old Testament frequently mentions God’s “steadfast love”, which refers to his covenant faithfulness.

Nehemiah also recognizes his dependence upon God’s merciful willingness to hear his prayer. It is a prayer that he has been praying continually (“day and night”). The depth of his burden is matched by the consistency of his prayer life.

Prayers of adoration can be found all over the Bible, but especially in the Psalms. Hymn writers fill their songs with words of adoration. Oftentimes, the pastoral prayer borrows language from the songs (hymns and psalms) we just finished singing.

Prayer should open with words of praise and adoration for who God is and what he has done. We reflect upon God’s character. You should take stock of God’s attributes and reflect upon the God to whom you are praying. This will inevitably cause you to reconsider the way you bring your petitions before him and pour out your burdens upon him.

› Adoration will naturally lead us into confession as we are humbled by the power and majesty and holiness of our Sovereign God.

III. Pray With  Confession  (6b-7)

Nehemiah accepts his own part in the corruption that plagued the Jews post-exile. “Even I and my father’s house have sinned.” He knows he is guilty before God. While the words of his prayer do not reveal specifics, we can be certain that his heart is open before the Lord. He is not concealing anything from him.

Notice too that his repentance includes the corrupt ways in which they have acted as well as the commandments, statutes, and rules they have neglected to keep. He confesses their sins of omission as well as their sins of commission. He needed to repent of the good they failed to do as well as the evil they did.

Nehemiah knows that the remnant who survived the exile needed to be forgiven. But forgiveness is never granted to those who lack repentance. So his prayer models what true confession involves.

Ezra & Nehemiah Mea Culpa

When The Times of London invited several authors to respond to the theme “What’s Wrong with the World?,” Chesterton’s contribution took the form of a letter: 

Dear Sirs, 
I am. 
Sincerely yours, 
G. K. Chesterton 

Corporate confession of sin is not generic and distant. There is a recognition of personal culpability that is completely countercultural in today’s finger-pointing atmosphere. At a time when everyone in the country wants to blame someone else for their situation, Christians ought to model humility and repentance.

But, let me be clear. What compels repentance is not the perceived humility it portrays to the outside world. It’s the genuine, inward sense of guilt. We are not simply going through the motions, even when we spend a brief time confessing our sin in the service. 

This takes us back to v.3, where we heard of the “great trouble and shame” of the remnant. We confess our sin because we feel the need to be forgiven. And here’s the key: none of us are guiltless standing before a perfectly holy God.

Yet, for anyone who places their faith in Jesus Christ, he bears the full weight of God’s wrath—including their guilt and shame—in his death on the cross!

While repentance involves mourning over our sin, it doesn’t leave us there, but through the apprehension of the mercy of God held out to us through Jesus Christ, repentance leads us to Scripture’s promises of assurance.

› This is one reason it is so important to…

IV. Pray With  Scripture  (8-9) 

Nehemiah patches together language from a hodge-podge of biblical references. He heavily leans upon Deuteronomy, nearly quoting it verbatim at times. God’s prophets foretold the exile and also left the remnant with the remedy—they would be able to return to the land when they return to God.

Raymond Brown mentions that in Nehemiah’s prayer we hear echoes Moses, Solomon, David, Jehoshaphat, Daniel, and Ezra. “He is not simply inspired by their example; his prayer is enriched by their language.”

I’ve already mentioned how the psalms can serve as a sort of road map for prayer. Whether praying individually or corporately, the Psalms should serve a regular companion. But as we spend time reading the Word of God, it’s language will begin to fill our minds and hearts as we speak to God.

Allow me to quote Charles Spurgeon at length on this point:

Oh, that you and I might get into the very heart of the Word of God, and get that Word into ourselves! As I have seen the silkworm eat into the leaf, and consume it, so ought we to do with the Word of the Lord—not crawl over its surface, but eat right into it till we have taken it into our inmost parts. It is idle merely to let the eye glance over the words, or to recollect the poetical expressions, or the historic facts; but it is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in Scriptural language, and your very style is fashioned upon Scripture models, and, what is better still, your spirit is flavored with the words of the Lord.

I would quote John Bunyan as an instance of what I mean. Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like the reading the Bible itself. He had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems — without continually making us feel and say, “Why, this man is a living Bible!” Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God. I commend his example to you, beloved. 

Biblical language should be so familiar to us that it influences our communion with God and one another. We ought to pray with the bible opened before us. The promises of God should be at the forefront of our minds and on the tip of our tongues.

› Those promises are the very means God uses to strengthen our faith. It is why we can…

V. Pray With  Confidence  (10-11) 

Ezra 4:21 records for us how Artaxerxes put an end to the work in Jerusalem. Surely, this gave pause and weight to Nehemiah’s desire to see the work resume. However, his earthly circumstances were met by heavenly promises of restoration.

The same “servants” that God has redeemed by his “great power” and “strong hand” (10) are now crying out with Nehemiah in prayer (11). Although he is praying alone, it is as if prayer ushers him into the same room as the remnant in Jerusalem. He knows that their prayers are a collective chorus filling God’s attentive ears.

Nehemiah: A Pastoral and Exegetical Commentary 5. Nehemiah’s Prayer Is Shared by Others (1:11)

All too often believers underestimate the power of corporate prayer. It unifies, encourages, and inspires the people of God—all necessities for doing God’s work, as seen in the book of Nehemiah.

While this prayer is only an example of how Nehemiah prayed day and night, if he concluded with a similar request each time, then he potentially prayed for success before the king “today” up to 300 times before God answered his request and orchestrated the opportunity recorded in the next chapter!

While we pray with confidence, we also recognize the value of patiently waiting for God.


Okay, let’s see how well you paid attention!

1. Pray With  Devotion 

2. Pray With  Adoration 

3. Pray With  Confession 

4. Pray With  Scripture 

5. Pray With  Confidence 

We noted the importance of Nehemiah’s role as cupbearer to the king last week. It’s typical introductory material. Which makes it somewhat surprising to find it at the end of the first chapter instead of the beginning. By placing this information after the prayer, Nehemiah is hinting that the divine strategy is about to unfold. God is on the verge of relieving the distressing tension his people are under.