The Praying Heart
By Arthur Wallis
"Break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord, till He come and rain righteousness upon you" (Hos. 10:12).
The fallow ground while it is untilled seems to suggest to us a state of complacency and of permanency, as though it had always been in that barren condition and there was no likelihood of its being otherwise. But when the plough has done its work what a different aspect it presents! True, it is still barren, but instead of an air of complacency it has now an air of expectancy, of hope, of desire. Before, it held its moisture and had no need of or desire for rain, but now it has become thirsty, as though it would cry out to heaven for the showers. Thus the connection between breaking up the ground and seeking the Lord is clear. It is only out of a heart ploughed deep that there proceeds that kind of praying that prevails with God and brings revival.
Such a heart, in full sympathy with the heart of the Eternal, beating with the pulse-beat of heaven, was that of Nehemiah. It is laid bare for us in the first chapter of his book, when news is brought to him, far away in captivity, of the desolations of Zion. "The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire" (v. 3). This was the situation which drew forth such burdened praying from the heart of Nehemiah.
Vision of the Need
Essential to the mighty intercession that is answered in revival is a clear vision of the need. What was it that so deeply moved this man of God? Firstly, it was the people of God "in great affliction and reproach." He saw "Ichabod" written across the nation, "the glory hath departed" (1 Sam. 4:21). The people who had been so mightily liberated by the outstretched hand of God were again in bondage. They had been so glorious and powerful and free in the eyes of men in the days that were past, and now they had been brought so low; this was the reproach that Nehemiah continually faced as he set to work to restore the situation. "They laughed us to scorn, and despised us" (Neh. 2:19); "What do these feeble Jews?" (4:2). "Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn their reproach upon their own head" (4:4). Since they were God’s people and called by His name, a reproach upon them was a reproach upon Him. The glory of God was involved. This is the situation today. God is jealous for His great name because His church, which should be "fair as the moon, clear as the sun, terrible as an army with banners" (Song 6:10), is all too often in bondage and affliction, the scorn and laughing-stock of the world.
Secondly, Nehemiah visualized "the wall of Jerusalem...broken down." The wall was the line of demarcation, that which separated those within from those without. A city without walls was defenseless, an easy prey to every enemy marauder. In a great measure it is true today that the walls of the city have been broken down, the church has lost her mark of separation, her defenses are departed from her, and she is vulnerable to every attack of Satan.
Finally, "the gates thereof are burned with fire." The gates were the key to the control of every city. In the gates sat the rulers of the city, the elders, the nobles, and the judges (Deut. 22:15; Job 29:7-10; Prov. 31:23). When the gates were burned, authority and dominion were destroyed, and the people were subdued. In the days of the early church "the gates of the city" were intact. God’s people knew the authority which was theirs in the name of Jesus, and in their preaching and their praying and their working they used to the full that authority. How seldom is that authority or that power wielded today. How few there are of whom it may truthfully be said: "They shall not be ashamed, when they speak with their enemies in the gate" (Psa. 127:5).
Before there can be a vision of the possibilities of the hour there must be a vision of the need of the hour. With many there is an unwillingness to face facts; the state of the church in general is so much the state of their own hearts that they are unmoved by the need of either. Such are "blind, seeing only what is near" (2 Pet. 1:9), to whom the Lord would say, "Thou sayest I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art the wretched one and miserable and poor and blind and naked" (Rev. 3:17). The need of the hour is for men of the stamp of Nehemiah to blow the trumpet in Zion and sound an alarm in God’s holy mountain, to open our eyes that we may "see the evil case that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire," and to bring the challenge, "Let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach" (Neh. 2:17).
Reaction to the Need
"And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days; and I fasted and prayed before the God of heaven" (1:4). In the reaction to spiritual need the state of the heart is revealed. The Savior could not look upon the multitudes going astray as sheep not having a shepherd without being moved with compassion. He could not look out over the Jerusalem that had heard His word and witnessed His power and yet rejected His message without weeping. How we need to pray, "Lord crucified, give me a heart like Thine." Such a heart had Nehemiah. If it had been otherwise he might have quieted his conscience and soothed his feelings with the thought that Jerusalem was far away, that he was well cared for in Shushan the palace, and that the desolations of Zion were no fault of his, so why need he be concerned? He could have argued that this situation was in consequence of the people’s sin – the other people’s; and that it was up to them, not him, to remedy it. He might have fortified himself in his indifference by asserting that the end of the dispensation was at hand, that judgment on their departure from God was predicted, and therefore there was no hope of recovery or of revival until the coming of Messiah. But how different was his attitude!
If this was a time when Jerusalem was tempted to say, "Jehovah hath forsaken me, and the Lord hath forgotten me," then God was ready to answer with the tenderness of a nursing mother for her child, "Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of My hands; thy walls [broken down though they may be] are continually before Me" (Isa. 49:14-16). It was the man after God’s own heart who was inspired to write long before, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee" (Psa. 122:6). Because Nehemiah’s heart was in sympathy with God he could not contemplate her afflictions without mourning, nor could he love her without weeping. Prevailing prayer requires a tender, compassionate heart, a deep solicitude for the glory of God and the good of His people. Nehemiah wept and mourned. While our praying is cold and formal and tearless we need not expect God to work for us as He did for Nehemiah. It is he that "goeth on his way weeping" who may expect to "come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him" (Psa. 126:6). "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted" (Matt. 5:4).
In the face of such a need heart-sorrow alone is not sufficient, for tears cannot remedy the situation. A godly sorrow, however, if it is created by the Spirit, will move the will to action. Said Nehemiah, "I fasted and prayed before the God of heaven." How seldom does the church of today turn in her overwhelming need to this old-fashioned, yet scriptural remedy. Other Old Testament saints like David (Psa. 109:24), Jehoshaphat (2 Chr. 20:3), Ezra (Ezra 8:21) and Daniel (Dan. 9:3) did not hesitate to fast in times of great pressure or when the need of the hour demanded it. Jesus not only fasted Himself (Matt. 4:2; John 4:31-34), but gave us important teaching on the subject. It is needful to point out that the Savior said, "When ye fast" (Matt. 6:16), not "if ye fast." He took it for granted that there would be times when His followers would feel this need, and so He predicted, "The days will come, when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they will fast" (Matt. 9:15).
The early church fulfilled this prophecy of Christ. It was out of a time of fasting that there proceeded those mighty church founding tours of Paul that turned the world upside down. He and Barnabas were separated for their special ministry "as they [with the other prophets and teachers at Antioch] ministered to the Lord and fasted" (Acts 13:2). It was with further fasting and prayer that they were sent forth by the church, and by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:3-4). It was "in fastings often" that the apostolic group commended themselves as ministers of God that they might give no occasion of stumbling (2 Cor. 6:3-5; 11:27). "Be ye imitators of me," exhorts the apostle, "even as I also am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). Many mightily used in revival, as well as others whose names will never be known till the day of revealing, have followed the example of Christ and the apostles, and given themselves wholly to prayer in this way. No rule can be laid down since Scripture does not. Factors of health and strength and general circumstances must be taken into consideration. Each must be led in such a matter by the dictates of the Spirit. But let us remember that a desperate situation demands desperate measures. Fasting is an indication that we mean business with God. "Ye shall seek Me, and find Me, when ye shall search for Me with all your heart," saith the Lord (Jer. 29:13).
Intercession for the Need
Nehemiah records the substance of the prayer he then offered, and it must surely be included amongst the greatest prayers of Scripture. Notice firstly how majestic is his conception of God. His appreciation of the greatness of Israel’s need is more than matched by his appreciation of the greatness of his God to deal with it. But for the latter, the former would have driven him to despair. Listen then to his prayer: "I beseech Thee, O Jehovah, the God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love Him and keep His commandments" (Neh. 1:5). Here is a heart that is filled with reverential awe for God, even that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Nehemiah had reason indeed to number himself amongst "Thy servants who delight to fear Thy name" (v. 11). How little is such an attitude towards God in evidence today, even amongst the saints. It is a mark of revival, however, and will be found wherever there are Christians who have paid the price for blessing; it is widespread when God comes down in power. Such a fear of God is possible only to those who have clear views of the majesty and holiness of the Lord on the one hand, and of His love and faithfulness on the other.
To Nehemiah God was not only "glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders" (Ex. 15:11), but He was also "gracious and full of compassion," "the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love Him" (Deut. 7:9). Nehemiah was able to prevail in prayer because he held God to be faithful and pleaded His promises. He reminded Him of what He had covenanted to do (Neh. 1:8) and pressed Him to fulfill it. This is a spiritual lever that never fails to move the hand that moves the world. This great principle characterized the praying of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and Daniel. All the mighty interceding of the ages that has ever shaken the kingdom of darkness has been based upon the promises of God. Why should we expect God to do what He has not agreed to do? Why should we expect Him to do less than what He has promised? Duncan Campbell says of those who were seeking God for revival in Lewis prior to the Awakening (1949), "They were possessed of the conviction that God, being a covenant-keeping God, must keep His covenant engagements. Had He not promised to ‘pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground’? Here was something that for them existed in the field of possibility; why were they not actually experiencing it? But they came at length to the place where, with one of old, they could cry ‘Our God...is able...and He will’" (The Lewis Awakening).
From this recorded prayer of Nehemiah two other important features emerge. Firstly, there is the earnestness and steadfastness which characterized his praying. "Hearken unto the prayer...which I pray before Thee at this time, day and night" (v. 6). We do not see here the passion or enthusiasm of the moment, soon to fade with the passage of time; nor yet the supplication that could be reduced to silence by reverses and disappointments. There was the will and the determination to win through, as we see by the fact that he prayed without ceasing. Here is surely an indispensable factor in prevailing prayer. Many who pray never obtain because they do not persevere. "In due season we shall reap, if we faint not" (Gal. 6:9) is certainly true of prayer. Many, alas, faint and drop out of the battle who began so well, because the "due season" did not arrive as soon as they expected, or because the price proved to be more than they were prepared to pay. There can be no "praying through" without that strong purpose wrought in the heart by the Spirit. Oh, that God may grant us the steadfast continuance that marked the praying of the upper room (Acts 1:14), and of the early church (Acts 2:42; 6:4). "It is time to seek the Lord till He come and rain righteousness upon you."
Secondly, there was the confession of Nehemiah mingling with his petitions. "I confess the sins of the children of Israel" (Neh. 1:6-7). He did not tell God how hardly they were being treated, nor did he make mention of their affliction and reproach; instead he exposed the root of the trouble – the sin of the people, laying it open before God in confession. This was the condition for the turning again of their captivity (1 Kgs. 8:46-49). There could be no restoration without repentance. Nehemiah could not force others to confess, but he could confess for them. This is an important feature in the work of intercession, identifying oneself not only with the need, but also with the sin of those for whom intercession is made. Moses did this (Ex. 32:31-32; 34:9), and so did Daniel (Dan. 9:4-14). But Nehemiah also confessed that both he and his circle were involved; for he says, "Yea, I and my father’s house have sinned. We have dealt very corruptly against Thee." He was ready to acknowledge that he and his family had contributed their quota to the iniquities of God’s people. Nor was he satisfied with generalizing, but stated wherein they had sinned, by uncovering the sorry tale of broken commandments, statutes, and judgments (v. 7). In our confessions we must be as specific and definite as in our petitions.
The Divine Answer
When Nehemiah commenced to seek God he may have had little idea how his prayers were to be answered and the situation recovered. Of one thing he could be certain, God would be faithful to His promises. But as he continued to press his case in the courts of heaven there was born in upon him by the Spirit the conviction that he himself was to be the instrument in the fulfillment of his own prayers, and that God had given him this place of influence in the Persian palace that he might use it for the good of Jerusalem. A new note comes into his praying: "Prosper, I pray Thee, Thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. Now I was cupbearer to the king" (v. 11). This revivalist "sought the peace of Jerusalem; prayed for it; and was willing to sacrifice wealth, ease, safety, and even life itself, if he might be the instrument of restoring the desolations of Israel" (Treasury of Scripture Knowledge). Perhaps even Nehemiah did not anticipate all the difficulties and dangers, the afflictions and sorrows that were to beset his path before the vision was fulfilled, but he was prepared to go through with God, committing the unknown to Him. "If...God command thee...thou shalt be able" (Ex. 18:23).
An intercessor cannot expect to prevail unless willing to be the instrument, if God should require it, in the fulfillment of the prayer. Moses had no doubt offered a thousand prayers for the deliverance of his people from Egyptian slavery, and how his heart must have been gladdened at the burning bush when the Lord said to him, "I am come down to deliver them" (Ex. 3:8), but what a bombshell when He added, "Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth My people" (v. 10). Similarly with the disciples, Jesus commanded them to pray that God would send forth laborers into the harvest, and then He sent out the twelve to become the answer to their own prayers (Matt. 9:38 – 10:1). Let all who would intercede for revival face up to the possible implications of their praying. Many a cherished ambition may be shattered. Many a smooth pathway of ease and safety may have to be exchanged for a thorny track, encompassed with dangers, afflictions, and reproaches. Do not pray for the outpouring of the Spirit unless, like Nehemiah, you mean to go through with God. Perhaps if some knew what was involved they would be imploring God not to send revival. "But the people that know their God [and can therefore trust Him] shall be strong, and do exploits" (Dan. 11:32).
The writer was once asked at the conclusion of a meeting, "Do you think that one person can bring revival?" "Yes," was the reply, "for God says, ‘I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and streams upon the dry ground’" (Isa. 44:3). This first chapter of Nehemiah shows us "him that is thirsty," and the ensuing chapters describe "the streams upon the dry ground." Nehemiah was prospered before the king, and he came to Jerusalem to survey the ruins of the city. He gathered the nobles and rulers about him, and when he had put the case before them he said, "Come and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach" (2:17). The waters had begun to flow out from the thirsty soul to the dry ground with their life-giving power. "Let us rise up and build," they responded. "So they strengthened their hands for the good work" (v. 18). The trowel is prepared, the sword is furbished, and the work begins. Many willing hands are grappling now with the situation, the purposes of God are moving forward apace, but let us not forget the prayers and the tears and the anguish of that one man who prevailed with God. We do not need the gifts of Nehemiah to prepare our hearts, seek the Lord, and prevail. It is thus that revival comes.
One further lesson from the story of Nehemiah is that there is nothing transient about the fruit of true revival. It is typified here by the figure of building. It is the purpose of God that something solid and stable, standing the test of time and eternity, shall emerge out of the spiritual upheavals of revival. The excitement will subside, certain features of the movement may pass away, but that building which is the workmanship of the Spirit, that which is God’s real objective, will abide. In the excitement of the incidentals, it is vital to keep the divine purpose in view, and build according to the pattern. Nehemiah did not require an architect to plan where the walls should be. He had but to build upon the old foundations, and to reconstruct the walls and gates as they were of old time. So today God desires us to build according to the apostolic pattern. There are stones hidden by the accumulated rubbish of the centuries that are still waiting to be uncovered. "Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish?" asked the scornful and incredulous Sanballat (Neh. 4:2). They will – they did! "So the wall was finished...and all the heathen that were about us feared, and were much cast down in their own eyes: for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God" (6:15-16). Here then is the fruit of a praying heart – a work manifestly wrought of God.
The epic story of Nehemiah demonstrates what God may achieve through one man rightly related to Him. God is not looking for men; He is looking for a man. His methods have not changed since the day He said through Ezekiel, "I sought for a man among them, that should make up the fence, and stand in the gap before Me for the land" (Ezek. 22:30). Is the reader concerned that no one else in the local church, the town, or the district seems burdened with the need of revival? Does the situation seem beyond hope? Give the Lord the channel of a thirsty soul, and there is no limit to what He may do. God is looking for a man, a woman, to stand in the gap; will you be that one?
– Reprinted from In The Day Of Thy Power by Arthur Wallis, © 1956 by Arthur Wallis. Used by permission of his family.