Theological issues involved in Nehemiah’s request for God to observe his prayer (Nehemiah 1:6; cf. v.11)

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

In Nehemiah 1:6, Nehemiah begins his prayer with an introductory petition to God. He begins, “let your ear be attentive and your eyes be open to hear the prayer of your servant.” Although the casual reader will likely brush over this line without much notice or a second glance, this language prompts many exegetical and theological questions for the thoughtful interpreter. Some of these questions may be trivial or easily resolved, e.g., does God have ears, eyes, or a physical sort of body? But others are quite serious—what does this request imply about the nature of God, His impassibility, his omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, immutability, aseity, etc.?—and may even begin to touch on debates revolving around what has been called “process theology.” The careful exegete and interpreter, therefore, do well to investigate this matter in greater detail.

According to Fensham, this language denotes Nehemiah’s request for God to pay attention to His prayer (155). But does an omniscient, omnipresent God need to be reminded or requested to pay attention? On a complementary note, Breneman clarifies the issue by arguing that this language serves the rhetorical purpose of communicating a request to action. The Biblical testimony never exhibits doubt that God hears, observes, and notices the prayers of His people. In other words, “Nehemiah knew that God would hear.” That wasn’t the issue. “He was asking God to take action” (172). Williamson provides some evidential grounds for this kind of conclusion. He claims that Nehemiah’s manner of appeal, namely, an appeal to the activity of God’s sensing organs, was quite normal and would not have struck the original readers as so bizarre or necessarily theologically troublesome. Of exegetical significance, Williamson points out the obvious metaphorical nature of this language—“The superficially curious juxtaposition of ‘eyes’ and ‘hearing’ provides a fully intelligible metaphor. . . .” (173). Similar language is also used at the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8:29, 52 and 2 Chron 6:40, in which the meaning is clearly metaphorical, figurative, and poetic. On the other hand, Clines and Allen believe that this language is based on the ritualistic habits commonly involved in praying. Stating, “Prayer is not simply a verbal matter, but is also expressed by ritual actions and postures,” Clines claims that Nehemiah began his petition by requesting that God take notice of his physical acts of prayer, “his evident signs of grief” (138-139; cf. Allen, 92).

In conclusion, I find the metaphorical-figurative explanation the most compelling. Clearly, Nehemiah is appealing to God that God hears his prayer. But this does not imply that God otherwise might not be aware of Nehemiah’s cry. God is spirit, and therefore he does not have literal, physical, bodily eyes and ears. To use such language is to employ anthropomorphic language to express in human terms, in more understandable language, what might otherwise come across more abstractly. This conclusion is best supported by the following observations: (1) Williamson’s observation that the mismatched juxtaposition between God’s supposed eyes and hearing ability makes little sense if taken literally and (2) the parallels with 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chron 6 argue for an anthropomorphic use. Clines and Allen’s argument that Nehemiah was requesting that God take notice of Nehemiah’s prayer rituals is extremely stretched and unnecessary. Therefore, in sum, Nehemiah is appealing to God’s attentiveness, that is, that God might “hear” his prayer in the sense that God might respond positively to Nehemiah’s request. Rather than indicating a deficiency in God, Nehemiah demonstrates an utter dependence on God that displays the omnipotence of God.