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.

A devotional examination of “delight to fear your name” (Nehemiah 1:11)

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

At the close of his prayer, Nehemiah describes God’s servants as those who “delight to fear your [YHWH’s] name.” Interestingly, out of the handful of commentaries examined, this author was unable to find a single comment on this quick phrase. However, this somewhat odd and seemingly paradoxical expression is certainly worthy of further study because undoubtedly it speaks volumes to fundamental questions about the source and nature of the believer’s delight, let alone his or her relationship with God.

יָרֵא means to fear, to hold in awe or deference. It connotes a level of honor and respect. And often, it is used to refer to the proper fear due to God (Holladay, 142). But paradoxically, Nehemiah’s words indicate that delight is found in fearing God’s name. (As is commonly known, “name” in the OT is often used to represent one’s essential characteristics. Therefore, this refers to those who fear God as He truly is.) However, this is very much contrary to common opinion; many live, act, and think as though pleasure is found in anything but God and His commandments. In fact, God is even called the “cosmic killjoy.” Contrary to this thought, Nehemiah demonstrates the belief that pleasure is found in fearing God, “that there is a kind of sweetness to the very experience of fearing God” as Piper says. Fear itself is a sweetness to the believer (Piper, “Kindness and Severity of God”).  As Piper further explains,

There’s a reason why people run away from scenes of terror in real life, but still go to movies to see the same terror. There’s a reason why no one wants to fall out of an airplane, but they will pay money at Valley Fair for the same sensation of falling. The reason is that we were created to be safely afraid of God. Everything else is an echo of this truth. We were made to be safely afraid of God, because when we are safely afraid of God—when there is no condemnation and we know that he is our Father and our Friend—then what remains in fear of God is deeply pleasant. (Piper, “Kindness and Severity of God”) In sum, Nehemiah’s description of the saint alludes to the reality that there is ironically greater pleasure found in living a life that honors God’s way and refuses the temporary and lesser sinful pleasures. That’s the paradox of “delighting to fear.” It’s not to say that fearing God won’t mean the forfeiting of some pleasures. But paradoxically, the forfeiting of such pleasures in the pursuit of reverencing God yields even greater, unshakable pleasure.

Nehemiah’s use of Pentateuchal conditions in his appeal (Nehemiah 1:8-9)

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

After extolling God, praising His works and faithfulness, confessing sin, and pleading for forgiveness, Nehemiah appeals to the stipulations and guarantees of the Mosaic Covenant. Allen calls this reference to the Mosaic Law the “crux of the prayer” (89). And this is an accurate assessment. Certainly, an appeal to scripture as a grounds for prayer indicates interpretive importance for how the former text applies to the latter. Therefore, the interpreter does well to further evaluate this exegetical issue.

It is quite clear that Nehemiah is referring to the Pentateuch. This is clear from (1) the fact that Nehemiah says, “Now, remember the word that you commanded Moses, your servant,” and (2) the obvious similarity between the words of Nehemiah’s prayer and the following texts from the Mosaic Law: Deut 4:25–31; 6:1; 7:9, 21; 9:29; 10:17; 12:5; 21:15; 28:64; 30:1-4; cf. Lev. 26:33, 39-42. Nehemiah was likely providing a loose recitation and summary of these various texts here, as one who is well-versed in scriptures might likewise do even today as he or she prays. As Frensham says, “Parts of it are free citation and part quoted verbatim,” but, either way, “it is a true reflection of what is said in Deuteronomy.” (155-156). Fensham notes that, in his reference, Nehemiah employs covenantal language. He thereby “sketches the result of sin” in verse 8. Yet at the same time, as was custom of Ancient Near Eastern treaties, the covenant curses are balanced with covenant blessings. By using the convenantally loaded verbs, שׁוב (return) and שָׁמַר (keep), Nehemiah indicates that “if one transgressed the stipulations [of the covenant], the curse would come into operation, but if one kept the stipulations, the blessings would be bestowed. It was an either/or choice.” (155)

Fensham concludes that, in making this reference and preferring those parts that refer to captivity and return from exile, Nehemiah sees these predictions and stipulations in the Law as applying to the events contemporaneous to his own day (156). Breneman understands the importance of Nehemiah’s appeal to scripture primarily in terms of Nehemiah’s reliance and utter dependence on the word of God. He observes that, although Nehemiah “had to come before God empty-handed, with nothing deserving the Lord’s favor . . .” he nonetheless was able to make an appeal based on God’s own promises and faithfulness. God may have predicted this situation, may have justly punished Israel due to her sin; but Nehemiah realized that God likewise predicted Israel’s restoration, and likewise promised restoration upon repentance. In other words, Nehemiah saw the current situation of exile as an unfinished portion of God’s story concerning His people. And Nehemiah made his appeal on the basis of this reality (173). Allen claims that by citing Deuteronomic texts, Nehemiah’s prayer exemplifies a liturgical form of expression (88). Allen argues that “repentance is the keynote of the prayer.” Because “God’s normative relationship with the covenant people . . .” was “beyond their reach . . .” Nehemiah’s references Deuteronomy in verses 8-9 serve as a divine instruction and exhortation to repent. Nonetheless, such repentance would only serve as an initiator for God’s gracious intervention (89). In other words, in distinction from Breneman, rather than interpreting Nehemiah’s use of Deuteronomy as a basis for his appeal, Allen sees the reference’s use as primarily exhortative. Throntveit, on the other hand, understands Nehemiah’s use of Deuteronomy as primarily indicating Nehemiah’s understanding that God was in fact in control of history in general and Israel’s current situation in particular. “This is to be seen as a testimony to God’s power and control of history. Israel is in God’s hands, not subject to the capricious machinations of human despots.” Thus, Nehemiah seeks to remind God that the lesson has been learned and the judgment effectively administered (65). It is time to move on to restoration.

In conclusion, this author believes that Breneman’s conclusion is the most accurate assessment of why Nehemiah appeals to Deuteronomy. His prayerful request is not an exhortation to the people (contra. Allen), but a petition to God. Just as he did so in verse 5, Nehemiah appeals to God as the God of the covenant made with Israel. Yes, this covenant involved judgment for disobedience. But upon repentance, this covenant promised blessing. To such sure guarantees, Nehemiah fashions his prayer.

Fear, God, and Delight–An Unexpected Combo?

Jumbo shrimp, airline food, just war, Microsoft Works, or my personal favorite, country music 🙂 — All of these might fall under a category titled oxymorons–a figure of speech containing self-contradicting components. Likewise, some individuals might also consider Nehemiah’s description of God’s servants in Nehemiah 1:11 as an equally oxymoronic phrase–those “who delight to fear” God’s name. …Give those words a second glance… “who delight to fear your name.” There’s so much in this phrase that runs contrary to our common conceptions. Most obviously, many of us would never pair fear and delight as companions, let alone a fear of God.

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