Nehemiah’s prayer in chapter one explains why the restoration of the Jews to the Promised Land during the Persian period was lackluster. Having received word in Persia that the people in Jerusalem were in trouble and that the walls and gates of the Holy City were lying in ruins, Nehemiah immediately turned to the God of heaven. In his prayer, he confessed the sin of his people, the sin that had led to the Babylonian exile in the first place (vv. 1–7). With the king’s permission, Nehemiah left for Jerusalem around 445 BC, almost two generations after the first exiles had returned. That he acknowledged the sins of Israel, expressing sorrow for them, indicates that even though a number of the people were back, impenitence still characterized much of the nation. This impenitence explains why the restoration did not match the glorious words uttered about it by the earlier prophets, for as Nehemiah’s prayer also acknowledged, full restoration was contingent upon true repentance (vv. 8–9).
The prayer recorded in today’s passage is remarkable for its emphasis on the Lord’s covenant faithfulness, which God displayed not only in blessing His people but also in bringing about the curses that He warned of in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. God is by nature faithful and thus keeps His promises, so when Israel flagrantly violated the terms of the covenant and refused to repent, they reaped the consequences. Nehemiah was unafraid to acknowledge both sides of God’s covenant faithfulness, and so this prayer stands as a model to us. Oftentimes, we speak of the Lord’s fidelity to us only when we are experiencing great blessing. Yet the faithfulness of God to His Word also involves disciplining us for sin, so we ought not think that He is being less than true to His covenant when we feel the hard but loving hand of His chastisement (Heb. 12:3–11).
Ultimately, Nehemiah would go back to Jerusalem and lead a great reformation in Israel, but he recognized that reformation of the covenant community had to begin in heartfelt repentance. This predated any change in the structures of society. The same principle is in action under the new covenant. Righteous laws can be passed in our land, but there will be no lasting change unless and until the church gets its own house in order. Judgment always begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).
The most important reformation of all is the reformation of the church. When the people of God return to Him and submit themselves anew to the Word, then the Lord moves in powerful ways among them. Submission to the Word is achieved each day through repentance and our renewal of our vows to serve Him, and we also help foster reformation when we do what we can to ensure the Word is preached faithfully in our churches.