Nehemiah 9 is a lengthy read but it is really an excellent prayer. Before I point out what is really cool about the prayer, we need some background. Israel has returned to the land after 70 years of exile in Babylon to find Jerusalem in rubble and themselves surrounded by their enemies. They begin rebuilding the temple and the wall. In the middle of this work, they stop to have a holy convocation. The prophet Ezra stands on a dais and reads and explains the Law to the people. They weep and confess their sins and then their leaders lead them in prayer. Having just heard redemptive history read to them, it naturally seeps into and informs their prayer.
The prayer breaks down into three movements: Creation to Abraham (6-8), The Exodus (9-21), The Promised Land (22-31) and then there is a response in 32-37 and an application in 38. In each movement, there is a statement about God. It is fascinating how Hebrew writing works these in this text. The first movement (6-8) it is about how God called Abraham out of Ur so the statement about God comes at the end as if it had been “called out” of the section. The second section (9-21) is about God’s covenant name and his commitment to his people to provide for them and dwell in their midst in the pillar of cloud and fire and in the tabernacle. This time the statement about God (a paraphrased of Exodus 34) comes in verse 17, right in the middle of the section just like the tabernacle in the middle of the camp. The final section (22-31) is about God’s repeated mercy to his people after their repeated failure of faithfulness. This time, the statement about God’s mercy is sprinkled throughout at many spots in the narrative, verses 27, 28, and 31. His mercy is repeated over and over again.
It is beautiful the way the text itself illustrates the meaning. The words state the truth, of course, but also the structure of the words is carefully done in order to illustrate the point as well. This shows the beauty of Hebrew poetry and the care they took in writing. The fact that it is poetry doesn’t diminish the truth, it decorates it so as to draw not only your attention but also your affection and appreciation for it.