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Prayer of Repentance: Learning U-Turns from Nehemiah

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for as well as an online adjunct instructor for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His books include the Popular Handbook of World Religions (general editor), Real Life Theology: Fuel for Effective and Faithful Disciple Making (co-general editor), Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (co-authored with Norman Geisler).

What’s a prayer of repentance? In the Bible, “repentance” means a change in mind and behavior so that we go from doing whatever we feel like to living for God and doing what he says. So, a prayer of repentance is a prayer admitting that we have made wrong decisions and done wrong actions and committing to change with God’s help.

This article will focus on one of history’s greatest prayers of repentance, a prayer prayed by the ancient Jewish community as they returned from exile and recommitted to following God in the land God had promised them centuries before. The prayer is found in Nehemiah 9.

Prayers of Repentance Aren’t Easy!

This article will describe a type of prayer that is difficult. Although they usually feel right, after you’ve gotten past a threshold of inner wrestling, prayers of repentance aren’t easy. Prayers of repentance go against a deep-seated desire to justify ourselves, rather than seek forgiveness from God (what the Bible calls “justification”).

Rather than think about the wrongness of decisions we’ve made, most of us would rather ignore these things—or at least dress them up to make them somehow positive. Many of us like to take unhappy things and make them appear happy. But it doesn’t work with sin.

“Many of us like to take unhappy things and make them appear happy. But it doesn’t work with sin.”

Veggie Tales can get away with it, but that’s because they’re writing cartoons. The creators of Veggie Tales took the awful story of David and Bathsheba and turned it into the likable King George and the Ducky. While the Bible story was set during wartime, Veggie Tales made it into a pie war, where instead of killing people, they pied each other with pies.

In the real-life story, King David, who is already married, sees this beautiful woman named Bathsheba taking a bath. He shouldn’t be watching. He sends for her and brings her to the palace. She goes home, but later sends word that she is having a baby. In the Veggie Tales version, King George is a talking cucumber who really loves rubber duckies. He sees a rubber ducky in another yard that isn’t his. He uses coin-operated binoculars to get a better look and becomes very obsessive about having that rubber ducky.

Real story: David sends Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to war, puts him on the frontlines, and has all his men back away so that Uriah is killed. Veggie Tales: King George sends the rubber ducky’s owner, an asparagus, to the front lines of the pie war where he gets a pie in the face and temporary amnesia.

Real story: King David marries Bathsheba and then gets a visit from a prophet who tells him God is unhappy with him. Then the baby dies. Veggie Tales: King George gets a visit from a grape who tells him God is unhappy, and so King George brings the asparagus back to the castle and gives him his rubber ducky back.

Real story: This event causes David a ton of grief in chapter after chapter of the Bible as he loses the trust of his family and key people turn on him. Veggie Tales: All the vegetables live happily ever after.

“This event causes David a ton of grief in chapter after chapter of the Bible as he loses the trust of his family and key people turn on him.”

Again, it works when making a cartoon. It doesn’t work when you’re talking about a real-life choice between driving off a moral cliff and making a U-turn. There are things we’ve done which call for serious repentance—for which a Veggie Tales makeover won’t at all do the trick. There are choices we’ve made which are just plain sinful. They deserve to be brought before God with a heavy heart and repented of. Sometimes even wept over.

Repentance in Nehemiah’s Day

When it’s our tendency to take bad things we’ve done and give them the Veggie Tales treatment, Nehemiah chapter 9 in the Bible makes little sense to us. Nehemiah 9 takes something that was happy (a 7-day feast they celebrated in Nehemiah 8) and makes it intentionally unhappy (what we read about in Nehemiah 9).

Prayer of Repentance: “Nehemiah 9 takes something that was happy and makes it intentionally unhappy.”

Here’s the backdrop: Nehemiah is over the project of rebuilding his city, the city of Jerusalem. Decades before, the Babylonians had come against this city, starved it out, burned it down, crushed it into the ground. The people who didn’t starve or die by the fire or the sword were carried off into exile. It was such a horrific event that there’s an entire book in the Bible dedicated to grieving about it: Lamentations.

The next empire to come along, the Persians, have allowed the Jewish people to rebuild the city under the leadership of Nehemiah. The rebuilding starts and there’s pushback by some of the non-Jewish neighbors. But despite the hostility and the threats, the walls are completed. In Nehemiah 8, they celebrate by observing a 7-day feast called the Feast of Tabernacles. Although their people had celebrated this feast before, they have never celebrated like this. It is so full of joy and gratitude because the walls are up and they are back in their homes.

The happiness of Nehemiah 8 is what makes Nehemiah 9 so strange. It’s a total switch.

“On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.” (Neh. 9:1-3, NIV)

Prayer of Repentance: “They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.”

From Nehemiah 9:1-3, we’ll find some interesting answers to the following questions:

  • When does this take place? Only 2 days after the 7-day feast is over (the feast ends on the 22nd, Nehemiah 9 begins on the 24th)
  • What are they wearing? Sackcloth and dust
  • How long are they standing? Half the day (2 quarters of a 12-hour day = 6 hours)
  • What do they do for the first 3 hours? Listen to the Law being read
  • What do they do for the last 3 hours? Confess their sins and worship

This is starting to sound like it should be called “How Not to Grow Your Church 101.”

At least they had worship, right? But this wasn’t 3 hours at an outdoor Chris Tomlin concert. This was 3 hours worshiping God by confessing their sins. That can feel like spiritual surgery.

Repentance Means Confessing Instead of Complaining

They could have easily spent that prayer time complaining to God. The Babylonians had ruined their city. Sanballat the Samaritan was trying to thwart their rebuilding plans. Persia still had a lot of control over them. They had plenty to complain about.

But they’re not spending those hours complaining; they’re spending those hours confessing. These are my sins. These are our sins. These are the sins of our people. We’re not proud of what we’ve done.

Prayer of Repentance: “They’re not spending those hours complaining; they’re spending those hours confessing.”

You probably have a long list of groups of people you could bring before God and complain about. It might even take you longer than 3 hours to complain about them to God.

But if you’re in Nehemiah 9, you’re not spending 3 hours complaining about those guys. You’re spending 3 hours confessing about this one (i.e., yourself).

When Things Are in Ruins…

Why such a sad church service? Why stand in sackcloth for half the day listening to the law and confessing your sins? Yet we know why they’re doing it, and they’re totally right. They are rebuilding their nation and they don’t want it to fall back into ruins. In fact, they’re so right that we in our churches probably need a Nehemiah 9 season too.

Prayer of Repentance: “They are rebuilding their nation and they don’t want it to fall back into ruins.”

As in Nehemiah’s day, there are ruins all around us. In many of our churches, we’re not really loving people like the church should. In many of our churches, there’s apathy toward God and an ignorance of God’s Word. Many of our people are leaving Jesus behind for something else. In many churches, there’s ugly division and fighting. It’s easy to see the sins of people out there, and it can be hard to see the planks in our own eyes—but we’ve got them. We have our own ruins—whether in the culture, the church, or in our own lives and families.

When things are in ruins, you can’t just do church like normal. When things are in ruins, it’s time to rebuild. And if we want to rebuild, then, as we see in Nehemiah, we’ve got to repent.

A 33-Verse Prayer of Repentance

Here’s the prayer of repentance they prayed in Nehemiah 9. The people stood and prayed along.

“Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.

“You are the Lord God, who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and named him Abraham. You found his heart faithful to you, and you made a covenant with him to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Girgashites. You have kept your promise because you are righteous.

Prayer of Repentance: “You have kept your promise because you are righteous.”

“You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea. You sent signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take.

“You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses. In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them.

“But they, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and they did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, ‘This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt,’ or when they committed awful blasphemies.

Prayer of Repentance: “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them.”

“Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not fail to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. For forty years you sustained them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen.

“You gave them kingdoms and nations, allotting to them even the remotest frontiers. They took over the country of Sihon king of Heshbon and the country of Og king of Bashan. You made their children as numerous as the stars in the sky, and you brought them into the land that you told their parents to enter and possess. Their children went in and took possession of the land. You subdued before them the Canaanites, who lived in the land; you gave the Canaanites into their hands, along with their kings and the peoples of the land, to deal with them as they pleased. They captured fortified cities and fertile land; they took possession of houses filled with all kinds of good things, wells already dug, vineyards, olive groves and fruit trees in abundance. They ate to the full and were well-nourished; they reveled in your great goodness.

“But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies. So you delivered them into the hands of their enemies, who oppressed them. But when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers, who rescued them from the hand of their enemies.

Prayer of Repentance: “When they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them.”

“But as soon as they were at rest, they again did what was evil in your sight. Then you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies so that they ruled over them. And when they cried out to you again, you heard from heaven, and in your compassion you delivered them time after time.

“You warned them in order to turn them back to your law, but they became arrogant and disobeyed your commands. They sinned against your ordinances, of which you said, ‘The person who obeys them will live by them.’ Stubbornly they turned their backs on you, became stiff-necked and refused to listen. For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you gave them into the hands of the neighboring peoples. But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.

“Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love, do not let all this hardship seem trifling in your eyes—the hardship that has come on us, on our kings and leaders, on our priests and prophets, on our ancestors and all your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria until today. In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly. Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our ancestors did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the statutes you warned them to keep. Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways.

Prayer of Repentance: “In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.”

“But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.” (Neh. 9:5b–37, NIV)

Then they renewed their covenant with God.

The Basis for Asking for God’s Help

Did you notice a pattern throughout this prayer in Nehemiah 9? A pattern throughout the prayer went like this: Things got bad for us. We cried out to God. God saved us. Then, we got lazy and forgot God. Then things got bad for us…

For example, things got bad in Egypt, but after God rescued them, they forgot him. In the Promised Land, they broke the laws he gave them, so he gave them over to their enemies, but after God rescued them, they again forgot him. He sent them prophet after prophet, whom they rejected and even killed. The prayer ends with them back in trouble: “We are in great distress.”

Based on this pattern over and over, can you guess the reason they didn’t give for why he should help them now? They did not say, “So you should help us, because we’ve been so faithful to you.” They did not say, “You should help us because we’ve held up our end of the bargain.” No, they hadn’t held up their end of the deal, so they come before God and say, basically, “We’re not coming to you for help because we’re faithful. We’re coming to you for help because you’re faithful. Please help us.” And that’s repentance.

Repentance Starts with “Oh yeah!”

Here’s what we learn about how to repent from this prayer:

  • When things are in ruins, it’s time to rebuild.
  • If you want to rebuild, you’ve got to repent.
  • If you want to repent, you’ve got to remember.

Do you know where repentance starts? It starts with saying, “Oh yeah! There’s a God!” That’s how their prayer starts (Neh. 9:5b-15). They remember that it is God who created them (Neh. 9:5b-6), it is God who has done great things in their past (Neh. 9:7-12), and it is God who has told them how to live (Neh. 9:13-15).

For many years, the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a prisoner in Communist Soviet Union for speaking out against Stalin and communism. Later, after he got out of prison, he was exiled from Russia. In a speech he gave at Buckingham Palace in London, he said that he’d spent 50 years writing and researching all the destruction of his nation and trying to figure out how it all happened. Solzhenitsyn’s speech concluded like this:

“If I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’”

Prayer of Repentance: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

He wasn’t in Russia at the time; he was in Britain. So why was he telling them that in Britain? It’s because they were in danger of forgetting God. We in the West are in grave danger of forgetting God.

Repentance starts with remembering God: “Oh yeah! I remember God!”

This is the pattern we find in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. The young man has been off having so much fun that he’s spent all his money, lost all his friends, and hired himself out as help on a farm where he’s feeding the pigs. And he’s jealous of the pigs because they’re eating so much better than he is.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!…So he got up and went to his father.” (Luke 15:17–20a, NIV)

Prayer of Repentance: “When things are in ruins, it’s time to rebuild. If you want to rebuild, you’ve got to repent. And if you want to repent, you’ve got to remember.” 

When things are in ruins, it’s time to rebuild. If you want to rebuild, you’ve got to repent. And if you want to repent, you’ve got to remember. Oh yeah! I remember my Father. Life was good in my Father’s house. I remember he loved me; he took care of me.

And when we have our “Oh yeah!” moment, we’re honest about the mess we’ve made of ourselves, and we go back to God in repentance, how does our Father respond?

“…But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20, NIV)

Now what?

Repentance is part of what the Bible calls being “born again.” One of the steps of placing our faith in Jesus is to repent of our sins. Repentance is a change of mind and heart and behavior. It’s an “Oh yeah!” as you remember God and choose to return to him.

“The Lord…is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9, NIV)

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38, NIV)

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

If you’ve already placed your faith in Jesus and are born again, repentance becomes part of the lifestyle, as we regularly remember God, repent of our sins, and let him rebuild when we’ve broken something.

A Simple Parable of Repentance

Picture a small school where everyone, K-8th grade, shares the same kitchen. Imagine that Johnny the middle schooler walks into the kitchen to get his lunchbox, and he notices that over on the counter there are about two dozen cupcakes just lying there on the counter. They look good. And no one else is in the kitchen.

Johnny inches over to the cupcakes to see what kind they are—lots and lots of delicious blue frosting. And Johnny thinks, There are so many, no one will mind if I—and reaches out to grab one when in walks Miss Twiddle, the preschool teacher. Immediately, he pulls his hand back, and he starts walking away.

Now, why didn’t Johnny go ahead and take the cupcake? It’s because Miss Twiddle is watching. He still wants to take the delicious blue frosting cupcake, but he can’t. Now, let’s say that Miss Twiddle says, “Well, hi, Johnny! Don’t those cupcakes look nice?”

“Well, yes they do, Miss Twiddle.”

And Miss Twiddle says, “Well, you can take one if you like.”

Johnny says, “Wow! Really?”

Miss Twiddle says, “Oh sure, you can have two. My preschoolers made them today during class. They’re made of toothpaste! Aren’t they cute?”

Now, what just happened? Johnny no longer wants the toothpaste-covered cupcakes.

“Now, what just happened? Johnny no longer wants the toothpaste-covered cupcakes.”

He changed his mind. That’s how repentance works.

Are you ready to change your mind about the way to live? As in, are you ready to see sin for what it is (as a waste of life) and return to your Father and live as his child? That’s called repentance, and God invites you to repent of your sins and return to him.