Jesus was asked to give instructions on how we should pray. What is the first instruction on the list? The first instruction He wanted to emblazon in our heads and hearts was this: Pray by saying, “Our Father”. But, He didn’t stop there. The next words were “who is in heaven”.
One of the disciples of Jesus said to Him, “Teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples. And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven“–Luke 11:1-2
“Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.”
I used to think that the phrase “who is in heaven” wasn’t really pertinent or important, but was simply added by Jesus as a description of God used to differentiate Him from an earthly father or another god. After all, the modern NIV and NAS versions of Luke don’t include “which is in heaven”. But since I have studied Nehemiah, I am wondering if Jesus was revealing a vital component to prayer.
Could it be that Jesus was telling us to make a conscious and deliberate effort to link God with heaven when we pray? Is he seriously asking us to recognize heaven along with God, or is it just flowery descriptive language used to adorn God? Why would it be important that we make a conscious effort to link God with heaven in our prayers? If you are going to pin God to a location, why not go along with the majority of the Old Testament and say “God of Israel” (197 times), or ” God who dwells in Zion” (Joel 3:17 and so many more)? Why did Jesus change the emphasis away from Israel, Zion, the holy hill, Jerusalem, and begin to specify heaven? Could it be valuable for us to call upon God in the context of heaven instead of Zion? Why the big deal about God’s location when you pray? Does this change in location affect our faith? Is there additional power that comes when we consciously recognize the locale of heaven when we pray? Does scripture give us a clue?
Let’s ask Nehemiah. He holds the key. If you will continue to read, Nehemiah will challenge you to consider this in ways that no else will. He holds a place in scripture that belongs to no one else. I guarantee it.
In his 1877 sermon called Ejaculatory Prayer The great orator, Reverend Charles Spurgeon, made a keen observation about Nehemiah. He looked at every prayer and phrase and discovered that Nehemiah had a consistent habit of always linking God to the arsenal and command center of heaven. Nehemiah always linked God to heaven. Spurgeon declared: “That was Nehemiah’s favorite name of God—the God of Heaven. He knew to whom he was praying. He did not draw a bow at a venture and shoot his prayers anyway, but he prayed specifically to the God of Heaven“.
“Specifically to the God of Heaven”…Hmm.
This caught my attention. I began to notice that it was the Babylonian and Persian captives (Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah) who were the primary people in scripture to begin to address the Lord with the location title of the “God of Heaven”. With a few exceptions like Jonah, most of the Old Testament saints had previously used location titles like God of Zion, God of Israel, etc. The Persians helped to change that. F.F. Bruce’s book Israel and the Nations, Knight and Gulka’s book Revelation of God, and Albert Barnes Commentary all say that the title “God of Heaven” was originally a Persian title used by their religious clerics to describe the God of the Jews. Many theologians believe that the Wise Men (Maji) who followed the star of the “God in heaven” to find the young Jesus were from Persia. Apparently the Persians with all their distortions had a true revelation about God! They viewed Him as the God of Heaven. The Jewish captives benefited from their captivity because they saw this truth and adopted it. God will use donkeys and heathen nations to speak to His people.
Let’s take a close look at the times Nehemiah called out to the “God of Heaven”
When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.–Neh. 1:4
I said, “I beseech You, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments–Neh. 1:5
Then the king said to me, “What would you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.–Neh.2:4
So I answered them and said to them, “The God of heaven will give us success; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem.”–Neh 2:20
In other instances Nehemiah continually linked God to heaven in his prayers. The truth is, Nehemiah hardly talked about God without linking Him to heaven.
One time Nehemiah made the link by declaring that God is the Lord who made heaven. In the following scripture Nehemiah gives us a key and reveals that when he thinks of the heaven of heavens, he is thinking of an army (host). When he calls to the God of heaven, he is thinking about God and all of the agents available to obey His command.
You alone are the LORD . You have made the heavens, The heaven of heavens with all their host, The earth and all that is on it, The seas and all that is in them. You give life to all of them And the heavenly host bows down before You.–Neh. 9:6
Nehemiah says that although God physically came down to Mount Sinai, God still spoke from heaven and not from Mount Sinai.
Then You came down on Mount Sinai, And spoke with them from heaven; You gave them just ordinances and true laws, Good statutes and commandments.–Neh. 9:13
In another portion of prayer, Nehemiah declares that God provided bread from heaven.
You provided bread from heaven for them for their hunger, You brought forth water from a rock for them for their thirst, And You told them to enter in order to possess The land which You swore to give them.–Neh.9:15
Nehemiah draws a parallel that God made the population as numerous as the stars…in heaven.
You made their sons numerous as the stars of heaven, And You brought them into the land Which You had told their fathers to enter and possess.–Nehemiah 9:23
Nehemiah declared that God doesn’t just hear prayers, but that He distinctly hears them from…heaven.
Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them, But when they cried to You in the time of their distress, You heard from heaven, and according to Your great compassion You gave them deliverers who delivered them from the hand of their oppressors.–Nehemiah 9:27
Again, God hears from heaven.
But as soon as they had rest, they did evil again before You; Therefore You abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they ruled over them. When they cried again to You, You heard from heaven, And many times You rescued them according to Your compassion–Neh. 9:28
God and heaven, God and heaven, God and heaven. Nehemiah linked God with heaven. It permeated his mind. It was imprinted in him to recognize the link between God and heaven. It was a very conscious effort on his part to do this. He was careful to write it this way for us to read. He could never separate the two. He understood, like King Nebuchadnezzar before him, “that it is Heaven that rules“–Daniel 4:26
By the way, did Jesus make a habit of linking God with heaven when He prayed?
Look at Mark 7:34, Luke 24:50, John 17:1, Luke 9:16, John 11:41.In these prayers, Jesus physically demonstrates his awareness of the God-Heaven link by raising His head towards heaven, raising His eyes towards heaven, or lifting His hands toward heaven while praying to God. His actions linked God with heaven.
Look at Matt.11:25, Matt. 5:48, Matt.23:9, Matt. 7:11, Matthew 7:9-11, Matt. 18:10, Matthew 18:14 , Matthew 6:26, Matthew 5:16, Matt. 6:14, Matt. 18:35, Matt. 6:32, Luke 11:13, Matt. 15:13, Matt. 10:32, Mark 11:25, Mark 11:26, Matt.5:45, Matt.12:50, Matt. 10:33, Matt. 7:21, Matt.6:1, Matt.18:19, Matt.16:17. In these scriptures, Jesus kept calling God “Heavenly Father”,”Father in Heaven”, and “Lord of Heaven and Earth”. His words consistently linked God with heaven.
Jesus shows us that he was very conscious in recognizing the combined power of both God and heaven when He readily says without pausing, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?“–Matt. 26:53.
This is so important that I am going to say it in caps. JESUS UNDERSTOOD THAT GOD THE FATHER WORKED IN CONJUNCTION WITH THE FORCES OF HEAVEN. HE IS THE “FATHER IN HEAVEN”. HE IS THE “GOD OF HEAVEN”. JESUS PRAYED WITH A VISION OF GOD AND ALL HIS FORCES. IT APPEARS THAT NEHEMIAH PRAYED WITH THIS SAME UNDERSTANDING (Neh. 9:6).
Nehemiah’s example ties in perfectly with how Jesus taught us to pray. Jesus said to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven”. You see, no old testament saint exemplified the Lord’s Prayer any better than Nehemiah. Nehemiah prayed to the “God who was in Heaven” and as a result he fulfilled the phrase in the Lord’s prayer which said, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven“. Nehemiah got a vision, burden, and a plan from heaven and built it here on earth.
Ask yourself this question: What is the largest structure ever built by a biblical author? Was it the Ark? Was it the Tabernacle of Moses? Was it Solomon’s Temple. No, it was Nehemiah’s wall. Josephus states that the circumference of old Jerusalem was 33 stadia, which equals 4.5 English miles.
No biblical author did it any bigger than Nehemiah! Nehemiah holds the record. Nehemiah’s wall was the largest physical manifestation in the Old Testament of God’s will being done on earth as it was perceived in prayer towards heaven. In addition, Nehemiah also held one of the largest national revivals in the history of Israel. This huge achievement was the result of Nehemiah praying to the “God of Heaven”…his favorite name for God,.
So what do you think? Is there something to this idea of making a consistent link between God and heaven when we pray? When Jesus lifted his eyes, his head, his hands towards heaven, was it all just symbolic posturing? Was constantly saying “Father in heaven”, “Heavenly Father”, “Lord of Heaven” merely descriptive language? When Jesus told us the first step to effective prayer was to say “Our Father who is in heaven”, was the “in heaven” just an addition, or was it a vital component to our vision of God in full power? While I do not think this is a magic formula, I think it may be faith-enhancing. Does it help your faith to understand that when Nehemiah and Jesus called on the God of heaven, they were thinking of God and an arsenal of angels in a command center?