I called the nurse into the hospital room, “I think I felt her kick. Can we check?”
A shadow passed over her face. Not many minutes prior, the doctor had told me, my husband, and the nurses that my yet-to-be-born, 42-week daughter had no heartbeat.
The nurse gave me the monitor and asked if I wanted to use it. She quietly excused herself from the room. Perhaps she thought I was having trouble accepting reality. She couldn’t have known that I subscribed to a biblical reality. I knew my God could undoubtedly answer my prayer for renewed earthly life for my daughter.
Soon, circling my stomach, I understood that my prayer had not been answered with a yes. As time went on, that yes seemed less and less likely.
Home from the hospital daughter-less, I was no longer sure how to pray. I had not presumed that God owed me a “yes,” and I was not angry at him. But because that particular request had felt urgent and precious, I suddenly felt I had nothing I wanted to ask him for.
I was silenced. It has been five years since the raw grief of losing our daughter, and I recently found a biblical figure who wen through the same feeling of being stalled in prayer. The biblical account of Nehemiah helps us understand how powerful prayer can be in times of suffering.
God’s people had been justly exiled from their homeland, with only some surviving (Neh. 1:2). But a remnant returns to the homeland, first led by Zerubbabel and second by Ezra to relearn the law of God and to rebuild.
The book of Ezra records the generous faithfulness of God to allow this return and rebuild:
Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem. (Ezra 9:9)
With a personal interest in this rebuild for his fellow people and for the sake of God’s name, Nehemiah, an honored cupbearer in Persia to the king, eagerly inquires about the Judean remnant. But unfortunately, he receives news that the walls around the city are broken and destroyed, for progress has been halted (Ezra 4:12, 17-23). Rebuilding efforts are dampened, leaving the remnant without the protection of walls. They received a “no” from God that they didn’t expect.
As one who is acquainted with suffering, I imagine this development had a measure of finality—God has said “no” so what more should I pray? After my own pain-filled experience, I feel I can understand how they must have felt: I have accepted a “no,” from God on this exceedingly dear request. I have accepted it and am even ready to bear another no. So, for what else should I pray? This is how I felt concerning my daughter. Nehemiah understands what it is like to feel sorrow upon sorrow. Upon hearing of the remnant: “I sat down and wept and mourned for days” (Neh. 1:4a).
But what directly follows from Nehemiah’s mourning is an invitation for God’s people who are suffering to still see purpose in prayer. Nehemiah offers exemplary prayers to the Lord amidst his tears (Neh. 1:5-11). He remembers God’s character and covenant with a clear belief that the Word of God unalterably stands. Because of this, he knows that he has a legitimate basis for coming before God.
In tears and after hearing of opposition, he is remarkably able to pray, “let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant” (1:6a). He expectantly requests God’s “ear” and “eyes” even when he feels God’s absence. One commentator notes, “The superficially curious juxtapositioning of ‘eyes’ and ‘hearing’ provides a fully intelligible metaphor.” With earnestness, Nehemiah requests God’s attuned attention. I admire Nehemiah’s fervor to seek the face of God after his homeland, and many of his fellow people had been destroyed, after rebuilding efforts had been stilted, and more—after the fame of his God might have seemed to be discounted among the nations due to the exile. He had faith in God’s Word. And therefore, he trusted that a “no” was not necessarily a “never”—and he knew that a “no” was not a reason to cease praying.
While my daughter will never have more breath in this life, Nehemiah was granted success for further rebuilding efforts. Though our requests and results are not parallel in that sense, I think about the grander principle of the reputation of the Lord in both. God would allow Nehemiah to rebuild the walls and further pursue restoration after exile for the sake of His covenant name and faithfulness. And God did demonstrate the power of His name through His presence and the strength—spiritual and otherwise—He gave me even in the early hours of birthing a still child. After the sorrowful “no” I received to prayer and after likely seeming illogical to the hospital’s medical staff in my knowledge of God’s capabilities, God was not done.
And He is not done with us. His name is great—all will see it, and we who believe are right to have faith in the silencing moments. We are right to keep praying. That is the hope intrinsic to Nehemiah’s story. And that is the hope intrinsic to the story of all believers. Devastating circumstances and prayers that are met with “no” may introduce the darkest times of life, but even these cannot thwart the holy arc of God’s glorious plans that reigns above this earthly existence.
Soon, God would help me pray again. I would find words before Him. Though I presently desire to grow in seeking His face with the same devotion Nehemiah demonstrates, I started with a sentence from the apostle Paul, turning it into a prayer for tear-filled days. May what has happened to me actually serve to advance the gospel (Phil. 1:12). Reminiscent of Nehemiah’s prevailing concern for God’s name and reputation (Neh. 1:9, 11), this kind of prayer can well pour from the suffering soul. For when our anticipated trajectory for life crashes, we know God’s plan still stands forever. And as long as God’s plan is unfolding, we will have a reason to fold our hands and say, “hear the prayer of your servant” (Neh. 1:6).
 H. G. M. Williamson, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 16: Ezra, Nehemiah, gen. ed. David A Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1985), 173.