The past six Sundays we have been studying the Book of Nehemiah and discovering that the plans and promises of God never fail. After 70 years of captivity a remnant of Jewish people return to Jerusalem and begin the restoration of the temple, the walls and gates. Ezra and Nehemiah partner in this endeavour and overcome many challenges. The repairs were completed and people begin to settle once again in the city.
Last week Pastor Don Byrt shared about the “Joy of the Lord is our strength” from Neh 8:10. It so encouraging to know that as we draw near to God in prayer and the study of God’s Word, we begin to know experientially God’s joy.
This morning will will carry on with our study of Nehemiah by looking at Chapter 9. By way of comparison, in Neh 8, Ezra and Nehemiah comfort the people after they hear the Law of Moses read aloud. A careful reading of the Scriptures led the people to ask several questions. What do we do with this knowledge? How should our lives change? The people were grieving because they were not living for the Lord, however the leaders told the people not to cry but celebrate for the joy of the Lord is your strength. They celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days, living in shelters made on their roofs. Day after day we are told they read from the Book of the Law of God and “From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great (Neh 8:17). On the eight day after a week of rejoicing with God and each other they break from celebration to confession; two sides of the same coin. In the first few verses of chapter 9, we see their humble confession… Many version of the Bible give the chapter of Nehemiah 9 the title of “The Israelites Confess their Sins”. However, as I read through the chapter their is more time and energy given to prayer and their history lesson. I’ve been helped in my study of Nehemiah by Warren Wiersbe’s book entitled Be Determined. In this light I gave this sermon the title - Amazing God. In the next few minutes I want us to discover our amazing God in three fantastic ways; The Greatness of God (Neh 9:1-6), The Goodness of God (Neh 9:7-30) and The Grace of God (Neh 9:31-37)
The Greatness of God:
As we begin let’s again be reminded that after a seven day celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles the people gathered on the eighth day for a solemn assembly. It was during this time the Israelites, according to their customs, humbled themselves and practiced open confession of their sins to one another. They walked united in this confession by separating themselves from all foreigners (Neh 9:1-2). On this eighth day they read the Scriptures for three hours or so and spent another three hours in confession and worship. In the midst of this experience the Levites gave leadership by example; reading the Word, confession and praise.
God’s greatness is seen in the fact that He receives our worship. True worship is multifaceted many elements: worship and the Word, worship and praise, worship and prayer, worship and confession of sin, worship and separation from that which dishonours God. We see all these expressions recorded in Neh 9.
This leads us to the beginning of a wonderful prayer full of biblical quotations and history lessons. This prayer confesses who God is - great, good and gracious - along with their sins. We see this repeated struggle with the nation of Israel in their personal history; God was great, good and gracious to them only to have the Israelites sin, then repent and return to God and then sin again. This unfortunate reality is all to often repeated in our own lives.
The Levite leaders give the command to stand and praise in contrast to the kneeling confession of sin. This is the beginning of this recorded prayer describing “His Story” or the history of the Jewish people. We now see a description of the greatness of God. Let’s look specifically at Neh 9:6 - 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 alone are the Lord. The Israelites were surrounded by idolatry throughout their history. The pagan nations worshipped a variety of gods, the sun, moon and stars and created images of stone and wood etc. “You alone are the Lord” highlights that Yahweh is alone in his greatness and that there were to be “no other gods before Yahweh”.
- You made the heavens and the earth. One of the most significant aspects of God’s greatness is his creation. No other god, including the god of science, can make this claim - “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). I often find great encouragement being in God’s creation; his greatness is made manifest so that no one is without excuse before God - “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom 1:20).
- You give life. Not only is God great in creation, but he is very great in giving life. We are created “in his image”. The life that God has given in not simply a birth or a spiritual new birth, but it is an abundant life that is ours to enjoy and experience. The response of creation, including you and I, is one of worship. The greatness of God and worship so compliment each other. If we focus too much on the benefits of worship we can become idolatrous. If we focus too much on our circumstances or feelings we can become selfish. Focus on God’s greatness.
The Goodness of God:
This majority of the prayer in Nehemiah 9 looks at the historical interaction between Israel and the goodness of God. We see in verses 7-30 the person of God being spoken of over fifty times, especially using the word YOU… The word “give” is used around 15 times and cannot be separated from God’s goodness. When thinking of the Old Testament we must remember that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction…” (1 Co 10:11 ESV). Let’s look at how the Goodness of God acted in relation to the Israelites.
- God covenants. It was God’s desire that through his covenant goodness with Israel that all the nations of the world would be blessed. From the time of Abraham it was God’s goodness that was poured out upon the nation of Israel. The goodness of God was seen in Israel’s history in many ways; the provision of land (Neh 9:8), deliverance from Egypt (Neh 9:9-12), the providing of the Law (Neh 9:13), the Sabbath (Neh 9:14), God provided food and water (Neh 9:15). The unfortunate reality is that the people of God turned their backs on God’s goodness over and over (Neh 9:16-18). Despite their struggles Nehemiah states, “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Neh 9:17). We need to make sure that we respond to God’s goodness in all humility and not by being stiff-necked like the Israelites (like an unruly dog on a leash).
- God leads. After their deliverance from Egypt, God led the Israelites through the desert for forty years. God’s goodness did not abandon them but continued to led them by day or night (Neh 9:19), to instruct them (Neh 9:20) and to provide for them (Neh 9:20). “For forty years you sustained them in the desert; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen” (Neh 9:21). Isn’t is good to know the goodness of God; he keeps his promises and fulfills his plans for our lives. We know the good leading of the Lord as we walk in obedience with him.
- God provides. We have seen God covenanting with Israel and leading them through the wilderness. We know see in a greater way how he provided them with everything they needed “You gave…” victory over nations (Neh 9:22) and the increase of population (Neh 9:23). Neh 9:25 sums up the goodness of God towards the Israelites - “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.” The goodness of God is more than enough when it comes to provision. This was the “abundant life”, the “good life” for the people of God. The abundant provisions of God are meant to provide abundant generosity in the people of God. Unfortunately the Israelites choose once again to rebel against their God and his good provision. In Neh 9:26-30 we see the ongoing struggle with Israel and their God. Warren Wiersbe states, “Against the dark background of Israel’s unfaithfulness shines the bright light of the faithfulness of God. When Israel obeyed Him, He was faithful to bless; when they disobeyed Him, He was faithful to chasten; when they asked for mercy, He was faithful to forgive. God is willing to give His people many privileges, but He will not give them the privilege of sinning and having their own way. God’s purposes are more important than our pleasures, and He will accomplish His purposes even if He has to chasten us to do it.” In other words, God’s tough love is for our benefit.
The Grace of God:
We have looked briefly at the Greatness and Goodness of God. This next passage begins with “But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God” (Neh 9:31). God was great and good to his people despite their frequent shortcomings. In this prayer the “now therefore” (Neh 9:32) marks a transition from an acknowledgment of past guilt to a present appeal for forgiveness and deliverance. God’s mercy and grace cover us fully, past and present. The grace and mercy of God are too wonderful for us to fully understand. Nehemiah understands that the grace of God towards the nation had never failed or faltered - “In all that has happened to us, you have been just; you have acted faithfully, while we did wrong” (Neh 9:33).
In this fantastic prayer of praise and confession the Levites now ask for a new beginning for the nation of Israel. It was their desire for the people to return in full surrender to God. Even though they remained under the authority of the King of Persia, in God and by God’s grace they could be free.
The nation of Israel had made numerous covenants with God throughout their history.
- They made a covenant with God at Mount Sinai and then broken it.
- They had renewed the covenant when they entered Canaan but they soon rebelled once again against the Lord.
- Samuel had led the people in renewing their covenant vows, but King Saul led the people back into sin and defeat.
- As soon as his throne was secure, David sought to bring the people back to the Lord.
- Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple was also a step in that direction. Sad to say, however, Solomon sinned against the Lord and almost destroyed his own kingdom.
Now in Nehemiah’s day the remnant respond to God’s greatness and goodness and grace towards them and make a solemn covenant with God (Neh 9:38).
Nehemiah introduces the nation of Israel to a renewed relationship with God by delivering a thorough history lesson. He reveals to the people what a great God they serve and that God is wonderfully good towards his people. He does stop there but continues to lead the people towards God’s mercy and grace. This glorious, powerful, faithful, providing, forgiving, loving and generous God gives us far more than we deserve. He is a God who keeps his promises even if we are unfaithful.
This is “good news” not only for Nehemiah and the remnant returning to Jerusalem but also to us. We know that in the New Testament Jesus established a New Covenant with those who would become his disciples. This New Testament grace of God always allows for new beginnings. In a moment of heartfelt repentance we can find new life - “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Cor 7:10).
But let’s not forget it is the “kindness of God that leads us to repentance” (Rom 2:4).
The writer of Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 4:16 - “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” In other words, there is mercy for when we fall short of God’s glory, we all have bad days. But there is also grace for us to help us be overcomes and victorious in life.