Nehemiah 9:1-38.
Renewing Faith in God

American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2015, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


Spending sincere and fruitful time with the Word of God will have a dramatic impact on the life of one who loves the LORD.  Described as a “two edged sword,”[1] the Word of God communicates His heart, His holiness, and His plan for those who love Him: a plan that includes their acceptance of Him as their LORD as well as their Savior.  A true understanding of His Lordship engages an understanding of obedience:  we demonstrate His Lordship over us by our obedience to Him. 

Unfortunately, all people share a curse:  we have all been disobedient to the LORD and do not deserve His love and grace.[2]  When we seek to follow the LORD we have no choice other than to turn from our disobedient past, and strive to live a life that is holy and dedicated to the truth of God’s Word.  There may be no better example of the change in direction that comes from faith than the experience of Israel when they returned from exile in Babylon and, led by Ezra and Nehemiah, they turned back to the LORD.

Nehemiah 9:1-3.  Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them. 2And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers. 3And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of the LORD their God one fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and worshipped the LORD their God.

When Ezra taught Israel from the Law on the first day of the seventh month,[3] the people were astonished at their own depravity, apostasy, and disobedience, and responded with weeping.  However, Nehemiah and Ezra, by teaching the salvation of God that comes from repentance and obedience, led them to stop their weeping and celebrate that salvation with great joy.  Each of the remaining seven days of celebration started with the teaching of the Torah by Ezra and both translated and explained to the people by the Levites and others who were familiar with it and could apply Ezra’s teaching.

There is some debate as to the timing of this event.  According to this, Nehemiah’s journal, this celebration of the Feast of the Tabernacles started on the first of the month.  However, the Mosaic Law specified that the Feast would take place from the 15th of the month through the 22nd.  The “first day” of chapter 8 could be rendered as the first day of the Feast of the Tabernacles.  If we assume the latter rendition, the event of chapter nine took place only two days after the end of the celebration.

There is a significant difference between the nature of the Feast and the nature of what we find happening on the 24th day of the month.  The Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated by all Jerusalem, including the communities that surrounded it.  This would have included the Judeans who returned from Babylon, the Judeans who had remained behind, and the Gentiles who were part of the community.  This is one of the reasons why Ezra’s teaching required translation.  However, the event that took place on the 24th day included only the Israelites. 

Following the intense teaching that took place, possibly six hours each day for eight days, the Israelites were a much different people than they were before they came to receive Ezra’s immersion of the people in the Word of God.  They have had an opportunity to fully realize the depth of their apostasy as a people and as individuals.  The spiritual revival they have just experienced certainly brought great joy, but it also inspired in them a sincere desire to follow the LORD in obedience.

That desire is demonstrated in their use of sackcloth and ashes, a traditional expression of grief.  Though they had just completed a week-long feast, it was now a time for fasting… refraining from the preparation of meals so that they could spend their time focusing on the LORD.  Such an expression was meaningful only for the Israelites, not for the Gentiles, so this action served to separate them from the Gentiles with whom they did not share their history of apostasy for which they grieved.  It would not have been relevant for the Gentiles to take part in this day’s events as the people turned back to their Hebrew roots from the pagan world they had immersed themselves into.  Now they were ready to recognize their sin, the sin of their fathers, and turn to the LORD in repentance.  Like they had done during the Feast of Tabernacles, they spent the morning hours, from sunrise until noon at the stage, but this time they divided their time between the study of the Word, led by the Levites, and taking part in actions of contrition, praise, and worship.

Nehemiah 9:4-6.  Then stood up upon the stairs, of the Levites, Jeshua, and Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani, and cried with a loud voice unto the LORD their God. 5Then the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiah, Hodijah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, Stand up and bless the LORD your God for ever and ever: and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. 6Thou, even thou, art LORD alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee

On this occasion, neither Ezra or Nehemiah were leading the people.  The community had taken a significant spiritual step forward as they were led by Levites and other leaders in the community for a time of praise and worship.  Calling upon the people to stand, the Levites led in a series of praise-filled prayers that served to draw the people’s focus to the LORD and to demonstrate to them the means of prayer as their words proclaim the wonderful truth concerning the nature of God.

With this prayer, led by the people of Israel, the apostasy of the nation has come to a close.  There was likely no period in Israelite history when the faithful people of Israel, though currently small in number compared to their pre-exilic history, were as united in praise of the LORD. 

Nehemiah 9:7-8.  Thou art the LORD the God, who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees, and gavest him the name of Abraham; 8And foundest his heart faithful before thee, and madest a covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Jebusites, and the Girgashites, to give it, I say, to his seed, and hast performed thy words; for thou art righteous:

The Call of Abraham

When the Israelites were taught from the Law, it was from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.  This teaching was first led by Ezra and then continued by the Levites and other leaders of the Jewish remnant.  Few of the remaining books of the Old Testament were yet available, but may have included the books of early history such as Joshua and Judges, and the works of David and Solomon.  Following Ezra’s teaching of the Torah, the leaders taught the people many of the important events of their history, starting with the call of Abraham, doing so in the form of a prayer.

Salvation from Egyptian Bondage

Nehamiah 9:9-11.  And didst see the affliction of our fathers in Egypt, and heardest their cry by the Red sea; 10And showedst signs and wonders upon Pharaoh, and on all his servants, and on all the people of his land: for thou knewest that they dealt proudly against them. So didst thou get thee a name, as it is this day. 11And thou didst divide the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on the dry land; and their persecutors thou threwest into the deeps, as a stone into the mighty waters.

God’s Provision in the Wilderness

Nehemiah 9:12-15.  Moreover thou leddest them in the day by a cloudy pillar; and in the night by a pillar of fire, to give them light in the way wherein they should go. 13Thou camest down also upon mount Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven, and gavest them right judgments, and true laws, good statutes and commandments: 14And madest known unto them thy holy sabbath, and commandedst them precepts, statutes, and laws, by the hand of Moses thy servant: 15And gavest them bread from heaven for their hunger, and broughtest forth water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and promisedst them that they should go in to possess the land which thou hadst sworn to give them.

God’s Demonstration of Grace

Nehemiah 9:16-21.  But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments, 17And refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that thou didst among them; but hardened their necks, and in their rebellion appointed a captain to return to their bondage: but thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not. 18Yea, when they had made them a molten calf, and said, This is thy God that brought thee up out of Egypt, and had wrought great provocations; 19Yet thou in thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness: the pillar of the cloud departed not from them by day, to lead them in the way; neither the pillar of fire by night, to show them light, and the way wherein they should go. 20Thou gavest also thy good spirit to instruct them, and withheldest not thy manna from their mouth, and gavest them water for their thirst. 21Yea, forty years didst thou sustain them in the wilderness, so that they lacked nothing; their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not.

The Return to the Promised Land

Nehemiah 9:22-25.  Moreover thou gavest them kingdoms and nations, and didst divide them into corners: so they possessed the land of Sihon, and the land of the king of Heshbon, and the land of Og king of Bashan. 23Their children also multipliedst thou as the stars of heaven, and broughtest them into the land, concerning which thou hadst promised to their fathers, that they should go in to possess it. 24So the children went in and possessed the land, and thou subduedst before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gavest them into their hands, with their kings, and the people of the land, that they might do with them as they would. 25And they took strong cities, and a fat land, and possessed houses full of all goods, wells digged, vineyards, and oliveyards, and fruit trees in abundance: so they did eat, and were filled, and became fat, and delighted themselves in thy great goodness.

Apostasy and Judgment

Nehemiah 9:26-30.  Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs, and slew thy prophets which testified against them to turn them to thee, and they wrought great provocations. 27Therefore thou delivered them into the hand of their enemies, who vexed them: and in the time of their trouble, when they cried unto thee, thou heardest them from heaven; and according to thy manifold mercies thou gavest them saviours, who saved them out of the hand of their enemies. 28But after they had rest, they did evil again before thee: therefore leftest thou them in the hand of their enemies, so that they had the dominion over them: yet when they returned, and cried unto thee, thou heardest them from heaven; and many times didst thou deliver them according to thy mercies; 29And testifiedst against them, that thou mightest bring them again unto thy law: yet they dealt proudly, and hearkened not unto thy commandments, but sinned against thy judgments, (which if a man do, he shall live in them;) and withdrew the shoulder, and hardened their neck, and would not hear. 30Yet many years didst thou forbear them, and testifiedst against them by thy spirit in thy prophets: yet would they not give ear: therefore gavest thou them into the hand of the people of the lands.

God’s Mercy Demonstrated

Nehemiah 9:31.  Nevertheless for thy great mercies’ sake thou didst not utterly consume them, nor forsake them; for thou art a gracious and merciful God.

In many ways, the story of Israel is the story of the Human condition.  Because of Abram’s faith and that of those who would follow him, the LORD chose to reveal Himself to the people of His creation through Abram and his children.  Beginning with the covenant that God has made with all people: “Place your faith and trust in Me and I will bless you, provide for you, and give you a home.”  God’s covenant with mankind has never changed, and neither has man’s response to it.  Though a small and faithful remnant always remained, most of the people chose to rebel against their creator and seek other gods.  We may be reminded of the cleansing of the sins of man that God did through the Noahic flood.  This is a subtle reminder that God has the power and authority to destroy all of those who despise Him by rejecting Him.  Yet, God did not destroy Israel in their apostasy:  He gave them over to their own desires as they followed the ways of the world and its political intrigue as nations warred against nation.  By stepping out of God’s covenant, rejecting His promise of protection, Israel was overrun by those nations.  Turning to the nations was Israel’s choice.

Likewise today, God does not destroy us for our sin, though we so fully deserve it.  He gives us the desire of our heart as we choose to follow Him or to reject Him.   By treating us with this form of mercy, God is like a loving father who is waiting for His wayward children to come home.

Nehemiah 9:32.  Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who keepest covenant and mercy, let not all the trouble seem little before thee, that hath come upon us, on our kings, on our princes, and on our priests, and on our prophets, and on our fathers, and on all thy people, since the time of the kings of Assyria unto this day.

There are some who teach that God is a Merciless, all-powerful, all-judging God who is great beyond any possibility of relationship with us, a God who destroys all who oppose Him, a God who’s judgment is demonstrated in all of the death and destruction that takes place in this world.  This is not the God of the Bible.  This is not the One true God who revealed Himself to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, and finally through His Son, Jesus Christ.  The True God created mankind so that He would have a relationship with His creation, a creation that He loves. 

Because of His nature, God does care about our troubles.[4]  Though these words may imply that the Israelites were concerned that God does not care, it is actually a Hebrew literary form that expresses their understanding that God does, indeed, care about their troubles.  It is a reminder to the people that those great troubles that have plagued the nation for so many years are of great importance to the LORD, so much so that the LORD has worked to bring them out of them when they turn to Him in faith.

Nehemiah 9:33-35.  Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly: 34Neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, nor our fathers, kept thy law, nor hearkened unto thy commandments and thy testimonies, wherewith thou didst testify against them. 35For they have not served thee in their kingdom, and in thy great goodness that thou gavest them, and in the large and fat land which thou gavest before them, neither turned they from their wicked works.

As the Levites consider their behavior in the past, they approach it with honesty.  They do not make excuses for their sin, nor do they try to rationalize it away.  One of the greatest barriers to true repentance is the refusal of many to accept full responsibility for their actions.  It is easier for us to place blame on others or on the state of our circumstances.  God has given us the privilege of making our own moral choices, but we are fully responsible for the consequences of those choices. 

The Israelites clearly understood that they had acted wickedly.  They had rejected the LORD who loves them, exchanging His love for the perceived rewards of this world.   Their wickedness was not limited to the common people, but reached up to the heads of their government where their own kings led them to worship idols and submit themselves to the powers of the world.  Though Moses had given them the Law before they entered Canaan, they had all but forgotten it, choosing instead to make up their own law, define their own direction, and live a lifestyle that was indiscernible from the pagans among whom they lived.

The state of ancient Israel is not unlike the state of the world today.  There remains a small, faithful, remnant who sincerely trust in the LORD and seek to follow Him in all they do.  However, the vast majority of the peoples of this world are either like the ancient pagans who create their own gods and define their own laws and morals, or they are like the ancient Israelites who have heard of God but choose to live among the pagans.  Those who live in rejection of God live as though He does not exist, that He is not relevant in their lives, or they have replaced Him with a false deity.

Despite their wickedness and apostasy, when Israel heard the Word of God they were able to honestly look at their sinful state.  True repentance starts when we honestly confess our sins before the LORD, doing so in the context that is evident in the Levite’s confession.  Recognizing that God is a just God, and His judgments are true, and recognizing that God is an all-knowing God from whom we can hide nothing, we can simply acknowledge our true acts of disobedience towards Him, and find full and complete forgiveness when we turn our lives over to Him.

Nehemiah 9:36.  Behold, we are servants this day, and for the land that thou gavest unto our fathers to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof, behold, we are servants in it:

When the Israelites observe their current state, they recognize that, though they are back in Jerusalem, they are still living as servants of a Persian king.  They fully recognize that their state is a consequence of their own behavior.  True repentance is fulfilled when we turn from our self-centeredness, and from the lies that rationalize away our disobedience, and submit ourselves completely to the LORD in faith and trust.  Often we easily recognize the infinite power of God, but reject His position as our LORD.  To confess God as LORD, means to place ourselves under His authority.[5]  Jesus is not our LORD if we are not submitted entirely to Him.  To be a child of God is to place one’s self under His authority as a child is under the authority of his father. 

True repentance also recognizes the blessings of life that have come from God’s provision because of His love and concern for us.  God desires only goodness and blessing for those who love Him, and works to bless those who love Him.[6]

Nehemiah 9:37.  And it yieldeth much increase unto the kings whom thou hast set over us because of our sins: also they have dominion over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.

The consequences of living a life that is devoted to this world can be dramatic.  The Israelites now understand and confess before the LORD the significance of those consequences.  Because they chose to reject the LORD as their king and subject themselves to human kings, they now live in subjection to a foreign king who has taken possession of their lands, has the power to place them into forced labor, take their cattle, and exact anything from them that is his desire. 

There is seemingly no limit to the consequences we find when we have turned away from the LORD and submitted ourselves to the authorities and powers of this world.  Because of this, many if not most of the people of this world are living in distress.  The unabated expression of sin is demonstrated in hatred and violence that destroys thousands of lives every day.  The words of this verse could be repeated by millions of people around the world today. 

Apart from God, the authorities of this world touch all with dramatic consequences.  Many are caught up in bondage to any number of powers.  One might first think of the great distress realized when one is caught up in addictions and other destructive life-style choices.  However, anything that separates us from God is a form of sin, and by its very power to separate, creates consequences that lead to our distress.

Nehemiah 9:38.  And because of all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, Levites, and priests, seal unto it.

Once we have come to understand our sin and how we have fallen so short of God’s intent for us, and understanding God’s mercy and grace, we are given by Him an opportunity to turn (back) to Him in faith and trust.  However, turning to God requires more than the simple recitation of words because repentance is an attitude of both the mind and the heart.  Turning to God in faith requires a sincere commitment to Him as both Savior and LORD, Savior because He  will forgive us of all of our repented sin, and LORD as we follow Him in uncompromised obedience.

Note that as the Israelites have made a commitment of obedience to the LORD, their general circumstances have not changed.  They are, and will remain, under the oppression of the Persian king.  Israel would not return to self-rule until the 20th century.  Following their rule by the Persians, the land would be conquered by Rome, and Israel would remain under Roman rule until the dispersion of Israel in the first century.  The land of Israel never incorporated as a nation after Roman rule, being simply a land of tribal nomads until the Jews returned to form a nation, recognized in 1947. 

Note that their commitment to follow the LORD did not free of them of the consequences of their choices.  However, it did put them in a position to be blessed by the LORD as every individual who took this commitment to heart finds forgiveness and an opportunity to live the remainder of their days, as well as an eternity, in fellowship with God.

When we look at our own lives, we may observe a pattern of disobedience to God that has realized all manner of consequences.  However, wherever we are in our life situation, we can always turn to God in faith and find forgiveness and blessing in the LORD. 

 

[1] Revelation 2:12.

[2] Romans 3:23, 5:12.  Daniel 9:12.

[3] Nehemiah 8:1, ff.

[4] 1 Peter 5:7.

[5] Romans 10:9-10.

[6] Deuteronomy 26:11; James 1:17.