Rewind: A Call To Remember (Neh. 9:1-37)
Raise your hand if you have a really bad memory? Raise your hand if you have been guilty of forgetting any of the following:
1. Letting a hot cup of coffee/tea go cold
2. Where you left your keys…wallet/purse
3. What you went to shop for
4. Washing in the washing machine
5. Taking food out of the freezer
6. Charging your phone or Ipod
7. Where you parked the car
8. Your age (my mom has two birthdays and forgets both of them)
9. Loved one’s birthdays
10. Burning toast
11. Someone’s name ten seconds after he/she told you
12. Pray for someone after you told him/her you would
It is good to know that I am not alone because I have been guilty of all of them. The worst for me is forgetting someone’s name right after they told you, especially if afterwards you want to pray for them and you resort to “brother…or sister…!” But I think there is a severe memory loss that often happens to God’s people. It’s called spiritual amnesia. For example, the people of Israel saw miracle after miracle with the plagues in Egypt and even saw the Red Sea parted right before their eyes. But what happens as soon as they get to Mt. Sinai? Moses goes up to talk with God and being gone six weeks, the people immediately start building their own god and rebelling.
When you get to Numbers, you find the people really irritating. Why were they always doubting?! We wonder. I think Judges is another classic book that details the cycle of God’s people forgetting the Lord, sinning, crying for deliverance and forgetting the Lord all over again. But it doesn’t take long before we start to see that they are actually reflective of us. The disciples in the New Testament are the same way. Soon after Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, they would find themselves in a similar predicament again and they are still questioning how to feed the people! How many times did Jesus have to calm the winds and the waves for them? Yes, we know it all too well. We are forgetful people. We need to pray for better memories. We have always been forgetful and so if you ever noticed in the Old Testament, they have psalms and books repeating the stories over and over again. Why did they do that? They knew the importance of remembering, because we all easily forget. Samuel Johnson said it best that, “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”
Today we are going to look at Nehemiah 9, where the people of God remember. Their remembrance is going to be in a form of confession of sin. They are going to serve as an example to us, especially when we have spiritual amnesia. So we are back again in the book of Nehemiah. The theme of the book is “Building God’s People for God’s Work.” We spent the first seven chapters looking into doing God’s work, but now learning in Neh. 8-13, what it means for God to build us as His people. Nehemiah, after building the wall, brings in Ezra the priest in Neh. 8 to bring the people back to the Word of God and the God of the Word. Revival is the first step in building God’s people!
If you remember last week, the people celebrated the Feast of Booths. It was a week-long festival where the Jews would live in tents for a week, remembering their ancestors who also lived in tents between Egypt and the Promised Land. It was celebrated on the 15th day of every New Year. The Jews celebrated this to 1) Look back and thank God for His faithfulness in the past 2) Look around at His blessings in the present and to 3) Look ahead, remembering that they were not put their trust in walls and anything they cannot take with them after they die, but in the Lord and the city He has prepared for them.
Today they are going to elaborate on those three items in more detail here in Neh. 9, focusing more on looking back than the other two. Let’s start with this:
I. Make time to intentionally and purposefully remember (Neh. 9:1-5)
We pick up the story in Neh. 9:1. It is still the first month of their year, which would be our September-October time (right about now!). Day one of the month was dedicated to celebrating the New Year and it was called the Feast of Trumpets. Day 10 was the Day of Atonement (not mentioned in Neh. 8) and Days 15-22 was the Feast of Booths. Now we are in Day 24. They just had a joyous festival, but all the feasting has suddenly turned into fasting. Look at Neh. 9:1. “Wearing sackcloth” symbolizes mourning and humility. Sackcloth was a poor quality material or a garment of goat hair, usually dark in color, though the shape of the garment is disputed. This is accompanied by throwing dust over their heads. This was a ritual symbolizing repentance (cf. Matt. 11:21). Stephen Davey says, “The dirt was a way of exposing and admitting their soiled hearts before God and each other.”
What I found interesting was that everything seems to be “out of order” since Neh. 8. The order was supposed to be: celebration (Day 1, Feast of Trumpets)—repentance (Day 10, Day of Atonement) — celebration (Day 15, Feast of Booths). We kind of do that with our holidays. We have Christmas, a time of celebration. But Good Friday is supposed to be a time of mourning, but then Resurrection Sunday, a time of celebration. We do the same thing when we partake of the Lord’s Communion.
However, here, on day one itself if you recall, people were weeping over their sin (Neh. 8:9). Now after the Feast of Booths, they are again grieving over their sin. It made me realize this: that when God gets a hold of people, it is not always neat and orderly. It is rather messy. God does not fit in our nice boxes. Here we have a special movement of God among His people and sometimes that messes up everything. Who says you can only think about your sin on the Day of Atonement? This is really a special move of God.
I remember some of my professors saying at Wheaton that when the revival broke out in 1995, some of the other professors were not too excited about it. Kids were confessing sin until the wee hours of the morning and some of the professors were angry because they were supposed to be in class the next day. I wonder what those professors would do and say if Jesus came at the Rapture? Hold on Jesus, I need to give this test today!
But notice how intentional they are here. They are wearing the appropriate attire, setting time apart to come together in solidarity with their ancestors in Neh. 9:2. The reason they separated from all non-Jews was because they were going to confess the sins of their own people. Notice again the connection between reading the Word of God and conviction of sin. The Word is a mirror that shows you how dirty you are (James 1:23). They read for a while, they confessed and worshipped in Neh. 9:3. This may have included reading from the Pentateuch and singing some of the Psalms.
Then in Neh. 9:4-5, the leaders take the lead in demonstrating humility, unity, confession and praise. Here two lists of Levites are given, probably because they had different roles, and five names are repeated, but they are leading the congregation in this confession. This is a good word for the Servant Team here. We must take the lead in these things for Living Hope!
But what I see here is that they took time to remember. Nehemiah 8 focused on God’s Word to them; now the people respond with their words to him, words of genuine sorrow about their sins and of grateful remembrance of God’s grace. After the Feast of Booths, they should have gone back to their day-to-day routines, but being moved by God’s Word, they wanted more. So they set time apart to seek the Lord. It was intentional and purposeful. Notice all the action verbs. They assembled, separated, confessed, stood up, read, worshipped and cried out.
What keeps us from being intentional and purposeful in taking time to remember who God is and what He has done and what He is doing in our lives? I would say it is busyness. As Pastor Bob Moorehead says, “We have learned to multiply our possessions, but we reduced our values…We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life not life to years.”
Tim Allen, star of the television sitcom “Home Improvement” adds: “How much of the day are you awake? You think, I gotta get the dry cleaning, I gotta get going, and this and this. All of a sudden it’s dinnertime. And then there is a moment of connection with your spouse or your friends. Then you read and go to bed. Wake up, and it’s the same all over. You’re not awake, you’re not living, you’re not experiencing. We start early medicating ourselves. We start kids early on TV and video games and so on. It’s daunting how many possibilities there are in life for every one of us. But rather than face that I may be a failure or a success; I think both of them are terrifying people to find diversions.”
Isn’t it interesting that a secular television actor notices how busyness does not equal experiencing life, but we who know Him who promised to give us abundant life, (John 10:10) do not realize it? Pastor John Ortberg asked a wise friend once what it takes to be spiritually healthy. He said just one thing to him, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” He asked him what else and he said that’s it. Ortberg goes on to say, “I’ve concluded that my life and the well-being of the people I serve depends on following his prescription, for hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. Hurry destroys souls.” The greatest paradox about this is as Henry Nouwen says, “many of us are busy and bored at the same time.”
I think this is a good word for us. I notice that so many of us are often so tired and weary. And the time we do have, we medicate ourselves with the escape of entertainment. In the end, we have no time for the Lord, our marriage, our family or relationships. We have no time to sense God’s presence or hear His voice. And what do we have for all of this captivity of activity? How much better are we? Beloved, do not be so focused on making a living, that you are not making a life and you are not living the life God desires for you and wants to give you. Those of you not married and not working yet, I would tell you and I am sure others here as well would say to you that there is no switch that goes off when you are married or when you are working that will teach you to be intentional and purposeful with the Lord and your life. Your job or position or marital status will not change your character. The time for it to happen needs to be now. Make time now to cultivate the habit of slowing down and remembering the Lord. Make time to reflect and meditate, before you realize, as I said last week, that you have shriveled up on the inside long before you shrivel up on the outside.
II. Remember the character of God (Neh. 9:5-31)
Now we get into this long prayer, which resembles some of the historical psalms like Ps. 78, 105, 106, 135 and 136. There are two types of historical psalms: one emphasizes a thanksgiving theme while the other emphasizes penitence. This one emphasizes the latter.
The prayer begins with a recognition of who God is. It is similar to how the Lord taught his disciples how to pray in the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 9:6-13).
a) His greatness (Neh. 9:5-6)
How great is God? Several times the word “great” is used here. He is eternal (Neh. 9:5), He is unique (Neh. 9:6) and He is Creator and Preserver (Neh. 9:6). As Creator and Preserver, we are reminded that God is sovereign above all and that life comes from Him and not from ourselves. So all praise goes to the Creator and not the creation. Idolatry comes when, as Augustine prayed, “…the world forgets You, its Creator, and falls in love with what You have created instead of with You.” He is the One who knit us in our mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13) and knows the number of hairs on our head (Luke 12:7—I know some of us are not impressed with that truth) and the names of every star (Ps. 147:4) and created us for His glory (Is. 43:7).
b) His promises (Neh. 9:7-8)
The prayer moves to their father of faith, Abraham. Notice several acts of grace in the life of Abraham. I am indebted to Raymond Brown for this outline here.  First of all, God chose him, a man who was in his last years of life, well beyond child-bearing years, to birth a unique nation. God indeed picks unlikely people from unlikely places to display His glory, so that we cannot boast of our own achievements. Secondly, God changed him. Abram meant “high father,” but God changed him to Abraham “father of a multitude.” The herdsman who was “as good as dead” became “father of a multitude.” Next, God knew him. When the people are acknowledging that God knew the motives of Abraham’s heart, they are also acknowledging that God is aware of everything. There are no secrets. Lastly, God used him. He made a covenant with Abraham, using his trust and obedience with God as an example for his descendants. God always does what He says: “You always keep your promise.” You can rely on His Word because of the integrity of God’s character: “For you are righteous.”
c) His loving power (Neh. 9:9-12)
The prayer moves from Abraham to Moses. It moves from the creation of the nation to its salvation, from God’s grace in establishing a community to his power in redeeming them. Once again, God chooses an unlikely hero in Moses, a refugee who had fled from Egypt forty years earlier, guilty of murder. Here we see the combination of God’s love and power.
God’s love saw the suffering and His power did something about it (Neh. 9:9). Ray Brown notes that, “Many people have love but no power to help, whilst others have forceful power but minimal love. Love without power is helpless, power without love is dangerous. God is both loving and powerful (Ps. 62:11-12). He doesn’t act in loving power for Israel, but also for His name’s sake (Neh. 9:10). His loving power was demonstrated as he answered their prayers (Neh. 9:9), vanquished their enemies (Neh. 9:10), overcame their fears (Neh. 9:11) and guided their steps (Neh. 9:12). I am sure as they are praying this, they are thinking of God who did it again for them, when He brought them back from Babylon.
The word “give” or variations of it in the Hebrew occurs 14x in 38 verses in this chapter! The prayer moves to declare that the true God, unlike the pagan gods around them, is not dead or silent, but He came down and spoke with them! (Neh. 9:13). In this, He met their spiritual need of having a personal relationship with God. He also provided their moral needs (gave them right and true laws, good statues and commandments). He provided their physical needs (Neh. 9:14, a Sabbath for rest) and their material needs (Neh. 9:15, bread from Heaven and water from a rock).
When you go down to Neh. 9:19-25, we see more of His generosity. In totally unmerited generosity, God does seven things for them. He gave them geographical direction (Neh. 9:19), spiritual insight (Neh. 9:20a), material provision (Neh. 9:20b), adequate clothing (Neh. 9:21a), physical stamina (Neh. 9:21b), military success (Neh. 9:22—gave them kingdoms and nations) and numerical strength (Neh. 9:23, descendants as the stars of heaven). Notice the abundance they received even after they entered their land. He secured their land, provided their homes and guaranteed their food (Neh. 9:23-24). It was undeserving. They were such a privileged people. Water, being life’s most precious commodity, was provided with wells already dug for them (Neh. 9:25). In addition to this, they had means to live with vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees. You would think they would be so grateful and would respond with unceasing gratitude, but they did not, as we will see.
e) His grace (Neh. 9:19-20)
I want to mention a couple of things here about what God did not do in His grace. First of all, He never withdrew His presence (Neh. 9:19). Did you ever think about the fact that even on the day they worshipped the golden calf, the pillar of cloud still towered high above the camp, sheltering the idolaters from unseen dangers. He also did not refuse His help (Neh. 9:20a). Though the idea of the Trinity is not mentioned in the Old Testament, God’s Spirit is definitely active there. Though they were idolatrous and openly rejected His teaching, He lovingly and persistently continued to speak to them giving His Spirit to instruct them. Lastly, we see His grace in how He does not withhold His provision either (Neh. 9:20b). They were disobedient to His Word, indifferent to His mercies and rejected His authority (Neh. 9:17-18), yet He continued to meet their daily needs and sustaining them in the desert.
Let’s take a look at how the people responded to all that God had done for them. Here is a list:
Blatant rebellion (Neh. 9:17—appointed their own leader)
They not only to ignore what God has said, but they took steps not to hear it again (Neh. 9:26, casting your law behind their backs and killing your prophets). But God absorbed their disloyalty, repeatedly. We are now in the book of Judges, where the cycle was always the same: prosperity, arrogance, apostasy, judgment, repentance and restoration (Neh. 9:27, 30). When things went well for them, they not only forgot God, they turned to other gods. God disciplined them by allowing other nations to conquer them. It was like an unfaithful partner in marriage who was generously forgiven after an affair. Then in a short while, the same thing happened again, and not once but repeatedly. It is an impossible strain on life’s most special relationship. A human being can hardly bear it, but the Lord, grieved by the repetitive infidelity, fully forgave them and delivered them many times (Neh. 9:28).
But God was always “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them (Neh. 9:17). He was patient with them (Neh. 9:30) and despite their rebellion, in His great mercies, He did not make an end to them (I love that phrase!) or forsake them, because He is gracious and merciful (Neh. 9:31).
III. Remember His continued faithfulness despite our repeated faithlessness (Neh. 9:32-37)
As the praying people here rehearse the story of their forefathers, the scene changes from their past to the distress in the present, hoping for a better future. They approach God in several different ways here. Why can they (and we as well) remember His continued faithfulness despite their (and our) repeated faithlessness?
a) We appeal to Him personally (Neh. 9:32a). Notice the phrase “Our God” in Neh. 9:32. They see Him as their God and not just the God of their ancestors. And the sins are “ours” as well. How much more do we know Him as He revealed Himself to us through His Son!
b) We appeal to His love (Neh. 9:32b). Notice again the adoring of His character here. Truly the word “awesome” should be reserved for God alone! Despite their blatant disloyalty and lovelessness, His love never changed. “Steadfast love” here is hesed, which is one of my favorite words in the Bible, which has been defined as the consistent, ever-faithful, relentless, constantly-pursuing, lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, furious love of our Father God!” It is found 246x in the OT and 127x (over half in the Psalms). Just like He kept that covenant of love with their ancestors, He will do the same with them and with us. For us we know that God demonstrates His love ultimately in sending us His Son (Rom. 5:8), in the New Covenant (Heb. 8:8-13).
c) We recognize the devastation and cost of sin (Neh. 9:32c-35). Their past disobedience affected every strata in society and they were still suffering from the consequences of it. It was truly cancerous! However, even though they never kept their end of the bargain, God always kept His.
d) We know God is not done with us yet (Neh. 9:36-37). Yes Lord, the law was abandoned, the commands unheeded and the warnings were ignored (Neh. 9:34). Because they did not serve God, they were slaves to others (Neh. 9:36), namely the Persians rule their land and the taxes they put their land means all their hard work goes to them (Neh. 9:37). But they were back. God brought them back. He helped them build a wall. So He’s not done with them yet! So they are trusting that their great God (Neh. 9:19, 32), who has done great things (Neh. 9:25, 27, 31, and 35) can save them from their great distress (Neh. 9:37).
We looked at the Israelites history and saw that it was really “His Story.” As we conclude here, I want us to take some time to remember. We are too busy to do this enough. I would recommend we do this with our families on a regular basis, otherwise we will have spiritual amnesia. For us, our history is seen through the lens of salvation. Look at all the categories we saw today of the character of God: His greatness, the way He keeps His promises, His loving power, His abundant, generous goodness, His grace and His patience and mercy.
At the bottom of your handout, I want us to remember. Write down words from the time you were born to now, that will help you to remember God’s hand in your own life. Remember to look at it through the eyes of your salvation. Don’t forget how He saved you from your sin. So if I write God brought my family to America under His goodness, I am thinking of this in light of God’s sovereignty for our family to hear the gospel in America. Think of His faithfulness to you even now. Confess your faithlessness. And remember how He knows you, loves you and the fact that He is not done with you yet! End with a praise of thanksgiving for that and a prayer of trust. After a few minutes, the worship team will close us in a time of worship.
Elwell and Beitzel, 1880.
http://www.trans4mind.com/counterpoint/moorehead.shtml accessed October 9, 2009.
”Self Improvement,” Reader’s Digest (October 2001), p. 86; submitted by Jeff Hinman to http://www.preachingtoday.com accessed October 8, 2009.
John Ortberg, “Ruthlessly Eliminate Hurry,” LeadershipJournal.net (7-4-02) submitted to http://www.preachingtoday.com accessed October 8, 2009.
As quoted in Wiersbe, Be Determined.
“What is hesed?” from http://www.hesed.com/heseddef.htm accessed October 10, 2009.
Robin Koshy, “God in My Wandering: The Dangers of Disobedience”
http://sermons.logos.com/#q=&content=/submissions/62910&tab=paneTabHome&pane=homePane accessed October 10, 2009.