“Rehearsing His Greatness”
October 25, 2009
Only the contrast of God’s greatness offers hope to the desperate.
I. Recognizing the Need (Nehemiah 9:1-5)II. God’s Greatness in Creation and Redemption (Nehemiah 9:5-15)
III. God’s Greatness in Forgiveness and Compassion (Nehemiah 9:16-31)
IV. God’s Greatness in our Need (Nehemiah 9:32-37)
There are few things that drain hope more than darkness. Whether you’re trying to find a way through a dark, unfamiliar room or stumbling through a dark, unfamiliar terrain, it’s easy to despair. I think we all sometimes sense that our future is dark, or our relationships are dark, or we sense darkness in ourselves. And when we’re desperate about darkness we easily lose hope. What we need is light. We need to be able to see who we are and the reality around us. Here’s an awesome picture, but you can’t see it because it’s dark. Only as I gradually restore the light can you begin to see what’s really there.
In the same way, when we receive light spiritually we begin to see more clearly. We may not always like what we see in ourselves, because light shows our sinfulness. But we’ll love what we see in God. The light of Scripture reveals the greatness of God, not only his great power and majesty, but also his great mercy and compassion. And it’s in that contrast, the light of God’s greatness compared to the darkness of our need that desperate people find hope.
Nehemiah 9, is a prayer of confession, recognizing human failing and need. But it also focuses on God: his greatness, his power, his redemption, his mercy, his provision, his compassion, his faithfulness. The people of Nehemiah’s day saw this contrast between their sinful selves and God as their only hope. Only the contrast of God’s greatness offers hope to the desperate.
I. Recognizing the Need (Nehemiah 9:1-5)
Now this text is too long to read. But we’re going to read it anyway, bit by bit. And I may not be able to say as much in the way of commentary and exposition as I usually do; and that’s okay, because this Scripture says it so well. The scene is set in Nehemiah 9:1-5 On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. 2Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. 3They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.
4Standing on the stairs were the Levites--Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani and Kenani--who called with loud voices to the Lord their God. 5And the Levites--Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah and Pethahiah--said: "Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting."
The previous chapter began as Ezra read the book of the law on the first day of the month of Tishri. Scripture identifies that day is the Feast of Trumpets, so the people feasted and celebrated. The next day the people read in the Law about the Feast of Tabernacles, which runs from the 15th to 22nd of the same month. So they gathered branches and made booths and celebrated it.
But that sequence skips a major Jewish holiday, the Day of Atonement, the 10th of Tishri, a day set aside for prayer, fasting, confession, and repentance. One has to assume, based on the vast knowledge of Scripture displayed in these chapters, that Nehemiah fails to mention it on purpose. It seems that he and Ezra, in leading these people’s spiritual reformation, intended to celebrate God first, to teach what he’d done for his people, and only then to lead into confession. So instead of the 10th, they do this on the 24th, after Tabernacles.
They gather with the classic signs of confession: fasting, wearing sackcloth – the rags of a servant rather than the robes of a freeman – and sprinkling dust on their heads to symbolize uncleanness. They also separate themselves from all foreigners: this moment is specifically for the Jews to confess their sins in light of their special relationship with God as his chosen people.
As in chapter 8, they first focus on Scripture; they read for a quarter of a day, or three hours. Then the Levites led three hours of confession and worship of the Lord their God. Don’t miss that confession and worship go together: they are not only confessing their sins but confessing the greatness of God.
The prayer these Levites lead is so organized that they’d clearly prepared it in advance. They recognized their need to confess before God. As they read Scripture day after day the contrast between their sinfulness and God’s greatness had been amplified to the point where they had to come to Him in humility and confession. They knew they were living in darkness. So they led the people to pray this prayer, possibly by statement and repetition.
Those who don’t know God can be casual about sin: ‘I’m really no different than anyone else’ But those who do know God as revealed in His word, can’t be casual: the contrast between his light and my darkness must drive me to my knees. The greatness of God should make us desperate about our sin, and our sin should make us desperate for a God who is both great and merciful.
II. God’s Greatness in Creation and Redemption (Nehemiah 9:5-15)
Their prayer begins by focusing on God in his greatness. Verses 5-15: Blessed be your glorious name, may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. 6You 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
7"You are the Lord God, who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and named him Abraham. 8You found his heart faithful to you, and you made a covenant with him to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Girgashites. You have kept your promise because you are righteous.
9"You saw the suffering of our forefathers in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea. 10You sent miraculous signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. 11You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. 12By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take.
13"You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. 14You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses. 15In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them.
The first part of the prayer is all about God, filled to overflowing with Scripture. You may remember chapter 1, where Nehemiah prayed using the language of the Bible, praying Scripture back to God. These Levites do the same. They start with pure praise, reminiscent of 1st Chronicles 29:13, Psalm 148:13 and many others: They recognize the overawing greatness of God.
Furthermore he alone is the Lord, as Scripture frequently affirms. Now I’m not going to be able to mention the dozens of cross references in this prayer, but I’ve put copies of that kind of analysis on the back table for you. So when they go on to speak of God as creator, they use phrases from Genesis 1 and 2, from Deuteronomy and the Psalms. They praise his greatness in the creation of everything that is, whether here on earth or in the heavens above.
Next, they focus on his covenant promises. He chose Abram and found his heart faithful, referring to Genesis 15:6 “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” God promises that Abraham’s offspring will inherit the land, and he’s a God who keeps such covenant-promises, for he is righteous. Notice the contrast: we often don’t keep the promises we make, for we are not righteous, not able in our own strength to do what we intend.
So God keeps the promise to redeem his people. He sees our suffering and slavery, hears our cry and does miracles to rescue us. He knows we’re harassed and helpless. So he rescues. He parts the water so that we pass over from death to life on dry ground. Now you’ll say ‘wait, that’s what he did in Egypt, for them.’ But recognize that all I said is equally true of what Jesus does for us.
Jesus sees our slavery to sin, hears our cries of anguish in a fallen world, and does the greatest miracle to save us: not passing over the first-born, but offering himself as the sacrifice to pay for our sins and earn our redemption, so that by faith we can pass over from death to life. In Jesus God shows himself perfect in redemption. We have more reason to praise than these Israelites.
But they have a lot: not only did he redeem, but he gave them his word, his law on Mount Sinai. Notice how it’s described: “laws that are just and right, decrees and commands that are good.” Throughout Scripture the law is recognized as a good gift from God. The fact that we can’t keep the law and don’t does not take away from its goodness as an expression of God’s moral goodness.
Furthermore, God is great in his compassion and care. When Israel was traveling in the desert he gave them bread from heaven and water from the rock. He supernaturally cared for their physical needs – he didn’t let them hunger, he didn’t let them thirst. In the same way he is a God who cares for us greatly.
So far this is all God and all good. We’ve seen his greatness in creation; in his covenant promises; in redemption and in giving his people his word. What we haven’t seen yet is the contrast with us, with people. When we see that contrast, we’ll see those aspects of God’s greatness which are our only hope.
III. God’s Greatness in Forgiveness and Compassion (Nehemiah 9:16-31)
Let’s take verses 16 to 31 a little at a time, starting with verses 16-18: "But they, our forefathers, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and did not obey your commands. 17They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, 18even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, 'This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt,' or when they committed awful blasphemies.
The Levites continue to pray Scriptural truth back to God. Echoing Exodus 32:9, the first phrase shows that even those God blesses often become arrogant, disobedient and rebellious, wanting to leave God and go back to slavery. This is a basic truth of fallen humanity: we often refuse the good he offers.
John tells us that this is true even when God sends his Son: John 3:19 “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed."
So those rescued from Egypt, who received miracles in the desert and stood in awe at Mt. Sinai, refused to obey. But God didn’t desert them. The Levites quote a key truth about this mysterious God we serve: even when we sin he’s ‘a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.’ No matter what’s happening in your life, no matter how badly you blow it, God is compassionate, gracious, forgiving and abounding in love.
Even when they made an idol, an image of a calf and blasphemed by worshiping it, he didn’t desert them. His justice would have done so, but his compassion would not. Verses 19-21: "Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the desert. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. 20You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. 21For forty years you sustained them in the desert; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen.
God’s compassion will not abandon his people. He guides them day and night. Further, he gives them his Spirit. Isaiah taught that when God brought them through the sea, he set his Holy Spirit among them. He continued to show his goodness by giving them manna and water, and sustaining even their clothes and their footwear so that they lacked nothing.
In his greatness, God shows compassion even to sinners. Not that he makes light of sin: if we look at the context of these incidents we see he takes sin seriously. But his love causes him to show compassion even to sinners, and ultimately to rescue them by the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is great in holiness and justice, but greater than we can imagine in self sacrifice and mercy.
Verse 22: "You gave them kingdoms and nations, allotting to them even the remotest frontiers. They took over the country of Sihon king of Heshbon and the country of Og king of Bashan. 23You made their sons as numerous as the stars in the sky, and brought them into the land that you told their fathers to enter and possess. 24Their sons went in and took possession of the land. You subdued before them the Canaanites, who lived in the land; you handed the Canaanites over to them, along with their kings and the peoples of the land, to deal with as they pleased
25They 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.
This is the conquest of Canaan, as recorded in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Joshua. It’s pretty straightforward history, focusing on how good God was to that generation. They received “houses filled with all kinds of good things, wells already dug, vineyards, olive groves and fruit trees in abundance.” As a result they reveled in God’s goodness. But we all know what happened next.
Verse 26: "But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they put your law behind their backs. They killed your prophets, who had admonished them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies. 27So you handed them over to their enemies, who oppressed them. But when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers, who rescued from the hand of their enemies. 28"But as soon as they were at rest, they again did what was evil in your sight. Then you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies so that they ruled over them. And when they cried out to you again, you heard from heaven, and in your compassion you delivered them time after time.
This reflects the period of the Judges, when every man did what was right in their own eyes. They put God’s law behind their backs. What a sad descriptive phrase: God had put his law in their hands, but when they sinned it made them uncomfortable, so they stuck it behind their backs. They rejected God’s laws. But God didn’t reject them. Though he allowed their enemies to oppress, he didn’t abandon; he rescued them when they cried out. That’s the book of Judges: in your compassion you delivered them time after time.
This confession affirms two critical truths: man is sinful and will turn away from God’s ways and God’s laws, but a good and gracious God rescues rebellious people. On the one hand we need to see our sin and rebellion, both in general and in the specifics of breaking specific laws and commands. We need to see our lack of love, our greed, anger, lust, selfishness. When we see ourselves honestly we’ll see how desperate we are. We can’t rescue ourselves.
So we need the contrast. We need to see a God who is great and powerful, just and holy, yet who sets his heart to redeem and rescue fallen people, sinful and rebellious people who are his enemies. This chapter’s inspired summary of so much Scripture makes a compelling case for his undeserved compassion, the grace of God. All of us, but for his grace, are doomed rebels.
Verse 29: You warned them to return to your law, but they became arrogant and disobeyed your commands. They sinned against your ordinances, by which a man will live if he obeys them. Stubbornly they turned their backs on you, became stiff-necked and refused to listen. 30For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you admonished them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you handed them over to the neighboring peoples. 31But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.
This pattern continues in the kingdom period: they become arrogant, they disobey, turn their backs; refuse to listen. I’m sure none of that applies to us. Does it? Have you ever had a persistent pattern of sin, even as a believer? Anger you can’t control? Desires and lusts that often control you? Spending that leads to trouble? Selfishness or anger that cripples relationships? You know it’s wrong, you’ve tried to stop but you keep going back to that old sin.
But God has been patient, as he was with the people of Israel. He sent the prophets who spoke by his Holy Spirit. But when they refused to repent, he sent stronger medicine. He gave them over to the neighboring peoples, but even then he cared for them. Verse 31: But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.
How great is our God, whose compassions never fail? Only in the greatness of his mercy, his love shown to us in Jesus, his sin-bearing on our behalf, is there hope. Because we’re as bad as these people, by nature rebellious and sinful. But God who rescued us in Jesus and paid the price of all our sins, does not abandon us, but stands willing to show mercy to us despite our present sins.
IV. God’s Greatness in our Need (Nehemiah 9:32-37)
The last few verses bring this into the present tense for the people of Nehemiah’s day, just as we have been bringing these truths into the present tense for ourselves. Verse 32: Now therefore, O our God, the great, mighty and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love, do not let all this hardship seem trifling in your eyes--the hardship that has come upon us, upon our kings and leaders, upon our priests and prophets, upon our fathers and all your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria until today.
33In all that has happened to us, you have been just; you have acted faithfully, while we did wrong. 34Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the warnings you gave them. 35Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways.
36"But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. 37Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.
They continue to praise God for his greatness and his mercy: he’s the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of love. So like their forefathers, they cry out in their current need. ‘We’re in bad trouble, Lord, and we need your help, not because you’ve been unjust or unfaithful to us, but because you have been just and you’ve acted faithfully while we did wrong.’ Notice that little phrase. It’s not just their kings and priests and fathers who broke God’s laws: they themselves are cut from the same cloth and follow the same path of sinfulness and rebellion – this confession is their own.
And the same should be true for us. We have to examine ourselves, not just other people. We have to see these characteristic sins in ourselves. We have to tease out our own areas of selfishness, and confess our own anger or lust or pride. We have to recognize that we are desperate before God. Then we need to see his greatness in his undeserved compassion offered to us in Jesus.
And we must not get as hard-hearted as the generations of Israelites who enjoyed God’s goodness in the spacious and fertile land, but did not turn from their evil ways. It was that hard-heartedness that led God to fulfill his threatened punishment of exile; Israel carried off to Assyria and Judah to Babylon. Even in Nehemiah’s day they knew that though they were back in the land, they were not free: ‘we are slaves today, our harvest goes to Artaxerxes and his minions. Even our bodies belong to him. We are in desperate distress.’
Do you see where this confession has gone? It started as pure testimony of the greatness of God: in creation, in covenant, in promises, in redemption. Then it turned to the greatness of God despite the sinful rebellion of men. Finally it led to confession of their own sins and a cry for God to intervene. You see, only the God described and worshipped in the first half of the chapter is a God who can be trusted to respond to the cry of the last half. Only a God great in power and compassion can give hope for our sin and distress.
So, we need to take hold of this contrast. We need to know the greatness of our God, a greatness made even more clear and glorious by our knowledge of what Jesus has done, God’s ultimate sacrifice of mercy and compassion. We need to know a great God so that in our sin, need and desperation we can cry out with hope. I beg you: know the greatness of God; see yourself in the light of his greatness; and affirm him daily as your only hope.