By Dr. Mark Scott
More than 500 years had passed since the events of last week’s lesson. The 10 northern tribes had been taken captive by Assyria (722 BC), and the two southern tribes had been taken captive by Babylon (586 BC). But God raised up Cyrus to send the exiles home (Isaiah 45:1). They came home in three waves—one under Zerubbabel; one under Ezra; and one under Nehemiah. The good governor would work hard to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1-6). But he knew that it would take more than brick and mortar to rebuild the Stone City. It would also take the Word of God (Nehemiah 7-13).
Nehemiah 9:32a, 33a, 35a, 36a
As Ezra and his helpers presented the Word of God to the people, all the right things took place—reverence for God, heartfelt worship, great contrition, celebration of God’s goodness, and renewal of key festivals of their faith (Nehemiah 8:1-18). The exposition of Scripture caused the returned exiles to have a good “Bible cry.” They were told to put a lid on their mourning until the Feast of Tabernacles was over. Our text brings us to the time when the day for crying had come.
Nehemiah 9 is one of the most beautiful prayers in the Bible. It is a long rehearsal of a rebellious history. The Levites led out in this magnificent prayer on behalf of the returned exiles. God’s people celebrated the faithfulness of God as a covenant keeper. At least eight qualities and actions of God’s faithfulness are identified. God is called great (high, large in magnitude) and mighty (strong). He is also called awesome. This word originally meant something that was “terrible” (Hebrews 10:31). God is acknowledged as one who keeps his covenant of love. Love is the Hebrew word “hesed.” It is the word for covenantal and steadfast love (or lovingkindness). God is faithful in keeping his side of the agreement because “it’s the hesed way of doing things” (Carolyn Custis James, The Gospel of Ruth).
God is also acknowledged as righteous (just) and faithful (truthful). God’s people enjoyed the great blessing of experiencing life under God’s loving reign (his kingdom). Finally God’s tremendous kindness expressed in physical blessings is mentioned. The people enjoyed spacious and fertile land, and ate all the good things it produced. Make no mistake about it. God is faithful as a covenant keeper.
Nehemiah 9:32b, 33b, 34, 35b, 36a, 37
The Levites (speaking for the people) spared no words admitting the breaking of the covenant. The exiles returning from Babylon likened their rebellion to that of their fellow Israelites during the earlier Assyrian captivity. They urged God not to allow the hardships that had happened to them to seem trifling (little).
The people also confessed that they had acted wickedly (evil). They acknowledged that their leaders did not follow the law and didn’t pay attention to the commandments and the statutes (testimonies). The people didn’t serve God or turn (repent) from their evil ways. They admitted they had been in slavery (see John 8:33), had sinned, and had seen their crops and cattle confiscated by the kings. No wonder they were in great distress (trouble, affliction). These were painful words to read, but people never get well without doing reality therapy on their own sins.
Nehemiah 9:38; 10:28, 29
Israel literally signed on to keep God’s covenant. They even put it in writing (engraved). The leaders led the way.
The rest (remnant) followed suit. Ten groups of people are mentioned who were willing to bind themselves with a curse and oath to obey the covenant. Would they break their word? Yes (Nehemiah 13). Do God’s people need the Holy Spirit to help them walk in God’s ways? Yes (Romans 8:1-11; Galatians 5:16-26). But we will never be able to keep God’s covenant without commitment.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2013, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.