Last week we read how God’s people gathered in Jerusalem to listen to the reading of God’s word; and then they celebrated the Feast of Booths and rejoiced before the Lord for bringing them back from exile to the Promised Land.
In today’s passage, we read how God’s people once again gathered in Jerusalem. This time, they gathered together to confess their sins and to pray for God’s mercy. In verses 1 to 4 we have a description of the assembly. And then, in verses 5 to 38, we have the prayer they offered that day. And the prayer can be broken up into smaller parts. First of all, in verse 5, there’s a statement of praise. Then, in verses 6 to 31, they remember God’s mercy to them in the past. And finally, in verses 32 to 38, they plead with God for mercy in the present.
And as we go through this, notice the pronouns. Pronouns are very important. There’s the pronoun ‘you’ and there’s the pronoun ‘they’. The yous refers to the Lord; the theys refer to the people of Israel in the past. Look at verse 6 for instance:
You made the heavens…
And verse 7:
You are the Lord God, who chose Abram….
And verse 9:
You saw the suffering of our forefathers….
You came down on Mount Sinai.
They’re mentioning the things the Lord did in the past for his people. Now look at verse 16:
But they, our forefathers, became arrogant and stiff-necked….
Now they’re mentioning the things the people did in the past when they turned away from the Lord. They’re remembering the goodness of the Lord in the past; and they’re remembering the sinfulness of the people in the past. And then, near the end of the prayer, we find the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’, because at the end of the prayer, they’re calling on the Lord to show mercy to them.
So, let’s turn to this passage now and study it in more detail.
Verses 1 to 4
And, as I said, in verses 1 to 4 we have a description of the assembly. So, on the 24th day of the same month — which is two days after the Feast of Booths ended — the people gathered again. And look: they fasted and wore sackcloth and they put dust or ashes on their heads. These were signs of sorrow and mourning. Sorrow for their sins; and mourning, because, though they were back in Jerusalem, they were still living under the rule of a pagan king.
And you’ll see that they separated themselves from all foreigners. One of the commentators suggests that this shows the reading of God’s law was bearing fruit in their lives, because again and again in God’s law the Lord made clear that he had chosen the Israelites from among all the other nations of the world; and he called on them to separate themselves from the other nations and to dedicate themselves to serving him alone and not the gods of the nations. The reading of God’s law was bearing fruit in their lives; and they were seeking to obey the Lord and to do his will.
And they stood to confess their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. Well, in the verses which follow, they confess the sins of their forefathers; but they know that they’re not any different from their forefathers; and that they too have sinned against the Lord and done what is wicked in his sight; and so, they confessed their own sin before the Lord. And they also read from God’s law. We noticed last week their hunger and thirst for God’s word. Remember what we read last week about how from daybreak until noon — for six hours — they listened attentively to the Book of the Law? They had a hunger to hear God’s word. And here they are again, reading God’s law, listening to God’s law for a quarter of the day. And then, for another quarter of the day, they confessed their sins and worshipped the Lord their God. A number of Levites are named who led the people in worship: calling with a loud voice to the Lord.
Verses 6 to 38
That’s a description of the assembly. They’re God’s holy people, set part from the other nations to belong to him; they’ve gathered in the Lord’s holy city; they’re listening to God’s holy word; they’re confessing their sins; and they’re praising the Lord their God.
And then from verse 5 we read how Levites led the people in prayer. First, in verse 5, we have a call to worship; and then the prayer begins with a statement of praise. First, the call to worship:
Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.
So, the God we’re called to praise is the everlasting God, the eternal God, who alone is without beginning and without end. Stand up and praise this God, they said. And then there comes the statement of praise:
Blessed be your glorious name and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise.
Our God is glorious and he’s exalted above all that can be praised. So, he’s the eternal God; and he’s the highest God. He’s before all things; and he’s above all things.
In verse 6 they praise him as the Creator who made the heavens with all their host. They may be referring to the stars in the visible heavens above or to the angels who worship the Lord in his invisible heavenly temple. In either case, they’re praising God who made the heavens and all they contain. And they also praise God for making the earth and all that is in it and the seas and all that is in them. So, he made all things and he filled all things. He gives life to all things so that all things depend on him. Perhaps you remember a few Sunday evenings ago when I preached on God’s ‘aseity’, which means that God does not rely on anything or anyone outside of himself. He is completely independent, depending on no one and nothing for anything. By contrast, all living things depend on him for life and for everything else.
And then, having praised him for being the Creator, they go on to praise the Lord for choosing Abram. This is in verses 7 and 8. The Lord our God chose Abram and named him Abraham, which means ‘father of many’, because God was going to multiply his descendants and make them like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, too many to count. And the Lord made a covenant with Abraham, whereby he promised to give Abraham and his descendants a land of their very own to live in. And look at the end of verse 8 where the Levites acknowledged that the Lord kept his promise. He did all that he said he would do and he gave them Canaan and the city of Jerusalem to be their own.
In verses 9 to 12 the Levites refer to the time of the Exodus. When Abraham’s descendants were slaves in Egypt, the Lord saw their suffering; and he brought them out of Egypt by performing great signs and wonders against Pharaoh. And he also heard their cry at the Red Sea and he divided the sea before them so that they were able to cross through it on dry land. And then, by day the Lord led them with a pillar of cloud; and by night he led them with a pillar of fire to show them the way they were to take.
Verses 13 and 14 tell us about Mount Sinai. After rescuing them from Egypt, he led them to Mount Sinai, where the Lord came down and spoke to them to give them laws and rules and regulations which are just and right and good. They needed laws to show them how to live as God’s people: to show them what was good and what was evil; to show them how to obtain the Lord’s pardon when they sinned; and to show them how to approach him in worship. And he gave them the weekly Sabbath, so that after a week of work and toil, they were allowed to rest without feeling guilty about it.
Verses 15 to 21 are about their time in the wilderness. God cared for them in the wilderness, providing them with bread from heaven to satisfy their hunger; and with water from the rock to quench their thirst. And the Lord also commanded them to go in and to take possession of the Promised Land. If they had trusted the Lord and obeyed his command, they could have entered the Promised Land straightaway. However, the people became arrogant and stiff-necked and they refused to listen to the Lord. They doubted his ability to overcome their enemies and to give them the land. And so, they talked about appointing a leader to take them back to Egypt and back to slavery.
They sinned against the Lord and were unfaithful to him. But since he is a forgiving God, who is gracious and compassionate, and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, he did not abandon them in the wilderness or give them up. Even when they turned away from him and began to worship the golden calf, he did not turn away from them or abandon them. He continued to be with them and to guide them. And, according to verse 20, he filled some of them with his Spirit to teach them his will. That’s probably a reference to Numbers 11 when the Lord filled 70 elders with his Spirit so that they began to prophesy. And for 40 years he sustained them in the wilderness so that their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not become swollen. Though they were unfaithful to the Lord, he remained faithful to them.
Verses 22 to 25 are about the conquest of the land. God gave his people kingdoms and nations. So, he enabled them to overcome the other nations and to take possession of the Promised Land. And, just as he promised Abraham, they became a mighty nation so that they were like the stars in the sky, too many to count. And notice, of course, that the Lord had prepared everything for them. They did not need to build houses or dig wells or plant vineyards and so on. All of these good things were ready for them when they entered the land.
Verses 26 to 31 are about the Lord’s patience with them during the time of the Judges and Kings. So, though the Lord had provided them with so many good things to enjoy, they were disobedient and they rebelled against him. They took his law and cast it behind their backs and they even killed his prophets who came to them with the word of the Lord. So, because of their sinful rebellion, the Lord handed them over to their enemies to humble them. And so, they cried to the Lord for mercy; and the Lord heard from heaven and saved them. But as soon as they were saved, they again did evil in the sight of the Lord. So, once again the Lord handed them over to their enemies to humble them.
They once again cried to the Lord for mercy; and once again the Lord heard from heaven and saved them. This happened again and again during the time of the Judges. From verse 29, the Levites are probably referring to the time of the kings. And so, when the people sinned against the Lord, he warned them to return to his law. But they became arrogant and they disobeyed his commands and they sinned against his ordinances. They turned their backs on the Lord. For many years, during the time of the kings, the Lord was patient with them and he sent prophets to warn them. But they paid no attention. And so, eventually, because of their sinful rebellion, he handed them over to the Assyrians and Babylonians who took them away into exile. Instead of living in the Promised Land, they lived as exiles in far off lands. But, because the Lord is gracious and merciful, he did not utterly abandon them or give them up for good. He did not put an end to them, though that’s what they deserved. Instead, he continued to watch over them and to keep them.
And so, we come to verses 32 to 38. Having spent verses 6 to 31 remembering God’s mercy towards his people in the past, they plead with the Lord to show them mercy in the present. ‘Now, therefore’, they pray. Now, in the present, will you help us? And they refer to God as ‘our God’. And they call him great and mighty and awesome. Being great and mighty and awesome, he’s able to help them. And they say about him that he keeps his covenant of love; and since he keeps his covenant, since he keeps his promises, they know he’s not only able to help them, but that he’s willing to help them.
And so, they turn to the Lord and ask him to look upon their hardship. They know they deserve all the hardships they have suffered, because this was part of God’s covenant with them: that if they sinned against the Lord, he would bring curses upon them and cause them to suffer. So, the Lord was right to afflict them in this way and to send them into exile. But — they say in verse 36 — we are slaves today: slaves in the Promised Land. Because of their sins, they are slaves and the produce of the land goes to the kings of Persia who rule over them. They — those pagan kings — rule over their bodies and over their cattle. Therefore the people are in great distress.
They’re turning to the Lord and seeking his mercy and his help. They want the Lord to help them, just as he did before when they were slaves in Egypt and needed to be released; and when they were standing before the Red Sea and needed a way through; and when they were an Mount Sinai and needed laws to show them how to live; and when they were in the wilderness and needed food and water and God to guide them; and when they came to the Promised Land and needed help to subdue their enemies; and when their enemies attacked them and they needed God to save them; and when they were in exile and needed the Lord to bring them back to the Promised Land. Just as the Lord helped them in the past, so they want the Lord to help them again.
And what were they counting on? When they asked the Lord for help, what were they relying on? They weren’t relying on their goodness and their righteousness, because they knew they had none. They weren’t asking the Lord to help them because they were good and righteous and they deserved his help. No, they weren’t relying on that. They were relying on the character of God: that he is a God who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And they were relying on God’s covenant promises: because hadn’t he promised to be their God? They weren’t relying on themselves and on their goodness and righteousness. They were relying on God who is gracious and kind and who had promised to keep his people forever.
And that’s what you’re to rely on for salvation and for eternal life. You must not rely on your own goodness or righteousness, because you have none.
All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
There is no one righteous, not even one.
All have turned away.
There is no one who does good.
You must not rely on your own goodness or righteousness for salvation and eternal life, because you have none of your own.
Instead you must rely on the Lord, who has revealed himself to be merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And you’re to rely on his promises, because he has promised to save his people by his Son, who gave his life as the ransom to set sinners free from condemnation; and who shed his blood to cleanse sinners from their guilt. And God has promised that whoever repents and believes in his Son shall not perish but shall have eternal life.
You too can look back on your own life, just as the Israelites in Nehemiah 9 looked back on the life of their nation; and you can see all the ways the Lord has helped you in the past, because he made you and gave you life; and he’s provided for you day after day, he’s filled your life with good things to enjoy; and he’s been patient with you; and he’s put up with your disobedience and all the ways you had disregarded his word and broken his laws and doubted his goodness. He’s been patient with you, overlooking your sins, when he could have put an end to your life at any time. But he’s been patient with you. And he’s given you his word, so that you might know him. He’s sent you preachers to tell you the good news about salvation. He’s been good to you.
And now you need his help. You need his forgiveness. You need his Spirit to change your life. You need the hope of everlasting life, so that you will not perish forever. What will you count on? Count on this: the grace and mercy of God and his promise of salvation to all who will believe in his Son. Count on that and not on yourself. And all who confess their guilt before the Lord and who ask him to pardon them for the sake of Christ who died for sinners, will receive from God the forgiveness of their sins and the hope of everlasting life in the world to come. So, count on God’s character and his promises; and call on him for salvation.
But before we finish, notice one further thing. Right at the end of the prayer, the Levites said:
We are in great distress.
That demonstrates that though the Lord had brought them back to the Promised Land, and had helped them to rebuild the temple and the city wall, they were not yet enjoying that perfect and glorious life which the Lord promised his people.
Do you remember Isaiah 11 which we studied together at Christmas? In that chapter, the Lord spoke of a time when a new king would come to destroy their enemies; and to enable them to live in peace and safety on God’s holy mountain in a world that has been transformed and made perfect and glorious. Well, where was the new king the Lord promised? Where was the transformed creation the Lord promised? Instead of enjoying peace and safety on God’s holy mountain, they were still in distress; and foreign, pagan kings were ruling over them.
Being in distress meant that God’s promises to his people had not yet been fulfilled completely. Yes, they had returned to the Promised Land, and had rebuilt the temple and the city wall, but God had something better in store for them. He had something better in mind for them. And they had to wait for it, because the right time had not yet come. And we too have to wait for it, because the right time has not yet come. Yes, the king Isaiah spoke of was Christ the Lord, who has already come. But when he came, he came to suffer and to die for his people and to give all who believe in him the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life. He’s already come to establish his kingdom on the earth. But still we have to wait, still we have to wait for him to come a second time, because when he comes again, he will come in power and with glory to conquer his enemies — all who refused to believe in him — and to bring his believing people into a renewed and transformed and perfected and glorious creation, where all of God’s people will live in peace and safety on God’s holy mountain in the new Jerusalem, the holy city, forever and forever.
God had brought the Israelites back to the city of Jerusalem. But still they lived in distress and were waiting for and praying for the time when all of God’s promises would be fulfilled and they would live in a renewed and perfected and heavenly city of God. And that should be your hope too. You too live in distress, don’t you? You face trouble and hardships and sorrow everyday. And so it will continue throughout the rest of your life. But you must look to the Lord to help you, just as he helped his people in the past. And you must trust and keep trusting that God will do all that he has promised; and that one day, when Christ comes again, he will bring you — if you believe in him and keep believing in him — into the new heaven and earth to enjoy perfect peace and rest with all of God’s holy people on God’s holy mountain.