Renewing the Covenant
The last few sermons on the book of Nehemiah have focused on the reformation that began in chapter 8 when the people went to Ezra and asked him to read from the law of Moses. Since then, we’ve seen that they celebrated the new year and the Feast of Tabernacles. But even this wasn’t enough. When the celebrations were all done, they gathered together again to confess their sins and seek the Lord’s favor.
This is the context for the events that are described in today’s text. The Levites, according to verse 5, faithfully led the people in worship. Eight of their names are mentioned. The previous verse listed eight names as well, although only five of the names of the same. In any case, the Levites instructed the people to stand up and bless the LORD.
The prayer that the Levites offered on this occasion begins in verse 5 and continues through the end of the chapter, making it one of the longest prayers reco by quoting rded in the Bible. Most of it is borrowed from other passages of Scripture, which is a good way for all of us to pray. If God magnifies his Word above his name, as Psalm 138:2 says he does, then he will certainly hear our concerns when we state them using his own words. This, of course, assumes that we quote Scripture according to its true and proper sense. The Lord will not be pleased if we misuse his Word or quote it out of context.
There are also five clearly definable sections to this prayer. It begins with a preface in verses 5 through 8, exalting the excellence of God’s name and establishing the covenantal basis of prayer in the Lord’s dealings with Abraham. The second section (vv. 9–15) covers the deliverance from Egypt. The third section (vv. 16–24) outlines God’s gracious provision for the Israelites during their wilderness sojourn, which was particularly appropriate in light of the fact that the Jews of Nehemiah’s day had just celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, which commemorated the same. The rebellion of the Israelites in the promised land and God’s judgment occupy the fourth section (vv. 25–31). And finally, the prayer concludes with a request for God to help the people in their present affliction (vv. 32–37).
Because this prayer is so long, we will examine only the first three sections today. We’ll finish the rest of it next week, Lord willing.
The Excellence of God’s Name
In the preface to the Levites’ prayer, they praised Jehovah for being the creator and preserver of all things: Thou, 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 (v. 6). They recognized that Jehovah is unique among all the so-called gods. He alone possesses complete and absolute sovereignty over the entire universe. Nothing comes to pass apart from his supreme decree.
The gods that pagans worship are either the invention of their imaginations or the product of their hands. In either case, their gods did not create them. Rather, they created their gods. It’s all backwards. They are like people who set off fireworks on the Fourth of July and exclaim, “Look what heaven sent us!” But with Jehovah there is no mistake. Not only is he found worthy of praise by men whose hearts have been sanctified by the Spirit of God, but according to the end of verse 6 he is also worshiped by the host of heaven, i.e., by the holy angels. The angels also bear witness to the fact that Jehovah alone made and governs the entire universe.
Their prayer goes on to say in verses 7 and 8 that the same God who governs all things with absolute sovereignty also chose one man and his descendents to be the recipients of his special favor. Our text says, 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; and foundest his heart faithful before thee, and madest a covenant with him.
Abraham was no more deserving of God’s kindness than any other man. He and his family came out of Ur of the Chaldees, which reminds us that they were entrenched in the pagan worship of that particular culture. Joshua 24:2 says, Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods. They most likely worshiped the moon-god Nannar. But God chose to establish a covenant with him. He therefore called him away from his people and out of his paganism, and graciously let him into the land of promise.
Several aspects of God’s covenant with Abraham are highlighted in verses 7 and 8. First, God gave Abraham a new name. His former name Abram means “exalted father” — an ironic name for a man who had no children at the time, yet it previewed the fact that he would in God’s providence be a truly exalted father. His new name Abraham means “father of a multitude.” It promised this childless father that his children would be many. The Lord also promised to give Abraham a parcel of land which his descendents dwell in. The land would then be the means of God fulfilling even greater promises. No doubt, he gave the land to all of a Abraham’s seed, yet the fact that the word seed in verse 8 is singular reminded the people that the land was ultimately destined to be the birthplace of the Messiah. It is, first and foremost, his land.
The prayer of the Levites thus began with an appreciation of God’s covenant, but in reality the whole prayer is covenantal. The Lord provided for the Israelites because he had given his word and to Abraham. Their periods of blessing and prosperity, as well as their captivities, were meted out according to their faithfulness to God’s covenant-law. The covenant is mentioned again explicitly only in verse 32. But at the conclusion of their prayer in verse 38, the people pledged themselves to make a written covenant. Chapter 10 gives us the text of this covenant, and there we see that they simply affirmed the obligations that God himself had required of them but that they had neglected. Their covenant was a recommitment to the covenant that God had already given them.
Like the Jews of Nehemiah’s day, we must make sure to walk faithfully in God’s covenant. Not only do we have explicit commands in the New Testament exhorting us to examine ourselves, but we also have some very strong warnings. Some of the strongest warnings occur in the book of Hebrews, which was written to an audience of converted Jews who were in danger of giving up their faith in Christ to return to Judaism. The author wrote, Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it (Heb. 4:1); and, Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:29).
While some of us are moved by threats, others are more affected by the soft reassurances of God’s love. For this reason, the writer of Hebrews also melts our hearts with the promises of the gospel. For those looking for rest, he wrote, There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God (Heb. 4:9). And to those who trust the precious blood of Christ to take away their sins, he adds, By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.… For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified (Heb. 10:10, 14).
So, whether it is by warning or by the comfort of the gospel the Savior summons you to walk with him in the Covenant of Grace.
Redemption from Slavery
After God made his covenant with Abraham, he took Abraham’s descendents down to the land of Egypt where they became slaves. Although this seems like a step backwards, it really wasn’t since God used the mighty Egyptian empire to protect his people and allow them to grow.
But the time came when the slavery became oppressive and Abraham’s descendents cried for mercy. This takes us to the second section of the Levites’ prayer, viz., the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery. The Lord heard their cries and rescued them just as he had promised to their father. We have the record of their deliverance in verses 9 through 15.
This was a very practical example of justice. As the Israelites were about to settle in their own land, God told them to show kindness to oppressed Hebrew servants out of gratitude for the kindness that he had shown them (Deut. 15:12–15).
Furthermore, the Israelites were unusually privileged in that God allowed them to see the signs and wonders that he brought upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In the Old Testament, half of all the references to miracles are to those done in connection with the exodus. These were the signs of the Lord’s redemption under the old covenant.
In our text, three of those miracles are singled out for us. The first of these is the parting of the Red Sea in verse 11. The Lord parted the sea to allow his people to pass through it on dry ground, but when the Egyptians tried to do the same they were drowned in a mighty torrent. The end of this verse graphically describes the destruction of Israel’s persecutors: they were like stones or pebbles pushed around in a great flood. The second miracle mentioned in verse 12 is the cloud that gave the Israelites shade by day and light at night. And the third miracle in verse 15 was the miraculous supply of heavenly bread and water from a rock. The idea behind each of these miracles is that God abundantly provides for the needs of his people. The fact that God provides for his people so abundantly should bring forth in us a well-spring of profound and deep gratitude.
To guide and direct his people, God showed another kindness to them by speaking from heaven, i.e., giving his laws and commandments through Moses. Many years later, the apostle John wrote that God’s commandments are not grievous (I John 5:3). They are not burdensome to us because God writes his law on the hearts of true believers. We are, therefore, compelled to keep his commandments more by the force of our regenerated nature than by the external compulsion of a written law. In our text, the Levites recognize this when they describe God’s laws in verse 13 as right judgments, and true laws, good statutes and commandments. And in the next chapter, as I mentioned earlier, they pledged themselves to live by every letter of this holy law.
The restoration of the law is an important element in the reformations that we see in Scripture, e.g., those that took place under Asa, Joash and Josiah. There’s a good reason for this: the law, although it must be distinguished from the gospel, cannot be totally separated from it. The gospel has no meaning unless it is understood in light of the fact that we have violated God’s law. Thus, the law, in addition to teaching us about our depravity and helping us to establish an orderly society, directs our attention to the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone kept the law perfectly for us and imputes his perfect righteousness to everyone who believes. The law is not a cruel slave master to God’s people, but a tutor leading us to the only source of salvation and deliverance.
The exodus, although it was a mighty deliverance in itself, was still only a faint shadow of the greater deliverance that would come in the person and work of God’s only begotten Son. We should, therefore, be all the more grateful that we have full and complete salvation in Jesus Christ.
God’s Kindness in the Wilderness
God’s kindness to men should make us humble before him since we do not deserve anything but his wrath. But being the sinners that we are, we nurture the thought that God owes it to us. And if God owes it to us, then we owe him nothing in return. He is indebted to us, not we to him.
The third section of the Levites’ prayer (vv. 16–25) reminds us that this is exactly what happened with the children of Abraham in the wilderness. The Lord continued to provide for them as generously as he had before, but they took advantage of his kindness.
Verses 16 and 17 face the problem head on: But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments, and refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that thou didst among them; but hardened their necks. Their problem was pride. In spite of all that God had done for them, they were determined to have their own way. Even the great miracles that we mentioned earlier did not soften their hearts to God’s tender mercies.
But notice how criminal their behavior really was. According to verse 10, one of the reasons why God dealt so harshly with Pharaoh and the Egyptians was that they had dealt proudly with the Israelites. And yet, the Israelites turned around and did exactly the same thing. They should have learned an important lesson from Pharaoh, but they did not. But that’s the way sin works — every sinner thinks that he is going to get away with what nobody else could. Sin is a great deceiver.
The extent of sin’s deception is evident in verse 17: in their rebellion [they] appointed a captain to return to their bondage. This probably refers to an incident that took place in Numbers 14, but the point is that they thought they could make a better life for themselves than what God was giving them. If only they could have their way, they could do better than God. Egypt’s leeks and onions were more agreeable to their palette than that white fluffy stuff that they had together off the ground every morning.
Yet, even with such incredible ingratitude, God’s character would not allow him to forsake his people. He was always ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. He continued to provide for their every need throughout the forty years of their wilderness wandering, which only highlights all the more the greatness of his generosity in contrast to their sin and rebellion.
Because our tendency is to forget, the Bible constantly encourages us to remember the great things that God has done in our behalf. When we forget, we inevitably stray from God’s holy law. Listen to what Moses said to the generation that entered into the promised land. In Deuteronomy 4:23 he wrote, Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make you a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, which the LORD thy God hath forbidden thee.
Sadly, the people met God’s continued kindness with an increasingly worsening rebellion. Verse 18 reports that in direct disobedience to God’s law they made themselves a molten calf to bow down and worship. Calf worship was a relatively common practice in Egypt, and this was no doubt where they picked up the idea. The fact that one of the ten plagues was directed specifically against this deity shows its prevalence and was meant to warn the Israelites not to engage in it. Unfortunately, the fact that God himself required so many sacrifices that involved cattle only made calf worship even more desirable. It was a way of imaging Jehovah and yet retaining the old religious practices with which they were familiar.
Again, even with this flagrant contempt of God’s law, God did not forsake his people. Verses 19 through 21 bring us back again to the magnanimity of God’s character. He continued to provide them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, he gave them manna to eat and water to drink, and he made their clothes last the entire forty years. But perhaps the greatest act of divine kindness is the one mentioned at the very beginning of verse 20, viz., that God gave his Spirit to instruct the people. He did this primarily through Moses, but at times used other leaders, including the seventy elders who assisted Moses in judicial matters.
Eventually the Lord brought the Israelites to their destination, but on the way they had other work to do. Verses 22 through 24 says that God used them in his service to put an end to the worst elements of moral corruption in Canaanite society. They were kings and judges in a very real and practical way. But their hearts were still cold . They failed to appreciate God’s generosity.
The Jews in the book of Nehemiah sought the Lord in prayer in order to avoid the sins and errors of their fathers. They sought to turn God’s face toward them once again. In the same way, we should always be seeking the blessings of heaven.
The prayer and our text exemplifies another critical aspect of reformation, viz., the necessity of prayer and worship. Reformation begins with the Word of God, as the previous chapter shows, because the Bible teaches us how to respond to God’s great salvation in his Son. But merely having the information is not enough. If we really believe that God has spoken to us in Scripture, then we must humble our hearts before him. And this is essentially what prayer and worship are. A man who does not pray and engage in sincere worship believes that he can do everything by himself. He is completely self-sufficient. He does not need the Lord’s help.
Earlier I mentioned that a good percentage of this prayer comes from other passages of Scripture. Most of it is a recitation of what God had done for his people. It shows that the history of Abraham’s seed was marred by great sin and rebellion. But that is not the main point. Rather, the point is that, just as God was merciful to them even when they least deserved it, he will also show mercy to those who turn to him, confessing their sins and the sins of their fathers. The mere fact that God hears our prayers should give us tremendous encouragement to come before him, seeking mercy through the precious shed blood of Jesus Christ.
The rest of their prayer, which we will look at later, summarized the history of the Jews up to the completion of the wall. By Nehemiah’s day, the Lord’s kindness had so moved the hearts of the people that they dedicated themselves entirely to his service and to obedience to his law. May the Lord our God stir us up to increased prayer and worship, and to faithfulness to his holy Word! Amen.