Renewing the Covenant II
We began our study of the Levites’ prayer from the ninth chapter of Nehemiah a week ago. I chose to cover it in two sermons because of its exceptional length.
As I mentioned last week, this prayer can be divided into five sections. We covered the first three in the previous sermon, viz., praise to God for the excellence of his name, the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, and God’s provision for his people in the wilderness. This morning we will finish the last two sections. Verses 25 through 31 recount the rebellion of the Israelites after they entered the promised land and the chastisement that God brought upon them. Following this, the Levites plead with the Lord for mercy in their present affliction. This is the subject of their prayer in verses 32 through 37.
I would also remind you that most of what would have been this prayer comes from other passages of Scripture. The Levites were so filled with the knowledge of God’s Word that they could not help but pray using the words that God himself had given them. This is a good practice for all of us to follow. When we hide the Word in our hearts, it will naturally spill over into our conversations and prayers.
God’s Mercy in the Promised Land
Verse 25 lists many of the good things that God had given the Israelites upon their entrance into the promised land, viz., strong cities, and a fat land, and possessed houses full of all goods, wells digs, vineyards, and oliveyards, and fruit trees in abundance.
Now, keep in mind that these were not things that the Israelites had worked for. Before they entered the promised land Moses said to them, And it shall be, when the LORD thy God shall have brought thee into the land which he sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give thee great and goodly cities, which thou buildedst not, and houses full of all good things, which thou filledst not, and wells digged, which thou diggedst not, vineyards and olive trees, which thou plantedst not; when thou shalt have eaten and be full (Deut. 6:10–11). When they conquered the land, God literally gave them everything they needed. This was part of the rest that he had promised them. They had been slaves in Egypt, where they not only had to make bricks but were also forced to gather their own brickmaking supplies. But in the promised land God himself would take care of them.
The danger in this kind of situation is that people tend not to appreciate what is merely handed to them. This is a problem with government assistance programs. Even our children will not value the things that we give them as much as they will prize what they’ve earned. Therefore, Moses warned them in the very next verse: Then beware lest thou forget the LORD, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage (Deut. 6:12).
This warning proved to be absolutely necessary. The end of verse 25 says that the Israelites thoroughly enjoyed the abundance of God’s great goodness, but the next verse adds that they nonetheless turned their backs on him. They even murdered his prophets. Many of these martyred prophets died at the hands of wicked queen Jezebel (I Kgs. 18:13). Others followed at different times, and the last death of a prophet recorded in the Old Testament was Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, who was assassinated in the courtyard of the temple (II Chron. 24:21).
The Lord dealt harshly with his people because their sin was an offense against his holiness. The prophet Ezekiel described the harshness of God’s judgments in a very graphic way. He said that God exposed their lewdness to the nations around about them. He made them naked. Indeed he did! More literally, he delivered them into the hands of their enemies from time to time, as verses 27 and 28 say, in order that they might learn to appreciate his generosity. The history of the Israelites from the book of Judges onward reveals multiple cycles of rebellion, captivity, repentance and deliverance. In each case, the Lord’s deliverance was solely the result of his mercy. The Israelites did not deserve this favor, but God saved them anyway.
This historical information in the Levites’ prayer is provided to emphasize the richness of divine grace. The greatest gift we have, viz. , our salvation, is not only a totally free gift, but is given to us in spite of our wickedness. God’s grace invariably shows itself to be stronger than our sin. The apostle Paul stated this very clearly in Romans 5:20, where he wrote, Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound. And where do we find such grace? Not in the law! The law was given by Moses. It was a guide and tutor, but by itself it was not enough. We need something that will conquer our disobedience. For this kind of grace we must turn to the Lord himself. John wrote, But grace and truth came by Jesus Christ (John 1:17).
Last week, we saw that the rebellion of the Israelites in the wilderness was the result of their indefatigable pride. Verse 16 says, But they and our fathers dealt proudly. They failed to see that God had punished Pharaoh and all of Egypt specifically for their pride, as we see in verse 10. Neither had those who entered the promised land learned from the sin of the previous generation. According to verse 29, their problem continued to be that they dealt proudly. They insisted on having their own way and doing their own thing.
Verse 29 gives an illustration of their pride. It says that they withdrew the shoulder. This figure of speech is taken from the ox, which would sometimes raise its shoulders to resist having a yoke placed on it. Sometimes in the ox would not want to submit to its master. Like sinners, it wanted to have its own way.
In the middle of this verse, we also have a parenthetical quotation from the law. Leviticus 18:5 says, Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD. In this verse, life is predicated on the basis of obedience to God’s laws. If a man keeps the commandments, he will live in them. But this is exactly what the Israelites had failed to do. To be even more correct, it is what they in their pride refused to do. In fact, it is something that no mere man, being a sinner, can do. What, then, is the point of the quotation? It shows that the Israelites had not yet reached the fullness of God’s blessing. The blessing would have to come some other way. Something more was needed. What they needed was a substitute that would satisfy the demands of God’s law in their behalf. In other words, this verse taught Abraham’s descendents to keep looking for the Messiah. Romans 8:3–4 says, For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
Because God is gracious and merciful and the fullness of his grace in Christ had not been manifest, he did not consume his people. He was not yet done with them. Jesus Christ had not yet come. Nonetheless, the Lord did chastise them sorely. The last manifestation of his displeasure was the captivity of the two kingdoms. The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BC, and the Babylonians led the southern kingdom away more than a century later. The Babylonians were later conquered by the Persians, which left the Jews under their domination through Nehemiah’s day.
This is the situation in which Nehemiah and his contemporaries found themselves.
A Plea for God’s Mercy
As we turn to the final section of the Levites’ prayer in verse 32, the summary of redemptive history up to their day is complete. They sought God' S. mercy because they were still suffering the accumulated effects of their fathers’ sin and of their own. Yet, the history that they had resided for themselves gave them great encouragement, for it demonstrates the great mercy of God and are minded them that mercy is an integral part of his covenant. In fact, the Lord’s faithfulness to his covenant was the basis for all their hope.
With this strong theology, the Levites pled with the Lord to forgive their sin and shower them with the benefits of his covenant and mercy once again.
On the other hand, they recognized that God had been perfectly just in all of his dealings with them throughout their entire history. Verse 33 says, Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly. The Lord had told them that he would bless their obedience and curse their disobedience, and that is exactly what he had done. Therefore, the fault was entirely their own. They were the ones who had violated the law and covenant. They knew that they had done so, and they confessed it. Everyone was guilty. Verse 34 specifically mentions kings, princes, priests and fathers.
The only people who were left out of this confession of sin were the prophets. According to verse 32, they suffered the consequences of breaking the covenant just as much as everyone else, but verse 34 does not name them as covenant-breakers. That’s because they had proclaimed the righteousness of God’s judgments in the face of great sin. While the people were engaging in idolatry, oppression and all kinds of horrible behavior, the prophets faithfully summoned them back to covenant obedience. Throughout this chapter, the prophets are constantly identified as one of God’s greatest gifts to his people. He chose not to leave them in their sin, but gave them his Word.
The people of Nehemiah’s day included themselves in their confession of sin. They said, But we have done wickedly (v. 33). But they also repented. In fact, according to verse 36, they pledged from that point on to be God’s servants. As the servants of God, they would exercise faithful dominion over themselves and over all that God had given to them.
A lot of people, Christians included, do not appreciate the fact that men are inescapably servants by nature. Because we have been created with an awareness of God built into the fabric of our being, we must either worship and serve God or find a substitute to worship and serve. Paul put it this way: Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? (Rom. 6:16). In our case and in the case of the Jews of Nehemiah’s day, the Lord has graciously turned us away from being servants to sin to being servants of righteousness. And what do we find, except that the Lord is a much kinder master than sin is? sin gives the sinner no rest at all. Isaiah 57:20 says, But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. But Jesus says, Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28). He, too, places a yoke upon us, but his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
Even more to the point, service is at the very heart of our responsibility in the covenant. Note, for example, how the two ideas are connected in the case of David in Psalm 89:3. The psalm says, I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant. David was a shadow of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate servant of the covenant. Nowhere in Scripture do we see this more clearly than in the book of Isaiah. The fifty-second and fifty-third chapters describe the work of God’s servant: Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high (Isa. 52:13). Then in the fifty-fourth chapter the prophet declared that this servant has fulfilled and established the Covenant of Grace. Verse 10 says, For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the LORD that hath mercy on thee.
Thus, the work of Christ as the servant of the covenant brings us into the covenant and makes us into the Lord’s servants, too.
But there was a problem for the people of Nehemiah’s day. They were under the authority of the king of Persia, who considered himself their master, conscripting their bodies and their cattle for various public works projects. The fact that they had to pay tribute to the king meant that they were further limited in how they could use their resources. Their money went to him, rather than to the temple and its ministry. As a result, the Jews were in great distress. The whole point of their prayer, again, was for God to deliver them. They begged God to deliver them. They wanted to see his covenant-mercy in order that they might devote themselves entirely to his service.
Like the king of Persia, Satan is constantly enticing us to do his will and to be his servants. He has all kinds of projects for us, too. We must pray, as our catechism teaches us, that God will destroy the works of the devil, every power that exalts itself against him, and all wicked devices formed against his holy Word (Heid. 123). We must beg him to preserve and strengthen us by the power of his Holy Spirit, that we might make firm stand against our deadly enemies and not be overcome in this spiritual warfare, until finally complete victory is ours (Heid. 127).
In light of their history and present distress, the Jews of Nehemiah’s day repented and reaffirmed their commitment to God’s covenant. They even wrote it out and sealed it, with the princes, Levites and priests leading the effort. The names of those who signed this document appear in the first few verses of the next chapter. Chapter 10 also gives us the text of this covenant document that they signed and sealed. Basically, the people agreed to separate from the heathen and to commit themselves entirely to the keeping of God’s law.
The Lord also gives you, his people, numerous opportunities to repent and reaffirmed your commitment to his covenant. The preaching of the Word each Lord’s Day is one such opportunity. It is your job as the covenant people of God to listen attentively and give it your hearty amen. When you say “Amen,” let that be an affirmation that God has spoken today through the preaching of his Word and it is your wholehearted purpose to live by it. Further, you have occasion to reaffirm your commitment to the covenant whenever we celebrate either of the sacraments. Witnessing a baptism should remind you of your baptismal obligations, and by partaking of the Lord’s Supper you are pledging yourselves to renewed obedience and service.
The reformation took place under Nehemiah in the eighth and ninth chapters of his book give a very practical illustration of what it means for each of us to serve our covenant God. We can summarize this in the words of Paul is found in the twelfth chapter of the book of Romans: I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (vv. 1–2).
May the Lord our God have mercy upon us and teach us always to hope and trust in his mercy alone! Amen.