Confessional History in a Prayer
Repentance is hard work. Although a change of heart and mind is right at the center of it, there are other aspects of repentance—study of the law of God being one of them. It is not enough to say that you would do what God wants “if you only knew.” Perhaps, if He has written a book, we ought to give ourselves to the study of it.
Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them . . . (Nehemiah 9:1-38).
The people assembled with repentant fasting, in sackcloth and dirt (v. 1). They separated themselves from all aliens and confessed their sin together (v. 2). One quarter of the day they listened to Scripture read, and another quarter they spent in confession and worship (v. 3). Certain Levites cried out to the Lord (v. 4), and some of them with others exhorted the people to bless God (v. 5). The prayer that occupies the rest of the chapter begins in verse 6, and they begin with the works of God in creation (v. 6). Then they mentioned the calling of Abraham (vv. 7-8). The next of God’s works mentioned was the delivery of the people of Israel from Egypt (vv. 9-11). When God led them out into the wilderness, He took care of them there, and this included the giving of the law (vv. 12-21). God was kind despite their rebellions against Him. When the conquest began, God gave them military victories (vv. 22-25). But despite God’s kindness, the people threw the law of God behind their backs (v. 26), and began to experience a pattern of repetitive judgments (vv. 27-31). And this brings the prayer down to the present, and these men ask that the Lord not consider their troubles to be small, and to deliver them (vv. 32-38).
Bless the Lord:
Contrition is not inconsistent with a heartfelt blessing of God (v. 5). In fact, contrition is not genuine unless it is accompanied by this kind of gratitude toward God. And so the people blessed the Lord, and they followed the prayer offered to God, and they agreed with it. This history lesson in a prayer is part of this blessing of the Lord.
There is an important distinction to be made here. There is a practice to be avoided—some ministers like to continue the sermon in the closing prayer: “And Lord, thou knowest that the verb in v. 17 is in the aorist tense . . .” This is not good because you are talking to the people and pretending to talk to God. But whenever we talk to God, individually or corporately, we are always telling Him things He already knows. If “talking to God” were the only component involved, then prayer doesn’t really make sense. But prayer (individual or corporate) is supposed to have an edifying element in it for the one who prays (1 Cor. 14: 14), or for the one who hears and says amen (1 Cor. 14:16). All this to say that in a certain sense, the prayers we offer are supposed to be instructive and edifying for us. This is what we see here in Nehemiah 9.
The doctrine of creation is foundational. God not only laid the foundations of the earth, He also (in that act) laid the foundations for all our thinking about anything else. We cannot understand anything around us without understanding that God “made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all t heir host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee” (v. 6). Notice how this prayer pushes an acknowledgement of God’s creative power into all the corners. This is important because the authority of God goes wherever acknowledgement of His creation goes. He owns us because He made us. This is why the doctrine of evolution is such a pernicious doctrine. It is not about technique—it is about authority.
The history of the redemptive people begins with Abraham (v. 7). The men praying this prayer are aware of the election of Israel in Abraham. God chose Abraham and brought him out of Ur. God promised the land to him, which the inhabitants had forfeited because of their iniquity (v. 8).
Israel in the Wilderness:
God performed a number of remarkable things for Israel in the deliverance from Egypt. He showed great power to Pharaoh (v. 10). He divided the sea and drowned the Egyptian cavalry like a stone (v. 11). God led the people with the cloudy and fiery pillar (v. 12). He gave them His law (v. 13). He gave them the sabbath (v. 14). He gave them manna from heaven, and water out of the rock (v. 15). But despite these remarkable deliverances, the people consistently “refused to obey” (v. 17). They appointed a captain to lead them back into bondage (v. 17). Think of it! This is the human heart. God can raise up a man who can summon up plagues, divide the ocean, drown a superpower’s army, commune with God on the mountain, summon water out of the rock and bread from the sky, and someone in the congregation, three rows back, will be muttering, “I could do better than that.” This is because the issue is idolatry (v. 18) and not anything that makes any particular sense.
They Possessed the Land:
So Israel went in and possessed the land (v. 24). They inherited, by the blessing of God, a fruitful land, and they delighted themselves in God’s great goodness to them (v. 25). Remember what we noted last week about eating the fat and drinking the sweet. But what is the temptation that attends this? Always? The answer is disobedience, rebellion, casting the law behind their backs, killing the prophets, and working great provocations (v. 26). And so God, provoked by this kind of behavior, chastised them repeatedly (v. 28). He also delivered them repeatedly (v. 28). “Many times didst thou deliver them.”
And Here We Are Now:
God will act in the future the way He has acted in the past. This is the basis for our prayer. These men pray, and say, “God, do not let our troubles now seem like a little thing to You.” God is great, and mighty, and terrible, and He keeps covenant and mercy. Now hear the Word spoken here: He still keeps covenant and mercy.
We are still Your servants (v. 36), and it bothers us that so much profit, so much increase, is going to the “kings whom thou hast set over us because of our sins” (v. 37). Their dominion is over our bodies, over our livestock, and it is at their pleasure. But this is because of our sins.
The modern world has no shortage of people who chafe at the regulations and burdens of the idolatrous state. But the state cannot rule over the Church in this way unless it is for the idolatry of the Church. And this means that all reformations must start with repentance, not accusations. And repentance of this kind must start with historical repentance.