Renewing the Covenant for the Sake of God's Name
Nehemiah 9:38 describes very briefly a covenant reaffirmation among the people of God in Jerusalem after decades of exile in Babylon. Ezra comes to the end of his prayer and says,
Now because of all this, we are making an agreement [a covenant] in writing; and on this sealed document are the names of our leaders, our Levites and our priests.
Reasons Why I Chose This Text
I chose this text for our covenant reaffirmation Sunday for several reasons.
One is that it describes a covenant reaffirmation in the context of a great season worship. The people have been gathered in worship for over three weeks when Ezra brings things to a climax with this magnificent prayer and covenant reaffirmation. That's the spirit I long for us to be in as we reaffirm our covenant with each other and with the Lord.
The second reason for choosing this text is that the covenant reaffirmation described here involved the signing or sealing of the covenant. The leaders and Levites and priests set their names to the covenant. That seemed good for us to do too—all of us, since in the new covenant all the people are priests.
The third reason for choosing this text for today is that the prayer leading up to this covenant reaffirmation is full of God's free and sovereign grace and the glory of his name. And I want us as a people to understand and to feel this morning the massive foundation of our covenant life together. Our foundation is not in ourselves, or in own ability to fulfill the promises we make, but in God, and especially his inexhaustible grace.
Let me try to show you the setting that makes this covenant reaffirmation here in verse 38 so powerful, and gives us encouragement to follow through with our own covenant reaffirmation.
The Setting of Nehemiah's Covenant Reaffirmation
About 445 BC Nehemiah had brought a group of Israelites from captivity in Persia back to Jerusalem, and with them had rebuilt the walls of the city in spite of tremendous opposition from surrounding peoples. The wall is completed at the end of chapter 6. Chapter 7 gives the genealogy of those who had come back to Jerusalem in the first group with Zerubbabel.
The People Gather and Hear the Law
Then in chapter 8 on the first day of the seventh month (near the end of September) the people gather and ask Ezra the priest to read to them the law of Moses which they had neglected for a long time. This is the beginning of the worship that comes to a climax 24 days later in 9:38 with the renewal of the covenant.
Ezra reads the law, the people are grieved because of how much of God's will they have failed to do. They celebrate the feast of booths for seven days (last half of chapter 8), and then they consecrate themselves with fasting and worship (at the beginning of chapter 9) and Ezra begins his prayer.
His prayer is a response to verse 5 where the Levites say, "Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be thy glorious name which is exalted above all blessing and praise."
And that's what Ezra's prayer does: it blesses the glorious name of God which is so exalted that no blessing or praise can ever be high enough. But Ezra comes as close as a human will probably come.
Ezra's Prayer: God's Grace and Israel's Failures
He starts with creation and recounts the power and grace of God up to his own day against the backdrop of the repeated failures of Israel to trust and obey.
- Verse 6: You made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them.
- Verses 7–8: You chose Abram from all the peoples and made a covenant with him to give him and his descendents the promised land.
- Verses 9–10: You heard the cry of our fathers in Egypt and delivered them with signs and wonders and made a name for yourself that has lasted for centuries to this very day.
- Verse 12: You guided them with pillars of fire and cloud.
- Verse 13: You gave them good statutes and commandments.
- Verse 15: You gave bread from heaven and water from the rock and told them to take the land.
But in spite of all this, verse 16 says, the people acted arrogantly. They became stubborn and refused to listen, and tried to go back to Egypt.
But then comes a long list of God's added mercies in spite of Israel's disobedience.
- Verse 17: You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness; and you did not forsake them.
- Verses 18–19: "Even when they made for themselves a calf of molten metal and said, 'This is your God who brought you up from the land of Egypt,' and committed great blasphemies, you, in your great compassion, did not forsake them in the wilderness."
This is the focus and heart of Ezra's prayer that leads up to the covenant reaffirmation.
The Point to See in Ezra's Prayer
The point I want us to see in this prayer is that inexhaustible grace is the basis of our covenant affirmations. We are not taking a deep breath this morning and saying: Here goes, I'll give it my best shot. Instead we are saying: "With such a God as this, there is hope that I will get the help I need, and when I stumble and repent, he will forgive me and have me back. And I will press on in the promises I have made."
Let that sink in as we move on through the prayer.
Continuing the Prayer: Inexhaustible Grace
Not only did God not forsake them because of their sin, he pursued them with goodness and mercy again and again.
Verses 20ff.: You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You gave them manna and water. For 40 years their clothes did not wear out. They overcame kingdoms. They entered and possessed the land. They had cities, fertile land, houses, cisterns, vineyards, olive groves, fruit trees. And the end of verse 25 sums it up: "They reveled in your great goodness."
The response of the people in verse 26: They became disobedient and rebelled against you, and cast your law behind their back and killed the prophets and committed great blasphemies.
God's response? Verse 27: Therefore you delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them, but when they cried to you in the time of their distress, you heard from heaven and according to your great compassion, you gave them deliverers who delivered them from the hand of their oppressors.
Again (v. 29): they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not listen.
But again (in v. 30): You bore with them for many years, and admonished them by your Spirit through your prophets.
But they would not give ear. So the Lord gives them into exile (v. 30b).
Yet! (this is what I mean by inexhaustible grace) in verse 31 Ezra prays, "In your great compassion you did not make an end of them of forsake them, for you are a gracious and compassionate God."
This brings Ezra to his petition—to ask for God's help and deliverance now in Jerusalem where they are in distress because of the peoples around them.
Verse 32 begins with NOW—now that we have seen what kind of God you are, help us again. What kind of God are you? "Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who dost keep covenant and loving-kindness"—that's the kind of God you are. GREAT, MIGHTY, AWESOME, COVENANT-KEEPING, LOVINGLY KIND.
Which brings us to the climax in verse 38: "Now because of all this [all what?—all the centuries-long, great, mighty, awesome, covenant-keeping, loving work of God—because of all that] we are making an agreement—a covenant—in writing."
Our Covenant Reaffirmation
That is how we come to our covenant reaffirmation this morning. We do not come in our own strength. We do not come sufficient in ourselves. We do not come mainly because of the beauty of covenant community. We come mainly—like Ezra—because God is a great, mighty, awesome, covenant-keeping, loving God, who will help us, and who will show his love for us through the covenant.
What we are doing this morning is declaring that we want to be a church for each other, for the wider cause of Christ, for the world, and for the glory of God. We are not claiming to be the only church, nor a perfect church, nor an unchangeable church. But a church as best we understand church to be.