How Do I Pray from the Misery of My Sin?
Welcome back to the podcast. We have been doing this podcast for almost a decade now. And over those ten years there have been some moving pastoral moments. I remember one from a long time ago. I looked it up. It was back in APJ 131. It’s an oldie. There, Pastor John was talking about important Bible verses to memorize, ones that he has found particularly useful in serving others. One such text was Psalm 130:3: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” There Pastor John testified, “How many times have I knelt down, put my arm on somebody who has just been broken over some sin that they have committed, and been able to pray over them this text: ‘Lord, if you would mark iniquities, who could stand?’” That’s a moving picture of a word spoken pastorally.
That image, and that text, comes to mind when I think of today’s sermon clip because there’s a question about how we approach God in the midst of our brokenness, particularly in this brokenness we experience over our own sins. This very question gets answered robustly in Nehemiah 9–10. God’s people are in distress. It’s distress caused by their own sins. They know it. And they know they deserve the distress itself. So how do we approach God now? Here’s Pastor John to explain, looking at Nehemiah 9.
Starting with Nehemiah 9:6–37, the Levites are praying. This chapter is a prayer. They’re praying to the end of verse 37, and they’re crying out “to you, O God.” The word you in reference to God occurs thirty times in these verses. What did they do? What did they say? How did they deal with God in great distress? That’s what we want to know. How did they do that?
Under God-Given Distress
Before we ask further, let’s get more specific about the distress, because this will clarify your situation. There are some of you right now who are perhaps arguing with yourself, if not with me, “What you’re about to say is not going to apply to me because you don’t understand how I got where I am.” Let’s see whether that’s true or not.
Back to verse 37. They’re not just in distress. They are in a distress that they deserve to be in because of their sin. And they are in a distress that God himself put them in. Let’s look at verse 37 to see that. “[The land’s] rich yield” — which we’re supposed to inherit as a promise — “goes to the kings whom you have set over us . . .” Slave masters. You put them over us, God, “. . . because of our sins” (Nehemiah 9:37). In other words, the great distress that we are in, we deserve to be in. And not only do we deserve to be in it, but it’s judgment sent from you.
So now we get clarity on this. Some of you might be tempted to say, “The rest of you in here, you can call upon God in your distress, but not me because I sinned my way into the mess I’m in. God put me here as a discipline or a punishment. So the rest of you can go on about your merry way, following this preacher and learning how to call upon God in your distress because it just came upon you. It didn’t just come upon me. I brought it on me.” That’s their situation.
If you’re in that category, you dare not talk like that. Don’t talk to God like that. Do not say to God, “This text is not addressing my need because I sinned my way into the mess I’m in, and you brought it on me.” That’s irrelevant. That’s the whole point of this text. These people are in a distress they deserve to be in, that God put them in. None of you may escape the good news of this text. You have no right to tell God he can’t give you good news.
“You have no right to tell God he can’t give you good news.”
Oh, how many people I have dealt with over the years who try to tell God they are beyond good news. And I get upset with them because they are belittling the cross, diminishing the blood, crying down the mercy, exalting themselves in their self-pity. I won’t have it, neither in this room nor in the counseling chamber. Don’t tell God that he can’t give you good news because you’ve sinned your way into your misery, and God himself brought you under his discipline. That’s exactly their situation. We’re in this together, and we want desperately to know, How do we approach God now? How do you talk to God in that situation? That’s what they’re doing, and I want to learn as best I can how they do it.
Rehearsing Stories of Hope
So what do they do? It’s astonishing what they do. They pray back to God the entire history of the Old Testament. This is the longest — or maybe the right word is that this is the fullest — retelling of the Old Testament in the Old Testament. Jim Hamilton says in his new commentary, “This is the fullest retelling of the Old Testament in a short space in the Old Testament.” And it’s a prayer, so they’re telling God what God did for a thousand years — more than a thousand. That’s a remarkable way to approach God in a deserved, God-ordained distress.
So in Nehemiah 9:6–31 they’re telling the story of the Old Testament. Why would they do that? Here’s why. God does not exist so that we can enjoy Bible stories. Bible stories exist so that we can enjoy God. And they desperately, desperately need to know whether our God is the kind of God in whom there’s any possibility of enjoyment in our great distress — well-deserved and given by God. Is there any hope at all that there’s a God in heaven that would give us hope that he could be enjoyed in this? That’s what they need to know.
And they know where to find the answer. It’s in the story, because that’s what the stories are for: to reveal God. They desperately need to know, What kind of God do we have? Is it over for us? Or is he the kind of God that perhaps there might be some hope in a deserved, God-given distress? That’s why they’re retelling the stories back to God.
Great and Only God
In Nehemiah 9:6–15, the Levites celebrate the power of God, the righteousness of God, and the covenant-keeping salvation of God. Verse 6 says, “You are the Lord” (Nehemiah 9:6). You know what that refers to: Yahweh. That’s his personal name. It’s like, “You are James,” only it’s not James — it’s Yahweh. “You are Yahweh.” And you know where the name came from. “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I am has sent me to you”’” (Exodus 3:14). And the name Yahweh is built on “I am who I am,” which means every time you see big L-O-R-D, this is God saying, “I am God, and I have no competitors, and I depend on nobody and nothing. I had no beginning; I will have no end. Deal with me because that is reality.” That’s God.
“You don’t negotiate with God. He is absolute reality. We are defined, he is definer.”
So they began, “You are Yahweh.” It’s a good place to begin. You are absolute God. There’s no negotiation going on here at all. You don’t negotiate with God. He is absolute reality. We are defined; he is definer. We are dependent; he is totally independent. Our being comes into being; his being has always been, as inconceivable and glorious as that is. We begin here. This is a place of reverence and humility and lowliness. You begin your dealing with this God in your great distress by saying, “You are Yahweh, the great and only and absolute God.”
Verse 6 in the middle says, “You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Nehemiah 9:6). You made everything; you uphold everything. Therefore, “the host” — I like the translation army — “the [army] of heaven worships you” (Nehemiah 9:6). You are exalted. “Your glorious name . . . is exalted above all blessing and praise” (Nehemiah 9:5).
That’s where you begin, right? In dealing with God, just lift him up. Now remember, these are people who are totally guilty, under distress given by God, okay? You lift up your soul in your guilt, and you lift up your soul in your distress, and you lift up your soul under the mighty hand of God, and you say, “You are God.” That’s a great place to begin.