One of the main lessons from Nehemiah 9 and 10 — indeed from all the Bible — is that God does not exist for the sake our enjoying Biblical stories; biblical stories exist for the sake of our enjoying God.
The reason I make a point of this is not only because it stands out amazingly in Nehemiah 9, but also because in our time there is great fascination with tracing out the storyline of the Bible. And I simply want to wave a flag in all this fascination with story and narrative to say: There is a point to the story; there is a point to the narrative. And the point is a person.
Biblical stories are no more ends in themselves than history is an end in itself, or the universe is an end in itself. The universe is telling the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). And the history of the world is what it is, to show that God is who he is. God writes the story of history to reveal who he is—what he is like, his character, his name.
Consider Nehemiah 9:10. The Levites are praying:
You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted arrogantly against our fathers. And you made a name for yourself, as it is to this day.
What was God doing as he brought ten plagues on Egypt, and split the Red Sea, and delivered the people of Israel from bondage? What was he doing as he acted the story that would be told ten thousand times?
The answer is at the end of verse 10: You were making a name for yourself. Then notice these key words at the end of the verse: “*As it is to this day.” What day? The day of Nehemiah — about 400 BC. When were you making this name for yourself? At the exodus, about 1400 BC. One thousand years!
What is the point of history? God is making a name for himself — a name that will last a thousand years. God is making a name for himself that his people can know, and bank on, and exult in, for thousands of years. A name — a character, a revelation of who he is and what he is like — so that we can know him and trust him and enjoy him. That’s why there are stories in the Bible.
And that is why I am preaching this sermon. I want you to know him. I want you to enjoy him. Some of you know him deeply and have enjoyed his fellowship for many years. Others of you, know about him. You know some of his rules. You know Christian activities like Bible reading, and praying, and church life. But God is not a precious personal, cherished treasure to you. I would like that to change. God has brought you to this conference for that to change.
So now you have the big picture and the big goal: the universe exists, history exists, biblical stories exist, and Nehemiah 9 and 10 exist so that you might meet the living God here, and know him and enjoy him. Now let’s get more specific.
Seeking the Help of God
After the feast of booths in Nehemiah 8 — a time when joy was overflowing—the time had come for sorrow, and fasting, and sackcloth, and for crying out to God for deliverance from the great distress of the people of Israel in Jerusalem. The situation is described in Nehemiah 9:36–37,
Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress.
That was the situation that precipitated the fasting and sackcloth and crying out to God that we find in Nehemiah 9 and the covenant they will make with God in chapter 10. They sum it up with the words at the end of verse 37, “We are in great distress.” And my assumption is that hundreds of you have come to this conference with those very words like a tightening strap around your soul: “We are in in great distress. My marriage. My children, my church, my friendships, my soul. I am fitting the fun of Orlando into the small spaces between the sorrows of my life.
So, if that’s you — and it will be, if it’s not — listen with all your heart to how these Levites seek the help of God. Let’s start at verse 5: “Then the Levites [these are the assistants to the priests—from the tribe of Levi], Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said . . .” and from there—from verse 6—to the end of verse 37 they are crying out to God. The word “you” or “your” in reference to God occurs 30 times in these verses.
This is what you do when you are in great distress. This is what Israel has always done, and what Christians have always done — and what I always do when I am in great distress. But let’s make sure we are really clear about their distress before we look at how they prayed.
They are not just in distress. They are in distress because of their own sin. And the distress that they are in is distress that God himself has sent upon them. Look again at verse 37: “And its rich yield [they land you gave to our fathers!] goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress.” You have set our slave masters over us! Because of our sin!
So these people are crying for deliverance from a distress that they deserve to be in because they have sinned against God, and that God himself has put them in because of their sin. There no one in this room dare say, “Well, the rest of you can cry out to God for rescue from your distress, but not me because I have sinned my way into my distress and God himself has appointed my misery.
No. You may not say that. Because this cry to God that we are about to look at is being lifted up from people just like you: they do deserve to be in their distress. And God is the one who sent it on them. So the question is clearer now: How do you cry out to God from that distress?
Remembering the Story of Salvation
The answer is that they pray back to God the story that God himself has acted in the history of Israel. They virtually summarize the whole Old Testament in one prayer, from verses 6 to 31. Why would they do that? They do it because they know that God does not exist for the sake of their enjoying the story of the Old Testament; the story exists for the sake of their enjoying God. In other words, they know, God never acts willy-nilly in history. He acts to make a name for himself — to make known his character — his nature, himself. He does things a certain way, because he is a certain way.
And these distressed, guilty, God-oppressed Israelites desperately need to see that the God of this Old Testament story is the kind of God who might be willing to rescue them from their own sin and his own judgment. Is that the kind of God who rules the world? Or not? And they know, God has created this story — this history — to make the answer to that question plain.
From verses 6 through 15 the Levites celebrate the greatness of God’s power and righteousness and covenant-keeping salvation.
Verse 6: “You are the LORD, you alone.” That is, you are Yahweh — the God who exists without dependence and without competitor to your being. You have always been. You absolutely are. You say, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). And there is not other who has absolute being. Here is the great starting point for all of us when we are dealing with the living God — a reverential, humble, glad recognition that we are dependent, God is independent; we are contingent, God is absolute; we are defined, God is the definer; we are held in being by his will, he is absolute being.
Verse 6 (in the middle): “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.” Therefore, (end of verse 6) the countless armies of heaven worship you. Or, as verse 5 says, his name and glory are “exalted above all blessing and praise.”
This is the God (according to v. 7) who chose Abram, changed his name to be the father of many peoples, and made a covenant with him to give his offspring the land. What land? Verse 36: “Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our father’s to enjoy.”
So there’s the issue: Is this great, powerful, creator, sustainer, covenant-maker the kind of God who will rescue us from our sin and his judgment so that this covenant can be fulfilled? Will the story say yes? Or no?
One thing they know for sure: God is righteous. Verse 8 (near the end): “You have kept your promise [=you have caused your word to stand], for you are righteous. Beneath all his other attributes in this story they affirm at the outset: this is beyond question: God is righteous. That is, he does what is right. Always. Unfailingly. And since there is not standard of rightness outside himself, he is the measure of his own righteous action. What is right is right because it is consistent with the infinitely beautiful glory and value of God. Whatever else he will do, God will never betray his worth. He will never deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13). This is his righteousness.
But will that spell mercy for Israel? Or judgment?
Israel’s Rebellion and God’s Response
In the deliverance from Egypt and the wilderness wandering of the people it spelled triumph and care (vv. 9-15). He made a name for himself against Pharaoh—that is, his righteousness moved him to uphold his infinite worth by crushing the arrogance Pharaoh and his armies (v. 9b). He divided the sea (v. 11). Verse 12: he led them miraculously by day and night. Verse 13: He spoke with them at Mount Sinai and gave them right rules, true laws, and good statutes. Verse 15: He gave them bread from heaven and water from the rock and sent them to the land.
So far, so good. But in verses 16–31 what we find are six expressions of Israel rebellion and God’s response. And if we ask: Why do the Levites focus over and over on the sin and failure of Israel, the answer is: they need to know what God is like in those situations, because that is precisely the situation they are in now in Jerusalem with Nehemiah. Look at the last phrase of verse 33: “We have acted wickedly.” Not they. We.
So the reason they are focusing on Israel’s failures in the past is that nothing is more important than to learn from this story what God is like in response to that failure.
Pair #1: Verses 16-17
Israel’s Rebellion: Verse 16
But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments.
God’s Response: Verse 17b
But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.
Pair #2: Verses 18–25
Israel’s Rebellion: Verse 18
They had made for themselves a golden calf and said, “This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,” and committed great blasphemies . . .
God’s Response: Verses 19–25
Yet, you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness. (But sustained them all the way into the promised land and gave them the land in abundance.)
Pair #3: Verse 26–27
Israel’s Rebellion: Verse 26
They were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets . . . and committed great blasphemies.
God’s Response: Verse 27
Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer. And in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies. (In other words, according to God’s righteousness, judgment came, but it was not the last word, they cried in their deserved judgment, and God had mercy.)
Pair #4: Verse 28
Israel’s rebellion: Verse 28a
But after they had rest they did evil again before you.
God’s response: Verse 28b
And you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they had dominion over them. Yet when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many times you delivered them according to your mercies. (Again the response of God’s righteousness was judgment, but again it was not the last word. They cried out and God had mercy.)
Pair #5: Verses 29b–30a
Israel’s rebellion: Verse 29
They acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your rules.
God’s response: Verse 30a
Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets.
Pair #6: Verses 30b–31
Israel’s rebellion: Verse 30b
Yet they would not give ear.
God’s response: Verses 30c–31
Therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. (For the third time God’s judgment is mentioned, and again it was not the last word, but mercy came.)
Now, how did the Israelites respond to this story of six-fold failure followed by six-fold mercy? The answer is that they cried out again for mercy as they had so many times before, and they renewed the covenant to keep the law of God, and to take care of the house of God.
Verse 32, the new cry for mercy: “Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us.” In other words look with pity on us again as you have so many times and save us.
Then verse 38, the renewal of the covenant: “Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing.” And chapter 10 is the terms of the covenant which can be summed up as a renewed commitment to keep the law of God. Verse 29: “We enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s Law.” And a renewed commitment to take care of the house of God. Verse 32: “We also take on ourselves the obligation to give yearly a third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God” — followed by seven more references to the house of God in the rest of the chapter.
The Lesson for Us
So what is the lesson for us from this in our sin-caused, God-sent distress? Is the lesson: look back on all the amazing mercies of God in Israel’s history, and then, and in the hope of more mercy, make a new resolution to obey God better?
There are two major problems with that (at least) message. One is: the odds are not very good after this history of failure, that it is going to go better. A thousand years of failure, and we are going to be the generation where the failure stops? The odds are not good and therefore the hope is not great.
The other problem is worse. Look at verse 33: “Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us.” All the hardship, all the distress, all the slavery is just. God has dealt righteously with Israel. He has upheld the worth of his glory. He has done them no wrong. It is right that they are in distress. God’s judgments are righteous.
So maybe this time God is saying, “I’m done being your patsy. I will not be mocked by your fickle allegiance to me. I am slow to anger. But a thousand years is long enough. I have passed over the trampling of my glory so many times you can’t even count them. My mercy is over. My righteousness is vindicated in your judgment.”
In other words, the two problems at the end of Nehemiah 9–10 — and at the end of the Old Testament — are that 1) God has not yet acted to prevent the disobedience that brings judgment, so it keeps happening forever; and 2) God has not yet acted to vindicate his righteousness in mercy, so that the two are in perfect harmony, and we don’t have to fear that his mercy will run out because it is against his righteousness.
And the reason those two problems exist is that the story that the Levites told is not complete. You can’t know God fully from a story that is not fully told. And Israel’s story is not complete without the Messiah. And these are two of the very problems Messiah Jesus came into the world to solve.
What Jesus Came to Do
He lifted up the cup at the last supper and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). And the promise of the new covenant is: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. . . . And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes” (Ezekiel 36:26–27). And by that blood-bought Spirit he will seal us for the day of Redemption (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). He will complete what he has begun, and perfect us on the day of Christ (Philippians 1:6, 10). Because of the blood Christ — the blood of the new covenant — we are kept in him. And the day is coming — really and surely coming — when we will sin no more.
That’s the remedy for the first problem — the endless cycle of failure-mercy, failure-mercy, failure-mercy. Jesus, sealed the new covenant by his blood. The day of failure will soon be over. And till then, we are sealed by the Spirit and fighting sin by his power.
Not only did the story of Israel in Nehemiah 9 cry out for a day when God himself would conquer our sinful failures, but it also cried out for a resolution of the tension between God’s righteousness and his mercy. How could God pass over so many blasphemous failures in Israel, and still be righteous? How could he uphold the worth of his own name when, time after time, he passed over the defamation of his name in the God-belittling sins of his people? The Old Testament saints knew in their heart of hearts that the blood of bulls and of goats was not vindication of the worth of God. They were just pointers.
And what they pointed to Romans 3:25.
God put Christ forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
He had passed over former sins. O indeed he had. And Nehemiah 9 is one of the clearest witnesses. Failure-mercy, failure-mercy, failure-mercy. How can this be, and God be righteous? How many murderers, and adulterers, and idolaters can God send to heaven before someone rightly says, “You don’t esteem your holiness and your glory very highly”?
The answer to that indictment is the God-planned death of the Son of God. Shedding the blood of the most valuable being in the universe is God’s way of saying: “This much I hate your sin, and this much I love my glory. Never think again that my mercy is cheap, or that it ever conflicts with my righteousness. Once and for all, I have vindicated the worth of my name. My righteousness stands forever in mercy for everyone who trusts my Son.”
God does not exist for the sake our enjoying Biblical stories; biblical stories exist for the sake of our enjoying God. When the Son of God came into the world to complete the story of Israel—when he died and rose again and took his throne and sent his Spirit—he was making a name for himself. A name that would last two thousand years. A name, a revelation of who he is and what he is like, so that you might know him and trust him and enjoy him, as he comes to you in your distress, even if it is caused by your own sin and sent by God himself. He is coming to you now, in this message, in this conference to help you in mercy and in righteousness. Welcome him. Trust him. Enjoy him. That is why the stories exist.