Nehemiah 9, 10
October 31, 1999
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
Nehemiah 9, 10
In one of Dorothy Sayers' mystery stories, Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane "recalled the extempore prayer of a well-meaning but incoherent curate, heard once and never forgotten: 'Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face, however difficult it may be'."
Indeed, prayer is one of the things we all do and we all feel we do it rather well; or if not well, at least adequately, having little doubt that God hears us and interprets what we mean, however badly we might put the requests. Nehemiah is going to give us what for many of you may be a new perspective on prayer. He has three valuable lessons to teach us:
1. Good prayers are based upon recalling phrases and sentences from the Bible;
2. Good prayers reflect a knowledge of who God is. A lot of prayers are made to a god who isn't there;
3. Good prayers are the result of our being willing to obey what we promise God we intend to do.
Let's see how that was worked out in Nehemiah's time.
1. Most of the 9th chapter of this book of Nehemiah is a
prayer which the Levites lead the people to pray. Here's the
setting. The Israelite people, recently returned from Babylon,
are gathered in Jerusalem. Ezra has read the Scriptures for hours
and this prayer is a response to all those hours of reading.
In the prayer, the Levites recognize that those years they had
spent in Babylon were the result of not obeying God and not listening
to His word.
While the prayer reflects upon Israel's past history, like all great prayers, it is a mosaic of quotations from the Bible, as if the first thing that comes to the minds of these Levites are the quotations, images and phrases of the Bible. The camera of their prayer seems to focus upon how the patriarchs, kings and prophets had known God and how they had recognized what kind of sinful people they were. When the Levites pray with those men and women of the Bible in mind, they are reminded by the Bible that God has been faithful to His people over many years; and this, in spite of His people's unfaithfulness.
This dependence on the Bible in prayer is an old lesson for Christians. One of the earliest theologians of the church, a man who lived in the second century and on into the early part of the third century, a man named Tertullian, once said, "We nourish our faith, we stimulate our hope, we establish our confidence by these holy utterances of God's Word." So we are not likely to have a big vision of God if we do not spend time with this grand book He has given us.
I went down over the lines of the prayer to pull out what they recalled from the early part of the Old Testament. There's not time to reflect on all the phrases of the prayer in chapter 9. Let me give a couple of examples: verse 11 has a phrase from Exodus 15, the Egyptians were "hurled like a stone into mighty waters." Verse 15 has a phrase from Exodus 6, God promised "with uplifted hands to give them" the land of Palestine. And in verse 17, there is a picture from Exodus 34, God is "a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love." Wonderful words about God saving people from trouble.
Do you see the process? Ezra reads the Scriptures in a slow and dignified way. The Levites and the people listen, for in those days no individual would own his own copy of the scroll of Scripture. Then, what they heard drove them to prayer and they prayed in the same phrases in which God and these great men and women of faith had spoken. It wasn't that they had nothing to say on their own, but the stories of the Bible had become part of them. It was through that history they had come to know God, so that was how they prayed. Memorizing isn't popular today, but memorizing the words of the Bible can help us when we pray.
I was with the bishop for lunch two weeks ago. When I went over to pick him up, I was carrying a copy of John Baillie's A Diary of Private Prayer. He said, I use that prayer book. I replied, I do too because there are times I need someone else's words to help me get started praying. That's what the words of the Bible do when we pray.
2. But there is a second thing to notice about the prayer in Nehemiah 9. Good prayers recognize who God truly is. Who is the God you pray to? Is he a real God or an imaginary god? We humans are good at creating gods for our convenience.
Verse 5 tells us that God is eternal where it speaks of "the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting." One consequence of God being eternal is that His plan for us is secure. I heard a story about a missionary couple who had worked in Africa for years. We know many people like that personally because of our own mission work in southern Africa. This couple were now old and they were returning to New York City to retire. As was true with our missionaries at one time, they had no pension. They had worked hard and their health was broken. So they were returning to America discouraged.
On the same ship, Teddy Roosevelt was also returning to America. He'd been on a big game hunting expedition in Africa. They watched the fanfare about the President and his entourage, they saw the other passengers trying to get a glimpse of Roosevelt. No one paid any attention to them.
The old missionary said to his wife, "Something's wrong. Why should we have given our lives in service to God in Africa for all of these years and no one is interested in the least in that? Here this man returns from a hunting trip and everybody flocks to him while no one gives two hoots for us."
His wife replied, "My dear, that's no way to feel."
"I can't help it. It seems so unfair."
When the ship docked in New York City, there was a band and crowds of people waiting to greet the President. The mayor of New York and various state politicians were there. The papers carried headline stories of the President's arrival. The missionary couple left the ship unnoticed and found a cheap apartment on the lower East Side.
That night the man's spirit broke. He said to his wife. "This is hard to take. God is not treating us fairly." To which his wife replied, "Why don't you tell that to the Lord."
So the former missionary goes to prayer and some time later, he comes out to his wife and says to her, "Well, the Lord has settled it with me. I told him how bitter I was that the President should receive this tremendous homecoming while no one even met us as we returned home. And after I had it out with the Lord, he said to me. 'But you're not home yet!'"
God is everlasting. His time frame is different from ours. His kingdom is not America, not Canada. Do you realize how often we are likely to miss this? Whenever we say, God, why is this happening to me? we are like this returned missionary. We see what is affecting us at the time, the inconvenience of not getting something we hoped for, and we don't often see a larger thing God might have for us.
But God is not only eternal, He is also unique. Verse 6, "You alone are the Lord." This prayer offers a perceptive critique of today's pluralism. Today's culture, and particularly the sub- culture of many colleges, is committed to all religions having equal value. One of the reasons New Age spirituality has such an influence today, for example, and has its own section in book stores, is because it emphasizes the individual and his/her self-awareness and self-fulfillment. You can do your own thing. By contrast, the Bible talks about human sinfulness and the crucial need of a Savior. The Christian God is uniquely a Savior.
It was Jesus who said, "eternal life is knowing you, the only true God." (John 17:3) And it was Peter who spoke to people immersed in the multi-culturalism of the Roman-Greek world in the first century who said, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." That person was Jesus. I told you a few weeks ago about how the dean at Swarthmore College called the president of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship group into her office after the group had begun the year advertising how Jesus alone saves and said to him, "There is no place on Swarthmore's campus for this view."
The prayer in Nehemiah continues in verse 6, "You made the heavens, and all the starry hosts, the earth, the seas." God is the Creator. And then beginning in verse 7, the prayer recalls God's sovereign activity in the world He made. God chose Abraham. He delivered Israel from Egypt. He heard their cry for deliverance at the Red Sea, and when the descendants of Abraham became arrogant and stiff-necked, God didn't abandon them. When they were disobedient and rebelled against an eternal, unique, sovereign God, verse 26, He did not give up on them.
Jesus said at one time that God was continuing to work in the world to this very day. (John 5:17) While people worship the stars then and now or the equivalent, for there is a daily horoscope in many newspapers the stars worship God, as we may read at the end of verse 6, "The multitudes of heaven worship you," and that is because God is the sovereign.
There is one other thing about God we find in this prayer which I want to say something about. We could discover a lot of other things that the Levites knew about God, but in verse 8, we see about God that God keeps His promises.
God promises at the beginning of Genesis 12, when we meet Abraham, that God would bless him, and through him bless all the nations of the world. Abraham and Sarah were at that time far past retirement age. In fact, in our society they would have been in a care unit in Messiah Village. But God chose them, and gave them a task to do, to raise a son when Abraham was 100 and Sarah, 90. Not exactly the time of life you'd want to change diapers and put up with the ceaseless activity of a young child. So what is Abraham remembered for? Not the first 99 years of a productive life, but the last years of his life, after he was 100. God kept His promise to Abraham. Verse 8 tells us why, because God was righteous. Do you know why people today make a promise to you and don't keep it? It's because they aren't righteous. In the papers last week, there was a listing of the most corrupt nations on earth, the ones where bribery and deceit are a part of daily life. One thing you can notice about those nations is that none of them has a Christian heritage and none of them is led by a righteous person.
3. This brings us to the third point of this passage, and it is directly related to the second point. Good prayers are the result of our being willing to obey what we promise God we intend to do. The last words of chapter 9 and all of chapter 10 describes an oath a promise the people make on the basis of what they have prayed about. Verse 38, "we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing... and affixing their seals to it." Then in 10:29, all the people bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God. And in the following verses there is a brief outline of what they promise God to obey: verse 30, to not give our daughters in marriage to non-believers. Verse 31, to not do business on the Sabbath. Verse 32ff, to give to support God's house.
Do you know what happened to these promises? They didn't keep a single one of them. Oh, maybe the next day or the next month they did, but one reason the Old Testament stops shortly after this is that there is nothing in Israel's history of those next years when the people were faithful to God. It isn't until Elizabeth and Mary submit to God personally and John the Baptist and Jesus are born and many people turn to God, some 450 years later, that the Bible's record continues. Oh, there's history in between, even some examples of individual good people, but there is no people making their commitment to the sovereign God and intending to obey what He commands. And the failure of God's own people in this is one of the constant themes of the Bible in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
I was in the Giant store last week and a woman with a little boy was walking up the aisle ahead of me. The little boy was active and he would pull something from the shelf and bring it over to the cart and lay it in the bottom. The mother said, "I don't want you to do that," and then she'd go on shopping. And the little boy would pull something else from the shelf and bring it over to the cart. And the mother said, "If you do that again, I'll smack you." And then she went on shopping while the little boy went on down the row bringing cans and boxes over to the cart and while I followed, she never smacked him and didn't do anything but say, I don't want you to do that.
God is not like that. He smacks us. We think praying is spiritual
and we feel good when we pray, but prayer needs us to do something
if it is to work. It needs to have us recall phrases and words
from the Bible. It needs to have us know something about God
so we know what is appropriate to ask Him. And it needs us to
be willing to obey what we tell God we will do. Do you pray like
that? Or, do you want to pray like that? Nehemiah 9 and 10 is
like a recipe to help us pray well.
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