Feast: One Nation Under God (Part One)
Martin G. Collins
Given 03-Oct-12; 76 minutes
As this nation begins its presidential debates over who will be the better man to lead this ‘not under God’ nation, we have the wonderful blessing to meet here together to worship God as a spiritual people, united under God. What a contrast. There is no better place to be in the entire world than here, except possibly with another group somewhere that is following God at their Feast site; but in my opinion, there is no better place to be than here. I am very pleased to be here spending this time with you, and more time in the future for eternity. So I guess we must get along now in order to do that. It seems like everyone is getting along and the hotel is feeling the same way. I cannot praise you enough for how you are handling yourselves.
As the Great Tribulation draws to an end, the remnant of Israelites, your relatives and mine, who come out of it, will have reached a point in their lives to where they are ready and willing to submit to God, the Father, as their God and to Jesus Christ, their King, the King of Kings. There are certain qualities, attitudes, and character traits these contrite human beings will be developing and producing. There are changes they will have to make in order to be “one nation under God” in the Millennium. What will the descendants of Israel have to do at the beginning of the Millennium? What types of changes will there be in their lives? What will be necessary for them to receive the wonderful and abundant blessings God promises during the one thousand year period under Christ’s rule as King of Kings and Lord of Lords?
We can find some of the answers to these questions by looking at the pattern that was established in a previous event involving a whole nation turning from spiritual adultery with the world to covenant faithfulness with God. A wonderful example of this is the spiritual renewal the Jews received under Ezra, the priest, and Nehemiah, the governor.
During the time of Nehemiah, the Persian Empire had reached its greatest extent, engulfing almost the entire near-east. In 539 BC, the Persians, under Cyrus the Great, defeated the Babylonians and absorbed the lands of Israel and Judah, known as “beyond the river,” into his empire. The next year, he allowed the people of Judah, now called Jews for the first time, to return home and rebuild the temple of the Lord. The story of Nehemiah happens after the captivity and scattering of Judah when the Persian Empire allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.
Please turn with me to the book of Nehemiah. You will want to leave your finger or the ribbon in your Bible there because we will be in Nehemiah most of the time for this sermon. Several waves of returning Jews continued to resettle in Judea. First Zerubbabel returns with 50,000 Jews to rebuild the temple. He was followed by Ezra, who helped restore respect for God’s law and worship. Finally around 445 BC, thirteen years after Ezra arrived, Nehemiah was granted permission and given the main task of rebuilding Jerusalem’s ruined walls. Nehemiah’s part takes place during Artaxerxes I, a little over four centuries before Christ’s first coming.
After the exile, God began to renew His people in the land in order to carry out what He had promised to Abraham. God’s people, Israel, must renew their commitment to covenant faithfulness, laying hold of God’s forgiveness, and seeking to practice purity in their shared and private lives. They must do this both corporately and individually. This will be necessary for all of Israel when the Millennium begins as well. We can see a parallel in what Judah did under Nehemiah with what will happen to the Israelites as they enter into the Millennium.
God, in His mercy, raised up Ezra, the priest and teacher, and Nehemiah, the governor, to lead His people in hard work that this renewal requires. Renewing a relationship with God requires constant hard work. We heard about that hard work in the offertory sermonette on the first day by John Ritenbaugh. Mike Ford also mentioned it and described it in his sermonette earlier. The public ceremonies of chapters 8 through 10 of
Nehemiah enacts this renewal. Confessing past unfaithfulness and recognizing that everything, including the fulfillment of Israel’s mission to bring light to the world, depends on God’s grace and steadfast commitment to His promises. To stay committed to God’s promises takes hard work.
The purpose and background of the book of Nehemiah are the same as that for Ezra. The theme of Nehemiah is the Lord’s protection of His people and the need for their faithfulness in keeping God’s law and faithfulness in worship. Nehemiah’s name means “Yahweh has comforted.” That is what God has done by accepting the people’s renewal of a covenant.
Rebuilding the wall is the work of God at this time for the Jews. Under Nehemiah’s leadership they complete the wall in an incredible 52 days. The wall was finished in the month of Elul, which corresponds to August to early September, just before the autumn holy day season begins.
Just this morning, as I was going over these notes, it dawned on me that there is a parallel with our own lives. A parallel in type with what you and I recently accomplished. We just finished building a wall; four walls in fact. By paying off the Church of the Great God building loan, we completed the building process. Everyone’s contributions contributed to building that wall. This is only a physical example, but it still is interesting that it happened at the same time that Nehemiah completed the walls around Jerusalem. I am not putting any more significance to it than that; it is just interesting how these coincidences appear. We have recently experienced a “building” of the walls that hold God’s services at times.
Back to Nehemiah’s story. When Tishri, the Hebrew seventh month comes, the first day of which begins the fall holy days with the Feast of Trumpets, all of the people gathered, unified as one, in the open square before the Water Gate in Jerusalem.
Nehemiah 7:73-8:3 So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the Nethinim, and all Israel dwelt in their cities. When the seventh month came, the children of Israel were in their cities. Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation of men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. [That is the Feast of Trumpets.] Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
It is emphasized that Ezra read to those who could understand. This means it was not a gathering of a bunch of children. These were adults which understood what was being read to them out of the Book of the Law of God.
On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra, the priest, brought the law before the assembly. The assembly was made up of men, women, and others who were able to understand. He read it out loud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square in the presence of men, women, and others who could understand. All of the people listened attentively, carefully, and with great awe and respect to the book of the Law.
Nehemiah 8:4 begins the detailed chronology.
Nehemiah 8:4-8 So Ezra the scribe stood on a platform of wood which they had made for the purpose; and beside him, at his right hand, stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Urijah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah; and at his left hand Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!”, while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the law; and the people stood in their place. So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.
Ezra, the scribe, stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right and left stood members of the Jewish community. All the people could see Ezra because he was standing above them. When Ezra opened the book, the people stood up out of great respect for what it meant to them; the written word of God. They were in awe of this piece of literature, so to speak, that was inspired by God. They had just recently come across it because it had been lost. Ezra praised the Great God and all of the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen, Amen!” or, “So be it!” or “we agree.” They were all excited. Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces toward the ground. After that, several Levites instructed the people in the law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law, making it clear, and giving the meaning so people could understand what was being read.
Nehemiah 8:13-18 Now on the second day the heads of the fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and Levites, were gathered to Ezra the scribe, in order to understand the words of the law. And they found written in the law, which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.” Then the people went out and brought them and made themselves booths, each one on the roof of his house, or in their courtyards or the courts of the house of God, and in the open square of the Water Gate and in the open square of the Gate of Ephraim. So the whole congregation of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness. Also day by day, from the first day until the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, according to the prescribed manner.
Seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles and the Last Great Day separated out specifically there.
It is true that Nehemiah had come to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. He had been successful in doing it. But, we now discover that the rebuilding was far from all he had in mind. He was not there just to rebuild a wall. Nehemiah wanted to rebuild the wall; but beyond that objective, he had the far more significant objective of rebuilding the nation as a whole. God inspired him to see that the only lasting way to accomplish that was through a relationship with God based on true worship; not the false worship that they had done for the last several hundred years. The wall was merely the first step in the rebuilding of a nation. Along with Ezra, Nehemiah was to lay a foundation for national reforms that would continue to make their impact for more than four centuries, until the first coming of Christ.
Chapter seven of Nehemiah serves two purposes. It is a consolidation of the first half of the book, listing those who were available to live in the now protected city. It is also a preparation for the spiritual renewal of the nation that lay ahead. It alerts us to the fact that Nehemiah had already begun the shift to this objective.
Forward a few pages to Nehemiah 12:27. We see this shift in another way as well, although it is not quite so easy to know what this change means. Up to this point, Nehemiah has been writing in the first person. With the start of chapter eight, he changes. Here the narrative shifts to the third person. The first person narration does not resume until the start of the account of the dedication of the walls in Nehemiah 12:27.
Nehemiah 12:27 Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings and singing, with cymbals and stringed instruments and harps.
This seems to indicate that Nehemiah was aware that the second stage of the work, though envisioned by him, was not his concern alone. He cared about the nation’s spiritual renewal, but this was a matter to be pursued by Ezra, the spiritual head of the people, more than by himself. Nehemiah, as governor, was going to give all of the support that Ezra needed to be able to preach and teach to the children of Israel;
specifically, the Jews, about how to renew their relationship with God. The leadership and the movement for renewal passed to the hands of Ezra, in one sense, though Nehemiah was still very much involved.
In the second half of the book of Nehemiah, we find the following key elements:
The renewal of the people through a reading of the law, confession of sin, and a renewal of the covenant. You find that in Nehemiah, chapters 8-10.
The repopulation of Jerusalem found in Nehemiah 11:1-12:6.
The final joyous dedication of the walls found in Nehemiah 12:27-47.
As a postscript to all of that is chapter 13, which details Nehemiah’s final reforms.
There is a leadership dynamic beginning in the eighth chapter of Nehemiah, which involves the relationship between the leader and the nation. This leadership dynamic is essential in promoting the starting point for any true national renewal. The starting point is the word of God. Keep in mind as we go through this sermon, and also the next one on the Sabbath, that this is also paralleling what will happen with the children of Israel as they come out of the Great Tribulation and begin the Millennium under Christ’s rule as King of Kings. There will be many similarities that we see here in this renewal that Israel will once again go through.
Nehemiah 8:2-12 tells of a great public assembly in which Ezra, the priest, read the law of God to the people and how they were affected by it. The people came to the city from the surrounding countryside. They gathered in the large public square before the Water Gate on Jerusalem’s eastern side and listened to Ezra. That is what we just went through.
Ezra mounted a large wooden platform that had been erected for just this occasion. He was flanked by 13 of the most prominent Levites. He read the Book of the Law, the “Pentateuch,” from early in the morning until noon, which was about six hours. This is recapping what we talked about earlier. The people showed extraordinary reverence for the law, for they rose with respectful silence when Ezra opened the scroll. When he prayed, they responded, “Amen, Amen!” and worshiped God. As the account unfolds, we discover that the reading of God’s law led to national renewal. That is what we need among the children of Israel today who are scattered throughout the United States and Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and some European Nations; even among some gentile nations. The people of Israel, the children of Israel, are scattered throughout the world.
Instead of honoring the word of God and hungering after it, as the people of Judah did in the days of Nehemiah and Ezra, our country seems intent on doing everything possible to keep the Bible and Christianity out of public life. It is sad that a country founded on a conscience attention to and respect for biblical principles is going the way that its ancestors almost always did. This nation and Israelites scattered around the world are defying God as ancient Israel did and will need a renewal. Sadly, it appears from our understanding of prophesy that this will not happen until the end of the Great Tribulation and the beginning of the Millennium. If we are to see a spiritual recovery of the descendants of the Israelites at the end of the Great Tribulation and on in to the Millennium, there are certain steps that must be taken.
Since prophesy reveals that Israel will eventually return to obeying God, we can easily deduce that Israel will have to follow the same route to recovery that the Jewish Israelites did under Ezra and Nehemiah. A pattern, in a sense, has been established that we can look to.
Let me give you five vital steps to national renewal, as revealed in Nehemiah. They generally give us a glimpse of what may happen to begin Israel’s renewal. Back a few pages to Nehemiah 8:6. The first vital step is that Ezra began by prayer.
Nehemiah 8:6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
Chapter eight is the first appearance of Ezra in the book of Nehemiah. His prayer preceding his reading of the law, which is not even recorded, might be considered a formal prayer. But, it is much more than that. Ezra’s appearance is significant and his prayer was more than merely formal. The response of the people shows that very thing. God’s inspiration was in it, not only in the speaking of it, but also the hearing of it by the people.
What did Ezra’s prayer accomplish? It seems to have accomplished two things. Remember we are still on point one. The first vital step. The first thing Ezra’s prayer accomplished is that it established the sense among the people of what was to follow. The reading of the law was no mere civil matter, but had to do with God.
A number of commentators point out the importance of the way the law is introduced. It is very important to us. It was very important to the Israelites who came out of Egypt and is all important to the Israelites ever since. The way it was introduced is, “the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.” That makes two significant points. Under the first vital step, Ezra began with prayer. We have two points under Ezra’s prayer that was accomplished. In a way, it is almost an outline. The first point is that the law was already a recognized entity among the people. It was not something that was still in the process of evolving or being developed. It was inspired and established by God. The people knew that. The second point is that it was already invested with complete divine authority. It was not merely a human book. It was from God, and it was to be revered as such. Today, the Old Testament is looked at, including the first five books, as merely nice stories. This established, once again, that it was not that. Ezra acknowledged this and reminded the people of it when he began this historic reading of the word of God with prayer. The second thing Ezra’s prayer accomplished is that it awakened the people to the anticipation of what God might do among them. The prayer should always do this because prayer is approaching God and asking things of and receiving things from Him. It is also praise, confession, and thanksgiving. Those elements are present even in this story. It is asking and expecting; certainly the people are not wrong to be in an expectant frame of mind on this occasion.
The second vital step is that Ezra read the word of God. The first one was that he began with prayer. The second vital step is that Ezra read the word of God. Much was done to place the Bible in the forefront of the people’s thinking. Prayer was part of it, but so was the elevated platform from which Ezra read, and the way Ezra was flanked by thirteen Levites whose names are recorded in Nehemiah 8:4. Ezra read from the law for six hours; we would be falling out of our chairs by that time, especially the ones with straight backs.
Nehemiah 8:3 Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
There must be great respect for God’s word. You notice that the people stood when Ezra opened the scroll containing God’s law. They were already in awe of it.
The third vital step is that of the explanation of God’s word. Other leaders continued to expound and explain the law giving the meanings so the brethren could understand how it applied to their day to day situations. We will see that they understood as we go on through this today and the next sermon. One of the most important parts of Nehemiah is the statement in chapter 8:7-8. The reading of the law was accompanied by interpretation or explanation.
Nehemiah 8:7-8 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place. So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.
Possibly there was some translation that was necessary, although that is the minor side of it. Since the law was in Hebrew and the people who had returned from Babylon now spoke Aramaic. Without a current running translation, they might not have been able to understand the text that Ezra was reading. I do not know that for sure, but that appears to be what history tells us. The normal meaning of the phrase in verse eight, “they gave the sense and helped them to understand,” literally translates, “and caused them to understand the sense.” This means, “to separate mentally, distinguish;” it suggests intelligence, discretion, understanding, and wisdom. We know wisdom to be the right use of knowledge. Verse eight seems more likely to suggest something much closer to what we would call an exposition or a sermon. Explanation does not have to have the same authority as the word of God itself, but it is very important since the Bible was not meant only to be heard and revered, but also to be understood, assimilated, obeyed, and applied practically in life. That is certainly what we try to do in every one of our messages. To show you some of the practical applications in life.
This is the reason for the prominent sermons in Christian worship. It is not that other things are not valuable, but what God has promised to bless and what He has most used to bring blessings, is the strict teaching and preaching of His word. Will the preaching of the word alone bring renewal? Not necessarily. At least not in a mechanical way.
Renewal is God’s work. If we think we can produce it by this or any other mechanical means, we are actually being manipulative. That is exactly what we see in mainstream Christian churches today. Manipulation of the people. You are going to hell if you do not straighten up! It is a manipulation. Exposition can include explanation, description, or clarification. Characteristically, it is through such Bible preaching that times of renewal have come. Remember that the apostle Paul wrote to the Hebrews regarding spiritual immaturity.
That is where those Israelites, specifically Jews, were when Ezra was preaching the law of God. God expects all members of His church to be learning to teach. In I Timothy 3:2, Paul tells us that God’s ministers must be able to teach. So far we have touched on three vital steps of the renewal. First: prayer. Second: the public reading of God’s word. Third: the explanation or preaching of God’s word.
These were all elements of what was achieved in Nehemiah’s day in Jerusalem. They will be necessary for Israel’s renewal in the Millennium. Who will be those leaders in the Millennium? You and I will be, God willing.
The fourth vital step is that of sorrow over sin. The reading of the law convicts God’s people, whether today or back then, so that they repent deeply. We will continue on in Nehemiah 8:9.
Nehemiah 8:9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.
They were very moved by it to say the very least. The result of this anticipatory prayer, the reading of the law of God, and the explanation of the law was renewal. The first evidence that the renewal was truly on the way was grief over sin. That is genuine repentance. That was intense grief. The story does not dwell on it. It says only that the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Undoubtedly because they had been convicted by it. This grief must have been intense because Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites who were instructing the people, had to interrupt the reading and exposition of the law to deal with it. They urged the people to rejoice instead. He said, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.”
Nehemiah 8:10-11 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.”
That does not mean to literally eat the fat because we know we are not supposed to eat the fat. This is just talking about the wonderful abundance of food that was available. The fat of the land, so to speak. Drink the sweet does not mean ‘sweet tea’ like people of the south seem to like; it just means whatever is tasty to your palette. The holy day referred to is the Feast of Trumpets.
Ecclesiastes 3:4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
This was a time to rejoice for what God had revealed to them that day. No matter how much it moved them, they were to be rejoicing. The people did as they were told, of course, but they were never the same people again.
Nehemiah 8:12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them.
Did they sin again? Of course they did. They were human beings. For example, 12 years later, Nehemiah returned to find numerous sins and a need for renewal again. No doubt, that will happen as the Israelites enter into the Millennium. They will receive that renewal and then start to slack off; unless, we as the leaders, keep them on track and keep them motivated. We see that we have a tremendous responsibility. Nehemiah had left for a while. When the cats away, the mice will play. I do not think that directly applies, but you get the point. Nehemiah returned to find numerous sins and a need for renewal again.
The people of God always need renewal; in fact, that is one of the purposes of the weekly Sabbath, the holy days, and prayer 24/7. They are spiritual renewals.
It was different in Nehemiah’s day as it will be at the beginning of the Millennium. These days left a mark on the nation that lasted until even beyond the time of Jesus Christ.
Moving on, the fifth vital step is that the life of the people began to revolve around the holy days that God had prescribed for worship. Nehemiah 8:14-18 describes a rediscovery by the people of the instructions for celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. It was to be done in a way that would remind the people of their days of wandering in the wilderness. The Israelites were enthusiastic in their desire to follow the instructions of keeping God’s law regarding His holy days and festivals. Notice their preparations for the Feast of Tabernacles.
Nehemiah 8:13-16 Now on the second day the heads of the fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and Levites, were gathered to Ezra the scribe, in order to understand the words of the law. And they found written in the law, which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.” Then the people went out and brought them and made themselves booths, each one on the roof of his house, or in their courtyards or the courts of the house of God, and in the open square of the Water Gate and in the open square of the Gate of Ephraim.
This is the type of instruction, Nehemiah 8:13-16, that will go out to the Israelites as the one thousand year period begins. Then, when the Feast of Tabernacles arrived, Ezra taught God’s law every day and followed the instructions for keeping the feast.
Nehemiah 8:17-18 So the whole congregation of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness. Also day by day, from the first day until the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, according to the prescribed manner.
Please turn with me to Zechariah 14:16. When they celebrated the feasts, they were to remember that it was God who had provided for them and blessed them abundantly. In addition to these instructions, Zechariah 14:16-19 gives a major reason for keeping the Feast of Tabernacles.
Zechariah 14:16-19 And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. And it shall be that whichever of the families of the earth do not come up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, on them there will be no rain. If the family of Egypt will not come up and enter in, they shall have no rain; they shall receive the plague with which the Lord strikes the nations who do not come up to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. This shall be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not come up to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.
Nehemiah is careful to point out that this is the first time that the Feast of Tabernacles was to be kept in booths since the days of Joshua. During this whole time, the brethren are ecstatic to be hearing and doing what God has commanded. No doubt, Ezra pointed out that part of the purpose of the Feast of Tabernacles, if not the primary purpose, is to worship the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and His Father, the Great Eternal God.
Nehemiah had told the people to rejoice. The joy of the Lord is your strength. It was definitely their strength because theirs was a positive and joyful God. They reacted as a positive and joyful people. God frequently tells us in His written word to rejoice. If we do not, it is because we do not love the word of God, or because we do not obey it.
When renewal sweeps over a people, the first evidence is a profound awareness of sin and sorrow for it. We are reminded of the renewal in Nineveh in response to the preaching of the prophet, Jonah. When renewal came to that city, the people declared a fast and donned sackcloth, a sign of mourning. Even the king took part.
Jonah 3:7-10 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, [a symbol of humility] and cry mightily to God; yes, let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.
Notice, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent?” We should understand that we cannot force God to do anything by our fasting. We have no power over God. Fasting is to put us in the right frame of mind, in humility, so that we can improve and strengthen our relationship with God. We can certainly beseech God, but that is a request. We cannot force God to do anything with our fasting. There are certain times, as you know, that we are required to fast and for that very reason.
Jonah 3:10 Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.
The first evidence of a true influence through the Holy Spirit, is an awakened conscience leading to genuine sorrow for sin. Only after that does renewal come. This is what happened in Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day. It is why it is proper to speak of this as having been a true spiritual renewal. There were three parts to this renewal, as I pointed out earlier. I am not saying that Israel always had God’s Spirit. It is just not true, but sometimes God’s Spirit is used to inspire people to make a change or to be called. It does not necessarily mean that they actually have God’s Holy Spirit. That is reserved for the family of God, for the converted. Today, those are the people who are baptized and have received God’s Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands.
The three parts of the renewal, as I pointed out earlier are: preaching of the word, sorrow for sin and repentance, and a resulting change of life. Formalized, in the case of Nehemiah and Ezra, by the drafting and signing of a covenant.
We have already seen the first element, the prominence given to God’s word. In
Nehemiah 9, we will see its profound impact upon the people. The working of sorrow for sin and the people, as a result of the reading and teaching of God’s word, was observed in chapter 8. But, there it was delayed, or held back by Nehemiah and the Levites. When Ezra read from the law of Moses, the people must have recognized how far they had fallen from its standards and how guilty they were in the sight of Almighty God. This had affected them, even to the point of tears, as you recall.
Nehemiah 8:9 tells us the people had been weeping, and they listened to the words of the law. But that day had been intended as a day of praise and thanksgiving. For that reason, Nehemiah rebuked the tears and sent the people on their way to celebrate with great joy.
Nehemiah 8:12 tells us that all of the people went their way to eat and drink and rejoice greatly because they understood the words that were declared to them. It was only after the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles and the Last Great Day, from the 15th to the 22nd of the month of Tishri, that the special day of penance described in Nehemiah 9 occurred. This is after the Feast of Tabernacles and the Last Great Day.
There are two very interesting things. First, Nehemiah did not take advantage of the people’s first outburst of sorrow to manipulate them in order to push the renewal forward. There is no indication that Nehemiah felt the need to work up the crowd, as most politicians do today to get support from the people—the Republicans or the Democrats to get a “renewal” through their enthusiasm.
If the sorrow for sin and repentance was truly from God, it would remain and nothing could suppress it. Furthermore, Nehemiah, the governor, wanted to direct the people’s thoughts to God. He did not want their thoughts centered on their own feelings. This was not to be a “feel good” moment; as far as a “feel good” emotional moment that clouded obedience to the law of God. No matter how proper their sorrow and repentance for sin might be, the feast Nehemiah prescribed was a feast of thanksgiving for who God was and for what He had done. We see the same thing in chapter 9. Here, even after the day of penance is allowed to go forward, the prayer of the Levite’s, which occupies most of the chapter, is still focused on the greatness of the acts of God.
The second interesting thing that Nehemiah did…although he delayed the day of public repentance by more than three weeks, it did occur. It was as strong and genuine then as it would have been at the beginning. This is a way of saying that this movement of repentance was wholly and genuinely of God. If it had been of man only, or if it had been something that Ezra and Nehemiah had whipped up, it would have faded away or lost its momentum. It did not do that. Nehemiah 9 presents the Levite prayer of confession, of penitence, and covenant commitment. The first three verses tell what finally happened.
Nehemiah 9:1-3 Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads. Then those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for one-fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the Lord their God.
There are two important things about this movement of repentance. First, the confession of the people was once again linked to the reading of God’s law, just as it was on the Feast of Trumpets. This had happened on the first day of the month and it happened again here. It was after the priests had been reading from the Book of the Law of the Lord for one-fourth of the day, that the people spent the next quarter of the day (that is three hours), confessing their sins. There is a necessary link between the two. Sin is defined by reference to God’s law, which can be broken in the letter of the law or the spirit of the law. God’s law is what makes it sin, as distinguished from an act that is merely offensive or criminal by human law. Sin is lawlessness or the transgression of God’s law, either by omitting what God’s law requires, a sin of omission; or by doing what it forbids, the sin of co-mission. Transgression can occur in thought, word, or deed.
Let me put this definition in the relation of sin to renewal in a series of linked statements:
1) There can be no genuine forward moral progress for either a nation or an individual without an acknowledgement of, sorrow for, and a true turning from sin. We generally refer to these things as confession, repentance, and overcoming. In other words, nations move forward morally and spiritually in times of renewal. It requires these three things: confession, repentance, and overcoming.
2) There can be no true sense of what sin is or a knowledge of why it is sin without a hearing of and response to the law of God. That is, we will never acknowledge sin to be sin and grieve over it unless we see it as an offence against God. The only way we will ever see or sense that it is an offence against God is by seeing our wrong thoughts and actions as contrary to God’s written law. Consequently, national renewal must be preceded by sound preaching of the whole counsels of God, particularly the law of God, which have been violated.
The second important thing about this movement of repentance concerning the people’s confession of sin is that it was corporate as well as individualistic. It was done as a group as well as individually. The people not only recognized their own individual sins and confessed them, but also understood that they were a part of a people or nation and therefore were also collectively guilty.
Nehemiah 9:2 addresses this when it says the people confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. They were confessing the sins of the nation for generations. It strikes me that this is the exact opposite of what most people do today. When the Jews of Nehemiah’s day confessed the sins of their fathers, they acknowledged their guilt corporately with their ancestors’ national sins. Today, if people refer to the sins of their parents at all, it is to excuse themselves rather than to assume any personal share of the responsibility for their present thoughts and actions. They blame their wrong-doing on their genes or their upbringing. It is my father’s fault, or my mother did not raise me correctly. Whatever it may be, we hear this time and time again. They are encouraged to believe this way by the psychiatrists and the psychologists. When a true renewal comes, people stop trying to excuse themselves by what others, even their parents, have done. Instead, they confess their sin in wrong-doing openly.
Like in Isaiah 6:5, they cried out, “woe is me for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Maybe not in those exact words, but the children of Israel will say something very similar in the beginning of the Millennium.
The main part, Nehemiah 9:5-38, consists of a long formal prayer by the Levites. We presume they had been leading the people in a personal expression of sorrow given earlier. This, too, is a prayer of confession and that is why it is included here. It is also a prayer that directs the people’s thoughts to the goodness and power of God and prepares them for a final appeal to Him for mercy in their distressed condition. In structure, it is similar to Psalm 78, Psalm 105, and Psalm 106. They rehearse the dealings of God with His people as recorded in the Old Testament history. It is said to be the longest formal prayer in the Old Testament. The tone of the prayer is set in the opening line in verse 5 in which the Levites challenge the people to, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God forever and ever!” That is another way of telling us to keep the law of God, the holy days, the Sabbaths, and much more forever and ever.
The prayer contains three main parts: the first is the work of God in creation.
We will read Nehemiah 9:5-6 in just a moment. Since most of the prayer deals with the history of God’s dealings with the Jewish people, it is significant that it actually begins by praising God as the creator of the heavens and the earth. This is a good place to begin. The prayer also shows the influence on the people of the scripture reading of the previous three weeks. The Old Testament begins a creation account and, in fact, the entire prayer follows an outline based on the content of the early books of the Old Testament.
Nehemiah 9:5-6 Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiah, Hodijah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said: “Stand up and bless the Lord your God forever and ever! Blessed be Your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise! You alone are the Lord; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all things on it, the seas and all that is in them, and You preserve them all, the host of heaven worships You.”
That was just a description of God as Creator and Sustainer of the entire universe and whatever is beyond that, of all things. How can anything or anybody be greater than that? The people were standing there in awe during this prayer, no doubt, as we do as we read it.
Genesis 1:2 are about the nature of God; His power and goodness. It is about the duty man owes God, as his Creator. Nehemiah 9:5-6 reflects this perspective. We cannot escape the irony that although God gives life to everything and the multitudes of heaven worship Him, the masses of mankind do not. Not even, it seems, the descendants of the Israelites. They just do not get it. They, generally speaking, never have except for individuals along the way.
The second major part of the Levites prayer is a review of Israel’s history.
Nehemiah 9:7-31. It begins with God’s calling of Abraham as Genesis does.
Nehemiah 9:7-8 “You are the Lord God, who chose Abram, and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldees, and gave him the name Abraham; you found his heart faithful before You, and made a covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, and the Girgashites—to give it to his descendants. You have performed Your words, for You are righteous.”
The people must have been thinking about the actual text of Genesis at this time. Remember, that had been read within the last few weeks. Nehemiah 9:7 contains the only Old Testament reference after Genesis 17:5 to the changing of Abraham’s name from Abram to Abraham. The name change calls attention to the individual way God dealt with Abraham. This point is made repeatedly throughout Nehemiah 9:7-8.
Notice that God is the subject of every action: 1) You chose Abraham and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans, and named him Abraham. 2) You found his heart faithful to You. 3) You made a covenant with him. 4) You have performed Your words.
We can see the emphasis there. Even the reference to Abraham’s faithfulness is framed in this way. Verse 8 does not say Abraham was faithful or served faithfully; but God found his heart faithful. There again, the emphasis is on God.
But unlike God, who kept His promises, the people, as it is implied, did not keep theirs. God was utterly faithful; they were not.
The next paragraph, Nehemiah 9:9-12, recounts the events of the Exodus in brief form. Again, God is the subject of each action.
Nehemiah 9:9-12 “You saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry by the Red Sea. You showed signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his servants and against all the people of his land, for You knew that they acted proudly against them. So You made a name for Yourself, as it is this day and You divided the sea before them so that they went through the midst of the sea on the dry land; and their persecutors You threw into the deep as a stone into the mighty waters. Moreover You led them by day with a cloudy pillar and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the road which they should travel.”
Seven times, “You” in reference to God is used. Here is a list in verses 9-12 of what God had done for them through the Exodus: 1) You saw the affliction of our forefathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea. 2) You showed signs and wonders against Pharaoh. 3) You knew that they acted proudly against them. 4) You made a name for Yourself as it is this day. 5) You divided the sea before them. 6) Their persecutors You threw into the deep. 7) You led them by day with a cloudy pillar and by night with a fire.
These statements are in narrative form, but in recounting God’s acts, the words also reveal God’s attributes along the way. They show that He is omnipotent. You saw the affliction of our forefathers. They show God is all powerful. You showed signs and wonders against Pharaoh. They show God is righteous. Their persecutors You threw into the deep. They show God is merciful since this is an account of deliverance. These are just some of the many, many, various attributes of God.
The next paragraph in Nehemiah 9:13-15, retells the giving of the Mosaic law in Sinai, the preservation of the people during their passage through the wilderness, and the command to enter and possess the Promised Land. In these verses, there is emphasis, as earlier, on God’s sovereign activity. You came down, You spoke, You gave them regulations, and so on and so forth. Verses 13-15 also stress the justice of God’s commands and God’s goodness. These characteristics place the rebellion described verses 16-17 in a proper light. The people rebelled against God. It was both wrong, against God’s righteous commands, and the people were ungrateful. It was against God’s goodness.
Verses 16-17 explicitly describe the rebellion of the people for the first time. They also contain these two elements. On the one side, the prayer is unstinted in its honest description of the people’s rebellious attitude and sin.
Nehemiah 9:16-17 “But they and our fathers acted proudly, hardened their necks, and did not heed Your commandments. They refused to obey, and they were not mindful of Your wonders that You did among them. But they hardened their necks, and in their rebellion they appointed a leader to return to their bondage. But You are God, ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness and did not forsake them.”
Wow, if that does not describe what this nation is doing to God now, I do not know what does. On the other side, God behaved lovingly. See the second half of verse 17. That is our God! As God’s people, as God’s children, as the family of God, as the Church of God, this is what will need to be said about us as leaders in the Millennium—behaving lovingly. We will need to have those attributes developed. The second half of verse 17 is a direct reference to Exodus 34:6-7 showing that the people had remembered it also from the earlier reading. God was slow to anger, even when the people were terribly unfaithful and rebellious to Him.
Nehemiah 9:18 Even when they made a molded calf for themselves, and said, “This is your god that brought you up out of Egypt,” and worked great provocations…
We are still referring to how merciful God has been to the Israelites and continued to be. The same thing continues in the next paragraph. Nehemiah 9:19-21 recounts how God sustained the people during their forty years of their wilderness wandering.
Nehemiah 9:19-21 Yet in Your manifold mercies You did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of the cloud did not depart from them by day, to lead them on the road; nor the pillar of fire by night, to show them light and the way they should go. You also gave Your good spirit to instruct them and did not withhold Your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst. Forty years You sustained them in the wilderness so that they lacked nothing; their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell.
When the Israelites eventually entered the Promised Land, God drove out many enemies.
He caused the Israelites to increase in numbers. He gave them fortified cities, fertile land, and homes with, “wells already dug, vineyards, olive groves, and trees.” This is described in Nehemiah 9:22-25.
Nehemiah 9:22-25 “Moreover You gave them kingdoms and nations and divided them into districts. So they took possession of the land of Sihon, the land of the king of Heshbon, and the land of Og king of Bashan. You also multiplied their children as the stars of heaven and brought them into the land which You had told their fathers to go in and possess. So the people went in and possessed the land; You subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gave them into their hands with their kings and the people of the land that they might do with them as they would. And they took strong cities and a rich land and possessed houses full of all goods, cisterns already dug, vineyards, olive groves, and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and grew fat and delighted themselves in Your great goodness.
The people reveled in God’s great goodness, yet they turned from God again. The ancient Israelites, from the time they had entered the Promised Land, continually fell away from their relationship with God. This continued through Ezra and Nehemiah’s time. They still continue to do that today and will until towards the end of the Great Tribulation. Thankfully, individuals will be called throughout that period.
The next three paragraphs, Nehemiah 9:26-31, describes what became a sad, but steady pattern in the nation’s life. There was increasing sin and rebellion followed by God’s disciplinary judgments. That would cause a temporary return to God followed by more rebellious sin and apostasy.
Nehemiah 9:26-31 “Nevertheless they were disobedient and rebelled against You, cast Your law behind their backs, and killed Your prophets who testified against them to turn them to Yourself, and they worked great provocations. Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their enemies who oppressed them; and in the time of their trouble, when they cried to You, You heard from heaven; and according to Your abundant mercies, You gave them deliverers who saved them from the hand of their enemies. But after they had rest, they again did evil before You. Therefore You left them in the hand of their enemies so that they had dominion over them; Yet when they returned and cried out to You, You heard from heaven; And many times You delivered them according to Your mercies and testified against them that You might bring them back to Your law. Yet they acted proudly and did not heed Your commandments, but sinned against Your judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them. And they shrugged their shoulders, stiffened their necks, and would not hear. Yet for many years You had patience with them and testified against them by Your Spirit in Your prophets. Yet they would not listen; therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless in Your great mercy You did not utterly consume them nor forsake them; for You are God, gracious and merciful.”
The list of Israel’s sins grows very specific in these paragraphs; as all true confession of sin must. I am going to give you nine of Israel’s very short sins straight out of the scriptures. 1) They were disobedient and rebelled. 2) They put Your law behind their backs. That is what they did in our nation when they removed the Ten Commandments; even with Judge Moore‘s efforts to stop that. 3) They killed their prophets. 4) They committed awful blasphemies. 5) They again did what was evil in Your sight. 6) They became arrogant and disobeyed Your commands. 7) They sinned against Your ordinances. 8) Stubbornly, they turned their backs on You, became stiff-necked, and refused to listen. 9) They paid no attention.
Yet alongside of this discord of rebellious voices, God continued to speak quietly and show mercy. He did not condone it; He just acted with loving kindness and mercy. The last line of verse 31 says, “Nevertheless in your great mercy You did not utterly consume them nor forsake them; for You are God, gracious and merciful.”
The third major part of the Levites prayer is an appeal for God’s mercy in a present distress. That is contained in Nehemiah 9:32-37. As the list of the people’s sin has built to a climax, so have the repeated affirmation of God’s patience, His goodness, and His mercy. It is to these holy characteristics of God that the final section of the prayer now makes an eloquent appeal.
Nehemiah 9:32-38 “Now therefore, our God, The great, the mighty, and awesome God, who keeps covenant and mercy: Do not let all the trouble seem small before You that has come upon us. Our kings and our princes, our priests and our prophets, our fathers and on all Your people from the days of the kings of Assyria until this day. However, You are just in all that has befallen us; for You have dealt faithfully, but we have done wickedly. Neither our kings nor our princes, our priests nor our fathers have kept Your law, nor heeded Your commandments and Your testimonies with which You testified against them. For they have not served You in their kingdom, or in the many good things that You gave them, or in the large and rich land which You set before them; Nor did they turn from their wicked works. Here we are, servants today! And the land that You gave to our fathers to eat its fruit and its good things. Here we are, servants in it! And it yields much increase to the kings You have set over us because of our sins. Also they have dominion over our bodies and our cattle [they are in slavery] at their pleasure and we are in great distress. And because of all this, we make a sure covenant and write it; and our leaders and our Levites and our priests seal it.”
In this concluding part of the Levites prayer, they ask for relief. Again, acknowledging God’s power, His majesty, and His loyalty. Throughout Israel’s history, she experienced hardship because of her disobedience. Assyria was the first great power after Egypt that menaced Israel and Judah beginning in ninth century BC; over four hundred years before Nehemiah’s time. Even while the Israelites were enjoying God’s blessings from His great goodness in the land, they were still sinful. The prayer of the Levites in Jerusalem in the days of Nehemiah is a model confession. It shows how to find spiritual blessings again. To mend the situation, the people now will enter a solemn covenant from the Hebrew “Amanah.” The word used is not the usual word for covenant, which is “berit.” A rarer one was used which emphasizes faithfulness. The people pledged to keep faithfully what they now undertook. That is what their covenant meant.
That is some of the things that may indicate what Israel will have to do to be renewed in the Millennium. We have a great and awesome responsibility coming up ahead. We need to be preparing for this now in our lives. God is merciful and faithful to His promises, despite His people’s persistence in sin. True worship is at the center of the life of God’s people, and it includes the willing and joyful giving of their resources. God promises that He will restore Israel and Judah in the Millennium.
Zechariah 10:6 “I will strengthen the house of Judah. And I will save the house of Joseph. I will bring them back, [or you could say renew them] because I have mercy on them. They shall be as though I had not cast them aside; for I am the Lord their God. And I will hear them.
In this sermon, I have given you an overview of the attitude necessary for national spiritual renewal. How the Israelites coming out of the Great Tribulation and into the Millennium will have to think and act, if they are going to truly be “one nation under God.”
In my next sermon, I am going to get into more detail of the specific commitments the Jews made to God through their covenant with Him. The Israelites in the Millennium will make these same commitments, in principle at least, as they begin the national spiritual renewal.