Nehemiah: Confession Is Good for the Soul

Sermon by on January 11, 2009

Nehemiah 9:1-38

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The Lord’s Day
Evening

January 11, 2009


Nehemiah 9.1-38


“Confession Is Good for the Soul”

Dr. Derek W. H.
Thomas

Now turn with me, if you would, once again to the book of
Nehemiah. We find ourselves this evening in chapter nine. It’s a long reading.
Most of it is a prayer offered by the Levites and recorded here, perhaps from
the pen of Ezra, in the ninth chapter of Nehemiah.

Before we read this chapter
together, let’s look to God in prayer. Let us pray together.

Our Father in heaven, as we
approach the Scriptures tonight, tonight above all nights we desire to be
sincere and honest and open before You. We would not seek to draw a veil between
us. We are about to read a passage in which Israel confessed their sin, and we
too are sinners greater than we ever acknowledge ourselves to be. And we pray,
Lord, for the movement and operation and blessing of the Holy Spirit. Help us as
we read the passage to perceive something of its force. Teach us, instruct us;
yes, and convict us, we pray. And we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is God’s word:

“Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled
with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. And the Israelites
separated themselves from all foreigners and 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 a quarter of the day; for another
quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God. On the
stairs of the Levites stood Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah,
Bani, and Chenani; and they cried with a loud voice to the Lord their God. Then
the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah. Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah,
and Pethahiah, said, ‘Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to
everlasting. Blessed be Your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing
and praise.

“‘You are the Lord, You alone. 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. You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the
Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before
You, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the
Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the
Girgashite. And You have kept Your promise, for You are righteous.

“‘And You saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their
cry at the Red Sea, and 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. And
You divided the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea
on dry land, and You cast their pursuers into the depths, and a stone into
mighty waters. By a pillar of cloud You led them in the day, and by a pillar of
fire in the night to light for them the way in which they should go. You came
down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules
and true laws, good statutes and commandments, and You made known to them Your
holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses
Your servant. You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water
for them out of the rock for their thirst, and You told them to go in to possess
the land that You had sworn to give them.

“‘But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their
neck and did not obey Your commandments. They refused to obey and were not
mindful of the wonders that You performed among them, but they stiffened their
neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But You are a
God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in
steadfast love, and did not forsake them. Even when they had made for themselves
a golden calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you out of Egypt,’ and had
committed great blasphemies, You in Your great mercies did not forsake them in
the wilderness. The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from
them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which
they should go. You 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, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did
not wear out and their feet did not swell.

“‘And You gave them kingdoms and peoples and allotted to them every
corner. So they took possession of the land of Sihon king of Heshbon and the
land of Og king of Bashan. You multiplied their children as the stars of heaven,
and You brought them into the land that You had told their fathers to enter and
possess. So the descendants went in and possessed the land, and You subdued
before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gave them into
their hand, that they might do with them as they would. And they captured
fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good
things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in
abundance. So they ate and were filled and became fat and delighted themselves
in Your great goodness.

“‘Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against You and
cast Your law behind their back and killed Your prophets, who had warned them in
order to turn them back to You, and they committed great blasphemies. 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. But after they had rest they did evil again before
You, 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. And You
warned them in order to turn them back to Your law. Yet they acted
presumptuously and did not obey Your commandments, but sinned against Your
rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them, and they turned a
stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey. Many years You
bore with them and warned them by Your Spirit through Your prophets. Yet they
would not give ear. 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.

“ ‘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, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our
prophets, our fathers, and all Your people, since the time of the kings of
Assyria until this day. Yet You have been righteous in all that has come upon
us, for You have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. Our kings, our
princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept Your law or paid attention
to Your commandments and Your warnings that You gave them. Even in their own
kingdom, and amid Your great goodness that You gave them, and in the large and
rich land that You set before them, they did not serve You or turn from their
wicked works. 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.

“‘Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the
sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests.’”

Amen. May God add His blessing to the reading of His holy
and inerrant word.

Now, Nehemiah 9 is a prayer. It’s a prayer much
like the great prayer of Abraham or the great prayer of Ezra in Ezra 9, or the
great prayer of Daniel in Daniel 9. It’s meant for our instruction. It’s meant
to help us in our own personal praying.

It’s the twenty-fourth day of the month. Back at the
beginning of the chapter we were at the first day of the month, the day they
gathered at the Water Gate, the day they read the Scriptures all morning
long…for three, four, possibly five hours long. The second day, you remember,
the heads of households returned. They discovered in their study of the books of
the Law of God that they had not been keeping the Feast of Booths — the Feast of
Tabernacles, the Feast of Ingathering. So on the fifteenth day of the month they
celebrated Tabernacles — the Feast that goes on for seven days. And on the
eighth day they held a solemn assembly. And now it’s the twenty-fourth day. The
solemn assembly would have taken place on the twenty-second day. There was a
day’s interval, but now they’re back again in Jerusalem, and it’s a solemn day
now. There was joy at the Feast of Tabernacles. You remember Nehemiah’s
exhortation: “The joy of the Lord is your strength,” he had said, when they’d
begun to weep at the reading of the Law. There was a time for joy but there’s a
time for weeping, and this is that time. They’re back again. For a quarter of
the day they read the Scriptures — three hours perhaps. And for another three
hours they worshiped and confessed their sin.

Now this prayer and the concluding verse in verse
38 falls roughly into seven sections.
It begins in verse 6 with praise to
God as the Creator. Remember they’d been reading the book of Genesis, and they’d
been reminded of God as Creator. Then in verses 7-16, there is a record of God’s
power and of God’s grace up until that day, but largely confined to the period
of the wanderings in the wilderness. And then in verses 17-25, there’s a
testimony to God’s forgiveness and His graciousness, and His compassion — a
reminder that they lacked nothing in all of God’s wonderful provision for them.

In verse 26 through to 31, there is now this
confession of sin in the period of the judges and in the period of the monarchy,
and right down to the period of the prophets. And there’s this refrain, and you
can pick it up there in verse 26 and repeated again in verse 31, “They had been
disobedient, but God had been gracious.” And over and over there is that refrain
— “They had disobeyed, but God had been faithful.” Then in verse 32, we have
this wonderful and extraordinary pronouncement of the character of God and the
faithfulness of God:

“Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps
covenant and steadfast love….”

And then in verses 33 down to verse 37, you have this
complaint: they are slaves; they are slaves under the rule of Persia. They don’t
own their land, nor do they own much of their property. They are heavily taxed.
They are not free to do what God had intended them to do in the covenant made
with Abraham, and it’s because of their sin. They are in the condition that
they’re in because they have sinned. And then in verse 38 you have this solemn
and climactic oath of recommitment and reaffirmation of the covenant that they
make with God.

Now what are the lessons for us tonight? There are
two distinct sections I want us to think about. The first is about prayer
itself, and the second is about covenant renewal.

I. The lesson of prayer.

The first is about prayer. This is a prayer. And I
want to say first of all that what we have here belongs to the area of
experience. I want us to see that. This is experiential religion that we have
here. This is more than just a confession of faith. This is more than just
something cerebral. This is more than something that they confess that they
know. This is not just like the confession, say, of The Apostles’ Creed
that we recited this morning at the Lord’s Supper. This is a confession of their
experience. They are convicted. The word of God and the Spirit of God has come
home to them as they heard the word read, as the Spirit wrote that word upon
their hearts. They are deeply conscious that their fathers and they themselves
have sinned. They’re not in the relationship with God that they ought to be.

It’s deeply moving. It’s almost like a broken
marriage. It’s as though the people of God are like an unfaithful bride, saying
to a bridegroom, sensing now with all the apprehension and tension and
nervousness that this marriage is breaking apart. And it’s almost as though the
people of God collectively are coming and they’re saying, ‘I want this marriage
to work. I’ve been unfaithful. I’ve been unfaithful. You have every right to
throw me out. You have every right to divorce me. But I want to start again.
I’ll do anything to make it work. I love you.’ It’s a confession that’s coming
from a broken heart. The word has broken their hearts, broken their spirits,
broken their pride, broken their self-confidence.

I wonder if you’ve ever come before God like that.
Perhaps I should ask, have you come before God like that recently? Has the word
broken you? Touched you? Convicted you? Shown you where you have erred and
strayed, and been unfaithful as a believer, as a Christian, as a church member,
as an officer in the church? I wonder tonight because this is more than just
form. This is more than just ritual. We don’t want to be here just because it’s
Sunday evening. We don’t want to be here just because this is a worship service.
We don’t want to be here just because we are members of First Presbyterian
Church. We want to be here to have dealings with God. We want to hear what He
has to say to us. And I wonder tonight, has He spoken to you and touched you in
the realm of Christian experience? Because that’s where this prayer begins.

Notice, secondly, it focuses on God. The focus
is on sin to be sure, but the focus is also on God, reflecting on the
attributes of God, reflecting on the graciousness of God, reflecting on the
character of God, on the mercy of God.
Over and over and over, this chapter
comes back to God.

It’s a great way to reform our praying. It’s the
Bible way of reforming our Christian lives. It’s not all about “me.” It’s not
all about my family. It’s not all about my personal security. It’s not all about
my health. It’s about the Lord. It’s about God,
this covenant Lord, this God of Abraham, the God of our fathers
. We
want tonight to have dealings with God.

Notice that what has brought them to
this point
is actually a recognition of the intensity of
their failure; that their failures actually grew them in praying
.
It’s a bit like what Ligon was saying this morning from the lesson of Zechariah,
the father of John the Baptist: that he grew in adversity. Well, there’s a sense
here too that they have grown in their adversity. There’s no hint here of any
attempt to excuse themselves.

You notice, in verses 16 -17, they liken themselves
to Egypt. They are no better than Egypt. Egypt was their enemy. Egypt was
historically their oppressor, but they’ve come to see that they are no better
than their enemy. They are no better than Egypt. They’ve grown. Adversity has
done that. Trial has done that. Yes, failure has done that. Because you see what
failure has done? It has taught them to trust in God. It has taught them that
they can have no confidence apart from that confidence which lies at the heart
of the covenant mercies of God. That’s the only sure and safe place to rest.

Samuel Rutherford once wrote those lines, “Grace
grows best in winter.” Maybe you’re conscious of a winter in your soul just now.
Maybe you’re conscious at the beginning of this new year that you are not what
you ought to be, that you’re not following the Lord as closely as you should.
You’re not reading His word or receiving from His word what you should. You’re
aware of it. You’re conscious of it. The Spirit has brought it to your
attention. Well, use that. Use that to cast yourself upon the mercies of God.
Run to the Lord in your weakness, in your frailty, in your brokenness! “Lord,
give me a sense of my sin, that I may have a greater sense of Your beauty.” I
wonder tonight, is that our experience? Have we grown to appreciate something of
the sheer beauty of the grace of God, because God has shown to us in greater
clarity the contours of our own personal sin?

II. The lesson of covenant
renewal.

But there’s a second area I want us to think
about, and that is this area of covenant renewal.
And we’ll be coming back
to this in the next couple of weeks in terms of the specifics of it, but I just
want to glace at verse 38, because at the end of this prayer of confession of
sin they make a covenant. They write a covenant. Actually they cut a covenant,
using the very specific language in the Hebrew of covenant making. This is a
covenant renewal, much the same as Joshua 24 is a covenant renewal; much the
same as I Samuel 12, before the instigation of a monarchy, was a covenant
renewal ceremony. Let me say a couple of things.

First of all, they had a sense here of a new
beginning.
It will reach its climax in verse 29 of chapter 10:

“…Join with their brothers, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to
walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God….”

That’s the heart of this covenant. They are
promising to walk in God’s Law
. All of what they’ve been doing for the
last month as they’ve explored and read and studied the Scriptures together has
brought them to this point. They want to start afresh with God. I think we
should long for that. I think that should be an objective of ours, that there
are moments in our Christian experience and there are moments in our collective
experience as the church of God that we sense the need to start afresh, to
recommit. They actually wrote this covenant. They actually signed (at least,
some of their leaders signed) this covenant.

Our fathers in the eighteenth century saw this as an
example for the church itself. The Puritan, Joseph Alleine, wrote about this,
and John Wesley took it up and began what we now call the “Watch Night Service,”
a service held either on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, a service in which a
congregation makes a recommitment to the Lord. In Methodism it became part of
their annual observance. At the beginning of the year, the congregation would
collectively say a vow promising to follow the Lord with all of their hearts. At
the center of that worship service, John Wesley wrote this prayer:

“I am no longer my own, but Thine. Put me to what Thou wilt; rank me with whom
Thou wilt. Put me to doing; put me to suffering. Let me be employed for Thee and
laid aside for Thee; exalted for Thee, or brought low for Thee. Let me be full;
let me be empty; let me have all things; let me have nothing. I freely and
heartily yield all things to Thy pleasure and disposal, and now, O glorious and
blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Thou art mine and I am thine. So be
it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.”

It’s so very important for us to see this
one thing
: that the very nature of this covenant making and this
promise making on behalf of the people of God is itself covenantally shaped.

That is to say, they make their promises to follow the Lord based on
their recognition of the grace that they have already received
. This
covenant making, this renewal on behalf of the people of God was gratitude. They
weren’t coming before the Lord and saying, ‘I promise to follow You, so look
down upon me and see all the good things that I promise to do.’ No. They’re
saying, “Nothing in my hands I bring.” We are poor, worthless sinners; and we
have been sinners in the past, and we are sinners now, and we are slaves because
of our sin. But You have been merciful. Again and again, and again and again,
You have shown Your mercy and Your grace to us, so we give ourselves away to You
out of gratitude.

I wonder tonight…this may not be where all of you
are, but I wonder tonight if that’s where some of you are at the beginning of
this new year…and tired of the past and tired of failure, and all too conscious
of it. And desiring with all of your hearts tonight to say to your beloved One,
‘Jesus, I really do love You and I really do want to follow You with all of my
heart.’ I wonder if that’s where you are tonight, saying with John Calvin in
that extraordinary motto of his, “My heart I offer to You, promptly and
sincerely.” Don’t say that unless you mean it. But if you mean it, if that’s
truly where you are tonight, see in this passage the covenant mercies of God,
who again and again and again receives His people back to himself and says, “I
will never leave you or forsake you.”

Let’s pray together.

Father, we come before You tonight perhaps a
little touched by Your word, perhaps greatly moved by it. You know our hearts.
We pray tonight for each one of us that there might be that earnest desire, that
longing of our souls to be out and out for You. We do not want to serve this
world. We do not want to take pleasure in sin. We do not want to disobey You,
and from the fullness of grace that we have known, the blood of Christ that
covers all of our sins, we want to give ourselves away to You in gratitude and
to say, ‘Lord, do with us as you will. Use us wherever You want. Put us wherever
You want, and help us to find our joy and fullness and completion and
integration in serving You. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

Please stand; receive the Lord’s benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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