Our Forgiving God
After the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) was finished, the leaders again gathered the people. They had just spent time celebrating; now it was time to return to the unfinished business of confession and repentance before God for their sins.
Yes, earlier, the leaders had told them to stop grieving and being sad over their faults, but that doesn’t mean mourning and confession are not important. Thus, now that they had celebrated the festivals, it was time to go through proper confession.
The order of events presented here doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the sequence in which rejoicing and confession are always done; nor does it mean that only the reverse order is to be followed. Although we may naturally follow the order of confession first, followed by celebration, perhaps the celebration of God in our lives should come first. After all, Romans 2:4 tells us that it is the “goodness of God” that brings us to repentance. His “goodness,” then, should evoke praise and feasting, while also reminding us that we need God to forgive, cleanse, and re-create us.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, November 16.
Although Nehemiah was eager to make sure that the people associated this time with joy, he now led the assembly to fasting. They humbled themselves before God and threw dust on their heads, while wearing sackcloth. Because the foreigners didn’t have a share in the corporate sin of the people of Israel, the Israelites separated themselves from them, as the Hebrews knew that it was their sins that needed to be forgiven. They acknowledged the sins of their nation, which had led them into exile.
Their corporate prayers and confession demonstrated a deep understanding of the nature of sin. The Israelites could have been angry that their predecessors messed up and led their whole nation into exile. Or they could have spent time complaining about the choices of their leaders and the lack of godliness displayed by the previous generations, which had led them to where they were right now—just a small group of returnees. However, instead of harboring hatred and grievances, they turned to God in humility and confession.
Nehemiah 9:3 reports that the people read from the book of the law for a fourth of the day, and for another fourth they confessed sin and worshiped God. This is the third reading of the Torah. Reading the Torah is central to confession, which must be based on the truth, which comes from God. Through our reading of the Bible, God draws near to us, and the Holy Spirit can speak to us and teach us. The truth of His Word molds our thinking and understanding, encourages and lifts us up. The Israelites also sorrowed and wept, because spending time in God’s holy presence makes us aware of His beauty and goodness while impressing upon us how amazing it is that the Creator of the universe chooses to be with us, even despite our unworthiness. Thus, we realize that without God in our lives, we are no different from any of our spiritual ancestors in the faith. Only with God working in us can we be who we should be.
The response of the people to the Bible reading was a long prayer that recounted the goodness of God in contrast to the history of Israel’s faithlessness. One can observe that the reply is more like a sermon than a prayer, because almost every verse has a parallel somewhere in the Bible.
In the first part of the prayer, the people bless God, and specifically His name. In the Hebrew culture, a name was not just what people called someone; it gave a person his/her identity. Thus, the praise of God’s name is significant because it demonstrates to the world that this is a name worthy of praise and honor. This is the name of the Creator of the universe. The prayer begins with worship to God as the Creator and as the One who “preserves” everything (Neh. 9:6; see also Col. 1:16, 17). The word “preserves” comes from a Hebrew verb that means to “keep alive.”
The One who created everything is the One who chose Abraham, a human being, who was not in any way special other than that “his heart” was “faithful.” Abraham may seem to have lacked faith on many occasions, but when asked to give up his son, he didn’t falter (see Genesis 22). He learned to be faithful—not overnight, but over his long walk with God. In Hebrew thinking, the “heart” refers to the mind. In other words, Abraham developed faithfulness in thought and action and was acknowledged for it by God.
The first few phrases of the prayer focus on God as (1) Creator, (2) Preserver, and (3) Promise Keeper. The people first remind themselves of who God is: He is the faithful One who has created us, preserves us, and always keeps His promises to us. Having that in mind helps us to keep our own lives in perspective and to learn to trust Him even in the most difficult of situations, when it might seem that He is distant from us and unconcerned with our challenges.
The prayer transitions from praising God for His faithfulness to recounting the contrasting unfaithfulness of the Israelites in their Egypt and wilderness experiences. It outlines all the different things God gave the Israelites; but unfortunately, the response of the “fathers” to those gifts was pride, stubbornness, and disregard of God’s gracious acts among them.
The acknowledgment of human failure and lack of true devotion to God is an important step in confession and repentance. And even though these texts are talking about people long removed from us, no one can deny that every single one of us has a problem with those same issues. Of course, here is where the gospel comes in for us as well as for them. Confession of our sins does not save us; only Christ’s sacrifice in our behalf does. Confession, along with repentance, is central to our own acknowledgment that we must be justified by Christ alone. “When through repentance and faith we accept Christ as our Saviour, the Lord pardons our sins, and remits the penalty prescribed for the transgression of the law. The sinner then stands before God as a just person; he is taken into favor with Heaven, and through the Spirit has fellowship with the Father and the Son.”—Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 3, p. 191.
At the same time, because His goodness causes us to confess our sins and repent of them, we must be determined by God’s power to forsake them, as well.
The bottom line is that Israel had been stubborn, and God had been loving. Looking back at what God did for the Israelite nation reminded the people that because God had done so much for them in the past, He would continue to take care of them at the present moment and in the future. That was why it was so important for the people always to remember how God had acted in their history. It was when they forgot that they got into trouble.
This next section of the prayer/sermon focused on life in Canaan as the Israelites possessed the land that God had given them. They had been handed land, cities, vineyards, and fields ready for use, but they had taken it all for granted. At the end of verse 25, we are told that “they ate and were filled and grew fat” (NKJV). Growing fat is an expression that is found only a few times in the Bible (Deut. 32:15 and Jer. 5:28), and each time it has a negative connotation.
The people might have “delighted themselves in Your great goodness” (NKJV), but theirs was a delight in all they had instead of a delight in God. Apparently, having everything doesn’t produce a close walk with God. Many times we think, If only I had this or that, then I would be happy. Unfortunately, we see that the Israelites had everything from God, and yet their “happiness” in those things only made them less devoted to God. It’s too easy for us to focus on the gifts while forgetting about the Giver. This is a fatal deception.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we cannot be happy for the things that God has given us. He desires that we rejoice in His gifts, but this joy in the things He gives doesn’t guarantee a relationship with God. In fact, if we are not careful, these things can become a stumbling block. Nevertheless, in this chapter, the leaders now confessed the ways that they had been unfaithful to God. As they looked through their history, they specifically named transgressions they had committed as a nation. A couple of aspects emerge as especially important, because they are repeated: (1) Israel cast God’s law away, and (2) they persecuted the prophets.
In other words, they realized that God’s law and His prophets were essential to their development as a godly nation and as individuals. The prayer emphasizes this conclusion by stating that “if a man does” God’s commandments, “he shall live by them” (Neh. 9:29, NKJV; direct quote from Lev. 18:5) and by highlighting that it is the Spirit that spoke through the prophets. God has given us His commandments for an abundant life, and He sent His prophets to guide us in our understanding of His truth. What we do with these gifts is the essential question for us all.
Once again the prayer turns to praising God for who He is: great, mighty, and awesome, One who keeps the covenant and has mercy. They seem sincere in their acknowledgment of God’s goodness to them. They also bring a petition in the form of making a covenant with God, which is described in detail in chapter 10. What is their petition? “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” (Neh. 9:32, NKJV).
The community has to pay tribute to the kings who are over them. Oppression from every side is plaguing the small company of Israelites, and they are tired of it. They have had to endure one tyranny after another, and they are hoping for a reprieve.
Interestingly, they call themselves “servants.” After outlining the infidelity of their nation, they end by referring to themselves with that word. Servants, of course, obey those who are over them. The use of this term, then, implies that they realize they need to obey the Lord in ways that those who came before them didn’t. This is an expression of their desire to be faithful to the Lord and His commandments. And, as servants of God, they are asking Him to intervene in their behalf.
The community of Ezra and Nehemiah describe their current experience as being “in great distress” (Neh. 9:37), which can be compared to the affliction the Israelites experienced in Egypt (Neh. 9:9). Their prayer praises God for seeing their affliction in Egypt and not overlooking it. The community is now asking God to intervene just as He had in the past, even though they don’t deserve it, because no one—kings, princes, priests or prophets, or fathers—was faithful. Thus, they are relying only on God’s grace and mercy to them, and not on themselves or in their ancestors’ works, in hopes that the Lord will intervene in their behalf.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “Confession,” pp. 37–41, in Steps to Christ.
In Nehemiah 9:25, the Hebrews talked about how their ancestors “delighted themselves” (NKJV) in God’s great goodness. The verbal root is the same as the name Eden, as in the “garden of Eden” (Gen. 2:15). Perhaps the best translation would be “they edenized themselves” if only edenized were a verb.
The gospel is, after all, restoration, and what better symbol can there be than Eden to represent what we are ultimately to be restored to? God raised up the Hebrew people and brought them to the crossroads of the ancient world in order to create the closest reflection of Eden that could exist on a fallen earth. Even after the captivity and return, the potential was still there. “For the Lord will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden” (Isa. 51:3, NKJV).
Yes, the people enjoyed the material blessings that the Lord had promised them, blessings that, to whatever degree possible in a fallen world, were reminiscent of the abundance of Eden. And that was fine. They were supposed to enjoy them. God created the physical world precisely in a way that humans could enjoy, and ancient Israel—blessed of God—enjoyed it, too. Their sin was not in “edenizing themselves” in God’s great goodness, but in forgetting the Lord (Ezek. 23:35), whose goodness they were enjoying. The blessings became an end in and of themselves instead of a means to an end, which was to reveal God to those around them.