Nehemiah 9 – Prayer of Confession

Marjorie Cheverton in Egbita 1953. 1996 at Nebobongo.

1952 Outer Hebrides.

Nehemiah 9 is a prayer of confession as a prelude to revival Old Testament style.

I have to confess that I wouldn’t rush to speak on Nehemiah chapter 9. But this invitation has been a good discipline for me to knuckle down to look at this passage for this morning. But Nehemiah 9 is in the inspired Holy Scriptures, even if it is not written to us, it is written for us.

I am not involved in this church, and don’t know any FBC pastoral secrets or about your great joys – so I will just let the text of Nehemiah 9 speak for itself in the time I have, and trust that it will still be prophetic into your situation. I do teach at a Bible College, Eastwest College at Gordonton where I train Christian missionaries, and that might come across in my style but I also hope that my love for the Lord Jesus and a love for the word of God will spill over this morning as well.

I expect you will have gone into the background of these books earlier, so I won’t repeat too much stuff you have already looked at in earlier Sunday mornings in this series. Up to this point in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the descendants of the exiles who were deported from Israel in 587 BC by the Babylonians have been trickling back to the land in different groups for about 100 years. In this time they had rededicated the altar, rebuilt the temple in 520 BC under Persian rule. The walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt about 445 BC under Nehemiah’s leadership and direction in just 52 days which is just an amazing achievement. The events of our chapter took place in the month of October of that year after the Feast of Tabernacles which Israel had just celebrated for the first time for centuries. Just a reminder if we needed one, that Christianity is founded on the facts of history – not myths.

Building projects are encouraging – but they don’t really build spiritual life. I know you’ve had a big building project here recently, but with every respect putting up new buildings doesn’t really change a soul. Israel was a case in point. They were back living in Jerusalem, they had their temple operating, they had their new city walls – but the perceptive knew that things were just not firing spiritually as they should:

There was usury, there was intermarriage with non-Israelites, there was Sabbath-breaking, rubbish animals were being offered as sacrifices, the people weren’t tithing – and what was worst of all for the Israelites were the high taxes going to a foreign king. God clearly wasn’t the true king of his people in their land. All this is confirmed by the prophet Malachi, who was writing at about the same time.

So the spiritual leaders decided to rededicate the nation back to God with a renewal of the covenant. Chh 8-12 is a section on spiritual renewal or at least attempted spiritual renewal after the building projects had been achieved.

I           Prayer of confession and worship

So to Chapter 9 which is basically a prayer of confession. The prayer re-tells the long story of Israel’s relationship with God down the centuries and how God repeatedly rescues her from the messes they got themselves into through unbelief and rebellion. It’s called ‘Salvation History’, that is the retelling of the story of God’s dealing with his people. This story is retold again and again all through the psalms, the prophets and into the New Testament – the most famous being Stephen’s speech before he is stoned to death in Acts.

Telling the story of how God saved you in Christ is a great form of witness – it’s a good thing. Chapter 9 was Israel’s testimony.

Just as the Israelites here listened to the word of God in ch9 and responded in worship and praise, when we read the word of God with a prayerful heart, we can encounter God too. God’s word is a mirror held up to ourselves. We respond to God’s word in confession and worship. It speaks of the character and deeds of God. But it also speaks to us about our inadequacy before the living God.

But in case you think I am here to whack you all over the head with Old Testament rules for holiness, I am not. Because the main theme of Nehemiah 9 is God’s continued mercy and love to broken people like you and me down the ages.

A few words about confession: it is healthy and good. Because of a reaction to Roman Catholicism and sheer embarrassment little confession of sin goes on amongst us. We hear more about confession in secular law courts than in our NZ churches these days, which is a spiritual tragedy. As so often happens when we flee from what can be a dead wooden tradition in the name of the freedom of the Spirit, we leave behind a measure of the healthy Christian life. I was brought up in the Church of England and I have the Anglican prayers of confession ringing in my ears – having heard them said every Sunday as a child:

Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have… we have … we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;

The confession was always “we”/“our.” I very, very rarely hear even an invitation to the confession of sin – because the Christian faith has become so individualised in recent decades in the West through the influence of existentialism. Me and my Jesus Christianity. When you were born again, you were born again into a new family, into a community called the church.

Chapter 9 is the corporate confession of the sins of a whole people. No individuals are named apart from Abraham who in some way represents the whole nation – even the great heroes of Israel Moses, David were not mentioned in this prayer of confession. This was an opportunity to glorify God for the wonders of his creation, his power, his grace and majesty and contrast it with Israel’s own faithlessness and unbelief and sin.

What might seem strange to us is that they are confessing sins they had no part in, committed by their ancestors. But there is a logic to it, as all nations have to live with the consequences of the foolishness of their grandparents. It is the confessions of the past sins of a whole people as well as their own. 2nd commandment against idolatry “‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” There are certain spiritual laws which inexplicably hold true which can hinder our spiritual effectiveness.

The prayer retells how that in spite of all that God had done for Israel they repeatedly rebelled against him. They rebelled in the wilderness after seeing the most stupendous miracles in human history and they rebelled in the land God gave them afterwards and they killed the prophets sent to warn them. Though these men and women here did not participate directly in those sins they are living with the results – and more importantly, they wanted to learn from them.

What are the sins of our community? Waitangi Treaty breaches. The murder of the unborn, the law to legalise euthanasia coming, buying goods made with cheap labour overseas. The toleration of injustices in our social system which we indirectly benefit from.

The Spirit says to confess your sins, confess your coolness of heart towards God, confess your ingratitude to God and He will visit you afresh. Do not be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. James 5:16; 1 John 1:9.

II          The God to whom they prayed

Not only do we learn about Israel’s rebellious past, in this prayer, we, along with the Israelites on that October afternoon of 445 BC also re-learn a lot about God, we are reminded.

  • He is eternal. “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting” [v5]. He is eternal. We need to be reminded not just eternity past but of our future eternity with God which we will spend with him after Christ’s return, are you ready to meet the everlasting God? He will come suddenly one day. Be ready for the Everlasting God.
  • He is unique. “You are the Lord, you alone” [v6]. That God is the creator of everything in heaven and the earth. Unlike other gods of this and that, we make a truth claim about God in Christ. We must do so all the more now in the face of pluralism and all the other ‘isms’ which rise themselves and seek to take their place alongside the only true God in public life.
  • He created everything. “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” [v6]. The great truth of the Genesis account of creation is not just that God is the Creator of all things, but the God of Israel, our God, created everything – it was utterly revolutionary when it was written. He created the angels who serve him and us day and night, and he created heavenly places where they live. The secularist may mock us, but his angels are with us in this assembly this morning and observe our fellowship.
  • God keeps his promises. “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” [vv7-8]. God chose Abraham – he found Abraham’s heart was faithful. Abraham wasn’t perfect – but he trusted God and God proved his trust in making promises to him 4,000 years ago that he is still keeping. Not only were they fulfilled as he gave them the land, but His descendants have kept their identity to this day and the promise that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in his descendants is being kept to this day as the gospel of Jesus Christ spreads further and further around the world every day. He is the Great Promise-Keeper. When the atheist King of Prussia Frederick the Great asked his chaplain to give him in one sentence the strongest evidence for Christianity, the chaplain replied, “The Jew, Sir.”
  • God is a God of love: The prayer then retells the story of the deliverance from Egypt the crossing of the Red Sea. God takes these undeserving slaves and makes them into a great nation, leading them, by the pillar of cloud and fire through the wilderness defeating their enemies of far greater power than they. Even though they were slaves with nothing, he gave them everything – what a picture of Christian salvation – or do you think God owes you a living? Undeserved mercy to an undeserving people because of a promise made centuries earlier to Abraham.
  • He is a God who shows his mercy. 16 “But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. 17 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 in their rebellion, God showed his merciful character to his people. This is the main characteristic of God which we embrace most freely because we too know we doomed unless God comes to rescue us and forgive us.

Based on this knowledge of God and of his character, the leaders of the people make an appeal to God in this prayer for help in their situation in v32. 32 “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. Israel knows they have failed even in the return from exile. They cast themselves on God that he would deliver them from the lack of spiritual zeal and from economic hardship caused by Persian rule.

They had confidence that God would help them because he’s a Promise-Keeper. They knew their God. But if we come to the end of Neh – God keeping his promises was not what they had in mind – Israel never really became free of foreign powers until 1948. But they maintained their identity and they remained in the land and struggled on – so when the great promise of Christ came Israel had a clear identity.

They signed a covenant to keep God’s commands – but it was a covenant written on paper – what they needed was a covenant written on their hearts. Because Nehemiah doesn’t end well. The last chapter 13 is a terrific anticlimax. 15 years later Nehemiah is running around hitting people and pulling their hair because they were lapsing back into their old ways. He found people were trading on the Sabbath with their stalls leaning against the very walls he had built.

33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

This was part of Jesus’ frustration with Nicodemus in Jn 3. “Are you a teacher in Israel and you don’t know these things” when Jesus was talking about the new birth. Nicodemus should have known – Ez 36-37 a time was coming when the wind would blow on the valley of dry bones. But Nicodemus thought that all was needed was more minute law keeping to somehow twist God’s arm into blessing.

The Holy Spirit didn’t fill the replacement temple when it was dedicated because the Lord Jesus Christ is the true king of Israel and the current king was the king of Persia and humanly-speaking there wasn’t much the Jews could do about it. God’s Spirit could not be in the Jerusalem temple unless He is King of Israel as well. But they prayed for deliverance from a foreign power at the Feast of Tabernacles in Nehemiah 9, a Jewish feast we associate with the return of Christ. The first answer came when King Jesus walked into the Temple at the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7 promising Living Water but he had to leave the temple when the priests rejected him and indeed tried to arrest him. The Jewish authorities didn’t recognise the answer when he came.

In the new covenant when we confess our sins and believe in God’s promises about Christ the Spirit comes. I don’t think that October afternoon prayer for deliverance was answered until the Day of Pentecost – and the authorities didn’t recognise the answer when it came.

III         What can we learn from these events in Jerusalem?

I hope you want spiritual renewal. I do. I want our churches in NZ to prosper and grow and multiply, not through transfers from one evangelical church to another, but to grow through the multiplication of conversion by new birth and new transformed lives.

How do we find that renewal? Well, we cannot manipulate God into blessing us. But from what we have looked at today, I believe that spiritual renewal is, of course, the work of the Holy Spirit, who works through the Word of God, worship, confession, and primarily prayer. We aren’t going to see true renewal without those things. Building projects and ever more elaborate and music aren’t going to cut it.

Notice that in Nehemiah 9 there was no mention of sacrifices, no pointing of the finger with spiritual pride or self-righteousness – just changed hearts in response to the promises of the Word of God. Mere reading of the Word of God is not enough – there has to be a response, an encounter with God, accompanied by a very realistic recognition of who God is and what he has done for us in Christ. The East African revivals occurred as African Christians gained a greater understanding of the simple gospel itself. That they can have confidence that all their sins ARE forgiven.

A fresh casting of themselves on the mercies of the merciful God – seeing our church and ourselves how God really sees us. No more pretend agreements no more game-playing with God.

All spiritual renewal is accompanied by a concern for the lost. One of the side effects of spiritual renewal is greater commitment to world evangelisation and world missions. Every major revival in history has triggered an explosion in missions activity. Possibly the greatest has been the most invisible because it’s not happening here, which is the revivals in Korea and China which have triggered a rush of missions activity from those countries into Asia.

As deputy principal of a missionary training college I can tell that the church in of NZ is in a bad shape because the flow of NZ students for missions training has nearly stopped.

Back to Nehemiah 9 … those who prayed at Jerusalem that October afternoon prayed with confidence in the loving merciful faithfulness of God. I have never been to a Promise Keepers men’s conference. But I do know there is one Promise Keeper who will never fail, THE Promise Keeper. And I rejoice in his promises.

My personal favourite is: “I will never fail you nor forsake you,” which for some reason I have buzzing around my head all the time. It sounds as though it should be found in John’s Gospel but in fact, it comes from the end of the Letter to the Hebrews. One of the themes of that letter is the utter reliability of God’s promises in Christ.

I have been at the college for 20 years and during that time we have seen nearly 400 students graduate of whom over 250 have been or still are working in 44 different countries around the world. Every one of those missionaries is going out on the promises of the Promise-Keeping God. It is exciting to see the faithfulness of God as these missionaries are provided for and protected and used by God – as they have stood on his promises.

I thought that this morning I would conclude with some of God’s promises which might be a fresh blessing for you in our current lives –

James 1:15 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 

Mark 11:24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 

Romans 9:10 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  

John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life

1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 

John 8:36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 

Isaiah 41:10 So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.