Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Truths from Nehemiah

I have been reading through the Old Testament in chronological order for about a year and a half now. I am consistently and constantly amazed at what God shows me - not because it's particularly surprising, but because I am always amazed by the fact that He has chosen to reveal Himself to us so fully, so deeply, so intimately.

This past week, I have been working my way through Nehemiah, and I am in awe of some of the things that pop up in the book. A few examples:
  • The commonly referenced phrase, "The joy of the Lord is your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10) originates in this book and occurs nowhere else in all of Scripture. What's really interesting about this is that it's an exhortation not to be grieved any longer over the past or to let conviction weigh down their hearts too heavily. The people were weeping after hearing the Law read, with its commands they had forsaken and its prophecies of judgment on Israel fulfilled in these people's immediate history - and Nehemiah encouraged them by saying, "Go your way. Eat the fat, and drink sweet wine, and give portions to anyone who has nothing pnepared, for this is a holy day before our God. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!"

    That's an incredible thing: that when we are crushed (and rightly so) under conviction from Him, it is His gift of joy that gives us strength - and joy comes with the morning, a fruit (a gift!) of the Spirit.

  • Nehemiah is one of the ten or so places in Scripture to quote the first thing God said to Moses on Sinai when giving him the law: "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness..." (Exodus 64:6, Nehemiah 9:17).

  • In Nehemiah 9 we have one of the briefest but most thorough summaries of pre-exilic Jewish history anywhere in Scripture - and almost every single verb referring to an active action rather than a response has as its subject God and its object His people: God accomplished the great things in Israel's history, and that is rarely made more clear than in this chapter.

  • Prayer is fundamental to the life of the one who would follow God. Over and over again in this book, something negative happens, and - whether it be bad news or outright threats against Jerusalem - Nehemiah's first response is always to pray. He takes what we might call "practical" steps - but only after he takes the most practical step and prays. Moreover, his prayers reflect a deep knowledge of God: he knows what God is capable of and calls on Him to do a great deal. When Nehemiah does take those "practical" steps, he is always aware that their success or failure depends entirely on God, and not on his own wisdom - and he makes sure the people know it, too.

  • The people have an incredibly high regard for the word. When, in Nehemiah 8, Ezra stands and reads the law for the first time, the people stand for the entire morning while it is being read and explained to them. And they stood and listened to the Scriptures being read in Hebrew - a language they neither spoke nor understood - and then translated into Aramaic, paragraph by paragraph. Then their leaders came back the next day and asked for detailed explanation - and then immediately put into practice what they heard.

    Later, the people set aside another day in which they spent a quarter of the day listening to the Scripture, and a quarter of the day confessing their sins and worshiping God. These people knew the importance of what they were hearing - not least because they heard prophesy of Moses predicting exactly what had ultimately happened to them in their exile.

  • There is a very pressing awareness of the goodness and faithfulness of God throughout the entire book. It is summed up in many ways by that reference back to Exodus: He is merciful and gracious; He is not quick to anger, but He is overflowing with love and with faithfulness. And the awareness of all of this permeates the text because it permeated the lives of those who fill the book: they saw God's faithfulness, because it was that alone that had returned them to Jerusalem and Judea, and kept them alive and their efforts progressing despite all the opposition of men. They knew without any question that God was faithful, loving, merciful, and just - and the more so when they realized that His salvation was in spite of and not because of them.

If you've never taken the time to really study through the Old Testament, I cannot encourage it enough. Even if it's just been a while since you've gone through the historical books, go back and do it! There are riches of the character of God here that you will never find anywhere else in Scripture; that's why these books are here - and God longs, as He always has, to reveal Himself to you.

Grace and peace be with you.

- Chris

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