A Culture Facing Judgment
A Study of Nehemiah
Dr. Jim Denison
So far we have learned to recognize God’s holiness (v. 5), to pray with humility (v. 6a), and to confess our sin with honesty (vs. 6b-7). Now we discover the urgency of such prayer commitment: The future of the nation is in jeopardy. If God does not forgive the sins of the people, their intermarriage and immorality, they will be no more. We’ll see how Nehemiah’s prayer relates to our culture, and what God wants us to do in response.
Admit your need of grace (v. 8)
Nehemiah’s prayer continues: “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations'” (v. 8).
“Remember” does not mean that Nehemiah was reminded God of something the Lord might have forgotten. The Hebrew word in this context means to act in accordance with something previously determined and communicated. We say “Remember the Alamo” not in the sense of holding information in our memories but as a motivation to action.
Nehemiah begins his recitation of God’s previous revelation with the negative: “The instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations.'”
Nehemiah was well versed in the Hebrew Bible. Here he referenced Leviticus 26:27-28, 33: “If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. . . . I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins.”
And again in Deuteronomy: “After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time—if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God and provoking him to anger, I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you this day that you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will not live there long but will certainly be destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the Lord will drive you. There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell” (Deuteronomy 4:25-28).
The people had been unfaithful to God. They had worshipped the Baals and sacrificed their children to Molech, so the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom and Babylon enslaved the Southern Kingdom. Now the people had intermarried and committed all sorts of pagan immorality. Their plight was their own fault.
How do we know when we are facing the judgment and punishment of God? We know that God punishes sin, as Hebrew history illustrates. Did he cause 9-11 to punish America or the Holocaust to punish the Jewish people? Two facts may be helpful.
First, not all suffering is due to sin: the man born blind, ( John 9); Jesus’ innocent suffering (Hebrews 4:15). Paul suffered in the Mamertime dungeon for preaching the gospel, in response to his faithfulness to the call of God.
Second, when God punishes, first he warns: Noah (100 years), Moses before Pharaoh, the prophets before Assyria and Babylon, Jesus before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Any good parent warns before punishing.
If you wonder whether your suffering is your fault, you may ask God. Write on a piece of paper anything which is hindering the Spirit in your life. If you’re not sure, ask him and he’ll show you. Confess these sins specifically to God, and claim his cleansing. Cleanse your spirit and you will know the power of the Spirit.
Claim the grace of God (v. 9)
We’ve seen the bad news. Here is the good: “…but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name” (v. 9).
As with their punishment, so Nehemiah cited Scripture to claim their hope: “But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him. For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath” (Deuteronomy 4:29-31).
“When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers” (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).
God had centuries earlier designated Jerusalem as “the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name”: “I have chosen Jerusalem for my Name to be there, and I have chosen David to rule my people Israel” (2 Chronicles 6:6). Now Nehemiah claimed this promise as God’s grace to his people.