"Community Of Confession"
Lesson Text: Nehemiah 9:2, 6, 7, 9, 10, 30-36
Background Scripture: Nehemiah 9:1-37
Devotional Reading: Luke 15:1-10
Nehemiah 9:2, 6, 7, 9, 10, 30-36 (KJV)
2 And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.
6 Thou, even thou, art Lord alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee.
7 Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees, and gavest him the name of Abraham.
9 And didst see the affliction of our fathers in Egypt, and heardest their cry by the Red sea;
10 And shewedst signs and wonders upon Pharaoh, and on all his servants, and on all the people of his land: for thou knewest that they dealt proudly against them. So didst thou get thee a name, as it is this day.
30 Yet many years didst thou forbear them, and testifiedst against them by thy spirit in thy prophets: yet would they not give ear: therefore gavest thou them into the hand of the people of the lands.
31 Nevertheless for thy great mercies’ sake thou didst not utterly consume them, nor forsake them; for thou art a gracious and merciful God.
32 Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who keepest covenant and mercy, let not all the trouble seem little before thee, that hath come upon us, on our kings, on our princes, and on our priests, and on our prophets, and on our fathers, and on all thy people, since the time of the kings of Assyria unto this day.
33 Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly:
34 Neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, nor our fathers, kept thy law, nor hearkened unto thy commandments and thy testimonies, wherewith thou didst testify against them.
35 For they have not served thee in their kingdom, and in thy great goodness that thou gavest them, and in the large and fat land which thou gavest before them, neither turned they from their wicked works.
36 Behold, we are servants this day, and for the land that thou gavest unto our fathers to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof, behold, we are servants in it.
To learn that confession of sins brings about forgiveness.
To acknowledge the faithfulness and sovereign power of God.
To live a life full of praise and worship.
Time: 445 B.C.
When I was about 14 years old, I did something that I knew my parents would not approve: I straddled the front fender of a car (when cars had conspicuously rounded fenders) while holding a rifle to shoot rabbits. I did this at night, when the rabbits would be paralyzed by the car’s headlights. I must confess, even now, that I lied to my parents when confronted about it. Eventually, however, my conscience got the better of me, and I confessed.
My parents were more aggravated by my lie than by my poor judgment. Certainly, my actions had been dangerous to all the nonthinking teenagers connected with this incident, but perhaps the worst thing I did was to protect myself by lying.
When I did confess, I felt a huge burden lifted, and I was ready for any punishment. My parents grounded me for a year—yes, a whole year. They said it took that long for them to regain trust in me. After that experience I realized that the best way to live life before God is always to tell the truth, confess sins often, repent sincerely, and seek forgiveness before going forward.
The Word of God is filled with examples of sinful people confessing sins, repenting, and receiving forgiveness by a loving and gracious God. We will see one such example in today’s lesson.
Last week’s lesson considered events that concluded with the weeklong observance of the Feast of Tabernacles in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. Today’s text takes us to “the twenty and fourth day” of that same month (Nehemiah 9:1); thus our Lesson Background is the same as that of last week’s lesson.
Since the actions of today’s lesson text follow so closely from those of last week’s, we can see both as parts of a covenant renewal ceremony. This included historical reviews of the covenant relationship that highlighted the people’s failures. There are many parallels to be drawn with the covenant renewal treaty of Moses in Deuteronomy 1–4. In addition to that example, the act of confession of sin by selectively rehearsing the history of God’s people is found in Ezra 9; Psalms 78, 106; Daniel 9; and Acts 7, among others.
Confessing Sin (Nehemiah 9:2)
1. How did the Israelites continue their worship after the end of the Feast of Tabernacles (last week’s lesson)? (See Nehemiah 9:1, 2)
Nehemiah 9:1 tells us that the event of today’s lesson occurs on the “twenty and fourth day” of that same month (Nehemiah 9:1), when the people gather to fast, put on sackcloth, and sprinkle “earth upon them.” These are ancient practices of grief and contrition. We see fasting in this regard in 2 Samuel 1:12; Joel 2:12; etc. Donning sackcloth is connected with mourning in Genesis 37:34; 2 Samuel 3:31; etc. The sprinkling of dirt or ashes in such a context is seen in Jeremiah 6:26. Seeing all three together, then, is a powerful indicator of the serious nature of the occasion (compare Esther 4:3; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:5, 6).
An important preparatory step for what is about to happen is the Israelites’ decision to separate themselves from those not of Israelite descent (strangers). The text does not tell us the extent of this separation. It can be as weighty as divorcing foreign wives (compare Ezra 9:1, 2; 10:3, 17) or as simple as physical distancing from the non-Israelites who are living in the land (2 Kings 17:24, 34; Ezra 4:1-3). In any case, only the seed of Israel can renew or reaffirm Israel’s covenant with God!
Just as the people had stood to hear the law read a few days earlier (Nehemiah 8:5), so now they stand to confess their sins. Not only do the people confess their personal sins, they also identify themselves with the sins of their ancestors as Daniel does in Daniel 9. All Israelites share in the iniquities of their fathers. This outlook can be defined as “corporate” rather than “individualistic.”
Nehemiah 9:3 (not in today’s text) tells us that the people spend “one fourth part of the day” listening to the law being read and another fourth part confessing sins and worshipping. This is not silent meditation, since the people are led by several named Levites who set the example with loud voices (vs. 4, 5). The people are serious!
What Do You Think?
Should churches implement a time in the worship service for public confession of sins? Why, or why not?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
1 Samuel 7:5, 6; Acts 19:17-20; Other
Acknowledging God (Nehemiah 9:6, 7)
2. How did the Israelites acknowledge the attributes of God as Creator (Nehemiah 9:6)?
God's greatness is seen in the fact that He is God alone (Neh. 9:6a). The Hebrew creed is found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord.” This short phrase has many implications, the most important being that Israel acknowledges Yahweh to be the only God. The power to create belongs only to Him.
The nation of Israel was surrounded by idolatry and the degrading lifestyle that was associated with pagan worship. In his reading and explaining of the Law, Ezra had certainly emphasized the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17; Deut. 5:6-21), including the first two commandments that declare the uniqueness of God and the wickedness of idolatry. Even today, faithful Jews still recite "The Shema" (6:4-6) as their declaration of faith in the one and only true God.
The Hebrew behind “with all their host” (Neh. 9:6b) matches exactly that in Genesis 2:1 and Psalm 33:6, both translated “and all the host of them.” This refers to the stars.
A third evidence of God's greatness is the fact that He created the universe (Neh. 9:6c). "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Gen. 1:1) is a statement that can be applied only to Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Whenever God wanted to encourage His people, He would point to creation around them and remind them that He had made it all (Isa. 40). He used the same approach to remind them of the foolishness of worshiping idols (Isa. 41). To know that our Father in heaven is the Creator of all things is a great source of strength and peace.
God's greatness is also seen in the fact of His providential care for His creation (Neh. 9:6c). He did not simply make everything and then abandon it to its own course. He is involved in the affairs of His creation: He sees when a sparrow falls (Matt. 10:29), and He hears when a raven cries out for food (Ps. 147:9). He has the stars all counted and named (v. 4), and He has even numbered the hairs on your head (Luke 12:7). “Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing” (Ps. 145:16).
Finally, God's greatness is seen in the fact that the hosts of heaven worship Him (Neh. 9:6d). You and I can't duplicate the mighty works of the angels, but we can imitate their devotion to the Lord as they worship before His throne. And we have more cause to praise Him than they do! We have been saved by the grace of God and shall one day be like the Lord Jesus Christ. We are not just servants; we are children of God (1 John 3:1-3) and will dwell with Him forever!
In our worship, it's wise to begin with the greatness of God. If we focus too much on what He gives or what we want Him to do, we may find our hearts becoming selfish. Sincere worship honors God in spite of circumstances or feelings or desires.
What Do You Think?
What improvements can churches make in worshipping God intentionally as Creator?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Job 9:8, 9; Psalm 95:6; 121:1, 2; 134; Jeremiah 10:11-16; Revelation 14:7
3. What events surrounded the calling of Abraham? How was God’s grace evident in his life (Nehemiah 9:7)?
Genesis 12:1-3 is a key text in the Bible. There we see God calling Abram to leave his country, people, and father’s family to go to a promised land. It was an act of pure grace when God chose Abram and revealed Himself to him, for Abram came from a family of idol worshippers in a pagan city (Josh. 24:2-3). The call is first pronounced in Ur of the Chaldees (see Genesis 15:7; compare Acts 7:4). Promises are made: (1) Abram will become a great nation; (2) God will bless him; and (3) Abram’s name will become great.
Eventually, God changed his name from Abram ("exalted father") to Abraham ("father of a multitude"), because He had promised to make him a great nation (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:1-8). Though Abraham had occasional lapses of faith, for a century he trusted the Lord and walked in obedience to His will. His obedient faith was made especially evident when he gave his son Isaac on the altar (Gen. 22; Heb. 11:17-19).
God's covenant (Gen. 12:1-3) was the basis for all that God did with and for Abraham and his descendants. It was God's purpose that all the world be blessed through Israel, and He did this in the sending of His Son, Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:8). God gave the land to Abraham and his descendants, even though during his lifetime Abraham owned nothing in the land but a cave for burying his dead (Gen. 23).
What Do You Think?
What changes should be apparent in our lives as our designation changes from Lost to Saved?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Changed attitudes | Changed behavior | Changed speech
Recalling Redemption (Nehemiah 9:9, 10)
4. How did God make a name for Himself during the days when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt (Nehemiah 9:9, 10)?
The Jewish assembly next recited God’s mighty works of the Exodus. The Lord heeded the anguish of their ancestors in Egypt and at the Red Sea when escape seemed hopeless (Neh. 9:9). God performed awesome acts of power against Egypt’s ruler, his officials, and all the inhabitants of the nation. The Lord did so, for He knew how insolently the Egyptians had acted against the ancestors of the Jews. The phrase “signs and wonders” surely refers to the plagues on Egypt (Exodus 7:14–11:10). By means of these 10 plagues, God earned a lingering reputation among the nations (v. 10). Then the Lord opened the barrier of the sea to save Israel and swallow the pursuing Egyptians (v. 11, not in today’s text).
The fame of God’s power and name spread far ahead of the Israelites as they trekked toward the promised land (Joshua 2:8-11). The name of God is forever linked to the exodus events.
Admitting Truth (Nehemiah 9:30-36)
5. How did the Israelites describe God’s faithfulness to His people in spite of their unfaithfulness to Him (Nehemiah 9:30, 31)?
God’s forbearance of Israelite disobedience has been remarkable. God’s divine patience is best illustrated by His sending of many prophets to warn the people before judgment would come upon them. The stories of these servants of God are scattered throughout the period of the kings, from the unified kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon (1050–931B.C.) to that of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
Yet the people did not listen. As a result, the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. (2 Kings 17), and the southern kingdom of Judah was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Only by God’s patience did the kingdoms of Israel and Judah last as long as they did!
In Nehemiah 9:31 we see that God has “great” mercies (plural in Hebrew), so that His people still survive even if only as a remnant (Isaiah 10:20-23). The fact that a remnant is allowed to return from exile reveals God’s graciousness. The temple has been rebuilt (515 B.C.), the walls repaired (445 B.C.), and God’s people are allowed to seek covenant renewal—a renewed commitment to God’s law. No wonder God is described as a gracious and merciful God!
God was good to His people when His people were not good to Him. He could have destroyed the nation and started over again (see Ex. 32:10 and Num. 14:11-12), but He graciously spared them. In His mercy, God didn't give them what they deserved; and in His grace, He gave them what they didn't deserve.
What Do You Think?
Other than salvation itself, in what ways have you experienced God’s grace and mercy?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
In overcoming Satan’s attacks | In times of financial difficulties | In moments of doubt
In seasons of conflict | Other
6. How did the Israelites honor God in their request for forgiveness for their past sins (Nehemiah 9:32)?
Here begins the formal request for forgiveness while the sins of the people and their ancestors are confessed. God is once again addressed in majestic language. The word “terrible” has the sense of “inspiring terror”; God is to be feared. The fact that God keepest covenant and mercy refers to God’s promise to Abraham, which God keeps intact by His own covenant loyalty. In spite of the unfaithfulness of the Israelites throughout their history as a people, God has always been faithful to His side of the covenant. (See the similar beginning of the prayer in Nehemiah 1:5.)
The hardships that came upon the Israelites during the time of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah (931–586 B.C.) continue to haunt the remnant that has returned from Babylonian exile. The time of the kings of Assyria include the aggressions of at least six Assyrian leaders between 745 and 663 B.C. (see 2 Kings 18:9, 13; 1 Chronicles 5:26; Isaiah 20:1; and Ezra 4:2, 10).
Even after the days of those kings pass, foreign powers—namely, Babylon and Persia—continue to rule over God’s people. Persian overlords are exacting heavy taxation (Nehemiah 9:37). Having the temple rebuilt and the walls of Jerusalem repaired do not reduce such hardships.
7. How did the Israelites confess their sins, and to what extent (Nehemiah 9:33-35)?
If God’s people are to confess properly and adequately, they must confess that God is in the right and they themselves are in the wrong. The assembly of Jews did indeed confess that whenever the Lord punished His people, He remained righteous. He had “done right” by them (Neh. 9:33). In contrast, the ancestors of the returnees were guilty of acting wickedly. Political leaders, spiritual authorities, and tribal heads all had strayed from the Mosaic law and ignored every prophetic warning to repent (v. 34). Even when it had become a prosperous, independent nation, the covenant community refused to serve the Lord. Moreover, despite the fact that in His “great goodness” (v. 35), He blessed His chosen people with a “large and fat land,” they refused to turn from their wicked practices.
8. What were the consequences and status of the Israelites at this present time (Nehemiah 9:36)?
Even though a remnant has returned from exile, the people are still subject to the Persian king. They are, in effect, slaves in their own land. What the people need is a clean slate of forgiveness and rededication to the covenant. That’s something we all need at some point!
The Levites had acknowledged God's greatness and goodness; and now, on the basis of His grace, they asked Him for a new beginning for the nation. They couldn't change the servitude they were in, but they could surrender themselves to a greater Master and seek His help. No matter who exercises dominion over us, if we are yielded to the Lord, we are free in Him (1 Cor. 7:22; Eph. 6:5-9), If God had been merciful to Israel in the past, forgiving their sins when they cried out to Him, would He not be merciful to them now?
Throughout the history of Israel, there was always a remnant of faithful people who trusted God, obeyed His will, and prayed for God to fulfill His promises (1 Kings 19:18; Isa. 1:9; Luke 2:38). This believing remnant was God's “lifeline” to maintain the ministry of Israel in the world. They kept the light of faith and hope burning in the land; and because of them, God was able to fulfill His promise and bring the Savior into the world. The Jews in Jerusalem in Nehemiah's day were a part of that remnant, and God heard their prayers!
POINTS TO PONDER
1. Cleansing of sins begins with confession of sins (Nehemiah 9:2).
2. God is in control of all things, and deserves the credit for your blessings! (Nehemiah 9:6, 7, 9, 10).
3. God’s grace is sufficient for your life. Are you trusting in Him, or in yourself? (Nehemiah 9:30, 31).
4. Acknowledge your past sins to God, don’t live in them! (Nehemiah 9:32-35).
5. Sometimes we must willingly accept considerable hardship before things become better, or before we can make things right (Nehemiah 9:36).
Confession, repentance, and restoration-these are the sorts of steps to getting back on course spiritually when we sin. No one is exempt, for everyone has sinned. Perhaps it has not been openly or flagrantly, but we have all broken God’s laws and have fallen far short of His glory (see Rom. 3:23). That’s why from time to time we need to take a step back and reevalute our relationship with God. We also need courageous spiritual leaders who are willing to identify with sinful people. The Holy Spirit honors these leaders especially when they confront people with the requirements of God’s holiness.
Father, we confess our sins, knowing that both our deeds and our thoughts have not been what You want. As a church, at times we are not the witness to our Lord Jesus that we should be. Forgive us and renew us in the power of Your Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ name, amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
Second chances come after confession.