Roll Call

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Be ready for His call. Listen for His call. And volunteer to follow His call.

Sometimes a passage in Scripture can seem as interesting as watching grass grow or paint dry. Let’s be honest, sometimes what is in the Bible – what God considers important – is a bit confusing and, on the surface, seems a tad on the boring side. This is especially true when it comes to genealogies and lists in general. I don’t know about you but I find myself sometimes asking God why He puts this stuff in the Bible. Sometimes I miss the blessing that is there because I see only with my physical eyes.

Today’s passage in Nehemiah is like that. Sort of. On the surface this passage seems as appetizing as a bowl of hot sand. But if we take a little time and exert some effort, we will soon see that it is as tasty as a filet Mignon. Or whatever food you’d like to put in there. Let’s take a bite out of God’s word and see that it is indeed good.

Nehemiah and the people he has led, have rebuilt Jerusalem. They have achieved their goal of once-again fortifying their city. Jerusalem – and her inhabitants – were once again a nation. But there was only one issue left. No one inhabited the rebuilt city! Before Nehemiah Jerusalem was a city without walls. Now, after rebuilding was completed, Jerusalem was a city without a population. Here in Nehemiah 11 we see Nehemiah’s efforts to repopulate Jerusalem.

 

The Voluntary Draft

Voluntary draft? Don’t those terms contradict themselves? Well, kind of. There are a lot of these types of contradictory terms around. Grammarians call these things oxymorons. A few examples would be military intelligence, congressional ethics and so on. I bet you can think of a few too. But I think the terms voluntary draft fit what is going to happen here in Nehemiah. Nehemiah held a voluntary draft to repopulate the City.

Now the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem, but the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while nine-tenths remained in the other cities.  And the people blessed all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem. Now these are the heads of the provinces who lived in Jerusalem, but in the cities of Judah each lived on his own property in their cities—the Israelites, the priests, the Levites, the temple servants and the descendants of Solomon’s servants. Some of the sons of Judah and some of the sons of Benjamin lived in Jerusalem Nehemiah 11:1-4a NASB

Think of the beautiful city of Jerusalem Newly minted, wonderfully protected and sitting high over the land of Israel. It is the capital of the nation but it has no people. Imagine how quite it was. How can one have a capital city that is uninhabited? That isn’t really possible. Nehemiah could have simply issued an order to populate the city. He was the governor and leader. I know that is how it would have worked in the Marine Corps. A group of us would have been voluntold to populate it and we would have dutifully moved in. But Nehemiah is going to take a different approach.

Nehemiah traveled through the towns where the people were located and cast lots to see who was called to live in Jerusalem. He would have expected that person and family to move in. But what is interesting is the use of the word volunteer in this section. Evidently the people could decline the invitation from God to move to Jerusalem. If someone declined, the lot was cast again and the process continued until a willing heart was found.

Many were called but only a relative few were willing. And those who were willing were blessed by the people for volunteering for this mission.

There are those reading this who have been called to a task by God. But you are either unwilling or still considering answering that call. I know what it is like to be faced with a decision like this. But let me tell you from experience that answering God’s call and volunteering to follow Him is a decision you won’t regret. It will be difficult in times like ours. But the reward – while not necessarily experienced here and now – is great. How are you doing choosing to follow God’s call on your life? Are you struggling with that decision?

Nehemiah’s List

Athaiah the son of Uzziah, the son of Zechariah, the son of Amariah, the son of Shephatiah, the son of Mahalalel, of the sons of Perez; and Maaseiah the son of Baruch, the son of Col-hozeh, the son of Hazaiah, the son of Adaiah, the son of Joiarib, the son of Zechariah, the son of the Shilonite. All the sons of Perez who lived in Jerusalem were 468 able men.

Now these are the sons of Benjamin: Sallu the son of Meshullam, the son of Joed, the son of Pedaiah, the son of Kolaiah, the son of Maaseiah, the son of Ithiel, the son of Jeshaiah; and after him Gabbai and Sallai, 928. Joel the son of Zichri was their overseer, and Judah the son of Hassenuah was second in command of the city. Nehemiah 11:4b-9 NASB

Beginning with the second part of v. 4 we will go through a series of lists that seem to have little application to us today. But let’s keep our eyes opened to what God is saying through these verses, OK?

The first set of names focus on two very important groups: the tribe of Judah and the tribe of Benjamin. These tribes made up the southern kingdom of Judah. There are 468 from Judah and 928 from the tribe of Benjamin. Why are these interesting? I’m glad you asked!

Let’s take a look at the descendants of Perez. These make up a portion of the men labeled “468 able bodied men”. Now Perez had an interesting beginning. In Genesis 38 the tale of his conception through birth is told. Remember that his father Judah conceived Perez with his (Judah’s) own daughter-in-law. So Perez would be considered an illegitimate son. In fact there were twins in this birth. The first child began to emerge so the midwife tied a thread around that child’s finger to document which came first. But that arm went back in and the other child, named Perez, came out first! This is why this baby was named Perez. The meaning of the name Perez is roughly breaking out. And breaking out he did! Even though Perez had a rather difficult beginning and was regarded as illegitimate, he became one of the greatest heroes of Judah. He was so much so a hero that he was still being talked about 400 years after Judah lived. Another interesting fact is that his descendants are called the brave men of Perez.

Let’s move on to Benjamin. This tribe volunteered more than twice the number of Perez despite being a smaller tribe. Once again the history here is quite interesting. In the Book of Judges the sordid background of Benjamin is given. To make a long story short, in the last few chapters Benjamin’s devolution into a people who practiced sexual sin culminating in the practice of homosexuality. This was seen as a stain on the nation since homosexuality was thoroughly condemned by God. But here was a tribe that was openly practicing it.

Two very important men came from this tribe. The first one was named Saul. He was the first King of Israel. He started out well but jealousy and self-centeredness reduced him to an utter failure. He had forty years of reigning over Israel as a bitter, angry man. Saul was in full rebellion against God. Saul finally kills himself on the battlefield and ends his time as king.

Another person followed almost exactly an opposite path as Saul. That person’s name was Saul! Now Saul number two began his life as a man dedicated to God’s word, slid into intolerance of God’s Messiah and the Messiah’s called out ones, persecuted them, murdered them and finally came to be one with them. Do you know about whom I speak? Yep, that Saul. He wrote a lot of the New Testament. We know him as Paul. He was from the tribe of Benjamin. Amazing.

These two men so important in God’s story had such ordinary beginnings and such a tortured tribal history. But here they are. Can you see what God is teaching? Regardless of your beginning or your family history, God isn’t finished writing your story yet. He is going to use you for His glory.

Be ready to hear His call on your life. That means that you are growing steadily toward Christlikeness, holy living and faithful dependence on Him. Be ready when He calls to volunteer to follow Him. Following God’s call on your life is not necessarily an easy thing to do. Sometimes the call can lead to heartbreak. I know all too well about that. But that heartbreak is not the end or even the purpose of His call. God is about bringing glory to Himself. He uses us in specific situations to do just that.

SO whenever you are called into a situation that seems difficult or daunting, remember that it is for God’s glory and not your comfort that He calls you.

Be ready for His call. Listen for His call. And volunteer to follow His call.

To God be the glory.

Amen.

 

A Six Pack of Promises

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If we place God first in our romantic life, financial life, and spiritual life, we will reap rewards that are enormously more that what we could ever imagine.

I remember when I was growing up that I wanted to have what is termed “six pack abs”. Do you know what I mean? That term refers to one’s ab muscles being so well developed that they look similar to six individual muscle groups – a six pack if you will. Well needless to say, I’ve never quite developed those abs. I have 2 liter abs right now. My abs look like a couple of liters of soda rather than anything that resembles a six pack. But oh well.

We continue in chapter ten experiencing a number of promises the nation made to God. Now remember that they have committed in writing to these promises. Actually, they committed to keep these promises to God. And boy are they serious. These folks have had enough of wishy-washy thinking. They not only said they would keep the Law in general terms but now they are spelling out exactly what they mean. And these terms are specific. These promises, unlike my abs, were well developed and stood out from their previous behavior. These promises would definitely qualify as a six pack…a six pack of promises to God! (All verses are taken from the New American Standard Bible)

 

Promise to be Pure

and that we will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons.

Now on the surface this looks kind of odd. And I guess it really is. In the Law, Israel was forbidden to intermarry with any of the nations, regardless of the physical beauty of their people or the standing in society. This was done to keep the nation’s blood pure and dedicated to the Lord. Here the nation recommits to keep that alive. They are refusing to allow daughters or sons to be given to (or take) a husband or wife from any of the nations around them. This was a heavy promise to make. There was a limited number of brides available in the nation. But these folks decided their promise to marital purity was more important than convenience.

Promise to Keep the Sabbath Holy

As for the peoples of the land who bring wares or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the sabbath or a holy day; and we will forego the crops the seventh year and the exaction of every debt.

Every seventh day, the nation was supposed to cease from labor and take a day off. They weren’t supposed to work at all but take time from their labor. Likewise, every seventh year they were supposed to allow the land to take a rest from it’s labor of producing crops. So the people had to trust that the sixth year would yield enough food to last them for two years. They had to trust. They needed to have faith that God would meet their needs.

Evidently they had been neglecting these commands. They were not trusting, they were not believing that God would provide for them. But now, after God so magnificently provided all they needed to rebuild their wall and the Temple,  they made a promise to show the faith in God they should have been demonstrating all along.

Promise to Tithe

We also placed ourselves under obligation to contribute yearly one third of a shekel for the service of the house of our God: for the showbread, for the continual grain offering, for the continual burnt offering, the sabbaths, the new moon, for the appointed times, for the holy things and for the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and all the work of the house of our God. Likewise we cast lots for the supply of wood among the priests, the Levites and the people so that they might bring it to the house of our God, according to our fathers’ households, at fixed times annually, to burn on the altar of the Lord our God, as it is written in the law;

Now this is a big bite of verses to cover. But the gist of it is that they decided they wold renew their pledge to give as the Lord demanded, not how they felt like doing. Now look what they are promising to do. They promise to give for the showbread, the continual grain offering, the burnt offering and so on. They were pledging to take care of the Temple and the needs for the sacrifices that were deemed necessary. Now understand this; this promise wasn’t cheap. This was an expensive promise. I’m sure they intended to make good on it.

Now why do all this? They were obviously convicted about their past conduct. They knew that the Temple needed these things. Instead of withholding them or simply ignoring them, they decided to to explicitly state that they would fulfill the needs as required by the Law. These folks were serious, weren’t they.

 

Promise to Keep the Sacrifices

and that they might bring the first fruits of our ground and the first fruits of all the fruit of every tree to the house of the Lord annually, and bring to the house of our God the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, and the firstborn of our herds and our flocks as it is written in the law, for the priests who are ministering in the house of our God. We will also bring the first of our dough, our contributions, the fruit of every tree, the new wine and the oil to the priests at the chambers of the house of our God

Again, here is another very expensive promise. The nation is promising to bring the first of everything to the Temple. There are no leftovers here! They are bringing the first fruits of the field, their herds, their flocks and every bit of what they have. They are bringing the first of it all, not what is left over.

God is serious about being first in everything – and rightly so. The nation, in their rebellion, had decided to make Him somewhere down the list of priorities. He didn’t like that much…actually He didn’t like it at all. So the nation learned a hard lesson. And now they are pledging the first of everything. The best. The very best for God.

 

Promise to Provide

the tithe of our ground to the Levites, for the Levites are they who receive the tithes in all the rural towns. The priest, the son of Aaron, shall be with the Levites when the Levites receive tithes, and the Levites shall bring up the tenth of the tithes to the house of our God, to the chambers of the storehouse.For the sons of Israel and the sons of Levi shall bring the contribution of the grain, the new wine and the oil to the chambers; there are the utensils of the sanctuary, the priests who are ministering, the gatekeepers and the singers.

These promises have to do directly with the Levites. Now the Levites, in case you don’t know, were the priestly class of people. Their only job was to minister in the Temple. In fact they could not do anything else. The people of the nation were to provide for them. This didn’t always happen and the Levites were challenged to either starve or break the Law. Guess which one they did? But it should have never been that way. If the people had taken things seriously, the Levites would have always had their needs met. There would have been no conflict.

But the people didn’t always provide as they should. This caused a domino effect to happen. The nation’s adherence to the Law crumbled and so did the nation. Now  the people appear to be serious about providing for those who minister in the Temple of God.

Promise to be a Steward

Thus we will not neglect the house of our God.

This promise looks small in comparison tot he other ones made in this passage. Perhaps this is the biggest one. It is at least the one that encompasses all the others. The people simply stated “We aren’t going to ignore Your house anymore, God.” And by not ignoring His house, they pledge not to ignore Him. How refreshing that must have been for God to hear these words. His people have decided to return to Him.

They decided that He did know best. They decided that He is right – all the time. They decided that His way is the only way to live.

 

So what does this have to do with us, the Church? While we are definitely not under the Law, we can learn a few things about living for God instead of ourselves. When we place God first in our lives, all other things pale in comparison. Money, position, future wives or husbands don’t really matter. All that matters is our commitment to God. Oh sure other things still occur, but their relative importance is in proper perspective.

If we place God first in our romantic life, financial life, and spiritual life, we will reap rewards that are enormously more that what we could ever imagine.

How are you doing with this? Is God first and foremost in your life or is He somewhere else on your list of priorities? How is your commitment to supporting your Pastor? Helping at church? Are you willing to do some work around the building and give money so your Pastor can dedicate himself to studying and preaching the Word of God?

Company of the Committed

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Now, are we willing to take a stand against our checkered past for our future with Christ? Are we willing to stand up and say we have been unfaithful but we desire to be faithful?

I remember when I was taking one of my psychology classes in my undergraduate studies a particular statement by my professor. We were discussing why folks take very public stands on things. My professor remarked that when we vocalize what we believe internally, that act of public declaration makes backing off our private beliefs more difficult. It is a way that we make sure that we follow through with our beliefs. The same is true in this chapter of Nehemiah. The people, led by Nehemiah, are about to take a very public and very vocal stand on what they believe and what their actions will look like. These folks are serious about this change.

Now to observe this in context, we should remember chapter 9 verse 38:

Now because of all this we are making an agreement in writing; And on the sealed document are the names of our leaders, our Levites and our priests. Nehemiah 9:38 NASB

So we are introducing a covenant. The people that will be listed in chapter 10 will be those who have made a contract with God because of His everlasting faithfulness to them in spite of the ever present failures.

Writing it down

Now on the sealed document were the names of: Nehemiah the governor, the son of Hacaliah, and Zedekiah, Seraiah, Azariah, Jeremiah, Pashhur, Amariah, Malchijah, Hattush, Shebaniah, Malluch, Harim, Meremoth, Obadiah, Daniel, Ginnethon, Baruch, Meshullam, Abijah, Mijamin, Maaziah, Bilgai, Shemaiah. These were the priests. And the Levites: Jeshua the son of Azaniah, Binnui of the sons of Henadad, Kadmiel; also their brothers Shebaniah, Hodiah, Kelita, Pelaiah, Hanan, Mica, Rehob, Hashabiah, Zaccur, Sherebiah, Shebaniah, Hodiah, Bani, Beninu. The leaders of the people: Parosh, Pahath-moab, Elam, Zattu, Bani, Bunni, Azgad, Bebai, Adonijah, Bigvai, Adin, Ater, Hezekiah, Azzur, Hodiah, Hashum, Bezai, Hariph, Anathoth, Nebai, Magpiash, Meshullam, Hezir, Meshezabel, Zadok, Jaddua, Pelatiah, Hanan, Anaiah, Hoshea, Hananiah, Hasshub, Hallohesh, Pilha, Shobek, Rehum, Hashabnah, Maaseiah, Ahiah, Hanan, Anan, Malluch, Harim, Baanah. Now the rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants and all those who had separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the law of God, their wives, their sons and their daughters, all those who had knowledge and understanding, are joining with their kinsmen, their nobles, and are taking on themselves a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given through Moses, God’s servant, and to keep and to observe all the commandments of God our Lord, and His ordinances and His statutes;   Nehemiah 10:1-29 NASB

Whew! Now there were some names. I recognized a few of them by honestly most of them don’t mean much to me. They could have signed with an “X” and it would mean as much. Sort of. What does mean something is the cross section of the people we see here. Let’s start with v. 1. Who’s there? Nehemiah. The big cheese here. He signed the document. He took the pledge and the public stand. Now it would seem to me that if Nehemiah had led them this far, taking another public stand for what he has been advocating for so long would be unnecessary. So why did he do it?

Its called leadership. Nehemiah led not only with his words but with his actions.

He didn’t say “Now you all sign that you are committed to change. I’ve already shown my commitment. Now you show yours.” That would have incredibly insulting to the people. They had joined Nehemiah in risking their lives to rebuild the walls and now Nehemiah joined them in a very public way. So this list begins with the governor. Who else is here?

Well we have the Levites. These were the religious leaders. We also have the nobles and leaders. These were the upper crust of society.These folks were the ones who more than likely led the rebuilding of the wall. They got their hands dirty. They engages in manual labor. They risked everything to rebuild the walls. And now they are putting their names on the covenant making some important and serious commitments.

These folks weren’t just standing by and watching things happen…they were in the middle of them.

As we continue in chapter 10, we see others involved as well. We see the everyone else, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants and everyone who had decided to separate themselves. What stands out in this list to you to this point? Think about who is represented in signing this covenant for change.

We have the governor, the priests and the nobles listed. In terms of our society today, these first ones would be the white collar executive types who were first to sign. But we also have others – the gatekeepers, singers, temple servants –  to take this public stand. In essence the entire nation was taking a stand and signing this covenant. The entire nation. Every part, every social position. Big and small. Famous and not famous. They all took a very public stand in this covenant. This is an important point we can’t let escape us. The whole nation was on board with these changes. They effectively locked arms and said “We are in this together. Let’s not only keep ourselves accountable…let’s keep each other accountable.” This is a big deal.

All these folks took an oath to walk in God’s laws, keep His commandments and His ordinances and statutes. They were recommitting themselves to the Lord in a very public way.

One other thing I’d like to draw your attention to. This is the statement “a curse and an oath”. This is probably what is termed a hendiadys. What this phrase basically means is that that took an oath that came with penalties. Again, this shows the seriousness these folks had toward this commitment.

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When was the last time you took a public stand about changing your actions to be more Christlike? Are we even willing to do something like this today?I know, our society is different, the culture is different, blah, blah, blah. you know things really aren’t that different. We experience the same pressures as the people in Nehemiah’s day experienced. They’re different because of the changes in technology but they are really the same. We have idols competing for our time and loyalty. We have sin crouching at the door waiting to pounce. WE have temptations waiting to seduce us. We have our ride, our ego, position, power, etc. We’re really not all that different.

God has been just as faithful to us as He was to Israel. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we have been just as unfaithful to Him as Israel was to Him.

Now, are we willing to take a stand against our checkered past for our future with Christ? Are we willing to stand up and say we have been unfaithful but we desire to be faithful? Are we willing to write this down? Do it publicly? Perhaps this sounds weird, but I think we need to have a moment at some point where we do write down our commitment to God and pledge publicly to follow through. We need to write out what we pledge, sign our names on it, and display that so that we can be held accountable. Are you willing? How about me?

Let’s start our own Company of the Committed and commit ourselves anew to following Christ regardless of the cost.

 

Still Faithful

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God’s faithfulness is everlasting. There is no end to it. He may remove His protection from time-to-time so that we may be disciplined. But even in that act, He is faithful to us.

We come to the end of chapter nine…finally to the end of chapter nine! Have you felt like this was an unending journey? There have been times I thought that this chapter would never end. But like most things, it has an end. finding that end is a bit bittersweet though. I’m glad to be moving on but so humbled and challenged by what was here.

The ending to this chapter is as powerful – perhaps more powerful – than the rest of the chapter. Here we will see the consummation of the recounting of Israel’s up and down relationship with God. We will see the end result of that relationship. We will also see that, unlike this chapter and many other things in life, some things never end. We will discover the never-ending faithfulness of God remembered and praised.     

 

Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and lovingkindness, Do not let all the hardship seem insignificant before You, Which has come upon us, our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers and on all Your people, From the days of the kings of Assyria to this day. However, You are just in all that has come upon us; For You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly. For our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers have not kept Your law Or paid attention to Your commandments and Your admonitions with which You have admonished them. But they, in their own kingdom, With Your great goodness which You gave them, With the broad and rich land which You set before them, Did not serve You or turn from their evil deeds. Behold, we are slaves today, And as to the land which You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty, Behold, we are slaves in it. Its abundant produce is for the kings Whom You have set over us because of our sins; They also rule over our bodies And over our cattle as they please, So we are in great distress. Nehemiah 9:32-37 NASB

There is so much in this section of chapter nine I could write for a few more weeks. But I won’t. I promise. The richness that we have come accustomed to is prevalent here as well. Let’s take a look at some key words and key concepts written about in these first few verses.

The first thing I notice is how the people thought about God. Look at the words used to describe God:

He is Great

In the eyes of the people, God is great. The Hebrew word used, gadol, carries with it the idea of distinguished, great in magnitude or strength, and of God Himself. In other words, this is not considered faint praise. Imagine loud trumpets announcing a very important person arriving. Think of all the pomp and circumstance  associated with someone very important arriving. Now multiply that image a million times. Actually, multiply it by infinity. That is the idea of this word when used of God. He is so great He is beyond human comprehension. Wow.

He is Mighty

God is seen also as a mighty one. This word should make us think of a brave, strong warrior type. This is used to once again describe God in an interesting way. They thought of God as their protector – mighty and strong – able to defeat all who opposed. God was seen as so strong that the people realized that there were no accidents in their lives, only incidents. If God chose to prevent anything from happening to the people, He certainly could. The opposite is also true. If God lifted His protection, things could (and did) happen to Israel. So everything came from the hand of God.

He is Awesome

The word awesome is probably one of the most overused words in the English language. This word really packs a punch. We ought not use it so often that we cheapen or lose the meaning of it or how strong a word it is. This word has the meaning of striking fear, to honor, respect, to stand in awe. To call God awesome is to call Him worthy of awe, respect and honor. This is a powerful term that we overuse. While there are many wonderful things on this earth, very few (if any) are truly awesome. Truly, God really is the only One to Whom the word awesome should be applied

Now that we have set the stage regarding how God was viewed by the people, let’s take a look at how they reviewed their situation.

In this section the people plead with God to remember that the people’s troubles are not insignificant. Now what are those troubles? Captivity of course. Even though they have rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, have re-instituted the Law and sought forgiveness, they were still a people in captivity. And they asked God not to forget about their situation.

Remember in our discussion of God being described as mighty? Remember that all came from His hand either through His actions or His removal of protection. Well we see this truth acknowledged here:

However, You are just in all that has come upon us; For You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly.

The people recognized that God had been faithful with them while they had been unfaithful to Him. Isn’t that how it goes? God remains faithful while we rebel, stray and basically act like brats. But He is still faithful. His faithfulness should never be in doubt.

All that had come upon Israel – and us today (we are not Israel, but the principle is the same) – is the result of our unfaithfulness not His.

Again, the people recount the specific acts of unfaithfulness: they did not keep God’s Law, God’s commandments or His admonishments. They decided they knew better and went their own way. They lived in the kingdom God gave them yet did evil and refused to repent. And what was the result of their actions? You got it – captivity with a capital C. they became slaves. The kings over them ruled over their very bodies and their possessions. The people had no will of their own. They asked God not to forget them in their distress.

Writing it Down

Now because of all this We are making an agreement in writing; And on the sealed document are the names of our leaders, our Levites and our priests. Nehemiah 9:38 NASB

The final verse in this section is the codifying of their agreement. The people were under such conviction that they wrote the agreement down. This was not so much to remind God but to remind the people. It was a kind of living will. They wanted to make sure that everyone knew how serious they thought these issues were.

The word used translated in the phrase making an agreement is the word karath. This is a fairly rare word in the Old Testament. It basically means to cut. It would most fit with the idea of cutting a covenant. Now what does that mean? When a covenant was cut, the agreement was made in this manner. Animals were cut in half and placed so that there was an aisle between the various parts. The two making the covenant would then walk between the bodies symbolizing two things. One thing that was symbolized was that the covenant was sealed. The terms were to be treated as the animals – dead. That meant that the terms could not changed – they were dead. The second thing in view is that each of the covenant makers were saying that they would become like the animals – dead – if they broke the covenant. So this was a big deal to the people. They wrote it down, memorializing their commitment to God and giving it the force of a cut covenant.

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So what shall we do with all this then? We don’t have to cut covenants anymore, do we? Well I think the big takeaway from this entire chapter is that God’s faithfulness is everlasting. There is no end to it. He may remove His protection from time-to-time so that we may be disciplined. But even in that act, He is faithful to us.

Let’s learn from Israel’s examples. Let us not rebel anymore. Let us obey God. Let us rejoice in His commandments. Let us stand for His truth. Let us depend on Him and His Word rather than our own smarts. Let’s live faithfully to the One who is everlastingly faithful.

 

The Song Remains the Same

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God’s compassion was far greater than Israel’s heart. Because sadly, even after experiencing God’s great compassion and grace, the song remained the same.

This great prayer of repentance and remembrance continues here in chapter 9. As I read through the passage for this week I remembered something my brother and I used to say all the time: the song remains the same.  We said that to each other as a way of conveying the fact that nothing had changed in our lives despite a separation by our living miles apart.

In the passage today, as the people repent and remember the past, we see that in Israel’s history, the song remains the same. Let’s review last week’s article focused on some important points that I want to stress again in order to experience the gravity of this week.

One of the takeaways from last week was that God keeps His promises. We saw this in a couple of actions, first by God then in Israel’s response. The end of this was that Israel entered and possessed the land God promised to them. Israel had acted in faith and followed what God said (after a rebellious generation had passed). So this generation would be on-fire, right?

Not. So. Fast.

The Song Remains the Same

But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies. So you delivered them into the hands of their enemies, who oppressed them. But when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers, who rescued them from the hand of their enemies. Nehemiah 9:26-27 NASB

This part of this prayer begins with a big  BUT. There isn’t a better word in any language to stress how significant a shift has taken place. The Israelites, who had possessed the land God promised, had victories over others as God promised and prospered in their home now decided they knew better than God. Oh boy, here we go again.

Look at what this new crop of Israelites did. First the were disobedient and rebelled against God. The next phrase sums up everything: they turned their backs on your law. You see Israel was now smarter than God – or at least they thought they were. God gave His law to Israel for their protection. He regulated their worship life so they would please Him. God was generous with them. He blessed them. He provided for them. And what did they do in return for all of God’s benevolent gifts? They rebelled. They turned their backs on Him.

But they didn’t stop there. God sent prophets to correct Israel’s path. One would think that Israel would listen to these prophets. But no, sadly Israel did just the opposite. They refused to  listen and then killed the prophets God had sent. But it didn’t end there. Look at what happened: they performed awful blasphemies. They took God’s perfect law and turned it on its head. They did the opposite of What God wanted the to do. So God took them out of the land and gave them to those who would oppress them. God disciplined His people.

But when they repented and cried out, God  heard them and had compassion on them. God sent Israel deliverers. These deliverers took Israel out of bondage and back to where they belonged.  God’s compassion was far greater than Israel’s heart. Because sadly, even after experiencing God’s great compassion and grace, the song remained the same.

 

Israel’s Heart of Disobedience

But as soon as they were at rest, they again did what was evil in your sight. Then you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies so that they ruled over them. And when they cried out to you again, you heard from heaven, and in your compassion you delivered them time after time. Nehemiah 9:28 NASB

I feel I should just copy and paste my first section here! Everything that happened before happened again. What  a sad commentary on their heart. They continued to rebel and refuse to follow what God prescribed for them. The last few words of v. 28 indicates the breadth of God’s compassion: you delivered them time after time.

God’s Abounding Grace and Mercy

You warned them in order to turn them back to your law, but they became arrogant and disobeyed your commands. They sinned against your ordinances, of which you said, ‘The person who obeys them will live by them.’ Stubbornly they turned their backs on you, became stiff-necked and refused to listen. For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you gave them into the hands of the neighboring peoples. But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. Nehemiah 9:29-31 NASB

In these last few verses we see an important indication of God’s character: He pursued Israel, He wanted them to turn back to Him. Look at the time in view – for many years…” This wasn’t a one time ordeal. This went on for years. And years. And years. Still God pursued them. Still God loved them. Still God had compassion on them. God’s abounding grace and mercy is on display here. Look at v. 31:

But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.

What else could I possibly say about God? He is gracious and merciful. Even with all the disobedience, arrogance, stiff-neckedness that Israel has displayed throughout the years, God still – STILL – showed them mercy. How’s that for a giving God!

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So what does this mean to us? This is all about Israel, right? Well, no it isn’t all about Israel. This is all about God. God reveals Himself as a compassionate, long-suffering and patient God. Regardless of how many times we fail to do what is right – regardless of how many times we fail to obey – if we truly belong to Him He will never – NEVER – abandon us or turn His back on us.

That truth should not encourage us to sin more but to sin less. Because He is so compassionate and willing to endure our up and down behavior, we should be more sensitive to when we fall short. We should want to obey Him more because of who He is. God’s compassion should make us more willing to obey, not less.

How are you doing with that?

Every Good Gift

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Throughout the history of Israel we see a series of interactions between God and Israel. God would do something and then Israel would react – good or bad – to God’s actions. Here in Nehemiah the people are remembering their history with God through a prayer. The section I am addressing today is somewhat short but no doubt evoked powerful memories and emotions in the people as they remembered God’s actions. Let’s continue to step our way through this wonderful prayer with more memories of God’s actions and Israel’s reactions.

What God Did

You also gave them kingdoms and peoples, And allotted them to them as a boundary. Nehemiah 9:22 NASB

This section of this prayer begins with an action of God. Now notice carefully what happened: God gave Israel something. Now that something was kingdoms and nations. Don’t rush through this. What does this gift mean? Is there anything we can draw out of this that is not on the surface? I think so.

If God gave kingdoms and nations to Israel, that means God owns those kingdoms and nations. He has the right to do with them what He pleases. And it pleased Him to give them to Israel. Now what nations and kingdoms did God give Israel? Ultimately it was Canaan for they were in the land God gave Israel. Was Canaan a righteous nation? Not by a mile! So what does this say about God?

He is sovereign over all nations, not just Israel. He can do whatever he wants with whomever He chooses. It is God who raises up rulers and puts them down (see Daniel 2:21). This should be a sobering thought.This should remind us of just Who is in charge. This should remind us of our place as the created ones, not the Creator. The fact of God’s sovereignty over everyone should give us comfort.

But does it? I hope so.

 Israel’s response

They took possession of the land of Sihon the king of Heshbon And the land of Og the king of Bashan.Nehemiah 9:22 NASB

Sihon was a king of the Amorites and Heshbon was a city east of the Jordan. In Number 21:21-32 the story of the encounter with this king is given. Israel wanted to pass through his land on their way to the promised land. He didn’t want them to pass. Lets just say it didn’t end well for good ol’ Sihon! God gave Israel Sihon’s land and the Israelites took it.

The same thing happened to Og. He too was an Amorite king who decided he’d take on Israel and Israel’s God. As with Sihon, it didn’t end well for Og. He was purported to be a giant, mighty in his own sight. He ruled a kingdom of 70 walled cities and was quite impressed with himself. But God was not impressed. He gave him and his kingdom to Israel and they possessed it.

We should learn a valuable lesson here. Just because a nation appears ferocious and invincible, does not mean that they actually are that. God owns everything. As He said in Daniel 2, He decides who is on the throne. Again we should find comfort in this statement. No matter how ungodly and anti-Christian a leader of a nation may appear to be, God owns him and will do what He pleases with him. But God will accomplish His work in His time. So let’s be patient with His plan for the world. He owns it and He will accomplish His purpose.

What God Did

“You made their sons numerous as the stars of heaven, and You brought them into the land Which You had told their fathers to enter and possess. Nehemiah 9:23 NASB

God chose to prosper the nation of Israel. How many stars are there in the sky? That is how many descendants of the original nation there are. God did that. God is not sovereign over the land of the world – not only is He sovereign over kings and kingdoms – but He is also sovereign over descendants. Now I realize there are a number of views regarding family size. But regardless of what we think, God is sovereign over the conception and birth of a child.

Well God not only prospered the descendants in a numerical way bit He also prospered them in a land sort of way. Notice that it was God who brought them to the land He had promised their parents. They eventually possessed the land. God kept His promise and fulfilled that promise through these children.

God keeps His promises. Take comfort from that.

 

So God brought Israel to the land. What did they do? The parents of the descendants who entered the land refused to take it. So God took them on a forty year journey through the desert. And then He brought the descendants back to the land. So what happened this time?

Israel’s Response

So their sons entered and possessed the land. And You subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, And You gave them into their hand, with their kings and the peoples of the land, To do with them as they desired. They captured fortified cities and a fertile land. They took possession of houses full of every good thing, Hewn cisterns, vineyards, olive groves, Fruit trees in abundance. So they ate, were filled and grew fat, And reveled in Your great goodness.Nehemiah 9:24-25

Israel took the land. They possessed it. They took over and conquered all who lived in the land that God had given them. It didn’t matter if they cities were fortified (with walls and defenses) or not. Israel simply followed God and took possession of the land God had promised to them. This land – filled with cisterns for water, fruit trees for food and every good thing. This was a sweet place to live. And they had it because God had given it to them. But though the gift was made many years before, it was theirs when they took it.

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We need to be careful with this but far too often we don’t possess the promises God has made to us. He has promised not to abandon us. He has promised that we would one day be dwelling with Him.  He made these promises. He will keep them. But will we posses them? Do we live like folks whose destiny is settled?

I’m not saying we should with reckless abandon but with righteous abandon. Since we have the promise of God that He will keep us until the end of time on earth, we should never fear death, torture or anything else.

Today is the anniversary of the martyrdom of William Tyndale. He was strangled then burned at he stake on this date in 1536 for the great crime of translating the Bible into English. His work provided the basis for the majority of the King James version of 1611. He died doing what was right. Evidently he valued his possession of the promises of God rather than his possession of physical life. We should not seek martyrdom. But we should not shrink from it. God has made very real promises to the Church. Just as He kept His promises to Israel as recounted here in Nehemiah 9, He will keep His promises to the Church.

Let’s live like those who possess the promise of heaven and eternity with the One True God.

True Compassion

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Being loving to the lovable isn’t anything special. Be compassionate on those who are nice is nothing great. But to love the unlovable and be compassionate on the rebellious ones…Wow. Just. Wow.

 

When we remember all that God did to deliver His people from Egypt we should be amazed. God performed miracle upon miracle to get His people out of that place and to glorify His name. One would think that the ones who were delivered would never forget about the wonderful things God did. But they did forget. Boy, did they ever forget!

But they, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and they did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery.  -Nehemiah 9:16-17

Just as the people recalled God’s goodness, they also remembered their ancestor’s rebellion. Look at how they are referred to in this passage. They are called arrogant, stiff-necked and disobedient. They did not listen and did not remember. They chose to go in a different direction than God had for them. They sure were kind of “out there”. Lets look at a few things in this description.

First they became arrogant. Have you ever seen this type of transformation take place? It is a sight to behold. But it is a sad thing to witness too. To see a previous humble servant of Christ get full of himself and believe that everything is all about him is sad indeed. Politicians, singers, bands and writers have suffered through this type of transformation.

Next they became stiff-necked.  Now what does this mean? Well, the best way I can explain it is that they rebelled and rebelled obstinately. So think of someone so set on rebellion that they have no other course of conduct available. That is sad isn’t it?

They disobeyed, didn’t listen and didn’t remember. They were a mess.They chose their path and walked down it. They left God and His precepts. This rebellion led them to their destination. And that destination wasn’t freedom. No, that destination was slavery.

Before we get all full of ourselves and criticize Israel for doing this lets consider how many times we have done the exact same things. Have you ever wandered? Ever refused listen to the Holy Spirit and either doing something or not doing something He is prompting? Me too. Too many times in fact. But we should be encouraged by the person we know as God. Look at the next verse or two:

But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.Therefore you did not desert them,   -Nehemiah 9:17

Grace and compassion

God shows His graciousness towards Israel. Notice how God is described: forgiving, gracious and compassionate. Are you known by those words? When I ask myself that question, I’m not too pleased with the answer. I often can be one of those three once in  awhile but I have a difficult time being all three all of the time. Maybe this is true of you too. But thankfully God is not mankind. He is all these things.

The final sentence here is spellbinding to me: Therefore you did not desert them. Think about the statement being made. God had every right to desert Israel. Hey, for that matter, they had already deserted Him! God would have been fully justified in leaving them behind. But He didn’t.

Similarly we wander from God, We don’t listen or obey. We judge, hurt and become proud. God has every reason to desert us – we have already deserted Him. But, just like God’s actions towards Israel, He doesn’t desert us. What a loving and compassionate God we serve!

And what’s more there seems to be no limit to what God endured with the Israelites.

When there were idols

even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, ‘This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt,’ or when they committed awful blasphemies.    -Nehemiah 9:18

The Israelites, I’m sure you remember, decided to have an idol. When Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the people below cast themselves an idol and gave the credit for their deliverance from Egypt to this newly-minted golden idol. That had to hurt.

When they wandered

Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not fail to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them.   -Nehemiah 9:19

Remember the wandering in the desert? That would have been a great place for God to say “I’ve had enough of you. I’m leaving. Figure everything out for yourselves.” But God did not do that. He lovingly and compassionately led them through their sojourn in the desert. He used a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Interestingly, in the Temple, there was smoke or cloud in the most holy place where the glory of God would reside. Finally, He gave His Spirit to guide them.

These folks had it all. Boy, I wished we had this type of guidance today. But you know, we do. We have it even better. We have the Holy Spirit – God Himself – dwelling inside our mortal body. He guides. He instructs. He leads. Think about that. God Almighty lives in us so that He can guide us. Do we listen and follow like we should?

When they complained

You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. For forty years you sustained them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen.    -Nehemiah 9:20

The Israelites complained while wandering in the desert. They complained about the heat. They complained about the food (the Hebrew word Manna means What is it!) It seems they were always upset about something and never thankful for anything. What a bunch of whiners! I bet God really taught them a lesson for all their whining. He did. Just not the lesson that may have popped into your head.

God kept feeding them. God kept giving them water. God sustained them for forty years. An entire generation of people were sustained by God. Their clothes remained in good condition as did their shoes. Their feet never swelled up in spite of all the walking they did. Yeah, God taught them a lesson alright. He taught them  a lesson about love and compassion. How we need that lesson today.

Being loving to the lovable isn’t anything special. Be compassionate on those who are nice is nothing great. But to love the unlovable and be compassionate on the rebellious ones…Wow. Just. Wow.

 

So how are you doing showing compassion and love to everyone around you? Don’t make the mistake thinking loving someone means you never disagree or even rebuke their conduct. Love will be present in those situations. Compassion will be there too. Perhaps God is tugging at your heart as you are reading these words like He is tugging at mine as I write these words. Maybe we need to redouble our efforts to show compassion and others to others in spite of how others are…or how they act.