How to Praise God for His Actions in the Past (Nehemiah 9:6-15)

How to Praise God for His Actions in the Past (Nehemiah 9:6-15)

Learning how to praise God is not the same as actually doing so. Teaching through this chapter—which contains one long prayer—is almost counter-intuitive. We run the risk of analyzing the passage as a model for prayer, and failing to actually pray it.

What do you really want from this sermon?

a bearded man praying
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on

My guess is that you don’t need another tip or technique on prayer. If you do, you can watch this video I gave on “How to Pray to God” a few years ago. We have helpful devices such as the acronym ACTS to help us to pray, but what we’re really after is a more vibrant prayer life.

If you intend to pray more, you have to stop relying on yourself! That’s why we don’t pray as often as we should. We are too self-reliant, or others-reliant, or anything-but-God-reliant. We think we can handle things on our own. Then we show up here each Sunday, overwhelmed by our lives again. When you recognize your need for God, it is much easier to turn to him in prayer.

A Prayer of Adoration and Praise

That’s how it was for all the Israelites who had gathered for a day of solemn repentance. They were burdened with a desire to change their lives. They had become obsessed with God’s Word. That is why they read it and studied it constantly because they wanted to know God’s will. Once they understood God’s will, they sought to align their hearts with it.

But the Levites did something unexpected. They didn’t launch right into their confession of sin, but their profession of faith. They start by giving praise to the God they had offended. Specifically, they praise God’s name and worship him as Creator of heaven and its hosts, the earth, and everything on it, the seas and everything in them. 

This is not a strategy for endearing God to them. Rather, they recognize that a proper understanding of God—including an apprehension of his mercy—is crucial to true repentance. Sin leads to unrelenting guilt for those who do not join their confession of sin to their profession of faith. A right understanding of God prepares us for true repentance. That is why Israel began their corporate confession with corporate adoration.

Adoration involves praising God for who he is as well as what he has done.

Read Nehemiah 9:5-15.

Praise God for His Sovereign Work of Salvation

This section traces the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. The Levites will get to the failures of that generation, which complained and lost faith multiple times. However, the focus of verses 7-15 is on God’s kind provision. He remains the subject of every sentence in this passage.

Something else to note is the structure of this larger section, concluding at the end of chapter ten. Covenants were not unique to Israel. The form of the covenant in Scripture follows a pattern familiar to the Ancient Near East context. So, the general structure is familiar. 

God Ratifies His Covenant With Abram

However, there was a significant difference between the ratification of a typical ANE treaty, and the form of ratification recorded in Scripture. One of the clearest pictures of God’s sovereignty in salvation is the way in which he confirms his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. God selected one man who was no different from any other man, among a nation that was like every other nation. He called Abram and promised to make him a great nation who would be a blessing to all nations (Gen 12:1-3).

The problem was that Abram was 75 years old when God promised that he would become a great nation. His wife was beyond childbearing age. And, up to this point, they had no children. But Abram was faithful to go. 

At some point over the next several years, God ratifies his covenant with Abram. Genesis 15 opens with an illustration of God’s promise. Abram says, “I’m still childless.” God says, “Number the stars.” But, the crux of this passage takes place in vv.9-21. God says, “I’m giving you this land!” Abram says, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?” 

The Covenant Ceremony

God asks Moses to bring a heifer, female goat, ram, turtledove, and pigeon. He cut them in half (except the birds) and created an aisle between the halved animals. This was a familiar scene. The ratification of Ancient suzerain-vassal treaties were like this. The conquering king and the servant king would pass down the aisle together. Their actions symbolically proclaimed, “If I should break this covenant, let it be done to me what was done to these animals.”

However, at sunset, God placed Abram into “a deep sleep.” This was no nap. Abram was out cold. The same word describes Adam’s sleep during his costectomy (rib removal operation in Gen. 2:21). It occurs again when David and Abishai stole Saul’s spear and water. God ensured Saul and his men remained in a deep sleep (1 Sam. 26:12). While Abram slept, God reiterated his covenant promises and “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the pieces” (Gen. 15:17). 

God reveals himself to be both the covenant maker and keeper. He establishes the covenant and commits to taking the curses upon himself. Some wonder how an infant could enter a covenant with God. It is no more unlikely than God making a covenant with a man essentially in a coma. God establishes his covenant with the whole family (Deut. 29:10-13).

Two Additional Examples

There are two more characters mentioned in the prayer that point to God’s sovereign work of salvation. On the negative side, we hear about Pharaoh. The Egyptian ruler treated the Israelites with cruelty and contempt. And God hardened his heart toward the Israelites to show his power in the ten plagues that were sent upon the Egyptians. God was making a name for himself among the nations. He was revealing his sovereign power.

It is interesting that we get several sentences of historical prologue during the unlikely leadership of Moses, before there is any mention of his name. God remains the focus of the passage. When it does mention Moses, he is simply the vessel through whom God accomplished his will. And Moses was an unlikely vessel. He was a man who had difficulty speaking and no formal leadership training that we know of. God had preserved Moses when Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill the male children.

This is the History of Your Salvation too!

Do you reflect upon the history of salvation in your recent and distant past? Do you express your gratitude to the God who orchestrated it all? We oftentimes appreciate the period of the reformation—for good reason. But I would encourage you to think before and after that period. God has been at work in every age. 

And he has grafted you into that same family (Rom. 11:17)! The history of Israel is the history of the Church. Keeping the people of God in two distinct categories not only prevents unity, it misplaces the promises of God. We might begin to think that entire books of the Bible do not really speak to our situation. 

On the other hand, when we recognize the continuity between the covenant people of God in the Old and New Testaments, we have a greater appreciation for redemptive history. And that appreciation leads us into a fuller sense of praise. If our chief aim is indeed to glorify God, then recalling God’s work through Abraham and Moses—with personal interest—facilitates that end.

Continuity Between the Old and New Testaments

Paul establishes the continuity between the Old and New Testaments when he writes regarding Jesus, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him,” (2 Cor. 1:20). Jesus Christ fulfilled every promise given to the Church—and all who are united to him become the beneficiaries of those same promises (Eph. 1:3-14).

Do you know that Abraham (2 Chron. 20:7) and Moses (Exod. 33:11) are the only two individuals referred to as “friends” of God in the Old Testament? In the New Testament, Christ called his disciples “friends” (Jn 15:13-16). He shows his great love for his friends by laying down his life for them. He takes the covenant curses upon himself. In his death, Jesus declares, “When you break this covenant, let it be done to me what was done to these animals.” Only Christ can establish the unity of the Church, now and for all eternity! 

God not only saves us, but he preserves us too.

Praise God for His Sovereign Work of Preservation

The Levites recount several aspects of God’s preservation of the wilderness generation. They begin with God’s rescue of their fathers out of Egypt (10). This is described as God seeing their affliction and hearing their cry. They know this to be true now, but at the time—this is precisely what their fathers doubted. We will see how quickly they turned to grumbling and disobedience next week. But, this portion of the prayer emphasizes God’s compassion. 

By rescuing the Israelites out of the arrogant hands of Pharaoh, God made a name for himself among the nations. Those who feared the might of the Egyptians now understood God was even mightier.

Instead of marching the Israelites through Philistine territory, where they would have immediately entered into war, God took them to the Red Sea. As Israel fled, they saw Pharaoh’s army charging after them. They complained that Moses brought them out into the wilderness to die.

It appeared to the people that God had set them up. Pharaoh thought they were hopelessly trapped as well. Surely, they were all about to be slaughtered in the wilderness. Honestly, though, they witnessed God relentlessly sending plague upon plague that only brought harm to the Egyptians. God protects his people. He does not sabotage them.

God’s Presence and Provision

God portrayed his presence with the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. He instructed Moses to have them setup camp at the edge of the sea. The pillar of cloud repositioned between the Israelites and the Egyptians, preventing any invasion until the Israelites were able to safely cross the Red Sea (Ex. 14:19-20). There was no battle. No Israelite lifted a finger. God fought for them—just as he had promised!

Another key word in this prayer is “give”. It occurs fifteen times in this chapter, several times in this passage. God gave…

  1. The law. 
  2. Bread from heaven. 
  3. He brought water from a rock.

God Has Compassion Upon the Afflicted

If God could protect the Israelites from the wrath of Pharaoh and sustain them in the wilderness, surely he can preserve you through your affliction. You might even find that grace grows best in winter (Rutherford). It is in the midst of our suffering that God shows his saving strength. Raymond Brown comments:

Suffering is never a lonely visitor to the human life. The Christian soon becomes aware of immense resources which accompany every experience of hardship. Our worst afflictions become the expositors of grace.1

Look back at our Call to Worship from Isaiah 49:13. Scripture frequently recalls this promise because we are so quick to lose faith in the midst of our affliction. We grumble and complain and accuse God of abandoning us. Have you wandered away? This is a serious matter for concern within the covenant community. 

Heed the Warning

We cannot so easily dismiss the warning passages in Hebrews (Heb 6:4-6). The Israelites in the wilderness had tasted the heavenly gift of manna. They shared in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They even heard the Word of God from the mouth of Moses, who received it directly from God on Mt. Sinai. Unfortunately, they took their privilege for granted.

  • Christ is the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14)
  • Christ is the spiritual food that came down from heaven (1 Cor. 10:3).
  • Christ is the spiritual drink that flowed from the spiritual Rock (1 Cor. 10:4)
  • Christ has made everyone who believes children of Abraham who receive the same promises as heirs of the same covenant of grace (Gal. 3:7-9, 14, 28, 29)!

Only Christ can satisfy the righteous requirements of the covenant and take upon himself the curses of our disobedience. It is only by faith in him that we have the privilege to praise God! Let us do so now.