How to Pray to a Covenant Keeping God (Nehemiah 9:22-38)
In his preface to the book Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation, D.A. Carson writes,
I doubt if there is any Christian who has not sometimes found it difficult to pray. In itself, this is neither surprising nor depressing: it is not surprising because we are still pilgrims with many lessons to learn; it is not depressing because struggling with such matters is part of the way we learn.
What is both surprising and depressing is the sheer prayerlessness that characterizes so much of the Western church. It is surprising because it is out of step with the Bible, which portrays what Christian living should be; it is depressing because it frequently coexists with abounding Christian activity that somehow seems hollow, frivolous, and superficial. Scarcely less disturbing is the enthusiastic praying in some circles that overflow with emotional release but is utterly uncontrolled by any thoughtful reflection on the prayers of Scripture.
I wish I could say I always avoid these pitfalls. The truth is that I am a part of what I condemn. But if we are to make any headway in reforming our personal and corporate praying, then we shall have to begin by listening afresh to Scripture and seeking God’s help in understanding how to apply Scripture to our lives, our homes, and our churches.
Upon completion of the walls, Nehemiah and Ezra witnessed a remarkable scene unfold in Jerusalem. The people extensively read and studied God’s law. They joyfully celebrated the Feast of Booths. Now, a few days later, they gathered for corporate confession of sin. Spiritual reformation has fallen upon the people of Israel.
They were deeply concerned for the state of their relationship with God. Their prayer was not formulaic, but it was filled with a mixture of adoration, gratitude, and humility. When they weren’t rehearsing God’s faithfulness, they were acknowledging the rebellion of their ancestors.
They faced a critical dilemma that all of us must answer. How do we escape a cycle of repeated rebellion? What prevents us from falling into the same patterns? Our covenant keeping God supplies and secures everything we need to glorify Him.
Read Nehemiah 9:22-38.
I. Delight in God’s Reliable Provision (22-25)
Under the leadership of Moses, God rescued Israel from Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. Numbers 21:21-35 records the two occasions mentioned in v.22. When Moses sought permission to pass through the Amorite lands of Sihon and Og, their kings would not allow it. They decided to gather their armies against Israel. In each case, Israel was victorious and took possession of the land.
While in Egypt, God multiplied their number to such a level that Pharaoh forced them into slavery. Joseph rose to power and Pharaoh supplied a portion of land to 70 Israelites during the famine. 430 years later, God rescued a people who numbered somewhere close to 2.4 million! God brought them into the promised land, subduing their enemies, and giving them possession of a land rich in resources (23-25).
We know that the Israelites grumbled throughout their time in the wilderness. They struggled to trust in the Lord, even though he miraculously provided for their needs every day. Still, we can somewhat understand their frustration, being without a permanent place to rest. We can sympathize with their grumbling in the wilderness, but their ingratitude within the Promised Land is a bit more confounding.
They enjoyed the blessings of fully furnished housing, cisterns, crops already producing abundant harvests (25). They grew fat in prosperity, but it only led them into further rebellion. What could they have done differently? They delighted in the goodness that God had promised, but something was lacking.
Our dog is like this. Earlier this week, Caitlin was attempting to get her to lay down next to her. She gave her a pig ear and led her to the center of the living room. But Piper just wanted to go outside and eat it on her own. When she finally laid down, she really didn’t want any attention from Caitlin. She was completely engrossed in her treat.
It’s possible to enjoy God’s blessing without acknowledging or honoring him for the gift. We celebrate the gift, without honoring the Giver.
There is a similar struggle for some in California. We get so worked up about the politics and the cost of gas that we fail to appreciate any of the benefits. God has blessed us with so much. We have a beautiful state with access to the ocean and the mountains just a few hours away. We take for granted that we are located just outside Yosemite National Park. The Central Valley has one of the most productive agricultures in the world.
Here’s the point. It’s all too easy to forget God’s blessings and to fail to show him gratitude.
- We can begin to focus only upon what is lacking in our current circumstances. A critical spirit—that only notices the flaws and problems—has a way of shrinking our capacity to praise.
- On the flip side, we become so enamored with the gifts that we ignore the Giver altogether. God’s laws and representatives become expendable and eventually forgotten, at least until the next crisis.
Let’s refrain from allowing a critical spirit to derail our joy, while also acknowledging the one who brought that joy into our lives. Let us acknowledge God’s provision for our church these past few years. We came into a furnished church building. After some significant repairs, we have been able to worship without hindrance. God has provided an incredible group of families, some of whom he is sending on to serve in other regions. We ought to rejoice with them in the kindness of God as a reliable provider, and for that reason, we can expect him to sustain us as well!
Praising God for his provision may help us to see where we have gone astray…
II. Confess Your Repeated Rebellion (26-31)
The Levites confess several examples of Israel’s rebellion in the past (26).
- They rejected God’s law. The language implies contempt for the law, casting it behind their back.
- They killed God’s prophets
- They committed great blasphemies
That is why God gave them into the hands of their enemies, which caused them to suffer. Suffering caused them to cry out to the Lord, which led to the Lord raising up saviors (27). This follows the cycle that is repeatedly recorded in the book of Judges (cf. Judges 3:7-11). The land experienced rest as long as the judge was alive. But once they died, Israel returned to their idolatry and the cycle started over (28).
How could they have grown so corrupt so fast? By the end of Joshua they occupied the land, and in the following book of Judges—probably written just fifty years later—they commit adultery with every neighbor they interact with. The downward spiral is swift and vicious. This is only shocking to those who have a low view of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. It does not take long at all to become addicted to an idol and for that addiction to turn your life upside-down.
I mentioned this quote from G.K. Beale last week, but it bears repeating.
“What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.” (We Become What We Worship)
Rebellion against God reveals what we revere. Whatever idol we set our heart upon is ruining us. The degree of ruination might be slow in some cases, but it is oftentimes very fast, as we have seen. Yet, there is an alternative activity that begins the work of restoration. If we surround ourselves with those who revere God, who fill their minds with his word, and enjoy deep fellowship together—we will restore what the idol has claimed. We will recover eyes and ears and mouths that are devoted to the Lord.
God continued to rescue them and warn them about their idolatry, but it never seemed to matter for long (29-30). Despite their repeated rebellion, God never destroyed them or forsook them (31).
I was never good at baseball. Once I began hitting last in the lineup and subbing in for left field, I decided to focus on soccer. I’ve observed several attitudes among the kids at baseball practice. There are some who act like they can play every position flawlessly. They want the coach to put them on the mound, behind the plate, at shortstop, in center field. And they assure him that they are the best on the team in those positions. Then there are players who are a bit more reluctant. They admit their tendency to pull up too soon on the ground ball or to misjudge the distance of a pop fly. In my last season, I was a third type who gave up. I told myself I wouldn’t be able to figure it out. Other players were so much better than me, I could never catch up. A good player recognizes their flaws and is eager to improve upon them.
You need to have both a healthy respect for the depths of your depravity, and an appreciation for the value of community and the potential reformation that can result from becoming fully engaged in that community.
That is why regular accountable, loving, gracious, fellowship is so important. It’s where the Levites turn next in their prayer.
III. Participate in Regular Renewal (32-38)
For the first and only time, the Levites make a request. They appeal for God to consider their hardship since the first Assyrian exile (32). Their request is simple, but crucial. Essentially, they are seeking the same treatment from God that their ancestors received. Will God continue to show compassion?
The exile entirely disrupted their lives. God always acted according to his righteousness. He was always faithful, even though “we” acted wickedly (33). They do not portray this idolatry as a problem of past generations. They recognize the solidarity of the sins of their fathers with their own generational sins. Their rebellion is the same as “our” rebellion (34).
They did not rebel because of the exile, but they had not honored God even when they were enjoying the richness of the land (35). Even though they returned to the land, they remained enslaved to the demands of the surrounding nations (36). Such great portions of their produce and livestock go to the king who rules over them that they are destitute (37). So, they have returned to the land, but they are prevented from enjoying the benefits of being there.
They close the prayer with written commitment of their covenant renewal (38). This verse really serves as a transition point between the confession of sin (ch. 9). And the list of those who signed the agreement (ch. 10). The people were not simply blaming their leaders, but taking full responsibility for their own sinful rebellion, and recommitting themselves to the law of God. It was similar to previous covenant renewal ceremonies recorded in Joshua 24 and 1 Samuel 12.
Over the 44 years of my existence, I’ve learned a thing or two about working out. Not from experience, but I’ve read some articles about it. I’m informed that when you’re working out correctly, you are actually stretching and tearing your muscles. If it’s done too hard, you have problems, but miniature tears are necessary. However, you won’t get stronger if you constantly work out, you’ll get injured. Your body needs time to recover. That rest period allows your muscles to recover, and they will gradually require more weight to cause tears in the future. So, you actually get stronger during the recovery.
Our spiritual lives are similar. The covenant renewal takes place each time we gather for worship. We are nourished and equipped by God’s Word. We are united and encouraged through prayer. The sacraments and the songs renew our hearts and refresh our minds to face the week ahead. When we regularly surround ourselves with saints and commit to support them regardless of their circumstances, the body of Christ becomes stronger and healthier.
We belong to an era that questions the value of church and minimizes the value of application. We might nod our heads in agreement and even feel conviction for a brief moment, but we allow that to pass without any commitment. Reflecting upon Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, Marva Dawn argues that,
“Television has habituated its watchers to a low information-action ratio, that people are accustomed to ‘learning’ good ideas (even from sermons) and then doing nothing about them.”
The whole purpose of renewing the covenant is to recommit ourselves to the first commandment. We let go of our idols and seek to walk in the direction that God has plotted for us. But the pattern found in the prayer is important to follow. Obedience flows from gratitude.
- We delight in God’s reliable provision because God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3).
- We can escape the cycle of repeated rebellion because Jesus Christ bore the penalty of that rebellion in our place as he died upon the cross.
- With gratitude for God’s redemptive provision, we are sustained by regular participation in covenant renewal.