How many times have you tried to start over with God? How many times as have you been convicted by the word of the Lord and knew you needed to change but nothing really happened? It is a common problem that we think about how we are going to be different and live different only to have nothing happen in our lives that is any different. It is the same old sins getting us each day. It is the same old problems cropping up again and again. We going to learn how the leaders in Nehemiah’s day are going to work to bring about a renewal in the hearts of the people.
The reading of the Law has brought a conviction to the hearts of the people. They were grieved as they were taught God’s word. But the leaders told the people that it was a holy day to the Lord and that the joy of the Lord is their strength. Their story with God was not over. Though they had failed in their sinning, God had brought them back into the land and offered them the opportunity to be his people again. We are continuing to read about the heart of the people who have been convicted by God’s word. In Nehemiah 9:1 we read that the people have assembled with fasting, wearing sackcloth and putting dirt on their heads. They are showing their conviction outwardly. Notice what the people do in verse 2. The text says that they stood, confessing their sins and the sins of their ancestors. While they were standing, the book of the law of the Lord was read for 3 hours and the next 3 hours were spent in confession and worshiping the Lord. I would like to observe again the heart of the people who want to remain in worship for 6 straight hours. Three hours are spent listening to God’s word and three hours are spent confessing their sins and worshiping the Lord. But notice what happens in verse 5. The confession of sin was immediately followed with praising the Lord. Here we are seeing the point that the leaders were teaching the people in Nehemiah 8. The conviction of sin is not the end of your story. Rather, the conviction of sin is to lead you to praise the Lord. So the Levites tell the people to stand up and praise the Lord who is from everlasting to everlasting. I want you to notice this amazing confession that the people make, which is recorded in the rest of chapter 9.
The Confession (9:6-38)
Creator God (9:6).
The prayer begins by praising the Lord as the creator. You alone are the Lord. You created highest heavens with all their stars. You created the earth and all that is on it.
Faithful God (9:7-8).
Next, they speak about the faithfulness of the Lord. The Lord chose Abram, brought him out, and changed his name. His heart was faithful and you made a covenant with him to give him the land of Canaan. Notice the end of verse 8. You have fulfilled your promise because you are righteous.
Rescuing God (9:9-15).
Then the prayer remembers how the Lord rescued his people from Egyptian slavery with signs and miracles. The Lord made a name for himself as he divided the sea and destroyed the Egyptian pursuers. You led them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to show them the way. You came down from Sinai and spoke your laws to the people. You provided bread and water for your people in the wilderness.
Historical sins confessed (9:16-17).
Notice the people’s awareness of what happened in their history. Our ancestors acted arrogantly. They were stiff-necked and did not listen to your commands. They did not listen and did not remember your miracles. They even appointed a leader to try to return to their slavery in Egypt.
Forgiving God (17-19).
But notice now what they remember about their God. But you are a forgiving God. You are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love. You did not abandon them even after they made an image of a calf for themselves. You did not abandon them even after their terrible blasphemies. You did not abandon them because of your great compassion.
Providing God (19-21).
You did not abandon them. You guided them on their journey. You sent your Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold food and water from them. You provided for them and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell. You took care of them all of that time while in the wilderness.
Conquering God (22-25).
Then you gave them kingdoms and peoples. You conquered nations and handed them over to us. You made them as numerous as the stars in the sky. You captured fortified cities for them.
Satisfying God (25).
Now they speak about how God is a satisfying God. They took possession of well-supplied houses. You gave them wells, vineyards, olive groves, and fruit trees in abundance. Listen to the end of verse 25. “They ate, were filled, became prosperous, and delighted in your great goodness.” This is what God wants. Enjoy my blessings and delight in me and praise me as you do it. So what happened?
Historical sin confessed (26).
Look at verse 26. They were disobedient and rebelled against you. They cast your law behind their backs and killed your prophets that you sent to warn them. They sinned terribly and were handed over to their enemies.
Merciful God (27-31).
But when the people cried in their distress, God heard them from heaven. By your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from their enemies. But as soon as they had relief they did what was evil again. But they cried out to you and you repeatedly saved them because of your mercies. You warned them to turn back but they still did not listen. Look at verses 30-31. But you were patient with them for many years. But they still did not listen. However, in your abundant mercies you did not destroy them or abandon them because you are a gracious and merciful God.
Key truth (32-38).
So what is the point of this prayer? Where is this prayer going? Notice where this prayer lands. Look at verse 32. You are a faithful God and we are wicked. In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous. You have acted faithfully (9:33). Even while we were enjoy your great goodness, we still did not serve you. So here we are today as slaves in the land and it is because of our sins (9:36-37). Look at how this prayer ends in verse 37. “We are in great distress.” Now I want you to notice something that the people do. Look at verse 38. Their confession and their praises lead to making a covenant with the Lord. We want to make a covenant with our God because of how merciful and patient God is with us.
Covenant Obligations (10:1-12:47)
The first 27 verses of chapter 10 record all the people who signed this covenant. In verse 28 we read what they are signing. Here are the obligations of the covenant. We make an oath to follow the Law of God and to carefully obey all the commands, regulations, and decrees of the Lord (10:29). Then they get specific. They proclaim what they are going to do. They will not marry the people of the land (10:30). They will not buy and sell on the Sabbath (10:31). They will give their offerings for the service of God’s house (10:32-33). The priests will burn the sacrifices on the altar (10:34). We will bring the first fruits to the Lord (10:35-37). We will give the tithes to the priests (10:38) and bring the contributions so that the house of God is not neglected (10:39). Chapters 11-12 record all the people who were willing to keep the covenant and were willing to sacrifice their lives to live in the city of Jerusalem. These are the people who were willing to do the work. These are the people who were willing to serve at the temple. These were the people who celebrated what God had accomplished by finishing the walls of the city.
Steps For Renewal
But we are being taught how to start the journey of renewal with the Lord. First, renewal begins with confessing the character of God. You see that this is where the people are led to begin. The leaders instruct the people in Nehemiah 9:5 to stand up and bless the Lord. Think about how many different characteristics of God are praised in this confession. They speak of God as being Creator God, Faithful God, Rescuing God, Forgiving God, Providing God, Conquering God, Satisfying God, and Merciful God. We would do well to remember these characteristics of God. I want to renew my life and the more I think about who God is and what he has done, my renewal will be encouraged. The apostle Paul made the same point in his teaching.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1–2 CSB)
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Colossians 3:9–10 ESV)
Notice the renewal of our minds will come from keeping the mercies of God in view. The mercies of God will move us to become living sacrifices as our minds are renewed. The putting off of the old life and putting on the new life happens as we become renewed as we come to know God. So renewal requires knowing God and confessing his character. Praise him for who he is. Praise him for what he has done for you in your life. Praise him for how he has cared for you and blessed you. Praise him for how he helped you through the dark, difficult days. Praise him for his patience and forgiveness. Praise him for every aspect of who God is and what he has done. This is the first step in renewal.
Second, renewal requires confessing our sins. You will notice in their prayer and praise that they do not make excuses for their sins or the sins of the past. There is no shift of blame to other people. They proclaim that God has acted faithfully toward them and they have acted wickedly toward God. We need to confess our sins. The scriptures tell us that this is important to do.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 ESV)
Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. (James 5:16 NRSV)
Renewal cannot happen when we are covering up our sins. Renewal cannot happen by trying to get away with our sins. We have to admit what we have done. We have to admit our sinfulness. We have to admit that we have failed God. We need to always remember our failure before God to find the renewal that God wants us to experience. If we think we are doing well and do not need to confess our sins, then we will never change. We will never improve or be transformed because we think like we are doing just fine in our spiritual walk.
Third, renewal requires specific changes. The people do not simply say that they have sinned. The people do not just say that they are going to do better. The people do not simply agree to keeping God’s commands. Notice that they are specific about the things they will do. They write out and say what they are going to do. They are going to keep the Sabbath now. They are going to bring in their offerings and contributions. They are going to bring the first fruits. They are very specific about the changes they are going to make. Without being specific, transformation and renewal cannot happen. We need to specify what we are going to do different today. We need to be specific about what we are going to do differently at home, at work, with friends, with strangers, and in other situations. Do not simply rely on telling yourself you are going to do better. Make specific commitments that can be measured. Do not just say you are going to pray more. Say you are going to pray at 9pm so that you have something specific and measurable. Do not say I am going to read God’s word more. Say I am going to read during breakfast each day. These people make clear goals of how they are going to keep God’s word in their lives.
Finally, renewal requires realistic spiritual expectations. Did you notice what is depressing about this prayer? What is depressing is that one thousand years of disobedience is being remembered and confessed. Generation after generation tried to do better only to fail. There is a hopelessness of relying on our own obedience. If you are going to try to reach God by only doing better, then you are not being realistic. You have years of failure in your past and years of failure coming in your future. Our hope is not in how we are going to do better. Our hope is in the repetition of this prayer: that God is a merciful God. Our hope that God is so patient with us. So be real with your renewal. Take the steps for life renewal. Confess the character of God. Confess your sins. Confess the specific changes you are going to make. Then when you fall down again, do not quit and think that you cannot succeed. Look to the mercy and patience of God to pick you back up and continue to path of renewal. Renewal does not happen in a day. Renewal is a lifetime work that God is accomplishing in us.