If you have been following the chiastic structure of Nehemiah, we have come to the end. (You’re thinking, “Wait, there are more chapters!” We’ll come to those in the next lesson.) As the first chapter revealed the future course of Nehemiah’s ministry through prayer, this corresponding bookend chapter reflects on the past course of God’s people also through prayer. Whereas the first prayer was by Nehemiah alone on behalf of the larger community, this prayer is about the whole nation of which Nehemiah is merely a part of.
Though both prayers are different in trajectory and in breadth, they both retain the elements of adoration, confession, promises, and vision (see lesson 1). Fasting is mentioned in both chapters, alluding to the sincerity of seeking God’s will. Both incorporate the Word of God, where in chapter 1, Nehemiah claims promises he knows, while in chapter 9, they “read from the book of the Lord of the Lord their God for one-fourth of the day” (verse 3).
Both prayers reveal the importance of studying how God’s hand has led in history. “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord had led us, and His teaching in our past history” (Selected Messages, Vol. 3, p. 162).
Write out Nehemiah 9:26–38 from the translation of your choice.If you’re pressed for time, write out Nehemiah 9:30–35.You may also re-write the passage in your own words, outline, or mind-map the chapter.
The prayer starts with adoration, praising the name of God (9:1). Then it continues to go through the history of the Israelites. Genesis and the creation account is found in verse 6. The founding father of the covenant Abraham is then alluded to in verses 7 and 8. Then we transition to the book of Exodus where Moses and the commandments are mentioned in verses 9–17. The wilderness experiences are then waded through from verse 18–21; the conquest of Canaan is described in verses 22–25; and so on.
At first glance, one may want to skip over this chapter, thinking it to be a synopsis of the entire Old Testament. In some ways, it is; but there is a deeper exercise going on here. A theology of salvation history is being developed within the prayer.
Memory is a powerful tool. It molds who we are more than we may realize. Though we may not think of past memories intentionally on a daily basis, they comprise our subconscious operating system, affecting how we interact with people, our emotional tenor in various situations, what habits we naturally develop, and what behaviors we abhor in others as well as ourselves. These memories, whether they be good or bad,are often tucked away in the deep recesses of our hearts. Accessing these memories has a way of vivifying and strengthening our identities, values, and even spiritual capacities for faith, hope, and love.
Whereas this can take place on a personal level, as it happened to Nehemiah in chapter 1, there is even a more profound experience when done collectively on the community level. As much as God works in the lives of individuals, He also works in the lives of communities as well. Especially in the trajectory of the Israelites, the prayer establishes that He made all things good, He called Abraham out of His goodness, He called a people out of slavery, protected them, gave them good things, etc. The overwhelming theme that emerges is that God is good.
Upon this basis that God is good, the Jews can now go forward in faith that God continues to be good. It is in the exercise of reflection that deep insights and profound revelations on self and God can occur. This benefits us not only in past contemplation or present satisfaction, but most importantly in future assurance and confidence of faith.
Try reading this chapter a couple times through. Just as driving into a community for the first time seems unfamiliar and distant, the more times we read through a text, the more acquainted and accustomed we become to the environment and setting.
With each reading, a new theme or a new pattern should emerge. Details that at first seemed insignificant start to change in priority. Parts that were murky in understanding soon clarify. Repetition deepens impression. In the previous section, the goodness of God is seen when tracing through the history of the Israelites. Another obvious pattern of repetition is the usage of contrast adverbs. Words like “yet,” “nevertheless,” “however,” and “but” connect the first thought to the second thought, but in the form of a contra-point to the previous point. In many ways, it reads like a song with interposing parts.
Verse 15 “You gave them bread from heaven…and brought them water…”
Verse 16, “But they and our fathers acted proudly…”
Verse 18, “…they made a molded calf for themselves…”
Verse 19, “Yet in Your manifold mercies You did not forsake them in the wilderness…”
Verse 25, “So they ate and were filled and grew fat, and delighted themselves in Your great goodness.”
Verse 26, “Nevertheless they were disobedient…” (bold, supplied)
This continues on throughout the prayer. The conclusion of the prayer is found in verse 33, “…for You have dealt faithfully, but we have done wickedly.” It’s one thing to say that God is good and that we are bad. But it’s another thing to remember every single instance of God’s goodness and humanity’s failure. Whereas the goodness of God gives assurance for the future, it’s the failure and disobedience of the Israelites that is disconcerting. Why did they fall? Because they forgot the goodness of God.
Forgetfulness can have dire consequences. This isn’t a single instance, but a continuous habit of not taking the Lord seriously and taking His goodness for granted. Forgetfulness has parallels to presumption, cheap grace, and a false sense of faithfulness. The exercise of this prayer of remembrance brought this spiritual reality to the forefront.
“Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.” Have any of us duly considered how much we have to be thankful for? Do we remember that the mercies of the Lord are new every morning and that His faithfulness faileth not? Do we acknowledge our dependence upon Him and express gratitude for all His favors? On the contrary, we too often forget that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.”
How often those who are in health forget the wonderful mercies that are continued to them day by day, year after year. They render no tribute of praise to God for all His benefits. But when sickness comes, God is remembered. The strong desire for recovery leads to earnest prayer, and this is right. God is our refuge in sickness as in health. But many do not leave their cases with Him; they encourage weakness and disease by worrying about themselves. If they would cease repining and rise above depression and gloom, their recovery would be more sure. They should remember with gratitude how long they enjoyed the blessing of health; and should this precious boon be restored to them, they should not forget that they are under renewed obligations to their Creator. When the ten lepers were healed, only one returned to find Jesus and give Him glory. Let us not be like the unthinking nine, whose hearts were untouched by the mercy of God.
The habit of brooding over anticipated evils is unwise and unchristian. In thus doing we fail to enjoy the blessings and to improve the opportunities of the present. The Lord requires us to perform the duties of today and to endure its trials. We are today to watch that we offend not in word or deed. We must today praise and honor God. By the exercise of living faith today we are to conquer the enemy. We must today seek God and be determined that we will not rest satisfied without His presence. We should watch and work and pray as though this were the last day that would be granted us. How intensely earnest, then, would be our life. How closely would we follow Jesus in all our words and deeds!