In Daniel 9, Daniel sits down with the book of Jeremiah and works out the number of years Israel should expect to be in captivity. Israel will need to hold on for 70 years. Deliverance is not going to come quickly and therefore patient obedience and faithfulness over the long haul is going to be necessary.
During that 70 years, Israel is going to be shepherded by Gentile rulers. Isaiah tells us that these same Gentile rulers will also then shepherd Israel back home.
This return to the land begins under Cyrus, king of Persia. It will be another Exodus in which the people will receive the wealth of the nations in order to go and rebuild the House of the Lord.
The main characters during this period are men like Zerrubabel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah. The focus is on God’s promise to restore a repentant people and prepare them for the coming of the Lord.
When threats, laziness, fear or doubts come upon Israels’ returnees, men like Haggai and Zechariah are there to prophesy and encourage Israel to keep rebuilding.
Zechariah, in particular, looks forward to the day of the Lord and after Isaiah, refers to the coming Messiah more than any other prophet.
It is a new day for Israel. However, it’s still the old Israel, with its temptations to inter-marriage, idolatry and disregard for the law.
And so we also meet Malachi, who urges the people to give to God what is God’s and to stop their corruption and oppression lest He comes and strikes the land with a curse.
In Ezra and Nehemiah, much of the attention is given to the spiritual state of the people.
It is a time of renewal and restoration. A restoration that flows from a repentant heart.
Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. (Nehemiah 8:10)
Two weeks after the party of Nehemiah 8, Israel knuckles down to some planned repentance. And that’s what is going on in the events of Nehemiah 9. It’s a religious service.
Let’s look at the elements of this service.
In verses 1-3, 5 we have gathering and mourning. In verses 6-8 there is a prayer of praise. Exalting in God as Redeemer and Creator. In verses 13-15 they are called to reflect on the history of God’s people from Egypt to Sinai and, in verses 16-38 they recall their rebellion from Sinai to the present day.
Notice the repentance, mourning and worship follow the reading of Gods word. The event has structure.
What should we make of planned repentance and organised mourning?
The modern world and even the church have a tendency to despise tradition and order. We see spontaneity as more spiritual. But the Bible teaches us that thoughtful and orderly worship is perfectly acceptable. In fact, orderly worship is the norm and spontaneity is the exception.
How do you feel about written prayers? Do you suspect that they are any less heartfelt or sincere because they are thoughtful and prepared with care? Read Lamentations 1-3. It’s a written prayer organised as an acrostic poem.
Just because something is planned, just because it’s poetic, doesn’t mean it isn’t true or sincere. The idea that spontaneous worship is somehow superior to planned, organised worship is unbiblical.
We often have trouble with this formality in our worship. Not only do we think that spontaneity is more spiritual, but we also think it’s more genuine.
When was the last time you set aside an hour for repentance?
Modern man has an aversion to structure. The aversion is pagan in origin with roots in the chaos cults.
Some will ask, “Isn’t it hypocritical to confess my sin if I don’t really feel it? The answer is no. Hypocrisy is not at all a necessary consequence.
How much feeling is necessary? How sorry is, “truly sorry”? Many who make a great noise about their sin aren’t sorry at all.
If you say or do something sinful, don’t compound it by denying that it was sinful and don’t compound it by saying that, because of my lack of shame or desire I am not going to confess it.
Instead, in addition to your original sin, you ought to be confessing your hardness of heart, your inability to repent, and your lack of desire for truth and restoration.
Restoration is a key aspect in Nehemiah and a key element in repentance.
There were no prisons in Israel. There was guilt, confession, restoration and punishment.
The worship that follows in Nehemiah 9 begins with a proclamation of God’s character.
Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. (Nehemiah 5)
The point being made here is that redemption rests entirely on His character. Why come to this God for deliverance? Because He is the Creator, Sustainer of life. He is the Redeemer of the children of Abraham.
He is God. His dignity and glory demand our reverence. That’s why we stand to worship Him.
We come because we have sinned. We come because He is merciful.
Who will lift the weight of guilt from your shoulders.? On the last day, who will forgive your sin?
Either you come to the God of All Mercy and have your sins washed away or else you must bear them forever.
Finally, the people not only claim that the Character of God is altogether good, they then spend the rest of the time appealing to the evidence.
It was God who delivered them from Egypt. It was God who sustained them in the wilderness.
It was God who gave them laws that were good, true and holy laws to live by.
Again and again, Israel tries to run its own race and ends up in disaster. Again and again, God forgives them, disciplines them, and takes them back.
The point of this whole worship service is really to say, “You see God, nothing ever changes, doesn’t seem to matter how often you show your mercy, inevitably, we, your people, blow it!”
But then comes the word of hope.
We rebelled, but God still provides. We stumble, but we still exist. We wander, God brings us back.
And from beginning to end it is all the work of a compassionate and gracious God.
With these things in mind, Israel gathers to make a firm covenant: From now on, we are going to worship God, and Him only will we serve. But by the end of Nehemiah, which, chronologically is the end of what we call the Old Testament, we find that when the cats’ away, the mice will play.
Nehemiah does his best, but as soon as he turns his back, the rot begins to set in.
It is not going to be enough for Israel to have an outwardly reformed life and community. However wonderful it may be, it is not going to be enough to have a God in heaven, who, from His lofty abode continually forgives our sins.
No matter how sincere the confession, or repentance, no matter how elaborate our covenants and promises… These are not enough.
The only solution there could ever be was for God Himself to come down and dwell among us, as one of us.
And not only that, but He must remain with us: make His home among us and change who we are.
He must establish a covenant with one whose perfect obedience would render the covenant unbreakable and then, share the blessings of that covenant with all who are with Him out of sheer undeserved grace.
And that is exactly what He was preparing to do.