I am still musing about the questions I raised in my earlier article on grace and the fate of Michael Reid, the former bishop of Peniel church in Brentwood. Last night I was in a Bible study looking at Nehemiah 9-10 and was struck by the relevance of their situation to the Christian struggling with sin.
Their situation was one of success, tempered with realism. Nehemiah’s goal of returning to Jerusalem to help sort out the rebuilding of the city (1:3) had been partially realised. The walls and gates of the city had been repaired (7:1), but there was still a long way to go in terms of returning to God (1:6-7).
And so, on the twenty-fourth day of the seventh month, the people assembled for a ceremony of commitment (9:1). The whole tone of the day was repentance: the people fasted, and put on sackcloth and ashes. They had already separated themselves from the foreigners (9:2), and they confessed all their sins and wickedness. A quarter of the day was given to Bible reading, and another quarter to confession and worship (9:3).
Then came the climax, as the people were called to stand and were led in a prayer that both reminded them of their salvation-history and of the reason for their present difficulty (9:5b-37). God, they reminded themselves, is “our God, the great, mighty and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love” (9:32). Yet, as they admitted to themselves, “In all that has happened to us, you have been just; you have acted faithfully, while we did wrong” (9:33). Hence their present distress: slaves in the very land where God had brought them to deliver them from slavery (9:36-37).
Having admitted all this, therefore, they resolved to change: “In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.” And chapter 10 details this agreement, resolving never to enter marriages with foreigners or to trade on the Sabbath or holy days, and to observe the seven-year sabbatical for the land, funding the temple on a proper basis and bringing in the offerings for God’s house (10:29-39).
Above all, they committed themselves, “with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord” (10:29). We should also note in chapter 5, how Nehemiah had sorted out the treatment of the poor and the charging of interest and excessive taxes.
So we asked ourselves, “What was missing from their commitment to God and to sorting out their problem? What had they not said or done that they should have said and done, or acknowledged that they had failed to acknowledge?” And the answer, as far as we could see, was “Nothing.” They had covered all the bases.
Yet you could tell, even without reading ahead in the Old Testament, that it was not going to work — Israel’s relationship with God would continue on exactly the same uneasy path as before, with the same sins recurring with the same depressing frequency.
And how this is like the Christian struggling with besetting sin, who resolves to overcome! All is confessed, the Bible is read, what has been done wrong is put right, there is even fasting and prolonged prayer. Finally, the resolutions are made: never again! This time I will do it right.
The question is, is there any difference? What have we got that they hadn’t got, and should we expect any more success than they experienced? In the words of Romans 3:9, “Are we any better?”
We closed with this question: if you could have gone back in a time capsule to Nehemiah’s day and preached the gospel to them, what would you have said? And I would add this: would you tell them that, thanks to the Holy Spirit, this time it would work?
Revd John P Richardson
24 April 2008
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