Nehemiah 9 Father-Land

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Questions: When should we mourn? Dare we criticize our forefathers? What must we separate ourselves from? What does it mean to consider ourselves sinful, and God holy? Is that a safe assumption? “Read More” to pursue answers in Nehemiah.

Lord, speak to me through your Spirit and your Word, your Body and your Blood;
that I might know you as you are, and manifest the image of Christ in this world,
and the world to come. Amen.

Nehemiah 9:1-37

Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them.

Hmph. I thought the leaders had just convinced them not to mourn. I guess the point is that THAT wasn’t the time to mourn, but THIS is. In other words, our first reaction to the Law should be celebration: God has taken an interest in us, and we are valuable and precious in his sight. Yeah! Dwell on that; then, after that has thoroughly sunk in, we can approach repentance with the proper mindset: one of hope, not shame.

And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.

Whoa! There’s a lot going on here. Three things at least:

a. separation from what is foreign
b. admission of their own wrongs
c. recognition of their father’s wrongs

I must admit, both (a) and (c) bother me: they feel too much like blaming others. Still, they bracket taking personal responsibility, so perhaps they’re legitimate. Let’s take a closer look:

And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of the LORD their God [one] fourth part of the day; and [another] fourth part they confessed, and worshipped the LORD their God.

I gotta admit, that sounds like a very healthy balance: start with the Law of God, then move into a combination of confession and worship. And that’s only the first half of the day! Apparently that’s just the warmup before they get into the serious praise:

Then the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiah, Hodijah, Shebaniah, [and] Pethahiah, said, Stand up [and] bless the LORD your God for ever and ever: and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.

They go on to praise God for:

* being worshipped by the host of heaven
* choosing and establishing Abraham
* covenanting the land to him
* hearing the people’s cries from Egypt
* showing the power of His name against Pharaoh
* leading by day and night
* giving the Law and bread, and a promise of Land

So far, so good. I am reminded of Andrew Wommack’s injunction to base our prayer lives on praise, so that we live God-centered lives. Otherwise, confession becomes condemnation, and petitions become punishment.

In this case, though, remembering who God is does seem to lead naturally to confession:

But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments

Hmm. I think I finally understand what’s going on here. The Israelites are not so much blaming their parents as they are honoring God:

And refused to obey … but thou [art] a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not.

Yea, when they had made them a molten calf… Yet thou in thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness

Far from being a cheap way to escape blame, the Israelites are doing what we might call a post-mortem. The crucial question they are asking is, “Is God good? Is He justified in His judgments?” And they answer with a resounding yes — even thought it means confronting the shame of their fathers. From from being an easy escape into victimhood, they are actively confronting their deepest fears. Rather than justify themselves (in the person of their forefathers), they instead give glory to God for providing:

* food
* the land
* possessions

But this act of giving glory is hardly an innocuous platitude. In fact, it leads inevitably to confession of sin:

Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs, and slew thy prophets which testified against them to turn them to thee, and they wrought great provocations.

which thus vindicates their suffering as an act of God’s justice:

Therefore thou deliveredst them into the hand of their enemies, who vexed them:

and opportunity for God’s mercy:

and in the time of their trouble, when they cried unto thee, thou heardest [them] from heaven; and according to thy manifold mercies thou gavest them saviours, who saved them out of the hand of their enemies.

over and over again:

But after they had rest, they did evil again before thee: therefore leftest thou them in the hand of their enemies, so that they had the dominion over them: yet when they returned, and cried unto thee, thou heardest [them] from heaven; and many times didst thou deliver them according to thy mercies

for a very long time:

Yet many years didst thou forbear them, and testifiedst against them by thy spirit in thy prophets: yet would they not give ear: therefore gavest thou them into the hand of the people of the lands.

Amazingly, they recount all this without bitterness, but rather with gratitude:

Nevertheless for thy great mercies’ sake thou didst not utterly consume them, nor forsake them; for thou [art] a gracious and merciful God.

This is no small thing. How many of us can speak so blithely and humbly about the pain we’ve suffered? And say with them:

Howbeit thou [art] just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly:

So, let’s ask the hard question: are they correct? Might they just be rewriting history to accord with their own self-flaggelating dysfunction? Is God really that just? Heck, is the whole thing just a revisionist narrative foisted on them by Ezra?

Maybe. All we have is Ezra’s word, after all, since pretty much all the reliable manuscripts we have came through him. If we decide not to trust him, it is pretty easy to not trust anything.

Yet, two things stand out. One is the incontrovertible fact that they were delivered: after being scattered for seventy-odd years, they are not merely allowed to return home, but given authority and power to rebuild their walls. Somebody sure delivered them — and Nehemiah and Ezra, the two leading human candidates, respond in a very unusual way. In my experience, most human beings who invoke the divine use it to receive glory: God chose me! They take the opposite approach: don’t thank us; thank God!

The other is the odd fact that this is the healthy approach. Jim Collins, in his research on how companies go from Good to Great, chronicles how effective leaders inevitably take blame upon themselves, but give credit to others. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Israelites were accurate in their self-assessment. However, it does mean that they pulled off an essential — and difficult — feat of ego-free analysis; something manage by few communities even in the modern age. Perhaps more tellingly, this provided a depth of understanding that sustained their nation for over four centuries — no small feat in any age. Not to mention the fact that it still provides the backbone of their (and our) culture and religion two millennia later!

And yet.. that still doesn’t prove that they were right. At one level — no matter how emotionally painful — there is a certain intellectual simplicity in attributing everything to God; which can be dangerously seductive and convenient. Can we really know that God is in fact behind all this, that it is not just our imagination and wish-fulfillment?

To me, that comes back to the epistemic question of whether can we in fact know anything at all. I believe that:

a. ultimately, only the truth works
b. the better something works, the closer it must be to the truth

The lives of Nehemiah and Ezra stand as a powerful validation of the truth they say they lived by. Can I say the same?

Prayer

God, it is hard to accept that you are just. That statement seems simultaneously too facile an explanation to take seriously, as well as too brutal a reality to bear contemplating. If you are Good, then I must face the fact that I am Not.

Yet, ultimately, it doesn’t matter how hard or easy it is to believe, but whether it is True. And I have the testimony of countless generations of men — men who fought and died, who loved and built — that you are True. Those who chose to honor you and lose themselves have created incredible value: institutions and wisdom that survived the ages. Those who sought to save their own lives inevitably lost them, and many others’ as well.

God, I choose to align myself with Ezra and Nehemiah. I take responsibility for my sin and suffering, and repudiate every aspect of my heritage and past that sets itself up against the knowledge of Your glory. Not blame — where is the profit in that? — but the responsibility to confront what is wrong, discover what is right, and then do it. Which I know can only be done by your grace, and in your name. The name of Jesus, by which I pray. Amen.

About the Title:

Today’s title, with its disturbing echoes of Nazi Germany, is a sober reminder of how much is at stake when we attempt to interpret the actions (and failures) of our fathers.

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