Covenant with the One True God

Theme Week: 1 God, 1 Messiah: Nehemiah 9

Old Testament Reading: Deuteronomy 3 & 4

Psalms Reading: Psalm 78

To read Nehemiah 9 after Deuteronomy 6 could make a jarring shift of perspective, as we are skipping almost to the end of Old Testament history. But certain elements remain the same. The group that has gathered in mourning is the Hebrew people, hearing Moses’ words from Deuteronomy (“the Book of the Law”). They have received a call to commitment, but not in preparation for the people’s history with God in the promised land. Rather, after looking back on many centuries of Israel’s history, leaders of the people (who at this point are not a nation but under the rule of Persia) are signing a pledge to serve God as they were always meant to.

     A poor understanding of God’s intentions from the Book of the Law was part of the problem. That book is meant to be read aloud to the nation every seventh year (31:9-11), but such readings rarely took place. In fact we are told more than once in Nehemiah that the people had forgotten about certain laws. Just before our chapter the people learned about the existence of the Feast of Booths, and they commemorated it for the first time since the days of Joshua (Nehemiah 8:14-18).

     Reading through the people’s history as the chapter describes it may make it difficult to understand why God did turn back in mercy so often, but God set the precedent at the very start. God “chose” Abram because of his faith and made a covenant with Abram which included blessings on Abram’s descendants; they had to survive (v. 7, NASB). And at the very base level God fulfills promises because God is righteous, not because anyone else is (v. 8). That is part of why God deserves and receives the praise He is given throughout the chapter. God is not like the idols, not only in being real, God is not like the selfish and inconsistent beings they were described as being.

     In jumping from Deuteronomy to Nehemiah we have skipped over centuries of difficult history, full of incomplete response to God’s direction. If you haven’t read the events of that history it might be unclear to you how idolatry maintained its presence in the promised land during those centuries. But even when reading those texts you may be left muttering “why?” at different points. God showed His power in judgment time and again, as well as demonstrating powerful mercy when the people called out to Him, but time and again the people turned away. The mourners did not intend to sugarcoat that history. They arrived at this balanced plea about their situation: “Do not let all the hardship seem insignificant before you . . . However, You are just in all that has come upon us” (v. 32, 33). In effect they said ‘Please don’t decide that we should suffer more for our past failings, but we will not question what you have done.’

     Coming after all that pain, it would be nice to think that the people had finally ended the cycle of idolatry, and established a commitment to the Law, but it seems they had not. The “last straw” event for idolatry in the land was tied to the Maccabean Revolt (160s B.C.). So while the pledge of devotion was a heartfelt effort at a changed relationship with God, it was not permanent, or it did not sweep over the whole people. (The Bible does not record what happened, the events occurred in the 400-year gap between the Old Testament and the New Testament.)

     Lord, I think it can be easy for our own lives to resemble the history of Israel in Nehemiah 9, for you to choose to enter a covenant with us and bring great moments of rescue, and food and water as support in our personal deserts. But many of us have also been through some cycles where we turned stubborn shoulders and stiff necks and wouldn’t give you our ear. Thank you that you are patient and righteous. Thank you that you do not give up on what you know to be true. For myself, at least, thank you for putting me through enough hardship, at least in my heart, to keep me attentive to you and your will. In the name of your Son, Jesus. Amen.

-Daniel Smead

Reflection Questions:

  1. A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties. God chose to put Himself under a covenant with Abram and then reemphasized and clarified it with his descendants. Verse 32 describes God as “the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and lovingkindness” – how important do you think the fact of covenant is to God’s willingness to maintain patience with His people?
  2. Have you felt that you were caught in a cycle of struggles with God? Do you remember that God is in a covenant with you? Recall that God isn’t going anywhere.
  3. It can be striking how unthankful the Hebrews sometimes seemed. Looking through the chapter, find five or so good things God did for the Hebrews – do you think they gave God enough thanks for them?   With that in mind, can you identify items or events that are in any way comparable that God has done or promised for you? Do you think you have thanked God as much as you think the Hebrews should have done in your place? If you have not, what do you think causes the difference? (Is it one of perspective, in perceiving another person’s issues compared to yourself? Is it about thinking the Hebrews should have been more thankful because you know they were punished for their behavior?) How highly do you value the expression of thankfulness to God, in itself? How highly do you think God values it?

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