Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
Typically when confronted with wrongdoing in our lives, we minimized our fault while exacerbating others’. In this passage, we see true repentance is the opposite: Honesty about God’s goodness and our fault, but with ultimate hope in God’s goodness.
Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Derek Kidner
A couple weeks ago on a Friday night my wife and I got our newborn to bed a bit earlier than normal, and so we had about an hour where both kids were asleep before we planned to go to bed. So of course, guess what we did with that beautiful hour of peace and quiet? We got in an argument. We were discussing how to discipline our son best, I didn’t like the way she was responding to me, and I got argumentative and spoke harshly to her in response. Now that’s clear sin on my part. In the book of God’s Law, which the people in Nehemiah are focusing on a lot lately when we arrive at the passage we read today, in the book of Colossians, there is one command and one only given to husbands: Husbands, be not harsh with your wives. So I was 0/1 that night, but when it came time to finally admit we were in an argument, you’ll never guess where I started? I pointed out all the ways my wife was wrong, and all the ways I was reasonable. I exacerbated her guilt and minimized my own. You know what that feels like?
In the passage at which we are looking today, we’re going to see a polar opposite of that. The people of Israel have just celebrated the Feast of Tents for 7 days and had a solemn assembly on the 8th, but apparently after hearing from the Book of the Law day in and day out, they were so convicted for their sin that they stayed 2 extra days, and then assembled again just to, verse 2 tells us, confess their sins and iniquities of their fathers. The Levites lead them in this, and most of the passage is their prayer of confession, and in this prayer they do the opposite of what I did: They go to great lengths to show, without any exaggeration or dishonesty, how righteous and good God is, and how utterly sinful they are. That’s what real repentance looks like, and this passage shows us that rebuilding requires repentance. Why? Because God is good, and we are not…but God is still good.
God is good
The speech of the Levites begins in verse 5 when they call the people to stand up and bless the LORD your God, not just today, but from everlasting to everlasting. They call the people to join them as they speak to God, and that’s where their speech turns next. They begin by ascribing blessedness to God’s glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. His glory is beyond what words can express, and yet words are what we have, so their praise continues in speech. They ascribe to Him in verse 6 that He is LORD, and He alone. He made all things, He preserves all things. After making all things, God chose a man Abram and made a covenant with him and his descendants, to give them a land. Nehemiah and the rest of the Israelites are the descendants of Abraham, and they are now back in the land. They can taste and see the truth of verse 8: You have kept your promise, for you are righteous. God does what He does because of who He is. He keeps His promises because He is righteous.
Then some of Abraham’s descendants, ancestors to Nehemiah’s generation, were afflicted in Egypt, and what did God do? He heard their cry. He performed signs and wonders against the rulers of Egypt in judgment on their arrogance, and through this His name became known not only to Israel, but to the surrounding nations. God divided the sea before His people so that they could go safely through, while He drowned their oppressors in judgment. Once they came through, God led them and gave them shade from the hot desert sun by a pillar of cloud by day, then lit their way by a pillar of fire at night. He came down on Mount Sinai and gave them good laws, teaching them the way to live abundantly. He provided bread from heaven to feed them, water from a rock to quench their thirst, and told them to go into the land He’d promised.
That takes us up through 15, and what is this showing us thus far? It shows us that God is good. He creates a good world, He makes good promises, He keeps those promises, and He keeps those promises even when they are threatened by evil, oppressive forces. His M.O. is to create, to preserve, to bless. Judgment only comes as the revelation of His goodness to evil, where in order to preserve goodness, He judges the perpetrators of evil, and delivers the victims. But behind everything there is goodness, because behind everything that is, there is a good God who created and sustains it. You see how different this story is from the story we’re told today? The story we’re told today is that God and religion are nice stories we tell ourselves, but if you get behind them, the real world is purposeless and driven forward by survival of the fittest. Behind everything there is just power. The Bible tells a better story, and a truer one: Yes, a lot of what passes as positive thinking today is sentimentality, and so is a lot of religion. When you peel it back, you uncover a world of evil and suffering. There was a real Egypt, a real oppressor. But there is another layer. You haven’t deconstructed far enough if you end there. Behind all the evil there is goodness, because there is a good God. We have no ultimate reason to be cynical.
Now if we stopped there, we’d have great cause for rejoicing, but no reason for repentance. So why does rebuilding require repentance? Because although God is good, we are not.
We are not
We already see a hint of this in that there was a real Egypt who oppressed God’s people, but maybe they’re just the bad guys, right? Surely God’s people at least were good. Verse 16 begins to tell us otherwise, and then all throughout the rest of the passage the Levites lead the people in confessing that they and their fathers are not good. In fact, it’s precisely because God is so good that our sin is so heinous. In verse 16 we read that they, the very people created by God, to whom God promised a land, who had been oppressed by the powerful nation of Egypt, but then miraculously delivered by God through clear, visible signs of salvation for them and judgment upon their enemies, who had been guided by a pillar of cloud and fire through the wilderness, those people acted presumptuously, stiffened their neck, and did not obey the commandments of the very God who did all these things for them. If you wrong someone who wronged you, it’s still wrong, but we understand it on some level, and typically don’t punish it as harshly in our legal system. If you wrong someone who did nothing wrong to you, just out of cold blood, we know that’s another level of evil, and we do punish it more harshly. But what about if you wrong someone who not only did nothing wrong toward you, but did everything right?! Who could rebel against one who gave them everything, who rescued them from slavery, who gave them a home and a future?
We could, and, in fact, our fathers did. What does that say about us? Just as God’s creation, promise making, promise keeping, deliverance from slavery, guidance, and provision said something about Him, that He is good, the fact that we could and do still refuse to obey such a God says something about us: We are not good. Today we’re accustomed to thinking that if people do bad things, it’s because bad things happened to them. There is some obvious truth to that, too. Many of our world’s most notorious criminals had brutal backgrounds. But there are still questions all of us must eventually face, whatever hardships we’ve been through: Did you have a choice? Did you really have to disobey God’s commands? What wrong did God do to you, to warrant your rebellion? Other people may have wronged you, sometimes in terrible ways, but when you refuse to obey God, you refuse to obey pure goodness. The Bible’s story shows us that we don’t ultimately sin because we’ve been sinned against; we sin because we’re sinners. Even when God has been nothing but good, we stiffen our necks against Him. As this passage continues, the cycle just repeats itself: God’s good to the people, they refuse to obey Him, then God’s good to them again, and they refuse to obey Him again. That’s why rebuilding requires repentance.
And this passage shows us what that involves: An honest acknowledgement that what we did was sin, and it was no one’s fault but our own. Just look at how that’s done in this passage. I’m going to just read you all the ways in which sin is confessed in this passage: Presumption (16), stiff necks (16), did not obey (16), refused to obey (17), not mindful of God’s wonders (17), blasphemy (18), disobedient (26), rebel (26), cast your law behind their backs (26), killed your prophets (26), did evil (28), sinned against God’s rules (29), turned a stubborn shoulder (29), would not obey (29), would not give ear (30), acted wickedly (33), not kept your law (34), not paid attention to your commandments (34), did not serve you (35), did not turn away from wicked works (35). Are they being too hard on themselves? Is this just self-loathing? Are they exaggerating to make themselves sound as bad as possible? NO! They’re trying to be as honest and accurate as possible, and that means calling their sin what it is. Do you confess sin like this? Notice some phrases they never say: “We made a mistake.” “We slipped up.” “But we did do some good that one time.” “But we were really tired that day.” They don’t even say, “But we’d suffered so much in Egypt,” though they had. Repentance that sounds like that isn’t repentance; it’s image repair.
When you’ve sinned, acknowledge to God that you disobeyed, it was your fault, and it was nothing less than rebellion against God. If the sin is of a more high-handed and scandalous nature and/or has become a pattern in your life, this passage at least shows us the appropriateness of taking more time to fast and mourn that sin. If it’s corporate, it should be confessed corporately, as here. If it’s generational, the sins of the past generations should be confessed with it, as here. Whatever the format, we must admit that we sinned because we’re sinners. We have done something toward God, refusing to obey Him, when God deserved the opposite. He’s been good because He is good; we’ve not been good because we are not good.
That’s scary to admit. It’s scary to admit because we are giving up all our defenses. We know God’s righteous decree that those who do not obey Him deserve His judgment, and real repentance is saying, “Yes. That’s me.” It’s one thing to be guilty and in power; you can apologize then without fear of repercussions. It’s one thing to be weak, but innocent; at least then you can rightly say, “I don’t deserve this”! But with respect to God, we are both weak and guilty. He has all the power and all the right to judge us. What hope is there for such people? Our hope is that though we are not good, God still is.
God is still good
After 10 verses of God’s goodness we come to the confession of verse 16, and we might expect 10 verses of confession, but verse 17 doesn’t even end before the prayer turns back to God. After confessing that they refused to obey God’s commands and actually tried to go back to slavery in Egypt, the Levites say, “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” and therefore, again because of who God is, look at what God did: He did not forsake them. Even when they worshiped the golden calf, God did not forsake them. He sustained them forty years in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell. Then God brought them into the land, multiplied them, and gave them victory over their enemies, and nevertheless, verse 26, they were disobedient. So God gave them over to their enemies, and then when they suffered and cried out to God, He delivered them again. Then they sinned again. So God sent them prophets to warn them, and they killed the prophets. So God sent them into exile, and nevertheless, in His great mercy God did not make an end of them or forsake them, because once again of who He is: A gracious and merciful God.
And now, verse 32, the Levites ask God to not let the hardship that has come upon them see small. They affirm again in verse 33 that in all this God has been righteous: He’s been nothing but good and just, and here’s kind of a summary of the whole passage thus far. Here’s the big idea: You have dealt faithfully; we have acted wickedly. Verse 35: Even when everything was going great for us, we did not serve you. And yet here they are still praying, asking God to see their slavery, having the audacity in some ways to ask God to care about the fact that they are still ruled by a foreign nation, even though they’ve been abundantly clear that they’ve gotten exactly what they’ve deserved and God has acted entirely righteously. And they get such audacity, such hope, because however wicked we are, God is still good.
I read a moment ago all the ways our sin is described in this passage. Let’s compare that now with all the ways God is described: Glorious, exalted, maker, the one who chose Abraham, the one who kept His promise, righteous, the one who saw the affliction of our fathers, the one who divided the sea before them, the one who cast all their pursuers into the depths, the one who led them, the one who came down and gave right and true laws, who gave bread from heaven, water from a rock, who told them to go in and possess the land He’d sworn to give them, a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, the one who did not forsake them, who did not forsake them in his great mercies, who gave His good Spirit, who did not withhold His manna, who gave them kingdoms and peoples and allotted to them every corner, who multiplied their children, brought them into the land, subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, gave them into the hand of their enemies, but then according to His great mercies gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies, heard from heaven, warned them, bore with them, gave them into the hands of the peoples of the lands, but nevertheless in His great mercies did not make an end or forsake them, for He is a gracious and merciful God, the great, the mighty, the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, who is our God.
And today, we have the privilege of adding to the list. Now we can not only bless Him in these ways, but we can say with Paul, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places… In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,” (Eph 1:3, 7). How do we ultimately know that God is still good, even when we respond to His goodness with rebellion? Because while we were still sinners, God the Father sent God the Son to shed His blood for the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of His grace. Who does such a thing for people who over and over again refuse to obey Him? A God so good that even all of our sin can’t stop Him from being good to us.
That’s why we repent. We repent because God is good, and we are not, but we have hope, that He is so good, that He will forgive us still if we will just turn to Him. Christ has offered a sacrifice sufficient to cover the sins of whoever would draw near to God through Him. Repent today. Stop hiding, minimizing, justifying, or just trying harder. Get down in the dust, confess your sins, and He will forgive you. He will forgive you, and…He will change you. Jesus Christ not only died, He rose again, and the very power that rose Him from the dead has the power to change you. The Holy Spirit humbles the presumptuous, softens stiff necks, and makes those who refuse to obey eager to obey. As you see God’s goodness again and again, as you see your sin again and again, and as you repent again and again, he will forgive you again and again, and He will transform you from one degree of glory to another.
It’s how transformation happens. Let me close with this: A year or so ago my wife and I were going to watch a movie together and she somehow convinced me to watch “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the Tom Hanks movie about Mr. Rogers. I actually ended up really liking it. One of the things the movie does well is depict Mr. Rogers as about the kindest person you could possibly imagine. The other main character in the movie is the journalist writing on him, and he kinda wants to hate Mr. Rogers, but every time he does something nasty to him, Mr. Rogers responds with kindness, until eventually, the guy gives up, and returns Mr. Rogers’ kindness with kindness. And so with us, it is the kindness of God, on full display at the cross, that leads us to repentance. You ready to give up yet? You ready to stop fighting against Him? The path forward is repentance. It’s the safest, most joyful thing you can do in response to such a kind and gracious God.