Putting First Things First
October 29, 2000 | Brian Bill
Earlier this week I was sitting in my office when I received an email from my youngest sister. She and her husband have been attending a church for a while and have become interested in spiritual things. We’ve been praying for both of them for quite some time and have known that they’ve been close to making a spiritual commitment to Christ.
Here’s part of her letter: “I have joined a women’s Bible study through church. We met for the first time last Monday and I really liked it…The books were on back order so last week we just sort of talked and the women answered a lot of my questions. I seem to have so many. By the way, I never made it through the first Left Behind book. The first 100 pages scared the pants off me and I got the point quickly…the message came to me loud and clear.
I’ve probably asked the Lord to come into my heart and change my life 50 times, and Pastor Glenn said that asking once would do just fine. I do not want to be left behind and I want my son and husband to grow together with me. I get worried about the change thing cuz I sort of like my life, but I’m getting the drift and the women in the Bible study will really help me. Honestly, you and Beth have been my inspiration, it has just taken me a while.”
As tears rolled down my face and splashed onto my keyboard, I could barely contain my excitement. I called Beth and we rejoiced together about my sister’s new birth. After praying for her, we hung up and I went back to crying. Just then a friend of mine came to my door, and I noticed that he had tears in his eyes as well. He explained to me that his aunt was dying and would probably not live through the day. He then noticed that I had been weeping. Here we were, two grown men, one rocked by the grief of death, the other impacted by the joy of the new birth. His grief, though deep and real, is tempered by the fact that his aunt is a born again believer. The angels were rejoicing over a new birth, and an aunt was getting ready to spend an eternity filled with jubilant joy.
This underscores the truth that there are times when we are pumped up and there are other times when we are bummed out. In fact, in our spiritual lives, we often experience indescribable joy when we contemplate God’s amazing grace, and we also grieve and mourn over our own tendency to tube out spiritually. Paul linked joy and grief together in Romans 7:22-25: “For in my inner being I delight [that’s joy] in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! [that’s grief]. Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
As we learned last week, God’s people were told to stop mourning and start rejoicing. It’s now later in that same month, the “branch booths” and “tents of twigs” have been taken down. God’s Word is given central attention once again, but instead of jubilant praise, there is a mood of repentant sorrow. Nehemiah 8 focused on God’s Word as it was read, interpreted and applied; in chapter 9, the people respond in prayer with genuine sadness about their sins. Listening to God through His word and responding to Him in prayer are twin aspects of every believer’s experience. There can be no spiritual growth without the regular cultivation of this dual privilege and discipline.
Here’s another way to compare the two chapters. In chapter 8, Ezra and Nehemiah comfort the afflicted. In chapter 9, the comfortable are afflicted. Joy and grief are two sides of the same coin. After a thrilling encounter with God, which causes them to break into celebration, the believers now come face to face with their own depravity.
Interestingly, if you want to study three of the most powerful prayers ever written, they are all found in chapter 9 – of Ezra, Daniel and Nehemiah. Nehemiah 9 records an extended prayer, which is in fact, the longest prayer in the Bible outside the Psalms. D.L. Moody once asked someone to pray during a church service. The man began his prayer and was still droning on after ten minutes had gone by. Finally, Mr. Moody stood up and said, “While our dear brother is finishing his prayer, let’s turn to number 342 and sing it together!” This prayer in Nehemiah is not that long, but it’s a great model for us to study so that we can learn to put first things first.
This prayer is a brilliant mosaic of biblical quotations, recollections, images and phrases. The Levites, who led the people in this prayer of confession, knew Scripture by heart and relied on the language of the patriarchs, prophets, priests and psalmists. This confession accurately expresses the people’s disappointment with themselves and their confidence in God. In other words, this declaration has two elements – they confess who God is and they confess their sins.
I’ve been helped in my study of this passage by Warren Wiersbe’s treatment of the text – I’m going to borrow his outline this morning:
- The Greatness of God (1-6)
- The Goodness of God (7-30)
- The Grace of God (31-37)
The Greatness of God
Verse 1 indicates that the Israelites gathered together on the twenty-fourth day of the month – on our calendar, that would have been October 31st. They were fasting, wearing sackcloth, and had put dust on their heads. These were common signs of mourning that were often done when Old Testament believers were in deep sadness because of a loss or when they were ready to repent and recommit their lives to God.
Verse 2 tells us that they had separated themselves from those who would have a bad influence on them. As they heard the Bible read, they no doubt came across Leviticus 20:26: “You are to be holy to Me because I, the Lord, am holy, and have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” Israel’s history tells the tragic story of what happens when believers don’t make a break from the “world.” Some of us are too cozy with the things of the world as well – God wants us to live distinctive lives that draw people to the Savior. Someone has said that separation without devotion to the Lord can become isolation, but devotion without separation is hypocrisy. Notice that they stood up and confessed, not only the sins of their fathers, but their own sins as well. There was a solidarity in their guilt.
Once we contemplate our own sinfulness we will begin to understand more about God’s greatness
As we learned last week, they couldn’t wait to hear the Word of God. In verse 3, we read that they spent three hours reading the Bible and then three hours in confession and worship. The order here is significant – when we read the Word we will then see how far we come short. Once we contemplate our own sinfulness we will begin to understand more about God’s greatness. As we do, we’ll break out into worship.
Verses 4 and 5 explain how they conducted this service. The Levites divided themselves into two groups. Some were standing on the stairs on one side of the assembly and the other group stood across from them. These two groups called back and forth to the congregation, one group confessing the sins of the people, the other praising God for His greatness. It’s like an antiphonal chorus. The first group “called with loud voices.” This literally means that they “cried out.” The second group focused on God’s character as they sang. In fact, the rest of this chapter gives us the actual words they used. Cries of guilt are followed by shouts of praise for God’s greatness, goodness, and graciousness. Tears of grief form the lyrics of lament while tears of joy transpose the anthem of adoration.
In verse 5, the “worshippers” invite the people to, “Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.” Before they come to a time of necessary confession, they must first praise the one who alone can hear, pardon and change them. He never changes and will never go back on His word because He is eternal.
Their prayer continues in the last part of verse 5: “Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise.” In this chapter, the believers reflect on God’s nature and character as well as His mighty works in history. Adoration is really the heart of true prayer. If you’re struggling with your faith this morning, it may well be because your view of God is too small or too narrow. Or, it may be that your theology is fine, but you don’t think God has much to do with your life today. David Wells, a theologian, refers to this view as the “weightlessness of God.” He writes that our sense of inadequacy or ineffectiveness can be traced to our limited understanding and experience of God: “God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace too ordinary, his judgment too benign, his gospel too easy, and His Christ too common.”
Friends, we must glory in the incomparable magnificence of our grand God. Verse 6 starts off with a clear statement of God’s greatness that is grounded in the opening verses of Genesis: “You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything and the multitudes of heaven worship you.” There is no one like God – the evidence for His greatness is seen in His works of creation as Psalm 19:1 clearly states: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.”
During the French Revolution, many people wanted to get rid of Christianity forever. On one clear night an atheist boastfully proclaimed his beliefs to a poor peasant: “Everything will be abolished – churches, Bibles, and the clergy. Yes, even the word “God” itself! We shall remove everything that speaks of religion.” The peasant gave a quiet chuckle. The atheist wanted to know what the believer was laughing about. The peasant then pointed to the stars and replied, “I was just wondering how you’re going to manage to get all of those bright lights out of the sky!”
It’s always best to begin with the greatness of God. If we focus too much on what He gives to us, or on what we want Him to do for us, we may find our hearts becoming selfish. Do you see God as great this morning? Or, is your God too small?
The Goodness of God
The bulk of this chapter focuses on the goodness of God in verses 7-30. God is very clearly the focal point, as the word “you” is used over 50 times. In verses 7-15, He is the subject of ever sentence and the word “give” is used in one form or another at least 16 different times.
This part of the prayer rehearses the history of Israel, revealing God’s goodness to His people and their repeated failure to appreciate His gifts and obey His will. George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher has said, “He who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it.” Romans 15:4 helps us see the value in studying the Old Testament: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
God’s goodness is seen in at least four ways in Nehemiah 9.
1. Forming (7-18).
In verses 7-18, the prayer begins with how God formed the nation of Israel. He chose Abram and brought him out of Ur and made a covenant with him. Then, when God’s people were suffering in Egypt, verse 10 says that God made a name for Himself by dividing the sea and releasing His people from bondage. In verse 13, they recall God’s goodness in the giving of the Law and in verses 14 and 15, they praise God for how the newly formed nation was given possession of the land that was promised to them.
After this protracted praise time where the focus in on God for His goodness, the choir of confession sings out words of guilt in verses 16: “But they, our forefathers, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and did not obey your commands.” This is followed by a reply from the other side of the choir loft in verse 17: “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them.” They are guilty – but God is good…all the time!
2. Leading (19-21).
After forming the nation, God was committed to lead His people on a daily basis – even when they disobeyed Him. We see that in Verse 19:”Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the desert. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, not the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take.” Verse 20 says that God gave His Spirit to the people to provide for their spiritual requirements and food and water to meet their physical needs. Verse 21 tells us that for forty years, as the children of Israel wandered in the desert, their feet did not swell and their clothes did not wear out.
3. Providing (22-25).
God’s goodness is seen through His forming of the nation and by how he led them on a daily basis. He also provided them with everything they needed. He helped them defeat their enemies and gave them kingdoms and nations. He multiplied their numbers by blessing them with children. Verse 25 is a good summary of how God showed His goodness by providing for their needs: “They captured fortified cities and fertile land; they took possession of houses filled with all kinds of good things, wells already dug, vineyards, olive groves and fruit trees in abundance. They ate to the full and were well-nourished; they reveled in your great goodness.”
Did you catch that? God gave them much more than they deserved. The land was fertile. Their houses were already furnished. The water was already running and the fruit was just waiting to be picked. They had everything they needed. They “reveled” in God’s great goodness, which literally means that they “luxuriated” in God’s provision
In a similar way, God has given us everything we need as well. 2 Peter 1:3: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.” That leads to a question. Are you “luxuriating” in God’s goodness today? Or, are you taking Him for granted? Are you focused more on what you don’t have?
4. Correcting (26-30).
After singing God’s praises for His wonderful provision, the other choir hangs their heads and sings in a dirge-like manner. They remembered how their forefathers acted in the Book of Judges: “But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they put their law behind their backs. They killed your prophets…they committed awful blasphemies.” This is called defiance. They knew what God wanted because He had made it very clear. Even though every one of their needs was met, God’s people exhibited a rebellious spirit and tried to eliminate both the message and the messengers. Instead of praising God for his goodness, they blasphemed Him. As a result, verse 27 tells us that God corrected them by handing them over to their enemies.
I want you to notice how God’s goodness pervades His personality. I picture the “Praise Choir” singing the last stanza of verse 27 fortissimo: “…But when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers, who rescued them from the hand of their enemies.”
As they hold their final note, the “Confession Chorus” rises to its feet and sings what sounds like a requiem in verse 28: “But as soon as they were at rest, they again did what was evil in your sight. Then you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies so that they ruled over them.” The Maranatha singers answer this way: “And when they cried out to you again, you heard from heaven, and in your compassion you delivered them time after time. By the way, aren’t you glad that God delivers each of us “time after time?”
The sad singers then belt out these somber words in verse 29 and 30: “You warned them to return to your law, but they became arrogant and disobeyed your commands. They sinned against your ordinances…stubbornly they turned their backs on you, became stiff-necked and refused to listen.” God corrected them by sending their enemies to rule over them. God used successive world powers to both punish and correct them. First, it was Assyria, then Babylon, Persia, Greece and finally Rome.
But all of this was done because He is a good God. He demonstrates that fact clearly through His forming of the nation, by leading them, by providing for them, and even by correcting them.
Corrie Ten Boom writes: “Deep in our hearts we believe in a good God. Yet how shallow is our understanding of His goodness. How often I have heard people say, ‘How good God is! We prayed that it would not rain for our church picnic, and look at the lovely weather!’ Yes, God is good when He sends good weather. But God was also good when He allowed my sister Betsie to starve to death before my eyes in a German concentration camp.
God is great and He is good. There’s one more part of His character that is given prominence in this chapter – He is gracious.
The Grace of God
The “praise team” sings out again in verse 31: “But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” God does not treat His people as they deserve – and that’s a good thing because He is a great, mighty and awesome God! Because He is a God of grace, He is good to His people even when they are not good to Him. In His mercy, God didn’t give them what they deserved; and in His grace, He gave them what they didn’t deserve.
Drop down to verse 33: “In all that has happened to us, you have been just; you have acted faithfully, while we did wrong.” The “grief team” finishes this chapter by singing about the wrong things the people had done, and how they are slaves to others because of their sins. Did you notice the change in pronouns here? Instead of focusing on “their” sins, the people now say, “we did wrong.” Until we can personally own our specific transgressions, we will miss out on experiencing the grace of God.
The closing stanza ends on a jarring note, “We are in great distress.” The people recognize that generation after generation; the same sin problems seem to come back. Some of you here this morning are brave enough to admit that you are in great distress. You have your own history of good intentions that fell apart. You’ve seen the cycle of sin in your life where you mess up, and then repent and confess, and then walk with God and then sin and repent and confess all over again. And God delivers you time and again.
God doesn’t just offer help from heaven. He offers help from the inside to those of you who are born again. It is possible to change. God himself invests in us in ways that we discover over a lifetime. We don’t have to stay in the sin cycle any longer. Jesus has joined us in the process, and that’s the indescribably good news. We have a royal, a divine, permanent Companion.
Listen to how the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus’ ministry to us in 4:14-16: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
There is grace, mercy, companionship and strength through Jesus – not just when we have tears of gladness; but when we have tears of grief
Instead of sinning and confessing and sinning and confessing over and over again, when we’re struggling, failing, being tempted in the midst of the battle, let’s draw near to him. Let’s covenant together. God isn’t sitting back waiting for us to fail. There is grace, mercy, companionship and strength through Jesus – not just when we have tears of gladness; but when we have tears of grief. So let’s draw near to Him.
This entire chapter speaks of grace. God demonstrates His greatness and His goodness and what do the people do? They turn from Him. They run from His word. They persist in doing things their own way. In short, they sin repeatedly. At any point, God could have said, “That’s it. You’ve messed up too much. You’re on your own.” While He did send some correction into their lives, He never stopped loving them. When they sinned, God exhibited His grace. Or as Romans 5:20 puts it: “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” The King James Version is even more graphic: “But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”
Max Lucado tells a story about a young girl from Brazil who wanted to see the world.
Discontent with a home having only a pallet on the floor, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove, she dreamed of a better life in the city. One morning she slipped away, breaking her mother’s heart. Knowing what life on the streets would be like for her young, attractive daughter, Maria hurriedly packed to go find her. On her way to the bus stop she entered a drugstore to get one last thing. Pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of small black-and-white photos, she boarded the next bus to the city.
Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. When pride meets hunger, a human will do things that were before unthinkable. Knowing this, Maria began her search in bars, hotels, and nightclubs, any place with a bad reputation. She went to them all. And at each place she left her picture—taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, fastened to a corner phone booth. And on the back of each photo she wrote a note.
It wasn’t too long before both the money and the pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The weary mother wept as the bus began its long journey back to her small village. It was a few weeks later that young Christina descended the hotel stairs. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times over she had longed to trade these countless beds for her secure pallet. Yet the little village was, in too many ways, too far away.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back was this compelling invitation. “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.” She did. (Max Lucado, No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, Multnomah Press, 1986, pp. 158-9)
Friend, no matter what you’ve done or who you’ve become, it doesn’t matter. Jesus wants you to come home. In verse 38, it says that the people made a “binding agreement” and put it into writing. That means it was personal. It was practical. And it was public.
What do you need to do this morning? First of all, do you personally see God as great, as good, and as gracious? If not, determine to lock into these theological truths and to never doubt them again. Personalize your faith by making it real.
Secondly, based on who He is, what is the Holy Spirit prompting you to do right now? What practical step does He want you to implement?
Thirdly, how can you make your decision public? If you’re in a small group, and I hope you are, you could tell your group this week. You could call a friend and tell him or her. If you’re a believer and have never been baptized, you could take that step. Or, you could slip out of your chair during our closing song and come forward – for confession or for conversion.
I believe so strongly in the Word of God and in the Holy Spirit’s ability to apply His Word, that I’m going to allow the closing this morning to be open ended. Let’s see how God wants you and me to respond.
If tears of tender joy fill your eyes, don’t hold back. And if sobs of sorrow ambush you, follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings.