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The Word And Prayer
The relations of the word of God and prayer come out vividly in this portion. The seven days’ ministry of the Word had had a most blessed effect, so that “in the twenty and fourth day of this month (the same month that was ushered in by the great Bible-reading) the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sack-clothes, and earth upon them. And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers. 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 worshiped the Lord their God” (vers. 1-3).
The order here is most instructive. It was first the Word, then prayer, confession, and worship. The Word had been having its effect in a wonderfully real way since the seven days’ feast. What that Word judged, they had been judging. What that Word commanded they had sought to do. Hence we have as a result the remnant reaching what was probably the highest moral state they ever occupied from the Babylonian captivity to the coming of Messiah. Their separ- ation was complete. “They separated themselves from all strangers.” It was now for the first time that position and condition seemed to coalesce.
And so they come together again desiring to learn more of the mind of God that it might lead to increased devotedness. So the Bible-reading is again prominent. The first quarter of the day is spent in hearing the Word. Then the next quarter is given up to prayer: “They confessed and worshiped the Lord their God.” It is unwise, and may be hurtful, to reverse this order. The Word and prayer should ever go together-but it should be the Word first; then prayer follows intelligently. The believer should be a man holding the even balance of learning from the Word and cultivating the spirit of prayer. We need to hear God speaking to us that we may speak rightly to God.
One who gives himself pre-eminently to the Word, neglecting prayer, will become heady and doctrinal-likely to quarrel about “points,” and be occupied with theoretical Christianity to the hurt of his soul and the irritation of his brethren. On the other hand, one who gives himself much to prayer while neglecting the Word is likely to become exceedingly introspective, mystical, and sometimes fanatical. But he who reads the word of God reverently and humbly, seeking to know the will of God, and then gives himself to prayer, confessing and judging what the Scriptures have condemned in his ways, and words, and thoughts, will have his soul drawn out in worship also, and thus grow both in grace and in knowledge, becoming a well-rounded follower of Christ. Apart from a knowledge of the Word, prayer will lack exceedingly in intelligence; for the objective must ever precede the subjective, but not be divorced therefrom.
Here, in Nehemiah 9:0 (which as we have else where noticed is linked, in confession, with Daniel 9:0 and Ezra 9:0), the Levites lead the people in their prayer and praise, standing “on the stairs,” as though going up to the heavenly sanctuary. And in the prayer that follows-the longest in the Bible (Solomon’s dedicatory prayer being considerably shorter)-there is much blessed instruction as we listen to the rehearsal of God’s ways with their fathers and the confession of their own failure and sin.
The opening words remind us of the beginning of what is generally called the Lord’s prayer-and of what should occupy a pre-eminent place in all prayer-“Hallowed be Thy Name.” The Levites called on all the people to stand tip and bless the Eternal One, their God, whose glorious name is exalted above all blessing and praise. To Him alone creation is ascribed and, as though testifying against the idolatry all about them that led the nations to worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, they acknowledge that “all the host of heaven worship Him.” He it was who had chosen Abram, bringing him out of Ur of the Chaldees, making him in very deed to answer to his new name Abraham-“the father of a multitude.” To him the promise of the land of Canaan was given which in due course was fulfilled in his seed-multitudinous as the sand of the sea, brought out of Egyptian bondage, led through the sea and the wilderness by the cloudy pillar, first to the mount of God and then to the land of promise (vers. 4-12). The Levites celebrated the giving of the law at Sinai; and it is of moment to notice that they declare it was then-and not before-that the holy Sabbath was made known to them (ver. 14). This would seem conclusive evidence that whereas God sanctified the seventh day at the completion of His work, as recorded in the second chapter of Genesis, He did not give it to man by command until He had a redeemed people gathered about Himself in the wilderness. It was a sign, or reminder, not alone of God’s rest after the creative days, but of the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage, and the pledge of a rest yet to come.
But after celebrating the mighty acts of the Lord, the Levites go on to confess the fearful break-down of the people, and that from the very first. Their fathers dealt proudly, and in place of recognizing their dependence on this mighty Deliverer who had wrought so wondrously on their behalf, they hardened their necks and harkened not to His commandments-in their rebellion desiring even to return to the very land of bondage from which He had taken them. Their wilderness history was a most humbling record, full of evidences of their folly, and yet abounding with testimonies of Jehovah’s faithfulness, who sustained them through all those forty years “so that they lacked nothing; their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not” (vers. 13-21). And when at last they reached the land given by covenant to Abraham, the nations therein were rooted out before them and they themselves planted in their place; there they multiplied and grew, rejoicing in the abundance of the fruitful fields of Canaan, and delighting themselves in the great goodness of their covenant-keeping God (vers. 22-25).
But disobedience and rebellion characterized them almost from the days of Joshua, and God’s holy law they cast behind their back, despising His precepts and slaying His prophets when such were sent to show them their sin and call them back to subjection to His word. When, in their distresses, they cried to Him He granted them deliverance-not for their deserts, but for His own name’s sake, according to His mercies; thus again and again manifesting His tender loving and care.
Yet scarcely had He interposed on their behalf than they turned aside as before, sinning against His judgments (that is, the testimonies rendered), “which if a man do he shall live in them,” thus fighting against His Holy Spirit who spake in the prophets; until, at last, the kings of Assyria and Babylonia were permitted to root them out of their inheritance, carrying them captive to the land of the stranger.
The Levites own the justice of all God’s dealings with the nation. “Thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly,” is their humble acknowledgment. And they go on to confess how their kings, princes, priests and fathers had not kept the law, nor harkened to His commandments, nor turned from their wicked works; and so they remained bondmen to that very day, subject to the kings of Persia; even though a little reviving had been granted them, and they had been gathered once more at God’s centre. Now, bearing in mind all the evil consequences of disobedience in the past, they made a “sure covenant” (alas, again to be soon broken!) and, putting it in writing, signed and sealed it; pledging themselves to cleave to the Lord, to separate from all strangers, and faithfully to do His will (vers. 33-38).
That they were truly in earnest none can doubt, but the future would show once more, as the past so often had done, that man is not to be trusted, and that were God’s covenant based on human faithfulness, instead of divine grace, all hope for man’s lasting blessing: would be vain.
Yet it is well to have such seasons of exercise as this which we have been contemplating. Undoubtedly, it was for many a step forward, which they never retraced, although for the nation, as such, there could be no full restoration till the advent of God’s Anointed.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Nehemiah 9". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent