You may have read the email I sent out yesterday with the sermon title, “We Are In Great Distress…” and guessed that our study this morning would be about the current distress we are in as a people living in America today. The title would certainly lend itself to that kind of sermon, but that’s not going to be the focus of our study this morning. I do believe there is much for us to learn concerning our present situation from the Scripture we will take a look at this morning in Nehemiah 9. With all of that said, the title of the sermon has been taken straight out of God’s Word. In Nehemiah 9:37, at the end of Ezra’s prayer, he confesses to God, “We are in great distress.”

We’ll get to that phrase before we are done here this morning, but first I want to set the scene for Nehemiah 9. To do that we have to go back to Nehemiah 8. Once the wall was completed the people told Ezra to bring out the book of the Law of Moses, God’s Word. Ezra did so and he read from God’s Word from “daybreak till noon.” The reading of God’s Word had a profound effect on the people. Read along with me from Nehemiah 8:9-10.

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:9-10 NIV)

The Scripture we just read took place on the first day of the month. That day was not to be a day of mourning, but a day of feasting, of celebrating who God is and what He had done for His people. The context for our study this morning takes place a little more than three weeks later, on the twenty-fourth day of the same month, after the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. Let’s read together from Nehemiah 9:1-3.

1 On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. 2 Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. 3 They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God. (Nehemiah 9:1-3 NIV)

God’s people had been commanded not to weep or mourn three weeks prior because their attention wasn’t to be focused on themselves, but on God. But, the effect of hearing God’s Word three weeks earlier had made an indelible impression on the hearts and minds of God’s people. So we read that on the “twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads.” Wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads were symbols, symbols of repentance and sorrow. What was it that had ignited this sense of sorrow and repentance? It was hearing the Word of God. As they listened to God’s Word read more than three weeks prior it struck them that they and their ancestors had constantly failed to keep the covenant God had made with them. It was not a passing thought, it stuck with them. They couldn’t shake what they had discovered in the Word of God.

Did you notice, in the first three verses of Nehemiah 9, they spent a quarter of the day reading from the “Book of the Law of the LORD their God.” That’s three hours in the Jewish understanding of a day. After listening to God’s Word being read for three hours they spent another three hours confessing their sins and worshiping God. And you thought my sermons were long? How about a six hour worship service?

Nehemiah 9 is one of the most interesting chapters in all of the Bible. It is a picture of true revival. It is the longest prayer in all of the Bible. It is almost a complete history of the Old Testament in one chapter. Let me show you what I’m talking about. If you have your Bible out I want us to take a look at verse 6. This verse automatically makes us think of the creation account in Genesis 1-2. Read Nehemiah 9:6 with me.

6 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. (Nehemiah 9:6 NIV)

When we understand the teaching of Genesis 1-2, that God made everything that exists, He gives “life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship God,” it should stir within us an overwhelming sense of humility and gratitude. This is how Ezra begins his prayer.

What comes next in Ezra’s prayer is a retelling of the history of God in relationship with His Chosen People. We don’t have time to go into detail in each of the sections so let me just give you the outline and you can follow along.

  • In Nehemiah 9:7-8 we have a retelling of God’s Covenant with Abraham.
  • In Nehemiah 9:9-21 we have the story of the Exodus and Israel’s wandering in the wilderness for forty years.
  • In Nehemiah 9:22-25 we have the retelling of the conquest of the Promised Land.
  • In Nehemiah 9:26 we are told of the rebellion of God’s people. Let’s read this verse together.

26 “But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies. (Nehemiah 9:26 NIV)

The rebellion of God’s people is a common thread that runs throughout Ezra’s prayer. We will come back to this in a minute.

  • In Nehemiah 9:27-28, Ezra writes about God’s dealings with His people during the time of the Judges. During the time of the Judges we read about a constant pattern of behavior among God’s people. They turned away from God, rebelled against God, did what was right in their own eyes, and God disciplined His people. In their distress, God’s people cried out to God and He answered their prayers for help because of His great compassion. Once they found relief it was no time before they started turning away from God once again. And this took place over and over again.
  • In Nehemiah 9:31-33 we hear Ezra retelling the greatest truth of God’s Word: God is a God of mercy. Read along with me.

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. 32 “Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love, do not let all this hardship seem trifling in your eyes– the hardship that has come on us, on our kings and leaders, on our priests and prophets, on our ancestors and all your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria until today. 33 In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly. (Nehemiah 9:31-33 NIV)

With all of the rebellion of God’s people, though He would have been justified to walk away from them because of their rebellion, idolatry, and waywardness, God acted in mercy instead. I want us to notice how Ezra transitioned from telling the gory story of his ancestors rebellion to shining the spotlight on the waywardness of his own heart and the sins of his own people. In verse 33, Ezra prays, “In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.”

I want you to know that during the past week, while I have been studying this chapter, I have been thinking about us. In this great distress that we are presently experiencing, I have to tell you, my heart has grown so heavy. For months now I’ve been listening to, reading, and watching blame, about all of the problems we are facing, flung far and wide. Why has this distress held us in its clutches for so long now? It’s “their” fault of course! Those folks, these people, this group, that group, that man, no “that” man, this policy, that failed decision, and on and on the list goes. It is so much easier to point a finger at someone else than it is to take a long look in the mirror isn’t it?

What was it that so deeply impacted the people of Jerusalem that they were overwhelmed with their own sin? What was it that caused them to take ownership in the problems they had been facing as a people for centuries? I have the answer, but before we get to it I want to tell you that it wasn’t government intervention. They weren’t looking for some political party to change the course of history for them. It wasn’t watching hour after hour of CNN, Fox, or MSNBC. It wasn’t searching Twitter or scrolling through a mile long list of Facebook posts. Neither was it endless months of laying on some psychologist’s couch undergoing psycho-analysis. Do you know what it was that pulled back the veil and opened their eyes to the corruption of their own hearts, and in turn produced such an outpouring of sorrow and repentance? It was hearing the Word of God. The people were made aware of their own sin when they came into contact with the Word of God. James Montgomery Boice writes,

…There can be no true sense of what sin is or a knowledge of why it is sinful without a hearing of and response to the Law of God. That is, we will never acknowledge sin to be sin or grieve over it unless we see it as an offense against God, and the only way we will ever see or sense that it is an offense against God is by seeing our actions as contrary to God’s written law. (Boice, James Montgomery. Nehemiah. pg. 99)

The reason why we as a nation are filled with self-righteous people who are quick to cast aspersions on others, point fingers of blame at others, and hold ourselves up as models of morality and righteousness is because we have closed the Word of God and written out our own definitions of what it means to be righteous and holy. It is like we are living in the days of the book of Judges all over again. In the book of Judges we learn that the children of Israel did what was right in their own eyes. They, like us, redefined righteousness, holiness, mercy, grace, and judgment, words that can only be defined and understood by spending time in God’s Word and in understanding God’s character. The people did what was right in their own eyes, and yet we read seven times in the book of Judges, that the children of Israel “did evil in the eyes of the LORD” (Judges 2:11; 3:7; 3:12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1). They did what they genuinely thought was right, but since they had turned their backs on God they had no clue what “doing right” looked like. As a result, God determined that what they were doing was instead, “evil in the eyes of the Lord.” This is what happens when we distance ourselves from God. We become convinced that we are doing right, that our agenda is right and anyone who disagrees with us is wrong, but I want to caution you. “They,” the ones we think are so despicable, the ones we are convinced are to blame for whatever we believe are the greatest evils of our society, are not the only ones who have gone astray. God’s Word tells us,

3 All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:3 NIV)

We need to realize that this statement from God’s Word is not a one time occurrence. When Paul was writing to the members of the church in Rome, he elaborated on this verse. Turn with me to Romans 3:10-18 and let’s read together.

10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18 NIV)

It is when we stop our preoccupation with the sins of others and draw near to God through His Word that we are made aware of our own sin. It is my sin that grieves the heart of God. It is my sin that damages the relationships the Lord has blessed me with in life. It is my sin that eats at my soul and diminishes me as a man called to walk in the steps of my Savior. My sin. My sin. Not your sins, not the sins of those I believe are destroying our society, but my sin. I need to take my eyes off of others and fix my eyes, my heart, and my mind on the Word of God for that is the place I will see most clearly the holiness, righteousness, and majesty of God. If I will draw near to the presence of God things will change within me my friend…and if you will draw near to God things will change within you as well. Let me give you an example.

Isaiah lived in a troubling time. A time that was not unlike our day today. God called Isaiah to speak for Him to the Chosen People, a people who had turned away from God. In Isaiah 1:2 we read,

2 Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. 3 The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” (Isaiah 1:2-3 NIV)

God’s people rebelled against the One who had called them, freed them from slavery in Egypt, established them in their own land, and provided everything they had ever needed. It would have been easy for Isaiah to lose hope, to look around the city and blame everyone else for the wickedness and idolatry he saw taking place.

In the sixth chapter of Isaiah something happened that would radically change Isaiah and alter the course of his life for the rest of his days. Turn with me to Isaiah 6 and let’s read together from verses 1-5.

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. 5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:1-5 NIV)

Before this encounter it would have been so easy for him to focus on the sins of those around him, but once he came into the presence of God, Isaiah said, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

I want to clarify something for us this morning that is vitally important for us to understand. You and I will never truly understand our own sinfulness until we learn about, and come to understand, the holiness, righteousness, grace, mercy, and love of God. As long as I am comparing myself to those around me, I can find folks that will make me feel better about myself, but when I come to understand the holiness and righteousness of God then I know that there is truly nothing good in me that would cause God to love me. God has chosen to love me despite my sin. God has chosen to show me grace knowing full well that I am undeserving. God is faithful even though I have been so unfaithful throughout my life. Do you see why it is so important for us to begin with God and His character?

I want us to spend these last few minutes focusing on what Ezra has to say about God in this powerful prayer found in Nehemiah 9. For the sake of time let’s focus on a section of the prayer we’ve already read. Turn back to Nehemiah 9:31-33 with me. Let’s read together.

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. 32 “Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love, do not let all this hardship seem trifling in your eyes– the hardship that has come on us, on our kings and leaders, on our priests and prophets, on our ancestors and all your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria until today. 33 In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly. (Nehemiah 9:31-33 NIV)

Look at what Ezra says about God. In spite of the rebellion of God’s people, God showed them “great mercy.” Why did He do this? Because God is “gracious and merciful.” In verse 32, Ezra says that God is “mighty and awesome,” and He “keeps His covenant of love.” Then in verse 33, Ezra proclaims that God has “remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.” God is all of these things and more. You can sum all of these attributes of God up with one sentence: Our God is a covenant keeping God. God is the One who established the covenant with Abram and though God’s people have broken fellowship with Him over and over again, God remains faithful.

I want us to close by taking a look at Psalm 136 because it gives us insight into what God’s covenant keeping looks like in real life. As you turn to Psalm 136 let me give you a little background. The Jewish people call Psalm 136, “The Great Hallel” or the “Great Psalm of Praise.” The Psalm recounts God’s goodness and encourages His people to praise Him for His mercy and steadfast love. Psalm 136 is made up of 26 verses and the last phrase of each verse is the same, “For His mercy endures forever.” I want you to imagine a huge gathering of God’s people joined together with the priest leading worship. After the priest says the first phrase of each verse, the massive crowd of people join together in repeating the last phrase: “For His mercy endures forever.” Now I know there’s not many of us here this morning so you are going to have to be extra loud. Let’s give it a shot. Here we go.

1 Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever. 2 Oh, give thanks to the God of gods! For His mercy endures forever. 3 Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords! For His mercy endures forever: 4 To Him who alone does great wonders, For His mercy endures forever; (Psalm 136:1-4 NKJ)

I wanted us to use the New King James translation because it translates the Hebrew word, “?????” (checed), with “mercy” whereas most of the other translations translate the word with “love.” Both words are beautiful and capture the heart of God, but there’s no word in the English language that can truly plumb the depths of the Hebrew word “chesed.” The twenty-six verses of Psalm 136 retell the story of Creation, the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt, their wandering in the wilderness, and the settling of the Promised Land. With each statement of what God did, the people shouted the exclamation point: “For His mercy endures forever!” How did all of these things take place? As God’s people looked back over their history, what was most prominent, how did it all happen? There’s only one answer: “For His mercy endures forever!”

Isn’t that your story as well? I want us to take a moment right now and take a look back. Look back over your life and allow the Lord to show you things you may not have thought about in some time. How do you explain the life you’ve lived? How did you make it this far? You’ve been through hard times, really, really painful times. I know, I have as well, but He has brought us through. We are in the middle of some very crazy, painful times right now, but we must remember… “His mercy endures forever! His mercy endures forever!”

I want to invite you this morning to stop turning away from the Lord when times get tough and turn back to Him this very morning. If you have never made a commitment to follow Jesus then I want to invite you to do that at this time.

Mike Hays

Britton Christian Church

922 NW 91st

OKC, OK. 73114

August 2, 2020

“We Are In Great Distress!”
Nehemiah 9
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