A Gracious and Merciful God (Nehemiah 9:30-31)
Topic: One Lord: No One Like You Passage: Nehemiah 9:30–31
I. With Dawkins and Marcion
Listen to the following modern assessment of ancient Israel's God...
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, mega-lomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
That's the assessment of Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins in his 2008 book, “The God Delusion”. Of course, Dawkins assessment isn't in any way new. In the 2nd century after Christ, a man named Marcion crisscrossed the Roman Empire spreading his teaching that the angry, wrathful God of the Old Testament (OT) could not and should not be identified with the loving God and Father of Jesus Christ; for according to Marcion, they were, in fact, two different gods.
Have you heard this critique before? Maybe deep-down, you can relate to this assessment. Maybe you've also felt that the depiction of God in the OT is disturbingly harsh, and to such a degree that it feels at odds with the New Testament's (NT) God of grace. Whether that reflects your thoughts and feelings or not, let's look together at this issue by considering the OT itself. Turn over to Nehemiah chapter 9.
II. The Passage: “In Your Great Mercies” (9:30-31)
Nehemiah 9 was, of course, one of the passages from Our Bible Reading Plan this past week. At almost 40 verses, chapter 9 is a fairly long chapter. But it should also feel familiar. Why? Well a number of weeks ago, we looked together at a similar passage from the NT, Acts 7. What do Nehemiah 9 and Acts 7 have in common? They both contains simple surveys of OT history. They certainly aren't exhaustive, but both chapters touch on some of the major story beats of the OT narrative: Abraham, Moses, the Exodus, the Promised Land, the prophets.
But think back to our assessment of the OT through Stephen's lens in Acts 7. We concluded that when we use the OT as a spiritual mirror, we recognize that human beings (including us, including me) are spiritually and disturbingly and relentlessly and disastrously... stubborn. As I explained then, “Just as Stephen called his listeners to see themselves in and be sobered by the ancient stories of the OT, God is calling us to do the same today.” As we look at our main text this morning (9:30-31), listen to how this passage confirms, but also goes beyond that idea,
[we read in this prayer...] Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets. Yet they would not give ear. Therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands.  Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.
Who exactly is speaking here? Well, the text simply says in verse 5 that this prayer is the prayer of Levites, some of the same Levites who were working with the people in chapter 8, as the Law of Moses was being announced by Ezra. So let's be clear about two ideas emphasized by these Levites throughout this prayer preserved in Nehemiah 9...
First, God's regular wrath in the OT was a result of Israel's regular wickedness. Stephen was exactly right in his assessment. Scan with me through chapter 9. Verse 16, for example, tells us that Israel “acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey [God's] commandments.” Again in verse 17...
They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery (!) in Egypt.
In 9:18 the listeners are reminded of how Israel “made for themselves a golden calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,’ and had committed great blasphemies” We find that final phrase in verse 26 as well...
Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies.
9:28 tells us “they did evil again before you”, and in v. 29, we read “they acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them, and they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey.”
So these verse show us that Stephen was following in the footsteps of these Levites when he, using this pernicious OT pattern, righteously indicted the Jewish leaders of his day, the very ones who had put Jesus to death. But as I indicated in that previous message, “The mirror (i.e., the OT) that reveals our sinful ugliness is also a window onto the incomparable vistas of God's beauty.” And this exactly where the Levites' prayer in Nehemiah 9 excels.
So the second idea or emphasis we need to be clear about in Nehemiah 9 is this: while there is a weightiness here in regard to human sin and divine justice, the Old Testament is wonder-fully lopsided in regard to God's incomparable grace and mercy.
As I've pointed out, there are seven or eight verses in this prayer, in this chapter, that emphasize the people's wickedness. In no way are these Levites trying to downplay that fact. They don't mince words here, and there conclusion in verse 33 is on point: “Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly.” But in comparison to those seven or eight indictment verses, we find here almost thirty verses extolling the righteousness and goodness and mercy and grace and patience and generosity and faith-fulness of Yahweh.
Example after example from OT history is provided here, too much for us to catalog this morning. One way to see this lopsidedness is simply to look at how the adjective “great” is used in this chapter. As we've already seen, two times we read about the nation's “great blasphemies” (vs. 18, 26). But five times in this prayer we read about God's “great goodness” (vs. 25, 35) and God's “great mercies” (vs. 19, 27, 31). There is absolutely now doubt that the emphasis here is on God's incomparable grace and mercy.
Just look at how this truth is expressed by way of contrast in Nehemiah 9:17...
They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.
So notice when the Levites declare in v. 31, “for you are a gracious and merciful God”, they are referring back to verse 17. And if we had time to do more than survey the OT, if we had time to read the whole thing, we would find that verse 17 is in fact one of seven places throughout the OT where this same confession is made about the God of Israel. We first hear that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” in Exodus 34: 6 (when God reveals his glory to Moses), and this account in Nehemiah is probably the last historical setting recorded in Scripture in which this same confession is repeated.
And it's not surprising that this confession is affirmed here; that it's emphasized here. This remnant of Israel that had returned from exile found themselves, yes, back in the Promised Land... but facing real dangers and hardships. That's why the prayer ends the way that it does...
 “Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you...  Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves.  And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress.”
So is the post-exilic community described here simply emphasizing God in this way because that's who they need him to be? No. The Levites are not distorting the OT's depiction of God. They are celebrating it. The lopsidedness of this prayer in Nehemiah 9 simply reflects the lopsidedness of the whole OT when it comes to the righteousness and goodness and mercy and grace and patience and generosity and faithfulness of Yahweh.
III. The Father's Grace and Mercy
Brother and sisters, friends, isn't that wonderful news? If we circle back to the outset of our study this morning, I think we can say that critics of what the OT reveals about God are either guilty of intentionally downplaying this lopsidedness simply to advance their own arguments, or as sinners, they don't want to grapple with the severity of our sin and the rightness of God's justice. And therefore, maybe they tend to minimize the regular and repeated truths, the stunning, staggering, beautiful, and reassuring truths of the Hebrew Bible about God's goodness and mercy and grace and patience and generosity and faithfulness... to sinners like us.
But we aren't critics this morning. We are God's people. We are the recipients, we are the beneficiaries, of his righteousness and goodness and mercy and grace and patience and generosity and faithfulness. And we can know and experience these very things, with a far greater degree of confidence (than even the Levites), because of Jesus.
You see, the weakness of this remnant's position before God had nothing to do with who God was or what he had revealed about himself. It had everything to do with their sin. Those who were righteous by faith among them knew that was their greatest danger; their greatest threat.
That's why when we meet these righteous by faith people in the NT, people like Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and Simeon and Anna, they are eager for the Messiah. Why? Because they believed the Messiah would make it possible for them to experience, in the fullest possible way, the righteousness and goodness and mercy and grace and patience and generosity and faithfulness of God. How? By dealing with, in some way, the sin that so regularly poisoned that relationship with their Creator. And that's exactly what Jesus did, isn't it?
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,  to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)[In light of that adoption, the Apostle John exclaims...]
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 John 3:1a)
This God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” is now our Father through Jesus. For those who trust him, Christ has ended the pernicious OT pattern of sin and judgment. Please hear this good news: the “great goodness” and “great mercies” emphasized in Nehemiah 9 are fully ours through the “great salvation” mentioned in Hebrews 2.
That means the life-giving lopsidedness of a gracious and merciful God is available to you this morning. For those who have never tasted this incredible reality, it is available to you through faith today. For those who have, this lopsidedness is available to you every time you open the OT. Yes, as we read through the OT together, it should continue to be a mirror on our desperate condition as those who still wrestle with stubborn hearts. But with a frequency that is proportional to its own lopsidedness, your time in the OT should also and always be a window onto the rich and reassuring reality of that gracious and merciful God to whom the Levites cried.
Brother, sister, that God is now your God through the righteousness and redemption of Jesus! Therefore, every single day, on its every page, you can drink deeply of the righteousness and goodness and mercy and grace and patience and generosity and faithfulness of this God who has become your Father in heaven. Will you come to the OT this week with that mindset?
As 1 Peter 2 reminds us, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” As exemplified here, let this lopsidedness shape your prayers. As we see here, let this lopsidedness shape how you tell your own story. In fact, take time to write out a survey of your story with God. Be honest about your sin. But if you belong to God through Jesus, by grace alone through faith alone, then also be accurate about the lopsidedness of God's abundant righteousness and goodness and mercy and grace and patience and generosity and faithfulness in your life; all of it secured by Jesus.
And as we talked about last time, set your heart to not only study these truths, but also to live in light of them, and... to teach them. In what ways might you encourage a brother or sister in this rich and reassuring reality? Maybe memorize one of these verses and ask God for a specific open door. In what ways might you share this wonderful lopsidedness with someone in your circle this week? Again, maybe memorize one of these verses and ask God for a specific open door. Or make yourself available for a meal or visit or call, and arm yourself with these amazing truths. We are called to speak the truth in love, and all of us desperately need to hear it regularly from one another. May God bless us in these ways. Amen? Amen. Let's pray and give thanks for our gracious and merciful God... and... for the OT story that is overflowing with declarations and demonstrations of his unrivaled goodness.
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2022-2023)
September 24, 2023Speak the Word with Boldness (Acts 4:23-31)
August 27, 2023Praying for God's People (Daniel 9:17-19)
August 20, 2023Daniel's 'Not of This World' Example (Daniel 1:8-17)