Nehemiah Week 9: "Repentance"
Pastor Terry Inman
Our last episode of Nehemiah was an amazing celebration of the completed wall. The exiled Jews threw a righteous party! Their rebuilt wall was way more significant than our city limits. It defined them a people.
Jerusalem was a ghost town for hundreds of years. Survivors of the Persian occupation were scattered out in surrounding villages. They were refugees much like the thousands of Syrians that have escaped their homeland for safety and security. They were homeless exiles.
Tribe by tribe, the Jews were now moving back into the city. These walls were critical to reforming their national identity and security. The first order of business was to re-open the ancient Torah—the five books of Moses and reestablish their covenant relationship with God and His laws.
This festival of men, women and children included just about everything we do in corporate worship today. Ezra the priest, elevated on a platform high up on the wall read and taught from sunrise to sundown. The gathered people, wept, cheered, praised God, waved their hands and bowed their faces to the ground. It was an incredible day of celebration and re-dedication of themselves and their nation back to their God.
They were so overcome that the leaders had to tell them to stop weeping and enjoy a time of feasting! It was actually sukkos the eight-day feast of tabernacles or booths. They camped out in homemade thatched huts to celebrate the 40-year sojourn of the exodus.
It was also a time of gratitude for the ingathering of the harvest—kind of like thanksgiving. They were told not to fast but feast on fats and sweets.
Just a few days later they gathered again right around the time of Yom Kippur, biblically known as, “The Day of Atonement”. This is a 25-hour period of fasting and prayer focused on making amends for misdeeds.
Nehemiah doesn’t specifically mention this annual holy convocation but the timing and what they did reflects real not just religious repentance.
Let’s get started with the first three verses of chapter nine.
On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Coverings of rags and red dirt were used for ceremonial morning. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. 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. (Neh. 9.1-3 NIV)
This is called read and weep. The wall is built they got their country back, they celebrated and now they are weeping again. This book started with Nehemiah crying out over the deplorable condition of the city walls. Now that the walls are reconstructed and the nation rebirthed they all weep.
Why all the commotion and contrition. As the law was read and taught for the first time in hundreds of years they realized how far they had fallen from God’s plan for their lives and their nation. This was a lamentation.
What added to the motivation for repentance was the kindness of God to rebuild their walls in spite of their failures. One of my favorite verses says, “God’s kindness leads us to repentance?” Rom. 2:4 (NIV)
Feeling really bad about stuff doesn’t change my behavior so much as feeling good about God’s incredible love and kindness. I think they were dramatically affected by both their failures and God’s faithfulness!
Nehemiah 9-10 is a manual on true repentance. So before we go there lets come up with a simple but accurate definition. Repentance is more than remorse it is a return. It’s a change of mind and direction.
The most common ancient Greek term (metanoia) is a change of heart and mind. I would call it, “a transformative change of heart”. Among other things it’s a nautical term for turning a 180. It is turning from sin to God.
There is a great example of repentance in Paul’s corrective letter to the Corinthians. He had severely rebuked them for tolerating immorality in the church. Now he is writing to congratulate them for their rapid response.
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance.
Repentance is painful to begin with. It hurts. It was painful for Paul and his readers. Initially he regretted having to bring correction and they regretted having to be corrected. This reminds me of my Father’s words just before a spanking. This is going to hurt me worse than you.
Now lets go on—the pain hurt but it didn’t harm them it helped them.
For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
Repentance is more than regret or remorse it is reversal and reformation. It’s a change of emotion and direction. Paul contrasts “godly sorrow” with “worldly sorrow”. One leads to spiritual recovery the other spiritual death!
Paul illustrates by their rapid response to his correction. (v.11)
See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. (2 Cor. 7.8-11 NIV)
Here’s a pile of eight verbs that describe what it means to really repent!
Earnestness:“speed” not business as usual. They quickly got right on it with diligence and directness. They didn’t waste anytime turning around.
Eagerness: “to clear yourself”. (Gr: apologia) apology “I’m sorry” My mom said as a child I was a good confessor just not a good repent-er. I would admit I did something wrong, say “I’m sorry, then do it again.
Indignation: They didn’t try to defend or excuse. They were outraged.
Alarm: (gr:phobos) or fear. This created a healthy fear of God. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. (Psa. 111:10 NIV)
Longing: An intense desire, a graving or a hunger…
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5.6 NIV)
Concern:(gr:zelos) Zeal means heat. They were fervent and passionate.
Readiness: To vindicate and exonerate themselves from this error.
Innocence: At every point you have (taken the stand) and found to be innocent. You have been acquitted. Your record is clear in this matter!
It’s obvious that repentance involves a whole lot of strong feelings and decisive actions! So let’s see how this plays out in the revival of God’s people in Jerusalem.
Along with the rags and dust of mooning, Nehemiah mentions fasting. Fasting is an act of humility. It’s a way to wet your appetite for God! It dials down the cravings of the flesh and heightens our spiritual hunger.
Fasting is not a hunger strike. We can’t make God do anything. It’s a simple way to humble our self and express hunger for him and his ways. Nehemiah says they stood and confessed their sins and the “wickedness” (iniquity or perversity) of their fathers. This election is a reflection of us!
It’s easy to blame our ancestors. How we were raised does impact us but they first took responsibility for their own rejection of God. By the way when you confess the sins of your fathers make sure you forgive them.
They continued to read and study the word for a quarter of the day and spent another quarter in confession and worship. It’s God’s word that motivates us to repent. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” 2 Tim. 3:16 The Word tells us what’s wrong, what’s right and how to fix it!
They didn’t only confess their sins—they worshiped God. The Levites standing on the steps shouted. “Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.” (v.4-5) A lot of what we call worship is just singing to ourselves. It can be encouraging but they were really exulting God as the creator and sustainer of heaven and earth!
“Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. 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. (Neh. 9.5-6 NIV)
As they narrated the history of God’s favor and faithfulness, they again confessed generational sins. The celebration of the exodus was fresh on their mind. They remembered God’s covenant promise to Abraham. Then recounted their freedom from bondage in Egypt. They recited the many signs and miracles all the way to the promise land. (Neh. 9.7-15 NIV)
They confessed their ancestor’s arrogance and stubbornness. They said they were “stiff-necked” or resistant even in the face of His compassion.
In Moses absence they appointed their own leader and worshiped a golden calf. (Again sounds like our elections.) It’s time we get on our knees and ask God to lead our nation out of its dark rebellion and back to our God!
They didn’t stay in the basement of shame and disgrace. They put their hope in God’s grace. “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them” (Neh. 9.17 NIV) We desert him but he never deserts us!
The bible says “if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Tim.2.13 NIV) They recited his provision in the wilderness—gave them water from a rock—fed them with manna and quail—subdued their enemies and conquered fortified cities. They lacked nothing. Their clothing didn’t even wear out! Their feet didn’t swell!(v.21)
“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. (v.25)
Unfortunately when things are going well we drift! “But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they put your law behind their backs.” (Neh. 9.26 NIV) This is moving the wrong direction—off course.
Confessing our failures and remembering His faithfulness empowers us to Repent—to return—to get back on track. This account of their failures and God faithfulness concludes with a pledge to make a serious change.
"In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.” (Neh. 9.38 NIV)
In (chapter 10) there’s a long list of signatures—like the Declaration of Independence—this is a declaration of dependence, on God. All the people join in this binding agreement.
They promise to keep them selves a pure people of God with no mixed marriages and pagan partners. (v.30) They recommit to Sabbath keeping. Resting from work and worshiping God. They will again practice the agricultural and economic laws of the Sabbath year--letting the land rest and forgiveness of debt. (v. 31) This reverses all the previous injustices!
Here’s something they committed to that may be a surprising part of repentance. The rest of this chapter is about giving. They promised to bring in all the tithe and offering for the temple and the priests.
“We also assume responsibility for bringing to the house of the Lord each year the firstfruits of our crops (v.35) And we will bring a tithe of our crops to the Levites. (v.37)
Bumper sticker: If you love Jesus tithe anyone can honk! The prophet Malachi says, “Tithing opens heaven’s windows of blessing!”
Nehemiah ends this chapter with this declaration of repentance. “We will not neglect the house of our God.” (v.39) For them, that meant reviving and providing for Temple ceremonial and sacrificial worship.
Now God’s Temple, His house, His habitation is in us. We are, the Temple of the Holy Spirit! (1 Cor. 6.19 NIV) Let’s not neglect God’s Spirit in us!
Repentance is a turning. It is transformative change of heart! “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing. (Joel 2.12-14 NIV)
When we fully turn to Him we discover He has already turned toward us!