Often in the Old Testament you come across these bizarre scenes of communal worship, communal grieving or communal confession amongst others. I say bizarre, because I suppose we just don’t do those things much anymore… or at least not in the way they did in the Old Testament. So, let’s have a look at one of these odd scenes in Nehemiah 9.
Nehemiah is leading God’s people to rebuild Jerusalem. In the midst of this project, Nehemiah gathers the people and they confess their sin as one large body asking God to forgive them. And that’s where we are in Nehemiah 9.
So, the first 5 verses of this chapter are basically setting the scene. The people are dressed in sackcloth with dust on the heads indicating that they are grieving in some way. They have gathered to confess their sins and the sins of their fathers.
It’s going to take a while. They read the book of Law for a quarter of the day and then confess and worship for another quarter of the day. And interestingly, they divide into groups. These groups were calling back and, one group confessing the sins of the people, the other praising God.
We have, then, a kind of chorus: one group confessing sin, another group answering them, praising the glory, compassion and mercy of God.
It’s a nice set up I must say.
Then from verses 5-37 we have the things they say.
They begin in exactly the right way. Praising God. Look back at all the things he has done for them. All the ways he showed himself to their forefathers and how he proved himself to be the one true God.
Then we get to verse 16.
‘But they, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and they did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, “This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt,” or when they committed awful blasphemies.
‘Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness’
You are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore, you did not desert them.
A forgiving God.
I’m no Hebrew scholar but I can read English a bit and in Strong’s Bible concordance it is stated that the ‘Hebrew name God of forgiveness, used in Nehemiah 9:17, is actually a plural.’
It should read you are the God of forgiveness’s.
He doesn’t just forgive you once, or when you are nice or after you have learnt the lesson. He forgives and forgives and forgives and forgives time and time and time again.
My God is the God of forgiveness’s
Where did these guys in Nehemiah get this idea from? That God is the God of forgiveness’s.
Well they got it from God himself.
In Exodus, just after Moses has received the commandments from God, he asked to see God’s glory. And God agreed.
Moses would not be able to look right at God, because it would kill him, but God would pass by and Moses would see his glory. While this happened God said pretty much exactly the same words that would be repeated in Nehemiah.
So, the people in Nehemiah call God the God of forgiveness’s because he told them that was who he was.
But they then go on to show evidence. Which is vital right?
If I told you I was a professional tennis player you’d want to see the evidence.
It turns out there is a lot of evidence of God being the God of forgiveness’s.
From verses 18 right through to 31 the people recount stories of God forgiving and people rebelling. How this happened over and over. What we see is a marvellous picture of the patience of God! This is the way God works.
When we call ourselves Christians we are saying that we are following Jesus, or the Christ.
And while it is great to say we are Christians, it is infinitely more important to actually follow Jesus and be Christians. That means we try to do the things Jesus did and say the things he would say and make choices that perhaps he might make.
Now I know sometimes it can be very difficult to know what Jesus would say or do in any given moment. Especially since the world he lived in was so different to the world we have today. However, there are enduring qualities. Qualities that we see in Jesus and in God, that the Holy Spirit works into our lives. Things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Things like forgiveness.
I want people to know my God. I want to show them some of what my God is like. To display it in my life for others to see and experience.
My God is the God of forgiveness’s and so I should be a person of forgiveness’s.
That is what Jesus called Peter to when we told him to forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times. He was telling him to be a person of forgiveness’s.
The problem is forgiveness isn’t easy.
When you forgive someone, you are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person and seeking revenge. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death.
Forgiveness isn’t easy. So, Why should we?
Because to this we have been called, because Jesus Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow in his steps.
‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.
Instead, before he died on the cross, after being beaten and insulted, and humiliated, he asked God the father to forgive the people who had hurt him.
He entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds we have been healed.’
As John Stott put it ‘At the cross in holy love God through Christ paid the full penalty of our disobedience himself. He took the judgement we deserve in order to bring us the forgiveness we do not deserve.’
Therefore, we should be people of forgiveness’s.
Forgiveness may feel like death sometimes but it is a death that leads to a resurrection instead of the lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism. We must submit to the costly suffering and death of forgiveness’s if there is going to be any resurrection, freedom and hope for the future.