COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
LESSON NUMBER 4
Neh 1:7 “We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses. 8 Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: 9 But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there.” (Nehemiah 1:7-8)
The Word of God speaks of fervent and effective prayers: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:26). It is more than interesting that James says this after saying “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.” The person for which prayer was made was sick. The prayer of faith, James affirms, would raise the person up and cause his sins to be “forgiven him” (v 15). While it is true that effective prayer can raise the sick and bring forgiveness, the thrust of James’ teaching is that a “righteous man” prays fervently and effectually. That person is not dominated by sin, but is clean before the Lord. Just such a man is found in Nehemiah. He prays effectively because he has continued to believe God, and hope in His promises. His prayer will also show us the indispensability of knowing the Word of the Lord, and being familiar with the promises of God. Prayer is not merely a means of having our needs met, and coming to experience good things. It is a chord by which we become bound to the purpose of God, and participate in His good, acceptable, and perfect will. At the precise point where Nehemiah began to pray about this matter, he became more fully involved.
THE CONFESSION OF SIN
“We have dealt very corruptly against Thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which Thou commandedst Thy servant Moses.” The words of this prayer represent Nehemiah’s fervent supplications “for many days” (v 4). They are not a single prayer uttered a single time. From this we should note there are occasions that require unusual diligence and fervency in prayer. Nehemiah lived close enough to the Lord to recognize when such a time came. In this text Nehemiah continues to confess the sins of the people, ordering his cause before the Sovereign of universe.
DEALING CORRUPTLY WITH GOD. “We have dealt very corruptly against Thee.” Other versions read, “acted very corruptly,” NASB “acted very wickedly,” NIV and “offended you deeply.” NRSV It is a spiritual milestone when we come to realize the nature of sin, and how it effects God. There are doctrines that present God as highly tolerant of sin, loving the transgressor no matter what, and remaining faithful to sinners even though they turn from Him. These are all imaginations, and there is no truth to them at all. The flood, the tower of Babel, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah confirm that God is effected by sin. His nature is not changed by it, but His countenance is! When men sin, they are dealing with God – particular those who are in covenant with Him. They have spurned His love, denied the faith, rejected His will, and refused His guidance. Nehemiah confesses this because he sees it. This is no mere formality, or the recitation of a secret phrase that brings power to prayer. The man of God sees what Israel has done to God.
God lavished His love upon them, making them unique among all nations, and they dealt corruptly “against” Him. This is the same spirit David had when he confessed his sin with Bathsheba: “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight” (Psa 51:4). Sin is AGAINST God. It is an act of defiance, of war, and of insolence. It is taking a blessing from God and hurling the stone of rebellion back at Him. Nehemiah has the spirit of Elihu, who said, “Surely it is meet to be said unto God, I have borne chastisement, I will not offend any more” (Job 34:31). Sin is the attempt to satisfy self at the expense of the glory of God. It is the ultimate form of robbery and inconsideration, of insolence and self-centeredness. In the case of Israel, sin moved God against them.
The people of God do well to have a godly view of sin. Let them cease from painting it as though it was not serious, or did not have an impact upon the Living God. When you behold what God did to Jesus because our sins were upon Him, let it forever remove from you any attempt to justify sin. Sin is to be acknowledged and confessed, never justified.
NOT KEEPING THE COMMANDMENTS, STATUTES, AND JUDGMENTS. The ordinances given to Moses are frequently summarized in these three terms (Lev 26:15; Deut 5:31; 6:1; 7:11; 8:11; 11:1; 26:17; 30:16; 1 Kgs 2:3; 6:12; 8:58). Nehemiah prays with words suitably describing the situation – in words that “the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual” NKJV (1 Cor 2:13). His thoughts and words are shaped by Scripture, not by philosophy or worldly wisdom. The Lord had declared these three (commandments, statutes, and judgments) were to be “kept” (Lev 26:15). God spoke to Israel in these three areas (Deut 5:31). The covenant He made with them was summed up in these words (Deut 6:1), and thus they were all to be remembered, and not forgotten (Deut 8:11). Keeping them was the means whereby their love for God would be shown (Deut 11:1). However, Nehemiah confesses, Israel had not kept them!
Commandments. These were the moral laws – specifically the Ten Commandments, and the laws surrounded them (Ex 20:1-17). The commandments defined what was right and wrong. They dealt with the formalities of life, and how it was to be conducted. The commandments reflected the nature of God, and had to do with emulating His character.
Statutes. The statutes dealt primarily with what we call ceremonial law. There was no apparent reason for doing these things – i.e., they did not conform to the patterns of human thought. The sacrificial system (Lev 3:16-17), special annual sabbaths (Lev 16:29), and the feast days (Lev 23:41), were included in the statutes, together with the distinctions of clean and unclean (Lev 10:10-11). Statutes even included the tabernacle and its services (Ex 27:21). The statutes were boundaries set up by God, and were to be honored simply because He said for them to be done.
Judgments. These were the judicial branch of the Law, and had to do with justice and decision making. They included how to treat transgressors, slaves, the poor, widows and orphans. Such things as the applying of interest, the paying of equitable wages, and determining the degree of punishment were included in the “judgments” (i.e., Ex 21:1-6).
ASKING THE LORD TO REMEMBER
“ Remember, I beseech Thee, the word that Thou commandedst Thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations.” The more human wisdom penetrates the church, the more strange the prayers and reasonings of Scripture sound. To the mind of the flesh, it seems absurd to ask an all-knowing God to “remember.” Such a though suggests that God may have forgotten what He said, being unretentive like man. However, a godly mind does not stumble at such language.
BESEECHING TO REMEMBER. This is a powerful example of how faith reasons before the throne of the Almighty. How frequently this manner of speaking is seen in Scripture. In his intercession for Israel Moses pled, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Thy servants, to whom Thou swarest by Thine own self” (Ex 32:13). Hannah prayed, “remember me, and not forget Thine handmaid” (1 Sam 1:11). Hezekiah prayed, “O LORD, remember now how I have walked before Thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in Thy sight” (2 Kgs 20:3). Later, in the thirteenth chapter of Nehemiah, he asked God four times, “Remember me” (13:14,22,29,31). In his affliction, Job cried out to God, “Remember, I beseech Thee, that Thou hast made me as the clay” (Job 10:9). David prayed, “Remember, O LORD, Thy tender mercies and Thy loving kindnesses” (Psa 25:6), “Remember Thy congregation, which Thou hast purchased of old” (Psa 74:2), and “Remember this, that the enemy hath reproached, O LORD” (Psa 74:18). Jeremiah prayed with tears, “Remember, O LORD, what is come upon us: consider, and behold our reproach” (Lam 5:1). Hearing of a coming judgment from God, Habakkuk prayed, “in wrath remember mercy” (Hab 3:2). Even the thief on the cross made an appeal to this Divine characteristic. “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom” (Lk 23:42).
This is nothing less than an appeal to the Divine nature. The prophet knew the Lord is constrained by what He sees and knows, not by what we see or know. Beseeching the Lord to “remember” is earnestly requesting Him to look upon the people as those to whom He had made commitments, rather than those who had transgressed. There comes a time when we confess our sin, yet ask the Lord not to look upon us as sinners. It is a powerful prayer, indeed, that can plead for sinners with God upon the basis of His promises!
To remember also implies focusing upon people for whom the prayer is made. Thus, when God saw the rainbow in the cloud, He said, “I will remember My covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Gen 9:15). When God remembered individuals, they were always blessed “God remembered Noah,” and caused the flood waters to assuage (Gen 8:1). “God remembered Abraham,” and saved Lot from the destruction of Sodom (Gen 19:29). “God remembered Rachel,” and opened her barren womb (Gen 30:22). “God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob,” and delivered the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage (Ex 2:24-25). Nehemiah knew what would happen if God “remembered” His commitment to Israel.
THE WORD. Nehemiah calls upon God to remember a specific word – a promise that was made. His mind is filled with the Word – with Scripture. He does not plead with God upon the basis of sympathy, but upon the basis of a word. This is precisely how the early church prayed when they were threatened. With one accord they lifted up their voice to God. Beseeching Him, “Lord, Thou art God . . . Who by the mouth of Thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things” (Acts 4:24-30). They called to His remembrance something He had said. As with Nehemiah, their prayer was formed by their recognition of the Word of the Lord. There is room for much improvement in this area. Our prayers will have more weight when they appeal to the Word of the Lord.
IF YE TRANSGRESS, I WILL SCATTER. Nehemiah lays before the Lord His own word to Moses. That word declared what God would do if they transgressed His Word. If, after He had chastened them, they refused to hearken, “And if ye will not be reformed by Me by these things, but will walk contrary unto Me . . . And I will scatter you among the heathen” (Lev 26:18-46). Again He said through Moses, “And the LORD shall scatter you among the nations, and ye shall be left few in number among the heathen, whither the LORD shall lead you” (Deut 4:27), and again “And the LORD shall scatter thee among all people” (Deut 29:64). Nehemiah made a connection between the events of his day and the Word of God. He was able to relate what God had said with the situation in which he and the people of God found themselves. I consider this to be an indication of spiritual growth, and the precise point at which our prayers will become more fervent and more effectual.
FASTENING ON THE PROMISES
“ But if ye turn unto Me, and keep My commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set My name there.” Like an insightful and passionate lawyer, Nehemiah presents his cause to the Lord, filling his mouth with “arguments (Job 23:4). As God said through Isaiah, he puts God “in remembrance,” and “pleads” with Him (Isa 43:26). He knows what word to set before the Lord – He knows the specific promise that needs to be presented.
Not only did God say He would scatter the people if they transgressed His covenant, and refused to yield to chastening, He also spoke of what He would do if they turned again to Him. This specific word was given to Moses, and is mentioned in Deuteronomy 4:29-31. This promise is given in view of Israel being “scattered among the nations.” “And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee . . . and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath driven thee, and shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and shalt obey His voice . . . that then the LORD thy God . . . will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee. If any of thine be driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will the LORD thy God gather thee, and from thence will He fetch thee . . .” (Deut 30:1-5).
The “outmost parts of heaven” is like saying the furthest horizon, or as far as you can see – an unimaginable extent, or complete dispersion. This was said to the people before they entered the promised land. In his dedicatory prayer for the Temple, Solomon recalled this promise (1 Kgs 8:46-48). Jeremiah also pled this promise before God (Jer 29:14). Daniel also presented this promise to the Lord (Dan 9:12-13). This is a kingdom manner of praying. Reminding the Lord of His commitments to those who repent of their sin and turn to Him is comely. Notice, none of these intercessors took God’s mercy for granted.
Nehemiah not only was familiar with the promise, but with the One who made the promise. He draws that Divine commitment from his memory, and pleads it before the Lord. He presents himself as the representative for the people, and powerfully pleads the case. He knows God is true. He knows God is merciful. He knows the people need Him.
TURN UNTO ME. Other versions say “return to Me.” Sin turns people from God. Those who transgress are not considering God, listening to Him, or even looking in His direction. A person cannot sin while looking to the Lord. Thus, those snared by sin are to “TURN” to the Lord. They are to get God in their vision again, think of Him, and seek Him with all their heart and soul. He can no longer be in the background of life. In turning, or returning, to the Lord, He becomes prominent, and the sole reason for living.
KEEPING AND DOING. Those who lightly regard the commandments of the Lord will not be blessed by Him. Their prayers will not be heard, and they will not be recovered. However, when the commandments of the Lord are “respected” (Psa 119:6), “loved” (Psa 119:47), “believed” (Psa 119:66), and “done” (Psa 119:166), His face is turned toward those whom He Himself has punished. It is no wonder that the Spirit declares, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19). Nehemiah was familiar with this manner of the Kingdom.
I WILL GATHER THEM. It was God who scattered them (Lev 26:33; Jer 9:16), and it was ONLY God who could “gather them.” Only God can bring His people together from dispersion, and He will do so when they turn to Him with their whole heart! Speaking through Jeremiah, God said “I will gather the remnant of My flock out of all countries whither I have driven them” (Jer 23:3). To put it another way, the Lord said, “I wound, and I heal” (Deut 32:39). The Lord can reach into isolated and oppressive areas, recovering His people from the very places He has driven them. He had declared this, Nehemiah knew He had declared it, and he believed it. His prayer is also most appropriate for our time, for we are also living in a time when God’s people are dispersed.
I WILL BRING THEM. Nehemiah knew where the people of God belonged: in the land that was given to them. Before him, Jeremiah had reiterated the promise of God: “I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers” (Jer 16:15; 24:6; 32:37). Ezekiel did the same (Ezek 20:38), as well as Zechariah (Zech 8:8). Nehemiah knew it was not enough to know where the people of God belonged. It was essential that God Himself bring them to that place. The prophet did not choose to merely identify the sordid condition of the people of God. He sought for their condition to be changed, and knew only God could do it. It seems to me that Nehemiah has set a most noble example for us all. Perhaps it is time for those with understanding to begin to pray like Nehemiah.