COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 9:31 Nevertheless for Thy great mercies' sake Thou didst not utterly consume them, nor forsake them; for Thou art a gracious and merciful God. 32 Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who keepest covenant and mercy, let not all the trouble seem little before Thee, that hath come upon us, on our kings, on our princes, and on our priests, and on our prophets, and on our fathers, and on all Thy people, since the time of the kings of Assyria unto this day. 33 Howbeit Thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for Thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly.” (Neh 9:31-33)
You will notice that as this prayer continues, its intensity seems to grow. The perception of God, and His praise, become greater. The confession of the people becomes more detailed and passionate. The prominence of God in all of their affairs, whether for good or evil, is more readily acknowledged. We ought to note that when the flesh attempts to praise God, the praise quickly diminishes in content, and repetition becomes more prominent. That is because flesh cannot sustain dialog with God. However, when a lively sense of God is upon the soul, a growth in expression is realized. There is also a hearty agreement with God, and a fervent desire to justify Him in all of His sayings and works. In this prayer there is a total lack of vagueness, and an obvious presence of precision. No excuses are offered for the condition of the people. There is no effort to justify what they have done, or where they have been. The hand of the Lord has been seen among their people from their beginning until this very day. The people of God are more aware of Him than of their enemies. His covenant has become more prominent to them than their circumstances. God is at work among this people, opening key matters to them.
FOR THE SAKE OF HIS GREAT MERCY
“ 9:31 Nevertheless for Thy great mercies' sake Thou didst not utterly consume them, nor forsake them; for Thou art a gracious and merciful God.” The people have confessed to the stubbornness of their fathers. The Lord was forbearing with them for “many years,” testifying against them by His Spirit in His prophets. Yet, they refused to turn their heads toward God or give ear to His words. Therefore, He gave them into the hands of “the people of the lands,” upon whom neither His blessing nor favor rested. Yet, even in this, the people will see the mercy of the Lord. Their conscience is awakened.
GREAT MERCIES’ SAKE. God not only has mercy, He has “great mercy.” Thus we read, “The Lord is longsuffering, and of GREAT mercy”(Num 14:18). When God revealed His glory to Moses,, the very first trait He accented was “merciful”(Ex 34:6). “Merciful”means filled with mercy. “Great mercy” accents the abundance of mercy. We are told that God is“plenteous in mercy” (Psa 86:15), and “of great mercy”(Psa 145:8). David confessed, “The LORD is gracious, and FULL of compassion; slow to anger, and of GREAT mercy” (Psa 145:8). When Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist, her neightbors and cousins heard “how the Lord had showed GREAT mercy upon her” (Lk 1:58).
Mercy is not an easy word to define. It is more like a crop than a single fruit, and a storehouse than an individual commodity. It includes the ideas of beauty, favor, goodness, kindness, and pity. STRONGS Beauty is involved because it throws a spotlight on God’s comeliness ((Isa 33:17). Favor accents His inclination to lovingly bless and improve (Psa 30:5). Goodness makes known how He brings advantage, helps, and sustains (Num 10:32). Kindness emphasizes His tenderness and gentleness (Issa 54:8).Pity involves stooping to help the afflicted, and being touched with their condition (Isa 63:9).
God is too little known for His great mercy. Therefore, He has so blessed His people, being tolerant of their waywardness, in order to make His mercy the better known. That is something of what is involved in the expression,”for Thy great mercies’ sake.”In His approach to Israel He was making known how merciful He is. Now, those in Nehemiah’s day have seen this. In confessing it, they are seeking for His mercy to be upon them also.
DID NOT UTTERLY CONSUME. If one wanted to make an appeal to the Law itself, and to the strict adjudication of what is right and just, a case could be made for utterly destroying Israel. In fact, many within the church think this is what God actually did following Israel’s rejection of Christ. Unlike them, the people in our text no doubt knew of the many expressions of God on this subject. Prior to the Babylonian captivity God said through Jeremiah,”For thus hath the LORD said, The whole land shall be desolate; yet will I not make a full end” (Jer 4:27). Again, in judgment God said, “Go ye up upon her walls, and destroy; but make not a full end . . . Nevertheless in those days, saith the LORD, I will not make a full end with you” (Jer 5:10,18). It is no wonder that the Lamentator cried out, “It is of the LORD'S mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not” (Lam 3:22). That is precisely why Ezekiel prophesied,”Yet, behold, therein shall be left a remnant that shall be brought forth, both sons and daughters”(Ezek 14:22). And again, Isaiah acknowledged that God had not utterly destroyed the people: “Except the LORD of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah” (Isa 1:9).
God said He would “utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Exo 17:14). But He did not do so with Israel. In fact, after promising He would make a New Covenant with Judah and Israel, He pledged, “Thus saith the LORD; If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the LORD” (Jer 31:26-37). The people now confess in doing this, God was considering His own great mercy!
A GRACIOUS GOD. The attitudes and works of God are support by His Person. He did not “utterly consume” Israel because He is gracious. In the Law, God made a point of this by saying, “I am gracious!” (Ex 22:27). The word “gracious” involves activity, and is more than a mere attribute. It means God is inclined to stoop to lift, help, and recover – like the good Samaritan. He is disposed to be kind, and to lavish His love upon men – a love that brings benefits and advantages that cannot otherwise be obtained.
A MERCIFUL GOD. “Gracious” and “merciful” are not synonymous words. Whereas the word “gracious” emphasizes the DOING of good, the word “merciful” emphasizes compassion. Love moves God to be gracious, His great compassion constrains Him to be merciful, pitiful, and forbearing. God has affirmed He is “merciful” (Ex 34:6). Moses told the people God would not forsake or destroy them because “God is a merciful God” (Deut 4:31).
A GREAT, MIGHTY, AND TERRIBLE GOD
“ 9:32 “Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who keepest covenant and mercy, let not all the trouble seem little before Thee, that hath come upon us, on our kings, on our princes, and on our priests, and on our prophets, and on our fathers, and on all Thy people, since the time of the kings of Assyria unto this day.” The people have not only seen the Lord as He is, but they will reason with Him upon the basis of their accurate perception. They will now do somethingwith their insight. Further, they are praying to Him as “OUR God,” and not simply as an impersonal Deity.
GREAT, MIGHTY, AND TERRIBLE. As you peruse Scripture, you will soon find that no other person can be addressed as the Father and the Son. Such marvelous things cannot be said of either man or angel. These are Divine qualities that are inexorably linked to the “eternal God” (Deut 33:27). They are not resident in anyone who was created. Notice the definite article:“THE great, THE mighty, and THE terrible God.” These are exclusively Divine qualities.
“Great” includes the concepts of high, mighty, exceeding, and age. Nothing about God is demeaning, weak, diminishing, or immature. It makes no difference what He is compared to, He is “greater.” “God is great” (Job 36:26), and is consequently “greatly to be praised” (Psa 96:4). In the earth, politicians, entertainers, athletes, religous personalities, and money merchants regularly receive more praise than God. The condition is inexcusable!
“Mighty” has to do with power, excelling, and being an overcoming warrior. It tells us that God is able to accomplish what He purposes, and that He has no effective competitors. Seven times the Lord is called “the mighty God” (Gen 49:24; Psa 50:1; 132:2,5; Isa 9:6; 10:21; Jer 32:18). The greatest display of that might is exhibited in Christ Jesus, who has effected God’s great salvation. Thus His name is “the mighty God”(Isa 9:6).
“Terrible” includes the idea of causing fear and dread in those opposed to Him, and reverence and awe among those who trust Him. Other versions use the word “awesome” here. NKJV/NASB/NIBV No one who has ever knowingly confronted God was passive or indifferent about it. In Scripture, the people of God were told not to be afraid of their enemies, for “the LORD thy God is among you, a mighty God and terrible”(Deu 7:21). That is, when God makes Himself known, He strikes such terror into the hearts of His enemies, they become helpless. Those who imagine the glorified Christ will be opposed by the army of an Antichrist have conveniently overlooked this aspect of the Divine nature. Such a notion is utterly foolish.
KEEPING COVENANT AND MERCY. A strong appeal is made to the faithfulness of God. Unlike some contemporary theologicans, the children of Judah refused to think of God as abandoning the commitments made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Prior to his death, when Moses spoke to the people, he referred to God as “the faithful God which keepeth covenant and mercy” (Deut 7:9). These are the exact words of Solomon at the dedication of the Temple: “who keepest covenant and mercy” (1 Kgs 8:23). When Nehemiah first prayed to God at the beginning of this book, he said “O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy”(Neh 1:5). When Daniel was in Babylon, he prayed, “O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy” (Dan 9:4). When Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, uttered his magnificient praise, he said God was setting out “To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant” (Luke 1:72). God’s mercy and God’s covenant are key factors in prayer.
Faith reckons on the faithfulness of God, appealing to what He has promised to do. It is to be understood that such prayers are always accompanied with a firm resolve to return to the Lord with all of the heart – just as the people are doing in our text.
LET IT NOT SEEM LITTLE. The people plead with God not to let the trouble they have experienced seem small, or insignificant to Him. One version reads, “do not let all of this hardship seem trifling in Your eyes.” NIV “Trouble”is more than mere agitation or inconvenience. It carries the idea of being wearied. Their difficulties have sapped their strength and dried up their hope. There are two meanings couched in these words. First, let not the troubles that have wearied them be considered unworthy of Divine attention. Second, do not view the punishment we have already endured as too little to justify some relief. In both cases, the call is for the Lord to look upon them with grace and mercy, and in remembrance of the covenant made with the Fathers. How precious is this reasoning!
SINCE THE TIME. Kings, princes, priests, prophets, fathers and all of the people had been punished. Assyrian kings that came against them: Pul (2 Kgs 15:19), Tiglathpileser (2 Kgs 15:29), Shalmaneser (2 Kgs 17:2), and Sennacherib (2 Kgs 18:13). Isaiah said, “firstthe king of Assyria hath devored him; and last this Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon hath broken his bones” (Jer 50:17).
GOD HAS DONE RIGHT, WE HAVE DONE WICKEDLY
“ 33 Howbeit Thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for Thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly.” For over 300 years (from the attack of Pul in 733 BC until the time the wall was finished in 444 B.C.), the chastening hand of the Lord had been upon Israel and Judah. Counting forty years as a generation, that was a span of nearly eight generations – a long time, indeed! Yet, rather than being beaten down in despair, the people now have hope. They have seen God as He is, and thus been able to assess their history with precision. They have confessed sin and praised God for His goodness. Now they look at the past in a summation, and behold what marvelous conclusions they draw. They do not reason back to their enemies, saying they treated the people of God unfairly, unjustly, and with hatred and inconsideration – although a lot of that occurred.
THOU ART JUST. They do not respond with anger toward God, as some unthinking people do in our day. They do not cry our “Why, Lord?” Instead, they confess the righteousness of God in punishing them for their iniquity. Moses was right in his song, and the people know it: “a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He” (Deut 32:4). God Himself declares, “there is no God else beside Me; a just God and a Savior; there is none beside Me” (Isa 45:21). Satan is “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), but he is in no way “just,” not even with his own children. The people, therefore, refuse to credit God with wrong, overlooking them, giving the enemy too much power, or punishing them too long.
THOU HAST DONE RIGHT. They reason as their father Abraham did: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25). They knew “the Lord is righteous in all of His ways”(Psa 145:17), even when they are against His people. What has happened to them over a period of 311 years, they reason, is “right.” It is not right because the kings from Pul to Nebuchadnezzar were right. Rather, it is right because God has done it.
In this text “right” does not mean the deed conforms to some moral code. Rather, it is “right” because in God’s dealings with Israel He has been faithful to Himself – faithful to His own unchangeable nature. Other versions show the larger sense of “right.” “You have dealt faithfully,” NKJV “You have acted faithfully,” NIV and “Thou hast dealt truly.” ASV
The Lord has plainly declared His nature. He is not only abundant in goodness and truth, gracious, merciful, and longsuffering (Ex 34:6b). He not only keeps mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgressions, and sin (Ex 34:7a). He also “will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation” (Ex 34:7). He will not gloss sin, or sweep it under the rug. His nature will not allow Him to overlook sin, and it will not forbid Him to show mercy on those who call out to Him! But with the children of Judah, this is not a cold and calculating theology. They have connected this truth with their own circumstance. They see that God has conducted Himself toward them in strict keeping with His own nature. This is a most marvelous perception!
All of this presumes some knowledge of God. Those who are fundamentally ignorant of God cannot draw conclusions like this. They do not have the faintest idea of whether the things that have occurred to them are right or wrong. They cannot pray properly because of this, nor can they correctly assess their lives.
WE HAVE DONE WICKEDLY. These words are the prelude to recovery, and will in no wise be ignored by God. The same nature that would not allow Him to overlook their sin, will not permit Him to ignore the confession of that sin. They pray in the words of the Psalmist. “We have sinned with our fathers, we have committed iniquity, we have done wickedly”(Psa 106:6). Daniel also prayed in these words: “we have done wickedly” (Dan 9:15). They do not say “We have made mistakes,” or even “We have not done right.” Their confession correctly assesses their deeds as having been “done wickedly.”The NASB version reads, “we have been wicked.” The NIV waters the words down too much by reading, “we have done wrong.” The word “wicked” means to deliberately violate the word of the Lord. It is to willingly do something that God has condemned, and thus become condemned because of it. Righteousness is God-centered. Wickedness is self-centered. Wickedness is intentionally leaving the path of righteousness. It is sinning by choice, even when the right was known and clearly understood. Wickedness is “sinning greatly.” NLT
We live in a day when much can be gained from absorbing this test. Individuals, families, congregations, cities, and even whole countries have fallen upon hard times because of their own iniquity. It is time to return to the Lord, bringing words (Hos 14:2) as these people did. God still hears and answers such prayers.