Covenant Renewal – 1
This is the Word of the Lord. Welcome, all. If you’re not there, let’s turn to Nehemiah 9. Whether you’re doing that here or at home, we are excited to explore what a covenant renewal is. This idea of covenant renewal is not something that’s familiar to most of us, especially if you are new to church. The closest thing that our culture has to talking about covenant renewal is perhaps renewing vows. There are couples who after 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, or some difficulty in marriage may gather their friends and family for a formal or (most often) an informal in the living room or with a life group, and a couple may renew their vows. And in a sense, that’s a covenant renewal. We have actually had couples in our church who have been divorced legally and God worked in both of their hearts and (this is kind of the ultimate covenant renewal) they were actually remarried here in in our church or in my office.
But whenever you have a covenant, you have a separation. What I mean by that is, a separating to and a separating from. The obvious one in marriage is you will leave father/mother, cleave to husband or wife. But that’s true of all past and potential relationships. I had a friend who, the night before his wedding got a call from a woman who had been interested in him for a really long time and said to him, “It’s not too late. You can break it off with your fiancee. We can have a future.” No, it is too late. It was too late. It is too late, it will be too late. It’s too late!
In that sense, you see a covenant is not just a devoting yourself to, but it’s a cutting off. It’s a separating from. One man, one woman, life have a different relationship than every other man and woman. There is a separation. And you see that in this passage. We’re seeing in Nehemiah 9 a renewal of covenant. And so, you’re going to see a lot of the language that goes along with that, like separating, purifying, setting apart. Let me just give you a little sample. Nehemiah 9:2, “The Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins …” The Hebrew words here — separation, distinction, purification — have a rich history in the Bible going all the way back to Genesis 1:4. God separated light from darkness. So, every time our day goes to night and our night goes to day and our day goes to night, we are seeing a picture of the separation of covenant, that God is a covenant-keeping God.
Let me show you some other examples. Look forward to 10:28, “The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants, and all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters …” There is a separation. Chapter 12:30 … We’re just seeing the lay of the land. Chapter 9-12 is this covenant renewal. I want you to see this language. Verse 30 (12:30), “And the priest and the Levites purified themselves, and they purified the people and the gates and the wall.” This same Hebrew word is used, while in different form, 12:45, “They performed the service of their God and the service of purification.” It’s the same word that’s used in 2 Kings 5:13 when Naaman plunged into the Jordan and was cleansed of his leprosy, this purification. 12:47,
“And all Israel in the days of Zerubbabel and the days of Nehemiah gave the daily portions for the singers and the gatekeepers; and they set apart that which was for the Levites; and the Levites set apart that which was for the sons of Aaron.”
That word “set apart” we would translate in the New Testament, sanctify. Consecrated, to set apart.
Leviticus 20:26, “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated [set apart, consecrated] you from the peoples, that you should be mine.”
That’s the point. This is not about just external cleansing. This isn’t about rules and regulations. This is about God saying to his people, “You shall be mine, not Satan’s, not like the rest of the peoples who reject me.” So, just as a man and a woman stand before God and witnesses and say in a marriage covenant, “I am yours, you are mine,” separating themselves in that sense, so this covenant renewal, God is saying, “I am yours, you are mine.”
The people have stood under the Word of God for days. They have celebrated the Feast of the Booths for seven days and there was a lot of rejoicing. But you notice in chapter 9, the spirit of the gathering changes. And let me try to take a massive amount of material and summarize it with three actions. And this is what we’re going to see this week and next week. First, you’ll see them in chapter 9 (the part we’ll look at this week), they are crying out. They are crying out in prayer. Second, they are signing on. You’ll see a formal covenant renewal as they are signing on the covenant with the curse and the obligations. And then (end of chapter 12:27-47), there is an offering up of thanksgiving and contributions.
So, today, let’s focus in on the first one. Chapter 9, crying out, verse 1, “The people of Israel were assembled.” Fasting, verse 1 is communicating the feasting is over. As Ecclesiastes 3:4 says, there is a time to weep, and there’s a time to laugh. There is a time to mourn; there’s a time to dance. So, they’ve been laughing, they’ve been dancing, they’ve been feasting, and now it’s time to mourn, to weep. Verse 1, they’re wearing sackcloth, and they have dirt on their heads. What is that? What they’re communicating (two things), one their humility and their frailty. We come from dust; we return to dust. The dust on their head is the symbol of the fact that we recognize we are not God. We have not always existed, and we won’t always exist on this earth. We are temporary; he is permanent. And so, they’re actually physically symbolizing their humility and their frailty as they confess their sins and listen to the law for six hours. And then they worship. Yes, whew! They worship and confess for six more hours. And then verse 4, the Levites stood, called everyone to stand up and then cried out with a loud voice. And this is their prayer, the crying out is their prayer. And this prayer is a monster prayer. It’s one of the biggest prayers in the Old Testament, and it is rich with the history from creation to exile, from Genesis to Kings.
Let’s look at an overview of the prayer, and then we’ll focus in on one part of the prayer, because this chapter’s too big, too rich for us to be able to look at every detail. But here’s an overview. First, you have the introduction, second part of verse 5, “Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.” And then part one, 4 major parts. Part 1, creation — “You created and preserve everything.” Notice how verse 6 starts with “you are the Lord, you alone.” Just take that in. The reason there is a separation is because we are separated to the one who is God alone. Separate from all other false gods. Number 2, covenant — “You called Abraham and entered into covenant with him.” 3, salvation (9-21) — “You rescued Israel from Egypt and led them through the wilderness.” Hearing their cry, performing signs and wonders, dividing the sea, revealing your law, giving them bread from heaven. And then section 4, “You gave them kingdoms and … land.” You multiplied their children as the stars of heaven. They “delighted themselves in your great goodness” (25).
And then the conclusion in verses 32-37 is their confession. Now there is so much here. We could literally spend months unpacking each part of this prayer and showing you how it connects to different parts of the Old Testament. This prayer is the people of God, led by the Levites, crying out to God, God’s Word. They are praying like Nehemiah did in chapter 1, in a micro form. This is in a macro form. The people of God praying the Word of God back to God.
But for the sake of time, we’re just going to look at 1 part of this prayer, and that is what I would call the four intensifying cycles. And if you followed along as we just heard the reading of God’s Word (this whole chapter) you felt the weight of these intensifying cycles. And I say there are four, but you can tell by the language there are many, many more of those. But four summarize. And the elements of these cycles: God is giving, Israel is presuming, God is judging, Israel is repenting, repeat. Let me show you and see if you see this. Hopefully you have a Bible in front of you. You can follow along as we jet through these. Cycle number 1, verse 15, “You gave them bread from heaven.” Verse 16, “But they and our fathers acted presumptuously.” Verse 17, “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful.”
Cycle 2 (verse 22), “You gave. You gave them kingdoms and peoples … brought them into the land.” Verse 25, “So they ate and were filled … delighted themselves in your goodness.” But (26) “Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled … They cast your law … they killed your prophets … they committed great blasphemies. Therefore (27), you gave them into the hand of your enemies, who made them suffer. They cried out to you, and you heard from heaven, and according to your great mercies … you saved them.”
Cycle 3, you gave them rest. “After that they had rest.” Then, “they did evil again. You abandoned them to their enemies, so that they had dominion over them.” Yet, “they turned.” By the way, that word “turned” in the Hebrew is the word repent. They’re heading in one direction. They turned and headed in the other direction. And they “cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many times [there’s the cycle repeating], many times you delivered them according to your mercies.”
Cycle 4 (verse 29), “You warned them.” And this is being portrayed as, this is part of God’s gracious gift to you. When he warns you, right now he’s speaking, he will be speaking to some of you, that is the sign of his gracious kindness that he does not just leave you alone. He warned you. He warned them “in order to turn them back to your law. Yet (29),” and he lists, listen to these seven comorbidities, seven characteristics of their sinfulness that left them hardened. “They acted presumptuously (9:29), did not obey your commandments, sinned against your rules, turned a stubborn shoulder, stiffened their neck, would not obey.” Verse 30, “you warned them … they would not give ear” (30), “so you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless (31), in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.”
Do you see the cycle? In general, we could call this Israel’s spin cycle. God gives, Israel presumes, God judges, Israel repents. God gives, Israel presumes, God judges, Israel repents, and we continue.
When I say “presume,” in English we typically translate or mean “to take for granted; to assume or act with unwarranted confidence.” In the Bible, acting presumptuously is thinking you know more than God. And in that sense, presuming upon/taking for granted. “Yeah, God, I know you say this, but if I’m going to worship, my God is going to be like this.” Assuming we know what it means to be God more than God knows what it means to be God. It’s insanity. There are three uses of this “presumptuously,” the same Hebrew word. You’ll see it in 9:10. Pharaoh and his posse “acted arrogantly.” That’s presumptuously. After each miracle, he hardened his heart and he was acting as if he had authority to either release or keep God’s people, as if they are his people. Treating human beings as if he has more authority over them than God does. It’s crazy. But then, this is the sobering part. The prayer begins with Pharaoh acting presumptuously, but then God’s people do the same thing. Look at verse 16. Israel acted presumptuously. Verse 29, Israel acted presumptuously.
So, back to our cycle. God pours out mercy, he gives. Israel presumes — receives God’s kindness as if this is an obligation God owes. Takes it for granted. Craves to be like the nations. “I’m missing something if I don’t have everything the nations have. I want to be like the nations.” And so, God gives them over to what they think they need. And eventually, they are utterly miserable, tortured, tormented by the thing they craved. And they cry out, and God shows mercy. And the cycle begins again.
Those of you who are reading through the Old Testament right now in your Bible reading, you know what that feels like, right? You get to the point where you’re like, “No, not again!” And the king did evil in the sight of the Lord. What are you doing? But then every time we say that, what happens? The Spirit’s like, “Do you not see yourself in this? Are you missing this?” Do we not see ourselves? But what is so sobering about this prayer is we’re talking about a thousand years. From Moses to Nehemiah, a thousand years of this cycle. When I’m praying this I’m thinking, “God, how is it going to be any different this time? What’s going to make it different?”
And some of you, you know that the reason this prayer (if we’ll let it soak in) resonates with us is some of you are right there right now. You’re looking at your marriage and you’re thinking, “What is going to be different? I know what he’s going to say. He knows what I’m going to say. We’ve been in the spin cycle for years.” Some of you are in it with porn. God keeps pouring out kindness and mercy, and you’re just like, “No, I need this.” And God lets you have it. And it sucks the life out of you. And you want more until it destroys you, and then you cry out and God pours out mercy on you. Or alcohol. Or anger. And what is so sobering about this prayer is the past is the present. And you’ll notice that as you pray through this. Look at the pronouns. At the beginning of the prayer, it’s all “they, them, our fathers.” But then in verse 32, there’s a dramatic shift when you get to the conclusion, the confession at the end, because it changes. It changes from “they” to this is “our God” (32). Verse 33, “We have acted wickedly.” Verse 37, “Because of our sins.” Look at verse 36.
“Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy.” Just let that soak in. We are slaves in the land you gave to our fathers to enjoy “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.”
That is a pitiful prayer. It is one thing to be a slave in Egypt. It’s another thing to be a slave in the promised land. It’s like when you take your kids to Walt Disney World and have a miserable time. What is wrong with us? We’re fighting. We’re at Disney! That’s what this prayer is saying. We know what it’s like to be in bondage to Egypt, but we’ve been set free, and we’re still in bondage. We’re right where God wants us, but we are not right with God. Some of us are there right now. You’re right in the marriage God wants you. You’re right in the friendships God has for you, the job, all the externals. But you’re miserable. You’re a slave. And he did not set you free to be in bondage. That’s what they’re crying out here. This is not what God has for us.
And what makes it even more distressing, you know, that ending statement there, “we are in great distress,” what makes it even more distressing is they have no one to blame. They’re looking right back at themselves. Yes, yes, we are victims. A lot of people have done things to hurt us. These are people who know what it’s like to be slaves. And yes, we are victims. Our fathers messed up. We did not choose them or our fathers. We didn’t say, “Oh, I want to be in a family that is constantly messed up and in a cycle of addiction. That’s what I want.” They didn’t choose that. They inherited that. So, in that sense, they can say, I got a bad deal. Yeah, you’re a victim, but that’s not all you are. You’re also a villain. As they make clear, verse 33, “We have acted wickedly.” We have received the cycle and rather than break the cycle, they continue the cycle. And you can point fingers all you want at everyone before you and everyone around you. But sooner or later, you’ve got to decide, “Am I going to perpetuate the cycle or break the cycle?” That’s what this prayer is calling us to.
And it gets even worse. You’re like, “How could it get worse?” Even more distressing, because notice, it’s not only because we had no one to blame. And yes, in a very real way, we have been hurt, and we have hurt. But God is right to judge us. Look at verse 33.
“Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully, and we have acted wickedly.”
This word righteous, is like a bookend in this prayer. They started out back in verse 8, “You are righteous.” And he ends, you’re righteous. We can’t … Some of us, when we get in great distress, one of the first things we want to do is theodicy. Any of you know what theodicy is? Theodicy is the vindication of God in the face of evil. And when we are in distress, many of us love to debate theodicy. Is God right or wrong? Did we get shafted or not? How can he be a good God and there be so much evil? We want to debate those things. But one of the signs that you’re coming to the end of yourself, and you’re starting to get a vision of who God really is, is you don’t care about theodicy. I’m not saying there isn’t a place to discuss theodicy and its related points, which are significant. But I’m saying, when you’re broken in yourself and you begin to see who God is, you don’t care to debate. Was God right or wrong? Did he shaft me or not shaft me? You become like Job.
Remember, the whole book of Job is theodicy. Where Job and his friends are like, “Is God right to do this? Are you right to …?” That kind of thing. But then at the end, when Job sees God. Look at Job 42:5. “I had heard of you.” I had heard of you, just stop there for a second. I used to love debating about you, debated with my friends (theodicy and all). I’d heard of you
“by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
One of the signs that Spirit of God has gripped our hearts with the holiness of God and sinfulness of our own hearts is we’re done debating — him or me or them. Romans 3 says every mouth is stopped in the presence of a holy God. And God is perfectly righteous. As a matter of fact, as we learned in the beginning of the prayer, he is required if he is going to make a name for himself. And what that means is not like us trying to make a name for ourselves. It means for God, whose name is above every name, for him not to seek to make a name for himself is to commit idolatry. So, he must make a name for himself, or he is not seeking the highest, most beautiful, most right good — righteousness. So, for him to make a name for himself, for him to do what is right is to judge us. And this prayer, after walking us through these cycles, leads us to that place where it’s like, “God…” Like they even just prayed. “Could you have pity on us? Look at our history. Look at how we’ve been slaves.” And today we have to stop at the end of chapter 9. If we could keep reading 10, 11, 12, 13, we will come to the end of the book. And you’ll begin to see why we named this series “So Close …” Look at the graphic of our series. “So Close, Yet So Far.”
The feeling I get at the end of Nehemiah is the same feeling I got after watching the Lord of the Rings. Frodo, Mount Doom, he’s about to throw the ring in. You’re just like, “Throw the ring in the fire! I’m out of popcorn. This has been forever. Just put the ring in the fire.” And he doesn’t. He sticks it back on his finger. And you’re like, “No, no!” That’s Nehemiah — so close. But the whole book points beyond itself. God himself, he is going to have to break this cycle. And he does.
Nehemiah points us all the way to Jesus Christ who breaks the cycle by fulfilling the covenant. Not by signing with a pen but signing with his blood. Paying for our inability to keep covenant. And every time we take the Lord’s Supper, we are participating in a covenant renewal. And we are being reminded, as we remember, that the covenant is not dependent on us. Hallelujah. That the steadfast love of the Lord has motivated him to break hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years of this cycle by resting in the stability, security, and fulfillment of this covenant upon his Son, Jesus Christ, who says to us, “You are mine. And nothing can separate you from my love.” Nothing. That is the hope we live for, we need. Look at Romans 8:1,
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done … [say that with me], for God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to flesh.”
We don’t live in this realm of fleshly law, covenant-keeping, dependent on us. No, we live in this realm of the Spirit, whereby the power of the Spirit, Christ took the judgment we deserved so that we would stand as his sons and daughters and truly be free. Sin no longer has dominion over us. And one day when we see him, we will be like him — absolutely free, pure.
In similar language, Paul called us all to covenant renewal in Romans 12:1-2 when he says, Therefore, I appeal to you therefore, my brothers [my sisters], I appeal to you based on the mercies of God. So, he’s resting this covenant fully on the mercies of God. What mercies are you talking about, Paul? This is Romans 12:1. The eleven chapters of mercies through Christ that I just outlined. Based on these mercies, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable. This is your spiritual worship. And do not be conformed to this world. See the separation, the covenant? You are not the world’s. You are not Satan’s. You’re not even your own. You’ve been bought with a price. So, present yourself a living sacrifice, not a dead one, a living one. Don’t be conformed, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind … that you would know the “good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
My wife and I have been watching “The Chosen,” prompted by many of you saying, “Hey, you need to watch this,” long enough to where we succumbed. So, some of you are going to hate it, so I’ve just warned you, not saying you need to watch it, because what it does is it stays (as far as I can see, and we’ve just started it) really faithful to the biblical story, but adding in a lot of detail. So, if you don’t know the biblical story really well, then you might wonder what is true and what is not. But if you know the biblical story well, you’ll see the details are accurate as far as the Bible goes. But then they take a lot of freedom to add biographical details, which may or may not be true but can be helpful to imagine if understood as possible.
But, having said that, my favorite story was the first one, Mary from Magdala. The Bible makes clear that Mary must have been in a horrific place when Jesus met her — seven demons. And in this episode, “The Chosen” walks through her life from when she was a little girl — flashbacks of being afraid at night and being consoled by her father. They quoted Isaiah 43:1,
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, for you are mine.”
But then years later, Mary has forgotten all that. She doesn’t even go by her name. No one knows her real name. She is caught up in sin, in bondage, in demonic oppression, hopeless to the point of suicide. When she comes in contact with Jesus, she pulls back because the darkness has nothing to do with the light under this dark power, demonic possession. But Jesus follows her and calls out to her. Let’s watch this:
“Mary. Mary of Magdala.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Thus says the Lord who created you and he who formed you. Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.”
When God reveals our sin, he doesn’t do it to condemn us. He is calling us to himself. So, let’s take a few minutes right now. This entire chapter, Nehemiah 9, is a chapter of confession. So quietly, alone together, let’s confess our sin. If the Spirit of God has put his finger on something, don’t run from him. He doesn’t hate you. The fact that you’re feeling conviction right now is because he loves you. If you never feel conviction, that is something to be terrified by. So, quietly let’s confess our sin to God. And in a minute, I will lead us together in a confession.
Jesus, you are separating us from our sin, from our enemy, to yourself. May we hear your voice. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.” And as your Spirit convicts us, let us not run from you, but to you. Help us now, amen.