Much of life slips by us with neither incident nor significance. Other events cling to us with all the scent and texture memory can preserve. Events that, given the chance, we wish to pass on to our children, and to their children as well.
We hand down stories of our past because we believe memory to be a faithful guide to our futures. And surely, for God’s people especially, there is value in looking back to see God’s consistent pattern of faithfulness in our lives over the years.
The same was true of Israel. We remain in Nehemiah 9, where the people gather in a “revival service” in which they recited the nature of their relationship with God as well as their admission of their unfaithfulness in that relationship.
A STORY OF REDEMPTION
We might best understand Israel’s historical narrative with a single word: redemption. The word literally means to “buy back,” the way the Lord “redeemed” his people from “a house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 7:8)—referring of course, to Egypt. This story, the story of the exodus, became the defining event for God’s people for centuries.
It’s little wonder, then, that the redemption of God’s people took center stage in the prayer of Nehemiah 9:
9 “And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea, 10 and performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted arrogantly against our fathers. And you made a name for yourself, as it is to this day. 11 And you divided the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on dry land, and you cast their pursuers into the depths, as a stone into mighty waters. 12 By a pillar of cloud you led them in the day, and by a pillar of fire in the night to light for them the way in which they should go. 13 You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, 14 and you made known to them your holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant. 15 You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them. (Nehemiah 9:9-15)
The problem, of course, is that this defining work of God did not produce lasting change. The prayer now turns to the act of confessing the people’s disobedience to God:
16 “But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. 17 They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. 18 Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,’ and had committed great blasphemies, 19 you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which they should go. 20 You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst. 21 Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell. (Nehemiah 9:9-21)
God’s sustaining power is emblematic of his surpassing goodness and grace.
How are we to understand this today? First, we understand that we live in a different covenant than Nehemiah’s people. What is a “covenant?” Most simply, it is a promise, an agreement. For us, we might see a covenant as asking and answering a basic spiritual question: How can I experience God in my life?
For Israel, they lived in the promise of the covenant made to Abraham, wherein God pledged that his people would have the blessing of the Promised Land and the descendants with which to fill it. This promise was given as an extension of God’s grace and steadfast love. But, if God’s people were to enjoy God’s blessings to the full, they would conform to his righteous character as stipulated in the Law given through Moses. Here in Nehemiah, we’re seeing the people corporately admitting that they had been unfaithful in this regard.
For us, we live in the promise given through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We experience God’s presence directly now that the cross has given access to the Father’s throne, and we live in the wild hope of God’s promise that we, too, will share in Jesus’ resurrection when Christ returns to renew heaven and earth.
What does that mean? It means that we, too, have been redeemed; we have been bought with a price, and set free from the slavery of sin and self.
For us, then, we recite this gospel story every day of our lives. We tell this story to our children, that they might understand God’s goodness. We tell this story to our neighbors, that they might be brought near by the blood of Christ. We tell this story to our brothers and sisters in Christ, that we might be reminded of what holds us together in common purpose. And finally, we tell this story to ourselves, that we might remember our identity in Christ, and not fall into a fatal forgetfulness that looms and threatens to wear away the fabric of our faith.