Up and Praise the Lord"
How Christians worship
is an age-old concern. There have been differing views of worship since
the beginning of time. In the 16th century, Zwingli noted that man is by
nature inclined toward the material, a characteristic that compels him
to form mental pictures or symbols of God. Zwingli saw this approach as
an obstacle to worship. He was concerned that the mental image becomes
God. It was really like creating a molten calf as a representation of God.
True religion seeks to worship God.
Calvin believed that
true worship was more important than a proper knowledge of salvation. He
identified spiritual worship as having two qualities: It did not depend
upon physical props or "humanly devised ceremonies," and it was in accord
with the commands of God.
In our fast paced society
we want our Scripture in sound bytes and our music for entertainment. From
beginning to end, we seem more concerned about how people feel about our
worship services than about whether God is glorified. This focus on feelings
makes an idol out of self and a god out of experience. The Psalmist says,
"Give unto the Lord the glory due to His name; worship the Lord in the
beauty of His holiness" (Psalms. 29:2). Many lessons about worshipping
and praising God can be learned from the book of Nehemiah.
If we are led to worship
God by seeking to obey his commands, eventually we will be led to a proper
understanding of salvation. Nowhere is this better seen than in the book
On the twenty-fourth
day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing
sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had
separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and
confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. They stood where
they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a
quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping
the LORD their God. Standing on the stairs were the Levites . . . who called
with loud voices to the LORD their God. And the Levites . . . said:
"Stand up and praise the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting."
be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise.
Praise begins with
the Word of God
The praise we read about
in these verses begins as God's people begin their journey back to God.
They are returning to God during a time of great distress. These people
had spent at least half a century in Babylonian captivity. Their forefathers
had been taken captive and many standing there before Ezra were born in
a foreign land. They no longer spoke the language of their forefathers.
They had been alienated from God and his Word. A quarter of a day was spent
just studying the Word of God as they sought to be reintroduced to God
through the revelation of himself through his Word.
They have just completed
rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, but it was necessary for them to recognize
the reason for their distress. Recognizing the reason for their distress
begins with a study of the Word of God and ended in praising God as they
committed their lives to him.
There was intensity
in their study of the Word of God. It was an intensive personal
study, in that they saw themselves in Scripture. As Ezra read from the
book of the law of God, Nehemiah says, "For all the people had been weeping
as they listened to the words of the Law." (Nehemiah 8:9) They were standing
there weeping as the Word of God was read to them. They were tears of grief,
for Nehemiah said, "Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."
(8:10b) There wasn't a dry eye in the crowd.
They found written
in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites
were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month and that they
should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem:
"Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild
olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths"--
as it is written. So the people went out and brought back branches and
built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the
courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the
one by the Gate of Ephraim.
The whole company that had returned from
exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun
until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their
joy was very great. (NIV)
Someone suggested that
today we go to God's word for comfort and to Forbes for direction. It is
not your normal Bible class, where the students come with the attitude
that you had better make it interesting or I want be back.
It was a decisive
Bible study. As they rediscovered God, a commitment to practice
what had been neglected was made. The joy of praise was rediscovered as
they gained knowledge of God through his word and began to practice the
teaching of that word in their hearts.
Celebrating the feast
of Tabernacles seemed to be a fitting way to return to God. This was a
memorial feast celebrated by faithful Jews to remind themselves of the
deliverance and sustenance, which came from God as their forefathers lived
for forty years in a barren wilderness. It was a time when they would gather
sticks and construct makeshift shelters to live in as a reminder of the
wilderness experience. They began right then and there to celebrate the
Feast of Tabernacles as it had never been celebrated before. But here in
the book of Nehemiah this simple feast took on a much deeper meaning. It
recognized their willingness to return to the Word of God.
As we reflect on this
story, we realize their worship eventually brings them full circle to embrace
God's will for salvaging their lives. As they returned to the Word of God
they were compelled to begin worshipping God. If you begin to truly worship
God, you can't help from embracing God's plan for your salvation.
Elements of True
They were told to "Stand
up and Praise the Lord." As they stand up and praise God we learn essential
elements of praise in their approach God.
Broken and contrite
hearts are prerequisites for praise; there was no smugness in this audience.
Initially in chapter 8 when the Word of God was read their ignorance
of God was revealed. In chapter 9 we see them coming together "On the twenty-fourth
day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting
and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads." Ezekiel
had prophesied the return of the Jews to God and the coming of this day.
Ezekiel said, "Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds,
and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices."
(Ezekiel 36:31 NIV)
They came to God's Word
out of a deep-seated spiritual need. Their hearts were broken because their
lives were empty. They were crying to be filled with God's presence. The
Psalmist writes, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and
contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Psalms 51:17 NIV) "He heals
the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." (Ps 147:3 NIV) Isaiah says
that God exists to revive the spiritually broken hearted. "This is what
the high and lofty One says-- he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
"I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and
lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart
of the contrite." (Isaiah 57:15 NIV)
When the crowds gathered
to hear Jesus preach on the mountainside, he taught them saying, "Blessed
are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are
those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for
they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for
righteousness, for they will be filled." (Matthew 5:1-6 NIV) This is the
kind of spiritual poverty and hunger that those under Nehemiah's leadership
They were crying over
their guilt from failing to live without any input from God. Weeping signifies
the depth of their godly sorrow. In the midst of their walking around in
sackcloth and ashes and weeping they were told to "Stand up and praise
the Lord your God." (9:5) Being poor in spirit qualified them to praise
God; for it is those that God grants entrance into his kingdom.
The Elements of True
As we look at their
sorrow we discover the elements of true praise. We also understand the
very basis of worshipping and praising God.
True praise recognizes
God's sovereignty. There is no way true praise can be extended
until we realize the sovereignty of God. God's sovereignty is recognized
in his creation and in heaven as the multitudes of the heavens worshipped
"Stand up and praise
the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting." "Blessed be
your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise.
You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens,
and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and
all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of
heaven worship you. (NIV)
As they read from the
book of the law of God, apparently they read that "In the beginning God
created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty,
darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering
over the waters. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light."
(Genesis 1:1-3 NIV) They saw Genesis 1 as proclaiming the sovereignty of
Almighty God. What a comforting thought for them to realize that God has
been in charge all along. We shall see as we follow the thoughts of Nehemiah
9 that they see that God has been in charge of their lives all along the
During the French Revolution
many leaders were determined to do away with Christianity forever. One
lovely, clear night an atheist boastfully proclaimed his satanic doctrine
to a poor countryman. "Everything," he ranted, "will be abolished--churches,
Bibles, clergymen. Yes, even the word 'God' itself! We shall remove everything
that speaks of religion." The listener gave a quiet chuckle. "Why do you
laugh?" demanded the other. The peasant pointed to the stars and replied,
"I was just wondering how you and your crew would manage to get them down!"
Nothing prepares us
to read the Word of God better than an appreciation of his sovereignty.
As they looked at the heavens they realized God's sovereignty. It demanded
a great respect for God. There is such a profound respect for
God and his Word here. It is through this profound respect that they begin
to realize the personal presence of God.
True praise recognizes
God's deliverance. They continued to study God's work through Abraham's
descendants. They recognized God as the one who called Abram and made and
kept his covenant with him.
"You are the LORD God,
who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and named him
Abraham. You found his heart faithful to you, and you made a covenant
with him to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites,
Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Girgashites. You have
kept your promise because you are righteous. "You saw the suffering
of our forefathers in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea. You sent
miraculous signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials
and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians
treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this
day. You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through
it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a
stone into mighty waters. By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and
by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were
to take. (NIV)
True praise doesn't
stop with recognizing the sovereignty of God's rule; it leads us to see
relevancy of God's rule to our lives. They saw God's sovereign power to
relieve the suffering of their forefathers as he relieved the suffering
of Abraham's descendants in Egypt. God brought them out of Egypt through
the miraculous powers of his very nature. They fully understand that God
was not only delivering their forefathers, but he was working on their
Where would you be today,
if God had not called Abraham? There would be no Jewish nation, there would
be no Jesus, there would be no cross and there would be no hope. They see
hope for themselves in what God did for Abraham. This makes for the joy
True praise recognizes
God's sustaining power. God was recognized as the one who came
down and gave the law at Mount Sinai and the One who had sustained them
with Manna in the wilderness.
"You came down on Mount
Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws
that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made
known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws
through your servant Moses. In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven
and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them
to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand
to give them. (NIV)
Their praise continues
to recognize God's spiritual and physical sustenance. The laws and regulations
sustained them in the wilderness and were a means of deliverance from a
wicked world. God taught them how to live in the midst of a wicked world.
But their praise also involved recognizing the Manna from heaven and the
water from a rock. God was concerned about the spiritual as well as the
True praise recognizes
God's longsuffering. They praised God for not deserting their forefathers
in their rebellion. Nehemiah writes:
"But they, our forefathers,
became arrogant and stiff-necked, and 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 desert. By day the pillar of cloud did
not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night
to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct
them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them
water for their thirst. For forty years you sustained them in the desert;
they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet
become swollen. (NIV)
Recognizing God's longsuffering
for their forefathers is relevant to them because they know that God's
longsuffering applies to them as well.
True praise recognizes
God's forgiveness. The culmination of true praise understands God's
"You gave them kingdoms
and nations, allotting to them even the remotest frontiers. They took over
the country of Sihon king of Heshbon and the country of Og king of Bashan.
You made their sons as numerous as the stars in the sky, and you brought
them into the land that you told their fathers to enter and possess. Their
sons went in and took possession of the land. You subdued before them the
Canaanites, who lived in the land; you handed the Canaanites over to them,
along with their kings and the peoples of the land, to deal with them as
they pleased. They captured fortified cities and fertile land; they took
possession of houses filled with all kinds of good things, wells already
dug, vineyards, olive groves and fruit trees in abundance. They ate to
the full and were well-nourished; they reveled in your great goodness.
"But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they put your law
behind their backs. They killed your prophets, who had admonished them
in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies. So
you handed them over to their enemies, who oppressed them. But when they
were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in
your great compassion you gave them deliverers, who rescued them from the
hand of their enemies. "But as soon as they were at rest, they
again did what was evil in your sight. Then you abandoned them to the hand
of their enemies so that they ruled over them. And when they cried out
to you again, you heard from heaven, and in your compassion you delivered
them time after time. "You warned them to return to your law, but they
became arrogant and disobeyed your commands. They sinned against your ordinances,
by which a man will live if he obeys them. Stubbornly they turned their
backs on you, became stiff-necked and refused to listen. For many years
you were patient with them. By your Spirit you admonished them through
your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you handed them over to the
neighboring peoples. But in your great mercy you did not put an end to
them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.
God heard them time
after time, and he continued to forgive. They praised God for not putting
an end to them and abandoning them in all their rebellion down through
the history of their people.
True praise recognizes
God's discipline. Most of us refuse to see God's discipline much
less see it as a matter worthy of our praise. God's discipline causes us
to look inward that we might see the destruction that our own depravity
has wrought. God's discipline has brought them back to the joy of God.
"Now therefore, O our
God, the great, mighty and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love,
do not let all this hardship seem trifling in your eyes-- the hardship
that has come upon us, upon our kings and leaders, upon our priests and
prophets, upon our fathers and all your people, from the days of the kings
of Assyria until today. In all that has happened to us, you have
been just; you have acted faithfully, while we did wrong. (NIV)
As they begin their
journey back to God, they see their sin and shame, but more importantly
they understand God's discipline for the purpose of delivering to them
the message of salvation.
In your struggle against
sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And
you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
"My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart
when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he
punishes everyone he accepts as a son." Endure hardship as discipline;
God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?
If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you
are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all
had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How
much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!
Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but
God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however,
it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been
trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. "Make
level paths for your feet," so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather
Are you presently going
through hardships and struggles? Treat it as a discipline from God. Remember
that God only disciplines his children. Everyone else is left to learn
from the destructive forces of sin. God's discipline is not for our destruction
but for our instruction. That arrogant ruthless boss in your life may be
God's way of telling you that you need to be more humble and trusting.
Of course, this is not what we want to hear.
True praise ends
with personal sanctification. They saw the evil in their lives
and began to separate themselves from the evil as they prepared to praise
God. They began to allow God to sanctify their lives by setting themselves
apart for the purpose of obeying his Word. Nehemiah's followers were led
to discover God's reliable eternal covenant made with Abraham. As they
learned the lessons God's redemptive history taught, they made a commitment
to his Word.
"But see, we are slaves
today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its
fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, its abundant
harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies
and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress. "In view
of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing,
and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to
"The rest of
the people-- priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants and
all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake
of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons
and daughters who are able to understand--all these now join their
brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow
the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully
all the commands, regulations and decrees of the LORD our Lord.
It was this commitment
to God through obedience to his Word that validated their praise.
In the final analysis there can be no real praise of God without a commitment
of our lives to his will.
Praise takes place
not by coming to God with a full knowledge of him, but rather with a willingness
to know and embrace him as we discover his joy in salvaging our lives.
It is then that we discover the joy of God as our strength.
God did not salvage
the nation of Israel resenting every rebellious act. God's joy was manifested
through his longsuffering in their rebellion. God redeemed them because
of his joy. It was in his joy that they discovered his strength for living
lives that praised God.