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"Stand Up and Praise the Lord"

Nehemiah 9

Jim Davis

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 of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah 9:1-5
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." "Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. (NIV)

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.

Nehemiah 8:14-17
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 Praise

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 were experiencing.

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 Praise

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 him.

Nehemiah 9:5-6
"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 dreadful way.

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.

Nehemiah 9:7-12
"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 behalf.

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 of praise.

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.

Nehemiah 9:13-15
"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 physical.

True praise recognizes God's longsuffering. They praised God for not deserting their forefathers in their rebellion. Nehemiah writes:

Nehemiah 9:16-21
"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 forgiveness.

Nehemiah 9:22-31
"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. (NIV)

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.

Nehemiah 9:32-33
"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.

Hebrews 12:4-13
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 healed. (NIV)

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.

Nehemiah 9:36-38
"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 it." (NIV)

Nehemiah 10:28-29
"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. (NIV)

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.

Conclusion:

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.
 
 

 

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