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 are the LORD God, who chose Abram… You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt… You came down on Mount Sinai… You gave them kingdoms and nations… By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets… Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love.
Nehemiah 9:5, 7, 9, 13, 22, 30, 32
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the building projects – the temple and the walls of Jerusalem – that take place after God’s people come home from exile. No less real, and no less hard graft, is the rebuilding of the people themselves – in relationship with God and in community with each other. And at the heart of it, the means by which restoration comes, is the word of God. As Nehemiah 8-10 shows, God works through Scripture – and the story it tells – to breathe new life into his people.
In this case, reading the book of the law leads to confession, with Nehemiah 9 recording the longest prayer in the Bible outside the Psalms. Beginning with praise, the people then trace the biblical story from creation right through to their present day. In doing so, they confess their faithlessness and God’s faithfulness in his dealings with them, admitting their guilt and acknowledging God’s grace.
Mediated through the lens of a scriptural memory of God’s past actions on their behalf, that shared history cements the identity of the people of God, forming a community which will trust and serve him in the future. And so, confession turns to commitment as they make an agreement among themselves and before the Lord to make their own history different in the land God has given them anew. The renewal of the covenant that follows in chapter 10 flows from the awakening by the word of God in chapter 8 and the confession of sin in chapter 9.
Of course, we need ongoing renewal at the personal level. But what’s going on in Nehemiah, crucially, is corporate renewal, renewal of the people of God. A restored relationship with God leads to a restored relationship with each other, to a concern for the welfare of the whole community. The vision at the heart of these chapters, shaped by the biblical story, remains as powerful now as it did then – renewal through the word of God, renewal in relationship with God, and renewal as the people of God.