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A study of Nehemiah: A culture in moral crisis

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Nehemiah 1:5-7

The Book of Nehemiah opens and closes with prayer. This is the first of 12 instances of prayer recorded in the Book of Nehemiah, and the most crucial. If God does not answer this prayer, the story of the Hebrew nation ends.

Recognize God’s holiness

Verse 5: Then I said: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands….”

“Lord” translates YHWH. This is God’s name for himself (Exodus 3.14), a name so holy that no Jew would dare speak it. The scribes who copied Scripture placed the vowels for a different name (Adonai) below the consonants for this name (YHWH), to remind their readers that they were not to pronounce this most sacred of all words.

“God of heaven.” This was a common address by the Persians to their gods, and was used by Cyrus the Great in liberating the Jews. But the Hebrews knew that these heathen gods were idols on the earth; this was the Lord of heaven. This title is found four times in Nehemiah and three times in Daniel.

Jesus taught us to pray the same way: “Our Father in heaven . . .” (Matthew. 6:9).

“The great and awesome God” was a favorite address of Nehemiah, used three times in this book (4:14; 9:32). “Great” points to his omnipotence. “Awesome” points to his holiness—”the God who evokes awe” (cf. Isaiah 6, Luke 5).

If you are facing great affliction, you need to pray to a great God. About twelve years after he graduated from Princeton , Donald Grey Barnhouse was invited to preach in chapel, and when he arrived, he notice his old Hebrew professor Robert Dick Wilson had taken a place near the front to hear him.

When the service was over, the professor came up to Barnhouse and said, “If you come back again. I will not come to hear you preach. I only come once. I am glad that you are a big-godder. When my boys come back, I come to see if they are big-godders or little-godders, and then I know what their ministry will be.” Barnhouse asked Wilson to explain.

He said, “Well, some men have a little god, and they are always in trouble with him. He can’t do any miracles. He can’t take care of the inspiration of the Scriptures and their preservation and transmission to us. They have a little god, and I call them little-godders.

Then there are those who have a great God. He speaks, and it is done. He commands, and it stands fast. He knows how to show Himself strong on behalf of those who fear Him. You have a great God and he will bless your ministry.”

Verse 5b: “Who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands….”

Covenant—relationship; in this case, to restore the people after their Babylonian captivity (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 27-30). Of “love” (chesed, the equivalent of agape in the New Testament). God’s covenant is composed of love, not legalism. Initiated by God, based on his mercy. There is a bumper sticker which has the “Jesus prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” It’s a good thing to say to God.

Pray with urgent humility (v. 6a)

“Let your ear be attentive and your eyes open.” Solomon prayed in the same way at the dedication of the Temple (2 Chronicles 6:40). Nehemiah knows that he has done nothing to deserve a hearing before God, and so is asking that he be heard by grace.

“To hear the prayer your servant is praying . . . for your servants, the people of Israel.” He is “cupbearer to the king” of Persia, but servant of the Most High God. The entire nation is at the service of the King of Kings.

Nehemiah made the petitions “before you day and night”—constant, showing their passion and urgency. We need to come to God as though we have nowhere else to go (A. Lincoln).

Confess with honesty (vs. 6b-7)

Admit your own failures: “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you” (v. 6b).

Three times Nehemiah used “we” in confessing the sins of the nation; not once did he say “they.” Even though he was not living in Israel, he was part of the nation and knew that he was a sinner.

This was Daniel’s spirit a century earlier: “I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed: ‘O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land'” (Daniel 9:4-6).

Daniel was one of the most godly and courageous men in Scripture, but he knew that all have sinned and come short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23) and that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

See your sin as God does: “We have acted very wickedly toward you” (v. 7a). “Very wickedly”—evil in the worst extreme. The word can mean “offensively.” Toward you—Nehemiah knew their sins were against God (Psalm 51). Do you see your sin this way? Do you see your sin in the light of God’s holiness?

Be specific: “We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses” (v. 7b). Commands, decrees and laws: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. These are different descriptions of the Torah, not divisions within it. We use “Scriptures” or “Bible” for the word of God. Specifically: they had intermarried with those left in the land (Ezra 9, 10).

Confess for America

My parents remembered a time when moral standards were unambiguous and social expectations were clear. But that day is no more. Forty two percent of those who use the Internet view pornography on it. Ninety percent of our children, ages 8-16, have viewed pornography on the Internet, most while doing their homework. Sixty five percent of Americans see nothing wrong with premarital sex. Drunk drivers kill someone every 30 minutes in this country.

Why has the moral climate of America changed so much in recent decades? Here’s the academic answer, in brief. The Reformation shook the foundations of medieval Catholic authority. In response, a mathematician named Rene Descartes (1596-1650), in a desire to argue for objective truth and his Catholic tradition, developed a theory that truth comes through the unaided use of the mind. Philosophers in England countered that truth is known through the senses. A German thinker named Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) combined the two views, arguing that knowledge is produced when our minds interpret our sense data. However, Kant asserted, we cannot know the “thing in itself,” only our experience of it. Knowledge is personal and subjective.

Two centuries later, this approach to truth has become the dominant academic view in our country. Ethics are personal and subjective. You have no right to force “your truth” on anyone else. So long as we are sincere in our beliefs and tolerant of others, we’ll get along. The result is a culture which has lost its moral foundations.

The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. The Centers for Disease Control say that one-third of girls in America become pregnant before the age of 20; 81% of them are unmarried. Out of wedlock births accounted for four in ten of all U.S. births in 2007.

Pornography makes more money in America than Google, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, Microsoft, Apple and Netflix—combined. Worldwide, revenues top all combined revenues of all professional football, baseball and basketball franchises.

The Bible says that stealing is wrong. Property theft in America costs us more than $15 billion. Last year, more than 9.9 million Americans were victims of identity theft, our nation’s fastest growing crime, at a cost of $5 billion. Total dollar loss from Internet crimes is $575 million.

The Bible says that murder is wrong. In 2006 in the United States homicide was the second leading cause of death for infants. Homicide with a firearm was the second leading cause of persons between the ages of 10 and 24, the third leading cause of death for persons between ages 25 and 34.

There are 774,000 gang members and 27,900 gangs reported active in the U.S. in 2008. There are 900,000 gang members overall across the world fostering illegal drug trade in the U.S. The availability of illicit drugs in the U.S. is increasing; 25 million drug users are under 12 years of age. Illegal drugs cost our country $215 billion annually.

The Bible says that lying is wrong. In a recent survey, 83% of students confessed they “lied to a parent about something significant.” Sixty-four percent cheated on a test during the past year—47% of students attending non-religious schools cheated; 63% of students from religious schools admitted they cheated.

Few Christians would claim that America’s moral climate is pleasing to God. But note that God’s criteria for spiritual awakening in 2 Chronicles 7:14 focuses on “my people, called by my name.” We must begin with ourselves when we pray for America. Not Radical Muslim terrorists, or serial killers, or drug dealers. God is pointing to the things you and I do each and every day, the ways we live. God says that our ways are “wicked,” evil in the extreme.

America, like Israel in Nehemiah’s day, is a culture in moral crisis. It is critical that America experience a moral rebirth. Such a rebirth begins with us—with you and me. Where are you tempted morally today?

In 1831, the French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to study our nation. Here is his report: “I searched for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there. I searched for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forest, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her public system and her institutions of learning, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”