The Multitudes Of Heaven Worship You
Key Verse 9:5b-6
“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.”
So many things were happening among the people of God after the return from exile. They had been in captivity for 70 years. During that long period of time, almost a life time for some, you would think that they would have lost their identity as God’s people, and fully integrated into the foreign cultures of those who had once subdued them and carried them off to exile. You would have imagine that their home would have now become wherever they had been born and raised in captivity. But strangely, they had not integrated at all into the foreign culture. For the most part many of them had longed to return home to Jerusalem. There was this mysterious drive to return. Though it was not so mysterious. This longing had been implanted in them long ago. It had been prophesied that they would return some day. God had promised it. And now as if it were a dream some had returned led by some of the greatest men in history. Ezra and Nehemiah, the servants of the Lord. But as much as the return had been easy, the resettling had not. They had encountered numerous difficulties and hardship at every step of the way. The rebuilding of the walls had been done by their own hands, yet at the same time it had been done miraculously. Internal problems that had been almost impossible to solve, had been solved— again miraculously. At every turn God had been there to help them. And they had learned so many lessons throughout the ordeal. Yet the greatest of lessons they had learned was that God had been faithful. That he had been with them. That he had helped them and sheltered them and was fulfilling every promise he had given to their ancestors— to those very ancestors who had caused all this suffering for them— especially the suffering of the exile.
So once the walls had been built, they hadn’t settled down into the every day life of the common and ordinary people. Because they were not common ordinary people. They were God’s people! And as God’s people, there was nothing common or ordinary about them. Consequently nothing was common or ordinary about their return either. They were a special people. And they had a special mission to fulfill. Something their ancestors failed to fulfill, but now it behooved them to fulfill it. They were to be God’s ambassadors, the keepers of his law, the flame of faith burning throughout the generations. But they couldn’t simply step into their role in history without preparation. There was much they needed to do before God would use them again.
First, they needed to prepare to serve God through celebrating God’s victory. In chapter 8, Nehemiah tells us that they all gathered to worship God at the temple. After a census was taken of all the families of Jerusalem and its vicinity, and rolls were assigned to them a great worship celebration and feast place for 7 days. During that time, the word of God was read for a long time by the prophet Ezra and other Scribes. It was a time of great rejoicing since such a thing had not been done for more than 70 years, way before their conquest and eventual exile. During the celebration the word of God that was read so convicted them that they began to mourn and weep. But Nehemiah and the priests stopped the people from mourning and weeping and commanded them to rejoice instead and to enjoy the festivities. The exact words were these: “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’” (Nehemiah 8:10) From God’s perspective, it was not time to mourn and weep— there would be a time for that— but a time to rejoice over all that God had done once again for them. It was what God wanted them to do in preparing them to be restored as a nation serving the Lord’s redemptive purpose in the world.
Second, they needed to prepare to serve God through a period of inner cleansing. While chapter 8 was a chapter of worship mostly through celebrations and rejoicing over God’s victory, chapter 9 is a chapter of worship through the cleansing of their hearts from sin and seeking the Lord’s favor. It is a wondrous chapter wholly dedicated to inner reflection of what had caused their failure before God so many years ago which led them to be conquered and exiled. What Nehemiah tells us these people did after their initial period of celebration is indeed a lesson all God’s people need to learn as individuals as well as a fellowship or congregation or even as the Christian nation that we are. What sort of preparation do we need in order to render the proper worship to God? In other words, how do we prepare our hearts for worship as well as for service to God? In this chapter 9, there is much to learn about coming before God in worship with the right heart and attitude.
Read verses 1-3. “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.” This worship event may have taken place almost 2 weeks after the events in chapter 8. The Israelites who had gathered to listen to the reading of the Bible at the temple may have gone each to their own homes. But on the 24th day of the same month, they had all returned from the surrounding towns and villages to join their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem for a different kind of worship celebration. This time they had come prepared to pour out their hearts before God.
Earlier they had celebrated and listened to the word of God read by the prophet Ezra and the other Scribes. The word of God had been new to them. In their captivity, they may have gathered to worship and to listen to the word of God, but not on the scale that they had right here at the temple some 3 weeks prior. They had listened to hour after hour of what God had done in history for himself and for them, his chosen people. What they did not understand, the Scribes who were qualified to interpret the word of God, interpreted the word of God to them. And what they had heard from the word of God had deeply touched them. For that reason they had wanted to mourn right there and then. But Nehemiah forbid them to mourn, urging them to celebrate instead with rejoicing. But now things were different. The time of rejoicing was gone, and the time to mourn indeed had come. It was time to stand before God as they really were, sinners who deserved nothing from God but condemnation. It was time to examine their hearts and to see what sins their hearts were guilty of before God. It was time to cleanse their inner hearts and make ready to stand before God once again as his servants.
Nehemiah tells us that they stood there confessing their sins and the wickedness of their hearts. He also tells us that they had separated themselves from all foreigners. The word of God that was read to them some time ago had deeply humbled them and had compelled them to appear before God with the attitude of a repentant heart. The seriousness of their confession and repentance was manifest in their separating themselves from all foreigners. Separating themselves from all foreigners was their feeble attempt to cleanse themselves before God. But it reflected a sincere desire for an inner cleansing of their hearts. No matter what they did in order to cleanse their hearts and minds from wickedness and sin would be insufficient, because only God himself can cleanse the heart from such things. But it was necessary for them to come before God with a desire for cleansing, with a show of good will that they were ready for cleansing. So they did what they could. They separated themselves from foreigners and came before God for the inner cleansing. They were indeed precious people intent on seeking God’s cleansing and revival.
They were even more precious than that. At the beginning of the month, and for a whole week they had listened to the word of God. And when they were convicted to mourn for their sins, God forbade them to do so. So they obeyed and rejoiced instead. But now they could no longer hold themselves from mourning their sins. They had had almost two weeks to contemplate what they heard from the Bible. And what they had heard and what was interpreted to them was indeed very disturbing to their souls. They were deeply convicted by what they read. There are two kinds of people. There are those who after much exposure to the word of God become proud and insufferably arrogant in their souls that they look down on everyone else. And there are those who after much exposure to the word of God become overwhelmed with humility and bend their heart and mind to the mercy of God for themselves and for all other sinners. These people were of the second kind of people who are made humble by the rising of the word of God in their hearts. The knowledge that they gained by the reading of the Scripture humbled them and brought them yet again before God to plead his mercy.
Jesus once described these two kinds of people well. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who came before God in worship. One, the Pharisee knew Scripture from infancy and it puffed him up to the point where he could arrogantly stand before God and blatantly condemn the tax collector who had nothing to boast about. Jesus justified the one but condemned the other. Indeed these congregated Jews stood as the tax collector stood before God, with heads bowed, and separated from the foreigners about them. Their separation from the foreigners was akin their separation from the world. They separated themselves from the world and came as they are before God in order to plead his mercy. They were like those of whom Isaiah the Prophet spoke of long ago with the voice of God saying: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word. (Is. 66:2) And again he says: “For 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.” (Is. 57:15) There is indeed a beautiful quality in those whose hearts are humbled the more they read the word of God, the more humble they become. On this day, the whole assembly were high and lofty, as they stood before God to confess their sins.
Look at verses 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.” The priests had called with loud voices to their God. They called with loud voices because they were overwhelmed by their sins. Their coming to God was not a casual ceremony, but a matter of heart poured out before the Lord, for them and for the people for whom they were praying for. And they urged the people to stand up and to praise God. The people had come with confession on their hearts. They had come with ashes all over their heads. They had not known how the Lord would receive them since their hearts were sinful and the word of God was explicit about God’s holiness and sense of justice and judgment. But the priests who had read the word of God to them also had known the heart of the living God. God would not turn these people away, because it was him who had freed them and who had called them back home to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and the nation and to eventually be his ambassadors on earth. But it was to the priests to assist and to encourage this congregation. And they did. “Stand up and praise the Lord your God” they told them, they commanded them, they urged them all together to lift up their voices in praise to God. A servant of God can either discourage God’s people or encourage them. A servant who is too full of himself, too fully self absorbed, does not know the heart and mind of God. He can easily discourage and burden the people. But a servant who knows the will of God has nothing but encouragement for the people, even in their most dark moments in their lives. These priests were wonderfully humble. They urged the people not to be discouraged, not to despair in their situation, not to suffer too much in their guilt, but to come to God as they are, to stand up and to praise him. When the people heard their priests and Scribes say this, their hearts crushed by sin, were lifted and they were encouraged to approach God in worship.
And so the priests and the Scribes and the people and all who had assembled there on that day joined together in a joint confession of sin. It was a day of worship that would begin with a sincere confession before God. But what exactly did they confess, when they lifted their voices to God to confess their wickedness and sins? When we observe verses 6-35, we can witness the full scope of their confession. And it is indeed marvelous. Their words were not disoriented, nor confused, nor haphazard. Remarkably their words were well thought of, organized from beginning to end. They did not focus on individual sins that may be confessed a man or woman in private with their Father and God in heaven. But their focus was historical on the major sins that had caused the downfall of their great nation which God had so laboriously molded together into a nation of God fearing people, and a people to be used by God. In verses 6 and on they mentioned several things in their confession.
First, they confessed God the Creator God. They exalt God as the creator God, the creator of the heavens and the earth, the maker and owner of life. They acknowledge that the God whom they appeal to is none other than the Creator. The Sovereign over all things. The God who knows the past present and future, and the God whose in his sovereignty has every right to be worshiped and blessed and honored in their life and the life of their nation.
Second, they confessed that God is the God of history. The prayer servants walk through history to reveal the sovereign God who is also the sovereign over history, the one who guides history according to his own purpose. He is the God who had called and blessed their ancestor Abraham with a good purpose. He had called Abraham to follow him and had given him impossible promises that God promised to fulfill. So they prayed to the God who had called and blessed Abraham and had in time fulfilled every promise he had made to Abraham. How great is this sovereign God whose word comes to pass in spite of all things. Therefore, God is the God of promises whose promises come true.
Third, They confessed that God is the God of promises. They prayed to the God who had continued to fulfill his good and great promises not only to Abraham as an individual, but to his descendants as a whole. He is the God who led Abraham’s family to Egypt to nurture them and increase their numbers. He is the God who was familiar with their suffering when they became slaves in Egypt. And he is the God who had rescued them from slavery and brought them to the land he had promised their ancestors. So he is the compassionate God who was not deaf to the cries of his people in slavery and down throughout the generations. He loved them as his people and helped them whenever they were in distress. How great is the God who had rescued them time and again thereafter every time they had been in trouble. He is the same God who would once again rescue them from their exile and bring them back to their land of promise as he has already done again. This
Fourth, they confessed that they had always been unworthy sinners who did not deserve what God had done for them. Throughout their confessions on that day, they were clear to confess all the sins of their forefathers. They had been disobedient. They had been unfaithful. They had been rebellious. They had been traitorous to God. They had used God for their own advantages. Whenever God rescued them from hardship, and they had a time of peace and growth, they had become content and strayed away from God. It was their human nature to betray God every time their suffering ended and God gave them a time of peace. Like most people, who cry out to God in humility of heart in times of distress, clinging to God when in difficulty, and who are quick to become self satisfied when God’s hand delivers them from trouble. So they confessed the many times they had abandoned God after they had received from God his loving kindness and his mercy. Indeed they confessed all their sins to him at this time.
Fifth, they confessed that as much as their ancestors had been unfaithful to God, so also they too had been unfaithful. It was their ancestors who had betrayed the grace of God time and again. These people had been good people, listening to God’s words and following God’s direction. They had been those who had come back from the exile with a humble heart ready to obey the word of God and to do what God commands. They had rebuilt the walls without complaints. In a sense they were much better than their ancestors who had abused the mercy of God. Yet when they prayed, they confessed that their ancestors’ sins were their own sins as well. They knew that they were no better than their wayward ancestors, that if left to their own, they would betray God in wickedness of heart. They understood that sins resides in the heart of all men, and that they would need the hand of God’s mercy to prevent them from doing what their ancestors had done. How great they were— not complaining— not accusing— not making excuses— not becoming proud thinking they were better than anyone else. They were simply humble enough to come to God and beg his mercy.
Sixth, they confessed the grace of God absolutely above all else. When we read their confession, we cannot but realize that in all the history of wickedness and sin and abandonment of God and unfaithfulness and all other things that sullied their hearts and minds, in all these things, they could not but confess the grace of God to them. God had been gentle and patient, kind and loving, forgiving and fatherly, compassionate and merciful— and much more. Their confessions were marvelous. When we see their confession and the scope of their confession we realize that confession is not limited to confession of sins and wicked things. But that confession confesses God’s creation and blessings, his praise, and his faithfulness, his work in history, his promises that never fail— and much more. Also we see that confession is a confession of sin. When they stood before God, they stood as sinners and confessed their sins one by one. But we see that the greatest confession these people could make to God in all this worship, was the confession of his grace. It is the confession that in spite of their wickedness and unworthiness before God, that God’s grace never abandoned them. In their rebellion and exile, it was the grace of God— the grace to chastise them and bring them back to their senses as God’s people. In their return home, it was the grace of God to lead them and guide them back to the land of their ancestors. God’s grace to them was abundant and magnificent. If there was one thing that stood out in all their confession from creation until the present day, it was how God had been faithful to them and how his grace had followed them all the way.
That seems to be at the heart of worship— the confession of a man or woman, the confession of a people or community of God’s people. The heart of worship is the word of God, for the word of God was read and was always the living word that moved and shaped and convicted and guided their hearts and their fellowship in the right way, in the way God would lead them. But in the heart of worship, where the word of God resided in all their worship, the one thing that made all this possible— the one thing that could actually lend a person or a people the privilege to come before God in worship was the grace of God. These people confessed all things before God. In essence they confessed their sins, and they confessed the one glorious thing— the grace by which God had brought them in history till this point where they could start again.
God wanted them to start again. There would be no doubt that they would once again err and betray that grace God had so wondrously shed upon them. they would surely fall and fail, suffer and grow. But they would also remain faithful to God and they would fulfill the Lord’s will because God’s grace was upon them. Without that grace they would not be able to fulfill their . mission their purpose in the world. But with his grace, as always, overshadowing them as a mother or father loom over their children always, that grace would enable them to do what God wanted them to do. If we do not stand on the grace of God, we cannot stand at all. Indeed, the grace of God should be at the center and heart of our everything, especially at the heart of our worship. At the heart of our confession. At the heart of our thanksgiving. We must be the advertisers and heralds of the grace of God in all things. Let the grace of God shine upon us then. Let that grace grace our hearts and our service and our worship, and our bible teaching, and our relationships with one another, and our relationship with God and with the world and with all things. It is so important that we learn from these ancestors of ours how to worship God. we need to worship him with rejoicing, and with confession. But as we confess, we ought to be honest and open, not superficial and burdensome. As we confess, we ought to also be proud, not in our knowledge or skill, in our ability or anything else, but let us be proud that when we were sinners, undeserving and unworthy, God sent us Jesus, and in Jesus we have all the grace we need to stand and worship and serve God’s purpose well.
Read verses 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.” When these people came to worship and to confess this time, it was not to ask God for anything. They did not even ask him to do anything for them, nor to liberate them nor to rescue them nor anything else. They simply appealed to his grace. They told him they were in distress. They confessed what they had been failing at. And they stood before him empty and ready to receive from God whatever God would in his wisdom do for them. In other words, they stood and appealed all over again to his grace and mercy. And they stood there with faith that the God who had blessed them time and again in history would bless them again. And this time it would be once again as before, a blessing of simply receiving his unending grace. How beautiful are the hearts that never grow proud, but ever grow humble as the word of God fills them, and in such humility only rest in the grace of God. “In view of this” they said, “We are making a binding agreement”. What they meant is that they made a new decision of faith to remain faithful to God. They could not do it on their own. But they made an agreement that would bind them to God now and always again. It was their faith to do so, their faith to start again. Whatever could they do! Nothing but come to God by faith and rest in his grace.
Hebrews 4:16 tells us: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” So we too say: “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.” Amen.