In our study of the book of Nehemiah, we saw last week that upon the completion of the walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah led the people in a great revival, a spiritual awakening. This revival was sparked and inspired by the preaching of the Word of God. Today we come to chapter 9 of Nehemiah, which tells us of the further worship services that were held at that time.
The question that is confronting us today in the Word of God is this: What is the most spiritually significant activity that you perform on the earth? What is the most desired of God from you? What is the most crucial for your spiritual life? Think about that.
Is it what you do in your home? Is it, perhaps, what you do in your society or in your workplace? Is it, perhaps, your own private time of prayer?
The answer of God is this: congregational worship. The worship of the church is the most significant activity performed by the child of God on earth. That makes sense, Reformed sense, biblical sense. The great work of God in time is the gathering of the church in Jesus Christ that shall eternally worship and praise Him. The most significant activity on earth, therefore, is when the church, though it be in principle, worships God. The body of Jesus Christ is God’s church. And this is the work of Christ: to gather that church. God, in a special way, delights in the gathering of His people to praise and worship Him.
What is most pleasing to God? Handel’s Messiah? A beautiful choral piece? Mountain splendor? No. The Lord loves the praises of His people.
As I said, the people of God, under Nehemiah’s leadership, are now gathered in the worship of the living God in our text, Nehemiah 9:1-31. They have come under the Word of God as it has been sounded from a pulpit of wood. They have come humbled and burdened under their sin. They have desired to separate themselves from a world of sin. We read, “They separated themselves from all strangers,” that is, they would not join the world in what they were doing—for we cannot worship God if our heart is joined and our life is compromised with the sin worshiped in this world.
We learn in chapter 9 what took place in their worship, namely, that God’s goodness was proclaimed to them. In the light of that goodness, they saw what they were as sinners. And, finally, they were renewed in that conviction of their need of the mercy of God. Reading Nehemiah 9:1-31, we are taught that in worship God’s goodness must be shown in order to show our sin, so that we might be directed to His mercy and renewed to praise and serve Him all our days.
The sermon that day in Nehemiah’s time centered in declaring the goodness of God. The people who came were deeply troubled over their sins. They had spent a week struggling. Further, they lived in poverty. They had stress on the job. They suffered under sins committed against them and opposition directed toward them, and temptations were many to be discouraged. And the message that they heard? What was it that they needed to hear? We read in verses 5 and 6 of Nehemiah 9: “Stand up and bless the Lord your God for ever and ever: and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. Thou, even thou, art Lord alone.”
Now, we need to stop in our thoughts. Their minds might have been running with their problems and their needs and their difficulties and their hard situation. And the very first word was: Stop! God is God. He is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him!
You see, in true worship, we must first be confronted with God. We read, “Enter into his presence. Come ye before him.” When you go to church, do you think about everything and everyone and all types of things except God? Do you think only of yourself? Worship is coming into His presence. God is good in Himself.
We read again in verse 5: “Blessed be thy glorious name.” This was the first thing they heard in church, that God’s name was exalted above all blessing and praise. So good, so glorious, is God, so filled with things to praise, that He is above praise. That is, He is even more glorious than we can think or say. You praise someone for pulling you out of a burning car, or helping you study for an exam. You try to express your thanks and the person says, “Enough, enough! You flatter me. You go beyond.” But not so in praising God. The reality of how good and glorious God is is exalted above praise. You may take the song of Miriam and Aaron at the Red Sea, you may add David’s leaping with joy when he takes the ark to Jerusalem, then you may combine the glorious chorus of heaven right now before the throne of God: Hallelujah, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth—you may take it all together, and the reality of how glorious God is is above it. It is above all that. You would have to say, after listening to heaven’s worship: “It’s been understated. The glory of God is understated.” The who you worship in church is God. Thou art God alone.
In the Belgic Confession (one of the Reformed, biblical creeds of the church), we confess in Article 1 that we believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that there is only one simple spiritual being called God. And He is eternal, incomprehensible, and glorious. Are you aware of that when you worship? Worship can be a dangerous place for you and me. Imagine being in the presence of that person who pulled you out of the burning car and acting slovenly, indifferent, apathetic, and thinking only about yourself and your schedule and where you need to be and thinking of tomorrow and your plans. Imagine doing that to a human being! God is, in the worship of His church, to be greatly praised. He is to be had in reverence among all the assembly of the saints.
He is good. He is not only good in Himself, but He is good in His works. We read in verse 6, “Thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee.” Now the point here is not for me to expound on the beautiful truths of creation and providence, except for me to add that if you deny those truths of creation in six twenty-four-hour days and of providence—that God upholds all things by His hand—then you cannot worship God in His works. But the point is not to go into that right now, but the remembrance of these things is utterly necessary for proper worship, to put us in awe, to place us before God as He is.
What are the first words of a minister when he starts the service? Historically, in the Dutch Reformed churches, it is this (taken from Psalm 124), and it is intentional: “Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, our help standeth in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The contemplation of God’s mighty work in creation and His ongoing providence places us in the proper state of awe before God. “Come before his presence with singing; know ye that the Lord he is God. It is he that hath made us and not we ourselves” (Ps. 100). You and I, in worship, are in the presence of Him who has made us and holds us right now in His hand and who in Christ has revealed to us His love. Bow down in worship!
The entire sermon that day dealt with the goodness of God as it is shown toward His church and people.
Now we can only glance a little bit at what is said. I cannot bring out the details. But it is the cumulative weight of all that God did that is the point of this passage. Read it for yourself today (Neh. 9). We could look at each incident that is mentioned of what Jehovah has done and say, “Oh, how good He is.” But the intended effect comes from a look at their combined testimony. When you add them all up, then you see who He is and what He did. How good God is to His people. How indisputably and immeasurably good! We are not very good, you know, at spiritual arithmetic—in adding things up. We can count dollars into the millions, but we cannot count past five or ten in listing what God has done. But the sermon there gave a list of some of the good works of God.
Look at it just briefly.
There was, first of all, God’s goodness in the call of Abraham, out of an eternal election, to inherit the land of Canaan. God established a covenant with him.
There was the deliverance of Israel out of the bondage of Egypt because God heard their cry, dividing the Red Sea and throwing the Egyptians down as a stone in the water. It was the leading of Israel forty years through the dry wilderness by the pillar of fire and cloud.
There was the giving to Israel of the law at Sinai to teach them how to show love and gratitude. There was manna and water from a rock repeatedly. There were forty years of sustaining them in the wilderness and their clothes did not wear out. There was the giving to them of the land on the east side of the Jordan and then the multiplying of them. There was, further, the giving to them of the entire land of Canaan, casting down the walls of their enemies, defeating the giants, and giving them the wealth of the land.
Then followed judges and saviors to help them and prophets to bring them the Word of God.
Now let me put that all in the language of fulfillment. Here is the skimming of the top, a superficial account of God’s goodness to you, His child. He elected you eternally and called you out of the world of sin to which you belonged, thus deserving its judgments. He established unconditionally a covenant with you and said, “I will be your friend, I will delight in you. I will show you glorious things.” He ransomed you from the bondage and guilt of sin by making a sea of blood in His own Son. He has led you ten, twenty, thirty-five, forty-one, forty-nine, seventy years. There has never been one day or one night when He took His eye from you. He gave you angels’ food and water that quenches thirst—the Lord Jesus Christ and faith in Him that does not wear out. He laid up for you Canaan. And you will go over the Jordan of death to be with Him. He cast down your giants, your troubles, and all that oppressed you. And He leads you with spiritual care. He gives you the church, He gives you His Word, He gives you His faithfulness.
Now, as you are met in the place of worship on the Lord’s day, this is the God in whose presence you stand. You have come through a week, all right. You have come through a week of many trials and many troubles. But now you stand in the church of God. What is the first word that you must hear? “Behold your God! Behold how good, how glorious, how worthy of praise, how perfect in trust, how glorious.”
And seeing the truth of the goodness of God, the people were led to see the truth about themselves.
The sermon on the goodness of God that day produced an effect. As the light of heaven shone down around them and the glory of the Lord filtered upon mortal men and women as they stood in the light of God, they saw themselves. They saw things they would never have seen in the darkness of their pride.
So to us. We journey to God’s house on this spiritual day. There is darkness all around us and there is darkness within. There are secret sins and self-delusions within us. The Word of God is opened. The Holy Spirit brings the countenance of God glorious and shining before our spiritual eyes. And I look at myself. I learn about myself. The result of true worship is the right understanding of yourself as a sinner in need of covering.
Have you ever worshiped God? I am not asking if you have ever gone to church—and then come home and you could tell me what everybody is wearing and who has a gripe with whom. I am asking you, Have you ever worshiped God? In the worship have you ever seen yourself?
Ask the prophet Isaiah. Ask the publican of whom Jesus spoke. Talk with them as they exit the worship service. Ask them: “Isaiah, publican, how was church today? We hear that you had a vision of the throne of God, God in His perfection and glory. Tell us about it. What was the result? How do you feel?” Isaiah responds: “I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips.” And you turn to the publican, and he is smiting his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me.” For when they worshiped, they stood before God in His goodness and glory. And that goodness and glory shone down upon them. The light of His goodness exposed the working of their hearts to them in a way that they would otherwise not have known.
That is worship. Worship is to stand before God.
Children, the Word of God, because it proclaims the glory of the Lord, is like an X-ray. You cannot see what is inside of me. You cannot see my bones and that I have an artificial hip and maybe a lump of cancer. But before an X-ray, the inside is shown. Now, God’s glory is the X-ray. And it will show you the truth about yourself.
We read that, in the light of God’s goodness, they saw the inexcusable sins that Israel had committed in the wilderness. They confessed further the repeated provocations that Israel had made even after they had been put in possession of the land of Canaan. They confessed that even though Israel had stood before the good things of God, they had turned to their own lusts and had not been faithful stewards, they had sinned against knowledge, and they had become insensitive, hardened, detached, remote to the Word of God that called them to repentance. They put in their time, so to speak, on Sunday. But they left God and left His Word in the church.
What did they see about themselves? They saw that they were proud, arrogant, hard-hearted, rebellious, idolatrous sinners. They were resentful of the Word of God and those who brought it to them. They were insensitive toward the need of repentance. They tried to use God for their own self-serving motives. Knowing the Word of God, they politely bowed to it in the presence of others, but they went out and lived according to their own dictates.
What do you see about your life, not somebody else’s, but about your life, in the light of the breathtaking goodness of God?
Their confession was sincere. They saw their sin.
That is the crucial element of worship. True worship is the fellowship of those who have been humbled before God’s infinite goodness to them in Jesus Christ. It is more. It is of course thanks, it is praise, it is rejoicing in God for His goodness to me in Christ. But, you see, all of the activities of worship, the joy and the praise, can be like hollow clanging on a drum. Have you ever heard someone hit an empty oil barrel? Worship can be like that hollow clanking, if there is not a heart humbled in the knowledge of ourselves as sinners before God. You can make a lot of noise. You can clang, and there can be a lot of empty chatter. But when you are filled with God and with humility before yourself as a sinner, there will be deep, resonant, soothing praise of God.
We worship God through the Psalms. We sing those Psalms, and we use those Psalms in our prayers, because they proceed from an awareness of who God is and who I am before Him.
The worship service that day brought a great blessing. Oh, a wonderful blessing! It brought the wonder of God’s mercy shining upon their hearts. We cannot miss that as we read through the chapter. Throughout the chapter we read of God’s mercy. We read the words “but,” and “yet.” “Yet,” we read in verse 19, “thou in thy manifold mercy forsookest them not….” Verse 30, “Yet many years didst thou forbear them….” Verse 31, “Nevertheless for thy great mercies’ sake….” It is like the composition of good music, when the composer returns to the comforting victorious theme. So is worship. It always returns to this, the brilliant aspect of God’s mercy—God’s mercy, His compassion on those who are miserable and ugly, and His commitment to do them good.
Why did not God forsake Israel? Why does not God forsake us? There certainly was a just cause for Him to sever the tie. Why did not the holy God consume them as He did the heathen? He bears and He forbears, He restores them, He chastens them severely—only to bring them constantly back to Himself. These people—why did not God leave them? Why? For thy great mercy’s sake.
You see, when you stand before God and see yourself as a sinner, you hear the testimony of the cross of Jesus Christ and you are awed at the mercy of God. He has willed in Himself, from all eternity, to be gracious to His church and to save His church in the blood of His own dear Son, washing them from their sins and creating in them a new obedience, a new heart, and a right spirit, that they might live before Him and love Him. Why? For He is good and His mercies are everlasting.
Are you ready to worship God? Are you ready to be lost in wonder and praise for His mercy? Do you see His mercy?
Let me use an example. Imagine with me a great door, like a garage door. Behind that great door is a vast land filled with exquisite beauty—a land that is brilliant, breathtaking, and wondrous. There is only a little crack at the bottom of the door. And you stand next to someone who has seen that land and told you all about that land and says to you, “Can you see that land?” You say, “No.” And he says to you, “Stoop down and look. Can you see it now? There is a little crack down there on the bottom, can you see that?” And you say, “No.” And he says, “Well, get on your hands and knees. Can you see it now?” You say, “No.” And he says, “Put your face to the ground. Press your eye to the gravel. Can you see now?” And you say, “Yes! Oh, I see it dimly, but, oh, what a land, what a beauty.”
Only when in the light of God’s goodness you are humbled in the dust can you catch a glimpse of His mercy. And one glimpse is breathtaking.
God has to do that. You can bow your head on a prayer rug with your face to the ground and be pressed to the ground—and see nothing. You are still proud, still working your way, you think, to your God. No, God must humble the heart. He must address the pride. But when He humbles, it is in order that He might give a vision, a glimpse of His mercy in the face of Jesus Christ His Son. He has given His Son in order that we might bask one day in the light of His glory. He gives us to see His mercy by showing us our sinful selves.
And then we leave worship.
Shall I give you a riddle? The true worshiper leaves church empty and yet full—empty of self and filled with wonder at God’s mercy.
Let us pray.
Eternal and glorious God of heaven and earth, we praise and thank Thee for Thy infinite mercy in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.