Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Dec 25 2019 - Nehemiah 9:19-38 – Judgment and mercy

You will remember that twelve spies were sent into Canaan to look at the land God had promised to give his people. All reported back that it was a wonderfully fertile land, a land that would prove a blessing to those who lived in it. But ten of the twelve said that it they could not possibly capture it since it was full of giant warriors and fortified cities. Joshua and Caleb alone told the people to go in and possess it since the Lord had promised the land to them. But the people would not listen and, as a result, were forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years.

But still God did not abandon them: "You are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them" (v. 17). God did not abandon them to their fate in the desert but provided for them in remarkable ways: "For forty years you sustained them in the desert; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen" (v. 21).

According to his promise, the very promise they had previously refused to believe, God brought them at last into the Promised Land (vv. 22-25), giving them victory over the Canaanites and a land of extraordinary plenty: "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 revelled in your great goodness" (v. 25).

But once again they soon forgot the Lord and rebelled (vv. 26-28). During the days of the Judges they continually forgot God and suffered defeat and plunder at the hands of other nations. Then, in their distress, they called upon God and in his mercy he rescued them again and again – only for them again and again to forget him.

Time and again God warned his people through the prophets (vv. 29-30), calling upon them to return to the Lord their God, to listen to his word and live in accordance with his law. But they turned a deaf ear and refused to learn the lessons of their own history, and so he sent them into exile.

But even this was not the end: "But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God" (9:31). Now they are gathered again in Jerusalem. Their gracious and merciful God has not abandoned them. God is the God of the covenant and keeps his promises: "In all that has happened to us, you have been just; you have acted faithfully, while we did wrong" (v. 33).

It has been the faithfulness, compassion and love of the Lord their God that has brought them thus far, but the story is not yet finished:

But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so that 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. (vv. 36-38)

In one sense, the exile is not yet over. But God's goodness and mercy in times past is now the ground for hope: a hope that finds its answer at last in the Lord Jesus, whose coming into the world we celebrate especially on this day. Jesus' coming is evidence of God's faithfulness to his covenant promises and of his determination to save once and for all a people and a world on which he has set his love. Jesus' coming, his death and resurrection and the outpouring of his life-giving Spirit bring to an end the endless cycles of rebellion and salvation. Jesus' cry of triumph from the cross, "It is finished", echoes now through the ages until it finds its final consummation at his return when all things shall be made new and when sin, rebellion, death and sadness shall be no more.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come, Let earth receive her King.

Peter Misselbrook