The context of this verse is a prayer of repentance, and of worship and praise to God, "who is from everlasting to everlasting" (verse 5b).
Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors. They stood up in their place and read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth part of the day, and for another fourth they made confession and worshiped the LORD their God. (Nehemiah 9:1-3)
The results of sin - the "curses" God had warned them about in Deuteronomy - had taken place... just as God had said they would. (Should we be surprised?) They were now acknowledging God's righteousness in his judgment, as well as his faithfulness and compassion. They were now acknowledging the sinfulness of both their forefathers and themselves, as well as their deserving of the judgment they were at that moment experiencing (v. 36-37). In the moments that followed, the entire nation would be reaffirming commitment to their God.
They joined with their brothers, their nobles, and bound themselves with a curse, and an oath, to walk in God's law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments, ordinances and statutes of the LORD our Lord. (Nehemiah 10:29)
Throughout this prayer are various themes: the persistent sinfulness of the nation, the justice and righteousness of God, as well as his judgment and his love. Time after time, the people rebelled. Though God warned them of the consequences of rebellion, they would persist to the point that God would have to pour out judgment against them. They would turn back for a while (and for a while experience the blessings of God), but sooner or later they would again turn to sin.
Yet in all this, the goodness and love of God was evident. The theme of love and compassion was always present. The people never fully received what they deserved. Look at a few of the many passages:
But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf and said, 'This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,' and had committed great blasphemies, you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which they should go. (Nehemiah 9:16-19)
Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies. Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer. And in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies. But after they had rest they did evil again before you, and you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they had dominion over them. Yet when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many times you delivered them according to your mercies. (Nehemiah 9:26-28)
Many years you were patient with them, and warned them by your spirit through your prophets; yet they would not listen. Therefore you handed them over to the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. (Nehemiah 9:30-31)
Even as they were praying, they were experiencing judgment.
Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9:36-37)
More than that, they were willing to acknowledge that this judgment had come from the hand of God. But did they accuse God of wrongdoing? Never! Only rebellious people do that! Instead, they were repenting!
You have been just in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly; ... (Nehemiah 9:33)
It was this same God - the one they had so continually rebelled against - who they were now looking to for deliverance. And on what basis did they dare to do so? Was it on the basis of their works? Of course not! Was it on the basis of their promise to once again obey and "to walk in God's law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments, ordinances and statutes of the LORD our Lord" (Nehemiah 10:29b)? Even though their repentance was genuine, and it would result in a changed way-of-life, that was not the basis for their prayer. Remember the passage in Deuteronomy, which says that God "accepts no bribes" (10:17). We cannot bribe him with a promise to be "good."
No, their basis for expecting deliverance was God himself.
Centuries before, God had made a covenant with Abraham. The people knew that no matter what happened - no matter what the circumstances - God would not lie: he would keep his promise!
You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham; and you found his heart faithful before you, and made with him a covenant to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite; and you have fulfilled your promise, for you are righteous. (Nehemiah 9:7-8)
So they prayed:
Now therefore, our God--the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love--do not treat lightly all the hardship that has come upon us, upon our kings, our officials, our priests, our prophets, our ancestors, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until today. (Nehemiah 9:32)
To them, this covenant-keeping God was the "great God," the "mighty God," and the "awesome God." And he is still that today.
What physical or spiritual blessings do you enjoy? Why? Do you deserve them? What do you deserve? Have (or will) you receive what you deserve? Why? What does this tell you about God?
Does our nation experience any blessings from God? Judgments? What do we as a nation deserve? Time and time again, the prophets teach that God must judge a nation that sins - especially if that nation has been exposed to the truth and has rejected it. We may someday have to be destroyed, just as Israel, Babylon, Tyre and Sidon, Sodom and Gomorrah, and many others have. If this happens, do we have a promise of future restoration, as Israel did? (Did any of the other nations, mentioned above, have a promise of future restoration?) What is the significance of this?
What does this passage tell us about "the mighty God"?
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Dennis Hinks © 1993, 2004
Scripture quoted from ... ESV (Nehemiah 9:16-19, 26-28, 36-37); NRS (Nehemiah 9:1-3, 7-8, 30-33); my translation (Nehemiah 10:29).
Detailed copyright information can be found on the title page. Words in some verses have been put in italics for emphasis.