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The Promise of Restoration

Today we begin a new series of messages from the Book of Nehemiah. I’m guessing that most of you wouldn’t list Nehemiah in your top five favourite books of the Bible, and in fact, it’s quite possible that some of you who couldn’t even tell me who in the world Nehemiah was. So it’s probably a good idea before we start, to briefly have a look at the history and background of Nehemiah. And there is a lot of history to this story – Nehemiah is one of the last stories recorded in the Old Testament – so basically the entire Old Testament is the history and background to Nehemiah. Now I won’t take you through the entire Old Testament, but we really need to go way back and have at least a basic understanding of the history of the nation of Israel.

So I want to start today about 1000 years before the actual story that we’re going to look at. Basically we want to start with the formation of the nation of Israel. As most of you know Jospeh brought his family of about 70 to Egypt to escape a famine – you can read about that in Genesis 46. Well, this visit to Egypt turned into a 400 year stay – and during that time, they grew from a family of 70 to a family of about a million. These people would be the founding fathers of the nation of Israel.

So we’re going to pick it up just after God freed them from slavery in Egypt and led them out towards the Promised Land. Now when God did this, he made a covenant (or an agreement) with them. This was the deal – if they were to obey the terms of the covenant – which include all the instructions you find in Exodus and Leviticus – basically summarized by the ten commandments – but if they were to obey God in all these things, God promised to bless them like crazy!

Moses tells them in Deuteronomy 28:1…

“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. 2 You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God:

3 Your towns and your fields
will be blessed.

4 Your children and your crops
will be blessed.
The offspring of your herds and flocks
will be blessed.

5 Your fruit baskets and breadboards
will be blessed.

6 Wherever you go and whatever you do,
you will be blessed.

7 “The Lord will conquer your enemies when they attack you. They will attack you from one direction, but they will scatter from you in seven!

8 “The Lord will guarantee a blessing on everything you do and will fill your storehouses with grain. The Lord your God will bless you in the land he is giving you.

9 “If you obey the commands of the Lord your God and walk in his ways, the Lord will establish you as his holy people as he swore he would do. 10 Then all the nations of the world will see that you are a people claimed by the Lord, and they will stand in awe of you.

Deuteronomy 28:1-10

Sounds pretty good, right!? So long as Israel followed God, God would bless their socks off! And true to His Word, that’s exactly what we see happening during the time of the first three kings of Israel. For the most part during this time, the Israelites and their kings (Saul, David, and Solomon)  – for the most part, they all followed God – and God blessed them like crazy – particularly during the time of David & Solomon. David conquered and subdued pretty much all of the surrounding nations so that by the time his son, Solomon, took the throne, they had peace on every side. Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, and he led Israel through the most prosperous time of their history. Everything that God had promised them came true. They had peace. They had prosperity. The world really did stand in awe of them!

But to get back to the agreement that God made with Israel – on the one hand, if Israel would follow God and obey the terms of their convent with Him, they would be blessed. But on the other hand, if they choose not to obey God – if they broke their covenant, and abandoned God, then God would remove his blessings and instead would sent curses.

Back in that same passage in Deuteronomy, a little further down in that chapter, Moses goes on to explain:

15 “But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you:

16 Your towns and your fields
will be cursed.

17 Your fruit baskets and breadboards
will be cursed.

18 Your children and your crops
will be cursed.
The offspring of your herds and flocks
will be cursed.

19 Wherever you go and whatever you do,
you will be cursed.

20 “The Lord himself will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in everything you do, until at last you are completely destroyed for doing evil and abandoning me.

Deuteronomy 28:15-20

And by the way, that’s just a sampling… This actually goes on for another 48 verses describing the curses that God would send if they choose to break their covenant with God…. If you have your Bibles, you can feel free to peruse all that… But in all that, there is one verse in particular that I want to mention – that’s important to our story of Nehemiah. Verse 36. As part of these curses….

36 “The Lord will exile you and your king to a nation unknown to you and your ancestors. There in exile you will worship gods of wood and stone! 37 You will become an object of horror, ridicule, and mockery among all the nations to which the Lord sends you.” Deuteronomy 28:36-37

As part of these curses, basically, God said that he would uproot them from their land and from their cities and he would send them into exile and they would live in captivity in a foreign land.

And that is exactly what happened. God was true to his Word again. I found a timeline here that might help you wrap your head around all this.(Click for Original File)

After Solomon died and his son Rehoboam took the throne, the nation of Israel was divided into two kingdoms. Most of the people rebelled against and rejected King Rehoboam, but a small part stood with him. So we end up with the northern kingdom that consisted of 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel and they kept the name Israel and they choose a new king and a new capital city. And we also had the southern kingdom with the other 2 of the 12 tribes that became known as Judah and they kept King Rehoboam and would continue to have King David’s descendants as their rulers. They also kept Jerusalem as the capital city, which of course also included the temple.

But from that time on, all of the kings of Israel were evil. None of them followed God. In fact, it seems they continually got worse and worse. As you read through their stories, there’s a little phrase that often gets repeated. It goes something like “Such and such a king did evil in the Lord sight, sinning more than all those before him…” And then in the next story, you read the same thing about that king… Such and such a king did evil in the Lord sight, sinning more than all those before him…” It was just a total downward spiral of evil.

And so, because of their continued sinfulness and rebellion, God followed through on his promise and somewhere around 700BC, God allowed the Assyrians to invade and defeat the northern kingdom of Israel. Most survivors were deported to Assyria and other places and they basically ended up being scattered over the face of the earth in exile – just has God had promised.

Well, what about the southern kingdom – Judah? Well, Judah on the other hand, had some good kings, but still, the majority were evil. With this mix of good kings and bad kings, it took a little longer to come to the end of God’s patience, but just like with the northern kingdom, because of their continued sinfulness, God finally allowed the Babylonians to attack and defeat Judah as well around 600BC. They destroyed Jerusalem, including the temple, and deported many of the people to Babylon. People like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were among those who were deported and exiled. And so, just as God had promised, both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel were destroyed and those who survived lived out the rest of their days in exile.

But of course, that’s not the end of the story. Let’s jump back to Deuteronomy for one last promise. After laying out the promises of both blessings if they obeyed and curses if they didn’t, in Deuteronomy 30, verse 1, God promises them…

“In the future, when you experience all these blessings and curses I have listed for you, and when you are living among the nations to which the Lord your God has exiled you, take to heart all these instructions. 2 If at that time you and your children return to the Lord your God, and if you obey with all your heart and all your soul all the commands I have given you today, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes. He will have mercy on you and gather you back from all the nations where he has scattered you. 4 Even though you are banished to the ends of the earth, the Lord your God will gather you from there and bring you back again. 5 The Lord your God will return you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will possess that land again. Then he will make you even more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors!

Deuteronomy 30:1-5

Now this is pretty incredible. What God is saying here is that even if Israel were to blow it and they were to turn away from God and break their covenant – if, while in exile and suffering the well-deserved consequences of their sin and rebellion – even then, if they turned back to God, God would forgive them and restore them and bring them back to their land.

And this really says something about the character of God. He really is the God of compassion and mercy. God’s willingness to forgive and restore and give us a new start is incredible.

Sometimes we think we’re past the point of no return. We think we’ve disappointed or disobeyed God so many times that we’ve run out of second-chances. But that’s just not the case.

While God does allow us to suffer the consequences of our sin, both the natural consequences and the ones He sends as discipline – that doesn’t mean He’s given up on us. Even though we find ourselves ‘in exile’ – that never means we’ve gone too far to be forgiven and restored.

Psalm 103 tells us:

8 The Lord is compassionate and merciful,

    slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.

9 He will not constantly accuse us,

    nor remain angry forever.

10 He does not punish us for all our sins;

    he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.

11 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him

    is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.

12 He has removed our sins as far from us

    as the east is from the west.

13 The Lord is like a father to his children,

    tender and compassionate to those who fear him.

14 For he knows how weak we are;

    he remembers we are only dust.

15 Our days on earth are like grass;

    like wildflowers, we bloom and die.

16 The wind blows, and we are gone—

    as though we had never been here.

17 But the love of the Lord remains forever

    with those who fear him.

His salvation extends to the children’s children

18 of those who are faithful to his covenant,

    of those who obey his commandments!

Psalm 103:8-18

God is eager to forgive and to restore. And all He requires of us is to confess and repent. To confess simply means that we acknowledge that we’ve done wrong and to repent means to determine that we’re going to make it right. We’re going to stop doing the wrong and we’re going to start doing the right.

And when we do that, God is eager to forgive and restore us. 2 Peter 3:9 says…

The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. 2 Peter 3:9

But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.  1 John 1:9

And this is exactly what is happening when we pick up the story of Nehemiah. After spending decades in exile, the people of Israel finally seem to learn their lesson. The begin to recognize and acknowledge how they’ve sinned against God – and they determine to start making it right. And as a result, God once again keeps his promise and forgives them and restores them to their land.

In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were originally written together as one book, we read primarily about three characters – Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah – who each led a group of Israelites back to Jerusalem. Of course, we’re going to deal primarily with Nehemiah in the weeks ahead, but I do want to quickly touch on these other two guys.

Zerubbabel was the first guy to lead a group back to Jerusalem. He led his group back after being in exile for about 70 years – their main purpose was to return and rebuild the temple. It had been destroyed and so there was no way for the Israelites to worship God and carry out the sacrifices and offerings and all those other things that God had instructed them to do way back at Mount Sinai 1000 years ago. So that first group went back to rebuild the temple and start doing those things again in obedience to God. In Ezra 3 verse 1 it says…

In early autumn, when the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled in Jerusalem with a unified purpose. 2 Then Jeshua son of Jehozadak joined his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Sheal-ti-el with his family in rebuilding the altar of the God of Israel. They wanted to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, as instructed in the Law of Moses, the man of God. 3 Even though the people were afraid of the local residents, they rebuilt the altar at its old site. Then they began to sacrifice burnt offerings on the altar to the Lord each morning and evening. Ezra 3:1-3

It was clear that these guys, even though the were afraid of the people living around them, wanted to obey and honour God once again. They had a heart of repentance and a desire to follow God.

So that was the first group. The second group didn’t come until about 80 years after that. This group was led by a fellow named Ezra who had come to help teach the Israelites how to obey and follow God. They had been doing their own thing for so long – centuries really – they simply didn’t know God’s Word or how God wanted them to live. So in Ezra 7, verse 8 we read:

8 Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in August of that year. 9 He had arranged to leave Babylon on April 8, the first day of the new year, and he arrived at Jerusalem on August 4, for the gracious hand of his God was on him. 10 This was because Ezra had determined to study and obey the Law of the Lord and to teach those decrees and regulations to the people of Israel. Ezra 7:8-10

Again, you can see this heart of wanting to do what is right in the sight of God.  And that wasn’t just in Ezra himself – in chapters 8 & 9, we see Ezra leading the people to confess and repent of their own sin. When they saw how they had been disobeying God and breaking his commands, they determined to change and make things right.

And that actually brings us up to Nehemiah. Nehemiah would show up in Jerusalem with a third group about 13 years after Ezra and we see that same heart of wanting to honour and obey God in Him. But I think I’ll wait until next week to get into his story.

I know we haven’t even cracked open the book of Nehemiah yet, but with all of this background, I just want to close with a few thoughts on how all this might apply to us.

First of all, I want to point out that the promises that God made to the Israelites in those passages in Deuteronomy are not guarantees for us. Don’t come away from this today thinking that if you obey God, God will give you health and wealth and peace and prosperity. That is not what I am saying. That’s not what the Scriptures say. Jesus made it abundantly clear that following God does not guarantee any of that – at least not in this life.

Those promises were specifically for the nation of Israel – not for us today – and not even for individuals within Israel back then. For example, from everything we know about Daniel, Daniel wholeheartedly followed God, but he still ended up being exiled to Babylon. So they’re not promises for the individual – but specifically for the nation of Israel.

That being said, the principles we see and the character of God that is revealed in those passages are absolutely true and applicable to us. From those three passages that we read, I would pull out the follow three principles.

Principle #1.

Choosing to live in obedience to God leads to blessings – though not necessarily material blessings.

Principle #2.

Choosing to live in disobedience to God leads to curses – although not necessarily material curses.

Principle #3.

It’s not too late to make a different choice.

And I think if we’re honest with ourselves, those first two principles seem pretty self-evident. Western civilization was founded on the ten commandments because we recognize that it’s good for society to follow God’s moral instructions. Lying, murdering, cheating, stealing, greed – those things are generally recognized as being bad. They lead to unpleasant consequences. And the reverse is true too… Being generous, telling the truth, caring for others, being faithful to your spouse – those are all generally seen as good things that lead to blessings.

So even though these verses in Deuteronomy aren’t promises specifically for us, I think it’s still safe to say that even today, following God leads to blessings and disobeying God leads to curses – and not just because God says so – but because that’s simply how life works. God’s instructions aren’t random or arbitrary – He’s telling us “This is how life works best” and we would be wise to follow his instructions.

But for our purposes today, I want to focus on that 3rd principle. That it’s not too late to make a different choice.

When I first wrote that out – I said “It’s never too late to make a different choice.” But after thinking about it, I decided to take out the word “never”. Because there is a point where it becomes too late to make a different choice.

I had a reminder of that on Wednesday as I did a Memorial service for an elderly lady who had passed away. For that lady, it is now too late to make a different choice. Thankfully, from what I understand, she accepted Christ as her Lord and Saviour many years ago. She confessed and repented of her sin and because of that, the Bible says that God has forgiven her and has fully restored her. That she is now in the presence of God – sinless, full of joy, enjoying a life to the full like she’s never experienced before.

But had she not made that choice to accept Christ as her Saviour before she died, her current experience would be very different.

Now for us, as long as we’re still breathing, it’s still not too late to make a different choice. Of course the most important choice is whether or not to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour. That’s the choice that will not only impact your life here on earth – but it’ll impact your life for eternity. And so if you have never put your trust in Jesus as the one who died for your sin and rose to life again, then I would remind you that it is still not too late to make that choice. It will be some day and neither you nor I know when that day could be. It could be years from now – It could be later today – we just don’t know. All I know is that it’s not too late right now.

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9 ESV

It’s not too late to make that choice.

But I imagine, for the majority of us here today, we’re already made that choice. Maybe you decided to trust and follow Jesus years and years ago. But like those Isrealites, maybe you haven’t always done a stellar job of obeying God and living the way He wants you to live. I know I haven’t. There’s always that struggle between our old sinful nature and our new Christ-like nature. And unfortunately, there are still times when that old sinful nature wins out and we make some wrong choices.

So chances are we have some areas in our lives where we know God wants us to change. Something in our lives that doesn’t line up with what God has said in his word. Something that God has pointed out that we need to deal with. Some situation that we need to make right.

Somewhere along the line we choose to disobey God and do things our way, maybe it was out of ignorance at the time – but now we know that what we choose to do was not right.

And I just want to encourage you today that it’s not too late to make a different choice.

I can’t promise that the consequences will go away. I can’t promise that the situation will magically be made all better. But I can promise this:

But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.  1 John 1:9

If we confess our sins to him (that is, if we acknowledge that what we’ve done is wrong, and we repent of our sin (that is, we determine to stop doing what we’ve been doing and make things right), then God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sin and will cleanse us from all wickedness. That is a promise directly from God for you and for me.

God doesn’t give up on us. He doesn’t abandon us. He doesn’t leave us to rot away in exile in Babylon. He loves us like crazy and he can hardly wait for us to repent and to turn to him for forgiveness and restoration.

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