Return to the Restoring God

Contextual introduction: Having heard the Law of God read and having been revived in their love for it, they had begun their new path of obedience by observing the Feast of Booths. As this commemorated their wilderness wanderings, a reminder of the disobedience that led to the death of a generation of the disobedient, and as the Law was read every day of the eight days of this memorial event, it was natural that immediately following this a solemn assembly would be called.

I. The Solemn Assembly – A Summary – Verses 9:1-3

A. They gathered in a posture of humiliation with fasting, sackcloth, and earth on their heads. This indicates that they were to be more concerned about heavenly nourishment than earthly food, their corruption of heart before God rather than comely attire before men, and that death is their final end if they do not become recipients of eternal life.

B. As a symbol of the necessity of the separateness of the people of God, they separated themselves from any inhabitants that were not of the seed of Israel.

C. One quarter of the day was spent in reading the Law of God again; One quarter was spent in confession of sin and in worshipping God. Their worship and praise clearly emerged from the narrative of the Law, containing the history of God’s covenant dealings with this people, their many rebellions and restorations, and eventual deportment to Assyria and Babylon.

II.  The Solemn Assembly – The Instructive Use of Israel’s History Verses 9:5-31

A. verse 5 – They began with praise of God

1. He is eternal and therefore there is no other God and all things are dependent on him – “From everlasting to everlasting”

2. He is an eternally happy, complete, all sufficient God who is worthy of praise in the perfection of all his attributes – “Blessed be your glorious name”

3. Our highest praise will always be too little for the true worthiness of his excellence and the stimulus to our praise will never end, never be exhausted. “Which is exalted above all blessing and praise.”

B. verses 6-8 – They recognize the Lord as the creator and preserver of all things and the one who by pure grace called Abram as his own and entered into covenant giving him the name Abraham promising the land to his offspring. The land promised is the land in which they stood at that moment. They pointed to God’s righteousness as the foundation for his keeping his promise—“For you are righteous.”

C. Verses 9-12 – The Levites call to mind the exodus as a manifestation of God’s great power put in operation for the glory of his name (10) and the preservation of his covenant people.

D. Verses 13-15 – God gave them the Ten Commandments and provided for all their physical needs.

1. They recognize the commandments as “right rules, and true laws, good statutes and commandments” and pointed particularly to the Sabbath commandment. They knew what Paul confessed in Romans 7:12, 14: “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous, and good.  . . . we know that the law is spiritual.”

2. Not only did he show them the perfect standard of righteousness, perfect obedience to which brings eternal life (29), but he gave them provision for the maintenance of their physical life here.

3. In pursuit of his purpose that they would be heirs to the land promised to Abraham, he told them to go into the land and take it as their own.

E. Despite all of these promises, blessings, and commandments, the people rebelled, but God maintained his faithfulness to the promise. This description relates to the forty years wandering.

1. Their rebellion is described in verses 16, 17a, 18.

2. The righteous character of God and his patient perseverance in pursuit of the fulfillment of the promise is described in 17b, 19-21.

3. Note that this time of confession seeks no place to hide the sinful faithlessness of the people, their idolatry, the forgetfulness of his mercies and his demonstrations of power. Nor is there the slightest hint of blaming God, questioning his ways, or diminishing the perfection of his grace and mercy. They repeated the revelation that God made to Moses (Exodus 34:6, 7) of his glory in saying that he was “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

F. Verses 22-25 – After the wandering of forty years they went in to possess the land and again saw the wonders of God’s providential power in bringing to fruition the promise to Abraham.

G. Verses 26-31 – The Levite narrator summarized the history of Judges and the history of the kings through 2 Chronicles.

1. Again the rebellion of the people is summarized in verse 26, 28, 29b. “Yet they would not give ear” 30b.

2. God’s patience and grace and mercy, as well as his periodic judgments, punctuate the narrative of rebellion. 27, 28b, 29a, 30

3. Even with the numbers of rebellion, refusals to listen, and application of severe discipline, the narrative rises again to celebrate God’s goodness: “Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” (31)

III. The Solemn Assembly –The frank recognition of the justice of their present condition tinged with hope of God’s returned favor to them – 9:32-38

A. Summary of the character of God in his relation to the people serves as the foundation for this prayer.

1. Note the overwhelming privilege of being able to address this infinitely perfect and personal Being as “Our God.” Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father.”

2. Also, devotion to him must recognize the unblemished worthiness of his natural attributes.: “the great, the mighty, and the awesome.”  In its gathering of the Bible’s description of God, the Second London Baptist Confession puts it this way: “The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; who is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, every way infinite, most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will for his own glory;” In some deeply embedded consciousness our prayers must arise from the awareness of the infinite worthiness and incomprehensible perfection of our God..

3. Here we see their invoking him on the basis of the sovereign engagement of his moral attributes to their good: “Who keeps covenant and steadfast love.”

Again the Second London Baptist Confession points to the gracious benefits sinful creatures receive from God’s sovereign display of his moral attributes: “most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him, and withal most just and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.”

Again, in prayer, a most awesome part of worship that pervades every aspect of it and arises from our hearts as regularly as the lungs inhale and exhale, we approach this one to whom we are invited to come through his covenant consummated in Christ. Some Bible theologians see covenant as a convenient theme by which we can understand in a clearer and more coherent way the whole of Scripture.

All the covenants are built around the reward of life for obedience. The initial covenant was with Adam, in particular, and Eve by her personal organic union with his humanity. We also are included by his representational status as the image-bearer of God and our unbroken connection with Adam as our natural father. Instead of achieving life through perfect obedience, they fell into the promised death by their disobedience. They “fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and we in them whereby death came upon all: all becoming dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body” Second London Confession Chapter VI. (Romans 3:23; 5:12).

Because that “covenant of works,” failed to bring life in that they failed to maintain personal obedience to the “Law of their creation [that is, the law written on the heart] and the command given to them,” another covenant of life built on the obedience of another representative of the race came into play. (Nehemiah refers to this covenant of life by perfect obedience in 9:29).

Again as the Second London Baptist Confession summarizes, “it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe. This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect; and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.” (Genesis 3:15; Psalm 110:3, 4; John 6:44, 45; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 13:20)

B. Request that the long years and the cycle of disciplinary action would now bear fruit in their spiritual reformation.

1. They recognized that the discipline God gives his covenant people is for the purpose of further achieving his redemptive purpose through them. Eventually this testing will be the source of manifesting the true spiritual character of the new covenant. The book of Malachi shows several ways in which Israel as a nation did not value their covenantal status, but eventually focuses on “those who feared the Lord,” about whom the Lord says, “They shall be mine . . . in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” Then all shall see the “distinction between the righteous and the wicked” (Malachi 3:16-18).

2. This observation on their suffering anticipates the maturity of understanding that comes in the new covenant; “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:2-5).

C. Reaffirmation of the justice of God in his discipline.- In this confession, they harbor no suspicion that God has in any sense been unjust in his treatment of them. “Yet you have been righteous, . . . you have dealt faithfully.” A few decades later, when they slipped back into the life of unfaithfulness, they also began to question the love of God, the requirements of God for worship, and the justice of God (Malachi 1:2; 1:7f; 1:13; 3:8; 3:14, 15).

D. Verses 33b-35 – New recitation of the relentless infidelity of the people and their leaders in spite of the abundant blessings and the evident goodness of God. “And we have acted wickedly,” 9:33

1. The confession recognizes the fault of every level of society “Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law.”

2. While experiencing God’s faithful execution of his promise they turned away: “Even in their own kingdom, enjoying your great goodness.”

E. Verses 36, 37 – The irony of now being prisoners to a foreign power while residing in their own land.

1. Though they are now restored to the land, its abundant goodness does not primarily contribute to their flourishing, but to that of their captors.

2. They recognize that their being in servitude in their own land remains a just judgment of God upon them “Its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins.”

3. Not only do the goods of the land, including the livestock, belong to these foreign potentates, but they feel in their souls the reality that their own bodies—their energies, their ingenuity, their labors, their intellectual property—are hovered over for the taking by these God-sent scourges.

IV. This experience of the restored exiles of confessions, repentance, and acknowledgement of the goodness, patience, and gracious action of God is an Old Testament example of that mature expression of New Testament repentance and faith captured so cogently in the New Hampshire Confession

We believe that repentance and Faith are sacred duties, and also inseparable graces, wrought in our souls by the regenerating Spirit of God; whereby being deeply convinced of our guilt, danger, and helplessness, and of the way of salvation by Christ, we turn to God with unfeigned contrition, confession, and supplication for mercy; at the same time heartily receiving the Lord Jesus Christ as our Prophet, Priest and King, and relying on him alone as the only and all sufficient Saviour. 

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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