They clave to their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse, and into 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 of the LORD our Lord, and his judgments and his statutes. (Nehemiah 10:29)
I call it “crocodile-tear repentance.”
As many of you know, crawfish – those “little lobsters” (or “mudbugs,” as they are known more commonly) we love to boil in spicy water – are famous springtime fare in these parts. The hotter, the better, if you ask me. I cannot get my fill of the things!
I have a friend – I imagine you have a friend just like this person – who relishes boiled crawfish yet knows she really can’t tolerate the spice. Of course, that knowledge doesn’t stop her from delving into some mudbugs. And then begins the familiar refrain: “I shouldn’t have eaten those crawfish. I know better than that. I’m going to stop now and not eat any more.”
Happens every time. Do I have to tell you what she does the next time someone has a crawfish boil?
Sadly, my friend’s “crocodile-tear” repentance and reform when it comes to crawfish is a perfect picture of the empty “repentance” and “reform” you and I often try to pass off on our Lord. We’re sorry for the consequences of our sin – and not so much for our heinous offense against a holy God – and when given the opportunity, you and I gladly repeat our sin.
As we explore Nehemiah 10 this morning, the Lord will challenge your shallow “repentance” with this record of the fruit of true repentance: covenant renewal. We’ll see that renewed obedience to God is always the fruit of sincere repentance; that this obedience involves submission to the entire moral law; and that this obedience also demands you mortify your cherished sins.
Anyone can regret the consequences of his sin. Any one of you can say the words, “Lord, forgive me,” but mean them in only a shallow and blasphemous way. Those are crocodile tears, and they don’t please God.
Only the revived soul truly grieves over that sin before the Lord – and therefore turns from that sin.
As we first learn from Nehemiah 10, true repentance of sin always bears the fruit of renewed obedience to Christ. If you’re cleansed by Christ, you will live, speak and think like it.
Last week you and I studied the Jews’ confession of sin before the Lord and observed how their genuine confession needed to be ours if we are to know the Lord more fully. They had completed the rebuilding of the Jerusalem walls – no small physical (and spiritual!) feat; yet before the celebration could begin, they first needed to own up to their rebelliousness before the Lord. God’s people responded to the reading of His holy law by spending extended time confessing their sins before Him and asking His mercy.
Here in chapter 10, you and I read of the necessary consequence of genuine repentance of sin: a recommitment to obeying God’s Word.
Both testaments speak of the “indicatives” and the “imperatives” of the born-again life. The indicatives are statements of fact about believers in Christ: in him, you and I are forgiven; in him, you and I are raised to new and eternal life; in him, we are not condemned but justified before the Father. The imperatives, meanwhile, are the “so what?” of the indicatives – what you and I are to think, say or do in light of who we are in Jesus. In Nehemiah 9:38, the indicative and imperative are expressed by saying, “Because of all this, we made a sure covenant.” In our first lesson from Colossians 3, St. Paul puts it this way: “If ye then be risen with Christ (indicative), seek those things which are above (imperative).”
If you have been forgiven by God in Christ, then show it in your daily walk!
Nehemiah 10 follows serious repentance for sin with serious renewal to God’s covenant. God’s children renewed the covenant with the Lord – a serious action of intent before the Lord. They even signed their names to this covenant. And they further took on themselves the curses for covenant disobedience.
Why did the Jews assume such a weighty responsibility? Why didn’t they simply claim to be forgiven and go on their merry way?
Because true repentance and cleansing in Christ always issue forth in new commitment to obeying Christ’s law. If you’re seriously grieved by your offenses against God and seriously thankful for His grace in Christ, you will be serious about showing your thanks by walking in His ways.
Second, renewed obedience must be to the entire moral law. Much as we’d sinfully like, you and I cannot choose which moral laws to obey and which to jettison.
Verse 29 expresses a broad commitment by God’s revived people to obey the entire law of Moses as a result of God’s forgiveness. You and I understand from a New Testament perspective that Christ fulfilled the ceremonial and civil law for us; those regulations no longer bind us (so, for instance, you and I don’t sacrifice goats in church). But just because Jesus also fulfilled the moral law, which is contained in summary fashion in the Decalogue, you and I aren’t free from its obligations as we are from the ceremonies and civil regulations. As St. Paul underscores in the “practical-application” sections of his epistles, moral laws such as “honor thy father and mother” and “thou shalt not covet” still apply to you and me today. We obey these moral laws from Scripture not to earn salvation but, rather, because you and I are saved by grace through faith.
It’s provocative that God’s people assumed the covenantal curses for disobedience. Why would they pledge solemnly to keep God’s entire law and assume the curses of the covenant if they knew they, like all we, were sinners?
They did so because they also recognized that the law God gave to Moses made provision for atoning for the sins of the faithful. In essence, God’s people were saying, “If we turn our backs on you, Lord, and neglect obedience, worship and repentance when we fall, may we endure your holy wrath.”
This morning you are in one of two camps of humanity: either you rest under God’s curse or enjoy His blessings in Christ. You see, as a human, created in God’s image, His moral law is written on your heart, and He expects that you will render Him perfect obedience if you’re to enter His heaven. It doesn’t matter if you’re from New Orleans or Nepal, you as God’s creation are obligated to obey His law fully. If you don’t, you rightly face the curse of His wrath.
That’s why you and I rejoice that Jesus our Savior kept the law for us and, on Good Friday, endured the wrath of God for our covenant breaking. And while you cannot keep the moral law unfailingly – you’re going to sin – God has made provision through Christ for your forgiveness and expects you will show your thanks through renewed obedience to His moral law.
All of it.
Observe thirdly that as the Lord calls you, Christian, to walk according to His moral law, He also calls you to mortify your “pet sins.” As general as the call to renewed obedience was in Nehemiah 10, it also contained some specific laws that applied pointedly to God’s people where they were spiritually.
Verses 30 and following describe for us where the theological rubber met the road for the Jews in Nehemiah’s era. Yes, they renewed their covenant with God to walk after all of His laws; but their true repentance manifested itself as they put to death specific, cherished sins from their past.
For one, they covenanted to cease intermarrying with Gentiles, which not only fulfilled God’s expressed will for them but also represented a reversal of a common practice. Intermarriage inevitably led to the watering-down of Jews’ belief in the Lord – that’s why the Lord forbade it, and that’s what the Jews had experienced in their decades of rebellion. In the same manner, St. Paul says you and I are not to marry non-believers for the identical reason: such an intimate union with a pagan always produces spiritual pain and erodes true Christianity.
God’s people also covenanted to not purchase Gentiles’ goods on the Sabbath, which had become an accepted practice. Israel uniquely observed one day in seven, ordained by the one, true God, to rest in Him in every way. While the nations worshipped idols and worked feverishly all the time, Israel rested in the grace and power of her true God. His people in Nehemiah’s era went against the grain of compromise with the culture and began to hallow the Lord’s Sabbath. You and I, meanwhile, celebrate the Christian Sabbath on the day of resurrection, Sunday, and must hallow God’s Day too – even if we are not bound by all the ceremonies and specific, temporary regulations of the Old Covenant (remember, Christ fulfilled the law for us). As two of my brethren in the ministry have pointed out recently, the Lord does a profound work on His Day as His people gather for corporate worship: it’s no wonder, then, that Satan is attacking Sunday by setting the traps of open stores and rampant recreation and general Sabbath neglect by the world and even by professing Christians. And, if we’re honest, by you and me.
The Jews further covenanted to release their brethren from debt every seventh year, a lesson they learned from God’s gracious dealings with them, from His earlier Levitical law, and from the unrest recorded in Nehemiah 5. Although you and I today have different methods of dealing with financial debt, there is a principal here for us: having been forgiven by God in Christ for all your heinous offenses against Him, are you harboring grudges against others – failing to forgive your debtors, as you have been forgiven your debts?
God’s people covenanted as well to give God their best as they attended to His house, which action should humble you and me. They arranged for each family to give animals and tithes and wood and supplies for the services at the temple and for the priests’ income, and they promised the Lord their firstfruits and firstborn – a sign of commitment to and trust in the Lord’s provision. They were giving God their best as they promised “not to forsake the house of our God,” which they’d done in the past. Do you and I give the Lord our best effort at work, where He has called us, every day? Does your record of church attendance show that you have forsaken the most-important One in your life? Do you give Jesus your best, and do your duty, when it comes to cleaning the church grounds or giving financially to the work of the Lord or catechizing your children?
The specific promises the Jews made in chapter 10 strike at the heart. They covenanted to honor the Lord’s will in their home life and with their time and their pocketbooks. Their specific areas of renewed obedience also apply to you and me, certainly in an age when our children marry whomever they wish, giving no thought to their spouse’s beliefs, and when soccer practice and family parties crowd out the resurrected Lord Jesus on His Day.
But more pointedly, in which specific areas is the Spirit convicting you right now?
In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer – the service in which I grew up as a man – after the reading of each of the Ten Commandments, the people pray, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” If you pray those words with your heart, you are in effect saying, “Lord, I truly am sorry for offending you with my sin; have mercy on me in Christ, and help me show my sorrow and my gratitude by turning and walking in your ways.”
When will this prayer be your prayer?