Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series. For part one click here.
In ancient times, cities were built to protect the community from hostile tribes. In times of attack, the local people gathered inside the walls of the city and closed the massive gates, where they were protected from the assaults of their enemies.
When Hanani told Nehemiah that Jerusalem's gates had been burned and her walls were broken down, he was saying that God's city was defenseless against whatever attacks the enemy may wish to bring against it. As a result, they had become scattered and were bringing shame upon themselves and the name of God.
In the same way, many of God's people are defenseless against Satan's schemes. When the day of adversity comes, they find the gates of their lives burned and their walls torn down. Instead of safety and stability, there is scattering and reproach.
Crumbling marriages, emotional distress, physical infirmity, stress in the workplace, feelings of helplessness, responsibilities of everyday family life—all of these pressures and others are wreaking havoc on believers. Wandering and isolated, many Christians feel cut off from any sense of hope or course of action that will bring them to a place of restoration and peace.
Nehemiah was overwhelmed with similar feelings of despair and frustration, but he did not quit. In his hour of darkness, he turned toward God, weeping, fasting, praying and confessing his sins and the sins of his people. In the Old Testament, God's people did not respect the commandments of God as a relevant or necessary means of governing their lives.
Even though the Lord sent great prophets who called them to return to God and obey His Word, the people went their own way, ignoring God and His commands. The result was judgment, affliction and hopelessness.
When a Christian experiences adversity, it is not always a result of failure to keep God's commandments, but a call to prayer and self-examination. When things are not going well, the first thing we should do is take a moral and spiritual inventory in light of God's Word. Do we need to confess sin as Nehemiah did? Are we guilty of breaking God's holy commandments?
Before such a personal inventory can take place, it is essential that the believer have an accurate understanding of his responsibility to obey the commandments of God. Attempting to keep the commandments apart from the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit will certainly end in legalism and frustration.
If a person mistakenly thinks that the commandments are not relevant for today and endeavors to please God by "living in the Spirit" apart from obedience to His Word, Satan will take him captive. With a desire to please God, an understanding of His commandments, and an intimate knowledge of the spirit and heart of not only the law but the law-giver, we can each receive God's promise of a life well lived!
John 1:17 says, "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."
A thousand years before the time of Nehemiah, a great mass of refugees convened in the Middle East at the base of a mountain called Sinai. Although they had witnessed awesome miracles performed by the hand of God, only Moses and Aaron had heard His voice.
In the past, their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had also heard the voice of God (Ex. 4:27). Through their testimony, this multitude of emancipated slaves recognized that there was only one God and not many gods, as other nations believed. Even though God performed mighty acts of deliverance for them, He was only known personally by Moses. Only Moses had been in the presence of God and it was through Moses that God was speaking to His people. And when the people camped below, Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive instructions from God.
Moses didn't have to wait long to hear the Lord call him. He was to invite the Israelites into a relationship unlike any other—a covenant relationship with God:
"Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel: 'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will faithfully obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My special possession out of all the nations, for all the earth is Mine. And you will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation'" (Ex. 19:3b-6a).
The people of Israel had been slaves under the rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt. For well over 400 years, they had suffered under the cruel taskmasters with no one to help them. Without God's mercy, they undoubtedly would have remained in that condition. But at God's appointed time, He acted unilaterally to save Israel. He raised up His faithful servant Moses, and with miraculous power, brought deliverance to Israel. This is a type of New Testament salvation. We were helplessly enslaved under the authority of sin and our own evil desires when, in the fullness of time, God sent His Son Jesus to destroy the power of our enemy Satan on the cross of Calvary.
The first thing God did after delivering Israel was call their attention to the fact that He was the one who delivered them from their bondage. He wanted them to recognize His willingness to humble the mightiest nation in the world in order to set them free. He wanted them to understand that without His supernatural power and intervention, the Egyptian army would have destroyed their entire nation. He was reminding them that they owed Him everything, even their lives.
The apostle Paul teaches the relevance of this truth to the New Testament believer when he writes, "Do you not know that ... you are not your own? You were bought with a price" (1 Cor. 6:19-20a). God is saying the same thing to Christians today: "I am your God and I have delivered you from the bondage of all the things seeking to control your life." He delivers us from the shame and bondage of the iniquities in our hearts. We are no longer dependent on drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity or unhealthy relational attachments. God delivers us from the need for all things other than Himself. He desires to bring us into a place of dependence and obedience to His Word.
Now, God does not deliver from something without delivering to something. He never intended for His people to be free of any responsibility toward Him after He delivered them from the bondage of their sin. The Bible teaches just the opposite: "And having been freed from sin, you became the slaves of righteousness" (Rom. 6:18). In God's viewpoint, all men are slaves, the only variable being which master has authority over them. God delivers His people from their evil masters in order that they might acknowledge Him as their new master.
Let's Make a Deal
God had big plans for His people—He had saved them with a distinct purpose in mind. No longer would they work another man's fields or build the cities of another nation. They would answer only to God; in fact, they would be His "special treasure" (segullah in Hebrew) or "prized possession." The Israelites understood that God was making a claim of ownership on their lives because He had been their deliverer. But what a wonderful exchange! Not only would they be highly valued by the all-powerful God, they would hold exalted positions with respect to all peoples of all nations.
In fulfillment of God's promises to their forefathers (Gen. 12:1-3), Israel was gathered together so they might be offered the opportunity to become a unique nation, a special people of God. They were to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," specially chosen to function as God's representatives to the rest of the world. This offer took the form of a covenant, an agreement between God and His people that promised them this privileged status if they fulfilled specific conditions. But if the conditions were not met, God would cease to be an agent of blessing on their behalf and would allow their enemies to enslave and scatter them. Their responsibility in this covenant arrangement was to be obedient to God's commands.
Now God did not give the commandments to Israel right after He delivered them. The commandments of God were given to the Israelites only after they had agreed to God's gracious offer. In other words, the commandments did not have their foundation in some sterile, legalistic environment, but were communicated as a result of a covenant relationship that had been established willingly between God and Israel.
Doug Stringer is founder and president of Somebody Cares America and Somebody Cares International, a global network bringing hope and healing to communities through prayer initiatives, compassion outreaches and cooperative efforts. He is the author of numerous books, including In Search of a Father's Blessing and Leadership Awakening: Foundational Principles for Lasting Success.
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