Remembering, Anticipating, and Following (Nehemiah 9:6ff)

Perhaps you thought we were through with our study of Exodus after last Sunday. Well, almost. We completed our examination of the text proper with the sermon last week. But there are two final things John and I want to do before saying this study is finished. We want you to see and be impressed with how defining to Israel's identity as the covenant people of God the story is that we have been reading together. This week we will look at an Old Testament event that references it, and next week we shall see that even the New Testament retains it in vivid memory.

The Story Line of Exodus

Perhaps I should remind you again of the story line of Exodus. Genesis closes with the family of Jacob/Israel going to Egypt in order to survive one of the terrible famines that occasionally hit that part of the world. It had all been prepared for in the providence of God through a series of wondrous movements in the life of Joseph. Rejected by his own brothers but protected by Yahweh, Joseph rose to a position of power that was second only to Pharaoh himself. Yahweh's guidance given through Joseph got Egypt through a seven-year famine that could have caused to the world's mightiest nation to collapse. With Pharaoh's blessing, Joseph had summoned his father and brothers to Egypt — and they had a favored territory and lifestyle there.

Exodus begins with the fact that a new dynasty of Pharaohs had come to power in Egypt that was trying to wipe out the memory of that vulnerable period in the nation's history. Egyptologists know how this sort of thing happened more than once in that nation's history. Though big on monuments such as the pyramids and inclined to record a given Pharaoh's feats in hieroglyphics, a change of dynasty would set about a major campaign of rewriting history by destroying records. (Somewhere in the dry sands of Egypt are some remains of the Joseph story as told by the Egyptians. How I'd love for that material to come to light one of these days soon!)

Life became horrible for the Israelites as their systematic oppression began. They were enslaved. They were worked harshly and exploited. In due time, Yahweh acted to rescue the people who were heirs to the covenant made long before with Abraham. Moses became the central character of the redemption drama as he was born in bondage, raised in Pharaoh's own court, and eventually challenged Pharaoh to let the Israelites free to worship Yahweh. Then come the plagues, Passover, and the Sea of Reeds. There is Mount Sinai, the Decalogue, and the tent of meeting. It is an incredible story, but it is not just the story of one race, one nation, and one event.

Exodus is more than an event, it's the seminal demonstration of how God involves himself in the daily lives of the Israelites, exercises command over other nations, and ultimately changes the course of history. Exodus is also living history, referred to over 120 times in the Hebrew Bible, reenacted every year by Jews at Passover, and recalled every year by Christians at Easter. It's also living metaphor, as leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. have invoked the plight of the Israelites and the plea of Moses, "Let my people go!" [1]
Ezra's Appeal to the Story

One of those many places in Old Testament literature that refers to the story line of Exodus is a text involving two men from a time seven hundred to a thousand years later than Moses, depending on the date of the exodus. They were themselves Israelites living in a foreign land. They were descendants of the Hebrew population that had been taken captive to Babylon in 586 B.C. When Cyrus the Great (ruled 559-530 B.C) gained control over all of Mesopotamia in 539 B.C., he gave permission for the Jewish exiles to return to their beloved city of Jerusalem.

Three-quarters of a century after Cyrus' decree, Ezra and Nehemiah were raised up by Yahweh to lead a time of spiritual renewal among the returnees. The former was a priest-scribe, and the latter a political leader. During the post-exilic period, their leadership became critical to the future of the nation.

Ezra had been trained in the knowledge of Torah while living in Babylon. He rose to favor during the reign of a successor to Cyrus, Artaxerxes (ruled 465-424 B.C.). The King of Persia sent him back to Jerusalem somewhere around 458 B.C. Skilled scribe and teacher that he was, Ezra apparently did a lot of work on the Hebrew Bible of his time — modernizing the language, standardizing expressions, copying the text for future generations.

In 445 B.C. Nehemiah learned through a relative just how deplorable the condition of the returned exiles in Jerusalem was. The city wall was broken down, the gates were burned, and the people were in great distress. Artaxerxes gave him permission to go to Jerusalem to help his people. He was appointed governor of the province and given authority to rebuild Jerusalem's walls. Although harassed by enemies, he and his work crew stayed at the task and finished the wall in less than two months. The builders worked with building tools in one hand and weapons in the other (Neh. 4:17). We get this wonderful line from him when Nehemiah's enemies were taunting him: "I am doing a great work and I cannot come down" (Neh. 6:3).

When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem a dozen years after Ezra, his work created a more stable social context in which Ezra's religious reforms could go forward. After the city walls were rebuilt, the returned exiles assembled to hear the Law of Moses read to them. Ezra stood on a special wooden platform built for the occasion, the people stood out of reverence when the scrolls were unrolled, and the holy text was read. He and the assistants he had trained read the Hebrew Bible and translated it into the new language the people spoke at this point (i.e., Aramaic) so they could understand it. "So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation," says the text. "They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading" (Neh. 8:8). This went on for seven days.

Within the same month, the people also celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles — the annual festival that commemorates how Yahweh preserved their ancestors in the wilderness under Moses' leadership. When they came together for the feast, they "assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads" (Neh. 9:1). The earlier reading of the Torah had moved the people to penitence. Tabernacles would prove to be a week-long revival meeting. And what triggered it appears to have been the time of concentration on their heritage as God's covenant community. In a powerful prayer of penitence, Ezra walked the people through the history of Israel — beginning with creation and the patriarchs and continuing through the exile in Babylon and return — with particular emphasis on the events of Exodus.

And Ezra said: "You are the Lord, you alone; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. To all of them you give life, and the host of heaven worships you. 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.

"And you saw the distress of our ancestors in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea. You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted insolently against our ancestors. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. And you divided the sea before them, so that they passed through the sea on dry land, but you threw their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. Moreover, you led them by day with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire, to give them light on the way in which they should go. You came down also upon Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments, and you made known your holy sabbath to them and gave them commandments and statutes and a law through your servant Moses. For their hunger you gave them bread from heaven, and for their thirst you brought water for them out of the rock, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you swore to give them.

"But they and our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks 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 necks and determined 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 you did not forsake them. Even when they had cast an image of a calf for themselves 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 that led them in the way did not leave them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night that gave them light on the way by which they should go. You gave your good spirit to instruct them, and did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and gave them water for their thirst. Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness so that they lacked nothing; their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell. And you gave them kingdoms and peoples, and allotted to them every corner, so they took possession of the land of King Sihon of Heshbon and the land of King Og of Bashan. You multiplied their descendants like the stars of heaven, and brought them into the land that you had told their ancestors to enter and possess. So the descendants went in and possessed the land, and you subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gave them into their hands, with their kings and the peoples of the land, to do with them as they pleased. And they captured fortress cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses filled with all sorts of goods, hewn cisterns, vineyards, olive orchards, and fruit trees in abundance; so they ate, and were filled and became fat, and delighted themselves in your great goodness.

"Nevertheless they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their backs 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 hands of their enemies, who made them suffer. Then 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 hands of their enemies. But after they had rest, they again did evil before you, and you abandoned them to the hands 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 rescued them according to your mercies. And you warned them in order to turn them back to your law. Yet they acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your ordinances, by the observance of which a person shall live. They turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey. 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.

"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. You have been just in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly; our kings, our officials, our priests, and our ancestors have not kept your law or heeded the commandments and the warnings that you gave them. Even in their own kingdom, and in the great goodness you bestowed on them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you and did not turn from their wicked works. Here we are, slaves to this day—slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts. Its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in great distress" (Neh 9:6-37).
More Than a Travel Narrative

This powerful psalm of penitence and its impact on the people demonstrates that Exodus is much more than a travel narrative with interesting features along the way. It is the story of the formative events that created Israel as a nation and forged its unique relationship with Yahweh. Israel did far more than travel from Egypt to the Promised Land within the pages of the second book of Torah. "It had to discover its identity as the people of God and the responsibilities this brought." [2]

For the returnees from Babylon, for various New Testament writers, and for us, Exodus holds the possibility for both instruction and revival. It can engage our hearts to remember the mighty acts God has already done on Planet Earth and to anticipate the Promised Land he has pledged us. It can help us with the distinctively Christian way of thinking about past and future that allows us to maintain faith and keep moving forward.

As Israel journeyed, it looked back with relief on its deliverance and forward with expectation to its future entry into the Promised Land.

The Exodus led from Egypt to the Promised Land through the wilderness. The period of wandering in the wilderness was seen as a time of preparation — a period in which Israel could discover more about itself and the God who loved, called, and liberated it. Israel's long period of wandering in the wilderness was no easy time. At points, it was a time of doubt, rebellion, and restlessness. Yet, at others, it proved to be a time of dedication and purification, a period in which Israel was able to discover her identity as a people and the reasons for being called into existence by the Lord.

As Israel wandered in the wilderness, it was constantly urged to look backward and forward. It looked backward to the past and recalled its period of captivity in Egypt and its glorious liberation through Moses. It looked forward to the final entry into the Promised Land, the eagerly awaited goal of Israel's long journey. The present was thus sustained by the memory of past events and the hope of future events. [3]
Everything between the backward-looking remembrance and the forward-looking anticipation can be called "following in trust" or "walking by faith." Based on God's faithfulness in the past, those who walked by faith trusted that would give them the future he had promised.

Conclusion

Do you know the name Erik Weihenmayer? Get used to it, for he is going to be merchandised by everybody from sporting gear companies to an allergy medication. He is the 33-year-old blind man who climbed to the summit of Mount Everest on May 24, 2001. Nearly 90 percent of would-be climbers of Everest don't get there. And many — at least 165 since 1953 — never make it down from their attempt. Their bodies simply lie uncollected where they fall — four just last month.

Weihenmayer, blind since he was 13 from a rare hereditary disease, got interested in mountain climbing in his early twenties. That he could pull off the feat of climbing forbidding Mount Everest is no small wonder. Of course he couldn't do it alone. He had to have a group of trusted climbing mates to guide and support him. The person leading him had a bell tied to his pack, and Erik had to listen for its sound and keep moving toward it. In spite of the fact that Time magazine's cover story on his feat was titled "Blind Faith," I think it was anything but "blind faith" that got him to the top of the mountain.

I understand "blind faith" to mean that somebody risks everything to the unproved and unknowable. That's not what Erik Weihenmayer did. He put his life at risk only after being assured from past experience that he was among people who knew what they were doing, that he could trust them, and that they had the same goal as his own. This blind man put his faith in trustworthy people and did not try to find his way alone. When he came, for example, to a three-foot-wide crevasse at 19,000 feet, he listened to his buddies and probed with his poles rather than just stepping forward. Now that would have been blind faith — and certain death.

I am told that blind persons depend on patterns — stairs the same height, city blocks roughly the same length, curbs the same depth. They learn the predictable patterns in their environment more thoroughly than sighted people and use those patterns to navigate their world. People of flesh tend to be blind to spiritual realities, and we get confused and disoriented when we try to negotiate the spiritual world by the familiar patterns of our sinful nature. Pride and competition, greed and lust, power and money — those carnal weapons may get you what you want in this world. They only muddle, destroy, and kill in the world of the spirit.

When Paul said that Christians "walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7), he was not inviting us to launch out blindly to find our own way. To the contrary, he was asking us first to remember the mighty acts of God in history, anticipate the fulfillment of his promises in Christ, and to follow the steps of our guide along the uncertain and unpredictable path of life. He was asking us to surrender the fleshly tools we are so prone to use for modesty and harmony, generosity and self-control, powerlessness and poverty of spirit.

In your times of personal crisis, your task is to remember, to anticipate, and to follow. In our times of trial as a community of faith, it is the same — remember, anticipate, and follow. Because we know what he has done in the past and because we know he is always faithful to his promises, it is worth holding on in the darkest, loneliest, and most frightening moments. God will see you through your wilderness ordeal to heaven.
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[1] Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible (New York: William Morrow Publishers, 2001, p.174.
[2] Alister McGrath, The Journey (New York: Doubleday, 1999), p.22.
[3] McGrath, The Journey, pp.24-25.
 

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