Strengthened by the Story

This article relates to the devotional Journal for Treasuring God’s Word, Session 4. Share this with your students!

Have you or your family ever completed a big building project—a new patio or deck, for instance?

Do you remember your tired but satisfied feeling as the last piece slipped into place? How did you celebrate? Did you invite the neighbors over to enjoy a cookout on your newly finished deck? Or maybe you just stood back to admire your finished work. At any rate, you were no doubt pleased with your success.

If you have had this experience, you can identify with God’s people as they celebrated the Feast of Booths around 444 B.C. They had completed a new temple and surrounded the city with sturdy walls, testimony to their 94 years of hard work. The desolate ruin left as a result of Nebuchadnezzar’s war and the neglect of Jerusalem after 70 years of exile was being slowly replaced by a new city—a city of hope. Is it any wonder they celebrated the appointed feast with special joy and thanksgiving?

We too can reflect on the unified story of Scripture and be strengthened by its central theme: God faithfully redeems his covenant people.

But even in the midst of joy and celebration, the people of God had some questions. They rejoiced that the temple, the wall, and some houses had been repaired and that they had been restored to the land of Judah. Yet as Ezra the scribe read God’s law, they may have wondered whether their hearts had also been fully restored to the Lord. Later the same month, the people gathered again, not for a festival, but for a day of confession and repentance. The Levite priests prayed publicly as all the people stood up to praise the Lord.

Take a few minutes now to read their prayer recorded in Nehemiah 9:5–38 and 10:28–39.

This lengthy prayer is divided into two parts. As we look at the second part first (10:28–39), we find listed all the promises that God’s people made to “walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his rules and his statutes” (10:29). They promised not to intermarry with the pagan people of the surrounding nations, not to buy or sell goods on the Sabbath, and to restore the temple worship. The land had been restored to them and they desired to be restored to God. They wanted to renew their relationship with the Lord and assume their spiritual responsibilities once more. What preceded this outburst of devotion? What led the people to this confession, repentance, and renewed obedience and blessing?

We are given a clue in 9:38. There the Levites say, “Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests.” What is the “this” that the Levites refer to? The word this in 9:38 refers to the first part of the prayer found in 9:5–37. Here the Levites very simply summarized the Old Testament from creation through the captivity. They saw God’s Word as a unified story with God as the main character—God creating the world, God choosing and renaming Abraham, God giving a promise that he faithfully keeps despite the growing disobedience in verse 33: “You [God] have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly.”

You might think that this reminder of their ancestors’ disobedience would have depressed the Israelites, but not so. While they did not rejoice in acknowledging sin, their recital of the Scriptures did not discourage them. Rather, it gave them boldness to call upon their great, mighty, and awesome God. They also knew that God is the One who “keeps covenant and steadfast love” (9:32) despite the disobedience of his people.

We know that the recital of the Bible’s story is the “this” of verse 38. Rehearsing the story again encouraged the people to renew their covenant with God. They realized that God is always faithful to his promises to bless them—and also to correct and discipline them when they do not trust and obey him. Their study of the Scriptures led them to understand the Bible not merely as a collection of good and bad examples, not only as a series of maxims, not even simply as the source of the law—but as the unified record of God’s faithful dealings with his covenant people. They were encouraged as they reflected on the history of God’s faithfulness to his people.

As we look for encouragement in our own lives, we can find it in the same source. We too can reflect on the unified story of Scripture and be strengthened by its central theme: God faithfully redeems his covenant people.

The chapters we have just looked at in Nehemiah can help us to understand all of Scripture. As we study individual texts, we are encouraged to see these passages as parts of the whole. For the Bible is history; it is a unified story in which each part participates in what has come before and anticipates what is to come. In the whole, as we see its unified and orderly progress, we are blessed, even as were the people of Nehemiah’s day. Seeing and appreciating this unity gives us a firm basis from which to explore God’s Word.

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