Summary: In chapter 8, Ezra and Nehemiah comfort the afflicted. In chapter 9, the comfortable are afflicted. Joy and grief are two sides of the same coin. After a thrilling encounter with God, which causes them to break into celebration, the believers now come
Putting First Things First
Earlier this week I was sitting in my office when I received an email from my youngest sister. She and her husband have been attending a church for a while and have become interested in spiritual things. We’ve been praying for both of them for quite some time and have known that they’ve been close to making a spiritual commitment to Christ.
Here’s part of her letter: “I have joined a women’s Bible study through church. We met for the first time last Monday and I really liked it…The books were on back order so last week we just sort of talked and the women answered a lot of my questions. I seem to have so many. By the way, I never made it through the first Left Behind book. The first 100 pages scared the pants off me and I got the point quickly…the message came to me loud and clear...I’ve probably asked the Lord to come into my heart and change my life 50 times, and Pastor Glenn said that asking once would do just fine. I do not want to be left behind and I want my son and husband to grow together with me. I get worried about the change thing cuz I sort of like my life, but I’m getting the drift and the women in the Bible study will really help me. Honestly, you and Beth have been my inspiration, it has just taken me a while.”
As tears rolled down my face and splashed onto my keyboard, I could barely contain my excitement. I called Beth and we rejoiced together about my sister’s new birth. After praying for her, we hung up and I went back to crying. Just then Chuck Cunningham came to my door, and I noticed that he had tears in his eyes as well. He explained to me that his aunt was dying and would probably not live through the day. He then noticed that I had been weeping. Here we were, two grown men, one rocked by the grief of death, the other impacted by the joy of the new birth. His grief, though deep and real, is tempered by the fact that his aunt is a born again believer. The angels were rejoicing over a new birth, and an aunt was getting ready to spend an eternity filled with jubilant joy.
This underscores the truth that there are times when we are pumped up and there are other times when we are bummed out. In fact, in our spiritual lives, we often experience indescribable joy when we contemplate God’s amazing grace, and we also grieve and mourn over our own tendency to tube out spiritually. Paul linked joy and grief together in Romans 7:22-25: “For in my inner being I delight [that’s joy] in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! [that’s grief]. Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
As we learned last week, God’s people were told to stop mourning and start rejoicing. It’s now later in that same month, the “branch booths” and “tents of twigs” have been taken down. God’s Word is given central attention once again, but instead of jubilant praise, there is a mood of repentant sorrow. Nehemiah 8 focused on God’s Word as it was read, interpreted and applied; in chapter 9, the people respond in prayer with genuine sadness about their sins. Listening to God through His word and responding to Him in prayer are twin aspects of every believer’s experience. There can be no spiritual growth without the regular cultivation of this dual privilege and discipline.
Here’s another way to compare the two chapters. In chapter 8, Ezra and Nehemiah comfort the afflicted. In chapter 9, the comfortable are afflicted. Joy and grief are two sides of the same coin. After a thrilling encounter with God, which causes them to break into celebration, the believers now come face to face with their own depravity.
Interestingly, if you want to study three of the most powerful prayers ever written, they are all found in chapter 9 of Ezra, Daniel and Nehemiah. Nehemiah 9 records an extended prayer, which is in fact, the longest prayer in the Bible outside the Psalms. D.L. Moody once asked someone to pray during a church service. The man began his prayer and was still droning on after ten minutes had gone by. Finally, Mr. Moody stood up and said, “While our dear brother is finishing his prayer, let’s turn to number 342 and sing it together!” This prayer in Nehemiah is not that long, but it’s a great model for us to study so that we can learn to put first things first.