Nehemiah 9:17 says of the Lord, "Thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness..." Upon reading this, we are immediately impressed by the positive nature of this verse. Indeed it is a comforting passage to us as frail human beings. This verse and others like it (Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2) dispel the idea that God is sitting in heaven eagerly waiting for us to sin so that He can strike us down. Such ideas that depict God as a mean, wrathful tyrant whose greatest joy is to punish his creation do not depict the God of the Bible. God is rather, a God of love (I John 4:8). He is, as our text indicates, a God who is slow to anger and is ready to pardon.
Now while God is a God of mercy and kindness, we must not get the idea that He will overlook sin. P.K. Varghese has written an interesting article about the Lord entitled, "Misunderstanding Jesus." In it he wrote,
Few people today doubt the love and tenderness of Jesus. From stories told them in Bible school when children, from religious pictures (such as Jesus receiving the little children), and from a one-sided emphasis of Jesus' spirit of goodness, kindness, and meekness, people today have almost come to think of Jesus as a weak, stand for nothing, compromising peacemaker, instead of the strong godly Christ he is. . .
(P.K. Varghese, "Misunderstanding Jesus," The Voice of Truth International 14: 18.)
We must not allow ourselves to fall into this trap. For while God (the Godhead) is a kind and patient God, He is still a God of judgment (John 5:22,27) and a great, mighty, and terrible God (Neh. 9:32). Romans 11:22 says, "Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God..." (Emp. mine - D.B.). We can not take one of these attributes to the exclusion of the others. He is a judge and severe while at the same time He is kind and full of mercy. In God's justness, there is a perfect balance of these characteristics (Neh. 9:33).
Our task in this lesson is a pleasant one. We are going to discuss some of magnificent characteristics of God's goodness. Nehemiah listed several in Nehemiah 9:17. They will serve as the basis for our study.
Thou Art A God Ready To Pardon
The Psalmist wrote of God, "Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin" (Psalm 85:2). The Lord spoke of himself, "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins" (Isaiah 43:25). Daniel prayed to God, "We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly and have rebelled...." but then in verse 9 he said, "To the blessed Lord our God belong mercies and forgiveness...." (Daniel 9:5,9) In the assigned text, Nehemiah put it this way, "but thou art a God ready to pardon..." (Neh. 9:17). Isaiah adds, "our God...he will abundantly pardon" (Isaiah 55:7). The idea in all of these passages is that of forgiveness. Our God is ready to forgive. What more comforting thought could there be to sinful men? What more precious fact could be revealed to the man who has realized his lost and deplorable condition? What could be more welcome to the sinner who has just come to the realization that he faces eternal damnation than the fact that God is ready to pardon? Imagine with me if you would a man in prison who in a moment of passion committed the crime of murder and was sentenced by his peers to the punishment of death. As the man agonizes over his crime, and contemplates his last few days upon this earth, what do you suppose would be the most welcome thought that he could imagine? How about the news that the governor is ready to pardon him for his crime? His life will be spared. On a plane much higher than that, we have a God who is ready to pardon. And to a degree much greater than that we can gain more than a few days of life on this earth; we can gain life eternal.
Our God is ready to pardon. Sin brings destruction, but that has never been God's desire. God would rather that men repent. The Lord told Israel, "Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin...For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth...." (Jeremiah 18:30-32) (Emp. mine - D.B.). A similar thought is expressed in the New Testament. Peter wrote of the Lord that He "is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9). Both of these passages express the thought that God is not eager to destroy but is ready to pardon.
Our God is ready to pardon. Picture the scene set by Luke (Lk.23). The Romans had taken Christ prisoner based on the false testimony given by the Jews. Pilate himself said, "I have found no cause of death in him" (vs. 22), and yet in verse 24 he sentenced him to be crucified. "And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left" (vs. 33). Then, Christ made a statement that exemplifies this point of our study. As He hung there on the cross between two thieves, He said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." I can not imagine a greater testimony to the fact before us at this time. Truly our God is ready to pardon!
Gracious And Merciful
The words "gracious" and "merciful" can hardly be separated. They entail characteristics of God that are intertwined with one another. The word "gracious" comes from a Hebrew word that is used only of God. The word is used to describe how God expresses his tender affection for man. It has reference to his love, his pity, and his forgiveness of sins (William Wilson, Wilson's Old Testament Word Studies, s.v. "gracious"). This word translated as "gracious" is often times found linked with the word "merciful" as is the case in our discussion (Ex. 34:6; II Chron. 30:9; Psalm 103:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). Particularly impressive about this word "gracious" is that it expresses a characteristic of God's goodness toward those who don't deserve it. The word "merciful" also carries with it the idea of pity. Wilson's says it is "applied to God's mercy and tender pity for his people."
Both of these words have very deep meanings and could be the root of some very serious theological discussions, but they also have a side that is apparent even to a little child. A little child prays, "God thank you for the food that you give us to eat. Thank you for the sun and the rain" All of this is an expression of the graciousness of God. Remember especially that this particular characteristic of God is toward those who don't deserve it. Several passages come to mind. Matthew 5:45 says that God maketh his sun to rise on evil and on the good, and sendeth his rain on the just and on the unjust." Romans 5:8 tells us that "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Both of these passages express God's goodness bestowed on those who don't deserve it. The second passage is a striking example and is without a doubt the greatest expression of God's graciousness and merciful nature.
Several other examples will help to illustrate the graciousness of God. In Genesis 34, in the sweet reunion of Jacob and Esau, the Bible says that Esau ran to meet Jacob and he "embraced him and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept" (Genesis 33:4). Having not seen his brother Jacob in years, when Esau saw the women and the children, he asked, "Who are those with thee?" Jacob answered, "The children which God hath graciously given thy servant" (Gen. 33:5) (Emp. mine - D.B.). So Jacob attributed his great family to the graciousness of the Lord. In II Samuel 12, we see another useful example of this word. After David's sin with Bathsheba, a son was born to them who the prophet Nathan said, "shall surely die." David besought the Lord on behalf of the child, and he fasted and lay all night on the ground. When the child did die, David's servants were afraid to tell him because of what his reaction might be. To their surprise, when he heard the news, he got up, washed himself, changed clothes, and got something to eat. Then David's servants questioned him about his seemingly backward behavior. David responded, "While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But he said now he is dead wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me" (II Sam. 12:22-23) (Emp. mine - D.B.)
Even in the immediate context of Nehemiah 9, the graciousness and mercy of God can be abundantly seen. Israel is there reminded that the Lord saw their affliction in Egypt and heard their cry by the Red Sea (Neh. 9:9). And how that He delivered them from bondage with signs and wonders and divided the Red Sea before them (vs. 10-11). And how He led them by day with a cloudy pillar and by night with a pillar of fire (vs. 12). And how He gave them his holy sabbath and made known unto them his precepts and statutes and laws (vs. 14). And how He gave them bread to eat when they were hungry and water from the rock when they were a thirst (vs. 15). Did they deserve this care? Verse 16, the people acknowledged, "our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments, And refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that thou didn't among them; but hardened their necks...." What ingratitude! But even after all of this, after their rebellion and idolatry, and captivity, here they stood as the Lord's people, and He was blessing their efforts once again. Why? Because He is "a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful..."
Of Great Kindness
Nehemiah's description that God is a God of "great kindness" is a beautiful one indeed. Wilson said of the Hebrew word from which "kindness" is translated, "The general import of this word seems to be, the full flow of natural affection." (Wilson, s.v. "kindness"). Sited in the description of this word is the stork which is noted for her remarkable affection to her young. "The corresponding word in Arabic is used of the flowing of the mother's milk to the breasts, so nearly connected with affection for her offspring...". In this particular context, "It is used of the goodness and abundant grace of God to his own people...". Certainly when looking back to the nation of Israel, God's kindness and constant care is quite evident, but we should never forget that it still exists today. No, not is a miraculous way, but the Lord will and does care for his children today. John wrote to Christians, "And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that that we have the petitions that we desired of him." Matthew reminds us, "If ye then, being evil know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" (Emp. mine - D. B.). We sing a song sometimes entitled, "Count your many blessings." The song says, "Count your blessings, name them one by one; And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.". The song certainly is not inspired, but it points us toward several good things. First, it reminds us how richly we have been blessed, and contributes toward an attitude of thankfulness (or as one preacher put it, "an attitude of gratitude"). Secondly it causes us to reflect on the source of these blessings. They are as the song says "what the Lord hath done." James said, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights...." (James 1:17).
And Forsookest Them Not
This last phrase is not part of the assigned discussion, but how could we pass up such a magnificent statement? Nehemiah said that the Lord forsook them not. At the times when Israel was without God, it was because they had left him. He never forsook his people then, and He will never forsake his people today. In the Old Testament, David said, "I looked on my right hand and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul. I cried unto the Lord, Thou art my refuge...." (Psalm 142:4-5). In the New Testament, Paul wrote to Timothy, "At my first answer no man stood with me...Not withstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me..." (II Tim. 4:17). When all men for forsake you and all else fails, one thing of which you can be certain is that the Lord will be there. He will never forsake his children.
A little child prayed, "Dear God, thank you for being so good and nice. Thank you for giving me food to eat, and clothes to wear, and a house to live in. Thank you for the rain and the sun. Thank you for Jesus and for forgiving us when we do bad. Thank you for being there for us. In Jesus name Amen." Friends, that's Nehemiah 9:17; very simply put, but that's it!
Truly God cared for Israel. He showed them mercy and kindness and forsook
them not. And we can rest assured that He does the same for his children today.