There’s this passage from the Bible coming up this Sunday that runs through Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10. The apparent reason for the skipped verses is because they contain names that are unfamiliar and so difficult to pronounce. Many lectors know the feeling of starting strong as they read to the gathered congregation, and then encountering something unfamiliar and stumbling. It can be a little embarrassing, though it doesn’t have to be. These verses are skipped over to avoid the situation altogether.
Basically, what this passage is talking about is the return of the Israelites after the exile. Nehemiah is their governor (thus, the book in the Bible is named after him) and Ezra is their priest (the previous book in the Bible was named for him, and he is a principle figure in this passage). We get a picture of a people who were zealous for God’s law and statutes – they wanted, above all else, to live up to His standards for them.
If we run it down to the kernel of what it means, this passage is saying that the Israelites, when they returned from exile, could see their story in a new light. They saw the chapter of their story that had been exile in Babylon as punishment for being unfaithful to God’s covenant with them. In the immediate wake of that exile, and echoing throughout their history from then on, they were decided toward covenant faithfulness.
Covenant is God’s deal with His people. He is their god – no other. There are certain blessings and benefits and responsibilities that go along with that. The people’s faithfulness to God is their response to His generosity to them in His covenant. Their faithfulness to God is not the pre-condition for His generosity. In a sense, the question in their mind is not to be: “How can I get God to be good to me?” but, rather: “How will I respond to God’s goodness to me?”
God’s covenant with us, through Jesus, is laid out in a similar way. I guess when we’re faced with the determination of the Israelites-returned-from-exile, we might ask ourselves a similar question regarding our own covenant faithfulness. God has been so good to us, taking the penalty for our sin upon Himself and opening to us the way of salvation through Jesus our Lord. How will each one of us respond to God’s goodness?