Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress. – Nehemiah 9:36-37 ESV
I have been studying the book of Nehemiah in preparation for a new series I will begin teaching in January. One of the most amazing passages I have run across has been chapter nine. It contains a prayer that is amazing as to its brutal honesty regarding the sins of men and eloquent when describing the character and nature of God. It is prayed by the people who have returned to the land after 70 years in exile – a punishment meted out by God for their constant sin and rebellion against Him. God had been more than patient with them over the years, sending prophet after prophet to warn them and call them to repentance. But they had stubbornly refused. So as a result, He was forced to send them into captivity in the land of Babylon. A once powerful people – the chosen people of God – had found themselves living in a foreign land as slaves to a pagan king. And yet they knew that God was perfectly just in his dealings with them. “Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly” (Nehemiah 9:33 ESV). God’s actions had been perfectly justifiable. He had blessed them beyond belief, and they had responded in disobedience and dishonor.
And yet, in spite of their unfaithfulness to Him, God had proved unwaveringly faithful to them. He had promised to return them to the land, and He that’s exactly what He had done. After 70 years in captivity, He had sovereignly arranged for a remnant of His people to go home – back to the Land of Promise He had given them generations earlier. He miraculously moved a pagan king to allow them to go home and even prompted him to help pay for their journey and the reconstruction costs for the Temple that had been destroyed years earlier. The book of Nehemiah records the God-ordained rebuilding of the walls around the city of Jerusalem and the repopulating of the city with the people of God once again. And yet, this remarkable prayer ends with a very sobering statement that has significant import for us today.
The people close their corporate prayer with the words, :Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress” (Nehemiah 9:37-38 ESV). The New Living Translation records the first part of verse 37 this way: “So now today we are slaves in the land of plenty.” What powerful statement of their true condition. Yes, they had been returned to the land. They had been able to rebuild the Temple and reconstruct the walls. But they were few in number and had no king, no standing army, and little in the way of resources. They were a shadow of the nation they had once been under the rule and reign of David. They were living in the land of plenty, but were effectively slaves to the nations around them. Their ancestors had entered into the Promised Land generations earlier. “And they captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and became fat and delighted themselves in your great goodness” (Nehemiah 9:25 ESV).
Now the conditions were a bit different. They were back in the land, but the land of plenty had become a land of want. Their Temple was a shadow of its former self – far smaller and far less glorious. The walls had been rebuilt, but were half as high and not near as formidable as they had been in Solomon’s day. The city was in shambles with few inhabitants and even fewer homes to provide shelter. Sin has consequences. Rebellion against God, while forgivable, isn’t without ramifications. God had done His part. He had returned them to the land, but things were different now. The Land of Promise was still theirs, but it had lost much of its former glory and they were not able to enjoy its many benefits. They were slaves in the land of plenty. The land hadn’t changed. But they had.
This makes me think about the condition of God’s people today. How many of us, as His children, are practically living as slaves in the land of plenty. We have been given the promises of God found in the Word of God. We have been given the Spirit of God to help us live according to the will of God. And yet we live like slaves in the land of plenty – captive to the desires of this world, prone to obey the god of this world, and missing out on the blessings made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross. In John 10:10, Jesus told us that He came so that we might “have life and have it abundantly.” Paul reminds us, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19 ESV). Peter tells us, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT). We are richly blessed and abundantly provided for by God. But the sad reality is that many of us live like slaves, missing out on the blessings of God. We don’t live abundant lives. We fail to have every need met by Him, because we have chosen to confuse our wants with needs. Rather than focus on living godly lives, we put all our time, energy and attention on pursuing the always-allusive “happy life.” And as a result, we live like slaves in the land of plenty. God’s blessings are all around us, and yet we live like paupers in the presence of the King. This is NOT what God intended. It is NOT the result Christ’s death was meant to accomplish. Again, Paul would ask us, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32 ESV). He goes on to say, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:7 ESV). We are rich beyond belief. We are blessed beyond comprehension. We are joint-heirs with Christ. We are sons and daughters of the King. We are recipients of the Holy Spirit of God and hand-picked ambassadors for the God of the universe. There is no reason for us to live like slaves in the land of plenty. There is no reason for us to do without when there is nothing God would ever withhold from His children. We need to live in the reality of Paul’s words: “And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others” (2 Corinthians 9:8 NLT). God will always provide just what we need to do what needs to be done. His work, done in His way and according to His will will always be backed by His wealth of resources.