Throughout scripture there are a number of prayers. The largest collection of them, of course, is in the Psalms. Some simply are parts of collections of prayers and serve as examples of how God’s people have prayed throughout time. Others, particularly those in the historical narratives, serve a variety of other purposes. They can underscore the character of the Pray-er. They can also tell us something about the God who has been prayed to.
Four particular prayers in the historical narratives have something in common: they are prose prayers of confession and specifically use the word “confession” in their presentation. Each of these tells us something about the God being worshipped.
One of those prayers is in Nehemiah 9. You see there the long-suffering of God is emphasized. On the basis of this long-suffering, the Jews determine to renew their covenant with the Lord in chapter 10.
You would think, given some of the ethical problems presented in the book thus far, that their promises would include commitments not to steal or gossip or oppress one another. They do not. Instead, the promises have to do with the religious activities of Israel: to maintain religious purity, observe the sabbath and laws about sacrifices and offerings and, in general, a promise to keep the religion of Israel alive.
Put in modern (and Christian) terms, the promises are like committing to not marry non-Christians, attend church each Sunday, give generously to support the works of the church, observe the Lord’s Supper, and make sure the church is taking care of the poor, and keep the building clean and the bathrooms sufficiently stocked with paper towels and soap.
None of these things typically rank high on our scale of Christian “duties.” Why were they so important to Israel? We could answer that this is an example of people who had their priorities wrong, or folks who were committed, but didn’t know how to be committed.
But that’s not the presentation here. These people understand that the focus of their lives is held in place by a proper response to worship, and corporate worship at that. Notice that this renewal of commitment is not an individual renewal, but a community-wide renewal undertaken by the leaders in behalf of those they led. It is a corporate affirmation of dedication. When the body of Christ is inattentive to the religion of the body, the parts of the body will forget they are first and foremost a community, that they are the community of God, and that they have responsibilities as a community to serve the Lord. Church is where these ideals are affirmed and reaffirmed, in rituals specified by God.