Celebration and Lament

The walls had been rebuilt.

The people living in and around the city of Jerusalem had gathered.

Along with the fresh aroma of new lumber from Ezra’s wooden platform and his strong voice ringing out over the hum of the crowd, celebration was in the air! Within the barely-renovated city walls of Jerusalem, there was a party brewing, and it was no token religious observance.

For the first time in a thousand years (Nehemiah 8:17), the Nation of Israel was gearing up for the Feast of Tabernacles. “Booths” — little huts, really -– would be cobbled together from branches and set up on rooftops and in courtyards, and families would live in their booths for seven days to commemorate Israel’s wilderness wanderings. Remember, too, that, although Jerusalem’s protective outer wall had been restored, this is all taking place in a city where many houses had still not been rebuilt, (Nehemiah 7:4).

I’m actually a little jealous when I picture this holiday:

An Annual Camp Out!

Gathering piles of branches with the kids, making a cozy nest inside the booth, and hearing the small voice:

“Tell us again, Mum . . . why are we doing this?”

Then the magic of storytelling under the stars would begin in which history flows from memory into the hearts of another generation — with everything made tangible by the show-and-tell of celebration.

Of course, in the re-telling there would be sadness for Jerusalem was still a city in captivity, its citizens still an oppressed people. Forking over up to 50% of their earnings in taxes to the Persian Empire, they were only just beginning to recover from the exile’s comprehensive shattering of their self-perception as God’s people. They were still in the process of learning their way back into fellowship with God. Governor Nehemiah’s gracious pronouncement to kick-off their feasting was desperately needed:

“Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” —Nehemiah 8:10

And so it is today.

We live with one foot in celebration and the other in lament. Whenever we gather on this planet, it is for an imperfect celebration in which our only hope for joy is to look squarely at the empty seat, at the strained relationships, at the imperfect execution of all our Pinterest-worthy plans. Our only prayer for peace is to own the sadness; to recognize the power that grinding sorrow has over our hearts—and then to throw the door wide open to the feast.

By acknowledging and even embracing lament—an art we have lost here in North America—our celebration can be restored. Our feasting can be deeply sincere, even in a context of deep suffering or deep disappointment.

In the case of Israel, the people had just stood outside for about six hours (yes, stood), “from morning until mid-day,” listening to Ezra as he read aloud to them their saw-tooth record of rebellion. Their tearful response revealed that they were cut deeply with the weight of national failure over the centuries, but Nehemiah’s instructions proclaimed that the time had come for the people to begin, once again, to eat and drink blessing to themselves:

“Go home and prepare a feast, holiday food and drink; and share it with those who don’t have anything: This day is holy to God.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Until Jesus comes, it will be this longing and this feasting that keeps my heart’s sonar trolling for Kingdom shalom. I will lament the family that could have been if not for alcoholism, if not for mental illness and garden-variety selfishness.

But when I grasp warm hands and gaze at the faces around my table, by faith I will celebrate the family that is because of the forgiveness that lubricates our relational gears; because of much-beloved friends who have been grafted in; because of the cords of grace that hold our hearts in joy.

//

This post first appeared in SheLoves Magazine (November 2015).


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Stone by Stone

Spare narrative and a stoic reporting of the facts — this is the tone of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah:

“So I came to Jerusalem . . .”  (Five words about a dangerous two-month, one-thousand-mile journey.)
“I wept and mourned for many days.”  (Three months!)

Based on a careful study of Scripture, Lynn Austin puts meat on the bones without obscuring the truth or compromising biblical fidelity. On This Foundation, book three of The Restoration Chronicles, is a fictionalized rendering of Nehemiah’s journey and the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s shattered wall which can easily stand on its own.  Characters from the Old Testament book become more three-dimensional and their emotions and the events of the story more palpable since novelizing the story brings in the sights, sounds, smells, and energy of those tumultuous days.  For example, there is more to the role of cup bearer than I had realized, and Nehemiah’s duties in the citadel at Susa were a unique preparation for his position of leadership in Jerusalem.  Connecting Nehemiah and his brother Hanani with the events chronicled at the end of the book of Esther gives depth and family history which hint at a possible reason for Nehemiah’s strength of character and drive.

The mobilization of a ragtag assortment of refugees into an efficient construction crew and formidable fighting force along with the restoration of the wall in only two month’s time becomes a lush and layered tale.  Heart-breaking realities associated with bond servitude in Israel’s history and the grinding poverty that lay at its root are reported in Nehemiah 5, but On This Foundation gives the problem a face and a name in the person of Nava who must leave her family and her childhood sweetheart for a six-year term of servitude in payment of her families debts.

The tedious list of names in Nehemiah 3 and the details of who worked next to whom (and what they built) has been incorporated beautifully into Lynn’s story arc with flowing dialogue and imaginative scenes.  Best of all, the daughters of Shallum (3:12) explode the boundaries of their one-verse mention and are given an identity that fulfills the vision and courage which earned their mention in Israel’s historical account.

Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem are portrayed as the formidable and self-seeking foes that we see in the biblical narrative, adding to the intrigue of Nehemiah’s situation.  I was drawn into the tension of Nehemiah’s survey of his surroundings, his dawning realization that there was no one he could fully trust, and his fear that he was endangering his brothers lives as well as his own.  Was there anyone in all Jerusalem who was committed to the cause with unsullied motives?

My Sunday School class and I recently spent nearly six months studying the book of Nehemiah together, so, for me, On This Foundation felt like a visit with an old friend.  I encourage readers to accept the author’s invitation to explore the biblical text.  (She provides a list of all the passages she referenced in her research.)  Those who do will realize that Nehemiah’s trip to Susa and his subsequent return to Jerusalem in Nehemiah 13 have been omitted from the book.  Many of the reforms that Nehemiah addressed (Sabbath observance, marriage to unbelievers, temple worship, and provision for the Levites) occurred after his return, indicating that the slippage had actually taken place in his absence.  At 464 pages, On This Foundation is really a perfect length for getting lost in, so the inclusion of that journey would have been cumbersome, and its omission takes nothing away from the story.

As for sorting out the truth about Malkijah the wealthy land-owner:  Is he just another cruel and greedy rich guy who is hoping to increase his power by marrying one of Shallum’s daughters?  Is Chana wise to accept his proposal?  These questions nagged at me as I read, but even after the plot was resolved, and I was imagining the choral processions singing at the dedication of Jerusalem’s Wall, I couldn’t let go of that pair of complex characters —  Malkijah and Chana, so alike in their need for repentance and self-awareness.  The truth is that every one of us is a mixed bag of greed and loyalty; blindness and insight; charity and ambition.  Only God can change a heart, working from within, and like Nehemiah, we all must come to the realization that anything of consequence that we do, anything lasting that we build must be set on a firm foundation of faith in the Almighty One.


Interested in visiting the landmarks from my six-month journey through Nehemiah with my Sunday School class?  Click here to view a link to the series.

This book was provided by Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group,  in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Just One Thing: Reforming

In a meandering, three-way conversation with far-away friends, we began to ponder the term:  just exactly what does it mean to be “reformed”?  Without thinking, certainly with no editorial or theological censors in place, I said, “I would, actually, rather say that I’m reforming!”  After that conversation, the statement lingered in memory and wafted its way into my study time.  It drifted behind the sound of Nehemiah’s antiphonal choirs and the aroma of roasted temple meat.

Leaning forward out of the darkness, Jerusalem had experienced national and personal reformation.  Today, we might even call it a revival.  While the exact chronology of the dedication ceremony is murky, we know for sure that Nehemiah governed Jerusalem from the 20th year of King Artaxerxes’ reign until the 32nd year when he was summoned back to Susa and his duties there. “Then, after certain days,” (13:6) he returned to Jerusalem, surprised to find a point-by-point declension of the reforms that had been instituted and celebrated in chapters ten through twelve.

Reformation Decline
Unequal yokes “We will not give our daughters as wives to the peoples of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons . . .”  10:30 “In those days I also saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab . . .”  13:23
Provision for worship in the Temple “And at the same time some were appointed over the rooms of the storehouse for the offerings, the first fruits, and the tithes, to gather them from the fields . . . for the priests and the Levites . . . “  12:44-47 “I realized that the portions for the Levites had not been given them  . . .”  13:4-10
Commitment to keep the Sabbath “If the people of the land brought wares or any grain to sell on the Sabbath day, we will not buy it from them on the Sabbath . . .”  10:31 “In those days I saw people in Judah treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves and loading donkeys with wine . . . which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.”  13:15

How did it feel to construct this table and mark the slippage?  It makes my heart tired.

Is this really how the book of Nehemiah ends? Sure, Nehemiah threw out the merchants who had besmirched the Sabbath, and he grabbed a few guys by the beard to remind them of their promises to God, but how long before yet another housecleaning is needed?  Nehemiah’s words and actions expose his tired heart.

Could it be that, in the wisdom of God, He chose to end the book this way to show us our own hearts?   Like Israel, we are a people in need of continual reform.  R.C. Sproul calls it semper reformanda — always reforming, for the reformation of the people of God is never over until the last enemy, death, is defeated, and we dwell in the New Jerusalem, the City of the Great King.  In the meantime, until the Gospel is consummated, we, too, lean forward out of the darkness, and we join Nehemiah in his closing prayer (13:31):

“Remember me with favor, my God.”

The only difference is that, in Christ, we know that He has, and that He will.


We made it!  This is the twenty-fifth and final post from the book of Nehemiah!  Thank you for traveling with me and my Sunday School class.  If you want an overview of our progress, here’s the link:  https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/.  What’s next?  For the summer, we will be reading and studying the Psalms of Ascent.

I link up with these communities on a regular basis:  Soli Deo Gloria Connections, Inspire Me Mondays, Good Morning Mondays, Soul Survival, Testimony Tuesday, Titus 2 Tuesday, Tell His Story, Coffee for Your Heart, Live Free Thursdays, Faith-Filled Fridays, Grace and Truth, Fellowship Friday, Still Saturday, The Weekend Brew, Sunday Stillness, Faith and Fellowship, Blessing Counters, Women with Intention, Sharing His Beauty, Monday Musings, Motivate and Rejuvenate Monday.

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Just One Thing: Order

I’ll admit it.

I can be just a teensy bit compulsive about my daily to-do list.

Could this be why it does my heart good to see that God has included lists in the Bible?  Chapters eleven and twelve of Nehemiah are, essentially, a series of lists:  leaders (v. 3); members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (vv. 4-9); priests (vv. 10-14); Levites (vv. 15-18).  Even the gatekeepers get mentioned (v. 19).

Then, as God’s people re-convene within the safe circumference of covenant, it is time to mark the solemnness of the occasion.  Nehemiah 12:31-39 describes the dedication of the newly built wall.  Two thanksgiving choirs led by Ezra and Nehemiah, moving in opposite directions, marched in procession on the wall and assembled in the temple  Take that, Tobiah!  (He’s the critic who said in Nehemiah 4:3 even the weight of a fox would make the wall crumble!)  This procession on the wall was no loosey-goosey, make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair.   Israel was beginning to institute worship practices required by Law in the Pentateuch, and they were setting things in order to make sure that it would continue to happen.  Who will oversee the storehouse for the offering of firstfruits and tithes?  Who will see to it that the singers and the gatekeepes are cared for?  Who will make sure that the priests and Levites have what they need?  In verse 47 we find that “all Israel” was involved in the giving and in the preparation.

This speaks into our lives today, because we are reminded that God cares about the details.  He cares about order.  Even in creation, God’s care and creativity are evident in every phase, bringing the universe from a “formless void” to a riot of color and diversity, delicate beauty and bold wonder.  If the people of Israel during Nehemiah’s day put care and attention into their worship, how much more attentive should we be today since we are part of a living organism, the church?

I challenge you, today, to take some time with Nehemiah 12:31-39 and a good map of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day.  (Here’s a link if you need one:  https://www.pinterest.com/pin/552957660469183703/.)  Follow the thanksgiving choirs, tracking their progress around the city in your imagination.  What were they singing?  Well, we don’t really know for sure, but flip over a few pages to Psalm 48:

“Walk about Zion,
And go all around her.
Count her towers;
Mark well her bulwarks;
Consider her palaces;
That you may tell it to the generation following.
For this is God,
Our God forever and ever;
He will be our guide
Even to death.

The Psalm starts out with a burst of praise, and I don’t now if this is the psalm that was sung on the day for the dedication of the city, but it certainly works for me on this day.  Join the faithful remnant!  Give thanks to God for His mercy and grace in your own life!


This is the twenty-fourth (and next-to-the-last!) in a series of posts in which I ponder Just One Thing each week from my study of the book of Nehemiah, travelling slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class.  If you’d like to make a comment or leave a link to your own blog post about your wall-building stories, I’d love to read it. If you want to catch up with previous posts, here’s the link:  https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/.

I link up with these communities on a regular basis:  Soli Deo Gloria Connections, Inspire Me Mondays, Good Morning Mondays, Soul Survival, Testimony Tuesday, Titus 2 Tuesday, Tell His Story, Coffee for Your Heart, Live Free Thursdays, Faith-Filled Fridays, Grace and Truth, Fellowship Friday, Still Saturday, The Weekend Brew, Sunday Stillness, Faith and Fellowship, Blessing Counters, Women with Intention, Sharing His Beauty, Monday Musings, Motivate and Rejuvenate Monday.

Subscribe to get regular updates and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

Just One Thing: Change

The weather here in Maine is warming.

Bright green daffodil leaves, the tiny nose of a hyacinth peeking out of the ground, goldfinches mobbing the birdfeeder, and the sound of spring peepers in the early darkness are all telling me that it’s time . . .

Time to get out my summer clothes.

After a long winter, this should be a joyous occasion, but, um . . .
Did anyone else’s summer clothes shrink in the drawers this year?  Ugh.

Now here’s the thing:  since I know that the day of reckoning is coming when I will actually have to button that waistband on those adorable navy blue shorts that I picked up at the thrift shop just last summer, I’m motivated toward change.  I’ve already started walking the dog a little longer and a little more briskly.  I’ve been watching those portion sizes and eating more fruit and vegetables.

Change is a good thing, and we see in Nehemiah 10 that the time for tears is over, and the people of Israel are making resolutions to renew their covenant with God.  In her book on Nehemiah, Kelly Minter notes that their national commitment to change covers four very concrete areas:

  1. People
  2. Work
  3. Material possessions
  4. Money

As one voice, Israel is declaring, “No longer will these items be seen as ends in themselves, and no longer will they be allowed to crowd God out of our hearts.”  All of these reforms are good, and, undoubtedly, all of us could use a little spring cleaning in one or more of these areas.

However, having read the Old Testament a few times, I have an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I read Nehemiah 10 and hear the Israelites’ declaration of intent “to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and His ordinances and His statutes,” (Nehemiah 10: 29).  My heart remembers their words of a thousand years ago in Joshua 24:24 — “The Lord our God will we serve, and His voice will we obey.”  The thousand year filling in that declaration sandwich has just been prayed out loud in Nehemiah 9 as the Levites publicly repented of their record of rebellion.  Come to think of it, the whole Old Testament has the essence of despair lingering over it because, when the curtain falls at the end of Malachi, the history of God’s dealing with humanity has been a cycle of failure, judgment, and repentance.

John Piper points out that the reason the Old Testament feels so unresolved is that, up to this point, the righteousness of God has always led to judgment, and ultimately to destruction.  Until Jesus, there was no basis for mercy in the face of God’s righteousness, but when Jesus held up that cup and announced the coming of a New Covenant in His blood, he ended the hopeless cycle of failure, judgment, repentance . . . failure, judgment, repentance.

Like Israel, I’ve blown it over and over again.  Casting aside discipline, patience, and mercy, I’ve failed to admire God’s greatness and tripped over the commands to reverence His holiness time and time again.  And yet God has been merciful to me, a sinner.

The question for me (and for you) today is this:  Am I living in the reality of the New Covenant?  On what basis do I make changes in my life?  The answer to my snug waist bands does not lie in my pretty promises for reform.  What if my new healthy eating and exercise plan looked beyond the number on the scale or the fit of my clothes?  What if my focus was the glory of God, for He is mightily honored when I live in utter dependence on Him, remembering that I am dust.


This is the twenty-third in a series of posts in which I ponder “just one thing”  each week from my study of the book of Nehemiah, travelling slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class.  If you’d like to make a comment or leave a link to your own blog post about your wall-building stories, I’d love to read it. If you want to catch up with previous posts, here’s the link:  https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/.

I link up with these communities on a regular basis:  Soli Deo Gloria Connections, Inspire Me Mondays, Good Morning Mondays, Soul Survival, Testimony Tuesday, Titus 2 Tuesday, Tell His Story, Coffee for Your Heart, Live Free Thursdays, Faith-Filled Fridays, Grace and Truth, Fellowship Friday, Still Saturday, The Weekend Brew, Sunday Stillness

Subscribe to get regular updates and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

Just One Thing: Prayer

Since I’m on vacation this week with the family, it seems good to pause and look at a “big picture” theme that is prevalent in Nehemiah.  Early in my preparation for this study, I ran into the statistic that 11% of the book of Nehemiah is prayer, and now that we’ve made it through chapter nine’s longest prayer in the Old Testament, it’s easy to see where that figure comes from. It turns out that Nehemiah himself does a significant amount of praying in these pages that bear his name.  Because I’m making a concerted effort to let God breathe life into my own praying this year, I’ve spent some time re-reading Nehemiah’s words to the God of heaven:  Nehemiah 1:5-11; 2:4; 4:4, 5; 5:19; 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31. Read them for yourself, and see if you find these three categories or voices of prayer that I heard in Nehemiah’s prayer life: Arrow prayers:  If you take a look at these passages, you will see a rather lengthy prayer in chapter one, but after that, Nehemiah is a man on the move.  His recorded prayers reflect that.  They also demonstrate the fact that Nehemiah knew where to begin.  Oswald Chambers expresses this mindset very well:

“Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.”

Nehemiah had made prayer foundational to his conversation with King Artaxerxes in chapter one, but then in chapter 2 he shot a final arrow-prayer before opening his mouth once the king had begun probing for information.  If only I could get that sequence imprinted on my own brain:  Pray first. Speak second. Remember me prayers:  Nehemiah knew where to look for affirmation.  Four different times, he prayed, “Remember me, O my God,” in reference to some work that he had accomplished for his people.  One of my sons has very big brown eyes, and I see them whenever I read Nehemiah’s “remember me” prayers, because it didn’t matter whether he was crouched behind home plate or playing his saxophone with the band, my son’s eyes would be on us, his mum and dad, checking to make sure that we had seen him catch the pop fly or that we had heard his amazing tones.  The whole audience was watching, but he wanted to know that we saw.  Nehemiah did a lot of good for the people of Israel, and he could have shown off if he had wanted to.  (I’m picturing place cards at his dining room table:  “This sumptuous feast is provided courtesy of your governor.”)  However, because his righteousness was done before God, it was God’s approval he sought.  He foreshadows Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, because a thank you note or a flowery testimonial from his dinner guests just wouldn’t do it for Nehemiah (“for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven”).   His eyes were looking to “his Father who sees in secret.” I’ve HAD IT, prayers:  We’ve all been there.

“I’m so done with this person, Lord!  Help!” “God, I’ve had it with this situation!”

In his commentary on the imprecatory psalms, Derek Kidner notes that this kind of harsh prayer from the mouths of biblical characters is typically a cry against injustice, and that the speaker is asking God to take vengeance (rather than doing it himself).  We really see this with Nehemiah’s words:  “We look to you!”  Once again, Nehemiah’s prayer life reveals that his eyes are in the right place. Nehemiah made no claims of being a theologian, but his prayer life reveals a doctrine of God based on a correct understanding of Scripture.  In his chapter one prayer he fully expects God to act consistently with His own nature and with His actions in the past.  He cedes control of the situation to a Sovereign higher than the king he served, and waits for Him to act.  Prayer can feel very risky that way, and I’ve never spoken to anyone who was satisfied with his or her prayer life.   Right now I have two books on my bureau about prayer, and I expect to learn from both of them (and to write about them here on the blog), but doing prayer is the only way to get better at it.  Here is the challenge, then, from the life of an Old Testament builder:

  • Is prayer the main thing or is it just a means to an end?
  • Where are your eyes today?
  • When you’ve HAD IT, do you pick up your phone to complain to a friend, snarl at your family, or lay the situation out before One who is sovereign and perfectly just?

This is the twenty-second in a series of posts in which I ponder “just one thing”  each week from my study of the book of Nehemiah, travelling slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class.  If you’d like to make a comment or leave a link to your own blog post about your wall-building stories, I’d love to read it. If you want to catch up with previous posts, here’s the link:  https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/.

 

Just One Thing: History

The longest recorded prayer in the Old Testament, Nehemiah 9:6-38 is also the fullest summarized retelling of Old Testament history.  It’s all there, point and counterpoint:  the Red Sea crossing, the manna, the subduing of the Canaanites.  Ponder these alongside the disobedience, the mutiny, and the faithless complaining.  A slow reading of this prayer with an eye for the ebb and flow of righteousness reveals six paired instances of Israel’s rebellion and God’s redemptive responses.  Whether Israel’s dance of death speaks to your heart about the mercy of God or about His patience and longsuffering, it is a testimonial to God’s commitment to His chosen ones, and this, I believe, is what led the people to take the words which describe their ancestors’ rebellion and to turn them Godward in the form of prayer.  Like their predecessors, they were in great distress (vv. 36, 37).  They desperately needed reassurance that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was still the kind of God who would meet them with forgiveness and restoration.

The chart below is for your personal study.  We scrawled it large and garish on our Sunday School white board last week, but I recommend printing it and taking notes in the margins, because this prayer of generational confession follows the psalm of praise that bubbles through verses 5 and 6.  It follows a litany of liberation trumpeted through verses 7 through 15.  These are scaffolding under Israel’s faith, emboldening them to come clean with the past and to make solid plans for reformation (see Nehemiah 10).

Without too much thought, I, too, could come up with a chart like Israel’s, and while it is important to avoid morbid introspection, it is good for my soul to recall the work of God on my behalf in the face of my pride, high-handed rebellion, and irrational faithlessness.  The mirror of God’s Word startles and forces me into honest evaluation, but God’s history of faithfulness and redemptive work in the past inspire confidence for bold reform.


Scroll down to find the chart I mentioned earlier in this, the twenty first in a series of posts pondering  “just one thing”  each week from my study of the book of Nehemiah, as I travel slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class.  If you’d like to make a comment or leave a link to your own blog post about your wall-building stories, I’d love to read it. If you want to catch up with previous posts, here’s the link:  https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/.

                                             Israel’s Rebellion and God’s Response

Nehemiah 9:16,17 Presumptuous disobedience and mutiny Grace, mercy, and steadfast love
Nehemiah 9:18-25 Idolatry Supernatural guidance and provision
Nehemiah 9:26, 27 Disobedience to the law; murdering God’s messengers Deliverance through the godly leadership
Nehemiah 9:28, 29a Evil (again) Deliverance
Nehemiah 9:29b, 30a Pride and stiff necked rebellion Patience; warning through prophetic messages
Nehemiah 9:30b, 31 They would not listen More grace and more mercy, even in the midst of exile