“And they refused to obey and they did not remember your wonderful works which you did with them. They hardened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their bondage in their rebellion. But you are a God of forgiveness—gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abundant in steadfast love—and you did not forsake them.”
This passage from Nehemiah is part of a larger prayer that was led by the Levites, proclaiming the covenant faithfulness of God even in the midst of the sin of the people and repenting of their sin as well. This was part of a covenant renewal—recommitting themselves as a nation to the service of God on high. The prayer extols the ds,x, (hesed) of God (translated here as “steadfast love”). God’s ds,x, (hesed) is one of the great themes of the Old Testament and describes his covenant faithfulness and mercy despite the covenant breaking of his people. It is a term that is very closely tied with the New Testament term, ajgavph (agape), which refers to a sacrificial love that loves regardless of whether that love is reciprocated.
Friends, because of God’s great love, you have experienced forgiveness. You who were rebelling against God in your sin, you who were unworthy of anything but eternal condemnation, have experienced this forgiveness when you were born again. How is it then, that you can withhold forgiveness of others? It is because of the great love that God has shown to you that you can forgive others. If you have never experienced the love of God, then it is understandable that you cannot forgive, but you who have experienced the love of God need to demonstrate that love in the way you forgive those who have offended you—even when they are still in rebellion against what is right.
Most English translations of the Bible translate the central section of this verse as: “appointed a leader to return to their bondage in Egypt.” The word that is translated “in Egypt” which I have translated as “in their rebellion” is the word MDy√rImV;b (bemiryam). Literally, this word means “in their rebellion” as I have translated it. “In Egypt,” though, would only vary by one letter, and would look like this: Mˆy∂rVxImV;b (bemitsrayim). The only difference is the presence of the letter c (tsade-which gives the “ts” sound). Given the context of the prayer, which is speaking of Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness wanderings and their complaining—many expressing the desire to return to slavery in Egypt, most translators consider that the missing tsade was just a scribal error when the text was being copied thousands of years ago.
At the same time, the reading of the ancient text should not be ignored. We must never forget that the people’s sin is rebellion against God and sin binds us in spiritual chains. God’s redemption of the people from their physical bondage in Egypt is a picture of what God’s redemption of his people’s bondage to sin would look like as fulfilled in Christ. The way our English Bibles translate this word, then, probably best reflects what these priests were praying, but we should never forget what is being done by God in the larger picture of redemptive history. And that is God’s faithfulness in spite of our great unfaithfulness.
Friends, there will be people who will harm and offend you. There will be people that it will seem like you could never forgive. Yet, I plead with you who have experienced God’s ds,x, (hesed), show that ds,x, (hesed) to others in the way you forgive. One thing that I often hear at funerals is “I wish that I had taken the time to tell this person that I loved them have forgiven them…” Beloved, don’t live with regrets, love and forgive others as God has loved and forgiven you.