• Introduction
  • United In Desire
  • United In Receptivity
  • United In Response
  • United In Dependence
  • A Decision To Submit
  • The Root To Submission
  • The Root Of Rebellion
  • About The Author
Unity and Submission
Building With God

Unity and Submission

  • Introduction
  • United In Desire
  • United In Receptivity
  • United In Response
  • United In Dependence
  • A Decision To Submit
  • The Root To Submission
  • The Root Of Rebellion
  • About The Author


In this 5th book of the Building With God series, we cover chapters 8 and 9 of the Book of Nehemiah. The subject title, Unity and Submission, may well stir some mixed emotions – for, while most Christians see unity as a goal to be attained, many see submission as a threat to be avoided!

The concept of unity is an attractive one, and not only to Christians. Over the years, expressions such as “unity is strength” and “united we stand, divided we fall” have inspired many. Yet, while men seek unity on many fronts, God sees it rather differently – as He showed decisively at the time of the Tower of Babel, when He very effectively disunited a strongly united people.

That was a long time ago, yet religious men still make the same mistake as Babel’s tower-builders – fostering unity as a substitute for God, rather than as a means of glorifying Him. When they speak of unity, they also tend to think in terms of numbers. There is, after all, safety in numbers – so the bigger the crowd, the safer they feel. Not only safer but also abler. Abler, that is, to exert their collective will so as to get what they want.

Yet, from God’s viewpoint, unity is neither a matter of numbers nor of the collective will. He needs no crowd, and majorities are irrelevant to Him. The unity God promotes is not to do with feeling safe or getting what you want. It is to do with right relationship – with Him and with each other.

Jesus was one with His Father. He longed to share that unity with His disciples so they could all be one: He with them, they with Him and all of them with the Father.

Such unity is not optional, for without it God cannot be seen, known or represented. Neither is it arrived at lightly. As we shall see, it is the result of something deep and costly which takes place between God and His people.

As for submission: few there are who instinctively like the idea of submitting themselves to someone else’s authority. Yet Jesus was totally submitted. He had no agenda, no ambition, no cause of His own. His simple, all-consuming passion is summed up in His own words: “Here I am … I have come to do your will, O God.”(Hebrews 10:7)

Had He not been submitted to God and united with Him, Jesus would not have succeeded in doing God’s will. There was no other way for Him and there is no other way for us.

United In Desire

Jesus said: ” . . . where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” and of this you can be sure: sooner or later, your life will surely show where your heart is – for better or for worse. Happily, in the case of Nehemiah’s people, it was for better. As we come now to chapter 8, we find them coming before God, fervently expressing their hearts’ desire:

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

These people were anxious to know God’s Law because they wanted to obey it. This was their hearts’ desire and it would soon result in a chain of highly significant events. Before looking at those events, and so as to fully appreciate them, we need to recall what had previously taken place, as covered in Book 4: Keeping God’s Priorities.

Those now calling upon Ezra to read them God’s law had just passed through a demanding yet necessary sorting out process. With the wall completed and their enemies confounded, they had soon discovered that God was far from finished with them. As the emphasis switched from the project to the people they became starkly aware that citizenship in God’s city was a privilege which was not for everybody.

Had such a time of sorting out not taken place and the people not faced up to God’s requirements, they would not now be in a position to receive His law. Yet, because they had submitted themselves – both to the sorting-out process and to meeting God’s requirements – they were not only ready, they were eager.

Contrast this with the usual order of things in Christianity. While many are urged to study the Bible, so as to learn about “the things of God,” few are ever in a position to be entrusted with those things. Religious men have always found ego-inflating knowledge infinitely more attractive than the stark reality of measuring up to God’s demands. No wonder they create intricate systems like Christianity, which offer them the knowledge their egos crave.

The so-called “zeal for God’s word” commonly found in Christian circles, should not be confused with the genuine zeal expressed here by Nehemiah’s people. Unlike them, most Christians have not even begun to come to terms with God’s demands upon their lives. How could they, without men qualified to lead them?

Certainly the Christian system trains and teaches. Awash with experts and Bible scholars, it dispenses knowledge in abundance – but it has failed to produce men who represent God. In sharp contrast, Nehemiah’s people were well endowed with such men, chief among them being Nehemiah himself.

Godly leaders are not produced by man-made programs and institutions. They are chosen, called and equipped by God, to lead His people. By their response to God’s call and by their submission to Him, such men face up to and meet His demands upon their own lives. As a result, they are true men of God – representing only Him.

God’s ways cannot be learned academically. They are alien to man’s understanding. They are seen, known and understood only by those who meet His terms – and such people alone are qualified to lead others.

So it is that we find Nehemiah’s people under the leadership of godly men, unitedly expressing their hearts’ desire. Shoulder to shoulder they stand at daybreak as one man: eager, willing, intent. Who could doubt the intensity of their desire?

As Ezra begins reading to them from the Book of the Law they attentively hang on his every word, hardly noticing the passage of time. The hot sun rises ever higher and soon it is noon. Yet, far from bored or restless, they are not only rapt but also deeply moved.

The value these people gave to God’s word is not surprising, for their hearts were already submitted to Him. Relationship with God is like that. The more you put into one response, the greater your desire to put even more into the next. Their earlier responses had brought them to a stage where they wanted to know more of God’s requirements so they could make their lives more pleasing to Him. Their’s was no lust for knowledge, but a passion to know God’s word so they could live by it.

Because it is so exceedingly precious, God’s word is not for all and sundry. It is only for those who value it. Jesus meant what he said about not casting pearls before swine. What value does a pig see in a pearl? Toss him a pailful of garbage – that he will value. Throw him a pearl and he will despise it, trampling it into the mud. God’s word is precious only to those who value Him and want to live by it. To offer it to others is asking for it to be devalued and despised.

The vast crowd gathered at the Water Gate was made up of those who could understand. What does that mean? As the apostle Paul pointed out, the ability to understand God’s word has nothing to do with intellect: “The man without the Spirit,” he wrote, ” does not accept the things which come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgements about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgement: ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:14-16)

Only spiritual men can see and know what God sees and knows. Having His Spirit, they discern with His discernment.

If you take a diamond to an expert for appraisal, you do so on the assumption that he is qualified where you are not. You depend on him to tell you its true worth – even if that means discovering it’s only a piece of glass! In making his appraisal, he passes a judgement based on the knowledge he possesses.

God’s word is infinitely more precious than all the diamonds in the world. When He speaks, it is not to the spiritually ignorant but to those able to discern the true value of what He has to say. As Jesus put it: “He who has an ear, let him hear . . .”

But then, what is the point of hearing God’s word unless you also respond to it? As James graphically pointed out: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” (James 1:23 & 24)

When God speaks, He speaks clearly. He is The Great Communicator and His word is always clear to those who have a heart to both hear and do it.

When you hear God’s word, do you value it and take it to heart? More to the point, do you do as He says? God values those who value Him and strongly supports those who apply His word to their lives. As He once said: “Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.” (1 Samuel 2:30)

Nehemiah’s people gathered as a mature, receptive body – valuing God’s word and eager to respond to it. And just as well, for He was about to require of them something more challenging than anything they had ever faced.

Building Jerusalem’s wall had been a massive and daunting task – so all-consuming that it had seemed, at the time, to be an end in itself. It had required hard work, courage and dedication, yet it had been within their human capacity. Now, as they took in the implications of being God’s people, they were facing something beyond their natural abilities.

United In Receptivity

Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. . . Ezra opened the book. . . . as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!”

Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The Levites . . . instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.

There is something moving about this scene of a people worshipping their God, as they eagerly anticipate hearing His word. Not for many generations had there been a people so intent on receiving God’s law. As Ezra stood before them and began to praise God, they joined him in heartfelt worship – their response demonstrating their receptivity to God’s word.

But what is this receptivity? To receive God’s word is to take it to heart – acting on it in a way that changes your life. It is doing whatever is necessary to live by it.

To hear God’s word without being receptive is foolish, for it will bring condemnation upon you. Make no mistake – you will surely be answerable for what you have done with what you have heard.

These people were in great anticipation about hearing God’s word, and their heartfelt worship reflected the receptivity of their hearts. They stood up and raised their hands in worship, then they bowed down in awe and thankfulness for what they were about to hear.

Jesus’ parable of The Sower (Matthew 13:3-9) is well known. Though its theme appears to be fruitfulness it is, in fact, receptivity. In it, Jesus was making the point that the receptivity of the soil is the key to fruitbearing. Combine good seed with receptive soil and fruit will surely follow. Only that soil which provided the seed with an opportunity to take root and flourish allowed it to bear fruit. The rest of the seed – some of which fell on the path, some on stony ground and some among thorns – all came to nothing. Though it was in every way as good as the seed which fell on the receptive soil, it could bear no fruit, because it was not received.

Many there are who claim to have a desire for God’s word. Of itself that means nothing, unless it is backed up by a receptive heart. The seed of God’s word can only take root and bear fruit in your life if you receive it. Otherwise you will remain spiritually barren and fruitless.

Is there a greater waste than the waste of God’s precious word when it is sown in the soil of unreceptive hearts? Is there a greater barrenness than the barrenness of those who hear God’s word but do not receive it?

Sobering though such thoughts are, there is yet a further aspect to take to heart, for the primary message of this book is not individual, but corporate. It is for those called together as a body to be a people for him. For individuals to receive and respond to God’s word is one thing, but for them to come together like Nehemiah’s people – united in desire and response – is quite another. Yet this is what God has always wanted: a people who are His people, united in their passion for Him.

United In Response

As the people listened intently, with hearts wide open to receive the words of Ezra and the Levites, their initial enthusiasm turned to grief:

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.”

Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

Already united in their desire for God’s word and in their receptivity to it, they now became one in their response. As they listened intently to the reading of God’s law they were stricken with grief at just how far short of it they had fallen.

God said: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”(Isaiah 66:2)

If you put together all that Christianity’s preachers preach, all that its people claim to believe, all the prayers, songs and testimonies they utter, and place them alongside the lives of those same people, you will find a massive credibility gap – a gap created by the absence of humility, contrition and the fear of God.

Not so among Nehemiah’s people. They were devastated by the realisation of their failure to live up to God’s expectations. Unlike many before them who had hardened their hearts to His word, these people had a desire for God which made their hearts tender. They were humble and contrite before God. How could they not tremble at His word?

Christians talk glibly of “revival” but this is revival! When God’s people turn to Him, forsaking all else to seek Him and to walk in His ways, there is true revival. As God has said: ” . . . if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

Over twenty years ago, when “Scripture in song” first became a trend among Christians, we often used to sing the above words during worship. Though we were moved by them, I only need to look at Nehemiah’s people to see how little we knew about touching God’s heart in humility and repentance.

Those were the days of our spiritual childhood, and everyone has a childhood. We all must pass through immaturity on our way to maturity. As Paul put it: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” Nothing unusual about that, but he then went on to make his point: “When I became a man I put childish ways behind me.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)

Childishness is cute . . . in a child. In an adult it’s pathetic! Yet so many of God’s people live in a childish “pretend” world. A world they ought long ago to have left behind for the real world of maturity and responsibility. While remaining as children they can hide behind emotional, childish responses – coasting along on “spiritual highs” and pretending that kindergarten-level excitement and sensationalism are the stuff of deep relationship with God.

Nehemiah’s people, on the other hand, lived in the real world. Their responses to God were far from childish. They took Him seriously, facing up squarely to His demands rather than being daunted by them. Such was their desire to please God that the realisation of how far they had wandered from His ways left them grief-stricken

Such grief – such heartfelt, overwhelming conviction – turns night into day. With their hearts broken and their tears flowing, their sorrow now gave way to joy and celebration – for their grief at having failed God had opened the way to a restored relationship with Him.

These people: whose zeal for God had initiated this whole situation, whose desire for Him had brought them together to hear His words, whose passion had driven them to listen intently hour after hour, whose grief had been profuse as they took God’s words to heart – discovered something further: the sheer joy of right relationship with God and the amazing inner strength it gives.

There was another Scripture song we used to sing in those bygone years. Its lyrics, from Nehemiah 8:10, were simple and repetitive: “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” and we sang them in a very “happy” way. We sang, we danced, we clapped and we wanted to believe we were expressing “the joy of the Lord.” In fact, we hardly knew what it was! So much of our so-called joy was mere childish froth and bubble. How glibly we sang those words from Nehemiah and what a discredit our superficiality did to the real-life events from which they were drawn.

The joy of the Lord is no mere happy feeling. It is the result of taking God seriously – of taking His words to heart, confessing where you have fallen short, then choosing to live by them. It is the unique experience of those who are humble and contrite before God – who tremble at His word.

United In Dependence

This united people, discovering for the first time in generations the real meaning of being God’s people, had great cause to celebrate. But they did not stop there. Exhilarating though it was to breathe the atmosphere of true revival, their newfound walk with God had only just begun. They had accepted the responsibilities of maturity – now they must live in them.

Over the centuries there have been many revivals similar to this. They, too, were characterised by deep conviction, repentance and joy, yet went no further than that.

To rejoice over a restored relationship with God, then go nowhere with it, is to invite the loss of all you have gained.

Unless reconciliation with God leads on to a life of obedience it soon loses its point. Like a flame starved of fuel, it flickers and dies. Such has been the fate of many revivals over the years. They sprang out of desire, they were accompanied by repentance and they resulted in joy. Yet the final outcome still depended on the willingness of the people to go on from there, living in obedience. And there many revivals foundered.

On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. They found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem:

“Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths” as it is written.

So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.

Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.

Here we have a “Promised Land Revival.” On the second day of their readings, the priests came to the part where God had commanded Israel to observe the Feast of Booths (better known as Tabernacles) during the seventh month – the very month in which these events were now taking place. Seizing the opportunity to “put their money where their mouth was,” the people immediately threw themselves into celebrating the feast.

This Feast of Booths had been instituted by God at the time of Israel’s journey through the desert, following their exodus from Egypt. Out there, living in tents in the midst of a barren wilderness, they had to completely depend on God or perish. They were a helpless, homeless and defenceless people with God alone as their Provider, their Guide and their Defender.

After forty years of such an existence, they prepared to move into the Promised Land, where their lives would be very different. There they would be able to provide for themselves and set up their own defences. Hence their dependence on God would need to change from one of necessity to one of choice – which is why He commanded them to celebrate the Feast of Booths each year. They were to go and cut branches from trees, making them into temporary shelters, or booths, on the flat roofs of their houses. There they would live for the seven days of the feast, forsaking home comforts, both as an act of remembrance – recalling their nomadic existence in the desert when they were absolutely dependent on God – and, more importantly, as a demonstration of their choice to live in continued dependence on Him.

It is a sad fact of history that God’s people tend to cling to Him when their need is sufficiently desperate, only to disregard Him when things improve. Knowing that tendency only too well, God warned the Israelites in advance. Before they entered the Promised Land, He reminded them that its “milk and honey” abundance was provided by Him – just as He had been their provider in the desert. As they luxuriated in that land, living off its abundance, there would be no desperate needs driving them to depend on God. So He warned them that, if they ceased to honour and obey Him, they would lose the Land and the prosperity which came with it.

A dire warning, but did the Israelites take it seriously ? Not for long. Once Joshua and the others who had led them into the Land passed away, the Feast of Booths and the dependence on God it signified were conveniently forgotten. God’s people no longer took Him seriously – with consequences as dire as He had foretold. This became a repeating pattern in the history of Israel, with one such consequence being the destruction of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s time – a fact not lost on Nehemiah and his people.

With such lessons vivid in their minds, and having come so far in regaining their status as God’s own people, these citizens of Jerusalem now threw themselves into returning to their roots – celebrating the feast in a way not seen since those early days in the Promised Land.

The number seven has long been regarded as representing perfection. As such, it is often used in the Bible to symbolise perpetuity, which accounts for the duration of the Feast of Booths. Those seven days were not an end in themselves, but were to serve as an expression by the people of their choice to live in dependence on God, not for seven days, but for the rest of their lives. This was a united expression of perpetual commitment to God. As they set up and lived in those rooftop shelters, the people were, in effect, making a corporate declaration of their choice to be God’s people – honouring, obeying and depending on Him always.

Such God-centred togetherness should unite all God’s people. It was the bond between Jesus and His Father and His fervent prayer was that we would all share that same oneness. Not only did He pray that, but He also calls us to come together in our desire, our response and our obedience to Him.

What a privilege: to join the select few who, throughout history, have been true followers of Jesus – who have lived for no other reason but for God’s glory and the welfare of His people.

A Decision To Submit

Following their obedience in observing the Feast of Booths, the people of Jerusalem did not slacken their pace. Eagerly they forged ahead, propelled by a passion to be God’s people in the fullest sense – as we see now in chapter 9:

On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshipping the Lord their God. Standing on the stairs were the Levites . . . who called with loud voices to the Lord their God. And the Levites . . . said: “Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.

“Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.”

There is something wonderfully climactic about the scene now before us. These people have discovered the sheer joy and fulfilment of abandonment to God. The more they give to Him, the more they want to give. Yet, at the same time, the closer they come to Him the more aware they become of just how far they, and their fathers before them, had wilfully wandered from God’s ways.

As this awareness grew, a new wave of grief swept over them. They could not bear the thought of anything from the past hindering their newfound closeness with God. So, in a demonstration of mass-mourning and wholesale repentance, they poured out their hearts – openly confessing their own sins and those of their fathers, and acknowledging the rebellion against God which resulted in the downfall of their nation. They were grief-stricken at the hurt and rejection they and their fathers had inflicted upon God. By now they had but one passion: to see to it that their relationship with God was fully restored. More than anything else they wanted to be right with God.

Contemplate the scene: the depth of their mourning, the openness of their confession, the wholeheartedness of their repentance, the enthusiasm of their worship. Without a doubt, these people are unconditionally submitting themselves to God. They are baring their lives before Him – hiding nothing. To them, God is more precious than anything else. He alone is all they want. Far from being threatened by submission, they freely give it!

No longer are they God’s people merely because of what He has done – that’s merely where it begins. Now they are His because of what they have done. Of their own accord they have drawn close to God. They have seen Him for who He really is, and they have chosen to pour out their lives as a sacrifice of worship to Him.

Yet even as we gaze upon this wonderful scene, we should never forget that, behind it, was a decision to submit unconditionally to God.

It is a fact that God has endowed each of us with a free will – to be exercised not in slavish obedience but in love. It is also a fact that He demonstrated the depth of His own love by freely giving His Son as a sacrifice for us – making the way for us to give ourselves freely to Him. These two facts confront us with one inescapable truth: God yearns for a people who belong to Him of their own free, willing and wholehearted choice.

This was God’s desire from the beginning, when He first created Man in His image to live in relationship with Him. This was the purpose behind His choice of Israel as His own special people. This was His reason for sending Jesus. And this is the whole reason for the existence of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Unless we are living as God’s people – which means living entirely on His terms – we are nothing. Those who focus on obtaining God’s gifts and blessings (which, by their very nature, He freely gives) while refusing to live in submission to Him, are as reprobate as Nehemiah’s people and their forefathers had been.

Which brings us back to the 9th chapter of Nehemiah – the remainder of which is a summary of Israel’s history, in the light of their submission to or rebellion against God. And what a sad story it is.

Had Israel always submitted to God, as they so easily could have, how different their history – past and present – would have been. The stubbornness and rebellion which has run like an almost unbroken thread through that nation’s history, is precisely why Israel has been blessed so little and cursed so much. Not that they weren’t warned.

As we have already seen, before they even entered the Promised Land God warned them of the consequences of refusing to live on His terms. They did not heed His warnings then, nor have they done so in the intervening centuries. To this day they continue to resist Him. The revival which took place during Nehemiah’s time should have been a new beginning. Instead it stands out as a rare event.

Ever since God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden, giving them just one simple command to obey, the relationship between God and His people has depended on their submission to Him. Submission and rebellion are opposites and each has a root from which it springs. The root of submission is God’s choice. The root of rebellion is man’s choice.

The Root To Submission

Until God makes His choice known, man has no focus for his submission. Yet once God’s choice is known, it’s a different story.

In verse 7 we read:

You are the Lord God, who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and named him Abraham.

It was not Abram’s idea to leave Ur, nor did he have any personal ambition to father a great nation – certainly not at the age of seventy-five! It was God who chose Abram, calling him to leave his home and choosing to make him the “father of a great multitude” (the literal meaning of “Abraham”).

Until God made His choice known, Abram had no focus – no specific point on which to submit to God. Yet, once he knew God’s choice, Abram had to make his choice – whether or not to submit. We all know the story, yet it is important to note that it was only because of his submission to God’s choice that Abram fulfilled his destiny. Which brings us to faithfulness.

You found his heart faithful to you, and you made a covenant with him to give to his descendants the land . . . You have kept your promise because you are righteous.

Abraham’s continued responses to God demonstrated the faithfulness of his heart. Because God is righteous, He is unswervingly true to His word. When a man submits to God and faithfully lives by His word, God is free to display the extent of His righteousness.

So then, submission to God’s choice is the beginning. Faithfulness is its continuation. To first submit and then to go on in faithfulness is to discover, like Abraham, the extent of God’s unswerving, righteousness toward you.

Those of us called by God to be His people are, by virtue of that calling, aware of what His choice is. What more do we need as a basis for our submission? In calling us, God has given us a purpose for our lives and a focal point for our submission. Those who submit to Him and faithfully live by His word, inevitably find that He is always righteous.

So long as we remain submitted and faithful to the One who has called us, we, like Abraham, will experience God’s righteousness towards us, beyond our dreams. For He always keeps His promises.

Let’s consider in more detail what this all meant to Abraham, as recounted in Romans 4:18-22: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead – since he was about a hundred years old – and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness.’”

Now there’s a wonderful example of man’s faithfulness joining with God’s righteousness to bring about God’s purposes.

But what if Abraham had refused to submit to God’s choice to make him the father of a great nation? He had every reason to do so. It was enough that he had obeyed God at the age of seventy-five, left his home and took up a nomadic life in a foreign land. But then, to be a hundred years old – “as good as dead” – and believe you will yet be a father . . . ? Even if Abraham had refused to believe what the mirror told him and somehow had illusions about his own virility, what about ninety-year-old Sarah? Surely submission to God in something as ridiculous as that was too much to ask!

Righteous though He is, God could have done nothing if Abraham had succumbed to stark physical reality and rejected His choice. Had he drawn the line at that point, no longer believing that God would be true to His word, his previous submission would have turned to rebellion. Then what would have become of God’s choice? It would have literally become fruitless.

Yet it was not so, for Abraham believed God “against all hope.” Why? Because he refused to face facts? To the contrary, he “faced the fact that his body was as good as dead,” yet he did so, “without weakening in faith.” Abraham faced the facts while, at the same time, trusting God contrary to those facts. Why? Because he was “fully persuaded that God had power to do what He had promised.” No wonder he won God’s heart!

So Abraham’s choice to submit freed God to fulfil the word He had spoken. Those who hero-worship Abraham ought to realise that he was never meant to be unique in his relationship with God. All God’s people can and should be like him.

Yet the fact that many are not like Abraham brings us to:

The Root Of Rebellion

Just as God’s choice is the root from which submission springs, so man’s choice is the root from which rebellion springs.

After a stirring account of the way in which God rescued His people out of Egypt, our history lesson in Nehemiah 9 goes on to say this:

But they, our forefathers, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery.

Consider here the stark contrast between God’s choice and man’s choice. What had God chosen for the Israelites? A land flowing with milk and honey. Yet what did they opt for? Slavery! And all because they did not like the way God was leading them. Not that they blamed God, of course. It was all Moses’ fault!

God had given them Moses as their leader, but they rejected him and appointed one of their own . . . to lead them back into slavery. Moses had no agenda of his own. He was a singleminded man whose only desire was to be faithful to God. He was only interested in God’s interests – which did not go down well with the Israelites who had their own interests firmly in mind. Rejecting God’s choice, they chose a leader for themselves, who would give them what they wanted. How foolish . . . and how like the majority of Christians today!

Moses had climbed Mt. Sinai at God’s behest, to meet with Him. He was away a long time and, eventually, the people got tired of waiting. Having lost confidence in Moses, they were also having misgivings about the God he claimed to represent so, taking matters into their own hands, they chose another leader – Aaron, and another god – the golden calf.

Think of it. They rejected God’s choice to be their God – and chose a golden calf instead! They rejected God’s choice of Moses as their leader – and chose Aaron to replace him! They rejected God’s choice of the Promised Land as their destination – and chose to return to Egypt!

When man rejects the wisdom of God’s choice, he replaces it with the foolishness of his own choice – and that is rebellion!

Just as submission works by man’s faithfulness and God’s righteousness, so rebellion works by man’s arrogance and stubbornness – as is even more evident further on in chapter 9.

From verse 26 on, we find a tragic catalogue of the heartbreak caused to God by His people and of the trouble they, in turn, brought upon themselves:

They ate to the full and were well-nourished; they revelled in your great goodness.

But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they put your law behind their backs. They killed your prophets, who had admonished them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies. So you handed them over to their enemies, who oppressed them. But when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers, who rescued them from the hand of their enemies.

But as soon as they were at rest, they again did what was evil in your sight. Then you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies so that they ruled over them. And when they cried out to you again, you heard from heaven, and in your compassion you delivered them time after time.

You warned them to return to your law, but they became arrogant and disobeyed your commands. They sinned against your ordinances, by which a man will live if he obeys them. Stubbornly they turned their backs on you, became stiff-necked and refused to listen. For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you admonished them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you handed them over to the neighbouring peoples.

What a catalogue of God’s compassion, on the one hand, and of man’s rebellion, on the other. Talk about a roller-coaster existence! What a way to handle the privilege of being God’s chosen people. Time and again they rebelled against Him. Whenever He sent men to warn them of their folly and its consequences, they ignored them. Ultimately, God had no choice but to let their enemies get the better of them. As a result their situation became desperate. They were in distress, so they cried out to God – and He loved them too much to turn a deaf ear. So, once again He rescued them.

Then what? Their reconciliation with God lasted only until they became secure and comfortable once more. Then the cycle repeated itself. Once the crisis had passed it never took them long to find God’s ways irksome and other ways attractive.

The stark lesson of history is that such a damning cycle largely sums up the relationship between God and His people from Adam to the present day! Many relate to God like that – constantly fluctuating between rebellion and sin, on the one hand, and remorse and forgiveness on the other. So fickle are they, He can never rely on them. Like wilful children, they sometimes submit (usually to get what they want) but often rebel. So He treats them like the children they are, rather than as the trustworthy, responsible adults they should be. As much as He can, He still provides for them, meeting their basic needs as any father would – just as He did with the Israelites in the desert – for He is still their God and cannot be untrue to His own nature. Yet He takes no pleasure in them and (again, like a good father) disciplines them in the hope that they will see the error of their ways.

I have often been amazed and saddened by the refusal of so many of God’s people to submit to Him. Though they try to give that refusal a respectable face – excusing, justifying, or even denying it – God knows the truth, and His position is clear: their refusal is rebellion.

Not that most of the rebels among God’s people would actually admit to ever having a problem with God. They, like the Israelites of old, know better than to openly rebel against Him. God’s okay. It’s their leaders who are the problem!

To the Israelites, Moses was fair game. He was, after all, a mere man whose blatant humanity gave them ample basis for fault-finding. In human terms, it was not difficult to make a case against him. Then, having made that case, it was not hard to use it as justification for not submitting to his authority. Or so they thought. Unfortunately for them, the authority they were bucking was not man’s but God’s. God has always led men through men and He has no sympathy with those who refuse to submit to God’s man, citing his human foibles. Refusal to obey the man God sends is refusal to obey God.

Both Scripture and history – as well as personal experience – offer us ample evidence of the way in which man’s rebellion operates through his arrogance and stubbornness. While it may gratify his personal desire, such rebellion ends up cutting man off from his God-given inheritance.

There are few biblical examples more graphic than that of King Saul. Despite having been chosen by God to rule over His people, Saul soon showed a marked preference for living on his own terms rather than on God’s. It could be said that he submitted in part – except there is no such a thing as part-submission. Once under God’s authority, a man either submits or rebels.

When confronted with God’s requirements, Saul would try to find a way of “obeying” which suited his own personal interests – which is a very foolish and dangerous way to live. However, Saul was self-deceived enough to believe he could go on living that way. He was wrong.

The story is in 1 Samuel chapter 15. God had commanded Saul to attack the Amalekites, totally annihilating them – men, women and children – as well as all their livestock. Typical of God’s commands, the order was specific and not open to interpretation. Nevertheless, true to form, Saul insisted on interpreting it his way. While destroying almost all, he chose to spare the best of the sheep and cattle. He also spared the Amalekite king, taking him prisoner.

Saul managed to convince himself, as he always did, that he was obeying God. After all, his justification for sparing the best of the livestock was that he planned to sacrifice them to God. But God had not demanded sacrifice – he had demanded obedience.

When God saw what Saul had done He sent the prophet Samuel to him. His message was not one of hope, not even of forgiveness. Saul was past that. Samuel came to pronounce God’s judgement and his words were like a death sentence. For Saul they spelt the end; for us they should be a stark, sobering warning – clearly presenting God’s view of disobedience and rebellion, and the fact that God will not endlessly tolerate them: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.”

Saul had rationalised, justified and excused what he had done, but God had His own view: Saul was rebellious and arrogant and Samuel stated God’s view of those twin sins.

To rebel against God – doing what you want rather than what He commands – is the same as indulging in witchcraft (or “divination”). Why? Because the man who rebels against God aligns himself with Satan – the arch-rebel whose rebellion made him God’s enemy – and alignment with Satan is what witchcraft is all about. To rebel against God (even when, like Saul, you claim you are not) is to take the devil’s side.

Not only does God class rebellion as witchcraft, He also classes the arrogance which accompanies it as idolatry.

Doing what you want above what God commands is not only rebellion – it is also supremely arrogant, for it says: “I know better than God.” This is the worst kind of idolatry, for it is the idolatry of self-worship, placing yourself above God.

Of course not everybody goes as far as Saul. Many manage to avoid that final, irrevocable step which would cut them off from God. Not that they deserve any credit for it. To the contrary, if they do manage to survive it is entirely due to God’s grace and mercy. Even one act of rebellion is cause enough to cut us off from God forever. It is only because of His love and mercy that God spares any of His wayward people.

Ponder the following from this 9th chapter, concerning the Israelites in the desert:

…even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, “This is your god who brought you up out of Egypt,” or when they committed awful blasphemies. Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the desert. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. For forty years you sustained them in the desert; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen.

Here is another example of the kind of existence to which many of God’s people have relegated themselves. Like the rebellious Israelites in the desert, they survive – but only because of God’s grace and mercy. Far from excelling at pleasing God, they are experts in the art of “desert survival!” So long as they can still have God’s forgiveness, so long as they can always depend on Him to somehow look after them, so long as they still get to go to Heaven when it’s all over – they are content. It’s what Paul called “receiving God’s grace in vain.” In plainer language, it is abusing the grace of God.

Yet it’s true: you can keep coming back to God – for a time, anyway – drawing on His grace and goodness to the extent of abusing them. But why? What is the point of living like that? It certainly has nothing to do with loving God and wanting to please Him – and it makes a mockery out of our calling to be God’s people.

Though it does not necessarily cut us off from God’s benefits, rebellion does frustrate His purposes. Saddled with rebellious Israel in the desert, God nevertheless provided for them. Yet their rebellion and arrogance prevented Him from doing for them what He really wanted. He could not take them into the land He had prepared for them – a land whose abundance contrasted so starkly with their hand-to-mouth existence in the desert.

God does not deprive His people. Deprivation comes when they refuse to submit to Him – depriving themselves of the abundance He so freely gives.

To miss out on God’s abundance is bad enough, but there is an even greater loss in store for the rebellious and arrogant. They not only bring deprivation upon themselves, they also invite defeat and destruction – as we see by reading further in this ninth chapter:

For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you admonished them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you handed them over to the neighbouring peoples. But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.

Did God take some perverse pleasure in allowing His people to be conquered by their enemies? Did He derive some smug satisfaction out of standing by and allowing them to be conquered and subjugated? Surely it broke God’s heart to see His people crushed under the heel of heathen nations.

There is a saying: “When God seems far away, guess who moved?” It was not God who distanced Himself from Israel, but they who distanced themselves from Him. He had always wanted to be their God in every sense of the word, but His promises to them were conditional – and they violated the conditions. He still loved them. He longed for them and did all He could for them. Yet they had moved so far away from Him as to place themselves at the mercy of their enemies.

There is only one way any of us can be sure of fulfilling our God-given destiny – and that is by living in complete and continual submission to God. Rebellion will always make us into slaves where we ought to be a masters. Our destiny is not to be ruled over but to rule. Yet if you do not even succeed in ruling your own life – bringing it into submission to God – how can you expect to succeed in fulfilling God’s call? Instead, you will find yourself as one of the conquered instead of one of the conquerors.

God always intended that we should be in control: of ourselves, our lives, our destinies. But, in God’s kingdom, gaining control requires us to first lose it. As Jesus said: if you try and keep your life you will lose it, but if you give it you will gain it.

Only God can give us mastery over ourselves, our lives and our destinies. Try to attain this by your own efforts while withholding control of your life from God and you will end up losing the very thing you have clung to. The man who is not in control of himself is in control of nothing, yet self-control only begins when you give everything over to God’s control. Unless we are under God’s authority, we have no authority.

As Jesus pointed out: that which you allow to enslave you will rule over you. If you indulge in self-gratification – choosing what you want above what God wants – you are a slave to your own desires. You do not rule them. They rule you. Only God makes us truly free. All else enslaves us.

Which is where the former ways of Nehemiah’s people had brought them to:

. . . see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress. 

Think of it: here were God’s people, chosen by Him out of all the peoples of the earth, led by Him into a land flowing with milk and honey, yet ending up conquered and enslaved by godless men who plunder the fruit of that land for themselves!

Through the eyes of submission and humility, they now see the result of their rebellion, and the choice before them – a choice they and their forefathers previously spurned, but which they now make freely:

In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it. This was a truly momentous event for the people of Jerusalem – one which sealed their decision to be God’s people, on God’s terms from that time on.

Such a step, is the stuff of true repentance and the basis for a life of godliness. It is costly, it is total and it is far from the quick-fix, “grace-and-forgiveness” approach so popular among Christians – which usually results in a temporary alleviation of guilt and enough of a feeling of well-being to last until the next temptation comes along. That is a substitute for the real thing and has nothing to do with true repentance.

Repentance always results in change because repentance is change. Repentance is you taking God seriously enough to be responsible for changing your ways into His ways – and it is expressed in the kind of costly decision made by these people as they pledged to submit themselves to God.

God is righteous. He is pure Goodness and pure Love. Whenever we submit to Him, then continue to faithfully live in that submission, we discover just how righteous He is, for then a bond is forged between Him and us which no power can break.

If you have been refusing to submit to God and have become a slave of your own wilfulness, it is time to make a life-changing choice. Who will rule your life from now on: your own desires, or God? Unless your choice is for God you cannot build with God. You will have no part in establishing His kingdom and you will not share in the inheritance of those who do.

If, as I sincerely hope, you choose to submit yourself to God, then be wholehearted about it. Give yourself to Him as freely and completely as Nehemiah’s people did.

Then go on to read Book 6 – The Importance of Willingness.

About The Author

Tony Kostas was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1941, where at the age of seventeen, he committed his life to Jesus at a Billy Graham Crusade. In 1967 he founded the Melbourne Outreach Crusade, a non-denominational evangelistic outreach. This later grew into Outreach International, which is now a worldwide body of believers, who share a God-given calling and are committed to live in love with Him and with one another.

Tony’s life is a true expression of all that God has revealed to him throughout the years, in its purity and focus on loving God. His passion is for God to have the desire of His hears: a people who truly represent Him because they are His and His alone.