The Shape of the Text

More than written words, an artwork in itself.

I recently got to preach on prayer. I chose Nehemiah 9 as the text. It is a lengthy read but it is really an excellent prayer. Israel has returned to the land after 70 years of exile to find Jerusalem in rubble and themselves surrounded by their enemies. They begin rebuilding the wall and the temple. In the middle of this work, they stop to have a holy convocation. The prophet Ezra stands on a dais and reads and explains the Law to the people. They weep and confess their sins and then their leaders lead them in prayer. Having just heard redemptive history read to them, it naturally seeps into and forms their prayer.

The prayer breaks down into three movements: Creation to Abraham (6-8), The Exodus (9-21), The Promised Land (22-31) and then there is a response in 32-37 and an application in 38. In each movement, there is a statement about God. In verse 8, since he kept his promise to Abraham, he is declared righteous. (Or, since he is righteous he kept his promise to Abraham.) In verse 17b, God’s name from Exodus 34 is paraphrased. This name is a statement of his character. The last movement has statements about God’s mercy sprinkled throughout it.

What I didn’t get to comment on in the sermon was how Hebrew writing works these into the text. In the first one, it is about God calling Abraham out and the statement about God comes at the end of the section, as if it had been called out of the section. The second one is about God’s covenant name and his commitment to his people, to provide for them and dwell in their midst in the pillar of cloud and fire and in the tabernacle. This one comes in verse 17, in the middle of the section just like the tabernacle in the middle of the camp. The final one is about God’s repeated mercy to his people after their repeated faith failure. This time, the statement about God’s mercy comes at many spots in the narrative, verses 27, 28, and 31. His mercy is repeated over and over again.

It is beautiful the way the text itself illustrates the meaning. The words do, yes, but also the placement of the words is carefully done in order to illustrate the point as well. This shows the beauty of Hebrew poetry and the care they took in writing.

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