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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Nehemiah 9

Verses 1-39

The Firm Covenant (9:1-10:39)

The religious ceremonies which celebrated the completion of the wall are brought to an appropriate climax with the ratification of a covenant. The reading of the Law, the Feast of Booths, and now this covenant taken together underline the similarity of the restoration community to the Hebrews who had departed Egypt In the first Exodus, heard the Law at Sinai, dwelt in tents in the wilderness, and entered into solemn covenant with the Lord.

This covenant ceremony was set within a time of fasting and confession. The Levites are again introduced as officials of the ceremony. It will be noted that two groups are mentioned in verses 4- and 5, with five names identical and three different. Either we must suppose that the editor used two sources here and took over the lists from both or that two different stages in the ceremonies involved different groups with some duplication.

The Revised Standard Version, following the Greek translation, supplies the name of Ezra as the speaker of the long recital of penitence and prayer beginning in verse 6. Certainly Ezra might be expected here, because of his prominence up to this time. And yet it is more likely that the editor appended this material as an appropriate expression of the people’s mood of repentance and dedication, and as such meant it to be understood IS spoken by the Levites for the people.

The historical confession moves in orderly and effective fashion from God’s creative act, to the choice of Abraham, the Exodus, the Covenant at Sinai, the experiences in the wilderness, the Conquest, and the failure of the people to abide by the Covenant. It affords an excellent example of the way the historical facts of the Old Testament were read through the eyes of faith as the record of God’s changeless Covenant mercy and the faithlessness of the Chosen People. Of particular interest and significance for the situation in the time of Nehemiah is the emphasis on the acts of God in choosing his people and drawing them into a Covenant life. The prayer is made up in the main of quotations from Deuteronomy, but they have been assembled in such fashion as to serve as a miniature theology of the Old Testament in which the one Actor is God. "Thou art . . . the God who didst choose . . . and give . . . and didst make . . . the covenant . . . and didst perform signs and wonders . . . didst divide the sea . . . didst come down . . . and speak." He is the "God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful."

The prayer ends with a despairing reference to the "great distress" in which the people now live. Verse 38, which reads in the Revised Standard Version as a sequence to the prayer, signifies the intention to enter more faithfully into covenant relationship (although the usual word for "covenant" is lacking here). On the other hand it is possible that, as in the Hebrew, the verse introduces the material in chapter 10, which originally may not have been connected with the religious ceremony of chapter 9.

Lists of "those who set their seal" follow in Nehemiah 10:1-27. As he arranged the material the historian meant it to be understood that the lists were connected with the solemn covenant ceremony. Some interpreters believe, however, that it rather refers to some pledge of reform at another time (note that Nehemiah’s name leads the list but Ezra is not mentioned). The list follows the order of priests, Levites, and "chiefs of the people."

Finally in verses 28-39 there are specified certain obligations which were assumed both by the leaders, who either gave their own seals or witnessed the sealing of the covenantal document, and by the "rest of the people," including other priests and Levites. The expression "all who have separated themselves" refers to the Jews who had not been exiled but who had joined with the returned exiles in rebuilding and in religious reform (see Ezra 6:21).

These all engage in "a curse and an oath" (a covenantal form, as in Deuteronomy 29:12) with particular respect to avoiding mixed marriages, to observance of the Sabbath, including the sabbatical year, and to support of the Temple and its personnel, including provision of "the tithes." Thus again there are laid the foundations for the Judaism we meet in the New Testament, a Judaism of particularistic concern, of strict Sabbath keeping, and of central loyalty to the Temple. Included in the required support was to be "the third part of a shekel," although the original requirement called for a half shekel. Along with this went other "contributions" (probably voluntary gifts) and the tithe to be collected by the Levites, a portion of which went to the priests. It should be noted that the tithe here refers to vegetable and grain gifts, in harmony with Numbers 18:25-32; nothing is said of herds or flocks as required in Leviticus 27:32-33.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Nehemiah 9". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/nehemiah-9.html.