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ISRAEL'S GUILT CONFESSED TO THEIR CREATOR
The Great Day of Atonement was on the first day of the seventh month, followed by the Feast of Tabernacles beginning the 15th day; but what should have been done on the first day was not done until the 24th day of the month (v. 1). This surely indicates that the people were not as sensitive to the seriousness of their sin as they ought to have been. However, when this was impressed on them, there was some real exercise of soul awakened, to face the guilt of their condition before God. In Ezra 10:9 we read of the Jews being gathered on the 20th day of the ninth month for the purpose of united self-judgment. It may be that this occasion required two months to complete, for likely Ezra and Nehemiah refer to the same occasion.
The gathering was with fasting and sackcloth, and even dust on their heads. At this time those who were Israelites separated from foreigners, confessing their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. Ezra emphasized the guilt of the Jews having mixed themselves by marriage with foreign people and having shared in their idolatrous worship (Ezekiel 9:1-2).
The standard by which they were to judge was the Book of the Law of the Lord God, therefore for one fourth part of the day they confessed their sins and worshiped the Lord (v. 3). Then eight Levites stood on the stairs and cried out with a loud voice to the Lord, evidently in intercession for the people (v. 4). After thus addressing the Lord, they then addressed the people, encouraging them to "Stand up and bless the Lord your God forever and ever! Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise!" How appropriate it is to first of all give the Lord the place of Highest preeminence, for He alone is Lord, and has made heaven and the heaven of heavens with all their hosts of heavenly bodies, as well as the earth and everything in it, the sea with all its inhabitants. Having made all these things, God also preserves them. Also all the hosts of heaven worship Him.
GOD'S CHOICE OF ABRAHAM
Verse 6 has insisted that God is Creator, which is a very real reason for Israel judging their sins before Him; but verses 7 and 8 give an additional serious reason. God had chosen their father Abram, and called him from Ur of the Chaldees, changing his name to Abraham, to be the father of a special nation, this favored nation Israel. When God had called him out from a land of idol worshipers, then certainly any measure of return to idols on Israel's part was an insult to God.
In fact, God had found Abraham's heart faithful and made a covenant with him (v. 8). Notice, this covenant was not conditional on Abraham's future faithfulness, but on the basis that Abraham had already proven faithful, so that the promise was unconditional. This should have spoken deeply to the hearts and consciences of Israel to produce within them true concern for the honor of the Lord, a willing faithfulness rather than obedience forced by the regulations of law.
This covenant involved God's giving to Israel the land that was held by the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jubusites and Girgashites. God had proven true to His Word, "for," as the Jews now say, "You are righteous." Such blessing being given to Israel, this was certainly a good reason for their being obedient, and now a reason for their humble confession of having been disobedient.
ISRAEL DELIVERED FROM EGYPT
Another reason for Israel's proper self-judgment is given now in these verses. God in great mercy had observed the affliction of their fathers in Egypt. After leading them out, when they came to the Red Sea He heard their cry of distress (v. 4). In fact, He had shown signs before this against Pharaoh and his servants, by inflicting them with ten plagues (v. 10) to break down the stubborn resistance of Egypt, so that God's name was exalted and the pride of Egypt brought down.
When Israel cried to God, He divided the Red Sea to make a path of dry ground for them to pass through unharmed. Then He overthrew their enemies by the return of the sea to its accustomed condition, drowning them as though they had been a stone thrown into the waters (v. 11).
Besides this, both before and after the Red Sea experience, God led Israel by day in a pillar of cloud and by night in a pillar of fire. Such miraculous intervention of God surely ought to have greatly impressed Israel. Believers today also are no less cared for by God's miraculous power, for they are indwelt by the Spirit of God who leads always in the best way possible whether by day or night.
A RIGHTEOUS LAW GIVEN THEM
Here is another reason Israel ought to have kept from evil, or when having disobeyed, to turn back to God in genuine repentance. After His marvelous grace in delivering Israel from bondage, God gave them a law that was perfectly righteous in contrast to the laws of other nations. In doing so, it was transparently clear that God Himself was speaking.
Israel's consciences could well bear witness to the fact that God's law for them was perfectly righteous, and not only this, for He provided the Sabbath day to be kept not only for God's honor, but for Israel's blessing, to at least relieve the people of hard labor for one day per week, for it is always true that when God's name is honored the people will be blessed (v. 14). These commandments were given by the mediatorship of Moses, whom Israel has always revered, at least since his death! Thus, in the law itself God had shown wonderful kindness to Israel.
Added to this were God's miracles of giving Israel bread from heaven (the manna) and water from the rock (v. 15), just before the law was given, so that Israel was provided for all through their wilderness journey. Thus, Israel was given every reason for thankfulness and devoted obedience to God.
GOD STILL GRACIOUS WHEN ISRAEL SINNED
After being blessed so greatly, we are told, "they and our fathers acted proudly, hardened their necks, and did not heed Your commandments. They refused to obey" (vv. 16-17). This was simply cold-hearted rebellion, ignoring the great wonders God had done among them for their welfare, going so far as to appoint a leader in opposition to Moses with the object of returning to the bondage of Egypt. Of course, God would not allow any such thing. Yet, He is a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and did not forsake them." The patience of God with them is practically amazing. Even when they made a golden calf, worshiping it as the god who brought them out of Egypt, God still bore with their evil in His manifold mercy (vv. 18-19). He continued to lead them by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. There was no lack of testimony that God was sustaining them and leading them through a wilderness that would have swallowed them up if they had not been kept by divine power.
More that this, God give them His Spirit to instruct them by the instrumentality of Moses and Aaron, a wonderful provision of grace, though Israel showed little appreciation of it at the time. Looking back, these Levites in Nehemiah's time could clearly discern this. At this time too the Lord did not at all withhold the manna from them, and supplied water as they needed it. This continued for the entire wilderness journey (forty years), so that they lacked nothing. Think of the many occasions very recently of thousands of people fleeing as refugees and dying for lack of food and water! Yet between two and three million Israelites were sustained by God for 40 years of wilderness wandering! In that time too their clothes did not wear out, and their feet did not swell. Were they so insensible as to not appreciate this?
GOD'S GREAT BLESSING IN THE LAND
The Levites then recounted the grace of God in having given Israel the victory over various enemies, whose land God had before decided was to belong to Israel. Before entering the land of Canaan, they took possession of the land of Sihon king of the Amorites and that of Og king of Bashan (v. 22). God multiplied the nation greatly and brought them into the land He had promised (v. 23), subduing the inhabitants of the land before Israel, so that Israel could take possession of this. When the power and grace of God in this was so manifest, Israel certainly had further cause for fully obeying God, and no excuse for disobeying.
"And they took strong cities and a rich land, and possessed houses full of all goods, cisterns already dug, vineyards, olive groves, and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and grew fat, and delighted themselves in Your great goodness" (v. 25).
FURTHER GUILT; GOD'S CHASTENING AND GRACE
Again, after Israel had been so marvelously blessed by God, they became thoroughly disobedient, rebelling and despising the law He had so graciously given them. God sent prophets to testify against their evil with the object of turning them back to Him, but they not only refused to listen: they went as far as to kill such faithful messengers (v. 26). Provocations like this moved God to deliver them into the hand of their enemies who oppressed them. This is seen in the Book of Judges and during the history of the kings.
Yet when they found themselves in such deep trouble as to cry out to God for His mercy, God did respond in compassionate goodness, as the Levites here declare, "You heard from heaven; and according to Your abundant mercies You gave them deliverers who saved them from the hand of their enemies (v. 27).
Yet, after being given relief, they again turned to evil, so that they were left some time under the domination of their enemies until they returned to God, crying to Him for deliverance. This was not only two or three times, but "many times You delivered them according to Your mercies" (v. 28). The very reading of such a history of failure, then restoration, then further failure and further grace from God, followed again by failure, becomes wearying to a reader. How much more wearying to God!
Though it is wearying to read of Israel's continually repeated disobedience, this history surely impresses us with the marvel of the patience of God! "They shrugged their shoulders, stiffened their necks, and would not hear" (v. 29). This went on for many years, with the Spirit of God moving prophets to stir their consciences, then using enemy nations to chastise them (v. 30).
"Nevertheless," the Levites added, "in Your great mercy You did not utterly consume them nor forsake them" (v. 31). Why not? "For You are God, gracious and merciful." This remains true for us today, when Israel, because of the enormous guilt of having rejected and crucified God's Son, has been for centuries in a rebellious state and suffering for it. But God is still God, and He knows how to deliver and restore His people, as He will after they suffer the horrors of the Great Tribulation, and cry out to Him in humble repentance and faith (Hosea 14:4-9).
PRAYER FOR GOD'S MERCY
After having acknowledged Israel's many failures of the past, the Levites seek the face of God in earnest prayer, calling Him "the great and mighty and awesome God," who was not like Israel in their breaking the covenant of law, but who may be depended on to perfectly keep His covenant (v. 32). They ask that God will not consider the trouble small that had come on their kings, princes, priests, prophets, their fathers and all the people, from the time of Assyria's oppression "until this day."
But the trouble was not small because Israel's disobedience was not small. They confess this in verse 33, saying that God was just in what He had allowed: their suffering was no more than they deserved. God had dealt faithfully in contrast to Israel's unfaithfulness, which they confess as wickedness on the part of all the people from the greatest to the least (v. 34). Thus they laid their hearts bare in the sight of God, making no excuses, but judging themselves unsparingly for their guilt (v. 35).
In verses 36-37 they speak of the results that they were then suffering because of their disobedience: they were servants to a foreign king, so that the fruit of their land was enjoyed by the kings who had taken them captive. These kings had dominion even over their bodies and their possessions, and could do as they pleased with the Jews. Thus they were in great distress. We must remember though, that God had shown great mercy to Nehemiah by disposing King Artaxerxes to act in unusual kindness to him and to Israel. Yet they were still in bondage, and they had to learn to bow to God's sovereign government in allowing this unpleasant situation.
Their prayer was accompanied by their decision to "make a sure covenant." This was of course a renewal of the covenant of law given by Moses (ch. 10:29), for Israel was then still under law. Would they succeed any better than they had before? Certainly not! But God used this occasion with the intention of making Israel more fully realize that, not only did they fail in practice, but that they had a sinful nature that could not cease from sin, and therefore that they must be born again. But we are all slow learners. Why? Because of our own selfish pride.
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Nehemiah 9". Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
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