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The People Gather Spontaneously To Admit Their Sinfulness And Failures To God Separating Themselves From All Who Were Tainted With Idolatry (Nehemiah 9:1-3 ).
‘Now on the twenty fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackcloth, and earth upon them.’
The ‘eighth day’ feast was on the twenty second day of the moon period (Leviticus 23:39). Thus the twenty third day, which would normally have been the day for packing up and returning home, had become a day when the people spontaneously came to their decision not to return to their homes, but to renew a solemn covenant with God. Thus on the following day, the twenty fourth day, they gathered, probably within the precincts of the Temple, having engaged in fasting for the day, and wearing sackcloth, with earth on their heads. These were expressions of deep mourning for sin (compare Ezra 8:26; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:5; Jonah 3:8; 1Ch 21:16 ; 1 Samuel 4:12; 2 Samuel 1:2; Job 2:12).
‘And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.’
It should be noted that this is a summary verse describing what is to follow. The idea here is not to describe a literal act of separation taken at that moment in any physical way (their very observance of the Feast would have involved such a separation), but of a separation which took place within them, a separation in their hearts. They were separating themselves in their hearts from all ‘foreigners’, that is from all who did not worship YHWH wholly and uniquely (thus including syncretistic Jews). They were making clear that they would have nothing to do with syncretism. They were purging themselves from all that could displease YHWH, or could give any suggestion of compromise in their stance towards God as the only God.
The thought may well be included that they went into the court of Israel in the Temple, where such ‘foreigners’ were not permitted, and did therefore make it impossible for ‘foreigners’ to mingle with them, but the main emphasis is on the attitude of their hearts. It was uncompromisingly exclusive of all taint of idolatry.
It should be noted that there was no suggestion of racism involved. It was an act of purification for religious purposes. The ‘seed of Israel’ were those who had proven to be his true seed, whether natural or adopted (Abraham’s seed included all who had been ‘born in his house’, whether blood descendants or members of the larger household - Genesis 17:12). In contrast the ‘foreigners’ would include many syncretistic Jews. They too were excluded as ‘foreigners’, because only those who worshipped YHWH wholly, uniquely and truly, were seen as true Jews and could take part in what was about to happen. Syncretistic Jews were excluded from the new Israel. They were being seen as no longer of the seed of Israel. Whereas any who had truly responded to YHWH from among those around were accepted as such (Ezra 6:21). And they were about to confess how they and their forefathers had failed Him again and again, bringing them to this situation that they were now in, still subject to the kings of Persia (Nehemiah 9:37). And in their hearts they were separating themselves from all taint of idolatry, and were looking to Him for deliverance as His people.
What follows is a description of the basis on which they were taking their stand (YHWH’s overall sovereignty and His promises to Abraham), together with their admission of their sins and of the iniquities of their fathers. They were acknowledging corporate responsibility for the situation that they were now in. In their own sinfulness and failure to observe the full Law they recognised that they shared in the blame for all that their fathers had done. Note the continual emphasis on the fact that they ‘stood’ (Nehemiah 9:2-4). It indicated their attentiveness towards God. (We may sit prayerfully, or kneel, in order to do the same).
‘And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of YHWH their God for a quarter of the day (a fourth part of the day); and for a quarter (fourth part) they confessed, and worshipped YHWH their God.’
Once again their attention turned towards God’s words given through Moses. It had been read to them on the first day of the moon period (Nehemiah 8:2-8), brought to the attention of their leaders on the second day (Nehemiah 8:13-15), and then brought to them continually from the fifteenth to twenty first days (Nehemiah 8:18). Now they wanted to hear extracts from it again. They were hungry to know God’s will. The reading would presumably be given by the Levites, (in marked contrast with earlier where it was by Ezra), or possibly by the leaders of the people, and carried on for around three hours. It was then followed by a period of confessing their sins and worshipping YHWH their God for the subsequent three hours as the Spirit of God moved among them. This then led up to what follows in Nehemiah 9:4-38, a reminding of God of both His own promises, and an acknowledging of how Israel had constantly sinned.
The Reading And Explaining To The People Of The Law Of Moses And A Review Of Their Past History, Leads To Them Establishing A Renewal Of Their Covenant With God (Nehemiah 8:1 to Nehemiah 10:39 ).
Regardless of sources of which we cannot be sure, there can be no doubt that this whole section emphasises covenant renewal. The wall being built, this led on to a special renewing of the covenant.
· It commences with the reading aloud and explaining of the Law, which has a deep effect on the people and results in a new obedience to the Law (chapter 8).
· This is followed by a review of Israel’s past history before God, as they pray to Him acknowledging His covenant faithfulness (chapter 9).
· We then have the signing of a covenant by the leaders of the people, which is explained in detailed terms chapter 10, and is based on the teaching of the Law, as the people through their leaders solemnly confirm the covenant.
All these were an essential part of covenant renewal, emphasising that the people knew exactly the grounds on which they were responding to the covenant. It was on the basis of God’s renewed Law; it was based on prayerful consideration of what God had done for them throughout history in faithfulness to His covenant; and it made demands on them in accordance with that Law.
The Chief Levites Who Led The Confession, Worship And Intercession (Nehemiah 9:4-5 ).
In Nehemiah 9:4 we presumably have a list of the princes of the Levites, who took their stand on the stairs of the Levites, and led the continual worship, and in Nehemiah 9:5 the names of those who actually led the final confession and intercession, some as chiefs and some on behalf of their chiefs. Some of these probably took up places among the crowds so that they could relay the central prayer onwards.
‘Then stood up on the stairs of the Levites, Jeshua, and Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, (and) Chenani, and cried with a loud voice to YHWH their God.’
These would appear to be the eight chiefs of the Levites, probably representing ‘houses’. Jeshua, Bani (Binnui) and Kadmiel would appear to have been the three most prominent Levites as we find from Nehemiah 10:9, where Bani (Binnui) is distinguished by being described as ‘of the sons of Hanadad’ so as to distinguish him from the other Bani. But the fact that in both Nehemiah 9:4-5 Jeshua is followed by ‘and’, whereas the others are not, suggests that he was the chief Levite. All but Chenani were sealants of the covenant (taking Bunni = Benini), but he may have sealed under another name, i.e. the family name. The point being made was that all were present, and all were as one.
‘They cried with a loud voice to YHWH their God.’ The verb suggests a cry of distress. They were as moved by what they had heard of the Law as anyone. The Spirit was truly at work. This is not describing the prayer that follows, (conveyed by those mentioned in Nehemiah 9:5), but their own participation in the general worship
‘The stairs (ascent) of the Levites’ may well be those in the Temple described in the Mishnah as the place where ‘the Levites used to sing’ (Middoth Nehemiah 2:5). Alternately it may have been a kind of platform which raised the chief Levites above the heads of the congregation.
‘Then the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said,
These eight presumably represent the eight ‘houses’ with some being the same as the chiefs mentioned above, while others were representatives of the chiefs not mentioned here in Nehemiah 9:5. The otherwise unnecessary repetition of the list indicates clearly that the names are intended to be different from Nehemiah 9:4. Each was acting on behalf of his ‘house’. They were the spokesmen. Some of them wowuld almost certainly have been sprinkled among the crowd so as to relay the prayer as it was spoken.
Nehemiah 9:5 b
The Call To Prayer (Nehemiah 9:5 b).
The Levites now made the call to prayer as had become customary. They called on the people to stand up and bless the everlasting Lord. And they then moved into spontaneous worship, spontaneous, but a worship based solidly on past tradition. We need not assume that the people were not already standing. It is a call to stand as those abut to pray and confess their sins and the sins of their fathers. Over a thousand years had passed since the covenant had been given, and yet they were even now not in full possession of the land. And the reason was because they and their fathers had sinned. That is why the prayer covers so much ground. There was a long history of sin to be repented of.
“Stand up and bless YHWH your God from everlasting to everlasting, and blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.” ’
Standing was the usual attitude for prayer. They may already have been standing. Now they are to stand ready for prayer. This initial prayer is a summarising prayer divided up into two parts, the first addressed to the people and the second to God Himself. Such a movement from address to worship is a regular feature of many kinds of worship as the worshipper realises the wonder of what he is saying and turns to praise. It is again suggestive of spiritual revival. The speaker was probably Jeshua the Levite, acting on behalf of the group.
Firstly the people are called on to stand up and bless YHWH, Who is described as ‘their God from everlasting to everlasting’. He is seen as the One Who encompasses all things and all time, and as the One Who has been His people’s God throughout the ages, and will continue to be so into the distant future. That very thought then fills their minds with praise and leads on into direct worship.
For, subsequently, having made the call to worship the Levites then address YHWH and bless His glorious Name ‘which is exalted above all blessing and praise’. He is thus seen as both eternally existent (He is exalted), and as being beyond the ability of men to appreciate (He is above all blessing and praise). In other words He is seen as so great that it is impossible to express a sufficiency of blessing and praise. His uniqueness and distinctiveness is thus being emphasised. He is being seen as above and beyond all things.
The Cry of The Levites To God On Behalf Of The People (Nehemiah 9:4-38 ).
What follows was presumably the culmination of the three hours of confession and worship, and was a summing up in prayer by the chiefs of the Levites in terms of Israel’s history, as their thoughts led up to a renewal of the covenant with God (compare especially Joshua 24:2-15; Psalms 106:0). It commences with the idea of YHWH as Creator and Lord of all (Nehemiah 9:6); moves on to the thought that He chose Abraham, and renamed him, and made a covenant with him to give him the land (Nehemiah 9:7-8); then details the wonderful provision that YHWH had continually made for His undeserving people, and the way that He had continually delivered them again and again in spite of their continual sins and rebellions, and concludes by pointing out their present situation as subservient to the kings of Persia. In consequence of this they now declare their intention to make a sure covenant with Him, a covenant which follows in chapter 11. They do not ask for any reward for doing this. They leave it to God to decide what He will do.
YHWH As Unique Creator (Nehemiah 9:6 ).
The initial emphasis was now on YHWH as sole Creator and Lord over all things, Who thus had control of all affairs whether in Heaven or on earth. Behind their words was their distress that they were still subject to the Persians (Nehemiah 9:39). But they recognised that to Him, as the Universal Lord, the Persians and their gods were as nothing. Their future lay only in the hands of YHWH.
“You are YHWH, even you alone, you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all things that are on it, the seas and all that is in them, and you preserve them all, and the host of heaven worships you.’
He was first addressed as the unique and only Creator of Heaven and earth. Indeed as the One Who has made the Heaven of Heavens, with all that it contains. All that is in those Heavens has been created by YHWH (thus making ‘the gods’ at best created things), and the angelic host owe their existence to His creative power. All the host of Heaven, without exception, whether angelic beings or heavenly bodies, worship Him. He is God over all. For ‘with all their host’ compare Genesis 2:1.
‘Furthermore He has made ‘the earth and all things that are on it’. As John would later put it, ‘All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made’ (John 1:3). Thus they were reminding themselves that even the Persians themselves owed their empire to YHWH. And this description includes ‘the seas and all that is in them’. Note how there is a distinction between the earth and the seas. To the Israelites the seas were a strange element, almost distinct from the earth in which they lived. And yet they recognised that all is under Him. and He preserves them all. For this idea of both creating and sustaining compare Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:2-3. The basis of the descriptions here is Genesis 1:0 where heaven, earth and seas are clearly distinguished while being parts of the whole.
YHWH’s Choice Of, And Covenant With, Abram/Abraham (Nehemiah 9:7-8 ).
Not only had YHWH created all things, however, but He had also out of all the nations chosen their forefather Abram, adopted him as His own (changing his name to Abraham), and had given to him and to his seed the promise of the land of Canaan. And they acknowledged that He had performed what He had promised. He had given them possession of the land. As they will go on to say, it was not His fault that it had gone badly wrong.
“You are YHWH the God, who chose Abram, and brought him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees, and gave him the name of Abraham, and found his heart faithful before you, and made a covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Jebusite, and the Girgashite, to give it to his seed, and have performed your words, for you are righteous.”
The emphasis was now on the fact that it was YHWH Who, as the Creator and Ruler of all the world, and as the covenant-fulfilling Righteous One, had called and chosen Abram. He had brought him out of Ur of the Chaldees (in other words out of Babylonia, just as He had brought them out of Babylonia), had sovereignly given him his new name Abraham as an indication that he was now God’s chosen one, (just as they bore the name of Israel His chosen one), and had found him faithful before Him (something that they now recognised should be true of them). Note the emphasis on God’s election, and on Abram’s God-given name (Genesis 17:5; not emphasised elsewhere outside Genesis), and on Abraham’s responsive faith and obedience (his heart was faithful before Him, which may well reflect Genesis 15:6).
As a consequence God had made a covenant with him to give to him and his seed the land of Canaan, something which He had performed because He was ‘righteous’ (conformed rightly to His covenant promises). And their tradition saw the land promised as having successfully been given to his seed (1 Kings 4:21), in spite of their previous rebellions. There is a clear implication in this that the returnees were expectant that God would similarly consider His sovereign choice and covenant with regard to His chosen people, would show covenant love towards those who bore a new name given by God (Israel), and would perform His word before them, but this is not actually stated.
The description given here also assumes a knowledge of the tradition behind Genesis 11:31 in respect of Ur of the Chaldees, and the traditions which spoke of Canaan as ‘the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Jebusite, and the Girgashite’ (compare Deuteronomy 7:1, rather than Genesis 15:19-21). The ‘list of nations’ depicted here is not a direct citation. It is not found in this order in the books of Moses, and here omits the Hivites. But it was clearly based on a memory of a known tradition.
The Deliverance From Egypt (Nehemiah 9:9-11 ).
They now reminded YHWH what, having established His sovereign power over all things, and having chosen Abraham and made a covenant with him to give him and his descendants the land, this had caused Him to do. It had caused Him to deliver the children of Abraham out of Egypt. They had been afflicted by a powerful foreign king and nation, but YHWH had miraculously delivered them, bringing them through the Red Sea, just as they now hoped that He would deliver them from the hand of another powerful king and nation, and would bring back other exiles who were scattered around the world.
“And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt, (Exodus 3:7)
And heard their cry by the Red Sea, (Exodus 14:10)
And showed signs and wonders on Pharaoh, (Exodus 7:3; Deuteronomy 6:22)
And on all his servants, and on all the people of his land, (Deuteronomy 6:22; Deuteronomy 34:11)
For you knew that they dealt proudly against them, (Exodus 18:11)
And you got yourself a name, as it is this day. (Exodus 9:16)
And you divided the sea before them, (Exodus 14:16; Exodus 14:21)
So that they went through the midst of the sea on the dry land, (Exodus 14:22; Exodus 14:29; Exodus 15:19)
And their pursuers you did cast into the depths, (Exodus 15:4; Exodus 15:19)
As a stone into the mighty waters.” (Exodus 15:5; Exodus 15:9)
In poetic prose the writer vividly describes the deliverance of ‘their fathers’ from their afflictions, both by signs and wonders wrought in Egypt affecting the whole land, and especially by His deliverance at the Red Sea when the host of Pharaoh perished in the waters. God had seen the afflictions of His people, had heard their cry, had noted the pride and arrogance of their tormentors, had worked signs and wonders against a foreign tyrant, and had thereby ‘got Himself a Name’, a recognition of Who and What He was. As can be seen the words are full of references to the Book of Exodus. This then was the God on whom they were now depending, and to Whom they were looking. It is quite apparent that they were hoping that God would act in a similar way again.
God’s Initial Great Deliverance Of His People From Foreign Ownership, His Wonderful Provision For Them, And Their Response By Seeking Another Captain Who Would Take Them Back Into Bondage (Nehemiah 9:9-17 ).
The Levites first outline to God their recognition of His original great deliverance, and of all that He had done for His people during the course of it.
The Levites’ Plea On The Basis Of God’s Past Mercies (Nehemiah 9:9-38 ).
The Levites now reminded God that He had been faithful to His covenant throughout their history, declared their recognition of His constant goodness, and of His continuing munificence towards them, confessed their own failures and the failures of their fathers, which had occurred again and again, and reminded Him how He had continued faithful, clearly expressing the hope that He would continue to do so.
The confession was made in great detail. It was not just a reiteration of their history. Every agonised verse was spoken from the heart. They felt the great burden of guilt that was on them as a result of their nations behaviour and attitude towards God. The words may well have been spoken with weeping. We are not to see them as just a liturgical formula. They were a deep felt confession of sin every step of the way, and a continual acknowledgement of how good God had been towards them as His people.
Themes lying behind their words include the fact:
· That men had continually ‘dealt proudly’, both the Egyptians (Nehemiah 9:10) and their own fathers (Nehemiah 9:16; Nehemiah 9:29), in being flagrantly disobedient to God;
· That God had given His people ‘possession of the land’ (Nehemiah 9:15; Nehemiah 9:22-24).
· That God had constantly supplied them with an abundance of good things both before and after entering the land (Nehemiah 9:15; Nehemiah 9:20-21; Nehemiah 9:25; Nehemiah 9:35-37).
· That God had constantly watched over them and protected them (Nehemiah 9:12; Nehemiah 9:19).
· That God had constantly sent His Spirit in His prophets with them to guide and inspire them (Nehemiah 9:20; Nehemiah 9:26; Nehemiah 9:30).
· That God had constantly instructed them in His Law (Nehemiah 9:13-14; Nehemiah 9:20; Nehemiah 9:26; Nehemiah 9:29).
· That the people had nevertheless constantly rebelled against Him (Nehemiah 9:16; Nehemiah 9:18; Nehemiah 9:26; Nehemiah 9:28; Nehemiah 9:30; Nehemiah 9:34) so that He had to endure great provocations (Nehemiah 9:18; Nehemiah 9:26).
· That God had constantly in turn delivered them (Nehemiah 9:10-11; Nehemiah 9:27-28; Nehemiah 9:31).
· Each central main section ends with the thought that God had not forsaken them (Nehemiah 9:17; Nehemiah 9:31).
In the light of this they cried to God to now observe their present situation, indicating that while they acknowledged how as a people they had rebelled constantly against Him, refusing to keep His Law and observe His commandments, yet they His people were but servants in a land that should have been theirs, ruled over by others who partook of its fruits. They did not possess the land as He had promised Abram.
The passage is divided up into three main sections, which can then be divided into subsections. The dividing points between these three sections are indicated by expressions of worship to God, which include the thought that he had not forsaken them.
· The first section depicts God’s gracious activity on behalf of His people, and the fact that nevertheless they had rebelled against Him, and ends with the words, ‘you are a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in covenant love, and forsook them not’ (Nehemiah 9:17 b).
· The second section reiterates God’s gracious activity on behalf of His people, and again repeats how they had continually rebelled against Him, and ends with the words, ‘nevertheless in your manifold mercies you did not make a full end of them, nor forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God’ (Nehemiah 9:31).
· The final section commences with the words ‘now therefore our God, the great, the mighty and the terrible God, who keeps covenant and covenant love’, confesses the more recent failure and rebellion of their fathers, and reminds Him that because of it they stand before Him as those who are servants of an alien monarch, who takes the best of what the land produces. While living in the land, they do not possess the land. It and they are ruled over by another. And it ends with the assurance that they are nevertheless about to make a covenant with Him (Nehemiah 9:38).
We must now look at these sections in more detail:
1). Seeing His people in affliction in Egypt God had delivered them with great power from the hand of the foreign oppressor Pharaoh, had granted them His covenant at Sinai, had continually made wonderful provision for them, and had commanded them to ‘go in and possess the land’ (Nehemiah 9:9-15). Nevertheless in their arrogance they had rebelled against Him, and had determined rather to go back into bondage (Nehemiah 9:16-17).
(We can compare with this how the returnees were also in affliction (Nehemiah 1:3), and were under the hand of a foreign oppressor (Nehemiah 9:36-37), but they yet awaited full deliverance, for while God had brought them safely to the land, in their case they did not possess it. Yet it was now their intention to make a covenant hoping that God would respond (Nehemiah 9:38). They did not want to remain in bondage).
2a). In spite of the fact that their fathers had rebelled against Him in the wilderness in the matter, for example, of the golden calf, God did not withdraw His covenant mercy from them, but sustained them throughout their time in the wilderness, and subdued kings before them so that they could possess the land. The result was that ‘the children of Israel went in and possessed the land’ and prospered greatly. God’s promises and purposes were coming to fruition in spite of His people’s failures (Nehemiah 9:16-25).
2b). But even when they were settled in the land they had rebelled again and again, had neglected His Law and had slain His prophets. Nevertheless God was faithful and raised up deliverers for them, and sought to bring them back to His Law. Yet they still rebelled against His life-giving judgments, and rejected the work of His Spirit through the prophets, not being willing to listen, and were therefore given into the hands of the peoples of the lands. God, however, did not make a full end of them, because He is a gracious and merciful God (Nehemiah 9:26-31).
3). That the great, mighty and terrible (awesome) God Who had constantly kept covenant and mercy would not overlook the afflictions of His people since the time of the Assyrians (their first experience of ‘world’ empire). Not that they blamed Him for it, for they acknowledged that they had received what was just because of their disobedience. But they prayed that He would observe their present position, in the land which He had promised to Abraham, in that it provided its fruit to others than God’s people, so that they were subservient to them. Nevertheless they wanted Him to observe that they were now about to renew the covenant (Nehemiah 9:32-38).
Notice that the first section ends with the arrogance of their fathers which had caused them not to listen to God’s commandments, with the consequence that they had not been mindful of His wonders, but had rather been arrogant (notice the repetition of ‘hardened their neck’), and in their arrogance had appointed their own ‘captain’ in order to return to their bondage. The second section ends with their refusal to hear the voice of His Spirit, with the result that they were given into the hands of the peoples of the lands. And both these are contrasted with the returnees themselves, who, while suffering for the disobedience of their fathers, and being servants in a land which did not belong to them, were nevertheless about to renew the covenant with Him.
God’s Resultant Full Provision For His People (Nehemiah 9:12-15 ).
Having delivered them so wonderfully and powerfully God had made full provision for His people in the wilderness:
· He had made His presence with them known in the form of the pillars of cloud and fire, pillars which led them forward by day and night. For even the darkness was made light before them, so that they could travel by both day and night (Nehemiah 9:12; compare Exodus 13:20-21).
· He had guided them in their way of living by providing His commandments, statutes and laws (Nehemiah 9:13-14).
· He had supplied them with God-provided food and drink to satisfy their hunger and thirst (Nehemiah 9:15 a).
· And He had given them the encouragement of knowing that a promised land lay before them (Nehemiah 9:15 b).
Note the personal nature of His activity. ‘You led them -- You came down and spoke with them -- You made known to them -- You gave them bread from heaven -- and brought forth water -- You commanded them to possess the land.’ They should have been more than grateful, and more than fully satisfied. And the same pattern will be repeated in Nehemiah 9:19-24 a, protection (Nehemiah 9:19), instruction (Nehemiah 9:20), sustenance (Nehemiah 9:21) and possession of the land (Nehemiah 9:22-24 a), and this after they had rebelled against Him (Nehemiah 9:18). Their rebellion did not cause Him to cease from providing fully for them. (This makes even more poignant the fact that at the end they will make clear that at that present time there was such a lack. They were in the land but they did not possess it (Nehemiah 9:36-37). They were living in relative poverty. There is in this a blatant hint to God).
“Moreover in a pillar of cloud you led them by day, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light in the way in which they should go.”
The pillars of cloud and fire are constantly referred to in the tradition. They represented YHWH in His glorious hiddenness, as surrounded by cloud, and in His more open glory as revealed in fire, veiled by the night. The pillar of cloud had hidden them from the Egyptian army, delaying the Egyptians until Israel had crossed the river bed (Exodus 14:19-20). It also manifested the veiled glory of YHWH (Exodus 16:10). Fire was regularly the means through which God manifested Himself (Exodus 19:18; Exodus 24:17). Cloud and fire were the indications of God’s presence, indicating that ‘You led them’ (Exodus 14:24; Exodus 16:10). And they would be a regular occurrence in the future journeying (Numbers 14:14; Deuteronomy 1:33), a guarantee that YHWH was continually with them. Furthermore the descent of the pillar of cloud regularly indicated His presence in the Tabernacle (Exodus 33:9-10; Numbers 12:5; Numbers 14:14; Deuteronomy 31:15). God was personally shepherding His people.
“You came down also on mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments,”
Note the repetition of the words from Exodus 19:20, although personalised, ‘and YHWH came down on Mount Sinai’, but there God spoke from the top of the mount. ‘From heaven’ might therefore be seen as simply indicating that God spoke from on high (the top of the mount), but it is apparent from Nehemiah 9:15, where the bread was also ‘from heaven’, that Nehemiah is taking us one step further and reminding us that the source of all that we receive is ‘heavenly’. Thus in Nehemiah 9:15 the manna is ‘bread from Heaven’ (cited by Jesus in John 6:31). In both cases the source was other-worldly.
They acknowledged to YHWH that in speaking to them from heaven He had given them ‘right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments’. Note the adjectives. They were right and true and good. They were not seen as a burden, which was what the Scribes would later make them, but as morally uplifting and coming from the truly righteous and good One. ‘Ordinances, laws, statutes and commandments’ were regular ways of describing God instruction (His Torah). See Leviticus 18:4-5; Leviticus 18:26; Leviticus 26:15; Leviticus 26:46; Deuteronomy 4:45; Deuteronomy 5:31; Deuteronomy 6:1; Deuteronomy 6:20; Deuteronomy 7:11; Deuteronomy 8:11; Deuteronomy 11:1; Deuteronomy 26:17; Deuteronomy 30:16. But in no previous case are all these four words used together. The constant emphasis on the reception of God’s Instruction by the people (Nehemiah 9:13-14; Nehemiah 9:20; Nehemiah 9:29) was a reminder that as the people they had recently received this Instruction. But the inference was that they were to respond to it differently from their fathers.
“And made known to them your holy sabbath, and commanded them commandments, and statutes, and a law, by Moses your servant,”
They reminded God that He had also made known to them His holy Sabbath (for ‘holy Sabbath’ see Exodus 16:23). This description contains a hint that the Sabbath was made known as a separate requirement before the giving of the Law, which was in fact true (compare Exodus 16:0 with 20)
The emphasis on the Sabbath reflects the Exilic period. It was then that the Sabbath had become the unique outward expression of what it meant to be a Jew, as they lived among non-Jews. It was through the observance of the Sabbath that men around them knew that they were distinctive, and it was a symbol of both YHWH as sole Creator (Exodus 20:8-10) and YHWH as Redeemer and Deliverer of His people (Deuteronomy 5:14-15). It was initially instituted for all Israel at the first giving of the manna (Exodus 16:23-26), in other words when God ‘gave them bread from heaven to eat’, something immediately mentioned in Nehemiah 9:15.
Note the repetition concerning the giving of the Law, it was something prominent in their minds at this time (Nehemiah 8:1-18), and this prayer was part of their response to it.
“And you gave them bread from heaven for their hunger, and brought forth water for them out of the rock for their thirst,’
They reminded Him of how He had led them, protected them, and guided them in how to ‘live’, and now He fed and watered them. There was no need that He had overlooked. They had received bread from heaven in order to satisfy their hunger, and water from the rock to satisfy their thirst. There is a constant emphasis throughout the passage on the material good things that God gave to His people (Nehemiah 9:15; Nehemiah 9:19; Nehemiah 9:21; Nehemiah 9:25). In the period of want that they were enduring after the return (Nehemiah 1:3) it was no doubt an intentional reminder to God of what they were no longer receiving. They humbly and without their openly telling Him, wanted Him to notice the gap in His present provision for them. We too have partaken of this bread and water, for Jesus likened Himself to the bread from heaven (John 6:33), and the water of life (John 4:10-14) and Paul likened Him to the thirst-quenching rock (1 Corinthians 10:4). For we have entered into His Sabbath rest (Hebrews 4:0).
‘And commanded them that they should go in to possess the land which you had sworn to give them.”
And finally He had assured them of possession of the land which He had sworn to give them, something which was later accomplished (Nehemiah 9:23-24 a). And this was of prime importance, for land on which to dwell, and which could be farmed, and which they could call their own, was the dream of every man. He wanted to live ‘every man under his own vine and under his own fig tree’ (1 Kings 4:25). Again there is the unspoken hint (although only openly expressed later - Nehemiah 9:36-37) that at this present time, while it was true that they now dwelt in the land, they had not received full possession of the land that He had sworn to give to their fathers.
But His People’s Response To His Goodness Had Been To Openly Disobey His Commandments And To Turn To Other Gods. However Even So He Did Not Forsake Them Because Of What He Is (Nehemiah 9:16-17 ).
Here the first acknowledgement of how sinful their fathers had been is now given. It refers to their arrogant intention to appoint a captain and return to their bondage in Egypt. This occurred when they believed the reports of the unbelieving spies and were fearful of what would be the consequences of entering the God-given land (Numbers 14:4), and thus refused to possess the land. A second, which opens the next passage, will refer to the time when they fashioned and worshipped the molten calf in the wilderness because they thought that Moses was not coming back to them from the mountain. By doing so they rejected the concept that their Deliverer had revealed about Himself (‘you shall not make any graven image’). Both were examples of patent disobedience and unbelief. By them they demonstrated their arrogance, and the hardness of their dispositions. This pattern of God’s goodness and care followed by man’s disobedience will continually be repeated (Nehemiah 9:26; Nehemiah 9:28; Nehemiah 9:30; Nehemiah 9:32; Nehemiah 9:34-35).
“But they, even our fathers dealt proudly and hardened their neck, and did not listen to your commandments,”
They acknowledged that those who had behaved in this way were ‘our fathers’. They were admitting their share in the guilt of their fathers. And they admitted that their fathers had been arrogant and stiff-necked, an idea which is emphasised by repeated. They had thought that they knew better than God, and had behaved accordingly. They had been arrogant towards Him, had refused to bow to His requirements, and had not listened to His commandments. By this they were admitting that they had deserved all that they had received, and far worse.
“And refused to obey, nor were mindful of your wonders which you did among them, but hardened their neck, and in their rebellion appointed a captain to return to their bondage.”
This first example of their disobedience and hardened state refers to what happened after the twelve scouts, who had been sent into Canaan in order to survey the position, had reported back (Numbers 13-14). They had ignored all the wonders that God had performed on their behalf, and had panicked. And they had ‘hardened their neck (become stiffnecked and unyielding, a concept obtained from Exodus 32:9; Exodus 33:3; Exodus 34:9) and had determined to appoint a Captain and return to Egypt, to their previous bondage (Numbers 14:4). As a consequence they were disobeying His command to go in and possess the land. Thus they had not deserved the land.
“But you are a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in covenant love, and you did not forsake them.”.
But even such behaviour had not resulted in God giving up on them. Why? Because He is a God Who is ready to pardon. He is a God Who is gracious and merciful. He is a God Who is slow to anger and abundant in covenant love. The consequence was that He did not forsake them.
For these descriptions compare Exodus 34:6-7; Jonah 4:2; Psalms 103:8; Psalms 145:8, which suggest that the central part of the quotation was probably a stereotyped description regularly used, with variations, in the cult, and originally based on Exodus 34:6-7.
This description of God merits some attention. It brings out that:
· He is ready to pardon, compare Daniel 9:9, ‘to the Lord our God belong mercies and forgiveness’; Psalms 130:4, ‘there is forgiveness with Him that He might be feared’. He pardons in order to bring those pardoned back into a relationship with Himself. He puts their sin behind His back (Isaiah 38:17). ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us’ (Psalms 103:12).
· He is gracious and merciful. The idea behind these words is that God is compassionate, and merciful, constantly showing His undeserved love towards men and women in their weakness, in the face of their undeserving.
· He is slow to anger. The point here is that He is longsuffering, and does not easily give up. He gives men time to repent and turn back to Him. He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
· He is abundant in covenant love. Behind this thought is that He is totally faithful to all with whom He has entered into covenant, having chosen them for Himself. Through His covenant he reaches out to us in abundant love. No one who genuinely responds to His covenant will find that love lacking.
· He did not forsake them. They were at no stage ‘God-forsaken’. This was an important fact which is being emphasised in the passage. Compare how the same words appear in a similar way in Nehemiah 9:31.
God’s Faithful Provision For His People Throughout The Wilderness Period And His Successful Bringing Of Them Into The Land And Establishing Of Them In Prosperity (Nehemiah 9:18-25 ).
Here we have what is to some extent a reiteration of what was described in Nehemiah 9:12-17, but now seen in the light of His people having provoked Him, and with greater emphasis on the Wilderness period, and on entry into the land which was now seen as satisfactorily accomplished (in Nehemiah 9:12-17 they had stopped short of the land). The parallel sequence is, protection through the pillars of cloud and fire, instruction by His Spirit, provision of food, water and clothing, success over their enemies, and successful entry into and conquest of the land. And all this despite their having provoked God by making the molten calf. It was a reminder to God of how He had shown mercy in the face of great provocation.
“Yes, when they had made for themselves a molten calf, and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,’ and had wrought great provocations,”
The description of their making the molten calf is found in Exodus 32:0. It may well be that it was intended originally to have been seen as bearing the invisible YHWH on its back (as elsewhere Hadad was seen as riding on the back of a bull). But it was a forbidden graven image, and had soon itself taken the form of a god in peoples’ minds. The citation is an abbreviation of that in Exodus 32:4 (omitting ‘O Israel’ and ‘the land of’ and using a singular verb). The Levites were therefore citing the example of Israel’s greatest provocation to God, the worshipping of an image before the very mountain of God. But the ‘great provocations ‘ would also include those which followed after (unless it is an intensive plural). And they are pointing out to God that even in the face of these provocations He had continued to deliver them, in exactly the same way as He had before, even accomplishing what had previously failed to be accomplished (entry into the land).
“Yet you in your manifold mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness; the pillar of cloud did not depart from over them by day, to lead them in the way; nor the pillar of fire by night, to show them light, and the way in which they should go.”
They gratefully acknowledged to God how, in the widespread nature of His mercies, He had not forsaken them in the wilderness. He had continued with them in the pillars of cloud and fire. He had led them in the way, protected them, given them light in the darkness, and shown them the way in which they were to go.
“You gave also your good Spirit to instruct them, and withheld not your manna from their mouth, and gave them water for their thirst.”
He had also given His good Spirit to instruct them. This probably in the first instance has reference to His giving of the Spirit to the seventy elders (Numbers 11:17; Numbers 11:25-26), making them ‘prophets’ (Numbers 11:29). The thought is that they would have illuminated God’s Instruction to the people. And He had not withheld His gift of manna, and He had given them water to satisfy their thirst in the hot wilderness.
“Yes, forty years did you sustain them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing; their clothes did not grow old, and their feet did not swell.”
Indeed they acknowledged that He had given them even more, for during a period of forty years He had ensured that they lacked nothing. Their clothes had not grown old (probably indicating that He had ensured regular provision for renewing their clothing) and their feet had not swollen in such a way as to hinder their progress. He had kept them clothed, fit and well. The first part of the verse is an almost direct citation of Deuteronomy 2:7. The second part comes from Deuteronomy 8:4.
“Moreover you gave them kingdoms and peoples, which you allotted after their portions. So they possessed the land of Sihon, even the land of the king of Heshbon, and the land of Og king of Bashan.”
In accordance with the parallel earlier, God’s protection through the pillars of cloud and fire, His instruction of His people, and His provision for their physical needs, was followed by ‘possession of the land’ in accordance with the promise given to Abraham. And it was fulfilled beyond what was expected. For they received control over kingdoms and peoples which were not of the land. The lands of Sihon and Og were east of the Jordan and outside the scope of the promises. But God gave them to them nevertheless. His graciousness and compassion were such that, in spite of their rebellions, He gave them abundantly over all that they could ask or think.
“You multiplied their children also as the stars of heaven, and brought them into the land concerning which you said to their fathers, that they should go in to possess it.”
And they gratefully acknowledged that He had not only given them extra lands, but had also fulfilled His promise to Abraham in making his children as the stars of heaven for multitude (Genesis 15:5; Genesis 22:17; Genesis 26:4). Most of these were, of course, his children by adoption, being descended from family servants, from his ‘household’ (from which he could draw 318 fighting men - Genesis 14:14). And these children He had brought into the land which He had promised to make a possession for Abraham’s ‘seed’. This mention of the children of Israel as being ‘as the stars of heaven’ emphasises the fact that it is God’s covenant with Abraham that is being seen as fulfilled (compare Genesis 13:15-17; Genesis 5:18-21; Genesis 17:8; Deuteronomy 1:10).
“So the children went in and possessed the land,”
And so in accordance with God’s covenant with Abraham and with his seed, the children had gone in and possessed the land. In Nehemiah 9:15 God had commanded it. Now it had come to fruition because in His mercy and compassion He had spared those who had rebelled against Him who had said ‘no’, in order that their children might inherit.
“And you subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gave them into their hands, with their kings, and the peoples of the land, that they might do with them as they would, and they took fortified cities, and a fat land, and possessed houses full of all good things, cisterns hewn out, vineyards, and oliveyards, and fruit-trees in abundance. So did they eat, and were filled, and became fat, and delighted themselves in your great goodness.”
They reminded God that He had not only given them the land, He had done it in style. He it was Who had ensured that the inhabitants of the land, its kings and peoples, were given into their hands, so that they could do with them as they would, a process that took from the time of Joshua to the time of David. And indeed that is precisely what Solomon had done as he made the peoples of the land slaves for his building operations.
And as a consequence they had not only inherited the land, but they had taken possession of fortified cities, of productive land, of houses full of good things, of cisterns already hewn out, and of vineyards, oliveyards and fruit trees in abundance. The result was that they had eaten and been filled, and had become well-nourished, enjoying life as they had rejoiced in God’s great goodness.
Note the gradual growth portrayed of God’s munificence. First the bread from heaven and water (Nehemiah 9:15). then bread from heaven, water and clothing (Nehemiah 9:20-21), and now an abundance of good things. God had been more than liberal.
God’s Continual Activity On Behalf Of His People (Nehemiah 9:18-31 ).
In this second main section they now outlined to God how regularly the people had rebelled against Him, and yet how nevertheless He had constantly abundantly provided for them. The first sub-section (Nehemiah 9:18-25) repeats the pattern of Nehemiah 9:9-15 in describing God’s continued protection through the pillars of cloud and fire (Nehemiah 9:19, compare Nehemiah 9:12); His continued instruction of them (Nehemiah 9:20 a, compare Nehemiah 9:13-14); His provision of food and water and all needed sustenance (Nehemiah 9:20-21, compare Nehemiah 9:15 a), and His finally giving them possession of the land and more (Nehemiah 9:22-25; compare Nehemiah 9:15 b). It will be noted that it summaries the period in the wilderness and the successful campaign of Joshua.
The second sub-section (Nehemiah 9:26-31) takes up their story in terms similar to the Book of Judges. They were constantly disobedient and rebelled, and God constantly delivered them up into the hands of their enemies, but when they cried to Him, He raised up saviours who delivered them out of their hands (Nehemiah 9:26-27, compare Judges 2:12-16). However, once they ‘had rest’ (a typical Judges description - Judges 3:30 and often) they again did evil, and were again delivered into the hands of their enemies, and again cried to YHWH, and were again delivered according to His mercies (Nehemiah 9:28), at which point He continually faced them up to His Instruction (torah). But they constantly rebelled against it, even though it was the way of life, and ‘hardened their necks’ as they had continually done (see Nehemiah 9:16-17). And this had gone on for ‘many years’ (we would say centuries). He had borne with them, and had spoken to them by His Spirit though the prophets, but they had constantly refused to hear, and that is why He had given them into the hands of the peoples of the lands (the great nations, as is apparent from Nehemiah 9:32). Here we have the history of the books of Kings. Nevertheless in His mercy God did not make a full end of them (Nehemiah 9:31), as the fact that they were there back in the land bore witness.
There is a clear inference from all this that their hope was that once again, after the period of disobedience of their fathers, God, having brought home to them His Instruction (chapter 8), would at some stage deliver them if they were true to His covenant.
The First Cycles (Nehemiah 9:26-27 ).
Note the pattern of the initial cycles. Rebellion (Nehemiah 9:26). Deliverance to enemies (Nehemiah 9:27 a). The plea for help (Nehemiah 9:27 b). The provision of saviours (Nehemiah 9:27 c). The mention of the slaying of the prophets indicates that this is going beyond the Judges period, into the period of the kings, but it follows the pattern of Judges 2:11-19. We have in this regard the clear examples of the prophets slain in the days of Elijah ( 1Ki 18:4 ; 1 Kings 18:13; 1 Kings 19:10); and of Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, who was slain in the court of the king’s house at the command of King Joash (2 Chronicles 24:20-21. These would be followed later by Uriah the son of Shemaiah in the days of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 26:20-23); and Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, who was slain between the Temple and the altar (Matthew 23:35), with the latter (Zechariah 1:1) perishing after the return from Exile. All had not been well, even among the returnees.
“Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against you, and cast your Law behind their back, and slew your prophets who testified against them to turn them again to you, and they wrought great provocations.”
They acknowledged before God how their fathers had rebelled against Him continually. It will be noted that only in the case of these early cycles, and then subsequently in the final cycle, are the details of their rebellion brought out, a rebellion against His Law (Instruction), something very important at a time when the returnees had just been listening to the reading and exposition of the Law. In the intermediate cycles it is simply ‘after they had rest they did evil before you’. But here ‘the Law’ has come into especial prominence, and is treated by men as God treats sin (Isaiah 38:17), it is cast behind their backs. They thus rejected the Law and the prophets. The Levites are describing the past in terms of their post-exilic view of the pre-eminence of the Law which had been emphasised by Ezra, but reminding us that the Law had been ever with them.
Here their rebellion is spelt out in detail. They were disobedient -- they rebelled against God -- they cast His Law behind their backs -- they slew His prophets who testified against them -- they wrought great provocations. This is always the pathway into the depths of sin. First disobedience, then rebellion, then rejection of His word, then persecution of His messengers, and finally gross sin.
The mention of the slaying of the prophets demonstrates that this period covers both Judges and Kings (see Judges 2:11-16 and 2 Kings 17:0 for the pattern), for it was in the time of the monarchy that we learn of the slaying of prophets (1 Kings 18:4; 2 Chronicles 24:20-21).
“Therefore you delivered them into the hand of their adversaries, who distressed them, and in the time of their trouble, when they cried to you, you heard from heaven, and according to your manifold mercies you gave them saviours who saved them out of the hand of their adversaries.”
Then they drew God’s attention to the fact that He had in His mercy constantly delivered His people. As a consequence of their decline they were delivered into the hands of their enemies and suffered great distress (as the returnees had recently been doing - Nehemiah 1:3). But then in their time of trouble they cried to God, and He ‘heard from heaven’ (reminiscent of Solomon’s prayer - 1Ki 8:30 ; 1 Kings 8:32; 1 Kings 8:34, and so on). And as a result of His widespread mercies He gave them saviours who saved them out of the hands of their enemies (compare Judges 2:16; Judges 2:18).
Repeated Cycles of Rebellion, Deliverance Into The Hands Of Enemies, Fervent Intercession, Divine Intervention (Nehemiah 9:26-31 ).
They now described to God how they had behaved as a nation, the constantly repeated cycles of rebellion, deliverance into the hands of enemies, fervent pleas to God, followed by divine intervention. See Nehemiah 9:26-28 (‘many times’); Nehemiah 9:29-31. As we have already seen this very much follows the pattern of the book of Judges (Judges 2:11-19).
Note the threefold description of their deliverances into the hands of their enemies, ‘you delivered them into the hand of their adversaries’ (Nehemiah 9:27); ‘you left them in the hands of their enemies so that they had dominion over them’ (Nehemiah 9:28); ‘you gave them into the hands of the peoples of the lands’ (Nehemiah 9:30). And note the increase in intensity of the descriptions, ‘delivered into the hands of their enemies’; ‘left in their hands so that they had dominion over them’ (albeit in their own country); ‘given into the hands of the peoples of the lands’, because they were exiled.
And note the threefold interventions of God. ‘You gave them saviours who saved them out of the hand of their adversaries’ (Nehemiah 9:27); ‘many times you delivered them according to your mercies’ (Nehemiah 9:28); ‘in your manifold mercies you did not make a full end of them’ (Nehemiah 9:31). In the last case there is no description of deliverance. Their deliverance was still pending. And it still was at the time of this prayer, being only partially completed by their return. They had returned to the land but they had not fully been delivered. And it was their intention that God should note this. Their hope was that by entering into the covenant, and observing it, they would achieve this full deliverance, although that hope is not spelled out.
The Intermediate Cycles (Nehemiah 9:28 ).
“But after they had rest, they did evil again before you; therefore you left them in the hand of their enemies, so that they had the dominion over them. Yet when they returned, and cried to you, you heard from heaven; and many times you delivered them according to your mercies,”
They acknowledged before God how this had happened again and again. Note that these cycles occurred ‘many times’. Because of God’s previous deliverance the people had ‘had rest’ (see Judges 3:11; Judges 3:30; and often). But then they again did evil before God, and as a consequence He gave them over to the dominion of their enemies. Then they returned and cried to God. Then He heard from heaven and many times delivered them because He is a merciful God. The repetition of the cycles is intended to bring out how regularly this all happened. They were acknowledging before God that Israel’s was a history of repeated rebellion.
The Final Cycles (Nehemiah 9:29-31 ).
“And testified against them, that you might bring them again to your Law. Yet they dealt proudly, and did not listen to your commandments, but sinned against your ordinances, (which if a man do, he will live in them), and withdrew the shoulder, and hardened their neck, and would not hear.”
They called on God to remember how He had testified against them so that He could bring them again to His Law. Once again we have the post-exilic stress on ‘the Law’ as barely stated. Yet their response had been to not listen to His Law. They had been arrogant. They had not listened to His commandments, they had sinned against His life-giving ordinances, and they had withdrawn from shouldering its requirements (like an ox withdraws its shoulder from the yoke - Hosea 4:16), becoming stiff-necked and refusing to hear, in the same way as in Nehemiah 9:16-17. Thus, they acknowledge before God, that things at the end were as at the beginning. They admitted that they were just as sinful today. Indeed within living memory they had slain one of His prophets, Zechariah the son of Berechiah (Matthew 23:35).
The citation ‘which if a man do he will live in them’, appears in English to be a direct citation of Leviticus 18:5, but in the Hebrew it differs slightly. Leviticus 18:5 has ‘which if a man do them, and he shall live in them’. But the idea is parallel. Note the combined reference to ‘your Law -- your commandments -- your ordinances’, which can be compared and contrasted with the’ ordinances -- laws -- statutes -- and commandments’ of Nehemiah 9:13. Compare Leviticus 26:15; Numbers 36:13; Deuteronomy 6:1; Deuteronomy 7:11 etc; 2 Kings 17:34; 2 Kings 17:37. These descriptions indicate the varied nature of God’s Instruction (Law).
“Yet for many years you bore with them, and testified against them by your Spirit through your prophets. Yet would they not give ear, therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands.”
And yet, they reminded Him, in spite of their rebellions He had borne with them for many years, sending His Spirit-endued prophets to testify against them, seeking to bring them to repentance. But they had not been willing to listen, and as a consequence He had ‘given them into the hands of the peoples of the lands’. They had been exiled from their own country and scattered among the peoples of many lands. This was heartfelt confession. They felt in their own hearts guilt for what had happened. They saw themselves as having sinned along with their fathers.
“Nevertheless in your manifold mercies you did not make a full end of them, nor forsake them; for you are a gracious and merciful God.”
And so with grateful hearts they acknowledged to God how great his manifold mercies have been. Even after the long period of continual failures and rebellions He had not made a full end of them. He had not forsaken them. They had been carried off into foreign countries, but they had survived, and survived as His people. And it was all due to the fact that He was a gracious and merciful God. And with this enconium this section comes to an end.
They Remind God Of The Position That They Are In, Governed By A Foreign Power, Acknowledging That It Was Through Their Own Fault Because Of Their Own Sins And The Sins Of Their Fathers, And Assure Him That They Are About To Renew Covenant With Him (Nehemiah 9:32-38 ).
The covenant that they were about to enter into was not being entered into lightly. The need for it had been brought home by the reading of the Law in chapter 8. Their sense of unworthiness in entering into it has just been brought out in their confession and intercession. And yet the reminder of His continual mercies has convinced them that He will graciously accept what they are about to do. And they remind Him that they do it very conscious of the fact that they are still not fully delivered, they were still controlled by and paying tribute to foreign lords, and all due to their own fault. No doubt in their hearts they hoped that He would take note of the fact and at some stage complete their deliverance, making them once more a free, independent people, but they humbly leave that in His hands.
“Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who keeps covenant and lovingkindness,”
They opened their final plea by describing the greatness and majesty of their God. He was the great God, great beyond all. He was the mighty God, of overwhelming power. He was the God Who was terrible in His holiness and uniqueness. And yet He was also the God Who is always faithful to His covenant. He was the God of chesed, ‘covenant love’, acting in lovingkindness through His covenant
For God as ‘the great -- the mighty, the terrible’ compare Deuteronomy 10:17, and see Nehemiah 1:5.
‘Let not all the travail seem little before you, that has come upon us, on our kings, on our princes, and on our priests, and on our prophets, and on our fathers, and on all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria to this day.”
Up to this point all has been confession and acknowledgement of God’s goodness. They have entered deeply into the sins of their fathers, and they have acknowledged the past goodness of God. But now they make a request to God. They ask Him not to overlook what they have suffered, even though it has been deserved. This is the closest they get to asking YHWH to act on their behalf. They are sure that if He considers their problems He will act.
They ask Him not to overlook the greatness of their afflictions. Let it not seem little before Him. From the time when the first shadow of the Assyrian empire had loomed over their land, to the present time, they had suffered under the hands of mighty foreign overlords who had ruled over great empires. And in consequence all had suffered, including their kings. For this suffering had come upon all. None had been excepted. It had come on their kings and princes (their ruling authorities), it had come on their priests and prophets (their religious authorities), and it had come on all God’s people. All had suffered together. None had been exempted.
“However, you are just in all that is come upon us, for you have dealt truly, but we have done wickedly;”
Yet they assured Him that they were not blaming Him for what had happened. They acknowledged that they had been receiving the just reward for their sins. God was ‘in the right’. In bringing this on them He had acted justly, for they had behaved wickedly. They had reaped what they had sown. Thus their request was made humbly, acknowledging their own guilt. They were relying on His compassion and mercy, and on His covenant love and faithfulness, so often revealed in the past.
“Neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, nor our fathers, kept your Law, nor listened to your commandments and your testimonies with which you did testify against them.”
They admitted to Him that from the highest to the lowest they had not kept His Law in their hearts, they had not listened to His commandments, they had not responded when He had borne witness against them. They had continued on impervious to their sin. The omission of ‘prophets’ in contrast with Nehemiah 9:32 may be in acknowledgement of the fact that the true prophets were God’s mouthpieces who did heed the word of God.
“For they have not served you in their kingdom, and in your great goodness that you gave them, and in the large and fat land which you gave before them, nor did they turn from their wicked works.”
They agreed that when they had had their independence they had not served Him in their kingdom that He had given them. They had not responded to the great goodness that He had shown toward them in giving them so much. They had not had the proper gratitude for the prosperous land that He had bestowed on them. They had refused to turn from their wicked works. Thus they recognised that they had brought on themselves their subsequent subservience to great foreign kings. Their whole history testified against them.
“Behold, we are servants this day, and as for the land that you gave to our fathers to eat its fruit, and its good, behold, we are servants in it.”
And they called on God to recognise that because of their failures they were servants in what should have been their own land. They who should have been servants of YHWH, were servants of mere men. And as a result their produce largely went into the storehouses of the Persian kings, whilst they worked as servants. God had intended that they be independent and enjoy the fruits of the land (Nehemiah 9:25). Instead they were servants and had to pay their produce to others. They were not enjoying the full benefits of the covenant.
“And it yields much increase to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins, also they have power over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.”
It was not that their God-given land was unfruitful. It was just that the fruitfulness was enjoyed by others, who had been set over them because of their sins. And those kings who had been set over them not only enjoyed the fruits of their land, but they also had personal authority over them as much as they desired. They could use them as they would (as Solomon had once used the Canaanites). And they had authority over even their cattle. All were subject to the pleasure of the king of Persia. And in consequence they were in great distress for the tribute was heavy, and their treatment by their neighbours hard (compare Nehemiah 1:3). Their lot was not an easy one.
This was on the one hand an acknowledgement before God that they were deservedly suffering for their sins. But on the other it may be seen as a plea to YHWH to consider their invidious position. They probably considered that what they were about to do was, as it were, a first step on the way back to God acting on their behalf.
It should be noted that these were not words of rebellion, nor would they have been seen as such by the kings of Persia. They too believed that they were successful because the gods were on their side. They would not have cavilled at the idea that Judah were suffering for their sins, and that that was why Persia were triumphant. They thought it themselves.
“And yet for all this we make (cut) a sure agreement, and write it, and our princes, our Levites, and our priests, set their seal to it.”
And in consequence of their situation they now affirmed that they would enter into a sure and certain agreement with God, and write it down and set their seals on it. It was a wholehearted recommitment to God. Furthermore all would be involved, they themselves, and their princes, their Levites, and their priests. The whole new nation were making a commitment to God. The priests are mentioned last because they have as yet not been brought into the action which has been by people and Levites. But as Israel’s representatives before God they would necessarily be involved.
The use of the word ‘sure agreement’ rather than covenant probably recognises that this was their own agreement with God, rather than His official covenant. But the fact that it was ‘cut’ (a regular covenant term) makes clear that it was from their point of view a covenant. It will be noted that there is no suggestion that God was directly involved in its making.
The Names Of Those Who Sealed The Sure Agreement.
The agreement having been put down in writing it was sealed by the leading men of the priests, the Levites and the people who are named below. Many signed in their family name. Others in their own name. (Although some may have taken their family name as their own on becoming head of the family). It was a most solemn document. Something of what it contained is described in Nehemiah 9:29 onwards, but the main principle behind it was that they swore to walk in God’s Law and obey all the commandments of YHWH. The reading of the Law was coming to its fruition.
The gathering of chief men for the sealing ceremony must have been an impressive occasion as each chief man stepped forward and put his seal on the scroll.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Nehemiah 9". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13