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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 10

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-39


Nehemiah 10:1-39

THE tenth chapter of Nehemiah introduces us to one of the most vital crises in the History of Israel. It shows us how the secret cult of the priests of Jehovah became a popular religion. The process was brought to a focus in the public reading of The Law; it was completed in the acceptance of The Law which the sealing of the covenant ratified. This event may be compared with the earlier scene, when the law book discovered in the temple by Hilkiah was accepted and enforced by Josiah. Undoubtedly that book is included in Ezra’s complete edition of The Law. Generations before Ezra, then, though nothing more than Deuteronomy may have been forthcoming, that vital section of The Law, containing as it did the essential principles of Judaism, was adopted. But how was this result brought about? Not by the intelligent conviction, nor by the voluntary action of the nation. It was the work of a king, who thought to drive his ideas into his subjects. No doubt Josiah acted in a spirit of genuine loyalty to Jehovah, and yet the method he followed could not lead to success. The transient character of his spasmodic attempt to save his people at the eleventh hour, followed by the total collapse of the fabric he had built up, shows how insecure a foundation he had obtained. It was a royal reformation, not a revival of religion on the part of the nation. We have an instance of a similar course of action in the English reformation under Edward VI, which was swept away in a moment when his Catholic sister succeeded to the throne, because it was a movement originating in the court and not supported by the country, as was that under Elizabeth when Mary had opened the eyes of the English nation to the character of Romanism.

But now a very different scene presents itself to our notice. The sealing of the covenant signifies the voluntary acceptance of The Law by the people of Israel, and their solemn promise to submit to its yoke. There are two sides to this covenant arrangement. The first is seen in the conduct of the people in entering into the covenant. This is absolutely an act of free will on their part. We have seen that Ezra never attempted to force The Law upon his fellow-countrymen-that he was slow in producing it; that when he read it he only did so at the urgent request of the people, and that even after this he went no further, but left it with the audience for them to do with it as they thought fit. It came with the authority of the will of God, which to religious men is the highest authority, but it was not backed by the secular arm, even though Ezra possessed a firman from the Persian court which would have justified him in calling in the aid of the civil government. Now the acceptance of The Law is to be in the same spirit of freedom. Of course somebody must have started the idea of forming a covenant. Possibly it was Nehemiah who did so. Still this was-when the people were ripe for entering into it, and the whole process was voluntary on their part. The only religion that can be real to us is that which we believe in with personal faith and surrender ourselves to with willing obedience. Even when the law is recorded on parchment, it must also be written on the fleshy table of the heart if it is to be effective.

But there is another side to the covenant-sealing. The very existence of a covenant is significant. The word "covenant" suggests an agreement between two parties, a mutual arrangement to which each is pledged. So profound was the conviction of Israel that in coming to an agreement with God it was not possible for man to bargain with his Maker on equal terms, that in translating the Hebrew name for covenant into Greek the writers of the Septuagint did not use the term that elsewhere stands for an agreement among equals, but employed one indicative of an arrangement made by one party to the transaction and submitted to the other. The covenant, then, is a Divine disposition, a Divine ordinance. Even when, as in the present instance, it is formally made by men, this is still on lines laid down by God; the covenanting is a voluntary act of adhesion to a law which comes from God. Therefore the terms of the covenant are fixed, and not to be discussed by the signatories. This is of the very essence of Judaism as a religion of Divine law. Then, though the sealing is voluntary, it entails a great obligation; henceforth the covenant people are bound by the covenant which they have deliberately entered into. This, too, is a characteristic of the religion of law. It is a bondage, though a bondage willingly submitted to by those who stoop to its yoke. To St. Paul it became a crushing slavery. But the burden was not felt at first, simply because neither the range of The Law, nor the searching force of its requirements, nor the weakness of men to keep their vows, was yet perceived by the sanguine Jews who so unhesitatingly surrendered to it. As we look back to their position from the vantage ground of Christian liberty, we are astounded at the Jewish love of law, and we rejoice in our freedom from its irksome restraints. And yet the Christian is not an antinomian; he is not a sort of free lance, sworn to no obedience. He too has his obligation. He is bound to a lofty service-not to a law, indeed, but to a personal Master, not in the servitude of the letter, but, though with the freedom of the spirit, really with far higher obligations of love and fidelity than were ever recognised by the most rigorous covenant-keeping Jews. Thus he has a new covenant, sealed in the blood of his Saviour, and his communion with his Lord implies a sacramental vow of loyalty. The Christian covenant, however, is not visibly, exhibited, because a formal pledge is scarcely in accordance with the spirit of the gospel. We find it better to take a more self-distrustful course, one marked by greater dependence of faith on the preserving grace of God, by turning our vows into prayers. While the Jews "entered into a curse and into an oath" to keep the law, we shrink from anything so terrible, yet our duty is not the less because we limit our professions of it.

The Jews were prepared for their covenant by two essential preliminaries. The first was knowledge. The reading of The Law preceded the covenant, which was entered into intelligently. There is no idea of what is called "implicit faith." The whole situation is clearly surveyed and The Law is adopted with a consciousness of what it means as far as the understanding of its requirements by the people will yet penetrate into its signification. It is necessary to count the cost before entering on a course of religious service. With a view to this our Lord spoke of the "narrow way" and the "cross," much to the disappointment of His more sanguine disciples, but as a real security for genuine loyalty. With religion, of all things, it is foolish to take a leap in the dark. Judaism and Christianity absolutely contradict the idea that "Ignorance is the mother of devotion."

The second preparation consisted in the moral effect on the Jews of the review of their history in the light of religion and their consequent confession of sin and acknowledgment of God’s goodness. Here was the justification for the written law. The old methods had failed. The people had not kept the desultory Torah of the prophets. They needed a more formal system of discipline. Here too were the motives for adopting the covenant. Penitence for the nation’s miserable past prompted the desire for a better future, and gratitude for the overwhelming goodness of God roused an enthusiasm of devotion. Nothing urges us to surrender ourselves to God so much as these two motives-our repentance and His goodness. They are the two powerful magnets that draw souls to Christ.

The chronicler-always delighting in any opportunity to insert his lists of names-records the names of the signatories of the covenant. The seals of these men were of importance so long as the original document to which they were affixed was preserved, and so long as any recognised descendants of the families they represented were living. To us they are of interest because they indicate the orderly arrangement of the nation and the thoroughness of procedure in the ratification of the covenant. Nehemiah, who is again called by his Persian title Tirshatha, appears first. This fact is to be noted as a sign that as yet even in a religious document the civil ruler takes precedence of the hierarchy. At present it is allowed for a layman to head the list of leading Israelites. We might have looked for Ezra’s name in the first place, for he it was who had taken the lead in the introduction of The Law, while Nehemiah had retreated into the background during the whole month’s proceedings. But the name of Ezra does not appear anywhere on the document. The probable explanation of its absence is that only heads of houses affixed their seals, and that Ezra was not accounted one of them. Nehemiah’s position in the document is official. The next name, Zedekiah, possibly stands for Zadok the Scribe mentioned later, {Nehemiah 13:13} who may have been the writer of the document, or perhaps Nehemiah’s secretary. Then come the priests. It was not the business of these men to assist in the reading of The Law. While the Levites acted as scribes and instructors of the people, the priests were chiefly occupied with the temple ritual and the performance of the other ceremonies of religion. The Levites were teachers of The Law, the priests were its administrators. In the question of the execution of The Law, therefore, the priests have a prominent place, and after remaining in obscurity during the previous engagements, they naturally come to the front when the national acceptance of the Pentateuch is being confirmed. The hierarchy is so far established that, though the priests follow the lay ruler of Jerusalem, they precede the general body of citizens, and even the nobility. No doubt many of the higher families were in the line of the priesthood. But this was not the case with all of them, and therefore we must see here a distinct clerical precedence over all but the very highest rank.

Most of the names in this list of priests occur again in a list of those who came up with Zerubbabel and Jeshua, {Nehemiah 12:1-7} from which fact we must infer that they represent families, not individuals.. But some of the names in the other list are missing here. A most significant omission is that of the high-priest. Are we merely to suppose that some names have dropped out in course of transcription? Or was the high-priest, with some of his brethren, unwilling to sign the covenant? We have had earlier signs that the high-priest did not enjoy the full confidence of Ezra. The heads of the hierarchy may have resented the popularising of The Law. Since formerly, while the people were often favoured with the moral Torah of the prophets, the ceremonial Torah of the priests was kept among the arcana of the initiated, the change may not have been pleasing to its old custodians. Then these conservatives may not have approved of Ezra’s latest recension of The Law. A much more serious difficulty lay with those priests who had contracted foreign marriages, and who had favoured the policy of alliance with neighbouring peoples which Ezra had so fiercely opposed. Old animosities from this source were still smouldering in the bosoms of some of the priests. But apart from any specific grounds of disaffection, it is clear that there never was much sympathy between the scribes and the priests. Putting all these considerations together, it is scarcely too much to conjecture that the absentees were designedly holding back when the covenant was signed. The only wonder is that the disaffected minority was so small.

According to the new order advised by Ezekiel and now established, the Levites take the second place and come after the priests, as a separate and inferior order of clergy. Yet the hierarchy is so far honoured that even the lowest of the clergy precede the general body of the laity. We come down to the porters, the choristers, and the temple-helots before we hear of the mass of the people. When this lay element is reached, the whole of it is included. Men, women, and children are all represented in the covenant. The Law had been read to all classes, and now it is accepted by all classes. Thus again the rights and duties of women and children in religion are recognised, and the thoroughly domestic character of Judaism is provided for. There is a solidity in the compact. A common obligation draws all who are included in it together. The population generally follows the example of the leaders. "They clave to their brethren, their nobles," {Nehemiah 10:29} says the chronicler. The most effective unifying influence is a common enthusiasm in a great cause. The unity of Christendom will only be restored when the passion of loyalty to Christ is supreme in every Christian, and when every Christian acknowledges that this is the case with all his brother Christians.

It is clear that the obligation of the covenant extended to the whole law. This is called "God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God." {Nehemiah 10:29} Nothing can be clearer than that in the eyes of the chronicler, at all events, it was the Mosaic law. We have seen many indications of this view in the chronicler’s narrative. Can we resist the conclusion that it was held by the contemporaries of Ezra and Nehemiah? We are repeatedly warned against the mistake of supposing that the Pentateuch was accepted as a brand-new document. On the contrary, it was certainly received on the authority of the Mosaic origin of its contents, and because of the Divine authority that accompanied this origin. By the Jews it was viewed as the law of Moses, just as in Roman jurisprudence every law was considered to be derived from the "Twelve Tables." No doubt Ezra also considered it to be a true interpretation of the genius of Mosaism adapted to modern requirements. If we keep this clearly before our minds, the Pentateuchal controversy will lose its sharpest points of conflict. The truth here noted once more is so often disregarded that it needs to be repeatedly insisted on at the risk of tautology.

After the general acceptance of the whole law, the covenant specifies certain important details. First comes the separation from the heathen-the burning question of the day. Next we have Sabbath observance-also made especially important, because it was distinctive of Judaism as well as needful for the relief of poor and oppressed labourers. But the principal part of the schedule is occupied with pledges for the provision of the temple services. Immense supplies of fuel would be required for the numerous sacrifices, and therefore considerable prominence was given to the collecting of wood; subsequently a festival was established to celebrate this action. According to a later tradition, Nehemiah kindled the flames on the great altar of the burnt-offerings with supernatural fire. {RAPC 2 Maccabees 1:19-22} Like the Vestal virgins at Rome, the temple officials were to tend the sacred fire as a high duty, and never let it go out. "Fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually," {Leviticus 6:13} was the Levitical rule. Thus the very greatest honour was given to the rite of sacrifice. As the restoration of the religion of Israel began with the erection of the altar before the temple was built, so the preservation of that religion was centred in the altar fire-and so, we may add, its completion was attained in the supreme sacrifice of Christ.

Finally, special care was taken for what we may call "Church finance" in the collection of the tithes. This comes last, yet it has its place. Not only is it necessary for the sake of the work that is to be carried on, it is also important in regard to the religious obligation of the worshipper. The cry for a cheap religion is irreligious, because real religion demands sacrifices, and, indeed, necessarily promotes the liberal spirit from which those sacrifices flow. But if the contributions are to come within the range of religious duties, they must be voluntary. Clearly this was the case with the Jewish tithes, as we may see for two reasons. First, they were included in the covenant, and adhesion to this was entirely voluntary. Secondly, Malachi rebuked the Jews for withholding the payment of tithes as a sin against God, {Malachi 3:8-12} showing that the payment only rested on a sense of moral obligation on the part of the people. It would have been difficult to go further while a foreign government was in power, even if the religious leaders had desired to do so. Moreover, God can only accept the offerings that are given freely with heart and will, for all He cares for is the spirit of the gift.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Nehemiah 10". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/nehemiah-10.html.
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