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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
Nehemiah 9

 

 

Verses 1-39

IN VERSES Nehemiah 9:2-3, we see the effect which the reading of the law had upon the hearers. First, they separated themselves from all the entanglements with 'strangers', or 'foreigners', that they had been permitting. Secondly, they confessed their own sins, as well as the iniquities in which their fathers had been involved. Then thirdly, they honoured their God, by worshipping Him. They recognized that the word of the Lord, which they read, demanded obedience.

And this indeed is what we have to recognize. It is worthy of note that the epistle to the Romans, which, in its opening verses calls for obedience to the Gospel when it is preached, ends with the assertion that the 'mystery', which concerns Christ and the church, equally calls for 'the obedience of faith.' All the truth of God is revealed, not to provide us with philosophical ideas for the entertainment of our minds, but rather while entering mind and conscience, to lead us into happy obedience, as those brought into subjection to the will of God. This will certainly lead us into a life of separation from all that entangles and defiles, and also confession of failure and sin.

These two things must accompany each other. To separate without confession is not acceptable to God: neither is it acceptable if we confess without separating. When both are combined we are humbled before God, and brought into that state of mind and soul which befits us to take up our happy place as worshippers in the presence of God.

The worship that was offered to God through certain of the Levites is recounted in Nehemiah 9:4-6. They confessed Jehovah as their God, and owned that He is the Great Creator of heaven and earth, and exalted above all earthly and heavenly praise. It was suited to the revelation of God, in the light of which they lived. If we read Ephesians 1:3-7, we find the Apostle uttering worship in the light of the revelation that has reached us in Christ. And if we read Romans 11:33-36, we find the same Apostle in the spirit of worship as he contemplated the end to which His dealings with Israel will bring them, as well as ourselves. The Levites of Nehemiah's day could not anticipate the things made known to us, 'upon whom the ends of the ages are come' (1 Corinthians 10:11, New Trans.).

Having owned the Lord, as they knew Him at that time, they proceeded to recite before Him the wonder of His dealings with their nation, from Abram onwards through the centuries. The chapter is a lengthy one, and if it be carefully read, their chequered history comes before us, and we cannot fail to be struck by three things. First, they vindicate God in all His disciplinary dealings with them, as well as acknowledge His mighty power, that had wrought on their behalf in their deliverance from Egypt, their sustainment in the wilderness and their possession of the promised land. In all His dealings, God had acted towards them according to both mercy and righteousness.

And, in the second place, owning that the law with its 'right judgments', and 'good statutes', was perfect in its place, they made no attempt to justify their ancestors or themselves in their repeated sins and failures. They condemned themselves for their disobedience, which went even to the length of slaying the prophets, by whom God had testified against them and maintained His truth; and they owned the rightness of all that had come upon them, so that, though back in the land, they were still in a position of servitude to kings who were over them. This humble confession of sin was indeed good, equally with the acknowledgement of the rightness of all God's dealings with them.

But there was a third thing, which comes to light in the last verse of the chapter. Owning the 'great distress', that was still their portion, indeed because of it, they proposed to renew the old covenant of law, established originally with their ancestors, by making what they called 'a sure covenant', which they would write, and to which they would put their 'seal'.

So evidently they had not yet learned what the Apostle Paul so forcibly set before the Galatians-'As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse' (Galatians 3:10). The full period of Man's probation had not yet expired. Israel was the nation chosen of God in whom that probation, or testing, was to take place, and it did not end until they had crucified their Messiah. So we are not blaming these God fearing Israelites for again making a covenant on the original lines of the law, and putting their seal to it, in the hope that they would succeed better than their fathers in keeping it.

We shall do well to note, however, what transpired in their later history. We shall not conclude our reading of this book without finding grievous failure recorded: and if we pass on to the book of the prophet Malachi, written perhaps half a century after this time, we find that a most deplorable state of things had developed amongst their children and descendants. There was still a certain amount of outward religious profession, while the law itself was broken, the whole spirit of it perverted, and the transgressors themselves completely self-satisfied and intolerant of criticism: so much so, that they repudiate with indignation any accusation that the prophet had to bring against them in the name of the Lord.

There was, however, a spirit of revival, clearly at work among the people, and since their place and standing before God was on the basis of the law of Moses, some fresh resolution to reverence and obey it was the appropriate thing they had to offer. There have been moments of revival in the history of the church, graciously granted by God, but what has marked them has been some fresh recovery, not of what we ought to do for God, but of what He has done for us-some fresh understanding and realization of the fulness of the grace into which we have been brought by the Gospel, and to the place of favour and heavenly relationship which is the church's portion, according to the eternal counsels and purposes of God.

In this long prayer of confession, as they reviewed the history of their nation, we find that twice they acknowledged one of the great root causes of their sin: their forefathers had, 'dealt proudly' (verses Nehemiah 9:16; Nehemiah 9:29). Out of this spirit of pride, helped on doubtless by the very privilege and favour in which they stood as a nation, sprang the self-assertion and disobedience that had characterized their whole history; and that in their early days came to a head in the fact that they 'appointed a captain to return to their bondage' (verse Nehemiah 9:17), and when they 'made them a molten calf and said, This is thy God' (verse Nehemiah 9:18).

As a matter of history, the calf preceded the captain, for it was made at Sinai, when Moses was for so long on the mountain, as recorded in Exodus 32:1-35; whereas the proposal to appoint a captain and return to Egypt was made when they were condemned to 40 years wandering in the wilderness after the bad report of the spies, as recorded in Numbers 14:1-45. In reversing the historic order, it would seem that they first mentioned the effect, and then went back to the underlying cause.

The inspired comment on all this is, 'So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief' (Hebrews 3:19). Unbelief wants a God plainly visible to the natural eye: hence the making of the calf. It also is not prepared to face a 40 year sojourn in a wilderness without visible resources: hence the desire for a captain after their own heart, to lead them back to a land of plenty, even if it be a land of slavery. It is easy for us to see their error, but let us not forget that the flesh in ourselves has exactly the same desires and tendencies. It longs for something visible, and for what panders to our natural desires, even if we are spiritually enslaved in obtaining it. Here is indeed a case in which the Old Testament Scriptures, which Timothy had known from a child, are able to make us 'wise unto salvation' (2 Timothy 3:15).

We cannot indeed avoid the impression that similar evil principles were at work in the early centuries of the professing church. As faith vanished or declined, they wanted some visible representation of the Saviour, and then of His virgin mother. They wanted too a visible leader, who would relieve them of the troubles connected with the life of a stranger and a pilgrim in this present evil world, to which the Christian is called. As the centuries passed they got what they wanted in the crucifixes and images, and in the Papal chair, and its occupants, in Rome, that led them back into the spiritual bondage and darkness, of which Egypt was a type.

So the covenant was signed, which evidently reaffirmed their adherence to the old covenant, given at Sinai, which was indeed 'sure', in an absolute sense. They spoke of the covenant that they wrote and signed, as being sure, and so it was on God's side; but not so sure on their side, as we have already remarked. The first 27 verses of chapter 10, record the names of the leaders, who signed the covenant on behalf of the people; and then the rest of that chapter records how the people generally bound themselves to observe the law as to questions of marriage, and of ordinances concerning the upkeep of the temple service, and of the priests and Levites. They had separated themselves to obey the law, and as it says, they 'entered into a curse'. Everyone who stands before God on the basis of law, enters into a curse. Significantly enough, the last word in the Old Testament is the word 'curse'.

 


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Nehemiah 9:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/nehemiah-9.html. 1947.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, December 16th, 2019
the Third Week of Advent
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