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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Nehemiah 9

 

 

Verses 1-38

THE RELIGION OF HISTORY

Nehemiah 9:1-38

AFTER the carnival-Lent. This Catholic procedure was anticipated by the Jews in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. The merry feast of Tabernacles was scarcely over, when, permitting an interval of but a single day, the citizens of Jerusalem plunged into a demonstration of mourning-fasting, sitting in sackcloth, casting dust on their heads, abjuring foreign connections, confessing their own and their fathers’ sins. Although the singular revulsion of feeling may have been quite spontaneous on the part of the people, the violent reaction to which it gave rise was sanctioned by the authorities. In an open-air meeting which lasted for six hours-three of Bible-reading and three of confession and worship-the Levites took the lead, as they had done at the publication of The Law a few weeks earlier. But these very men had rebuked the former outburst of lamentation. Must we suppose that their only objection on that occasion was that the mourning was then untimely, because it was indulged in at a festival, whereas it ought to have been postponed to a fast day? If that were all, we should have to contemplate a miserably artificial condition of affairs. Real emotions refuse to come and go at the bidding of officials pedantically set on regulating their alternate recurrence in accordance with a calendar of the church year. A theatrical representation of feeling may be drilled into some such orderly procession. But true feeling itself is of all things in the universe the most restive under direct orders.

We must look a little deeper. The Levites had given a great spiritual reason for the restraint of grief in their wonderful utterance, "The joy of the Lord is your strength." This noble thought is not an elixir to be administered or withheld according to the recurrence of ecclesiastical dates. If it is true at all, it is eternally true. Although the application of it is not always a fact of experience, the reason for the fluctuations in our personal relations to it is not to be looked for in the almanac; it will be found in those dark passages of human life which, of their own accord, shut out the sunlight of Divine gladness. There is then no absolute inconsistency in the action of the Levites. And yet perhaps they may have perceived that they had been hasty in their repression of the first outburst of grief, or at all events that they did not then see the whole truth of the matter. There was some ground for lamentation after all, and though the expression of sorrow at a festival seemed to them untimely, they were bound to admit its fitness a little later. It is to be observed that another subject was now brought under the notice of the people. The contemplation of the revelation of God’s will should not produce grief. But the consideration of man’s conduct cannot but lead to that result. At the reading of the Divine law the Jews’ lamentation was rebuked; at the recital of their own history it was encouraged. Yet even here it was not to be abject and hopeless. The Levites exhorted the people to shake off the lethargy of sorrow, to stand up and bless the Lord their God. Even in the very act of confessing sin we have a special reason for praising God, because the consciousness of our guilt in His sight must heighten our appreciation of His marvellous forbearance.

The Jews’ confession of sin led up to a prayer which the Septuagint ascribes to Ezra. It does so, however, in a phrase that manifestly breaks the context, and thus betrays its origin in an interpolation. [Ezra 9:6-15] Nevertheless the tone of the prayer, and even its very language, remind us forcibly of the Great Scribe’s outpouring of soul over the mixed marriages of his people recorded in Ezra 9:1-15. No one was more fitted to lead the Jews in the later act of devotion, and it is only reasonable to conclude that the work was undertaken by the one man to whose lot it would naturally fall.

The prayer is very like some of the historical psalms. By pointing to the variegated picture of the History of Israel, it shows how God reveals Himself through events. This suggests the probability that the three hours’ reading of the fast day had been taken from the historical parts of the Pentateuch. The religious teachers of Israel knew what riches of instruction were buried in the history of their nation, and they had the wisdom to unearth those treasures for the benefit of their own age. It is strange that we English have made so little use of a national history that is not a whit less providential, although it does not glitter with visible miracles. God has spoken to England as truly through the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Puritan Wars, and the Revolution, as ever He spoke to Israel by means of the Exodus, the Captivity, and the Return.

The arrangement and method of the prayer lend themselves to a singularly forcible presentation of its main topics, with heightening effect as it proceeds in a recapitulation of great historical landmarks. It opens with an outburst of praise to God. In saying that Jehovah is God alone, it makes more than a cold pronouncement of Jewish monotheism; it confesses the practical supremacy of God over His universe, and therefore over His people and their enemies. God is adored as the Creator of heaven, and, perhaps with an allusion to the prevalent Gentile title "God of heaven," as even the Maker of the heaven of heavens, of that higher heaven of which the starry firmament is but the gold-sprinkled floor. There, in those far-off, unseen heights, He is adored. But earth and sea, with all that inhabit them, are also God’s works. From the highest to the lowest, over great and small, He reigns supreme. This glowing expression of adoration constitutes a suitable exordium. It is right and fitting that we should approach God in the attitude of pure worship, for the moment entirely losing ourselves in the contemplation of Him. This is the loftiest act of prayer, far above the selfish shriek for help in dire distress to which unspiritual men confine their utterance before God. It is also the most enlightening preparation for those lower forms of devotion that cannot be neglected so long as we are engaged on earth with our personal needs and sins, because it is necessary for us first of all to know what God is, and to be able to contemplate the thought of His being and nature, if we would understand the course of His action among men, or see our sins in the only true light-the light of His countenance. We can best trace the course of low-lying valleys from a mountain height. The primary act of adoration illumines and directs the thanksgiving, confession, and petition that follow. He who has once seen God knows how to look at the world and his own heart, without being misled by earthly glamour or personal prejudice.

In tracking the course of revelation through history, the author of the prayer follows two threads. First one and then the other is uppermost, but it is the interweaving of them that gives the definite pattern of the whole picture. These are God’s grace and man’s sin. The method of the prayer is to bring them into view alternately, as they are illustrated in the History of Israel. The result is like a drama of several acts, and three scenes in each act. Although we see progress and a continuous heightening of effect, there is a startling resemblance between the successive acts, and the relative characters of the scenes remain the same throughout. In the first scene we always behold the free and generous favour of God offered to the people He condescends to bless, altogether apart from any merits or claims on their part. In the second we are forced to look at the ugly picture of Israel’s ingratitude and rebellion. But this is invariably followed by a third scene, which depicts the wonderful patience and long-suffering of God, and His active aid in delivering His guilty people from the troubles they have brought on their own heads by their sins, whenever they turn to Him in penitence.

The recital opens where the Jews delighted to trace their origin, in Ur of the Chaldees. These returned exiles from Babylon are reminded that at the very dawn of their ancestral history the same district was the starting-point. The guiding hand of God was seen in bringing up the Father of the Nation in that far-off tribal migration from Chaldaea to Canaan. At first the Divine action did not need to exhibit all the traits of grace and power that were seen later, because Abraham was not a captive. Then, too, there was no rebellion, for Abraham was faithful. Thus the first scene opens with the mild radiance of early morning. As yet there is nothing tragic on either side. The chief characteristic of this scene is its promise, and the author of the prayer anticipates some of the later scenes by interjecting a grateful recognition of the faithfulness of God in keeping His word. "For Thou art righteous," he says. [Nehemiah 9:8] This truth is the keynote to the prayer. The thought of it is always present as an undertone, and it emerges clearly again towards the conclusion, where, however, it wears a very different garb. There we see how in view of man’s sin God’s righteousness inflicts chastisement. But the intention of the author is to show that throughout all the vicissitudes of history God holds on to His straight line of righteousness, unwavering. It is just because He does not change that His action must be modified in order to adjust itself to the shifting behaviour of men and women. It is the very immutability of God that requires Him to show Himself froward with the froward, although He is merciful with the merciful.

The chief events of the Exodus are next briefly recapitulated, in order to enlarge the picture of God’s early goodness to Israel. Here we may discern more than promise; the fulfilment now begins. Here, too, God is seen in that specific activity of deliverance which comes more and more to the front as the history proceeds. While the calamities of the people grow worse and worse, God reveals Himself with ever-increasing force as the Redeemer of Israel. The plagues of Egypt, the passage of the Red Sea, the drowning of the Egyptians, the cloud-pillar by day and the pillar of fire by night, the descent on Sinai for the giving of The Law-in which connection the one law of the Sabbath is singled out, a point to be noted in view of the great prominence given to it later on-the manna, and the water from the rock, are all signs and proofs of God’s exceeding kindness towards His people.

But now we are directed to a very different scene. In spite of all this never-ceasing, this ever-accumulating goodness of God, the infatuated people rebel, appoint a captain to take them back to Egypt, and relapse into idolatry. This is the human side of the history, shown up in its deep blackness against the luminous splendour of the heavenly background.

Then comes the marvellous third scene, the scene that should melt the hardest heart. God does not cast off His people. The privileges enumerated before are carefully repeated, to show that God has not withdrawn them. Still the cloud-pillar guides by day and the fire-pillar by night. Still the manna and the water are supplied. But this is not all. Between these two pairs of favours a new one is now inserted. God gives His "good Spirit" to instruct the people. The author does not seem to be referring to any one specific event, as that of the Spirit falling on the elders, or the incident of the unauthorised prophet, or the bestowal of the Spirit on the artists of the tabernacle. We should rather conclude from the generality of his terms that he is thinking of the gift of the Spirit in each of these cases, and also in every other way in which the Divine Presence was felt in the hearts of the people. Prone to wander, they needed and they received this inward monitor. Thus God showed His great forbearance, by even extending His grace and giving more help because the need was greater.

From this picture of the wilderness life we are led on to the conquest of the Promised Land. The Israelites overthrow the kings east of the Jordan, and take possession of their territories. Growing in numbers, after a time they are strong enough to cross the Jordan, seize the land of Canaan, and subdue the aboriginal inhabitants. Then we see them settling down in their new home and inheriting the products of the labours of their more civilised predecessors. All this is a further proof of the favour of God. Yet again the dreadful scene of ingratitude is repeated, and that in an aggravated form. A wild fury of rebellion takes hold of the wicked people. They rise up against their God, fling His Torah behind their backs, murder the prophets He sends to warn them, and sink down into the greatest wickedness. The head and front of their offence is the rejection of the sacred Torah. The word Torah-law or instruction-must here be taken in its widest sense to comprehend both the utterances of the prophets and the tradition of the priests, although it is represented to the contemporaries of Ezra by its crown and completion, the Pentateuch. In this second act of heightened energy on both sides, while the characters of the actors are developing with stronger features, we have a third scene-forgiveness and deliverance from God.

Then the action moves more rapidly. It becomes almost confused. In general terms, with a few swift strokes, the author sketches a succession of similar movements-indeed he does little more than hint at them. We cannot see how often the threefold process was repeated, only we perceive that it always recurred in the same form. Yet the very monotony deepens the impression of the whole drama-so madly persistent was the backsliding habit of Israel, so grandly continuous was the patient long-suffering of God. We lose all count of the alternating scenes of light and darkness as we look at them down the long vista of the ages. And yet it is not necessary that we should assort them. The perspective may escape us; all the more must we feel the force of the process which is characterised by so powerful a unity of movement.

Coming nearer to his own time, the author of the prayer expands into detail again. While the kingdom lasted God did not cease to plead with His people. They disregarded His voice, but His Spirit was in the prophets, and the long line of heavenly messengers was a living testimony to the Divine forbearance. Heedless of this greatest and best means of bringing them back to their forsaken allegiance, the Jews were at length given over to the heathen. Yet that tremendous calamity was not without its mitigations. They were not utterly consumed. Even now God did not forsake them. He followed them into their captivity. This was apparent in the continuous advent of prophets-such as the Second Isaiah and Ezekiel-who appeared and delivered their oracles in the land of exile; it was most gloriously manifest in the return under Cyrus. Such long-continued goodness, beyond the utmost excess of the nation’s sin, surpassed all that could have been hoped for. It went beyond the promises of God; it could not be wholly comprehended in His faithfulness. Therefore another Divine attribute is now revealed. At first the prayer made mention of God’s righteousness, which was seen in the gift of Canaan as a fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, so that the author remarked, in regard to the performance of the Divine word, "for Thou art righteous." But now he reflects on the greater kindness, the uncovenanted kindness of the Exile and the Return: "for Thou art a gracious and merciful God." [Nehemiah 9:31] We can only account for such extended goodness by ascribing it to the infinite love of God.

Having thus brought his review down to his own day, in the concluding passage of the prayer the author appeals to God with reference to the present troubles of His people. In doing so he first returns to his contemplation of the nature of God. Three Divine characteristics rise up before him, -first, majesty ("the great, the mighty, the terrible God"), second, fidelity (keeping "covenant"), third, compassion (keeping "mercy"). [Nehemiah 9:32] On this threefold plea he beseeches God that all the national trouble which has been endured since the first Assyrian invasion may not "seem little" to Him. The greatness of God might appear to induce disregard of the troubles of His poor human children, and yet it would really lead to the opposite result. It is only the limited faculty that cannot stoop to small things because its attention is confined to large affairs. Infinity reaches to the infinitely little as readily as to the infinitely great. With the appeal for compassion goes a confession of sin, which is national rather than personal. All sections of the community on which the calamities have fallen-with the significant exception of the prophets who had possessed God’s Spirit, and who had been so grievously persecuted by their fellow countrymen-all are united in a common guilt. The solidarity of the Jewish race is here apparent. We saw in the earlier case of the sin-offering that the religion of Israel was national rather than personal. The punishment of the captivity was a national discipline; now the confession is for national sin. And yet the sin is confessed distributively, with regard to the several sections of society. We cannot feel our national sin in the bulk. It must be brought home to us in our several walks of life.

After this confession the prayer deplores the present state of the Jews. No reference is now made to the temporary annoyance occasioned by the attacks of the Samaritans. The building of the walls has put an end to that nuisance. But the permanent evil is more deeply rooted. The Jews are mournfully conscious of their subject state beneath the Persian yoke. They have returned to their city, but they are no more free men than they were in Babylon. Like the fellaheen of Syria today, they have to pay heavy tribute, which takes the best of the produce of their labour. They are subject to the conscription, having to serve in the armies of the Great King-Herodotus tells us that there were "Syrians of Palestine" in the army of Xerxes. Their cattle are seized by the officers of the government, arbitrarily, "at their pleasure." Did Nehemiah know of this complaint? If so, might there not be some ground for the suspicion of the informers after all? Was that suspicion one reason for his recall to Susa? We cannot answer these questions. As to the prayer, this leaves the whole case with God. It would have been dangerous to have said more in the hearing of the spies who haunted the streets of Jerusalem. And it was needless. It is not the business of prayer to try to move the hand of God. It is enough that we lay bare our state before Him, trusting His wisdom as well as His grace-not dictating to God, but confiding in Him.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Nehemiah 9:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/nehemiah-9.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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