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Commentary On The Book Of Nehemiah 8-10

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

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 (8.1-10.39).

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 Law Of Moses Is Read And Explained At The Celebration Of The Feasts Of The Seventh Month (8.1-18).

The final words that closed off the list of returnees formed a suitable preface to what Nehemiah now wanted to introduce, the proclamation of the Law by Ezra the priest at the Feast of Trumpets and Tabernacles, something which he had witnessed for the first time. It was thus used as such an introduction, although the transition is slightly abrupt even though perfectly understandable . The fact that the following narrative is in the third person confirms that it did not form part of Nehemiah’s original report to Artaxerxes, the king of Persia, although it does give the impression of being by an eyewitness. Note the vivid description of the platform, and how it caused the occupants to be viewed by the people (8.5).

The first person narrative, written in Nehemiah’s vivid style, was found in 1.2-7.5 and it commences again in 12.27 ff. with a description of the dedication of the wall. It then goes on in chapter 13 to describe how Nehemiah dealt with some inconsistencies, although it is quite clear that the content of 13.4 onwards was not a part of the original report (see 13.6). 12.27 ff. may or may not have been. The king of Persia would be concerned to know that the dedication of the walls to YHWH had been properly accomplished (they were very much concerned that local gods be placated and ‘kept happy’ so that they would bless the kings of Persia. See Ezra 4.22; 6.10). But the main part of the original report is probably to be found in 1.1-7.73. On the other hand it may have included the dedication of the wall.

The enclosing of 8.1-12.26 within those two ‘first person’ sections would seem to demonstrate that the book as a whole is intended to be seen as the work of Nehemiah. The movement to the third person in 8.1 ff. may have been intended, firstly to differentiate what follows from the previous report, and secondly it may have been intended to lay emphasis on the participation of the people in what is described. Nehemiah would not have wanted to intrude himself on what was a work of God. But the account itself does appear to be the record of an eyewitness (notice his vivid descriptions of where Ezra stood), which, if not written by Nehemiah, was then incorporated into his narrative by Nehemiah. It should be noted that it was the people, not Nehemiah, who called on Ezra to perform the reading of the Law, something which was expected every seven years at the Feast of Tabernacles (Deuteronomy 31.10-13). There was a new enthusiasm for God.

This was the first reading of the Law since Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem which is why it was so important to him, and given in such detail. It does not, however, mean that Ezra had not previously read out the Law. He would surely have done so in 458 BC when he first arrived, Indeed, we can almost certainly assume that he did so, for it seems probable that it was the reading out of the Law that caused the princes in Ezra 9.1 to call on Ezra to deal with the question of idolatrous foreign wives in terms reminiscent of the Pentateuch. If Ezra was still then in Judah it may also have been read out by him in 451 BC. If he was absent it is very likely that it was read out by the priests. The material obtained from sources (e.g. the genealogies) which follows would necessarily be in the third person.

The Reading And Explaining Of The Law (8.1-8).

The first stage of covenant renewal was the reading and explaining of the Law. Such reading and explaining of a section of the Law may well have taken place in their synagogues in Babylon each Sabbath, but here it was to be far more detailed. The people having gathered for the Feast of trumpets on the new moon day, the Law was read to them by Ezra and his companions from day break to midday, probably with breaks as the Levites provided explanations. And its impact was so great that the people wept. It was a Day of Atonement in miniature. This was then followed by feasting as they ate before YHWH.

7.73b ‘And when the seventh month was come, the children of Israel were in their cities.’

As we have seen these were the closing words of the list which Nehemiah had utilised on chapter 7, but it is here being used (as in Ezra 3.1a) as a suitable introduction to what follows. Once again ‘the seventh month’, the Festal month, had come. It would begin, as always on the new moon day, the first day of the month, which was the Feast of Trumpets (Rams’ Horns), and it would continue on the tenth day with the Day of Atonement, and this would then lead on to the Feast of Tabernacles from the fifteenth day of the month to the twenty first day of the month, being concluded by the great day of the Feast on the twenty second day (‘the eighth day of the Feast’). During this period large numbers of offerings and sacrifices would be offered (Numbers 29).

8.1 ‘And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate, and they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book (scrolls) of the Law of Moses, which YHWH had commanded to Israel.’

In 7.73 they were ‘in their cities’. That had been a triumphant indication of restoration by YHWH. But in this context it does not mean that they were in their cities literally (although they were technically, for that is where their homes were), for they would have travelled to Jerusalem prior to the first day of the seventh month in order to be present for the Feast of Trumpets.

And having now arrived they gathered themselves together ‘as one man’ (compare Ezra 3.1). This would appear to have been a traditional way of describing the gathering together of the people. And where they gathered was clearly in Jerusalem, although that is not spelt out here. Here we are given more exact detail. They gathered in the broad place that was before the Water Gate (compare 3.26; 12.37). This may well have been outside the walls built by Nehemiah, as the Water Gate may have been in the old wall which had been destroyed but the area was clearly large enough to enable all the people, male and female, young and old, to gather. Alternately some see the Water Gate as having been a gate associated with the Temple. That the meeting had been planned meticulously comes out in that the platform from which Ezra would read was already built. The gathering of all the people on the Feast of Trumpets, the first day of the seventh month, indicates the speed at which preparations had gone forward, for the building of the wall had only ceased on the twenty fifth day of the previous month (6.15), although having said that, as that was once the doors had been hung, most of the builders may have returned home somewhat earlier. However, as we have already gathered Nehemiah was used to working at speed, and the people would already have been preparing for the Feasts of the seventh month. They would know that those would have to be observed, regardless of the building of the wall.

Having gathered the people called on Ezra the Scribe (an official title indicating his authoritative position as Teacher of the Law appointed by Artaxerxes, see Ezra 7.11-12) to bring ‘the scrolls containing the Law of Moses which YHWH had commanded to Israel’. The description is clearly of scrolls containing an ancient message passed down throughout their history, not of a contemporary concoction by Ezra. And they were clearly seen as ‘the Word of God’. This was a pre-empting of what would usually happen every seven years on the fifteenth day of the month, and indicates the eagerness of the people to hear the word of God. A new Spirit was at work among the people.

8.2 ‘And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women, and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month.’ This was on the first day of the seventh month, when the trumpets would be blown (Leviticus 23.24-25; Numbers 29.1-6) heralding the month of penitence and celebration. Now the loudest trumpet of all was to be blown, the proclamation of the Law of God. It was unusual for this to take place on this day so early in the month, but the people had come together and were eager for it.

It is significant that it was Ezra, and not the High Priest, who was responsible for the carrying out of God’s commandment. This demonstrates his unique position as being the appointee of the Persian government. All in Judah acknowledged that from the highest to the lowest. It also confirms the historicity of the Book of Nehemiah.

8.3 ‘And he read in it before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were (attentive to, focused on) to the book of the Law.’

Ezra read from the Law of God in the chosen place, from early morning to midday, for about six or seven hours. He may not have read all the time, for it may well have been read in relays by him and the thirteen men with him on the platform that had been erected. It may also have been interspersed with translations into Aramaic for those not familiar with Hebrew after their sojourn in Babylon (as would happen later in the synagogues). These may possibly have been made by the Levites. But note 13.24 which may suggest that Nehemiah expected all Jews to be able to speak Hebrew.

‘He read in it.’ This may be seen as suggesting that he read selections in it which he felt under God to be suitable to the occasion. Note the emphasis on the fact that the ears of the people were attentive to the Law. The Spirit of God was moving among them and their hearts were hungry after God.

It is perhaps significant for the future that the attention is not on the splendour of Ezra (as it had been on the splendour of Solomon), or on the appearance of ‘the glory’ (Exodus 34.29-34; 40.34), but on the words of the Torah seen as the word of God which had been ‘commanded’ to Israel (verse 1). The word had replaced the glory. It was to be seen as both authoritative and divine in origin.

In typical Old Testament fashion, having declared what happened, the narrative now explains it in more detail.

8.4 ‘And Ezra the scribe stood on a platform of wood, which they had made for the purpose, and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Uriah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchijah, and Hashum, and Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam.’

Ezra, now as ‘Ezra the Scribe’ (in 8.9 he will be ‘Ezra the priest, the scribe’), stood on a wooden platform which had been erected for the occasion. It was as ‘the Scribe’ that he would proclaim it to the people, in one sense as the representative of Artaxeres, as ‘the Scribe of the words of the commandments of YHWH, and of His statutes for Israel’ (Ezra 7.11), but in a far deeper sense as a representative of God, as the fulfiller of the command in Deuteronomy. This platform had its forebear in the brazen platform erected by Solomon at the dedication of the first Temple (2 Chronicles 6.13). With him were thirteen named people. Together with Ezra they made up fourteen, seven and seven, an intensification of the number of divine perfection and completeness (to introduce a seventh on his right hand would spoil the perfect number, something which 1 Esdras overlooked). It is probable that these thirteen were there to assist with the reading, and possibly the Aramaic paraphrase. They may have been priests, but in post-exilic Judaism the reading of the Law was not limited to priests, and in the Book of Nehemiah priests are usually identified as such. The total absence of the priests from the descriptions of the scene (although they would necessarily be present, is quite remarkable. Ezra had taken over their responsibilities as the king’s representative. It is noteworthy that in 8.9 they are not even included among those who encouraged the people when they wept.

The number thirteen is confirmed by comparison with the Levites in 8.7. There also there were thirteen, again acting as Ezra’s representatives (see verse 9). Thus Ezra again makes up the fourteen (unless we see ‘the Levites’ as making up the fourteenth). On the other hand thirteen may have had a special significance at the Feast of Tabernacles for on the first day thirteen bullocks were offered, although that may simply be in order to reduce to seven, the divine number, on the seventh day (Numbers 29.13, 32).

It may be that this Uriah was the one described as the father of the Meremoth, a builder of the wall, in 3.4, 21: that Maaseiah was the father of the Azariah in 3.23; that Pedaiah, was the individual named in 3.25; that Meshullam was the one described in 3.4, 6; and that Malchijah was the one described in 3.11, 14, 31. A Hashum is also mentioned in 7.22, of whom this may be a descendant, and an Anaiah in 10.22. Furthermore a Mattithiah is named in Ezra 10.43; a Maaseiah in Ezra 10.18; and a Malchijah in Ezra 10.25, in connection with the question of idolatrous foreign wives. A Zechariah was one of the "chief men" dispatched by Ezra to bring Levites from Casiphia (Ezra 8:16). But as no father’s names are given here we cannot be sure of identification.

8.5 ‘And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, (for he was above all the people), and when he opened it, all the people stood up.’

The words give the impression of an eyewitness who clearly remember the scene. It would have been a most impressive scene. First Ezra came onto the platform before the hushed crowd with the scrolls of the Law in his hands, (with some scrolls possibly carried by his companions). And then, as they watched in awe, he, being well above the people on the platform, opened up one of the scrolls in front of them. At this point all the people stood on their feet and waited for him to read. This reminds us that at some stage it had become the practise to listen to the Law being read while standing. This was a mark of respect at receiving a word from God (compare Judges 3.20; Job 29.8; Ezekiel 2.1).

8.6 ‘And Ezra blessed YHWH, the great God. And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” with the lifting up of their hands, and they bowed their heads, and worshipped YHWH with their faces to the ground.’

A word of praise and worship prior to the reading had probably become standard practise. How far Ezra was following practise from the synagogues in Babylon, and how far later synagogue worship was based on Ezra’s activities here we can never know, but certainly prayer before the reading of the Torah must have been normal. And Ezra ‘blessed the great God’. The title ‘the great God’ (ha-elohim ha-gedol) is not found elsewhere, although a similar title (ha-el ha-gedol) is found in 1.5; 9.32; Deuteronomy 10.17; Jeremiah 32.18, in all of which, however, it is accompanied by other titles. It has been suggested that it is based on the Neo-Babylonian ilu rabu. It is, of course, underlining the greatness of the God Whose covenant was being proclaimed, and who had delivered them from their captivity in Babylon.

All the people answered, ‘Amen, amen’, expressing their heartfelt agreement with Ezra’s worship. This usage of ‘amen’ (so let it be) is found elsewhere in 5.13 where it endorsed Nehemiah’s judgment on those who did not fulfil their responsibilities; in Jeremiah 28.6, where the prophet endorses with it the words of Hananiah; in Numbers 5.22 where the woman who drinks ‘the water of bitterness’ assents to a curse coming on her if she has lied; and in Deuteronomy 27.15-26 where it is used at the end of each curse on those who transgress the covenant. It also occurs at the close of each of the first four books of psalms ( Psalm 41.13; 72.19; 89.52; 106.48; in each case following a similar blessing of God), and of a blessing invoked on God (1 Chronicles 16.36).

‘With the lifting up of their hands, and they bowed their heads, and worshipped YHWH with their faces to the ground.’ The lifting up of the hand was a kind of appeal and supplication to God (compare Exodus 17.11-12; Ezra 9.5; Psalm 28.2; 134.2), while their bowing of their heads so that their faces were to the ground, was an expression of obedience and humility. Whether they in fact fell on their faces is open to question. In the huge crowds space would be limited.

8.7 ‘ Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and (or ‘that is’) the Levites, caused the people to understand the Law, and the people (stood) in their place.’

Then as the Law was being read out, possibly with suitable pauses, thirteen specially appointed Levites, who had presumably been stationed among the people, gave the people guidance, and helped them to understand the Law. This was a traditional function of the Levites (see Deuteronomy 33.10; 2 Chronicles 17.7-9; 35.3). But it may have included translation into Aramaic. Note the continual emphasis on ‘understanding’ (verses 2, 3, 7, 8). Understanding what was read was conceived to be of vital importance. Meanwhile the people remained standing in their places. The fact that the Levites were standing among the people would enable questions to be asked, and answered.

Most of the names given are familiar to us from elsewhere, although not as necessarily indicating the same people. With regard to Jeshua, we have, apart from Jeshua (Joshua) the High Priest, Jeshua as the head of a Levitical house which had oversight of the workmen in the temple when the Temple was being rebuilt (Ezra 3.9; compare 7.43; 12.8; Ezra 2.40). This Jeshua may well have been a descendant of his. This Jeshua is probably mentioned again in 9.4 ff, as confessing sin and leading in the worship, and in 10.9, where he is called the son of Azaniah, as being among those who sealed the covenant. He is possibly referred to in 12.24 as a leader of the Levites who offered praise to God, if bn is read as a proper name for Bani (Binnui) instead of as ‘son of’. He may well be the father of the Jozabad who was a Levite who received the Temple gold from Ezra (Ezra 8.33), and the father of Ezer, a Levite who oversaw the building of part of the wall (3.19).

Bani also, as a Levite, sealed the covenant (10.13), and was named alongside Jeshua as confessing sin and leading in worship in 9.4 ff. He may well also have been the father of a Levite wallbuilder named Rehum (3.17), and of another Levite named Uzzi, who was an overseer of the Levites in Jerusalem (11.22). For a possible mention in 12.24 see on Jeshua above.

Sherebiah was among those who made public confession and worshipped God (9.4 ff.) and those who sealed the covenant (10:12). His name also appears in 12.24 as a leader of the Levites who offered praise to God. The name Akkub occurs of a Levite gate-keeper on duty at the east gate of the second Temple (1 Chronicles 9.17), but he is unlikely to be identified with him. Shabbethai is mentioned as one of the chiefs of the Levites who had the oversight of ‘the outward business of the house of God (11:16). Hodiah was one of those who confessed his sin and led the prayers of the people in 9.5, and was one of the two Levites of that name who sealed the covenant (10.10, 13). Maaseiah was otherwise unknown, although the name occurs elsewhere as a ‘chief of the people’ (11.25) as one who shared the platform with Ezra (8.4), and as the father of Azariah the wall builder (3.23). A Kelita is mentioned as a signatory of the covenant (10.10), and as having married an idolatrous foreign wife (Ezra 10.23). Azariah, a very popular Jewish name, was a son of Maaseiah, and helped repair the walls of Jerusalem (3.23), but he was probably not this one. It was also the name of a priest who sealed the covenant (10.2), and of a prince of Judah who is mentioned in connection with the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem (12:33). Jozabad is mentioned as having married an idolatrous foreign wife (Ezra 10.23). Hanan was a signatory of the covenant (10.10), and was one of the four treasurers put in charge of the tithes by Nehemiah (13.13). Pelaiah was a signatory of the covenant (10.10).

8.8 ‘And they read in the book, in the Law of God, distinctly, and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading.’

This verse summarises what has gone before. They ( those on the platform) read in the written record, in the Law of God, distinctly (or ‘paragraph by paragraph’), whilst they, (the Levite instructors), gave the sense so that they (the people) understood the reading. It was a summing up of the whole procedure.

The People Wept On Hearing The Law And Were Exhorted Not To Do So By Their Leaders On The Grounds That This Was An Occasion For Celebration (8.9-12).

It is apparent that there was a revival atmosphere at the gathering. God was present among them and His Holy Spirit was moving on men’s hearts through His chosen one in the same way as at the Exodus (Isaiah 63.11). In consequence God’s commands went deep into their hearts and they wept as they realised how far they had come short. But their leaders then called on them not to weep. Rather they were to rejoice, because it was YHWH’s holy day, a day when God was at work among them. And as a result they moved from weeping to rejoicing, figuratively feasting at God’s holy table, as the elders had at the Exodus (Exodus 24.9-11).

In the Law the Feast of Trumpets (the new moon day of the seventh moon period) was specifically designated as a ‘holy day’ (Leviticus 23.24; Numbers 29.1-6). It was a day of many offerings and sacrifices over and above the norm, a day especially set apart for YHWH in which no servile work was to be done.

It is significant that here within this day on this occasion the whole of the festivities of the seventh month are encapsulated. First the proclamation of God’s truth takes place, like the blowing of a trumpet (8.1-8), then there is responsive weeping as on the Day of Atonement (8.9), and finally there is feasting as on the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles (8.10-12).

8.9 ‘And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people, said (singular verb) to all the people, “This day is holy to YHWH your God, do not mourn, nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.’

The weeping of the people, as God’s Holy Spirit brought home to them His words, demonstrated the genuineness of their feelings. This was no formal hearing of the Law, or formal weeping in accordance with tradition. It was a genuine repentance for sin. The thought of how Jerusalem had been restored and was once more ‘whole’ had brought a new impetus to the Law (Torah - ‘instruction’), and it now came home to them with new meaning. It also brought home a new meaning to the seventh month. There was seen to be good reason for blowing the rams’ horns, and for heeding the words of God.

The weeping of the people was such that it moved those who were responsible for them to respond, in order to deal with their anguish. And this their leaders and teachers naturally did. Up to this point the governor Nehemiah had remained in the background as what was happening had come under the jurisdiction of Ezra’s appointment by Artaxerxes (Ezra 7.13-14, 25-26), but now, when the people wept and were distraught, it became the governor’s responsibility and he came to the fore. From our knowledge of his personal godliness we are not surprised at his intervention. He would naturally feel responsibility for them. And along with his efforts were those of Ezra, as both Priest and Scribe, and of the teaching Levites. This is one of the rare places where Nehemiah and Ezra are mentioned side by side.

Note On The Suggestion That The Name Of Nehemiah Be Excised From Verse 9.

Many scholars have suggested that the name of Nehemiah was inserted in verse 9 by a later copyist or editor. They feel his presence to be inconsistent. On what then do they base that idea?

Firstly it is pointed out that Nehemiah and Ezra are only seen as acting together in only two places, here in 8.9, and in 12.36 (taken with verse 31). We must remember, however, that the tendency in the Book is only to mention those directly responsible for something. This lessens the impact of that fact. For while Ezra does indeed have only a small part to play in the Book of Nehemiah, it is understandable why that is so. It is because the Book deals with concerns outside the jurisdiction of Ezra. He was not High Priest but an appointee of the Persian king charged with the maintenance, explanation and enforcement of the Law of God on all Jewish people (Ezra 7.14, 25).

Furthermore, however closely allied to religious matters the first few chapters may be, they are not dealing with the interpretation and application of the Law, but with a political initiative which is very much dependent on Nehemiah’s personal relationship with the king. And there the High Priest and the priests are very much involved as we have seen. Even in chapter 5 there was no dispute about the what the Law said. What Nehemiah was requesting went beyond the Law, even though observing its spirit. He was acting as a statesman with a background knowledge of the Law. No one disagreed about what the Law actually said

It was only when the Law was to be read and expounded that Ezra’s jurisdiction applied. And we note that here in chapter 8 it was Ezra, and not the High Priest, who was called on for the purpose. Had he not been the appointee of the king of Persia with specific authority on such matters this would have been an insult to the High Priest. But it is that very fact that explains why, apart from in this chapter, he is elsewhere in the Book only certainly mentioned once. He is not, for example, mentioned in respect of the building of the wall. That was a practical, not a ‘legal’ matter. But that may also well have been because he was engaged in fulfilling what was his prime responsibility as established by the king, of promulgating the Law among all Jews in Beyond the River (assuming that he was still active in that process which is what this chapter suggests), and besides, he had no group of workmen on whom he could call. Nor was he probably a signatory to the covenant (see chapter 10), even though he may have had a hand in drawing it up. Again that would be because it was signed by heads of families, whilst he was not necessarily head of his family. It will, however, be noted that as the king’s appointed representative he was called on to participate in the dedication of the walls.

In the same way we note that Nehemiah does not have a prominent part to play in chapter 8. And the reason for that was that this did fall within Ezra’s jurisdiction. He was the government authorised expounder of the Law. That is why Nehemiah only comes in when the people are visibly upset. He feels then that he is justified in intervening. Otherwise Nehemiah is seen by the original writer as simply not involved. In his view this was directly subject to Ezra as a religious matter to do with the meaning of the Law.

Why then, in view of all this, should it be suggested that Nehemiah’s name was not originally in the text?

The first ground put forward is that in the Septuagint, whilst Nehemiah is named, his description as ‘the governor’ is excluded. But whatever the reason for that, that can really only be used to suggest that the description is secondary, not that his name should be excluded. In contrast in 1 Esdras he is referred to by his description, and not by his name. But before we make too much of the omission of his name we should notice that what is written in 1 Esdras is not simply a parallel to this chapter, but with Nehemiah’s name omitted. It is rather a whole rewriting of the narrative. And when we take into account its context, an account of Ezra’s life, we can immediately understand why he excluded the name of Nehemiah. It was because his concentration was on Ezra. This therefore gives even more significance to the fact that he felt that he had at least to include the governor in terms of his description. The textual evidence for excluding Nehemiah’s name from the text here in 8.9 is therefore inconclusive and weak.

The second ground put forward for excluding Nehemiah’s name is the use of singular verbs in 8.9-10. On this basis some have sought to exclude both Nehemiah and the Levites, suggesting that that is what the singular verb requires. But in fact many scholars accept that it would be consistent with Old Testament usage for a singular verb to be used when placed (in the Hebrew) before a composite group where it is expressing the action of that composite group as in verse 9. We need then only to see that usage of a singular verb as also affecting the person of the verb in verse 10 for the difficulty to be removed. The verbs can then be seen as referring to Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites, seen as acting as one.

Thus in our view there are no solid grounds for excluding the name of Nehemiah from verse 9.

End of note.

8.10 ‘Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord: nor be you grieved, for the joy of YHWH is your strength.’

Whilst this could be seen as only spoken by Nehemiah (note the interest expressed in the needs of the poor), or Ezra, the verb should more probably be translated ‘they’ as indicating the composite group of Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites, the singular being the result of the usage in the previous verse.

It does, of course, summarise a number of instructions that were given. Firstly that they should be positive and celebrate the feast with joy, eating of the best (not the fat potions which belonged to YHWH, but the fatter portions which were the best of what remained) and drinking of the best (the meaning of the word for ‘sweet’ is uncertain), out of the offerings that they had brought, while meanwhile ensuring provision for those who had been in no position to bring offerings (compare Deuteronomy 12.12, 18; 14.29; 26.12). And this was because the day was ‘holy to YHWH’, separated off as His, and thus to be a time of rejoicing as signifying the solidity of God’s covenant with them. Nor were they to be grieved. Their repentance had been right, but now the sin offering had been offered in accordance with the Law’s requirements, and therefore their sins as a nation had been forgiven (Numbers 29.5). Thus their strength now lay in ‘the joy of YHWH’, the rejoicing that He aroused in them through their coming to him on the basis of His covenant which would make them strong and protect them from His judgment.

8.11 ‘So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Hold your peace, for the day is holy, nor be you grieved.”

Nehemiah and Ezra would have spoken to the people as a whole, or possibly through their leaders. It was the Levites who went among the people (as they had when Ezra read the Law) and gave more personal teaching. They too called on the people to cease their weeping because the day was holy to YHWH and therefore to be rejoiced in. It was not a day in which to be grieving, but a day for joy.

8.12 ‘And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.’

In consequence of the ministrations of Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites the people responded, putting aside their weeping in order to eat and drink, and rejoice before YHWH. And they ensured that portions of food and drink were supplied to those who had none, as had been required. But it was not done heedlessly or carelessly. It was done because they understood the word that had been declared to them. They recognised that weeping was no longer in order because they had received forgiveness, and were now securely enjoying His covenant protection. In the words of the Psalmist, ‘For his anger is but a moment. In his favour is life. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30.5).

There is a lesson for us all here in that we too should know times of weeping when we sin and displease God. But we must then be ready to accept His forgiveness and not continue in mourning over sin. Rather we should rejoice in the forgiveness that is ours through Him, and go forward in the joy of the Lord. While weeping has its place, the Christian life should on the whole be one of continual joy, even when circumstances are hard.

Occurrences On The Second Day Of The Seventh Month (8.13-16).

The Feast of Trumpets being over, the majority of the people returned home in order to fulfil their daily work responsibilities, mainly in the fields and among the flocks and herds. This was especially necessary due to the time spent by the adult males on building the wall. But the aristocrats, priests and Levites, who did not have the same responsibilities, again gathered, on the day after the Feast, in order to hear more of the Torah and what Ezra had to say concerning it. This was in fulfilment of the role assigned to him by the king of Persia. In consequence of this they found in Leviticus 23.40, 42 the requirement for all Israel to live in booths over the Feast of Tabernacles.

8.13 ‘And on the second day were gathered together the heads of fathers’ (houses) of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, to Ezra the scribe, even to give attention to the words of the Law.’

The second day was the day following the Feast of Trumpets (Rams’ Horns). On that day the leaders of tribes, sub-tribes, clans and wider families gathered together with the priests and Levites to hear a further reading of the Torah and to give attention to Ezra’s expounding of it. They may well have been aroused by the previous day’s experience to recognise their need to have a greater understanding so as to guide their people. Their unanimous response indicates Ezra’s special and unique position. Even the High Priest would presumably be present.

8.14-15 ‘And they found written in the Law, how YHWH had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month, and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go forth to the mount, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.”

These words are not specifically citing the Law, but drawing out from it its meaning. The important point learned by them was that they were to dwell in booths made of tree branches in commemoration of the time in the wilderness after Israel had been redeemed from Egypt. “You shall dwell in booths seven days -- that your generation may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23.42-43). The idea of proclamation is found in Leviticus 23.4, whilst the feast was to observed ‘in the place which YHWH your God shall choose (Deuteronomy 16.15-16). Thus the writer adds here that they were to ‘publish and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem’.

The command is made in terms of the actual type of branches that they would use, given what was available in the land (which had not been available in the wilderness, thus ‘olive branches, wild olive branches, myrtle branches, palm branches and branches of thick trees’. Leviticus 23.40 cites ‘fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of thick trees’ which would be available in the wilderness. In 8.15 the ‘goodly trees’ are spelled out in detail. But note that in Leviticus they are not specifically said to be used in making the booths.

‘Go forth to the mount’, in other words, to the place which YHWH has chosen (Deuteronomy 16-15-16). Thus they were to gather to Jerusalem to build their booths. So Ezra has expanded on the ideas in Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16 in order to give specific and detailed instructions concerning the building of the booths at Jerusalem.

Their Observance Of The Feast Of Tabernacles (8.16-18).

The passage now jumps from the second day to the fifteenth day of the month, when the people having gathered their branches, assembled once more in Jerusalem for the seven day Feast of Tabernacles. There they erected booths to dwell in over the period of the Feast. The emphasis in the whole passage is not on outlining the Feasts of the month, (thus the observance of the Day of Atonement, which the people did not directly participate in publicly, is ignored), but on the reading out of and response to the Law followed by the building of booths in Jerusalem, commemorative of the Exodus, for the proper observance of the seven day Feast in fulfilment of that Law.

8.16 ‘So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one on the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim.’

As a consequence of what their leaders had learned from the Law (the Torah), as the fifteenth day approached the people gathered branches and assembled in Jerusalem, where they made themselves booths. Those who had houses built the booths on the roofs of their houses, and in the courts of the bigger houses, while others built theirs in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place by the Water Gate where they had previously assembled on the first day (verse 1), and in the broad place by the Gate of Ephraim. Thus Jerusalem was filled with booths, as they re-enacted the Exodus experience. They felt that they had taken part in a new Exodus.

8.17 ‘And all the assembly of those who were come again out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness.’

So ‘those who had come out of the captivity’ dwelt in booths, just as those who had come out of captivity in Egypt had previously done. They made booths and dwelt in booths in commemoration of the Exodus, just as in Joshua’s day the people had done the same. The phrase about those who had come out of captivity is used deliberately. They were thereby celebrating a new deliverance.

‘For since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the children of Israel had not done so.’ This is not denying that the Feast of Tabernacles had been observed at various times throughout their history. We know that it had been (Judges 21.19; 1 Samuel 1.3; 1 Kings 8.2, 65; 2 Chronicles 7.9; Zechariah 14.16; Ezra 3.4). Nor is it denying that many of them had made booths during that Feast. Indeed it was a harvest feast and booths were regularly built at harvest times where workers could rest and sleep. Compare how Boaz himself slept overnight at the site of the harvest (Ruth 3.7), although not in a booth. And booths were built during pagan festivities in which Israelites engaged. Indeed booths had no doubt been erected at harvest times by the returnees. But these were in order to aid ingathering (the feast was also called the Feast of Ingathering), and as a means of celebrating harvests, not as a symbol of deliverance from captivity. What is probably in mind is that booths had not been built for the purpose of commemorating the Exodus, and at the place which YHWH chose (the Tabernacle site and then the Temple site). After the time of Joshua Israel’s religious observance had gradually deteriorated, and dwelling in booths had been reinterpreted, with probably not all participating, especially in the great cities. But now Israel were being restored to their former faith, and this was to be a recognition that they were the people of God whom He had delivered from captivity.

8.18 ‘Also day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read in the book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according unto the ordinance.’

As well as sleeping in booths the people also listened to the Law (Torah) of Moses being read out to them day by day. On each day of the seven day feast Ezra read out to them sections of the book of the Law of God. And they observed the Feast in accordance with the requirements laid out in that Law (Leviticus 23.33-36; Deuteronomy 31.10-13). Then on the eighth day there was a ‘solemn gathering and observance’, just as the Law required. This requirement for the eighth day is found in Leviticus 23.33, 39; Numbers 29.35-38 so that we know that Ezra was reading at least from Leviticus (compare earlier on verses 14-15 re Leviticus 23). The word translated ‘solemn assembly’ is a comparatively rare one. It refers to the whole day as a day of ‘holding back’, and includes the thought of rest from servile work. Thus the people gathered, restraining both themselves and their servants from work, so as to celebrate the Day.

This day of complete rest, following immediately on a daily reading of the Law, and enforcing a period of meditation, had its inevitable consequence. The people had restrained their sorrow over sin (verse 9), which had initially been brought about by the reading of the Law, in order to observe the Feast with gladness. But meanwhile that sense of guilt had been increasing due to the hearing of the Law. After the thrill and buoyancy of the Feast came the inevitable emotional collapse. Now they gave full rein to their sense of guilt. And this caused them to remain in Jerusalem beyond the finalising of the Feast. Day by day throughout the Feast they had received more and more revelations out of the Law as it was read and interpreted daily. In consequence their feelings of guilt with regard to their failure to observe it fully would have been impressed on them more and more day by day. And this would no doubt having been exacerbated by the reading of the curses pronounced in Deuteronomy 27-28, which would presumably have been read on the last of the seven days of the Feast. It thus led to a renewed mourning over their sins and their failure to observe the covenant. And this was something which would now lead on to the proposal and acceptance of a renewed covenant (chapter 10).

The People Mourn Over Their Sins, Confess Them, And Are Led By The Levites In A Prayer Of Contrition And Remembrance Of God’s Grace Continually Revealed Towards Them In The Past, In Hope That In The Future He Will Again Restore His People (9.1-38).

On the second day following ‘the eighth day’ of the Feast (the twenty second day of the moon period), the people again gathered in what would appear to have been a spontaneous and informal gathering, although having said that it does climax with the sealing of the renewal of the covenant by all; by Nehemiah and the chiefs of the priests, by the chiefs of the Levites and by the chiefs of the people. But the emphasis is on the fact that the move was instigated by the people and carried through by the Levites. It was a ‘popular’ movement. The priests were seemingly not initially involved until the end when they responded to the peoples’ wishes.

It probably occurred in the outer court of the Temple (the ‘stairs of the Levites’ may well have been the steps leading up to the court of the priests), for ‘they stood in their place’, which probably signifies the court which the men of Israel were allowed to enter. By entering there they would necessarily ‘separate themselves from all foreigners (non-pure Yahwists)’ for such were not allowed to enter there. And there for about three hours they read a carefully selected portion of the Law of YHWH their God, following it with three hours of confession and worship offered to YHWH their God Himself, a period of worship led by the Levites who were responsible for the people’s spiritual well-being. It would appear to have been totally spontaneous.

In the history of spiritual revivals such spontaneous movements of the people in response to the word of God are well documented. The Spirit of God takes over and the people spontaneously gather for worship and confession. And that is what appears to have happened here. This was no ordinary time. It was a time resulting in a special movement of God. God was at work within His people. Far from the reading of the Law during the Feast having been merely formal, it had moved the hearts of the people deeply. And this was the consequence.

It should be noted that this method of confession and worship by reiterating the history of Israel, followed by a petition for deliverance (the latter implied here in Nehemiah), is also found in Psalm 106 (compare also in general Deuteronomy 26.5-11; Joshua 24.2-15 (where it leads up to a covenant); Psalms 105; 135; 136), and can be compared with Stephen’s speech in Act 7 and the words of the writer to the Hebrews in Hebrews 11. For in all cases they saw what they were talking about as being the culmination of their whole history. They were looking to God on the basis of what He had always been to them, a compassionate, but continual, chastiser.

The People Gather Spontaneously To Admit Their Sinfulness And Failures To God Separating Themselves From All Who Were Tainted With Idolatry (9.1-3).

9.1 ‘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, 8; 1 Chronicles 21.16; 1 Samuel 4.12; 2 Samuel 1.2; Job 2.12).

9.2 ‘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 (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’ (verses 2, 3, 4). It indicated their attentiveness towards God. (We may sit prayerfully, or kneel, in order to do the same).

9.3 ‘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 (8.2-8), brought to the attention of their leaders on the second day (8.13-15), and then brought to them continually from the fifteenth to twenty first days (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 verses 4-39, a reminding of God of both His own promises, and an acknowledging of how Israel had constantly sinned.

The Cry of The Levites To God On Behalf Of The People (9.4-39).

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; Psalm 106). It commences with the idea of YHWH as Creator and Lord of all (verse 6); moves on to the thought that He chose Abraham, and renamed him, and made a covenant with him to give him the land (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.

The Chief Levites Who Led The Confession, Worship And Intercession (9.4-5).

In verse 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 verse 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.

9.4 ‘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 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 verses 4 and 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 veerse 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 2.5). Alternately it may have been a kind of platform which raised the chief Levites above the heads of the congregation.

9.5 ‘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 verse 5. The otherwise unnecessary repetition of the list indicates clearly that the names are intended to be different from verse 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.

The Call To Prayer (9.5b).

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.

9.5b “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.

YHWH As Unique Creator (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 (verse 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.

9.6 “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 where heaven, earth and seas are clearly distinguished while being parts of the whole.

YHWH’s Choice Of, And Covenant With, Abram/Abraham (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.

9.7-8 “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 Levites’ Plea On The Basis Of God’s Past Mercies (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 (9.10) and their own fathers (9.16, 29), in being flagrantly disobedient to God;
  • That God had given His people ‘possession of the land’ (9.15, 22, 23-24).
  • That God had constantly supplied them with an abundance of good things both before and after entering the land (9.15, 20, 21, 25, 35, 36-37).
  • That God had constantly watched over them and protected them (9.12, 19).
  • That God had constantly sent His Spirit in His prophets with them to guide and inspire them (9.20, 26, 30).
  • That God had constantly instructed them in His Law (9.13-14, 20, 26, 29).
  • That the people had nevertheless constantly rebelled against Him (9.16, 18, 26, 28, 30, 34) so that He had to endure great provocations (9.18, 26).
  • That God had constantly in turn delivered them (9.10-11, 27, 28, 31).
  • Each central main section ends with the thought that God had not forsaken them (9.17, 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’ (9.17b).
  • 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’ (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 (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’ (9.9-15). Nevertheless in their arrogance they had rebelled against Him, and had determined rather to go back into bondage (9.16-17).

(We can compare with this how the returnees were also in affliction (1.3), and were under the hand of a foreign oppressor (verse 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 (verse 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 (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 (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 (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 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 (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 Deliverance From Egypt (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; 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, 21)
    So that they went through the midst of the sea on the dry land, (Exodus 14.22, 29; 15.19)
    And their pursuers you did cast into the depths, (Exodus 15.4, 19)
    As a stone into the mighty waters.” (Exodus 15.5, 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 Resultant Full Provision For His People (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 (verse 12; compare Exodus 13.20-21).
    • He had guided them in their way of living by providing His commandments, statutes and laws (verses 13-14).
    • He had supplied them with God-provided food and drink to satisfy their hunger and thirst (verse 15a).
    • And He had given them the encouragement of knowing that a promised land lay before them (verse 15b).

    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 verses 19-24a, protection (verse 19), instruction (verse 20), sustenance (verse 21) and possession of the land (verses 22-24a), and this after they had rebelled against Him (verse 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 (verses 36-37). They were living in relative poverty. There is in this a blatant hint to God).

    9.12 “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; 24.17). Cloud and fire were the indications of God’s presence, indicating that ‘You led them’ (Exodus 14.24; 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; 14.14; Deuteronomy 31.15). God was personally shepherding His people.

    9.13 “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 verse 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 verse 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, 26; 26.15, 46; Deuteronomy 4.45; 5.31; 6.1, 20; 7.11; 8.11; 11.1; 26.17; 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 (verses 13, 14, 20, 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.

    9.14 “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 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 verse 15.

    Note the repetition concerning the giving of the Law, it was something prominent in their minds at this time (8.1-18), and this prayer was part of their response to it.

    9.15a “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 (verses 15, 19, 21, 25). In the period of want that they were enduring after the return (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).

    9.15b ‘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 (verses 23-24a). 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 - verses 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 (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 (verses 26, 28, 30, 32, 34-35).

    9.16 “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.

    9.17a “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; 33.3; 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.

    9.17b “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; 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’; Psalm 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’ (Psalm 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 verse 31.

    God’s Continual Activity On Behalf Of His People (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 (verses 18-25) repeats the pattern of verses 9-15 in describing God’s continued protection through the pillars of cloud and fire (verse 19, compare verse 12); His continued instruction of them (verse 20a, compare verses 13-14); His provision of food and water and all needed sustenance (verses 20b-21, compare verse 15a), and His finally giving them possession of the land and more (verses 22-25; compare verse 15b). It will be noted that it summaries the period in the wilderness and the successful campaign of Joshua.

    The second sub-section (verses 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 (verses 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 (verse 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 verses 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 verse 32). Here we have the history of the books of Kings. Nevertheless in His mercy God did not make a full end of them (verse 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.

    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 (9.18-25).

    Here we have what is to some extent a reiteration of what was described in verses 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 verses 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.

    9.18 “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. 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).

    9.19 “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.

    9.20 “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, 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.

    9.21 “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.

    9.22 “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.

    9.23 “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; 22.17; 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; 5.18-21; 17.8; Deuteronomy 1.10).

    9.24a “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 verse 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.

    9.24b-25 “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 (verse 15). then bread from heaven, water and clothing (verses 20-21), and now an abundance of good things. God had been more than liberal.

    Repeated Cycles of Rebellion, Deliverance Into The Hands Of Enemies, Fervent Intercession, Divine Intervention (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 verses 26-27; 28 (‘many times’); 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’ (verse 27); ‘you left them in the hands of their enemies so that they had dominion over them’ (verse 28); ‘you gave them into the hands of the peoples of the lands’ (verse 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’ (verse 27); ‘many times you delivered them according to your mercies’ (verse 28); ‘in your manifold mercies you did not make a full end of them’ (verse 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 First Cycles (9.26-27).

    Note the pattern of the initial cycles. Rebellion (verse 26). Deliverance to enemies (verse 27a). The plea for help (verse 27b). The provision of saviours (verse 27c). 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 (1 Kings 18.4, 13; 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.

    9.26 “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 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).

    9.27 “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 - 1.3). But then in their time of trouble they cried to God, and He ‘heard from heaven’ (reminiscent of Solomon’s prayer - 1 Kings 8.30, 32, 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, 18).

    The Intermediate Cycles (9.28).

    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, 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 (9.29-31).

    9.29 “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 verses 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 verse 13. Compare Leviticus 26.15; Numbers 36.13; Deuteronomy 6.1; 7.11 etc; 2 Kings 17.34, 37. These descriptions indicate the varied nature of God’s Instruction (Law).

    9.30 “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.

    9.31 “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 (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.

    9.32a “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 1.5.

    9.32b ‘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.

    9.33 “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.

    9.34 “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 verse 32 may be in acknowledgement of the fact that the true prophets were God’s mouthpieces who did heed the word of God.

    9.35 “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.

    9.36 “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 (verse 25). Instead they were servants and had to pay their produce to others. They were not enjoying the full benefits of the covenant.

    9.37 “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 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.

    9.38 “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 verses 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.

    The Names Of The Leaders Of Families Who Sealed The Sure Agreement (10.1a-27).

    10.1a ‘Now those who sealed were:’

    Literally ‘on the seal were --.’ The names are now given of the family heads who sealed the agreement. As we would expect the name of the Governor came first.

    The Governor (10.1b).

    10.1b ‘ Nehemiah the governor (tirshatha), the son of Hacaliah,’

    Nehemiah is named as the Tirshatha, a Persian title used of him elsewhere in this book (8.9). It is used, probably of Sheshbazzar, in 7.65, 70 and in Ezra 2.63. Unusually for the list, where patronyms are not given, his father’s name is given, but that was probably because he used the name with pride, and saw it as a matter of honour. It is the name by which he was identified when the book was introduced. It denoted his high status (1.1).

    10.1c ‘And Zidkijah.’ This may have been the name of Nehemiah’s Scribe, or of his Deputy Governor. Compare Ezra 4.17, 23; 6.13 where the chancellor’s scribe is referred to along with the chancellor. Alternately he could be the first of the priestly families, but this would go contrary to the parallel lists.

    The Priestly Families (10.2-8).

    Following the governor were named the priestly families, who would clearly be important in anything involving an agreement with God. It was they who represented Israel before God.

    One problem we have in comparing these names with those used elsewhere is firstly that some of those who sealed the agreement may well have been using the family name, and secondly that at that time names were passed down in families by custom from grandfather to grandson. We can compare how the names given to the priestly houses in the time of Zerubbabel and Joshua over fifty years previously (12.1-7) included names such as Seraiah, Jeremiah, Ezra (Azariah), Amariah, Malluch, Hattush, Shecaniah (Shebaniah), Rehum ( Harim), Meremoth, Ginnethol (Ginnethon), Abijah, Mijamin, Maadiah (Maaziah), Bilgah (Bilgai), and Shemaiah. It will be noted that these are paralleled below. Hattush and Harim were also the names of priestly families which arrived with Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel (7.41-42; Ezra 2.38-39). But as some of those below would have sealed in the family name this is not as surprising as it might at first appear. Indeed, they may well have taken the family name on becoming head of the family. Others may have followed the custom at the time of being named after their grandfathers. Compare how the names reoccur in the list of fathers in the generation after the return (12.12-21). The fact that Ezra is missing from the list is explained in terms of the fact that he was a son of Seraiah (Ezra 7.1), the latter sealing on behalf of the family. Unique to the list here are Passhur, Malchijah (see 3.11, 14, 31), Obadiah, Daniel, Baruch and Meshullam (see 3.4, 6, 30). But Daniel (of the sons of Ithamar) was a leading priest in Ezra’s expedition (Ezra 8.2)

    The names of the priestly families are now given:

    10.2 ‘Seraiah, Azariah, Jeremiah,
    10.3 ‘Pashhur, Amariah, Malchijah,’
    10.4 ‘Hattush, Shebaniah, Malluch,’
    105 ‘Harim, Meremoth, Obadiah,’
    10.6 ‘Daniel, Ginnethon, Baruch,’
    10.7 ‘Meshullam, Abijah, Mijamin,’
    10.8a Maaziah, Bilgai, Shemaiah;’

    10.8b ‘These were the priests.’

    It is unusual in these lists to find the explanation for those listed following their names. Elsewhere it is prior to the giving of their names (7.39; 12.1, 12). But this may well have been done deliberately here because the writer wants to see them as sharing equal authority with the governor and his scribe, in view of the nature of the document. It is an agreement with God through His representatives. And indeed was probably prepared by the priests as the religious experts. To have headed them with ‘these were the priests’ would have relegated them rather to rank with those who followed, and separated them off from Nehemiah’s authority and from their prime part in the agreement. We can also compare how Jeshua, the High Priest, is named with others alongside Zerubbabel (7.7).

    The Names Of The Leading Levites Who Sealed The Agreement (10.9-13).

    10.9a ‘And the Levites:’

    Next come the names of the leading Levites. But they were much more involved with the people than the priests (as chapter 9 has made clear). Thus their heading comes prior to their names.

    10.9b ‘Namely, Jeshua the son of Azaniah, Binnui of the sons of Henadad, Kadmiel;’

    The three chief Levites are named first. Compare for these names 8.7, where these three also come first, and 12.8 which makes clear that they are family names (for that three came with Zerubbabel).

    They are then followed by ‘their brothers’.

    10.10 ‘And their brothers, Shebaniah, Hodiah, Kelita, Pelaiah, Hanan,’
    10.11 ‘Mica, Rehob, Hashabiah,’
    10.12 ‘Zaccur, Sherebiah, Shebaniah,’
    10.13 ‘Hodiah, Bani, Beninu.’

    Note how six of these are named among the Levites involved in the expounding of the Law in chapter 8.7, namely Jeshua, Bani (Binnui), Sherebiah, Hodiah (Hodijah), Kelita, Hanan (Hanin). Furthermore a Sherebiah was a prominent Levite member of Ezra’s expedition (Ezra 8.18). The repetition of names such as Shebaniah and Hodiah is an indication of how common such names were, especially among the Levites.

    The Chiefs Of The People (10.14-27).

    10.14a ‘The chiefs of the people:’

    10.14b ‘ Parosh, Pahath-moab, Elam, Zattu, Bani,’
    10.15 ‘Bunni, Azgad, Bebai,’
    10.16 ‘Adonijah, Bigvai, Adin,’
    10.17 ‘Ater, Hezekiah, Azzur,’
    10.18 ‘Hodiah, Hashum, Bezai,’
    10.19 ‘Hariph, Anathoth, Nobai,’
    10.20 ‘Magpiash, Meshullam, Hezir,’
    10.21 ‘Meshezabel, Zadok, Jaddua,’
    10.22 ‘Pelatiah, Hanan, Anaiah,’
    10.23 ‘Hoshea, Hananiah, Hasshub,’
    10.24 ‘Hallohesh, Pilha, Shobek,’
    10.25 ‘Rehum, Hashabnah, Maaseiah,’
    10.26 ‘And Ahiah, Hanan, Anan,’
    10.27 ‘Malluch, Harim, Baanah.’

    Of these names thirteen are found in the list of clans of returnees with Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel in chapter 7 (Ezra 2). These names therefore include the leaders of those clans. The remainder would be leaders of sub-clans into which the unmentioned clans of returnees were divided, or clans which had arrived subsequently, or leading city elders.

    The Remainder Of The People, Both Male And Female, The Priests, The Levites, The Temple Servants, New Converts To Yahwism, And The Children At An Age Of Understanding, All Enter Into The Solemn Agreement (10.28-29a).

    So serious was the intent that the whole of the people solemnly subscribed to the agreement under oath.

    10.28-29a ‘And the rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the porters, the singers, the Nethinim, and all those who had separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God, their wives, their sons, and their daughters, every one who had knowledge, and understanding, they clove to their brothers, their nobles,’

    The list of those who subscribed is comprehensive. It included the remainder of the adult males, of the priest, of the Levites, of the gate-keepers, of the singers, of the Nethinim (the Temple servants), and of all who since they had returned to the land had united with them in the pure worship of YHWH in accordance with His Law from among the peoples of the lands (compare Ezra 6.21), together with their wives, sons and daughters, including all of an age to understand. No one was omitted. They stood firm with their leaders in the agreement.

    The Details of The Agreement (10.29b-39).

    Throughout the books of Ezra and Nehemiah certain particular contemporary issues stand out. These include the taking of idolatrous foreign wives (13.23-27; Ezra 9-10), the failure to strictly observe the Sabbath (13.15-22), and the exaction of debt from the poor (5.1-13). In the prophecy of Malachi (roughly contemporary) the bringing in of the tithes is also emphasised (Malachi 3.7-12). Added to these was a requirement to maintain the cult (which was also of great concern to the Persian kings who wanted the gods on their side). That is why these were the main things which were dealt with here, although in the context of the whole Law.

    10.29b ‘And they entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God’s Law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of YHWH our Lord, and his ordinances and his statutes,’

    By entering into a solemn agreement with YHWH they knew that they were bringing themselves under the curses of Deuteronomy 27-28, which were a curse on all who did not ‘confirm the words of the Law to do them’ (Deuteronomy 27.26). That was the negative side. On the positive side they swore by an oath that they would walk in God’s Law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and that they would observe and do all the commandments, ordinances and statutes of YHWH their Lord. These were precisely what their fathers had been guilty of not doing (9.16, 29, 34). As what follows makes clear, they saw as central to the statutes and ordinances those which related to the maintenance of their worship. The reading of the Law had seemingly brought home to them how neglectful they had been. We too should remember that whatever we get ‘involved in’, the worship of God must always remain central.

    For ‘observing and doing’ compare Deuteronomy 5.1, which related to the ten commandments, and Deuteronomy 5.32; 6.3, 24-25; 8.1, etc. which related to all God’s commands. For ‘walking in God’s Law’ compare Exodus 16.4; and for the equivalent ‘walking in God’s ways’ see Exodus 16.20; Deuteronomy 5.33; 8.6; 10.12; 11.22; 19.9; 26.17; 28.9; 30.16; Joshua 22.5; Judges 2.22. Thus they were swearing on oath that they would do away with the sins of the past.

    10.30 ‘And that we would not give our daughters to the peoples of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons,’

    This command originally related to the Canaanites and their like in the land. See Exodus 34.16; Deuteronomy 7.1-4; Ezra 9.1-2, 12. The stated point was that the Canaanites and their like would drag them down into idolatry. Here it is being more widely applied to all the inhabitants of the land who were not true worshippers of YHWH, and this would include many syncretistic Jews. The ‘peoples of the land’ were all those who did not conform to the pure worship of YHWH. And the point was that they too would drag them down into idolatry. It was not a question of race, for men of most races could quickly become Israelites by submitting to YHWH (Exodus 12.48). It was a question of involvement in idolatry and false religious principles.

    Compare how the same principle was applied to the people of Benjamin when they sinned grievously (Judges 21.7, 18). Apart from the last example, the point in all the above verses was that, being involved in idolatry, the idolatrous wives and husbands would drag their husbands and wives down with them, as Ezra emphasises in Ezra 9.1-2 (and as had happened to Solomon long before). This is a good example of the way in which the Law was being modified to suit the circumstances while still following the principles of the Law. It was no longer restricted to the Canaanites etc. It had been widened to refer to all ‘the peoples of the land’ who indulged in syncretism and idolatry.

    We should recognise that there was a great temptation to become involved with the peoples of the land, for they were often wealthy and influential. But to become involved with them was to become involved with idolatry. In the same way Christians are warned, ‘Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers’ (2 Corinthians 6.14).

    10.31 ‘And if the peoples of the land bring wares or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy of them on the sabbath, or on a holy day.’

    Since Exodus 16 onwards doing any servile work on the Sabbath day had been forbidden (apart from what was essential for the wellbeing of their cattle and herds). It was an essential element in the redemption covenant, i.e. in the ten commandments (Exodus 20.9-11; Deuteronomy 5.12-15), and it was an idea that was constantly repeated (e.g. Leviticus 23.3 and often). It applied equally to certain festal sabbaths (e.g. Leviticus 23.7), and it applied to ‘strangers’ in their midst, who were also to benefit by it (Exodus 23.12). Amos 8.5 makes clear that it was seen to include trading on the Sabbath. It was to be a day of rest and delight in the Lord (see Isaiah 58.13-14). But it was so easy to say, ‘we are not working by buying from foreigners, and they are not bound by the Sabbath laws’. This would, however, have been untrue. Lading an ass with purchased goods was undoubtedly ‘work’, and servants would regularly be involved in it.

    Thus they promised that when the peoples of the land came with their goods to trade on the Sabbath day, they would not trade with them, or buy from them. For to do so would be to take their minds off delighting in the Lord, and would involve some of their number in servile work (loading up and unloading what was bought). It is clear later that this kind of abstinence from work had been neglected in this case, along with other examples such as pressing wine, gathering crops and loading up asses (13.13.22). Thus the promise here, in respect of what might have been a doubtful situation to some (was buying work?) was resolved in a way which included observance of the Sabbath in every respect.

    10.31a ‘And that we would forego the seventh year, and the exaction of every debt.’

    As we saw in chapter 5 lending on interest and exacting debt had become a real problem among the poorest members of the Jewish community. But there the problem had been resolved by Nehemiah’s prompt action. Here then recourse is taken to the old laws on relieving poverty. Crops and fruit would not be gathered in the seventh year, but would be left so that the poor could gather them (Exodus 23.10-11). And all outstanding debt would be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15.1-2). Nor were loans to be made in such a way as to have the year of release in mind (Deuteronomy 15.7-11). They were to be willing to suffer loss because they themselves had been redeemed from bondage. It is clear that these laws had been neglected. Now they were to be reapplied.

    10.32 ‘Also we made ordinances for us, to charge ourselves yearly with the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God,’

    The interesting phrase ‘we made ordinances’ is an acknowledgement of the fact that what they determined on here was an extension of the Law, although based on that Law. This was a man made ordinance (‘WE made’). Yet it followed godly examples. There is nothing in the Law about a yearly Temple Tax. However, there are precedents for the idea, in tithes themselves, and in the half shekel tax payable when there was a census (Exodus 30.11-16; 38.25-26), which would be used to enhance Tabernacle funds. But there may well have been a yearly census at the great feasts, in the times when those took place. These could be seen as supporting the idea of regular payments to the Temple. But in the end it was an act of benevolence and gratitude on the part of a people, many of whom were poor and would find a third of a shekel a large amount to have to pay. It was a sign of the depth of feeling that this revival had brought about. The cult must be effectively maintained in a way that honoured YHWH at all costs.

    Indeed it is an indication of the depths of the poverty of the people as a whole that the tithes would later prove insufficient for what were quite clearly a small number of Levites, leaving them to have to neglect their office and fend for themselves (13.10). For they were dependent on the tithes. Even though it be granted that the problem there was that the tithes had not been handed over to the level that they should have been, it is difficult to believe that in so short a time after the oath sworn here the whole of Israel/Judah should have ceased to pay any tithes at all, so that in view of the small number of Levites there should still have been sufficient to maintain them, unless dire poverty had also considerably reduced the amount of tithes given. Note in this regard Israel’s own view that they were an ‘afflicted’ people (verse 32; 1.3), and the fact that even when they genuinely renewed their tithes, they were still not seen as sufficient to meet the needs of the Temple, hence the tax. In theory, given the small number of Levites, the tithes should have been overabundant. But whilst the Persian kings may have been relatively benevolent, their taxes were heavy, and most of the returnees were probably struggling to survive (as chapter 5 has revealed).

    In their recent past much of the cost of the cult had often been met by the ‘generosity’ of the Persian kings (Ezra 6.9-10; 7.21-24). But this was spasmodic and not permanent. Thus the people were now providing for the permanent support of the cult.

    10.33 ‘For the showbread, and for the continual meal-offering, and for the continual burnt-offering, for the sabbaths, for the new moons, for the set feasts, and for the holy things, and for the sin-offerings to make atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God.’

    The Law never specifically says how these central offerings for the whole of Israel were to be provided. Possibly it was by means of the census contribution. But the showbread had to be supplied weekly, the daily offerings twice daily, and there were many offerings ‘for all Israel’ at the different feasts. To say nothing of the sin offerings which were to make atonement for the whole of Israel. Personal offerings and sacrifices would be the responsibility of the individual, but nothing is said about who would provide the offerings for the whole of Israel. Now they were to be provided for by this ‘Temple tax’.

    10.34 ‘And we cast lots, the priests, the Levites, and the people, for the wood-offering, to bring it into the house of our God, according to our fathers’ houses, at times appointed, year by year, to burn on the altar of YHWH our God, as it is written in the Law,’

    Another example of something which was for the benefit of all, but the responsibility of none, was the provision of wood to keep the sacrificial fires burning (Leviticus 6.12-13). Now this was to be provided for by those chosen by lot to have the privilege. All were involved. Priests, Levites and people. This was to be a permanent responsibility for those concerned, no doubt arranged by family. Each would in turn bring the wood-offering to keep the sacrificial fires burning, and it was itself seen as an offering. It is probable that we must assume that this had been a real problem in the past, otherwise it would not have required specific legislation.

    Regulation In Respect Of Various Offerings (10.35-39).

    We do not know how far these offerings had been neglected. There is no reason for arguing that they had hitherto been unknown. Even granted that the Law had not been read out, some memory of them would have survived. But when they were living in Babylonia and elsewhere they would not have been observed, and the details may well have been forgotten by most. The priests, however, would undoubtedly have had a good knowledge of them (some who had served in the first Temple were still alive when the second Temple was built). Thus if there was a problem it was one of neglect or not paying heed to the priests, not one of total ignorance. But clearly the reading aloud of the Law had brought a number of things as reflected here, home to the listeners, and they now determined to be meticulous in meeting God’s requirements.

    10.35 ‘And to bring the first-fruits of our ground, and the first-fruits of all fruit of all manner of trees, year by year, to the house of YHWH,’

    They swore also that they would bring the first-fruit offerings which would benefit the priests (Exodus 23.19; 34.26; compare Deuteronomy 26.1-11, which, however, may have been once for all). Once again it may well be that these had been neglected, partly through ignorance, and partly though negligence.

    In Exodus the firstfruits are stated to be ‘the firstfruits of your ground’, but that necessarily includes fruit grown on trees which are rooted in the ground, in a similar way to that in which ‘the tithe of the land’ was to include ‘the fruit of the tree’ (Leviticus 27.30). Indeed Numbers 18.13 speaks of ‘whatever is first ripe in the land’. Here in Nehemiah all is made clear by speaking of ‘the first-fruits of all fruit of all manner of trees’. Trees were, however, a special case as their fruit in the first three years of their existence was not to be eaten, and all the fruit of the fourth year was YHWH’s (Leviticus 19.23-25).

    The term ‘house of YHWH’ was regularly used of both the Tabernacle (Exodus 23.19; 34.26; Deuteronomy 23.18; Joshua 6.24; Judges 19.18; 1 Samuel 1.7, 24; 3.15; 2 Samuel 12.20) and the Temple.

    10.36 ‘Also the first-born of our sons, and of our cattle, as it is written in the Law, and the firstlings of our herds and of our flocks, to bring to the house of our God, to the priests who minister in the house of our God,’

    The law of the redemption of firstborn sons was also to be catered for. These had to be ‘redeemed’ by a replacement sacrifice (Exodus 13.12-13; 34.19-20). The responsibilities for service in the Tabernacle had originally been theirs, but it been taken over by the Levites (Numbers 3.12-13). But their redemption was necessary as a reminder of how they firstborn had been spared in Egypt. It would appear that in the course of this they were to be presented before the priests in the house of God. The firstborn of the ‘clean’ cattle, herds and flocks would themselves be offered as sacrifices. In the case of unclean animals, such as asses, they had either to be redeemed by offering a replacement sacrifice, or their necks had to be broken (being unclean they could not be offered to YHWH). These firstlings were to be brought to the Temple as ‘the house of our God’. Their flesh (but not their fat) was to be available, firstly for the benefit of the priests as with other offerings (Numbers 18.11-13), and secondly as something to be partaken in by all at a sacred feast when there was an abundance (Deuteronomy 12.17-19). Between Numbers 18 and Deuteronomy the situation had changed. Instead of struggling in the wilderness, with a long period of such struggling ahead, with tithes being limited, they were enjoying better pasturage and the fruitfulness of the promised land lay ahead. Thus it was recognised that there would be an abundance of tithes.

    Some see ‘cattle, beast’ here as signifying unclean animals which had to be redeemed in the same way as the firstborn sons (compare Numbers 18.15). But in Numbers the word ‘unclean’ is included in order to distinguish between beast and beast. The argument is that that is why it says ‘as it is written in the Law’ (per Leviticus 13.13). But it is unlikely that firstborn asses were presented before the priests, especially if their necks had been broken. Here the idea is of the presentation at the house of God of that which is hallowed by God.

    10.37 ‘And that we should bring the first-fruits (or ‘the best’) of our dough (or ‘ground flour’), and our heave-offerings (of wheat and barley), and the fruit of all types of trees, the new wine and the oil, to the priests, to the chambers of the house of our God,’

    We are not sure here of the significance and or meaning of one or two of the technical terms. ‘Firstfruits’ is not the same word as that previously used for firstfruits and means ‘prime’. It could therefore refer to the ‘first’ or it could signify the ‘best, choicest’. The word translated ‘dough’ possibly means ‘ground flour’. In Numbers 15. 19 a heave-offering is mentioned which is composed of the first/best of the dough (ground flour). It may be then that here we are to translate as ‘the best of our ground flour, even our heave-offerings’ (of wheat and barley). In Ezekiel 44.30 that is for the priests, and resulted in a special blessing. The tithe of the tithes, which was for the priests, was also seen as a heave-offering (Numbers 18.24-26). They were called ‘heave-offerings because they were ‘waved’ or ‘heaved’ before YHWH. For ‘the first/best of the oil and wine’ see Numbers 18.12. These were to be brought ‘to the priests, to the chambers of the house of our God’ as was the tithe of tithes (10.38).

    The overall point behind all this is that God’s servants are to be given the very best (of ‘necessities’), because thereby we are giving it to God.

    10.37b ‘And the tithes of our ground to the Levites; for they, the Levites, take the tithes in all the cities of our tillage.’

    In contrast the tithes were to be brought, not to the house of God, but to the Levites, ‘in all the cities of our tillage’, who would store them in their storehouses. These were to consist of one tenth of all produce, grain, fruit, wine and oil, and of all animals (Leviticus 27.30-32). Only one tenth of that tenth was brought to the priests (verse 38; Numbers 18.26). It is true that part of the tithe to the Levites, every third year, was to be for the poor (Deuteronomy 14.28-29). But given that the priests at this time considerably outnumbered the Levites (very few Levites had returned. In 7.39-45 there were 360 Levites who returned initially, compared with 4,289 priests, and few returned with Ezra - Ezra 8.15-19) it is quite clear that these proportions of nine tenths to the Levites and one tenth to the priests must have been determined long before, in a time when the situation was very different. In Numbers 3 there were 22,000 Levites (Numbers 3.39), and few priests (Numbers 3.2). The tithes were in fact the means of sustenance for the Levites as they served God in the Tabernacle/Temple (Numbers 18.21, 24). YHWH was their inheritance.

    10.38 ‘And the priest the son of Aaron will be with the Levites, when the Levites take tithes, and the Levites will bring up the tithe of the tithes to the house of our God, to the chambers, into the treasure-house.’

    The provision of a priest to oversee the Levites in their work was a wise precaution. It would ensure that the Levites were not ‘overzealous’ in their collection of tithe (they were collecting it for God). It would guard against possible misuse of the tithe. And it would act as a guarantee that the priests’ share was correctly allocated. It was a wise precaution rather than an indication that the Levites were not trustworthy, for it would counter any suspicions that might be aroused.

    Then, once the tithes were gathered, one tenth of what was gathered (the tithe of the tithe) was to be brought up to Jerusalem, ‘to the house of our God’, and there it was to be placed in ‘the treasure house’, the place provided in the Temple for storing valuable things (which would include the hides of sacrifices which belonged to the priests, and the Temple vessels). This one tenth was for the use of the priests.

    10.39 ‘For the children of Israel and the children of Levi will bring the heave-offering of the grain, of the new wine, and of the oil, to the chambers, where the vessels of the sanctuary are, and the priests who minister, and the porters, and the singers; and we will not forsake the house of our God.’

    The final summing up oath is now given. They swear that the house of God will not be neglected. Both the children of Israel and the children of Levi (the Levites), will combine in bringing the heave offering of grain, wine and oil to the chambers in the Temple where the vessels of the sanctuary are, and where the priests who minister and the singers and the gatekeepers are. They will by no means forsake the house of their God. The mention of the singers and gatekeepers may suggest that they would be sharing in the priest’s portion. This was a suitable note on which to end the agreement, confirming that, in all that they had promised, God and His house were central.

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