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In this chapter, we become partakers of the confession of guilt of the Israelites. We can connect this chapter with Ezra 9 and Daniel 9 where we also find confessions of guilt, spoken by Ezra and Daniel.
Fasting and Sackcloth
The consequences of reading the law, the Word of God, become visible. The Word of God is at the origin of everything that follows. The Word was read in Nehemiah 8. The first consequence there is that God gets His part: the Feast of Booths is celebrated. The second consequence we find here: the people take their true place before God. They acknowledge that their present position is the result of not listening to God’s commandments.
The people of God are deeply impressed by the Word of God. The Word has caused great joy among the people (Nehemiah 8:13). Now the Word of God leads them to confess their sins.
There is fasting and mourning. This does not contradict the feast and joy of the previous chapter. It belongs together. Joy and self-denial go hand in hand with the Christian if it is good. Joy in the Lord is the result of knowing Him; humbleness is the result of recognizing one’s own failure, the result of knowing oneself.
Fasting is a sign of mourning. He who fasts sees the seriousness of the situation in which the people of God or he himself find themselves. By fasting one renounces food, of what the body needs and what is lawful to take, to devote oneself in the spirit to the sad circumstances and to call upon God about them. Isaiah speaks about fasting as God intended (Isaiah 58:6-Judges :; cf. Joel 2:12-Esther :). Man takes his true place toward God and gives God His true place.
A sequel to the Feast of Booths as we find here is not prescribed anywhere in the law. The Feast of Booths ends on the twenty-third of the month. What we read here takes place on the twenty-fourth of the month. That day is not part of the feast. They don’t want to ruin the feast by their grief. After the feast, however, the Word takes effect on their conscience. It is voluntary and complemented by the working of the Spirit. An exuberant feast is followed by a day of penance and repentance. In this way expressions of mind alternate. Being surrounded by blessings can make us small when we realize how undeserved they are and, as a result, bring us to confession. We wonder from what we have earned it.
Mourning and dirt upon them is, as it were, becoming equal to a dead person. To take that place because there is the consciousness of being dust and ashes in the presence of the Almighty (cf. Genesis 18:27; Job 42:6) is also the place of blessing.
Separation and Confession
The praise of the LORD at the Feast of Booths cannot go together with connections forbidden by God. Sincere recognition of failure brings to action. The first act is separation from foreigners. In this they are not half-hearted. They separate themselves from “all” foreigners. The second act is confession. Confession of sins does not only take place at the beginning of life as a Christian, but is part of the whole life of the Christian. Separation and confession of sins belong together.
Nor do they detach themselves from their ancestry. They do not put themselves above them, but make themselves one with them. It is the recognition that we, human beings, have dishonored God through our lives.
Listen, Confess and Worship
Again the Word of God occupies the principal place. All their actions are controlled by it. They listen to it and obey it. Confession and worship are the effect of hearing God’s Word. There is a balance between being preoccupied with God’s Word on the one hand and confession and worship on the other hand. The same duration is used for both soul exercises. The duration of listening to God’s Word is followed by an equally long time during which the Word gets its effect in the conscience.
What they read or hear is material for prayer, and through prayer the Word gets its desired effect. Word and prayer must go hand in hand. He who reads only the Word, without prayer, gathers knowledge for the head. A theoretical Christendom arises, which will lead to annoyance of fellow Christians. Those who devote themselves solely to prayer run the risk of losing themselves in mysticism and fanaticism. Whoever does both will grow up in the “grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) and become a good follower of Him.
The Levites Cry to the LORD
Eight Levites stand in a place made for them, on a platform. This time they do not take that place above the people to teach the people from God’s Word. No, they are the first to express their guilt toward the LORD. They cry to the LORD their God with a loud voice, and lead the people in this. Through the exaltation they enter the sanctuary as it were.
Call to Praise the LORD
After the Levites have turned to the LORD, they also involve the people in their approach unto him. They call upon the people to arise and praise the LORD. The confession of guilt begins with a call to praise the LORD, to which the Levites give expression immediately. True confession of the guilt of the people of God takes place in a spirit of trust in the goodness of the LORD. The proofs of that goodness are mentioned at length. The more clearly the goodness of the LORD comes to our attention, the greater will be the guilt that we have borne toward such a Person.
The Levites turn to the LORD with first of all the acknowledgment of His glorious Name, a Name which in fact surpasses all praise. They are conscious to stand before Him for whom all human thought and description fall short. What His Name means is beyond our comprehension (Revelation 19:12; Matthew 11:27). This awareness should also characterize us more. This will save us from an inappropriate manner of dealing with the High and Holy.
We may know God as our Father and enjoy the closest intimacy with Him. We may approach Him with boldness with the certainty that He loves to have us as His children with Him. But that does not mean that we would no longer need respect and reverence and that we can forget how high He is above us and everything and everyone. The awareness of His highness only increases the miracle of our closeness.
The LORD, the Creator
The awareness of the exaltation of God comes to the fore in the prayer of the Levites in three aspects:
1. They maintain God in all His ways of discipline with His people. They also acknowledge Him in the omnipotence He has shown in the deliverance of the people from Egypt, in the support of the people in the wilderness and in the introduction of the people into the promised land. God has always acted with them in mercy and justice.
2. They confess their own sins and the sins of their fathers, and do not justify their actions.
3. Because of their great distress and submission to the nations they renew the old covenant of the law, and make it a firm covenant which they confirm with their seal.
All living beings in heaven worship the LORD. They are constantly impressed by their Creator and Sustainer and worship Him without ceasing. For us it is even more appropriate to have an attitude of constant worship because we may also know our Creator as Savior (Hebrews 2:14-Nehemiah :).
The Levites show in their prayer – the longest in the Bible, also longer than Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple – that they have an eye for God’s grace and power
1. in creation (Nehemiah 9:6),
2. in Egypt and at the Red Sea (Nehemiah 9:9-1 Kings :),
3. in the wilderness and at the Sinai (Nehemiah 9:12-Ecclesiastes :),
4. at the conquest of Canaan (Nehemiah 9:22-Lamentations :),
5. by prophets and judges (Nehemiah 9:26-Hosea :),
6. by prophets (Nehemiah 9:29-Obadiah :) and
7. in the situation they are in now (Nehemiah 9:32-Haggai :).
Until Nehemiah 9:16 there is first a list of all the blessings that the people have received as a result of God’s action in goodness to them. Each time there is talk of “You”, of the LORD, of what He has done. Everything shows His faithfulness, His grace, His blessing. May He expect anything but to thank and serve Him with all their hearts and lives? But in Nehemiah 9:16 comes a turning point. Then it no longer only speaks of “You”, but also of “they”. From that verse God’s gracious acts are interwoven with their ingratitude, infidelity, unwillingness and rebellion.
Here, in Nehemiah 9:6, first the LORD is honored and acknowledged in Whom and what He is: He is LORD, He alone, unchanging, eternal. He is the Creator and the Sustainer. He is the source of all that exists (Colossians 1:15-Esther :). That the LORD is the Creator means that the Lord Jesus is the Creator, for the LORD of the Old Testament is the same as the Lord Jesus in the New Testament. This is evident from John 12 where John quotes a word of Isaiah (John 12:41; Isaiah 6:1-Numbers :). A comparison of both parts shows that while Isaiah speaks about the LORD of hosts, John says that Isaiah speaks about the Lord Jesus.
The Election of Abraham
After His omnipotence in creation follows His sovereignty in His election. God is the God of election and of promises. Election is His prerogative, and He has the power to make His election come true. That power is evidenced by giving a name and changing it. It indicates His supremacy. He promises and fulfills His promises. He is faithful to His word, He keeps His word, for He is righteous.
The LORD Is a Redeemer
God sees all that men do to His people, and He hears their cries to Him (Exodus 3:7). He is closely involved in all that is done to His people and all that is going on in them. He acts both for the benefit of His people and in judgment against their enemies. Thus He has delivered His people out of their misery, then accompanied and cared for them along the way, and finally brought them into the land of promise.
God is a God of salvation and victory. In order to free His people, He has made His judgment come to Pharaoh and his people. These are for the Israelites ‘signs and miracles’ (Nehemiah 9:10). For them they are proof that God stands up for them in order to deliver them. He offers His people a way to escape where they have thought to perish. But His people will be saved there while the enemies perish.
The Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire
In Nehemiah 9:12-Ecclesiastes : the people are in the wilderness; in Nehemiah 9:22-Joel : they are in the land. In every part of Israel’s history we see the interweaving of man’s unfaithfulness and the mercy of God. After their deliverance, He does not leave His people to their fate. He Himself goes before them and travels with them through the wilderness. His light shines on the path they must go.
He governs all their life. They need not think of anything themselves to remain a people. From heaven, His dwelling place, He speaks to them. Where He dwells, everything is in accordance with Himself. If He speaks to His people from there, it can only be for their benefit. He has redeemed His people to dwell with them. Then that dwelling place must correspond to heaven.
That is why He gives them “just ordinances”. The point of departure for His abode among them is His righteousness. He gives His people those provisions so that they may enjoy the blessing of His presence. He also provides them with “true laws”. Their life together before Him is governed by incorruptible justice. They are not laws adapted to the situation. They can rely on those laws, they come from Him Who is completely and in every way trustworthy.
Furthermore, He gives them “good statutes and commandments”. He determines their lives socially and religiously. His statutes and commandments must serve as the marrow of society. With all this He has their well-being in mind. Accepting and applying all this as a gift from Him means blessing and prosperity. Deviation from it leads to disaster and misery. God has given us His good Word. If we allow ourselves to be dictated by it and live by it, we will enjoy His blessing. Any deviation from His Word has unpleasant consequences.
The sabbath is not called a commandment here, but a “holy sabbath”. Between the listing of all that the LORD has given in the form of laws, commandments and ordinances, the Levites here remind us of this special institution. The LORD has given this day as a blessing. The people need not work on that day. They may share in the rest of God. By keeping that day they show that they appreciate God’s peace. It is also a proof that they appreciate all God’s commandments.
Bread and Water
The LORD delivered His people out of misery, freed them from their oppressors, led them into the wilderness, and enabled them to function as His people. All non-material conditions have been fulfilled. They are paramount. After all the efforts the LORD has made to provide the people with everything they need, He has also given them food and water in the wilderness. He has also promised them that they will come to the land that He wants to give them. For this He has sworn an oath.
He has always helped the people and given them a perspective for the future. They would have been able to live as a grateful and happy people, provided with all that was necessary, overwhelmed by the support and encouraged by what He had promised them.
The prayer of the Levites takes a turn here. That turn is heralded with “but”. After seeing Who God is and acting in faithfulness and grace with them, it is now necessary to look back at the attitude of the people since their deliverance from Egypt.
Their attitude of rebellion and unbelief after all the goodness of God comes over us like a cold shower. A cold shower is sobering. This is necessary, because when we have seen the faithfulness of God, we must also have an eye for our reaction to it. It should make us ashamed.
Our shame becomes even greater when we see that the ungrateful reaction of the people is also answered with a “but” from God’s side. In spite of their rebelliousness and their disobedient and wicked conduct, He has continued in grace with them, both in the wilderness and in the land. The Levites are aware of this, and at the end of Nehemiah 9:17 a new enumeration of God’s blessings follows, which can only increase their amazement and gratitude.
Each time we find the interaction between the ‘but’ that heralds the actions of God’s people and the ‘but’ that heralds God’s actions. How far He has risen above man’s actions. How totally different is His action from that of man. God is a God of forgiveness, of pardon. The word “forgiveness” is in the plural. It is a rare word and only occurs in Psalm 130 and in Daniel 9 (Psalms 130:4; Daniel 9:9).
God’s Faithfulness and the Unfaithfulness of the People
The nadir of their rejection of God is the making of the golden calf. With it they have a visible god in their midst. To this god they attribute their deliverance. This is very offensive to their Deliverer and a great insult. Yet He has not surrendered them to the dangers of the wilderness to be devoured by it. He remains faithful to His oath and leads them further with His light on the way they should go. If blessings, which we must lose because of our unfaithfulness, remain our share, it should lead us to double our gratitude.
Also in Christianity there has always been a desire for visible leadership. When faith disappears, the longing for tangible things increases. God is invisible to the natural eye. But those who believe “that He is” (Hebrews 11:6) receive abundant proof of His existence and of the care He exercises. A visible leadership cannot be anything but a creature, so by definition, it will be a failing leadership. Those who rely on it instead of God will have no prosperity.
In Nehemiah 9:20 we find again an abundance of good gifts that God has given His people to be able to travel through the wilderness. Those who pray speak of “ Your good Spirit,” “ Your manna,” and “water”. There is not only talk of the Spirit of God, but of God’s “good” Spirit. The Spirit of God is working among them in goodness to teach them. He wants to control their minds so that they will think as God thinks. God has communicated His thoughts to them in His commandments and statutes. They do not need to guess what His intentions are. The good Spirit of God teaches them.
The Holy Spirit does not dwell in the members of God’s earthly people, as He does in the members of God’s heavenly people, the church (1 Corinthians 6:19). But He does work in and among them. Every Israelite who repents does so because the Spirit convinces him of his sins. This gives him a nature that desires to do what God wants.
It doesn’t stop there, teaching the will of God. God also gives them the strength to do His will. For that He gives them His manna. This food enables them to go the way God wants them to go. The manna is the well-known picture of the Lord Jesus in His life on earth. He speaks of Himself in connection with the manna as the bread from heaven (John 6:31-Habakkuk :). For our walk on earth through the wilderness of this world we gain strength by occupying ourselves with the Lord Jesus and His life on earth. The way we must go, He has gone before us. His example gives us strength to follow Him.
In the just quoted section from John 6, the Lord Jesus also says that whoever believes in Him will never thirst again (John 6:35). This is the third thing the Levites quote in their prayers in this verse. They tell the LORD that He also gave water to His people for their thirst. Faith in the Lord Jesus, the real trust in Him, is a refreshment that makes the thirst for other things disappear.
We have here in Nehemiah 9:20
1. the Holy Spirit who teaches in goodness;
2. in the manna the example of the Lord Jesus, in Whom the teaching becomes visible as it were;
3. in the water – a picture of the Word of God (Ephesians 5:26) – a means to quench thirst.
The Levites notice still more goodness. For forty years the LORD has cared for His people. The provisions mentioned in the previous verse are not temporary. They have been with the people all the time they have been in the wilderness. They have suffered no shortage, neither of food, nor of drink, nor of clothing. They’ve always had warmth. The warmth of their clothing symbolizes the warmth of God’s loving care.
Also at their feet there is nothing to be seen of the fatigue of the journey. When they look at their feet, they can notice that the LORD has not let them travel a way that has asked too much of them. Yes, He carried them, “as a man carries his son” (Deuteronomy 1:31).
What the LORD Has Given
God has not only surrounded them with His care, He has also helped them to take possession of kingdoms and nations. The land of Sihon and the land of Og are mentioned by name. These are the first kingdoms that Israel had to take possession of even before they crossed the Jordan.
Furthermore, the LORD has blessed them with numerous offspring, so that they can populate the land. This offspring has been commanded to take possession of what the LORD has promised their fathers. They have done so, helped by the LORD Who gave the inhabitants of the land in their power. He has given them a free hand to do with those nations what they want. In doing so He has put them to the test. Will they act with those nations as He commanded? He has told them to exterminate the inhabitants. Because of their unfaithfulness, the roles have been reversed. The nations reign over them, and the nations do with them as they please (Nehemiah 9:37).
Their conquest of the land throws a treasure of blessings into their lap. They have feasted upon it. That is lawful. It has all come within their reach by the grace of God. God wants to give His people everything to enjoy. He wishes, however, to be involved, to be recognized as the Giver, and to thank and honor Him for it.
This is not an ambition of God, as it would be with us. He knows that enjoyment without Him leads to selfishness and excesses, from which much evil arises. Enjoying without Him has a devastating effect on the relationship between people. Where the bond with Him is broken, the bond between people is also broken.
Unfaithfulness of the People and God’s Salvation
When man comes apart from God, no longer involving Him in his actions, he comes to “great blasphemies”. Then the greatest of God’s blessings are answered by man with the greatest evil. The rebellion of the people manifests itself in rebellion against God. They cast His law behind their backs. That is an act of contempt. If then God sends His prophets to bring them back to Him, they kill them.
They have settled with God. They don’t want Him anymore. They’re declaring Him out of time. Their “enlightened” thinking is hindered by His existence and presence. That is why every voice that interprets Him must be silenced. As if this can silence God.
God does not give up. He has another method to bring them to repentance. If they do not want to listen to His voice, they will listen to His actions. He delivers them into the hands of their enemies. That does not miss its effect. They are oppressed and cry out to the LORD. And, miracle of grace, He hears them. In His “great mercy” He gives deliverers.
And that does not happen just once. No, it repeats itself many times. Each time after their deliverance, they do evil again. They really are repeat offenders, people who fall into the same mistake over and over again. In His faithfulness the LORD then delivers them into the hands of opponents. Then they get oppressed again, and in their distress they cry out to the LORD. According to His unchanging mercy He then hears their crying and delivers them. The book of Judges impressively describes the course of these events.
The People Sin Against God’s Provisions
In spite of all these acts of God in mercy, the people are going further and further downhill. God exhorts His people to return to His law, for in keeping the law lies life. In not listening to the law, in breaking it, lies death. His people do not act as ignorant ones. They know God’s law. However, they do not put their shoulders under it, but they turn their backs on it. They do not bend their necks under it, but stiffen their necks. They pile sin upon sin.
God’s Great Patience Has an End
For many years God has endured this constant rebellion with longsuffering. In Nehemiah 9:20 the Spirit is teaching the people. However, because they did not listen to the teaching of the Spirit, the Spirit began to admonish them. Each time God’s Spirit has been speaking to the people in His prophets to convince them of their sins (2 Chronicles 36:15). He wants to make His people happy. Therefore, He exhorts them continuously to break with sin and to submit to His commandments. But they do not listen.
Finally, He has no choice but to deliver them into the power of the nations around them. First the ten tribes were taken from the land by Assyria and scattered over several countries. Later the two tribes were taken away to Babylon. But He didn’t wipe them out. In spite of all the unfaithfulness of the people and God’s discipline over them, He has not destroyed them forever. He remains “a gracious and compassionate God”.
Begging For God’s Favor
In the preceding verses, the Levites have recounted the history of God’s faithfulness opposite the unfaithfulness of the people in an impressive way before the face of God. On this basis they will now plead with Him in view of their present state of unfaithfulness and weakness. They present the people in all His ranks – “our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers and on all Your people” – to the “the great, the mighty, and the awesome God”, whom they first and foremost and above all call “our God”.
They speak to Him in His relationship with them. In that relationship they know Him as “great”. He is all-embracing and transcends everything. He is also ‘great’, omnipotent, unlimited in His possibilities. And He is ‘awesome’, He is to be feared by everyone, especially by those who oppose Him.
They also know Him as the God “who keeps covenant”. They know that He will never break the covenant made and ratified by Him. The people have not kept their part in the covenant. That is why they also speak of God’s keeping of “lovingkindness”. They ask God if, in the abundance of lovingkindness that characterizes Him, He does not want to think small of all the trouble that has afflicted them from the moment that He has given them in the power of their enemies. They do not prescribe to God how He should act, but ask for a favor.
God Justified in His Actions
As they call upon the mercy of God, they do not forget to acknowledge that God has the right on His side in everything that has happened to them (cf. Psalms 51:6). They take the right attitude before God. There is no justification for their own sinful behavior, and they do not blame Him for injustice. It is clear to them where the cause of all their misery lies. All the misery they have brought upon themselves can be traced back to their disobedience to the Word of God.
God has given them a kingdom. He has showered them with beneficence. He has given them space and abundance. Nothing has He withheld from them to make them happy, content and thankful. But instead of serving Him, they have served themselves. He has made them aware of this, but they have not repented of their evil deeds.
Slavery Is Justified
They are back in the land, but there is no liberty. A strange power rules the land, not a king from the house of David. They recognize their true position. Both for God and for the world around them, they take the place they have earned through their unfaithfulness.
They cannot fully enjoy the proceeds of the land either. They can enjoy it as far as their rulers allow. The proceeds are not for them, but for those to whom they have been subdued by God because of their sins. They do not even have anything to say about their own bodies and possessions. It is all in the power of foreign rulers.
Having seen and admitted their past failures, they try to guard against a repetition of them. The means they choose is to make an agreement (cf. 2 Kings 23:3), which they write down and seal. This suits the dispensation in which they live. But such an agreement cannot be kept by a human being. By doing so they (unconsciously) indicate that they are better than their fathers.
Yet they have ground for this agreement, for, with or without agreement, they are obliged to keep the law. In the present dispensation this is different – although many voluntarily commit themselves to keep the law. For us, the general lesson is that after confessing our guilt, we will continue our walk on the basis of grace that we received when we were converted.
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Nehemiah 9". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent