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SOLEMN FAST KEPT, WITH CONFESSION OF SINS; AND VOLUNTARY COVENANT WITH GOD ENTERED INTO BY THE PEOPLE, AND SEALED TO BY THE PRINCES, PRIESTS, AND LEVITES (Nehemiah 9:1-38.). When the law was first read to them on the opening day of the seventh month, the people had shown strong feelings of compunction, an earnest desire to return to God by the thorny way of repentance. In checking this feeling on that particular day, Ezra and Nehemiah had conformed to prevalent ideas on the subject of festival observance, but had not intended to thwart the popular desire for some distinct penitential action, some marked public proceedings, which should at once furnish a vent to pent-up feeling, and serve as a starting-point from which individuals, or even the nation, might enter upon a new career. It is a very curious circumstance, and one not easy of explanation, that they did not fix on the 10th of the month the "great day of atonement"—as the most appropriate day of national humiliation and of general self-abasement. The proximity of that occasion would naturally and almost necessarily suggest it to them, and nothing could well exceed its intrinsic fitness. On that day, and that day only in the whole of the year, every soul was to afflict itself, and whatsoever soul did not do so was to be cut off and destroyed from among the people (Leviticus 23:27-29). It can scarcely be that the observance of the day had ceased. Perhaps the time for preparation which the selection of this "feast of sorrow" would have allowed seemed too short. Perhaps it was thought undesirable to select for an extraordinary national act of self-humiliation a day which already possessed its own routine, and possibly its own ritual, of repentance. In any case, the fact was that the civil and ecclesiastical authorities came to the determination not to make any special use of the regular annual fast day, but to leave the observance of that occasion to the people's natural bent, and appoint a different day—one which had no traditional customs attached to it—for the solemn act of penitence on which the heart of the nation was set. As the feast of tabernacles lasted from the 15th of Tisri to the 22nd, it was necessary either to select a day before that holy week or after it. A day between the 10th and the 15th would have followed too close upon the day of atonement; a day, therefore, was appointed after the festival was over. Not, however, the very next day—the transition from joy to sorrow would in that case have been too abrupt—but the next day but one—the 24th (Nehemiah 9:1). Then, the multitude that had come up for the feast being still present, a great fast was kept—sackcloth was worn, dust was sprinkled on the head; for half the day the vast assembly remained in the great court of the temple, listening to the words of the law for three hours, and for three hours confessing their sins (verse 3); after this the Levites took the word, and, in the name of the whole people, blessed God, acknowledged his gracious providence and special goodness towards Israel throughout the entire course of their history (verses 5-25), confessed their sins and the sins of their fathers (verses 26-35), admitted the justice of their present low estate (verses 36, 37), and finally brought forward a written bond or covenant, whereto they invited those present to set their seals (verse 38), pledging them to "walk in God's law, and observe and do all his commandments," and to make a perpetual provision for the priests and for the temple service (Nehemiah 10:29-39). The words of the formula were, no doubt, carefully prepared beforehand, and show traces of the influence of Ezra, to whose prayer (Ezra 9:6-15) they bear a great resemblance. We may perhaps assume that they were his composition, and that, though he is not mentioned, he was present, directing all the proceedings, instructing and animating the Levites, and exercising an influence for good over all grades of the people. (The present chapter is closely united with that which follows, and must be studied in connection with it.)
With sackclothes, and earth upon them. On the use of sackcloth in mourning see Genesis 37:34; 2Sa 3:31; 2 Samuel 21:10; 1 Kings 21:27, etc. Putting earth or dust on the head was less common; but mention of it is made in 1 Samuel 4:12; 2 Samuel 1:2; and Job 2:12.
The seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers. Compare Nehemiah 10:28, by which it appears that the "strangers" are "the people of the lands," or neighbouring heathen, of whom there were at all times considerable numbers in Jerusalem (comp. Nehemiah 13:16). It was not fitting that these aliens should take part in a ceremony of which the main object was that the special people of God should renew their covenant with him. Stood and confessed. Attitude is perhaps scarcely intended here, since the Jews confessed their sins kneeling (Ezra 9:5), or prostrate (Ezra 10:1). Hence we hear in the next verse that they "stood up," or "rose up" (consurrexerunt, Vulg.).
In their place. See above, Nehemiah 8:7. The people and the ministers had their appointed "places"in every gathering of a religious character. The former now "stood up" in their proper place, and read, i.e. "engaged in the reading of the law, not, however, as actual readers, but as listeners. The readers would be the Levites (see Nehemiah 8:7, Nehemiah 8:8). One fourth part of the day. The day and the night were alike divided by the Jews into four parts, each of three hours duration. The nocturnal divisions are frequently alluded to in the New Testament (Mark 13:35; John 18:28, etc.). Worshipped. Literally, "bowed themselves down," or "prostrated themselves."
Upon the stairs, of the Levites. Rather, "upon the platform of the Levites," the same probably as the "pulpit of Nehemiah 8:4. Bani. Rather, "Binnui" (see Nehemiah 10:9; Nehemiah 12:8),the representative of the "sons of Henadad. Jeshua, Binnui, and Kadmiel are the three principal families of the Levites (comp. Ezra 2:40; Ezra 3:9; Nehemiah 3:24; Nehemiah 8:7, etc.). Sherebiah was the head of a family which returned with Ezra (Ezra 8:18). Chenani is probably the "Hanan" of Nehemiah 8:7, and Nehemiah 10:10.
Stand up. The people had prostrated themselves (see the comment on Nehemiah 9:3) for confession and prayer; they are now bidden to "stand up" for praise. Compare the practice of the Christian Church. Blessed be. Literally, "let them bless." The Levites turn their address, after its opening clause, from the people to Jehovah himself, who henceforth becomes the subject of it. Thy glorious name. The high honour due to the "name" of God is taught by the sacred writers with one uniform voice from Moses (Exodus 20:7)to the last 'surviving apostle (Revelation 15:4). The "glorious name" of God is an expression which occurs four times in our version of the Old Testament; but the exact phrase here used is found only in Psalms 72:19.
Thou art Lord alone. Compare Psalms 86:10 and Isa 27:1-13 :16. In the latter passage the phrase used is almost identical. The heaven of heavens. Compare Deuteronomy 10:14; 1 Kings 8:27; Psalms 148:4. The expression has been explained as—
1. The very highest heaven;
2. The heavens in all their infinity,
The latter sense best suits the various passages where the phrase occurs. With all their host. The "host of heaven" has been taken to mean—
1. The angels;
2. The stars.
By the immediate context the stars would seem to be here intended; but the last clause of the verse is more properly applicable to the angels. Still, it must be remembered that, according to H.S. (Psalms 148:3), even the stars "praise" God. Thou preservest them all. The preservation of all created things by him who called them into being is scarcely taught in the Old Testament elsewhere than in this passage. The Psalmist says in one place, "Thou preservest man and beast" (Psalms 36:6); but this acknowledgment falls very far short of the universality of the present passage. Man naturally, but foolishly, fancies that things once created are able to preserve themselves. Exact thought sees, that if all things have been produced from nothing, it requires precisely the same power to sustain as originally to produce them. Hence "preservation" has been called "a continual creation."
Compare with this long historical resumé the still longer ones in Psalms 78:5-72 and Acts 7:2-47. God's dealings with his people furnished a moral lesson of extraordinary force, and moral teachers, naturally, made frequent reference to them. But it is not often that we have so complete and elaborate a recapitulation as the present, which, beginning with the call of Abraham, brings the history down to the time of the Persian servitude. God's goodness and his people's ingratitude form the burthen of the whole.
Canaanites, etc. The nations driven out were actually seven (Deuteronomy 7:1), but it is a common figure of speech to put the part for the whole. In the present enumeration the Hivites are omitted. Hast performed thy words. Though for a time remnants of the accursed nations were left in the land, "to prove Israel" (Judges 3:1), yet ultimately all were either driven out or reduced to the condition of slaves (see the comment on Ezra 2:55).
They dealt proudly. The "proud dealing" of the Egyptians is spoken of in Exodus 18:11. That God "got himself a name" by the signs and wonders shown in Egypt is often declared (see Exodus 9:16; Exodus 14:17; Exodus 15:14-16, etc.).
As a stone. This phrase is taken from the "song of Moses" (Exodus 15:5). The composer of the address has also in his mind Exodus 15:10. The epithet given to the "waters" is not, however, the same, as might appear from the A.V.
Right judgments, true laws, good statutes, etc; are expressions which imply an immutable morality, a standard of right and wrong antecedent to command or precept, which standard is doubtless the eternal goodness of God himself. The repetition of the epithets here shows the composer of the form to be penetrated with the spirit of admiration for God's commandments which breathes so remarkably through the whole of Psalms 119:1-176.
Madest known unto them thy holy sabbath. The anterior existence of the sabbath to the law is here implied, which accords with Genesis 2:2, Genesis 2:3, and Exodus 20:11. Precepts, statutes, and laws. Rather a periphrasis for "the law" generally, than a logical division of the Law into distinct parts.
Bread from heaven. The manna had been already called the "bread of heaven" (Psalms 105:40) and the "corn of heaven" (Psalms 78:24) by the national psalmists. The composer of this prayer now for the first time calls it "bread from heaven"—a phrase consecrated to Christians by its employment in John 6:1-71. (John 6:32, John 6:51, John 6:58).
They and our fathers. Rather, "they, our fathers." The vau is used exegetically. Dealt proudly. i.e. "acted insolently." Compare Deuteronomy 1:43, where the same verb is translated "were presumptuous'' (marg.). Hardened their necks. So in 2 Kings 17:14.
In their rebellion. Several MSS. have b'Mitzraim for b'Miryam, which would give the sense "appointed a captain to return to their bondage in Egypt." So the Septuagint. Appointed a captain. The reference is to Numbers 14:4, where we are told that the Israelites "said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt." The Levites speak as if the appointment had been made, perhaps regarding the intention as morally equivalent to the act. A God ready to pardon. Literally, "a God of pardons." The word used is a rare one, occurring only in Daniel 9:9 and Psalms 130:4, besides the present passage. Gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. This is quoted from Joel 2:13, which is perhaps a conscious reproduction of Jonah 4:2.
Great provocations. Or "great blasphemies," as the same word is rendered in Ezekiel 35:12.
Thou gavest them also thy good Spirit to instruct them. The "good Spirit" of God is mentioned in Psalms 143:10; and the fact of God's "instructing and teaching" men in Psalms 32:8. But instruction by God's Spirit is nowhere else distinctly mentioned in the Old Testament.
Thou didst divide them into corners. i.e. "didst plant them in every corner of the Holy Land,"—"gave them to possess the whole of it,"—ultimately, that is, not at first (see the comment on Nehemiah 9:8). The land of Sihon, and the land of the king of Heshbon. The Levites must have known that Sihon was king of Heshbon, and (if the text is sound) must have expressed themselves as they did, by way of rhetorical amplification; perhaps, however, the vav after "Sihon" is the mistake of a copyist.
As the stars of heaven. There is a reference here to the promise made to Abraham (Genesis 15:5; Genesis 22:17). On the great multiplication which took place in Egypt see Exodus 1:7, Exodus 1:12.
The Canaanites. Sometimes, as in Nehemiah 9:8, the Canaanites are spoken of as one of the nations cast out; sometimes the word is used in a larger sense, and includes the other six nations. Here we have the wide sense.
They took strong cities. As Jericho, Ai, Libnah, Lachish, Hazer, Hebron, etc. A fat land. Compare Numbers 14:7, Numbers 14:8; Deuteronomy 8:7-9; 2 Kings 18:32. Houses full of all goods. See Deuteronomy 6:11. Fruit trees in abundance. The fruit trees of Palestine are, besides the vine and the olive, the fig tree, the carob or locust tree (ceratonia siliqua), the quince, the apple, the almond, the walnut, the peach, the apricot, the mulberry, the sycamore fig, the prickly pear, the pomegranate, and the orange. Date-palms also were anciently abundant in the valley of the Jordan. They … became fat, Compare Deuteronomy 32:15 and Jeremiah 5:28, the only other places where the expression here used occurs. The comparison will show that dispraise is intended—"they grew wanton and self-indulgent." Delighted themselves. Rather, "luxuriated" (ἐτρύφησαν, LXX.).
They … slew thy prophets. Compare Matthew 23:37; Luke 11:47. Jewish tradition states that Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were murdered. Many prophets were slain by Jezebel, with Ahab's sanction (1 Kings 18:4). Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, was put to death by Joash (2 Chronicles 24:22).
Thou gavest them saviours. e.g. Othniel and Ehud (who are called "saviours," Judges 3:9, Judges 3:15), Shamgar, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, Saul, David, etc. The writer seems to have the history of "Judges" especially in his mind (see the next verse).
After they had rest. See Judges 3:11, Judges 3:30; Judges 5:31; Judges 8:28.
Withdrew the shoulder. Compare Hosea 4:16 ("Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer") and Zechariah 7:11. The metaphor is taken from the action of a beast of burthen which, when required to draw, shrinks from the yoke and starts back.
Many years didst thou forbear them. The ten tribes for 260 years from the revolt of Jeroboam, the remaining two tribes for 135 years longer. Testifiedst against them by thy Spirit in thy prophets. Compare 2 Kings 17:13, where the phrase used is nearly the same, and see also 2 Chronicles 36:15, 2 Chronicles 36:16. There was a continual succession of prophets from the time of Solomon to, and through, the captivity. Besides those whose writings have come down to us, we find mention of Ahijah the Shilonite, Iddo the seer, Shemaiah the prophet, Hanani, Jehu the son of Hanani, Elijah, Elisha, Micaiah the son of Imlah, Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, Huldah, and (perhaps) Hosai. The guilt of the Jewish people was enormously increased by the fact that they would not give ear to the exhortations constantly addressed to them by the messengers of God. Therefore they were delivered into the hands of the heathen, or people of the lands.
Our God, the great, the mighty, and the terrible. Compare Nehemiah 1:5, with the comment. Who keepest covenant and mercy. This phrase, which occurs also in Nehemiah 1:5, has apparently been derived from the Psalmist's words—"My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him" (Psalms 89:28). All the trouble. Literally, "the weariness;" but the word is clearly used here for "suffering'' generally. Since the time of the kings of Assyria. The kings of Assyria, in the strictest sense of the word, had been God's original instrument for punishing his rebellious people. A king not mentioned in Holy Scripture tells us that he defeated Ahab, and forced Jehu to pay him tribute. Another (Pul) took tribute from Menahem (2 Kings 15:19, 2 Kings 15:20). A third (Tiglath. Pfieser) carried two tribes and a half into captivity (ibid. verse 29; 1 Chronicles 5:26). A fourth (Shalmaneser) laid siege to Samaria (2 Kings 17:5), and a fifth (Sargon) took it. A sixth (Sennacherib) took all the fenced cities of Judah from Hezekiah, and forced him to buy the safety of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:13-16). A seventh (Esar-haddon) had Manasseh brought as a prisoner to Babylon (2 Chronicles 33:11). Hence Isaiah calls the Assyrian monarch "the rod of God's anger" (Isaiah 10:5).
Thy testimonies, wherewith thou didst testify against them. i.e. the testimony borne by the prophets (see Nehemiah 9:30).
They have not served thee in their kingdom. There is no need of altering the reading here. "In their kingdom" means, "while they had a kingdom of their own, and were not subjects, as now, to a foreign power." Thy great goodness. See above, Nehemiah 9:25. The large and fat land. Compare Exodus 3:8. Although the limits of Palestine are narrow, yet the land which God flare to his people, extending as it did from the Euphrates to the river of Egypt (Genesis 15:18), might well he termed a "large" or "broad" land.
We are servants this day. i.e. we have now no kingdom, we are slaves—the Persian is our master. As we would not be God's servants, we are handed over to him.
It yieldeth much increase unto the kings. "The Persian monarchs derive a large revenue from our territory." The amount paid by Judaea is not known; but Syria, in which Judaea was included, paid annually in money 350 talents of silver (Herod. 3:91), or about £90,000. There was also a further contribution in kind. They have dominion over our bodies. They can impress us either as soldiers or sailors, and make us fight their battles for them. Jews probably took part in the expedition of Xerxes against Greece. And over our cattle. They can impress our cattle for their baggage-train.
Because of all this. Because of our past sins and their punishment—to prevent a recurrence of similar conduct and similar afflictions. We … seal unto it. In the East it is always the seal that authenticates a document. Babylonian documents were often stamped with half a dozen seals or more. These were impressed upon the moist clay, and then the clay was baked. Sometimes each party to the contract stamped his seal upon a separate piece of sealing clay, which he then attached to the document by means of a string. Any number of seals could be attached in this way.
A special Fast day-how spent.
This chapter and the next contain an account of the proceedings of a day set apart for special fasting and humiliation These three verses give a general description of the proceedings.
I. The DATE. The 24th day of the month Tisri; only one clear day having passed since the rejoicings of the feast of tabernacles. So joy and sorrow succeed each other in life; in the religious life also. No inconsistency in the indulgence of each in turn. The people had shown a preparedness for special humiliation at the beginning of the month, at the feast of trumpets, when, the law being read to them, they wept. But they were bid to restrain their grief at that time because they were keeping a festival. Since then, on the tenth of the month, the day of atonement, the only fast day prescribed by the law, had doubtless been observed. But services of a more special kind were felt to be desirable, in which, by the united expressions of repentance and renewed covenant with God, the foundation should be laid for a life more in harmony with the law.
II. The SEPARATION from aliens effected. The meeting and its exercises were to be strictly for "the seed of Israel." Others could not really have fellowship with them in their recital of God's dealings with their fathers and their nation, nor share their sorrow or new resolutions. The Jews therefore "separated themselves from all strangers" for the time, and held a meeting of Jews only. Such seems to be the meaning of the words. Observe that community of faith and feeling is essential to united worship, and the deeper and fuller it is, so much the more real and profitable will the united worship be. The mixed congregation has its advantages, but earnest Christians will desire a closer fellowship than it affords, and which can be found only in meetings of those like-minded, apart for a time from the formal and halfhearted.
III. The EXTERNAL SIGNS Of humiliation adopted. Fasting, abstinence from food, more or less rigid. A practice sanctioned by our Lord, and employed not only as an expression of humiliation, but as an aid to intense devotion (see Matthew 4:2; Matthew 17:21; Acts 13:2, Acts 13:3). Whether its very general disuse amongst Western Protestant Christians is to be attributed to a decreased devoutness, or an increased spirituality to which such methods and instruments of piety are alien, or to the experience that in Western climates fasting does not aid devotion, is worthy of consideration. What is certain is, that it is of no worth as a religious observance except as it promotes or expresses spiritual religion. In addition to fasting, these Jews wore sackclothes, and put earth on their heads—usages not uncommon with them in similar circumstances. Such signs of humiliation as these are, however, distinctly forbidden by our Lord, at ]east .in the case of private devotion (Matthew 6:16), as savouring of ostentation; and, doubtless, the more the spirit of the gospel prevails, such external signs become distasteful. And at any period they were valuable only as expressing and promoting real feelings of penitence. We can easily imagine how, where they were recognised signs of mourning, a whole assembly appearing in them would excite each other to deeper grief, as in fact among ourselves is done when hundreds or thousands meet, on some occasion of general sorrow, all clothed in black.
IV. The RELIGIOUS EXERCISES of the day. 1. The worship of God. Including—
(1) Praise. Declarations of the Divine glory, and recitals of his wondrous works, in creation and in their national history.
(2) Confession of sins. Their own sins and those of their fathers. The substance of the confession made is given in Nehemiah 9:7-35. Confession of one's own sins is not only appropriate, but is a condition of forgiveness (Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:9). But why confess the sins of their fathers? It is to be remembered that this was a national gathering for national humiliation, introductory to a better national life. In such an assembly a review of the nation's sins would be very appropriate and profitable. It recalled the great cause of past national suffering, and of present degradation and subjection. It brought into light what must be avoided if better times were to arise. It produced the personal conviction of participation in the sins of those gone before, and the necessity of abandoning them. It enhanced the feeling of the great forbearance and mercy of God towards their nation, which at once deepened repentance and encouraged hope.
(3) Prayer (Nehemiah 9:32). 2. Reading of the law. This had held a prominent place in the celebration of the feasts both of trumpets and of tabernacles (see previous chapter), and had been the chief means of awakening that general sorrow for sin which had prepared the people for this special fast day. It would seem that they had been heretofore unfamiliar with "the book of the law," and that what they had recently heard had excited a hunger not easily satiated. On this occasion half the time was spent in reading and hearing portions of the book. Its precepts and histories would increase their penitence; the declarations which, amidst its legal enactments, it contained of the pardoning mercy of God, and the instances of its exercise which it recorded, would assure them that their repentance would not be in vain; and the whole would guide and stimulate their praises and confessions, supplications and good resolutions.
V. The TIME OCCUPIED (Nehemiah 9:3). It was a "protracted meeting." For six hours the congregation kept together. Half the time was employed in the reading of the law, doubtless with explanations similar to those recorded in Nehemiah 8:7, Nehemiah 8:8, and half in worship. Perhaps the two alternated with each other throughout the service. In times of general religious feeling very long services may be held without weariness; ordinarily they are undesirable; but the demand for very short ones is usually a sign of the decay of spiritual life. In conclusion—
1. The foundation of a new or improved religious life must be laid in genuine repentance.
2. Knowledge of God's word is essential to an intelligent, acceptable, and lasting piety. The reading and exposition of Holy Scripture should therefore be prominent in public worship.
3. The reality and worth of our religious knowledge is to be estimated by its influence on our heart and life. Does it work in us repentance and a more godly and righteous life?
Commencement of the worship and confessions with general praise.
I. THE LEADERS OF THE WORSHIP. An honourable and responsible office.
II. THEIR EXHORTATION TO THE PEOPLE.
1. As to the attitude in which they were to offer praise. "Stand up"—the fitting posture for this part of Divine worship.
2. As to the praise they were to offer.
(1) To whom. "Jehovah your God." The true and living God, eternal and immutable; the God of Israel—he who revealed himself specially to them, took them into peculiar relation to himself, made them the objects of special care and discipline, gave them special promises. Christians have still greater reasons for calling Jehovah their God, and giving him praise.
(2) How long. "For ever and ever." Indicates that God will for ever exist, and be worthy of praise, and actually praised; and that we should aspire and may hope to be eternally his worshippers.
III. THE UNITED PRAISE.
(1) Praise of God's name. Of God as revealed and declared by his works and word.
(2) Declaration of the inadequacy of all praise of God. "Which is exalted," etc. Not only can no words sufficiently express his majesty and infinite excellency, but no thoughts, no emotions (which often transcend thought as well as language; see Romans 8:26) are worthy of them. And not only is our praise inadequate, but "all blessing and praise." This is not a reason for withholding' our worship, for then no praise would be offered in heaven or earth, but for striving after nobler thoughts and feeling's and language, and offering all with deepest humility. God condescends to accept the poorest worship, if sincere, and the best we can present.
2. Praise of God as "Jehovah alone."
3. Ascription to him of the creation of all things (Nehemiah 9:6). A great truth not only unknown to most of the heathen, but given up by many cultivated men in Christian lands. In the praise of God the display of his power, wisdom, and goodness in the work of creation should hold a prominent place. He who made all should receive homage from all his intelligent creatures.
IV. THE RECOGNITION OF OTHER WORSHIPPERS. "The host of heaven worshippeth thee." It is inspiring, when uniting in Divine worship, to remember our fellow-worshippers, and thus cultivate fellowship with them (compare the beginning of the Te Deum). The Jews had not this satisfaction in respect to any other people. They alone worshipped the true God, and they had not learned to think and feel as to heathen worship that it was about equivalent to their own. All the more gladly did they recognise that their God, unknown and unworshipped by the rest of the world, was adored and praised and served by hosts of exalted intelligences in other worlds. To us, also, this is an inspiriting truth, adapted to stimulate and elevate our worship. The greatest beings God has made bow down with lowliness before him, and with all the ardour of their seraphic nature celebrate his praise. We need not be ashamed to be like them, but should seek to make our worship resemble theirs as nearly as possible, and be thankful that, through the mediation of our Redeemer, in whom heaven and earth are united, it is as acceptable to God. They praise the Saviour as well as the Creator; we praise him with a feeling they cannot share; for he redeemed us by his blood, not them.
Nehemiah 9:7, Nehemiah 9:8
God's favour to Abraham.
The multitude, led by the Levites, now begin the recital of God's gracious dealings with their race; and, first, with their great ancestor, Abraham. By the words, "Thou art Jehovah God," they allege that it was the only living and true God, the Creator of all things, who distinguished Abraham, and through him their nation, by his favour. They then recount—
I. His CHOICE of Abraham. Of his own gracious will separating him from others, to preserve the knowledge and worship of himself, and to be the Father of the people whom he appointed to be peculiarly his own.
II. His LEADING him from Chaldaea to Canaan.
III. His CHANGE of his name from Abram to Abraham. Thus promising him a numerous posterity.
IV. His RECOGNITION Of his faithfulness. A reference to Genesis 15:6, where "believed" is part of the same verb as the word "faithful" here (comp. Galatians 3:9—faithful Abraham ). Abraham was faithful in heart, and that before God. He trusted God, and continued to trust him through all trials of his faith. He was faithful in maintaining the worship of God in the midst of idolaters, and in teaching his household to "keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment" (Genesis 18:19). And God marked and rewarded his fidelity.
V. His COVENANT with him. Genesis 15:18-21 seems especially referred to. The larger promises, that Abraham and his posterity should be a blessing to all men, do not here come into view.
VI. His PERFORMANCE Of the covenant. In which God's righteousness is recognised (Genesis 15:6).
1. All blessings enjoyed by men have their origin in the free grace and choice of God.
2. Yet God in his treatment of men has regard to their faithfulness to him.
3. The righteousness, as well as the goodness, of God assures us that he will fulfil all his promises.
4. We as well as the Jews have reason to praise God for the grace shown to Abraham. For he is our spiritual ancestor, "the father of all them that believe" (Romans 4:11).
Faithfulness of heart.
"And roundest his heart faithful before thee." We have here—
I. A PRINCIPAL CHARACTERISTIC OF A GODLY MAN.
1. Its seat. The heart. No merely outward practices constitute faithfulness before God.
2. Its reality. It is faithfulness "before God," such as he who searches the heart can see to exist; not merely what men might from outward appearances erroneously think to exist.
3. Its principle. Faith in God (see above, IV.).
4. Its manifestations.
(1) Confession. Open acknowledgment of God, and testimony for him.
(4) Fidelity in use of talents for God.
(5) Constancy and perseverance in all.
Notwithstanding temptations, difficulties, opposition, persecution, defections of others.
II. THE DIVINE RECOGNITION OF IT.
1. He knows and marks it. "Foundest," etc. "The Father seeketh such," and rejoices to find them. If unobserved by men, not by him.
2. He accepts it. Though it be accompanied with imperfections, as in the case of Abraham.
3. He honours and rewards it. With gracious assurances, and the fulfilment of them. To the faithful he will show himself faithful. They shall at length be addressed, "Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord." In conclusion, God sees all hearts; what does he find in ours?
Redemption from Egypt.
The people proceed to celebrate the power and goodness of God as displayed in the deliverance of their ancestors from Egyptian bondage.
I. THE CONDITION FROM WHICH THEY WERE DELIVERED. It was one of—
1. Cruel oppression. "They dealt proudly," insolently and cruelly, "against them."
2. Misery. "The affliction of our fathers."
II. THE SUCCESSIVE STEPS OF THEIR DELIVERANCE.
1. The Divine notice of their condition. "Didst see," etc; "thou knewest," etc. God seemed to have forgotten them, but he had not. His eye was on them; their condition interested him; and at length, in the fulness of time, he interposed to rescue them.
2. The plagues inflicted on the ruler and people of Egypt.
3. The wonders wrought at the Red Sea. In utmost apparent peril, the people and Moses cried unto God; he heard "their cry" (Nehemiah 9:9), divided the waters, led the Israelites safely through, and overwhelmed their "pursuers."
III. ONE GREAT RESULT OF THEIR DELIVERANCE. "So didst thou get thee a name," etc. (comp. Exodus 9:16). Jehovah secured for himself a name for power, terribleness, special favour to Israel; a name widespread, lasting ("as it is this day," and still in our day); a name to be revered, trusted, loved, rejoiced in, praised, published. The Jews never wearied of proclaiming in their Psalms the name of him who redeemed them from Egypt so marvellously; and, in recalling this great redemption to mind, renewed from time to time their confidence that God who had done so much for them would not forsake them. Notice—
1. The importance of these events for the Israelites. Not only for their immediate effects; but they gave the nation birth, separated them from the spiritual perils of Egypt, its idolatry, etc. Their passage through the Red Sea was their national baptism unto Moses, and unto God by him (1 Corinthians 10:2), consecrating them to be the people of God, to learn and practise his laws, maintain his worship, preserve the knowledge of him for the benefit ultimately of the world.
2. Their significance for us.
(1) Direct. As a display of the power and goodness of our God, his mindfulness of his people in their sorrows, and sure deliverance of them, though they may long have to "wait for him." As a pledge of the final triumph of his Church over all its enemies. And as one of the most marvellous of that series of interpositions which had for their object the enlightenment and salvation of the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
(2) Typical. Of the great redemption wrought for us in Christ by his death and the power of the Holy Ghost. The creation and consecration of a new and larger "Israel of God." This redemption is, like that of the Israelites, a deliverance from slavery into freedom, from degradation into honour, from misery into happiness, with the prospect of a settled and blessed rest; but vastly superior in respect to the marvels by which it was, and is, wrought, the evils from which it saves, and the blessings to which it introduces. Estimating these aright, we shall be prepared and impelled to "sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb" (Revelation 15:3).
The Divine self-made name.
"So didst thou get [make] thee a name, as it is this day." "What is thy name?" is a question asked of God by thoughtful men in all ages. How shall we conceive and speak of God? The answer is found in the various manifestations he has made of himself. He is the maker and publisher of his own name.
I. THE WAYS BY WHICH GOD HAS MADE FOR HIMSELF A NAME.
1. By his works. Of nature, providence, miracle, grace.
2. By his word. Directly instructing men how to think and speak of him, and enabling them to interpret his works.
3. Preeminently by the manifestation of himself in his Son. The character, teaching, and works of Christ present a perfect revelation of the invisible God. "I have declared thy name, and will declare it" (John 17:26).
II. THE NAME HE HAS THUS MADE FOR HIMSELF. The Almighty, All-wise, All-good, the Holy, Just, Faithful, Merciful, Terrible, Father and Saviour of all, especially of believers, LOVE, etc.
III. ITS ENDURANCE. "As it is this day." He remains the same; his name is so written that it can never be blotted out, so proclaimed that it shall resound through the world, through the universe, for ever.
IV. WHY HE HAS MADE HIMSELF SUCH A NAME. For his own glory, and for the benefit of his creatures; that they may fear, trust, love, worship, and obey him, and thus be saved and blessed. Finally, we shall at length in our own personal experience know and illustrate the name of God. Which part of his name? This depends on how we are affected by and towards it now.
Israel in the desert.
The people now recount the mercies of God to their fathers in the desert, and confess the sins of which they were guilty there. After deliverance from Egypt, the desert had to be passed before Canaan could be reached; and there the people were instructed and organised, tried and proved, disciplined and chastised, and thus prepared for orderly settlement as a nation in the promised land.
I. THE DIVINE FAVOURS BY WHICH THEY WERE DISTINGUISHED.
1. Miraculous guidance (Nehemiah 9:12, Nehemiah 9:19).
2. Miraculous provisions (Nehemiah 9:15, Nehemiah 9:20, Nehemiah 9:21).
3. Miraculous legislation (Nehemiah 9:13, Nehemiah 9:14).
(1) How the laws were given. Partly by the voice of God from Sinai (Nehemiah 9:13), chiefly by the mediation of Moses (Nehemiah 9:14).
(2) Of what, they consisted. In general they are described as "right judgments and true laws," etc. (Nehemiah 9:13, Nehemiah 9:14). In particular, the institution of the Sabbath is mentioned (Nehemiah 9:14) ― one of the greatest and best gifts of God to them.
4. The gift of God's "good Spirit" (Nehemiah 9:20). Reference may be made to the Spirit of God as given to Moses, and to the seventy elders (Numbers 11:17, Numbers 11:25), or even Bezaleel and Aholiab (Exodus 35:31-35). But looking at such passages as Psalms 51:11; Psalms 143:10, it is quite as possible that the enlightening influence of the Spirit on the minds and hearts of the people in general may be referred to.
5. The command to enter Canaan. Verse 15, where "promisedst them" (lit. "saidst to them") should probably be "commandedst them." The command, however, virtually included a renewed promise. God had "sworn to give them" it; now they are bid to go in and take possession of it; implying that God would give them possession if they obeyed his call.
II. THE GROSS INIQUITIES BY WHICH THEY DISTINGUISHED THEMSELVES. Notwithstanding the wonderful manifestations of God amongst them, and his great kindness.
1. Proud and stubborn disobedience (verses 16, 17).
2. Purpose to return to Egypt (verse 17; see Numbers 14:1-4). Just on the borders of the promised land they refused to advance into it, terrified by the report of most of the spies, and not exercising faith in his power who had wrought for them so mightily. Yea, they proposed to return to the land of bondage, and "appointed a captain to lead them thither.
3. Idolatry (verse 18). A violation of the fundamental principle of their law.
III. THE DIVINE FORBEARANCE, MERCY, AND CONSTANCY (verses 17, 19, 20). They "wrought great provocations," and numbers of them were heavily punished; yea, all who came out of Egypt, except two, were forbidden to enter Canaan, and died in the wilderness; yet even these continued during their lives to enjoy Divine guidance and sustenance, so that "they lacked nothing." God showed himself "ready to pardon," etc. (verse 17), and displayed his "manifold mercies," and did not forsake them. To the children he fulfilled the promises, the benefit of which the fathers had forfeited.
IV. THE LONG DURATION OF HIS MIRACULOUS SUSTENANCE OF THEM (verse 21). Lessons:—
1. The goodness of God and the depravity of man. The history of Israel is full of both. So is all history. "The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord," and also full of human wickedness. Each is rendered more conspicuous by the other; and the contrast makes one appear more glorious, the other more hideous.
2. As, after deliverance from Egypt, the desert had to be traversed before Canaan could be enjoyed, so is it in the Christian life. This world is a desert in comparison with heaven, and the journey through it is difficult and perilous. But it lies between conversion and heaven, and must be crossed.
3. Through this desert, however, God conducts his people. He guides, provides, protects, instructs, governs, and thus trains and prepares them for the promised inheritance. This is our comfort amid all the discomforts and dangers of the journey.
4. In ordinary mercies the agency of God is as real as in the miraculous. Our food, drink, clothing, etc. are as truly his gifts as the manna, etc. which he bestowed on Israel. His power, wisdom, and goodness are as really displayed in them, and both more extensively and more marvellously.
5. Amongst God's best gifts are his revelations of himself and his laws; his crowning gift is his Spirit. Under the Christian dispensation all these are far superior to the similar blessings vouchsafed to Israel. Our responsibilities are, therefore, greater; our moral and spiritual state should be far higher, our thankfulness more ardent.
6. We have a promise of a better inheritance than Canaan, with a command to journey steadily towards it; let us beware lest we come short of it through unbelief and disobedience.
The Holy Spirit as a Teacher.
"Thou gavest also thy good Spirit to instruct them." This assertion is more emphatically true of Christians than of Israel. We live under "the dispensation of the Spirit," when the "promise of the Spirit" is more abundantly fulfilled. We have here—
I. A WONDERFUL DISPLAY OF DIVINE MERCY. It is in the midst of the narration of Israel's pride and stubbornness that this statement is made. So it is to a rebellious world that God's Spirit comes to instruct, restore, and save.
II. AN INVALUABLE GIFT.
1. Its nature. Special Divine influence and operation—the Holy Spirit acting on and in the minds and hearts of men.
(1) In and through inspired men and their utterances by speech or writing. "Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." By such inspiration what might have been otherwise learned is taught more clearly and authoritatively, and the truths which especially relate to salvation, which could not have been otherwise known, are revealed.
(2) In the hearts of men generally. Those especially to whom the gospel comes enjoy this great blessing, for their enlightenment, conviction, conversion, regeneration, and sanctification.
(3) Through the Church. That is, through the speech and life of Christians, and in connection with Christian fellowship, worship, and ordinances. Not, however, as a magical influence to be dispensed at the will of men.
2. Its goodness. "Thy good Spirit." Intended not to describe the personal goodness of the Holy Spirit, but the value of his influence to men. Amongst the gifts of God to Israel named in the context, this was incalculably the best. The gifts of God which we call providential are invaluable; those of his grace are of far higher value, and of these this is the greatest. Without the Spirit no other Divine gift would avail for our highest and everlasting well-being. This renders all other blessings truly blessed. The good Spirit makes all things good to us, even those which we call evil, yea, those which in themselves are evil.
III. A GRAND OPPORTUNITY. "To instruct them." Each one of us may have the inestimable advantage of a Divine Teacher who not only speaks to the ear, or the eye, but enters the heart, and whose instructions are the most essential to our welfare. He makes "wise unto salvation." The only conditions are faith in him and his teaching, willingness to learn and practise his lessons, and prayer for his influences.
IV. A HEAVY RESPONSIBILITY. In proportion to the value of God's gifts are the responsibilities they impose. No responsibility can, therefore, be so heavy as that which arises from the gift of the Holy Ghost; the presence amongst us, the influence upon us, of a Divine Person proffering and pressing his aid to lead us to God, goodness, and heaven. Happy those who receive him into. their hearts as a permanent guest and guide—the life of their life, the soul of their soul. But let us take heed lest we "grieve the Holy Spirit of God," or "do despite unto the Spirit of grace," and he depart from us utterly and for ever, leaving us to the "sorer punishment" which falls on those to whom God comes most nearly and graciously, and is rejected by them.
Canaan conquered and possessed.
Continuing the recital of the goodness of God to their nation, the people narrate how their fathers obtained possession of the promised land. All is ascribed to God.
I. HE PRESERVED THE NATION to enter the land (Nehemiah 9:23). Although those who left Egypt died, two excepted, in the desert, their children were multiplied "as the stars of heaven."
II. HE CONQUERED THE COUNTRY, AND GAVE THEM POSSESSION OF IT. First, kingdoms east of the Jordan (Nehemiah 9:22), then the rest of the land (Nehemiah 9:24). Although the inhabitants were numerous and valiant, he subdued them; through his might they took even "strong cities" (Nehemiah 9:25).
III. THE LAND HE GAVE THEM WAS OF GREAT VALUE, AND AFFORDED THEM MUCH ENJOYMENT (Nehemiah 9:25).
IV. HE THUS FULFILLED HIS PROMISES (Nehemiah 9:23).
1. The perpetuation of the nation of Israel reminds us of the perpetuity of the Church of Christ. Notwithstanding the death of successive generations of Christians, the ravages of error, worldliness, etc; its continuance is guaranteed by the promise, "The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it."
2. The fulfilment of the promise of Canaan, after so long a period, should assure us of the fulfilment of all the promises of God. "He is faithful that promised," and be is almighty to overcome all obstacles and opposition.
3. The possession of a good land should excite our gratitude and praise. Our land is superior to Canaan in many respects, supplied with all kinds of advantages which the labours of others have created for us; and, like later generations of Israelites, we inherit it without conquest, and with far less peril of invasion than they experienced. God is the Giver of all, and should ever be praised for all; and we should be concerned lest by godlessness and unrighteousness we forfeit our inheritance.
4. Christians are heirs of "a better country." Heaven is like Canaan, as the gift of God, according to his promises; as a "rest" after much wandering and unrest, and as abounding in whatever can minister to enjoyment, and cause its inhabitants to "delight themselves in God's great goodness." But it is vastly superior, as a country never polluted by idolatry and wickedness; whose inhabitants are all holy; which no foe can invade, no sin, suffering, or death can enter; whose enjoyments are all pure, spiritual, and without peril; and from which is no expulsion. It is "an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and which fadeth not away"—an eternal possession.
Israel's wickedness and God's goodness.
A summary of the national history from the entrance into Canaan to the captivity. A dismal story; but, as was natural and suitable in a confession of sin, the more pleasing facts are omitted.
I. The great and INVETERATE WICKEDNESS OF THE PEOPLE. This is described by various terms and phrases, and its heinousness exhibited in many particulars.
1. Flagrant disobedience to the Divine laws. Although so good and so adapted to promote their welfare, "which if a man do, he shall live in them" (Nehemiah 9:29).
2. Proud and stubborn disregard of the Divine remonstrances and warnings.
3. Persecution even unto death of God's inspired messengers (Nehemiah 9:26).
4. Repeated relapses after partial reformation. Notwithstanding—
(1) The severity of the chastisements which produced it.
(2) The fervour of their prayers for deliverance, and promises of amendment.
(3) The signal and numerous deliverances effected for them in answer to their prayers.
5. The persistence of their disobedience.
II. THE MARVELLOUS AND LONG-CONTINUED GOODNESS OF GOD.
1. In sending them successive messengers to warn them and lead them to repentance. Even when they slew some, he sent others.
2. In inflicting punishment upon them for the same end.
3. In repeatedly answering their prayers for deliverance.
4. In bearing with them so long, although "they wrought great provocations."
5. In preserving a remnant when at length he scattered the nation (Nehemiah 9:31). Showing himself throughout "a gracious and merciful God."
1. Sin and suffering are indissolubly linked together.
2. Suffering is inflicted that sin may be subdued.
3. Amendment produced by suffering is often only temporary.
4. Persistence in sin insures ultimate ruin.
5. The goodness of God is shown in the testimony he maintains against sin, and the chastisements he inflicts on the sinner.
6. God is faithful to his promises, although men prove unfaithful (Nehemiah 9:31).
7. The history of Israel is a mirror in which all may see their own likeness. Nations and individuals; some more, some less. Even sincere Christians in a measure. Many can say with good George Herbert ―
"Lord, with what care hast thou heart us round!
Parents first season us; then schoolmasters
Deliver us to laws; they send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,
Pulpits and Sundays, sorrow dogging sin,
Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,
Blessings beforehand, ties of gratefulness,
The sound of glory ringing in our ears;
Without, our shame; within, our consciences;
Angels and grace, eternal hopes and fears:
Yet all these fences and their whole array
One cunning bosom-sin blows quite away."
The Divine testimony against sin.
"And testifiedst against them, that thou mightest bring them again unto thy law." The Divine testimony against sin and sinners is repeatedly mentioned in this confession (see Nehemiah 9:26, Nehemiah 9:30). We may take a general view of it.
I. THE WITNESS OF GOD AGAINST SIN AND SINNERS.
1. In his holy laws. Declaring his will, denouncing disobedience, and warning against its consequences.
2. In his revelations of eternity, judgment, hell, heaven. "There shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth."
3. In the nature of man. The testimony of conscience; the evil effects of sin on the body (diseases, death) and the soul, disordering, debasing, blunting the conscience, hardening the heart, etc.
4. In the effects of sin on the circumstances of the sinner.
5. In the effects of sin on society. Destruction of mutual esteem and confidence. Disorders, divisions, miseries.
6. In the methods of salvation from sin. The sufferings borne by our Lord in atoning for sin. The pains of conviction, penitence, etc. produced by the word and Spirit of God.
7. By the Church. Its constitution as a society avowedly renouncing sin, and called to battle against it everywhere. Its ministry, ordinances, examples of holiness, discipline on offenders.
II. ITS DESIGN.
1. To deter from sin.
2. To produce repentance.
"That thou mightest bring them again unto thy law."
III. THE REVELATION OF GOD WHICH IS THUS MADE. Manifestations of—
1. His hatred to sin. Which his permission of its prevalence might seem to put in question.
2. His benevolence. His testimonies against sin are so many entreaties that men would not injure themselves, so many safeguards against their doing so, so many strong reasons for turning from sin to holiness, and thus from misery to blessedness.
3. His justice in condemning the impenitent. Disregard of the Divine testimony against sin will work final ruin, but the lost sinner will have only himself to blame. "To-day," then, "if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart." Let it not be said of you, "Yet would they not give ear" (Nehemiah 9:30).
A sorrowful appeal to the Divine compassion.
The conclusion of the public united confession. It contains—
I. AN APPROPRIATE INVOCATION. Similar to that of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:5), and which would be felt as suitable after the preceding recital of the Divine proceedings.
II. AN APPEAL TO THE DIVINE PITY. In view of—
1. The greatness of their past troubles (verse 32). "Let not all the trouble seem little." "Do not regard it as too little to require notice and relief. Rather see how great it is, and bring it in mercy to an end." Perhaps, however, the meaning is, "Let it be deemed sufficient to answer the design of punishment, and therefore be now terminated" (comp. Isaiah 40:2).
2. Their present depressed condition (verses 36-37). A condition of subjection to the Gentiles, of spoliation, and of "great distress."
III. AN ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF DIVINE JUSTICE IN THEIR TREATMENT (verses 33-35).
IV. A DECLARATION OF THEIR MAKING A SOLEMN AND FAITHFUL UNITED COVENANT. A fitting conclusion of the day's proceedings. In conclusion—
1. The justice of God in inflicting chastisement should be heartily acknowledged by those who implore its cessation or mitigation.
2. Review of our past lives is adapted to and should excite humiliation, penitence, and resolutions of amendment. Therefore—
"Tis greatly wise to talk with our past hours,
And ask them what report they bore to heaven,
And how they might have borne more welcome news."
The justice of God in punishing sinners.
"Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly." The words express a just and salutary conviction, and make an acknowledgment suitable to accompany an appeal to the Divine compassion.
I. THE CONVICTION EXPRESSED. Of very great importance that we should not only verbally utter it, but sincerely feel it. How may we arrive at this conviction?
1. By faith in God's essential rectitude. That he cannot be unrighteous in any of his proceedings (see Deuteronomy 32:4).
2. By considering the rectitude and goodness of the laws against which we have sinned.
3. By remembering all that God has done to guard us against sin (see on Nehemiah 9:29). If we sin notwithstanding, we are justly punished.
4. By calling to mind our sins. Their essential evil, their number and magnitude, and the circumstances which aggravate their guiltiness (God's varied kindness, our opportunities, advantages, knowledge, convictions, good resolutions, etc.). Such a review will lead us to exclaim with Ezra, "Thou our God hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve" (Ezra 9:13).
5. By comparing what we endure with the Divine threatenings. The Israelites had been warned of the consequences of their rebellion against God. He was only fulfilling his word. So it is with us. What we suffer is no more, is indeed less, than we were warned to expect.
II. THE BENEFITS OF SUCH A CONVICTION.
1. It will prevent our murmuring at our sufferings. "Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?" (Lamentations 3:39).
2. It will greatly aid in producing repentance. Suffering is likely to do its proper work in humbling us and making sin odious when we recognise the justice of God in inflicting it.
3. It will lead to an appeal to the mercy of God for deliverance. Such an appeal, made through Christ, will be regarded, while an appeal to justice would be as futile as groundless. Finally, observe that the goodness of God is as conspicuous as his justice in the sufferings he inflicts in this life. They have in view "our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness," and so of true and everlasting blessedness. But if through our perversity they fail of this result, they are followed by the penalties of "judgment without mercy."
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Nehemiah 9:1-5, Nehemiah 9:16-18, Nehemiah 9:26,Nehemiah 9:28-30, Nehemiah 9:33-35}
The feast of tabernacles, held in such wise as Israel had not known since the days of Joshua (Joshua 8:17), concluded, "according unto the manner" of that festival, with a "solemn assembly" on the eighth day (Joshua 8:18)—"the last day, that great day of the feast" (John 7:37). After one day's interval, when nothing unusual was done, "on the twenty-fourth day of the month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting" (verse l), and a very great day was held of confession, adoration, and prayer. This was entirely an optional act on their part; it was not done to conform to any injunction' it was felt to be a suitable and desirable thing. Under the law there was some—under the gospel is more—room for spontaneous service. Not only the ordinances and services that are prescribed, but such and so many as the cultivation of our spiritual life requires, are what the wise and the good will practise. These should not be
(1) So many as to keep us from taking a fair share in the duties of daily life and of citizenship, or as to lead insensibly to formality and ceremonialism; nor should they be
(2) so few as to starve the soul or withhold from it the full nourishment it needs. Ezra and Nehemiah may have felt that the intense and prolonged exaltation of heart in which they had been luxuriating was not without its dangers, and would be wisely followed by a calmer service. In the cultivation of our religious character, one kind of service should alternate with another—the contemplative with the social, the spiritual with the practical, and the joyous and congratulatory with the penitential. Confession of sin was the key-note of this entire service. It found utterance in two ways.
I. OUTWARD SIGNS OF HUMILIATION (verse 1). "The children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackcloth and earth upon them" (verse 1). They took those measures to indicate humility which in their age and land were natural to them:
(2) wearing sackcloth,
(3) putting earth or "sprinkling dust" (Job 2:12) on their head.
Whenever outward manifestations of this kind—"bowing down the head as a bulrush, or spreading sackcloth and ashes" (Isaiah 58:5), or fasting—become purely formal or simply ostentatious (Matthew 6:16), they become unacceptable or even positively repugnant to him who demands sincerity and spirituality (Psalms 51:2; John 4:24). But the bent head, the downcast eye, the uncontrollable tear, the unconscious sigh—these are often the inarticulate but eloquent utterances of contrition which the eye of the all-seeing, the ear of the all-hearing Father fails not to see and hear.
II. WORDS OF PENITENCE. One "fourth part they confessed, and worshipped the Lord their God" (verse 3). "With a loud voice" (verse 4) the eight Levites led their devotions, calling on them to "stand up and bless the Lord their God for ever and ever" (verse 5), and then the people followed them in their confession; thus:—"Our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments, and refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that thou didst among them" (verses 16, 17); they "wrought great provocations" (verse 18); "they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs" (verse 26); "they did evil again before thee" (verse 28); "they dealt proudly, and sinned against thy judgments,… they withdrew the shoulder" (verse 29). "We have done wickedly: neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, or our fathers kept thy law;… they have not served thee.; in thy great goodness." Here is ample and unreserved confession of their own and their fathers' guilt:—
1. Manifold shortcoming—not hearkening to commandments, being unmindful of wonders, not serving God in his great goodness.
2. Positive and aggravated transgression—dealing proudly, working great provocations, rebelling against God, casting law behind them, etc.
3. Backsliding—"withdrawing the shoulder" that had been given to the yoke. We are summoned to "take with us words and turn to the Lord" (Hosea 14:2). "With the mouth confession is made unto salvation" (Romans 10:10). Our confession should be
(1) ample and unconstrained, including
(b) transgression, and, if called for,
(c) backsliding; it must be
(2) sincere—not a mere repetition of becoming words which other penitents have employed, but the utterance of what our own heart feels.—C.
HOMILIES BY J.S EXELL
A prayerful review of Divine goodness as manifested in the facts of human life.
I. This is a prayerful review of the Divine NAME. "And blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise" (Nehemiah 9:5).
1. It views God as the Creator of all things (Nehemiah 9:6).
2. It views God as electing his people (Nehemiah 9:7).
3. It views God as covenanting with the faithful (Nehemiah 9:8).
4. It views God as delivering his people in the time of sore affliction (Nehemiah 9:9, Nehemiah 9:10).
II. This is a prayerful review of the Divine ACTION. "And thou didst divide the sea before them" (Nehemiah 9:11).
1. The act of deliverance (Nehemiah 9:11).
2. The act of guidance. "Moreover thou leddest them in the day by a cloudy pillar" (Nehemiah 9:12).
3. The act of instruction (Nehemiah 9:13, Nehemiah 9:14).
4. The act of provision. "And gavest them bread from heaven for their hunger" (Nehemiah 9:15).5. The act of forbearance (Nehemiah 9:17).
6. The act of conquest (Nehemiah 9:24).
7. The act of retribution (Nehemiah 9:27).—E.
HOMILIES BY R.A. REDFORD
The solemn fast of assembled Israel. Notice three features in the people's religious life.
1. Their confession of sin.
2. Their external reformation.
3. Their solemn adoption of the written word of God as the law of their life. Take these as representative, universal.
I. HUMILIATION AND CONFESSION.
1. Public and united as well as private and solitary. Great impressiveness in numbers. The heart needs the stimulus of contact with great waves of feeling. There is much in the expression of religious emotion to feed and sustain it.
2. The sense of sin should not be merely the acknowledgment of individual transgressions, but of moral helplessness. "They confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers." They recounted the history of Divine grace and the backslidings of his people. It kept alive in their hearts the sense of their utter dependence on the free, unmerited mercy of Jehovah.
3. The penitential spirit will clothe itself in an appropriate dress. The people fasted and put on sackcloth and earth, as signs of mourning and self-humiliation. We are not enjoined to adopt their religious customs, but there is a natural expression of penitence which is not formality or self-righteousness. Self-denial, simplicity of life and manners, practical remembrance of the nothingness of earthly things. "Moderation known unto all men."
II. THE REFORMATION OF THE OUTWARD LIFE. There are external conditions under which alone the true service of God can be fulfilled. Such are—
1. Complete separation from alliance with ungodly strangers. The uncompromising purity of our conversation is our only safeguard. The truly consecrated heart will renounce all for God. Often a sacrifice will be involved, but to give up the old life is to save the new.
2. Attention to the public observance of religious ordinances. The most humble and sanctified natures appreciate such opportunities the most. Neglect of the house of God is a sure sign of decay of the spiritual life. Nothing can be substituted for it. Solitary religion may be sincere, but it cannot be entirely healthy, and is generally apt to grow morbid. The consecrated gifts of God's people are placed at our disposal by the mingling together of hearts and voices, and the use of a prepared expression of religious feeling.
3. The service of God in the daily life. "In the land which thou gavest unto our fathers;" "behold, we are servants in it." Religion must be made a reality, not only in the public assembly, but in the household, in the place of business, in the relations we sustain to fellow-men, in national life, in all the land.
III. THE SOLEMN COVENANT SEALED BY GOD'S PEOPLE, ADOPTION OF HIS WORD AS THE ONE ONLY LAW TO BE OBSERVED. "We make a sure covenant, and write it."
1. The covenant rests upon a covenant. We stand upon the ground which God himself has prepared for us—the history of his faithfulness and love in the past. We dare not undertake to live by the law of God except we have the assurance of his grace. The Old Testament is the precious support of our faith as we pledge ourselves to Christ in the new covenant of the gospel. We are able to surround ourselves with the cloud of witnesses.
2. The fellowship of faith our help. Those who have set their seals to the same writing hold up each other's strength in the fulfilment of the vow. Princes, Levites, priests, with the people. God is no respecter of persons; but when all ranks and offices are united in his service, the confidence of all is maintained, and the spirit of brotherhood feeds the spirit of self-sacrifice.
3. Public consecration and profession of obedience should be the result of a deep, inward work of God's Spirit, in the renewal of the heart and life. All rash vows are wrong; how much more those made in the name of religion! Because we repent and return to the Lord, we may safely make a covenant of faithfulness; but a mere sealing of the outward man, without a spiritual renovation, is a mockery and a snare.
4. Enlightenment should accompany all public religious acts. The people heard the word and understood it before they solemnly pledged themselves to keep the law. There can be no healthy revival of religion which is not founded on enlightenment. The great assemblies are easily moved to common action; but the preparation for it should be the clear, full, simple announcement of the gospel. We can never take too much account of the fact that the human heart deceives itself, that ignorance blinds, that selfishness and slothfulness hide the wonders of the past and the dangers of the future. The whole word of God should be the foundation on which religious life is built up.—R.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Nehemiah 9:2, Nehemiah 9:31-33, Nehemiah 9:36-38
It has been remarked that there is no prayer in this lengthy address to God. And the absence of direct supplication is certainly very noticeable. But it must be remembered that we may make our appeal to God in more ways than by directly asking him for the blessings we desire at his hand. The comparative and almost complete absence of formal petition from this address suggests to us that we may go far towards winning our cause by—
I. PRESENTING THE SOUL BEFORE GOD IN A RECEPTIVE SPIRITUAL STATE. It is only in some spiritual conditions that we can expect to be recipients of his bounty. Not to be in the right state is to lock the door at which we stand. By such an address as this the Jews either showed themselves to be in, or brought themselves into, an acceptable recipient condition. There were—
1. The solemn recognition of God's excellency; of his greatness—"Our God, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God" (Nehemiah 9:32); of his goodness—"thy great mercies' sake;"… "thou art a gracious and merciful God" (Nehemiah 9:31); of his faithfulness—"who keepest covenant and mercy" (Nehemiah 9:32); of his justice—"thou art just in all that is brought upon us" (Nehemiah 9:33).
2. Sense of their own ill-desert. "Thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly."
3. Readiness to separate from sin. "The seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers" (Nehemiah 9:2). "If we regard iniquity in our hearts, the Lord will not hear us" (Psalms 66:18; Isaiah 1:15).
4. Preparedness to pledge themselves to his service. The Jews were prepared to "make a sure covenant, and write it and seal it" (Nehemiah 9:38). Thus, on this occasion, the children of Israel presented themselves before God, and not only showed, as they began to speak reverently and humbly to him, but gained more as they proceeded, a fitting spiritual condition for receiving his Divine communications. It is not by" loud speaking," nor by "much speaking" (Matthew 6:7), but rather by asking in a right temper and mode, that we make a forcible and prevailing appeal to the Divine Helper; presenting ourselves before him as suppliants in the spirit of
(1) profound reverence,
(2) deep humility,
(3) genuine consecration.
II. REQUEST IN WORDS (Nehemiah 9:32, Nehemiah 9:36, Nehemiah 9:37). "Now therefore, our God,… let not all the trouble seem little before thee, that hath come upon us, on our kings, and on our princes, and on our priests, and on our prophets, and on our fathers, and on all thy people, since the time of the kings of Assyria unto this day" (Nehemiah 9:32). "Behold," continues this appeal, "we are servants, and the land thou gavest unto our fathers,… we are servants in it: and it yieldeth much increase unto the kings whom thou hast set over us:… they have dominion over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure, and we are in great distress" (Nehemiah 9:36, Nehemiah 9:37). This is
(1) a direct appeal to the pitifulness of Jehovah that he would have compassion on them who were slaves in their own land—their persons and their property being at the mercy of a foreign prince; it was also
(2) an indirect appeal to his faithfulness and justice. For had not God chastened them very long and very sore?—he who had promised to forgive them their iniquities when they returned unto him; he who would not make his punishment to be out of proportion to their offence. They desired to "see the beauty of the Lord" (his righteousness, his equity), that they might be "made glad according to the days wherein he had afflicted them, and the years wherein they had seen evil" (Psalms 90:15, Psalms 90:17). In making our appeal to God there are two things which will ever be the substance and burden of our plea:—
(1) the soreness of our necessity: our weakness, our want, our trouble, our humiliation, our darkness and ignorance, our repeated failure, our distance from the goal and the prize;
(2) the greatness of his goodness: his pitifulness, his patience, his considerateness, his promised mercy, his faithfulness. We may come hopefully to his throne because he is "a gracious and merciful God," pleading his "great mercies' sake" (Nehemiah 9:31). But more than that, we may come "boldly" to the throne of his grace, because he is One that "keeps covenant" (Nehemiah 9:32) as well as "mercy," because he has pledged his word to us in Christ Jesus, and he will be "faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."—C.
Nehemiah 9:6-15, Nehemiah 9:19-25, Nehemiah 9:27-31
Adoration and thanksgiving.
At this great and solemn gathering, which followed the feast of tabernacles, Ezra and eight Levites led the whole assembly in a reverent address and appeal to God. It is thought by some that the record of it in this chapter (verses 6-38) is the exact copy of it as then written down for the use of the Levites; or it may be the leading topics of it as afterwards recollected and recorded. We have seen that confession of sin is the groundwork and substance of it. But it includes adoration and thanksgiving, for the grateful recital of the excellences of God's character and the graciousness of his dealings would be the very thing to deepen and to quicken penitence for their sin. A realisation of God's holiness and a remembrance of his kindness are inseparably connected with the sense of our own guilt. This recital of the goodness of God, both general and particular, contains reference to—
1. The essential greatness of God: as the one Lord; Creator and Preserver of men; Maker of heaven, "with all their host;"… whom "the host of heaven worshippeth" (verse 6).
2. His distinguishing goodness to Israel: choosing Abraham (verse 7), working great wonders on behalf of the race (verses 10, 11), giving them a day of rest and a human leader (verse 14), establishing and enriching them in the land of promise (verses 22-25).
3. His miraculous and his abiding care for their wants: giving them "bread from heaven for their hunger," and bringing forth water for them out of the rock for their thirst (verse 15); forty years sustaining them in the wilderness (verse 21).
4. His faithfulness: "performing his words, for he is righteous" (verse 8).
5. His pitifulness, and mercy, and patience: seeing their affliction and hearing their cry (verse 9); "ready to pardon, slow to anger, and of great kindness" (verse 17); "many times delivering them" in answer to their cry (verse 28); "not utterly consuming nor forsaking them" (verse 31).
6. His guidance and teaching: giving the cloudy pillar and the pillar of fire (verse 12); speaking to them from heaven and giving them judgments and true laws, etc. (verse 13), and his "good Spirit to instruct them" (verse 20).
7. His chastening love (verses 28-30). Let us consider—
I. THE ABUNDANT GROUND FOR GRATITUDE ON THE PART OF EVERY ONE OF US. We worship and bless God as
(1) our Creator: "it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves;" it is he who breathed into us "the breath of life," and made us "living souls;" as
(2) our Divine Preserver and Sustainer, whose visitation has preserved our spirit; as
(3) One who has shown many peculiar and especial favours to us which he has not bestowed on others; as
(4) One who has been opening his band and satisfying our daily want—"daily loading us with benefits;" as
(5) One who has been faithful in all his dealings with us; who
(6) has borne much and long with our waywardness, our fruitlessness, our imperfection; as
(7) One who has been guiding us continually, "ordering our steps," leading us by a way we knew not, by a right and a wise way;
(8) teaching us his holy will, acting on us by his "good Spirit," and
(9) blessing us by that which we may have least appreciated, but which has been the truest instance of his love—by chastening us, correcting us, "leading us into the wilderness, humbling us," weakening us, impoverishing us, taking from us the "light of our eyes," "breaking our schemes of earthly joy," that we might return unto him, to find our rest in his love, our portion in his service.
II. GOOD REASONS WHY WE, AS ERRING BUT ENDEAVOURING SOULS, SHOULD RECALL AND RECOUNT IT. There are four very strong reasons why, in the presence of God and of one another, we should recall his past loving-kindness and his everlasting goodness.
1. It is in accordance with his will, and will give pleasure to him when we do so reverently and gratefully.
2. It will deepen our sense of sin; for we shall feel that it is against all this goodness and mercy we have rebelled.
3. It will give spirituality and intensity to the voice of our praise. Such recollections will constrain us to "make melody in our heart" when we make music with our voice.
4. It will give depth to our abiding gratitude—that sense of unbounded indebtedness which we carry with us from the sanctuary, and hold in our hearts everywhere.—C.
HOMILIES BY J.S. EXELL
The Divine description of a sinful life.
I. THAT THE SINFUL LIFE IS FAVOURED WITH THE DIVINE FORBEARANCE. The sins of the people were pride (Nehemiah 9:16), disobedience (Nehemiah 9:17), idolatry (Nehemiah 9:18), murder (Nehemiah 9:26), provocation, obduracy. "Yet thou in thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness" (Nehemiah 9:19).
1. This forbearance is merciful.
2. This forbearance is considerate. In the wilderness it is so much needed.
3. This forbearance is unrecognised. See the obduracy of sin.
II. THAT THE SINFUL LIFE IS FAVOURED WITH ALL THE BENEFICENT MINISTRIES OF HEAVEN. "The pillar of the cloud departed not from them" (Nehemiah 9:19).
1. The sinful life has light.
2. The sinful life has guidance.
3. The sinful life has spiritual instruction (Nehemiah 9:20). See the ingratitude of sin.
III. THAT THE SINFUL LIFE IS SUSTAINED BY THE KIND PROVIDENCE OF GOD (Nehemiah 9:21).
4. Various. See the wilful blindness and ingratitude of sin.
IV. THAT THE SINFUL LIFE OFTEN EXPERIENCES GREAT TEMPORAL PROSPERITY AT THE HAND OF GOD (Nehemiah 9:22).
4. Plenty. Yet the goodness of God does not lead to repentance.
V. THAT THE SINFUL LIFE IS ALSO DISCIPLINED BY AFFLICTIVE PROVIDENCES (Nehemiah 9:27). In all this see the Divine effort to awaken the sinner.—E.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Nehemiah 9". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany