Nehemiah 9:38-10:39 | A Binding Agreement

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A Binding Agreement

Nehemiah 9:38-10:39

Key Verse 10:28-29

“The rest of the people–priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand— all these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.”

The Bible had not been read to the people in public for a very long time. And now generations later, a group of people had stood there at the newly rebuilt temple and listened attentively to the Bible being read to them by the priests. And they had stood for a very long time listening to the Law of God and to all that God had commanded their ancestors in this Book. And as they listened, they came to understand why they had suffered generations of conquest and of exile. They had suffered because their ancestors had broken the Law of God. They had disobeyed his commands. They had done what they shouldn’t have done as a people of God. And as they stood there listening for a very long time, their hearts were convicted. They were convicted of sin. And as they stood there listening to the word of God, sin after sin was exposed. And they came to understand that they themselves were as guilty of sin as their ancestors had been. So they broke down and cried— all of them— one and all wept as they heard again and again in the word of God how they had sinned against the God by whose name they were called— God’s people.

Then when the seven days of worship celebrations was over, they dispersed for some time, and likely each had gone to their own homes. Then for nearly two weeks, God gave them a time for heart searching and for inner reflection. During that time, they must have deeply considered all that they had heard from the word of God. They must have considered what they should do in response to the convictions they had had. And so after a period of time (some two weeks) they gathered together once again before the temple of God. And they had a response to offer to God. They had come with a confession. They had read in the Bible how they had sinned against God and had angered him. And now they would confirm their sins in a public confession before God and men. So they stood before God, one and all, and confessed all their sins before the living God in the court of his temple. Chapter 9 delineates and outlines their confession. They traced the history of their people, from the time God called a man Abraham to the time they were taken as a nation into exile. A history that spanned many generations. And a long and protracted confessional that manifested mostly the grace of God to them.

God had given them everything good and blessed, and they had given him nothing but disobedience and rebellion, hardened hearts and unfaithfulness. Yet God had rescued them time after time and brought them back to himself. As they stood to confess all these things to God, they were deeply aware of their unworthiness to be rescued yet again. Yet they stood and confessed! And when they had done confessing their sins, they stood one and all, everyone of them, and did what every nation, man or woman who acknowledge and confess their sins ought to do. Read 9:38. “In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.” “we are making a binding agreement.” What did they do? What did it mean? How significant was what they did?

The Bible is explicit about what we ought to do when a soul realizes that it had sinned against God. This is what the Apostles told the crowds when they were convicted of sin by the word of God. They told them: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” (Acts 3:19) They told them to repent. They told them to turn to God. This is what Samuel told the people of his time when they had finally acknowledged and confessed their sins before God. “And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” (1 Samuel 7:3) He told them to rid themselves of the foreign gods. And commit themselves to the Lord. And serve him. This is what John the Baptist told the crowds who came to confess their sins and be baptized by him. He told them: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Luke 3:8) Produce the fruits of repentance. As vital as confession is to the soul then, so is repentance. So are the fruits of repentance as well. Fruits born of decisions of faith which follow our convictions. And this, not just once or twice, but as often as our hearts are convicted by the word of God.

What the returned exiles did is indeed remarkable. They followed their confession with decisions of faith to obey God’s word. Chapter 10 is an outline of their practical repentance— their solemn decision to return to obedience— specifically obedience to the word of God. Anything else would have been nothing more than just useless lip service. And we know what God thinks of lip service! It insults him. The world— especially the Christian world— is teeming with good intention, florid and empty words of praise for God, and an extravagance of lip service. Our Lord Jesus taught us the importance of obedience to the word of God. He told those who were quick to use their mouths but slow to follow through: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” (Luke 6:46-49) Jesus deeply understood the importance of obedience to his words— the kind of obedience that can only come from making decision of faith to obey.

We, as Christians, also cannot escape the responsibility of listening to, and obeying the word of God, putting it into practice. There can be no escape from that. Whenever the Bible is read or the word of God given, the will of God is always revealed and made manifest. And with that revelation comes always the responsibility of decision making, the responsibility of obedience, and the responsibility of the practice of what was heard or learned, and the putting it into action. Any other response to the word of God is an outright and deliberate shirking of the basic responsibility we have towards the word of God.

When the returned exiles heard the word of God, and confessed their sins before God, there remained one thing after that for them to do. Chapter 10 tells us about it. Everywhere we read in this chapter we witness a determination on their part to do what they had for so long failed to do. Throughout the chapter, we hear their earnest desire to produce the fruits of their repentance— to do what God wants them to do. These words prevail throughout the agreement they made with God which they put into action: “An oath to follow the Law of God”, “A binding agreement”, “Assuming responsibility”, “As it is written in the Law”. Such words tell us that they took their convictions seriously and earnestly wanted to right the wrong they had done God. Whether they would be able to abide by their agreement with God or not, is not the issue, for it is likely that as they had failed time and again in history to obey the words of God, so also it was bound to happen again. Human beings cannot achieve faithfulness to God and to his word without God’s intervention and the work of the Holy Spirit. But what was important is the fact that they were ready to make an agreement once again with God— ready to obey— ready to try to right the wrong— ready to honor and glorify God— ready to make decisions of faith— because without faith it is impossible to pleas God. (Hebrews 11:6)

As soon as the word of God was read to them, and as soon as the word of God came upon their hearts, they knew that they had a responsibility to obey the word of God. So they decided one and all to take upon themselves the responsibility to follow the word of God. Read verses 28-29. “The rest of the people–priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand— all these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.” Perhaps they were speaking of the entire Law of God given through Moses, meaning the first 5 books of the Bible. In those books God gave the Israelites all the laws of God that would truly separate and distinguish them from all other nations of the world. They were called to be a special people. They were called to be God’s people and his representatives to the whole world. God had set them apart by the Law he had given them— the laws that would make them a holy nation to bear the name of God to the world. It was the to whole Law that they bound themselves to obey. One and all, each and every one of them was involved in the taking of this oath. Each one would be responsible before God to fulfill their part in honoring God above all else in the world. We too have that same responsibility as Christians. Jesus’ words: “… and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mtt.28:18-20) rings in our ears and knock on our hearts in the same way.

But as much as they had decided to bind themselves to the whole law of God given to Moses, when we examine the rest of the oaths, we see that they had specifically chosen 3 major laws as the foundation of all that they had bound themselves to obey. In other words, of all the laws that God had given them to obey, they had chosen three major responsibilities to bind themselves to in obedience— responsibilities that would somehow encompass the entire law. It would not be difficult to analyze how these three basic responsibilities might capture the heart of the entire law which they were binding themselves to. But it would be time consuming and at this point unnecessary. What is necessary however, is to examine the three responsibilities they had bound themselves to fulfill before God. And if God accepted those three to represent the whole law, then we too should pay attention to them and embrace them as crucial responsibilities and decisions of faith to make before God.

When we look at the entire chapter, we see that the three decisions they made were as such. In verse 30, the decision they made was on a personal level. In verse 31, the decision they made was a communal decision, or a decision on a communal level. And the rest of the chapter, verses 32 to the end, the decisions they made there are all related to the House of God. That decision, although talks extensively about their “offering” responsibility, is related entirely to the house of God. They end that decision with these words: “We will not neglect the house of our God.” (39b)

First, the decision to purify themselves from foreign influences. And what better way to do that than to begin with the most common way they had all defiled themselves, thus breaking God’s Law and God’s heart as well. Read verse 30. “We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons.” One of the worst things they had done in their captivity and exile was to sin against God by intermarrying with the foreigners. There may be nothing wrong with the men and women of the foreign nations, and they might be in character far better than even God’s own people, but God had still forbidden them to intermarry. And God had done so in order to preserve them as a holy nation and people of God. They were supposed to bring the knowledge of God to all these nations and drawing them out of their idolatry and into the life of faith in God. But they had not obeyed God’s law of marriage and they had defiled their nation and families and corrupted their own hearts. The law of marriage was such a personal and intimate law tat each of God’s people needed to take to heart and to understand and to accept as God’s wisdom. They should have done their best to keep their hearts pure. But they didn’t. And when they married in their own way, they broke God’s law, as well as God’s heart. Because the Jews failed to bring their foreign husbands and wives to the faith. Rather their foreign husbands and wives brought idolatry in their homes and eventually their nation. And it was this idolatry that had caused the downfall of this people.

We may not understand why God gives certain laws for us to follow. But when we belong to God, our lives and plans and all also belong to God, and our marriage certainly belongs to God. we may not understand why we must keep certain laws, but God is wiser than we are, and when God bids us not corrupt our marriage, he knows what he is doing. God would have us remain his and to grow in purity of heart, so that we might best honor him in our lives. These days marriages have been corrupted as much as the marriages that led God’s people to fall and to abandon God. Marriage is not a small thing. Marriage belongs to God and God uses it for his own purpose. But when we think that marriage is ours to use as we wish, then we also fall into corruption and lose the purpose and meaning of marriage. More than that, we introduce corruption into our hearts, a kind of corruption that is not easy to wash clean. These people understood right away that the cause of their demise began with their pride, pride in putting aside the law of God. When they put aside the law of God regarding the sanctity of marriage, the corruption spread quickly until the whole nation fell. We must remember this example ourselves, and keep the holiness of this marriage institute above our feelings, our desires, our own understanding. Even if we do not understand why, we must still obey the word of God which tells us: Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?
16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.’” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16) To obey this is a personal decision, a decision that comes from the heart, a decision to keep my heart from impurity and preserve it for the glory and work of God. No one can make this decision for us. Only we can decide to do so. And when we do, even if we cannot keep our oath, the Holy Spirit is faithful to help us do as God would have us do.

Second, the decision to honor the sabbath law. Read verse 31. “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts.” The second decision they made was on a communal or national level. They would not desecrate the Sabbath any longer. Desecrating the Sabbath has been such a problem in God’s history. And for the most part, people have desecrated the Sabbath law through material things. Buying and selling on the Sabbath has been the number one cause for putting aside this holy and sacred law of the Sabbath. From the beginning, and as one of the ten commandments the Lord God has given his people the law of the Sabbath, that they should not desecrate the Sabbath by working or doing anything else on it, but that they should the Sabbath for the Lord himself. For the word of God Lord. For the resting in the word of God. The Sabbath law had been given to men in God’s love. It was given so that man may find time to rest in God and in his word. God knows how difficult this world is. He knows how pressured people are in making ends meet, and in the urgency of survival. God knows that given the chance men would give themselves fully to the material world, in order to solve their material problems as of first importance. God knows that even when one man wants to rest, another man makes it impossible for him to rest. And God gave the Sabbath out of love— to bless us. That we might come before him and commune with him, and receive the assurance of his love and grace. That we might empty our hearts from the cares of this world, and fill our hearts with the everlasting love and care of our Father God.

The story of the Sabbath desecrated is an ongoing story in Bible history. These returned exiles had been in exile. They had gotten used to using the Sabbath not for rest but for trade, for buying and selling of material goods, for things that were not done throughout the week. They had lived in foreign lands that had no concern nor respect nor use for the Sabbath laws. When they settled back in to their lands, they found it difficult to keep the Sabbath holy. They desecrated it by doing all kinds of things except finding time to commune with God. But when the law was read to them, their hearts were convicted that they had done wrong. They had abused the Sabbath. They had used it to their advantage rather than for God’s purposes. They had even made it very difficult for others to worship God on the Sabbath. Now they understood how serious it was to desecrate the Sabbath. Of all the laws they were ready today to commit to, they were ready to commit to the Sabbath law. And they were certain that they needed to make a decision of faith to refrain from doing business or engage in any material endeavor on the Sabbath. It was a communal decision because the Sabbath is a national event as well. But it was also a personal decision. Personally every man and woman must face this one law— to keep or not to keep the Sabbath law. God gives us his command. But we must decide to obey or not to obey. Each child of God, each Christian must decide how they will view and serve the Sabbath. To treat it with convenience or pragmatically or to treat it with utmost respect and honor to the God who instituted it for our good. Ultimately, how each man or woman treat the Sabbath reflects their love for God and their seriousness to obey his command. I am sure Nehemiah urged them to make such a decision to refrain from all but the worship of God and his honor on the Sabbath.

Third, the decision and responsibility to honor the houseof God. Look at verses 32 to the end. Read verse 32-33. “We assume the responsibility for carrying out the commands to give a third of a shekel each year for the service of the house of our God: for the bread set out on the table; for the regular grain offerings and burnt offerings; for the offerings on the Sabbaths, New Moon festivals and appointed feasts; for the holy offerings; for sin offerings to make atonement for Israel; and for all the duties of the house of our God.” Read verse 35-36. “We also assume responsibility for bringing to the house of the Lord each year the first-fruits of our crops and of every fruit tree. As it is also written in the Law, we will bring the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, of our herds and of our flocks to the house of our God, to the priests ministering there.” Read verse 39. “The people of Israel, including the Levites, are to bring their contributions of grain, new wine and oil to the storerooms where the articles for the sanctuary are kept and where the ministering priests, the gatekeepers and the singers stay. ‘We will not neglect the house of our God.’” Remarkably, the whole last section was a decision to serve the house of the Lord with offering. The offerings they made decisions to give were varied but extremely important. They dealt with the tithe. They dealt with the offering of the first-born and the first-fruits. They dealt with what was necessary in keeping the house of the Lord functional. The house of the Lord has always been a place for God’s people to come and to enjoy the presence and fellowship with God and with his people. The house of God is a holy place from in which God blesses and trains his people to be his servants who uphold and honor his name. But the upkeep of the house of God is not magical. It is a sacrificial effort by the people of God to keep it. These returned exiles understood the importance of offering. They understood the urgency of keeping the lamp of God burning at all times so that all people of all nations might flock to it and be blessed.

But they had not been keeping the house of God. They had been keeping their own houses. God once rebuked the people of long ago, for building house upon house and neglecting the house of the Lord. When Jesus once sat in the temple wanting to teach his disciples about the essence of offering, he observed two kinds of people. There were the priests who dropped much money in the offering bin, making noise so that all people might know what they had done. And Jesus told his disciples that they had received their reward already, the recognition of the people. On the other hand there was a widow who had only two cents and she offered them when she had no more to live on. Jesus then taught his disciples that her offering was the best offering because it was done sacrificially, because it was done for the love of God, because it was done for the upkeep of the temple, because it was done with her life. God does not need our material goods. He also does not need our sacrifices. But God works through the temple, to serve his people, and the temple needs up-keeping. The people understood that they had sinned against God, when they withheld their offering form the temple. They needed to restore the sacrificial love giving for the sake of God and his temple. In God’s history there are those who are stingy with God, and those who are generous with God. When God had given us the blood of his one and only son to save us from our sins, what offering can we withhold from him. Not to pay him back. But to imitate his sense of sacrifice and his endless love that withholds nothing from him. It is an honor to up-keep the house of God. It is our duty our responsibility to make sure that the house of God is kept and that the offering continues for the glory and honor of God.

The returned exiles made a decision of faith to do so. They confessed their sins. But they also took further steps to obey what they had learned. They bound themselves to God, to obey him, to keep their hearts pure, especially in marriage, to keep the Sabbath holy especially in not desecrating the Sabbath with material things, even if they had to suffer to do so, and to keep the offering coming to the house of God so that God’s house may continue to be what God intends it to be, a haven of rest, and place of comfort, a shelter for God’s people, and an everlasting foundation for the truth of God, and his words. May God help us continue to be convicted by his words. May he help us to continue to repent of our sins. May he help us to continue to take responsibility for obedience to the word of God, and in decision making. God bless you. Read our key verse 28-29 again. “The rest of the people–priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand— all these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.”

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