Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentNEHEMIAH 9
ISRAEL'S CONFESSION OF THEIR SINS AND THEIR OATH OF ALLEGIENCE TO THE GOD OF THEIR FATHERS
This chapter seems rather long, but no chapter could be long enough for an adequate record of the repeated apostasies of God's Chosen People. Nevertheless, this abbreviation of them, along with the earnest confession of all the people, appears as one of the redeeming moments in the history of Israel, and as one of the stars in their crown of glory.
Despite all the wretched sins and shortcomings of Israel, there was indeed a righteous remnant that included the blessed apostles and prophets of the New Testament who were able, through the grace and blessing of God, to resist and effectually defy the brutal godlessness of the Three False Shepherds (Zech. 11) and the hapless majority of racial Israel, led by the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians, and to welcome the Dayspring from on High. That glorious Righteous Remnant of Israel ushered in the Kingdom of God on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this wonderful chapter, we doubtless have some of the ancestors of that Righteous Remnant.
THE LEVITES LEAD ISRAEL IN CONFESSING THEIR SINS
Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackcloth, and earth upon them. And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of Jehovah their God a fourth part of the day; and [another] fourth part they confessed, and worshipped Jehovah their God. Then stood up upon the stairs of the Levites, Jeshua, and Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, [and] Chenani, and cried with a loud voice unto Jehovah their God.
All of this great outpouring of grief and confession took place as a result of reading God's law. "They had clearly desired to do this earlier (Nehemiah 8:9); but it would have been inappropriate during the feast."F1 Therefore, they rallied for that purpose on the twenty fourth day of that same seventh month, the next month after the wall was built; and "This was only the second day after the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles."F2
A very important revelation of this chapter is that it was the Levites, and not the priests, who led Israel in this penitential prayer of confession and praise of God. From the Book of Malachi, we learn of the near total apostasy of the Jewish priesthood; and in Zechariah, they are clearly revealed as the false shepherds who destroyed the nation. There is not a word in this chapter that even hints of any priestly participation in this great repentance, confession and prayer. Some of them were even traitors in the employ of Tobiah and had even conspired to murder Nehemiah.
The seed of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners
(Nehemiah 9:2). Keil noted that, This is not primarily a reference to the dissolution of illegal marriages, but it is rather a voluntary renunciation of all connection with the heathen and of heathen customs.F3
Then stood up upon the stairs. Levites
(Nehemiah 9:4). The stairs mentioned here are those leading up to the platform or podium, which had been used for the reading of the Law.F4
There follows at this point in the chapter a rather long prayer, ending in the solemn commitment of the people to be faithful to the God of Israel.
REHEARSAL OF GOD'S GREAT PROMISE TO ABRAHAM
Then the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, [and] Pethahiah, said, Stand up and bless Jehovah your God from everlasting to everlasting; and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. Thou art Jehovah, even thou alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all things that are thereon, the seas and all that is in them, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee. Thou art Jehovah the God, who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees, and gavest him the name of Abraham, and foundest his heart faithful before thee, and madest a covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Jebusite, and the Girgashite, to give it unto his seed, and hast performed thy words; for thou art righteous.
A profitable and acceptable feature of any prayer is a rehearsal of God's promises and heartfelt praise for his fulfilment of them. All of the things mentioned here have been the subject of our extensive comments upon the Pentateuch, particularly in Genesis. It appears that during the whole history of ancient Israel that they seemed never to appreciate, nor even to remember, the reason why God called Abraham. That reason: "THAT IN THEE AND IN THY SEED (SINGULAR) ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH SHALL BE BLESSED" (Gen. 12:3; 26:4).
REHEARSAL OF GOD'S DELIVERANCE OF ISRAEL FROM EGYPT AND HIS GUIDANCE OF THEM IN THE WILDERNESS
And thou sawest the affliction of our fathers in Egypt, and heardest their cry by the Red Sea, and showedst signs and wonders upon Pharaoh, and on all his servants, and on all the people of his land; for thou knewest that they dealt proudly against them, and didst get thee a name, as it is this day. And thou didst divide the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on the dry land; and their pursuers thou didst cast into the depths, as a stone into the mighty waters. Moreover in a pillar of cloud thou leddest them by day; and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light in the way wherein they should go. Thou camest down also upon mount Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven, and gavest them right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments, and madest known unto them thy holy sabbath, and commandedst them commandments, and statutes, and a law, by Moses thy servant, and gavest them bread from heaven for their hunger, and broughtest forth water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and commandedst them that they should go in to possess the land which thou hadst sworn to give them.
(We submit as our commentary on these verses Volume II (Exodus) in our series of works on the Pentateuch.)
GOD'S MERCY UPON ISRAEL IN THE WILDERNESS;
HIS REJECTION OF THAT GENERATION, AND HIS BRINGING THEIR CHILDREN INTO THE PROMISED LAND
But they and our fathers dealt proudly and hardened their neck, and hearkened not to thy commandments, and refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that thou didst among them, but hardened their neck, and in their rebellion appointed a captain to return to their bondage. But thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and forsookest them not. Yea, when they had made them a molten calf, and said, This is thy God that brought thee up out of Egypt, and had wrought great provocations; yet thou in thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness: the pillar of cloud departed not from over them by day, to lead them in the way; neither the pillar of fire by night, to show them light, and the way wherein they should go. Thou gavest also thy good Spirit to instruct them, and withheldest not thy manna from their mouth, and gavest them water for their thirst. Yea, forty years didst thou sustain them in the wilderness, [and] they lacked nothing; their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not. Moreover thou gavest them kingdoms and peoples, which thou didst allot after their portions: so they possessed the land of Sihon, even the land of the king of Heshbon, and the land of Og king of Bashan. Their children also multipliedst thou as the stars of heaven, and broughtest them into the land concerning which thou didst say to their fathers, that they should go in to possess it. So the children went in and possessed the land, and thou subduedst before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gavest them into their hands, with their kings, and the peoples of the land, that they might do with them as they would. And they took fortified cities, and a fat land, and possessed houses full of all good things, cisterns hewn out, vineyards, and oliveyards, and fruit-trees in abundance: so they did eat, and were filled, and became fat, and delighted themselves in thy great goodness.
(For our comment on the history of Israel as mentioned in these verses, see our commentaries on the Pentateuch, especially on Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.) There is practically no additional information provided by this chapter. An exception is the revelation that Israel actually appointed a captain to lead them back to Egypt. Num. 14:1-4 has the information that such a move was suggested and recommended by some of the Israelites; but this is the only statement to the effect that they really appointed a captain to take them back to Egypt. Also, this writer does not recall any mention of the fact that their feet did not swell.
THE CONTINUED DISOBEDIENCE OF THE PEOPLE AND THEIR MULTIPLE REBELLIONS AGAINST GOD
Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their back, and slew thy prophets that testified against them to turn them again unto thee, and they wrought great provocations. Therefore thou deliveredst them into the hand of their adversaries, who distressed them: and in the time of their trouble, when they cried unto thee, thou heardest from heaven; and according to thy manifold mercies thou gavest them saviours who saved them out of the hand of their adversaries. But after they had rest, they did evil again before thee; therefore leftest thou them in the hand of their enemies, so that they had the dominion over them: yet when they returned, and cried unto thee, thou heardest from heaven; and many times didst thou deliver them according to thy mercies, and testifiedst against them, that thou mightest bring them again unto thy law. Yet they dealt proudly, and hearkened not unto thy commandments, but sinned against thine ordinances, (which if a man do, he shall live in them,) and withdrew the shoulder, and hardened their neck, and would not hear. Yet many years didst thou bear with them, and testifiedst against them by thy Spirit through thy prophets: yet would they not give ear: therefore gavest thou them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless in thy manifold mercies thou didst not make a full end of them, nor forsake them; for thou art a gracious and merciful God.
These verses are an abbreviated but sufficiently specific elaboration of the multiple apostasies of the Chosen People, which in the aggregate constitute the entire record of the Old Testament. Wonderful indeed are the mercies of the gracious God who found a way to forgive Israel over and over again. An apostle has told us that these things were "written for admonition" (1 Corinthians 10:11); and the great lesson for Christians is centered right here in this willingness of the heavenly Father to forgive the sins of his people, if only they will love God and be faithful to his word.
In the final section of this prayer, Israel pleads their phenomenal sufferings as the basis of their plea for mercy, confessing at the same time that they fully deserved the punishments God had laid upon them. Still, despite their sufferings, they made a solemn covenant (of obedience) and sealed it.
ISRAEL HAD INDEED RETURNED;
BUT THEY WERE STILL SERVANTS OF THE KINGS OF PERSIA
Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who keepest covenant and lovingkindness, let not all the travail seem little before thee, that hath come upon us, on our kings, 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. Howbeit thou art just in all that is come upon us; for thou hast dealt truly, but we have done wickedly; neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, nor our fathers, kept thy law, nor hearkened unto thy commandments and thy testimonies wherewith thou didst testify against them. For they have not served thee in their kingdom, and in thy great goodness that thou gavest them, and in the large and fat land which thou gavest before them, neither turned they from their wicked works. Behold, we are servants this day, and as for the land that thou gavest unto our fathers to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof, behold, we are servants in it. And it yieldeth much increase unto the kings whom thou hast set over us because of our sins: also they have power over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure, and we are in great distress. And yet for all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, our Levites, [and] our priests, seal unto it.
Alas, for Israel, their sinful kingdom would never be restored. Their nation would continue to be subject to the Persians, to the Greeks, and then to the Romans, until the promised Messiah would suddenly appear.
God's prophets, whom they had despised and murdered and whose words they scornfully rejected, would come no more. With Zechariah and Malachi, who were contemporaries of Nehemiah, the age of the prophets terminated. They were the last of the prophets until John the Baptist, in the spirit and power of Elijah, would thunder the message from the wilderness, "Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at hand,"
Their priesthood became more and more reprobate; and God even cursed it; and, by the times of Christ, the Temple itself had become a "den of thieves and robbers." There is no tragedy like that of Israel; and something of the infinite pathos of their judicial hardening, of their rejection and murder of the Son of God, and of God's destruction of their nation in just retribution of their wickedness -- something of the pathos and tragedy of racial Israel, as distinguished from the true Israel, appears in this pitiful prayer of the Levites who tried in vain to bring the racial Israel back to God.
Footnotes for Nehemiah 9
1: Arthur S. Peake's Commentary, p. 333.
3: C. F. Keil, Keil and Delitzsch's Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 3c, p. 236.
4: F. C. Cook, Barnes' Commentary Series, Nehemiah, p. 473.