Reestablishing the Covenant with God
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
The book of Nehemiah is about restoration. It is a narrative journal that chronicles the rebuilding of the Jewish community in the city of Jerusalem following the seventy-year exile of Israel in Babylon. Over the centuries the Israelites had wandered far from faith in the LORD and paid a heavy price for their apostasy. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem to restore its defensive walls, but in the process led a revival that brought the nation back to God. Each of the steps toward restoration that took place are instructive for us as we also find ourselves in need of restoration to the LORD.
Following the rebuilding of the walls that surrounded Jerusalem, Nehemiah worked to restore peace and order to the city and the villages that surrounded it. With the stresses of constant conflict removed, the people were ready to move to spiritual matters. Their timing with the seventh month gave Ezra the prophet and scribe the opportunity to lead the people through the first Feast of the Tabernacles to be properly celebrated in many generations, and its focus on the teaching of the Word of God resulted in a community-wide revival that bought, virtually, the whole community to faith in God.
A WRITTEN SEAL
Following the revival led by Ezra, the Levites led the nation in a time of prayerful commitment, concluding the signing of a covenant…
Nehemiah 10.1-8. Now those that sealed were, Nehemiah, the Tirshatha, the son of Hachaliah, and Zidkijah, 2Seraiah, Azariah, Jeremiah, 3Pashur, Amariah, Malchijah, 4Hattush, Shebaniah, Malluch, 5Harim, Meremoth, Obadiah, 6Daniel, Ginnethon, Baruch, 7Meshullam, Abijah, Mijamin, 8Maaziah, Bilgai, Shemaiah: these were the priests.
Nehemiah 10.9-13. And the Levites: both Jeshua the son of Azaniah, Binnui of the sons of Henadad, Kadmiel; 10And their brethren, Shebaniah, Hodijah, Kelita, Pelaiah, Hanan, 11Micha, Rehob, Hashabiah, 12Zaccur, Sherebiah, Shebaniah, 13Hodijah, Bani, Beninu.
The Community Leaders
Nehemiah 10.14-27. The chief of the people; Parosh, Pahathmoab, Elam, Zatthu, Bani, 15Bunni, Azgad, Bebai, 16Adonijah, Bigvai, Adin, 17Ater, Hizkijah, Azzur, 18Hodijah, Hashum, Bezai, 19Hariph, Anathoth, Nebai, 20Magpiash, Meshullam, Hezir, 21Meshezabeel, Zadok, Jaddua, 22Pelatiah, Hanan, Anaiah, 23Hoshea, Hananiah, Hashub, 24Hallohesh, Pileha, Shobek, 25Rehum, Hashabnah, Maaseiah, 26And Ahijah, Hanan, Anan, 27Malluch, Harim, Baanah.
Nehemiah used his journal as a record of the events that took place during his work in Jerusalem, including several detailed lists of the names of people who took part in them. This list, comprising twenty-seven verses lists the names of men who actually signed a written covenant. The first twenty-one names are similar to those listed by Ezra. Some of the remaining names are also mentioned in the list of families who helped to build the wall. The list includes the entire range of influential men of the community from priests, Levites, and others who have earned the respect of the people.
By virtue of a signature, a single name also represents the family group of the signatory. These would have been some of the more influential men in the city, so their signature also represents others who are part of their household. Signing such a document would serve to define an individual for the remainder of their lives, emphasizing the earnest commitment to the covenant that was held by the leadership in Jerusalem.
A VERBAL PROMISE
Nehemiah 10:28-29. And the rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the porters, the singers, the Nethinims, and all they that had separated themselves from the people of the lands unto the law of God, their wives, their sons, and their daughters, every one having knowledge, and having understanding; 29They clave to their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and his judgments and his statutes;
The commitment to live a holy life was not limited to the city leaders. To say that the commitment to the LORD was held by the signers alone is like stating that the commitment to the American revolution was held only by the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In a manner similar to that signing, the signing of the covenant represented the genuine spirit of the people, a people who were ready to take action on what they have now learned and understood. The people were so committed to their decision that they were prepared to experience the full manner of consequences that their repentance would bring.
God’s purpose to preserve Israel is illustrated in this event. While Israel was immersed in a spirit of apostasy, they had little opportunity to hear the Word of God. Their attention was turned from God and entirely focused on their life situation, one that was defined by the intrigue of warring nations and the sensual and hedonistic lifestyles of the pagan nations they intermixed and intermarried with. It was necessary for the LORD to preserve the small and faithful remnant of Israel in Babylon, and give them a time to coalesce into a community that could return to Jerusalem with a desire to rediscover the faith of their ancient fathers.
Just as the leaders demonstrated their commitment to the LORD in a written covenant, the people demonstrated their commitment to the LORD with a variety of oaths and promises. They also identified consequences of breaking the covenant, indicated by the inclusion of “curses.” Their decision came after their newfound understanding of the nature and purpose of God, and His desire to bring them to Himself.
COMMITTING THEIR FAMILIES TO GOD
Nehemiah 10:30. And that we would not give our daughters unto the people of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons:
A true commitment to the LORD requires more than just signing documents and making verbal promises. A true commitment is demonstrated by uncompromised repentance: the turning away from the disobedient behaviors of the past and turning to obedience to the LORD. Without repentance, there is no true salvation, since the refusal to repent is a clear statement that a profession of faith in the lordship of God is not sincere.
The first step of repentance taken by the people of Israel was a promise to end the practice of intermarriage with Gentiles. The practice is a clear violation of Mosaic Law, a decree from the LORD that is meant to protect them from the devastating consequences of establishing family bonds with those who do not have faith in God. The practice also included the sharing of daughters by rival tribes and family groups, concubines taken as “peace children” who would serve as a literal hostage in the event of future conflict, and by so doing, tending to insure peace. A prime example of this was the acceptance of concubines by king Solomon, and his submission to their pagan practices led to his ultimate downfall.
Since there were many people making various verbal vows, it is likely that every word of their commitments is not recorded. Instead, Nehemiah recorded a succinct synopsis of what he was hearing. Careful reading of these synopses reveals the true breadth and sincerity of their commitment. For example, the commitment to return to purity in matrimony speaks to a much larger issue: They are promising to return their families to lifestyles of faith. They are promising to lead their families in obedience to the LORD. This same extrapolation can be made for each of the following commitments.
Just as the faith of a community was compromised by intermarriage in ancient Israel, the same occurs today. A legacy of faith is literally impossible to pass on to children when their parents are not living a lifestyle of faith. God’s laws are not meant to take things from us, but to provide protection for us. This is example of how God’s laws protect and preserve the faith and those who immerse themselves in it.
RESTORING THE HOLY SABBATH
Nehemiah 10:31. And if the people of the land bring ware or any victuals on the sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy it of them on the sabbath, or on the holy day: and that we would leave the seventh year, and the exaction of every debt.
The second promise refers to the submission of their financial practices to the Word of God. “People of the land” refers to those who are not of the nation of Israel and have no restrictions placed upon them by the observance of the Sabbath day. The Sabbath is the same as any other day for the Gentiles, and commerce continues normally. As the Israelites immersed themselves in the pagan culture that surrounded them, they gradually moved further and further away from practices that are outlined in the Mosaic Law, including the observation of the Sabbath day. Typical daily commerce became the norm in Israelite culture. The Sabbath day is to be separated from the other six days as a time to honor the LORD. The Sabbath observances that are outlined in the Law serve to help the people focus on the holiness of God. The Sabbath is not a day for merchandizing.
Like the previous commitment, the statement here goes beyond a commitment to obey one of the Sabbath laws. This is a commitment to obey the laws of the Sabbath, returning the purpose of the day to what the LORD had intended for them: rest from work, and dedication (or weekly rededication) to their worship of God.
The second statement refers to the observing the holy days and the seventh-year jubilee. For the last several hundred years of Israelite history the holy days were celebrated out of the necessity of law and tradition, so they were observed sporadically, and without the context of their intent. However, Jerusalem just experienced what takes place when a holy day is celebrated properly: it served to revive their faith in the LORD. Instead of looking to the future holy days with the drudgery of meaningless tradition, they now understood the wonderful blessing that they can be when observed properly.
They also spoke of the reestablishment of the Jubilee, a financial system were all debts were cancelled in the seventh year. The original purpose of the Jubilee was to keep the land in the ownership of the tribes to whom it was given by the LORD. With the Jubilee in place, loans would be made based upon the knowledge of the timing of the next Jubilee, so terms of loans were limited. This system also served to reduce the debt load of the people, leading them to live within their own means, and borrow only when necessary. Since the primary need for borrowing involved the seasonal costs of planting crops, this system worked well, particularly when the Jubilee came at harvest time.
Though five specific actions are listed, the idea is that the people are committing their finances to the LORD, seeking to follow Him in all that they do with their possessions.
SUPPORTING THE TEMPLE NEEDS
Nehemiah 10:32-33. Also we made ordinances for us, to charge ourselves yearly with the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God; 33For the showbread, and for the continual meat offering, and for the continual burnt offering, of the Sabbaths, of the new moons, for the set feasts, and for the holy things, and for the sin offerings to make an atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God.
It was God’s design that the people would give of their means to support the Temple and its operation, including not only the content of the facility, but the support of the staff who dedicated their work to it, the priests and others that include the Levites. That design changed under the authority of kings who, rather than accept donations, exacted required taxes that were often in excess of what was needed.
Recognizing the need to return to obedience concerning the Temple, the people established a city ordinance that established a small annual tax of one-half shekel for each Jewish male, a lawful amount that would be sufficient to maintain Temple operations. The amount of this particular Temple donation is rather small, probably equivalent to a few hours income for the average worker. This amount does not need to be large when everyone contributes their fair share. However, the LORD knows the heart of people, and in order to maintain that fair share, the tax is part of the Jewish law.
Probably the nearest parallel to today’s church finances is that part of giving that church members apply to the church budget. As a community, the church often establishes a budget that necessitates support from its members or from another source. Upon their return to Jerusalem, the Persian government provided the animals for the sacrifices, and without some form of tax, much of the remaining needs of the temple went unmet.
Few governments exact taxes for the church today, so the “80-20” rule tends to apply in many congregations: 80% of the support of the church work comes from 20% of its membership. This places an inordinate burden on those who must contribute their own share and the equivalent amount for four others, often making it difficult for congregations to meet their budget and support their pastor and staff in an appropriate manner.
The purpose of the Temple tax was to meet the financial needs of the Temple. This was a very small part of the Temple “ministry” that reached far outside of its walls as the Temple served as a blessing to the people.
ORGANIZING THE TEMPLE ORDINANCES
Nehemiah 10:34. And we cast the lots among the priests, the Levites, and the people, for the wood offering, to bring it into the house of our God, after the houses of our fathers, at times appointed year by year, to burn upon the altar of the LORD our God, as it is written in the law:
The next commitments that Nehemiah record refer to the reestablishment of the sacrificial system that serves to worship God through the recognition of the blessings that He provides for the faithful. The casting of lots was necessary since the system was not in place and the schedule of temple work needed to be organized. The priests and Levites worked in the Temple in a rotation that, until now, had not been determined.
The wood offering is the first of the necessities for the several burnt offerings since a wood fire is needed for them. This is not a legislated offering, as there is no direct reference to it in the Mosaic Law. However, the Law does mandate that the altar fire be kept burning at all times. Consequently, a supply of firewood had to be maintained.
SUPPORTING THE TEMPLE MINISTRIES
Nehemiah 10:35. And to bring the firstfruits of our ground, and the firstfruits of all fruit of all trees, year by year, unto the house of the LORD:
The offering of the first fruits (or “best parts”) and tithes is then reestablished. The primacy of the LORD in our lives is demonstrated by bringing to him the first fruits: the first and/or best of the crops, the first from the trees, as each comes into fruition. To bring less than the best was considered a grave offense. When we consider what is given to the LORD by members of modern churches, we will probably come away with the observation that we often bring the “left-overs” and discards of our lives.
A storehouse was maintained in the temple for the receipt and redistribution of the first-fruits offerings. Upon receipt, the offerings would be used to support the priests, Levites, and others who have dedicated their work to the Temple. The fruits would also be used to feed the people during the holy feasts, and were distributed to the poor during those periods between feasts. Consequently, the first fruits offerings played an important part in the stability of their economy and culture, as each gave of what they received, all would be supported, and none would go hungry.
When the first fruits offerings would be brought to the Temple they would be fully dedicated to the LORD for His work. Once given to the Temple the people did not maintain possession or control over what they had brought, trusting the priests and Levites to make use of it according to their own needs and according to Mosaic Law.
Nehemiah 10:36-39. Also the firstborn of our sons, and of our cattle, as it is written in the law, and the firstlings of our herds and of our flocks, to bring to the house of our God, unto the priests that minister in the house of our God: 37And that we should bring the firstfruits of our dough, and our offerings, and the fruit of all manner of trees, of wine and of oil, unto the priests, to the chambers of the house of our God; and the tithes of our ground unto the Levites, that the same Levites might have the tithes in all the cities of our tillage. 38And the priest the son of Aaron shall be with the Levites, when the Levites take tithes: and the Levites shall bring up the tithe of the tithes unto the house of our God, to the chambers, into the treasure house. 39For the children of Israel and the children of Levi shall bring the offering of the corn, of the new wine, and the oil, unto the chambers, where are the vessels of the sanctuary, and the priests that minister, and the porters, and the singers: and we will not forsake the house of our God.
Chapter ten of Nehemiah’s journal describes a sequence of commitments made by Israel that would bring them from a people who were immersed in and submitted to the pagan world back to a relationship with the LORD that God intended.
· They heard and responded to the Word of God with understanding, and a commitment to honor God in the ways that He had commanded them when He established Israel as a people.
· They returned to a covenant relationship with the LORD by both written and verbal commitments.
· They turned from pagan practices to follow the Word of God, starting in their families.
· They committed to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, as well as the other holy days that were mentioned in the Mosaic Law.
· They committed to work together to provide the financial support needed for Temple operations, including the needs of the priests, Levites, and others who dedicated themselves to the work of the Temple.
· They reestablished the system of sacrifices that served to demonstrate honor and thanksgiving to the LORD, and also provided the means to support the Temple responsibilities and ministries.
· They committed to never again forsake the “house of our God.”
The church today may find the repentance and restoration of Israel to serve as a challenge, for just as Israel had turned their attention to the secular and pagan world, abandoning much of what the LORD had established for them, and by doing so compromising their relationship with Him, we see the same pattern today.
How can the modern church that has so deeply immersed itself in this world return to the relationship with God that He intends? We may return to the list of actions taken by Israel that are recorded in Nehemiah, chapter ten, and simply transfer the context from ancient Israel to today. Each of these commitments are as appropriate today as they were 2400 years ago, and if embraced can bring the church back home again, to a relationship with God where its people can be truly blessed.
 Ezra 2:3-30.
 Deuteronomy 27:15-26.
 Exodus 34:11-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-4; 20:10-18.
 Deuteronomy 15:1-2.
 Exodus 30:11-16; 38:25-26.
 Ezra 6:9; 7:17.
 Leviticus 6:12-13.
 Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 26:1-15.
 Numbers 18:11-15.
 Deuteronomy 14:22-29.