Nehemiah 9
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
The feast of tabernacles, held in such wise as Israel had not known since the days of Joshua (ch. 8:17), concluded, "according unto the manner" of that festival, with a "solemn assembly" on the eighth day (ch. 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" (ver. 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 (ver. 1). "The children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackcloth and earth upon them" (ver. 1). They took those measures to indicate humility which in their age and land were natural to them:

(1) fasting,

(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 (Psalm 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" (ver. 3). "With a loud voice" (ver. 4) the eight Levites led their devotions, calling on them to "stand up and bless the Lord their God for ever and ever" (ver. 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" (vers. 16, 17); they "wrought great provocations" (ver. 18); "they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs" (ver. 26); "they did evil again before thee" (ver. 28); "they dealt proudly, and sinned against thy judgments,... they withdrew the shoulder" (ver. 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

(a) shortcoming,

(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.

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.


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.


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.

I. This is a prayerful review of the Divine NAME. "And blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise" (ver. 5).

1. It views God as the Creator of all things (ver. 6).

2. It views God as electing his people (ver. 7).

3. It views God as covenanting with the faithful (ver. 8).

4. It views God as delivering his people in the time of sore affliction (vers. 9, 10).

II. This is a prayerful review of the Divine ACTION. "And thou didst divide the sea before them" (ver. 11).

1. The act of deliverance (ver. 11).

2. The act of guidance. "Moreover thou leddest them in the day by a cloudy pillar" (ver. 12).

3. The act of instruction (vers. 13, 14).

4. The act of provision. "And gavest them bread from heaven for their hunger" (ver. 15).

5. The act of forbearance (ver. 17).

6. The act of conquest (ver. 24).

7. The act of retribution (ver. 27). - E.

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" (ver. 32); of his goodness - "thy great mercies' sake;"... "thou art a gracious and merciful God" (ver. 31); of his faithfulness - "who keepest covenant and mercy" (ver. 32); of his justice - "thou art just in all that is brought upon us" (ver. 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" (ver. 2). "If we regard iniquity in our hearts, the Lord will not hear us" (Psalm 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" (ver. 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 (vers. 32, 36, 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" (ver. 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" (vers. 36, 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" (Psalm 90:15, 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" (ver. 31). But more than that, we may come "boldly" to the throne of his grace, because he is One that "keeps covenant" (ver. 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.

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 (vers. 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" (ver. 6).

2. His distinguishing goodness to Israel: choosing Abraham (ver. 7), working great wonders on behalf of the race (vers. 10, 11), giving them a day of rest and a human leader (ver. 14), establishing and enriching them in the land of promise (vers. 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 (ver. 15); forty years sustaining them in the wilderness (ver. 21).

4. His faithfulness: "performing his words, for he is righteous" (ver. 8).

5. His pitifulness, and mercy, and patience: seeing their affliction and hearing their cry (ver. 9); "ready to pardon, slow to anger, and of great kindness" (ver. 17); "many times delivering them" in answer to their cry (ver. 28); "not utterly consuming nor forsaking them" (ver. 31).

6. His guidance and teaching: giving the cloudy pillar and the pillar of fire (ver. 12); speaking to them from heaven and giving them judgments and true laws, etc. (ver. 13), and his "good Spirit to instruct them" (ver. 20).

7. His chastening love (vers. 28-30). Let us consider -


(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.

I. THAT THE SINFUL LIFE IS FAVOURED WITH THE DIVINE FORBEARANCE. The sins of the people were pride (ver. 16), disobedience (ver. 17), idolatry (ver. 18), murder (ver. 26), provocation, obduracy. "Yet thou in thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness" (ver. 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" (ver. 19).

1. The sinful life has light.

2. The sinful life has guidance.

3. The sinful life has spiritual instruction (ver. 20). See the ingratitude of sin.


1. Suitable.

2. Continuous.

3. Sufficient.

4. Various. See the wilful blindness and ingratitude of sin.


1. Possession.

2. Multiplication.

3. Conquest.

4. Plenty. Yet the goodness of God does not lead to repentance.

V. THAT THE SINFUL LIFE IS ALSO DISCIPLINED BY AFFLICTIVE PROVIDENCES (ver. 27). In all this see the Divine effort to awaken the sinner. - E.

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