The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them.Nehemiah 9
1. Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month [ch. Nehemiah 8:2] the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them [Comp. 1Samuel 4:12; 2Samuel 15:32, etc.].
2. And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers [Heb. strange children], and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.
3. And they stood up in their place, and read [i.e. engaged in the reading of the law. The actual readers were no doubt Levites (see ch. Nehemiah 8:3-8)] in the book of the law of the Lord their God one fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and worshipped the Lord their God.
4. ¶ Then stood up upon the stairs [or scaffold], of the Levites, Jeshua, and Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani, and cried with a loud voice unto the Lord their God.
5. Then the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiahc Hodijah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, Stand up [the people had knelt to confess and worship God (Nehemiah 9:3). They were now to take the attitude proper of praise], and bless the Lord your God for ever and ever: and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.
6. Thou, even thou, art Lord alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host [cf. Genesis 2:1], the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all [lit. thou givest them life]; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee [i.e. the angels (see 1Kings 22:19; Psalm 103:21)].
7. Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees, and gavest him the name of Abraham
8. And foundest his heart faithful before thee, and madest a covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, and Perizzites, and the Jebusites, and the Girgashites, to give it, I say, to his seed, and hast performed thy words; for thou art righteous:
9. And didst see the affliction of our fathers in Egypt, and heardest their cry by the Red sea;
10. And shewedst 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 [the same phrase is used by Jethro (Exodus 18:11)] against them. So didst thou get thee a name [comp. Exodus 9:16], as it is this day.
11. And thou didst divide the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on the dry land; and their persecutors thou threwest into the deeps, as a stone into the mighty waters [rather, into mighty waters, or, into fierce waters].
12. Moreover thou leddest them in the day by a cloudy pillar; and in the night by a pillar of fire, to give them light in the way wherein they should go.
13. Thou camest down also upon mount Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven, and gavest them right judgments, and true laws, good statutes and commandments:
14. And madest known unto them thy holy sabbath, and commandest them precepts, statutes, and laws, by the hand of Moses thy servant:
15. And gavest them bread from heaven for their hunger, and broughtest forth water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and promisedst them that they should go in to possess the land which thou hadst sworn to give them.
16. But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments,
17. And refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that thou didst among them; but hardened their necks, and in their rebellion appointed a captain to return to their bondage: but thou art a God ready to pardon [Heb. a God of pardons], gracious and merciful, slow to anger [cf. Joel 2:13] and of great kindness, and forsookest them not.
18. 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;
19. Yet thou in thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness: the pillar of the cloud departed not from 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.
20. Thou gavest also thy good spirit to instruct them [Psalm 32:8 and Psalm 143:10. This truth is not openly announced in the Pentateuch], and withheldest not thy manna from their mouth, and gavest them water for their thirst 21. Yea, forty years didst thou sustain them in the wilderness, so that they lacked nothing; their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not.
22. Moreover thou gavest them kingdoms and nations, and didst divide them into corners [rather, thou didst distribute them on all sides]: so they possessed the land of Sihon, and the land of the king of Heshbon, and the land of Og king of Bashan.
23. Their children also multipliedst thou as the stars of heaven [cf. Genesis 22:17], and broughtest them into the land, concerning which thou hadst promised to their fathers, that they should go in to possess it.
24. 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 people of the land, that they might do with them as they would [Heb. according to their will].
25. And they took strong cities, and a fat land, and possessed houses full of all goods [see Deuteronomy 6:11], wells [or, cisterns] digged, vineyards, and oliveyards, and fruit trees [Heb. tree of food] in abundance: so they did eat, and were filled, and became fat [i.e. grew proud, or wanton—a rare phrase, only occurring here and in two other places, Deuteronomy 32:15; Jeremiah 5:28], and delighted themselves [luxuriated] in thy great goodness.
26. Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs, and slew thy prophets which testified against them to turn them to thee, and they wrought great provocations.
27. Therefore thou deliveredst them into the hand of their enemies, who vexed them: and in the time of their trouble, when they cried unto thee, thou heardest them from heaven; and according to thy manifold mercies thou gavest them saviours [see Judges 3:9, Judges 3:15 (where Othniel and Ehad are called "saviours"), and comp. Judges 4:6-24; Judges 6:12, etc.], who saved them out of the hand of their enemies.
28. But after they had rest [cf. the frequent phrase, "and the land had rest," in Judges (Judges 3:11, Judges 3:30; Judges 5:31; Judges 8:28)], they did evil again before thee: therefore leftest thou them in the hand of their enemies, so that they had their dominion over them: yet when they returned, and cried unto thee, thou heardest them from heaven; and many times didst thou deliver them according to thy mercies;
29. 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 thy judgments, (which if a man do [these words are taken from Leviticus 18:5] he shall live in them;) and withdrew the shoulder [cf. Zechariah 7:11], and hardened their neck, and would not hear.
30. Yet many years didst thou forbear them, and testifiedst against them by thy spirit in thy prophets: yet would they not give ear: therefore gavest thou them into the hand of the people of the lands [i.e. the heathen (comp. the use of the expression in Ezra 9:1-2)].
31. Nevertheless for thy great mercies' sake thou didst not utterly consume them, nor forsake them; for thou art a gracious and merciful God.
32. Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who keepest covenant and mercy, let not all the trouble 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.
33. Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly:
34. 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.
35. 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.
36. Behold, we are servants [as we would not be thy servants, we are servants to the king of Persia (comp. Ezra 9:9)] this day, and for the land that thou gavest unto our fathers to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof, behold, we are servants in it:
37. And it yielded much increase [i.e. it pays tribute in money and kind (see Ezra 4:13, ante, p. 166)] unto the kings whom thou hast set over us because of our sins: also they have dominion over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.
38. And because of all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, Levites, and priests, seal unto it. [The exact force of the phrase used is doubtful; but its general sense must be that the classes named took part in the sealing. It was usual in the east to authenticate covenants by appending the seals of those who were parties to them (Jeremiah 32:10; see also note, post, p. 262.)].
Revealed In Song
THIS wonderful chapter deals with the Fast, the Confession, and the Covenant. After a single day's rest the people came together again with all the tokens of sorrow, even to dust on the head. It would appear that in this instance there was distinct consistency between the outward and the visible sign and the inward and spiritual condition. It is noted in the second verse that "the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers." There is a change from "children" to "seed," and in the relation in which the event occurs that change is profoundly significant. The seed of Israel had sins peculiarly their own to confess, and they showed their wisdom in separating themselves from all strangers, and standing in their uniqueness to make their sorrowful statement.
"Then stood up upon the stairs, of the Levites, Jeshua, and Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani, [also] the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiah, Hodijah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah" (Nehemiah 9:4-5).
It does us good to read so strange a list of names, showing how great has been human history, and how widely separated men are from one another, in locality, in name, in education, and in everything that makes up distinctive civilisation. Here we are confronted by quite a host of unknown names. Having nothing to judge by but the names, we should instantly pronounce all these persons utter and absolute strangers; we know nothing about them; they might be the names of objects rather than of persons, of rivers or of mountains rather than of living men: but is there not another standard by which to judge than that of nomenclature? We may be related to this very people by sympathies which have not yet been discovered; we must hear them speak; perhaps in tone we may discover the germ of union, and may be able to overleap the barrier of names, and to join hands together in common worship before the throne of the One Father. How do we really know men? Sometimes we know them by their thoughts: the moment they reveal their mental condition to us, and show us within what scope their mind operates, and upon what objects their best confidence is fixed, we begin to feel towards them all the sensations which belong to truest kinship. There is a family of souls as well as a household of bodies. Herein the great Fatherhood is magnified above all local and personal parentage, for our parents themselves are but the children of others, and all men are the children and heritage of God. For convenience' sake, it is well to have men divided into separate houses, families, tribes, and the like; but all such division should be regarded as a division only, and not as expressing the deeper realities of the divine purpose. That purpose regards all the human family as one, and the earth as one great house in which God has placed his family for the culture, discipline, and perfecting of ideal, alike of character and service. Sometimes we know men by their music: without being able to explain a single word they utter, the air they sing enters our hearts, acts persuasively upon our better nature, and draws us towards them in a spirit of recognition and trustfulness: we say that the utterers of such music must themselves be good; no heart could be the fountain or medium of such strains that had not first been purified by a great baptism from heaven. Sometimes we know men by their religion. To know how truly we shrink from idolatry we must see the rites of idolaters as practised by themselves; then we contrast with all the ritualism of heathenism, the simplicity, the quietness, the tenderness of Christian worship. In a far-away land where everything is strange to us, could we hear any man lift up his voice and say, "Our Father which art in heaven," we should instantly feel united to that man by the deepest and most vital of all bonds. In the light of these explanations it is possible that we may find kinship as between ourselves and the men whose uncouth names are now before us. Do not let us be turned away by those names, saying, It is impossible that they can be associated with any common thought or worship; rather let us study the song which is sung, and determine whether within its music there is not ground enough on which to find common standing, and pathos enough to bring all the worshippers into a state of common emotion.
"Stand up and bless the Lord your God for ever and ever: and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise" (Nehemiah 9:5).
Are the men such strangers now as they were? Do they not seem to be standing near us, and cannot their voices and ours be blended into the same strain of hallowed worship? We are not deterred from this union by the nobility of the expression; we feel that the nobility belongs to us as well as to the ancient Jews, because the same God is our God, and we adore him as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Nor are we separated from these worshippers by their high rapture. Christian worship, too, has its own sublime enthusiasm. In the utterance of Christian adoration we think of the eternity of God, and his glorious name, and his exaltation above all blessing and praise. A very remarkable expression is found in this verse. The people are exhorted to "bless the Lord," and the reason would appear to be that he "is exalted above all blessing and praise." We must thus read the verse—Bless the Lord, who is above all blessing; praise the God, who is beyond all praise; stretch out your souls towards him, who never can be comprehended in all the fulness of his grace and glory. Thus the finite is called upon to assert itself in lowly worship, because the object before which it bows down is nothing less than the Infinite. Our idea of God, whatever it be, determines the nature and range of our worship. Evidently the Jew had a grand conception of the divine nature, and therefore his song was lofty, solemn, and triumphant. That the Jew had this conception is evident from the sixth verse—
"Thou, even thou, art Lord alone; thou hast, made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee." (Nehemiah 9:6).
Thus the whole universe comes within the purview of the uplifted eyes of the true worshippers. How word is piled upon word, and thought upon thought, until all the help of time and space becomes useless, and imagination is left to create for itself all the possibilities of divine essence and royalty and purpose! "The host of heaven worshippeth thee:" the stars glitter forth thy praise, and above the stars are the singing angels who night and day hymn the ineffable praise of God. In joining such a company as this the worshippers must prepare themselves to be meet companions. Earth must bring its noblest tribute when she joins the choir of the skies. Feeble, untrained, and inadequate voices—that is, voices which are purposely so—have no place in grand tribute of song. The leader of the choir determines the quality of all who compose it. In this instance the whole heaven leads the universe, and the universe must therefore rise to the sublimity of the occasion, and pour forth its noblest strains.
From the seventh to the thirty-first verse we find what we have repeatedly found before, namely, a graphic representation of God in history. This paragraph would seem to be a condensation of the Old Testament. He who has this paragraph in hand may be regarded as possessing all the history of the ancient Jews. How they delighted to begin with the election of Abram, and the taking forth of that pilgrim out of Ur of the Chaldees, enlarging his name, and leading him onward towards the land of Canaan! The Jews never forgot the affliction of their fathers in Egypt, or the triumph of Israel over Pharaoh and his hosts. As they looked backward they saw continually the cloudy pillar which made the day solemn, and the pillar of fire which turned the night into the brilliance of day. Never did they forget the grandeur of Sinai, when God spake with their fathers from heaven, and gave them right judgments, true laws, good statutes and commandments. How tenderly the heart of the Jew lingered over the memory of the Sabbath—the sweet breathing time, the sacred rest, which was as a pledge and symbol of heaven! On the one hand, whilst the Jew magnified the goodness of God in his history, he never forgot that his fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to God's commandments, but remembered that they refused to obey, neither were mindful of God's wonders that he did amongst them; but hardened their hearts, and how they appointed a captain in their rebellion that they might return to their bondage. As the black cloud gathered around the memory, the Jew himself confessed that judgment would have been mercy in answer to such stupendous guilt; yet the Jew remembered that God was ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and unwilling to forsake his people: he reminded himself that even the molten calf, to which they said, This is the God that brought us out of Egypt, did not wholly turn away the heart of God from his people; even though they fell down before that useless calf, yet God in his manifold mercy forsook them not in the wilderness; the pillar of cloud was still there by day, and the pillar of fire was there to show them light, and the way wherein they should go was made obvious to their eyes. The song rolls on from paragraph to paragraph, each one of which is a historical mount. In one we find the giving of manna and the pouring out of water; then we are reminded of the sustenance for forty years in the wilderness, so that the travellers lacked nothing—"their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not;" then we are told how God gave them kingdoms and nations, and divided them into corners, so that they possessed the land of Sihon, and the land of the king of Heshbon, and the land of Og king of Bashan; and still the history rolls on, until Israel took strong cities, and a fat land, and possessed houses full of all goods, wells digged, vineyards, and oliveyards, and fruit trees in abundance: so they did eat, and were filled, and became fat, and delighted themselves in God's great goodness.
The song might well have ended here; but truth compelled an extension of the music until it included the shame as well as the the glory—
"Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs, and slew thy prophets which testified against them to turn them to thee, and they wrought great provocations" (Nehemiah 9:26).
Then God did not cut them off, though he delivered them into the hand of their enemies, who vexed them. In the time of their trouble Israel cried unto God, and he heard them from heaven, and according to his manifold mercies he give them saviours, who saved them out of the hand of their enemies. Then again they turned to their evil, after having recruited themselves with the rest which God so graciously gave—they rested them from evil that they might return to it with redoubled energy. For a time they were left in the hand of their enemies, who had dominion over them; yet again they returned and cried unto God, and he heard them from heaven, yea, many times did he deliver them according to his mercy; many years did God forbear them, and testified against his people by his Spirit in his prophets; yet they would not give ear. Verily, they came near to destruction, they were upon the very brink of hell; yet in this extremity we come upon the "nevertheless," which forms such a prominent word in the evolution of divine providence:—
"Nevertheless for thy great mercies' sake thou didst not utterly consume them, nor forsake them: for thou art a gracious and merciful God" (Nehemiah 9:31).
Is nothing to be learned from this summary of the history of Israel? The thing to be learned is that we are to endeavour to take a comprehensive view of all the dealings and purposes of God. As history grows an opportunity for the profoundest study of God presents itself. At first there is but little to see and little to think about; day by day proceeds, and God's writing becomes more conspicuous; year is added to year, and a few pages are filled with sacred writing; century is added to century, and then that which was mysterious enters into the region of revelation and shines with brightest glory. Never let a man forget even his own little personal history. Day by day, when he is cast down or conscious of exhaustion, let him begin at the time when he was in the cradle, and follow all the line of divine providence in his own life; let him set things which belong to one another together, and see what shaping and directing there has been in all the mystery of being. In this respect every man should become his own bible; his own assurance of the divine existence, his own proof of providence, his own fountain of evidence. It is well that men should, so far as their mental capacity will allow, have grand conceptions of universal history, but it is absolutely essential to save the soul not only from difficulty but from blank despair, that every man should vividly recollect the days of his own life, and remember how God has lifted him up, preserved him, enriched him, and made the wilderness of earth blossom as with the flowers of heaven. Every man loses standing-ground when his recollection of personal history becomes blurred and dim. It is not every one who can discuss great philosophical questions of history, but surely every man can trace his own life, and see in it a daily miracle of grace and love.
The singers having sung this song of history they turn in upon themselves and make a solemn personal application of all the truth which they have reviewed in music:—
"Now therefore our God, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who keepest covenant and mercy, let not all the trouble 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 brought upon us; for thou hast done right, 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" (Nehemiah 9:32-34).
So the people confess the general collapse of the nation, and they acknowledge their own iniquities individually. The great purpose of historical review is to fix an exhortation upon our own souls, and to visit our own souls with all the stimulus of memory, of self-reproach, of ill-requited goodness, so that the times past may more than suffice. They confessed that kings were set over them because of their own sins. We suffer for our actual transgressions: we not only suffer for the sins of past ages. We cannot so detach ourselves from the currents of history as to escape the consequences of other people's sin, though that sin were committed ten thousand ages ago. The world is one, history is one, God is one. In this sense we belong to one another: no man liveth unto himself, no man sinneth unto himself, no man can say that he is injuring himself alone. He who commits any one sin injures the whole human race. It is often supposed that we ought not to suffer on account of the sins of others, but apart altogether from biblical doctrine we find in history itself that sin, done by whomsoever, carries with it consequences to the third and fourth generation. No man can drink away his senses, or steep himself in sensuality, or give the bridle to his lusts and passions, and yet save his posterity from evil consequences. Though the law may seem to operate unfairly in this one direction, yet the law of the Lord is equal: no man can attend to the laws of health, be wise, true, prudent, and wholly good, without his children reaping great advantage from such discipline and culture.
Now the people enter into the covenant—
"And because of all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, Levites, and priests, seal unto it" (Nehemiah 9:38).
Each party impressed his seal on moist clay, which was then hardened. We are told that these seals were sometimes attached to the document by separate strings. It is not enough to make a general covenant; the covenant must be single and individual, each man regarding it as if he were severally responsible for it. Verily this is a joint and several note presented to God by humbled and penitent souls. It is nobly signed if we look at the infinite number of the signatures, and it is pathetically signed if we look at the signatures one by one, each soul saying—I have sinned, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: I have lost my inheritance: God be merciful to me a sinner! There is great utility in solemn vows and covenants; they have a tonic effect upon the soul. Who could look over all the covenants and vows which he has written down as promised to heaven, and yet remain unmoved by the melancholy writing? In looking back upon such declarations of sin, such vows and confessions of penitence and brokenheartedness, men may read their spiritual history, written as with a pen of light. Take down the book, and turn over its pages one by one, and listen to the soul as it muses upon the autobiography:—Here I must have sinned some black sin, blacker probably than any other I ever committed, for see how deep is the river of my tears, hear how loud and bitter is the moan of my penitence;—there I must have been awakened suddenly to a gracious sense of God's goodness, for see how I write of daily mercy and daily comfort, and give myself away to heaven's service with all the passion of grateful love: that must have been a lustrous day in my spiritual history,—I must have seen heaven itself opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God;—see here again my soul accuses itself of penuriousness, niggardliness, love of the world, a diligent pursuit of useless things, and at the end it says with the preacher, "all is vanity";—and here again I become a better man, vowing that my soul shall no more go astray; this vow I will now repeat; I have learned this lesson, however, that a vow uttered in my own name, and determined upon in my own strength, shall be but as the morning cloud—it shall pass away and leave no impress behind; I must register my vows at the Cross,—I must seal them with the signet of Calvary,—I must write them as with the blood of Christ; I will now vow that, if thou wilt be gracious unto me, and forgive me, and mightily redeem me from the perdition of the past, I will live unto thee, lovingly, self-sacrificingly, in the very spirit of him who died that I might live.
We cannot leave this chapter without being struck with the slowness yet the certainty of spiritual education. Again and again it would seem as if Israel had wholly fallen back from the point which it had attained in upward progress. The beginning would seem to have been better than the end, for of Abraham it is said, "Thou foundest his heart faithful before thee." Can a higher compliment be paid to human nature than that it shall be accounted faithful before God? Then the people praise the Lord; and no sooner does the song cease than the sin begins. Around the base of Sinai the people tremble, and vow that they will be reverent evermore; yet even there they turn their hearts towards idolatry and forget the living God. They cry unto heaven in their hunger, and whilst the manna is in their mouths they blaspheme the giver. Is there any progress being made in true goodness? Truly it is slow; at the same time we cannot but regard it as certain. All growth is imperceptible There are times of recession when we think that all the water of the sea has gone away from the shore, yet presently we find that the refluence has only been in order that the next rush of the tide might come farther upon the golden strand. God measures things by a standard of his own; he who dwelleth in eternity takes no heed of the little hours and weary days and nights of time. Many years did God forbear his people, and yet the years were as nothing to him, because he saw in that very forbearance a necessary instrument and medium of spiritual education. God hears in our last prayer more than he heard in the first; the words may be the same throughout, but the tone is different, the pathos is deeper, the voice of the suppliant is charged with deeper significance. All this may be hidden to ourselves, but, blessed be God! it is all known to him who searcheth the heart and trieth the reins. Little by little we grow before him. It would appear as if it were worth God's while to wait ten thousand years for the human race to learn another syllable of his name. We count the time long, because we ourselves are mortal: God sits in the sanctuary of the everlasting and he looks upon all things from an elevation which reduces our standards, measurements, times, and distances to insignificance. He would not keep the universe where it is, and as it is, if he did not know that progress was being made. From the beginning he foresaw the end. Everything is passing exactly at the rate which he foreknew. Have pity upon us, thou Mighty One, when we are impatient, restless, fretful, and resentful. We cannot help it. This is the proof of our weakness, the very seal of our humiliation. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Son of God, it is thy right to reign—take thy right, and rule all the ages of time and all the lands of earth!