“Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads” (Nehemiah 9:1).
In Nehemiah chapter eight we saw how the people of Jerusalem “…told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded Israel… Then he read from it in the open square” (Nehemiah 8:1, 3). As the local leadership subsequently met to consider the Word of God more carefully, a decision was made to follow the Scriptures by observing the Feast of Tabernacles.
This Feast commemorated Israel’s journey through the wilderness prior to their arrival within the Promised Land. This involved constructing booth-like temporary shelters made from the branches of leafy trees much as the early Israelites did following their exodus from the nation of Egypt.
Nehemiah 8:16 tells us that these dwellings sprang up in the courtyards, housetops, and public squares throughout that area and the following verse goes on to tell us that “The Israelites had not celebrated like this since the days of Joshua son of Nun” (NLT). So in the words of the James 1:22, the residents of Jerusalem had become “…doers of the word, and not hearers only” (ESV).
But in doing so, it seems that the people began to recognize the fact that God had remained faithful to them despite their unfaithfulness to Him throughout large portions of their history. Nehemiah chapter nine documents this acknowledgment in the form of the longest prayer recorded within the Scriptures as the people confessed their faithlessness and expressed their sorrow over what they had done.
Its interesting to note that there is no mention of Nehemiah (or Ezra, for that matter) anywhere within Nehemiah chapter nine. In fact, with the exception of a few Levitical leaders, there are no spiritual leaders mentioned anywhere within these verses at all.
So unlike a spiritual revival led by a prominent or charismatic leader, the spiritual renewal found here in Nehemiah chapter eight took place from the ground up in the hearts and minds of the people who had gathered to hear the Word of God.
So just as the first portion of the book of Nehemiah chronicled the physical rebuilding that took place in restoring Jerusalem’s wall, the second portion of this book relates the spiritual rebuilding that took place in restoring the people of that area. Nehemiah worked hard to establish an environment that would promote the physical and spiritual welfare of God’s people and now those efforts were coming to fruition.
“Later, on the 24th day of that same month, the Israelites came back together. Everyone fasted and wore sackcloth to show their repentance. They covered their heads with dust to show their mourning” (Nehemiah 9:1 Voice).
Nehemiah 9:1 begins with a reference to “…the 24th day of the same month.” This historic reference serves to remind us that the Biblical book of Nehemiah is not a story, novel, or fictional series of events. The account that we are about to read here in Nehemiah chapter nine documents an occurrence that took place on a specific date and recounts real events that happened to real people in real time.
The references to fasting, sackcloth, and dust found within this passage are also significant for they were associated with traditional signs of mourning in that culture.
For instance, “fasting” refers to the voluntary denial of a legitimate need (generally food or water) for a period of time. Many Biblical examples of fasting were undertaken to promote an attitude of humility towards God. Fasting was particularly effective in this regard as it demonstrated a commitment to place God ahead of legitimate needs like eating or drinking (see Ezra 8:21 for an example).
In other instances, we see examples of Biblical personalities who fasted to reflect their sadness (1 Samuel 31:11-13), repentance (Jonah 3:5) or a desire for God’s strength to perform a particularly dangerous or difficult task (Esther 4:16). In addition, the Scriptures record the examples of those who fasted from eating completely (Ezra 10:5-6) or partially (Daniel 10:2-3). Fasts could last a day (Judges 20:26), a week (1 Samuel 31:13), or even as long as forty days (as in the case of both Moses and Jesus).
However, it’s important to remember that the Scriptures also record God’s great displeasure with those who fasted with the wrong attitudes. For example, Jesus once reprimanded a group of religious leaders for their hypocrisy in drawing attention to the fact that they were fasting…
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).
We’ll look at another example that demonstrates the need to adopt the right internal attitude in regard to the act of fasting next.
“Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads” (Nehemiah 9:1 ESV).
As mentioned earlier, “fasting” generally refers to the voluntary denial of food or water for a period of time. For those who are mentioned here in Nehemiah 9:1, it appears that the act of fasting served to demonstrate the fact that they were so distraught over their past sins that even eating seemed unimportant.
One commentary provides us with some additional information on the subject of fasting…
“In the Old Testament the religious use of fasting is often in connection with making a request before God. The principle is that the importance of the request causes an individual to be so concerned about his or her spiritual condition that physical necessities fade into the background. In this sense the act of fasting is designed as a process leading to purification and humbling oneself before God (Psa_69:10).” (1)
While fasting is identified as a legitimate spiritual discipline in the pages of the Scriptures, its important to maintain the right internal attitude in regard to such observances. For instance, the book of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah records the comments of those who were upset at the fact that God didn’t seem to notice the fact that they were fasting.
In responding to those comments through His prophet, God explained why He took no notice of them- their fasting meant nothing as long as they maintained their ungodly attitudes (see Isaiah 58:3-5). He then went on to describe the kind of fasting that He was really looking for…
“No, the kind of fast I want is that you stop oppressing those who work for you and treat them fairly and give them what they earn. I want you to share your food with the hungry and bring right into your own homes those who are helpless, poor, and destitute. Clothe those who are cold, and don’t hide from relatives who need your help” (Isaiah 58:6-7 TLB).
When it comes to act of fasting, it is important to ask, “why am I fasting?” Fasting can serve as a worthwhile spiritual practice when it is undertaken with the right attitude for the right reasons. We should also keep in mind that it may be medically unwise for certain people to fast so that must be taken into consideration as well. The best approach is to prayerfully seek God for His direction in regard to this spiritual discipline.
(1) The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament [pg. 290] Copyright © 2000 by John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas
“On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads” (Nehemiah 9:1 NIV).
“Sackcloth” was a rough, coarse, bag-like material that looked and felt much as it’s name implied. In the Biblical era, sackcloth was usually woven from camel or goat hair and was worn to demonstrate the fact that mourners felt such great emotional sorrow over the death of a loved one that the normal comforts of life seemed unimportant.
The closest modern-day equivalent to this this kind of material would probably be something like a burlap bag or a coarse brown sack. In fact, a number of Biblical translations that adopt a paraphrase approach to the Scriptures (such as the MSG and NLT for example) actually use the word “burlap” to describe this material for the benefit of a modern-day audience.
We’re also told that the people who gathered together for this observance had “…their heads covered with dust” (NET). Dust (or ashes in some instances) represented another traditional way of expressing deep emotional pain or distress during the Biblical period and can be seen in the pages of the Scriptures as a cultural expression of grief (see Daniel 9:3, 2 Samuel 1:2, and Job 2:12 for some Biblical examples of this practice).
As with the act of wearing sackcloth, this practice served to demonstrate the fact that these individuals were so distraught over their sins that the even their physical appearance seemed irrelevant.
These actions were recognized as culturally appropriate expressions of sorrow, bereavement, or remorse and served to represent the internal grief these men and women felt as a result of turning away from God. This spirit of contrition and repentance is something that is underscored within the Old Testament book of the prophet Joel…
“‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing— grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God'” (Joel 2:12-14 NIV).
An appropriate New Testament response to the Old Testament practice of putting on dust and sackcloth might also be found in the words of Romans 13:14…
“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts” (MEV).
“Those who were descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood and confessed their sins as well as the wicked things their ancestors had done” (Nehemiah 9:2 GW).
In looking at this decision to separate from those who were not of Israeli descent, its possible to equate this choice with an attitude of racism, bigotry, or discrimination. But before we assign such motives to the assembly that gathered here in Nehemiah chapter nine, we should stop to consider an important reality: this decision was not made on the basis of race but on the basis of the beliefs (specifically, the spiritual beliefs) held by those who lived within the surrounding areas.
As part of their effort to seek the one true God, the people of Israel made a decision to separate themselves from those who worshiped other gods or from those who chose to live as if God did not exist. In doing so, these individuals may have sought to fulfill a portion of the Old Testament Law found within the book of Deuteronomy…
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are about to enter and occupy, he will clear away many nations ahead of you… You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you” (Deuteronomy 7:1, 2-4 NLT).
The New Testament book of 2 Corinthians also carries a similar message to consider in regard to our personal relationships…
“Stop forming inappropriate relationships with unbelievers. Can right and wrong be partners? Can light have anything in common with darkness? Can Christ agree with the devil? Can a believer share life with an unbeliever? Can God’s temple contain false gods?
Clearly, we are the temple of the living God. As God said, ‘I will live and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.’ The Lord says, ‘Get away from unbelievers. Separate yourselves from them. Have nothing to do with anything unclean. Then I will welcome you.’ The Lord Almighty says, ‘I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters'” (2 Corinthians 6:14-17 GW).
These admonitions help remind us of the need to exercise discernment in our interpersonal relationships. We’ll consider some strategies to apply such Biblical wisdom in such relationships with others next.
“Those who were descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood and confessed their sins as well as the wicked things their ancestors had done” (Nehemiah 9:2).
Should Nehemiah 9:2 be understood to mean that we ought to avoid interacting with those of dissimilar beliefs? And what of the New Testament admonition found in James 4:4: “…Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God” (NLT).
In considering this question, the Apostle Paul makes an important observation in 1 Corinthians 5:9-10…
“In my letter to you I told you not to associate with people who continue to commit sexual sins. I didn’t tell you that you could not have any contact with unbelievers who commit sexual sins, are greedy, are dishonest, or worship false gods. If that were the case, you would have to leave this world” (GW).
As representatives of Christ, its important to maintain friendly relationships with others whenever possible. One reason for doing so may be found in Jesus’ message to His disciples…
“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
However, the Scriptures also provide us with a word of caution: “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character'” (1 Corinthians 15:33 NIV). Since others often serve to influence our choices and decisions, it’s important to differentiate between acquaintances, friendships, and close, personal relationships.
The Scriptures have much to say in this regard…
“The righteous should choose his friends carefully, for the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Proverbs 12:26)
“Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20 NIV)
“Keep away from angry, short-tempered men, lest you learn to be like them and endanger your soul” (Proverbs 22:24-25 TLB).
“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2 NLT).
So in the end, it’s not so much a matter of who someone is that’s really important; it’s really more a matter of what someone believes.
“And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for one-fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the LORD their God. Then Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani stood on the stairs of the Levites and cried out with a loud voice to the LORD their God” (Nehemiah 9:3-4).
So this assembly took the time to listen to the Word of God and followed by acknowledging the things they had done wrong. This was not a cursory reading from the Scriptures accompanied by a vague admission of regret for any mistakes may have been made. These were dedicated periods of time (each lasting for a quarter of a day or about three to four hours) where the people of God dedicated themselves to the Word of God, prayer, and worship.
What subsequently ensued represents the longest recorded prayer in the Bible, a thirty-four verse survey of Israel’s national history that included…
God’s covenant with Abraham (verses seven to eight).
Israel’s period of Egyptian bondage and the events surrounding their exodus from Egypt (verses nine to eleven).
The subsequent period spent in the wilderness (verses twelve to twenty-three).
The conquest of Canaan and God’s ensuing blessing (verses twenty-four to twenty-five).
Israel’s continual cycle of sin, repentance, deliverance, and return to sin (verses twenty-six to thirty).
The final verses of this chapter then conclude with an acknowledgment of God’s faithfulness in light of Israel’s continued faithlessness towards Him.
While there are a number of lessons that we might learn and apply from the examples found within this prayer, there is something else that may be easy to overlook. You see, it would have been impossible to pray in this manner without a detailed knowledge of God’s relationship with the nation of Israel in the centuries leading up to that point.
The fact that these leaders possessed the ability to accurately recite these historic events tells us that the Old Testament books that chronicled this portion of Israel’s national history must have been accurately handed down to them. So what does this mean for us today? Well, one commentator ties up this thought in the following manner…
“The author was obviously immersed in the Biblical tradition; the things he mentions are exactly the historical events recorded in the O.T. We may conclude that the Book which he had was essentially the same as the one which we have, up to that point.” (1)
(1) Ruben Ratzlaff and Paul T. Butler, Nehemiah 9:5-6, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther College Press Bible Study Textbook Series © 1979, College Press
“And the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiah, Hodijah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said: ‘Stand up and bless the LORD your God Forever and ever! Blessed be Your glorious name, Which is exalted above all blessing and praise!'” (Nehemiah 9:5).
In leading the members of this assembly in the prayer that begins here in Nehemiah 9:5, it seems unlikely that these men all spoke together. It’s more likely that they each took turns reading from a prayer that had been written beforehand or perhaps one of these individuals spoke on behalf of the entire group.
The following verse then continues by saying…
“You alone are the LORD; You have made heaven, The heaven of heavens, with all their host, The earth and everything on it, The seas and all that is in them, And You preserve them all. The host of heaven worships You” (Nehemiah 9:6).
This passage establishes three fundamental realities regarding the Creator:
- There is only one God.
- God exists apart from His creation.
- God made all that is seen and unseen.
You see, the first verse of the first book of the Bible opens with the words, “In the beginning God…” In doing so, the Scriptures reject the belief that the universe is eternal and has always existed. Instead of an eternal universe, the Bible teaches instead that the universe and everything within it had an origin.
Standing apart from this universal starting point is a being known as God, a Being who is separate and distinct from His creation. Unlike those who believe that “God is everything and everything is God,” the Scriptures confirm that God is a Being that exists apart from the created universe.
This is an important Biblical truth because some religious beliefs maintain that there are many “gods” while others believe that “the world is god” or hold other, similar beliefs. These concepts are very different from the truth about God as found within the pages of the Bible. The Scriptures tell us that is only one God (not many different gods) who created all, preserves all, and is worshiped by “the angels of heaven” (NLT).
The prayer of those who gathered here in Nehemiah chapter seven acknowledges God as the exclusive, self-existent, Creator of everything. In addition to the physical, material universe that can be seen and observed, God also created a great number of supernatural beings (“the multitudes of heaven” [NIV]), a group of beings that recognize Him and give Him the place of highest honor as well.
“You are the LORD God, Who chose Abram, And brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans, And gave him the name Abraham; You found his heart faithful before You, And made a covenant with him To give the land of the Canaanites, The Hittites, the Amorites, The Perizzites, the Jebusites, And the Girgashites— To give it to his descendants. You have performed Your words, For You are righteous” (Nehemiah 9:7-8).
In Hebrews 11:1 we read, “…faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” One of the greatest examples of God-honoring faith can be found in a man named Abraham.
The Scriptures tell us that when Abram (as he was then known) was seventy-five years old, God called him to leave his home and travel to another land where, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2 NIV).
Despite his advanced age, Genesis 12:4 tells us that, “Abram departed as the Lord instructed him…” Thus, Abram began a journey that would finally end upon his arrival in the area that we know today as modern-day Israel.
This was a place that was “…flowing with milk and honey” according to Exodus 3:8 and an area that Moses would later describe as “…a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, that flow out of valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing…” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9).
Unfortunately, this rich and productive land was already inhabited- and the people who already resided within that area were not known to be particularly hospitable. For example, one people group living within that area was known as the Canaanites, a nation devoted to worship of pagan gods like Baal and Ashtereth.
Then there were the Amorites, a barbaric, war-like race that resided in the hill country of the land. Finally, there were the Philistines, a people group that would later engage in a number of military battles with Israel’s King David.
This put Abram in a difficult position, for its safe to say that these groups had little interest in recognizing God’s promise to Abram: “…I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it'” (Genesis 15:7).
We’ll see how Abram responded to this situation next.
“You are the LORD God, who chose Abram and brought him from Ur of the Chaldeans and renamed him Abraham. When he had proved himself faithful, You made a covenant with him to give him and his descendants the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Girgashites. And You have done what You promised, for You are always true to Your word” (Nehemiah 9:7-8 NLT).
Although God’s promise to “bless you and make your descendants into a great nation…” (Genesis 12:2 CEV) must have seemed astonishing to Abram, God guaranteed His promise by way of an illustration…
“Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be'” (Genesis 15:5).
So Abram was a stranger in an unfamiliar environment with few friends and many potential enemies. But while Abram possessed relatively little during this time, one thing he did have was a promise from God- and that leads us to one of the most important verses in the Scriptures:
“Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6 NIV).
It’s difficult to underestimate the importance of this verse in regard to our relationship with God. Note that Abram did not place his faith in this promise but in the God who made the promise to him. The idea is that Abram believed these promises because he believed in the One who made them.
This passage also tells us that Abram “deposited” his faith in God (so to speak) and that God “…credited it to him as righteousness.” The word “righteousness” carries the idea of “right standing” with God and the New Testament book of Romans goes on to provide us with a few additional insights into Abram’s example of faith…
“(Abram) did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness'” (Romans 4:20-22 NIV).
So despite the multitude of challenges involved in following God’s directive, “Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD considered his response of faith as proof of genuine loyalty” (NET). In this, Abram not only served as a model of genuine, God-honoring faith, but also as a model of God’s faithfulness as well.
“You saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt, And heard their cry by the Red Sea. You showed signs and wonders against Pharaoh, Against all his servants, And against all the people of his land. For You knew that they acted proudly against them.
So You made a name for Yourself, as it is this day. And You divided the sea before them, So that they went through the midst of the sea on the dry land; And their persecutors You threw into the deep, As a stone into the mighty waters” (Nehemiah 9:9-11).
In Genesis chapter twenty-eight, God appeared to the Old Testament patriarch Jacob and said to him, “…your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 28:14).
Later, we begin to find the fulfillment of this promise to Jacob beginning in Genesis chapter forty-six. You see, Jacob left the land of Israel and entered the nation of Egypt with just a few dozen family members (see Genesis 46:1-27) . But when his descendants left Egypt four hundred years later, the nation of Israel probably numbered closer to one million people or more (see Exodus 12:37).
This reference to Pharaoh and Israel’s departure from Egypt by way of the Red Sea crossing in Nehemiah chapter nine also directs us to a challenging and difficult portion of Scripture. You see, Exodus 4:21 tells us, “…the LORD said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.”
A little later within the book of Exodus, God specifically directed the following statement toward Pharaoh: “…indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). The questions that arise from these passages concern God’s accountability in taking these actions against Pharaoh.
If God strengthened Pharaoh’s resolve against the people of Israel in this manner, then how can he be held responsible for his actions? If God was to blame for “…(making) him so stubborn that he will refuse to let my people go” (CEV), then how can the king of Egypt be faulted for making such a choice?
We’ll consider the answer to those questions next.
“You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his servants and the people of the land; for you knew how arrogantly they treated them; and you won yourself a name which is yours to this day. You divided the sea ahead of them, so that they could pass through the sea on dry land; then you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into turbulent waters” (Nehemiah 9:10-11 CJB).
In referencing God’s decision to harden Pharaoh’s heart against the people of Israel (Exodus 4:21), Romans 9:18 adds, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?'” (NIV, see also Romans 9:6-29).
Before we jump to conclusions regarding God’s moral culpability in taking such actions, let’s take a closer look at these events as they occurred within the Old Testament book of Exodus. You see, the account of God’s interaction with Pharaoh began long before Moses ever appeared before him with the request to “Let My people go, that they may serve Me…” (Exodus 8:1)…
“Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — a land flowing with milk and honey.’
The elders of Israel will listen to you. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go. (Exodus 3:16-20 NIV).
Exodus 3:19 represents the key verse within this passage: “I know that the king of Egypt won’t allow you to go unless compelled to do so by force” (ISV). We’ll consider the importance of this verse next.
“You displayed miraculous signs and wonders against Pharaoh, his officials, and all his people, for You knew how arrogantly they were treating our ancestors. You have a glorious reputation that has never been forgotten” (Nehemiah 9:10 NLT).
In advance of his appearance before Pharaoh, God spoke to Moses in regard to His plan to rescue the people of Israel from their Egyptian taskmasters: “…you and the leaders must go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us travel three days into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God'” (Exodus 3:18 GW).
However, the following verse goes on to add, “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you leave unless he is forced to do so” (Exodus 3:19 CJB). Note that God had not yet taken any action concerning Pharaoh; He simply told Moses what would happen in advance.
Now let’s move forward to Exodus 5:1-2: “Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.’ Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go'” (NIV).
So Pharaoh responded precisely as God said he would. That brings us to Exodus 6:1: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country'” (NIV).
We should note that it was only after Pharaoh arrogantly refused Moses’ request did God begin to strengthen his commitment to the course of action that he had already chosen. This has led one scholar to observe…
“God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart contrary to Pharaoh’s own free choice. …the sense in which God hardened his heart is similar to the way the sun hardens clay and also melts wax. If Pharaoh had been receptive to God’s warnings, his heart would not have been hardened by God.” (1)
This same commentator also observes that knowing what someone will do with their freedom is not the same as ordaining what they must do against their freedom. God controls the world by what He knows men will freely do (2) and much like Pharaoh, we choose our course from among the options available to us. God, in His sovereignty, may elect to strengthen, weaken, or take any other action He deems appropriate in regard to such choices.
(1) When Critics Ask A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe Victor Books (Exodus 4:21).
(2) Geisler, N. L. (1976). Christian Apologetics. Includes index. (231). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
“Moreover You led them by day with a cloudy pillar, And by night with a pillar of fire, To give them light on the road Which they should travel” (Nehemiah 9:12).
Nehemiah 9:12 provides us with an opportunity to address a question that people often ask concerning the existence of God. For example, its not uncommon for people to ask the following question: “If God exists, then why hasn’t He shown Himself? If God would physically demonstrate the reality of His existence, then I would believe in Him.” In responding to this question, we might say that God has already tried that approach- and it didn’t work.
You see, when God led the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, the Scriptures tell us, “…the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light… He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people” (Exodus 13:21-22).
Anyone who wished to confirm the reality of God’s existence during that time could easily do so by looking to this pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night. These pillars represented clear, tangible, unmistakable evidences for God’s existence and they were available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. But how effective were these graphic displays of God’s reality?
Well, by time we reach Exodus chapter thirty-two, we read that God made the following statement to Moses: “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!'” (Exodus 32:7-8).
So even though the people possessed these clear, unmistakable evidences for God’s existence, they deliberately chose to reject those evidences in pursuit of another agenda (idol worship in this particular instance).
Unfortunately, the same holds true today, for as we’re reminded in New Testament book of Romans, “…since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20 NIV).
“You came down also on Mount Sinai, And spoke with them from heaven, And gave them just ordinances and true laws, Good statutes and commandments. You made known to them Your holy Sabbath, And commanded them precepts, statutes and laws, By the hand of Moses Your servant.
You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger, And brought them water out of the rock for their thirst, And told them to go in to possess the land Which You had sworn to give them” (Nehemiah 9:13-15).
The diligent student of God’s Word may sometimes uncover practical insights in unexpected places. Such is the case with Nehemiah 9:13-15.
Following their departure from the nation of Egypt, God miraculously sustained the people of Israel by way of something called “manna,” a substance that is described for us in Exodus chapter sixteen. The word “manna” literally means, “what is it” (Exodus 16:15) and it served as Israel’s primary food source in the decades prior to the nation’s arrival in the land that God had promised them.
Exodus chapter sixteen tells us “…in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor… when the sun grew hot, it melted away… The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:13-14, 21, 31 NIV).
Although Moses specifically identified manna as “…the bread the Lord has given you to eat” (Exodus 16:15), the Old Testament book of Numbers also tells us that a number of people began to complain about His provision: “The Israelites cried again and said, ‘Who will feed us meat? We remember the free fish we ate in Egypt, along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. But now our appetite is gone; there’s nothing to look at but this manna!'” (Numbers 11:4-6 HCSB).
In response to these complaints, Numbers 11:10 continues by saying, “Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, everyone at the door of his tent; and when the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly, Moses was also displeased” (NET).
So instead of choosing to focus upon the blessings and benefits they had already received from God, many of the people of that era elected to complain about the situation that He had placed them in. We’ll look at God’s response to these complaints and consider what we might learn from that passage next.
“You provided bread from heaven for their hunger; You brought them water from the rock for their thirst. You told them to go in and possess the land You had sworn to give them” (Nehemiah 9:15 HCSB).
The Old Testament book of Exodus tells us how God provided “bread from heaven” to sustain the people of Israel following their departure from the nation of Egypt. Unfortunately, the Scriptures also reveal that many of God’s people were highly dissatisfied with these provisions (see Numbers 11:4-6).
The Biblical book of Numbers then goes on to tell us what happened next…
“Tell the people: ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow, when you will eat meat. The LORD heard you when you wailed, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!’ Now the LORD will give you meat, and you will eat it.
You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month– until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it– because you have rejected the LORD, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?'” (Numbers 11:18-20 NIV).
So God gave them what they asked for but not what they wanted- and Psalm 106:15 provides us with a poetic and insightful commentary on this incident: “…He gave them their request, But sent leanness into their soul.” You see, this passage reminds us that its possible to get what we think we want, yet still not be happy.
This illustrates the importance of seeking God’s will first irrespective of our external circumstances. Before anything else, we must “buy in” to the fact that God ultimately knows what’s best for us and has our best interests in mind even if we are not entirely content with our station in life.
Remember that God will always direct us in the way that is best if we put Him first. As Jesus Himself tells us, “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:33-34 NIV).
Instead of following the poor example of ancient Israel in this regard, we might prayerfully ask for God’s help in putting the words of Philippians 4:8 into practice…
“…whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”
“You provided bread from heaven for them in their time of hunger, and you brought forth water from the rock for them in their time of thirst. You told them to enter in order to possess the land that you had sworn to give them” (Nehemiah 9:15 NET).
In considering these references to bread and water here in Nehemiah 9:15, one commentator has observed that these elements not only represented God’s provision for Israel’s physical needs, but also carried a spiritual connotation as well…
“Referring to the manna that the Lord caused to fall from heaven that they might eat in the wilderness (Ex. 16:4). Jesus makes clear in John 6:32-35 that the manna God gave them in the wilderness was a picture type, or foreshadowing, of Himself…. The water God caused to flow from a rock in the desert that His people might not die of thirst (Ex. 17:6, Num. 20:7-11). The New Testament again makes clear that this water was a foreshadowing of Jesus (1 Cor. 10:4).” (1)
Yet even after God had delivered the people of Israel from their Egyptian taskmasters, provided for their physical and material needs throughout their wilderness sojourn, and established them within a land that was “…flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8), here is how the people of Moses’ era chose to respond to God’s gracious provision…
“But they and our fathers acted proudly, Hardened their necks, And did not heed Your commandments. They refused to obey, And they were not mindful of Your wonders That You did among them. But they hardened their necks, And in their rebellion They appointed a leader To return to their bondage.
But You are God, Ready to pardon, Gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, Abundant in kindness, And did not forsake them” (Nehemiah 9:16-17).
Despite all that God had accomplished on their behalf, the people of that era were “arrogant” (CJB), stubborn (GW), insolent (NABRE), and “acted presumptuously” (ESV). Nevertheless, this passage also goes on to tell us, “But You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and merciful, slow to become angry, and rich in unfailing love. You did not abandon them” (NLT).
Unlike a person who is easily angered or reflexively attempts to strike back against those who are held to be disrespectful, God is exceptionally patient and merciful with those who fail to recognize His provision in their lives. To quote Jesus’ words from the Beatitudes, “…He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).
(1) Caldwell, Bob Pride’s Great Delusion
“Yet in Your manifold mercies You did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of the cloud did not depart from them by day, To lead them on the road; Nor the pillar of fire by night, To show them light, And the way they should go. You also gave Your good Spirit to instruct them, And did not withhold Your manna from their mouth, And gave them water for their thirst” (Nehemiah 9:19-20).
The Old Testament book of Numbers chronicles God’s response to the challenges that Moses faced in leading the people of ancient Israel…
“…the Lord said to Moses: ‘Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel… I will take of the Spirit that is upon you and will put the same upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone'” (Numbers 11:16-17).
In part, it was this work of God’s Spirit that enabled the assembly of Nehemiah chapter nine to say, “You gave them your good Spirit to teach them to live wisely…” (MSG). Jesus went on to detail this instructive ministry of the Holy Spirit later within the New Testament when He said…
“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26 NIV).
“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26 NIV).
The Holy Spirit is called the “parakletos” in the original language of the New Testament, a word that captures the image of a counselor, ally, helper, advocate, strengthener, advisor, and supporter. Through Christ, the Holy Spirit is also described as being with us and within us…
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).
In this manner, the Holy Spirit serves as our instructor and revealer of the truth for as Jesus Himself tells us, “…when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:13 NIV).
“Forty years You sustained them in the wilderness; They lacked nothing; Their clothes did not wear out And their feet did not swell. Moreover You gave them kingdoms and nations, And divided them into districts. So they took possession of the land of Sihon, The land of the king of Heshbon, And the land of Og king of Bashan.
You also multiplied their children as the stars of heaven, And brought them into the land Which You had told their fathers To go in and possess. So the people went in And possessed the land; You subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, The Canaanites, And gave them into their hands, With their kings And the people of the land, That they might do with them as they wished” (Nehemiah 9:21-24).
This passage references two of Israel’s earliest military victories following their departure from the nation of Egypt. The first involved a confrontation between the people of Israel and a king named Sihon.
Sihon possessed a sizable land area east of the Jordan River bordered by the Jabbok River in the north and the Arnon River in the south (see Numbers 21:24, 26). When the approaching Israelites requested permission to pass through that area, Sihon responded by denying their request and launching a military attack.
Unfortunately for the king, this unprovoked military action proved to be his undoing for the people of Israel routed his army, displaced the inhabitants of the land, and took possession of their cities. Later on, the Israelite tribes of Reuben and Gad acquired this territory along with its rich abundance of natural resources (see Numbers 32).
The second military victory involved a king named Og, a leader who ruled an area north of the Jabbok and east of the Jordan River. Perhaps the most notable feature associated with Og was his impressive physical stature. Deuteronomy 3:11 identifies him as the last of a giant race known as the Rephaim and a man whose bed measured approximately 13.5 feet (4.1m) in length and six feet (1.8m) in width.
This king met the Israelites in battle at the city of Edrei but the people of Israel completely destroyed his military forces and left no survivors (Deuteronomy 3:1-3). This allowed Israel to gain access to a land area that contained sixty fortified cites and an unspecified number of villages (Deuteronomy 3:4-7).
By enabling the people of Israel to successfully conclude these military campaigns, God fulfilled a promise made to their ancestor Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you…” (Genesis 12:3).
“So they ate and were filled and grew fat, And delighted themselves in Your great goodness. Nevertheless they were disobedient And rebelled against You, Cast Your law behind their backs And killed Your prophets, who testified against them To turn them to Yourself; And they worked great provocations” (Nehemiah 9:25b-26).
As the people of ancient Israel enjoyed the abundant benefits that God had given them, Nehemiah 9:25-26 tells us that they chose to turn away from the Provider of those blessings.
Notice that these verses tell us that people of that era “cast Your law behind their backs” (MEV), an expression that indicates a conscious decision to ignore the Scriptures. This figure of speech makes use of the fact that we cannot normally see an object that is behind us. So in using this terminology, this passage implies that these people deliberately put God’s Word in a place where it could not be seen.
In doing so, the Scriptures utilize a word that means “to… throw away (or) cast off.” (1) In other words, this decision was not a mistake, oversight, or temporary lapse in judgment- it represented an intentional, deliberate, and premeditated choice. So why would anyone seek to jettison the Scriptures in a such a manner? Well, one answer is that this would serve to relieve these individuals of the constant reminder of what those Scriptures contained.
This word picture serves as a cautionary example for every generation. You see, if we were truly honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that we are not everything we should be. For instance, we inherently know that certain actions are unjust- lying, stealing, or using others to meet our needs, to name a few. We recognize the injustice of such behaviors because they are inconsistent with the way in which we desire others to behave toward us. Yet who among us is not guilty of such things?
We may compile layers of justifications and rationalizations to insulate ourselves from such realities, but deep down, we know that we are guilty of not being everything we should be. (2) Deep down, people recognize that stealing makes someone a thief. Deep down, people know that those who don’t tell the truth are guilty of lying.
This explains why we may become angry or defensive when confronted with evidence of such behaviors- there would be no reason for defensiveness if there was no perceived guilt as a result of such actions. We’ll consider these observations and their relationship to Nehemiah 9:25-26 next.
(1) shalak H7993 Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Definitions
(2) That is, humanity in general. Infants and special needs adults (for example) lie outside the parameters of this discussion
“They ate to the full and were well-nourished; they reveled in your great goodness. But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies” (Nehemiah 9:25b-26 NIV).
In describing this response to God’s Word, one Biblical translation phrases Nehemiah 9:26 in a highly descriptive manner: “They threw your teachings over their shoulders” (GW). So much as one might discard an unwanted item or a possession with little or no value, the people described within this passage held a similar attitude with regard to the Scriptures.
This response illustrates the truth behind the colloquial expression, “out of sight, out of mind.” For instance, we can say that we, as human beings, are sometimes guilty of not being everything we should be (whether we choose to admit it or not). Because of this, an underlying sense of tension is the inevitable result.
You see, it is highly uncomfortable to think about what happens to those who are guilty- and since the Word of God serves to identify those areas where we may be falling short (Romans 7:7), this helps explain why the people of Nehemiah 9:25-26 sought to remove the message of the Scriptures from their lives.
As touched upon earlier, the Word of God effectively serves as a mirror in this regard. While a standard mirror reveals the reality of our external appearance, the Scriptures reveal the reality of our internal appearance- and some would simply prefer to remove the mirror than live with a constant reminder of their internal guilt and what can be done to resolve it.
To borrow another analogy, the Scriptures may be compared to the sunlight that shines through an open window. If the sunlight shines through an open window and illuminates a dirty piece of furniture, we can hardly blame the sun for highlighting that furniture’s condition. Nevertheless, its easier for some to simply close the shutters and darken the room. This does not eliminate the dirty furniture, but it does serve to make the dirt less noticeable.
Psalm 119:105 tells us, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (AMP). Unfortunately, many would prefer to live in the dark and this helps explain why these individuals (along with their 21st century counterparts) sought to cast God’s Word aside. However, choices bring consequences and we’ll examine the consequences associated with this decision to disregard the Word of God next.
“Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their enemies, Who oppressed them; And in the time of their trouble, When they cried to You, You heard from heaven; And according to Your abundant mercies You gave them deliverers who saved them From the hand of their enemies.
‘But after they had rest, They again did evil before You. Therefore You left them in the hand of their enemies, So that they had dominion over them; Yet when they returned and cried out to You, You heard from heaven; And many times You delivered them according to Your mercies” Nehemiah (9:27-28).
The decision to abandon God’s Word as mentioned here in Nehemiah 9:27-28 eventually led to a difficult period for the nation of Israel that is chronicled within the Biblical book of Judges. This portion of Scripture marks an era of spiritual negligence that began around 1400 B.C. and continued for several hundred years; a time where the people of Israel repeatedly fell into cycle of moral indifference, religious apathy, and/or idolatry.
It was during this time that people of Israel continually and repeatedly turned away from God- that is, until God directed their attention to their spiritual disregard by way of a natural calamity (such as the famine that is described within the Biblical book of Ruth [1:1]) or through the attack of a foreign oppressor. Once the people realized their mistake in abandoning the God who had so graciously provided for them, they subsequently began to seek a relationship with Him once more.
God acknowledged the pleas of His people during this era by raising up a judge to serve as a deliverer from the hardships that had been inflicted upon them by their own malfeasance (see Judges 2:10-15). Some of the more prominent and well-known personalities among these judges included Gideon (Judges 6-8), Deborah (Judges 4-5), and Samson (Judges 13-16).
Once each individual judge achieved success in securing Israel’s deliverance, the people generally responded by following God during the remaining lifetime of that particular leader. But once the danger had passed and prosperity resumed, the people returned to their spiritual indifference and the cycle began once again.
This attitude ultimately led to the observation found within the final verse of the book of Judges, a passage that serves as one of the most regrettable commentaries in all Scripture: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
“…many times You delivered them according to Your mercies, And testified against them, That You might bring them back to Your law. Yet they acted proudly, And did not heed Your commandments, But sinned against Your judgments, ‘Which if a man does, he shall live by them.’
And they shrugged their shoulders, Stiffened their necks, And would not hear. Yet for many years You had patience with them, And testified against them by Your Spirit in Your prophets. Yet they would not listen; Therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands” (Nehemiah 9:28b-30).
Under the leadership of King Solomon as detailed in the Biblical book of 1 Kings, the people of ancient Israel enjoyed a “golden era” of blessing and prosperity. Following Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam became the next king of Israel according to 1 Kings 11:43. Unfortunately, Rehoboam did not possess his father’s leadership capabilities and that led to a number of disastrous consequences for the nation of Israel.
One of Rehoboam’s misjudgments involved a decision to act on the unwise advice offered by his peers instead of the perceptive counsel of those who had previously advised his father (see 1 Kings 12). This eventually caused the nation of Israel to divide into two separate groups. The first group (the Northern Kingdom) continued to identify with the name “Israel.” The second group was known as the Southern Kingdom, or “Judah.”
The Biblical account of the Northern and Southern kingdoms confronts us with an unfortunate reality: many of those who served as leaders in these kingdoms were people who led exceedingly ungodly lives. While a few of the leaders within the Southern Kingdom were God-honoring individuals, most, unfortunately were not.
On the other hand, every king who served within the Northern Kingdom was found to be corrupt. In fact, the Old Testament books of 1st and 2nd Kings repeatedly employ a specific phrase to describe the actions of these leaders: “…he did evil in the sight of the Lord.”
As a result, God allowed a people group known as the Assyrians to take control of the Northern Kingdom. This was a horrifying development for the people of Israel for as one source tells us, “Archaeologists have discovered that the Assyrians were merciless and savage people. The Assyrian army was ruthless and effective. Its cruelty included burning cities, burning children, impaling victims on stakes, beheading, and chopping off hands.” (1)
These events helped lead to the sad admission of Nehemiah 9:30: “By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you gave them into the hands of the neighboring peoples” (NIV).
(1) “Assyria” Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
“Nevertheless in Your great mercy You did not utterly consume them nor forsake them; For You are God, gracious and merciful. Now therefore, our God, The great, the mighty, and awesome God, Who keeps covenant and mercy: Do not let all the trouble seem small before You That has come upon us, Our kings and our princes, Our priests and our prophets, Our fathers and on all Your people, From the days of the kings of Assyria until this day” (Nehemiah 9:31-32).
2 Kings 17:1-18 provides us with the account of an attempted conspiracy against the king of Assyria by an Israelite king named Hoshea. In response, the Assyrians captured Hoshea and imprisoned him. The Assyrians then followed by invading the nation of Israel and forcibly relocating its inhabitants.
The last remaining citizens of the Northern Kingdom were deported to Assyria around 722 BC. They never returned to the land of their inheritance and 2 Kings 18:11-12 explains why: “The king of Assyria deported Israel to Assyria… This happened because they had not obeyed the Lord their God, but had violated his covenant—all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded. They neither listened to the commands nor carried them out” (NIV).
That left the Southern Kingdom of Judah as the last remaining link in that area to those whom God had rescued from Egyptian slavery so many centuries earlier. Unfortunately, the citizens of Judah failed to learn from the bad example of their northern neighbors and similarly refused to honor God.
You see, 2 Kings provides us with the account of a Judean king named Manasseh, a man who “…did evil in the sight of the LORD, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel” (2 Kings 21:2). In large part, it was his example that led God to issue these declarations…
“This is what the LORD says: I am about to bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants, fulfilling all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read, because they have abandoned Me and burned incense to other gods in order to provoke Me with all the work of their hands. My wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched'” (2 Kings 21:16-17 HCSB)
“…I will also banish Judah from My presence just as I have banished Israel. And I will reject My chosen city of Jerusalem and the Temple where My name was to be honored” (2 Kings 23:17).
We’ll see how God executed these judgments next.
“However You are just in all that has befallen us; For You have dealt faithfully, But we have done wickedly. Neither our kings nor our princes, Our priests nor our fathers, Have kept Your law, Nor heeded Your commandments and Your testimonies, With which You testified against them.
For they have not served You in their kingdom, Or in the many good things that You gave them, Or in the large and rich land which You set before them; Nor did they turn from their wicked works” (Nehemiah 9:33-35)
The Old Testament book of 2 Kings provides us with a summary declaration concerning the spiritual beliefs and practices followed by the nation of Judah when it tells us, “…the people of Judah did not obey the LORD, and Manasseh led them to commit even greater sins than those committed by the nations whom the LORD had driven out of the land…” (2 Kings 21:9 GNB).
As a result, the city of Jerusalem was decimated by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (see 2 Kings 25:8-12). The inhabitants of Judah were exiled to Babylon, thus fulfilling God’s earlier warning from Deuteronomy 28:36: “The LORD will bring you and your king that you have appointed to a nation neither you nor your fathers have known…” (Deuteronomy 28:36).
This explains the acknowledgment contained within the prayer of Nehemiah 9:33-34: “You are righteous concerning all that has come on us, because You have acted faithfully, while we have acted wickedly. Our kings, leaders, priests, and ancestors did not obey Your law or listen to Your commands and warnings You gave them” (HCSB).
When the Babylonians were later supplanted by the Medo-Persian Empire, those who had been deported to Babylon were granted permission to return to the land of Judah once again. Approximately 50.000 people took advantage of this opportunity to return to their ancestral homeland according to Ezra chapter two.
Those events served as the immediate historical backdrop for the prayer of Nehemiah chapter nine and a partial fulfillment of another promise found within the book of Deuteronomy…
“When you have experienced all these things, both the blessings and the curses I have set before you, you will reflect upon them in all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you.
Then if you and your descendants turn to the Lord your God and obey him with your whole mind and being just as I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will reverse your captivity and have pity on you. He will turn and gather you from all the peoples among whom he has scattered you” (Deuteronomy 30:1-3).
“Here we are, servants today! And the land that You gave to our fathers, To eat its fruit and its bounty, Here we are, servants in it! And it yields much increase to the kings You have set over us, Because of our sins; Also they have dominion over our bodies and our cattle At their pleasure; And we are in great distress” (Nehemiah 9:36-37).
Although the people of Judah had been granted permission to return to their ancestral lands, that did not change their status as subjects of the Medo-Persian Empire. Those who returned to Judah were still responsible for adhering to the laws and ordinances of the Empire and pay taxes on their produce and income. Their children were also conscripted for military service in the Persian army as well.
Knowing these realities can help us fully grasp the ironic declaration of Nehemiah 9:36-37: “Now we are slaves in this fruitful land you gave to our ancestors. Its plentiful harvest is taken by kings you placed over us because of our sins…” (CEV). The irony behind this sober admission was that the very people who had once been foreign subjects within the nation of Egypt were now foreign subjects within their own land.
Nevertheless, this passage also demonstrates an important change of perspective. Instead of making an attempt to blame God for this state of affairs, the prayer of Nehemiah 9:36-37 placed the blame squarely where it belonged: “Because of our sins… we are in great distress.”
So unlike the person who seeks to avoid responsibility for an error or misjudgment, those who assembled together in Nehemiah chapter nine accepted responsibility for the situation they had brought upon themselves. But these individuals didn’t stop with a simple admission of the truth- they also chose to act upon their words…
“And because of all this, We make a sure covenant and write it; Our leaders, our Levites, and our priests seal it” (Nehemiah 9:38).
This binding agreement tells us that these individuals sought to verify their change of attitude by offering the evidence of a tangible response. That evidence took the form of a binding agreement that demonstrated their renewed commitment to begin living God-honoring lives.
As commentary points out, “In many ways the last verse (38) is the most significant part of the prayer. The Jews realized that the problem was with them, not with the Lord, and they determined to do something about it.” (1) We’ll take a closer look at the details of this covenant as we move into Nehemiah chapter ten.
(1) Nehemiah 9:1-38, Believer’s Bible Commentary William MacDonald, edited by Arthur Farstad. Thomas Nelson Publishers Nashville Copyright 1995, 1992, 1990, 1989 by William McDonald. All rights reserved.