By Edward Dennett
THE feast of tabernacles had been observed, and there had been "very great gladness." The last day — the eighth — would fall on the twenty-third day of the month, and thus chapter 9 opens with the day following. Under the searching power of the words of the law the people had wept, but they were told, "This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep." Now, however, that the days of the festival had run their course, the time had come for the expression of their sorrow — that sorrow, according to God, which worketh repentance — and thus it was that, on "the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sack-clothes, and earth upon them." (v. 1.) The entrance of God's word had given them light, and had shown them the character of their past ways, had set even their secret sins in the light of God's countenance; and, smitten in heart and conscience because of their transgression, they were gathered together with all these outward marks of contrition and humiliation. Blessed effect of the word of God, and the beginning of all true recovery and blessing!
And the reality of their sorrow for their sins was proved by their acts: "And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers." There is a reason for the introduction in this place of the word seed. It is to point out that they were a holy people separated unto God, as born of His people Israel who had been redeemed to Himself on the ground of the blood of the Passover Lamb. They were therefore a "holy seed" (Ezra 9: 2; compare 1 John 3: 9), and as such were to maintain their holy character. It was therefore a denial of the place into which they had been brought to "join affinity" with strangers, as well as to break down the barriers which God Himself had set up between them and other peoples. This they now felt, and accordingly they "separated themselves from all strangers." No doubt it was narrowness according to man's thoughts, and in so doing they would surely incur the imputation of uncharitableness; but what did this matter, as long as they were acting according to God? If God sets the feet of His people in a narrow path, it is their part to keep in it if they would be in the path of blessing.
In the next place they "stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers." And remark that separation preceded confession. Shown by the word that they had sinned in associating themselves with strangers, they acted upon what they saw, and then confessed their guilt before God. This is ever God's order. The moment we see that anything we have allowed, or are in association with, is condemned by the word of God, it behoves us to refuse or to separate ourselves from it. No circumstances in such a case can justify delay. Like the Psalmist, we should "make haste and delay not to keep God's commandments." To confess our sin while cleaving to it is but mockery. They also confessed the iniquities of their fathers, and they did so because the Lord's hand had been upon them on this very account. It was owing to the sins of their fathers that they had suffered captivity in Babylon, and that they now, though restored through the tender mercy of God to their own land, were in bondage to a Gentile monarch. Hence they went down to the root of all the evil, and told out before God their fathers' sins as well as their own. Their humiliation, therefore, on this day was no mere superficial work; but standing before Jehovah, in the light of His presence, they desired to lay bare all the sin and the iniquity on account of which they had suffered chastisement.
In verse 3 we have the details of their occupation in this solemn assembly: "They stood up in their place, and read 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." The Jewish day was composed of four periods of three hours, commencing at six in the morning. They therefore read the Scriptures three hours, and confessed and worshipped three hours. And in what more blessed occupation could they be engaged? Surely they were divinely taught and divinely led in this matter; and by the very fact of its having been recorded, are we not shown the true method of recovery and restoration in seasons of declension or backsliding? Would that the Lord's people everywhere knew how to gather themselves together in a similar manner, seeking grace to separate themselves from all known iniquity, to confess their sins, to search the Word for light and guidance, and to humble themselves before God! Complaints of coldness and indifference, of insensibility to our real condition, are heard on every hand; and together with this, signs of abounding iniquity, through the power of Satan, are everywhere apparent. Behold, then, in the example of these children of the captivity, the divine remedy, the true way of a real revival. There may be in some places but two or three who feel the present evils; but let these two or three get together to test themselves, and all else, by the Word, and to confess their sins and the sins of their fathers and brethren, and they would soon rejoice in God's interposition and deliverance. Our want of power in this direction is but an evidence of the greatness of our failure; and even if we did but confess our want of power to pray, it would be the dawning of hope in many an assembly. May the Lord stir up the consciences of His beloved people, and may He grant that ere long there may be witnessed in many a place the spectacle of His saints assembling in true contrition of heart, and trembling at the word of God, for humiliation and confession before Him.
The remainder of the chapter (vv. 4-38) contains the confession, or at least a portion of it, made on behalf of the people. First, the Levites, Jeshua, and Bani, etc., "stood up upon the stairs . . . and cried with a loud voice unto the Lord their God. Then the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel," etc., said to the people, "Stand up, and bless the Lord your God for ever and ever;" and then, turning from the people to God, they commenced their praise and confession. The reader will remark, that this outpouring of their hearts before God is a recitation of God's ways of grace with His people, combined with the confession of their own continual sin and hardness of heart. On God's part there had been nothing but grace, mercy, and long-suffering, and on their part nothing but sinful ingratitude and rebellion; and thus they justified Him, and condemned themselves — the sure mark of a work of grace in repentance, whether in the hearts of saints or sinners. It will be instructive to examine this remarkable prayer.
They ascribe, first of all, blessing and praise to the glorious name of their God, and, at the same time, acknowledge that He was exalted above it all. They own His absolute supremacy. (v. 5.) In the next place, they adore Him as the Creator; not merely recognizing the creatorship of God, but that JEHOVAH was the CREATOR. "Thou, even thou, art Lord alone; thou hast made heaven," etc. (v. 6.) The difference is important. There are many, for example, who, willing to own that God was the Creator, would hesitate to confess of the Lord Jesus Christ, that "all things were made by Him; and without Him was not any thing made that was made." The natural man might acknowledge the former; but only a true believer could own the latter. They then pass on to God's action in grace in calling out Abram, and in making "a covenant with him, to give the land of the Canaanites," etc.; and they add, "Thou hast performed thy words; for thou art righteous." (vv. 7, 8.) What a resting-place they had found for their souls, even in the faithfulness and righteousness of their God! They had learnt that if they believed not, "He abode faithful: He could not deny Himself." (2 Tim. 2: 13.) Peter in his second epistle celebrates the same thing, writing "to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ." (Chap. 1: 1.) There is nothing that a sinner fears more than the righteousness of God, but for the saint it is the immutable foundation on which his soul reposes in perfect peace now that, through the death and resurrection of Christ, grace reigns through righteousness; and hence it is that he can rejoice also in the faithfulness of God knowing that what He has promised He will also perform. This utterance — "Thou hast performed thy words; for thou art righteous" — is therefore most significant. (Cp. Deut. 26: 3.)
Redemption is their next theme. (vv. 9-11) And observe how it is traced down from the heart of God. For where do they commence? It is, "Thou didst see the affliction of our fathers in Egypt." These are almost the very words that God Himself employed when He first commissioned Moses. "I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt." (Exodus 3: 7.) They thus reached the source whence the blessed streams of grace had flowed; and they proceed, after adding, "and heardest their cry by the Red Sea" — another manifestation of the heart of God — to narrate His wonder-working power in judgment "upon Pharaoh, and on all his servants, and on all the people of his land; for thou knewest that they dealt proudly against them. So didst thou get thee a name, as it is this day." (v. 10.) They then speak of the passage through the Red Sea, where God "threw" their persecutors "into the deeps, as a stone into the mighty waters." They thus recall their redemption by power out of the land of Egypt, and thereon speak of the cloudy pillar, and the pillar of fire wherewith Jehovah had led them through the wilderness; for, in truth, He who had redeemed His people out of the hand of Pharaoh, led them forth in His mercy, and guided them in His strength unto His holy habitation. (See Exodus 15: 13.) Next, they recite before the Lord His coming down upon Sinai, the giving of the law, His holy sabbath, the precepts, statutes, and laws which He commanded them by the hand of Moses; and they remind themselves of the bread from heaven which He gave them for their hunger, of the water which He brought forth out of the rock for their thirst, and of the land which He had promised them for a possession (vv. 13-15.)
So far, it is a tale of grace — of a giving God. He had chosen Abraham, redeemed His people, guided, spoken to, and sustained them. All had been given from the heart of God — in His own pure and sovereign grace. They turn, in the next place, to their side of the picture. And what a contrast, as it ever is, when the heart of man is put side by side with the heart of God! What then had they to tell of themselves in the presence of all this mercy and grace? Not one single good thing; for they say, "But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks," etc. (vv. 16, 17.) They confessed, in a word, pride, stubbornness, wilful disobedience, forgetfulness of the displays of God's power in their midst, and apostasy. On God's side there had been mercy, long-suffering, and tender care; and on theirs, ingratitude, and almost every form of evil and corruption.
And yet they have more to tell of the inexhaustible goodness of the God who had redeemed them, borne them on eagles' wings, and brought them unto Himself. "But thou," they say, "art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not;" and, moreover, they have further to say, as they magnify the grace of their God, that though their fathers had made a molten calf as their god, ascribing even to it their deliverance from Egypt, "and had wrought great provocations; yet thou, in thy manifold mercies, forsookest them not in the wilderness." No; God had still guided them by His pillar of cloud by day, and His pillar of fire by night. He gave them His good Spirit, withheld not His manna, nor the water out of the rock; but for forty years He sustained them in the wilderness, so that they lacked nothing; "their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not." Moreover, He subdued kingdoms before them, multiplied their children, put them into the land which He had promised to their fathers, gave them victory over all the power of the enemy, and enabled them to take strong cities and a fat land, to possess "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 thy great goodness." (vv. 19-25.) They celebrate in this manner the unchanging goodness of their faithful God, and measure by it the conduct of their fathers and themselves. For what response did they render to all this grace? "Nevertheless," they say, "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." (v. 26.) The reader will remark the repetition of this last clause. "They had wrought great provocations" both in the wilderness (v. 18) and in the land.
This was what God found in the people He had redeemed as the answer to all His patient grace and goodness; and henceforward a change is marked in God's dealings with them, for they next proceed to narrate His judgments upon His people, yet confessing that He was ever ready to interpose for their succour and deliverance. "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, who saved them out of the hand of their enemies." Again, they tell of sin; and evil. "Yet when they returned, and cried unto thee, thou heardest them from heaven; and many times didst thou deliver them according to thy mercies." (vv. 27, 28.) To these interpositions in grace in answer to His people's cry, were added testimony against them, forbearance and warnings by prophets, "yet they dealt proudly, and hearkened not unto thy commandments . . . and withdrew the shoulder, and hardened their neck. and would not hear: therefore gavest thou them into the hand of the people of the lands." (vv. 29, 30.)
Such were the causes of their present condition; but they add to the praise of their God: "Nevertheless for thy great mercies' sake thou didst not utterly consume them, nor forsake them; for thou art a gracious and merciful God." Again we say, What a tale! It is, as before said, the revelation of the heart of God and of the heart of man; but, alas! it is the revelation of the heart of man under divine culture, the object of sovereign mercy and love. Jehovah had been seeking fruit from His fig-tree all these centuries, and by His own people's confession He found none; and yet, with unwearying grace, He had borne with them in His infinite long-suffering and patience; and the age to come will tell out even more fully the depths of His mercy towards His beloved people, when, spite of all that they have been and are, and notwithstanding they have forfeited all by their sin and apostasy, He will restore them once again to their land, and maintain them in it in the perfection of blessing under the reign of their Messiah. Such are the counsels of His grace already disclosed in and through the death of Christ — counsels which Christ Himself will accomplish in power when He appears in glory, to take the kingdom of His father David, and to wield His sceptre from the river to the ends of the earth.
Having passed in review the history of God's ways with them since the call of Abram, they now present their prayer. Indeed their rehearsal of the past may be said to be the foundation of their special petition, for they have grounded themselves upon the immutable character of their God, as "gracious and merciful," according to the revelation He had made of Himself after the sin of the golden calf. (See Exodus 34: 6.) They had owned that they deserved nothing but judgment, and had therefore confessed that they had no hope but in God Himself. They had thus reached an immovable foundation on which to rest their plea — the heart of their God.
And what was their petition? They say, "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 . . . . and on all thy people, since the time of the kings of Assyria unto this day." (v. 32.) Such was their prayer. It was the presentation of their own sorrowful condition under the chastising hand of their God, leaving it, as it were, to Him (for they knew that they deserved nothing but judgment) to deal with them according to His own character as "a gracious and merciful God." For they proceed to say, "Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly." (v. 33.) And again, in their utter abasement before God at this moment, they confess the sins of their kings, their princes, their priests, and their fathers, owning that they had not kept the law, that they had not hearkened unto H's commandments and His testimonies, and that, even in the kingdom which He had given them, as well as the large and fat land, they had not served Him, nor turned from their wicked works. (v. 35.) They describe, furthermore, their present position in the land; and surely, in contrast with the past, it is a touching picture, and one, as delineated by the Holy Spirit, that could not fall to awaken a response in the heart of Him to whom it was presented. They are servants, they say, and instead of eating the fruit and the good of the land which God had given their fathers, they were servants in it, and its increase went to the kings, whom God had set over them because of their sins, and these also had dominion over their bodies and their cattle "at their pleasure, and we are in great distress."
Such is the way in which these children of the captivity poured out their sorrows before Jehovah. They justify God in all His dealings with them, and they magnify His grace, mercy, and long-suffering towards them. They take also the place of true self-judgment, for they vindicate God against themselves, not seeking in any one thing to extenuate their own conduct. No, He was just in all that was brought upon them: He had done right, and they had done wickedly. In such a place — a place which it ever behoves sinners, and saints, too, when they have sinned to take — and in such a dispensation their only refuge was in the mercy of their God. And it was upon this that they cast themselves — unreservedly cast themselves — admitting again and again that they had no claim except indeed upon what God was towards them. And well would it have been if they had left themselves there, if they had rested alone upon their merciful and gracious God. But they went further, and they say, "Because of all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, Levites, and priests, seal unto it." (v. 38.) The question, however, of the covenant which they made belongs really to the next chapter; for it is there we find its terms, and what the people with their leaders solemnly engaged to perform.