By Edward Dennett
AT the close of the last chapter a covenant is made, and at the commencement of this the names are given of those that sealed it; that is, of those who bound themselves to its observance by their signatures, but subscribing their names, it would seem, not only for themselves, but also on behalf of the people. Nehemiah, as the governor, was the first to put his name to this solemn document; he was followed by twenty-two priests (vv. 1-8), then came seventeen Levites (vv. 9-13), after whom there were forty-four chiefs of the people, probably heads of families.
The nature of the covenant is seen in what follows: "And the rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the porters, the singers, the Nethinims, and all they that had separated themselves from the people of the lands unto the law of God, their wives, their sons, and their daughters, every one having knowledge, and having understanding; they clave to their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God's law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our God, and His judgments and His statutes." (vv. 28, 29.) There can be no doubt that there was a general movement in the hearts of the people, and that this covenant-making was no mere formal act; for while the "nobles" had signed it. on behalf of all, there was an evident concurrence in their deed from the fact of all classes coming spontaneously forth to ratify what was done. Even the wives and children, at least those who had knowledge and understanding, participated in the act and deed.
And what was it, let us enquire more particularly, that they engaged to do? The very thing that Israel had undertaken when standing before Sinai, where, under the sanction of the sprinkled blood, they solemnly said, "All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient." (Exodus 24) Up to that time, since their redemption from the land of Egypt, they had been under grace. God had borne them on eagles' wings, and brought them unto Himself. Grace had set them free; they were to stand still and see the salvation of God; and grace had sustained, provided for, borne with, and guided them, until that moment. But when they came to Sinai, to bring out what was in their heart, the Lord sent, through Moses, this message to His people, "If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people." (Exodus 19: 3-5.) They accepted the proposed condition, with the penalty of death, as proclaimed by the sprinkled blood, attached to transgression (Exodus 19, 24); and henceforward they were on a new footing and relationship with God. Already they were God's people by redemption; and now, in utter forgetfulness of the history of the three months which had elapsed since they crossed the Red Sea, of their continual sins, they expressed themselves ready to abandon the ground of grace, and to accept that of responsibility. They had sinned at Marah, in the wilderness of Sin, and at Rephidim; and God had borne with them in long-suffering mercy, according to the ground on which He had set them, meeting their murmurings with new displays of His grace, and ever bestrewing their path with fresh blessings. What folly then to enter into the covenant of law which was proposed to them at Sinai! Had they known themselves, had they understood the past, had they but reflected, they would have said, "Thou in thy mercy, Lord, hast led forth thy redeemed people, thou hast hitherto undertaken all for us, while we have been continually guilty of sin and hardness of heart. We are thine, and thou must keep us; for if we are left to ourselves, or if anything is made dependent on us and on our doings, we shall lose everything. No, Lord, we are debtors wholly to thy grace, and to thy grace we must be debtors still." But in their ignorance of their own hearts, in the folly of the flesh, they accepted the covenant with all its solemn sanctions and penalties. And what happened? Before even the tables of the law had reached the camp, they had apostatized from Jehovah, and had made the golden calf, before which they fell down, saying, "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." (Exodus 32: 1-4.) Thus having received all under grace, they forfeited everything under responsibility.
Take yet another example. After the reign of wicked Manasseh, who filled Jerusalem with innocent blood "from one end to another," and who "seduced the people to do more evil than did the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the children of Israel," Josiah succeeded to the throne. He was characterized by obedience to the Word, and, in his desire to reclaim the people from their evil ways, he "made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people stood to the covenant." (2 Kings 23: 3.) But even while with their lips they "stood to the covenant," they did it "in falsehood" (Jer. 3: 10, margin), and soon even outwardly were worse than ever.
These examples will enable us to estimate the value of the covenant which Nehemiah, with the people, made at this time. They were not ignorant of the past (Neh. 9: 13, 14), and they had confessed the former transgressions of their people; and yet they now make another covenant, blinded by the enthusiasm of the moment to the fact that as their fathers were, so were they, that there was no more probability of their observing these solemn engagements than in the case of their ancestors. And yet they were doubtlessly sincere, fully purposing to be faithful to the obligations they were undertaking. There are few indeed who cannot understand this transaction, for the flesh is naturally legal, and it seems an easy method of providing against failure to make a covenant. God's people have often resorted to this expedient, only to discover their own utter impotence; and thus they have been, in many cases, taught to look to Another for the power they needed instead of to themselves. It is easy to pass condemnation, whether upon Nehemiah or others, but it is better to learn from their example, for it is a necessary stage in the history of souls; and blessed are they who, whether by this or any other process, have come to the end of themselves, have ceased to expect anything from their own promises or efforts and have learned that in their flesh there dwelleth no good thing, and that while to will is present with them, how to perform that which is good they find not.
There were three main articles in the covenant to which they bound themselves by a curse and an oath. First, they engaged to keep the whole law as given to their fathers at Sinai, as well as all the Lord's commandments, judgments, and statutes. Secondly, they declare that they would contract no more marriages with the heathen; and, lastly, that the sabbath, the holy days, and the seventh year (see Deut. 15), with its accompanying conditions, should be faithfully observed. (See Exodus 21, 23, etc.) In addition to this, they made obligatory ordinances to secure provision for the service of the house of God, for the sacrifices, and for all that appertained to their religious observances. Though in weakness, and in bondage to the Gentiles, they desired to order everything connected with Jehovah and His claims according to what had been enjoined upon them in the law of Moses. Every one was, in the first place, to contribute the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of God. As far as can be discovered from the Scriptures, there was no legal precedent for this voluntary assessment. In connection with the erection of the Tabernacle it was ordained that whenever the children of Israel should be numbered, "every one that passeth among them that are numbered" should give half a shekel, "to make an atonement for your souls;" and this money was to be appointed "for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation; that it may be a memorial unto the children of Israel before the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls." (Exodus 30: 11-16.) This no doubt suggested the annual contribution before us, lessened probably to a third of a shekel on account of their poverty. (Neh. 9: 32.) In after years it was raised to half a shekel, and became a tax upon every Jew. It was concerning this that the collectors asked Peter, "Doth not your Master pay tribute?" (Matt. 17: 24-27.)
It is beautiful, whatever the after failure, to see the hearts of these poor returned captives flow out in love to the house of their God, that He might be honoured, and that they might have their standing before Him through His own ordinances in the sanctuary. Thus the money contributed was to be expended in the provision for the continual showbread which, composed as it was of twelve loaves, represented the twelve tribes of Israel in association with Christ and before God — God Himself revealed in Christ in association with Israel in the perfection of governmental administration.1 From this fund was to be defrayed also the cost of the continual meat-offering, the continual burnt-offering in their appointed seasons, "and for the sin-offerings, to make an atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God." (v. 33.) Every kind of offering — representing Christ in the devotedness of His life, His perfect humanity, Christ in His devotedness unto death for the glory of God, and Christ as the sin-bearer — was to be provided and offered for Israel. The children of the captivity were but few, but they were on the ground of the whole nation before God, and hence they included in their thoughts the whole of Israel, and they showed by caring for the sacrifices that it was only in and by the efficacy of these that this ground could be secured and maintained. This is evidence of divine intelligence, revealing a true appreciation of Jehovah's claims as well as of the only possible ground on which they themselves could stand before Him.
They proceeded, in the next place, to "cast the lots among the priests, the Levites, and the people, for the wood-offering, to bring it into the house of our God, after the houses of our fathers, at times appointed year by year, to burn upon the altar of the Lord our God, as it is written in the law." (v. 34.) It was necessary that this provision should be made, for the fire on the altar was never to go out. (See Leviticus 6: 8-13.) On this account they selected priests to attend to the altar, Levites to wait upon the priests in this service, and some of the people to bring the needful supplies of wood for the holy fire. All was to be duly ordered and cared for, "as it is written in the law." They had begun to understand that God's thoughts must govern in God's things. The firstfruits of their ground, and the firstfruits of all fruit of all trees, were also to be annually brought to the Lord's house. They desired therefore, in accordance with the precepts of the law, to honour the Lord with their substance and with the firstfruits of all their increase, in recognition of Him from whom the increase of the field proceeded, and to whom all belonged. They could not enter, as we can, into the blessed typical teaching of the firstfruits; but Christ as the firstfruits (1 Cor. 15: 23) was before the eye of God, and invested the offerings of His people with all His value and preciousness. (Lev. 23: 9-21; see also James 1: 18.)
They promised, furthermore, to bring the firstborn of their sons, of their cattle, of their herds and flocks to the house of their God, unto the priests that minister in the house of their God. (See Exodus 13, and Luke 2: 22-24.) In this they acknowledged themselves as a redeemed people; for when "the Lord slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast," He commanded His people to sacrifice to Him "all that openeth the matrix being males," but gave permission to redeem the firstborn of their children. We thus read, "All the firstborn of the children of Israel are mine, both man and beast: on the day that I smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for myself." (Num. 8: 17.) The restored remnant reverted to this ordinance in the grateful recollection that they had been brought up out of the land of Egypt, and in recognition of what was due to Jehovah their Redeemer.
The last three verses concern the firstfruits and the tithes. The Levites were given unto Aaron, in the place of the firstborn, to be offered "before the Lord for an offering of the children of Israel, that they may execute the service of the Lord." (Num. 8: 11) All the work of the house of God, except the strictly priestly duties, devolved upon them and provision was made for their support in the tithes imposed upon the people. Both the priests and the Levites were to be sustained by the offerings of the people — the character of which had all been duly prescribed. (See Num. 18) All this is now remembered, and the people, in their zeal for the restoration of the law, charge themselves with the observance of their responsibilities in this matter that the service of the house of their God might be duly established. The firstfruits for the priests, as well as the tithes for the Levites, were to be stored in the chambers of the house. (1 Chr. 9: 26-33.)
It will thus be perceived that the covenant, embracing in its terms all that the people on this day engaged to do, included what was due to God and to His house. They put themselves under the solemn obligation to meet all God's claims upon them personally, to maintain a holy separation from the nations around, to keep the sabbath — the sign of God's covenant with them, etc.; and in addition to this, they undertook the burden of caring for all that appertained to the establishment and support of the service of the Lord's house. They concluded the latter part of the covenant therefore with the words, "And we will not forsake the house of our God." Nor can we doubt the sincerity of their intentions. Assembled together, they were for the time one in heart and aim, and their common desire and purpose found expression in this covenant. But it is one thing, as all know, to vow, and another to perform. When wrought upon by some mighty influence, which isolates us from everything but the one thing then presented to our souls, it is easy to bind ourselves to pursue that one object for ever. The influence passes away, and, while the object which had been before us seems as desirable as ever, the impulse to its attainment is no longer felt. Together with this loss of power, the flesh reasserts itself, and finally the "covenant" which, at the time we made it, seemed so easy to keep, becomes impossible, and adds another burden to an already bad conscience. All this the Jews will discover in time. Meanwhile they sketched a beautiful covenant which, if duly observed, would produce a perfect state, and they added an attractive resolution not to forsake the house of their God.
1 See, for a detailed exposition of the Table of showbread The Typical Teachings of Exodus.