Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 10 Background Reading: Genesis 9:8–17; Genesis 17:1–14; Malachi 1:6–14
In order to understand Nehemiah 10, we need to slip back into the last few verses of Nehemiah 9. We note there the words “Because of all this, we make a firm covenant in writing” (9:38). But that leads us to ask, “What is all this? ” “All this” is not simply Nehemiah’s fervent prayer and the confessions of sin that he makes. “All this” refers especially to the widespread and sincere confession of sins that the residents of Judah and Jerusalem are making to God. In response to those multiple confessions, the people of God are anxious to renew covenant promises. They have been spurred to do this because of their hearing the law of God, read to them by Ezra. They have also heard their governor, Nehemiah, express public repentance for all of their sins. He calls disobedience sin! His condemnation is being reinforced by the presence of Malachi.
Malachi minces no words with them: “Judah has been faithless and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves” (Mal. 2:11). Nehemiah is equally condemning in his criticism of the people. In his prayer to God, he acknowledges: “Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them” (Neh. 9:34).
The message that dominates Nehemiah 10 is not a list of names that are difficult to pronounce. On the contrary, it is a powerful demonstration of sincere repentance and a promise to do better. It reminds me of the first time that I was installed and ordained as an elder. The church of which we were a part had the practice of all new persons being ordained, either to the role of elder or that of deacon, having to publicly sign the Form of Subscription before the congregation. I was relatively young. I was also more than a little nervous. Putting my name to that document before God and before his people made my hands tremble.
On a massive scale, that is what we are observing in Nehemiah 10. All of the men, whose names are being recorded for all eternity, are signing a pledge that they will strive to honor and obey the commands of God and promise to live in covenantal union with him. To cement it for all posterity, the names are all sealed. This renewing of the covenant is signed and sealed forever. There is a precise order to the signing ceremony, but one notable name is missing. Ezra, who had read and explained the law, in great detail, is not listed with all the other signatures. That omission is a mystery, for he of all people would have been leading the procession. In contrast, the name of Nehemiah appears first on the list. Following that (vv. 1–8) are the names of priests. At the end of Nehemiah 9, the priests are the third group mentioned. Now, on the listing, the priests are the first group to sign. The second group, the Levites, are listed in verses 9–13. Finally, the “chiefs of the people” are listed in verses 14–26.
Of significance are the names of so many “chiefs” or “princes” (Neh. 9:38) or “nobles and officials” (Neh. 5:7), however you want to label them. Not many years prior, the governor “was very angry . . . against the nobles and officials” (Neh. 5:6–7) for their treatment of the people. These leaders had exacted very high rents and usury against fellow Jews, clearly violating God’s laws. Their practices had reduced many women and children to slavery. Farmers who owned land became renters. The reading and explanation of the law by Ezra brought about genuine repentance. Now, these same sinners express a strong desire to follow and obey the law of God in all its details.
But the text quickly informs us that it is not only the leaders who had signed the covenant document. “The rest of the people,” seemingly without exception, pledge their full support and agreement. They “enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord” (Neh. 10:29). As we read further, it becomes apparent that Ezra and the people of God are looking more at Mosaic covenantal terminology and less at either the Noahic or the Abrahamic language. The Noahic covenant is a unilateral proclamation by God declaring his sovereign governance of all creation, including not only humans but all the creatures that God had created. In contrast to that, the Abrahamic covenant is usually referred to as a “covenant of grace,” focusing on the need for circumcision. Neither of those seems to be referenced here. Instead, the focus is on curses and blessings as response to the laws of God. That emphasis comes to clearest form in Deuteronomy 28–30. In those chapters, blessings will follow obedience and curses will follow disobedience.
In recognition of prior sinful patterns, the people pledge, “We will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons” (Neh. 10:30). That practice had been a clear violation of God’s commands expressed in Exodus 34:15–16, Deuteronomy 7:3–5, and Ezra 9:12. Marriages with unbelievers or pagans are wrong and dangerous because idolatry cannot be avoided. All peoples of the world, including all those living in and around Judea in the fifth century before Christ, are incurably religious. They either worship the true God or a false deity of their own making. God is a jealous God (Exod. 20:5; 34:14) who will not tolerate any competition. If you marry a pagan, you will be tempted to worship his or her god. Ezra 9–10 is a recounting of the many times that had happened in recent years. In chapter 13, Nehemiah comes back to this evil practice and recounts for us how he “cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair” (Neh. 13:25). Nehemiah mirrors God’s anger.
A second sin that calls for special recognition is a violation of the Sabbath code. God had made that very explicit in the fourth commandment and had illustrated it in sundry ways. God had been very explicit: “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Deut. 5:12; Exod. 20:8). The clear implication of the Hebrew language was that labor should cease on that day. The emphasis on keeping it “holy” meant that it should be separate or distinct from the other six days. Holiness demands separation. What is expected on the other six days is not acceptable on the seventh day.
The violation of the Sabbath ordinances was one of the cardinal sins that angered God in the time leading up to the exile in Babylon. Through Isaiah God had warned his people about the importance of this command and had promised rich blessings when they obeyed (Isa. 56:2–6). That fell on deaf ears, for Jeremiah came with stern admonition about specific ways of breaking that law. In his day, there were merchants from neighboring peoples who came to the city gates on Sabbath mornings and wanted to engage in trade. The temptations were too strong for many, so God’s people engaged in buying and selling on the Sabbath, seeing no evil in that. The prophet Ezekiel, during the seventy years of exile, powerfully calls attention to those sins, elevating Sabbath observance as one of the three “signs of the covenant” (Ezek. 20:12, 20). Alongside of the rainbow and circumcision, Sabbath observance was then and still is today of great importance in God’s sight.
During this period in Israel’s history, while a remnant is once again living in and around Jerusalem, this temptation again becomes too strong to resist. By their confession and by their promise, the people implicitly are confessing to the sins of commerce on the Sabbath (Neh. 10:31). Nehemiah makes reference to this again in Nehemiah 13:15–22, where he describes in great detail how this evil was practiced during his governorship. The very sins that had so angered God some centuries before now again are part of their lifestyle. This time, though, they confess their sins and promise to avoid them in the future. The righteous governor, though, cannot forget and recounts for us his angry reactions.
The rest of the chapter (vv. 32–39) focuses on a wide variety of sins connected with the bringing of offerings. It would appear, from this litany of promises that they are making, that Ezra had probably spent considerable time reading to them various chapters of Leviticus. They promise to do everything precisely as God had prescribed in the book of Leviticus. It would also appear, though, that they had been stung by the condemnations from Malachi. In his opening chapter, Malachi accuses the priests of bringing lame, sick, and polluted offerings to God (Mal. 1:6–8). He suggests that they try bringing such evil offerings to Nehemiah, their governor. Apparently knowing Nehemiah well, he anticipates an almost violent reaction if they tried that. Nehemiah is not ashamed to admit that he cursed, struck, and threatened people on different occasions. Malachi was probably witness to some of that. He goes on to heap additional criticism on the priests of that day, charging them with profaning the covenant and the sanctuary of the Lord. When the Lord refuses to accept their polluted offerings, they “cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor” (Mal. 2:13).
Suppose for a moment that you owned a plot of ground and rented it to one of your relatives for the purpose of planting a garden. You set the rent at one-tenth of the produce. At harvest time, your relative brought you all the bruised, rotten, deformed tomatoes and pumpkins as payment. All of the good ones went into his storehouse. Would you be happy? Would you pretend to be satisfied?
Malachi sees that kind of behavior being practiced. So does Nehemiah. So does God. All three confront the remnant living in Judah. They have to repent. They have to correct such behavior. God deserves the very best. He made that plain to Cain and Abel, accepting Abel’s first fruits but rejecting the leftovers that Cain offered (Gen. 4:3–7). When God rejects the lame and sick animals that the Jews brought, they weep and moan because God is so fussy, so demanding. They deserve to be called hypocrites.
Where is Ezra? Why is he missing from Nehemiah 10?
What prompts or motivates this elaborate signing and pledge of covenant
Which classes of persons sign the documents? Are there any exceptions?
What is the significance of these signatures all being sealed?
Are women and children involved in this solemn occasion? What is their role?
Which sinful practices get priority in the list of confessions and promises? Why?
What is the significance of God claiming that he is jealous? That his name is
What dangers accompany marriage to an unbeliever?
Why was God not pleased with the offerings that his people brought?
What is the import of bringing such offerings to their governor?