COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 9:4 Then stood up upon the stairs, of the Levites, Jeshua, and Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani, and cried with a loud voice unto the LORD their God. 5 Then the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiah, Hodijah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, Stand up and bless the LORD your God for ever and ever: and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. 6 Thou, even thou, art LORD alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee.”
We now begin one of the longest prayers in Scripture. It extends from verse four to verse thirty-eight – thirty-five verses! Solomon’s unusual prayer at the dedication of the temple is recorded in twenty-nine verses (2 Chron 7:14-42). David’s penitential Psalm is seventeen verses long (Psa 51). The marvelous intercessory prayer of Jesus is recorded in twenty-six verses (John 17). There is much to be learned by exposing our minds to such prayers. They represent the extended thought of people with faith – something that is not common in this day of brevity. It is possible to have a lot to say in the presence of the Lord – to recall many things, and do so insightfully. As will be confirmed in this prayer, such supplications and confessions are not “vain repetitions,” or indications people thought they would be heard for their “much speaking” (Matt 6:7). Here we will find evidence of full hearts, understanding minds, and convicted consciences. Led by the Levites, the people will literally pour their hearts out to the God of heaven and make firm resolves before Him.
THE LEVITES STAND UP AND CRY OUT WITH A LOUD VOICE
“ 9:4 Then stood up upon the stairs, of the Levites, Jeshua, and Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani, and cried with a loud voice unto the LORD their God.” We are beholding events taking place on the twenty-fourth day of the seventh month. The people have discarded all comforts, are adorned in sackclothes, and have earth upon their heads. They have separated themselves from all heathen, and stand before the Lord to hear His Word, confess their sins, and praise His name. Already they have spent nine consecutive days before the Lord. During the first seven they lived in booths, outside of their own homes. Two of them were solemn assemblies, both focused and intense. They have heard the Law read for several hours every day, and are now responding in confession and worship. How will such extended exposure to the things of God effect these people? Have they become more sensitive or more dull? More alert, of more disinterested? What impact have these meetings had upon their hearts and minds? Will their religious leaders have anything new? Any freshness? Any further insights? Will this long time diminish their capacities?
As we view this passage, it will shed remarkable light upon the religious activities of our own times. We have before us a genuine work of God, and we do well to give heed to it.
THEY STOOD UPON THE STAIRS. The term “the stairs” refers to the part of the special platform they had erected for Ezra and the Levites (8:4). In particular, it was the specific position where the Levites stood, referred to as “their place” (9:3). This was no informal gathering, with random input being received from everyone. Spiritual leaders, or experts in the things of God, were in a prominent position where they could be both seen and heard. In one sense, everyone was the same – people “of Judah.” Yet, in another sense, they were not the same. There were men among them who knew the Law of God, and were able to give the sense, or meaning, of it. During this time of acute sensitivity toward God, such men were given a prominent position, and the people looked to them.
An Observation. It ought to be noted that a wave of religious emphasis is sweeping our country where those with little spiritual understanding, yet who can entertain well, are being given prominent positions and times in the church. This is indication of a lack of interest in the things of God, a failure to see the jeopardy of the times, and the dominance of carnal minds.
LEADING LEVITES. The Levites were a group wholly dedicated to the Lord – all of them. They were devoted to the service of the tabernacle, being “appointed” over “the tabernacle of the testimony” (Ex 38:21; Num 1:50). They lived in special cities, having no personal inheritance among the people (Lev 25:32-33). During Israel’s journey through the wilderness, the Levites camped together (Num 2:17). They were all taken from among the people and cleansed for Divine service (Num 8:6). They were a special group of individuals.
Yet, among this special group, there were some who rose to prominence because of their expertise in the things of God. Eight of them are mentioned in this text. We do not know how many Levites there were during Nehemiah’s time, but there were at least seventy-four of them in the census recorded in the seventh chapter (7:43). There were men among them called “chiefs” (11:16). One of them was Jeshua (12:24, the leading Levite mentioned in this verse.
An Observation. Those with some understanding of the nature of the kingdom of God often remind us that all who are in Christ Jesus are “priests.” And, indeed, that is the truth. Believers are a “holy priesthood” (1 Pet 2:5), a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9), and “kings and priests unto God” (Rev 1:6). But let no one suppose that means everyone is equal, for that is not the case. There are kingdom “priests” who have distinguished themselves just as the eight Levites of our text. They have a better grasp of the things of God than others, and are able to expound truth with more understanding and clarity. By virtue of that excellence, they are to be given prominence among us. Some of them are young in years, but seasoned in understanding – like Timothy. Some are in the prime of life – like Luke. Some are seasoned with many years – like Simeon. Whoever they may be, they are to be afforded places of prominence among the people of God, and their voices are to be heard.
THEY CRIED OUT WITH A LOUD VOICE. As you read this, you will note they were not speaking to the people, but to the Lord: “with loud voices to the LORD their God.” NIV They cried out to the Lord with all of their strength, marshaling their natural powers. They were also cognizant of the people, who would be instructed by their voices. Jesus is also said to have prayed in a “loud voice” (Lk 23:46), and so spoke upon the cross as well (Matt 27:46).
THE LORD THEIR GOD. This was no mere formal prayer. It was both personal and collective. It was attended with godly understanding – acknowledging they were identified with the God of heaven, and He was identified with them. This is the posture of prayer.
THE LEVITES CALL FOR THE PEOPLE TO PARTICIPATE
“ 9:5 Then the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiah, Hodijah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, Stand up and bless the LORD your God for ever and ever: and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.”
THE LEVITES. There is a difference in this list of Levites and the one in the previous verse. Five of the names are the same: Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Shebaniah, and Sherebiah. Three names on the first list are omitted from this one: Bunni, Bani (two men with this name are listed in verse 4), and Chenani. There are three names are on this list that are not on the first one: Hashabniah, Hodijah, and Pethahiah. Some have concluded that a clerical error was made in recording the names – a notion unworthy of consideration. Thirteen Levites are said to have stood with Ezra when he read the Law (8:7). Ten of them are not in the lists recorded in 9:4-5: Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah. The Spirit, of course, has not allowed the recording of an error.
Nehemiah is confirming all of the Levites did not do the same thing. Some stood and listened. Some gave the sense of the Word. Some lifted up their voice to the Lord. Now some address the people. As it should be, each one conducted himself in strict keeping with the gifts and abilities given to them, and their understanding of the Word of God. This is an Old Covenant example of things being done “decently and in order,” or “in a fitting and orderly way” NIV (1 Cor 14:20).
STAND UP AND BLESS THE LORD. The people had not been sitting, but were no doubt kneeling, or even flat upon their faces. In verse three, it is said the people “worshiped.” The word used here means to bow down, paying homage. Two versions give this perspective of 9:3: “they confessed and prostrated themselves before the LORD their God,” TNK and “they are confessing and bowing themselves to Jehovah their God.” YLT Thus, the Levites call upon the people to rise from worshiping to bless and praise the Lord. It is interesting that today worshiping is often promoted in the standing position. In Scripture, however, even holy angels are said to “fall on their faces” when they worshiped God (Rev 7:11). It ought to be noted that proper praise is only possible when a godly evaluation of self is found.
To “bless the Lord” is to utter ones adoration of Him – to give expression to a personal and deep love for, and fear of Him. Blessing the Lord comes from spiritual insight or perception (Psa 16:7; 103:1-2). In blessing the Lord, God is seen for who He really is (Psa 104:11-2). There is also holy resolve on the part of those blessing the Lord (Psa 115:18).
Thus, in honor of the God of heaven, the people were admonished to “stand up” and bless the Lord, giving expression to their tender hearts and convicted consciences. The people had been stricken with a sense of guilt. Now they are summoned to recall the magnificent goodness of the Lord, His great mercy, and His abundant provision toward them.
FOR EVER AND EVER. Most versions read the same way – that the people were to bless the Lord “for ever and ever,” or “from everlasting to everlasting.” NRSV However, the NIV reads, “God, who is from everlasting to everlasting,” and the NLT reads, “for He lives from everlasting to everlasting.” In my judgment, these versions have missed the point of the text. At the conclusion of this prayer, these very people will make a covenant with God, even putting their signatures to it (verse 38). The intent of this admonition is simply this: determine now there will never again be a time when you do not bless the Lord, recognizing both His Person and benefits. Let there be no interruption of praise to Him! This same admonition is found elsewhere (1 Chron 16:36; 29:10). Sensitive David made this resolve: “I will bless thy name for ever and ever . . . I will praise thy name for ever and ever” He then cried out, “let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever” (Psa 145:1-2,45). This is nothing less than a summons to join in the heavenly chorus of continual praise.
BLESSED BE HIS GLORIOUS NAME. There are three other references to God’s “glorious name” (1 Chron 29:13; Psa 72:19; Isa 63:14). This “glorious name” reveals His Person – it is the means by which He has made Himself known. Because of that, it is never to be taken in vain, submitted to reproach, or treated as common (Ex 20:7). John was given a vision of the redeemed shouting, “Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy name? for Thou only art holy” (Rev 15:4). To bless His glorious name is to hold Him in high regard and honor, ridding self of everything that competes with His glory or dishonors His person.
EXALTED ABOVE ALL BLESSING AND PRAISE. God’s Person is higher than the praise we render to Him. Therefore, praise is not an end of itself, but the God to whom it is addressed. Also, because God is greater than “all blessing and praise,” our expressions always come short of who He is. We must maintain a lively sense of this circumstance.
THE GOD OF HEAVEN IS ADDRESSED
“ 6 Thou, even Thou, art LORD alone; Thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and Thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth Thee.”
This is an elaboration of the phrase, “your great name which is lifted up high over all blessing and praise.” BBE As contradictory as it may appear, it is possible for blessing and praise to be ascribed a higher place than God Himself. That is, for what men do to be pushed higher than what God does. In my judgment, this has happened in our time. It is as though the ministers of the Word have taken a back seat to those who praise the Lord – that the Word of God has given place to the expressions of men. I suggest that where this has happened, acceptable praise or blessing simply is not possible. This will be confirmed by the nature and content of the prayer faithfully recorded by Nehemiah.
LORD ALONE. This is another way of saying “one Lord” (Deut 6:4; Mk 12:29; Eph 4:5). It is quite true that in the world there are “many lords” NKJV (1 Cor 8:5). There are professed deities to whom men give their allegiance – many of them. Yet, these “many gods and many lords” are not what they profess to be, and those in Christ Jesus know this. Thus it is written, “yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live” (1 Cor 8:6). In the prayer of our text, the people were acknowledging this truth from the Old Covenant viewpoint, which, at that time, was the only acceptable view. They had seen the truth that God has no competitors, and will allow for allegiance to no one else.
Wherever full allegiance is not given to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the fact that He is “Lord alone” has been denied. Thus it is written, “They profess that they know God; but in works they deny Him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate” (Titus 1:16). Therefore, those who do not live for God, blessing and honoring Him, are engaged in a vain effort to dethrone Him – whether they know it or not. Their very lives are an expression of hostility and enmity against the God of heaven.
THE CREATOR. Throughout Scripture, insightful souls have always attributed the creation of all things to the God of heaven. Hannah knew it (1 Sam 2:8). Hezekiah declared it (2 Kgs 19:15). Job expressed it (Job 12:7-9). David affirmed it (Psa 33:6-9). Isaiah confessed it (Isa 45:18). Solomon acknowledged it (Prov 16:4). Jeremiah announced it (Jer 27:5). Jonah said it (Jon 1:9). Zechariah wrote it (Zech 12:1). Jesus declared it (Mk 13:19). Early believers prayed it (Acts 4:24). Paul preached it (Acts 14:15; 17:24). Apostolic doctrine affirms it (1 Cor 8:6). Heaven confesses it (Rev 4:11; 14:7).
Those who think the creation of all things is inconsequential, stand in serious jeopardy. They are out of harmony with holy men and women of all ages. If this truth is not acknowledged, all other spiritual pursuits are vain. The proclamation of Christ also includes this perspective: “All things were made by Him; and without Him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Believers must have a total intolerance for any other view.
THE SUSTAINER. Not only did the living God create everything, He also sustains it: “You preserve them all.” NKJV Other versions read, “You give life to everything.” NIV Whether it is the duration of the heavens, the earth, and the seas – or the various forms of life that inhabit them – God preserves them all. They remain alive by His decree, not by the mythical laws of nature. David well said, “Thou preservest man and beast” (Psa 36:6). Paul wrote, “By Him all things consist,” or “hold together” NIV (Col 1:17). The Spirit also says the exalted Christ “upholds all things by the Word of His power” (Heb 1:3).
As with God creating all things, this is a cardinal point of sound doctrine. Jesus took this matter so seriously that He said of Moses (who provided the detailed account of creation), “But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe My words?” (John 5:47). What do you suppose He would say to those of our day who profess to know Him, yet deny the creation and deliberate sustaining of all things by Divine power? We must take care that pretended theologians of our day do not rob us of some of this primary and essential knowledge.
THE OBJECT OF HEAVENLY WORSHIP. Here is a most marvelous confession, made during a time of relatively limited revelation: “The host of heaven worships You.” NKJV Jacob recognized angels as “God’s host” (Gen 21:1-1), wh worshiped and served Him alone. David knew they all did God’s “pleasure” (Psa 103:21). John beheld a heavenly multitude worshiping the Lord (Rev 5:11-13). That vast throng of celestial spirits pay homage to the Lord alone. How fitting it is, therefore, that those upon the earth, which is God’s footstool (Isa 66:1) also join in the worship, blessing and praising of Him.