COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 9:12 Moreover thou leddest them in the day by a cloudy pillar; and in the night by a pillar of fire, to give them light in the way wherein they should go. 13 Thou camest down also upon mount Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven, and gavest them right judgments, and true laws, good statutes and commandments: 14 And madest known unto them thy holy sabbath, and commandedst them precepts, statutes, and laws, by the hand of Moses thy servant: 15 And gavest them bread from heaven for their hunger, and broughtest forth water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and promisedst them that they should go in to possess the land which thou hadst sworn to give them.” (Nehemiah 9:12-15)
As the Levites lead the people in prayer to God, it is evident faith has brought their minds to the peak of perception. With keen insight they confess the dealings of God with their fathers – dealings that took place over one thousand years earlier (1460 - 444 B.C.). Those ancient relationships of God with their fathers had relevance for the people in Nehemiah’s day. Although separated by many centuries, the nation was still responsible for keeping the covenant made with their fathers at Sinai – and the people were keenly aware of this. They will confess that everything God did for them was right and good. There was no justifiable reason for any decline in their nation. Everything God had done for them was conducive to wholesome and consistent responses on the part of Israel. The people do not shun confessing this, or seek to divorce themselves from their personal responsibility. They know God is righteous as well as good, and holy as well as gracious. Therefore they acknowledge what God has done for their nation, doing so with remarkable precision. Their words are couched in the language of scripture, and come from their hearts.
THEY WERE GRACIOUSLY LED BY GOD
“ 9:12 Moreover thou leddest them in the day by a cloudy pillar; and in the night by a pillar of fire, to give them light in the way wherein they should go.” A vivid picture of “so great salvation” (Heb 2:3), of which we are partakers, is seen in the continued prayer of the Levites and the people. God’s workings with Israel did not conclude with their deliverance from Egypt. Nor, indeed, was it sealed when they safely crossed through the Red Sea on dry land, and saw their enemies destroyed before their very eyes. That was a beginning, not a conclusion. Now they were in a vast wilderness in which they required direction. They had not been there before, nor were they knowledgeable enough to travel through it in their own wisdom and strength. They were totally dependent upon the Lord.
LED IN THE DAY. During the day, a pillar of cloud led the people. In that cloud the Lord “went before them,” to “lead them in the way” (Ex 13:21). The cloud was clearly distinguishable from ordinary clouds, being a “pillar,” or in a vertical position, like great column moving before them. The Lord kept that pillar before the people, never taking it away while they were journeying through the wilderness (Ex 13:22). The Psalmist also declares God led them by this means (Psa 78:14). It was also provided for a “covering” (Psa 105:39). Numbers 10:34 also says the cloud was “upon them,” as though protecting them from the blast of the desert sun. On one occasion, the Lord “came down in the pillar of the cloud,” and stood in the door of the tabernacle to confirm that He had chosen Moses to be the leader of the people (Num 12:5-10).
During their wilderness journey, all eyes were upon this cloud. When it was “taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in their journeys.” However, “if the cloud were not taken up, they journeyed not til the day it was taken up.” When they were not journeying, the cloud remained over the tabernacle (Ex 40:36-37). Furthermore, it was “in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys” (Ex 40:38).
LED IN THE NIGHT. Israel did not always camp at night. Sometimes they journeyed. Thus it is written that God led them in the way “by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light to go by . . . night” (Ex 13:21). Later in this chapter, the people again confess this “pillar of fire” was given to “show them light, and the way wherein they should go” (Neh 9:19). Thus God shed light on their path during the night, that they stumble not nor be frightened by the darkness of the night.
If the people were on the move, the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night confirmed the Lord was with them, graciously leading them where He intended for them to go. If they were camping, the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night confirmed the presence of the Lord, together with His protection. Divine leading was provided whether journeying or camping, whether moving or resting. Thus the Psalmist wrote, “In the daytime also He led them with a cloud, and all the night with a light of fire” (Psa 78:14). Divine direction is always thorough and sustained.
When referring to this gracious leading, the Psalmist confessed, “O God, when Thou wentest forth before Thy people, when Thou didst march through the wilderness; Selah” (Psa 68:7). Had it not been for the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, however, that “march” would not have been apparent. Again, the Psalmist concludes this leading was a token of Divine mercy. “To Him which led His people through the wilderness: for His mercy endureth for ever” (Psa 136:16).
This leading was an absolute requirement, as revealed in the words of Jeremiah. “. . . LORD that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, that led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of pits, through a land of drought, and of the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt?” (Jer 2:6). This journey was not a sight-seeing tour! The wilderness was “great and terrible” (Deut 1:19), “wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water” (Deut 8:15). Hosea referred to this wilderness as “the land of great drought” (Hos 13:5).
THE PARALLEL WITH THE LIFE OF FAITH. The journey of the Israelites through the wilderness perfectly depicted our status as strangers and pilgrims in the world (1 Pet 2:11). We also require Divine guidance. Our pathway is no more automatic than was theirs. Salvation in Christ Jesus is not deliverance into a state of independence. If we are not “led by the Spirit,” we will surely fall (Rom 8:14). If the Lord does not “direct our hearts,” we will surely go astray (2 Thess 3:5). Whether we are walking in the brightness of Divine illumination or the valley of the shadow of death, we need direction. Salvation has made us wise, but not wise enough to navigate through life without Divine guidance!
THEY WERE GIVEN A GOOD AND RIGHT LAW
“ 9:13 Thou camest down also upon mount Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven, and gavest them right judgments, and true laws, good statutes and commandments: 14 And madest known unto them Thy holy sabbath, and commandedst them precepts, statutes, and laws, by the hand of Moses thy servant.” Notice the precision that characterizes the prayer of the people. There are no vague generalities here – something that is found too often in prayers. These people are being moved along by their faith, and faith has keen eyes and a sensitive heart. When men pray “believing,” their vision and recollections are more clear, as confirmed in this remarkable prayer.
GOD CAME DOWN. The language is most arresting – God came down! When Moses prepared the people for this singular event he said, “the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai” (Ex 19:11). When the event actually occurred, it is written, “And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly” (Ex 19:18). The sight was so arresting Moses later said, “The LORD came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came with ten thousands of saints” (Deu 33:2). Habakkuk said of that time, “God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise” (Hab 3:3). Never before had there been such a revelation of the mighty God – and they were not consumed when He “came down upon mount Sinai.”
GOD SPOKE WITH THEM FROM HEAVEN. God did not descend upon the mount to be seen, but to be heard! He spoke with them “from heaven,” though His glory was upon the mount. Exodus 20:1-17 affirms He declared the Ten Commands to the people. Moses told the people God had commanded him to gather them together, “and I will make them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me” (Duet 4:10). Commenting on the uniqueness of this experience Moses said, “Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?” (Deu 4:33). This was a direct confrontation of the people, for Moses said, “The LORD talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire” (Deu 5:4). Hebrews 12:19 refers to the occasion as the time when Israel “heard the voice of words” which so frightened the people.
HE GAVE THEM RIGHT, TRUE, AND GOOD LAWS. Now the people confess to the uprightness, truth, and goodness of the Laws imposed upon them at Sinai. They were in accord with Moses who said, “And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Deu 4:8). David said of those laws, “the Law of the Lord is perfect . . . the statutes of the Lord are right . . . the commandment of the Lord is pure . . . the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”(Psa 19:7-9). Blessed is the person who beholds the Word of the Lord in such a way. Such souls are not far from blessing when they perceive the uprightness of God’s Word.
HE MADE KNOWN HIS HOLY SABBATH. This is of particular significance since the Babylonian captivity was a judgment of God for not honoring the land sabbaths (2 Chron 36:21). Here, the immediate reference is to the seventh day – a time in which Israel was invited to share God’s sabbath (Ex 20:9-11). Their sharing was not as complete as ours, who believe in Jesus – though it is the same rest. Those in Christ, however enter more fully into that rest. As it is written, “For we which have believed do enter into rest, as He said, As I have sworn in My wrath, if they shall enter into My rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world” (Heb 4:3). In our text, the people see the “holy Sabbath” as a blessing, and not a mere obligation. Now, in the light of their faith, it was not a simple responsibility, but something that was “made known” to them by a gracious God.
The “rest” foreshadowed in the Sabbath day is realized in Christ Jesus, where we “cease from our own works” as a means to justification (Heb 4:10).
HE COMMANDED PRECEPTS, STATUTES, AND LAWS. “Precepts” have to do with moral requirements – right and wrong. “Statutes” were ceremonial in nature, yet in them great bodies of truth were foreshadowed. “Laws” were judicial in nature, matters in which the Law was enforced. The three terms together speak of the “Law of Moses” (Mal 4:4), or the “covenant” (Deut 29:1), in its entirety, with all of its revealed ramifications.
BY MOSES HIS SERVANT. God refers to Moses as “My servant” six times (Num 12:7,8; Josh 1:2,7; 2 Kgs 21:8; Mal 4:4). Moses was not a servant of the people, but “the servant of God” (1 Chron 6:49; 2 Chron 24:9; Dan 9:11; Rev 15:3). His service was found in the Law being “given” by him, and his leadership of God’s people (John 1:17; Isa 63:12).
THEY WERE GIVEN BREAD, WATER, AND PROMISES
“ 15 And gavest them bread from heaven for their hunger, and broughtest forth water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and promisedst them that they should go in to possess the land which thou hadst sworn to give them.” The people perceive the thoroughness of God’s care for their fathers. He delivered them, brought them through the Red Sea, destroyed their enemies, and led them through a great and terrible wilderness. Now they ascribe the daily care of the people to God.
BREAD FROM HEAVEN. The Lord provided “manna” daily for the people. It was a “light bread” (Num 21:5), convenient for travelers and sojourners. Referring to its copious supply, the Lord told Moses, “I will rain bread from heaven for you”(Ex 16:4). It was satisfying (Psa 105:40), pleasant to the taste (Ex 16:31), and sufficient for every person’s appetite (Ex 16:16). The Psalmist called this bread “angels’food” (Psa 78:25). Jesus also referred to this manna as “bread from heaven” (John 6:31). Referring to its miraculous supply, Paul referred to it as “spiritual meat,” or food (1 Cor 10:3).
Suffice it to say, the Israelites could not have survived in the wilderness without this supernatural; supply of food. That, of course, is precisely why God led them through the wilderness. First, it taught them what it meant to rely upon the Lord, and how weak and impoverished human wisdom and strength really are. Secondly, it provided a most vivid picture of our own condition in this world. We too are wholly reliant upon the Lord for spiritual sustenance. Blessed is the individual who clearly sees this.
WATER OUT OF THE ROCK. This is one of the great occurrences of Divine working, and is filled with instruction. The first time this miraculous supply of water is mentioned is in Exodus 17:6. God told Moses, “Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink” (Exo 17:6). The second time was when the people provoked Moses to speak unadvisedly with his lips. It was at that time he was told to speak to the rock, but in his anger struck it twice instead. The waters, we are told, “came out abundantly,” providing a copious supply of refreshment for both man and beast (Num 20:7-11). The Psalmist said God “opened the rock and the waters gushed out; they ran in the dry places like a river”(Psa 105:41). Again the Psalmist wrote, “ . . . the God of Jacob, Which turned the rock into a standing water, the flint into a fountain of waters” (Psa 114:8). Showing the relevance of this to our own situation, Paul said the people “did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4).
Thus, in Israel’s journey through the wilderness we have a vivid example of food in a barren place, and water in a desert place. Precious and necessary provisions miraculously supplied – contrary to nature and in spite of unfavorable circumstances.
THE PROMISE OF POSSESSING THE LAND. Not only were the ancient people sustained in a place that was utterly desolate, they were given an incentive – a promise to keep them going. God did not call them to remain nomads and wanderers, but to possess a land of milk and honey – of flocks and crops. The promise was held before them: “Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them” (Deut 1:8). After their forty-year wandering, when they arrived at the promised land God said to the people, “Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said unto Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your coast” (Josh 1:3-4). That land is WHY God brought the people out of Egypt. Many of them lost sight of this, and thus perished in the wilderness. Now, the people with Nehemiah look back on the promise and connect it with their own time. They are once again in their own land – the land that was promised to them. Just as surely as Israel was sustained until they came into the land, so those who are now praying before the water gate have been sustained. They have survived to that day and completed the work given to them because of God’s miraculous and faithful care – and they know it.
A PATTERN FOR US. This text is surely a pattern for us as well. Every overcomer is a living testimony to the faithfulness of God. “Living bread” (John 6:51) and “living water” (John 4:10) have kept them alive in a “dry and thirsty land, where no water is” (Psa 63:1). It is good to confess this circumstance, which confession brings glory to God, honor to Jesus, and refreshment to those who make it. What the Lord has done for His people is to be acknowledged to the Lord as well as before men.