COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 9:16 But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments, 17 And refused to obey, neither were mindful of Thy wonders that Thou didst among them; but hardened their necks, and in their rebellion appointed a captain to return to their bondage: but Thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not. 18 Yea, when they had made them a molten calf, and said, This is thy God that brought thee up out of Egypt, and had wrought great provocations” (Nehemiah 9:16-18)
The prayer of Nehemiah, Ezra, the Levites and the people reveals an extraordinary level of insight. This confirms it was a prayer issuing from faith. Throughout this prayer you will note God is assessed correctly, as well as the history of His people. There is no pretension in the prayer, attempt to excuse transgression, or effort to justify the past conduct of the people. Rather, God is extolled for gracious forbearance with His people. It is a marvelous level of insight when any person or group of persons can be stricken with a sense of guilt, and yet perceive the Lord as a gracious and forgiving God. Such perceptions reveal the effectiveness of faith.
In these verses we see the precision of confession. Reaching back over 1,000 years, and in strict conformity with the writings of Moses, the people acknowledge the waywardness of their fathers. They do not complain about the circumstance, but acknowledge both the grievousness of their transgression and the greatness of God’s mercy. The expressions they use in their prayer are still profitable for us today.
PRIDE, HARDENED NECKS, AND HEARKENING NOT
“ 9:12 But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments.”
OUR FATHERS DEALT PROUDLY. The phrase “they and our fathers” refers to the Israelites brought out of Egypt. “They” and “our fathers” are the same people, not two different groups. Other versions read “they, our fathers,” NASB and “they, our ancestors.” NIV It is as though they said, “the ones who rebelled were our fathers, or ancestors.” Notice how they described the conduct of those ancient people. They “dealt proudly,” “acted proudly,” NKJV “acted arrogantly,” NASB or “acted presumptuously.” NRSV They acted insolently, flippantly, or in an empty-headed manner. There was no sound thought in what they did, but they acted out of purely fleshly impulses. They thought only of themselves, and even that was in a cursory manner, and with no substance. This attitude was found in Israel when God did not want them to go up against the Amalekites and Canaanites, because they had “turned away from the Lord,” and He would not be with them. Nevertheless, Moses later told them, “So I spake unto you; and ye would not hear, but rebelled against the commandment of the LORD, and went presumptuously up into the hill” (Deu 1:43; Num 14:44).
Transgression is never innocent. Now, the children of Judah know this to be the case. They make no attempt to excuse the conduct of their forefathers, but acknowledge they were motivated by their own wicked pride. Thus they pushed their own will into the face of God. That is what it takes to sin. Sin is the assertion of self against the Lord.
HARDENED THEIR NECKS. Other versions read, “they became stubborn,” NASB “stiff-necked,”NIV “stiffened their necks,” NRSV and “grew obstinate.” NJB They refused to turn, asserting their self-will against the God of heaven. God once said of Israel, “it is a stiffnecked people” (Ex 32:9). And again, “thou art a stiffnecked people”(Ex 33:3). Such people refuse to turn to God. They reject His Word and deliberately and stubbornly turn their ears away from hearing Him.
The book of First Kings testifies to this dreadful tendency in Israel. “Notwithstanding they would not hear, but hardened their necks, like to the neck of their fathers, that did not believe in the LORD their God” (2 Kgs 17:14). It is said of Zedekiah the king, “he stiffened his neck, and hardened his heart from turning unto the LORD God of Israel” (2 Chr 36:13). Of a generation of Israelites between Moses and Nehemiah the Lord said, “Yet they hearkened not unto me, nor inclined their ear, but hardened their neck: they did worse than their fathers” (Jer 7:26).
Hard-heartedness and stiff necks are expressions of human pride. They surface when there is a conflict between the will of God and the will of the people. Such a reaction is the opposite of conviction and humility. It is when self-will is chosen over God’s will. In order for sin to be expressed, this is what men must choose to do. That is why involvement in sin is never treated as an innocent or inconsequential matter. There is word concerning hardening ones neck that is most sobering. “He, that being often reproved (rebuked) hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy” (Prov 29:1).
HEARKENED NOT TO THY COMMANDMENTS. Other versions read, “did not heed Your commandments,” NKJV “would not listen to Your commandments,” NASB “did not obey Your commandments,” NIV and “refused to obey Your commands.” NLT To “hearken not” is to refuse to hear. It is to block the entrance of the Word of God into the heart, and stubbornly refuse to listen to His gracious words or ponder His commandments.
Early in God’s dealings with Israel, right after they had crossed the Red Sea, He promised them unusual favor if they would “diligently hearken” to His voice (Ex 15:26). Through Isaiah the Lord lamented over the wicked propensity in Israel to not listen to Him. “O that thou hadst hearkened to My commandments! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea” (Isa 48:18).
Thus, the people at the Water Gate have seen their “fathers” correctly. Their assessment of them has been in strict agreement with the appraisal of God, Moses, and the holy Prophets. Their thoughts were the result of their knowledge and reception of God’s Word.
Let it be clear that when the Lord speaks to His people, He will hold them accountable for hearing Him. Solemnly those in Christ Jesus are told, “See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from Him that speaketh from heaven” (Heb 12:25). All such refusals are duly noted in heaven. Should they continue, it will be to the condemnation of those to whom God has spoken. How appropriate these words are for our day.
REFUSAL TO OBEY, UNMINDFULNESS, AND REBELLION
“ 9:17 And refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that thou didst among them; but hardened their necks, and in their rebellion appointed a captain to return to their bondage: but thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not.”
The assessment of the people continues with remarkable clarity of expression and obvious conviction of heart. What is happening here is evidence of enlightenment and repentance, of conviction and holy resolve. This is how tenderhearted people respond.
REFUSED TO OBEY. Other versions read, “they refused to listen.” NASB/NIV In these versions “listen” does not refer to the function of hearing, but to a proper response to the hearing. Notice, the failure to obey was not owing to a misunderstanding of what they were commanded to do. Neither was it a temporary reaction, like that of the wayward son Jesus described. When his father said, “Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went” (Mat 21:28-29). With Israel the refusal was final, and one from which they did not repent. Keep in mind, this is how heaven viewed the disobedience of the people – they “refused to obey.”
NOT MINDFUL OF THY WONDERS. The miraculous signs and wonders God wrought upon Israel are remarkable beyond measure. From their deliverance out of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea on dry land, to sustaining them in the wilderness and enabling them to possess the land of Canaan, God’s wonders were beyond number. Of them Moses said, “what nation is go great, who hath God so nigh unto them” (Deut 4:7). It is true, “He hath made His wonderful works to be remembered” (Psa 111:4). Holy people know that and resolve with David, “surely I will remember Thy wonders of old” (Psa 77:11). But Israel was not “mindful” of them. They “did not remember” them, NASB and “failed to remember the miracles” He “performed among them.” NIV How tragically it was said of them, “They forgot the Lord their God”(Judges 3:7).
APPOINTED A CAPTAIN. Reference to this act of rebellion is found in Numbers 14:4. “And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.” There is no record of a captain actually being appointed. In fact, Moses and Aaron, together with Joshua and Caleb, stepped in at that time and urged the people not to rebel against the Lord. Moses pled for God to spare the people at that time, and He did, although He declared those who that day provoked Him would never enter the land of promise (Num 14:5-24). Yet, because the people had purposed the appointment of a captain to lead them back to Egypt, the purpose was credited to them just as though it had been fulfilled. That is the Divine manner.
A GOD READY TO PARDON, GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. What a marvelous expression of Divine mercy. This is the only place in the Bible where this precise phrase (“ready to pardon”) is found. It is solidly based upon the revelation God gave of Himself to Moses. “The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin . . . ”(Ex 34:6-7). Other versions read, “a God of forgivness,” NASB and “a forgiving God.” NIV The idea is that when any person turns in humility toward the Lord, repenting of their sin, they will be met with mercy and forgiveness. Here the people are not only praying in view of the historical examples of the readiness of God to forgive, but with their own circumstance in mind. They stand before Him to now revenge their disobedience (2 Cor 10:6).
SLOW TO ANGER. Five other times this wonderful expression is found in Scripture (Psa 103:8; 145:9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nah 1:3). It is the Old Covenant equivalent of Peter’s expression, “longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). It means the same thing as Paul’s expression, “the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” (Rom 2:4). This is not to be used as an excuse for continuing in sin. Rather, it is an explanation why sinners remain alive, even though they are worthy of being thrust away from God. The knowledge of this Divine quality is intended to induce aggressive repentance and holy resolve in men.
GREAT KINDNESS. “Kindness” involves the expression of Divine love and care. That is, He did things for men of which they were not deserving. Thus the Apostles spoke of “His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus”(Eph2:7), and “the kindness and love of God” that has appeared to us by His grace (Tit 3:4). God is inclined to bless. That is, He is “kind.”
FORSOOK THEM NOT. The Lord did not blot out the nation, fail to acknowledge the remnant among them, or forget the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God promised “And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel” (1 Kgs 6:13). Now the people account for their own presence in Jerusalem by confessing this.
IDOLATRY AND GREAT PROVOCATIONS
“ 18 Yea, when they had made them a molten calf, and said, This is thy God that brought thee up out of Egypt, and had wrought great provocations.”
The praying people not only acknowledge God had not forsaken the covenanted people, but elaborate upon the conditions that tested His forbearance. They know there can be no other explanation for their presence with Nehemiah than the great kindness of God.
WHEN THEY MADE A MOLTEN CALF. Technically, it was Aaron who made the golden calf, fashioning it with a graving tool (Ex 32:4). He even “built an altar before it,” declaring the next day would be “a feast to the Lord” (Ex 32:5). God was angry with Aaron over this whole matter, and would have destroyed him. However, Moses prayed for him. As it is written, “And the LORD was very angry with Aaron to have destroyed him: and I prayed for Aaron also the same time” (Deu 9:20).
Yet here, the people credit the “golden calf” to the grumbling Israelites, and not to Aaron. This is in perfect accord with the Word of God, with which they were familiar. The making of that golden calf was, in deed, credited to the Israelites who demanded that it be made. It is written of Moses, “And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strowed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it” (Exo 32:20). Of that event, Moses said, “And I took your sin, the calf which ye had made, and burnt it with fire, and stamped it, and ground it very small, even until it was as small as dust” (Deu 9:21). The Psalmist also ascribes the responsibility for the golden calf to the people. “They made a calf in Horeb, and worshipped the molten image” (Psa 106:19). Concerning the occasion when God plagued the people because of their idolatry with the calf, Moses said, “And the LORD plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made” (Ex 32:35). KJV/ASV/NRSV/RSV/Septuagint/NJB/WEBSTERS/YLT
It was at this time that God showed the people “kindness” by not utterly destroying them. It was at that time the Lord said to Moses, “Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation” (Exo 32:10). Because of Moses’ powerful intercession “the Lord repented of the evil He thought to do to His people” (Ex 32:14). Here, the people called that “kindness.”
THIS IS THY GOD. The people not only had the golden calf constructed, but gave it credit for delivering them from Egyptian bondage: “This is your God, who brought you up out of Egypt.” NIV While on the mount with God, the Lord told Moses they were saying this (Ex 32:8). Exodus informs us they said these words as soon as Aaron had fashioned the calf (Ex 32:4). The Psalmist said of that occasion, “Thus they changed their glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass. They forgat God their Savior, which had done great things in Egypt” (Psa 106:20-21).
There are no words adequate enough to fully describe the heinousness of such a sin. Neither, indeed, ought we to imagine that this is an isolated event. This very day, there are people ascribing to the church, a theological position, religious institutions, and human methods things that have been wrought by God Himself. The admonition of John is to be taken seriously. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen” (1 John 5:21).
GREAT PROVOCATIONS. Other versions read, “committed great blasphemies,” NASB “committed awful blasphemies,” NIV “done so much to make you angry” BBE “committed monstrous impieties,” NJB and “do great despisings.” YLT From murmuring to fornication and idolatry, Israel committed sins of the greatest magnitude. The atrociousness of these sins was owing to the magnitude of the revelation given to them and the greatness of the kindness they received from God. When great mercies are ignored in preference for sin, that sin becomes larger – “the greater sin” (John 19:11).
The attitude of the modern church toward sin reveals its intolerable ignorance of this fact. Adultery, fornication, and the likes, within the church are infinitely more serious than they are within the world. When a Christian falls into reprehensible conduct, it is not at all the same as when those who are alienated from God do the same thing. In order for a Christian to lapse into immorality, they must forget God, quench the Spirit, forget their sins were forgiven, deliberately ignore the Word of God, and harden their hearts. They must push Jesus into the background of their thinking, refuse to hear Him who is speaking from heaven, fail to put on the whole armor of God, and refuse to resist the devil. They must obstinately refuse to be taught by the grace of God, come to love the world from which they were delivered, and refuse to find the escape from sin God has provided. When iniquity is found within the church, it is a matter of the greatest gravity!