COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 9:19 Yet thou in Thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness: the pillar of the cloud departed not from them by day, to lead them in the way; neither the pillar of fire by night, to show them light, and the way wherein they should go.
20 Thou gavest also Thy good spirit to instruct them, and withheldest not Thy manna from their mouth, and gavest them water for their thirst. 21 Yea, forty years didst Thou sustain them in the wilderness, so that they lacked nothing; their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not.” (Nehemiah 9:19-21)
Prompted by the Word of God, the people have been given insight to assess their past – and they are doing so with remarkable precision. Furthermore, the rehearsal of this assessment is not made to men, but to the Living God. They are using this review of their history as a basis for both confession and praise. In it they behold the waywardness of their fathers and the faithfulness of God. A history that was thoroughly capable of casting them down to the pit of despair, became the occasion for praise and the acknowledgment of the faithfulness of God, as well as the confession of sin. To this point, their prayer has acknowledged: The creation of all things (v 6).[ 2] The calling of Abraham (v 7).  The promise of the land of Canaan that was given to Abraham (vs 7-8).  The affliction of the Israelites in Egypt (v 9).  The deliverance of the people from Egypt (vs 10-11).  Bringing the people safely to Sinai and giving them the Law (vs 12-14).  Sustaining the people with food and water (v 15).  The rebellion at Sinai and in the wilderness (vs 16-18). Now they will rehearse the forty years in the wilderness.
MANIFOLD MERCIES ACKNOWLEDGED
“ 9:19 Yet thou in thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness: the pillar of the cloud departed not from them by day, to lead them in the way; neither the pillar of fire by night, to show them light, and the way wherein they should go.” To this point, the prayer has been most thorough in covering the history of the nation. The only thing they appear to overlook is the unbelief unveiled when the spies searched out the land, and the consequent judgment of God upon the people (Num 13:25-14:3). However, this was covered with the reference to appointing a captain to lead them back to Egypt, for that occurred when the people believed the unbelieving and unfaithful spies (Num 14:4). Now their prayer will deal with the period following their unbelief and consignment to forty years of wandering in the “great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions” (Deut 8:15).
MANIFOLD MERCIES. This expression is only found in the book of Nehemiah, and in this chapter (vs 19,27). Viewing their magnitude, David confessed the Lord’s “mercies” were “great” (2 Sam 24:14). Concerning their gentle nature, they are also said to be “tender”(Psa 25:6). Viewed from the standpoint of plentitude, they are in “multitude”(Psa 106:7). Regarding their trustworthiness, they are “sure” (Isa 55:3). Here they are said to be “manifold.”
God’s “mercies” are the display of His compassion and pity upon needy and undeserving souls. They emphasize the yearning of the Lord for His people, and His longing to do them good. While the word “manifold” does mean much, many, and abounding, it emphasizes the diversity of “mercies.” The expression of this marvelous quality of God is tailored for the individual and circumstance. “Manifold mercies,”for that reason, are effective in ministering need and relief to the afflicted. They are diverse enough to cover every facet of human necessity.
The meaning of this expression is that God precisely met the need of His people through the wilderness by regarding them in a diversity of circumstances and needs. His considerations and provisions were thorough, being as broad as their various essential requirements.
There was a serious need for such mercies, for these people provoked God “ten times,” not hearkening to His voice (Num 14:22). The ten times can be considered as a precise number. Twice at the Red Sea (Ex 14:11,12), twice concerning water (Ex 15:23-24; 17:2), twice about manna (Ex 16:2,20,27; Num 11:4), twice about meat (Ex 16:12; Num 11:4), once by the calf (Ex 32:1-7), and once in the wilderness of Paran (Num 14:1-4). How manifold were His mercies to sustain the people during such provocations!
FORSOOK THEM NOT. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness “until” the carcases of all who refused to believe they could possess the promised land were “wasted in the wilderness” (Num 14:33), or “until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the Lord, was consumed” (Num 32:13). Until that generation fell, there were frequent outbursts of unbelief and murmuring. There was the sin of Korah, and the gathering of the people against Moses and Aaron (Num 16), the murmuring at Kadesh when Moses struck the rock (Num 20:2-3), the murmuring that brought the fiery serpents (Num 21:5-6), the people joining in the worship of Baal (Num 25:3), the sin of Nadab and Abihu (Num 26:61), and others. Yet, for the sake of the remnant, God did not forsake them, or deliver them into the hands of their enemies. This is the ONLY reason the people survived.
TO LEAD THEM AND TO SHOW THEM LIGHT. Throughout their wilderness wanderings, the people were led during the day by a miraculous pillar of cloud, and by night by an illuminating pillar of fire. This leading began when they came out of Egypt (Ex 13:21-22), throughout ALL their journeys (Ex 40:38), until they finally arrived at the promised land.
THE WAY WHEREIN THEY SHOULD GO. Although the people “wandered” in the wilderness for forty years (Num 14:33; 32:13), their wandering was not without direction. From the experience of the people, they were roaming vagabonds. They had no map, and a logical pattern of their path was not revealed to them. According to the flesh, they walked about in circles for forty years, with no seeming terminal point. However, in reality, they were being “led” in the way “they should go.” In the beginning God led them “NOT through the land of the Philistines,” lest the people be overcome with fear because of war (Ex 143:17). He led them through the land ruled by Sihon, in order that He might deliver him into their hands, thereby bolstering their confidence (Deut 2:30-31).
Thus the leading of the Lord was purposeful and protective of His people – even though it appeared on the surface to be random, with people drifting about with no real objective. It surely is worth noting that, at times, our lives may also appear to be without purpose and aimless. Yet, it is still true that the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord (Psa 37:23). Even though life appears random, yet believers will be brought “to their desired haven” (Psa 107:30).
INSTRUCTION, FOOD, AND WATER ARE PROVIDED
“ 9:20 Thou gavest also Thy good Spirit to instruct them, and withheldest not Thy manna from their mouth, and gavest them water for their thirst.” Keep in mind, this is a recap of the period between the spies’ unbelieving report, and the entrance of the people into the promised land, when Jericho was overthrown by faith (Josh 6:20-21).
The period of trial was forty years in length – one year for each day the people spied out the land, yet failed to believe they could possess it. It is written, “After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years, and ye shall know my breach of promise” (Num 14:34). Thus the duration of their judgment was 360-365 times greater than their sin. Those who “have sown the wind” will surely “reap the whirlwind” (Hos 8:7). Large sins do not cause small results! The forty years was sufficient time for the entire generation of unbelievers to die off. As it is written, “And the LORD'S anger was kindled against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the LORD, was consumed” (Num 32:13).
The generation that was sustained was none other than the little children, whom Israel feared would be a prey of the inhabitants of Canaan. That generation wandered because of the unfaithfulness of their fathers. As it is written, “But your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised. But as for you, your carcases, they shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcases be wasted in the wilderness” (Num 14:31-33). This is the group of Israelites of which the people now speak. Even though their fathers were sustained until they died in the wilderness, the point of this text is that the generation that eventually inherited the land were sustained throughout the long and tedious forty-year wilderness wandering. All of this is intended to teach us the faithfulness of God. Even though we are strangers in this world, yet we are being sustained until we reach our appointed destiny, and obtain our “eternal inheritance”(Heb 9:15).
This nurturing and support took three different forms.
THY GOOD SPIRIT. Herein is a marvelous insight! Actually, the Lord did not give the people themselves His “good Spirit.” Instead, He conferred it first upon Moses, and then upon “the seventy elders.” Of Moses it is written, “Then he remembered the days of old, Moses, and His people, saying, Where is He that brought them up out of the sea with the shepherd of His flock? where is He that put His holy Spirit within him?” (Isa 63:11). Of the elders it is written, “And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease” (Num 11:25).
And what was the purpose for the conferment of the Spirit upon these men? It was to “instruct them,” judging the various issues that arose among the people (Ex 18:22; Num 11:17). One occasion that required Divine instruction occurred when they found a man “gathering sticks” on the Sabbath day. Not knowing the mind of the Lord on the matter,
they put the man in custody until the mind of the Lord was known. The Lord instructed, “the man shall surely be put to death” (Num 15:33-36). Of such occasions, in our text, the people confess, “You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them.” NIV
The entire wilderness wandering of the people was a period of Divine instruction and tutelage. There were lessons learned in that barren land that could not have been otherwise acquired. Of this it is written, “For the LORD'S portion is His people; Jacob is the lot of His inheritance. He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; He led him about, He instructed him, He kept him as the apple of His eye” (Deu 32:9-10). You see with what marvelous understanding these people are praying.
WITHHELD NOT THY MANNA. The manner in which this is stated highlights the mercy of the Lord. This is not referring to the initial supply of manna that was granted to the people. The people did not complain about that manna, but marveled at it (Ex 16:14-15). This refers to the manna that was supplied to the people after they refused to go in and possess the land – the manna that fell during the forty-year wilderness wandering. Even though the people murmured about it, saying they loathed it, yet it fell, and was not “withheld” from them (Num 21:5). Had it been “withheld,” they all would have died.
GAVE THEM WATER. The Lord “gave them water,” even though they drank it through murmuring lips (Ex 17:7; Deut 33:8). In a wilderness described as “where there was no water” (Deut 8:15), the merciful Lord “gave them water for their thirst.”
TOTAL PROVISION WITH NOTHING LACKING
“ 20 Yea, forty years didst Thou sustain them in the wilderness, so that they lacked nothing; their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not.” During the time of reference, 603,550 died in the wilderness (Num 1:45-46). That means an average of 15,089 died every year. There were times when some were slain in special judgments from the Lord. The men who brought the evil report concerning the land died “by the plague before the Lord” (Num 14:37). On another occasion, when the people were gathered against Moses, 14,700 died in a plague (Num 16:49). When the people joined themselves to Baal, a plague broke out that killed 24,000 (Num 25:9). When venomous serpents were sent among the murmuring Israelites, “much people of Israel died” (Num 21:6). In the rebellion of Korah, when the earth opened up and swallowed them, “fire devoured two hundred and fifty men” (Num 26:10). A fleshly mind would say of this period, “thousands were killed,” or “the Lord brought judgment upon multitudes.” The people of Nehemiah’s day looked at the same period of time and said, “Forty years You sustained them in the wilderness.” NKJB
FOR FORTY YEARS. This forty-year period is of much significance throughout Scripture. Before he died, Moses said of this time, “these forty years the LORD thy God hath been with thee” (Deut 2:7). He told the people, “God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart” (Deut 8:2). Joshua said, “the children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness” (Josh 5:6). The Lord said through the Psalmist, “Forty years long was I grieved with this generation” (Psa 95:10). Stephen said God brought the Israelites “in the wilderness for forty years” (Acts 7:36,42). Paul said “about the time of forty years suffered He their manners in the wilderness” (Acts 13:18). In Hebrews the Lord says, “your fathers tempted Me, proved Me, and saw My works forty years” (Heb 3:9). Again He testifies, “But with whom was He grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness?” (Heb 3:17).
Yet, during this time of cursing and judgment, the people in our text perceived the Lord did “sustain them in the wilderness.”
THEY LACKED NOTHING. No Israelite begged from passing strangers in the wilderness! Rather, “they lacked nothing.” These are the exact words spoken by Moses to the people before he died. “For the LORD thy God hath blessed thee in all the works of thy hand: He knoweth thy walking through this great wilderness: these forty years the LORD thy God hath been with thee; thou hast lacked nothing” (Deut 2:7). Everything they needed was provided – food, shelter, and clothing. Already the praying people have mentioned food and water. Now they will elaborate further on the Divine provisions realized in the wilderness.
THEIR CLOTHES WAXED NOT OLD. Their clothes “did not wear out” NKJV – and we are speaking of a period of forty years. The reference is not to clothes stored somewhere, but to those they were wearing every day. Moses said, “Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee” (Deut 8:4). Again he said, “And I have led you forty years in the wilderness: your clothes are not waxen old upon you, and thy shoe is not waxen old upon thy foot” (Deu 29:5). Not one time were they reduced to nakedness or inadequate clothing. During four decades, or nearly half a century, time had no effect upon their clothing or their shoes. They walked for forty years without their shoes being affected by the rough wilderness! They did not have to spend time fretting about clothing. The words of Jesus could be fulfilled in them, “Take no thought, saying . . . Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” (Matt 6:31). It is interesting that the murmurers complained about hunger (Ex 16:3) and their thirst (Ex 17:3). But there is no record of them complaining about their clothing or their shoes.
THEIR FEET SWELLED NOT. Under ordinary circumstances, feet not swelling might not be considered a significant thing. However, when this is said of those who wandered on foot in an arid wilderness for forty years, it is significant, indeed! The fighting men alone are described as 600,000 “on foot” (Ex 12:37). Before leaving, Moses reminded the people, “neither did thy foot swell, these forty years” (Deut 8:4). The word “swelled” means “to blister,” as well as to “swell up.” Thus, the part of their anatomy that touched the earth was not effected by it! There is certainly something to be learned here.
APPLICATION. Who cannot see the parallel to the walk of faith? Here, in this world, we are in a “dry and thirsty land, where no water is” (Psa 63:1). If we are to survive at all, we must have Divine provisions – and have them, we do! We have the “bread of life” (John 6:48), the “water of life” (Rev 21:6), and the “robes’ of “righteousness” (Psa 132:9; Rev 19:8). The part of us that touches the earth is not swelling, and is not blistered as we walk by faith. We are actually experiencing eternal benefits in a temporal realm.