COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 9:28 But after they had rest, they did evil again before Thee: therefore leftest Thou them in the hand of their enemies, so that they had the dominion over them: yet when they returned, and cried unto Thee, Thou heardest them from heaven; and many times didst Thou deliver them according to Thy mercies; 29 And testifiedst against them, that Thou mightest bring them again unto Thy law: yet they dealt proudly, and hearkened not unto Thy commandments, but sinned against Thy judgments, (which if a man do, he shall live in them;) and withdrew the shoulder, and hardened their neck, and would not hear. 30 Yet many years didst Thou forbear them, and testifiedst against them by Thy spirit in Thy prophets: yet would they not give ear: therefore gavest Thou them into the hand of the people of the lands.” (Neh 9:28-30)
As we proceed through this remarkable prayer, it should be obvious to you that their language has been shaped by the Word of God. Scriptural expressions are employed to describe both favorable and unfavorable circumstances. Not only were they using the language of the Spirit, their hearts were in the matter. Because they thought in words taught by the Spirit, they were able to reason in a godly manner. Their assessments of the past were true because they actually perceived what God had said about the past. Armed with godly minds, they were able to precisely identify what had happened throughout their history. The explanations for failure were traced back to the heart. The prophets and their messages were traced back to God. The reason for God not utterly destroying the people was traced back to His forbearance. They accounted for the triumph of the Jew’s enemies by accounting the people had been given into their hand. The precision of their speech and the fervency of their hearts are the outcome of their willing subjection to the Word of the Lord. As their hearts and minds processed that Word, it impacted upon their perception and their speech. There is much to be learned here!
THE PROPENSITY TO INIQUITY
“ 9:28 But after they had rest, they did evil again before Thee: therefore leftest Thou them in the hand of their enemies, so that they had the dominion over them: yet when they returned, and cried unto Thee, Thou heardest them from heaven; and many times didst Thou deliver them according to Thy mercies.” The erratic behavior of the Israelites is again highlighted. Their history is most remarkable in this regard, and yet a profound reality is revealed in that history that must be perceived by those in Christ Jesus. That reality is this: without justification and consequent fellowship with God and Christ, men are shut up to erratic lives, unpredictable actions, drifting affection, and wandering minds. It simply is not possible to live under Law without being utterly inconsistent.
AFTER REST, EVIL AGAIN. Frequently we read of God giving the Israelites “rest,” or relief from the oppression and triumph of the enemy. In Joshua’s day “the Lord gave them rest around about”(Josh 21:44). During the reign of king Asa, the people “entered into a covenant to seek the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul.” The result was that “the Lord gave them rest round about” (2 Chron 15:12-15). In the book of Judges, which details much of the up-and-down lives of the Jews, frequent periods of “rest” are mentioned. During the time of Othniel, “the land had rest for forty years” (Judges 3:11). When Ehud was judge, “land had rest fourscore (80) years” (Judges 3:30). Associated with Deborah the judge, and following the defeat of Sisera, “the land had rest forty years”(Judges 5:31). During the time of Esther, the people experienced “rest from their enemies” (Esth 9:16). What appeared as a change of attitude in the enemy was actually God giving rest to His land and people.
However, it was not long until evil erupted in the people again. Periods of rest that extended over forty, and even eighty, years, could not cause evil to be subdued. Three times the book of Judges records, “Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord” (Judges 3:12; 10:6; 13:1). Four additional times we read, “the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord” (Judges 2:11; 3:7; 4:1; 6:1).
This confirms what we now see more clearly in Christ. In our flesh “dwells no good thing” (Rom 7:18). There is no profit in the flesh – none at all (John 6:63). Flesh cannot learn from God! God can speak to the flesh in such a way as to cause great terror. He can bless the flesh in outward ways, granting peace and prosperity. He can chasten it severely, and cause it to cry out. But none of that will change the nature of the flesh. Eventually, it will do evil “again.” Long peaceful periods only cause the flesh to be hardened and retrogress. It is only in the Spirit that such occasions bring stability, maturity, and thanksgiving. This is powerfully confirmed in the history of Israel. It is not possible for the flesh to have more advantages than it did under the Old Covenant. Yet, the people broke that covenant (Jer 31:32) and angered the Lord (Deut 9:19). This is precisely why God promised a “new” and “better” covenant (Jer 31:31-34).
LEFT IN THE HAND OF THEIR ENEMIES. These words jar upon the soul of sensitive people: “Then You abandoned them to the hand of their enemies so that they ruled over them.” NIV In order for the enemy to triumph over the people of God, He must withdraw Himself from them, or give His people into the hand of the enemy. There have been some few times when this occurred to righteous people, and without God being provoked by any sin in them. Notable cases include Job, Joseph, the Prophets, John the Baptist, the Lord Jesus, the Apostles, Stephen, etc. But this was not the case with Israel, and the people who are praying are able to distinguish the difference between them and men like Job. Being left “in the hand of their enemies” means they were at the mercy of their enemies, and were powerless against them.
YET, WHEN THEY RETURNED. Six times we read in Judges, “Israel cried unto the Lord” (3:9,15; 4:3; 6:6,7; 10:10). Although the book of Judges never expressly says the people “returned” to the Lord, the praying people know that is what crying unto the Lord means – Israel was returning to the Lord from whom they had departed. Through the Prophets, the Lord frequently said to His people, “Return unto me”(Isa 44:22; Jer 4:1; Mal 3:7). He also told them of a better day, when He would give them a “heart to know” Him, and they would “return” to Him with their “whole heart” (Jer 24:7). No more would their returns be the result of erratic behavior. However, such a state is only found in Christ.
DELIVERED MANY TIMES. Their deliverance was required because of judgments for frequent departures from the Lord. Yet, when the people called out, He delivered them “many times,” as stated in the Psalms (Psa 106:43).
DELIVERED THEM INTO THE HANDS OF THEIR ENEMIES
“ 9:29 And testifiedst against them, that Thou mightest bring them again unto Thy law: yet they dealt proudly, and hearkened not unto Thy commandments, but sinned against Thy judgments, (which if a man do, he shall live in them;) and withdrew the shoulder, and hardened their neck, and would not hear.” Divine persistence is now highlighted. Seeing this verse correctly will illuminate what is involved in Jesus seeking and saving “that which was lost” (Luke (19:10).
TESTIFIED AGAINST THEM. Other versions read “admonished them,” NASB “warned them,” NIV “gave witness against them,” BBE and “protested among them.” GENEVA The idea is that of repeatedly confronting the people with their sin – over and over. They were out of synch with the God of heaven, and He would not allow them to continue without facing them with their transgression. It should be alarming to any believer to hear of God testifying “against” a people or an individual! For God to speak “against” someone is a matter of the greatest gravity. Those who imagine God never says anything bad about anyone will certainly have great difficulty with this text.
Jeremiah told the people, “The LORD sent me to prophesy against this house and against this city” (Jer 26:12). Ezekiel was told to “prophesy against” Israel (Ezek 4:6; 6:2; 11:4; 13:2; 21:2; 34:2). Even before they entered the land, Moses testified against the people. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed” (Deu 4:26).
To “testify against” relates to part of Jeremiah’s commission: “to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down” (Jer 1:10). It is confronting people with their sin and confirming their nearness to Divine judgment.
You may recall that Jesus told three different churches that He had “somewhat against” them (Ephesus, Pergamos, and Thyatira: Rev 2:4,14,20). Although this is an often neglected ministry in our day, it is God’s manner to speak against those who insist on forgetting Him and going against His Word.
TO BRING THEM AGAIN TO THE LAW. God’s purpose for speaking against His people was not merely to give vent to His anger – a tendency that is found in man. Rather, it was “bring them back” to His Law. NKJV It was to bring them back to a point where they thought first of God and His Word, for in order to sin, one must forget both God and His Word. It is written that Israel “forgat the Lord their God” (Judges 3:7). They also “forgat His works, and His wonders that He had showed them” (Psa 78:11). How vividly God spoke through Hosea about this matter. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children” (Hosea 4:6). The “lack of knowledge” among the people was not due to the lack of any reminders on God’s part! They chose to forget His Law in preference of their own evil ways.
Now the people confess that God testified “against” their fathers in order to awaken them to the due consideration of His Law. He did this because He prefers mercy to judgment. Thus we read, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Isa 55:7).
THEY DEALT PROUDLY. Israel did not respond to the Lord’s overtures. Instead, they “became arrogant,” NIV and “presumptuous” NRSV refusing to “hearken” to God’s “commandments.” Rather, they sinned the more by refusing to listen to His commandments. They chose to “sin against” His judgments, going against Divine decisions. They were chosen, blessed, delivered, and warned – yet they were arrogant! This is the manner of a people who are not born again – even if they are under a God-ordained covenant, partakers of countless advantages, and blessed with frequent warnings.
THE SHOULDER AND THE NECK. The phrase “withdrew the shoulder” does not mean they stood back from work, but that they “turned a stubborn shoulder” toward God. NASB They “turned their backs” on God Almighty. NIV The Chronicles says it this way, “For our fathers have . . . turned away their faces from the habitation of the LORD, and turned their backs” (2 Chron 29:6).
By saying they “hardened their neck, and would not hear,” they mean the people would not even turn to listen to the Lord. They “refused to listen,” NIV and “would not obey.” NRSV This condition is mentioned in 2 Kgs 17:14, 2 Chron 36:13, and Jer 7:26.
MANY YEARS OF FORBEARANCE AND TESTIMONY
“ 30 Yet many years didst Thou forbear them, and testifiedst against them by Thy spirit in Thy prophets: yet would they not give ear: therefore gavest Thou them into the hand of the people of the lands.” The continued existence of Israel was not, and is not today, the result of any faithfulness or worth on their part. It is strictly due to the forbearance of God and His respect for the promise given to Abraham (Gen 26:24; Rom 11:28).
MANY YEARS OF FORBEARANCE. When the history of a person or people is said to be “many years” of Divine “forbearance,” it is not good. Some versions use the word “patience” instead of “forebear.” I see “forbear” as a much stronger word. The meaning of “forbear” is to delay judgment, to defer wrath, and to extend the time allotted for repentance. It is much larger than the English word “patience,” which leaves the impression of tolerating, or putting up with recalcitrant behavior.
MANY YEARS OF TESTIMONY. In the previous verse, the people confessed that God spoke against their fathers. Now they are more specific. He did not thunder at them from heaven, but “testified against” them “by” His “Spirit,” which was “in His prophets.” Notice How they take the matter back to God. He is the One who testified. It was His Spirit that brought the message. And, it was His prophets that delivered His words to the people. The message of the prophets was always timely. Six times Jeremiah declares God “sent” the prophets “early,” in plenty of time for Israel to respond and recover from their sin (Jer 7:25; 25:4; 26:5; 29:29; 35:15; 44:4). Once he even says they were sent “daily” (Jer 7:25).
These faithful testimonies were not for several weeks or months, but for “many years.” The period of the Judges alone was 318 years (1368 to 1050 B.C.). The period of the Kings lasted well over 400 years (1010 to 586 B.C.). That is over 700 years of Divine forbearance! How modest is the expression: “many years.”
One can only surmise the attitude of God toward the church, which has been in existence for over 2,000 years. Stern rebukes were delivered to the church for its retrogression beginning in the middle of the first century. Toward the end of the century, the Lord Jesus Himself solemnly rebuked five of His churches in the book of the Revelation. Yet, this very day, the church as a whole is in a weakened state, miserably divided, and abysmally ignorant of the Word of God. Let no person imagine for a single moment that God is indifferent to this situation! Nor, indeed, should we be incapable of tracing many of the woes that have befallen the church directly to its own withdrawal from the Lord. Considering what has been prepared for the saints, the abundance of truth made known to them, and the indwelling Spirit, it is completely inexcusable for any degree of spiritual retardation to be found among them.
THEY WOULD NOT GIVE EAR. Again the prayer refers to the people’s refusal to listen to God. Before they confessed “they would not hear.” Now they say, “they would not give ear.” Other versions read “would not listen,” but more is involved than that. The idea is that they would not submit their capacity to hear and understand to the Living God. They would not give Him their minds, nor submit to Him their capability to hear, weigh, ponder, and respond. They did not yield their decision making abilities to God.
These are capacities that are given to every person. It is part of being created in the image of God. Everyone submits these abilities to someone. Some give them to the world: entertainers, philosophers, theologians, politicians, etc. However, if the capacity to hear and receive is not given to God, it will become the basis of condemnation.
GIVEN TO THE PEOPLE OF THE LANDS. “The people of the lands” are the enemies of surrounding countries. These are the inhabitants of every other land beside “HIS land.” God selected a land for His people, delivered them from Egypt, and brought them into the land. It was “the glory of all lands” (Ezek 20:6; 20:15). Therefore, to be handed over the people of “the lands” that were rejected by God was a judgment of great proportion. The “people of the lands” invaded Israel, overpowering them. Our text says that was the result of God giving Israel to those people. Isaiah said it this way. “And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down” (Isa 5:5). God gave the people to those of other lands by withdrawing His protection, and stirring up the foes against them (1 Kgs 11:14; 1 Chron 5:26; 2 Chron 21:16).
These things have been “written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come”(1 Cor 10:11). We do well to take heed to them and learn from them, for “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31).