COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 9:34 Neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, nor our fathers, kept Thy law, nor hearkened unto Thy commandments and Thy testimonies, wherewith Thou didst testify against them. 35 For they have not served Thee in their kingdom, and in Thy great goodness that Thou gavest them, and in the large and fat land which Thou gavest before them, neither turned they from their wicked works.” (Neh 9:34-35)
As the prayer of the people continues, not only are they more specific, they are becoming more fervent in the supplication. It is as though they are leaving no stone unturned in their confession. They are eager to be restored to the Lord’s favor, and they abandon all casualness in their quest . Sin and chastisement have taken their toll upon the spirits of the people, but they have not cast them down to the ground in despair. Because of their faith and faithfulness, hope has surfaced, and is beginning to soar with the wings of a mighty eagle into the heavens. Their hearts are broken, but they are not crushed. Their eyes have seen the miserable condition of their nation, both past and present, and yet they have not despaired. Faith can peruse a sordid past with profit, and even glean reasons to seek for mercy from the Lord. In this prayer we detect insight and power coming from heaven as well as prayer and supplication rising from the earth. Diligence in the building of the wall has awakened faith and hope, and they have developed a longing to hear the Word of God. As we result, their eyes have been opened and their resolve quickened. All of this started with a wall-building project – but it certainly did not end there.
KINGS, PRINCES, PRIESTS, AND FATHERS
“ 9:34a Neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, nor our fathers . . . ” For “princes,” other versions read “leaders,” NASB “leaders,” NIV “officers,” TNK and “heads.” YLT The defection of the people of Israel had been total – from top to bottom. They now acknowledge a most disheartening reality before the Lord Himself. They will offer no excuse for the confessed condition, but will simply acknowledge it.
In Ezra a similar group was confessed to have displeased the Lord, including fathers, kings, and priests (Ezra 9:7). Jeremiah also spoke of fathers, kings, and priests (Jer 44:17). Daniel confessed sin to have been dominant in kings, princes, fathers, and all the people of the land (Dan 9:6,8).
OUR KINGS. It was during the time of Samuel, last of the Judges, that the people cried out, “now make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:5). They saw Samuel was getting old, and that his sons were not suitable leaders: “Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways.” Thus they concluded it was time to become like the other nations. They wanted a king. When Samuel was sorely displeased with their request, he prayed to the Lord. God gave him an answer, saying “they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Sam 8:6). The Lord then told Samuel to hearken to the voice of the people. However, He also said to tell the people “the manner of the king that shall reign over them,” solemnly “protesting” to the people. That protest is recorded in First Samuel 8:11-18. Thus, with the expression of unbelief and refusal to trust God, the era of the kings began.
While there were some good kings, there were also a significant number of evil ones. The general bent of the kings is now confessed by the people. “Our kings” refer to the highest national, or political, office. These men led the nation, and, as a rule, did not do well in doing so. By saying “our kings,” the people refer to all of the kings from the first (Saul), to the last (Zedekiah). In particular, they mean the kings of Judah, for Judah is the kingdom that was punished in the Babylonian captivity (1 Chron 6:15; Ezra 2:1).
OUR PRINCES. These were under the king, ruling for him in subordinate areas. They included military captains as well as local officials. In Numbers, they represented heads over the various tribes, and were subordinate to Moses (Num 1:16). At that time, there were “twelve” of them, one over each tribe (Num 1:44). In Joshua’s day, they were subordinates under him (Josh 9:15). They were also mentioned during the time of the Judges (Judges 5:15). David assembled the “princes of the tribes” (1 Chron 28:1). Solomon had military “princes” (1 Kgs 9:22). These, then, were leaders at a local level, or in a specific and subordinate capacity.
OUR PRIESTS. Whereas kings were political leaders, and princes were local leaders, the priests were religious leaders. They were over matters pertaining to God. As it is written, “For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb 5:1). In the beginning, when the people were the foot of Mount Sinai, God said to them, “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex 19:6). However, their sin kept them from this distinction. Instead, a special priesthood was ordained by God that represented Him to the people, and the people to Him (Ex 19:22). The book of Leviticus addresses the function of the priesthood, which was the tribe of Levi.
OUR FATHERS. There is a sense in which “our fathers” refers to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex 3:15). There is another sense in which it refers to those who went down into Egypt during the time of Joseph (Num 20:15). In yet another sense, it was the Israelites who languished in Egyptian bondage (Deut 26:7). It also referred to those who came out of Egypt (Josh 24:17; 1 Kgs 8:21). In his book, Ezra referred to “our fathers” as those who provoked the Babylonian captivity (Ezra 5:12). The prayer of Nehemiah is referring to these latter two categories when speaking of “our fathers” – those who came out of Egypt and provoked God to anger, and those who ignored God and moved Him to sell them into bondage to the Chaldeans.
AN OBSERVATION. When those identified with God are truly awakened toward Him, they will have a godly assessment of the past. Those who do not experience such an awakening tend to embalm and deify the past, using it as a substitute for God Himself. However, those who are sensitive toward God know that great departures from the Lord do not suddenly happen. They are the result of rejections of God’s Word, and a refusal to yield to Him, although He has been longsuffering toward the defectors. The remarkable falling away of our own time is the result of a historical defection of large proportions.
GOD’S LAW, COMMANDMENTS, AND TESTIMONIES
“ 9:34b “ . . . neither have . . . kept Thy law, nor hearkened unto thy commandments and Thy testimonies, wherewith Thou didst testify against them.” Among the Israelites, there was a consistent departure from the Lord at all levels. In their confession, the people of our text pray very specifically. They see that sin is not simplistic or uncomplicated. In order for sin to dominate a person or a nation, there must be a very deliberate refusal to follow the Lord. Those who attempt to diagnose sin from a psychological or medical point of view seriously err. That very approach to iniquity reveals their fundamental ignorance of God. That is why they cannot properly assess sin, particularly within the professed church.
THY LAW. It is significant that the people saw the Law as God’s Law: “THY Law.” During the days of Christ, and later in those of the Apostles, the calloused Jewish leaders referred to the Law as “our law”(John 7:51; 19:7; Acts 24:6). They had become so corrupt they mingled their own traditions with the Law of God, calling the admixture “our law.” But these people have no such mind-set. Their hearts are tender, and thus their eyes and ears have been opened, together with their understanding. They now know that God referred to the Law as “MY Law” (Ex 16:4; 2 Chron 6:16; Psa 89:30; Isa 51:7).
In referring to God’s Law, the people do not mean a mere moral code, or standard of right and wrong. They are rather referring to the Law in its covenantal role. The summary words of the Law, the Ten Commandments, are called “the words of the covenant” (Ex 34:28). Its various requirements, both prohibitive and what was to be done, were the details of the covenant. In saying that Law had not been “kept,” the people mean the covenant had been broken, just as God affirmed (Jer 31:32). Isaiah also equated the Law with a covenant, accenting this point. “And hath confirmed the same to Jacob for a law, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant” (1 Chron 16:17;Psa 105:10). Hosea thus referred to trespassing against the Law as transgressing the covenant. “Set the trumpet to thy mouth. He shall come as an eagle against the house of the LORD, because they have transgressed My covenant, and trespassed against My law” (Hosea 8:1).
Right here there is a great deal of confusion in the professed church. No small number of people think the Law was only for Israel, and had no relevance for the rest of the world. However, as a Law it did apply to “all the world” (Rom 3:19). Such uncovenanted people as Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar were judged by it. It was in the capacity of a covenant that it particularly applied to Israel. That is, it was a basis for remaining in the favor of God. It was, however, “weak through the flesh” (Rom 8:3). We now have a “better covenant, which is established upon better promises” (Heb 8:6).
THY COMMANDMENTS. The emphasis of “Thy commandments” is the moral requirements of the Law, together with their implications, as contained in its various statutes – the ceremonial law. While they did not keep the Law, they “hearkened” not to God’s commandments. Other versions say they did not “heed” them, NKJV pay “attention” to them, NASB and did not “mind” them. DOUAY They ignored what God required, not allowing His commandments to come into their minds. This is why they broke the covenant, not keeping His Law. They simply refused to think about what God required of them. I fear this attitude is most prominent in our time, and it is a serious situation.
THY TESTIMONIES. This word refers to the warnings declared to them by the prophets, as confirmed by the next phrase. The 119th Psalm uses this word twenty-one times as a synonym for God’s Word. In particular, David has in mind the various elaborations of the Law that God gave through Moses and the Prophets. In this text, the word has specifically to do with God’s frequent assessments of Israel
TESTIFYING AGAINST THEM. Here the matter of God’s testimonies is made more clear. They were His words “against” Israel through His prophets – His solemn warnings. As it is written, “Yet the LORD testified against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets, and by all the seers, saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets” (2 Kgs 17:13). But they refused to listen. They chose to reject “His testimonies which He testified against them,” following “vanity” (2 Kgs 17:15).
AN OBSERVATION. In accounting for their deplorable condition, the people did not say “We did not know. How could we have lived right?” We know they were fundamentally ignorant of the Word of God, because they have been awakened by the reading of Law, with which they had little familiarity. Yet, they do not plead their ignorance, but rather the river of stubbornness and rebellion that had an early beginning.
THEY HAVE NOT SERVED THEE
“ 35 For they have not served Thee in their kingdom, and in Thy great goodness that Thou gavest them, and in the large and fat land which Thou gavest before them, neither turned they from their wicked works.” Behold how they prolong their confession. They have seen sin properly, and thus continue to unfold what they see. They now realize it is a marvel they have survived at all. Even more than that, they conclude their survival is nothing less than an open door for recovery and blessing.
THEIR KINGDOM. Their kings, princes, priests, and fathers did not serve the Lord in “their kingdom” – that is, when they had one. For nearly two centuries, they had not been a kingdom, but had been the vassals of others. They now see the reason for their punishment is the refusal to serve the Lord when they were “in their kingdom.” One version reads, “in their own kingdom.” NASB God did not bring them into the promised land to serve their own interests, but to serve Him. Moses said the people would be cursed “because thou servedst not the LORD thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things” (Deut 28:47). Because of their failure to serve God in the kingdom He had given them, they lost it, being removed from the land and scattered.
THY GOODNESS. God did not show Israel mere “goodness,” which would have been marvelous enough. Rather, He had shown them “great goodness.” Goodness is not a mere intellectual view of God – something to study. It has to do with God doing good to His people – giving them certain advantages, benefits, and blessings. When Moses’ father-in-law heard of the people being delivered from Egypt, he “rejoiced for all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel” (Ex 18:9). When God told David He was going to build him a house, David responded, “And now, O Lord GOD, thou art that God, and Thy words be true, and Thou hast promised this goodness unto Thy servant” (2 Sam 7:28). The leading of Israel, the subduing of their enemies, abundant provision, soundness of health, fruitful crops and herds, and the giving of a righteous law were all the conferment of “goodness.”
And when did Israel choose to break God’s covenant, refusing to listen to His commandments and warnings? It was while He was being good to them! When the manna fell, they complained. When the water gushed from the rock, they murmured. When they were experiencing prosperity in the land they closed their ears and hardened their hearts. How we must learn that experiencing the goodness of the Lord demands a response on our part. A person can walk away from God while showers of blessing are pouring down upon them. Such reactions will not be ignored by God.
THE LARGE AND FAT LAND. On a map, Canaan does not look like a large land. However, it was not given to Israel as a park, with rain forests, and beautiful mountain ranges to behold. It was given to be occupied and personally enjoyed. When it came to occupying the land, it suddenly looked “large.” When one considered the fruit and metals that came from the land, it was “large.” There was diversity in the land, from rivers and ore to fruits and flocks. No part of the land was a barren desert, and that made it large.
It was a “fat” land, with an abundance of supplies. Other versions read “rich land,” NKJV “fertile land.” NIV This was particularly an agricultural view of the land. It was rich with fruit. Moses described it as “a land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olive, and honey” (Deut 8:8). You may recall that it required two men to carry a ONE cluster of grapes from Eschol (Num 13:23).
And when did Israel choose to break God’s covenant, refusing to listen to His commandments and warnings? It was while they were in the spacious and unusually fruitful land in which God placed them! While a good environment is essential to spiritual growth, it is possible to be in such an environment and, because of unresponsiveness, have it become the occasion for judgment and chastening.
THEY DID NOT TURN. God was good to Israel. He delivered them, fed them, and satisfied their thirst. He gave them a good land, spacious and fruitful. He promised to drive out their enemies and make them walk on high places (Isa 58:14). If such benefits – all external – can cause a person to change, surely they will do so for Israel. They were all calculated to woo Israel to the Lord, causing her to leave her uncomely ways. But they did not “turn from their wicked works.” And why not? Because change cannot be wrought from the outside! Men can be blessed in the flesh, and even judged in the flesh. But such things cannot compel one to turn from their wicked ways. That is something that requires a change of heart! How we ought to thank God that Jesus took away the sins of the world! Now God can change people, giving them a new heart and spirit.