COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 9:36 Behold, we are servants this day, and for the land that thou gavest unto our fathers to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof, behold, we are servants in it: 37 And it yieldeth much increase unto the kings whom thou hast set over us because of our sins: also they have dominion over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure, and we are in great distress. 38 And because of all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, Levites, and priests, seal unto it.” (Neh 9:36-38)
Having reviewed their history by inspiration, and with discernment and faith, the people now assess their present condition. They acknowledge that it is contrary to the promises God made to them, and that this is so because they have departed from the Lord and His ways. Although that condition had continued for some time, because people have seen the error of their ways, they now make a firm resolve before the Lord, formalizing it in a document. In this we see the sincerity of the people, and the powerful effects of being willingly exposed to the Word of God.
This is one of the longest prayers recorded in Scripture (33 verses long), the others including the prayer of Solomon at the Temple’s dedication (32 verses, 1 Kgs 8:22-54), and the prayer of our Lord on the eve of His betrayal (26 verses, John 17:1-26). The prayer of our text was preceded by the exhortation “Stand up and bless the LORD your God for ever and ever: and blessed be Thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.” 9:5
PRESENTLY SERVANTS, BUT NOT IN THE GOOD SENSE
“ 9:36 Behold, we are servants this day, and for the land that thou gavest unto our fathers to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof, behold, we are servants in it.”
SERVANTS THIS DAY. It is one thing to be servants of the heathen in another land, like Israel in Egypt, Samson in the house of the idol Dagon, Daniel and the children of Judah in Babylon, or Esther and Mordecai in Persia. It was bad enough to be removed from the land of promise and placed in a heathen land to serve their captors.
During the Babylonian captivity, the Israelites nearly lost all hope. It is said of them, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?” (Psa 137:1-4).
However, that captivity had ended nearly a century ago (B.C. 539 – now it was B.C. 444). Earlier, around B.C. 536, 42,360 had returned to Jerusalem with 7,337 servants, and 200 singing men and women. They also returned with 736 horses, 245 mules, 435 camels, and 6,720 asses (Ezra 2:64-67) . Under Divine direction, Cyrus, king of Persia, had gathered the returning people together, commanded that the people from whom they departed “help with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things” (Ezra 1:8). He had returned all of the vessels of the Temple that had been taken by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezra 1:7). Additionally, Cyrus provided a special “grant” that permitted them to give “money also unto the masons, and to the carpenters; and meat, and drink, and oil, unto them of Zidon, and to them of Tyre, to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea of Joppa”(Ezra 3:7). The Temple had been finished according to the “commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the commandment of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia” (Ezra 6:14). Those were remarkable advantages, and one would think they would be a prelude to full recovery. Now, more than seventy-five years later, they were still serving other people in their own land.
This servitude was foretold by Moses before he died, and before Israel first took the land. “Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the LORD shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee” (Deu 28:48).
We ought to note that recovery from wilful and prolonged sin is not simplistic. During such transgression the heart grows hard and the desire to please the Lord diminishes. The devil also increases in power, and enemies gain strength. It is quite true that all of this can be reversed by the power of the Lord, as He restores “the years the locust have eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm”(Joel 2:25). However, such recoveries are not always accomplished suddenly, as the people of Judah in Nehemiah’s day could attest.
THE LAND GIVEN TO THE FATHERS. Even though inhabiting the land of Canaan required fighting and conquest, it was nevertheless a land “given” to Abraham’s seed. If that had not been the case, all of Israel’s fighting would have been in vain. There is a significant emphasis on this matter of the land being “given to the fathers” – the “fathers” being Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in particular, and their seed in general. It was given to them in a timely manner – only after the inhabitants of the land had become intolerable in their iniquity (Gen 15:16).
God said to Abraham, “And he said unto him, I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it” (Gen 15:7). And again, “Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” (Gen 15:18). To Jacob He said,”I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed” (Gen 28:13). Moses said to the Israelites, “The LORD your God hath given you this land to possess it” (Deut 3:18). Again he said to them near the close of his life, “And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey” (Deut 26:9).
The land had been given to them, and belonged to them. They were in the land, having been blessed by God to return from the captivity. Yet, while they were in the land, they were servants of others. They were in the land, but in a sense it was not theirs. They were in bondage in the promised land, a situation that seems to be a contradiction. In my judgment, they were not the last people to be in such a condition. There are presently people who are in Christ, yet do not enjoy the fruits belonging to them.
THE INCREASE, OUR BODIES, AND OUR CATTLE
“ 37 And it yieldeth much increase unto the kings whom thou hast set over us because of our sins: also they have dominion over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.”
The people now elaborate on their present condition. This is something that has received only a token mention until this time. Nehemiah had earlier mentioned that he had “redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen”(5:8). The greatest abuse that had been mentioned to this point was that of their own “brethren the Jews,” who had placed undue burdens upon their own people (5:1-2). However, at that time, they had also complained of the taxes against them – “the king’s tribute.” Now they will more speak more directly to the condition of being under people who were not their own.
MUCH INCREASE. Other versions read, “abundant produce,” NASB “abundant harvest,” NIV and “rich yield.” NRSV The land was still flowing with milk and honey, and was abundant with resources – but it was bringing no good to the people. While the land belonged to them, they were in the land, and working in the land, the rich flow of produce was “for the kings.” NASB As Haggai had said earlier, “Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes” (Hag 1:6). In this case, the bag “with holes” did not depict the foolish handling of the wages, or squandering and wasting them. Rather, their wages went into the pocket of the king. It was like putting it in a bag with holes, for they could not access it. Again, speaking of this situation, Haggai spoke in very vivid language. “Ye looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when ye brought it home, I did blow upon it” (Hag 1:9).
KINGS SET OVER US. The kings of which they speak were not mere despots that had invaded their land. They were kings God Himself had appointed over them. Moses foretold this would happen to them if they did not walk in the ways of the Lord. “The fruit of thy land, and all thy labors, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up; and thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed alway . . . Thou shalt plant vineyards, and dress them, but shalt neither drink of the wine, nor gather the grapes; for the worms shall eat them” (Deut 28:33,39).
Allow me to once again point out that the Babylonian captivity had concluded, the people had returned to their land, and they were working in it. Yet, they were not able to enjoy the fruit of the own labors, but remained under oppression.
BECAUSE OF OUR SINS. The people now see why all of this had happened. They were able to associate their circumstance with the Living God. Sin does have its penalty! The words of Isaiah were being fulfilled in them. “For our transgressions are multiplied before thee, and our sins testify against us: for our transgressions are with us; and as for our iniquities, we know them” (Isa 59:12). The people make no excuse for their sins. They do not lay the fault solely at the feet of their fathers. They see clearly why they are in such dire straights, and they confess the condition to the Lord, thereby bringing glory to Him.
DOMINION OVER OUR BODIES AND CATTLE. Other versions read, “they also rule over our bodies,” NASB and “they have power also over our bodies.” NRSV The idea is that the kings ruling over them could make them fight their battles for them, til their fields, and serve in their courts. Like Peter in his death, they were being carried where they “wouldest not” (John 21:18).
Additionally the kings appointed over them used their “cattle” for their own purposes. Thus the people were put at a disadvantage by not being able to use their own cattle for their own labors.
AT THEIR PLEASURE. Whenever the kings God placed over them desired to use the people or their cattle, they did. The people had, then, been delivered over to the will of those who had no care for them. They could not get from under this oppression, for it was of God. All they can really do is acknowledge the situation, and seek mercy of the Lord. That is precisely what they do, for their hearts have been touched by God’s Word.
GREAT DISTRESS. All versions read the same way. “Distress” means affliction, adversity, anguish, tribulation, and trouble. Their situation was not pleasant, and the circumstances were a great burden to them. You may remember this was the assessment of Nehemiah himself when he first arrived in Jerusalem. “Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire” (Neh 2:17). Now, nearly two months later, this situation has not yet been corrected, even though the wall has been built. However, this is a more appropriate time to address the matter than at the first.
MAKING A SURE COVENANT
“ 38 And because of all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, Levites, and priests, seal unto it.”
Part of the recovery from sin involves the revenging of disobedience (2 Cor 10:6). The word “revenge” means to retaliate, vindicate, or punish. Other translations use the word “punish.” NKJV/NASB/NIV In this case, the disobedience was being punished by confessing and disowning it, then making resolves not to repeat it.
BECAUSE OF ALL THIS. In view of all that had happened, a determination has been made by the people to do something about their condition. They are resolved to obtain the favor of God, whereas they have been living in His displeasure, wherein He had even appointed thoughtless kings over them.
There is more to recovering from sin than simply acknowledging it, or exhibiting some degree of remorse and contrition. Care must be taken in approaching this subject, lest it open the door for calumny, or defamation, of the Lord Himself. Recovery from transgression is not purchased, so to speak, by resolves and setting about to do something to rectify the situation. However, recovery does resolve the hearty participation of those who have been walking in the wrong path. Rather than such efforts being accomplished in the energy of the flesh, they will be implemented by the power that comes from God alone. However, the resolves and determinations must be made by men before they can realize the power to accomplishment them. This, in my judgment, accounts for the failure of many to recover from their sordid past.
A SURE COVENANT IS WRITTEN. Other versions read, “We are making an agreement in writing,” NASB “we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing,” NIV “we make a firm agreement in writing.” NRSV and “we are making a solemn promise and putting it in writing.” NLT
Here is a fitting conclusion to the activities of the day. The people agree to place their resolve in writing – a resolution that they will depart from the historical waywardness of their nation. The details of the covenant are provided in the tenth chapter. I will only mention them here, as we will cover them in detail when we come to that section. It involved the following. (1) Walk in God’s Law which was given by Moses. (2) Observe and do the commandments of the Lord with His judgments and statutes. (3) Not give their daughters to the people of the land. (4) Not take the daughters of the people of the land for their sons. (5) If the people of the land brought things to sell on the Sabbath day or a holy day, they would not buy them. (6) Every seventh year they would forego working the land and cancel all debts. (7) Each one would give a third of a shekel every year for the service of the house of God. (8) Bring the wood offering every year to burn upon the altar. (9) Bring the first fruit of the ground, the trees, their sons, and cattle into the house of the Lord. (10) Bring the tithes of their ground to the Levites.
The people were not casual about entering into this agreement. They were also united in their determination. In writing the covenant, they were reacting in a godly manner. When the Lord made the covenant with Israel, He also had the covenant written. Thus we read, “And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel” (Ex 34:27).
When Josiah was exposed to the Word of the Lord, he also made a covenant, involving the people in the process. It is written, “And the king stood by a pillar, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people stood to the covenant” (2 Kgs 23:3). During the reign of Asa, the people did a similar thing. “And they entered into a covenant to seek the LORD God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul” (2 Chron 15:12). Jehoiada did the same thing. “And Jehoiada made a covenant between him, and between all the people, and between the king, that they should be the LORD'S people” (2 Chron 23:16). The people of Ezra’s day did the same thing. “Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law” (Ezra 10:3).
THE SEAL PUT TO IT. The document was made official, marked, or sealed, and contained the names of their leaders, Levites, and priests. This was a serious matter, and transgressors could be judged by this covenant. A most noble action, indeed.