COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 10:29 They clave to their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God's law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and His judgments and His statutes; 30 And that we would not give our daughters unto the people of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons: 31 And if the people of the land bring ware or any victuals on the Sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy it of them on the Sabbath, or on the holy day: and that we would leave the seventh year, and the exaction of every debt.” (Nehemiah 10:29-31)
The people have called for the reading of the Word. It has been read, and they have believed it. They have kept the feast of booths outlined in the Law, and rejoiced in the Lord’s provision. They have heard the Law again, and being gripped with a deep sense of guilt have wept, and in prayer confessed the goodness and righteousness of the Lord, and their own wickedness, rebellion, and obstinance. Now they resolve to make an amends in their conduct. An obedient and resolute spirit has been awakened, and has compelled them to write a covenant before God, with over fourscore of their leaders signing it. A fresh sense of godly determination has come over the whole multitude of people. What kind of resolves will they make? In these resolutions we will see how a humble and contrite heart thinks. Here will be a sort of index to how people who are convicted of sin respond – especially those who have “fallen from grace” (Gal 5:4). While these resolves were made under an inferior covenant, the resolves themselves are noble, and we can learn from them.
CLEAVING, ENTERING INTO A CURSE, and MAKING AN OATH
“ 10:29 They clave to their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God's law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and His judgments and His statutes.”
CLEAVING TO THEIR BRETHREN. Other versions read “joined with their brethren, their nobles,” NKJV “joining with their kinsmen, their nobles,” NASB “now join their brothers the nobles,” NIV “united with their brothers, their rulers.” BBE I like the word “cleaving,” for it emphasizes that they stayed with their rulers, and did not leave them – like a man cleaving to his wife (Gen 2:24). Their “nobles,” or “rulers,” were the eighty-four men signing the oath. There was perfect accord between all of the people on this matter. The drawing up of a covenant before the Lord did not separate the people, but rather united them. Anyone with but a cursory acquaintance with the current state of the church knows that firm resolves before the Lord are nearly always the cause for division among the people. But it was not at this time. What Paul had enjoined upon the Corinthians took place in a significant way among the people of our text: “that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10). At this point, the people gravitated to, and stayed with, those who had drawn up the covenant, standing in agreement with them.
ENTERED INTO A CURSE. Other versions read, “taking on themselves a curse,” NASB “binding themselves with a curse,” NIV and “put themselves under a curse.” BBE This involved calling a curse upon themselves if they did not perform the covenant to which they now agreed. It was the kind of curse Ruth called upon herself should she leave Naomi: “the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee from me” (Ruth 1:7). Eli spoke to Samuel in the same manner when he told him to reveal what God had said to the lad (1 Sam 3:17). David made a similar oath (2 Sam 3:35). When Jesus was delivered up to Pilate by the Jews, they also entered into such a curse – a curse that veritably came to pass: “His blood be on us, and on our children”(Mat 27:25). Among other things, this reveals the deep commitment of the children of Judah. Their conscience had been awakened.
ENTERED INTO AN OATH. This “oath” was a solemn vow to do that to which they had agreed. The “oath” was intended to be the end of any lingering doubt – a sort of “period” at the end of the covenant they are making before God. When Joseph commanded that his bones be carried out of Egypt, he took an “oath” of the children of Israel (Gen 50:25). The Law itself solemnly charged that oaths be carried out (Num 30:2). Earlier in this book, Nehemiah had taken an “oath” of the priests (5:12). God Himself swore “with an oath” to David, saying He would raise up Christ to sit on his throne (Acts 2:30). The New Covenant itself has been confirmed with God’s “oath” (Heb 6:16-17). This “oath” was the expression of determined hearts – a firm resolve to do what they had promised.
WALKING IN THE LAW. The people are careful to define what they mean by “God’s law.” They do not refer to it as the Pharisees did, with all manner of human tradition draped about it. This was “the Law” which was “given by Moses,” unsullied by human interpretations, traditions, additions, or subtractions. To “walk” in the Law was to live within a constant consideration of that Law, not allowing it to slip from their mind or conscience. In Josiah’s day, this kind of resolution was referred to in the words, “And all the people stood to the covenant” (2 Kgs 23:3). Walking in the Law destroys the line of demarcation between the religious and the secular. In Christ, similar terminology would be “walking in the truth” (2 John 1:4), “walking in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31), “walking in the Spirit”(Gal 6:16), and “walking in the light” (1 John 1:7).
DOING ALL THE COMMANDMENTS. The text says they agreed to “observe AND do all the commandments.” This is the same line of language used by Moses as the people stood on the border of the promised land (Deut 16:12). To “observe” means to give due regard to the commandments, think of them, ponder them, and take heed to them. To “do” them is to translate them into living, personally carrying them out so that their meaning can be seen in the lives of the people. Notice, the people were not selective, choosing only some of God’s commandments. They resolved to observe and do them all.
DOING HIS JUDGMENTS AND STATUTES. Some versions read “ordinances” and “statutes,” NKJV and “regulations and decrees.” NIV These were the applications of the Law, together with the various sacrifices, feasts, ways of dealing with transgressions, and manners in which judgments were to be carried out. They agreed to walk in them all.
NO MORE UNEQUAL YOKES
“ 30 And that we would not give our daughters unto the people of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons.” Other versions read, “We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons,” NIV and “We promise not to let our daughters marry the pagan people of the land, nor to let our sons marry their daughters.” NLT
EARLY HISTORY OF MEN. This agreement had to do with marriage, and constituted a refusal to intermingle with the heathen in that holy alliance. Throughout history, this has proved to be a weak point with the people of God. As early as Genesis 6:2, we read, “That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose” (Gen 6:2). While this has proved to be a very controversial passage, its fundamental meaning is quite clear: there came a time when an admixture occurred between “the sons of God” and “the daughters of men.” When that took place, the prelude to the flood began. The result of that intermarriage was the birth of influential and corrupt men – “mighty men of renown.” The very next verse affirms, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:3-5).
The mixture of God’s sons with the daughters of men caused a remarkable degeneracy in human conduct. Sin became worse. Some are of the opinion “the sons of God” were wicked angels, or demons, who joined themselves to the daughters of men. However, I know of no place where “the sons of God” is used to describe wicked personalities. It seems to me this referred to the offspring of Seth, in whose days men began to call upon the name of the Lord (Gen 4:26). The day the lineage through whom the Savior would come, intermingled indiscriminately with the “daughters of me,” decline was accelerated. They were driven by lust, not love (the daughters were “fair”).
UNDER THE LAW. Under the Law given by Moses, intermarriage with the heathen was strictly forbidden. “Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; and thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods” (Ex 34:16). And again, “Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly” (Deu 7:3-4).
The degeneracy of the Israelites into idolatry is thus traced back to their propensity to marry heathen sons and daughters. This degeneration was not something that could happen, but what would happen. The influence of the heathen would be more powerful than that of the Israelites who married them.
SOLOMON. Lest any individual imagine themselves capable of avoiding such a pitfall, the Holy Spirit provides us with the example of Solomon. Here is the man given more earthly wisdom than any other person, apart from the Lord Jesus. When it comes to sheer intellect, the ability to reason, and the understanding of things pertaining to the natural order, Solomon outranks all those born of a man. Yet, he did what God had forbidden, marrying heathen women. It is written that he “loved many strange (or foreign) women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites” (1 Kgs 11:1), even though God had forbidden such a thing (v 2). Solomon even did this in excess, as he did all other things: “And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines” (1 Kgs 11:3). “ . . . and his wives turned away his heart . . . For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites” (1 Kgs 11:3b-5) – just as God said would happen!
OTHER OCCASIONS. In Ezra’s say, the same intermarriage occurred, the “holy seed” mingling with “the people of those lands.” This also resulting in the people “doing according to the abominations” of those heathen nations (Ezra 9:1-3). The same thing occurred in Nehemiah’s day, resulting in the people being unable to speak in “the Jews language” (Neh 13:23-24). Now the people resolve to bring an end to this practice.
IN CHRIST. The law of the Lord concerning marriage has not changed or been altered in Christ Jesus. It is written, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Cor 6:14). And again, the widow is instructed, “she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39). Great numbers of professing Christians have not taken this seriously.
HONORING THE SABBATH DAY and THE SABBATH YEAR
“ 31 And if the people of the land bring ware or any victuals on the Sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy it of them on the Sabbath, or on the holy day: and that we would leave the seventh year, and the exaction of every debt.”
The covenant upon which the people united was not vague, but very specific. Faith moves the believer out of the realm of ambiguity into the domain of specificity. The people do not say they will merely do what God says, but that they will walk in the Law given by Moses. They will approach marriage in strict accord with that Law. Now, they come to the matter of the Sabbath – both the seventh day and the seventh year, together with holy days as defined in the Law given by Moses.
BUSINESS ON THE SABBATH AND HOLY DAYS. “The people of the land” does not refer to the Jews alone, but to “neighboring peoples,” NIV or “peoples of the lands.” BBE We know this is the case, because the Jews have already agreed to walk in the Law of the Lord. However, there remained heathen people around them, and some closely associated with them, like Tobiah the Ammonite (13:4). These “peoples” were those who did not honor the Law, and therefore sought to do their own business on a day sanctified by God for Himself.
The “ware” and “victuals” of reference means “merchandise or grain,” NIV These “peoples” came to “trade in goods or food,” BBE “goods or foodstuff of any kind.” NJB Nothing in the Law forbade the people to do business with the heathen. In this case, the complication was that they came to do business “on the Sabbath, or on the holy day.”
Later in Nehemiah, we will read of some in Judah that “were treading wine presses on the Sabbath,” bringing in animals laden with sheaves, wine, grapes, figs, and all manner of burdens, “which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.” Men from Tyre were also bringing in fish and all manner of wares to sell on the Sabbath day. Nehemiah “testified against them,” for the Law had specified that neither man nor beast do “any work” on that day (Neh 13:15-22; Ex 20:8-10).
In our text, the people, keenly aware of God and His Law, make a covenant not to do business on the Sabbath day, or any “holy day,” such as the ones mentioned in Leviticus 16:29, and 23:21,35,36. Days that had been, by God’s law, given to Him, would not be desecrated by personal business. The people seem to see with great clarity that their obligations toward God overshadow personal affairs pertaining to temporal life.
An Application. The affairs of this world, even when they are of themselves legitimate (like buying and selling), have a potentially distracting influence upon the soul. In Christ, this is greatly accentuated, as seen in the words of Paul during a time of crisis. “But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife . . . she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband” (1 Cor 7:33-34). This is not a prohibition of marriage itself, for later Paul says to the same people that those who marry in the proper consideration of all things “sinneth not” (7:36). Faith can and will neutralize, and even sanctify, right relationships, so that they do not distract one from the Lord. However, the child of God must be wise concerning the tendency of everything that is temporal to turn us away from the Lord. Only a strong faith can cause us to stand against such influences, turning them into occasions to serve the Lord.
THE LAND SABBATH. The seventh year was special for the Jews. The Law required them to let the land “rest and lie still” every seventh year. They were not to till the land during that entire seventh year. What grew of itself in their fields was for the poor, and what was left by them was for the beast to eat. The same was to be done with their vineyards and olive yards (Ex 23:10-11; Lev 25:3-7). As you may recall, the failure of Judah to do this resulted in the Babylonian captivity (2 Chron 36:21; Jer 25:11-12). The people have now made this association with their own plight, and resolve to revenge their disobedience.
THE EXACTION OF EVERY DEBT. Other versions read, “forgo . . . the exaction of every debt,” NKJV “cancel all debts,” NIV and “take no payment from any debtor.” BBE In addition to the seventh year land Sabbath, an additional time was to kept by calculating “seven times seven years . . . seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.” The following year, “the fiftieth year,” the Jubilee took place, in which liberty was to be proclaimed throughout the land. All debts were to be liquidated, and every servant returned to his own family (Lev 25:8-17). Because Israel did not honor the land sabbaths, the year of Jubilee was also not honored. In fact, there is no record in Scripture of it every being kept by the Jews. Although, it is inferred that it was restored during the reign of Josiah (Jer 32:6-12). Now, however, the people solemnly vow to honor the year of Jubilee. We should be able to adapt such a resolution to our lives.