COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
LESSON NUMBER 59
“ 10:32 Also we made ordinances for us, to charge ourselves yearly with the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God; 33 For the showbread, and for the continual meat offering, and for the continual burnt offering, of the sabbaths, of the new moons, for the set feasts, and for the holy things, and for the sin offerings to make an atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God. 34 And we cast the lots among the priests, the Levites, and the people, for the wood offering, to bring it into the house of our God, after the houses of our fathers, at times appointed year by year, to burn upon the altar of the LORD our God, as it is written in the law.” (Nehemiah 10:32-34)
As we proceed through this covenant, it will become apparent that the people are not determining to do something new or different for the Lord – inventing, as it were, some works to atone for their past. Instead, they are determining to do what the Lord has already commanded. They are restoring among themselves things that have fallen by the way. The Babylonian captivity, together with the effects it created, had caused a lapse in the execution of the various ordinances of the Law. This was not a coincidence. Because they had not fulfilled these ordinances as unto the Lord, and had allowed all manner of corruption to attend them, the Lord caused them to cease, lest His name be all the more profaned. This fulfilled the word of Hosea, spoken over 100 years before the captivity. “I will also cause all her mirth to cease, her feast days, her new moons, and her sabbaths, and all her solemn feasts” (Hosea 2:11).
ORDINANCES AND THE THIRD PART OF A SHEKEL
“ 10:32 Also we made ordinances for us, to charge ourselves yearly with the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God.”
ORDINANCES FOR OURSELVES. Other versions read, “we made obligations for ourselves,” NASB “we assume the responsibility for,” NIV “we also lay on ourselves the obligation,” NRSV “appointed for ourselves commands,” YLT and “we made rules for ourselves.” BBE
The people have experienced a very real spiritual awakening. They have become acutely aware of several things. First, the association of themselves with the Living God. They have recalled God’s selection of Abraham, and the raising up of their nation through Him. He had brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand, led them through the terrible wilderness, and given them the land of Canaan (9:7-12). Because of this, they know they have a responsibility to their Lord. Second, the Lord had given them laws that formed a covenant between them and Him – laws that were to be kept, and upon which their relationship to Him was hinged. They knew they were obligated to keep these laws, and could not, under any circumstances, be excused from that responsibility. Third, without any justification whatsoever, they had forsaken the Lord, disobeyed His commandments, and treated His holy Prophets with disdain. This required a readjustment of their entire manner of life. Such a massive change could not be achieved easily. Indeed, it is the very nature of such required changes to be attended with great difficulty. This is in order that trust in the Lord will become the more apparent to the people.
Because these things had registered so strongly upon the conscience of the people, they have become strict with themselves, not only confessing their sins, but drawing up a covenant. They are determined not to allow the manners of their past to dominate them any longer. It is evident that this resolve is the result of Divine working, for there is perfect accord among them. All of the leaders and all of the people are of one mind on this matter.
CHARGE OURSELVES YEARLY. Other versions read, “to exact of ourselves,” NKJV “to contribute yearly,” NASB “carrying out the commands to give one third,” NIV and “taxing ourselves.” BBE
This resolve was not invented by the people, but was a requirement of the Law of Moses. In the beginning, every male over twenty years of age was give “an offering unto the Lord” of “one-half shekel.” This was called “the Lord’s offering,” and was to be “according to the “shekel of the sanctuary.” Rich people were not to give more than the half-shekel, and poor people were not to give less. The offering was given “to make an atonement for your souls.” The “atonement money” was to be taken and “appointed for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation” (Ex 30:11-16). It is my understanding that this is the “tribute money” that was miraculously supplied for Jesus and Peter in the coin Peter retrieved from a fish’s mouth (Matt 17:24-27).
The “half-shekel” was to be taken at the time of a census, or when they counted “the sum of the children of Israel after their number” (Ex 11:12). Our text is the first and only mentioning of a “third part of a shekel.” It appears as though this was over and above the half-shekel required at the time of a census, and was calculated to replenish the Temple treasury, which had no doubt been greatly depleted. It followed the principle set forth in the Law, yet was not according to a specific command from the Lord.
Those who imagine you can only offer to the Lord what He has commanded will find great difficulty with this text, for God nowhere commanded the third part of a shekel to be given annually for the service of the tabernacle or Temple. The ordinance imposed by the people upon themselves was the response of their hearts. Through it, in the interest of the work of the Lord, they went beyond the requirements of the Law.
A “shekel” was a weight used to measure. The exact measure used is not known, although the Law said it consisted of “twenty gerahs,” which was the smallest of all Jewish measures (Ex 30:13; Lev 27:25), and was weighed out in silver (Ex 38:26-27). Suffice it to say, the “shekel of the sanctuary” was a specific measurement that related to the service of the Lord. There are twenty-five references to “the shekel of the sanctuary” in Exodus through Numbers. It is a term that emphasized a Divine view of goods and money. This measurement was noted for its consistency and being just. It allowed for the fulfillment of God’s Word: “But thou shalt have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have: that thy days may be lengthened in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (Deut 25:15). Therefore, according to this Divinely revealed measure, all of the people made a covenant to set aside the third-part of a shekel every year for God’s work.
THE USES OF THE THIRD PART OF THE SHEKEL
“ 33 For the showbread, and for the continual meat offering, and for the continual burnt offering, of the sabbaths, of the new moons, for the set feasts, and for the holy things, and for the sin offerings to make an atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God.”
Here we will see that the annual tax was not an end of itself. Rather, HOW the offering was to be used accented its importance. Having their hearts and minds sharpened concerning the Lord, things pertaining to Him have obtained greater significance. Even though the people have been in an oppressed condition, having to even sell their sons and daughters, and give up their properties, yet they are now thinking about the service of the Lord. The execution of the various aspects of Temple service has now taken the priority.
THE SHOWBREAD. The “showbread” was instituted in the tabernacle service, and was to be made of “fine flour.” It consisted of twelve loaves, each one being baked from two-tenths of an ephah, or about four quarts, of fine flour (Lev 24:5). These loaves were placed on a table made of pure gold, which stood “before the Lord.” The loaves were particularly place on this table in two rows of six loaves each (Lev 24:6). These loaves were baked fresh every Sabbath day, and put upon the table with pure frankincense being put upon each loaf. These loaves represented the twelve tribes of Israel, which were always before the face of the Lord, and were to be continually on the table. The offering the people covenanted to make guaranteed the loaves would always be prepared and placed in the Temple.
THE CONTINUAL MEAT OFFERING. “Meat offerings” were non-bloody offerings consisting of fine flour, seasoned with salt, mixed with oil and frankincense, and without leaven, or yeast (Lev 6:14-23). Most versions refer to them as “grain offerings.” The Lord described this offering as “most holy, as is the sin offering, and as the trespass offering” (Lev 6:17). This was not a seasonal offering, but was made continually – a part of the daily evening and morning sacrifices (Ex 29:40-41). The annual offering guaranteed the requirements for these continual offerings would always be available.
THE CONTINUAL BURNT OFFERING. These were the morning and evening bloody sacrifices, and were offered every day (Ex 29:38-42). The daily sacrifices stamped upon the conscience of the Israelite that there was a sense in which every day was a new and fresh beginning. The annual offering guaranteed the requirements for these continual offerings would always be available.
THE SABBATHS AND NEW MOONS. Additional sacrifices were offered on the Sabbaths and new moons (Num 28:9-15). Every weekly Sabbath, and every new month, impressed upon the hearts of the people that every week and every month was another fresh beginning. The “new moon” was the beginning of new month (Num 10:10). THE SET FEASTS. The Law for “set feasts” is outlined in chapters twenty-eight and twenty-nine of Numbers. They are referred to as “your set feasts,” and included. the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, Trumpets, and Tabernacles. A number of offerings were required at these times, which, with accompanying sacrifices, would be provided by the annual offering of reference.
THE HOLY THINGS. “Holy things” probably refer to the various “Wave offerings” and “Peace offerings,” (Lev 23:10-19). These consisted of “All the best of the oil, and all the best of the wine, and of the wheat, the first fruits of them which they shall offer unto the LORD” (Num 18:12). In them an acknowledgment of, and dedication, was made to the Lord of everything He had given to them. These were also associated with thanksgiving. The offering ensured the continuance of these offerings.
THE SIN OFFERINGS. Sin offerings consisted of “the blood of bulls and goats” (Heb 10:4-10). There were many of them – some for all of the people (as in the Day of atonement – Lev 16:3), and some for specific transgressions (Lev 4:3-34). It was necessary that everything related to these sacrifices be available. This annual offering ensured that this would be the case.
ALL THE WORK OF THE HOUSE OF OUR GOD. This “work”included all of the various duties and provisions related to the general cleaning and upkeep of the Temple. In the time of Ezra, such supplies were given out of Artaxerxes’ treasure house (Ezra 7:20). Now, however, the people were determined to assure these provisions would be met by themselves. Even though they were in the process of recovering from their impoverished state, their faith compelled them to extend themselves to confirm their seriousness and commitment before the Lord. They are a noble example for us all.
THE PRIESTLY ORDER AND THE WOOD OFFERING
“ 33 And we cast the lots among the priests, the Levites, and the people, for the wood offering, to bring it into the house of our God, after the houses of our fathers, at times appointed year by year, to burn upon the altar of the LORD our God, as it is written in the law.”
After making provisions for the ongoing support of the Temple, the people now address practical matters that involved the priests themselves – those who had no inheritance among the people. They will approach the matter in such a way as to involve all of the priests, the Levites, and the people as well, doing so without putting an undue burden upon any of them.
CAST LOTS. The casting of lots was a common practice in Scripture. Aaron determined the scape goat, and one offered to the Lord, by casting lots (Lev 16:8). In allocating the promised land to seven remaining tribes, Joshua cast lots (Josh 18:6-10). The selection of Mathias to take the place of Judas was also done by the casting of lots (Acts 1:26).
On the surface, the casting of lots appears to be a sort of gamble – depending upon “luck,” or the mere working of fate. However, in Scripture it is depicted as way of appealing to the Lord for an answer – a way of coming to know His mind on matters unknown to men. Thus the Apostles and others, casting their lots to select the one to fill Judas’ bishopric, prayed, “Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, show whether of these two thou hast chosen” (Acts 1:24). In this, the people acknowledged they did not know what to do. Therefore, instead of replying upon human wisdom, they did something in which God, in a clear and understandable way, could make known His will to them. Since unbelief is so prevalent in our day, such a procedure appears to many as a foolish deed.
THE PRIESTS AND THE PEOPLE. The Priests (or those attending immediately to the Temple service), the Levites (who assisted the priests), and “the people” (or those rendering service to the Levites) are all involved in the matter.
THE WOOD OFFERING. The extraordinary number of offerings presented to the Lord “by fire,” Lev 2:3; 4:35; 10:12), required a large amount of wood. In this text the gathering of wood was not left to happenstance, but was assigned by lot. The fire on the altar was not to go out. Every morning the priest was to lay fresh wood upon the fire to ensure that this happened: “And the fire upon the altar shall be burning in it; it shall not be put out: and the priest shall burn wood on it every morning” (Lev 6:12). The “hewers of wood” that were appointed by Joshua were doubtless for this purpose. They were not merely lumberjacks (Josh 9:27). There are also indications that choice wood was chosen for burning upon the altar. Isaiah said, “And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering” (Isa 40:16), thereby indicating that choice cedars were often used for this purpose.
The Law did not specify how this wood was to be gathered. However, Nehemiah does not leave such an important duty to mere chance, imagining that the people will automatically see to it that sufficient wood is always available for the altar. Later, when praying to the Lord, Nehemiah confessed “Thus cleansed I them from all strangers, and appointed the wards of the priests and the Levites, every one in his business; and for the wood offering, at times appointed, and for the first fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good” (Neh 13:30-31). We learn from this that recovery from iniquity and indifference requires unusual measures. Such things are not always established by law. Sometimes the heart moves a person to do things that are necessary, yet for which no Divine procedures have been revealed. Only a spiritual mind and strong faith can move a person to occupy such holy realms of thought.
AT TIMES APPOINTED. Set times were appointed each year for contributing wood for the altar: “at fixed times annually, to burn on the altar of the LORD our God as it is written in the law.” NASB Although some think of faith as unrelated to orderliness, this text reveals there is a connection between them. Those who imagine the Holy Spirit, for example, is wholly divorced from order, are in serious error. Some believe He only works in an environment of spontaneity. Here, however, He worked within the framework of a covenant and deliberate planning. His work also resulted in the appointment of specific people to bring wood at specific times, doing so every year.
Moses did not establish a wood-gathering time, nor did David or Solomon. Yet, because of the circumstances, and the long period of spiritual retardation, Nehemiah established a disciplined approach to the gathering of wood for the altar. The Holy Spirit sanctioned his approach by including it in Scripture, associating it only with Divine approval. God appointed that wood always be burning on the altar. He allowed men liberty in choosing how that requirement would be met. There is a principle revealed here that is worth pondering.