COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 10:35 And to bring the first fruits of our ground, and the first fruits of all fruit of all trees, year by year, unto the house of the LORD: 36 Also the firstborn of our sons, and of our cattle, as it is written in the law, and the firstlings of our herds and of our flocks, to bring to the house of our God, unto the priests that minister in the house of our God: 37 And that we should bring the first fruits of our dough, and our offerings, and the fruit of all manner of trees, of wine and of oil, unto the priests, to the chambers of the house of our God; and the tithes of our ground unto the Levites, that the same Levites might have the tithes in all the cities of our tillage.”
When the hearts of the people were awakened Godward, they made a covenant to do very specific things. They were not vague or general in that commitment, like saying they would try to do better. In their dedication, they were mindful of the Law – specifically what God had said regarding the house of the Lord and the care of the Levites. There is also a note of hope in their covenant. Although others had been eating the fruit of their labors, they spoke as though that condition was going to end. They would not only enjoy the fruit of their own labors, but would sanctify the fruitage of their fields and flocks by bringing the first fruits into the house of God for those who ministered there. The details of their covenant reveal how deeply they had been convicted by the reading of the Law. Shallow and general commitments reveal little or no genuine conviction. Where profound commitments are not made, religion is, at the very best, only on the surface.
THE FIRST FRUITS OF THE GROUND AND OF THE TREES
“ 10:35 And to bring the first fruits of our ground, and the first fruits of all fruit of all trees, year by year, unto the house of the LORD.” The degree of specificity in this covenant is impressive. It reveals how tender hearts react to the Lord, and how practical godliness is. Some people’s religion never gets to this level, but remains on the surface of life, where commitment can remain very general, and involvement with God can be kept at a minimum level. Such conditions reveal corrupt and unwilling hearts, negating any profession of faith in or love for the Lord. In our day, when a great falling away has taken place, the kind of commitment revealed in this text is most unusual. In the New Covenant, however, it ought to be, at the very least, the minimum commitment.
THE PRINCIPLE OF FIRST FRUITS. Throughout God’s dealings with men, a great deal has been said about “first fruits,” “firstborn,” and “firstlings.” Instruction and testimony concerning first fruits began with the Law. The very first mentioning of the “first fruits” is found in Exodus, where the first covenant was being detailed. They had particularly to do with what was cultivated and cared for by men, and were thus called “the first fruits of thy labors” (Ex 23:16). Specifically,”first fruits” are the first, or initial, fruitage of labor, whether of God or of man. Those in Christ, for example, are the “first fruits” to God of His own labors (James 1:18). From another point of view, Epaenetus and the household of Stephanas were the “first fruits,” or initial converts, of Aachai to the Lord (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15). On the other hand, the gift of the Holy Spirit is the “first fruits” of the full harvest of righteousness to be enjoyed in the world to come (Rom 8:23).
Thus, two things are seen in “first fruits.” First, they are the initial, or first, harvest. Second, they are a guarantee of the full harvest to come. The “first fruits” that men give to God are the first results of their labors, and are the means of sanctifying what follows. The “first fruits” given by God to men are a pledge, or guarantee, of the complete harvest which is to come.
In the term “first fruits,” an emphasis is placed upon “first.” Through the Law, God tutored men concerning the principle of giving the first and initial harvest to Him – not the latter or final harvest. Solomon stated the principle this way: “Honor the LORD with thy substance, and with the first fruits of all thine increase: so shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine” (Prov 3:9-10). The Lord is not honored by last fruits, or giving that comes after expenses, so to speak. Those who live with more of an awareness of their need than God’s will forfeit the blessing of the Lord. While some reason they cannot afford to give to the Lord because of their expenses, the reality of the matter is that their expenses are resulting from their failure to give to the Lord.
FIRST FRUITS OF OUR GROUND. This is the harvest of what was cultivated by the Israelites – “our ground.” It is not the first fruits of wild or uncultivated crops. The Law said, “The first of the first fruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the house of the LORD thy God” (Ex 23:19; 34:26). This fruitage was also called “the first of all the fruit of the earth,” and was to be put into a basket and taken to a place named by the Lord (Deut 26:2). The giving was specific, orderly, and timely. There was nothing haphazard about it. The “first fruits”of grain were to be bound in a sheave and brought to the priest, who would wave the sheave before the Lord as an offering for them (Lev 23:10). Some of the “first fruits of the ground” were even ground into flour, a cake baked from them, and presented to the Lord (Lev 23:17). There was even a special offering of “first fruits” during the time of “wheat harvest” – the “feast of weeks” (Ex 34:22).
Under the Law, those bringing their “first fruits” to the Lord were even told what to say. “And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land, which thou, O LORD, hast given me” (Deu 26:10). Now, the people have become keenly aware of these requirements, having heard them in the reading of the Law. They resolve to do what the Lord has said.
FIRST FRUITS OF THE TREES. These were trees cultivated by the Israelites – not trees growing in the wild, or upon which they had bestowed no labor. Under the Law, when the people first planted their trees, the fruit was a to be considered “uncircumcised” for the first three years – the people could not eat of it. The fourth year, all of the fruit of the trees were to be given to the Lord. The fifth year, the people could begin to eat the fruit, giving the first fruits to the Lord (Lev 19:23-25). Thus, what was offered to the Lord involved both the labor of the people and the maturity of the fruit itself.
UNTO THE HOUSE OF THE LORD. The people vowed to bring the “first fruits” to the Temple every year. These were for the Levites, who were wholly devoted to the work of the Lord. The gifts also “encouraged” them “in the law of the Lord” (2 Chron 31:4).
FIRST FRUITS OF SONS, CATTLE, HERDS, AND FLOCKS
“ 36 Also the firstborn of our sons, and of our cattle, as it is written in the law, and the firstlings of our herds and of our flocks, to bring to the house of our God, unto the priests that minister in the house of our God.”
The first of everything that had life, and upon which the labor of the people had been expended, was to be given to the Lord. The Law required it. However, for some time, this requirement had not been fulfilled by the people. Now that they have been awakened Godward, they do not offer an excuse for their former omission. Rather, they determine to do what is right, and to do it thoroughly and regularly.
FIRSTBORN OF OUR SONS. The requirement of the Law was this: “Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine . . . the males shall be the Lord’s” (Ex 13:2,12). Again the Lord said, “the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me” (Ex 22:29). The “firstborn” was also to be “redeemed” for the Lord (Ex 13:13). Divine reasoning was given for this presentation. When redeeming their firstborn sons, the fathers were to explain to their sons, “By strength of hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage: and it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the LORD slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem” (Ex 13:14-15).
Everything involved in the giving of the firstborn males to the Lord is not spelled out in Scripture. It appears that the dedication was a sort of sanctifying of the family by a due and costly recognition that the firstborn of Israel were spared at the time of the Exodus. We do not know what other involvements the firstborn might have had, for the service of God itself was accomplished by the Levites as a whole.
FIRST OF CATTLE, HERDS, AND FLOCKS. The Law specified, “That thou shalt set apart unto the LORD all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast; the males shall be the LORD'S . . . All that openeth the matrix is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male” (Ex 34:12,19). In giving the firstborn animals to the Lord, they were separated from all personal and earthly uses.
The reasoning on this matter is quite arresting. Actually, all of the firstborn of Israel were sanctified by God to Himself when He smote the firstborn of all of Egypt. “Because all the firstborn are mine; for on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto Me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast: Mine shall they be: I am the LORD” (Num 3:13). The people, therefore, were to join with the Lord in this decision, acquiescing to that He had already determined.
The offerings were not to be delayed. “Thou shalt not delay to offer the first of thy ripe fruits, and of thy liquors: the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto Me” (Ex 22:29). Retarded or belated responses were not allowed in this matter. Once again, this text provides us with insight into Divine manners.
BRINGING IT TO THE HOUSE OF GOD. The giving of the firstborn of both man and beast was not to be done informally, or by intention only. They were to be “brought” to a designated place. Before the time of the Temple, the tithes, heave offerings, and firstlings of their herds and flocks were to be brought “unto the place which the LORD your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there, even unto His habitation” (Deut 12:5). During the time of our text, that “place” was the Temple, or “the house of God.” Now, the people covenant to do precisely what the Law had required all along.
UNTO THE MINISTERING PRIESTS. The offerings were brought to the Temple in general, and the priests who ministered in particular. They were the provisions God had given to the priests – the Levites – who had no inheritance in the land. They were intended for their entire family. As it is written, “And this is thine; the heave offering of their gift, with all the wave offerings of the children of Israel: I have given them unto thee, and to thy sons and to thy daughters with thee, by a statute for ever: every one that is clean in thy house shall eat of it. All the best of the oil, and all the best of the wine, and of the wheat, the first fruitsof them which they shall offer unto the LORD, them have I given thee” (Num 18:11-12).
Paul alludes to these provisions in defending the propriety of those who preach the Gospel deriving their living from those receiving that Gospel (1 Cor 9:13-14; Gal 6:6). It is a principle of spiritual awakening that those who awaken toward the Lord become acutely aware of the Lord Himself, His work, and those who labor for Him.
FIRST FRUITS AND TITHES FOR THE LEVITES
“ 37 And that we should bring the first fruits of our dough, and our offerings, and the fruit of all manner of trees, of wine and of oil, unto the priests, to the chambers of the house of our God; and the tithes of our ground unto the Levites, that the same Levites might have the tithes in all the cities of our tillage.”
The remarkable details of this covenant are most edifying. Although it strictly conforms to the Law, the fact that this attitude was found in the hearts and minds of the people causes it to be edifying and profitable to us. The people determined to give the first and the best to God, to do it in a timely manner, in the right place, and to the right people. In my judgment, you will be hard pressed to find such tenderness in our time – even though it is the day of salvation and the year of acceptance (2 Cor 6:1-2)!
OUR DOUGH. Other versions read “ground meal,” NIV “coarse meal,” NRSV “rough meal,” BBE “the best of our dough,” NJB and “the best of our flour.” NLT This was grain from the kneading trough in which it was ground into flour. Not only did they bring sheaves of grain (Lev 23:10), and cakes that had already been baked (Lev 23:17), they also determined to bring the first of the grain they ground into flour. This also was done according to the Law: “Of the first of your dough ye shall give unto the LORD an heave offering in your generations” (Num 15:21). Nothing would be done without an acute awareness of the Lord.
OUR OFFERINGS. These were apparently the “freewill offerings,” which were given “unto the Lord” (Lev 23:38; Deut 12:6).
TREES, WINE, AND OIL. Fruit from the trees had to be picked, and selectively so, for the best was given to the Lord . Wine had to be pressed from the grape – the result of human involvement. Oil had to be press out of the olive – also the result of human activity. The people did not covenant to let the priests come and pick fruit from their trees. They would pick the fruit and bring it to the proper place. They would not invite the priests to come to their vineyards and olive yards to select fruit for their use. Rather, they would process the wine and the oil and bring it to them. God’s choice of the Levites after Aaron died required that this arrangement be made. “At that time the LORD separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to minister unto him, and to bless in his name, unto this day. Wherefore Levi hath no part nor inheritance with his brethren; the LORD is his inheritance, according as the LORD thy God promised him” (Deut 10:7-9).
THE PRIESTS. This was called “the priests due from the people,” which God commanded them to “give him” because “the LORD thy God hath chosen him out of all thy tribes, to stand to minister in the name of the LORD” (Deut 18:3-5).
THE CHAMBERS OF THE HOUSE. These chambers are mentioned later as the place where “they laid the meat offerings, the frankincense, and the vessels, and the tithes of the corn, the new wine, and the oil, which was commanded to be given to the Levites, and the singers, and the porters; and the offerings of the priests” (13:5). Hezekiah prepared these chambers in his reign where they “brought in the offerings and the tithes and the dedicated things faithfully” (2 Chron 31:12). Speaking through Malachi, the Lord spoke of these chambers when He told the people they had robbed Him. He urged them to “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house” (Mal 3:10). The Lord was referring to the provisions for the priests, to which the heart and conscience of the people had now been awakened.
THE TITHES OF THE GROUND. These were the tithes to which the Law referred in Leviticus. “And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD'S: it is holy unto the LORD” (Lev 27:30). It is also called “all the tenth in Israel” (Num 18:21), and “the tithes of the children of Israel”(Num 10:24). They were the fruit of Israel’s labor, not the fruit of a wild olive tree or bramble bush.
The determination of the people to bring the “tithes of the ground” was made in faith that a harvest would be realized. The tithe itself would sanctify that harvest.
THE CITIES OF OUR TILLAGE. Other versions read “farming communities,” NKJV “rural towns,” NASB “the towns where we work,” NIV and “towns of our ploughed land.” BBE The idea is that their gifts would come from their own labors – what they had sown, cultivated, ad reaped. The expression “cities of our tillage” is like saying, “the towns where we worked,” expended our effort, or rendered our service.
God is honored when we give to Him the first and best of our substance. He is dishonored when we do not. It is still possible for a revival of this magnitude to occur!