You’ll recall that I said that the book of Nehemiah can be divided into two parts. The first part was all about the wall. The second part is about the people. The first part was about building up the wall of Jerusalem, which was in ruins when Nehemiah first arrived in the city. The second part is about building up the people of Jerusalem: it’s about ensuring that God’s holy people would live holy lives in God’s holy city.
And so, in chapter 7, Levites were posted at the gates to keep out anyone who might defile the city. And then, in chapter 8 the people gathered in the city to hear the reading of God’s law. They also celebrated the Feast of Booths and rejoiced before the Lord for bringing them back from exile to the Promised Land. And then, in chapter 9, the people gathered again in the city, but this time to confess their sins and the sins of the forefathers and to seek God’s help, because even though they had returned to the city, they were still living under the power and authority of a pagan king. Instead of enjoying the fruit of the land themselves, they had to send it away to the foreign kings who were ruling over them. And so, the people pleaded with the Lord for help.
Yes, they had returned to the Promised Land and to the city of God, but all of God’s promises, which he made known through prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel of a glorious future for God’s people had not yet been fulfilled in their entirety. Hadn’t God promised that the time would come when they would live in peace and safety on God’s holy mountain in a world that had been transformed and made perfect and glorious? Hadn’t he promised them that? Well, the Lord’s promises were not yet fulfilled in their entirety. They still had to wait.
And we too are waiting, waiting for the time when the Lord Jesus will come in glory and with power to destroy his enemies and to make all things new and to bring us and all who believe in him into the new heaven and earth to live with him forever in the new Jerusalem on God’s holy mountain. That’s what we’re to wait for. That’s what we’re to long for. While we go on living on the earth, we’ll face troubles and trials; we’ll encounter opposition and persecution; there will be disappointments and things that make our heart break. But we can look to the Lord to help us; and we can look beyond the sufferings of the life, which are only temporary, to the glory that is awaiting us and which the Lord has prepared for us in the life to come.
In today’s passage, the people in Jerusalem — having confessed their sins before the Lord — made a covenant. Do you see that in verse 38 of chapter 9? ‘In view of all this,’ they said,
we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites, and our priests are affixing their seals to it.
Having confessed their sins and the sins of their forefathers, they now wanted to make a binding agreement — a covenant — whereby they bound themselves by oath to do the will of the Lord. Putting it in writing shows how serious they were, because when we’re serious about something, we’ll put it in writing, won’t we? And the leaders of the people were going to affix their seal to it. In other words, they were going to sign it. And they’re signing it to indicate that yes, they have agreed to all of this and they’re determined to do everything they have said they will do in this covenant.
In verses 1 to 28 of chapter 10, we have the names of all those who signed the agreement. And then, in verses 29 to 39 we have the terms of the covenant. After promising to follow the law of the Lord and to obey his commands, they mention three things in particular. Firstly, they promise not to intermarry with their pagan neighbours. Secondly, they promise to keep the sabbaths. Thirdly, they promise to support the work of the temple. So, here are God’s holy people, promising that they will live holy lives in God’s holy city. And so, let’s look at this chapter now in more detail.
Verses 1 to 28
The names of those who signed the covenant are listed in verses 1 to 28. At the head of the list are the names of Nehemiah and Zedekiah. The NIV doesn’t show it, but there’s an ‘and’ between their two names which suggests they’re grouped together. Since Nehemiah was the governor, it’s likely that Zedekiah was also a government official. The next 21 names are the names of priests. However, the names listed are ancestral family names, which explains why Ezra’s name does not appear; he was from the line of Se-rai-ah. After the priests, the names of the Levites are given. There are 17 of them. Then we have the names of 44 leaders of the people.
And then in verse 28 we read that the rest of the people — which included other priests and Levites, and gatekeepers, singers, and temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighbouring peoples, together with their wives and their sons and daughters — all of these people indicated their commitment to the agreement. They may not have affixed their seal, or signed the document, but they made clear their agreement and determination to abide by the terms of this covenant. The lay people are described as those who separated themselves from the neighbouring peoples for the sake of God’s law. That recalls the electing love of the Lord who chose the Israelites and separated them from the other nations of the world to belong to him as his chosen people. It also recalls the Lord’s frequent command to his people to separate themselves from the other nations and to dedicate themselves to serve him only, and not the gods of the nations. And we too are called by God to be holy and not to conform ourselves to the wicked ways of a sinful world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we’ll do God’s will.
What did all these people — the government officials; the temple servants; and the lay people; along with their wives and children — agree to do? According to verse 29 they bound themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations, and decrees of the Lord our God. They were promising that they would do all that the Lord commanded.
That helps us to see that what they were doing was not so much making a new covenant, but renewing the covenant which their forefathers made at Mount Sinai. After the Lord rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt, in the days of Moses, they assembled before the Lord at Mount Sinai and entered into a covenant with the Lord, whereby they promised to do all that the Lord commanded; and the Lord promised to treat them as his treasured possession. Just as we might protect and keep safe a treasured possession, so the Lord promised to protect and keep them. So, at Mount Sinai, the people entered into a covenant with the Lord whereby they promised to do all that he commanded and he promised to keep them.
But, of course, the people broke that covenant. They disobeyed his commandments. And as a result, all the curses of the Lord, which he warned them about, fell on them. The last curse which he warned them about was exile. Because of their disobedience and failure to keep the terms of the covenant, they were sent away into exile to a far-off country.
But the Lord was gracious and merciful to them; and he did not treat them as their sins deserved; he did not repay them according to our iniquities; and he loved his people with an everlasting love. And so, when the time was right, he brought his people back from exile to the Promised Land. And here they are again: all of God’s people whom he was rescued. And they’ve assembly before him again. In the days of Moses, they assembled at Mount Sinai. Now, in the days of Nehemiah, they’ve assembled at Mount Zion. And once again, they’re ready to promise obedience to the Lord who saved them.
And, of course, the Lord has delivered us, hasn’t he? He’s delivered you and me. Not from slavery in Egypt, and not from exile in Babylon, but from sin and from Satan and from death. Through faith in Christ the Saviour, we are set free from the penalty for our sin; and we’re set free from the tyranny of the Devil; and we’re given the hope of everlasting life, so that, though we die, we know that we will be raised to live forever with the Lord. He has been gracious and merciful to us; he has not treated us as our sins deserve; he has not repaid us according to our iniquity; he has loved us with an everlasting love; and has delivered all who trust in his Son from our sin and misery.
And he calls on us — all who have been pardoned — to obey him and to do his will here on earth. We’re to live, no longer for ourselves, but for Christ the Saviour who died for us and who was raised to give us life. We’re to live for him, not seeking to do our own will, but his will. We’re to seek first his kingdom and righteousness and to walk in his ways, because he has saved us from our sin and misery by dying for us on the cross, taking the blame for us, so that we can be forgiven and have eternal life. And, of course, obeying him is not a chore for us, but a delight, because he’s been so good to us. And so, since he has delivered us from our sin and misery, he now calls on us to follow his law and to obey his commands carefully.
In verses 30 to 39 the people agree to do three things in particular. First of all, in verse 30, they promised not to marry their pagan neighbours. Well, the whole of Ezra 9 was about the problem of intermarriage. And the problem of intermarriage was not that they were marrying foreigners. No, the problem was that they were marrying people who were unbelievers. Instead of marrying believers who loved the Lord and who wanted to obey the Lord and who would teach everyone in the family to love and obey the Lord, they were marrying people who worshipped false gods and who would teach everyone in the family to worship false gods. And so, the people who gathered in Jerusalem promised that they would not let their children marry their pagan neighbours. God’s holy people were to remain holy; and they were not to marry those who were unholy.
And, of course, when we turn to the New Testament, we find the same thing. In 1 Corinthians 7, the Lord commanded widows who were remarrying to marry only those who belong to the Lord, In other words, Christians should only marry Christians. And so, Christian parents should teach your children that this is the will of the Lord for you.
Secondly, in verse 31, they promised to keep the Sabbath days. So, if their pagan neighbouring — who did not care about the law of the Lord — brought their goods and grain into the city on the Sabbath Day to sell them, the people promised not to buy from them on the Sabbath Day or on any other holy day. After all, hadn’t the Lord commanded them to keep the Sabbath Day holy? Wasn’t it the will of the Lord for them to rest from their work and to worship him on the Sabbath? Well, they promised to keep the Sabbath Day holy.
Furthermore, according to Exodus 11, the Lord commanded them to work the land for six years, but to let the land rest on the seventh year. Since that was the will of the Lord for his people in those days, then they promised that they would abide by his law and let the land enjoy the Sabbath years.
The specific law about the Sabbath year was for the Israelites at that time, and it’s not for us today. But the command to keep the Sabbath Day holy is part of God’s moral law which we’re still duty-bound to keep. In those days, the Sabbath Day was Saturday, the seventh day of the week. For us today, it’s Sunday. And since it’s the will of the Lord that we keep this day holy, then we must be careful not to work on Sundays, but to rest from our work — including our school work and our revision — and to worship the Lord who made us and who has delivered us from our sin and misery by his Son.
Verses 32 to 39
And in verses 32 to 39 the people promised to support the work of the temple. So they promised in verses 32 and 33 to give a third of a shekel each year to support the work of the temple and to pay for the regular offerings which had to be made each day. And in verses 34 to 39 they promised to provide wood for the altar and to give the firstfruits of everything they produced to support the priests and to provide them with their daily food. Verse 36 says that they will bring the firstborn of their sons. According to the law of the Lord, all firstborn sons belonged to the Lord, but the people had to redeem, or release, their sons, by making a payment to the priest. The same was true of unclean animals, which could not be offered on the altar. The people also promised to bring a tithe of what they produced to give to the Levites for their support. And as required by the law, the Levites promised to give a tithe of the tithes to the priests. So, the people were promising that they would not neglect the house of the Lord, but would ensure that the proper offerings were made and that the priests and Levites were supported.
Since the temple and its priests point to the Saviour who was to come, there is no need today for a temple and for priests and for animal sacrifices. Christ our Great High Priest offered himself as the perfect, once-for-all, never-to-be repeated sacrifice for sins. By trusting in him and in his death for sinners, we are cleansed from all our guilt and set free from condemnation. Since his blood covers all our sins there is no need to offer any further sacrifices for sins. And the earthly temple, which the Israelites promised to maintain, was for that time only; Christ our High Priest has now entered the true temple in heaven, where he represents us before the Father and intercedes for us.
And so, we are no longer required to bring sacrifices and offerings and tithes to the Lord. However, in the New Testament, we’re commanded to give generously to help one another and to support our ministers who preach God’s word. And we’re commanded to offer ourselves as living sacrifices and to dedicate ourselves to love and serve the Lord in our daily lives.
Before we finish, think again of the promise they made in verse 29 to follow the Law of the Lord and to obey carefully all his commands. They wanted to obey him, because he had rescued them from exile. And just as the Lord had rescued them, so too he has rescued you — if you trust in his Son — from your sin and misery. For the sake of Christ, he has pardoned your sins. For the sake of Christ, he has promised you eternal life. And so, just as they bound themselves to serving the Lord who loved and saved them, so you too must bind yourself to serving the Lord who loved and saved you.
However, the Israelites — despite their best intentions– were unable to do all that the Lord commanded. Because they were sinners, they continued to sin against the Lord; and they fell short of doing his will. And so, we read in the gospels how the Lord Jesus visited the temple in Jerusalem. And what did he find? Did he find God’s holy people living holy lives in God’s holy city? No, he discovered that they had corrupted the temple and turned it into a marketplace. And you too will always fall short. Despite your best intentions to do the will of the Lord and to love and serve him, you too will fall short and you will disobey him.
But the good news is that Christ our Saviour has done everything we were supposed to do. He alone has followed the Law of the Lord. He alone has carefully obeyed all the commands and regulations and decrees of the Lord our God. And he did it for you. He did it for you. He did what you were supposed to do and have not done. And so, for you he has fulfilled all righteousness, doing all that the Lord required of you. And then, for you, he gave up his life as the ransom to set you free from condemnation. For you, he shed his blood for your forgiveness. And so, if you trust in him, you’re set free from condemnation and are forgiven for all that you have done wrong. And if you trust in him, God regards you as if you’ve done everything right, even though you may have done everything wrong. And he regards you like that, because of Christ who has done all the right things on your behalf.
And so, trust in the Lord. Ask God to pardon you for your sins for the sake of Christ the Saviour. And ask him too for the help of the Holy Spirit, because Christ — from his throne in heaven — gives his Spirit to his people to renew us in God’s image, so that more and more we’re able to say no to sin and to do the will of God. By ourselves, we cannot obey the Lord. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, we’re able more and more to obey the Lord and to do all that he has commanded.
Won’t you do that? Ask the Lord to pardon you for the sake of Christ. And ask the Lord to fill you with his Spirit to help you day by day to follow the Law of the Lord and to obey his commands and regulations and decrees.
And then, after the people promised to follow the Law of the Lord and to obey carefully his commands, they made these promises about marriage and about the Sabbaths and about the temple. Well, those three things point us to Christ and proclaim the good news of the gospel.
Ensuring their daughters only married true Israelites proclaimed the good news of the gospel, because the Lord had promised that the Saviour would be born as one of Abraham’s descendants. And so, by marrying only those who were descended from Abraham, they were proclaiming their hope that one day the Saviour will be born.
And the requirement to keep the Sabbaths proclaimed the good news of the gospel, because God had promised to give his people eternal rest in the new heaven and earth. Every Sabbath Day — when they stopped working and rested — spoke to them of the time when their struggle with sin would be over and they would enter the rest to come.
And maintaining the temple and the daily sacrifices proclaimed the good news of the gospel, because God had promised that he himself would provide his people with the perfect sacrifice for sins. Every sacrifice offered on the altar spoke to them of Christ the Saviour who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And the temple in Jerusalem spoke to them of the true heavenly temple, where God’s people will dwell with him forever.
And so it was necessary for them to keep their marriages holy and to keep the Sabbaths and to offer sacrifices in the temple in order to proclaim to the world the good new of the gospel. And that same gospel is proclaimed to you, so that you may believe and be saved.