Nehemiah 9:32-10:39

Nehemiah 9:32-10:39

SERIES: Godly Leadership

Making Commitments at a Time of Transition

Note:  This is the day that First Evangelical Free Church of St. Louis County first worshipped in our new facility at Carman and Weidman.  

Introduction:  For the sake of our visitors and those returning from vacation, we are moving toward the end of a three-month series on Godly Leadership, based upon the OT books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  These books describe the trauma of the nation of Israel during the decades after their nation was destroyed and their people taken captive by the empires of Babylon and Persia.  A group of Jewish exiles were allowed to return to Israel to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem; another group returned eighty years later with Ezra to lead a spiritual revival, and then Nehemiah led a third group back some 14 years later to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  

Before the new walls could be dedicated, however, Israel’s leaders knew that some important spiritual business must be transacted.  The people’s hearts must be drawn back to God’s Word, sins must be confessed, and new commitments to the Lord must be established.  Paul Stolwyk shared with us so effectively last week from the longest prayer recorded in the Bible, beginning in Neh. 9:5, a prayer that remembers God’s character, His provision, and His mercy in the past in order to give us hope and perspective for the future.  

This morning we want to pick up the reading at the end of that prayer, beginning in verse 32: 

    “Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love, do not let all this hardship seem trifling in your eyes—the hardship that has come on us, on our kings and leaders, on our priests and prophets, on our ancestors and all your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria until today. 33 In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly. 34 Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our ancestors did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the statutes you warned them to keep. 35 Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways.

    36 “But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. 37 Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.

       38 “In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.”

Today is a day of transition for our family here at First Evangelical Free Church, much like it was for the people of Israel when they gathered for praise, confession, worship, and commitment in the 9th and 10th chapters of Nehemiah.  Having been destitute of any significant identity as a nation for many generations, and having languished within indefensible borders, they are now preparing for the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem. That great event, as recorded in chapter 12, was just days away, so you can see why I refer to this as a time of transition.  

Israel is moving from being an exiled people without a home, without secure borders, and without status to being a people with a home, with a reasonable measure of security, and with a recognized identity.  This transition, however, is not altogether fortuitous.  While in exile and defenseless, Israel had no choice but to depend upon the Lord and look to Him for identity and security.  Now protected by walls, however, the danger is that they will ignore the great, mighty, and awesome God who loved them and brought them back from captivity.  And that is why Israel’s leaders go to such lengths as we see in chapter 10 to lead the people in making public commitments regarding their relationship with God.

In a certain sense we today are facing a similar transition and a similar danger as Israel, and therefore we need to be similarly concerned about making commitments.  These walls that have become our home today are not, of course, our source of identity and security, as the walls of Jerusalem were for Israel.  This is not even the house of the Lord in the sense that Israel’s temple was, for since the coming of the Holy Spirit into the lives of believers following the resurrection of Christ, the temple of God is identified with God’s people, not with bricks and mortar.  The Apostle Paul said, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” [i]

Nevertheless, from the perspective of the world around us, we are today taking on a new identity and we are certainly entering a new neighborhood.  We will also develop new ministries and perhaps over time even take on a new personality.  There is no denying that this is a time of transition for us.  Unfortunately, the danger that faced Israel will confront us too.  It will be easy to forget that we are still pilgrims and to view ourselves as self-sufficient and secure, forgetting that it is God who brought this local church into existence, who has nurtured us and added to our numbers, who has protected us through difficulty and inconvenience, and who continues to sustain us and help us mature as we look to Him.  As Israel did in Neh. 9, we, too, need to remember the past so that we gain hope and perspective for the future.

And just as times of transition and the accompanying danger led Israel to make significant commitments to God, so we also need to consider our commitments this morning.  

The spiritual basis for making commitments (9:32-38)

Neh. 9:32ff constitutes the conclusion of Israel’s prayer of confession and praise.  After rehearsing the entire history of God’s dealings with Israel, attention is focused on God’s character. 

             God is great, good, just, and faithful.  (32-33) “Now therefore, O our God, the great, mighty and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love… you have been just; you have acted faithfully.”  Is there anyone here today who would question whether God is still great, good, just and faithful?  Oh, I know He allows hardship and trial; I know He doesn’t give us everything we want; I know there is still pain and sickness and natural disaster and war around us.  But none of these things legitimately calls into question the greatness, goodness, justice or faithfulness of God.  In fact, our passage goes on immediately to explain the real cause of such tragedies. 

             But we are by nature sinful, rebellious, apathetic, and ungrateful.  (33-35) This is seen most clearly in verse 35:  “Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways.”  Is it possible that we see ourselves in that summary?  We Americans have been enjoying God’s great goodness in the spacious and fertile land God has given us, but do we see people serving God or turning from their evil ways?  No, by and large we see a society that is serving itself and seems bent on removing God completely from public life while at the same time constitutional protection is sought for sin of the grossest sort.  Even in the church we see apathy and compromise and self-aggrandizement.  The result of this state of affairs is found in the last phrase of verse 37. 

             Therefore, we are in great distress.  (36-37) Yes, Israel now has a temple, and yes, they have a wall around Jerusalem, but they are still virtual slaves to a foreign power and their crops go to pay the king’s taxes.  Compared to the freedom and dignity they had earlier under their great kings, David and Solomon, they are in a sorry state of affairs.  

And friends, there are many ways in which we must admit that we also are in great distress.  Yes, we have homes; most of us have jobs; we have the necessities of life; now we even have a building of our own for our church to meet in.  But our culture is going to hell in a handbasket; our kids are losing their innocence at an earlier and earlier age as they are exposed to more and more corruption on TV and in school; our religious freedoms are eroding under the guise of separation of church and state; and our nation is in a deep spiritual, moral and financial malaise.

             In view of all this, binding commitments are in order. (38) Look at verse 38:  “In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites, and our priests are affixing their seals to it.” These leaders knew that the distress they were in was not God’s fault—He is great, good, just and faithful.  It was their fault, for man is by nature sinful, rebellious, apathetic, and ungrateful.  If sinful people are going to find a solution to their great distress, it will only be as they make and keep their commitments to a holy God.  

The practical pre-requisites for lasting commitments (9:38)  

             They should be specific.  (10:28-39) The specific nature of Israel’s commitments is evident in chapter 10, verses 28-39.  Suffice it to say at this point that they refused to do what many of us have a tendency to do when faced with a deficiency in our walk with God, namely resort to generalities, like “Lord, help me draw closer to you,” or “God, I want my life to be clean and to count for your kingdom.”  Prayers like that are hardly worth the breath it takes to express them, because they don’t deal with the nuts and bolts of life.  

In what ways do we wish to draw closer to the Lord?  What sins need to be confessed and repented of in order for us to be clean?  What commandments of God have we neglected that prevent us from counting for His kingdom?  Commitments need to be specific.  

             They should be written.  (9:38) Unwritten agreements are almost worthless in court and hardly any better in the spiritual realm.  We have an amazing ability to forget that which is not committed to paper and then to rationalize our forgetfulness.  We shoot off a foxhole prayer when times are tough, and as soon as the way is smooth again, we conveniently lose track of any promises we have made.  Nehemiah’s peers prayed, “Lord, we don’t want this to be simply an empty series of words.  We want it to be a promise that is nailed down.  So, we’re putting it in writing.  We don’t care if anyone else in the world lives by this.  We will live by it.”  In this they acted similarly to the Pilgrims who just prior to landing at Plymouth formed what they called the “Mayflower Compact,” a written agreement on the life principles they planned to observe in the new land, and they all signed it, which brings us, to a third fact about commitments:

             They should be attested. (9:38) The leaders of Israel affixed their seals to their commitments, and then the names of all those who signed were publicly recorded for all posterity.  You don’t think that didn’t have an effect upon these individuals?  Every time they were tempted to buy grain on the Sabbath or skip a week’s tithe or stay home from the temple because they were out late the previous night, they were reminded of the binding agreement which they had signed.  

You know, banks are foreclosing on mortgages at a record rate, but how much worse do you think the situation would be if banks didn’t require our signatures on 87 papers at closing, but instead just asked for verbal agreements that we would repay the loans?  Putting it on paper and attesting it with our signatures adds accountability to our intentions.

Well, what are the areas in which the Israelites made commitments?  I believe there were six altogether, and amazingly, all six of them are extremely relevant areas calling for commitment from God’s people today.

Key areas calling for commitment (10:28ff)

You notice, no doubt that there is a long list of unpronounceable names at the beginning of chapter 10.  These are not insignificant, however, for they constitute the names of the individuals who sealed the commitments for the people of God.  I want us to begin our reading at verse 28 and continue to the end of chapter 10:

     “The rest of the people—priests, Levites, gatekeepers, musicians, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand— 29 all these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.

    30 “We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons.

    31 “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts.

    32 “We assume the responsibility for carrying out the commands to give a third of a shekel[b] each year for the service of the house of our God: 33 for the bread set out on the table; for the regular grain offerings and burnt offerings; for the offerings on the Sabbaths, at the New Moon feasts and at the appointed festivals; for the holy offerings; for sin offerings[c] to make atonement for Israel; and for all the duties of the house of our God.

    34 “We—the priests, the Levites and the people—have cast lots to determine when each of our families is to bring to the house of our God at set times each year a contribution of wood to burn on the altar of the Lord our God, as it is written in the Law.

    35 “We also assume responsibility for bringing to the house of the Lord each year the firstfruits of our crops and of every fruit tree.

    36 “As it is also written in the Law, we will bring the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, of our herds and of our flocks to the house of our God, to the priests ministering there.

    37 “Moreover, we will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and olive oil. And we will bring a tithe of our crops to the Levites, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all the towns where we work. 38 A priest descended from Aaron is to accompany the Levites when they receive the tithes, and the Levites are to bring a tenth of the tithes up to the house of our God, to the storerooms of the treasury. 39 The people of Israel, including the Levites, are to bring their contributions of grain, new wine and olive oil to the storerooms, where the articles for the sanctuary and for the ministering priests, the gatekeepers and the musicians are also kept.

    “We will not neglect the house of our God.”

             We should commit ourselves to God’s Word as the only perfect rule for faith and practice.  (28-29). In verse 29 we read that the common people, together with their families “join their brothers the nobles and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.”  They are recognizing that there is no possibility of long-term success as a people or as individuals apart from conformity with God’s revealed will.  

Now we are no longer required to keep the detailed dietary and ceremonial aspects of the Law of Moses, as they were; rather we are under the Law of Christ as revealed in the NT.  But the principle is the same.  God’s Word—whether in seed form in the OT or in full bloom in the NT—is our only perfect rule for faith and practice.  Unfortunately, all around us people are replacing God’s law with man’s law.  The battle cry of our day is personal choice, not God’s choice; it is political correctness, not moral correctness; it is greed, not love; it is freedom, not responsibility.  If we are going to survive this frontal assault on biblical truth and morality, we simply must commit ourselves anew to God’s Word—both in theory and in practice.  

             We should commit our families to holiness, particularly encouraging our children to marry only believers.  (30) Look at verse 30:  “We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons.”  This is not the first time in our study of Ezra and Nehemiah that we have come to the issue of intermarriage, nor is it the last.  This is a matter of grave concern to the Lord—not the intermarriage of different races but of different faiths.  It is dangerous, it is destructive, and it is forbidden.  

Now we must realize that in Nehemiah’s day the situation was quite different from ours.  Children didn’t date and court and then choose a marriage partner.  Rather marriages were arranged by the father; sometimes the bride and groom didn’t even know one another prior to the wedding.  That is why these Israelite leaders can make a commitment not to allow the intermarriage of their children—they were in full control.

Today the matter is not quite so simple.  Arranged marriages are virtually unheard of in our society, and parents, therefore, don’t exercise the same degree of control over the marriages of their children as ancient Jewish parents did.  Nevertheless, there is a principle here that is still operative today. Parents must not act like it doesn’t matter when their kids want to mix and mingle with the crowd.  

Further, parents must communicate to their children that marriage is a total union of body, soul and spirit, and without spiritual unity, marriage cannot possibly reach its full potential.  As 2 Cor. 6:14-15 puts it, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.  For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?  Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?  What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?  What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?”  We must commit our families to holy living. 

             We should commit ourselves to honor the Lord’s Day through worship, rest, and service.  (31) Verse 31:  “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or gain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day.”  The Fourth of the 10 Commandments makes it clear that the Lord Himself rested on the seventh day and then blessed the Sabbath and made it holy for human benefit.  

Apparently, the Jewish people in Nehemiah’s day had begun to cheat on the Sabbath.  Oh, they wouldn’t think of opening their own stores and doing business as usual on the Sabbath, but if pagan merchants came to town, they were willing to grab a good bargain, under the presumption that if they didn’t buy the produce, someone else would.  Of course, if every Jew simply refused to do any business on the Sabbath, the pagans would quickly learn that bringing their merchandise to Jerusalem on Saturday was a lost cause and they would soon quit.  That’s in effect, what they commit themselves to here:  “we will observe the Sabbath as God commanded.”

Now applying the Sabbath law to our own situation is a bit tricky.  In the first place, the Fourth Commandment is the only one of the Ten that is not repeated in the NT; in fact, it is my opinion that it is specifically repealed in Romans 14, though that is a matter of some debate.  Furthermore, the Sabbath is Saturday whereas NT believers clearly worshiped on Sunday.  What is not debatable, however, is that there is a Sabbath principle that anti-dates the Sabbath commandment.  

The Sabbath principle going way back to creation is that God has made us in such a way that we will be healthier, happier, and longer-lived if we observe one day of rest, worship, and service in every seven.  It doesn’t have to be Saturday, nor does it have to be Sunday, though Sunday is the obvious choice for most Christians.  But it must be done if we wish to meet our full potential as the people of God.  

I don’t believe there is a list of hard and fast rules and regulations which we must legalistically follow to obey the Sabbath principle.  But I would say that many Christians are merely paying a token to God on Sunday.  They attend church, at least when convenient, but the rest of the day is their day, not the Lord’s Day.  They shop, they work, they do anything they want with little thought to whether it involves worship, rest, or service.  This is not right, nor is it profitable in the long run.  

             We should commit ourselves to the stewardship of time, talents, and resources.  (32-33)Verse 32: “We assume the responsibility for carrying out the commands to give a third of a shekel each year for the service of the house of our God:  for the bread set out on the table; for the regular grain offerings and burnt offerings, etc.; and for all the duties of the house of our God.”  Again we must look for the principle here rather than the precept, for NT giving has a very different basis from that under the Old Covenant.  Rather than a set percentage of our income, we are to give as the Lord has prospered us.  Yet stewardship is just as important today as it was then.  I have been amazed and delighted at the faithful giving of the people of this church family that has enabled us to carry on our ministries and at the same time build this fine facility.  Many have given sacrificially.

I recall hearing from the Finance Committee 18 months ago that several banks turned down our loan applications because the per capita giving of our church was too high—they didn’t think there was any way we could sustain it.  But we have.  Allow me this morning to simply say to myself and to all of us:  “Let us not be weary in well doing.”  If there’s anyone here who has not learned the joy of giving to the Lord’s work, you don’t know what you’re missing.  

             We should commit ourselves to serve God and others faithfully.  (34-39) Verse 34 begins to touch on the fact that the stewardship God calls for is not just financial, but also relates to time and talent.  First, the leaders commit to providing wood for the altar at set times each year.  Then they promise to bring the firstfruits of their crops and fruit trees.  Then they commit the firstborn of their sons to work at the temple, as well as the firstborn of their cattle, herds, and flocks for sacrifices.  The key word here is “first.”  God wants to be first in our lives, first in our finances, first in our relationships, first in our business.

I would say that in evangelicalism as a whole we generally do better at the commitment of giving than we do at serving.  We are so busy that we often opt to write a check rather than give of ourselves or our effort.  An interesting thing happened to one of our members in this regard over the past two years.  When we turned in our faith promises for this building in May of 1990, this man expressed to me that he was starting a new company and hoped to give a significant amount of money to the project. 

Well, the company hit on hard times and it became impossible for this man to meet the goal he had set for himself.  But he had unusual skills in construction, and over the past two months he has spent literally hundreds of hours, along with a half dozen other faithful workers, turning the BIGG House garage into a magnificent auditorium for our youth and young singles.  You know something, I think the blessing he will receive may be far greater than if he gave a gift of six figures to the building fund.

I recognize that not many of us can volunteer hundreds of hours to work on a building project, nor do we all have the skill to do so, even if we had the time.  But all of us can do something to serve God or one another.  

             We should commit ourselves to be involved in worship and holy living.  Look at the last sentence in chapter 10:  “We will not neglect the house of our God.”  What does it mean to “not neglect” the house of God?  I don’t think it means being at church every time the door is open, but I do think it means to regularly participate in worship and fellowship with the people of God.  It means developing a sense of personal responsibility for the spiritual family we are part of—not always expecting that someone else will do the tasks that are begging for workers.  It means living in such a way that we do not bring disrepute upon the Lord of the church.  

We have looked this morning at the spiritual basis for making commitments, at the practical prerequisites for lasting commitments, and at some key areas calling for commitment.  But I would be remiss not to mention something even more important. 

The commitment that is prior to all others.  

It might be possible for someone to conclude from this message that the Christian life is simply a supreme effort to live by the Ten Commandments.  One might almost get the impression that I’m advocating a kind of spirituality-by-New-Year-Resolutions.  That is not the case.  You can write and sign and even keep all the commitments in the world, and it won’t help you one whit to get into heaven, for heaven is not earned; it is a gift.  It is a gift given by God to everyone who puts his trust in Jesus Christ. 

What does that mean?  Well, we are sinners by nature, as well as by choice, and we cannot solve our guilt problem by ourselves.  But Jesus solved it by dying on the cross in our place, by paying our penalty.  All He asks is for us to quit relying on our own effort and commit our hearts and lives to Him.  If and when we do that, He has promised to give us eternal life.  

That’s what I mean by the commitment that is prior to all others.  Once we have committed our lives to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, then the Holy Spirit comes to indwell us and empower us.  At that point the commitments we have talked about today become extremely useful in developing a dynamic spiritual life.  But until we have made that commitment, these others are without redeeming value.  They may make you a better neighbor, or parent, or spouse; they will never make you a Christian.

Conclusion:  In conclusion I want to ask that each of us think through the implications of this passage for our own lives.  In fact, I want to request that we each make one or more written commitments today before the Lord and attest them by noting how we plan to become accountable.  You may borrow one or two of Israel’s commitments, or you may come up with some that are entirely different.  I think God would be pleased if we would take the closing moments this morning to do business with Him.   Pause for three minutes. 

Commitments I make today before the Lord: ­­­­­­­­_____________________________


The person(s) I plan to share my commitment(s) with and be accountable to: _________________________________________________________________

Prayer:  Thank you, Lord, for being a great, mighty, and awesome God.  We confess our sinfulness to you and acknowledge that any distress we are in is not your fault but ours.  We thank you that you have met our spiritual need by sending your Son, Jesus, to die for us. Having committed our lives to Him, we now promise to live by the commitments we have written.  Help us, Lord, Amen.

DATE:  August 9, 1992





The Lord’s Day


[i] In 1 Corinthians 3:16, this “temple” analogy is used of the corporate body, the Church; in 1 Corinthians 6:19, the same language used, only this time of the individual believer’s body.