The Sealing of the Covenant
The center of any real reformation is the Word of God. This was true in Nehemiah’s day. It was true in the sixteenth century. And it’s true today. Anything that does not change the thinking and beliefs of the people may be called a religious reorganization, perhaps even a housecleaning, but it most certainly is not a reformation.
On the other hand, a real reformation must go beyond mere doctrine. Its purpose is to change the hearts of men. The Holy Spirit does this through the preaching of the Word. Changed hearts eventually manifest themselves in changed lives, and changed lives sooner or later start to change church and society.
President Ronald Reagan used the phrase “trickle-down economics” to summarize his economic policy. If the wealthy, he argued, are allowed to keep more of their money, they will invest it and thereby create jobs for others. What we see in today’s text is similar to this, except that we might call it “trickle-out sanctification.” The work that the Spirit of God begins within an individual gradually works itself out into more and more areas of his life and service. This inevitably happens when men become serious about renewing the covenant and serving the Lord.
Men Who Sealed the Covenant
The first twenty-seven verses of Nehemiah 10 gives the names of those who sealed this covenant (cf. 9:38). Not surprisingly, the very first name in the list is Nehemiah the Tirshatha or governor. Nehemiah understood the importance of leading by example as well as by precept. Thus, he was the first to affirm his whole-hearted devotion to the Lord.
This kind of leadership has always been exceedingly rare. In our own, for example, it’s far more common for civil leaders to minimize the exclusive claims of Christ by acknowledging the so-called good of all religions, as if Christianity were only one among many ways to God, or by treating it positively as a religion the produces hate and fear in those who embrace it. But this is not leadership at all. Rather, those who do such things take the authority that Christ himself has given them and they use it against him. This is treason, and it can only have one result. Psalm 2 says that the Son of God will break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (v. 9).
On the other hand, the Lord promises to bless rulers like Nehemiah who govern in righteousness. Proverbs 16:12 says, It is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness; for the throne is established by righteousness.
After Nehemiah, the names of those who sealed the covenant appear in three groups: the priests (vv. 1–8), the Levites (vv. 9–13) and the leaders (vv. 14–27).
In the first eight verses, we find the names of twenty-four priests. Several of these names also appear in the list of priests in chapter 12 (vv. 12–21); however, two names are conspicuously absent. One is Eliashib, the current high priest (cf. 3:1, 20). Another is Ezra, Nehemiah’s older colleague. Why are these two names missing? It’s probably because most of the names in this list are representatives of families. For example, Seraiah, whose name appears in verse 2, was, according to Ezra 7:1, Ezra’s father. This suggests that there were more than twenty-four priests in Judah in Nehemiah’s day.
The list of Levites begins with verse 9. Again, it seems to include the names of individuals as well as family representatives. Six of the individual Levites mentioned here were involved in reading the law in chapter 8 (v. 7). The family names, on the other hand, were mostly men who returned with Zerubbabel in the first returned from the Babylonian captivity several decades earlier.
The third group of names consists of chiefs of the people, i.e., leaders or heads of families. There are forty-four names in this list. Twenty-one of these names parallel a list in the second chapter of Ezra (cf. Neh. 7:8–25). The remaining twenty-three are harder to classify. A few of them helped to rebuild the wall in chapter 3. Some of them seem to be older families, possibly families that had remained in Judah during the captivity. And there are a few new names as well. These may represent families that had returned from Babylon either during the reconstruction of the wall or after it was completed.
Beyond this brief survey, we know very little about most of the people who sealed the covenant in our text. But the recording of their names is a witness to their devotion to the Lord and is, therefore, an encouragement to us. It illustrates what the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, viz., that whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope (Rom. 15:4).
The recording of the names of those who sealed the covenant also establishes a strong sense of a worshiping community. In the previous chapter, Nehemiah made it clear that the Jews of his day saw their reformation as paralleling the exodus and conquest, except that they had a greater determination to obey the Lord. They read the law, observed the feast and sacrifices and even dwelt in tents to commemorate the wilderness wandering. To show that this was not a meaningless exercise, they came together immediately afterward as a covenant community to embrace the entire law of God. The rest of this chapter, which we’ll look at in a minute, identifies some very specific ways in which they began to implement their radical obedience. In fact, the rest of the book shows them continuing to wrestle with the implications of the covenant.
Beloved, if your old man has truly been crucified with Jesus Christ, then sin must not reign in you. If your new man has been raised to new life in the Messiah, then you are now servants of righteousness, obeying the Lord from the heart. As God’s covenant people, you must be as committed to the revealed will of God as were the Jews of Nehemiah’s day. Their commitment was a heartfelt and sincere love of God that made them joyously cast off all beliefs and practices that were contrary to Scripture.
The apostle John wrote at length about the need for believers to adopt a way of life that is wholly in submission to the Lord. When he said that we do not sin, he meant that this is not our habit to sin. Rather, the work of Christ has put an end to this. John wrote, Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him. Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God (I John 3:6–9).
There are two concerns that believers always struggle with in their obedience. On the one hand, we do not want to isolate ourselves completely from unbelievers, which would destroy every opportunity to testify to them of God’s love and mercy. On the other hand, it would be just as bad to adopt their lifestyles and practices just to get along with them. This would destroy the effectiveness of our testimony. The answer is not to try to balance cultural isolation and cultural immersion, but to commit ourselves entirely to the Word of God. We should go as far as it commands and stop wherever it stops.
This is what the Jews of Nehemiah’s day pledged to do.
The remainder of chapter 10 explains how the people tried to carry out their radical obedience.
According to verse 28, it seems that there were a lot of people who were not present for the sealing of the written covenant. The text mentions the rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the porters, the singers, the Nethinims, and all they that had separated themselves from the people of the lands unto the law of God, their wives, their sons, and their daughters, every one having knowledge, and having understanding. But verse 29 makes it clear that even those who were not present bound themselves to the same radical obedience as their leaders. They agreed to keep all the commandments of the Lord, as well as his judgments and his statutes. There is even the mention of a curse for those who fail to keep God’s covenant. This is a reference to Deuteronomy 28:15–68, where the Lord himself explains how he will deal with those who turn away from his Word.
Here we see the effectiveness of the leadership of Nehemiah and the others, for they not only committed themselves to walk according to the law of God, but they also clave to their brethren. In fact, Nehemiah mentioned this first because it was through the brethren that they were encouraged to embrace the entirety of God’s law. This illustrates the fact that God is pleased to use the instruction and example of leaders to arouse his people to renewed commitment and zeal, and it reminds the people of God to follow the godly example of those who are over them in the Lord. Hebrews 13:17 says, Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.
The specifics of their obedience begin with verse 30. The items that follow are, for the most part, things that had been neglected for a long time. They sought to correct these things first.
In verse 30, they agreed to separate from the surrounding nations, specifically promising not to intermarry with pagans. Both Ezra and Nehemiah had to deal with this matter frequently. In fact, it comes up again at the end of Nehemiah. Some who, having not been serious about this covenant, needed a stronger rebuke.
Next, the people agreed in verse 31 to keep the Sabbath by not buying food from foreigners on the Sabbath day and by observing the sabbatical years (cf. Exod. 23:11), including the canceling of debts. This was also something that Nehemiah had to deal with later. Some of the Jews not only bought victuals from foreigners, but also engaged in Sabbath-day labors of their own. Nehemiah dealt harshly with them as well.
The fact that these two provisions were not kept by every single person does not mean that most were not sincere. It only shows that no reformation engages the hearts of 100 percent of the people. In fact, Nehemiah was able to deal effectively with these matters only because the people as a whole stood behind him.
The people also made provision for supporting and maintaining the ministry of the temple. We see this in verses 32 through 34. This involved two things.
First, there was an annual assessment of one-third of a shekel — a temple tax, which was supposed to finance the regular cycle of sacrifices that were required by the law. In addition to the daily offerings, additional sacrifices were to be made each new moon and on other holy days.
There is, however, the difference between what the law of Moses said and what the people agreed to do. Exodus 30:13 required all men over the age of twenty to pay half a shekel, not a third of a shekel. So why the difference? It was probably due to the extreme poverty of Judah at the time. The land had been decimated by war, famine and the cost of rebuilding the wall. Even so, was it really permissible to alter the law of God in this instance?
The answer to this question is somewhat complex. Only the Lord can change the moral statutes of the law, which he did, for example, when he commanded the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute, which he did not allow others to do. Likewise, God did not require the death of David after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered Uriah, even though the law prescribes death for both sins. We, however, are not free to play fast and loose with God’s commandments. But things are little different when it comes to the ceremonial laws. Only the priests were permitted to eat the showbread from the table of showbread, but when David, who was not a priest, was hungry, Ahimelech, having no other food, gave him the holy bread (I Sam. 21: 3–6). This is a practical illustration of the fact that God prefers mercy to sacrifice. In the New Testament, Jesus applied the same principle and illustration to doing good works on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1–8). The sabbath, he said, was made for man, and not man for the sabbath (Mark 2:27). Therefore, helping another man on the Sabbath is not a crime.
In addition to the temple tax, the people also promised to provide wood for the altar. Although the law of Moses did not specifically require the people to do this, it assumed that they would. Leviticus 6:12–13 specifies that the fire on the altar was to burn continually, which necessitated a constant supply of fuel. The Nethinims, who were temple servants, used to take care of this, but here the people pledged to do this themselves.
Both of the provisions in these three verses underscore the peoples’ desire to serve the Lord. The Persian king Artaxerxes had set aside money and supplies for rebuilding the wall and maintaining the temple. Whether Artaxerxes’ supplies had been depleted by this time is unknown. In any case, our text shows us that people took their own responsibility seriously. The temple was the temple of their God, and they had to support it according to the stipulations that God himself had given them.
Worship is, of course, a spiritual exercise. Jesus told the woman at the well that true worshipers worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). While this certainly requires that our worship be sincere, it does notmean that our worship has nothing to do temporal elements. I Cor. 6:20 reminds us that the worship of God also involves our bodies. Paul wrote, For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.
Nehemiah and the Jews of his day took care of the outward elements of worship. They did so willingly and joyfully, and so must we. For example, the amount of care that we put into our building — cleaning it each week, landscaping, keeping up with maintenance and repairs, etc. — demonstrates in a very practical way our worship and enjoyment of God. In fact, we should take care of all that God gives us because it all has one purpose: advancing the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on earth.
In the last few verses of our text, the Jews pledged to do one more thing, viz., to bring the firstfruits of their produce to the temple as required by Deuteronomy 26:2. Fruit and cattle were given to the Levites for food, since they had no land of their own on which they might grow food. Firstborn sons, however, were redeemed with a monetary offering per Numbers 18:15–16. The Levites stored grains and vegetables in the temple, and paid a tithe of their income to support the priests.
The Jews understood the importance of supporting the temple. Thus, they made some very practical arrangements to fulfill their commitment. The church today should be even more concerned to support the Lord’s work. Although tithing is a guide, we should not see it as the end, but as the beginning. Even in the Old Testament, the various taxes and offerings that God required from the people more than doubled the tithe. This was meant to teach the people to give generously to kingdom works. Jesus set the bar much higher for us when he told us to give in such a way that our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing (Matt. 6:3). In other words, we shouldn’t give like the IRS collects taxes, i.e., counting every penny. Rather, we should give above what God requires and beyond what we think we can handle. Financial giving is a test of our faith. Malachi 3:10 says, Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it (Mal. 3:10).
The final statement at the end of verse 39 summarizes the Jews’ resolve to pursue the Messiah’s kingdom. They declared, We will not forsake the house of our God. In a sense, the reformation that we have observed over the last few chapters overshadowed the rebuilding of the wall. Attending to spiritual matters, including the maintenance of the temple and its ministry, became the people’s primary focus. They turned from their sins and sought the Lord’s grace.
The Puritan settlers of New England drew up a formal covenant similar to the one in our text. Likewise, the Kirk of Scotland adopted a National Covenant in 1638, which became the pattern for the Solemn League and Covenant of the Westminster Assembly five years later. Yet, even our denominational and local constitutions are a form of covenant. These documents bind us together in our obedience to the Word of God.
The RCUS Constitution lays out the duties of church members in Article 6:
It is the duty of Church members to live sober, righteous and godly lives, and to labor faithfully to bring others to Christ. They shall obey the laws and rules of life prescribed in the Word of God and abide by the Constitution of the Church and contribute liberally, in proportion to their means, to the support of the Gospel and for the extension of the Kingdom of Christ. Every member shall attend faithfully the public services of the Church and shall engage diligently in private devotions; and those who have been confirmed shall partake regularly of the Lord’s Supper. Parents shall give attention to the Christian training of the members of the household.
Note how similar this is to the covenant obligations outlined in today’s text. Even more importantly, note how Biblical it is. The Constitution requires that the Bible requires and nothing more. As I said at the beginning, any real reformation must be Biblical from beginning to end.
But a reformation must also change heart, life, church and the world. Has the Spirit of God burdened you to be faithful to his covenant? Has he given you the zeal to pursue his kingdom at all costs? If he has, may he also give you grace to fulfill your part. If he has not, then you should cry out to him to make it so. Amen.