Placing Priority on the Honor of the Lord

Introduction: Having had the experience of saturation with the Law of God and experiencing both its joy and it convicting power, the people now must determine to prioritize their lives in accordance with the instructions they have heard. All that they promised in this section, seeking to fulfill the requirements of the Mosaic covenant for marriage, the priesthood, tithes, and national Sabbath observance, they soon violated when Nehemiah returned for a time to serve the king of Persia {chapter 13]. The intentions and the resolutions were good in their external form, but this stands as a demonstration of the inefficacy of clearly stated moral standards, even those that are of absolute moral importance such as the Ten Commandments, to change the heart. Their vows concerned obedience to the ceremonial law, standards that defined Israel’s purity as a vehicle for redemptive revelation, but even those could not be maintained without a heart of love for God and a cordial consent to the need for salvation.

I. Verses 28, 29 – All the people who were demonstrated to be genealogically pure as Jews joined with the princes, Levites, and priests (9:38) in a solemn oath, enforced by curses. They vowed to observe all the commandments given to Moses. The integrity and sincerity of this resolution was seen in their willingness to sign their names to this sealed document.

A. The religion of Israel was not just a matter of the leadership. It necessarily involved all the people. As God’s elect nation, none were exempt from maintaining those distinctive practices that set them apart from the other nations and established the right matrix from which the Messiah would be born. (Romans 1:1-3; 9:4, 5; Galatians 3:19a; 4:4).

1. No person among the new covenant people of God is exempt from the general condition of holiness (Titus 2:11),

2. None is exempt from the reception of a gift from the Holy Spirit or the use of that gift for the glory of God and the good of all the people of God (1 Corinthians 12:12; Ephesians 4:16).

B. Their entering into a “curse” meant that disobedience to the specific commands of God made them liable to exclusion from the community by death and susceptible to the eternal judgment of God. Paul invoked this idea of a curse on those that corrupted the gospel message and did not fulfill legitimate divine requirements on their lives in Galatians 1:8, 9 and 1 Corinthians 16:21.

1. Adam’s disobedience to the positive command of God about forbidden fruit plunged the entire race into a condition of being cursed (Ephesians 2:3; Romans 5:9, 12, 15, 16, 17; 18, 19; Galatians 3:10).

2. This curse remains on us until it can be removed by one that legally can be our substitute. (Romans 5:21; 2 Corinthians 5:14, 15; Galatians 3:13, 14)

C. Their oath related to matters of divine revelation, those issues already transmitted to them from Moses by the hand of God. These were the Lord’s “rules and statutes,” not those of any man. They were not matters of “will worship” (Colossians 2:21, 22) imposed arbitrarily by human moralists creating false issues in the worship of God. Later, in order to help the people not disobey, the Scribes and the religious sect of the Pharisees made matters of human tradition as important as the revealed standards given by God (Matthew 15:1-9; Luke 11:46; 14:3-6)

II. Verse 30 – They vow the maintenance of purity of the progeny

A. Such marriages as they rejected by this pledge could result in the religious compromise of the children and the grandchildren rising from the union. They also would admit pagan influence into the larger society. This had been an issue for centuries and must be resolved without exception. The rationale for this is given in 13:1, 2 referring to the Mosaic legislation to that effect.

B. This could result also in land being absorbed into family estates that were not committed to the covenantal revelation of Israel, thus checkering the promised land with pockets of resistance and unbelief.

C. This would avoid the possibility of compromising the traceability of the genealogical connections of the Messiah (Cf. Matthew 1:12-17; 22:41-46; Luke 1:26, 32; 2:4, 5). This was an important aspect of evidence in demonstrating that Jesus fulfilled all the prophetic elements by which one could demonstrate the messianic profile of Jesus.

D. When the people fell from this pledge during Nehemiah’s absence, the feared corruption began to occur (13:23, 24) and Nehemiah dealt with them severely in order to correct this evil. He pointed to the corruption that came into Israel as a result of the practice of wise king Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-8) in his unruly gathering of foreign wives (13:26, 27)

III. Verse 31 – They vow to maintain all the Sabbath legislation even in the midst of a growing mercantile culture.

A. Dealers in goods that supposed they would sell their goods on the Sabbath were to be rejected and no goods would be purchased. Again, Nehemiah had to re-enforce this when he returned from his time in Persia (13:15-22).

B. They also would observe the Sabbath for the land and for the forgiveness of debt. In Leviticus 26:14-39, God pronounced a curse on Israel for disobedience that came to pass precisely as he had said. One of the results of this discipline from God would be, “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it” (34, 35).

C. As mentioned in an earlier lesson, the Sabbath represents the satisfaction achieved at the completion of a task. God’s first Sabbath was the completion of the creation, the first part of the eternal covenant between Father, Son, and Spirit (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:11) and seen as an element of the praise in heaven (Revelation 4:11). The next Sabbath was the completion of the work of reconciliation, a rest in which we enter by faith in the completed work of Christ (Hebrews 4:1-10, 14). This also is celebrated in the worship of heavenly hosts (Revelation 5:12-14). The last Sabbath, and the completion of the covenant of redemption, occurs when God brings his people into his presence and they “rest from their labors” (Revelation 14:13) with the certainty that, by the work of Christ, he will “raise them up at the last day (John 6:38-40, 44, 54).

D. Our Sabbath, not enforced ceremonially and civilly as in Israel (Exodus 31:12-18), but in the cleansed conscience of the redeemed, is the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, when the resurrection manifested the completion of reconciliation by the “blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20). Each Christian should set aside that day for corporate worship and personal meditation, not a market day for the body, but as the Puritans liked to say, the “market day of the soul.”

IV. Verses 32-38 –  Having now vowed, upon pain of curse, to amend errors, they follow with pledges to insure the purity and perpetuity of worship.

A. verses 32, 33 – They pledged to give the “third part of a shekel” to support the priests in the continual activities of their ministry for the house of Israel. They made this ordinance for themselves and charged themselves with it because of the importance of maintaining the worship of God regularly and according to divine revelation. Any provision for personal safety and comfort is vain unless seen as an outflow of a life devoted to the worship and service of God.

1. The pledge of money from each person would provide sustenance for the priests that would be occupied completely in the required services and also for the purchase of some of the necessary items for the daily, and weekly, and special rituals (“Sabbaths, new moons and appointed feasts”) as well as the occasional sin offerings and guilt offerings (Leviticus 19:21, 22).

2. There would be the daily need for the shew bread, two lambs daily for offering, and four on the Sabbaths and then special days, and other types of offerings throughout the months.

B. Verse 34 – They pledged to make provision for the wood necessary to keep the fires going for sacrifice day in and day out. No store of this was presently available so each family would provide wood, including the priests and the Levites, so that the heat for boiling some of the sacrifices and burning the others would always be present.

C. Verses 35-37a – They vowed to bring the firstfruits and the first born as originally required in the Law of Moses.

1. Exodus 23:19 said, “The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:23 established a specific protocol for planting fruit trees, not harvesting them for the first three years, giving all the fruit to the Lord in the fourth year (“an offering of praise to the Lord”), and then enjoying its fruit in the fifth year.

2. In commemoration of the Passover, first born male animals were a sacrifice to the Lord and first-born sons were to be redeemed (Exodus 13:11-16). The price of redemption of sons and of unclean animals was to be the property of the Levites. The clean animals, such as the first born of a cow, or sheep, or goat were to be sacrificed and the meat was food for the sacrificing priests and their families (Numbers 18:14-20).

D. Verse 37b-39 – They vowed to bring the tithes as required so that the house of the Lord and all its required personnel could be maintained in the way required.

1. This vow is in fulfillment of Number 18:21-32. “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting” (21).

2. Then the gathering for the Levites, scattered throughout the tribes, was also to be tithed for those in the line of Aaron that served continually at the sacrificial altar (Numbers 18:26, 27). This “tithe of the tithe” was to be given as if it came from the “grain of the threshing floor and as the fullness of the winepress” as a “contribution to the Lord from all your tithes” (Numbers 18:26, 28).

3. In this moment of exalted consecration to the words of God so recently impressed on their minds and hearts they pledged, “We will not neglect the house of our God” (Nehemiah 10:39).

V. Applications – Some suggestions for present application

A. True conviction of personal sin and of the truth of the word of God will lead to practical action to correct areas of disobedience and corrupted worship. Contrasted to what many liturgiologists are arguing today, the act of worship does not instruct us in true doctrine; rather, true doctrine shapes and determines the form of acceptable worship.

B. Though we do not have the ceremonies connected with Israel’s Sabbath observance, nor do we have the civil law requiring death to it violators, we have the gracious provision of the Lord’s Day for the refreshment of soul in the remembrance of God’s faithfulness in the covenant of redemption and of his gracious inclusion of us in its provisions. Observation of this opportunity should not be wearisome, but accounted as an entrance into heavenly joy upon earth.

C. The provision for the house of God and its servants who teach and proclaim the gospel is just as necessary now as then, and the clarity of our purpose in proclaiming the glories of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light even more compelling.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts