Nehemiah
Introduction 1 Fasting and Sackcloth 2 Separation and Confession 3 Listen, Confess and Worship 4 The Levites Cry to the LORD 5 Call to Praise the LORD 6 The LORD, the Creator 7-8 The Election of Abraham 9-11 The LORD Is a Redeemer 12 The Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire 13-14 At Sinai 15 Bread and Water 16-17 But … 18-21 God’s Faithfulness and the Unfaithfulness of the People 22-25 What the LORD Has Given 26-28 Unfaithfulness of the People and God’s Salvation 29 The People Sin Against God’s Provisions 30-31 God’s Great Patience Has an End 32 Begging for God’s Favor 33-35 God Justified in His Actions 36-37 Slavery Is Justified 38 An Agreement
Introduction

In this chapter, we become partakers of the confession of guilt of the Israelites. We can connect this chapter with Ezra 9 and Daniel 9 where we also find confessions of guilt, spoken by Ezra and Daniel.


Fasting and Sackcloth

1Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel assembled with fasting, in sackcloth and with dirt upon them.

The consequences of reading the law, the Word of God, become visible. The Word of God is at the origin of everything that follows. The Word was read in Nehemiah 8. The first consequence there is that God gets His part: the Feast of Booths is celebrated. The second consequence we find here: the people take their true place before God. They acknowledge that their present position is the result of not listening to God’s commandments.

The people of God are deeply impressed by the Word of God. The Word has caused great joy among the people (Neh 8:1313Then on the second day the heads of fathers’ [households] of all the people, the priests and the Levites were gathered to Ezra the scribe that they might gain insight into the words of the law.). Now the Word of God leads them to confess their sins.

There is fasting and mourning. This does not contradict the feast and joy of the previous chapter. It belongs together. Joy and self-denial go hand in hand with the Christian if it is good. Joy in the Lord is the result of knowing Him; humbleness is the result of recognizing one’s own failure, the result of knowing oneself.

Fasting is a sign of mourning. He who fasts sees the seriousness of the situation in which the people of God or he himself find themselves. By fasting one renounces food, of what the body needs and what is lawful to take, to devote oneself in the spirit to the sad circumstances and to call upon God about them. Isaiah speaks about fasting as God intended (Isa 58:6-76“Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
7“Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
; cf. Joel 2:12-1712“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“Return to Me with all your heart,
And with fasting, weeping and mourning;
13And rend your heart and not your garments.”
Now return to the LORD your God,
For He is gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness
And relenting of evil.
14Who knows whether He will [not] turn and relent
And leave a blessing behind Him,
[Even] a grain offering and a drink offering
For the LORD your God?
15Blow a trumpet in Zion,
Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly,
16Gather the people, sanctify the congregation,
Assemble the elders,
Gather the children and the nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom come out of his room
And the bride out of her [bridal] chamber.
17Let the priests, the LORD’S ministers,
Weep between the porch and the altar,
And let them say, “Spare Your people, O LORD,
And do not make Your inheritance a reproach,
A byword among the nations.
Why should they among the peoples say,
‘Where is their God?’”
). Man takes his true place toward God and gives God His true place.

A sequel to the Feast of Booths as we find here is not prescribed anywhere in the law. The Feast of Booths ends on the twenty-third of the month. What we read here takes place on the twenty-fourth of the month. That day is not part of the feast. They don’t want to ruin the feast by their grief. After the feast, however, the Word takes effect on their conscience. It is voluntary and complemented by the working of the Spirit. An exuberant feast is followed by a day of penance and repentance. In this way expressions of mind alternate. Being surrounded by blessings can make us small when we realize how undeserved they are and, as a result, bring us to confession. We wonder from what we have earned it.

Mourning and dirt upon them is, as it were, becoming equal to a dead person. To take that place because there is the consciousness of being dust and ashes in the presence of the Almighty (cf. Gen 18:2727And Abraham replied, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the LORD, although I am [but] dust and ashes.; Job 42:66Therefore I retract,
And I repent in dust and ashes.”
) is also the place of blessing.


Separation and Confession

2The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.

The praise of the LORD at the Feast of Booths cannot go together with connections forbidden by God. Sincere recognition of failure brings to action. The first act is separation from foreigners. In this they are not half-hearted. They separate themselves from “all” foreigners. The second act is confession. Confession of sins does not only take place at the beginning of life as a Christian, but is part of the whole life of the Christian. Separation and confession of sins belong together.

Nor do they detach themselves from their ancestry. They do not put themselves above them, but make themselves one with them. It is the recognition that we, human beings, have dishonored God through our lives.


Listen, Confess and Worship

3While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day; and for [another] fourth they confessed and worshiped the LORD their God.

Again the Word of God occupies the principal place. All their actions are controlled by it. They listen to it and obey it. Confession and worship are the effect of hearing God’s Word. There is a balance between being preoccupied with God’s Word on the one hand and confession and worship on the other hand. The same duration is used for both soul exercises. The duration of listening to God’s Word is followed by an equally long time during which the Word gets its effect in the conscience.

What they read or hear is material for prayer, and through prayer the Word gets its desired effect. Word and prayer must go hand in hand. He who reads only the Word, without prayer, gathers knowledge for the head. A theoretical Christendom arises, which will lead to annoyance of fellow Christians. Those who devote themselves solely to prayer run the risk of losing themselves in mysticism and fanaticism. Whoever does both will grow up in the “grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2Pet 3:1818but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him [be] the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.) and become a good follower of Him.


The Levites Cry to the LORD

4Now on the Levites’ platform stood Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani [and] Chenani, and they cried with a loud voice to the LORD their God.

Eight Levites stand in a place made for them, on a platform. This time they do not take that place above the people to teach the people from God’s Word. No, they are the first to express their guilt toward the LORD. They cry to the LORD their God with a loud voice, and lead the people in this. Through the exaltation they enter the sanctuary as it were.


Call to Praise the LORD

5Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah [and] Pethahiah, said, “Arise, bless the LORD your God forever and ever!
O may Your glorious name be blessed
And exalted above all blessing and praise!

After the Levites have turned to the LORD, they also involve the people in their approach unto him. They call upon the people to arise and praise the LORD. The confession of guilt begins with a call to praise the LORD, to which the Levites give expression immediately. True confession of the guilt of the people of God takes place in a spirit of trust in the goodness of the LORD. The proofs of that goodness are mentioned at length. The more clearly the goodness of the LORD comes to our attention, the greater will be the guilt that we have borne toward such a Person.

The Levites turn to the LORD with first of all the acknowledgment of His glorious Name, a Name which in fact surpasses all praise. They are conscious to stand before Him for whom all human thought and description fall short. What His Name means is beyond our comprehension (Rev 19:12b12His eyes [are] a flame of fire, and on His head [are] many diadems; and He has a name written [on Him] which no one knows except Himself.; Mt 11:2727All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal [Him].). This awareness should also characterize us more. This will save us from an inappropriate manner of dealing with the High and Holy.

We may know God as our Father and enjoy the closest intimacy with Him. We may approach Him with boldness with the certainty that He loves to have us as His children with Him. But that does not mean that we would no longer need respect and reverence and that we can forget how high He is above us and everything and everyone. The awareness of His highness only increases the miracle of our closeness.


The LORD, the Creator

6“You alone are the LORD.
You have made the heavens,
The heaven of heavens with all their host,
The earth and all that is on it,
The seas and all that is in them.
You give life to all of them
And the heavenly host bows down before You.

The awareness of the exaltation of God comes to the fore in the prayer of the Levites in three aspects:
1. They maintain God in all His ways of discipline with His people. They also acknowledge Him in the omnipotence He has shown in the deliverance of the people from Egypt, in the support of the people in the desert and in the introduction of the people into the promised land. God has always acted with them in mercy and justice.
2. They confess their own sins and the sins of their fathers, and do not justify their actions.
3. Because of their great distress and submission to the nations they renew the old covenant of the law, and make it a firm covenant which they confirm with their seal.

All living beings in heaven worship the LORD. They are constantly impressed by their Creator and Sustainer and worship Him without ceasing. For us it is even more appropriate to have an attitude of constant worship because we may also know our Creator as Savior (Heb 2:14-1614Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,15and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.16For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham.).

The Levites show in their prayer – the longest in the Bible, also longer than Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple – that they have an eye for God’s grace and power

1. in creation (verse 66“You alone are the LORD.
You have made the heavens,
The heaven of heavens with all their host,
The earth and all that is on it,
The seas and all that is in them.
You give life to all of them
And the heavenly host bows down before You.
),
2. in Egypt and at the Red Sea (verses 9-119“You saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt,
And heard their cry by the Red Sea.
10“Then You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh,
Against all his servants and all the people of his land;
For You knew that they acted arrogantly toward them,
And made a name for Yourself as [it is] this day.
11“You divided the sea before them,
So they passed through the midst of the sea on dry ground;
And their pursuers You hurled into the depths,
Like a stone into raging waters.
),
3. in the wilderness and at the Sinai (verses 12-2112“And with a pillar of cloud You led them by day,
And with a pillar of fire by night
To light for them the way
In which they were to go.13“Then You came down on Mount Sinai,
And spoke with them from heaven;
You gave them just ordinances and true laws,
Good statutes and commandments.
14“So You made known to them Your holy sabbath,
And laid down for them commandments, statutes and law,
Through Your servant Moses.15“You provided bread from heaven for them for their hunger,
You brought forth water from a rock for them for their thirst,
And You told them to enter in order to possess
The land which You swore to give them.16“But they, our fathers, acted arrogantly;
They became stubborn and would not listen to Your commandments.
17“They refused to listen,
And did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them;
So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt.
But You are a God of forgiveness,
Gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness;
And You did not forsake them.18“Even when they made for themselves
A calf of molten metal
And said, ‘This is your God
Who brought you up from Egypt,’
And committed great blasphemies,
19You, in Your great compassion,
Did not forsake them in the wilderness;
The pillar of cloud did not leave them by day,
To guide them on their way,
Nor the pillar of fire by night, to light for them the way in which they were to go.
20“You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,
Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,
And You gave them water for their thirst.
21“Indeed, forty years You provided for them in the wilderness [and] they were not in want;
Their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell.
),
4. at the conquest of Canaan (verses 22-2522“You also gave them kingdoms and peoples,
And allotted [them] to them as a boundary.
They took possession of the land of Sihon the king of Heshbon
And the land of Og the king of Bashan.
23“You made their sons numerous as the stars of heaven,
And You brought them into the land
Which You had told their fathers to enter and possess.
24“So their sons entered and possessed the land.
And You subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites,
And You gave them into their hand, with their kings and the peoples of the land,
To do with them as they desired.
25“They captured fortified cities and a fertile land.
They took possession of houses full of every good thing,
Hewn cisterns, vineyards, olive groves,
Fruit trees in abundance.
So they ate, were filled and grew fat,
And reveled in Your great goodness.
),
5. by prophets and judges (verses 26-2826“But they became disobedient and rebelled against You,
And cast Your law behind their backs
And killed Your prophets who had admonished them
So that they might return to You,
And they committed great blasphemies.
27“Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them,
But when they cried to You in the time of their distress,
You heard from heaven, and according to Your great compassion
You gave them deliverers who delivered them from the hand of their oppressors.
28“But as soon as they had rest, they did evil again before You;
Therefore You abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they ruled over them.
When they cried again to You, You heard from heaven,
And many times You rescued them according to Your compassion,
),
6. by prophets (verses 29-3129And admonished them in order to turn them back to Your law.
Yet they acted arrogantly and did not listen to Your commandments but sinned against Your ordinances,
By which if a man observes them he shall live.
And they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck, and would not listen.30“However, You bore with them for many years,
And admonished them by Your Spirit through Your prophets,
Yet they would not give ear.
Therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands.
31“Nevertheless, in Your great compassion You did not make an end of them or forsake them,
For You are a gracious and compassionate God.
) and
7. in the situation they are in now (verses 32-3732“Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and lovingkindness,
Do not let all the hardship seem insignificant before You,
Which has come upon us, our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers and on all Your people,
From the days of the kings of Assyria to this day.33“However, You are just in all that has come upon us;
For You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly.
34“For our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers have not kept Your law
Or paid attention to Your commandments and Your admonitions with which You have admonished them.
35“But they, in their own kingdom,
With Your great goodness which You gave them,
With the broad and rich land which You set before them,
Did not serve You or turn from their evil deeds.36“Behold, we are slaves today,
And as to the land which You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty,
Behold, we are slaves in it.
37“Its abundant produce is for the kings
Whom You have set over us because of our sins;
They also rule over our bodies
And over our cattle as they please,
So we are in great distress.
).

Until verse 1616“But they, our fathers, acted arrogantly;
They became stubborn and would not listen to Your commandments.
there is first a list of all the blessings that the people have received as a result of God’s action in goodness to them. Each time there is talk of “You”, of the LORD, of what He has done. Everything shows His faithfulness, His grace, His blessing. May He expect anything but to thank and serve Him with all their hearts and lives? But in verse 1616“But they, our fathers, acted arrogantly;
They became stubborn and would not listen to Your commandments.
comes a turning point. Then it no longer only speaks of “You”, but also of “they”. From that verse God’s gracious acts are interwoven with their ingratitude, infidelity, unwillingness and rebellion.

Here, in verse 66“You alone are the LORD.
You have made the heavens,
The heaven of heavens with all their host,
The earth and all that is on it,
The seas and all that is in them.
You give life to all of them
And the heavenly host bows down before You.
, first the LORD is honored and acknowledged in Whom and what He is: He is LORD, He alone, unchanging, eternal. He is the Creator and the Sustainer. He is the source of all that exists (Col 1:15-1715He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.16For by Him all things were created, [both] in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.17He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.). That the LORD is the Creator means that the Lord Jesus is the Creator, for the LORD of the Old Testament is the same as the Lord Jesus in the New Testament. This is evident from John 12 where John quotes a word of Isaiah (Jn 12:4141These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him.; Isa 6:1-41In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple.2Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.3And one called out to another and said,
“Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts,
The whole earth is full of His glory.”
4And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke.
). A comparison of both parts shows that while Isaiah speaks about the LORD of hosts, John says that Isaiah speaks about the Lord Jesus.


The Election of Abraham

7“You are the LORD God,
Who chose Abram
And brought him out from Ur of the Chaldees,
And gave him the name Abraham.
8“You found his heart faithful before You,
And made a covenant with him
To give [him] the land of the Canaanite,
Of the Hittite and the Amorite,
Of the Perizzite, the Jebusite and the Girgashite—
To give [it] to his descendants.
And You have fulfilled Your promise,
For You are righteous.

After His omnipotence in creation follows His sovereignty in His election. God is the God of election and of promises. Election is His prerogative, and He has the power to make His election come true. That power is evidenced by giving a name and changing it. It indicates His supremacy. He promises and fulfills His promises. He is faithful to His word, He keeps His word, for He is righteous.


The LORD Is a Redeemer

9“You saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt,
And heard their cry by the Red Sea.
10“Then You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh,
Against all his servants and all the people of his land;
For You knew that they acted arrogantly toward them,
And made a name for Yourself as [it is] this day.
11“You divided the sea before them,
So they passed through the midst of the sea on dry ground;
And their pursuers You hurled into the depths,
Like a stone into raging waters.

God sees all that men do to His people, and He hears their cries to Him (Exo 3:77The LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings.). He is closely involved in all that is done to His people and all that is going on in them. He acts both for the benefit of His people and in judgment against their enemies. Thus He has delivered His people out of their misery, then accompanied and cared for them along the way, and finally brought them into the land of promise.

God is a God of salvation and victory. In order to free His people, He has made His judgement come to Pharaoh and his people. These are for the Israelites ‘signs and miracles’ (verses 1010“Then You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh,
Against all his servants and all the people of his land;
For You knew that they acted arrogantly toward them,
And made a name for Yourself as [it is] this day.
). For them they are proof that God stands up for them in order to deliver them. He offers His people a way to escape where they have thought to perish. But His people will be saved there while the enemies perish.


The Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire

12“And with a pillar of cloud You led them by day,
And with a pillar of fire by night
To light for them the way
In which they were to go.

In verses 12-2112“And with a pillar of cloud You led them by day,
And with a pillar of fire by night
To light for them the way
In which they were to go.13“Then You came down on Mount Sinai,
And spoke with them from heaven;
You gave them just ordinances and true laws,
Good statutes and commandments.
14“So You made known to them Your holy sabbath,
And laid down for them commandments, statutes and law,
Through Your servant Moses.15“You provided bread from heaven for them for their hunger,
You brought forth water from a rock for them for their thirst,
And You told them to enter in order to possess
The land which You swore to give them.16“But they, our fathers, acted arrogantly;
They became stubborn and would not listen to Your commandments.
17“They refused to listen,
And did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them;
So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt.
But You are a God of forgiveness,
Gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness;
And You did not forsake them.18“Even when they made for themselves
A calf of molten metal
And said, ‘This is your God
Who brought you up from Egypt,’
And committed great blasphemies,
19You, in Your great compassion,
Did not forsake them in the wilderness;
The pillar of cloud did not leave them by day,
To guide them on their way,
Nor the pillar of fire by night, to light for them the way in which they were to go.
20“You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,
Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,
And You gave them water for their thirst.
21“Indeed, forty years You provided for them in the wilderness [and] they were not in want;
Their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell.
the people are in the wilderness; in verses 22-2922“You also gave them kingdoms and peoples,
And allotted [them] to them as a boundary.
They took possession of the land of Sihon the king of Heshbon
And the land of Og the king of Bashan.
23“You made their sons numerous as the stars of heaven,
And You brought them into the land
Which You had told their fathers to enter and possess.
24“So their sons entered and possessed the land.
And You subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites,
And You gave them into their hand, with their kings and the peoples of the land,
To do with them as they desired.
25“They captured fortified cities and a fertile land.
They took possession of houses full of every good thing,
Hewn cisterns, vineyards, olive groves,
Fruit trees in abundance.
So they ate, were filled and grew fat,
And reveled in Your great goodness.26“But they became disobedient and rebelled against You,
And cast Your law behind their backs
And killed Your prophets who had admonished them
So that they might return to You,
And they committed great blasphemies.
27“Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them,
But when they cried to You in the time of their distress,
You heard from heaven, and according to Your great compassion
You gave them deliverers who delivered them from the hand of their oppressors.
28“But as soon as they had rest, they did evil again before You;
Therefore You abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they ruled over them.
When they cried again to You, You heard from heaven,
And many times You rescued them according to Your compassion,29And admonished them in order to turn them back to Your law.
Yet they acted arrogantly and did not listen to Your commandments but sinned against Your ordinances,
By which if a man observes them he shall live.
And they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck, and would not listen.
they are in the land. In every part of Israel’s history we see the interweaving of man’s unfaithfulness and the mercy of God. After their deliverance, He does not leave His people to their fate. He Himself goes before them and travels with them through the wilderness. His light shines on the path they must go.


At Sinai

13“Then You came down on Mount Sinai,
And spoke with them from heaven;
You gave them just ordinances and true laws,
Good statutes and commandments.
14“So You made known to them Your holy sabbath,
And laid down for them commandments, statutes and law,
Through Your servant Moses.

He governs all their life. They need not think of anything themselves to remain a people. From heaven, His dwelling place, He speaks to them. Where He dwells, everything is in accordance with Himself. If He speaks to His people from there, it can only be for their benefit. He has redeemed His people to dwell with them. Then that dwelling place must correspond to heaven.

That is why He gives them “just ordinances”. The point of departure for His abode among them is His righteousness. He gives His people those provisions so that they may enjoy the blessing of His presence. He also provides them with “true laws”. Their life together before Him is governed by incorruptible justice. They are not laws adapted to the situation. They can rely on those laws, they come from Him Who is completely and in every way trustworthy.

Furthermore, He gives them “good statutes and commandments”. He determines their lives socially and religiously. His statutes and commandments must serve as the marrow of society. With all this He has their well-being in mind. Accepting and applying all this as a gift from Him means blessing and prosperity. Deviation from it leads to disaster and misery. God has given us His good Word. If we allow ourselves to be dictated by it and live by it, we will enjoy His blessing. Any deviation from His Word has unpleasant consequences.

The sabbath is not called a commandment here, but a “holy sabbath”. Between the listing of all that the LORD has given in the form of laws, commandments and ordinances, the Levites here remind us of this special institution. The LORD has given this day as a blessing. The people need not work on that day. They may share in the rest of God. By keeping that day they show that they appreciate God’s peace. It is also a proof that they appreciate all God’s commandments.


Bread and Water

15“You provided bread from heaven for them for their hunger,
You brought forth water from a rock for them for their thirst,
And You told them to enter in order to possess
The land which You swore to give them.

The LORD delivered His people out of misery, freed them from their oppressors, led them into the wilderness, and enabled them to function as His people. All non-material conditions have been fulfilled. They are paramount. After all the efforts the LORD has made to provide the people with everything they need, He has also given them food and water in the wilderness. He has also promised them that they will come to the land that He wants to give them. For this He has sworn an oath.

He has always helped the people and given them a perspective for the future. They would have been able to live as a grateful and happy people, provided with all that was necessary, overwhelmed by the support and encouraged by what He had promised them.


But …

16“But they, our fathers, acted arrogantly;
They became stubborn and would not listen to Your commandments.
17“They refused to listen,
And did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them;
So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt.
But You are a God of forgiveness,
Gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness;
And You did not forsake them.

The prayer of the Levites takes a turn here. That turn is heralded with “but”. After seeing Who God is and acting in faithfulness and grace with them, it is now necessary to look back at the attitude of the people since their deliverance from Egypt.

Their attitude of rebellion and unbelief after all the goodness of God comes over us like a cold shower. A cold shower is sobering. This is necessary, because when we have seen the faithfulness of God, we must also have an eye for our reaction to it. It should make us ashamed.

Our shame becomes even greater when we see that the ungrateful reaction of the people is also answered with a “but” from God’s side. In spite of their rebelliousness and their disobedient and wicked conduct, He has continued in grace with them, both in the wilderness and in the land. The Levites are aware of this, and at the end of verse 1717“They refused to listen,
And did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them;
So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt.
But You are a God of forgiveness,
Gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness;
And You did not forsake them.
a new enumeration of God’s blessings follows, which can only increase their amazement and gratitude.

Each time we find the interaction between the ‘but’ that heralds the actions of God’s people and the ‘but’ that heralds God’s actions. How far He has risen above man’s actions. How totally different is His action from that of man. God is a God of forgiveness, of pardon. The word “forgiveness” is in the plural. It is a rare word and only occurs in Psalm 130 and in Daniel 9 (Psa 130:44But there is forgiveness with You,
That You may be feared.
; Dan 9:99To the Lord our God [belong] compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him;).


God’s Faithfulness and the Unfaithfulness of the People

18“Even when they made for themselves
A calf of molten metal
And said, ‘This is your God
Who brought you up from Egypt,’
And committed great blasphemies,
19You, in Your great compassion,
Did not forsake them in the wilderness;
The pillar of cloud did not leave them by day,
To guide them on their way,
Nor the pillar of fire by night, to light for them the way in which they were to go.
20“You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,
Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,
And You gave them water for their thirst.
21“Indeed, forty years You provided for them in the wilderness [and] they were not in want;
Their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell.

The nadir of their rejection of God is the making of the golden calf. With it they have a visible god in their midst. To this god they attribute their deliverance. This is very offensive to their Deliverer and a great insult. Yet He has not surrendered them to the dangers of the wilderness to be devoured by it. He remains faithful to His oath and leads them further with His light on the way they should go. If blessings, which we must lose because of our unfaithfulness, remain our share, it should lead us to double our gratitude.

Also in Christianity there has always been a desire for visible leadership. When faith disappears, the longing for tangible things increases. God is invisible to the natural eye. But those who believe “that He is” (Heb 11:66And without faith it is impossible to please [Him], for he who comes to God must believe that He is and [that] He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.) receive abundant proof of His existence and of the care He exercises. A visible leadership cannot be anything but a creature, so by definition, it will be a failing leadership. Those who rely on it instead of God will have no prosperity.

In verse 2020“You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,
Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,
And You gave them water for their thirst.
we find again an abundance of good gifts that God has given His people to be able to travel through the wilderness. Those who pray speak of “ Your good Spirit,” “ Your manna,” and “water”. There is not only talk of the Spirit of God, but of God’s “good” Spirit. The Spirit of God is working among them in goodness to teach them. He wants to control their minds so that they will think as God thinks. God has communicated His thoughts to them in His commandments and statutes. They do not need to guess what His intentions are. The good Spirit of God teaches them.

The Holy Spirit does not dwell in the members of God’s earthly people, as He does in the members of God’s heavenly people, the church (1Cor 6:1919Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?). But He does work in and among them. Every Israelite who repents does so because the Spirit convinces him of his sins. This gives him a nature that desires to do what God wants.

It doesn’t stop there, teaching the will of God. God also gives them the strength to do His will. For that He gives them His manna. This food enables them to go the way God wants them to go. The manna is the well-known picture of the Lord Jesus in His life on earth. He speaks of Himself in connection with the manna as the bread from heaven (Jn 6:31-3531Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.’”32Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.33For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.”34Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.”35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.). For our walk on earth through the wilderness of this world we gain strength by occupying ourselves with the Lord Jesus and His life on earth. The way we must go, He has gone before us. His example gives us strength to follow Him.

In the just quoted section from John 6, the Lord Jesus also says that whoever believes in Him will never thirst again (Jn 6:3535Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.). This is the third thing the Levites quote in their prayers in this verse. They tell the LORD that He also gave water to His people for their thirst. Faith in the Lord Jesus, the real trust in Him, is a refreshment that makes the thirst for other things disappear.

We have here in verse 2020“You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,
Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,
And You gave them water for their thirst.

1. the Holy Spirit who teaches in goodness;
2. in the manna the example of the Lord Jesus, in Whom the teaching becomes visible as it were;
3. in the water – a picture of the Word of God (Eph 5:2626so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,) – a means to quench thirst.

The Levites notice still more goodness. For forty years the LORD has cared for His people. The provisions mentioned in the previous verse are not temporary. They have been with the people all the time they have been in the wilderness. They have suffered no shortage, neither of food, nor of drink, nor of clothing. They’ve always had warmth. The warmth of their clothing symbolizes the warmth of God’s loving care.

Also at their feet there is nothing to be seen of the fatigue of the journey. When they look at their feet, they can notice that the LORD has not let them travel a way that has asked too much of them. Yes, He carried them, “as a man carries his son” (Deu 1:3131and in the wilderness where you saw how the LORD your God carried you, just as a man carries his son, in all the way which you have walked until you came to this place.’).


What the LORD Has Given

22“You also gave them kingdoms and peoples,
And allotted [them] to them as a boundary.
They took possession of the land of Sihon the king of Heshbon
And the land of Og the king of Bashan.
23“You made their sons numerous as the stars of heaven,
And You brought them into the land
Which You had told their fathers to enter and possess.
24“So their sons entered and possessed the land.
And You subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites,
And You gave them into their hand, with their kings and the peoples of the land,
To do with them as they desired.
25“They captured fortified cities and a fertile land.
They took possession of houses full of every good thing,
Hewn cisterns, vineyards, olive groves,
Fruit trees in abundance.
So they ate, were filled and grew fat,
And reveled in Your great goodness.

God has not only surrounded them with His care, He has also helped them to take possession of kingdoms and nations. The land of Sihon and the land of Og are mentioned by name. These are the first kingdoms that Israel had to take possession of even before they crossed the Jordan.

Furthermore, the LORD has blessed them with numerous offspring, so that they can populate the land. This offspring has been commanded to take possession of what the LORD has promised their fathers. They have done so, helped by the LORD Who gave the inhabitants of the land in their power. He has given them a free hand to do with those nations what they want. In doing so He has put them to the test. Will they act with those nations as He commanded? He has told them to exterminate the inhabitants. Because of their unfaithfulness, the roles have been reversed. The nations reign over them, and the nations do with them as they please (verse 3737“Its abundant produce is for the kings
Whom You have set over us because of our sins;
They also rule over our bodies
And over our cattle as they please,
So we are in great distress.
).

Their conquest of the land throws a treasure of blessings into their lap. They have feasted upon it. That is lawful. It has all come within their reach by the grace of God. God wants to give His people everything to enjoy. He wishes, however, to be involved, to be recognized as the Giver, and to thank and honor Him for it.

This is not an ambition of God, as it would be with us. He knows that enjoyment without Him leads to selfishness and excesses, from which much evil arises. Enjoying without Him has a devastating effect on the relationship between people. Where the bond with Him is broken, the bond between people is also broken.


Unfaithfulness of the People and God’s Salvation

26“But they became disobedient and rebelled against You,
And cast Your law behind their backs
And killed Your prophets who had admonished them
So that they might return to You,
And they committed great blasphemies.
27“Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them,
But when they cried to You in the time of their distress,
You heard from heaven, and according to Your great compassion
You gave them deliverers who delivered them from the hand of their oppressors.
28“But as soon as they had rest, they did evil again before You;
Therefore You abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they ruled over them.
When they cried again to You, You heard from heaven,
And many times You rescued them according to Your compassion,

When man comes apart from God, no longer involving Him in his actions, he comes to “great blasphemies”. Then the greatest of God’s blessings are answered by man with the greatest evil. The rebellion of the people manifests itself in rebellion against God. They cast His law behind their backs. That is an act of contempt. If then God sends His prophets to bring them back to Him, they kill them.

They have settled with God. They don’t want Him anymore. They’re declaring Him out of time. Their “enlightened” thinking is hindered by His existence and presence. That is why every voice that interprets Him must be silenced. As if this can silence God.

God does not give up. He has another method to bring them to repentance. If they do not want to listen to His voice, they will listen to His actions. He delivers them into the hands of their enemies. That does not miss its effect. They are oppressed and cry out to the LORD. And, miracle of grace, He hears them. In His “great mercy” He gives deliverers.

And that does not happen just once. No, it repeats itself many times. Each time after their deliverance, they do evil again. They really are repeat offenders, people who fall into the same mistake over and over again. In His faithfulness the LORD then delivers them into the hands of opponents. Then they get oppressed again, and in their distress they cry out to the LORD. According to His unchanging mercy He then hears their crying and delivers them. The book of Judges impressively describes the course of these events.


The People Sin Against God’s Provisions

29And admonished them in order to turn them back to Your law.
Yet they acted arrogantly and did not listen to Your commandments but sinned against Your ordinances,
By which if a man observes them he shall live.
And they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck, and would not listen.

In spite of all these acts of God in mercy, the people are going further and further downhill. God exhorts His people to return to His law, for in keeping the law lies life. In not listening to the law, in breaking it, lies death. His people do not act as ignorant ones. They know God’s law. However, they do not put their shoulders under it, but they turn their backs on it. They do not bend their necks under it, but stiffen their necks. They pile sin upon sin.


God’s Great Patience Has an End

30“However, You bore with them for many years,
And admonished them by Your Spirit through Your prophets,
Yet they would not give ear.
Therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands.
31“Nevertheless, in Your great compassion You did not make an end of them or forsake them,
For You are a gracious and compassionate God.

For many years God has endured this constant rebellion with longsuffering. In verse 2020“You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,
Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,
And You gave them water for their thirst.
the Spirit is teaching the people. However, because they did not listen to the teaching of the Spirit, the Spirit began to admonish them. Each time God’s Spirit has been speaking to the people in His prophets to convince them of their sins (2Chr 36:1515The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent [word] to them again and again by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place;). He wants to make His people happy. Therefore, He exhorts them continuously to break with sin and to submit to His commandments. But they do not listen.

Finally, He has no choice but to deliver them into the power of the nations around them. First the ten tribes were taken from the land by Assyria and scattered over several countries. Later the two tribes were taken away to Babylon. But He didn’t wipe them out. In spite of all the unfaithfulness of the people and God’s discipline over them, He has not destroyed them forever. He remains “a gracious and compassionate God”.


Begging for God’s Favor

32“Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and lovingkindness,
Do not let all the hardship seem insignificant before You,
Which has come upon us, our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers and on all Your people,
From the days of the kings of Assyria to this day.

In the preceding verses, the Levites have recounted the history of God’s faithfulness opposite the unfaithfulness of the people in an impressive way before the face of God. On this basis they will now plead with Him in view of their present state of unfaithfulness and weakness. They present the people in all His ranks – “our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers and on all Your people” – to the “the great, the mighty, and the awesome God”, whom they first and foremost and above all call “our God”.

They speak to Him in His relationship with them. In that relationship they know Him as “great”. He is all-embracing and transcends everything. He is also ‘great’, omnipotent, unlimited in His possibilities. And He is ‘awesome’, He is to be feared by everyone, especially by those who oppose Him.

They also know Him as the God “who keeps covenant”. They know that He will never break the covenant made and ratified by Him. The people have not kept their part in the covenant. That is why they also speak of God’s keeping of “lovingkindness”. They ask God if, in the abundance of lovingkindness that characterizes Him, He does not want to think small of all the trouble that has afflicted them from the moment that He has given them in the power of their enemies. They do not prescribe to God how He should act, but ask for a favor.


God Justified in His Actions

33“However, You are just in all that has come upon us;
For You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly.
34“For our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers have not kept Your law
Or paid attention to Your commandments and Your admonitions with which You have admonished them.
35“But they, in their own kingdom,
With Your great goodness which You gave them,
With the broad and rich land which You set before them,
Did not serve You or turn from their evil deeds.

As they call upon the mercy of God, they do not forget to acknowledge that God has the right on His side in everything that has happened to them (cf. Psa 51:66Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.
). They take the right attitude before God. There is no justification for their own sinful behavior, and they do not blame Him for injustice. It is clear to them where the cause of all their misery lies. All the misery they have brought upon themselves can be traced back to their disobedience to the Word of God.

God has given them a kingdom. He has showered them with beneficence. He has given them space and abundance. Nothing has He withheld from them to make them happy, content and thankful. But instead of serving Him, they have served themselves. He has made them aware of this, but they have not repented of their evil deeds.


Slavery Is Justified

36“Behold, we are slaves today,
And as to the land which You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty,
Behold, we are slaves in it.
37“Its abundant produce is for the kings
Whom You have set over us because of our sins;
They also rule over our bodies
And over our cattle as they please,
So we are in great distress.

They are back in the land, but there is no liberty. A strange power rules the land, not a king from the house of David. They recognize their true position. Both for God and for the world around them, they take the place they have earned through their unfaithfulness.

They cannot fully enjoy the proceeds of the land either. They can enjoy it as far as their rulers allow. The proceeds are not for them, but for those to whom they have been subdued by God because of their sins. They do not even have anything to say about their own bodies and possessions. It is all in the power of foreign rulers.


An Agreement

38“Now because of all this
We are making an agreement in writing;
And on the sealed document [are the names of] our leaders, our Levites [and] our priests.”

Having seen and admitted their past failures, they try to guard against a repetition of them. The means they choose is to make an agreement (cf. 2Kgs 23:33The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all [his] heart and all [his] soul, to carry out the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people entered into the covenant.), which they write down and seal. This suits the dispensation in which they live. But such an agreement cannot be kept by a human being. By doing so they (unconsciously) indicate that they are better than their fathers.

Yet they have ground for this agreement, for, with or without agreement, they are obliged to keep the law. In the present dispensation this is different – although many voluntarily commit themselves to keep the law. For us, the general lesson is that after confessing our guilt, we will continue our walk on the basis of grace that we received when we were converted.


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