Summary: When the time comes when we lose our zeal and passion for Christ, we must make a covenant renewal.
I had the privilege of presiding at my aunt and uncle’s fiftieth wedding anniversary service. It was a joy for me to be a part of such a wonderful celebration. Every year around Valentine’s Day, a pastor friend has a service where people renew their wedding vows. They say, "I do," all over again. Many who have been through the ceremony express how enriching the experience is and how much it means to them and their spouse. I think at times it is healthy for us to be reminded of the vows that we took ... especially those of us who have put a number of years between those wedding vows and today.
These kinds of ceremonies remind me of the people of Israel and their relationship with God shortly after they finished building the wall of Jerusalem. You will recall that Ezra’s reading of the Law had given birth to a joyful celebration. This in turn led to a time of national confession, after which the people felt the need to say "I do" to God all over again.
READ READ Nehemiah 9:38; 10:1, 28-29
In the Hebrew text of Nehemiah, verse 38 of chapter 9 is actually the first verse of chapter 10. Although it provides a transition between the two chapters, it actually serves as a better introduction to chapter 10 than as a conclusion to chapter 9. For this reason I have included in our text for tonight.
Verse 38 begins, "Now because of all this..." indicating that the covenantal renewal of chapter 10 was based upon the confession of chapter 9: a confession that emphasized not so much the repeated failure of Israel as the repeated mercy of God. In some texts this verse states, "We make a sure covenant." The leaders did not make a covenant with God because of their sin, nor in order to earn God’s approval. Rather, they made the covenant on the basis of God’s grace ... in response to His mercy.
In reality, the people did not make a "covenant" at all. The NKJV supplies this word, though it is lacking in the Hebrew original, which reads: "we are cutting a firm agreement and writing it." Although Hebrew speakers generally "cut" a covenant, here the word "covenant" is replaced by "firm agreement." "Firm agreement" might be a synonym of "covenant," but I suspect that it reflects a deeper theological principle. The Bible consistently describes God as the one who makes covenants with people; only rarely are people said to make a covenant with God. So in chapter 10, the Israelites do not make a covenant with God, rather, they make a firm agreement to live according to the former covenant that God had established through Moses. As 10:29 states, the people "are joining with their brethren, their nobles, and are taking on themselves a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given through Moses, God’s servant..." Therefore, the original terms used in 9:38 suggest a theologically profound truth: God is the covenant maker; his people are the covenant “renewers.”
By sealing the covenant, the leaders of Judah, including Nehemiah, demonstrated their support of the firm agreement. One aspect of this list that is a bit surprising is the fact that there is no mention of Ezra. Scholars have suggested varied theories for this omission, but the most persuasive theory recognizes that the list calls out leaders according to their families, and Ezra is a son of "Seraiah" (v. 2). The priests, Levites, and secular leaders who sealed the covenant took a stand for God, much as the signers of the Declaration of Independence took a stand for political freedom in the United States over two hundred years ago. They led by costly example, not by coercion. The text of 10:28 clarifies that those who "signed on" with the leaders did so on the basis of their "knowledge and understanding." This extended not only to heads of families but to "their wives, their sons, and their daughters" (v. 28) as well.
Even in this solidly patriarchal society, each person had to make his or her own choice to support the firm commitment of the leaders. And we who read today would do well to consider how faithfully we imitate this example. Do we live exemplary lives and take a stand according to our convictions. More importantly, do we take a stand according to God’s Word. Or do we coerce and compel those around us to do what we want them to do? Are we helping people to grow as mature decision makers, or do we keep them in moral infancy by treating them as immature children?
The "rest of the people" (v. 28) joined with "the nobles" by entering into "a curse and an oath to walk in God’s Law" (v. 29). The language of curses and oaths sounds strange to our ears, but notice that they not only swore to walk obediently, they also swore to be punished if they failed to walk obediently.