“. . . all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God . . . join with their brothers, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his rules and his statutes.” (Nehemiah 10:28-29)
The Israelites must have endured the full gamut of emotions in the short history recorded in Nehemiah. By the tenth chapter, they have stood in reverence, mourned in sackcloth, celebrated with feasting, sung with joy, and cried with sorrow. They have organized, worshipped, read, gathered, repented, and dedicated. Here they are, back in the land God gave them, with a temple and a wall and a new lease on their cultural and religious life. God has shown them great mercy, now what are they to do?
Life must continue on. But life cannot be marked by the cycle of rebellion as demonstrated in their forefathers and recounted in the prayer of chapter 9. No, this time – this time – they will carry on life with God. They will obey. They will be faithful to their Lord and Savior. And so, as they plan to continue their legacy as God’s chosen people, they make a covenant and seal it.
A covenant, of course, is a promise. Such a thing is risky business, especially with the God of the Universe. These redeemed people, cognizant of their own sin and the failures of their forebears, are making a holy promise to God that they will in fact remain faithful. 84 individual leaders sign it in the presence of all the people.
Included in this covenant are prohibitions against mixed marriages, keeping the Sabbath holy, giving to the Lord, and tending the temple. Israel seems determined this time to stay close to God and his law and not fall into the sins that led to judgment and turmoil as in the past.
This episode raises questions for God’s New Covenant people. Are covenants necessary, or even helpful today? Should we promise God our obedience? How far does this go?
We’ll explore these and other questions as we gather before this text. In anticipation, however, there are two general takeaways for us, one positive and one negative. Positively, Israel’s renewed covenant is a reminder that our response to God’s saving acts ought to be one of obedience. In the New Covenant we find God’s grace magnified, but that doesn’t mean we abandon the necessity to be faithful. As a reaction of love and worship, any sinner who received God’s grace would want to obey God, and the Israelites demonstrate this attitude in this chapter. Negatively, however, Israel’s covenant-making adds one more notch on their covenant-breaking belt. They, like all of us, cannot perfectly keep a covenant of obedience, rendering such promises as futile. The only one who keeps his promises perfectly is God, and we would do well to trust him completely.