Nehemiah—Power of Agreement
Our study in Nehemiah has led us to Chapter 10 where they record the names of those singing the covenant to walk in God’s ways. The people have had various experiences, since the reading of God’s Word in Nehemiah 8 - 9; they confessed but were then told to celebrate only to end the Feast of Tabernacles with more heart-felt confession. In the beginning of Neh 10:1-27, we see the names of those who signed the document. These are the people who were committing to walk in a new way with God and each other as they lived together in Jerusalem. When I see these people in Nehemiah’s day signing this renewed covenant, I think of the phrase - “the power of agreement”. There was a total of 84 specific names who signed on the dotted line along with others, mothers and children and those able to understand God’s Word (Neh 10:28).
The Power of Agreement:
First of all I want to give some definition to the power of agreement and help us to understand that there are several words that compliment this word; harmony, accordance (similar in thought or feeling), unity, or an arrangement that is accepted by all parties. There are numerous Biblical stories that reveal agreement in action, some bad and some good.
- The Tower of Babel… Gen 11:1 - Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. The agreement we see here is based on one language and common speech, in other words, they were able to be in agreement and understand each other. God states that because of this agreement or unity nothing they plan will be impossible. God sees through their plans and discerns the pride of their hearts and confuses their language.
- The Story of Gideon… Judges 6 - 8. I am always amazed at the interaction between God and his people. This story depicts Gideon coming into agreement with who he is - “a mighty warrior” (Judges 6:12). The ongoing relationship between God and Gideon is all about growing in agreement and coming into destiny. In the end Gideon does obey God, although not perfectly, and brings the people of God into great victory.
- Jesus and his Disciples… Matt 18:19-20 - “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” Even though this passage is in the context of forgiveness, it highlights the power of agreement and the presence of God that follows.
Let’s take a moment and consider the power of agreement in marriages, at the work-place, with family and friends and especially at church. Agreement brings about a wonderful and harmonious experience of unity between God and each other. So as we study Neh 10, we will seek to discover how was the power of agreement made practical.
Obedience to God’s Word:
The first 28 verses of chapter 10 in Nehemiah records the names of those who came to agreement after having read from the Law. We see the people putting agreement into action is in relation towards the Word of God - Neh 10:29 - “All these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.” Those listed in these verses came to the conclusion that obedience to God’s Law and Word was foundational. The people were 100 % serious about the covenant they were signing, so much so, that they actually bound themselves to this with a curse. They were living under the idea of retribution theology, “you get what you deserve”, a common form of pagan thinking. Even within Jewish history and theology this idea is seen; choose life or death… do good and you will be blessed, do bad and you will be cursed… As a result of this kind of thinking they wanted the people to make sure they were truly committed to fulfilling their agreement as a nation by taking a curse as motivation.
The question arises, should Christians today, in the pursuit of unity and agreement bind themselves with such strong oaths or vows? Is this a good way to be motivated in one’s Christian walk? I don’t think so. The goal is to come into “relational unity” with God and each other not “legalistic unity”. Our Father in Heaven is seeking those who will love him shown by a demonstration of obedience to his Scriptures. The motivation of our obedience is our love for God and the manifestation of our obedience is joy in bringing pleasure to God. The message of the New Testament is simple - the grace of God and promises of God lead to a fulfilled life. By the way, a fulfilled life does not mean one free from struggles, trials, temptations or persecutions. The abundant fulfilled life is a joining to the Kingdom of God and walking with the King through the joys and struggles of life. As well, let’s remember that our relationship with God and the abundant life we are to experience is not based on our making promises to God but believing on the promises of God contained within the Scriptures. Our obedience plays a true role in seeing God’s purposes fulfilled in our lives, but the foundation of our unity with God is grace. Once again at the risk of repeating myself - the Scriptures are the primary means of hearing God’s voice - thereby directing us towards greater maturity. Therefore we must be people of the Word…
- The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (hebrews 4:12).
- All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).
- For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom 15:4).
Agreement as the people of God
In the times of Nehemiah the people of God were confronted by all kinds of social, business and religious practices of the Persian Empire. While some of the interaction with this Empire would be good in that law and order was provided, other idolatrous effects of this pagan nation troubled the people of God. After reading from the Law of God they realized that they could only be “good neighbours” or “good customers” to a point. In Neh 10:28 they “separated themselves from the neighbouring peoples for the sake of the Law of God.” They separated from certain people and united with each other in agreement with God’s Word.
In other words, the people of God let the Word of God define their surrounding culture and not the other way around. There were two specific areas that the Jewish people struggled against. These issues were unique to their time and needed to be addressed according to God’s Word; marriage and the Sabbath.
1. Marriage concerns:
The main concern of inter-marriage with Gentiles was the loss of pure devotion to God. To coin a New Testament term - they would be “unequally yoked” (2 Cor 6:14). The Jew or Gentile spouses would have different ideas of faith, dietary laws, or the celebration of the Jewish annual festivals. The potential would be either conflict or compromise, both of which, would have a negative affect one’s marriage and faith.
To put this into a more contemporary context, there are times when I have been asked to perform a wedding between a Christian and an unsaved person. I challenge the Christian to consider the Biblical verses both Old and New Testament that warn of troubles in this type of marriage. I often hear back, “But we love one another…” “We will make it work out…” The answer I give back is “can this marriage enjoy God’s best blessing and fulfill God’s will?” when you are deliberately disobeying God’s Word. Let’s remember that God’s Word and his Kingdom define culture not the other way around.
2. Sabbath concerns:
The Sabbath day was one of the expressions of Jewish culture in contrast to other nations. We know from Scripture that God rested on the seventh day making it a day of rest and reflection (Gen 2:2-3). The Sabbath day was incorporated into the 10 Commandments (number 4) so that the people of God would personally rest, along with the land and animals etc, and reflect on their relationship with God. However, in Nehemiah’s day the Gentiles surrounding Jerusalem would look upon the Sabbath as any other day; they would do business and socialize with no respect for the Jewish Sabbath. Some of the Jewish businessmen interested in making money were falling into temptation and sin by buying and selling on the Sabbath.
Warren Wiersbe states “For the Jewish remnant to promise to commemorate the Sabbatical Year was a great step of faith, for many of the people were poor and the nation faced repeated agricultural and economic depression. Not to have extra produce for a whole year would certainly affect their business with the Gentiles around them. The people’s willingness to obey this law is a beautiful illustration of Matthew 6:33.”
The Jewish people agree to become “holy” and obey the Sabbath no matter the cost. This kind of radical commitment in the midst of a pagan Empire was a demonstration of true devotion.
Commitment to the House of God
We have looked at the Jewish people’s obedience to God’s Word by their commitment to living holy lives in relation to marriage and the Sabbath. In Neh 10:32-39 we discover their renewed commitment to the “house of God” which is repeated in this passage of Scripture. The people were promising God that they would obey God’s laws and provide what was needed for the ministry at the temple. “We will not forsake the house of our God” (Neh 10:39). How did they care for the house of God? They supported God’s house in four distinct ways.
1. Temple tax:
The tax was a reminder to the people that God had redeemed them and paid a price to set them free, and that they should behave like people who belonged to God. Nehemiah 10:33 describes how the money would be spent: to provide what was needed for the regular and special ministries at the temple, all of which were part of the “work of the house of our God.”
2. The wood offering (Neh. 10:34).
The wood offering reminds me of the idea- “let’s keep the fire burning” since the fire on the brazen altar was to be kept burning constantly (Lev. 6:12–13). Wood is common but it was also scarce in Nehemiah’s day. Since the priests needed wood for the altar, the people set up a schedule so that there was a regular supply for the “house of our God.”
3. The first-fruits (Neh. 10:35–37a).
First-fruits is all about bringing your best to God. “Honour the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops” (Prov. 3:9, NIV). Firstfruits also reminded the Jews that God saved the firstborn Jews from death in the land of Egypt.
4. The tithes (Neh. 10:37b–39).
The word tithe means “a tenth.” The Jews were to bring a tenth of their produce to the Lord each year for the support of the Levites (Lev. 27:30–34). The Levites then gave a “tithe of the tithe” to the priests (Num. 18:25–32). Teaching on the tithe can go into greater detail yet the main point to highlight is that the Jews agreed to commit once again to tithes.
The people of God agreed to several things in Neh 10… They recommitted their lives to searching out God’s Word and seeking to put the Bible into action. I cannot say enough about reading and studying the Holy Bible. We must be people who seek out God through his Scriptures letting God speak to our lives and circumstances and culture. The kingdom of God is meant to shape our lives and culture, not the other way around.
The people put God’s Word into action by separating themselves from the pagan cultural influences in relation to marriage and the Sabbath. They set their affection on God above their affection for their unbelieving spouses. They did the same for the Sabbath thereby trusting in God as their provider, not their business pursuits.
They also reaffirmed their commitment to the house of God by giving of their resources in four ways, the temple tax, the wood offering, firstfruits and the tithe. There are different views relating to tithing in modern church; some say yes and some say no. For me the discussion is not about tithing but about New Testament giving. We are told that we are stewards of God’s resources and that we are to devote them towards the ministry of his church; proportional giving is certainly commended (1 Cor. 16:1–2). People under Old Testament Law tithed, how much more ought we to give today who live under the New Covenant grace? Sir Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
What do you and I need today to honour God?
Lives that seek out God’s Word
Lives that put God’s Word into obedience
Lives that are committed to providing for the house of the Lord