After having completed the rebuilding of city’s wall in less than 2 months, widespread revival broke out among the Jews in and around Jerusalem. It was a spontaneous occurrence that resulted as the people began to acknowledge God’s mighty hand upon Him. The revival was not preplanned by the priests, Levites, or other leaders. Rather, the people themselves called for it.
So beginning on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest led the Jewish remnant in worship. Standing in the city’s square, before a large assembly of the congregation, he read from the Law of Moses. As the people listened, they fell under conviction and began to repent. This simple pattern continued for the next several weeks - the Word of God would be read for a few hours in the morning, the gathered people would listen attentively and joyfully, and then they would respond obediently to what they had heard.
For 23 days this went on, finally coming to a pivotal moment on the twenty-fourth day of the month. It was on this day that the people decided to draft a written covenant. During the weeks of revival, the Jews had been confronted with their sinfulness, had repented of it, and had vowed to forsake it. They had verbally committed individually and as a body to make wholesale changes that would lead the fallen nation back toward God. Their spoken pledge was of paramount importance - so much so, that they formalized it in a document which was signed by several of the leaders and heads of families.
A covenant is a solemn agreement between two or more parties to abide by certain specified parameters. There are several examples of covenants instituted by God found in the Bible such as His covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and David. The word “Testament” means covenant, and so the Bible actually consists of the “Old Covenant” (based upon the Law) and the “New Covenant” (based upon grace). When God establishes a covenant with mankind, He always keeps His end of the agreement.
This covenant was different - it was to be held among the people themselves. It was a mutual pledge by the entire congregation to abide by certain statutes and commands as recorded in the Word of God. It would be more akin to a modern day “church covenant”, which is held by the members of specific congregation toward one another.
I. THE PEOPLE ASSEMBLE (Nehemiah 9:14)
I am amazed when I consider the condition of the peoples’ hearts as they assembled for worship. First off, the people were fasting - they were abstaining from food in order to wholly devote themselves to prayer. They had redirected their hunger toward God, choosing to focus completely on Him and His provision. It was an act of discipline, of devotion, and of faith. Fasting helps us to gain spiritual clarity to better hear the voice of God.
Secondly, they dressed in sackcloth with dirt upon them. This was the customary attire of someone in mourning or great grief. It indicated a deep state of repentance and humility. They weren’t dressed this way because they didn’t have nicer clothes... they dressed this way on purpose as a visible reminder of their spiritual depravity and utter wretchedness before a holy God.
Thirdly, they separated themselves from foreigners (those who were contrary to God). In other words, they sanctified themselves from the ways of the world. They set themselves apart from the carnal activities of the pagan culture around them. They did not assimilate with or blend in to the sin-sick society, but instead stood apart in stark contrast as a light shining in the darkness.
Lastly, they were readily confessing their own sins and the past sins of the nation. They were not stubbornly refusing to repent, but rather were responding to God with conviction and brokenness. Their hearts were pliable, and open to discipline and correction. They were quick to confess, to say “I’m sorry”, and to ask for forgiveness.
II. A MESSAGE IS PREACHED (Nehemiah 9:5-37)
The Levites preached that God made the heavens and the earth. He instituted a covenant with Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews, and promised to give to his descendants the land of Israel. Centuries later He led His children out of Egyptian captivity, but they refused to enter the Promised Land. When their children finally took the land, God drove out their enemies before them. Yet they too quickly forgot His faithfulness and forsook Him to chase after other gods. Even then God sent judges to deliver them, followed by prophets and kings. Time and time again the people would repent and be delivered only to slide back into their sinful ways.
As the people heard this message, they must have realized that they too had recently been rescued from the bondage of Babylon. Once again God had been faithful to His children, even though they had wandered far away from Him. As they considered their own deliverance, they vowed not to repeat the same mistakes as their fathers. They would finally break this cycle of rising and falling that had characterized their history from its very beginning.
III. A COVENANT RESULTS (Nehemiah 9:38-10:27)
The people were so serious about the commitments they were making to God and to one another that they decided to write them down. This written agreement was signed by the spiritual and civil leadership of the people. It was sealed as an indication of its official nature and authority.
While the almost month-long revival had certainly produced many results in the lives of the individual Jews and their families, this written covenant would stand as the culmination of it all. It was the unified pledge of the entire Jewish remnant to obediently follow the commands and ordinances of God. It was their solemn, written promise.
IV. THE CONDITIONS OF THE COVENANT (Nehemiah 10:28-39)
The covenant itself began with a general commitment on behalf of the people to follow all of the Law of Moses, and invoked a curse upon themselves should they fail to do so. It went on to name three specific areas of obligation, as these had proven to be most problematic for the Jews.
They pledged not to allow their children to be involved in mixed marriages with nonbelievers. They further promised to honor the law of the Sabbath both by not transacting business on the Sabbath day, and by allowing their land to lay fallow and forgiving debts during the Sabbath year. Lastly, they made various commitments regarding the provision of the temple, the priests, and the Levites.
I strongly believe that Christians should live with commitment. We should be people of our word who honor the vows that we make. We should be trustworthy, dependable, and faithful. We should be “promise-keepers” to the greatest extent possible. In other words, we should exhibit a covenantal spirit. To this end, we should desire to live in obedience to God and in harmony with each other to the very best of our abilities.
That said, the Bible provides us with numerous warnings about covenants. It doesn’t teach that they are wrong, but it does advise us to approach them with extreme caution. God knows that we tend to break our promises, no matter how hard we try to keep them. When we fail to honor our vows to the LORD or to His people we invite His cursing upon us. It is better not to make a promise at all than to make one and not follow through with it. God takes covenants very seriously, and so should we.
I have no doubt that these Jews wholeheartedly and sincerely entered into this covenant. I believe that they were passionately committed to it at the time they wrote and signed it. But, can I ask you to speculate - how long do you think they were able to keep it? Have you ever made a promise to God or to the church that you failed to make good on? I have… more times than I’d care to admit.
I am so thankful that my salvation does not rest upon my abilities to keep my promises to God, but rather upon His ability to keep His promise to me. And what exactly is His promise? If any person will sincerely place their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, God will forgive them of their sin and give them eternal life. This is the LORD’s covenant with us. My hope rests in His promise...