Vow #1: Submission to God’s Word
As a result of hearing God’s Word, the Israelites made four decisions. The first one is found in 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 God.”
This is vow #1: Submission to God’s Word. They were totally serious in their desire to devote themselves to everything that is spelled out in the Bible. This week I went back and re-read my very first sermon here at PBC. This is what I said then, and it bears repeating today:
Who does God use to make an impact? Super saints? Heroes? Pious religious people? No. Listen to the words of 1 Chronicles 16:9, “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him.” The key is devotion. We need to remember that the depth of our devotion determines our impact. God is not looking all over the earth for strong people, for great people, for perfect people, or even for religious people. This morning, as He scans the congregation at PBC, He’s looking for devoted disciples, for men and women, and boys and girls who are fully committed to Him. He’s looking for a regular person who He can pour His strength out on. In order for that to happen, we need to be completely committed and dangerously devoted.”
William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army was once asked what his secret was to his incredible ministry. This is what he said, “God has had all that there was of me. There have been men with greater brains than I…but from the day I got the poor of London on my heart and caught a vision of what Jesus Christ could do with me and them, on that day I made up my mind that God should have all of William Booth that there was.”
In Nehemiah 10, the people are saying that they are so seriously submitted to God and His Word that they are willing for the curses of God to fall on them if they do not carefully obey what He says. I wonder if we have that same submission and dangerous devotion today? Does God have all of you?
Vow #2: Separation From the World
After submitting themselves to God and His Word, the believers make a second vow to be separate from the world in verses 28 and 30: “We promise to not give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or to take their daughters for our sons.” When you think about it, separation is simply total devotion to God, no matter what the cost. When a man and woman get married, they separate themselves from all other possible mates and give themselves completely to each other. We separate from others to the one who is our life mate. The Israelites separated from the peoples around them and to God and His Word.
This was not about ethnic pride or a sense that the Israelite gene pool was superior to that of other peoples. Rather it had to do with how they worshipped God and honored Him. Wrong relationships can nullify a believer’s distinctive witness. God wanted his followers to be a missionary people and so it was vital that their message not be corrupted. In declaring this prohibition, the Lord was concerned about both the purity of their faith and the holiness of their lives. They had been entrusted with the most wonderful message in the world and nothing was to be allowed to corrupt it.
There were at least two reasons why marriages with pagan people were disastrous.
First, there were clear biblical warnings. When two people in the ancient world made a marriage agreement, they normally confirmed their commitment in the presence of their gods and gave each other’s idols a prominent place in their new home. Joshua 23:13 says that heathen spouses would become “snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes…”
Secondly, there was abundant historical evidence that unequally yoked marriages led to a decline in Israel’s spiritual and moral life. Nehemiah 13:26 asks the question, “Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by His God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women.”
We are more influenced by other people than most of us care to admit. Mixed marriages were a danger then, and they’re a danger now. God’s concern is that when a believer marries a non-believer the stage is set for conflict, compromise and at times outright conformity.
2 Corinthians 6:14 very clearly states: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”
Let me be clear. I know some of you are married to an unsaved spouse. I respect and applaud your commitment to Christ and your determination to live out the teaching of 1 Peter 3:1-6. The New Living Translation puts verses 2 and 3 this way: “Your godly lives will speak to them better than any words. They will be won over by watching your pure, godly behavior.”
I want to address those of you who are not married yet. Perhaps you’re dating someone who is not a believer. It may seem harmless to date a non-Christian, especially if you’re a teenager, but watch out. God cares about your spiritual life and He cares about your ability to be a clear witness to Him. On the authority of God’s Word, don’t deliberately disobey God in this area. The question is not, “Will this relationship work out?” but, “Will this relationship enjoy God’s best blessing and fulfill God’s will?” I know this is not easy for some of you to hear but if you are truly submitted to God and His Word, you will honor Him in all your relationships as well. If you put Him first, don’t enter a marriage relationship with someone who does not also put the Lord first.
Vow #3: Sabbath for God’s People
After pledging themselves to submit to the Word of God and to live separated lives, the believers renew the covenant with a third vow: the Sabbath for God’s people in verse 31: “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts.” In Nehemiah’s time, it was necessary for God’s law about the Sabbath to be clearly understood.
First of all, this day was set aside to honor God. It was distinctive from other days and given to God so that they might offer their worship to Him without being distracted by the demands of everyday life.
Secondly, it was a day of rest. Relaxation is a vital ingredient in effective living. God set the pattern for this in Exodus 20:11: “He rested on the seventh day.” The Israelites worked with no breaks in their weekly schedule when they were slaves in Egypt God did not ever want this repeated again.
One man challenged another to an all-day wood chopping contest. The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break. The other man ate a leisurely lunch and took several breaks throughout the day. At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that the other guy had chopped a lot more wood than he had. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did.” To which the winning woodsman responded, “Didn’t you notice? I was sharpening my ax when I sat down to rest.” If you’re feeling a bit dull today, perhaps you need to schedule some rest into your schedule so that you can get ‘sharp’ again.
Thirdly, it was a day to help others. Israelite employees had a compulsory rest day automatically written into their employment contracts. This helped others enjoy the blessings of rest.
Fourthly, the Sabbath was a day to declare truth. It was a silent witness to God’s supremacy and gave the Israelites multiple witnessing opportunities. To their unbelieving neighbors it proclaimed, in very practical terms, the truth that God comes first.
This is an important paradigm or model for us today. From the very beginning of the church, Christians made the Lord’s Day their appointed day for worship, rest, service, and witness. While avoiding the legalism that the Pharisees fell into, most of us can do a much better job of looking for ways to keep Sunday special.
The Israelites also promised to observe the “Sabbatical Year.” Every seventh year, they were to let the land lie idle so that it might restore itself. To obey God in this way, they certainly needed to trust Him with their needs during the seventh year. It seems to me that obedience to God always involves trust. We cannot always see what’s coming up, but if we are doing what God says, He will never disappoint us. Their commitment to commemorate the Sabbatical Year was a great step of faith and is a beautiful illustration of Matthew 6:33: “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Notice that they also canceled all debts in verse 31. They promised that every seven years, they would live out a renewed scale of values that people matter more than money. The keeping of the Sabbath and Sabbatical Years were ways of saying “no” to a life of maximum acquisition. My highest goal is not to make the most I can and then spend my life trying to keep everything that I have.
Vow #4: Support For God’s Work
That leads to their fourth pledge: support for God’s work in verses 32-39. The phrase “house of our God” is used nine times in this section and refers to the restored temple. The people were promising to follow God’s priorities by submitting to Him, by separating from the world, by keeping the Sabbath, and by supporting the work of God. Verse 39 sums up their commitment: “We will not neglect the house of our God.”
The temple in Jerusalem stood at the heart of the country’s religious, moral and spiritual life. In symbolic terms it proclaimed the presence and power of God among His people and the centrality of spiritual matters.
This passage covers an impressive series of promises to support God’s work in a variety of different ways and gives us 7 insights into how our giving can support God’s work today.
1. It was responsible giving. Look at verse 32 and verse 35 where the people say that “they assume responsibility…” They owned it and gave what they owned because they saw it as their privilege and their responsibility.
2. It was obedient giving. They didn’t practice “impulse giving” but instead gave as an expression of practical obedience. Those who love Him will do what He says. They were “carrying out the commands to give” (32), as it “is written in the Law” (34, 36). God had been good to His people, and generosity was expected from them. There was nothing remotely optional about the support of God’s work. Everyone was required to give in one form or another. This was yet another way to demonstrate that God came first in their lives.
3. It was systematic. There was nothing haphazard about their giving. Verse 32 says that they were to bring a third of a silver shekel each year. Verse 34 states that lots were drawn to determine when families were to bring a contribution of wood at set times each year. Verse 35 tells us that first fruits were brought each year. There was an orderliness about these offerings and a system that was followed. The people knew precisely what was expected of them. The New Testament teaches systematic giving as well in 1 Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income…”
4. It was proportionate. The reference to the wood offering suggests that many poor people in Israel had an opportunity to make a gift to the Lord that would demand time rather than money. The temple needed a regular supply of firewood to keep the sacrificial fires burning. Everyone, regardless of income, could gather wood and take it to the temple.