You gotta hand it to Nehemiah & Co. They did it!
Despite unrelenting opposition they rebuilt the walls. But perhaps more impressive, after decades of exile in a foreign land they rediscovered the Word. The Law read resulted in hearts stirred. And the more they studied the Book the more determined they were to obey the Book.
But as I get to chapter ten, and knowing how it plays out in chapter thirteen, I cringe a bit as the people led by Nehemiah seek to enter into obedience through a curse-based oath rather than through grace-based determination.
. . . all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters, all who have knowledge and understanding, 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 10:28b-29 ESV)
They knew where they had come from (Neh. 9). It was clear to them why the city had been razed 70 years earlier and why they had been subjected to an extended stay-cation in the land of their enemies. They had rebelled. They had acted presumptuously in the land gifted them. They had embraced the world around them and acted wickedly. They had cast the law behind their backs and killed the prophets. Been there, they thought, don’t wanna go back.
But their God was a God “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” — a God who would not forsake His people (9:17). And so, they had a new lease on life in the land of promise. And they weren’t gonna let it go. And so they did all they could see as humanly possible and entered into a “firm covenant in writing” (9:38) with the God of heaven. A curse-based oath.
They accepted the challenge of Moses. Obey and be blessed. Disobey and be cursed. They would perform and be rewarded. And if they didn’t, they would be punished.
Heavy sigh!!! What a burden.
Not that desiring to be obedient was bad. But that thinking obedience was achievable through human effort if only placed under the sword of grave enough consequence. Centuries later Peter would declare such thinking to be a no-win situation. That it would be but a yoke on their neck “that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). Curse-based oaths were never intended to be burdens that could be carried to righteousness.
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
(Romans 3:20 ESV)
Like Nehemiah & Co., the desire of God’s people should be faithful obedience. But ours is not a desire fueled by an oath taken under threat of punishment, instead it is a longing of the heart in response to the finished work of the cross. Not in a strong-willed belief in our ability to obey, but in a soul-submitted humility acknowledging our dependence on the power that raised Christ from the dead. Not in order to win blessing, but because we have already been blessed with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places.
Our hope of obeying lying not in a curse-based oath but in grace-based determination.
Believing we are new creations in Christ. That we are indwelt by the Spirit, are being conformed to His image, and are able to do His will.
Knowing that when we fail and/or tripped up, as will happen as long as the flesh continues to rebel against the law, that His blood shed on the cross is sufficient to cleanse us from all unrighteousness and that His grace is sufficient to restore us and set us again on the path of obedience.
Praise God for setting within us a grace-based holy determination so that, like Nehemiah & Co. desired, we might “do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord.”
By His grace. For His glory.