Israel, after 70 years of captivity, was called out of Babylon to return to Judea to restore the temple, repair the wall, and rebuild the city. With much opposition and delay the temple was completed and with Nehemiah's leadership the wall was completed and gates hung. Despite all the setbacks they were now able to see results and were keenly reminded that none of this would have happened but by the grace of God clearing the way and enabling the people to bring this all to fruition.
With hope restored and hearts sensitive to the moving of God's Spirit, they gathered during the seventh month for the feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles to rededicate their hearts and lives to God. The word of God was read and studied and their history was reviewed. God's faithfulness was made plain and contrasted with their unfaithfulness. Hearts were moved to repentance individually and corporately for their sins and the sins of their fathers.
"And because of all this, we make a sure covenant and write it: our leaders, our Levites, and our priests seal it.' We will not neglect the house of our God". (Nehemiah 9:38, 10:39b)
Determined to not repeat the sins of their fathers they made a covenant, produced a document, outlined a plan, and made an oath to stay faithful. They determined to separate themselves from the world, to keep the law of God, to observe all the commandments, to not intermarry with the surrounding people groups, to not buy food or any other goods from the merchants on the Sabbath, to support the Levites with their tithe, and to not forsake the temple of God.
Wow! They were preparing for translation.
For six generations they perfected their outward obedience with such exactitude adding laws upon laws. All of this only to not recognize God made flesh when He walked among them. Or perhaps they did recognize Him but did not like what they saw. In either case, leaders and laity alike, ultimately rejecting Jesus and put Him to death.
Making a covenant with God is a tricky thing. I can't help but see an old covenant promise being made here by Israel. Don't get me wrong. It is necessary to make the decision in our hearts to turn from rebellion and want a change in our life. But the covenant made here by the people harkens back to Exodus 19. The Lord's words in Exodus were, "If you will indeed obey (listen to) My voice and keep (care for, guard and protect) My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people for all the earth is Mine." (Exodus 19:5). To that Israel who had just been delivered from the bondage of Egypt said, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do" (Exodus 19:8). A pledge or promise to do something that He had never asked for. It was His covenant that He was asking them to listen to. He never asked them to make a covenant of their own in return.
Listen to Waggoner while commenting on Galatians 4:21-26 mentioning Exodus 19.
"So when the people came to Sinai, God simply referred them to what He had already done and then said, 'Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar people: for all the earth is Mine.' Exodus 19:5. To what covenant did He refer? Evidently to the one already in existence, His covenant with Abraham. If they would simply keep God's covenant, keep the faith, and believe God's promise, they would be a 'peculiar treasure' unto God. As the possessor of all the earth, He was able to do for them all that He had promised.
The fact that they in their self-sufficiency rashly took the whole responsibility upon themselves does not prove that God had led them into making the covenant.
If the children of Israel who came out of Egypt had but walked 'in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham' (Romans 4:12), they would never have boasted that they could keep the law spoken from Sinai, 'for the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.' (Romans 4:13). Faith justifies. Faith makes righteous, If the people had had Abraham's faith, they would have had the righteousness that he had. At Sinai the law, which was "spoken because of transgression" would have been in their hearts." Glad Tidings pp. 99-100
So, at Sinai an old covenant was made and the new covenant was rejected. Therefore, the law was engraved on tables of stone rather than on their hearts.
So, turning back to Nehemiah, I can't help but see the same thing taking place here. The people have recounted all the great things God has done. His endless mercy, His long-suffering, and His unrelenting deliverance. And in response to this the people felt compelled to do something God never asked them to do. To make a covenant with Him rather than express faith in His covenant that He had already made.
How could everything seem like it was going so well after coming out of Babylon, restoring the temple, and repairing the wall? Yes, there were setbacks but now that those were apparently behind them this seventh month was a time of repentance and re-dedication. And now a promise to God. This is so reminiscent of Sinai the Golden Calf experience that followed shortly after their old covenant promise of Exodus 19. And now another old covenant promise here in Nehemiah 9 and 10. How do we know it was an old covenant promise? Because like all our promises which are like ropes of sand (SC 47, see below) the people quickly fell away from their resolve on Sabbath observance requiring Nehemiah to enact restrictions on merchants so their food and goods were not available for the people to buy on Sabbath. But even more significantly this marked the beginning of the process to prepare a people that would get incredibly good at keeping laws and staying separate from the others around them. So good in fact that several generations later they would ultimately be so focused on those things that they would not recognize the Christ when He came to them.
Could it be that modern day spiritual Israel who has also been called out of Babylon, who has been called to restore the temple (Daniel 8:14) and repair the breaches in the law of God that serves as a hedge and wall for His people have followed in the steps of Israel in Ezra and Nehemiah's day. Have we not also at times individually or collectively also made a covenant, an oath, a promise to stay faithful. We can get really good at keeping the commandments outwardly, perfecting our Sabbath keeping, be consistent in our tithing, and trying to stay separate from the world. Could it be, like Israel, after multiple generations we are better prepared to reject the living Christ when He comes to our heart temple than we are at actually allowing Him to prepare us for translation?
"Behold the days are coming says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and with the house of Judah - not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their god, and they will be My people." Jeremiah 31:31-33
Will we let this day be now?
"Here are those that keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus" Revelation 14:12
This will never happen by us making a return covenant or oath to God. It will only happen by faith (believing and yielding) in the covenant He has already made to us.
Even so come Lord Jesus.
Additional reading: Many are inquiring, "How am I to make the surrender of myself to God?" You desire to give yourself to Him, but you are weak in moral power, in slavery to doubt, and controlled by the habits of your life of sin. Your promises and resolutions are like ropes of sand. You cannot control your thoughts, your impulses, your affections. The knowledge of your broken promises and forfeited pledges weakens your confidence in your own sincerity and causes you to feel that God cannot accept you; but you need not despair. What you need to understand is the true force of the will. This is the governing power in the nature of man, the power of decision, or of choice. Everything depends on the right action of the will. The power of choice God has given to men; it is theirs to exercise. You cannot change your heart, you cannot of yourself give to God its affections; but you can choose to serve Him. You can give Him your will; He will then work in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure. Thus, your whole nature will be brought under the control of the Spirit of Christ; your affections will be centered upon Him, your thoughts will be in harmony with Him. SC 47.1