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"The Covenant"

(Nehemiah, chapters 8 to 10).

Ezra, who was a learned and pious descendant of Hilkiah, the high priest in Josiah's reign, enjoyed the favour of the Persian king, Artaxerxes I, and in the seventh year of his reign he made the journey to Jerusalem. With Ezra came a company of Jews, priests, Levites, singers and porters for the temple: he brought a large freewill offering of gold and silver, given, not only by the Babylonian Jews, but also by the king and his councillors. He was empowered to draw upon the king's treasure for any further supplies he might require.

Ezra brought with him a copy of the Law-the five books of Moses. He and his party completed the journey of 900 miles in four months:

for (Ezra 7.10) he had set his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgements. (Note the order !)

The period which followed the completion of the second temple was marked by religious slackness and a general lack of energy. Disappointment and frustration had caused the first high hopes to wither. The prophecies of Haggai and Zephaniah reflect this attitude.

Resulting from the energetic leadership of Nehemiah, the walls were re-built. Yet within the community the morale was at a low ebb. The poor, who had had to neglect their farms while working on the wall, were being crushed in the fist of the money-lenders; the priests were lazy and often downright dishonest; the Sabbath was neglected; the worship of Jehovah was a weariness; and the second-rate was considered good enough for God's house. It was clear to a few enlightened leaders that unless a drastic reform was brought about and fresh enthusiasm infused, the restoration would disintegrate.

Realizing this, Ezra and Nehemiah called the first general assembly of the people on the first day of the seventh month, in the broad place that was before the watergate. Ezra, standing on a wooden pulpit read from early morning until mid-day from the book of the Law of' Moses, while attendant Levites interpreted it to the people, the majority of whom would understand Aramaic, the Eastern branch of the Semitic group, which was in common use in the empire, better than Hebrew. (The word distinctly was a technical term for the act of reading aloud an Aramaic document in the vernacular of a particular province.) The reading was received with the greatest reverence as Ezra opened the Book and blessed the LORD the people responded with cries of Amen, with the bowing of the head and even prostration The effect was immediate and striking. Heavy sorrow descended on the vast crowd as the Light of God's Law exposed their past neglect.

Tears flowed as consciences were smitten and hearts touched. But Nehemiah and Ezra ordered that the rest of the day he kept, not with mourning, but with feasting and rejoicing-" the joy of the LORD is your strength."

The Feast of Tabernacles was then kept for the full eight days (i.e., l5th-22nd of the 7th month), during which Ezra continued to read extracts from the Law. Then, on the 24th, a day of fasting and confession was observed. Clothed in sacking and with earth on their heads, they stood in silent and humble confession as they heard recounted the gracious dealings of their covenant-keeping God. Nehemiah, the priests, and the people made a solemn covenant to observe the Law: in particular it was promised that the Sabbath and the Sabbatical year should be strictly observed; that marriages to foreigners should cease; that every Israelite should contribute one third of a shekel to the upkeep of the temple and the provision of sacrifices; and that tithes and first-fruit offerings should be fully paid for the maintenance of the priests and Levites. One-tenth of the whole people was chosen by lot to dwell in the city, still in ruins, although the walls and gates now afforded protection.

There was undoubtedly a great religious revival. The returned exiles were convinced that they, and they alone, were the true Israel, the people of God, but they were influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by the religious attitude of the Babylonians. In process of time this led to a declension such as is made evident by Malachi.

The voice of Isaiah echoes down the centuries and his words are taken up by the Lord Jesus ... "this people honoureth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me ... in vain do they worship Me .

The scribes, who undertook the task of copying the Law, naturally came to be regarded as its exponents. They were so insistent upon a strict observance of the Levitical Law that they added rules of their own "to set a fence about the Law," as they said. This gave rise to the Oral Traditions, which came to be regarded as of even greater importance than the Law itself. Regulations and prohibitions multiplied, many of which found their origin in the taboos of the Old Assyrian calendar. The Sabbath was hedged about with petty restrictions and their religion became institutional. They prided themselves on the degree of conformity which they had achieved, and, for the most part, were arrogant and austere. They were utterly selfrighteous and stiff with spiritual pride. Relentlessly pursuing their legal code, the Pharisees, with a few notable exceptions, regarded themselves as the epitome of religion. They shrank from defilement rather than from dirt. That the Messiah should come as a Galilean Carpenter, who discredited the Oral Tradition and actually mixed with sinners, was quite inconceivable to the Pharisees.

The priestly class also increased their power, which took on a political aspect. Although careful to retain this power (by deceit or violence, if felt to be more effective), they were not exclusive in their associations. They had no objection to intermarriage with the heathen, and were always ready to make terms with the Gentiles. We recognize these priests, the Sadducees, worldly,

avaricious, treacherous, unscrupulous, politically-minded, concerned only with their wealth and power as a ruling class. When their authority was challenged by the Lord, who denounced them roundly, while pushing over the tables and driving out the cattle from the temple court, they sought how they might destroy Him.

What can we learn from all this?

On the one hand, we could learn that the new covenant is fundamentally different from the old covenants: and that there is a grave and constant danger of giving up the new for the old. It is possible to exchange the cheerful, exuberant spontaneity of Christian fellowship and testimony for the narrow legalism of an institutional religion.

On the other hand, we could learn that the result of a policy of making friends with the world is bound to result in ineffectiveness of corporate testimony, and may ultimately lead to disintegration. The un-Christian attitudes of the twentieth century world, all have their own Christian masks: spiritual pride takes the disguise of spiritual zeal ; dishonesty calls itself tact ; faithfulness is often the sobriquet for obstinacy; apathy frequently lurks behind humility; laziness may masquerade as modesty; and jealousy can use the pseudonym constructive criticism.

The objective of the Christian should be to have abundance of energy, strength of purpose, sincerity of heart, an unconquerable faith in God, adherence to the faith, and a fervent love toward our

Lord Jesus Christ.