Learning and Loving the Law
We have spent some time in Nehemiah, but not as much time as the people there themselves spent in establishing the work of reformation. As with all reformations, they often find themselves doing the same thing over again, as we find in this passage.
Now those that sealed were, Nehemiah, the Tirshatha, the son of Hachaliah, and Zidkijah . . . (Nehemiah 10:1-39).
Nehemiah begins by marking the names of those who were “sealed” (vv. 1-27). He then includes the “rest of the people,” all those who had separated themselves from the surrounding paganism (v. 28). These people had dedicated themselves to the law, and had bound themselves with a self-maledictory oath (v. 29). They then specifically indicated some of the laws they would specifically obey, and they probably named these because they were vulnerable at these places (vv. 30-31). Those particular laws were the ones prohibiting intermarriage with pagans, sabbath-breaking, ignoring the seven year sabbath for the land, and the exaction of debts. The people also bound themselves to pay for the worship of God, and to supply the house of God with necessary items (vv. 32-37). The Levites who were supported this way would also tithe themselves, and this would include the priests, porters, and singers (vv. 38-39).
Dealing With Theonomy:
A generation ago, a controversy over “theonomy” racked the Reformed world. The word simply refers to God’s law, and so in this sense every Christian is a theonomist. If we say that “God’s law” consists of what He wants us to do, what Christian is going to say that he doesn’t want that? This means that the differences between Christians were differences over what God was actually requiring of us, and not whether we ought to do what God is requiring of us. Who would respond to the question this way. “Are you a theonomist?” “Oh, no. I hate God’s law.” So the question is an interpretive and hermeneutical one. What is the nature of the law? What happened to the law in the death and resurrection of Jesus? What relationship do New Testament saints have to particular laws in the Old Testament, and in particular, do all good Christians need to smite an Amalekite today?
Avoiding Glib Answers:
In our text, the people of Israel had “separated themselves . . . unto the law of God.” And all of them—men, women, sons and daughters had “knowledge” and “understanding.” On the basis of this, they bound themselves to one another, and they committed themselves to live in accordance with the law. But doing this requires study, work, careful discussion, practical application, and love. The same truths apply to us today, and this means we must stay away from glib prooftexting—not that there is anything wrong with learned prooftexting, the way Jesus and the apostles did it.
As much as we might want it otherwise, reality is not optional. This discussion is not about whether we Christians want the state to be theocratic. All states are theocratic; the only question concerns which theo is doing the cratting. All law is imposed morality. The only question is which morality? Whose morality? All states appeal to a final authority, past which there is no further appeal. When you identify that point, you have identified the god of the system. The god of the system permits no other gods before him, the god of the system is the source of all law, and the god of the system does not allow us to play hermeneutical games with his decrees. The Constitution can be a stretchy, living document, but the regulations of the IRS are never stretchy at all. Trying taking the tax code and saying that this is a “living document.” Good luck. So all this means that the god of the system will either be the true God or a false one, an idol.
Now in the providence of God, these inescapable questions are being pressed, with a great deal of dogmatism, by Islamic fundamentalists. The law of their god is called Sharia, and in certain places in the West, they have already begun to demand that Sharia law be acknowledged and used. And as one wit put it, “How do you solve a problem like Sharia?” Indeed. How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? To these demands, our secularists protest that “religion” is the problem—but remember that ultimate religious commitments are inescapable. But one other thing should be noted. Christians who acknowledge this question and meet it head-on are not saying that the law and gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ are simply a Christian Sharia. That is not what theonomy means. The laws are as different as God is from the gods.
And Worship is Central:
When the people had committed themselves to live by the law of God, it is not surprising that one of the first things they did was fund the reestablished worship of God. “Also we made ordinances for us, to charge ourselves yearly with the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God” (v. 27). The other provisions that followed were for all the functions of worship—the sacrifices, the wood for the offerings, for the holy things, the firstfruits, and so on. This was for the provision and livelihood of the priests, Levites, porters and musicians.
The kingdom of God does not run on air. And this means that all reformations are economic reformations, financial reformations, tithing reformations. And please note that the money given is the Lord’s, and does not belong to the one giving. If someone gives an “offering” to a Christian work, a school say, they may certainly designate the gift to be for “this” or “that.” But the tithe is God’s tax, and He is the one who stipulates what is to be done with it. Remember that these people were returning to the law of God, and the law of God tells us what we are to do in worship. In turn, this means that we are told what the tithe is for.
The Same Word for All:
The ecclesiastical structure of Old Israel was structured and hierarchical, but there was no segment of it that was outside the requirements of God’s law. This can be seen in what was done with the tithe by some of the recipients of the tithe. They took a tenth of the tenth that was given to them, and in turn they gave it in the same way (vv. 38-39).
Thou Shalt Love the Lord Thy God:
Obedience to the law of God can be attempted in a wooden or mechanical way. But that is not obedience. A life of vibrant, spontaneous, undefined “love” can also be attempted, but it soon collapses because it has no definition. This is what the New Testament says about law and love.
Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10).