“We also take on ourselves the obligation to give yearly a third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God; for the showbread, the regular grain offering, the regular burnt offering, the Sabbaths, the new moons, the appointed feasts, the holy things, and the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God.”
This section of Nehemiah is called “The Obligations of the Covenant.” It is an odd little section; rather nit-picky at first glance. Israel has just prayed through much confession, repentance, forgiveness and restoration, and now they give themselves to the Lord with these things call “obligations.” Consider with me for a minute what this word means in our American lives today.
Many moons ago, well only just a couple really, I used to live with the Straws. While living there I picked up, among many other things, a phrase that has stuck with me. The “Bigger Better Deal,” Miss Mary Lu calls it, or BBD for the stingy writer. A BBD can be a huge player in a situation involving an obligation. In fact, they are bitter enemies most of the time. For example, let’s say you make some plans on a Friday night with a group of people, but shortly thereafter some new, more attractive opportunity pops up. Your mind begins to complain,”Dadgummit! Why did I commit to the first group!” I have done this many, many times, and more often than not a war ensues in my head and heart. Do I stick with my prior commitment? Or do I jump ship for the new plans, the Bigger Better Deal, if you will? Now I do understand that things are not always this black and white, and wisdom is the order of the day, but at least in my life, this phenomenon exposes some ugly things about my heart.
The first thing I learn in the aftermath of a Bigger Better Deal conundrum is that I want to be my own God. I want to captain my own ship, to define what is good and what is bad for me. In fact, this is indicative of our whole culture. Individualism, my own ability to carve out my own self and person-hood, rules. Why shouldn’t I just be able to do whatever I want? But the battle within me is telling. I learn that there is something else inside me at work. My “self” is not all there is. You see, the Spirit of God, however mundane or crucial the moment, is inviting me to a different kind of trust. It is a trust rooted not in circumstances, not in the whims of my emotions or comforts, but in God himself. Could God really know what is best for me better than I could?
For Israel, regular rehearsal of their “covenant obligations” was necessary because in some ways they were just like us. They were too easily swayed by other Captains. They too wanted to make their own way in this world, to live by their own rules. But the gracious God whom they had just repented to also gave them rules, rituals, and practices, things that guided their obedience to him. My guess is that some days they began to wonder why they had to make 85 (arbitrary number for argument’s sake) different kinds of sacrifices each week, but that’s not the point of an obligation. To really live outside of ourselves, to truly trust in something bigger than ourselves (which is what we Christians like to think we do), we must submit our daily and big-picture lives to the God who lead Israel out of Egypt. It is why we should be at church every Sunday. It is why we should be daily bringing our hearts before the Scriptures. It is why we should be loving one another, even when we don’t expect love in return. And it is even why we should follow through on our commitments. For we submit not so much to an obligation to a plan or a thing; Rather, we place every moment in the hands of “him who is able to do exceedingly more than we could ever ask or imagine.”