According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience” (WSC 87). This statement recognizes that true repentance does not exist without a resolve to obey the Lord. It is not enough merely to recognize our sin, admit it, and ask for forgiveness; we must also intend to serve God and keep His commandments, even while we recognize that we will not do so perfectly (Deut. 30:1–10; 1 John 1:8–9). This resolve and our obedience do not in any sense merit salvation, which comes to us only through faith in Christ. But to have no resolve to obey and no fruit of obedience whatsoever reveals the lack of true spiritual life, that is, the lack of the new heart given in regeneration that exercises saving faith (John 3:1–21; James 2:14–26).
The Jews of Nehemiah’s day had at least a formal understanding of this truth, which is why they entered into a covenant to obey the Lord after confessing their sin (see Neh. 9). The list of priests, Levites, and civic leaders who signed this covenant is given in Nehemiah 10:1–27, but the opening verses of today’s passage indicate that every Jew in Jerusalem who could understand what was going on committed himself to the covenant of new obedience (vv. 28–29).
Nehemiah 10:29–39 gives the specific demands of the covenant, which are drawn from the law of Moses. The Jews pledged to no longer intermarry with pagan foreigners (Neh. 10:30; see Ex. 34:11–16). They also committed not to buy and sell on the Sabbath from “peoples of the land”—non-Jews—who brought goods into the city (Neh. 10:31). The law forbade sojourners in Israel from working on the Sabbath but not foreigners who lived outside the land (Lev. 16:29). Apparently, the Jews were buying and selling from non-Jewish merchants who set up shop in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. They kept the letter of the law by not working themselves, but they violated its spirit, as the Sabbath was designed for the Jews to cease from normal commerce altogether one day a week. The other promises in Nehemiah 10:32–39 are also applications of the law’s stipulations in the postexilic situation (e.g., Ex. 30:11–16; Num. 18:26).
It was good to make a covenant to obey the law. We will learn, however, that the people’s hearts were not in it (Neh. 13).