The Levites' Psalm (Nehemiah 9) January 6-7
On the 24th day of the seventh month, two days after the sacred assembly following the Feast of Tabernacles, the people gather in public fasting and repentance (verses 1-2; compare 8:18). This was just two weeks after a commanded holy fast day, the Day of Atonement, which the people would have observed on the 10th day of the seventh month, between the Feast of Trumpets and the Feast of Tabernacles. For just as the leaders on the second day of the month had read about the Feast of Tabernacles in Leviticus 23 (see Nehemiah 8:13-15), they would also have read about the Day of Atonement at the same time, since it too is described in Leviticus 23 (as well as in Leviticus 16). Perhaps, in learning much more of the Law through the Feast of Tabernacles, the people came to see that they had much more about which to repent. Moreover, the fast on the 24th was preparatory to an official renewal of the covenant relationship with God, as explained in Nehemiah 9:38 and chapter 10. Jesus taught that His followers should fast (Matthew 9:15), clearly referring to more than just the annual fast of the Day of Atonement (although Christians also continued to observe this commanded fast, as alluded to in Acts 27:9). Fasting is a way to clear the mind of distractions and give concentrated thought to spiritual matters.
Verse 2 mentions the children of Israel having separated themselves from all foreigners (see also 10:28). While this could simply refer to the Jews distinguishing themselves from the pagan world around them, some who view chapters 8-10 as falling later in Nehemiah's governorship see the separation as a reference to ending the intermarriage problems described later in the book (see Nehemiah 10:30; 13:3, 23-30). Foreigners were welcomed in Israel, so long as they adopted the worship of the true God and forsook their pagan religions entirely. Circumcision of their males demonstrated their commitment to God (Exodus 12:43-49). Whatever the case, the intent was to serve as the special, distinct people God intended His nation to be.
On this special fast day, the Book of the Law was read for about three hours, and another three hours were spent in congregational worship (9:3).
In verse 5, a group of Levites give a call to praise: "Stand up and bless the LORD your God forever and ever." Some see these words as the commencement of a psalm that continues to the end of the chapter. Others see them as simply calling for the psalm or poetic prayer that follows, beginning with the words "Blessed be Your glorious name" and then continuing to the end of the chapter. This address to God reviewing His consistent intervention in Israel's history is sometimes referred to as the Levites' Psalm. Yet some refer to it as the Prayer of Ezra—seeing it as his response, perhaps already planned and written out, to the Levites' call to praise. The former seems more likely—that is, that this was all part of what the Levites spoke or sang—since Ezra's name is not mentioned. However, if it were spoken or sung together by the Levites, it had to have been written out ahead of time—and Ezra could certainly have helped with that.
This eloquent psalm recites the faithfulness of God throughout Israel's existence despite the persistent unfaithfulness of Israel. The recounting of the history was probably fresh on the minds of the people to whom the Book of the Law had been read over a three-week period. This passage is a testimony not only to God's powerful intervention on behalf of His people, but also of His great mercy and loyalty toward those with whom He had established His covenants. The psalm begins with the glory of God's name and His greatness as the Creator (verses 5-6). It then goes through God's involvement with Israel throughout the nation's history (verses 7-31): the call of Abraham and the promise of Canaan (verses 7-8); the deliverance from Egypt (verses 9-11); the time in the wilderness, including the giving of the law at Mount Sinai and the revelation of the weekly Sabbath (verses 12-21); the conquest of Canaan (verses 22-25); the period of the judges (verses 26-28); and the succession of prophets during the period of the monarchies of Israel and Judah (verses 29-31). Next we see the nation's subjugation to foreign powers as the righteous judgment of God—the period in which the people still find themselves in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah (verses 32-37).
With the example of God's faithfulness so powerfully before them in this historical review, the people commit to emulating His faithfulness through the making of a sure covenant with Him and abiding by it (verse 38). We will read about the sealing of this covenant in the next chapter.