Nehemiah 13 (NRSV)
Foreigners Separated from Israel
On that day they read from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God,
The practice of these mixed marriages, in open neglect or violation of the law, had become so common, that even the priestly house, which ought to have set a better example, was polluted by such an impure mixture.
–Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible
2because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3When the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.
But we remember that Ruth, King David’s great-grandmother, was a Moabite. God turned her, you could say, into a blessing!
The Reforms of Nehemiah
4Now before this, the priest Eliashib, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, and who was related to Tobiah, 5prepared for Tobiah a large room where they had previously put the grain offering, the frankincense, the vessels, and the tithes of grain, wine, and oil, which were given by commandment to the Levites, singers, and gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests. 6While this was taking place I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes of Babylon I went to the king. After some time I asked leave of the king 7and returned to Jerusalem. I then discovered the wrong that Eliashib had done on behalf of Tobiah, preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God.
This section indicates that Nehemiah left Jerusalem and went back to his duties in the Persian court. He was gone from Jerusalem for anywhere from 10 to 12 years. Nehemiah had left sometime after the remarkable spiritual revival noted in the recent chapters. But the real test of revival – the real test of God’s work in our lives – is the long term. It is seeing where we are with the Lord ten years after a season of great work.
When Nehemiah came back, he saw that Eliashib the priest had entered into agreements with one of the enemies of Nehemiah’s work of rebuilding the wall – the man named Tobiah. Incidentally, Tobiah was an Ammonite (Nehemiah 2:10) – one of the very mixed multitude that had been put out of the assembly of God’s people some 10 years before. At this point in the record of Nehemiah, Tobiah was not only present among the assembly, he actually rented rooms in the temple courts.
8And I was very angry, and I threw all the household furniture of Tobiah out of the room. 9Then I gave orders and they cleansed the chambers, and I brought back the vessels of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense.
10I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them; so that the Levites and the singers, who had conducted the service, had gone back to their fields. 11So I remonstrated with the officials and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” And I gathered them together and set them in their stations. 12Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain, wine, and oil into the storehouses. 13And I appointed as treasurers over the storehouses the priest Shelemiah, the scribe Zadok, and Pedaiah of the Levites, and as their assistant Hanan son of Zaccur son of Mattaniah, for they were considered faithful; and their duty was to distribute to their associates.
The people did not obey God’s word regarding giving. Because of the lack of support, those who should give their time to the service of God and His people (the Levites and the singers) could not – and they had to leave that service (had gone back to their fields).
The lack of giving was a way of forsaking the house of God. It wasn’t just unhelpful to the Levites and the singers; it was a way of turning their back on God. Nehemiah set the situation right by expecting the Levites and the singers to recommit to the work of serving God and His people as they should. He also reorganized the collection, accounting, and distribution of the people’s tithes and gifts.
14Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service.
HERE is “Jesus, Remember Me” — such a simple, profound song.
Sabbath Reforms Begun
15In those days I saw in Judah people treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys; and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day; and I warned them at that time against selling food. 16Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of merchandise and sold them on the sabbath to the people of Judah, and in Jerusalem. 17Then I remonstrated with the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the sabbath day? 18Did not your ancestors act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring more wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.”
The Sabbath was being ignored in disobedience to God’s clear command under the Old Covenant. On the Sabbath day when they were supposed to rest and trust God, foreigners sold, and the people of Israel bought. At the root, this was a problem of priorities. There was nothing wrong with buying and selling, only when the desire to buy and sell, to make money or spend money, became more important than honoring God. This was a clear way the people of Israel put making and spending money before glorifying God.
The New Testament makes it clear we are not under the law of the Sabbath in the same sense Israel was under the Old Covenant (Colossians 2:16-17); but we are certainly under the same obligation to make honoring God more important than making money or spending money.
19When it began to be dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the sabbath. And I set some of my servants over the gates, to prevent any burden from being brought in on the sabbath day. 20Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of merchandise spent the night outside Jerusalem once or twice. 21But I warned them and said to them, “Why do you spend the night in front of the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.” From that time on they did not come on the sabbath. 22And I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.
An interview with Chick-fil-A president Dan T. Cathy and the Baltimore Sun:
Q: Chick-fil-A restaurants are closed on Sundays. Have you felt pressure to reconsider that policy?
A: There have been times that we have reaffirmed that decision. We’re located in some theme parks, but we’re not in all theme parks and a lot of stadiums because we would be required to open on Sundays. We’ve forfeited a lot of business opportunities because of that policy. But I like to tell people that our food tastes better on Monday because we’re closed on Sunday. What really drives us to do this? It’s a very simple statement: To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.
Mixed Marriages Condemned
23In those days also I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; 24and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various peoples. 25And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. 26Did not King Solomon of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless, foreign women made even him to sin. 27Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?”
In the years Nehemiah was away the Israelites had resumed their practice of intermarrying with the pagan nations surrounding them. This was in dramatic disobedience to God’s command. From this strong reaction of Nehemiah, we gather he considered this to be the most dangerous of their sins – pursing ungodly romance, and getting involved in romantic relationships God had said “no” to. And his example of Solomon is well taken. If Solomon, one of the wisest and most blessed men ever, sinned with unwise and ungodly romance then no one else should consider themselves invulnerable.
28And one of the sons of Jehoiada, son of the high priest Eliashib, was the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite; I chased him away from me. 29Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, the covenant of the priests and the Levites.
30Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work; 31and I provided for the wood offering, at appointed times, and for the first fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.
At the end of it all, Nehemiah knew he did his best to make the people of God strong, safe, and secure. Beyond that, he also led them to be pure, worshipful, and obedient.
Yet, Nehemiah certainly carried a sense of failure. In Nehemiah 10 the people made a solemn covenant to God that they would do three things: not have ungodly romantic relationships (10:30), not buy and sell on the Sabbath (10:31), and support the work of God with money as He commanded (10:32-39).
Nevertheless, in Nehemiah 13, some 10 to 12 years later, Israel was steeped in the exact sins they vowed to stop. Nehemiah had to address the problems of ungodly romantic relationships (13:23-31), buying and selling on the Sabbath (13:15-22), and failing to support the work of God as He commanded (13:10-14).
In Nehemiah 10:39 the people promised: we will not neglect the house of our God. But later in Nehemiah 13:11, Nehemiah had to ask: Why is the house of God forsaken? It was forsaken because Israel did not keep its promises before God.
This makes a point vividly clear: the law – that is, rules, vows, promises, covenants, and the such, are all ultimately powerless to stop sin. Only the grace of God, alive and flowing in our lives, can give us the power to truly overcome sin.
Paul expresses this in Romans 8:3, among other places: For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. Too many Christians look for victory in the making of rules, of vows, of promises – and fail to find it, because all those things tend to make us look to ourselves, instead of looking to Jesus.
The Old Testament history of Israel, from beginning to end, illustrates this. When the nation was first born at the Exodus, despite the most spectacular miracles, displays of God’s glory, and revelation of the law, the people sinned, by crediting a gold calf with their deliverance from Egypt! And now here, at the end of the Old Testament history of God’s people in the promised land, Nehemiah is pulling hair out — his own and those of sinners — because they couldn’t keep their promises to God.
If we could be saved by our own promises, by our own commitment to Jesus, then His death would have been noble, but unnecessary. We aren’t saved by some vow we make, or some leaf we turn over, but by trusting in who Jesus is, and what He has done to save us.
— David Guzik
The End of the book of Nehemiah.
The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.