This chapter constitutes something of an anticlimax after the achievements of the earlier chapters and the heady celebrations of chapter 12. Times of spiritual renewal are often followed by times of spiritual decline. J.I. Packer writes:-
It was so in the New Testament period as a whole. On the Day of Pentecost in A.D. 30 the Holy Spirit was poured out in revival blessing, the disciples gained insights and lost their inhibitions, the truth about Jesus was clearly proclaimed and understood, 3,000 came to faith, and the church was up and running. The next two decades were a time of triumph, in which the gospel was racing ahead; it spread out from Jerusalem to Samaria and then into the Gentile world, and it is clear from the New Testament that in place after place there was spectacular initial success. But the New Testament ends with a letter addressed to each of seven churches by Jesus himself, with a long visionary appendix attached, and from this Book of Revelation, written probably in the nineties of the first century, it is clear that revival conditions had become a thing of the past. Sin and unfaithfulness, false doctrine and immoral conduct, complacency and hard-heartedness are all denounced, because they have all crept in; each church is laboring, and needing encouragement desperately. It is apparent that the “high” of the early days had now been followed by a “low,” a flat period in which churches were flagging. And it is not only in Revelation that we are confronted with this spiritual decline; the pastoral epistles of Paul, John’s letters, 2 Peter, and Jude, all dating from the sixties or later, are all preoccupied with problems of internal shortcomings, doctrinal and moral, that were bringing the churches low. That is how the New Testament finishes. (A Passion for Faithfulness)
‘When Nehemiah, having gone back to Susa at the end of his twelve years, returned to Jerusalem at his own request (13:6–7) for a second spell as governor, he found that on four points of the “binding agreement” Israel [Neh 9:38] had lapsed: the temple had been desecrated; tithes had dried up; commerce had encroached on Sabbath observance; and mixed marriages had established themselves once more.’ (Packer)
‘The memory of the mountaintop experience was no longer vivid, and zeal for God’s praise and glory was no longer a driving force.’ (Packer)
Brown comments that ‘the preceding chapter, with its arresting account of devoted choristers, reliable gatekeepers, gifted instrumentalists, greatly valued (12:44) priests and committed Levites is replaced by the story of despondent Levites (v10), silenced singers (v10), disobedient tradesmen (v15), ungodly merchants (v16), materialistic nobles (v17) and spiritually negligent husbands (v23).’
‘It is…likely that Malachi’s indictment of shoddy worship (Mal. 1:6–14), a corrupt priesthood (Mal 2:1–9), marriage with foreigners (Mal 2:10–16), and non-payment of the tithe (Mal 3:6–12) was delivered during the years of Nehemiah’s absence, so that the people had no excuse at all for the apathy expressed by their continued drift on these matters. Then Nehemiah’s fury at the situation he found becomes more explicable, as does also the intensity of his distress at it. For him it was indeed back to square one, and a very sad experience because his high hopes of Israel’s fidelity were now dashed.’ (Packer)
See how God’s covenant provisions have been violated: (a) his word has been disobeyed, v1-3, (b) his temple desecrated, vv4-9; (c) his ministers neglected, vv10-12; (d) his day disregarded, vv15-22.
Further Reforms by Nehemiah, 1-31
13:1 On that day the book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people. They found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite may ever enter the assembly of God, 13:2 for they had not met the Israelites with food and water, but instead had hired Balaam to curse them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into blessing.) 13:3 When they heard the law, they removed from Israel all who were of mixed ancestry.
On that day – the expression is imprecise. The context shows that this was after Nehemiah’s first term of office.
The Book of Moses – The passage here summarised is Deut 23:3-5. ‘True to the Old Testament style, the prohibition is stark and unqualified, to make the most powerful impact, but the reader knows that elsewhere there are balancing consideration. It is the Ammonite or Moabite in his native capacity as the embodiment of Israel’s inveterate enemy and corrupter who is in view: the son or “daughter of a foreign god” (Mal 2:11), burrowing into the life and even the language of Israel (verses 23:ff). But let him come as a convert, like Ruth the Moabitess, and he will be entitled to a very different reception.’ (Kidner)
‘The law referred to here is Deuteronomy 23:3–6, concerning the exclusion of Ammonites and Moabites from worship. The law was thus interpreted in a wider sense to include any foreigner in the community who did not worship the God of Israel. The Ammonite reference was especially relevant, since Tobiah’s Ammonite ancestry was well known (see Neh 2:10).’ (IVP Background Commentary)
‘Once again it was the public reading of Scripture which brought home to Israel its obligations as a people for God (cf Neh 8:1ff, 13ff; 9:3ff).’ (Kidner)
No Ammonite or Moabite – ‘Ammon and Moab were born from the incestuous union of Lot and two of his daughters (Gen. 19:30–38), and their descendants were the avowed enemies of the Jews. Somehow this “mixed multitude” had infiltrated the people of Israel in spite of previous purgings (Neh 9:2; 10:28). It was the “mixed multitude” that gave Moses so much trouble (Ex. 12:38; Num. 11:4–6), and it gives the church trouble today. The “mixed multitude” is composed of unsaved people who want to belong to the fellowship of God’s people without trusting the Lord or submitting to His will. They want the blessings but not the obligations, and their appetite is still for the things of the world.’ (Wiersbe)
13:4 But prior to this time, Eliashib the priest, a relative of Tobiah, had been appointed over the storerooms of the temple of our God. 13:5 He made for himself a large storeroom where previously they had been keeping the grain offering, the incense, and the vessels, along with the tithes of the grain, the new wine, and the olive oil as commanded for the Levites, the singers, the gate keepers, and the offering for the priests.
Wiersbe quotes Vance Havner: ‘Today the world has so infiltrated the church, that we are more beset by traitors within than by foes without. Satan is not fighting churches—he is joining them.’ Eliashib is the first-named of the workers, Neh 3:1, but he has become a traitor.
Closely associated – possibly by marriage. Brown comments: ‘Our lives can be ruined by damaging relationships. The apostles were eager that the early Christians should live in the world as consistent and attractive witnesses to the love and power of Christ, but these leaders knew only too well that, whilst involvement is a crucial necessity, absorption is a recurrent danger.’
It has often remarked that it is one thing for the ship to be in the sea, and another for the sea to be in the ship.
Tobiah, remember, was an Ammonite, Neh 4:3.
‘A wretched thing it was, [1.] That Tobiah the Ammonite should be entertained with respect in Israel, and have a magnificent reception. [2.] That the high priest, who should have taught the people the law and set them a good example, should, contrary to the law, give him entertainment, and make use of the power he had, as overseer of the chambers of the temple, for that purpose. [3.] That he should lodge him in the courts of God’s house, as if to confront God himself; this was next to setting up an idol there, as the wicked kings of old had done. An Ammonite must not come into the congregation; and shall one of the worst and vilest of the Ammonites be courted into the temple itself, and caressed there? [4.] That he should throw out the stores of the temple, to make room for him, and so expose them to be lost, wasted, and embezzled, though they were the portions of the priests, merely to gratify Tobiah. Thus did he corrupt the covenant of Levi, as Malachi complained at this time, ch.2:8. Well might Nehemiah add (v. 6), But all this time was not I at Jerusalem. If he had been there, the high priest durst not have done such a thing. The envious one, who sows tares in God’s field, knows how to take an opportunity to do it when the servants sleep or are absent, Mt. 13:25. The golden calf was made when Moses was in the mount.’ (MHC)
13:6 During all this time I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes of Babylon, I had gone back to the king. After some time I had requested leave of the king, 13:7 and I returned to Jerusalem. Then I discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah by supplying him with a storeroom in the courts of the temple of God. 13:8 I was very upset, and I threw all of Tobiah’s household possessions out of the storeroom. 13:9 Then I gave instructions that the storerooms should be purified, and I brought back the equipment of the temple of God, along with the grain offering and the incense.
Nehemiah has spent 12 years as governor in Jerusalem. After that he returned to the emperor. And then, ‘some time later’, he asked permission to go back to Jerusalem. ‘While the cat’s away…’
‘Here is where you discover the depth of fidelity. Does it rest only on someone’s external presence (Nehemiah’s, in this case)? Does our fidelity evaporate when the external restraint is not there (as did Eliashib’s)? Or is our faithfulness internally driven?’ (Davis)
Nehemiah’s attitude, as he records it himself in this chapter, requires some consideration. Packer summarises:- ‘He tells us straight out that he was angry (Neh 13:8, 21, 25). He was certainly judgmental (“the evil thing,” Neh 13:7; “this wicked thing,” Neh 13:17; “all this terrible wickedness,” Neh 13:27). He acted autocratically (which, of course, as governor he was entitled to do), and the “I” becomes rather obtrusive: “I … threw … out [Neh 13:8] … I gave orders [Neh 13:9] … I rebuked [Neh 13:11] … I called them together [Neh 13:11] … I put … in charge [Neh 13:13] … I warned [Neh 13:15] … I ordered [Neh 13:19] … I stationed [Neh 13:19] … I warned [Neh 13:21] … I commanded [Neh 13:22] … I rebuked … called curses down on them … beat some … pulled out their hair … made them take an oath [Neh 13:25] … I drove him away [Neh 13:28] … I purified the priests and the Levites [Neh 13:30].”’
Carson’s exposition is one of the few that I have come across that allows that Nehemiah may have over-stepped the mark in the reforms recorded in this chapter. I am inclined to agree with him.
v7 Nehemiah returned ‘to a city that had settled down in his absence to a comfortable compromise with the gentile world’ (Kidner)
‘Nehemiah’s old enemy had always had admirers and sworn supporters in the highest circles of Judah (Neh 6:17-19). Himself the bearer of a good Jewish name, he had married into one of the leading families, and his sons into another…now it emerges that the high priest himself was a connection.’ (Kidner)
Tobiah never lacked audacity. Where even a toe-hold in the temple would have been a conquest, he obtains a room the size of a small warehouse, and has it cleared for him by the religious authorities themselves (v7). It was doubtless a special satisfaction to see his personal belongings take precedence over the very frankincense for God and the tithes for his ministers; but best of all he was at the nerve-centre of Jerusalem, ideally placed for influence and intrigue.’ (Kidner)
This room had become vacant because, as is made clear a few verses later, the people had failed to make their contributions to the upkeep of the temple.
v8 This violent action of Nehemiah anticipates that of Jesus in clearing the temple. ‘Throughout this chapter he stands out from his contemporaries by his refusal to allow for a moment that holiness is negotiable or that custom alone can hallow anything.’ (Kidner)
Cleansing the temple ‘is not an easy thing to do. A new pastor may discover officers or leaders in the church who are not spiritual people but who are entrenched in their offices. What does he do? He knows that these leaders have relatives in the church who, like Eliashib, will cooperate with their family rather than contend for the faith. Should the pastor try to “clean house” and possibly split the church? Or should he bide his time, lovingly preach the Word, and pray for God to work? With either approach, the pastor will need courage and faith, because eventually the blessing of the Lord on the Word will arouse the opposition of the “mixed multitude.”’ (Wiersbe)
‘Our Saviour thus cleansed the temple, that the house of prayer might not be a den of thieves. And thus those that would expel sin out of their hearts, those living temples, must throw out its household stuff and all the provision made for it, strip it, starve it, and take away all those things that are the food and fuel of lust; this is, in effect, to mortify it.’ (MHC)
13:10 I also discovered that the grain offerings for the Levites had not been provided, and that as a result the Levites and the singers who performed this work had all gone off to their fields. 13:11 So I registered a complaint with the leaders, asking “Why is the temple of God neglected?” Then I gathered them and reassigned them to their positions.
The people had promised, “We will not neglect the house of our God,” Neh 10:39. ‘This meant paying the temple tax, providing wood for the altar, and bringing the required tithes and offerings to the priests and Levites (vv. 32–39). Without the faithful support of the people, the ministry at the temple would languish; and the Levites would then scatter to the villages, where they could work the land and survive (Neh 13:10).’ (Wiersbe)
‘The Levites were to live on tithes that were given (Num. 18:21), but these had not been given them, the procedures of Neh. 12:44-47 having gone into eclipse. So, the Levites “fled” to the towns and to their fields to gather what living they could there. Hence, the house of God was “forsaken” (Neh. 13:11).’ (Davis)
The people had become grudging and neglectful with their tithes and offerings. Before the exile, the tendency had been to offer lavish gifts, as if God could be bribed, Amos 4:4f; 5:22. But now God is being ‘robbed’ (Malachi’s expression) of what is due to him.
‘When God’s people start to decline spiritually, one of the first places it shows up is in their giving. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). The believer who is happy in the Lord and walking in His will has a generous heart and wants to share with others. Giving is both the “thermostat” and the “thermometer” of the Christian life: It measures our spiritual “temperature” and also helps set it at the right level.’ (Wiersbe)
‘In many parts of the world, excellent work might be done for the Lord if only there were sufficient resources. Imaginative opportunities for service have to be passed by because Christian societies and missionary agencies do not receive enough money to meet present demands, let alone sponsor creative initiatives. Every Christian needs to take this story of Israel’s neglect of the Levites as both a warning and encouragement. It warns us against a materialistic outlook which fails to act generously toward others, and it encourages us to think seriously about proportionate, systematic, regular giving.’ (Brown)
“Why is the house of God neglected? – There had been expressions of firm resolve in chapter 10 (“We will not neglect the house of our God”), but these have been forgotten.
As Kidner points out, Nehemiah’s rebuke would have achieved little, ‘had he not followed it up with the good administration of v11b and the careful appointments of verse 13.’
13:12 Then all of Judah brought the tithe of the grain, the new wine, and the olive oil to the storerooms. 13:13 I gave instructions that Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and a certain Levite named Pedaiah be put in charge of the storerooms, and that Hanan son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah, be their assistant, for they were regarded as trustworthy. It was then their responsibility to oversee the distribution to their colleagues.
Wiersbe quotes American psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger as saying, “Money-giving is a good criterion of a person’s mental health. Generous people are rarely mentally ill people.”
13:14 Please remember me for this, O my God, and do not wipe out the kindness that I have done for the temple of my God and for its services!
13:15 In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath, bringing in heaps of grain and loading them onto donkeys, along with wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, and bringing them to Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. So I warned them on the day that they sold these provisions. 13:16 The people from Tyre who lived there were bringing fish and all kinds of merchandise and were selling it on the Sabbath to the people of Judah—and in Jerusalem, of all places! 13:17 So I registered a complaint with the nobles of Judah, saying to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? 13:18 Isn’t this the way your ancestors acted, causing our God to bring on them and on this city all this misfortune? And now you are causing even more wrath on Israel, profaning the Sabbath like this!”
Sabbath observance had been resented in the days of Amos (Amos 8:5) and largely abandoned by Jeremiah’s time (Jer 17:19-27). The fact that history was now repeating itself is noted by Nehemiah in v18.
‘The Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, is not a “Christian Sabbath,” because the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week and belonged especially to the Jews. Therefore, the Old Testament laws governing the Jewish Sabbath don’t apply to the Lord’s Day. But Sunday is a special day to God’s people because it commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We ought to use the Lord’s Day to the glory of the Lord.’ (Wiersbe)
Treading winepresses…bringing in wine… – A teetotalitarian reading: ‘The presses were called “wine presses,” and the freshly pressed juice was called “wine,” but the wine in both cases can only be understood as fresh, unfermented, nonalcoholic wine.’ (Sinclair, Ben. Should Christians Drink Wine and Alcohol? Kindle Edition). Although we do not dispute that fresh wine juice might, on occasion, be referred to as ‘wine’, it does not follow, in the present instance, that the ‘wine’ that was brought in came straight from the winepresses.
Men from Tyre – ‘The men of Tyre were famous Phoenician merchants (see Ezek 27:12–36; 28:16) who traded throughout the entire Mediterranean world. Ancient economists had concluded that it was not enough to have caravans traveling the cities and towns of the region. They went the next step of establishing merchant colonies in the large trading centers as an ongoing outlet for their merchandise. There was evidently a colony of Tyrians in Jerusalem who had been permitted to operate outside the parameters of Jewish law.’ (IVP Background Commentary)
13:19 When the evening shadows began to fall on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be closed. I further directed that they were not to be opened until after the Sabbath. I positioned some of my young men at the gates so that no load could enter on the Sabbath day. 13:20 The traders and sellers of all kinds of merchandise spent the night outside Jerusalem once or twice. 13:21 But I warned them and said, “Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you repeat this, I will forcibly remove you!” From that time on they did not show up on the Sabbath. 13:22 Then I directed the Levites to purify themselves and come and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy.
Once again, Nehemiah’s rebuke is followed up by firm and decisive action.
For this please remember me, O my God, and have pity on me in keeping with your great love.
13:23 Also in those days I saw the men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. 13:24 Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod (or the language of one of the other peoples mentioned) and were unable to speak the language of Judah. 13:25 So I entered a complaint with them. I called down a curse on them, and I struck some of the men and pulled out their hair. I had them swear by God saying, “You will not marry off your daughters to their sons, and you will not take any of their daughters as wives for your sons or for yourselves! 13:26 Was it not because of things like these that King Solomon of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel. But the foreign wives made even him sin! 13:27 Should we then in your case hear that you do all this great evil, thereby being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign wives?”
The language of Judah – Hebrew.
‘The babble of languages among the children…meant a steady erosion of Israelite identity at the level of all thinking and expression, and a loss of access to the Word of God, which would effectively paganize them. A single generation’s compromise could undo the work of centuries.’ (Kidner)
‘If these children did not know the language of Israel, how could they read the Law or participate in the holy services? If a generation was lost to the faith, what was the future of the nation?’ (Wiersbe)
Not only were these children cut off, because of the language barrier, from knowledge of God’s word and participation in his worship, but it is more than likely that their mothers maintained their allegiance to their own gods and encouraged their children to do the same.
Wiersbe perceptively comments: ‘God’s people and the people of the world can be identified by their speech…While ministering at a summer Bible conference, I had dinner one evening in the home of the daughter of a well-known Christian musician and her husband. Both of them were able to talk about her father, now deceased, or about music and musicians; but when the conversation turned to the Word and the Lord, they were silent. I wondered if either of them really knew the Lord, or, if they did, if they were on speaking terms with Him. They had no problem talking about the things of the world, but they did not know “the language of Zion.”’
Brown observes: ‘The enemy has more than one way of establishing a destructive bridgehead into the life of God’s people. An Ammonite man may well be evicted from the temple, but there are plenty of Ammonite women now living at the heart of Israel’s spiritual and moral life, the family. They have been excluded from the temple, but they have gained a foothold in the home.’
Pulled out their hair – ‘In a similar situation, Ezra had plucked his own hair and beard (Ezra 9:3); but Nehemiah plucked the hair of some of the offenders!’ (Wiersbe)
Solomon king of Israel – see 1 Kings 11:1-6. ‘The stern terms of Nehemiah’s rebuke were shatteringly apposite for those Judean men. Some of them had married women belonging to the precise nations from which Solomon’s wives had come.’ (Brown)
Interestingly, there is no mention here of the divorce procedure set up by Ezra, only of the steps taken by Nehemiah to limit the spread of intermarriage.
Ian Paul takes a ‘revisionist view’ of this ‘ethnic purification’: ‘When I preached on this a few years ago, the lesson I drew was that even good leaders can make bad decisions! For this text sits in contradiction with the story of Ruth and Boaz, a story set in the period of Judges, but viewed by most scholars (because of its style and language) of being written down during the return from exile, that is, at the same time as the account of Nehemiah. And it highlights the fact that the very line of David, the ideal king, actually includes mixed ethnic identity. This idea is reflected in the inclusion of a number of ‘outsiders’ in the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.’
13:28 Now one of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite. So I banished him from my sight.
Nehemiah’s arch-enemy Sanballat had penetrated even further than Tobiah. His daughter had married one of the high priest’s sons.
I drove him away is very vivid: “I chased him away”.
13:29 Please remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, the covenant of the priesthood, and the Levites.
13:30 So I purified them of everything foreign, and I assigned specific duties to the priests and the Levites. 13:31 I also provided for the wood offering at the appointed times and also for the first fruits.
‘I cleansed, I assigned, I provided’ makes, says Kidner, ‘a far less brilliant epitaph that Caesar’s boast, “I came, I saw, I conquered”. But Nehemiah’s work was the making of his people. His reforming zeal, partnered by the educative thoroughness of Ezra, gave to post-exilic Israel a virility and clarity of faith which it never wholly lost. This would have been the memorial most to his liking. This, indeed, now crowned by the lasting benefits of his book to the Christian church, surely constitutes a major part of heaven’s answer to his repeated prayer, ‘Remember me, O my God, for good.’ (Kidner)
‘It is significant that the book marks the end point, chronologically speaking, of the OT narrative. The people of God, who were constituted at Sinai, have passed through all the vicissitudes of the monarchy and the catastrophe of the exile, to be gathered once more, in chastened circumstances, around the temple and under the Mosaic Torah. They have been restored as God promised, but the achievement is only partial, and in no sense does the restored community represent the fulfilment of God’s purposes for his people. The earlier Davidic-Messianic hope of the prophets, which promised a glorious and peaceful future for the people (cf. Isa 9:6-7; Jer. 33:15-22; Ezek. 37:24-28), is apparently dormant in a period preoccupied with the survival and consolidation of the covenant community. It is clear that many things are far from ideal in the community’s present circumstances. Thus, Ezra 4:6-24 and other passages indicate that the people frequently faced opposition from their neighbours, while the prayer in Nehemiah 9:36-37 reflects the oppression they endured from their Persian overlords. Ezra 9-10 and Nehemiah 13 also indicate the propensity of the community to fall back into sin, despite the experience of exile and the work of reform. Against these facts, the work sets out the ideal to which the people may aspire in the hope of a fuller salvation, by living as ‘the assembly of God’ with God’s worship and word at the heart of their community life (Neh. 12:44-13:3).’ (EDBT)
‘The final note in Ezra-Nehemiah is thus one of ambiguity. We may wonder how the people who had so exuberantly celebrated the completion of the defenses against the enemy came so readily to accept the enemy’s presence within the Temple and the high priest’s family. How, indeed, could those who had committed themselves so solemnly to religious purity (chapter 10) so rapidly return to practices which were essentially irreligious? If we sense a certain desperation about Nehemiah’s last efforts to put the house of Israel in order, a tiredness about the need yet again to bring back the wandering sheep to the right path, a feeling that there is no reason to think that this reform will be more successful than any other, a sense that after all he himself has done his best (vv. 14, 22b, 31b), then we may be catching the right meaning here.’ (McConville)
‘These estimates do not discount the work of Ezra and Nehemiah, but expose the flakiness of the professing people of God. Does not the end of Ezra-Nehemiah then function as a blinking, yellow caution-light to those who place too much confidence in reform of the church? Not that such reform must not be pressed – but can’t there sometimes be a subtle arrogance in it? “We will separate from such-and-such a body, and we will start a new denomination, and we will see to it that it remains confessionally orthodox, fosters godly piety, and never gets on that slippery path to compromise.” But, probably, it will. Look at the Free Church in Scotland a mere fifty years after the Disruption of 1843. Not even among the people of God can true constancy be found, not even when they take sacred vows to remain faithful. Do you see how Ezra- Nehemiah preaches an implicit messianism? Does not the failure of Israel in this Scripture make you look for the Israelite who will not fail? Covenants are solemnly sworn yet easily broken. Where will we find the covenant keeper except in our faithful Savior Jesus Christ? Ezra-Nehemiah should drum into us a holy distrust of ourselves, give us a clear grasp of how tenuous our devotion is. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” Isn’t it healthy to see that? And if we do, is there not hope?’ (Davis)