Text: Nehemiah 13
In the previous chapter, God’s people enjoyed a huge celebration.
They had every reason to celebrate. They had been returning from exile in drips and drabs over the previous 100 years or so. But they had been a demoralised people, lacking in leadership and with their holy city, Jerusalem, pretty much in ruins.
Nehemiah was himself a Jew and a senior official in the court of the Persian emperor. He gained permission from his boss to go back to Jerusalem to help sort things out.
In the earlier chapters of the book we learn how Nehemiah supervised a great reformation, which included,
- Re-building the walls, despite persistent opposition from people like Sanballat and Tobiah.
- Renewing the worship, with public reading of God’s work, prayer and confession, and the signing of a solemn covenant, 10:30ff. The people pledged not to inter-marry; to honour the Sabbath, and to give their tithes to support the ministry of the temple. In short, they undertook to conduct themselves as God’s distinctive people, set apart for his service.
- Re-populating the city, so that it could become a living, thriving, worshiping community.
Then came the great celebration, with the people marching on top of the newly-repaired city walls, with choirs and musical instruments and much singing. 12:43 – ‘And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.’
But did it last? Did the people keep their promise not to neglect the house of God (Neh 10:39)? Did those scoundrels Tobiah and Sanballat finally slink off and leave them in peace? And what now were we to make of God’s ancient promise to Abraham, that he would make of his descendents a great nation, and that through him all the nations of earth would be blessed?
Well, Nehemiah too was interested in these question. And so in Neh 13:6f we find him returning to Jerusalem to see if all is well.
He is horrified by what he finds. All his previous work seems to have been undone. Nehemiah finds the
(a) Worship – compromised, Neh 13:7-14. The people had promised, 10:39, “We will not neglect the house of our God.” The temple is being thoroughly neglected. The people had stopped paying their tithes and offerings. The Levites, who ministered in the temple, were thus not being supported, and so they went back to the fields in order to support themselves.
(b) Sabbath – neglected, Neh 13:15-22. The people had promised Neh 10:31, to honour the Sabbath day. But now it’s a working day just like any other.
(c) Family – under threat, Neh 13:23-28. The people had promised, 10:30, not to enter into mixed marriages. But the men had married Ammonites and Moabites. The issue here is not one of race, but of idolatry. If the children cannot speak Hebrew, they will not know God’s law, or be able to enter into the worship of the one true and living God. They will, rather, imbibe the false religions of their mothers, and in a single generation everything will be lost.
Ch 13 is a story, then, of broken promises. Poor Nehemiah is beside himself. He has to step in once again to sort the whole mess out. He restores the system of tithes and offerings, brings back Sabbath observance, and makes everyone promise – once again – not to enter into mixed marriages.
Did Nehemiah over-step the mark in his reforms? In prohibiting all marriages with foreigners had he perhaps been too unbending? (Remember Ruth?) Is ch 13 account a bit too full of ‘I did this…I did that…I made them promise…I pulled out their hair’?’ Does he show just a little too much self-interest when he pleads, not just once, but several times, ‘Lord, remember me for this?’ Maybe.
But, you know, there is a place for outrage. There was someone else, you will recall, who took decisive action to rid the temple of abuses. Both Nehemiah and Jesus could say, ‘Zeal for your house has consumed me’.
I would like to remind you that Nehemiah 13 is the closing chapter of the OT, historically speaking. And mention of the name of Jesus the Messiah prompts me to say that much has changed since the days of Nehemiah. There are things here that we cannot apply directly to ourselves. Nehemiah lived in the light of God’s promise through Abraham. We live in the light of God’s fulfilment of that promise through Jesus Christ. God’s kingdom is no longer localised in a piece of real estate in the Near East, but extends to the ends of the earth. God’s people are no longer primarily the Jews, but followers of Jesus Christ, both Jews and Gentiles. God’s worship is not centralised in any building made with human hands, but finds its locus and expression in that worldwide community of faith.
But this much, at least, is as true for us today, as it was for God’s people in the days of Nehemiah:-
There is an ever-present danger of spiritual decline
So often, the life of the Christian church, and also of the individual believer, mirrors what we find in the book of Nehemiah. Triumph is followed by failure; success gives way to disappointment; after the mountain-top experience, back down to earth with a bump.
Consider the story of the early church as chronicled in the NT. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out with unprecedented power. Jesus, crucified, risen and ascended, was proclaimed boldly. 3,000 people came to faith. And from that point the gospel spread with spectacular success – in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. But how does the NT end? With a letter to each of seven churches, addressing lovelessness, false doctrine, unfaithfulness, immorality, complacency and hard-heartedness. Five out of the seven were in deep spiritual trouble.
Returning now to Nehemiah 13, what steps do we need to take if we are to safeguard ourselves against spiritual decline?
(a) Beware of encroaching worldliness. By ‘world’ I do not mean the world as created by God. In that sense, of course, the world is very good. I am thinking of ‘the world’ now as ‘those persons, places, pleasures and pursuits where God is left out’. It was this this kind of worldliness to which the Israelites succumbed when they allowed the Sabbath to be over-run with commercialism, thus leaving God out.
This is what the Apostle John has in mind when he writes: ‘do not love the world, or anything in the world’, 1 Jn 2:15. This is what Paul is thinking of, when he urges: ‘do not be conformed to the world’, Rom 12:1. This is precisely what happened to Demas, one-time associate of Paul. ‘Demas has deserted me, having loved this present world,’ 2 Tim 4:10.
There are many persons, places, pleasures and pursuits that are not actually evil, but they still carry a subtle danger. I do not condemn television, computer games, or social networking. But the many other things they can act as magnetic distractions that draw us away from the weightier matters of the Christian life. Neil Postman: ‘Amusing ourselves to death.’
(b) Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. 2 Cor 6:14-16. This is not, of course, to say that we should eschew friendships with people who are not Christians. Many of us have far too few such friendships. But to be yoked together with unbelievers is a different matter. Consider the case of Eliashib the priest. Of all the workers who got stuck into re-repairing the walls, his name is first on the list, Neh 3:1. But we are told in Neh 13:4f that he had become entangled with none other than Tobiah, and had provided him with a large room in the temple itself. Tobiah! That implacable opponent of God’s work and God’s people, and not just with a toe-hold in Jerusalem but with a residence in the temple itself. Then we learn in v28 that Eliashib had let one of his sons marry the daughter of Sanballat, the other arch-enemy of the Jews and their religion.
For a follower of Jesus Christ to be yoked together with an unbeliever in, say, marriage is not to commit the unpardonable sin. But it can lead to alienation and much sadness. One man summed up his frustration with his wife’s devotion to Christ by signing his Valentine card, ‘From the other man in your life’.
(c) Let us seek constant renewal. For all I know, the Israelites might well have looked back from their situation in chapter 13 with nostalgia: ‘Remember the heady days of revival, when God’s word spoke so powerfully to us? Remember when we confessed our sins and poured out our hearts in prayer? Remember when we made a solemn covenant with God to be his people? Remember when we march around Jerusalem on top of the walls?’ But simply looking back would do them no good at all. We cannot rest on past blessings and achievements. No individual or church can claim to be God’s, regardless of past experiences and achievements, unless they can sow some evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives today.
We might well pray with the Psalmist: Psa 85:6 ‘Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?’
Nehemiah lived in the days of promise. We live in the days of the fulfilment of the promise. We look the final consummation of that promise. There will come a day when disappointment and failure will be behind us at last, when all God’s purposes shall be accomplished, when Christ shall usher in the new heaven and the new earth, the home of righteousness.
But we are not there yet. For now, there is a race to be run, a fight to be fought, an enemy to be resisted, a prize to be won.
As we take our leave of Nehemiah and the book that bears his name, let us then post a guard against all that threatens our spiritual vitality, and pray to our God for the enablement that only he can give. And let us do both of these things with all the passionate zeal of that man of God, who was a man of faith as much as he was a man of action.