This is our 16th lesson in our study through the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. And if you’re keeping track, today we’re on the last chapter of Nehemiah.
Next time I plan to have us overview the book of Esther. And then we’ll spend 5 more lessons studying through that book in its entirety. I’m excited about that study. I think we’ll learn a lot from a book that we might not know as well as we think we do.
Well, this study through Ezra and Nehemiah has been quite a ride, hasn’t it? We started back in Ezra chapter 1. There we saw the Persian King Cyrus issue a decree that allowed all Jews to return to their homeland. We saw a number of the Jews take advantage of Cyrus’ decree. And the descendants of the ones who didn’t return we’ll learn about next week when we study the book of Esther!
Once the people got to their homeland they gave a lot of money to the Lord’s work of restoring the Temple. But the people really seem to have lapsed in their dedication to see that work even start. In fact it appeared that God had to kind-of stir-up the hearts of the enemies around the Jews to frighten the Jews and thereby get them to start the work of rebuilding the Temple. So the Jews started rebuilding the Temple.
They rebuilt the altar and the foundation of the Temple – the ground upon which the Temple would rest. And when they had these two items completed they celebrated. They were so thankful for God’s mercy and providence in leading them back to the land and helping them start the work. They rejoiced so loud that others heard. These others certainly weren’t rejoicing that God’s work was being accomplished. And so these enemies opposed the work the Jews were doing. They hindered the rebuilding of the Temple. As a result, that work was stopped for over a decade.
The situation looked bleak. That is, until the prophets Haggai and Zechariah came and preached to the people. With renewed vigor, the leaders Zerubbabel and Jeshua led the people in rebuilding the Temple. Then they celebrated the completion of that Temple. They even celebrated the Passover there.
Then we have several decades of silence between Ezra chapter 6 and Ezra chapter 7. In Ezra 7, we finally see the namesake of this book – Ezra. He was a priest and scribe. He knew God’s word very well. And King Artaxerxes sends him and a group of Jews with him back to Jerusalem to – get this – make sure that the Jews are keeping the Law of God. What a perfect job for Ezra.
After an extended exposition of how he got to Jerusalem, he finally gets there and takes a little break for a few days. What did Ezra find when he got to Jerusalem? The people had been intermarrying with pagans. That’s what was happening in those decades since Zerubbabel passed off the scene. So the rest of the book of Ezra details how he dealt with that issue of disobedience among God’s people.
That brings us to the book we’re finishing today – the book of Nehemiah. You recall that the book started out with Nehemiah hearing that the Jews were not well as a people and that their city was desolate. So Nehemiah got permission from King Artaxerxes who gave him leave to come to Jerusalem. We’ll find out today that Nehemiah was there in Jerusalem for 12 years. What’s amazing is that within the first few months of arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah and the Jews managed to fend-off fierce opposition and to rebuild the walls.
After that the people started re-inhabiting Jerusalem. They also entered the city and made a number of resolutions and promises. Do you remember the promises they made? What was the nature of those promises? You could boil them down to what they were promising not to forsake. The Jews promised God that they would not forsake his word or his place of worship. In particular they promised not to forsake the Temple, not to treat the 7th day of the week as common, and not to marry pagans. Remember those three particulars for the rest of this lesson – Temple, Sabbath, Intermarriage.
Then last week’s lesson. Having made their resolutions, the Jews celebrated the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem. There was great joy and rejoicing. Do you remember that? The people had separated themselves from the pagans like Sanballat and Tobiah. They were paying their ministers for their sacred services and rejoicing in those ministers. To summarize Ezra 1 to Nehemiah 12, verse 47 ends on this note: “And all Israel in the days of Zerubbabel, and in the days of Nehemiah, gave the portions of the singers and the porters, every day his portion: and they sanctified holy things unto the Levites; and the Levites sanctified them unto the children of Aaron.” Wonderful. The Jews did right when Zerubbabel was around and when Nehemiah was in charge.
So with those very happy facts in mind, let’s enter into Nehemiah 13. We’ll start by reading the first 3 verses.
On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people; and therein was found written, that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever; 2 Because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, that he should curse them: howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3 Now it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude.
So this section starts off on a good note. The people are reading in the law again. It’s always a good thing to be reading God’s word. And they find a particular passage that reminds them that Ammonites and Moabites must not be allowed to enter the congregation. Why? Because almost 1,000 years ago when Moses was bringing the people up into the Promised Land, these two groups hired that old false prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. But the God of the Israelites back then who was still the same God of the Jews in Nehemiah’s day, he turned that curse into a blessing. But because of this action, God forbade Ammonites and Moabites from entering the assembly of God’s people. So the Israelites kick out the “mixed multitude.”
Now, is this a good thing? You say, “Well of course it is! They’re obeying God.” You’re right. But here’s my point. How did this mixed multitude get back in amongst the Jews? Remember that during the Jews’ New Year’s observance (ch 9) they separated themselves from all foreigners. Let’s read verses 4-7 for some help in understanding this concerning situation.
And before this, Eliashib the priest, having the oversight of the chamber of the house of our God, was allied unto Tobiah: 5 And he had prepared for him a great chamber, where aforetime they laid the meat offerings, the frankincense, and the vessels, and the tithes of the corn, the new wine, and the oil, which was commanded to be given to the Levites, and the singers, and the porters; and the offerings of the priests. 6 But in all this time was not I at Jerusalem: for in the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon came I unto the king, and after certain days obtained I leave of the king: 7 And I came to Jerusalem, and understood of the evil that Eliashib did for Tobiah, in preparing him a chamber in the courts of the house of God.
OK, let’s try to piece together what happened here. Nehemiah originally arrived in Jerusalem in the 20th year of Artaxerxes. He returns to the king in the 32nd year. That would seem to indicate that Nehemiah was in Jerusalem for 12 years – maybe the whole time, maybe part of the time, I don’t know. But his presence was there for 12-some years. He left eventually. Maybe he thought his work was done. Who knows? We don’t know how long he was gone or why he returned. But some time had passed and Nehemiah, in Babylon, apparently wondered how the Jews were doing. So he came back. And what did he find? The obedient joy-filled rejoicers of Nehemiah chapter 12? No. He found a priest named Eliashib. He’s just a regular priest, not the high priest. We hear about the high priest at the end of this chapter. But Eliashib the priest did something really bad. He allowed an Ammonite to enter into the congregation of God. The name of that Ammonite? Yes, Tobiah, our old enemy. Why would Eliashib do such a thing? Note that the text says he was related to Tobiah. I wonder how that happened… The Jews haven’t intermarried with pagans again, have they?! We’ll see. But for now, the main issue Nehemiah discovered is that Tobiah, a most unholy and antagonistic enemy of God and his people, was given a room in the holiest building in the holiest place on the face of the world by a man who was supposed to be holy to the Lord – a priest. So does this situation give you an idea of the broader context? Does it make sense now why the people are needing to kick out the pagans all over again? Even a priest among the Jews let the pagans in. He gave him access to their most revered building.
How do you think Nehemiah felt about this? How would you feel if you were him? Let’s read verses 8 and 9.
And it grieved me sore: therefore I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber. 9 Then I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers: and thither brought I again the vessels of the house of God, with the meat offering and the frankincense.
Nehemiah wasn’t indifferent about Eliashib’s profaning of the Temple by giving a pagan a room in that very Temple. It grieved him sore! He took appropriate action based on his holy grief. So he threw all of Tobiah’s household stuff out of the Temple and had the rooms ritually purified. Then Nehemiah returned all the things that had been cleared away to make room for Tobiah.
Now, of course we all understand that Tobiah was allowed to reside in the Temple. We’re probably all bothered by that. But have you gone any further than that? Has it occurred to you that the Temple is a pretty happening place most of the time? With all the sacrifices and the ministers to offer those sacrifices, the place must have been continually busy. How was it that Tobiah could have found any extra room in the Temple with all of this activity going on? Let’s read verse 10.
And I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them: for the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field.
So the Levites and singers were gone. Where did they go? To their fields. Why did they return to their fields? Because the people weren’t paying them to minister. So here’s how I think Eliashib’s mind worked: “Well, the people aren’t paying us ministers, to the point that most of us have left the ministry and gone to work secular jobs. So these days the Temple is pretty quiet. There’s a lot of room, now that the Levites and singers are all gone. And Uncle Tobiah or cousin Tobiah or whomever he was to Eliashib – this guy is wondering if I could put him up in Jerusalem. There’s room here in the Temple. Surely, no one would notice. It’s not like there’s anything going on in the Temple these days anyway…” And so Eliashib let Tobiah the pagan Ammonite into the Temple. I assume Tobiah is one of the foreigners whom the Jews kick out earlier in this passage.
So the Levites had to return to a life of farming. Is that such a bad thing? Let’s see what Nehemiah thinks. Read verse 11.
Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them together, and set them in their place.
So Nehemiah finds fault with the rulers. Apparently it was they who should have been ensuring that the ministers were getting their pay. And what does he ask them? “Why is the house of God forsaken?” How/in what manner do you think Nehemiah asks this question? Narrative is interesting because it leaves a number of things unsaid. But at the same time it gives us clues and draws us into the story line so that we should get a pretty good idea of what’s going on. I imagine Nehemiah a bit bewildered. I can imagine the meeting between him and the rulers. He’s standing there looking at each one of them. The rulers are silent. Nehemiah asserts his question to them – “Why?” No response… Why is it such a big deal that the house of God had been forsaken? I mean, beyond the fact that God’s things ought never to be forsaken, there’s something else. Do you remember two lessons ago when the Jews were making their New Year’s resolutions? They wrote a number of promises and had everyone sign their name to it. Do you remember the last promise they made? They uttered this promise — “we will not forsake the house of God.” And what had they done now? They forsook the house of God. They broke their promise to God. And in this light, Nehemiah’s bewilderment is understandable.
But Nehemiah doesn’t remain incredulous and bewildered at God’s sinning people. He acts to correct the wrong that had been done. Let’s read the details in verses 12 and 13.
Then brought all Judah the tithe of the corn and the new wine and the oil unto the treasuries. 13 And I made treasurers over the treasuries, Shelemiah the priest, and Zadok the scribe, and of the Levites, Pedaiah: and next to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah: for they were counted faithful, and their office was to distribute unto their brethren.
So Nehemiah influenced all of Judah to start bringing the ministers’ salary to the Temple once more. Then he put some people in charge of distributing this pay to their brothers. I think it’s interesting that Nehemiah assigns one person from each ministerial group – a priest, a Levite, and a scribe. They had a reputation of faithfulness. So they could be trusted to carry out their office.
This was apparently a fairly big burden for Nehemiah. The Jews had broken their promise to God. They indeed did forsake the Temple. Nehemiah had put his name to that document they all signed. I sense that he’s concerned about that – that a promise that he had signed on to had been broken. And so he talks to God about it. Read verse 14.
Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof.
Nehemiah was one of the ones who promised not to forsake God’s house. So he’s concerned that God remember his best efforts at getting the people to take care of God’s place of worship.
I haven’t given the message a title yet. This is kind of becoming my custom. But one reason I haven’t done so is really because I’m not quite sure what this last chapter intends to communicate to us. Is the message focusing on Nehemiah and his faithfulness? Should we be focused on the Jews who broke their covenant yet again with their God? Are we supposed to be yearning for a ruler of the Jews – perhaps a King of the Jews – who would take his people’s best intentions of not forsaking God and make these intentions an internal matter so that God’s people wouldn’t stray anymore? By the end of this chapter, God still has not forsaken his people, despite their awful forsaking of him. Are we supposed to be encouraged that God won’t forsake those with whom he’s entered into a covenant? The fact is that all of these ideas are probably in view here. Now, this is a jarring chapter. It’s one that starts on a very high and positive note. But then Nehemiah pulls the rug out from under the reader with the harsh reality of sin among God’s people. So what’s the message of this chapter?
Whatever else the passage may be aiming to communicate, I do know what I see here. I see a godly leader – Nehemiah. I see him correcting God’s sinning people. And so I think I can’t go wrong by pointing out that the activity of this chapter – and subsequently the title of this message – is “A godly leader corrects God’s sinning people.” Again, I’m guessing that there’s something deeper in view. But on the surface at least, this is what’s happening in this chapter. So, we’re seeing a godly leader correct God’s sinning people. Nehemiah did this when the people sinned by forsaking God’s house. Without even consulting Eliashib or Tobiah he threw the latter’s stuff out of the Temple. Nehemiah reprimanded the rulers for neglecting to ensure that the ministers were paid. Then he got God’s people to start doing right in that area and appointed those who could perpetuate that pattern of obedience.
Sometimes as a godly leader in a home or in the church or anywhere else, you’re going to need to make decisions that are unpopular. This fact probably doesn’t surprise you. When you know something is right to do and you have the authority to make sure it’s happening, sometimes you don’t need to form a committee to make sure everyone’s OK with you doing it. You just need to do it. And sometimes you need to confront those who should know better and should be doing right. But for whatever reason they’re not doing it. And in those cases a bewildered question like “why are you forsaking God?” is all you’ll be able to utter in your dismay.
Well, I’m sure glad Nehemiah corrected God’s sinning people. But if you think his work is over, you need to keep reading. Nehemiah saw a few more things that were very disturbing. Let’s read verse 15.
In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals.
The people were doing secular common work on the 7th day of the week. And what is Nehemiah’s response? He testified against them. This term has somewhat of a range of possible meanings. It can mean testify. It can mean admonish. It can mean warn. It can mean to bear witness. So what Nehemiah did was to verbally address these people and call attention to their sin. Now, who were the people who did wrong in verse 15? All we know is that these were some people in Judah. And they were breaking the Jewish Sabbath ordinance. But did you know that it wasn’t just the Jews who were involved in this? There were some Gentiles involved as well. Read verse 16.
There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem.
These men from Tyre were selling on the 7th day of the week – even in the holy city Jerusalem. How does Nehemiah deal with these folks? He actually addressed not the men of Tyre but the men of Jerusalem. Let’s read verses 17 and 18.
Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day? 18 Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath.
Nehemiah takes his complaint to those in charge. He again asks a question to God’s sinning people – “What is this that you’re doing? You’re treating the Sabbath day as common!” The reasoning Nehemiah gives next is really thought-provoking. He appeals to them to do right on the basis of their fathers’ sins. One of the major reasons God sent Judah into Exile is that they would not observe his Sabbath days as he prescribed in the Law. God let the people return to their homeland only after the land had enjoyed some Sabbath rest. The last statement in Nehemiah’s confrontation of the people indicates that at least in his mind God’s wrath had already been kindled against the Jews. By sinning in this way they were adding to that wrath.
As a godly leader when you try to correct God’s sinning people, it is appropriate to point out to them their sin. Its right to point out what that sin has done to others in times-past. God’s wrath was spent on Christ, ultimately. But his wrath is still revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness. It’s upon the sons who are characterized by disobedience. “Why”, you can ask God’s sinning people, “why are you acting like one of those toward whom God is wrathful?”
But a godly leader doesn’t just admonish people to do right. He actually helps them along in doing right. Let’s read verses 19-22.
And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the sabbath: and some of my servants set I at the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day. 20 So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice. 21 Then I testified against them, and said unto them, Why lodge ye about the wall? if ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the sabbath. 22 And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy.
So when it started getting dark before the 7th day of the week Nehemiah would have the gates shut. When the 7th day ended the gates could be opened. This should have settled the issue. And yet the merchants didn’t get the hint. So Nehemiah needed to be pretty direct with them. He was going to lay hands on those people if they spent the night outside the wall again! And I love the follow-up that Nehemiah states – “from that time forth they didn’t come again on the Sabbath.” Then Nehemiah had some of those Levites come who recently came back from their career as farmers. He made them gate keepers, so that Nehemiah wouldn’t need to be continually involved in this process of making sure that the Sabbath was observed to the specifications of the Mosaic law.
So as a godly leader, it’s appropriate to put up barriers that would help those who are under you to obey God and walk in his ways. As godly leaders an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you know that a certain friend or activity is a bad influence on those who are under your care then it’s appropriate to change their situation to avoid these things.
Now what was the big deal with keeping the Sabbath, you wonder? Well of course the Lord commanded the children of Israel to keep it in the Law. But also do you remember that this too was a promise that the Jews made to God along with their promise to nor forsake the Temple? Yes, the people in their New Year’s resolution promised to observe the Sabbath and not buy any wares on that day. But just like their promise regarding the Temple, they broke this promise as well. And Nehemiah doesn’t want to be associated with the rebellion. So he prays to God as we saw at the end of verse 22.
So when Nehemiah was away the people did play. They forsook the Temple. They broke the Sabbath. What else could they possibly have done? I’ll give you a hint. It’s the same sin that Ezra confronted almost 30 years ago. Read verses 23 and 24.
In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: 24 And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people.
So in opposition to God’s command that no Ammonite or Moabite should enter God’s congregation, some of the men had married these pagan women. And the product of these marriages was not wholesome. None of the offspring from these relationships held to a Jewish identity. They didn’t identify with God’s people. The Jews weren’t being an influence on the pagans. It was exactly the opposite. The pagans were influencing the Jews – and even how they raised their children.
This was very troubling to this godly leader. I think it’s in this last section that we see the extent of Nehemiah’s desperation. Let’s read verses 25 through 27.
And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves. 26 Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? yet among many nations was there no king like him, who was beloved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel: nevertheless even him did outlandish women cause to sin. 27 Shall we then hearken unto you to do all this great evil, to transgress against our God in marrying strange wives?
How is this for conflict management? What book out there is going to counsel you in your disagreements with others to strike them and pull out their hair? Stop and think about this. What did Nehemiah do? What was the content of his cursing? I doubt it consisted of vulgarity like we think when we speak of cursing. Was he calling down God’s judgment against them? Was it something a little less harsh? What about the striking? He got close enough to hit some of these people. Did he strike with an open hand – kind of like a slap? Or did he ball-up his fist and let it fly? Did he use a rod? Where was he aiming? For the face? The shoulder? The mid-section? And as for this pulling out hair, did the person whose hair was being pulled stand still? Was the person running as Nehemiah yanked some hair out of his head or beard? Really, this can be somewhat humorous to think about. But it certainly wasn’t a laughing matter with Nehemiah or those who married the pagan women.
I think that it goes without saying, but I’ll say it any way. I wouldn’t advocate this kind of action to us today. Nehemiah was in a different position than we are. But can we agree about something? It’s OK as a godly leader to get heated. If not, then what do we make of Jesus making a whip and driving people from the Temple? The zeal of the Lord can consume us. But be careful that it is the Lord’s zeal and not your own selfish zeal.
Nehemiah also makes the people swear that they won’t marry pagans again. And if you’ve followed the plot line in Ezra and Nehemiah this can be almost amusing. The people didn’t follow their first vow to not intermarry with pagans. They didn’t follow their second vow. What’s to say this new oath would be any more effective in stopping this aberrant sinful practice? Well, Nehemiah makes them swear anyway. What else can he do? Then Nehemiah reminds the people of a great king of old – Solomon. How does he fit with this situation? Well, remember that Solomon was one of the greatest kings in Israel’s history. God set his love on him even as a child. Do you remember that? In 2 Samuel 12 God sent Nathan the prophet to Solomon’s parents – David and Bathsheba. He let them know that God loved this child. So they actually gave him a second name – Jedidiah, which means beloved by the Lord. He’s the only one to whom that name was given. And God as you know gave Solomon great possessions and great wisdom. God even personally appeared to this man and let Solomon ask him for whatever he wanted. Solomon was a man who was loved by God. And yet how do we see his life end? He married pagan women. And what did they do to him? They turned his heart from the Lord. Nehemiah’s argument is: “If someone as favored by God as Solomon was caused to stumble by these foreign women, are you really going to fare any better?”
The most irksome part for Nehemiah was that this transgression wasn’t limited to the lay people. The ministers were involved in it as well. Let’s read verses 28 and 29.
And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was son in law to Sanballat the Horonite: therefore I chased him from me. 29 Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites.
We saw an Eliashib at the beginning of this chapter. He was just a priest. This Eliashib that we just read about is actually the high priest. The former Eliashib was related to Tobiah. Who is this Eliashib related to? Sanballat. And actually it wasn’t Eliashib the high priest himself who did the wrong. It was his grandson. Nehemiah drove this man away. Why? Because, as Nehemiah states in his prayer, this young man had defiled the priesthood. Leviticus 21 tells us that the high priest needed to marry a virgin among the daughters of his people. Any one of the sons of the high priest could potentially become the high priest himself. So by marrying a pagan, this son of Joiada had defiled the priesthood and broken the rules concerning whom the high priest must marry.
There’s a time for godly leaders to separate from those who are doing wrong. But beyond that, Nehemiah made it a matter of prayer. This situation was so concerning to him that he turned from praying for himself to praying regarding these priests who defiled their covenant. His is not really a prayer for restoration. It’s a prayer that God would remember them for the evil they’ve done.
Nehemiah ends this exhausting chapter with verses 30 and 31. Let’s read those.
Thus cleansed I them from all strangers, and appointed the wards of the priests and the Levites, every one in his business; 31 And for the wood offering, at times appointed, and for the firstfruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.
Nehemiah catalogs what he did for God’s sinning people. He got rid of the foreigners. He appointed people to take care of the ministers. He arranged for those ministers to get the materials they needed to minister. And then he ends this entire book. I don’t know how to describe this statement he makes. How do we take it? It sounds – and I mean no disrespect to this godly leader – but it sounds pathetic. After mentioning all these mundane things he did – and knowing that his actions aren’t going to solve all the problems — he manages to utter “remember me, O my God, for good.” As a godly leader, there are times when the sins of God’s people will bewilder you. They will test your patience and sanity. They will bring you very low and humble you deeply. But however strong or weak is our cry, we can still take recourse to our God and trust that he truly knows our hearts and will remember us.
So, we’ve seen in this chapter that a godly leader corrects God’s sinning people.
You know, even after all of this sin and failure, the Jews were still God’s covenant people. They were in the land. They had the Temple. They had ministers and sacrifices, when Nehemiah was around, at least. And I think this was a question that was on the minds of the Jews after the Exile: “Are we still God’s covenant people? We broke the covenant. Has God abandoned us?” I think throughout the book of Nehemiah we’ve seen that God indeed had not abandoned his people. In particular, he hadn’t abandoned the people who returned to Israel. But what about those Jews who never returned to Israel? Were they still God’s covenant people? We’ll see if we can figure that out next week when we start studying the book of Esther.