by Pastor Lawrence
The events occurring in this chapter take place almost thirteen years after Ezra and Nehemiah had lead the Israelites to renew their covenant with the Lord in chapter ten. We are told in v.6 that in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes, Nehemiah needed to return to Susa presumably to give a report to the king of Persia, and he was there for some period of time. While he was away, the people of Israel returned to many of their sinful practices thus undoing the reforms that had put in place under his leadership. And when Nehemiah returned he was not happy, to say the least.
In the covenant renewal ceremony that is recorded in chapter ten, the Israelites promised not to do three very specific things in addition to keeping the Law of God as a whole. They were not to intermarry with the surrounding nations, not to buy or sell on the Sabbath Day, and not to neglect the house of God nor fail to support the work of the priests, Levites and the temple singers. And what we find in this chapter is that break every one of those vows in a very bad way.
Nehemiah addresses the third vow in vv.4-14 wherein he rebukes Eliashib the high priest for allowing Tobiah the Ammonite to move into one of the large chambers inside the temple complex that was designed to store the tithes to support those who worked in the temple. This is the same Tobiah who stood as the enemy of God’s people in rebuilding the walls of the city in the first place, the same Tobiah who ridiculed their work and threatened to even harm Nehemiah himself. And while Nehemiah is away in Persia, this man worms his way into the very temple of God with the assistance of God’s high priest. So when Nehemiah returns and hears of this atrocity, he immediately goes into the chamber and throws out all of Tobiah’s furniture and ensures that he will never return. He then cleanses the chamber and brings back all the vessels and tithes for the service of the temple and ensures that the temple workers are provided for so that they could continue their work in the worship of the Lord.
Nehemiah then addresses the second vow made in chapter ten concerning keeping holy the Sabbath Day. Upon his return to Jerusalem Nehemiah also saw the Israelites treading winepresses on the Sabbath day and bringing all kinds of commodities and goods into the gates of the city on the Lord’s Holy Day. One of the purposes of building up the gates in the city walls was to prevent just such a thing from happening. If you remember in chapter three of Nehemiah, there was a fish gate and a sheep gate and a horse gate, which were the gates used to bring in these same animals into the city on a market day. But these gates were to remain closed on the Sabbath Day. So Nehemiah commanded his men to be ready to shut the gates as soon as it began to grow dark before the Sabbath and not to allow them to open again until after the Sabbath day was over. Of course, at first, many merchants waited just outside the gates hoping to convince someone to let them in, just as they had before, but Nehemiah himself went to the gates and threatened to lay hands on these traders so that they did not return. He then put the Levites in charge of the gates again to keep the city holy.
Nehemiah then addressed the third broken vow in vv.23-29 when he found that the Israelites had once again given their daughters and sons to pagan nations in marriage. The Israelites had intermarried with the Philistines, Ammonites and Moabites and had fully integrated with their foreign cultures to the point that the children of these marriages did not even speak Hebrew, which meant that they couldn’t understand the Word of God read or preached, nor could they understand the traditions of the Israelites since these too were couched in the Hebrew language. As a result, the younger generations did not seek the Lord nor identify readily with the people of God. Again, when Nehemiah found out about this he was irate and began to rebuke and pronounce God’s curses upon the parents for this grave transgression, even coming to the point of beating some of them and pulling out their hair as an act of discipline. As wild as this might seem to us, it is not much different from the time that Jesus overturned the tables in the temple complex and took up the whip to drive out the moneychangers and those selling livestock. All of this was done for the honor of God’s holy name.
And once again Nehemiah had to rebuke one of the religious leaders of Israel for in v.28 we find that one of the grandsons of the Eliashib the high priest had become the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite, another of Israel’s enemies. Instead of merely forcing a divorce in that case, he literally chased the grandson out of town never to return in order to protect the people of God from such an evil influence.
In today’s culture, Nehemiah would most certainly be labeled as legalist in the church of God, one who made a lot of fuss over nothing. But is that really the case? These are not minor issues. The decisions and actions of Israel in all three of these cases were very dangerous and even lethal to the spiritual vitality of the community of God’s people. By not supporting godly leadership in the Lord’s house, ungodly men would surely take up residence there instead. By not protecting the Sabbath Day, God’s people tended to idolize work and money looking to get ahead instead of looking to God’s hand to provide. And by not sanctifying marriage and seeking only godly spouses, the sons of Israel not only hurt themselves but hurt their children and grandchildren for years to come. And all of these things would bring dishonor to the Lord and to his temple.
Like Nehemiah, we must be willing to correct and rebuke sin when we see it, for that is part of what it means to have the mind of Christ. And as those who have received the good news of the gospel and have been filled with the Holy Spirit, it is only natural that we will desire more and more to set aside the Lord’s Day to worship God, to regularly support the work and worship of the Lord, and to reflect the mystery of Christ and his bride in our own marriages, for we know that the Lord is seeking a godly seed and a holy people who are called out of darkness to proclaim his excellent praise. Because God prizes these things, we who are being renewed in the image of God will prize them too.