I wonder whether you feel sorry for Nehemiah? Do you have any sympathy for him? In chapter 1, we read how he wept when he heard the news that the wall of Jerusalem was in ruins. In chapter 2, we read how he petitioned the king of Persia to let him return to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. In chapter 3, we read the names of those who helped him to rebuild the wall. And in chapters 4 to 6 we read about some of the opposition and the trouble he faced while rebuilding the wall. But at the end of chapter 6, we read how the wall was completed in record-breaking time.
And then, in chapters 7 and following, we’ve read how Nehemiah turned his attention from the wall to the people. Having built up the wall, he now wanted to build up the people. And so, in chapter 8, the people gathered in the city to hear the reading and preaching of God’s word. They also celebrated the Feast of Booths and gave thanks to the Lord for bringing them back from exile.
Then, in chapter 9, the people gathered before the Lord to confess their sins and to seek God’s help. And in chapter 10, the people renewed the covenant which God had made with his people in the days of Moses; and so, they promised to follow the Law of God and to obey carefully all of his commands. And then, in chapters 11 and 12, we read how people were chosen to repopulate the city; and a great celebration was held to dedicate the wall.
Under Nehemiah, the wall of the city was built up; and the people of the city were built up. God’s holy city had been rebuilt; and it had been repopulated with God’s holy people. And God’s holy people had promised once again to live holy lives.
Nehemiah had accomplished many things. And yet, what do we find in today’s passage? That despite all his best efforts to fill God’s holy city with God’s holy people, the people still fell short of living holy lives. The NIV entitles this chapter:
Nehemiah’s final reforms.
And he had to introduce these reforms, because of the sin and the shortcomings of the people. Despite his best efforts to fill God’s holy city with God’s holy people who were eager to lead holy lives, the people continued to sin and to do wrong.
That’s why I asked if you feel sorry for him? He had done so much good; and yet the people continued to sin. And so, let’s look at this chapter together to see what the people were doing wrong and what Nehemiah did to put it right.
The chapter can be divided into three main parts. In verses 1 to 14 there’s a set of problems in connection with the temple. In verses 15 to 22 there’s a set of problems in connection with the Sabbath Day. And in verses 23 to 29 there’s a set of problems in connection with mixed marriages. And the chapter and the book ends in verses 30 and 31 with a summary of Nehemiah’s work.
Verses 1 to 14
Verse 1 begins with the words:
On that day the Book of Moses was read….
That gives the impression that what we read here happened on the day when they dedicated the wall of the city, which we read about in the previous chapter. However, we should probably translate the verse differently and read it was follows:
On the day that the Book of Moses was read….
This didn’t happen on the day when they dedicated the wall, but on a different day. On that day — whenever it was — they once again gathered together to hear God’s law. And while they were reading God’s law, they discovered that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted to the assembly of God. In other words, they were not allowed to come into the temple.
Nehemiah refers to ‘the Book of Moses’. The Book of Moses is the first five books of the Bible: Genesis to Deuteronomy. And it’s likely that they were reading Deuteronomy 23 verses 3–6, because that’s where we find the Lord’s command not to let the Ammonites or Moabites or their descendants enter the assembly of the Lord. According to Deuteronomy 23, the people from those nations were forbidden from entering the assembly, because they didn’t provide the Israelites with food and water when they were in the wilderness; and they instead hired Balaam to curse God’s people. Both those reasons are cited here in Nehemiah 13.
And Nehemiah is referring to what we read in the book of Numbers, where it tells us of the time when the Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land. And when the king of the Moabites heard they were coming, he was afraid, because he had heard how the Israelites had managed to defeat the Amorites in battle. And he was worried that they might attack his nation too. Of course, he had no reason to be afraid, because the Lord forbade the Israelites from attacking either the Ammonites or the Moabites, who were distantly related to the Israelites. But because he was afraid, the king hired Balaam — who was some kind of false prophet — to curse God’s people. You can read about it in Numbers 22 and how God frustrated the king’s plan by causing Balaam to bless them instead of cursing them.
However, the main point is that, instead of showing kindness to the Israelites by providing them with food and drink, the Ammonites and Moabites wanted to harm God’s people. Therefore, the Lord forbade the Israelites from letting any Ammonites and Moabites enter the assembly of the Lord; and he recorded this prohibition in Deuteronomy 23.
According to verse 3 of Nehemiah 13, when the people heard this law, they agreed to exclude from Israel all who were of foreign descent. Such people were no longer allowed to come into the temple.
And that was good; they wanted to put things right. However, look at the following verses. It seems that before this happened, one of the priests — who should have known better — had provided this man, Tobiah, with a large room in the temple precincts. If the name Tobiah sounds familiar to you, that’s because we came across him earlier in the book. Along with Sanballat, Tobiah opposed the rebuilding of the wall. He was the one who joked that the wall they were building would collapse if a fox tried to walk on it. And he and Sanballat had hired a prophet to tempt Nehemiah to hide in the temple. And he had written letters to intimidate Nehemiah. He opposed the rebuilding of the wall.
And here’s another thing we need to know about Tobiah. Not only did he oppose the rebuilding of the wall, but Tobiah was an Ammonite. He was an Ammonite. And yet this priest had not only allowed him to come into the temple, but he had provided him with a room, so that he could live in the temple. And the room Tobiah was given was originally set aside to store offerings for the Lord and contributions for the priests and Levites.
So, an unbeliever — who had no right to enter the temple; and a man who had deliberately and repeatedly opposed the rebuilding of the city wall — was given a room in God’s holy dwelling place. It wasn’t right.
Nehemiah explains in verse 6 that this happened while he was away. You see, Nehemiah was still under the authority of the Persian king; and had been called away by the king. But once he returned to Jerusalem, he discovered what had happened. He was greatly displeased, he tells us in verse 8. In fact, other translations tell us he was very angry. And just as the Lord Jesus overturned the tables of the money-lenders, so Nehemiah threw all of Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. And then Nehemiah gave orders for the room to be purified. In other words, the priests were required to offer sacrifices and to sprinkle the room with water in order to cleanse it from the stain of Tobiah’s guilt. And then Nehemiah gave orders for the room to be restored to its former use.
While Nehemiah was away, the priest — who ought to have known better — allowed this terrible thing to happen. He let a pagan, an unbeliever, live in the Lord’s dwelling place. What were they thinking?
And what we read in the following verses — verses 10 to 14 — is related to this, because these verses tell us that Nehemiah also learned that the people hadn’t been supporting the Levites who worked in the temple as they should. God’s law required the people to bring a tithe of all their produce to the temple; and this was to be given to the Levites as their income. The Levites were to live off the tithes of the people. But because the people were not tithing their produce, the Levites were forced to abandon the work of the temple and to return to their fields in order to earn a living. And the result was that the temple and the work in the temple was being neglected.
This too wasn’t right. And so we read in verse 11 that Nehemiah rebuked the officials, who were responsible for letting this happen. And he summoned the Levites back to temple. And his actions led to the desired response, because the people once again brought their tithes and placed them in the storerooms. Furthermore, Nehemiah appointed a committee of trustworthy men to oversee the storerooms and to make sure the food was distributed to the Levites as required. And now that they were receiving what they needed each day, the Levites were able to serve the Lord in the temple.
Verses 15 to 22
The first set of problems were in connection with the temple. Verses 15 to 22 highlight another set of problems, but these are in connection with the Sabbath Day.
Nehemiah tells us that in those days he saw men of Judah — in order words, God’s people — treading grapes on the Sabbath and bringing grain and other produce into Jerusalem on the Sabbath Day to sell. In other words, instead of keeping the Sabbath Day holy by resting from their work, they were breaking the Sabbath Day by working. And so, Nehemiah warned them about this.
Furthermore, men from Tyre — foreigners — were bringing all kinds of produce into the city on the Sabbath Day to sell. Nehemiah didn’t rebuke the men of Tyre, since they were Gentile unbelievers, but he rebuked the people of Judah for desecrating the Sabbath Day and for treating it like any other day. And he reminded the leaders of the people that one of the reasons the Lord had sent them into exile all those years ago was because they did not keep the Sabbath Day holy. And so, he warned them that they were only stirring up the Lord’s wrath once again by letting these things happen in Jerusalem.
And so, to prevent these abuses, Nehemiah ordered the gates of the city to be closed on the evening before the Sabbath Day; and to remain closed until the Sabbath was over. Furthermore, he stationed men at the gates to ensure nothing was brought in on the Sabbath. At first, merchants and sellers camped outside, in the hope they would be allowed in. But Nehemiah sent them away. And he ordered the Levites to guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath Day holy.
Verses 23 to 29
The first set of problems was in connection with the temple. The second set of problems was in connection with the Sabbath Day. Verses 23 to 29 record another set of problems and these are to do with marriage.
Nehemiah learned that men of Judah — that is, God’s people — had married foreign wives. Now, as I’ve said in previous weeks, the problem here was not to do with nationality, but with religion. The problem wasn’t so much that they were foreigners, but that they were unbelievers. These foreign wives did not worship the Lord and they did not teach their children to worship the Lord. In fact, we read here that their children were growing up not knowing the Hebrew language. And that meant they couldn’t understand the Scriptures, because the Scriptures were written in Hebrew.
All of these children were growing up without the Scriptures which God has given us so that we would know what we’re to believe about him and how we’re to live as his people. Without a knowledge of the Scriptures, they wouldn’t know all that God has done for them in the past. Without a knowledge of the Scriptures, they wouldn’t know all that God had promised to do for them in the future. Without a knowledge of the Scriptures, they wouldn’t know the will of the Lord and what he has commanded them. Without a knowledge of the Scriptures, they would grow up as pagans.
And so, Nehemiah rebuked the people and called down curses on them and beat them and pulled out their hair. And he made them take an oath not to let their sons and daughters marry unbelievers. And he reminded them of how unbelieving wives had led King Solomon astray; and he warned them not to repeat the sin of Solomon. And when he discovered that one of the grandsons of the high priest had married Sanballat’s daughter, he drove the man away, because as well as being a foreigner, Sanballat was one of Nehemiah’s enemies who opposed the rebuilding of the wall.
There you have the different problems which Nehemiah faced. Instead of keeping the temple holy, they had desecrated it. Instead of keeping the Sabbath Day holy, they had desecrated it. Instead of keeping marriage holy, they had desecrated it.
And what makes what happened in this chapter all the more frustrating and troublesome is that all of these problems had been addressed before, when they had gathered together to renew the covenant in chapter 10. At that time they promised not to let their children marry unbelievers. At that time they promised not to break the Sabbath Day. At that time they promised to support the work of the temple. At that time they promised to follow the Law of the Lord and to obey carefully all of his commands. But despite what they had promised, they did not follow his law or obey his commands.
Years before this, back in the days of Moses, when God entered into a covenant with his people, he promised to reward them if they obeyed him, but he promised to punish them if they disobeyed him. And if they persisted in their sin, without repenting of it, he would eventually drive them from the land and send them into exile. And that’s what happened to them. That’s why they spent 70 or so years in Babylon. But the Lord also promised his people that if they turned from their sin while they were in exile, and sought the Lord, he would bring them back from exile to the Promised Land. And that too happened to them. We read in Ezra 1 how the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus, king of Persia, to issue the decree to let the Israelites return to the Promised Land and to the city of Jerusalem.
But, as Nehemiah discovered, the people who returned to the land and who repopulated the city of Jerusalem were no better than the people who were sent into exile. The people in Nehemiah’s day were sinning and disobeying the Lord just as previous generations had done; and, despite all that Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites had done to teach them the law, the people still broke the law and disobeyed the Lord. They were no better than the people before them.
In the days of Moses, the Lord established a covenant with his people; and the people promised to do everything the Lord commanded. But they didn’t. In the days of Nehemiah, they renewed the covenant; and again they promised to do everything the Lord commanded. But they didn’t. They too were sinners who fell short of doing God’s will.
But here’s the thing: when the people were still in exile, the Lord promised through the prophet Jeremiah that one day he would make a new covenant with his people, not like the previous one which they broke. And in this new covenant, he would forgive all their sins and remember them no more. And he would write his law on their hearts and minds; and all of them would know him. And through the prophet Ezekiel, he promised to sprinkle them in order to cleanse them from their guilt. And he promised to give them a new heart to love him. And he promised to give them his Spirit to enable them to obey him. And so, during the exile, the Lord promised his sinful people that one day he would enter into a new covenant with them, a better covenant, by which he would pardon their sins like never before; and fill them with his Spirit like never before; to enable them to love and obey him like never before.
And then, many years after that time, the Lord Jesus — on the night he was betrayed — took bread and broke it and gave it to his disciples and said:
This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
And then he took the cup, saying….
What did he say? I’m sure you remember.
This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
He was announcing the new covenant. The time for the new covenant had come, when God would pardon his people for their sins like never before; and when God would fill them his Spirit like never before; and when God would enable them to love and obey him like never before. The Lord Jesus shed his blood on the cross for the complete forgiveness of all our sins. Then he was raised from the dead and he ascended to heaven to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit which he has poured into our hearts. And the Holy Spirit fills our hearts and enables us to love and to obey the Lord our God and to keep his law like never before.
And every time we gather like this, around the Lord’s Table, to participate in the Lord’s Supper, we’re re-enacting that new covenant meal which the Lord once ate with his disciples; and we’re remembering and giving thanks to the Lord Almighty for all the blessings we have received because of that new covenant which Christ established in his blood.
And so, here’s God’s promise to you: That if you confess your sins to him and ask him to pardon you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners, then he will wash away all your sins and remember them no more; and he will pour his Spirit into your heart; and he will help you to love and obey him. That’s his promise to you, if you believe in Christ the Saviour. And so, no matter what you’ve done wrong, you can go to him in prayer and ask him to forgive you; and know that he will. And you can go to him in prayer and ask him to pour his Spirit into your heart; and know that he will. And you can go to him in prayer and ask him to help you to love and obey him; and know that he will.
In Nehemiah’s day, the people were no better than the people who were sent into exile. Like the people before the exile, the people in Nehemiah’s day were sinners; and despite their promise to follow the Law of the Lord and to obey carefully his commands, they still disobeyed the Lord and went astray.
But, of course, you’re no better than them either, because you too — by nature, by birth — are a sinner. You’re no better than them. But there is something better now. There is something better now. We’re not any better, but the covenant we have with God is better now. The promises we rely on are better promises now, because the new covenant which Christ has established by his blood brings forgiveness — full and free — and it brings the Holy Spirit to help us to love and obey the Lord.
And so, as we turn to the Lord’s Table, let’s remember and give thanks to the Lord for all the blessings of this new covenant, which Christ has established for us in his blood.