Nehemiah 13 – Nehemiah’s Reforms
A. True worship leads to the nation’s obedience.
1. (1-2) Hearing the Law brings a call to obedience.
On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people, and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever come into the assembly of God, because they had not met the children of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing.
a. No Ammonite or Moabite should ever come into the assembly of God: As the people drew near to God in worship (as seen in Nehemiah 11 and 12), they became aware of God’s standards. In this case, the standard stated in Deuteronomy 23:3-4, where it says that the Ammonites and Moabites were not to be regarded as part of Israel (unless they converted to the worship of Israel’s God).
b. Should ever come into the assembly of God: This meant to be regarded as one of the people of Israel and people of God. It meant one could fully participate in the spiritual life of Israel.
i. An Israelite was part of God’s covenant by birth, but an Ammonite or Moabite was not. They had to become a part of the covenant by choice – by joining with God’s covenant people and leaving the gods of their people. They had to choose to reject those gods and embrace Yahweh.
ii. This command was a powerful message. It said to these Ammonites and Moabites, “You were not a part of the people of God by birth. You must choose this and leave the thinking and deeds of your anti-God culture, and truly join in the spiritual life of God’s people. Unless you leave one and join the other, you will never really be a part of this spiritual life. Come join us.”
c. Because they had not met the children of Israel with bread and water: The Ammonites and Moabites were singled out because of their devious schemes against Israel when Israel came into the Promised Land – at least a thousand years before this.
i. Long before the Ammonites and Moabites had schemed against Israel, God had made a promise to the father of the Jewish people, Abraham: I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you (Genesis 12:3). This command was simply another fulfillment of this promise.
d. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing: This refers to the events of Numbers 22-24, where God blessed Israel, even though the prophet Balaam wanted to curse them. It also reminds us that God is able – more than able – to turn any curse into a blessing.
2. (3) After hearing God’s command, Israel obeys and separates from the mixed multitude.
So it was, when they had heard the Law, that they separated all the mixed multitude from Israel.
a. They separated all the mixed multitude from Israel: They could have thought of 20 reasons to not do what the word of God plainly told them to do. Instead, they simply obeyed.
i. They might have made familiar excuses:
· “That command was made long ago and speaks to a different time.”
· “Things are different now.”
· “Let’s not go too far.”
· “Let’s assign a committee to examine the issue.”
b. The mixed multitude: This refers to those who wanted to associate with the people of Israel but did not make a full commitment and embrace the covenant.
i. Even today, there may be people of good will in churches; honorable people, who have some respect for God and His word. Yet they are part of the mixed multitude because they have not received God’s covenant of salvation in Jesus. Such people are welcome, but it should be understood where they stand.
B. Nehemiah’s reforms.
1. (4-9) Temple reforms.
Now before this, Eliashib the priest, having authority over the storerooms of the house of our God, was allied with Tobiah. And he had prepared for him a large room, where previously they had stored the grain offerings, the frankincense, the articles, the tithes of grain, the new wine and oil, which were commanded to be given to the Levites and singers and gatekeepers, and the offerings for the priests. But during all this I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Then after certain days I obtained leave from the king, and I came to Jerusalem and discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, in preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God. And it grieved me bitterly; therefore I threw all the household goods of Tobiah out of the room. Then I commanded them to cleanse the rooms; and I brought back into them the articles of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense.
a. But during all this I was not in Jerusalem: This section indicates that Nehemiah left Jerusalem and went back to his duties in the Persian court. He was gone from Jerusalem for anywhere from 10 to 12 years.
i. Nehemiah left sometime after the remarkable spiritual revival noted in the recent chapters. But the real test of revival – the real test of God’s work in our lives – is in the long term. It is seeing where we are with the Lord ten years after a season of great work.
b. I came to Jerusalem and discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah: When Nehemiah came back, he saw that Eliashib the priest had entered into agreements with one of the enemies of Nehemiah’s work of rebuilding the wall – the man named Tobiah.
i. Incidentally, Tobiah was an Ammonite (Nehemiah 2:10) – one of the very mixed multitude that had been put out of the assembly of God’s people some 10 years before. At this point in the record of Nehemiah, Tobiah was not only present among the assembly, he actually rented rooms in the temple courts (preparing a room for him in the courts).
ii. Apparently, Tobiah had not changed over the years. He did not join the people of God in the terms of His covenant. The problem was evident to Nehemiah – but Eliashib was completely blind to it.
c. And it grieved me bitterly: There were many reasons why this was so distressing to Nehemiah.
i. It grieved him because rooms in the courts of the temple of God were being occupied by a man who was not only a pagan but who also had a history of actively opposing God’s work in the days of Nehemiah.
ii. It grieved him because it reflected so badly on Eliashib (a man who was a spiritual leader in Israel) and those around him. It showed that if Eliashib was blind to a problem area, there was also no one around him who could confront him with the problem.
iii. It grieved him because it made Nehemiah question the lasting value of the spiritual revival he witnessed when last in Jerusalem.
d. Therefore I threw all the household goods of Tobiah out of the room: Nehemiah wasn’t one to only sit back and grieve. Nehemiah acted.
· He threw all of Tobiah’s household goods out of the rooms he occupied in the temple courts.
· He ceremonially cleansed the rooms.
· He put the rooms back to their proper use – as storerooms for the sacred things of the temple.
i. Nehemiah was much like Jesus, who later cleansed the temple from those who profaned it. Both Jesus and Nehemiah had the wisdom to not confuse love with being “nice” – and they both had the wisdom to know when to take bold action.
2. (10-14) Financial reforms.
I also realized that the portions for the Levites had not been given them; for each of the Levites and the singers who did the work had gone back to his field. So I contended with the rulers, and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” And I gathered them together and set them in their place. Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain and the new wine and the oil to the storehouse. And I appointed as treasurers over the storehouse 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 considered faithful, and their task was to distribute to their brethren. Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for its services!
a. I also realized that the portions for the Levites had not been given them: The people did not obey God’s word regarding giving. Because of the lack of support, those who should have given their time to the service of God and His people (the Levites and the singers) could not – and they had to leave that service (had gone back to his field).
b. Why is the house of God forsaken? The lack of giving was a way of forsaking the house of God. It wasn’t just unhelpful to the Levites and the singers; it was a way of turning their back on God.
c. I gathered them together and set them in their place: Nehemiah set the situation right by expecting the Levites and the singers to recommit to the work of serving God and His people as they should. He also reorganized the collection, accounting, and distribution of the people’s tithes and gifts.
3. (15-22) Priority reform.
In those days I saw people in Judah treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and loading donkeys with wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them about the day on which they were selling provisions. Men of Tyre dwelt there also, who brought in fish and all kinds of goods, and sold them on the Sabbath to the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, “What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers do thus, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.” So it was, at the gates of Jerusalem, as it began to be dark before the Sabbath, that I commanded the gates to be shut, and charged that they must not be opened till after the Sabbath. Then I posted some of my servants at the gates, so that no burdens would be brought in on the Sabbath day. Now the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. Then I warned them, and said to them, “Why do you spend the night around the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you!” From that time on they came no more on the Sabbath. And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should go and guard the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of Your mercy!
a. In those days I saw people in Judah treading wine presses on the Sabbath: The Sabbath was being ignored in disobedience to God’s clear command under the Old Covenant. On the Sabbath day when they were supposed to rest and trust God, foreigners sold, and the people of Israel bought.
i. At the root, this was a problem of priorities. There was nothing wrong with buying and selling, only when the desire to buy and sell, to make money or spend money, became more important than honoring God. This was a clear way the people of Israel put making and spending money before glorifying God.
ii. The New Testament makes it clear we are not under the law of the Sabbath in the same sense Israel was under the Old Covenant (Colossians 2:16-17), but we are certainly under the same obligation to make honoring God more important than making money or spending money.
b. You bring added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath: Nehemiah knew that sin was not only a personal issue. When such open sin is winked at and left uncorrected among God’s people, it invites the correcting hand of God.
i. Nehemiah wasn’t going to sit still for this; he threatened If you do so again, I will lay hands on you! He did not mean the gentle laying on of hands for prayer, but the rough laying on of hands for correction.
4. (23-31a) Relationship reform.
In those days I also saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke according to the language of one or the other people. So I contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters as wives to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons or yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? Yet among many nations there was no king like him, who was beloved of his God; and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless pagan women caused even him to sin. Should we then hear of your doing all this great evil, transgressing against our God by marrying pagan women?” And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite; therefore I drove him from me. Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites. Thus I cleansed them of everything pagan. I also assigned duties to the priests and the Levites, each to his service, and to bringing the wood offering and the firstfruits at appointed times.
a. In those days I also saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab: In the years Nehemiah was away the Israelites had resumed their practice of intermarrying with the pagan nations surrounding them. This was in dramatic disobedience to God’s command.
b. So I contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear: From this strong reaction of Nehemiah, we gather he considered this to be the most dangerous of their sins – pursuing ungodly liaisons, and getting involved in romantic relationships God had said “no” to.
i. His example of Solomon is well taken (Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things…. pagan women caused even him to sin). If Solomon, one of the wisest and most blessed men ever, sinned with unwise and ungodly relationships then no one else should consider themselves invulnerable.
5. (31b) Conclusion: Nehemiah’s clear conscience.
Remember me, O my God, for good!
a. Remember me: At the end of it all, Nehemiah knew he did his best to make the people of God strong, safe, and secure. Beyond that, he also led them to be pure, worshipful, and obedient.
b. Remember me, O my God, for good: Yet, Nehemiah certainly carried a sense of failure. In Nehemiah 10 the people made a solemn covenant to God that they would not do three things.
· Have ungodly sexual liaisons (Nehemiah 10:30).
· Buy and sell on the Sabbath (Nehemiah 10:31).
· Fail to support the work of God with money as He commanded (Nehemiah 10:32-39).
i. Nevertheless, in Nehemiah 13, some 10 to 12 years later, Israel was again steeped in the exact sins they vowed to stop. Nehemiah had to address the problems of ungodly liaisons (Nehemiah 13:23-31), buying and selling on the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15-22), and failing to support the work of God as He commanded (Nehemiah 13:10-14).
ii. In Nehemiah 10:39 the people promised: we will not neglect the house of our God. But later in Nehemiah 13:11, Nehemiah had to ask: Why is the house of God forsaken? It was forsaken because Israel did not keep its promises before God.
iii. This makes a point vividly clear: the law – that is, rules, vows, promises, covenants, and the such, are all ultimately powerless to stop sin. Only the grace of God, alive and flowing in our lives, can give us the power to truly overcome sin.
iv. Paul expressed this in Romans 8:3, among other places: For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. Too many Christians look for victory in the making of rules, of vows, of promises – and fail to find it, because all those things tend to make us look to ourselves, instead of looking to Jesus.
v. The Old Testament history of Israel, from beginning to end, illustrates this. When the nation was first born at the Exodus, despite the most spectacular miracles, displays of God’s glory, and revelation of the law, the people sinned, by crediting a gold calf with their deliverance from Egypt. And now here, at the end of the Old Testament history of God’s people in the Promised Land, Nehemiah was pulling hair out – his own and those of sinners – because they couldn’t keep their promises to God.
vi. If we could be saved by our own promises, by our own commitment to Jesus, then His death would have been noble, but unnecessary. We aren’t saved by some vow we make, or some leaf we turn over, but by trusting in who Jesus is, and what He has done to save us.