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Nehemiah: Setting Straight the Relapse

The Backstory:

If the book of Nehemiah had ended at Chapter 12, it would have had a happy ending. At this point in the story, the city had been rebuilt and the people celebrated with a grand dedication service. In fact, their celebration and praise could be heard beyond Jerusalem. The priests and Levites had been reinstated into serving the Lord in the Temple and the people willingly brought their tithes and offerings. As a result the Temple chambers are well stocked and ready to meet the needs of those who served in the temple.

After the Jews were sent into captivity for 70 years because of their rebelliousness against God, God graciously allowed them to return to Jerusalem. They returned in three phases with Nehemiah bringing the last group back. Upon his 1st arrival to Jerusalem, he inspected the wall that surrounded the city. The wall had been destroyed when the city was invaded 70 years earlier. But as they returned, Nehemiah led the people to rebuild it. Once it was rebuilt, they dedicated the wall and set up the temple responsibilities. Then they gathered all the people together for the reading of the law that God gave to Moses. They made promises to keep the law, but then Nehemiah returned to Babylon and while he was away, the people relapsed into their old sins.

And so, rather than a happy ending, we find Chapter 13. And in this chapter, the people failed to keep their promises and they were not faithful to God – the very reason they had been conquered and sent into exile in the first place.

A Relapse

We don’t know how much time lapsed between chapter 12 and 13, but given how far the people had strayed from God, it was probably a long time. So what happened? We find the answer in Nehemiah 13:6-7: “But while all this was going on, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission and came back to Jerusalem.”

What he saw upon his return, was that the people had fallen back to their old ways. He tells us there were four problems that had cropped back up among the people: 1) the priests had become corrupt, 2) the tithes were not brought in, 3) the Sabbath rest was ignored, and 4) the people had intermarried with foreigners and started following their religious practices.

A relapse of this magnitude does not happen overnight. They are not even new sins that the people fell into. These are old habits resurfacing once Nehemiah had left the city.

Unkept Promises

It wasn’t that they people did not understand what God expected of them. They had heard the Law of Moses read to them back in Chapter 8. In Chapter 9, the people are reminded of their sin and confessed them. Then in Chapter 10, they renewed their vows before God. They promised to obey God’s commands, not to intermarry with foreigners, observe the Sabbath rest, and to not neglect the needs of the house of God. But in Chapter 13, we see every one of these promises broken. It’s easy to say we will do something, but it can be much harder to keep our promise.

Complacency leads to compromise

It’s easy to sing and worship God on Sunday when we are in God’s house and fellowshipping with other believers, but much harder to remain faithful and obedient to God Monday – Saturday. It only takes a few minutes to say your wedding vows, but a lifetime to keep them. And whenever we let our guard down and complacency sets in, compromises are sure to happen.

Problem #1: Corrupted Priesthood

In verses 4-9, Nehemiah found that the high priest, Eliashib (the same priest that had worked with Nehemiah in rebuilding the wall in chapter 3) had been influenced by Tobiah who was Nehemiah’s old enemy. Eliashib provided Tobiah with a large room in the Temple that was supposed to be used to store the offerings of the people and the items needed for worship. Verse 4 tells us that Eliashib “was closely associated with Tobiah.” In other words, they were friends and Tobiah had great influence, status and connections.

Nehemiah’s response

Verses 7-9 tells us how Nehemiah responded when he learned about Eliashib providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God. Verse 9 tells us that Nehemiah was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. He then gave the orders, in verse 9, to purify the rooms and to return the items that belongs there – the grain offerings and the incense.

Nehemiah didn’t stop to ask questions or consult with the leaders. He didn’t negotiate or compromise. He just threw Tobiah’s stuff out, re-consecrated the rooms and restored everything back to the temple that belonged there. Whatever length of time Nehemiah had been gone, he did not change. The same zeal and passion he had for God in Chapter 1 is evident in chapter 13. The people and priests may have drifted away from God, but Nehemiah’s commitment to please God remained the same.

It’s a matter of choice

What made Nehemiah different from the people and priests? Nehemiah and the people faced the same challenges, temptations, problems, and enemies, but Nehemiah chose to honor God and obey Him.

He made a choice.

Joshua had once told the people, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Being faithful to God is always a choice that each one of us must make.

Problem #2: Tithes and Offerings were being brought to the temple

Why was there a room in the temple that was empty enough that Eliashib could provide Tobiah with a room? The answer is simple. The people had stopped brining their tithes and offerings to the Temple, which meant there were not enough grains for the Levites and singers, forcing them to look for their own fields to support themselves. Likewise, since the Levites didn’t have enough, the priests likely did not either because they survived on the tithes from the Levites. As a result, all those responsible for temple worship left their posts to earn a living in the fields. Even if they did not totally abandon their temple duties, they were certainly compromised.

Nehemiah’s Response

Once again, Nehemiah restores everything back to follow God’s commandments. He got the people to once again bring their tithes and offerings to the temple. With the offerings coming in again, the Levites and singers could return to their duties in the temple and worship was restored without interruption.

Nehemiah also made some changes. He appointed new gatekeepers or treasurers over the storehouses – four of them. A priest, a scribe, a Levite, and an assistant. Why these four? Verse 13 tells us they were considered trustworthy and reliable. It would be their responsibility to distribute the supplies to their brothers.

By appointing a team, Nehemiah established accountability and ensured that both the tithes and offering coming in and the distribution of them going out were handled appropriately.

Problem #3: Sabbath rest was ignored

In verses 16-17, we find that Nehemiah discovered the “people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself!”

The 4th Commandment given to Moses was to “keep the Sabbath day holy.” God intended for the people to work six days and on the 7th day they were worship Him and rest. God set the example for this in the creation of the world. For six days he created and on the 7th day He rested – not because he was tired, but to give us the example of what he expected from us. But the people of Nehemiah’s day were not resting or worshiping. They were working.

Nehemiah’s response

We find the action Nehemiah took against the people profaning the Sabbath in verses 19-22. About sunset before the Sabbath, he commanded that the gates of Jerusalem be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened again until after the Sabbath. He also stationed some of his servants at the gates so no one coming with their wares to sell would be let in. As a result the merchants and sellers camped outside the city walls. So Nehemiah warned them that if they came again on the Sabbath, he would “lay hands on them.” After that, they did not come on the sabbath again. Finally, he commanded the Levites to purify themselves and guard the gates to keep the Sabbath day holy as God commanded.

Problem #4: The people had intermarried with foreigners

In 1 Kings 11:1-8, we find:

“Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” …For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. 

For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem.  And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods.”

God had called the nation of Israel to be different, set apart from the world, but Israel wanted to be just like the world. It would seem that this was still true in Nehemiah’s day for he found that the men in Jerusalem had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Many of their children couldn’t even speak the language of Judah. As a result the people had allowed idolatry back into the nation again – the very reason that God had sent the Babylonians in to conquer them and sent them into exile. They had paid a high price for their idolatry and refusal to repent and turn back to God and now they were allowing it all back into the nation again.

Nehemiah’s Response:

Once again we see Nehemiah’s passion and zeal for God overtake him. What does he do? Verse 25 tells us that he confronted them, cursed them, beat some of them, and pulled out their hair. Then he made them take an oath in the name of God saying, “You shall not give your daughter to their sons, or take their daughter for your sons or for yourselves.” Then in verse 26, Nehemiah reminds them of King Solomon’s sin because of the man wives he had taken and who were the cause of him falling into sin.

Nehemiah’s Cleansing and Restoring

Nehemiah identified the problems and quickly cleansed the sin and restored the commandments of God among the people. He removed everything foreign and established the duties of the priests and Levites. He re-established the tithes and offerings and the keeping of the Sabbath. Chapter 13 closes out with Nehemiah, saying, “Remember me, O my God, for good.”

If God sent Nehemiah into your life today, what problems would he identify in your life and how would his passion and zeal for God set things straight? Would he find complacency and compromise? Would he find you in church, worshiping God and brining your tithes and offerings on Sundays? And would he find you being a good steward of what God has given you? Would Nehemiah find in you the same zeal and passion for God? What would he cleanse and restore in your life?

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