Week 8 – Nehemiah 13 Have you ever read a book or watched a movie and it gets to the end and it leaves you feeling like a deflated balloon? You’ve become invested in the characters and their stories and you have a general idea of how things are going to end but then the grand finale is so disappointing.
Well, I hate to break it to you, but you need to prepare yourselves for a disappointing end to the book of Nehemiah.
Last week, we lightly touched on chapters 9 and 10 of Nehemiah. But hopefully you’ll remember this verse from chapter 10.
“So all these people now make this special promise to God. And they all ask for bad things to happen if they don’t keep their promise.” Nehemiah 10:28
This promise to God (which I believe was sincere and heartfelt at the time in which it was given) was comprised of a few things.
- They were going to follow God’s law.
- They also promised not to intermarry with those outside their faith.
- They vowed not to work or conduct any type of business on the Sabbath.
- They would take responsibility for the upkeep of the Temple as well as the priests, singers and gatekeepers.
Remember these people had experienced revival! The wall had been rebuilt under the leadership of Nehemiah but the people themselves had been rebuilt as well.
In the beginning of Genesis, as God is creating each element, Scripture tells us multiple times that “God saw that this was good.” I can’t help but wonder if Nehemiah stood on top of that wall, looking down at the newly secured and fortified city, observing the people repent to God, praising and rejoicing and thinking, “This is good.” There had to be some satisfaction, some feeling of accomplishment because Nehemiah had obeyed God and he could physically see the results of that obedience. Getting to know Nehemiah like we have, I feel certain that Nehemiah took none of the glory but rather thanked God for what He had done.
In between chapters 12 and 13, Nehemiah returns to King Artaxerxes in Susa. If you recall, he had asked for a leave of absence in his role of cupbearer to the king which meant that he would need to return at some point. So as we pick up in chapter 13, some time has passed. The opinion of the time frame involved in this absence is varied. Some say Nehemiah was gone approximately 2 years; others say possibly as long as 15 years.
No matter how long he was gone, Nehemiah returns to find that the people have, well, become more “peopley” than “Godly.” How heartbreaking that must have been for Nehemiah. It’s like when parents leave their teenaged children at home for the first time expecting them to obey the house rules and behave as if their parents were there but instead, coming home to a trashed house and a court date in juvenile court.
While Nehemiah was gone, this is what happened. “But, before that happened, Eliashib had given a room in the Temple to Tobiah. Eliashib was the priest in charge of the storerooms in our God’s Temple. And he was a close friend of Tobiah. That room had been used for storing the grain offerings, incense, and the Temple dishes and things. They also kept the tenth of grain, new wine, and oil for the Levites, singers, and gatekeepers in that room. And they also kept the gifts for the priests in that room. But Eliashib gave that room to Tobiah.” Nehemiah 13:4-5
Remember Tobiah? He was one of those who was mocking and intimidating Nehemiah. He was one of the main ones that was trying to prevent Nehemiah from building the wall. And now a priest of God’s Temple has given Tobiah not only a place to stay, but a place to stay INSIDE THE TEMPLE! It gets worse. Tobiah is living out of the storeroom where the offerings and gifts were kept. It’s like setting up bunk beds for bank robbers in the vault of the bank! This would have been not only insulting but also devastating to Nehemiah. Tobiah isn’t even a Jew. He’s an Ammonite. He had no right to even be in the Temple much less reside there. There’s so much wrong with this I can’t even begin to imagine the thoughts running through Nehemiah’s mind.
Many years ago, the church I was attending was vandalized. Someone had broken in and spray painted all sorts of evil things on the walls. They had gone down the halls, into the Sunday School rooms and broken things, trashed the rooms. They had stolen equipment like TV’s and VCR players. It was heart breaking to see it all. I had gone to my Sunday School class where I taught 3 year olds and there was damage done to the bulletin board and the tables. The toys and books were strewn about. I looked around and decided that it wouldn’t take much to get the room back in order but it still perturbed me. But even more horrifying was walking into the sanctuary. They had desecrated the altar and pulpit area. Again, they had taken the spray paint to the walls and to the pews. Many of us met up there to begin clean up after the police had left. When I saw our sanctuary, I was physically sick. We all kind of stood around and looked at the defilement that had been done to God’s House. That Worship Center was sacred to us. And someone had come in and violated that. And we were angry.
Here we have Nehemiah feeling very much the same way. “I was very angry about what Eliashib had done, so I threw all of Tobiah’s things out of the room. 9 I gave commands for the rooms to be made pure and clean. Then I put the Temple dishes and things, the grain offerings, and the incense back into the rooms.” Nehemiah 13:8-9
Nehemiah comes in and finds that this holy place that he cared for and revered so much had been defiled. He responds by getting rid of all of those things that don’t belong and orders that it be cleaned and purified to make it pleasing to God. Then the things that should be there were restored.
Would you agree that there are times when we allow a Tobiah into our Temple? “You should know that you yourselves are God’s temple. God’s Spirit lives in you. If you destroy God’s temple, God will destroy you, because God’s temple is holy. You yourselves are God’s temple.” 1 Corinthians 3:16 – 17
Being that we are God’s temple, shouldn’t everything we allow into our minds, our hearts, our bodies be pleasing to Him? But is it? Or do we allow a Tobiah of some kind to set up residency within us and taint all that should be holy? Tobiahs can come in all sorts of forms: friends, addictions, jealousy, vindictiveness, hobbies. Anything that takes up much of our thoughts or activities can be a Tobiah. While the “Tobiah” on its own may seem harmless, if it’s something that robs us of our time with God, it needs to go. Here’s an example that, unfortunately, happens all too often. Someone in the church gets their feelings hurt for whatever reason. Those hurt feelings manifest into resentfulness and bitterness and continue to grow. The Scripture that the Holy Spirit tries to bring to mind to bring about peace is pushed off into a corner so that the hurtfulness of the incident can be replayed over and over and over again. Where there was once a yearning for God’s Word and a love for others, now there is a dungeon of self-pity and victim mentality. They stop going to church to see if anyone notices. They stop going to church just to make a point. And if anyone happens to ask why they haven’t been to church, those hurt feelings flow out like sewage as they justify their stand. Those hurt feelings have become a Tobiah to that person.
Psalm 51:10 “Create in me a new, clean heart, O God, filled with clean thoughts and right desires.”
Nehemiah was distraught over what had taken place in the Temple, but the bad news kept coming.
“I also heard that the people had not given the Levites their share. So the Levites and singers had gone back to work in their own fields. 11 So I told the officials that they were wrong. I asked them, ‘Why didn’t you take care of God’s Temple?’ “ Nehemiah 13:10-11
Remember those covenants that the people had made with God just 3 chapters back? They vowed that they would take responsibility for the upkeep of the Temple as well as the priests, singers and gatekeepers. Well, simply put, they didn’t keep their word. The Levites, the singers had to find work elsewhere. With no Levites and no singers, there was no worship. If there’s no worship, there’s no reason for the Israelites to go to the Temple. And why would they? They’ve got Tobiah in there housesitting for them. The Temple that at one time had meant so much to them stood deserted. They go from Ezra 6:15 “Then the Israelites celebrated the dedication of God’s Temple with much happiness. The priests, the Levites, and all the other people who came back from captivity joined in the celebration.” to Nehemiah asking, “Why didn’t you take care of God’s Temple?”
Ever hear of “the honeymoon phase”? It’s that time in a relationship in which everything seems to be perfect, complete. You’re so happy and filled with joy that it’s just bubbling out of you. The love and affection seems to run so deep and every waking moment is spent either with or thinking about that other person. But for most people, that honeymoon phase lasts for just a season. And then they realize that the relationship has to be nurtured and tended by both parties. Our relationship with God is a bit like this. When most people receive Jesus as their Savior, there’s a spiritual high. You just can’t listen to enough Christian songs, go to enough Bible studies and worship services. There’s a hunger for God and if you’re not in prayer or meditation with Him, you’re thinking about Him. You’re bubbling over with an unprecedented joyfulness. But if we don’t keep up that passion for Him like He has for us, that honeymoon phase can gradually slip away. And we find ourselves distracted by the things of this world. Here’s where we find those Israelites. Remember the ones who STOOD ON THEIR FEET for hours listening and soaking in the Word of God? The ones who asked to hear the laws given to their ancestors by God. Yeah, those people. The ones who stood mourning and weeping over their sins now can’t be bothered to take care of God’s Temple. Their passion for Him has dwindled. And yet, that wasn’t all that Nehemiah found on his return.
“In those days in Judah, I saw people working on the Sabbath day. I saw people pressing grapes to make wine. I saw people bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys. I saw people carrying grapes, figs, and all kinds of things in the city. They were bringing all these things into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, so I warned them about this.” Nehemiah 13:15
Again, these same people had promised God that they would keep the Sabbath holy. And yet, here they were working and trading and, heaven forbid, making wine on the Sabbath! See what I mean when I say that Nehemiah had found the people more “peopley” than “Godly”? Instead of staying true to their traditions and God’s law, they had conformed themselves to be like those around them. Nehemiah is quick to remind them that history is repeating itself.
“You know that your ancestors did the same things. That is why our God brought all the troubles and disaster to us and to this city. Now you people are making it so that more of these bad things will happen to Israel. They are doing this because you are breaking the Sabbath by treating it just as if it were any other day.” Nehemiah 13: 18
So far, Nehemiah has found the Jews not following God’s law, not taking responsibility for the Temple and not keeping the Sabbath as a holy day. Three out of the four promises that they had made to God now lay broken before Nehemiah. But we’re not done yet.
“In those days I also noticed that some Jewish men had married women from the countries of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of the children from those marriages didn’t know how to speak the Jewish language.” Nehemiah 13:23-24
In case you’re wondering, yes. They had completely disregarded every last promise that they had made to God after experiencing revival. That’s the thing about revival: We can be revived by the hands of someone else, but after that, we’ve got to keep breathing and keep the heart beating. Revival brings us back to life but we have to do our part in order to keep living.
The Jews failed to obey God’s laws in several ways. Not obeying the laws meant that they didn’t take care of the Temple and the priests and the singers. Because they didn’t take care of the Temple, the priests or the singers, there was no worship. As a result of having no worship, that meant that the Sabbath became just an ordinary day. And because they weren’t worshipping, they weren’t holding true to the laws and they were trading and working alongside Ammonites and Moabites, the differences between the Jews and the non-Jews became unnoticeable. And because of this, mixed marriages once again became a common occurrence. Children were born of these unions and the language that the law was written in was not understood by the upcoming generation.
What should have been preserved and protected was compromised and corroded.
One of our struggles as Christians is being in the world and not of the world. We are riddled with too many bullets of worldliness and evil and ungodliness each day to even count. Ephesians 6 reminds us that we are to dress ourselves in preparation of the battle every day to fight against the intrusions that we face. The Belt of Truth, Breastplate of Righteousness, Gospel of Peace, Sword of the Sprit, Helmet of Salvation and the Shield of Faith. That armor, as it’s called, keeps what is in this Temple of God protected and pure.
The world in which we live is so diverse. America is called “the melting pot” of the world due to the various backgrounds, ethnicity, beliefs and cultures of its citizens. Without that armor, we can often find ourselves not being much different from everyone around us.
There are pockets in America where the Amish live. There’s an area in Tennessee that we used to drive through and there was a large Amish community there nestled in a well-populated rural area. It wasn’t uncommon to see the Amish out on the roads or in the stores. But despite the 18 wheelers, sports cars, pick up trucks and SUV’s flying past at 65mph, the Amish travelled by horse and buggy. Among the Nike tennis shoes, Michael Kors purses and Levi jeans were the Amish in their plain, modest, homemade clothes. They’re different. They’re interesting to observe. They’re also a reminder that we can be in this world but not of this world.
I think that’s what frustrated and grieved Nehemiah so. He didn’t take it for granted that the Jews were chosen by God and that, in itself, set them apart. He loved God and it hurt him to see the people not love God as they should.
So immediately, he evicted Tobiah, had the temple cleansed. He reinstated the officials at the Temple so that worshipping would resume. He locked down the gates on Friday evening so that the Sabbath would be observed. He addressed the mixed marriages and even ran off the high priest’s son because he had married an outsider. The chapter as well as the book end with this. “My God, punish these people. They made the priesthood unclean. They treated it as if it was not important. They did not obey the agreement that you made with the priests and Levites. So I made the priests and Levites clean and pure. I took away all the foreigners and the strange things they taught. And I gave the Levites and priests their own duties and responsibilities. And I made sure that people will bring gifts of wood and the first part of their harvest at the right times. My God, remember me for doing these good things.” Nehemiah 13:29-31
As we say goodbye to Nehemiah, I want to recap some of the highlights of this book.
- Nehemiah was distraught over the condition of God’s people and left a comfortable and stable place to go live in an area that was little more than rubble.
- Nehemiah did this because God had placed it on his heart and he was being obedient.
- Nehemiah faced opposition, threats, intimidation and ridicule while carrying out God’s will.
- Nehemiah’s ultimate goal was to restore the relationship between God and His chosen ones.
- Nehemiah prayed to God constantly.
You can’t help but consider the similarities between Nehemiah and Jesus.
- Jesus left Heaven to come here in order to save us. (John 6:38)
- He did so because He was obedient to God. (Hebrews 5:8)
- Jesus obviously faced severe opposition and threats which led to his crucifixion. (Luke 23:33)
- Jesus came to restore the relationship between God and man. (John 3:16-17)
- Jesus prayed to God constantly. (Luke 6:12)
As the saying goes, “What would Jesus do?” That’s our measuring stick. We may never be called by God to go hundreds of miles away to build a wall and to rebuild His people, but that doesn’t mean He doesn’t have something for you to do. Whatever He has assigned for you, it’s important! Nehemiah is a great example of one who willingly sacrificed his time, his efforts, his passion, his reputation, his comfort all for the sake of carrying out God’s will. If a cupbearer to the king can do that, so can you! (With God’s help, of course!)