Jewish people had experienced a return to the land, a revival (of sorts) in the church. At least it had the appearance of revival – a return to regular worship, outward conformity to the Laws of God. There was some period of faithfulness during the years while Nehemiah remained in Jerusalem. If the book ended with chapter 12 it would be easy to conclude they all lived happily ever after. But chapter 13 tells a different story. Disaster struck while Nehemiah returned to the royal court in Babylon. It’s not known how long Nehemiah was absent, it was long enough for major backsliding in several areas and consequences to have begun.
Before you roll your eyes and say/think, “There they go again, what’s the matter with those Jews”, think for a moment about your own personal experience. How often do you need to guard against excuses: only this once, yeah but, it’ll turn out all right, tomorrow (or next week), it’s too hard, I’m too tired, it’s the only opportunity. Then there’s plain old drift – little bit here, little more tomorrow, wrong turn the next day, pretty soon we’re miles away from the starting place wondering how we got there.
I was a wand’ring sheep, I did not love the fold; I did not love my Shepherd’s voice, I would not be controlled.
I was a wayward child, I did not love my home; I did not love my Father’s voice, I loved afar to roam.
If that is true before conversion, the tendency to wander certainly didn’t fully disappear when we came to faith. We still tend to wander or drift away. The account in Neh 13 is given in part to emphasize critical areas where we’re prone to wander away from God’s standard. If we heed the warning, we will be spared the consequences that befell the Jewish people. The specific problems addressed by Nehemiah put the entire city of Jerusalem and ultimately the Jewish people at risk; it ultimately began with failure to follow God’s law in church, community and family.
A. compromise in church affairs
Some were allowed to become part of the worshiping community while retaining pagan distinctives and being identified by them
They could have become legitimate members by following the true God, showing their loyalty to God through ritual obedience (Ex. 12:48); it would be equivalent to modern day confession of faith, baptism, then membership
Eliashib was not merely related to Tobiah (Ammonite) by marriage, he had made a friendly alliance with him; this was the same Tobiah who ridiculed rebuilding of the wall, who paid Shemaiah to entrap Nehemiah (enticing him to take refuge in Temple)
Eliashib’s alliance included giving the enemy of the Jews and God storage space in God’s house
The place had been sanctified, set apart for use of God and his worship
Its use by Tobiah displaced rightful activity – storing supplies necessary for worship
It seems there was a complete failure to bring in tithes and offerings – contributed to by compromises in membership guidelines & the bad behavior of the leaders
Those who retained their pagan beliefs but were part of congregation would not want to contribute
they would be more interested in contributing to their own gods
The faithful would be reluctant to contribute because of Eliashib’s alliance with Tobiah
If the leaders couldn’t be trusted to do right regarding the use of space in the church, how could they be trusted otherwise?
The church was in a sorry state – it was poorly attended, poorly led, and poorly supported. God’s Word was no longer the authority; this was the result not so much of outright rejection as of increasing neglect. Slowly, bit by bit, they had wandered away from the standard, making up their own rules along the way.
B. laxity in Lord’s Day observance v.15-22a
harvesting grain, grapes, figs
loading up the “trucks”, donkeys, commercial traffic
These were not works of necessity – they could have been postponed until the next day
Grocery suppliers were bringing goods into the city, perhaps right into the Temple neighborhood
all kinds of goods that came through port city of Tyre
Traffic in both essentials and non-essentials
a day like any other
The people did not rest nor allow their work animals to rest as God had commanded
If the Sabbath was just like any other business day, worship was certainly not high on the list of priorities
They had allowed the community to set the standard rather than holding the community to God’s standard
No amount of excuses legitimize our failure to obey God’s law. In fact, not keeping the Lord’s Day as one set apart both by God’s command and his example may result in God’s opposition: we won’t earn any more, we won’t have more time to do things, we won’t accomplish more and may accomplish less than if we honored God with our time.
C. rationalizing in relationships v.23-29
I know that’s what God said – that’s not what God meant – what did God say?
If rationalizing progresses far enough, it becomes “God who? why should I care about what he thinks?”
she’s a nice girl, he has a really good job, what a cute couple – considering surface and temporal qualities rather than issues of the heart
The forbidden relationships were with those who maintained their old ways of belief, cultural ways of expression, who remained enemies of the Gospel at heart
The fact they were not God-fearers is evidenced by being:
identified by their cultural heritage
described as retaining their cultural ways – children spoke their language, not that of their fathers
equated to Solomon’s liaisons with pagan women
The result was broken homes, fathers who were present but not fully involved in life of children, also vice versa
Their godly heritage was not being passed on to next generation
The values and priorities and beliefs in home went the way of the unbelieving spouse
D. need for a Nehemiah v.30a
what he did
cleaned the church v.8ff
He restored God’s standard and appointed those who would maintain it
He called the people to repentance and renewed faithfulness to God’s house and worship
secured the city v.19ff
He rebuked the leaders, secured the gates, shooed away the pagans
He implemented civil practices that would encourage Sabbath observance
restored the family v.25b
He required commitment from parents to do right in the future personally and with their children
why he succeeded v.3a, 22b, 31b
the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4)
God’s Word was the unquestioned standard for Nehemiah andthe one held up for the people
Nehemiah was constantly in prayer, seeking guidance from God, reminding self of dependence on God
why the need
O to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be;
Let that grace now, like a fetter, Bind my wand’ring heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for thy courts above.
The challenge before us: will we live for ourselves or live for Him who died on Calvary. Is our life dedicated to serving self or serving Christ? He did not die to save us so we could continue to live for self, do those things displeasing to him and contrary to his laws. Saved us from bondage in sin so we could honestly and sincerely consecrate our lives to him, and find our joy and contentment in pleasing God rather than self.