Maintaining Spiritual Integrity
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
As we read and understand the content of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, we find an example of redemption of Israel, a people who had wandered away from the LORD and through the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah found their faith and trust in the LORD restored. They had the opportunity to hear and accept the Word of God as it was taught by Ezra and others, and came to recognize their need to turn back to God from their apostasy. They made commitments to the LORD that included both individual and corporate promises to obey the Law of Moses and make their relationship with God central in their lives.
It is an inspiring story as we travel from chapter one through chapter twelve. It is a story that is in many ways similar to the salvation experience that is offered to people today. It is God’s purpose that all would come to Him in faith as it is His desire to bless all people. The process experienced by Israel is the same process that leads the lost to salvation today: the hearing of the Word of God, believing that word, and then placing faith and trust in God in a manner that acknowledges His Lordship. True salvation always includes submission to His Lordship and a sincere desire to live in obedience to Him.
As inspiring and exciting as the point of conversion from immersion in this world to immersion in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may be, the commitments that one makes at the point of conversion may be difficult to keep. Though one’s desire to follow the LORD may be sincere, all who place their faith and trust in the LORD are still citizens of a sinful and perverse world that provides no few distractions, whether they be those that were common prior to the point of conversion or those new ones that appear later.
It is not unusual for those who profess faith in the LORD to quickly find themselves struggling with sin. It should be encouraging to understand that the struggle with sin is a symptom of a redeemed life. If one were not redeemed, if there had been no sincere commitment to follow the LORD in obedience, there would be no such struggle. Sinful attitudes and actions would simply be considered normative behavior, and not characterized as such by an unrepentant world view. Salvation is the beginning of the struggle with sin, not the end. However, the wonderful news is that one who has placed their faith and trust in the LORD is no longer condemned by that sin, and the LORD provides both the desire and the means to turn away from it.
The last chapter of the book of Nehemiah demonstrates some of this difficulty. The Jerusalem Jews, including those who lived in neighboring villages witness a dramatic change in their world in just a few months as Ezra and Nehemiah led them in the rebuilding of the Temple, the walls, and the city and in the restoration of their faith. The response of the people to follow the LORD in faith was sincere, with every intention of continuing to live a God-centered lifestyle. However, this universal struggle with sin that characterizes every new believer, had an impact on the Jerusalem Jews, as the distractions and vices of this world would draw them away from their commitments.
Nehemiah 13:1-3. On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people; and therein was found written, that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever; 2Because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, that he should curse them: howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3Now it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude.
We will find in the following verses that Nehemiah had, as promised, left Jerusalem and returned to the court of King Artaxerxes. Nehemiah’s journal does not record how long he had been back in Susa when he felt the need to return to Jerusalem. Nehemiah does not state that he had heard of what was happening in the city since his return, but considering that his love for the city and its people was sincere, there is little doubt that he was continually alert to the state of the city.
During his absence, the lure of vice had begun to erode the progress towards godliness that is typical for many who come to the LORD in faith. Consequently, Nehemiah asked permission of the king to travel to Jerusalem. Upon his arrival the people returned to reading from the Law of Moses, and were informed from a particular passage of the Law concerning its prohibition of the acceptance of Gentiles into the fellowship of Jerusalem. This particular argument is important. Previously, the people had made a commitment to maintain the purity of the body, but many had forgotten that commitment. All they needed was a reminder, and they responded immediately with obedience as they “separated from Israel all the mixed multitude.” It should be noted that the prohibition of Gentiles from the fellowship of Israel is by no means an expression of racial exclusivity. Gentiles were very welcome to become part of Israel through a process of religious conversion, and there are several examples of significant members of the Jewish community who came from pagan communities.
Often people of faith simply need a reminder. As we seek to follow God in obedience, we often develop blind spots, areas in our lives where we are either ignorant of our ungodly attitudes and actions, or we are willful in our disobedience. Others can often perceive of those indiscretions and are in a position to point them out, and lead us back to obedience. This first action by Nehemiah is one such example.
It is likely that the reading of the Word of God led people to other areas of repentance, but this particular requirement of the Law is relevant for what took place next.
Nehemiah 13:4-7. And before this, Eliashib the priest, having the oversight of the chamber of the house of our God, was allied unto Tobiah: 5And he had prepared for him a great chamber, where aforetime they laid the meat offerings, the frankincense, and the vessels, and the tithes of the corn, the new wine, and the oil, which was commanded to be given to the Levites, and the singers, and the porters; and the offerings of the priests. 6But in all this time was not I at Jerusalem: for in the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon came I unto the king, and after certain days obtained I leave of the king: 7And I came to Jerusalem, and understood of the evil that Eliashib did for Tobiah, in preparing him a chamber in the courts of the house of God.
Eliashib, the priest, is mentioned earlier in the book as an opponent to Nehemiah’s work to rebuild the wall and the city. Because a “High Priest” would not be in charge of the storehouses, many hold that this is not the same individual that is mentioned in the earlier chapters. However, the marginal dedication to the work of the LORD that is evident earlier in the book is paralleled in this passage as Eliashib usurped the responsibilities of the Levites and regained the control over the Temple that he had previously enjoyed. Tobiah, the Ammonite, is also mentioned earlier in the book as a significant opponent to Nehemiah’s work. Together, Eliashib and Tobiah worked to restore their authority and position in the center of the city, and Eliashib had gone so far to allow Tobiah to move into the Temple, displacing the location where the stores of food were to be maintained. This also reveals that, not only were the Levites relieved of their responsibilities, the stores were not maintained, and the needs of the poorer people in the community were not being met.
It may be curious to note that Nehemiah refers to Artaxerxes as the “King of Babylon.” Literally, the king of Persia is the king of Babylon since they city of Babylon is a part of his kingdom. However, since the king administers his work out of Susa, Nehemiah is making a clear reference to the very dynamic recent history of Israel. Just as the Israelites cannot be separated from their exodus from Egypt, this generation cannot be separated from their exodus from Babylon. The reference is a reminder of the power of God to protect them, and a reminder of their duty to worship God in the manner He deserves.
Nehemiah 13:8. And it grieved me sore: therefore I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber.
Nehemiah’s casting Tobiah out of the Temple is not unlike Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple when he cast the merchants from the Court of the Gentiles. This court was the one place in the Temple where faithful Gentiles could come and worship the LORD. However, the use of the court for merchandizing, particularly the selling of sacrifices and the exchange of Roman for Temple currency, disallowed the intended purpose of the court. Likewise, Tobiah’s domicile within the storerooms of the Temple displaced God’s intended purpose for that resource. Nehemiah removed Tobiah by cleaning everything out of the storerooms that belonged to Tobiah, placing them outside the walls of the Temple. This certainly would have had an impact on the community as Eliashib and Tobiah’ leadership in the community, particularly their leadership in the Temple had to be quite controversial among the faithful. This action would have served to vindicate the faithful as it restored the appropriate place of the Temple for all Israel.
Nehemiah 13:9. I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers: and thither brought I again the vessels of the house of God, with the meat offering and the frankincense.
Nehemiah is not a priest or Levite. It is not his place to lead a ceremony to cleanse the areas that had been defiled by the Ammonite, Tobiah. Therefore, having restored the Temple servants, he directed them to perform the cleansing. This likely included actual deep cleaning of the floors, walls, and furnishings as well as a ceremony of restoration and dedication. Nehemiah then located and returned the myriad of materials that were used in the storage, preparation, and distribution of the tithes.
Nehemiah 13:10. And I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them: for the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field.
Since the storerooms were not being used for their intended purpose, there were no stores to fill them. Without stores, the distributions required under the Laws concerning the Temple could not take place. Therefore, it is rather obvious that those who were to be supported by the Temple for their service were not being provided for, forcing them to leave the Temple and work for a living.
This particular transgression should probably be considered in its modern application. Many churches that have the resources to support those who minister to them through obedience to the tithe give only a small portion of that tithe to the church. Since they refuse to tithe, there is not enough resource coming into the storehouse to support their pastors and staff, forcing them to get second jobs, or pressing them to live on less than they do themselves, leaving them near poverty while they minister, and then placing them into poverty in their later years. This is an equivalent sin that is rampant in the church today.
Nehemiah 13:11. Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them together, and set them in their place.
Though Nehemiah has been absent from Jerusalem from some period of time, it is evident that his authority is still recognized. Nehemiah enjoys the respect that he receives from the wonderful work he did in Jerusalem during the building of the walls and his twelve-year tenure as governor, combined with his close proximity to the king of Persia. He “contended” with the Jerusalem leadership and prevailed as they recalled the Levites and other Temple servants, restoring them to their places of responsibility. These responsibilities include the distributions of the content of the storehouse as well as many others.
Nehemiah 13:12. Then brought all Judah the tithe of the corn and the new wine and the oil unto the treasuries.
It is evident that, during Nehemiah’s absence, the tithes that were to be brought to the Temple had diminished. With the storehouse ready and the servants in place, Nehemiah put out a call to the community to bring in the tithes of those materials that were to be stored in the Temple. The community responded, and the tithes were compd.
Nehemiah 13:13. And I made treasurers over the treasuries, 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 counted faithful, and their office was to distribute unto their brethren.
One might assume that the Judean Jews wandered away from the commitments they had made because of a lack of faithful leadership. Indeed, if Eliashib had been left in charge of the Temple, as he had been when Nehemiah originally arrived in Jerusalem, there is little question as to why the people would have wandered. Eliashib’s alliance with Tobiah and his allowing the use of the storehouse as a domicile for a pagan reveals Eliashib’s lack of faithfulness to the LORD, to the Word of God, and to the Temple. Therefore, having proved his inadequacy for the task, Eliashib found himself replaced. Nehemiah replaced Eliashib with Shelemiah in the position of priest. Then he also appointed faithful men to the remaining Temple responsibilities including “treasurers,” a rendering of the Hebrew word that refers to those who are responsible for the stewardship of the tithes which include the gathering and recording of the offerings. Note that “tithes” includes all that is brought into the storehouse, a small portion of which is actually money. Nehemiah also appointed several of the Levites the responsibility of overseeing the storage and distribution of the tithes.
Nehemiah 13:14. Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof.
Nehemiah reminds his readers that his work is never far away from his prayer life. As we read Nehemiah’s journal we find many places where he offers up prayers to the LORD. By so doing, Nehemiah is revealing that his sincere desire is to be obedient to the LORD and to be used by Him for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God as well as the welfare of His chosen people, Israel.
Nehemiah 13:15-18. In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals. 16There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. 17Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day? 18Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath.
Just as the people had wandered from their observance of the Temple support, they had begun to return to the pagan practice that ignores the primacy of the Sabbath Day. They began to treat the Sabbath like any other, failing to honor the LORD by setting that day aside for rest. It is likely that the Temple activities were dramatically reduced, and the people made a quick and half-hearted visit to the Temple on the morning of the Sabbath, and then returned to their typical weekly activities.
Reminding them that one of Israel’s sins that brought their destruction was the desecration of the Sabbath, Nehemiah provided suitable motivation to lead the people to repent. Rather than address the issue through the Temple, where no such leadership was available, Nehemiah took his case to the “nobles,” those in the community who were exercising leadership in those activities outside the Temple. These would have included those who were influential in the community, including the merchants who were plying their trade on the Sabbath.
Nehemiah 13:19-21. And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the sabbath: and some of my servants set I at the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day. 20So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice. 21Then I testified against them, and said unto them, Why lodge ye about the wall? if ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the sabbath.
The true heart of the people is exposed in their response to Nehemiah’s command to close the gates to the merchants during the Sabbath. While the gates are closed they are gathering their wares at the gates so that they can enter (or exit) immediately when the gates open. In order to do this, that preparation for merchandizing must be taking place during the Sabbath. God is not honored by those who endeavor to keep the Law but do not place their faith and trust in Him, and His does not provide them with the blessing and inheritance of the faithful. Forced to follow the law, the merchants are still ignoring the purpose of the Sabbath, and their actions dishonor the LORD. Also, their presence is a further distraction and temptation to the faithful to break the Sabbath. Therefore, Nehemiah threatened their forced removal if they did not leave. One can envisioned the disgruntled merchants as they gathered their things and returned to their homes.
Many today still think that faithfulness in the church is defined by keeping a set of rules and regulations, and by so attempting to keep those rules they are always frustrated by the impossibility of doing so. Many in Israel had this opinion since the Law was such an important part of their lives. However, many, including those merchants, misunderstood the purpose and application of the Law. When one places their faith in God, their choices will be consistent with the Law, and they will follow it as it is the true desire of their heart. Those without faith only see the Law as restrictive; an obstacle to be managed. The merchants were managing their business around the opening and closing of the gates rather than around the observation of the Sabbath. They were fitting their lives around the rules rather than living lives that were consistent with God’s plan for them. Many of us today can observe our own behavior and consider if we are also fitting our lives around the rules rather than living lives that are simply consistent with them.
Nehemiah 13:22. And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy.
As he did with the situation he found in the Temple, Nehemiah did not simply restore the state of affairs and walk away: he left faithful men in charge of the gates so that they would continue to be properly managed. This task is consistent with the responsibilities of the Levites. God’s plan was that the entire tribe of Levi, a significant portion of the population of Israel, would be dedicated full-time to serving the needs of the Temple and the community, and they would receive their support from the tithes that are brought into the Temple.
Nehemiah 13:23-28. In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: 24And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people. 25And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves. 26Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? yet among many nations was there no king like him, who was beloved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel: nevertheless even him did outlandish women cause to sin. 27Shall we then hearken unto you to do all this great evil, to transgress against our God in marrying strange wives?
Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem to find that the people had quickly wandered from the commitments they made to the LORD during his twelve-year restoration of the city. He seemed to have always approached each task with a logical plan of action, and this visit to Jerusalem was no different. He started with the cleansing of the Temple, a task that would have been readily accepted by the people, and would serve to establish his godly purpose. He then moved on to the behaviors in the city, including the desecration of the Sabbath. Finally, Nehemiah turned to the most difficult issue: the people had continued the practice of intermarriage with their pagan neighbors.
Though Nehemiah continually makes use of the first-person, “I” as he narrates the events of the restoration, much of his work is done, not by his own hands, but by those whom he commands. However, having the responsibility to do these things, the first-person references are appropriate. We may observe one such application of his authority on the issue of intermarriage.
Intermarriage outside of the faith only serves to destroy the faith of the family, and that destruction is quite evident in Nehemiah’s description of the state of the people. Families had married outside of the faith, and had quickly adopted the practices of those foreign spouses, including the raising of their children more in the pagan culture than in a faith culture. Families were speaking pagan languages in the home rather than Hebrew, and the children were not learning Hebrew. The families were one generation away from total apostasy, the condition that brought down the nation.
Consequently, Nehemiah’s management of this sin may appear harsh. It is reasonable to understand that when Nehemiah’s representatives approached the mixed-culture families they were not accepted with love and grace. It is evident that the call to return to purity was met with rebellion. The nation had made the commitment to purity in marriage in the past, and had even “put away,” or divorced, their pagan wives. This was the requirement placed upon Israel. If intermarriage was to be allowed, the nation again would fall. So, Nehemiah’s demands were not unreasonable, nor were they unprecedented. Those who refused to divorce their pagan spouses were forced to do so.
Facing sin with such adamancy is difficult for us today, and is becoming increasingly more difficult as modern society moves further and further away from the acceptance of moral turpitude. Note that Nehemiah was not placing the burden of repentance on the pagan community. His cleansing was taking place within the house of Israel. Likewise, the cleansing needed today must start in the body of faithful believers. When Nehemiah left Jerusalem, the people quickly compromised the voracity of their commitments to the LORD and began to assimilate back into the pagan culture. The same danger faces every Christian today, and more particularly at risk are those whose profession of faith is recent. When we see a Christian fall into sin we tend to be slow to intervene, hoping that the individual will repent without our direct engagement, preferring to respond in some modicum of prayer, and a hope that they will “turn their life around.” In the meantime the church often shuns the individual making it far more difficult for the person to change their direction. Nehemiah’s intervention was firm. He did not compromise the Word of God, and did not cover the sin of the people with rationalizations of euphemisms as we do today. It is likely that Nehemiah would be criticized as legalistic and intolerant today at best, or placed in prison for assault at worst.
Nehemiah 13:28. And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was son in law to Sanballat the Horonite: therefore I chased him from me.
A notorious example of intermarriage was in the household of Eliashib the priest. One of Eliashib’s grandsons married the daughter of Sanballot. We might be reminded that it was common in ancient near-eastern culture for kings to assign the marriages of their children or grandchildren to the children and grandchildren of other kings. This was done to proclaim a bond of peace and acceptance between nations. This is also the reason why Solomon took so many concubines. There is no reason to believe that those who took part in these marriages had any desire to take part in their destiny, and it was common for concubines to hate their new “husbands,” as they were nothing more than female slaves in a master’s household. They were often forced to leave their families and their cultures behind, placed in a community where they did not speak the language and had no rights or opportunities.
It is evident that the grandson of Eliashib had no intention of divorcing the daughter of Sanballat, and it was certainly necessary that Sanballot’s influence could not be accepted in Israel. Therefore, Nehemiah cast the son of Eliashib out of the community of Israel. The sins of Eliashib had been taught to his son Joiada, and then taught to the next generation. Indeed, Eliashib’s sin had consequences for his entire family, even to the third generation and beyond.
Nehemiah 13:29-31. Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites. 30Thus cleansed I them from all strangers, and appointed the wards of the priests and the Levites, every one in his business; 31And for the wood offering, at times appointed, and for the firstfruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.Nehemiah closed his journal with a prayer that he would be remembered for the work he had done for the LORD in Jerusalem. He would be returning to the king of Persia where his work in Jerusalem would not be relevant. His contributions to the LORD would not be appreciated in Persia, and much of what he had done would be forgotten. It is likely that had he not written a journal of the events that took place when Ezra and Nehemiah worked to bring faith back to Jerusalem, we would know little of it today