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Nehemiah - Chapter 13
Infraction of the Law, Verses 1-9
The beginning of this chapter further indicates that the account of the dedication of the wall was an insertion in the account of the peopling of the refortified city of Jerusalem. The general subject, beginning with chapter 8, has been the revival of the people. They had gathered for the autumnal feasts and reading of the law. The opening words here, "On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people, etc." indicates that it was in the course of this reading they became aware of the prohibition now discovered. The law is recorded in De 23:3-4, where it is slightly more precise, reading, "even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord forever." The indication is that the law was forever, that after the tenth generation those who embraced the law of Moses would evidently have been admitted.
The purpose of God’s prohibition against the Moabites and Ammonites stemmed from the effort of Balak, the king of Moab, to have the false prophet Balaam put a curse on Israel (Numbers ch. 22-24). Furthermore they had resisted the Israelites as they passed near the lands of their habitation, denying them food and water. When the Israelites, gathered to hear the law, heard this prohibition read, they responded by excluding all foreigners from their midst
There had been a very glaring violation of this prohibition in the person of Eliashib the high priest and Tobiah, the Ammonite troublemaker against Nehemiah. Some time previously there had been intermarriage between the family of the high priest and the foreigners, and Tobiah had acquired influential backers among the Jews (Nehemiah 13:28; Nehemiah 6:12-14). Eliashib had charge over the chambers built in the outside wall of the temple compound for the storage of tithes, votive offerings, materials used in temple service, etc. Probably some of these served as apartments for the ministering Levites, or the priests. Eliashib had emptied a large room of its intended use and made a commodious apartment for the Ammonite, Tobiah.
This had been going on during the time Nehemiah had gone back to Babylon to the service of Artaxerxes the Persian king. After an indeterminate period of time Nehemiah had secured permission from the king to go again to Jerusalem. On his arrival he discovered the old enemy of the wall-builders. Tobiah, being furnished an apartment even in the house of God. As mentioned earlier it is probable that Eliashib was succeeded by his son Joiada during the lifetime of Nehemiah, but Nehemiah held the old priest responsible for this "evil" of allowing Tobiah to live in the temple. Nehemiah’s righteous wrath was aroused. He went into the chambers and threw out all of Tobiah’s household goods and ordered the temple servants to cleanse and sanctify the quarters and to return the things there which rightfully belonged. That no protest is recorded indicates that those around recognized that Nehemiah was absolutely in the right in what he did (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
Proper Distribution, Verses 10-14
The authority which Nehemiah exhibited in the matters which he confronted on his return to Jerusalem indicates the extent of power granted him by the king as governor of the land. He could even override the wishes of the high priest and throw Tobiah out iri the street. With boldness he addressed priests and rulers and compelled them to comply with the law.
The second problem coming to Nehemiah’s attention was the neglect of the tithes and offerings. One reason there was room for Tobiah in the temple chambers was the failure to take up the things from the people which should have been stored there. There had not been sufficient to supply the needs of the Levites and singers, and they had been forced to leave the temple service and go to their suburban fields and toil at secular labor for their livelihood. The Lord never intended for these who wait on His spiritual affairs to leave that work for material employment (cf. Lu 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:17-18; 1 Corinthians 9:13-14).
For this Nehemiah held the rulers responsible for having not insisted on the care of the Levites and singers according to the law. Nehemiah then sent for those who had left their posts and installed them again in their places. The people also responded by bringing in the tithes of grain, oil, and wine as they should have been doing all the time. To see that the thing was properly maintained thereafter Nehemiah passed over the high priest and chose those who were found to be faithful in performance of their duties and appointed them to oversee the storerooms and treasuries, to collect and to distribute lawfully.
Verse 14 records another of Nehemiah’s short petitions in which he implores the Lord to remember his deeds of service and to bless him for it. There is nothing out of the way in doing things for the Lord hopeful that one will be blessed for the doing of it. The saved should always be mindful of doing the deeds for which God can bless them.
Stopping Sabbath Desecration, Vases 15-22
The third problem Nehemiah confronted upon his return to Jerusalem had to do with infractions of the Sabbath law. When there is laxity in one place such will soon also appear in another. For people will soon decide if it is all right to ignore the Word of God in one realm it will be permissible also in another. If an alien idolator is allowed in the sacred precincts of the temple, and if it is no longer necessary to bring the tithe to the Levites, what is wrong with taking care of one’s work on the sabbath?
As Nehemiah went about he saw people openly violating the sabbath, treading the grapes in the wine press, bringing the sheaves of grain from the fields, loading donkeys with produce to bring it to the market on the Sabbath. Nehemiah says he "testified" against them, which means that he admonished them concerning the law and God’s sure displeasure of their deeds. He seems to have gone into the market places and borne witness of the word of God in the very place where they were violating it.
While in the marketplace Nehemiah saw the heathen merchants peddling their wares on the Sabbath. Perhaps nothing more could be expected of them, but it was a condemnation of the people who allowed it. Dedicated and sincere servants of God would not have allowed this desecration of the Sabbath and would not have bought their fish and other merchandise they brought into the city on the Sabbath.
Again Nehemiah laid the fault at the feet of the nobles of Judah, who should have insisted on respect for the law of God. It was an "evil thing," and by their silence, or even co-operation, they were guilty of profaning the sabbath day. The sabbath was important in God’s regulations for Israel. When it was given it was for a test (Exodus 16:22; Exodus 31:12 ff). If kept it would mark the nation as obedient to the Lord and thus as His people. In fact, as Nehemiah reminded them, it was this very infraction which led to the captivity from which they were so recently delivered. To continue to defile the sabbath would certainly be to bring further wrath of God on them.
Nehemiah took measures to put a stop to the trading on the sabbath. Command was given to shut and bar the gates as soon as it began to grow dark in the evening, for the Hebrew sabbath began at sundown of what would today be considered the day before. They were commanded also not to open them again until the sabbath had passed. Thus no burdens could be brought in on the sabbath. For once or twice the merchants and peddlers camped outside the walls on the sabbath, perhaps thinking that public pressure would compel Nehemiah to admit them, or that the people would come outside to buy their goods.
Eventually Nehemiah went outside to this gathering and admonished them that they were in violation of the law of God and boldly threatening to have them arrested if they continued to come and set up outside the walls. So they were persuaded to desist from their sales on the sabbath. At first Nehemiah entrusted the guarding of the gates against violators to his own guards, but after a time he turned the business over to the Levites, the porters, for it was their office to do such.
Nehemiah closes this account again with a short prayer of supplication to God on his behalf, for his faithfulness in the matter of the sabbath. Nehemiah knew the Lord would judge those who were guilty of violating His sabbath proscription, as well as the leaders of the people who allowed it. Therefore it was altogether proper that he should pray such a prayer, for his hands were clean in the matter.
Mixed Marriage Again, Verses 23-31
Finally, Nehemiah was compelled to cope with the problem of mixed marriage again. It had been a major problem for Ezra almost immediately upon his arrival in Jerusalem about twenty-five year before (see Ezra, chapters 9,10). The people must have had a shallow faith in God indeed to revert so readily into a practice they knew was contrary to the law of their God. It is so much like people today who think God will overlook their transgression (James 4:17; 1 John 3:4).
The transgression was very promiscuous. As Nehemiah went about he observed the children of the mixed marriages speaking in a polyglot tongue, unable to speak and understand the language of the Jews. Most of the marriages it seems had been with the Moabites, Ammonites, and Ashdodites. The latter were from Ashdod, a city of the Philistines.
Verse 25 might seem to indicate that Nehemiah became violent and beside himself in his treatment of the offenders. That is hardly the case, though he did treat them with severity. Contending with them surely means that he brought them to a reckoning in his presence. As to the "curse," this does not mean he was guilty of uttering blasphemy but charged them with the curse of God, which they brought upon themselves by their act. Striking was permitted for offenders against God’s law (De 25:2-3). Plucking out the hair was a sign of distress and shame, such as was due in this case. Finally Nehemiah made the offenders swear not to give their daughters to the pagan men, or to take their daughters for their sons or for themselves.
Nehemiah preached to them an admonitory sermon the truth of which they knew well. Solomon was a well known example. He had been a greatly admired king in Israel and the known world. He was also beloved of the Lord, who granted him surpassing wisdom. Yet he offended in taking strange women into his house, for which God punished even so great a one as he. The influence for them was that the Lord who would judge the great Solomon for transgressing His commandment concerning mixed marriage would surely also judge them who were lesser than Solomon.
Again the most notorious example of the transgression was in the household of the high priest. God’s own representative for Israel had allowed his grandson to marry the daughter of the pagan Sanballat, who had tried so hard to keep Nehemiah from building the wall! Over and over in the law it was stated that those guilty of infranctions in God’s law should be cut off from His people. Thus Nehemiah treated the young priest son-in-law of Sanballat, casting him out of the priesthood.
Nehemiah prayed that the Lord would take note of those guilty of these things, who defiled the priesthood and the covenant with God, and judge it in His wisdom. So Nehemiah purified the priesthood from the pollution of pagan marriages and reappointed the priests and Levites in their work. The matter of the wood supply was addressed again also. Nehemiah made arrangements for an adequate supply for the burning of the offerings. He also arranged for the bringing of the firstfruits to the priests.
These lessons should be stressed for this chapter: 1) ignorance of God’s law does not excuse His children from its penalties for transgression; 2) wrong examples by God’s preachers cause very great transgression among their followers; 3) God’s people will usually respond when the right example is set; 4) God’s people are expected to have set times for His worship; 5) the people of the Lord should not encourage the profanation of His day of worship; 6) though others transgress it is not necessary to allow oneself to be guilty by condoning their transgression; 7) false teaching needs to be treated with severity; 8) men ought to profit by the example of those whom the Lord punished for transgression in the past; 9) God’s servants should leave behind them a legacy of lasting good for the cause of Christ.
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Text Courtesy of Blessed Hope Foundation and the Baptist Training Center.
Garner, Albert & Howes, J.C. "Commentary on Nehemiah 13". Garner-Howes Baptist Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany