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Vigilance Versus Declension
The striking contrast between the praiseworthy vigilance of Nehemiah in detecting and dealing with various phases of declension, and the continual tendency to drifting away from obedience to the written Word on the part of many of the people, is most marked in this closing chapter.
That serious evils soon developed is well known to the student of Jewish history. These were of two characters. On the one hand the separation truth of Nehemiah’s day was soon held in a onesided manner, so that position was everything and condition quite ignored. This resulted in Phariseeism-doctrinally correct in the main, but cold, rigid, and heartless-glorying in separation while ignoring the weightier matters of true piety and godly benevolence. On the other hand there was a re-action against all that savored of the puritanism of those days, so that the mass of the people became careless and indifferent, and, save that idolatry was never reinstated, became as impious as their fathers whose sins had brought the captivity. In all this we may well read a solemn warning, bidding us never separate condition from position, nor piety toward God from grace toward needy men.
Sanctification in its practical aspect is by the truth. Hence it is ever gradual-as the truth is learned in the fear of God. Of this we have a splendid example in the first nine verses. On the very day of the dedication of the wall (for so I understand the opening phrase), that portion of the book of Deuteronomy (chap. 23:3, 4) was read, which we have already quoted in our notes on chapter two, and which commanded that the Ammonite and the Moabite should be excluded from the congregation of the Lord forever because of their iniquitous course towards Israel in the wilderness. This at once led to a closer application of the truth of separation than before. They had previously separated from all strangers; now they “separated from Israel all the mixed multitude” (ver. 3).
Of Tobiah the Ammonite, who had so bitterly resented the building of the wall in the beginning, and whose wiles had failed to turn Nehemiah aside from his purpose, we have not heard for a long time. Now we get the startling information that Eliashib the priest, who had the oversight of the dwellings of the priests at the house of God, had made a secret alliance with Tobiah during a hitherto unnoticed absence of Nehemiah, in which time he had returned to wait upon the king. The vigilant governor’s eye being no longer upon him, Eliashib abused his liberty by preparing “a great chamber” for the un- godly Ammonite, which had been formerly used as a storehouse for the tithes and offerings. Probably this apartment was never occupied by Tobiah, for, ere Eliashib’s plan could be fully carried out, Nehemiah returned. Hearing “of the evil that Eliashib did for Tobiah in preparing him a chamber in the courts of the house of God,” he was sorely grieved, but acted with his accustomed energy, thwarting the unholy purpose by casting the stuff of Tobiah out of the room and cleansing the chambers, into which he again brought the hallowed vessels with the offerings. What an example for the people; nor do we again read of any effort on the part of Tobiah to get a foothold in Jerusalem.
But another evil soon claimed the returned governor’s attention. God’s servants were being neglected by a self-seeking people, and unable to support those dependent upon them, the Levites and the singers, who a little before had willingly offered themselves for the service of the house of God, had gone back to their fields, toiling for daily bread. The test, doubtless, revealed a weakness in these men themselves, but it also showed the declining state of the people in neglecting the temporalities of the house of the Lord; so Nehemiah contends with the rulers, and stirs them up to attend to the gathering of the unpaid tithes. This being accomplished, the Levites could attend on their service (vers. 10-14).
A third sign of declension, encroaching upon the former determination to be faithful to God, was evidenced in the laxity of some as to the sanctity of the Sabbath, the Lord’s holy day, concerning which there had been such particular pledges made. Nehemiah saw some treading wine-presses and engaged in other secular occupations on the Sabbath, even buying and selling and carrying burdens on the day of rest. In vain at first he testified against them. Strangers from Tyre brought fish and other kinds of produce which they offered for sale, and for which they found ready buyers on the Sabbath. Thoroughly aroused, Nehemiah contended with the nobles, the rulers of the people, charging this profanation of the holy day upon them, and reminding them that it was for sin such as this that all the past evil had befallen the Jews and the city of Jerusalem. “Yet,” he cries indignantly, “Ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the Sabbath” (vers. 13-18).
So, with his accustomed energy, he commanded the gates to be shut at sundown, as the Sabbath drew on, and not to be opened till it was past, while guards were set to see that no burden of any kind was brought into the city on that day. Once or twice the merchants and hucksters lodged all night and all day outside Jerusalem, vainly pleading for admission, but Nehemiah’s orders were carried out to the letter.
Finally, he threatened them with arrest if they came again with their wares on the Sabbath. Seeing the orders were meant to be carried out, they came no more on the Sabbath.
As polluted, the Levites were then commanded to cleanse themselves, and henceforth maintain a guard over the gates “to sanctify the Sabbath day.” Thus for the time the evil was again judged and the declension stayed (vers. 17-22).
But not yet could vigilance be relaxed. The flesh was still at work. In spite of all that they had heard and seen, some had been marrying women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. They may have excused themselves, as many do now, on the plea that they might lead these women to know and worship the one true God and learn the ways of Israel. But it was all a delusion. Children had been born of these unions, and these children were witness to the corruption that had been brought in. They “spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people” (vers. 23, 24). This is ever the fruit of such a yoke in marriage. The children soon follow the ways of the unregenerate parent and use the language of the flesh. Too late is the error realized. Too readily they follow the example and speech of the parent who knows not God.
Again Nehemiah’s righteous anger burst forth. He contended with these unfaithful Jews and invoked the solemn judgments of the law upon them, even smiting some, and demanded of all that they swear by God no longer to countenance in any way these mixed marriages, from which only evil fruit could come. He reminded them how Solomon himself had failed so miserably because of this very thing, and besought them to harken unto the law and not expect others to condone their offences (vers. 25-27). No doubt some would speak of his ways as hard and bitter; but sin is hard and bitter; and persistency in it often requires severe measures to put things right. It is often not a sign of spirituality to be placid and sentimentally affectionate. Such behavior frequently tells of a conscience asleep and a soul unexercised. There was a time when the Lord Jesus made a scourge of small cords-a bitter whip-to drive out the traders from God’s house (Jno. 2:15). Paul’s language too was cutting and denunciatory when Satan’s emissaries were seeking to overthrow divine truth; and God’s wrath too shall be poured out without mixture in the cup of His indignation.
Another instance of declension closes both the chapter and the book. The grandson of Eliashib, the high priest, having married a daughter of Sanballat, the man of God, Nehemiah, drives him away from his presence. His grandfather’s failure is brought again to mind in the descendant’s defection.13 Remembering Eliashib’s intriguing with Tobiah, we are not surprised to read of his grandson’s association with the family of Sanballat. In defiance of all that Nehemiah had been insisting on, this youth had married the guileful Horonite’s daughter. He was the last with whom the governor had to deal, and he graphically declares, “Therefore I chased him from me.” We can almost see the indignant countenance of the now aged Nehemiah as he learns of the perfidiousness of the son of Joiada, and we cannot but admire the energy with which the doughty old warrior drives the culprit from his presence-even making intercession in the spirit of Elijah against those who had defiled the priesthood and violated the covenant. Only by such stern measures could they be cleansed from all strangers.
Consistent to the last, Nehemiah appointed “the wards of the priests and the Levites, every one in his business; and for the wood-offering, at times appointed, and for the first-fruits.” Nothing was too great for his faith, and nothing was too insignificant for his consideration if it concerned the house, the people, or the honor of the Lord his God. This was indeed “a faithful man, and one that feared God above many”-just such an one as the times demanded, and he held on his way unflinchingly to the end, neither cajoled by flattery nor intimidated by opposition, for to him the approbation of the God of Israel was infinitely more than the good opinion of carnal or natural men.
And so with the prayer, “Remember me, O my God for good!” the record comes to an abrupt termination, and Nehemiah passes from our view, only to appear again at the manifestation of the sons of God.
If we would learn something of the after-state of the Jews we must turn, as previously intimated, to the last book of the Old Testament, where we learn through Malachi’s stern charges the low state into which the remnant had fallen; while the Gospels and the Acts give us the solemn sequel and show the children of those returned from the captivity rejecting both the Son of God come in flesh to them, and the Holy Spirit also!
Well will it be for Christians who may read these lines, to lay all to heart, that similar declension may be through the mercy of God averted in the present age of grace. May He grant it for His name’s sake and the glory of His beloved Son. Amen!
12 Those who are accustomed to the “Little Flock Hymn Book” might see in No. 235 a typical psalm; in No. 150, an almost matchless hymn; while No. 139 is a good example of a spiritual song.
13 It is not certain, though probable, that Eliashib the high priest is the same as Eliashib the chief priest of verse 4.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Nehemiah 13". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany