Sanctifying the Sabbath
We come now to the conclusion of the great story of the work of reformation conducted under Ezra and Nehemiah. And at the conclusion of this work, we find that there is still much to do. There is always much to do. Semper reformanda.
“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 . . .” (Nehemiah 13: 1-31).
This chapter can be divided into four sections. Nehemiah had to leave for a time, and when he did, things fell apart (v. 6).The first section concerns a corruption in the Temple, and some problems with intermarriage (vv. 1-9). The second section consists of Nehemiah restoring the portions for the Levites that had been taken away from them (vv. 10-14). The third section finds Nehemiah correcting the abuses of the sabbath that had come in (vv. 15-22). The fourth section returns to a problem with intermarriage again, this time with some problems among the leaders (vv. 23-31).
A Mixed Multitude:
During the reading and restoration of the law, the people discovered that Ammonites and Moabites were excluded from the congregation (v. 1). This was because of their hostility at the time of Balaam (v. 2). Because of this, Israel separated from the mixed multitude (v. 3). Now remember the villain from earlier in the book, Tobiah? Eliashib the priest who ran the tithe chamber had turned it over to Tobiah (vv. 4-5). This was possible because Nehemiah was not there (v. 6). But when Nehemiah got back, he was appalled at the evil, and he cleansed the Temple (vv. 7-8). When that was done, he restored the chamber to its rightful use (v. 9).
Restoring the Levite:
A political leader, from among the enemies of God’s people, had supplanted what ought to have gone to the Levites. The Levites and singers had been forced to fend for themselves (v. 10). And so Nehemiah contended, which in our soft and effeminate age, is taken for a great and grievous sin. But he contended anyway (v. 11). And all Judah responded appropriately with the tithe (v. 12). And Nehemiah appointed faithful men over the business (v. 13). Nehemiah then turns to God in prayer, and asks God to remember his good deeds with regard to the house of God, and for its offices (v. 14).
Sanctifying the Sabbath:
But there was another problem as well. The first thing was that Nehemiah noticed that some were treading grapes on the sabbath (v. 15), and bringing in sheaves (v. 15), and loading up their asses in order to bring produce into Jerusalem on the sabbath day, in order to sell it. They were treating the sabbath as just another market day (v. 15). And so Nehemiah testified against him. Some pagans from Tyre were also doing this (v. 16). And so Nehemiah contended again, this time with the nobles of Judah (v. 17). Isn’t this why we went into exile in the first place (v. 18)? And so Nehemiah fixed the problem by simply shutting the gates of Jerusalem at nightfall Friday night (v. 19). It took a couple weeks for the merchants and sellers to catch on (v. 20). But Nehemiah testified against them, and told them that if they showed up again, he would lay hands on them, thus reinforcing his theological argumentation (v. 21). He then commanded the Levites to sanctify the sabbath day, and asked God again to remember what he had done (v. 22). But he is no works-monger, for note that he wants God to spare him according to God’s mercy (v. 22).
King Ahab thought that Elijah was the troubler of Israel, but he had it backwards. And we might wonder why Nehemiah is always in these controversies. Well, he saw that Jews had married wives from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab (v. 23). Their kids could not even speak the language of the Jews (v. 24). And so Nehemiah contended with them (v. 25), cursed them (v. 25), poked some of them in the eye (v. 25), and pulled out some of their hair (v. 25). This is called the tough love approach. He then made them swear by God, saying that they would knock that off (v. 25). Isn’t this what stumbled Solomon? And if this sin could stumble someone as great as Solomon, what do you think it is going to do to pipsqueaks like you (v. 26)? Should the rest of us copy you in this great transgression (v. 27)?
The source of this trouble was Eliashib again. He was the one who set up Tobiah in the Temple, and further, his son married the daughter of Sanballat, the other principal bad guy in this book. And so Nehemiah chased Eliashib away from him (v. 28). Just as he has been asking God to remember him for good, so he asks God to remember them for the defilement that they brought about (v. 29). Not surprisingly, others had imitated Eliashib, and so Nehemiah cleansed them (v. 30). He reinstituted the right order of things, and, once again, asked God to remember him for good (v. 31).
Remember, Oh God:
Nehemiah was faithful in his generation, and he was faithful in a time when there were many others who falsely charged him with false motives. It is not surprising that Nehemiah asked God to remember him. When he restored the Levites, he asked God to remember him and his good deeds (v. 14). When he restored the day of rest to the people, he asked God to remember him in this (v. 22). When he stood up to Eliashib, he asked God to remember them (v. 29). And he sums up the entire book this way—“Remember me, O my God, for good” (v. 31).
Imprecation is not the biblical equivalent of casting a spell, or running pins through a voodoo doll. It is a prayer to the infinite personal God, who sees and knows all things, down to the motive of every last heart. All true prayer commits everything to Him, and where is the danger in that? We may ask God to pay back to our adversaries seven-fold (Ps. 79:12). How is this consistent with forgiveness to seventy times seven (Matt. 18:21-22)? If God visits our enemies with conviction of sin, seven-fold, then He will destroy our enemies by transforming them into friends. If this ticks us off, like it did Jonah, then we have an attitude problem (Jon. 4:9), not knowing what spirit we are of (Luke 9:55). But if we rejoice in this kind of triumph, then we are fitted to say amen to the other kind.