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Nehemiah 13: Always Reforming Print E-mail
Sunday, 19 June 2016

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I am so glad that our church has finally arrived! Our deacons are serving us faithfully, getting things done, taking care of the building. Our Sunday School classes are teaching good curriculum and we have a great new class for the 3-6 year olds (thanks Mrs. Marilyn). The youth are going on a mission trip this week to sacrificially serve others and take the good news to those who need to hear. We had record attendance at our first Sunday Night Fellowship of the year. And we have even had two couples join us in the last few weeks! We have arrived. Time to put things on cruise and settle in for years of blessing and growth!

The idea that we have arrived as a church is a lie with the potential to not just rob us of future health but could actually lead to our demise as a community of faith. No church has arrived. No family of believers has reached perfection. The Scriptures teach us to always be growing, always be maturing, always be reforming. As disciples and followers of Christ, we always have more to learn and more to obey. The Christian life is a marathon that it is only finished when Christ returns or calls us home. Until that day, we are always striving to be more like our Savior.

A good picture of this is found in the story of those who return to Jerusalem in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. These folks had some work to do. They needed to rebuild the temple and rebuild the walls around the city. The needed to rebuild homes and rebuild their way of life. But more than that, they had to regularly rebuild their worship and obedience to God. The pattern is obvious: They obey the Lord and commit to follow the Lord, they start to disobey and the leaders call them to repent, then they return to obedience for a season until they begin to disobey again. To be honest, it can feel discouraging and we can be tempted to sit in judgment on their repeated struggles. Until we look in the mirror. Until we remember our own struggles as a community of faith.

The truth is, God’s people must always be reforming to His Word. We must always be examining ourselves and confessing our sins and laboring by His grace to be more faithful. This is the pattern we see after the Exile and it is the pattern that we see in ourselves. So what do we see the leaders doing? Both Ezra and Nehemiah continue to confront the people. We looked at the dedication of the temple last week and we see that they needed to address the issue of foreigners in the temple who did not worship Yahweh. Look at 13:1-3. They are continuing to study the Law and continuing to find ways to reform. The rest of this chapter records reforms that Nehemiah made when he returned again from Persia. It seems that he needed to go back to the king after spending around 12 years in Jerusalem. Yet, when he returns to the city, he has to confront the people about their disobedience. So what does he do?

He confronts the priest for showing favoritism (v. 4-9)

Leadership is not above confrontation. We are told of Nehemiah confronting Eliashib the priest in verses 4-9. Look at those with me. While Nehemiah was back in Persia, the priest decided to let his relative Tobiah, the enemy of Nehemiah and Israel, actually live in the Temple. Such was obviously forbidden by the Law, but apparently Eliashib was not concerned with that. He had the authority to let his relative live in the temple and so he did just that. And Nehemiah confronted him. He was angry and he threw out Tobiah’s furniture. Before we criticize Nehemiah for such action, we should remember that Jesus had a similar reaction to those who were using the temple for material gain in his day. I think Nehemiah’s actions are an example of righteous indignation. Eliashib was showing favoritism to Tobiah and letting him profane the temple. Nehemiah knew that this needed to stop. So he confronted the priest and threw Tobiah out of the temple.

He confronts the officials for forsaking the temple (v. 10-14)

When someone is living in the space that you would normally use to collect tithes and offerings for the Levites, it stands to reason that the Levites will not get what they need. We see Nehemiah confronting that problem in verses 10-14. Look at those with me. Since the Levites were not getting their portion of the tithes and offerings, they were fleeing to their fields to provide for themselves. Nehemiah confronts the officials for allowing this to happen. And as before, he does not just confront the problem, he makes sure that the sin is corrected. He appoints some faithful men to make sure that the tithes and offerings are collected and given to the Levites as the Law directs. He will make sure that they do not keep forsaking the house of God. When they renewed the covenant and committed themselves to the Lord, they were determined to not neglect the house of God (see 10:39). And we saw just last week that they were making sure the Levites and priests were provided for (see 12:44-47). But with the passing of time (and Tobiah living in the storerooms), it does not take long for the situation to change. So Nehemiah has to confront them over this neglect. The work at the Temple must continue and in order for that to happen, the people must provide for the Levites.

He confronts the nobles for profaning the Sabbath (v. 15-22)

Something else that they committed not to do when they renewed their covenant was to profane the Sabbath. They were not going to work on the Sabbath or allow trading on the day. But it did not last very long. Look at verses 15-16. They are working and trading on the Sabbath. So Nehemiah confronts the nobles. Look at verses 17-18. He reminds the nobles that profaning the Sabbath was one of the things that caused the Exile in the first place and now they are doing it again. The pattern is repeated. They keep struggling with the same things that their fathers struggled with. Thus, confrontation is necessary. Someone has to warn them and call them to obey the Law. And that person in Nehemiah. Not only that, but as before, he goes on and does what is necessary for obedience. Look at verses 19-22. Again, Nehemiah is willing to take a strong stand. He posts men at the gates to keep men from entering the city and he threatens those outside the city with punishment. He is serious about not profaning the Sabbath and he does all that he can to ensure that the people will obey. Once again he confronts the sin and makes plans for future obedience.

He confronts the men for marrying foreigners (v. 23-29)

You would think that the Israelites would be done with marrying foreigners who did not worship Yahweh. Ezra confronted them over this sin and spent months working through the problem (see Ezra 9-10). Yet, when they renewed the covenant, they had to once again address this issue (see 10:30). As we have already seen, they had to deal with foreigners entering the Temple and it could be that some of these were from intermarriage. Once again, the sin must be confronted when Nehemiah returns from Persia. Look at verses 23-24. We see again the reason why intermarriage was a problem. The children from these marriage could not even speak the language of Hebrew, which means that they could not read the Law and worship at the Temple. This is not an ethnic issue but a religious issue. These foreigners were not raising the next generation to worship Yahweh.

So Nehemiah confronts them. Look at verses 25-27. Nehemiah again takes some strong action: he cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. That might not be what we expected! But remember when they covenanted together to not marry foreign women? In that covenant they pronounced a curse upon themselves if they did not keep the covenant (see 10:29). So it seems that Nehemiah is carrying out this curse, which would have involved physical punishment and the pulling out of hair as way of shaming an individual. Nehemiah does not play around with sin. And neither does His God. He reminds them of what happened to Solomon, how even though he had great wisdom and was beloved by God, he was still led astray by foreign women (again, see the connection with idolatry as the problem).

A specific marriage is dealt with in verses 28-29. Look at those verses with me. The son of the high priest had married a foreigner who happened to be the daughter of one of Nehemiah’s and Israel’s enemies, namely Sanballat the Horonite. Nehemiah chased him out of town for such a serious act of treason against him and the people. He would not allow the marrying of foreign women to go unconfronted.

The book closes with a summary of Nehemiah’s actions in Jerusalem for the sake of God’s people. Look at verses 30-31. Nehemiah cleansed, established, and provided. He confronting the problems, set up a plan for future obedience, and provided the people with resources for worship. What can we learn from his work in Jerusalem?

We must be willing to confront sin. It is not loving to let people remain in their sin. ‘Live and let live’ is not a biblical slogan. What people claim to be peaceful and tolerant can actually lead to Hell. We must lovingly confront the lost in their sin, calling them to repentance and faith in Jesus. We must point them to His perfect life and death, and encourage them with the good news of His resurrection so that they can know that they will be forgiven. At the same time, we must confront each other in the Church. One of my commentator’s writes: “There will come a day when God’s people no longer need to be summoned to repent, when we will no longer need correction. Between now and then, the only way that we are going to be able to love each other and get along in harmonious, healthy, and happy relationships is for us to confront sin and respond in humility and repentance when confronted” (Hamilton, p. 225). We must be a people who are always reforming to the Word of God. We will never ‘arrive’ on this side of Heaven. But by God’s grace, by the mercy that He has shown us in Christ, and by the power that we have through the Spirit, we can always be growing in the likeness of our Savior. Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Monday, 04 July 2016 )

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