We started our journey with Ezra and Nehemiah one year ago this week. From exile in Babylon we made trip after trip with Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the groups of courageous men and women who traveled with them back to Jerusalem. We’ve witnessed a city in shambles be rebuilt, renewed, and revived as these leaders so faithfully inspired and led the people. Just last week we read about the rededication of the wall around Jerusalem and the amazing celebration with two choirs marching on top of the wall, singing praises to God, as they made their way to the Lord’s house, the rebuilt temple. It gave me chills to imagine it in my mind.
Hollywood makes some great movies. I’m sure each of you has your favorites that you’ve watched again and again. The story of the resurrection of Jerusalem is a script they’ve not yet discovered, but it’s a movie that needs to be made. I’m starting a campaign this morning to get this script into the hands of some “A-list” Hollywood director. I need some help. Do any of you know Martin Scorsese, Ryan Coogler, Stephen Spielberg, Tyler Perry? How about J.J. Abrams or Kathryn Bigelow? I need somebody with connections to get this script into one of their hands for me.
Imagine with me for just a moment. Let’s say one of you is buddies with Stephen Spielberg and you get him to take a look at the story. You hear back from Mr. Spielberg. He loves the story, but… “But what” you ask? Stephen says, “I love the script, but I’m going to need the closing scene of the movie to focus on the people coming down from the wall as they all gather at the temple, singing and dancing, embracing one another, wiping tears of joy from their eyes, and Nehemiah and Ezra overlooking the crowd. That’s the eternal hope we’re all longing for in life. From the ruins… to resurrection and renewal!” Can you imagine the special effects Spielberg could use to make that scene unforgettable?!
What we studied last week would make for a spectacular ending to the story, but the only problem is…that’s not the end of the story. There’s still one more chapter to the story, Nehemiah 13. I can assure you that no Hollywood director would ever include chapter 13 in their movie, but God in His Sovereignty has included Nehemiah 13 for you and me, and we need to pay attention. Nehemiah 12 is the climax of the story and Nehemiah 13 is the anticlimax. It’s a downer, a disappointment, we would have never written the chapter, but I’m so glad that God put it on Nehemiah’s heart to tell the truth. We need to know the whole story. Paul wrote to the people sitting in the pews of the church in Rome and told them,
4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. (Romans 15:4 NIV)
“Everything that was written in the past…” Not just encouraging verses. Not just the inspiring verses. Not just the verses that we like to quote about how everything worked out and they lived happily ever after, but “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us…”
Before we get into Nehemiah 13 let me remind us of what Nehemiah, Ezra, and the people committed to do back in Nehemiah 10. Do you remember how grieved they were when they were overcome with conviction over the waywardness of their hearts and the sin they had allowed to lead them away from walking with God? At the end of Nehemiah 9 they decided to put it all in writing, they called it a “binding agreement” and all of their leaders signed it. What was it they agreed to do? Well, in Nehemiah 10:29 we read that they promised to
29 …follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the LORD our Lord. (Nehemiah 10:29 NIV)
They then spelled out the specifics of three areas they wanted to pay special attention to: They would not give their sons or daughters in marriage to non-Jews (Nehemiah 10:30.) Second, they said they would keep the Sabbath. There would be no more work, no more business conducted on the Sabbath (Nehemiah 10:31). The final statement they made was: “We will not neglect the house of our God” (Nehemiah 10:39). They would bring their tithes to God’s house so the Levites, priests, and the ministry of the temple could thrive in the heart of the city for the glory of God. They put it in writing! They signed their names on the dotted line. They meant it this time. No really, this time they were serious. And I’m sure they were, but with time and distractions and so many other opportunities they couldn’t let slip away…they drifted from their commitment. When did the drift take place? Can you trace it back to any one thing in particular? I’ve searched high and low and I don’t know when it happened, but I do believe I’ve been able to identify a couple of reasons why. Before we get to that let’s turn to Nehemiah 13 and read the first five verses.
1 On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, 2 because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) 3 When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent. 4 Before this, Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah, 5 and he had provided him with a large room formerly used to store the grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil prescribed for the Levites, musicians and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests. (Nehemiah 13:1-5 NIV)
First, we need to recognize that “on that day,” found in verse 1 is not the day of the dedication of the wall, but a later day. Nehemiah 13 takes place some time later than the dedication of the wall. In Nehemiah 13:6, Nehemiah tells us when all of this was taking place he was back in Babylon. He had gone back to resume his responsibilities of serving as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. In Nehemiah’s absence, the drift took place. We’ll take a look at that verse in a bit. In the opening verses of Nehemiah 13 we see that the people read God’s Word and learned that no Ammonite or Moabite was to be included among God’s people. They had to have been reading Deuteronomy 23:3-5. Read it with me.
3 No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation. 4 For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. 5 However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you. (Deuteronomy 23:3-5 NIV)
The Jews were not to mix with other nations, not because of some ethnic prejudice but because of spiritual idolatry. Balak, the king of the Moabites, tried to get the prophet Balaam to curse God’s people, but it didn’t work. God turned the curse into a blessing. You can read about it in Numbers 22-24. When Balak’s initial plan didn’t work, he tried another plan, a fail-proof plan. Look at Numbers 25:1-3 with me.
1 While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. 3 So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the LORD’s anger burned against them. (Numbers 25:1-3 NIV)
If the curse didn’t work, then you know you can always resort to offering your good looking young women to get the job done. God’s people are called to worship God alone. What is the very first of the Ten Commandments? “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Israel’s men indulged themselves with the Moabite women whose main goal was to get them to turn away from God and worship their own gods. Job done!
Now, here’s the thing. We know about a Moabite named Ruth who was included among God’s people. Not only was she included, but she was the great grandmother of King David, she’s in Jesus’ family tree! It is not being a Moabite or Ammonite that disqualifies you from being included in God’s family, it is an unwillingness to serve God alone.
In verses 4-5 we learn that Eliashib the priest, the man in charge of the storerooms of the temple, had allowed Tobiah, one of the greatest adversaries of Nehemiah and the Jews, along with Sanballat and Geshem, to move right into the temple complex. What in the world was Eliashib thinking?!
Tobiah is a Jewish name. In Hebrew it means, “YHWH is good.” So Tobiah was a Jew who made his home with the Ammonites and became a high ranking official of the Ammonite people. Tobiah also married the daughter of Shecaniah, one of the leaders of Jerusalem. This adversary of God’s people was relentless in his desire to undermine what Ezra and Nehemiah were doing to restore Jerusalem and return God’s people to worshiping God alone. Eliashib not only allowed Tobiah to take up residence in the temple complex, but we learn in verse 28 that Eliashib’s grandson had married the daughter of another of Nehemiah’s adversaries, Sanballat the Horonite.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Eliashib this past week. I believe Eliashib is still with us today. Let me explain. Eliashib would have boldly proclaimed his love for the Lord, but what you find is that he compromised at every turn. He knew Tobiah was up to no good when he aligned himself with Tobiah and gave him rooms in the Lord’s house to do as he pleased. Eliashib only made that compromise because it would benefit him in some way. Eliashib knew that Sanballat was up to no good when he suggested that his daughter and Eliashib’s grandson get together and get married. Leviticus 21:14 forbids a high priest or one of his sons to marry a foreigner. Eliashib knew that verse, but he assumed he would benefit in some way by allowing his grandson to marry Sanballat’s daughter. And isn’t that still our story today? I know God’s Word, I know what God desires from me, but if I do “this” or “that” it will benefit me…and after all, God will forgive me. If I align myself with “this” person or “that” person I can benefit from those relationships even though those relationships might very well be detrimental to my walk with the Lord. Eliashib is still with us and he lives in me! How about you?
When Nehemiah arrived back in Jerusalem, we don’t know how many years after he left to resume his responsibilities in Babylon for King Artaxerxes, but some Bible commentators say 9-10 years later, he learned about all that is going on. Look at verses 6-11 with me.
6 But while all this was going on, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission 7 and came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God. 8 I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. 9 I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense. 10 I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and musicians responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. 11 So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?” Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts. (Nehemiah 13:6-11 NIV)
Now we know why there were rooms available in the storehouse of the temple don’t we? Now we know why there was space available for Tobiah to set up shop in the temple, even though Eliashib should have never given the adversary of God’s people the rooms. Why were rooms available? In verse 10 we see that the people had stopped bringing their tithes and offerings to the temple. The storehouse rooms that were once filled with grain, new wine, olive oil, and other items given by God’s people were now empty. The offerings that were given to the Levites and musicians who carried out the ministry at the temple were no longer available so they couldn’t support themselves and had to go back home to their fields and go to work. In verse 11, Nehemiah asked an important question, “Why is the house of God neglected?” In Nehemiah 10:39 the people said, “We will not neglect the house of our God.” They even signed their names in big, bold letters! What happened? It’s called spiritual drift. Spiritual drift has happened in every generation since the day Nehemiah asked, “Why is the house of God neglected?” Spiritual drift is still with us today.
Turn with me to Nehemiah 13:15. The people had promised that they would not do business on the Sabbath any longer, back in Nehemiah 10, but when Nehemiah arrived back in Jerusalem after being gone for several years, he found they had broken another promise. Read with me.
15 In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. 16 People from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. 17 I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing– desecrating the Sabbath day? 18 Didn’t your ancestors do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity on us and on this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.” 19 When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21 But I warned them and said, “Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will arrest you.” From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. (Nehemiah 13:15-21 NIV)
Another broken promise. In Nehemiah 10:31 the people promised not to do any more business on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day set aside to spend time with God, to read His Word, spend extended time in prayer, to be refreshed by the Lord, and to reflect on the past week and all that God has done on our behalf. Work six days, work hard for six days, but on the Sabbath–God calls us to rest. We worship on Sunday, not Saturday which is the Sabbath, but make no mistake about it, we need one day a week to unplug and be renewed by spending time with the Lord.
God’s people in Nehemiah’s day might have promised to set business aside for one day, but the enticement of making more money led them to break their promise. I do know some people who work seven days a week. I know folks that are driven, workaholic types, and those who are always chasing another dollar. I also have friends who have more than one job and rarely get a day off. The truth is, I know many more people who have one day set aside, but that day is not to be spent on focusing on the Lord. They have other things to do. They say, “I work hard during the week and Sunday is the only day I have to call my own. I don’t want to get up early and go to Bible study or spend my morning in worship.”
There is so much going on in our society today. There are so many things that can distract us, rob us of the peace God desires for us, and plunge us into the depths of despair. We desperately need to set our hearts and minds on the Lord. We desperately need the constant reminders from God’s Word that He is Sovereign, that we can trust Him because He is faithful. We need the fellowship of our brothers and sisters as we study God’s Word together, minister to one another, and lift each other up. Don’t neglect your time with the Lord and His people.
Last of all, there is a final promise broken that we need to take a look at this morning. It is found in Nehemiah 13:23-27. Read it with me.
23 Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 24 Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. 25 I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. 26 Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. 27 Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?” (Nehemiah 13:23-27 NIV)
They had promised not to give their sons and daughters to those who didn’t serve the Lord, but they broke that promise as well. Nehemiah reminded them that this is exactly what happened to Solomon and led to his sin. Solomon ended up compromising his faith by setting up idolatrous shrines to his wives’ gods around Israel. I want to focus on something Nehemiah said in verse 24. Nehemiah said half the kids were speaking a language other than Hebrew. I want to make it clear that the lesson for you and me has nothing to do with some of the arguments we hear about the need for people to speak English in our day. You and I have friends who speak other languages. Annie played on a tennis team in college where every girl on her team spoke multiple languages. Nehemiah’s concern was that the next generation of God’s people were losing the language of faith. The Hebrew Bible was written in Hebrew, not the language of the surrounding people. It was important for God’s people to know the language of faith so they could understand God’s Word. You and I don’t need to be concerned about whether our kids know English or Spanish or French or Swahili or any of the other 6,500 languages spoken in the world today. We need to be most concerned that they learn the language of faith. We need to teach our kids God’s Word. Who else will teach them if we don’t?
Our time is up, but before we go I hope you have noticed that the problem of the people in Nehemiah’s day has been the problem of people in every age. Even the Apostle Paul, the greatest missionary in the history of the world, the man who wrote more books of the Bible than any other person, said of himself,
15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do– this I keep on doing. (Romans 7:15-19 NIV)
You’ll never find a more honest statement in all of God’s Word. Paul ended his confession by saying, “Who will save me from this body of sin? Praise be to God through Christ Jesus my Lord!” Nehemiah was a great reformer, but not even Nehemiah could bring about the change he envisioned. There is only one Reformer who can truly change your heart and make you a promise keeper instead of a promise breaker and that is Jesus. I want to urge you this morning to cry out to Him. For those who know Jesus as Lord of your life, I want to urge you to seek Him with all of your heart each and every day. Cling to Him, refuse to compromise His Word and your walk for some transient, temporal thrill, and encourage those around you to do the same. He will never let you down. He will never leave you. Won’t you invite Him into your heart this morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
September 6, 2020