Nehemiah's Continuing Reforms
Nehemiah was an exceptionally faithful servant of God — a man devoted to continual prayer and obedience to the Lord. That was evident when he first heard about the deteriorated condition of Jerusalem and when Sanballat and Tobiah tried to frustrate his rebuilding efforts. We see his faithfulness again in the last chapter of his book, where he pursued an aggressive program of reformation.
However, to appreciate this chapter we need a little background. The first twelve chapters of Nehemiah took place in a matter of months. From the time that he first asked his brother about Jerusalem until the wall was rebuilt and dedicated not much more than a year had passed. But twelve years later, Nehemiah had to go back to Persia according to the time that he had proposed to King Artaxerxes (cf. 2:6; 5:14). He was in Persia probably not less than one or more than three years before he asked permission to resume his governorship in Jerusalem. Verse 6 says, But in all this time was not I at Jerusalem: for in the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon came I unto the king, and after certain days obtained I leave of the king. When Nehemiah arrived back in Jerusalem, he quickly found several major problems that had arisen during his extended absence.
Ammonites and Moabites
Nehemiah laid out the first of these problems in verses 1 through 3. The people of God had allowed Ammonites and Moabites into the congregation, which probably meant that the Jews had permitted these foreigners to participate in certain aspects of their worship.
This matter came up, according to verse 1, on that day, i.e., about that time. A few commentators assume that Nehemiah was referring to the dedication of the wall in the previous chapter, but most connect it to verse 6. If the latter view is correct, the chronology would go something like this: Nehemiah rebuilt and dedicated the wall; twelve years later, he returned to Persia; after another one to three years, he requested permission to go back to Jerusalem; and shortly after he arrived in Jerusalem, the people assembled for the reading of the law (probably on a day when the law was to be read anyway) and were convicted of their own sin in regard to the Ammonites and Moabites. The longer timeframe accounts for the people’s earlier enthusiasm having worn off, and Nehemiah’s absence provided an opportunity for their sin to take root.
Nehemiah identified the specific sin at issue in verse 1 and 2, which paraphrases a few verses from the twenty-third chapter of Deuteronomy (vv. 3–5). It has to do with how the Ammonites and Moabites had treated the Jews during the exodus. When the Jews tried to pass through their land, both nations, although blood relatives of the Jews through Abraham’s nephew Lot, refused to help. The behavior of the Moabites was particularly appalling because they not only refused help but also hired an evil prophet named Balaam to curse God’s people. The Lord turned his evil curse into a blessing, but this only irritated him more. He then advised Balak to send an army of harlots into the Israelite camp so that the Jews might secure their own divine curse through fornication.
Strange as it may seem, our text has been used at times to support racial segregation, but this is ridiculous. The Jews, the Ammonites and the Moabites all had a common ancestor: Terah (Abraham’s father and Lot’s grandfather). Further, the issue here is not race, but religion. The Ammonites and Moabites had turned their backs on God’s people, and in doing so rejected God himself. Therefore, the Lord excluded them from the congregation.
God had chosen the Jews to be his own people, the nation through which the Messiah would bless all nations, and yet they disregarded God’s clear command to exclude the Ammonites and Moabites. They did this to their own shame!
On the other hand, we shouldn’t think that this prevented Ammonites and Moabites from ever turning to the Lord. The law itself allowed for people of non-Jewish backgrounds to unite with the Jews through conversion. In fact, Ruth was a Moabitess who chose her husband’s family and her husband’s God over her own family and her family’s gods (Ruth 1:16–17). The Lord not only welcomed her; he also included her in the pedigree of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Likewise, the Jews of Nehemiah’s day chose God over sin. Verse 3 says that they separated from the mixed multitude as soon as they heard the Word of God. We pray, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven, but our actual response to the Word of God is, more often than not, rather sluggish and half-hearted. Not so with Nehemiah’s contemporaries. In fact, this is the second time in Nehemiah that the reading of God’s Word moved the people to immediate obedience.
The Bible is God’s principal means of our sanctification. Jesus said, Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth (John 17:17). In particular, we need to appreciate the fact that God has chosen us, like the Jews of old, to be a special treasure unto himself. This being so, part of our sanctification is to separate from sin. Listen to what Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? and what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty (II Cor. 6:14–18).
Eliashib and Tobiah
The next situation that Nehemiah had to deal with is recounted in verses 4 through 9: Eliashib had given Tobiah the Ammonite a room in the temple storehouse where the people’s grain offerings were ordinarily kept.
This incident helps to explain the previous one. Eliashib’s example of providing lodging for an Ammonite in one of the temple storerooms opened the door for the people to welcome both Ammonites and Moabites into the congregation. Nehemiah makes this connection for us in verse 4 when he wrote, Before this. That is, before the people as a whole embraced the Ammonites and Moabites, Eliashib set the example by chumming up with Tobiah.
What made Eliashib’s behavior particularly reprehensible was his office. Verse 4 says that he was a priest, and that would have been bad enough, except that Nehemiah 3:1 specifically says that he was the high priest. As the high priest, he would have had oversight of the chamber of the house of our God, as verse 4 says. Thus, he had the power to offer one of the temple’s storerooms to Tobiah. And as the high priest, he should have known not to house God’s enemies in the precincts of temple.
The leaders of God’s people must take great care not to lead them astray by a bad example. That’s true of church officers, who lives must adorn the doctrines of the gospel, but it is just as critical for parents, whose children depend on them for a godly example. Those who are under others often take it for granted that their superiors know how to live by the Word of God and have the integrity of character to do so.
What else do we know about Eliashib? In chapter 3, he appeared to have been a faithful priest. He participated in the rebuilding of the wall. He and other priests worked on the sheep gate, which they also sanctified. After that was done, he continued to work on the neighboring section of the wall by the tower of Meah. Interestingly, though, between the rebuilding of the wall and our present text his name appears in Nehemiah only in the genealogical records of the previous chapter. It doesn’t occur in connection with the reformation that took place under Ezra or any of the subsequent feasts, celebrations or covenant affirmations. Yet, in our text we find that he was still around many years after all of these things happened. Wouldn’t we have expected him to have taken a leading role in Nehemiah’s reforms since he was one of the key religious leaders of the day? The fact that he didn’t probably indicates that he had separated himself from Nehemiah very early in Nehemiah’s service.
In chapter 13, Eliashib appears again. This time we see him in a very negative light. While Nehemiah was away in Persia, Eliashib formed an alliance with Tobiah the Ammonite, one of Nehemiah’s cruelest foes. Although Nehemiah did not identify the nature of their alliance, they were most likely allied by marriage. Nehemiah 6:18 reports that Tobiah had taken a Jewish wife and so did his son Johanan. Eliashib’s family also intermarried with the pagans. In verse 28 of the present chapter, we discover that one of his grandsons was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite, Nehemiah’s other adversary. In fact, the intermarriage of Jews and pagans was a major issue that Nehemiah had to deal with in the last few verses of his book. In any case, Eliashib felt obligated to give Tobiah travel quarters in one of the storerooms because of their alliance.
Eliashib made another very serious mistake at this point: he allowed what he regarded as an obligation to another man take precedence over his obligation to the Lord. Even oaths and vows that would require us to sin should not be kept. Of course, we shouldn’t make such oaths to begin with, but if we make them, we should not keep them. David, for example, acted correctly when he, after promising to destroy Nabal and his household, did not do so (I Sam. 25:22, 32–34). In that instance, God honored David’s obedience by killing Nabal himself.
Eliashib and Tobiah were able to get away with their mischief for a time because Nehemiah had to return to the Persian court according to the time that had been set before the king sent him to Jerusalem (cf. 2:6). After he was there awhile, Nehemiah asked to go back to Jerusalem to continue the work that he had begun. Verse 6 and 7 give no hint whatsoever that he knew what he would be going back to, but it wouldn’t take him long to find out. He soon discovered that the high priest had betrayed the Lord’s work.
Nehemiah wasted no time addressing the problem, but he did so very carefully, as we see in verses 8 and 9.
First, he wept bitterly. The word translated grieved in verse 8 (וַיֵּרַע) comes from a root that means to tremble. The sins that we see in others should make us weep and tremble before the Lord. David wrote, Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law (Ps. 119:136). Nehemiah lived by this principle as well. When his brother told him about the condition of Jerusalem, he sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted (1:4). Knowing that Jerusalem’s condition was the result of grievous sin against the Lord, he also confessed his sin and the sin of his fathers (1:6).
After weeping, Nehemiah went into the room where Tobiah had been staying and threw all of his possessions out into the street. He took action to correct the problem. It’s not enough to say that we have repented and let the sin go on. That’s not repentance at all. We have to put an end to the sin and find new ways to serve the Lord. A lot of counseling is doing just that, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth (Eph. 4:28).
Next, Nehemiah instructed them (i.e., probably the Levites) to cleanse the rooms. The fact that the word chambers is plural in verse 9 probably indicates that Eliashib sheltered more foreigners than just Tobiah, who was without a doubt the most notorious. In any case, they needed to be re-consecrated to the service of God because Eliashib had converted them to an ordinary and even a profane use. Likewise, every area of our lives must be sanctified to the service of Jesus Christ. We belong to him by virtue of creation and redemption. As Christians, we must yield our members as servants to righteousness unto holiness (Rom. 6:19).
Finally, Nehemiah restored to the temple the articles that Eliashib had moved for Tobiah’s convenience. Isn’t it amazing that one of the Lord’s high priests thought so little of the worship of God that he modified it in order to secure friendship with a man who had declared himself an enemy of God? Was it worth it? It never is. James wrote, Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God (Jas. 4:4). Contrariwise, we should cherish the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ above everything else. Psalm 5:7 says, But as for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple (Ps. 5:7).
In light of all this, it’s no wonder that Nehemiah described Eliashib’s behavior in verse 7 as the evil thing that Eliashib did. Nehemiah understood that forming an alliance with a self-professed enemy of God and letting take up residence in the temple complex was not only an offense to God but also gave Tobiah an opportunity to turn the hearts of the Lord’s people against him.
Neglect of the Levites
The next issue that confronted Nehemiah appears in verse 10: the Levites were working out in the fields instead of attending to the things of God. Why were they out in the fields? Because the people had stopped supporting them through their tithes. That’s also why the storerooms were empty, which Eliashib to let them out to Tobiah. As is so often the case, one sin feeds upon another. When we fail to nip the first one in the bud, we’ll start to tolerate more and more.
In this case, the people had no one to blame but themselves. Earlier, they had agreed among themselves to make sure that the Levites, and by extension the priests, were adequately cared for (10:34ff.). They promised to give their tithes to the Levites, who, in turn, would tithe to the priests. Later, when they dedicated the wall, Nehemiah appointed several men to make sure that this was carried out (12:44). But more than twelve years had gone by since then, it was unknown whether Nehemiah would ever return, and the high priest had given the people the greatest disincentive to tithing, viz., the corruption of the priesthood. Consequently, the people’s zeal had waned with the result that the Levitical ministry was hampered. How were they do the Lord’s work if they had to spend their days out in the fields?
In the New Testament age, tent-making ministries such as the apostle Paul’s are sometimes necessary, but they are never ideal. God has designed it so that those who preach the gospel should live of the gospel (I Cor. 9:14). He compared the ministry to a warfare, saying, No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier (II Tim. 2:4). Our Constitution picks up on these ideas when it says, “A Minister of the Word is … to give himself wholly to the service of Christ in His Church” (Art. 27). To make it possible to carry on a vibrant ministry here and to send missionaries elsewhere, the members of the church must commit themselves to the church’s financial support.
Again, Nehemiah faced this issue head-on. The people’s failure to support the Levites had become A problem because the leaders were asleep at the helm. Nehemiah went to them first and rebuked them because it was their job to see that God’s commandments were obeyed. He asked, Why is the house of God forsaken? (v. 11). Then he turned to the Levites. He was harsh with them, too. After all, they had not done as much as they could have or should have to find a remedy. In any case, Nehemiah ordered them to resume their own work.
Finally, Nehemiah took the matter directly to the people, who had promised to support the Levites. Even more importantly, the Lord had commanded them to do this. The result: the people immediately brought in their tithe of the corn and the new wine and the oil unto the treasuries (v. 12). To make sure that this would be continued, Nehemiah also appointed men over the storehouse who were not only faithful men, but men who had an interest in making sure that the people regularly brought their tithes. One was a priest, another was a scribe, the third was a Levite, and the fourth was a temple assistant.
The prophet Malachi probably began his ministry about this time. He summoned the people to the same obedience as Nehemiah. He first challenged them with the law, saying, Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Lest the harshness of the law swallow them up, he also reassured them of God’s purpose to bless his people in their obedience. He continued, Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it (Mal. 3:8–10).
In the end, all of God’s law is meant for our good. Deuteronomy 6;24 says, And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as it is at this day.
Verse 14 takes us to the end of today’s text. Here we have the first of Nehemiah’s four closing prayers (cf. vv. 22, 29, 31). In each prayer, he asked God to remember something. They were pleas for God to make Nehemiah’s reforms last. The devil and his servants tried their best to undermine his work, but Nehemiah trusted the Lord to overcome all obstacles and build his own everlasting kingdom.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to do the same. Thy kingdom come, according to our catechism, means, “So govern us by Thy Word and Spirit, that we submit ourselves to Thee always more and more; preserve and increase Thy Church; destroy the works of the devil, every power that exalteth itself against Thee, and all wicked devices formed against Thy Holy Word, until the fulness of Thy Kingdom come, wherein Thou shalt be all in all” (Heid. Cat. 123).
The prayer that God would increase his reign in the hearts of all creatures should be on our lips all the time.
Today, we have considered the first three of Nehemiah’s final reforms. There are two more in the verses yet to go. We have seen that Nehemiah was faithful. He was faithful to the Lord. He was faithful because he understood that his work prepared for the coming of the Messiah and was, therefore, kingdom work.
Like Nehemiah, we must also serve the Lord faithfully. Concerning ministers of the gospel, Paul wrote, Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful (I Cor. 4:2). But isn’t it just as true that every believer must fulfill whatever the Lord calls us to do in this world? Don’t we all want to hear these precious words from the lips of our Savior: Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord (Matt. 25:21)?
Let us, therefore, serve the Lord with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, remembering that we can be faithful to him only because he is faithful to us. Amen.