Stephen Caswell © 2000
Keeping The Fire Burning
General William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, once said to a group of new officers, “I want you young men always to bear in mind that it is the nature of a fire to go out; you must keep it stirred and fed and the ashes removed.”
The last two Sundays we saw how Israel committed themselves to the Lord's service. After renewing the covenant they dedicated themselves and the work to God. Did they keep their promises? They did for some time. But after twelve years Nehemiah returned to Babylon to report to King Artaxerxes as agreed. While he was gone the enemy got to work and Israel broke their covenant again. He was gone for perhaps a year. When Nehemiah returned he found that the people had defiled themselves through compromise. Nehemiah immediately began to act decisively to change the situation. When we compare chapter 13 with chapter 10 we see that they failed to keep several of the promises they had made.
I. The Separation Promise II. The Support Promise III. The Sabbath Promise
Firstly The Separation Promise
a. Mixed Multitude
1. The People - Pagans Amongst The Assembly
13:1 On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people, and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever come into the assembly of God,
Verse 6 informs us that 12 years had elapsed since Nehemiah had first sought the King's assistance to help his people. According to Nehemiah 10:28–29, the Jews had willingly separated themselves from the people of the land. They united with their Jewish brothers and sisters to obey the Law and walk in the way of the Lord. But apparently their separation was incomplete, or some of the people formed new alliances; for they discovered that there were Ammonites and Moabites in their congregation, and this was contrary to the Law of Moses. When Nehemiah returned to Babylon to report to the king they sinned again. They didn't maintain their distinction of being God's holy people. Instead they mixed with the pagans.
Years ago, Oswald Chambers wrote, Today the world has taken so many things out of the church, and the church has taken so many things out of the world, that it is difficult to know where you are. Vance Havner said, Today the world has so infiltrated the church that we are more beset by traitors within than by foes without. Satan is not fighting churches, he is joining them. When God's people bring pagans into their assembly they copy their evil ways.
2. The Priesthood - Pagans In The Sanctuary
Nehemiah 13:4-5 Now before this, Eliashib the priest, having authority over the storerooms of the house of our God, was allied with Tobiah. And he had prepared for him a large room, where previously they had stored the grain offerings, the frankincense, the articles, the tithes of grain, the new wine and oil, which were commanded to be given to the Levites and singers and gatekeepers, and the offerings for the priests.
Not only were some of the Jews married to Ammonites and Moabites, but also an Ammonite was living in the Jewish temple! Unfortunately this compromise started with the leadership. Verse 4 says that before this Eliashib the high priest made an alliance with Tobiah an Ammonite. Tobiah the Ammonite had been given a room in the temple by Eliashib the high priest. Eliashib is the first one named in the list of workers, and yet he had become a traitor. Why? Because one of his relatives was married to Sanballat’s daughter, and Sanballat and Tobiah were friends. Eliashib had made an alliance with the enemy. Instead of serving the Lord he was working with the enemy. Instead of setting a good example for others to follow, he lead the people astray.
All this happened while Nehemiah was away at the palace, which suggests that those he appointed to lead in his absence had failed in their oversight. It doesn’t take long for the enemy to capture leadership, and too often the people will blindly follow their leaders in the path of compromise and disobedience. It was bad enough that an Ammonite was living in the temple, and that a Jewish high priest had let him in; but this intruder was using a room dedicated to God for the storing of the offerings used by the Levites. He defiled the temple by his presence and robbed the servants of God at the same time.
b. Nehemiah's Response
How did Nehemiah respond to Israel's transgressions? He acted swiftly and decisively.
1. Separation Of The Assembly
Neh 13:2-3 Because they had not met the children of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. So it was, when they had heard the Law, that they separated all the mixed multitude from Israel.
He had the Law read to the people, who then discerned their sin. Israel separated themselves from their pagan neighbors. This was the right thing for them to do. It was Balaam that led Israel into sin through idolatry and immorality. The Moabites had caused Israel to stumble in the wilderness and they would do it again unless Israel separated from them. 2 Cor 6:17 says: Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. Although Christians live in the world we must not be part of the world. We must not engage in the sinful practices of the pagans around us.
2. Sanctification Of The Sanctuary
Nehemiah 13:7-9 And I came to Jerusalem and discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, in preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God. And it grieved me bitterly; therefore I threw all the household goods of Tobiah out of the room. Then I commanded them to cleanse the rooms; and I brought back into them the articles of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense.
How did Nehemiah deal with Tobiah? He lost no time throwing out both the man and his furniture, rededicating the room to the Lord, and using it again for its intended purpose. Like our Lord, Nehemiah had to cleanse the temple; and it appears that he had to do it alone. Nehemiah took a courageous stand against this sin, even though this meant overruling the high priests decision. But God's people must separate themselves from all evil.
c. Mixed Marriages
1. The People
Nehemiah 13:23-24 In those days I also saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke according to the language of one or the other people.
We will not give our daughters as wives to the peoples of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons! was the promise the Jews had made to the Lord; but they didn't keep it. In his survey of Jerusalem, Nehemiah saw women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab married to Jewish men; and he heard their children speaking foreign languages. If these children didn't know the language of Israel, how could they read the Law or participate in the holy services? If a generation was lost to the faith, what was the future of the nation? God’s people and the people of the world can be identified by their speech.
2. The Priesthood
Nehemiah 13:28a And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite;
Again the nation's leaders had not set a good example. A grandson of the high priest had married a pagan woman. Eliashib consented to this. Joiada married the daughter of their worst enemy Sanballat. Not only had he betrayed his people, he also defiled himself from the priesthood. There were strict laws concerning marriage for Jews. The priests of all people had to keep the law. Priests were strictly forbidden from marrying foreign women.
d. Nehemiah's Response - How did Nehemiah respond to Israel's sin of mixed marriages?
Nehemiah 13:25a So I contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair,
The word contention means, to strive, chide, plead or debate with. Nehemiah dealt with the problem by first expressing his horror that such a thing should be done in Israel. Cursing, striking and pulling out their hair was done to show anger at their shameful actions.
2. Compelled Them To Swear
Nehemiah 13:25b and made them swear by God, saying, You shall not give your daughters as wives to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons or yourselves.
Nehemiah's action was designed to prevent future intermarriages. In fact he made them promise that they wouldn't do this again. Nehemiah also delivered a sermon, reminding the people that Solomon, one of Israel’s greatest kings, was ruined by marrying foreign women. In Solomon’s case, his mixed marriages were a threat to the throne and the kingdom; and in Nehemiah’s day, mixed marriages even threatened the priesthood.
3. Cleansed the priesthood
Nehemiah 13:28b-31 therefore I drove him from me. Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites. Thus I cleansed them of everything pagan. I also assigned duties to the priests and the Levites, each to his service, and to bringing the wood offering and the firstfruits at appointed times.
The Law of Moses was clear, but the priests had deliberately disobeyed it. So he sent Joiada out of the temple. He had defiled himself and betrayed the nation. Nehemiah then purified the priests and made certain that only those who were qualified served.
Santa Claus And Jesus -- Vance Havner
A little girl said she liked Santa Claus better than Jesus because "you have to be good for Santa only at Christmas but for Jesus you have to be good all the time." Much of the Christmas observance at church is not far removed from that attitude.
How important it is that we take a stand for separation from sin and having done all, to stand. God has chosen us to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Are you living up to your calling? Do you go to places you shouldn't because of worldly friendships? Have you become involved in sinful practices like drinking or smoking because of this? Do you watch movies that Christians shouldn't see? If so will you remove sinful friendships and practices?
Secondly The Support Promise
a. The People Forsook God's House
Nehemiah 13:10 I also realized that the portions for the Levites had not been given them; for each of the Levites and the singers who did the work had gone back to his field.
We will not forsake the house of our God, was the final statement the Jews made in their covenant with the Lord. This meant paying the temple tax, providing wood for the altar, and bringing the required tithes and offerings to the priests and Levites. Without the faithful support of the people, the ministry at the temple would languish. When Nehemiah returned to the city, he discovered that the people had failed to keep their promise. The priests and Levites were without support and were deserting their work in order to survive. The people ignored the warnings of Moses, Take heed to yourself that you do not forsake the Levite as long as you live in your land.
b. Nehemiah's Response
1. Contention 11So I contended with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken?
Again, Nehemiah contended with them, which means he rebuked the leaders for breaking their promise and disobeying the Law. Since Nehemiah presented God’s case and defended it from the Law, the offenders had to admit that he was right. They had broken their word.
2. Commission Nehemiah 13:11b And I gathered them together and set them in their place.
God's house had been abandoned because the people neglected it. They failed to support the Lord's servants. So, Nehemiah summoned the Levites, priests, singers and gatekeepers back to their posts. He confirmed them in their work and commissioned them to serve God again.
Nehemiah 13:12-13 Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain and the new wine and the oil to the storehouse. And I appointed as treasurers over the storehouse Shelemiah the priest and Zadok the scribe, and of the Levites, Pedaiah; and next to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah; for they were considered faithful, and their task was to distribute to their brethren.
He then saw to it that the people brought to God the offerings that rightfully belonged to Him. Nehemiah spread the word that the tithes and offerings were to be collected at the temple again. He appointed four men to supervise the treasury and distribute the tithes and offerings. Note that these men represented the priests, Levites, scribes, and laymen; but they all had one thing in common: They were faithful to the Lord. When God’s people start to decline spiritually, one of the first places it shows up is in their giving. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The believer who is happy in the Lord and walking in His will has a generous heart and wants to share with others.
The Rich Man's Complaint
A rich man once asked his friend, Why am I criticized for being so miserly? Everyone knows I will leave everything to charity when I die. Well said the friend, Let me tell you about the pig who was lamenting to the cow one day about how unpopular he was. People are always talking about your gentleness and your kind eyes, said the pig. Sure you give milk and cream, But I give more. I give bacon, ham and bristles. They even pickle my feet. Still, nobody likes me. Why is this? The cow thought for a minute and replied, Well maybe it's because I give while I'm still living.
Giving is both the thermostat and the thermometer of the Christian life: It measures our spiritual temperature and also helps set it at the right level. Israel had promised not to neglect the Lord's house. But as time went by they forgot their promise. Are you giving faithfully to Lord's work? I don't know the answer to this? But you do, and so does the Lord. One day we will each give an account to the Lord. How much more could be accomplished in God's work if His people were faithful to support the work? Are you keeping your commitment to support the Lord's house? Do you support missions? Or do you neglect these?
Thirdly The Sabbath Promise
Nehemiah 13:15a, In those days I saw people in Judah treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and loading donkeys with wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.
a. Profaned The Sabbath
When they signed the covenant, the Jews promised not to do business with the Gentiles on the Sabbath Day; but Nehemiah found the people not only doing business on the Sabbath, but also doing their daily work and carrying unnecessary burdens. The Jewish merchants didn’t want to lose the opportunity to make money from the Gentiles, and the Gentiles were quick to make a profit from their Jewish neighbors. The child of God must choose spiritual wealth rather than material wealth and claim the promise of Matthew 6:33, But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Whoever wrote Psalm 119 made it clear that he chose God’s Word rather than money.
b. Nehemiah's Response - He took three steps toward changing the situation.
Nehemiah 13:15b,17 And I warned them about the day on which they were selling provisions. Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day?
Firstly, Nehemiah contended with them. He rebuked the Jews who were working and selling on the Sabbath and made them stop. He also rebuked the nobles for allowing business on the Sabbath Day, reminding them that the nation’s violation of the Sabbath was one cause for their captivity. Did they want to have more wrath come on the people?
Nehemiah 13:19 So it was, at the gates of Jerusalem, as it began to be dark before the Sabbath, that I commanded the gates to be shut, and charged that they must not be opened till after the Sabbath. Then I posted some of my servants at the gates, so that no burdens would be brought in on the Sabbath day.
His second step was a very practical one: He gave commands to shut the city gates on the Sabbath. The guards had been willing to open the gates to the Gentile merchants, possibly because they were bribed; so Nehemiah put his own servants on duty. Verses 20 & 21 describe how Nehemiah warned the merchants not to come to Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.
Nehemiah 13:22 And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should go and guard the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of Your mercy!
Thirdly, Nehemiah commanded the Levites to consecrate themselves and the day. They had allowed these things to happen when they should have opposed it. So Nehemiah commanded the priests to cleanse themselves from sin. Then he commanded them to make sure that the day was kept holy by overseeing the gates of Jerusalem. These steps would enable them to sanctify the Lord's day. The Levites should set a good example to the people by hallowing the Sabbath day and ministering to Israel.
The Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, is not a Christian Sabbath, because the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week and belonged especially to the Jews. Therefore, the Old Testament laws governing the Jewish Sabbath don’t apply to the Lord’s Day. But Sunday is a special day to God’s people because it commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Sunday is our holy day.
What Does Holy Mean?
Have you noticed how Bibles are called Holy. In the same way Israel is called the holy land and Jerusalem the holy city. Why? What makes them holy? They are set apart for God. They belong to Him in a special way. They are His property. So when God says to remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy it means that we set it apart for God. It belongs to Him. Believers can't use the day as they please, it belongs to God. We must use it glorify Him. We do this by contemplating Who He is and what He has done. We must use the Lord’s Day to the glorify God.
More and more, especially in our cities, Sunday has become a day for shopping, sports, and chores around the house. The shopping center parking lot is as full on Sunday afternoons as it is on Saturdays. Our remembrance of the Sabbath day is a good indicator of our spiritual health. If we love the Lord we'll want to meet together with His people and worship Him.
Voltaire, is supposed to have said, If you want to kill Christianity, you must abolish Sunday. I don't agree with him, but I do know that many Christians have killed their joy, witness, and spiritual power by turning Sunday into another day and not putting Christ first in their week.
Israel didn't keep their promise to sanctify the Sabbath day. How important is Sunday worship to you? Do you love the Lord? If so do you come to Church each week to worship Him? Do you set it apart for the glory of God? Or do you work in the yard, play sport or sleep in on Sunday? How easily are you kept away from Church on Sunday? The Lord knows us well, we can't fool Him. If you're irregular in your attendance will you set this right?
Israel broke their promises to the Lord after about twelve years. But before we condemn them for this, are we doing the same thing? About 4 weeks ago I gave out some commitment to Christ slips. How are you going on your promises to the Lord?
1. Are you Submitting to God's Word? Are you obeying it and teaching it to your children?
2. Are you Separating as God's People? Is your life holy? Do you remember the Lord's day?
3. Are you Supporting God's House? Are you giving to His work? Do you pray for His work?
2 Peter 3:17-18 You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.