We have a saying that when the cat is away, the mice will play. This modern proverb is a good summary for how the book of Nehemiah ends. We are told in Nehemiah 13:6 that Nehemiah had to return to Persia. Remember that Nehemiah was sent by King Artaxerxes of Persia to rebuild Jerusalem. But he was only granted a set amount of time (1:11; 2:6). He was not to stay in Jerusalem permanently. He was the cupbearer to the king and therefore an important person in Artaxerxes administration. So Nehemiah is back in Persia. We are not told how long he has to be away in Persia. But verses 6-7 show that after some time Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem to see how things were going. Chapter 13 records what had happened by Nehemiah was back in Persia.
Purging Impurity (13:1-9)
The first problem we read is that Eliashib the priest allowed Tobiah the Ammonite to move into one of the rooms in the temple. He moves into a large room that was supposed to hold the tithes and contributions to the Lord and for the priests for offerings and for the priests’ provisions. The priest emptied the room and allowed Tobiah the Ammonite to move into that space. Not only was it unbelievable that someone was allowed to take the space in the temple that was holy to the Lord, but the first three verses of chapter 13 remind us that no Ammonite or Moabite was ever to be in the assembly of God because of their historical aggression against Israel. Tobiah is an Ammonite (2:10,19; 4:3). So it was not just that a person lived in the temple, but he was an Ammonite. But it is even worse than that. The person living in the temple is Tobiah. Tobiah, along with Sanballet and Geshem, have been opponents to building this temple. He was stirring up fear in the people. He is the reason the people’s lives were in danger. He was resisting God and his people throughout the whole process. An enemy of God and his people is living in the temple room where God’s offerings were supposed to be kept.
What will Nehemiah do? When Nehemiah returns, he throws out all of Tobiah’s furniture and goods. Then he has the temple chambers cleansed and moves the grain and offerings back into the room in the temple. I want us to see that it did not take long for the Eliashib’s leadership to undo all the years of work that Nehemiah had done in Jerusalem. Moral compromise becomes easy over time. Moral compromise becomes easier when it comes to family. Did you notice in verse 4 that it said that the priest was related to Tobiah? This occurred because of the intermarriage happening among the people. Family relationships can blind us to the compromises we are making against the Lord. It is amazing how easy it can be to see the compromises others make against the Lord for the sake of family but not see it in ourselves. We need to not compromise what God has called us to do in our family relationships. We cannot allow these relationships to hold us back from serving the Lord the way we know we can and the way we have been called to perform.
Providing For Temple Service (13:10-14)
The second problem Nehemiah encounters is that the Levites were no longer working in the temple. Instead, they were working in their own fields. So Nehemiah looks to determine why the temple had been forsaken. Verse 10 reveals that the people stopped providing for them. They were no longer bringing in their tithes and offerings so that the Levites had to provide for their families by quitting the temple work and returning to farming.
Nehemiah restores the tithe and puts people in charge who were reliable to make sure the collections were distributed to the Levites (13:13). This same principle in found in the New Testament where we want to make sure that spiritual leaders are provided for so that they do not need to return to secular work. The apostle Paul was grateful to the Philippian church for providing for his needs while he was doing the Lord’s work (cf. Philippians 4:10-18). Twice the apostle Paul quotes scripture about not muzzling the ox and applies to those who are doing work in God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 9:9; 1 Timothy 5:18). The Lord has never wanted those who were dedicated to doing the Lord’s work to stop doing that work because of financial concerns. This is what Nehemiah is addressing. The work had stopped because the Levites had to return to the fields to provide for their families. Nehemiah fixes this problem. Notice his prayer in verse 14. Nehemiah prays that the Lord remember him and the work he has done to keep the sacrifices and worship in God’s house going.
Restoring Worship (13:15-22)
Nehemiah encounters another problem when he returned. In verse 15 we read that the people are working on the Sabbath. Not only are they working on the Sabbath, but they are also selling animals and goods on the Sabbath. Nehemiah tells the people that this is one of the reasons they experienced God’s wrath in the past that put them into Babylonian slavery. Now you are going to bring God’s wrath on us again (13:18). So Nehemiah commands the doors to remain shut throughout the Sabbath day. Then he told all the merchants who were outside the city looking to come in and sell to stop waiting outside of the walls on the Sabbath.
Why was the Sabbath important? The Sabbath was a time when the people to enjoy their freedom by remembering their freedom God accomplished for them in the exodus. The people were set free to worship. The people were set free to enjoy worshiping God because they did not have to worry about their provisions for that day. God would provide for them. This is an interesting problem to consider with God’s people. The people are more interested in working than worship. The people would rather work than rest in the Lord as the Lord commanded. It is somewhat unimaginable. The people would rather work than worship! The people would rather work than rest in God’s promise to provide. It sounds crazy but we can do the same thing. We get caught up in the ways of our world and neglect God because we want to work. We neglect worship and service to God because we want to be working in the world. It certainly reveals our hearts when we would rather be working instead of enjoying the rest and renewal God gives through worship.
Disciplining The Unfaithful (13:23-29)
The final problem is that we see the people return to intermarrying with the foreigners in the land. Nehemiah confronts the people and calls down curses from God on them for their sinning. Nehemiah further describes these sinful marriages as a great evil and acting treacherously against our God (13:27). It is not a small thing to the Lord if we are choosing to remain in sinful marriages. Thus, verse 30 gives a summary of Nehemiah’s work. He cleansed the people of everything foreign, established the work of the priests and the Levites, and provided for the offerings to the Lord. In short, Nehemiah goes about disciplining the unfaithful. The people keep attaching themselves to worldly activities and sinful behaviors. Those decisions could not be allowed to continue. Restoration needed to happen and Nehemiah takes it on himself to bring about that restoration to the Lord.
So here is the big question. What happened? How could the wheels fall off so significantly while Nehemiah was away? How is it possible that Nehemiah finds such a mess on his hands once he returns? Please think about this question in light of what he read in chapters 9-10. In those two chapters we see a whole sale repentance. The people confess the character of God and admit their historical sins. They even get specific on the changes they are going to make. So what happened?
The important warning from this book is that it is easy to spiritually crash from coasting. The work of restoration is completed and there is a temptation to relax. After we make changes and bring about renewal, it is easy to revert back to sinful habits. Everything we read in chapter 13 were prior sins that the people have reverted to committing. This is why we must radically fight to put sin to death every day. Otherwise those old sinful habits will rise from the dead and get a foothold in our lives again. Every day is a day to kill the sins that want to come back into your lives. There is never a day when we can stop the work of restoration and renewal of our spirits. When we let go of that zeal and intensity, then sin will creep back into our lives. What we see in Nehemiah is a zeal and an intensity that does not let up. Our Lord wants great intentionality in follow him. Jesus said it like this:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). The word I want to focus on is the word “daily.” Taking up our cross was not a one time decision when we decided to give our lives to Jesus. Taking the cross must happen each day when we get up from sleep. The apostle Paul calls this “straining forward to what lies ahead” in Philippians 3:13. There is a reason why the scriptures repeatedly remind us to not grow weary in doing right and good (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13; Hebrews 12:3-5; Revelation 2:3).
We need to look at our lives and evaluate if we have started coasting. Have we let up on our intensity toward worship, toward serving others, toward teaching, toward sharing Jesus with the world, toward encouraging others, toward prayer, toward Bible study, and toward any other areas that we give to God? All of us are tempted to coast and it is easy to start coasting. We give our attention to something and then we relax from it. We also need to evaluate has our coasting allowed sins to creep back into our lives.
Maintaining our intensity comes from staying closely connected to Jesus. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah show that we need a savior who will bring restoration and repentance that will last. Not even Ezra and Nehemiah together could cause a lasting repentance so that the people continued to walk in God’s ways and keep his covenant. A new covenant was needed that would change the hearts of the people from the inside out. The cross is to bring out our intensity and zeal for God, seeing what Jesus has done for us in saving us from deserved wrath and judgment. Do not spiritually crash from coasting. Keep straining forward to what lies ahead.