Nehemiah 13: An ending is a beginning

Nothing new on an actual return date to my youth group.  I’ll just leave that there and move on with life and see how God works this out.

Nehemiah 13

This last chapter deals with the final reforms of Nehemiah.   I’ve read through this chapter 3 times this week and each time learned something new and interesting about leadership and being a man who genuinely seeks after God’s best.  I’m going to take this a section at a time, so this very well may be a long post.  So strap in, grab a cup of coffee and let’s see where God Takes us.

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, 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.) When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.   

I have no doubt that someone reading this today will probably go off on a rant about racism or something similar to that, but it’s not about race, it’s about a heart issue and being obedient to the LAW.   Take a look here in Deuteronomy 23:3-6.   When I say it’s a heart issue, I mean it’s about who do you want influencing you.   Who do you want to have as people who are part of your circle?   The people of Ammon and Moab worshipped different gods that were morally repugnant to GOD and to the majority of Israel, as it was later realized, when Israel allowed these influences into their culture, it weakened the moral fabric of their nation.   GOD understood that in Deuteronomy, and had it placed in the law.   When Nehemiah and Ezra had the book of the law read aloud, the people were convicted and followed through with the law.   Did they go overboard, did that mean they closed their borders and shut themselves off from the world?  No, they simply did not grant citizenship to those who were not of Israeli descent.   We could and should probably just end the chapter here and it would be a great ending: A victorious return, a leader triumphant, and nation restored…..but it doesn’t end like that.   Life happens, and as we all know, life is messy and complicated.   A true leader has to know how to navigate in the complications and messiness of life.   I’m learning that it’s easy to talk about how to lead through the messy complications, harder to actual live through it.

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, 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.

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 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. I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. I gave orders to purify the rooms, and than 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.

12 All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil into the storerooms. 13 I put Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and a Levite named Pedaiah in charge of the storerooms and made Hanan son of Zakkur, the son of Mattaniah, their assistant, because they were considered trustworthy. They were made responsible for distributing the supplies to their fellow Levites.

At some point, after the finishing of the walls, Nehemiah kept his promise to Artaxerxes and returned to his employment as the kings cupbearer.   It was during his absence that things changed.  His opponents and people with different motives and vision crept into leadership positions and compromised the work that he had accomplished.  This is the first of three big examples that are given in this chapter.   Here we see one of the priests whose duty it was to administer the storehouses of the temple, gives a room to one of Nehemiah’s biggest rivals.   If you go back to chapter 2, Tobiah was an Ammonite (remember the admonition against Ammon and Moab) official that opposed Nehemiah when he first arrived  I wonder how long it was before Nehemiah left that Tobiah started plotting and making his moves.   We don’t have a length of time that Nehemiah was absent, there are some reports that it was 12 years, to be honest, I’m not sure how long it was, but while he was gone people took advantage of it.  It was probably not immediate, because compromise usually doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a gradual moving of the boundaries.  It’s allowing the little things to slide, simple compromises that don’t seem important can lead to a bigger compromise in the end.   What happened when he returned though is a different story.   When Nehemiah returned and saw the compromises that had been made, he literally went ballistic.  He physically threw out Tobah’s stuff, and it doesn’t say it, but he probably fired Eliashib the priest, he restored and purified the temple store rooms and then went about making leadership changes.  A leader has to go ballistic and make changes when compromise happens.  He has to take the hard stand and communicate to those around him his expectations.   Sometimes changes have to be made to make an organization stronger.   If the story ended here, it would be a great lesson, but there’s still more.

It’s the next verse that’s fascinating.   It’s a pause in the narrative.   “14 Remember me for this, my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services.”  It’s a request, a payer from Nehemiah to God.   This is the first of three pauses/prayers that he makes.   I think Nehemiah realizes the “bigness” of the job he has been given.   It’s a bit overwhelming to be made governor of a region, but to have the additional task of leading a nation in revival and restoring a national and religious identity is probably overwhelming.  To me, this verse sounds like both a cry for help and a plea for wisdom.   He knows he can’t do this without GOD’s help.   Any leader with a task that he believes GOD has given him has got to come to this realization.   That only GOD can give them the strength, ability, and understanding to be the leader that GOD sees them as.   A person can lead and lead well without GOD, but with GOD, that leader will be able to accomplish more and greater things.

Now we come to the second set of compromises that faced Nehemiah.

15 In those days I saw people in Judah treading wine presses 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. 1I 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. 22 Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy.

You may be asking, “so what’s the big deal, they were selling and working on the Sabbath”.    The Law of Moses had set aside the 7th day of the week as a day of rest and worship.   No one was supposed to work, it was supposed to be a day of contemplation, family, worship, etc.   When Israel ignores this, then compromise sets in.   We need at least one day in our week that set aside for nothing other than GOD and family.   When we don’t our relationships fracture and weaken.  Both with each other and with GOD.   Nehemiah saw this and made changes.   He literally laid down the law.   He placed men he trusted at the gates and shut the city down on the sabbath and threatened those that waited for the gates to open with arrest if they kept doing it.   Did it affect the city financially?   Probably.   Was it a popular rule?  Probably not, especially with those that weren’t Jewish and didn’t matter to them.   Nehemiah was more concerned about the spiritual and moral shape of the people then he was of the financial ramifications.   A leader has to be concerned first with his peoples spiritual condition and then the rest will follow.

Now we come to the second pause in the narrative: “ Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.”  A request for mercy according to GOD’s great love.   Why ask for Mercy?   Good question.   It’s tough being a leader, mistakes happen.   He is asking for GOD not so much for forgiveness but for a blessing that only GOD can give. He acknowledges once again that he can only do this through GOD’s help

Now we come to the last of the three big compromises that Nehemiah faced upon his return.

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?”

28 One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me.

29 Remember them, my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites.

30 So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task. 31 I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the first fruits.

This was a moral compromise.    Intermarriage.   Now, don’t get me wrong here, it’s not about race.   It’s about being separate from those that don’t have the same faith.   It was about a moral compromise that so easily sets into a people because it has to do with the heart.   We can’t help who we fall for, well, for the most part.   When Nehemiah wasn’t there, and the leadership in place didn’t seem to notice,then the people started looking out to the neighboring people who didn’t share their beliefs and values.   When someone you’re connected to romantically or in marriage doesn’t share your beliefs and values, it’s difficult to maintain yours.   GOD knows this, Nehemiah knew this, and there are many examples historically in Israel’s past, and Nehemiah points this out.   Again, Nehemiah goes ballistic, to the point of actually beating men.  He took such a stand, that he even exiled one of the sons of the High Priest who had married the daughter of his other greatest rival, Sanballat.  Now, this is a bit of irony.   In the beginning of the chapter, we read how Tobiah had wormed his way in, now we see that Sanballat had an in with the Israelites.  The two men from chapter two who had been Nehemiah’s greatest opposition, were now able to wield power and influence on the priesthood during his absence.   No wonder Nehemiah went ballistic.  Again, a leader has to take a stand.   Historically we can go back and see who was in charge during his absence, but we can’t see how the politics and the maneuvering of the circumstances that allowed these two men to be able to wield such influence.   It may have been gradual, a little favor here, a “gift” there.   An introduction to someone’s daughter.   When we compromise in our faith in just little ways, it leads to bigger compromises that gets us into trouble.  We tend to justify.   A leader has to be aware of this in his people, and in his own life and has to hold the line.   Leaders have to make the tough choices in their lives, so they can maintain the standard and hold their people to the standard

The third and final pause to the narrative: “Remember me with favor, my God.”  This is how Nehemiah ends this portion of his life, this chapter which is the final one in this book.   Remember me with favor, my GOD.   As he closes this chapter of his life he simply wishes for GOD’s favor.  His life is far from over, but this chapter is, this book is.   The BIBLE doesn’t give us a narrative of Nehemiah’s life after this, we could probably look to Josephus or another Jewish historian to find the remainder of Nehemiah’s life, but for now, for this book and chapter, we have an ending.  His last words are for GOD to remember him with favor.   He’s not so much worried if men remember him, but he want’s GOD’s favor.   That’s the biggest lesson for a leader.   To desire GOD’s favor over everyone elses.   Chapters and books open and close in our lives, how do we want to be remembered?  What legacy do we want to leave?   It would be nice if the legacy we leave is fondly remembered by those we served and led, but it’s more important that the legacy we leave is a legacy built upon seeking GOD’s mercy and favor.

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