By Sam E. Stone
The conclusion of the book of Nehemiah emphasizes how reform happens. James E. Smith observes, “Once again the reading of Scripture had driven home to the Jews the obligation to be holy unto Yahweh. The prohibition here enjoined (Nehemiah 13:1-3) was not absolute. It was religious, not ethnic. Those who embraced in faith the God of Israel, like Ruth the Moabitess, could find a very different reception in Israel.”
Nehemiah 13 describes a time somewhat removed from the first chapters. Nehemiah has now returned to Jerusalem from his homeland (v. 6-9). While some feel he had been gone for about 18 months, others think it could have been up to 12 years. Scripture does not tell us.
One of the temple requirements that Nehemiah had put in place early on was the use of storerooms to contain the “contributions, first-fruits and tithes” (see 12:44-47). When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, he discovered that this had been changed. Eliashib did evil when he provided Tobiah with a room in the courts of the house of God (13:7). Prior to Nehemiah’s trip, this area had been used to store the offerings, temple articles, and the tithes. No longer! Upon returning Nehemiah ordered Tobiah’s household goods out of the room and gave orders to purify the area, returning the rooms to their original purpose in the house of God (v. 9).
Nehemiah’s question echoed through the streets of Jerusalem: “Why is the house of God neglected?” By forsaking their duties, the priests had backslidden, not serving in the Lord’s temple. Keith Schoville notes, “Religious leadership in Jerusalem weakened after the departure of Nehemiah, and Ezra may have died; we have no further mention of him in the narrative. This allowed the people to treat lightly the covenant responsibilities they had sworn to fulfill (10:37-39). Acting decisively, Nehemiah called the laboring Levites back to Jerusalem and their duties, even before the flow of contributions returned.”
All of the Old Testament emphasizes the observance of the Sabbath (see Genesis 2:2; Exodus 16:23-29; 31:14-16; 35:2, 3; Numbers 15:32-36). The prophets warned against desecrating the Sabbath (see Amos 8:5; Isaiah 58:13, 14; Jeremiah 17:19-27). The Sabbath began at sundown on Friday and continued until sundown on Saturday. Nehemiah found, however, that traders were bringing loads of grain, fruit, and other things into the city of Jerusalem during this period. He offered a stern warning (Nehemiah 13:15). C. F. Keil observes, “Nehemiah reproved the nobles of Judah for this profanation of the Sabbath, reminding them how their fathers (forefathers) by such acts . . .
had brought upon the people and the city great evil.” They were now increasing their guilt, adding to the wrath on Israel.
Nehemiah met this sin head-on. He ordered the gates of the city closed just before dark on the Sabbath. In addition, he stationed some of his own servants at the gates to prevent any people entering with items to sell or trade. As governor, he had the legal (as well as the moral) authority to do this. Those who tried to press their luck and spend the night just outside the wall were given a single warning; “If you do this again, I will arrest you.” They got the message!
Once more Nehemiah directed the Levites to purify themselves and then guard the gates to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath. From this point on, no one would be permitted to buy or sell on that day of the week. God’s people were to be a new creation, not falling again into the trap of selfishness and disobedience.
Today’s printed text concludes with the ninth of 11 prayers mentioned in this book. (The others are 1:5-11; 2:4b; 4:4, 5; 4:9; 5:19; 6:9b; 6:14; 13:14; 13:29; and 13:31b). Nehemiah called on God to remember his faithful deeds in a difficult time. One Bible teacher observed, “Here Nehemiah acknowledges that his salvation is dependent upon the greatness of God’s loving kindness, and not on the multiplicity of his good deeds. The doctrine of God’s grace in the Old Testament is often tragically overlooked.”
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.