Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 13 Background Reading: Joshua 23:4–13
As we begin our study of Nehemiah 13, we are immediately confronted with a controversy. Our English Standard Version opens with the phrase, “On that day they read from the book of Moses.” What day was that? When did that reading from the Law occur? Commentaries are widely split on the answer. Some want to insist that this particular day occurred when Nehemiah came back to Jerusalem after having gone back to Persia to report on his work to King Artaxerxes. These commentaries want to connect the reading of the Law with the variety of evils against which Nehemiah is complaining in the rest of the chapter. Adopting that meaning would suggest that this reading occurred in 432 BC, thirteen or fourteen years after the dedication of the walls and the city.
Other commentaries want to place this reading of the Law soon after the dedication ceremony that is recorded for us in Nehemiah 12. I prefer this conclusion for a number of reasons. First, the dedication ceremony was a time where all the people had been gathered in Jerusalem and were moved spiritually by this most impressive event. Second, the dedication event was led, in part, by Ezra, who was commissioned for that task and had led such readings of the Law earlier. He had encountered a similar sinful practice before Nehemiah had arrived on the scene and had dealt with it properly (see Ezra 10:18–44; Neh. 8:1–3). Ezra is the scribe who was the most logical leader of that event. He does not appear anywhere in Nehemiah 13. Third, the language of Nehemiah 13:1 is identical to that of Nehemiah 12:44, which did occur soon after the dedication. Fourth, the reading of the Law and the “separation from Israel all those of foreign descent” is in harmony with the dedication ceremony and is contrary to the work of Eliashib the priest, as recorded in Nehemiah 13:4.
Commentaries are generally agreed that Nehemiah served two different terms as governor of Jerusalem and Judea. The first term was from 445 BC to 433 BC, twelve years. The second term is of indefinite origin and length. Nehemiah tells us that “in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I went to the king. And after some time I asked leave of the king and came to Jerusalem” (Neh. 13:6–7). The length of time back in the capital of Persia is not given, but it is evident that many of these evil practices sprang up while he was away from Jerusalem. That situation reminds us of the old adage, “The mice will play while the cat is away.” While he was in Jerusalem, Nehemiah demonstrated that he was an aggressive, no-nonsense, godly leader. He had boldly challenged the large landowners and the nobles for their shoddy treatment of the poor (Neh. 5). He had masterminded the work of rebuilding the wall, equipping the builders with military tools while working. He had successfully thwarted the conspiracies of Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem who had wanted him killed (Neh. 6).
Given that outstanding record of faithful leadership, it is apparent that much of the evil described in Nehemiah 13 occurred while he was away from Jerusalem. That is confirmed by the phrase “now before this” (Neh. 13:4) and “While this was taking place, I was not in Jerusalem” (Neh. 13:6). Absence of strong leadership, or the presence of weak leadership, contributes to the spread of evil and disobedience. This remnant of Israel, living in Jerusalem, is demonstrating an inclination to sin. All humans, including all those within the church, are inclined by nature to hate God and his laws. Apart from the redeeming grace of God, all humans are enemies of the Lord. The saddest aspect of this chapter is that the evil is being fostered by the high priest Eliashiib (Neh. 3:1). He was the grandson of Jeshua, the high priest who led the first migration in 538 BC with Zerubbabel. He was also related by marriage to Tobiah, who was an Ammonite ruler who had married an Israelite woman. The high priest should have been very familiar with all the conflict that had been caused by Tobiah, Sanballat, and Geshem earlier. He allowed familial relationships to trump divine commandment.
By divine edict, no Ammonite or Moabite male might enter the tabernacle or the temple. This was clearly stipulated in Mosaic law (Deut. 23:3–6) and had been reinforced recently in Nehemiah 10:28–30. The people of Jerusalem, under Ezra’s capable leadership, had committed themselves to obeying God’s laws and had agreed to the annulment of 111 offenders, even though this meant separating husbands and wives from each other and from their children (Ezra 10:18–44).
Eliashib not only violates those commands, but also he offers Tobiah a “large chamber” in the “house of our God,” that is, the temple. Judging from Nehemiah’s almost violent reaction, such an event would never have occurred while Nehemiah was actively serving as governor. The placement of Tobiah’s “office” is specified: “where they had previously put the grain offering, the frankincense, the vessels, and the tithes of grain, wine, and oil” (Neh. 13:5). All of these contributions were intended for the Levites, singers, gatekeepers, and the priests. In somewhat typical fashion, Nehemiah demonstrates his anger by throwing out all the household furniture of Tobiah. Then he had the temple cleansed and brought back all the items that rightfully belonged in that part of the temple. The implication of Tobiah setting up housekeeping for himself and his family in the temple illustrates an utter disdain for Jehovah. The high priest should never have allowed this travesty to happen, but he, too, shows no fear of a righteous, holy God.
A second evil that had occurred while Nehemiah was back in the Persian capital was in the failure to provide payment for the Levites and singers. At the conclusion of Nehemiah 12, we find that the people of Jerusalem had been faithful in providing for the support of these workers in temple service. Ever since the time of Zerubbabel, payment had been willingly and joyfully provided. Earlier, when the nobility had been governed by selfish motives and had caused real hardship, the governor himself had contributed generously from his own resources. He lists those contributions as “1000 darics of gold, 50 basins, 30 priests’ garments, and 500 minas of silver” (Neh. 7:70). The message was crystal clear: you must make certain that all those workers in the temple must be paid adequately and regularly. Do not shortchange the ministers of God! Nehemiah responds appropriately by appointing specific, capable, reliable men to oversee this aspect of kingdom work.
A third evil that has become prevalent is that of Sabbath desecration. In the fourth commandment God had specified that all of his people were to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exod. 20:8–10). Punishment for violating that law was death, even for a simple infraction like picking up sticks (Num. 15:32–36). Nehemiah now, some hundreds of years later, reminds the people that this violation of God’s law was one of the primary reasons why God had sent Nebuchadnezzar as his enforcer against Judah and Jerusalem almost two centuries earlier (Neh. 13:18). During the time of the Babylonian captivity, the prophet Ezekiel had also made this one of his prominent concerns. Ezekiel emphasizes the importance of Sabbath observance by making it the third sign of the covenant (Ezek. 20:12, 20). That message from Ezekiel had been particularly aimed at the remnant who was returning to Jerusalem in that first wave of migrants in 538 BC.
Nehemiah gives us some detailed descriptions of the various ways that God’s law was being broken. A number of his examples refer to commercial activities normally performed during the week. Treading winepresses, loading donkeys, bringing garden produce into the city markets, and bartering for fresh fish were all ordinary weekly activities. But none of that was to be allowed on the Sabbath. Regrettably, the people did not care. They did it anyway. None of this was secret. The people were boldly engaging in commerce, on the Sabbath day, in Jerusalem itself. Again, this demonstrates an absolute disdain for God’s law. True to form, Nehemiah boldly confronts the nobles, reminding them of God’s wrath against sin. He calls to mind God’s wrath against Jerusalem, resulting in the seventy years of captivity.
True to form again, the governor takes quick, responsible action. He demands that the gates into the city be shut before the Sabbath began and not opened until after the Sabbath had passed. He places guards at the gates to make certain that no one tries to enter. True to form, some of the merchants protested by camping outside the gates with their wares. They tried this “once or twice,” but the governor threatens them by promising “to lay hands on them” (Neh. 13:31). This produced the desired results, but that was not the end of the matter. Up to this point, the offense could have been considered strictly as an economic matter. That would leave the wrong impression. So, to make certain that Sabbath desecration was recognized as a spiritual matter, Nehemiah commands the Levites to make it a part of their regular, weekly assignment. The ministerial class, not the nobility, is to make certain that the Sabbath is kept holy. Any merchant approaching the city gates as the Sabbath approached would be met by Levites, not armed with clubs or spears but with the Word of God.
A fourth evil that Nehemiah has to deal with is that of intermarriage between believers and unbelievers. This, too, was an age-old problem, traced back at least to Judah, who cohabited with a Canaanite woman and produced at least three sons with her (Gen. 38:1–5). When the first wave of migrants went from Persia to Jerusalem in 538 BC, the ratio of men to women was heavily favored to the male side (Ezra 2:64). That resulted in hundreds of men finding pagan women delightful and marrying them. Among those were a number of Levites, who were supposed to remain holy and pure. Ezra 9 and Ezra 10 are devoted to resolving those issues, with annulments being demanded of 111 priests and Levites. During Nehemiah’s first term as governor, that had also become a problem. Reference to that situation is found in Nehemiah 10:28–29. Now, when Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem for his second stint as governor, that evil again raises its ugly head. What caught his attention were children who could not speak the Hebrew language but were fluent in the language of Ashdod (Neh. 13:24). In typical fashion, the governor “confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair” (Neh. 13:25). The “hair” is probably a reference to fathers’ beards and not to the hair of the children. In contrast to an earlier but similar problem, Ezra pulled the hair from his own head and beard (Ezra 9:3–40). Nehemiah is more inclined to violent reactions, but he is also very godly. Then he makes them take an oath that the Israelites would no longer allow such patterns to develop.
During the same historical period, the prophet Malachi is living in Jerusalem and confronts this very problem. Malachi treats this sin as a “profaning of the covenant” and asks God to “cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant of the man who does this” (Mal. 2:12). This same prophet warns the people that their Messiah will be coming, not like a tiny baby in a manger but as a “refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap” (Mal. 2:2–3). In harmony with Nehemiah’s final chapter, the last prophet of the Old Testament era, Malachi, leaves the reader with a message of recurrent evil, of repetitious violation of God’s laws, and of impending judgment. Yes, the Anointed One will come as a Savior from sins, of which there are many, but he will also come as a Sanctifier who will refine and purify his people. God’s people not only need to be saved from their sins; they also need to be sanctified, made holy.
As you finish studying the book of Nehemiah, are you surprised or disappointed at the somewhat negative conclusion?
Are you comfortable with my conclusion that the opening verses of Nehemiah 13 are more appropriately connected to the end of Nehemiah 12? Defend your answer.
Are you disappointed in the actions of Eliashib in the appointing of Tobiah to a temple office? What motivated the high priest to make such a commitment?
Why is (and was) God so emphatic in prohibiting marriage between believers and unbelievers? What sins would probably accrue to such marriages? What warnings did Joshua offer before he died (Josh. 23:4–13)?
Why is God so emphatic in prohibiting idolatry (see Exod. 34:13–14)? Does God’s command to “tear down their altars” apply to us today?
Muslim fanatics are known to destroy Christian church buildings and to remove crosses wherever they find them. What is their rationale? Are they justified in doing such?
If Mormons set up a statue of Joseph Smith in a neighboring park, should you try to have it removed? How does the petition “thy kingdom come” apply to such a situation?
As you reflect, what are some of the important truths you have learned from these studies on Nehemiah?
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.