"Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for its services!" (Nehemiah 13:14).
What would someone need to do in order to drift off course in his or her relationship with God? Well for many people, the answer is often nothing.
For instance, lets take the example of a Christian who no longer prays, reads the Scriptures, or attends church regularly. If someone begins to neglect his or her relationship with Christ in this manner, it then becomes relatively easy to drift off with the current of a world that has rejected its Creator.
A person in this position may not intend to drift away from God; its just something that happens gradually over time- and much like the chameleon that assumes the characteristics of its environment, there eventually may be little left to distinguish such individuals from those who have little use for Jesus or His teachings.
This may be why the New Testament book of Acts tells us that the early church adopted four important disciplines...
"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42 NIV).
This passage identifies four key areas for spiritual growth: prayer, Bible study (the apostles' teaching), communion (breaking of bread), and regular church attendance (the fellowship). A person who honors God in these four areas is someone who is in the best position to grow spiritually and live the kind of life that makes a positive eternal impact.
Unfortunately, Nehemiah chapter thirteen will go on to demonstrate the risks associated with this kind of spiritual negligence in an Old Testament context. Following the triumphal celebration of Nehemiah chapter twelve, we'll learn that Nehemiah subsequently returned to Persia (presumably to resume his duties as the royal cupbearer) just as he had earlier promised to do (Nehemiah 2:6).
However, it appears that some decidedly negative changes took place in Jerusalem during his absence- and the majority of this final chapter will be devoted to Nehemiah's return to Jerusalem and his efforts to deal with the effects of the spiritual neglect that had taken place while he was gone. As one source observes, "When Nehemiah once again returned to Judah... he faced a task that in some respects must have been even more difficult than rebuilding the wall." (1)
But before we get to this account of Nehemiah's departure and return, the opening verses of Nehemiah chapter thirteen provide us with an opportunity to take an extended look at one of the more unsavory characters in Biblical history.
(1) John F. Walvoord, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament Nehemiah 12:42b-133 pg 694
"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, 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" (Nehemiah 13:1-2).
The opening verses of Nehemiah thirteen makes special mention of a man named Balaam, a person who is perhaps best known for once engaging in a conversation with a talking donkey. While that particular episode from Balaam's life tends to attract the most attention, a closer look at the account of this important Biblical personality is certain to yield a number of valuable lessons that modern-day readers would do well to observe.
The primary account of Balaam's life can be found within the Old Testament book of Numbers. At that point in Biblical history, the people of Israel were traveling through an area of land that was possessed by a people group known as the Amorites. Having already defeated two Amorite kings along with their armies (see Numbers 21:21-35), the Israelites next approached the region of Moab, a territory that was ruled by another king named Balak.
When Balak was informed of what Israel had done to his now-former neighbors, he was understandably concerned that a similar fate might await him- and the Scriptures record his assessment of the situation at hand...
"Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was exceedingly afraid of the people because they were many, and Moab was sick with dread because of the children of Israel... And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time.
Then he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying: 'Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed'" (Numbers 22:2-6).
We'll take a look at Balaam's response to this emergency request next.
"...(they) hired Balaam to call down a curse on them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing" (Nehemiah 13:2).
After receiving a summons from the ambassadors of a Moabite leader named Balak, Balaam offered the following response...
"'...Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me.' So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam. Then God came to Balaam and said, 'Who are these men with you?' So Balaam said to God, 'Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, 'Look, a people has come out of Egypt, and they cover the face of the earth. Come now, curse them for me; perhaps I shall be able to overpower them and drive them out.'
And God said to Balaam, 'You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.' So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, 'Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to give me permission to go with you'" (Numbers 22:8-13).
Unfortunately, it appears that Balaam could not leave well enough alone...
"Then Balak again sent princes, more numerous and more honorable than they. And they came to Balaam and said to him, 'Thus says Balak the son of Zippor: 'Please let nothing hinder you from coming to me; for I will certainly honor you greatly, and I will do whatever you say to me. Therefore please come, curse this people for me.'
Then Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, 'Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more. Now therefore, please, you also stay here tonight, that I may know what more the Lord will say to me.'
And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, 'If the men come to call you, rise and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you — that you shall do.' So Balaam rose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab" (Numbers 22:15-21).
Notice that God placed a qualification on Balaam's permission to leave:
"If the men come to call you, rise and go with them."
However, the following verse tells us that Balaam apparently prepared to depart without any
additional motivation from his guests. (1) Perhaps Balaam was a little too
eager to seek a financial reward for cursing those whom God had chosen to
bless- and that may help to explain what happened next.
(1) Many translations render the Lord's message to Balaam in Numbers 20:20 as a response to something that had already occurred. The HCSB offers one such example: "Since these men have come to summon you, get up and go with them..." Nevertheless, a look at the original language seems to indicate that God's approval of Balaam's departure was clearly conditional. See http://biblehub.com/interlinear/numbers/22-20.htm
"...they paid money to Balaam to curse Israel, but our God turned the curse into a blessing" (Nehemiah 13:2 GNB).
Its been said that people often hear what they wish to hear and disregard everything else. Such may be the case with the account of Balaam referenced here in Nehemiah chapter thirteen.
When Moabite ambassadors approached Balaam with a request to pronounce a curse upon Israel, God granted His permission on one condition: "If the men come to call you, rise up and go with them..." (Numbers 22:20 AMP). However, the following verse tells us, "When he got up in the morning, Balaam saddled his donkey and went with the officials of Moab" (HCSB).
Balaam's apparent eagerness to curse God's people in the pursuit of a financial reward may help to explain God's response in the following verses...
"Then God's anger was aroused because he went, and the Angel of the Lord took His stand in the way as an adversary against him... Now the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand, and the donkey turned aside out of the way and went into the field. So Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back onto the road.
Then the Angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on this side and a wall on that side. And when the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord, she pushed herself against the wall and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall; so he struck her again.
Then the Angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place where there was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam's anger was aroused, and he struck the donkey with his staff.
Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, 'What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?' And Balaam said to the donkey, 'Because you have abused me. I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!'" (Numbers 22:22-29).
The only thing more amazing than a talking donkey may be the fact that Balaam engaged in a conversation with this animal as if there was nothing unusual about it. Unfortunately for Balaam, we'll soon find that this talking donkey possessed more common sense than he did.
"...they even hired Balaam to work against them by cursing them, but our God turned the curse into a blessing" (Nehemiah 13:2 MSG).
Would you enter a conversation with a talking donkey as if there was nothing strange or unusual about it? Well, that's a situation that a magician/prophet named Balaam faced according to the Old Testament book of Numbers.
When Balaam's donkey refused to carry him towards the Angel of the Lord armed with a drawn sword (Numbers 22:22-29), Balaam reacted by repeatedly striking the animal with his staff. In response, Balaam's donkey confronted him with a perfectly logical question...
"So the donkey said to Balaam, 'Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?' And he said, 'No.' Then the Lord opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand; and he bowed his head and fell flat on his face.
And the Angel of the Lord said to him, 'Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to stand against you, because your way is perverse before Me. The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times. If she had not turned aside from Me, surely I would also have killed you by now, and let her live.'
And Balaam said to the Angel of the Lord, 'I have sinned, for I did not know You stood in the way against me. Now therefore, if it displeases You, I will turn back.' Then the Angel of the Lord said to Balaam, 'Go with the men, but only the word that I speak to you, that you shall speak.' So Balaam went with the princes of Balak" (Numbers 22:30-35).
Upon his arrival, King Balak greeted Balaam with a reception that was somewhat less than cordial: "'Why did you delay so long?… Didn't you believe me when I said I would give you great honors?' Balaam replied, 'I have come, but I have no power to say anything except what God tells me to say; and that is what I shall speak'" (Numbers 22:37-38 TLB).
So Balak proceeded to escort Balaam to a mountainous area that allowed him to observe the people of Israel encamped below (Numbers 22:41). But while Balak sought to recruit a prophet who could neutralize the threat presented by the people of Israel, we're about to find that he received something else entirely.
"...they hired Balaam to curse them, though our God turned the curse into a blessing" (Nehemiah 13:2 NLT).
As the people of Israel approached the region of Moab, a Moabite king named Balak enlisted the aid of a prophet named Balaam to pronounce a curse upon them according to Old Testament book of Numbers. But instead of invoking a curse upon the Israelites, God provided Balaam with a declaration of great blessing instead (Numbers 23:1-10).
As you might expect, Balak was highly displeased by this development...
"'What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and look, you have blessed them bountifully!' So he answered and said, 'Must I not take heed to speak what the Lord has put in my mouth?' Then Balak said to him, 'Please come with me to another place from which you may see them; you shall see only the outer part of them, and shall not see them all; curse them for me from there'" (Numbers 23:11-13).
This change of scenery had little effect for God went on to provide Balaam with a message of divine favor once more (see Numbers 23:14-24). Nevertheless, Balak was not willing to give up so easily: "Then Balak said to Balaam, 'Please come, I will take you to another place; perhaps it will please God that you may curse them for me from there'" (Numbers 23:27).
So Balaam accompanied Balak to a third location where the Spirit of God moved him to pronounce a blessing that ended with an echo of God's message to Abraham from Genesis 12:3: "Blessed is he who blesses you, And cursed is he who curses you" (Numbers 24:1-9).
It was at that point that Balak's patience finally came to an end...
"Then Balak's anger was aroused against Balaam, and he struck his hands together; and Balak said to Balaam,'I called you to curse my enemies, and look, you have bountifully blessed them these three times! Now therefore, flee to your place. I said I would greatly honor you, but in fact, the Lord has kept you back from honor.'
So Balaam said to Balak, 'Did I not also speak to your messengers whom you sent to me, saying, 'If Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of the Lord, to do good or bad of my own will. What the Lord says, that I must speak'"? (Numbers 24:10-13).
While this reply may appear to offer a fitting conclusion, Balaam's seemingly God-honoring response will later be exposed as nothing but a facade.
"...they had paid Balaam to say a curse against the Israelites. But our God changed that curse and made it a blessing for us" (Nehemiah 13:2 ERV).
It seems that Balaam had considerably more interest in obtaining a reward for cursing the nation of Israel than it may appear from the account found in the Old Testament book of Numbers.
For example, Deuteronomy 23:4-5 tells us that the people of Moab and Ammon "...hired Balaam to put a curse on you. But the Lord your God loves you, so he refused to listen to Balaam and turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing" (CEV). This implies that Balaam did attempt to curse the people of Israel at some point despite God's stated refusal to allow him to do so.
A far more disturbing revelation concerning Balaam is contained within Jesus' message to the church of Pergamum in the final book of the Bible: "…I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality" (Revelation 2:14).
Based on this information, we can draw the following conclusion: since Balaam was prohibited from cursing the nation of Israel, he apparently advised Balak on an indirect method that would achieve a similar result. The idea was that the people of Israel might be prompted to invite God's judgment upon themselves though the practice of idolatry and sexual immorality, thereby neutralizing the danger they posed to his nation.
By presenting this alternate plan, Balaam provided Balak with a viable alternative: "If we can't get God to curse the people, then perhaps its possible to get the people to invoke God's judgment upon themselves." Not coincidentally, here is the Biblical account that immediately follows Balaam's departure from Balak...
"Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel" (Numbers 25:1-3).
So while Balaam was initially prohibited from collecting on Balak's promised reward, he was presumably well-compensated for his efforts in showing "...Balak how to cause the people of Israel to sin by eating food offered to idols and by taking part in sexual sins" (NCV). Unfortunately for Balaam, he wouldn't have much time left to enjoy any compensation he may have received for his efforts.
"...they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, that he should curse them: howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing" (Nehemiah 13:2 KJV).
So what can we learn and apply from the Biblical account of Balaam's life? Well, Balaam is someone who can be viewed in a number of different ways...
To paraphrase one commentator, Balaam was a man who merchandised a spiritual gift for personal gain. (1) While Balaam was undeniably gifted in his abilities, he chose to allow other priorities to influence the use of his God-given gifts in an inappropriate manner. (2) Therefore, his example should prompt us to consider the manner in which we are utilizing our own gifts, talents, skills, and abilities today.
Its also clear that Balaam possessed insight into the potential weaknesses of the Israelites and used that insight against them. To some degree, what was true for Balaam is also true for us, for we may also possess certain insights into the strengths and weaknesses of others that might be used to harm or benefit them as well.
This should serve to remind us that fallible human beings are rarely everything they seem to be, and our insights regarding the hidden weaknesses of others should prompt us to pray for their benefit. Remember that the people of Moab saw the nation of Israel as an unstoppable force but Balaam knew better. If Balaam had used his insight to seek Israel's benefit, he surely would have been remembered in a far different manner.
The final application from Balaam's life can be gleaned from the account of his death. You see, Balaam's demise is recorded within chapter thirty-one of the Old Testament book of Numbers, a portion of Scripture that records Israel's war against the people of Midian. In the course of describing Israel's defeat of five Midianite kings, Numbers 31:8 contains a statement that almost seems to be something of an afterthought: "They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword."
Balaam's death reminds us that judgment always comes, either in this life or the next. As we're reminded in Romans 2:6, God "will render to each one according to his deeds."
(1) Hampton J. Keathley, 3rd, Studies in Revelation Lesson 7 The Way of Balaam pg. 67
(2) A similar example can be seen in the actions of Shemaiah from earlier within the book of Nehemiah.
"So it was, when they had heard the Law, that they separated all the mixed multitude from Israel" (Nehemiah 3:3).
If you were a person of non-Israelite descent living in Jerusalem during this period (or a member of the mixed multitude as described here), the decision to exclude foreign nationals from the assembly of Israel represented a moment of truth.
For those who had declined the opportunity to follow the God of Israel, this decision meant that they were now prohibited from further interaction with the people of God. In a practical sense, this action served to clearly differentiate those who followed the one true God and those who had rejected Him.
Nevertheless, it was still possible for those of foreign descent to join together with God's people- if they were truly committed to doing so. To understand what that commitment entailed, we need look no further than the Biblical account of a Moabite woman named Ruth.
Ruth and her Israelite mother-in-law were widows who lived in the region of Moab. When Ruth's mother-in-law decided to return to Israel, Ruth responded in the following manner...
"...Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you" (Ruth 1:16-17).
Ruth's commitment to her mother-in-law extended to her place of residence, her family, her culture, and even her final resting place. But more importantly, Ruth's vow contained a critical spiritual element as well: "...your God will be my God" (CEV). In taking on this obligation, Ruth made a decision to renounce her previous life and commit herself to following the God of the Scriptures.
Ruth's decision involved forsaking the gods of her former life in exchange for a relationship with the one true God. This was also the kind of commitment that would enable those of foreign descent to continue in fellowship with the people of Israel here in Nehemiah chapter thirteen.
In light of this, we can say that this decision to exclude those of foreign descent was not based on things like prejudice, bigotry, or racism. It was based on the Scriptural mandate to separate from those who had willingly chosen to follow a different spiritual direction.
Despite its seemingly all-encompassing nature however, it appears that this edict did not apply to all such foreigners. That included one particular individual who was already well-known to Nehemiah.
"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" (Nehemiah 13:4-5).
We first met Eliashib back in Nehemiah chapter three where he was identified for us as the High Priest. In his capacity as High Priest, Eliashib was a man who held the position of highest spiritual authority among the people of Israel. He was also someone who was closely associated with another person who was introduced to us earlier within the book of Nehemiah- Tobiah the Ammonite.
You may recall that Tobiah was someone who repeatedly attempted to interfere with Nehemiah's efforts to reconstruct Jerusalem's wall. His motivation for doing was given to us in Nehemiah 2:10 where we were told that he was "...displeased that someone had come to help the people of Israel" (NLT).
Tobiah began his relentless campaign to obstruct the Jerusalem rebuilding
project by insulting Nehemiah and speculating that he
and his co-laborers might be guilty of sedition (2:19). Later on, Tobiah worked
to engineer a conspiracy to prevent that work from moving forward (Nehemiah chapter
When that plan failed, he next used the pretext of a meeting at a remote location in an attempt to remove Nehemiah from the reconstruction effort (6:1-9). Tobiah then proceeded to bribe a prophet in an effort to lure Nehemiah into an act of self-incrimination (6:10-14). After that, he undertook a letter-writing campaign to frighten Nehemiah and derail the rebuilding project (6:17-19).
As governor, Nehemiah might have been justified in taking steps to deport Tobiah in light of these actions. One reason to explain why he had chosen to avoid doing so might be found in his respect for Eliashib as the High Priest, among other reasons. Nevertheless, we'll soon find that any respect that Nehemiah may have held for Eliashib in this regard had its limits.
The "storerooms" mentioned in this passage may tend to generate the image of a closet or other relatively small storage area. However, we should note that the section given to Tobiah represented a large room or "great chamber" (KJV). Less obvious is the fact that this storeroom was available for Tobiah's personal use to begin with. We'll see why this area may have been available in due course.
"But during all this I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Then after certain days I obtained leave from the king, 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" (Nehemiah 13:6:7).
Nehemiah was originally released from his position as the king's cupbearer and granted permission to depart for Jerusalem with the understanding that he would later return at a specific point in time (see Nehemiah 2:6). By examining the various chronological details provided within the book of Nehemiah (such as the one found here in Nehemiah 13:6), scholars have determined that Nehemiah served a ten to twelve year tour of duty that lasted from approximately 445 B.C. to about 433 B.C.
Yet even though Nehemiah had fulfilled his initial objective, it seems that his love for the city of Jerusalem prompted him to seek permission to revisit the city once again. The king graciously approved his request but following his return, Nehemiah was clearly displeased to learn about what had transpired in his absence.
Nehemiah's initial area of concern involved the action taken by Eliashib in providing a room for Tobiah within the Temple area. We should notice that Nehemiah did not consider Eliashib's decision to be simply a matter of questionable judgment- he characterized his decision as "evil".
In the early stages of the Jerusalem rebuilding project, Eliashib and his colleagues had set a God-honoring example for others to follow (see Nehemiah 3:1). Unfortunately, his good example did not extend to the area of personal relationships- and in forming an alliance with a man like Tobiah, Eliashib had aligned himself with someone who was clearly unconcerned with Jerusalem's best interests.
Although the use of a converted storeroom may seem inconsequential, we should stop to remember that Tobiah wasn't given a spare room in an average residential home- he was provided with a place to live within the court of the house of God. While this may have been permissible for a priest, a Levite, or other God-honoring Israelite, Tobiah was someone who had actively campaigned against those who sought the well-being of the people of Israel.
This action also reflected poorly upon Eliashib's personal judgment. As High Priest, Eliashib was responsible for representing God at the highest level and his decision to provide a room in the Temple area for someone who had worked extensively to derail God's agenda was highly questionable. Therefore, it was left to Nehemiah to address the situation.
"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" (Nehemiah 13:8-9).
When faced with the news that an adversary of God's people had been provided with living quarters within the Temple courts, Nehemiah responded with direct action. He did not establish a task force or appoint an advisory committee to study the situation and recommend an appropriate course of action. In effect, Nehemiah said, "This situation is inappropriate and I am going to take immediate steps to address it."
He first began by evicting Tobiah and depositing the contents of his now-former residence on the curb. He then went on to decontaminate that area, an action that may have involved both a physical and ceremonial purification. Finally, Nehemiah proceeded to return this storeroom to the use for which it had been intended.
While the Scriptures do not provide us with Tobiah's response to this forced relocation, its not difficult to imagine the embarrassment and humiliation that he must have felt as the contents of his home were removed, presumably for all to see. For a man of prominence like Tobiah, this dismissal must have represented a tremendous personal disgrace. Nehemiah 13:8 represents the final time that Tobiah will be mentioned within the Scriptures and his expulsion from the Temple courts represents a fitting end for this avowed enemy of God's people.
That leaves us to consider the High Priest's role in this incident. Much like
Tobiah, the Scriptures do not provide us with a description of Eliashib's response
to Nehemiah's decision but it is possible to make a few inferences.
For instance, Eliashib's reputation as a minister was certainly not enhanced by his decision to provide Tobiah with a room within the Temple area or by Nehemiah's subsequent efforts to reverse what he had done. Its easy to imagine the reports that must have circulated among the residents of Jerusalem as they discussed how Nehemiah had overruled the High Priest's decision regarding Tobiah.
In a related manner, others also make comparable judgments about God's leaders and God's people today, especially in our modern social media age of posts, "likes," "tweets," and "follows." Eliashib's decision should prompt us to consider how we might avoid representing God in a similarly unwise manner.
Unfortunately for Nehemiah, Tobiah was not the only problem that he encountered upon his return to Jerusalem.XIII
"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" (Nehemiah 13:10).
The next issue on Nehemiah's agenda concerned the lack of support for Jerusalem's spiritual leadership. When the people of Jerusalem began to neglect their commitment to support their spiritual leaders (see Nehemiah 10:35-39), those who had previously served in full-time ministry could no longer afford to do so.
Since the Levitical leaders no longer received support from those whom they had served, they made the subsequent decision to return to an Old Testament version of secular employment. This may also help to explain why a storeroom was available for Tobiah's use within the Temple court- since the people had neglected to provide their support, there was little left to store within those storerooms.
This portion of Scripture serves to remind us that our choices often carry real-life consequences. You see, the actions that we choose to take (or not take) sometimes carry a substantial impact in the lives of others for better or for worse. In this instance, the people neglected to support their local ministers so their ministry ceased to function- that is, until Nehemiah stepped forward once again...
"So I contended with the rulers, and said, 'Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them together and set them in their place. 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" (Nehemiah 13:11-13).
So Nehemiah not only took steps to ensure that the people fulfilled their
commitment to support their spiritual leaders, he also took steps to ensure that
their support would be handled with honesty and integrity.
Those who were appointed to these positions of oversight were not chosen solely on the basis of their business acumen, leadership talent, or social standing within the community. Instead, they were chosen "...because they were considered trustworthy" (NIV).
The problem is that people who are genuinely trustworthy can
often be difficult to find, a reality that is acknowledged even within the
Scriptures: "Many people claim to be loyal, but it is hard to find a
trustworthy person" (Proverbs 20:6 NCV). Fortunately for Nehemiah,
we'll soon find that God blessed him with access to four such individuals.
"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" (Nehemiah 13:13 NIV).
Its interesting to note that Nehemiah selected four individuals from different walks of life to undertake the responsibility of overseeing these supplies: a priest, a scribe, a Levite, and a member of the general population. Each of these individuals carried a unique set of life experiences that would help ensure that a problem, issue, need, or concern that might be overlooked by a member of one group would be addressed by one or more of the others.
Yet despite their differences in background and individual perspectives, each of these four men held one particular quality in common: they were each reliable (ESV), trustworthy (HCSB), or faithful (KJV). As found in the original language, (1) the word used to describe these men expresses the idea of something that builds up or supports- and Nehemiah's reference to their standing as trustworthy individuals brings to mind something that Jesus once said as recorded within the Gospel of Luke...
"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money" (Luke 16:10-13 NIV).
Taken together, these Scriptures help illustrate the importance of faithfulness in attending to those areas of responsibility that we currently possess today. For the people mentioned here in Nehemiah 13:13, their shared reputation for integrity, dedication, and reliability was instrumental in their promotion to greater areas of recognition and responsibility. Those God-honoring characteristics were qualities that would serve to unite these men in spite of their varied backgrounds and job functions.
If we are similarly faithful in the areas of responsibility that we hold today, then perhaps God may move us on to greater areas of service as well, just as we see here within the book of Nehemiah.
(1) H539 aman, Strong’s Hebrew and Greek DictionariesXV
"Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for its services!" (Nehemiah 13:14).
From our 21st century vantage point, we may fail to fully appreciate the spiritual, political, social, and bureaucratic challenges that Nehemiah faced upon his return to Jerusalem.
For instance, consider the earlier incident that led to Tobiah's eviction from the home that Eliashib the High Priest had provided for him within the Temple complex. Remember that Eliashib served as a recognized spiritual authority while Tobiah was a man of social prominence within the Jerusalem community. Yet Nehemiah did not hesitate to forcibly cancel Eliashib's agreement with Tobiah in a strikingly transparent manner (Nehemiah 13:4-9).
Nehemiah also challenged the leading political figures of his day over their failure to ensure that Jerusalem's spiritual leaders were adequately supported (Nehemiah 13:10-13). The clear inference behind Nehemiah's reprimand was this: if these rulers had been properly engaged in attending to their leadership responsibilities, that lack of support would not have occurred. It was not until Nehemiah began to exert the political force necessary to address the situation that "...all Judah brought a tenth of the grain, new wine, and oil into the storehouses" (Nehemiah 13:12 HCSB).
In the first instance, Nehemiah's action called attention to a disturbing lack of perception and discernment held by a recognized (and highly visible) religious leader. It also brought personal embarrassment to a man who held a considerable number of political and social connections within that area. In the second instance, Nehemiah openly confronted Jerusalem's political leadership with an extremely uncomfortable question: "Why didn't you take care of God's Temple?" (Nehemiah 13:11 ERV).
These were the kinds of actions that were likely to lead to strained relations with a large number of prominent and influential people within that area- and they were actions that surely took an internal toll upon Nehemiah as well. Therefore, it should not be surprising to learn that Nehemiah turned to God in prayer in the midst of these difficult and challenging encounters.
Since it had now become clear that the reforms that he had previously instituted could quickly and easily become undone, Nehemiah issued a heartfelt plea for God's support and intervention to sustain his efforts: "Please remember me for this, O my God, and do not wipe out the kindness that I have done for the temple of my God and for its services!" (NET).XVI
"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. And I warned them about the day on which they were selling provisions" (Nehemiah 13:15).
The Sabbath rest, lasting from sunset on Friday evening to sunset on Saturday, was established by God as an observance to be kept by the Jewish people together with their servants, the resident foreigners who lived among them, and even their livestock (see Exodus 20:8-11). Unfortunately, Nehemiah encountered a flagrant disregard for this clear Scriptural commandment from the Old Testament Law.
At a foundational level, the issue involved had little to do with commerce- it had more to do with a matter of priorities. In this instance, the people of Israel had allowed other concerns to supplant their primary responsibility to honor God and His Word.
Now before we continue, its important to remember that there were three aspects to the Old Testament law: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The civil law defined lawful and unlawful activities and certain types of contractual arrangements. The ceremonial law related to an individual's relationship to God under the Old Covenant sacrificial system. The moral law explained the difference between right and wrong.
The New Testament books of Colossians and Galatians tell us that the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament law were fulfilled in Christ....
"So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality" (Colossians 2:16-17 NLV).
"Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor" (Galatians 3:24-25, see also Matthew 5:24 and Romans 10:4).
While these New Testament Scriptures clearly establish that we are no longer under the
same Old Testament Sabbath requirements as found within the book of Nehemiah, we
still maintain a moral obligation to honor God in regard to our economic
activities and other aspects of personal behavior.
Since the law provides us with the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20), this is part of what makes the principle of honoring God in our business endeavors just as valid today as it was in the time of Nehemiah.XVII
"Men of Tyre dwelt there also, who brought in fish and all kinds of goods, and sold them on the Sabbath to the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem.
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? Did not your fathers do thus, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath'" (Nehemiah 13:16-18).
Tyre was a city located on the coast of the Mediterranean sea, a place of great commercial activity with people who were responsible for shipping and receiving expensive goods from all over the known world. Unfortunately, some of those shipments arrived in Jerusalem at a time when it was prohibited for the people of Old Testament Israel to do business- so Nehemiah took steps to address the situation...
"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.
Now the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. Then I warned them, and said to them, 'Why do you spend the night around the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you!' From that time on they came no more on the Sabbath. And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should go and guard the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day..." (Nehemiah 13:19-23).
Nehemiah responded by posting guard units to ensure that no further commercial activity took place during the Sabbath. This, of course, led to a rather peculiar situation- Nehemiah's guards were working on the Sabbath in order to prevent others from working on the Sabbath. Nevertheless, Nehemiah must have felt that such steps were necessary to help preserve a greater good.
Equally interesting was Nehemiah's aggressive response to those merchants who persisted in their desire to do business on a day that was forbidden to the Jews: "...I warned them, 'Why are you camping in front of the wall? If you do it again, I'll use force against you'" (HCSB). This threatening ultimatum clearly had its desired effect: "...that was the last time they came on the Sabbath" (NLT).XVIII
"...Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of Your mercy!
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" (Nehemiah 13:22-24).
The three areas mentioned here -Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab- had a long and troublesome history with the people of Old Testament Israel.
Ashdod was one of the prominent cities among the Philistine people of that era. When the Philistines once captured the Ark of the Covenant during a battle with the Israelites (1Samuel 4:2-11), they placed it within the Temple of the pagan god Dagon that was located in Ashdod. Their satisfaction over this military victory was short-lived however, and God's subsequent response compelled the Philistines to remove the Ark from both their god and their land (1Samuel 5:1-6:12).
As mentioned earlier, the Ammonites and Moabites were two other people groups with a long-standing history of antagonism towards the nation of Israel. By intermarrying with the people of those areas (two groups who traditionally had little interest in the God of Israel), the Israelites had acted in disobedience to God's direct command (see Deuteronomy 7:1-4). They also violated their earlier promise from Nehemiah 10:30: "we will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons.’
In this instance, the issue again revolved around a group of individuals who did not recognize their responsibility to honor God and His Word. As a result, they began to make poor relationship choices that led to some decidedly negative effects: "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" (NIV).
These men were so apparently so uninvolved in the upbringing of their sons and daughters that half of these fathers couldn't even communicate with their children in their own language. The resulting leadership vacuum was subsequently filled by a mother who likely had no knowledge (or interest) in the God of the Scriptures.
In addition, we should remember that a child who lacked the ability to speak or read Hebrew was a child who could not read and/or understand the Scriptures. As a result, these men were responsible for producing an entire generation of children who had little idea of what God's Word said or meant.These unfortunate realities served as the catalyst that propelled Nehemiah to take action.
"So I contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair, 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 13:25).
While the aggressive action taken by Nehemiah within this passage may seem inappropriate to many 21st century readers, we might benefit from a few cultural observations to help explain his response.
For instance, "I... pulled out their hair" likely refers to the act of pulling out one's beard. This represented an Old Testament form of punishment (Isaiah 50:6) and an act of public disgrace (see 2 Samuel 10:4-5). As one source observes, "The beard was a sign of respect; to pluck it out was therefore a gesture of utter contempt." (1)
In a similar manner, the act of cursing these men also carried the general idea of contempt and dishonor. (2) This may mean that Nehemiah publicly humiliated these men or even prohibited them from participating in any further activities related to the Temple. Such an act would effectively curse these men by reducing them to the status of social outcasts among the members of their own community.
We're also told that Nehemiah struck or beat some of these men. The Living Bible paraphrase provides us with a vivid word-picture of this response by rendering this verse in the following manner: "I confronted these parents and cursed them and punched a few of them and knocked them around..."
In considering these altercations, we should first note that Nehemiah physically confronted only some of these men. This seems to imply that there were at least a few individuals who accepted Nehemiah's rebuke without objection while others forced him to escalate his response.
Next, there is no indication that Nehemiah was emotionally out of control during these meetings. Instead, much like the person who takes aggressive physical action in the face of danger, Nehemiah's response served to illustrate the seriousness of what these men had done. Given Nehemiah's repeated demonstration of good character throughout this book, we should afford him with the benefit of the doubt in assuming that his response was appropriate for the situation.
Finally, we should remember that it should not have been Nehemiah's responsibility to take such action at all. Instead, this situation would have been better addressed by a member of Jerusalem's spiritual leadership. Unfortunately, we'll soon find that some of those spiritual authorities had abdicated their leadership responsibility in this area as well.
(1) Charles C. Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible notes on Isaiah 50:4-9
(2) H7043 qalal Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew DefinitionsXX
"Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? Yet among many nations there was no king like him, who was beloved of his God; and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless pagan women caused even him to sin. Should we then hear of your doing all this great evil, transgressing against our God by marrying pagan women?" (Nehemiah 13:26-27).
To justify his aggressive response towards those who had taken wives from among those people groups that were traditionally hostile (or indifferent) to the God of Israel, Nehemiah turned to the historic example of Israel's king Solomon. A brief look at Solomon's experience in this regard serves to illustrate exactly why Nehemiah selected him to serve as his case-in-point...
"The LORD did not want the Israelites to worship foreign gods, so he had warned them not to marry anyone who was not from Israel. Solomon loved his wife, the daughter of the king of Egypt. But he also loved some women from Moab, Ammon, and Edom, and others from Sidon and the land of the Hittites. Seven hundred of his wives were daughters of kings, but he also married three hundred other women.
As Solomon got older, some of his wives led him to worship their gods. He wasn't like his father David, who had worshiped only the LORD God" (I Kings 11:1-4 CEV).
Unfortunately, Solomon's poor relationship choices led to some bad decisions that ultimately resulted in a number of disastrous consequences...
"In this way, Solomon did what was evil in the Lord’s sight; he refused to follow the Lord completely, as his father, David, had done....
The Lord was very angry with Solomon, for his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. He had warned Solomon specifically about worshiping other gods, but Solomon did not listen to the Lord’s command. So now the Lord said to him, 'Since you have not kept my covenant and have disobeyed my decrees, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants'" (I Kings 11:6, 9-11 NLT).
The philosopher George Santayana was famously quoted as saying, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (1) In turning to Solomon's example, Nehemiah urged his listeners to remember (and avoid repeating) the same mistake made by their former king. Current-day readers can apply this wise counsel by choosing to forgo a dating or marriage relationship with someone who is not serious about following Jesus as well.
(1) The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. 1905 pg. 284XXI
"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" (Nehemiah 13:28).
In a manner similar to the re-emergence of Tobiah the Ammonite from earlier within this section, "Sanballat the Horonite" will now return for a cameo appearance here within the final chapter of the book of Nehemiah.
As mentioned previously, Sanballat hailed from an area that held a deep-rooted sense of regional hostility towards the people of Israel- and while Sanballat worked closely with Tobiah in challenging Nehemiah's efforts to rebuild Jerusalem's perimeter wall, there was a discernable difference in the way that each man expressed his opposition.
You see, while Tobiah tended to be direct and forceful in his efforts to prevent the Jerusalem rebuilding project from moving forward, Sanballat's opposition was generally more subtle, yet equally damaging. For instance, Sanballat first began his efforts to undermine Nehemiah by engaging in an attempt to make him appear stupid and foolish before the work to rebuild Jerusalem's wall ever began.
Sanballat (along with Tobiah) also worked to pressure Nehemiah by issuing a veiled accusation of treason: "...Are you rebelling against the king?" (Nehemiah 2:19). He then attempted to de-motivate and discourage those who were involved in these reconstruction efforts by launching a public effort to ridicule them.
That passage tells us that Sanballat made an effort to use sarcasm as a behavior modification technique by asking, "What are these feeble Jews doing?" (Nehemiah 4:2). In utilizing this tactic, Sanballat sought to frame (or "spin") his opinion of Nehemiah and his co-workers as weak and ineffectual as if that belief was a foregone conclusion or an indisputable truth. That would serve to advance his agenda even though that opinion had no actual basis in reality.
Finally, Sanballat worked to intimidate Nehemiah and his band of volunteers by seeking to hold them accountable for a goal they could never realistically attain. If he had been successful in establishing this unrealistic standard in the minds of other community members, he could then find fault with these workers for having failed to live up to it.
Unfortunately, these techniques of public denunciation, personal intimidation, doubt, discouragement, and pessimism continue to be employed in our present day. However, there are some persuasive (and minimally confrontational) strategies that can help us counter the efforts of anyone who may be seeking to employ such tactics today. We'll look at an example of one such strategy next.XXII
"Jehoiada, the son of the high priest Eliashib, had a son who had married a daughter of Sanballat from Horon, and I forced his son to leave" (Nehemiah 13:28 CEV).
Many of the techniques used to oppose Nehemiah have not changed in the centuries since this Biblical book was originally written. Fortunately, there are some effective strategies that can help us counter such opposition in a God-honoring manner
One useful method for dealing with such opposition is to simply respond with a request for additional information. This approach has been developed and refined by author/apologist Greg Koukl who refers to this technique as the "Columbo" tactic, so-named for the fictional television detective of the 1970's
Lieutenant Columbo was a homicide detective and a man whose humble demeanor hid a razor-sharp eye for critical detail and a persistent commitment to discover the truth. Once the Lieutenant identified a potential murder suspect, he would often approach that person with a seemingly innocuous request: "There's something about this case that bothers me- do you mind if I ask you a question?" When certain discrepancies in a suspect's alibi began to appear, similar follow-up questions would inevitably bring the facts of the case to light- and all Columbo often had to do to reveal the truth was ask a few pertinent questions.
We can examine the opposition that Nehemiah encountered to illustrate this approach. For instance...
As Koukl observes, "As a general rule, never make a statement when a question will get the job done." Doing so can help us fulfill the mandate of Colossians 4:5-6...
"Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one."XXIII
"One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest had married a daughter of Sanballat the Horonite, so I banished him from my presence" (Nehemiah 13:28 NLT).
Despite Sanballat's demonstrated opposition towards those who were laboring to restore the wall that protected the capital city of Jerusalem, Eliashib, the High Priest, had somehow permitted a member of his own family to marry one of Sanballat's daughters
Eliashib's culpability in this matter may seem difficult to understand in modern-day cultures where family members generally have little or no say in the selection of a marriage partner. However, we should remember that arranged marriages were the norm in the days of the Old Testament and in the patriarchal society of that era, a father (or grandfather) was the unquestioned leader of an individual family unit.
As an elder within his family (as well as the High Priest), Eliashib undoubtedly granted his approval to a union between his grandson and Sanballat's daughter. One source explains his probable reason for doing so: "In the ancient East, marriages involving prominent families were often arranged to secure political advantage and to form alliances. Probably this was the case in the marriage of the high priest's grandson and Sanballat's daughter." (1)
However, one thing that Eliashib's family had likely not counted on was Nehemiah's eventual return to Jerusalem- and upon learning of this marital arrangement, Nehemiah promptly executed a deportation order for Eliashib's unnamed grandson. While the Biblical text does not provide us with a detailed explanation for this response, Nehemiah likely took this action to eliminate the possibility of corruption in Israel's priestly lineage
You see, Eliashib's grandson might have eventually succeeded him as High Priest. The problem was that the decision to wed one of Sanballat's daughters violated the Old Testament law regarding priestly marriages as recorded within the book of Leviticus...
"If you are the high priest, you must marry only a virgin from your own tribe. Don't marry a divorced woman or any other woman who has already had sex, including a temple prostitute. In this way, your descendants will be qualified to serve me. Remember--I am the LORD, and I have chosen you" (Leviticus 21:13-14 CEV).
As one commentator observes, "Nehemiah (had) no other choice because intermarriages within the family of the high priest were unacceptable to God himself." (2) This likely accounts for Nehemiah's closing prayer regarding this matter: "Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites" (Nehemiah 13:29).
(1) Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Nehemiah 13:1". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". "http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/view.cgi?bk=ne&ch=13". 2012.
(2) Elwell, W. A. (1995). Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Vol. 3, Ne 13:23). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.XXIV
"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. Remember me, O my God, for good!" (Nehemiah 13:30-31).
The Biblical book of Nehemiah provides us with the real-life account of a man who successfully overcame a number of genuine obstacles to fulfill God's calling on his life- and the negative spiritual environment that Nehemiah encountered upon his return to Jerusalem reminds us that it is possible to suffer similar kinds of lapses if we are not diligent to attend to daily spiritual growth
In part, Nehemiah's commitment to rebuild Jerusalem's perimeter wall and his subsequent effort to recover the spiritual reforms he had formerly established illustrates the need to be steadfast in our commitment to lead a God-honoring life. You see, anyone who is not moving forward is always in danger of falling behind, and as we are encouraged in the New Testament book of 2 John, "Be on your guard, then, so that you will not lose what we have worked for, but will receive your reward in full" (2 John 7:8 GNB).
As mentioned previously, anyone who prayerfully and regularly attends to the important spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, communion, and regular church attendance is someone who will be well-positioned to avoid the dangers found within this chapter. For those who may be lacking such diligence, the solution is to prayerfully seek God's enablement by the Holy Spirit for, "God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes" (Philippians 2:13 CEB).
Nehemiah's closing prayer ("Remember me with favor, O my God" [NIV]) is also significant for what it doesn't say. Note that Nehemiah did not ask God to remember him for his success in rebuilding Jerusalem's wall or for his efforts in bringing about the spiritual and cultural reforms that are detailed throughout this book. Instead, he simply asked God to remember him favorably, a request that would serve well as a fitting epitaph for anyone who seeks to honor God
Nehemiah serves as a positive role model for God's people of every generation and in the words of one source, "Nehemiah's single mindedness of purpose, attention to detail, willingness to delegate authority, dedication to service, and dependence on God were combined in a man who can simply be labeled as a servant of God." (1)
(1) Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Nehemiah 13:1". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". "http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/view.cgi?bk=ne&ch=13". 2012.Previous