Here we are at the final day with Nehemiah. Endings are always bittersweet, as we toss between sadness at the finality and the ability to look back at what God has done.
The uniqueness of this story, and really any story in the Bible, is with God, the story is never truly over. We are able to look both back at what He has done, as well as look forward to what He’s going to do.
But can we all agree this book ends kind of oddly and with a lack of ends tied up.
In chapters 11 & 12, we see the people settling in Jerusalem, the families of the priests and Levites who served in and around the Temple recorded, and the dedication of the wall itself. Hopefully you’ve been able to wade through the names and can see what a wonderful ability for these families to hang on to their lineage and the service that comes with that in God’s work. These lineages are definitely unique.
But as we draw to a close, we’re going to look at Chapter 13, which I longingly refer to as the “hair pulling” chapter, both mentally and physically, because we find mentally frustrating situations, as well as physical hair pulling.
See, the Bible is never dull!
On his first term as governor, he spent 12 years in Jerusalem, and then returned to Susa as he had promised the king he would do. In Chapter 13, we pick up with Nehemiah on his second trip to Jerusalem, which takes place “some time later”.
I wonder what Nehemiah expected when he returned? What did he imagine and anticipate on the journey back to Jerusalem?
So what does Nehemiah find when he returns?
- Eliashib, the priest in charge of the temple storehouses allowed Tobiah the Ammonite (remember him from Chapter 2, the group that opposed the rebuilding of the walls) to use a large room to store his furniture.
Verse 4-5 tells us this room was supposed to “used to store grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain offerings, new wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, singers and gatekeepers, we well as the contributions for the priests.”
- Verse 10 tells us “the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields.”
- Verse 15 saw the desecration of the Sabbath by the men in Judah. Many worked on the Sabbath, as well as let merchants sell in Jerusalem on that day of the week. This leads me to believe that people were buying from the merchants as well, otherwise they would not have found it profitable to sell.
- Verses 23-24 say “Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 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.”
Needless to say, this is a long list of things that Nehemiah was extremely frustrated over.
Can you imagine how he felt to return to this mess after all the time and devotion he had invested in this nation?
And true to form, Nehemiah didn’t sit idle and watch all these things take place. He set out to right each of the wrongs being done.
- He threw all Tobiah’s household goods out, then purified and restored the rooms to their original use.
- He put new men in charge of the tithes and storehouses and charged them with the responsibility of distributing the supplies to their brothers, the priests and Levites.
- He ordered the doors to be shut on the city and stationed a guard at the gates so no goods could be brought in during the Sabbath.
- He rebuked, called down curses and beat some of the men who had intermarried.
Each one of these was an atrocious act against God and the covenant the people had signed back in Chapter 10. And although we may think Nehemiah acted in a very sever manner, a holy God and whatever is keeping us from Him, needs to be dealt with severely.
When did the people stop prioritizing God and His commands?
What had taken place in their hearts to go from people weeping over their sin to a place where they allowed blatant disregard for God and His temple?
It reminds me of Jesus cleansing the temple with a whip in John 2:13-16.
“In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’”
In my prep for this message, I came across a story that takes place in Northern Ireland, in a little town called Ballymena. This town is a very Protestant town and the Christian people there are fond of holding cottage meetings. On one occasion a lady planned a series of three cottage meetings to be held in her home weekly.
Her next-door neighbour happened to be one of the few Roman Catholics who lived in that town, and she duly received an invitation to attend the meeting. She made an excuse and said she could not come, but the following morning she was interested enough to inquire if the meeting had gone well.
“Oh yes,” the hostess said. “We had a wonderful time. We had thirty-five people in my little home, and it was full. Won’t you come next week?”
“No,” was the reply. “I’m sorry, but I really cannot.”
The next week the meeting was help again and the following morning a similar conversation took place.
“Did you have a good time last night?”
“Yes, a very good time, even better than last week. We had fifty-one people and my little cottage was full. There will be one more meeting next week. Will you come?”
“No, I really must not. I’m sorry.”
The third meeting came and went, and the following day the same question was asked across the garden wall.
“Did you have a good meeting last night?” asked the Roman Catholic lady.
“Oh yes, wonderful!” said her neighbour. “The very best yet. We had sixty-two people in my little cottage, and it was absolutely full.”
Well, that was just too much for the Roman Catholic, who protested, “But that’s a sheer impossibility. You began your meetings with thirty-five people, and you said then that your house was full. The next week it was fifty-one, and last night sixty-two. That just can’t be done! It doesn’t make sense!”
“Oh yes, it does,” said her friend. “It is very simple. Of course our little house was full when we had thirty-five in it, but you see, last night we just put all the furniture out on the lawn and made room for sixty-two.”
What takes place in our lives to allow these same things to happen?
Have we, like the Israelites, allowed things or people or sin to become a priority over God in our lives?
And what are we allowing or creating space for?
How many of us have allowed the Tobiah’s in our live to set up storage in an area that is meant for God and God alone?
How many of us have allowed the Sabbath space that God calls us to rest in Him to be cluttered and filled with the merchants of our society?
How many of us have allowed an intertwining of our hearts with something, or even someone, who is turning our focus away from the things of God?
How much room is there in your life for the Holy Spirit and His work?
I came across this quote from a girl I follow on social media:
“God doesn’t want us to obey Him because He’s against people. God wants us to obey Him because He’s against what destroys people.” – Jordan Lee
Friends, I pray that through this study of a somewhat obscure book of the bible, God has revealed His truth to you. I pray that you’ve been able to see in a clear and fresh way that anything other than His way, destroys us and keeps us from healing relationship with Him.
No matter where we are at in our walk with the Lord, if we are just starting out, or if we have been walking with Him for years, He wants each one to know in a new way today that He loves us. That is why He guides us and commands us. That is why He gives us boundaries and consequences. That is why He keeps giving us forgiveness and grace that know no end.
As I shared at the beginning, the story is never over in God’s perspective. Even when we think we’ve reached a dead end or a place where He could never forgive us, He does.
The people of Israel were not destitute. Yes, they had disobeyed yet again. Yes, they had turned from following Him with their hearts. But God was planning something far greater than Nehemiah or Ezra, or all the kings and prophets before them.
God was getting ready to send His One and Only Son to rebuild the hearts of everyone who came to Him.
God wasn’t done yet.