Bible Passage: Nehemiah 13:1-31
Do you know those moments when you are with little kids and you say to them, “Don’t touch.” They nod their head in agreement but then as soon as you look away, they slowly reach their hands out to touch.
In our passage this morning we are going to see a similar pattern, but it isn’t with toddlers but with adults and it is with adults who have had meaningful moments with the Lord, resolved in their commitment to the Lord, singing and celebrating the Lord’s faithfulness and provision in their life but it isn’t long before their hands start to reach out to rebellion and they start to drift back into their old ways and old patterns.
It’s likely that most of us can relate to those same patterns in our life. It’s likely we all have moments in life where we are clear on what we want to accomplish. We are motivated. We are empowered. And maybe it happens for a day, a week, or a month but before long we drift back into those old ways and patterns.
When we are late teens and early twenties, we see this pattern in our life and we think to ourselves, “I am young. I am learning. One day it will all be different.”
In our thirties we see start to see those patterns in our life and we are discouraged at first. We say to ourselves, “I thought I already overcame these challenges in life.” But we are still young enough to believe we can grow, we can mature, we can overcome.
In our forties (I just turned 48) we start to think to ourselves, “I guess nothing will ever change. I guess I will have these same struggles, same challenges my whole life” and we start to settle, we start to plateau, therefore, how does a person respond to these challenges in life?
In our passage this morning we are going to take a peek into the patterns of people, and we are going to see how God’s Word responds to those patterns, so that this morning we are going to see three sub-points; 1. The Character of the People. 2. The Greed of the People. 3. The Sexual Immorality of the People. Let’s look at our first sub-point; 1. The Character of the People.
- Character of the People. (vs. 1-9)
Nehemiah 13:4-5, “ 4 Now prior to this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, being related to Tobiah, 5 had prepared a large room for him, where formerly they put the grain offerings, the frankincense, the utensils and the tithes of grain, wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, the singers and the gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests.”
We typically would be talking about the birth of Jesus but this morning we are finishing off the book of Nehemiah.
If you are new to the book Nehemiah then you need to know the book Nehemiah is in the Old Testament, the book of Nehemiah is about the history of Israel and in chapters 1-6 the book of Nehemiah is about rebuilding walls and gates for security and safety in the city of Jerusalem and in chapters 7-12 the book of Nehemiah is about rebuilding a people for God’s glory, so that chapter 12 ends with the joy of Jerusalem being heard from afar. That was last Sunday!
In verse 4 we start to see the character flaws of the people start with their spiritual leaders because Eliashib the priest is dedicating parts of the temple to Tobiah the Ammonite.
Now, it’s possible we might be thinking to ourselves, “Is that really that big of a deal?” First, Eliashib the priest is using space in the holy temple as a storage unit for a family member. That’s odd.
Second, the grain offering, frankincense, utensils are all a part of worship for the people of Israel and those parts are no longer available because of Tobiah.
Third, this is the same Tobiah that has been heckling Nehemiah from day one. This is the same Tobiah who said a fox could jump on that wall and it would fall down (Nehemiah 4:3).
Fourth, the problem isn’t Tobiah asking for space, the problem is that Eliashib is the priest, the spiritual leader in the community and the character of the people in the community starts with the character of the spiritual leaders in the community.
This is true at the national level, city of Austin level, church in Austin level, or in the family, so that the character of the leaders trickles down. Let’s see how Nehemiah feels about it. Look at verses 6-9:
Nehemiah 13:6-9, “6 But during all this time I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had gone to the king. After some time, however, I asked leave from the king, 7 and I came to Jerusalem and learned about the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, by preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God. 8 It was very displeasing to me, so I threw all of Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. 9 Then I gave an order and they cleansed the rooms; and I returned there the utensils of the house of God with the grain offerings and the frankincense.”
Do you see the big picture? Nehemiah leaves, Nehemiah is gone for a period of time, and then Nehemiah returns to see Tobiah shacking up in the temple and then pulls out his inner Beyonce! Hmm, to the left, to the left.
Look at verse 7. Nehemiah uses the word “evil.” The word “evil” means “wicked” or “disaster.” In Nehemiah 12 people are singing and celebrating. Nehemiah walks out of the room for 30 seconds and the spiritual leaders have become a disaster. What happened?
I remember I was sitting down with a young couple in our church family who was engaged to be married. They asked me to officiate their wedding. They asked me to take them through pre-marital counseling and they both professed faith in Jesus, so I asked them, “Are you two living together right now?”
They said, “Yes, but it just makes sense economically, it makes sense practically, and pretty soon we will be married.” It’s not that big of a deal.
And I talked to them about sex being a beautiful gift that is best between husband and wife in marriage, and that the character of their marriage was being established right now. Are they going to make decisions out of convenience or are they going to submit the whole of their lives to God’s Word?
There was this long pause. Everybody got a little nervous in the room and they said, “Okay!” One of them went to live with someone else in their family until they got married.
They had to get up a little earlier for work, they had a longer commute but they made the decision that day to put the Lord first in all areas of their life, because our character, the type of people we are when nobody is around, it matters. It matters at the national level, city level, church level, family level, and individual lives.
Our character matters, therefore, are we going to submit our lives to the Lord and follow His Word? Are we going to put the Lord first in all areas of our life?
Or are we going to wait until the spiritual leaders in our life aren’t looking and then do what is right in our own eyes? Are we going to make excuses? Are we going to blame others? Are we going to do what’s easy? Let’s look at our next sub-point; 2. Greed of the People.
- Greed of the People. (vs. 10-22)
Nehemiah 13:10-12, “10 I also discovered that the portions of the Levites had not been given them, so that the Levites and the singers who performed the service had gone away, each to his own field. 11 So I reprimanded the officials and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” Then I gathered them together and restored them to their posts. 12 All Judah then brought the tithe of the grain, wine and oil into the storehouses.”
I love how verse 10 starts off, “I also discovered.” It’s almost like verses 1-9 would have been enough but Nehemiah writes down, “And then I noticed another thing!”
A few years ago, a friend called me who was serving as an elder for another church. He said he just found out the pastor of his church was having an affair and was looking for counsel on how to respond.
So, we talked, came up with a plan and afterwards my friend called me back and I asked him how it went, and he said the conversation went well.
He said, “The pastor confessed to sexual immorality immediately.” The church rallied around the pastor to be supportive and then he said, “We thought it was all moving in the right direction until a few weeks later we found out the pastor wasn’t just involved in sexual immorality but had actually started another family in the same city and was visiting other churches and posing as a new couple in the community.”
That’s a little bit of what’s taking place in verses 10-12. Nehemiah deals with Tobiahs belongings in the temple in verses 1-9 and then turns the corner to find out the Levites in the temple were being neglected by the people as a whole.
You not only see a lack of character in the spiritual leaders but you see a greed in the people because they are neglecting to care for the Levites through tithes and offerings.
The Levites were servants in the temple. The Levites were responsible for acts of worship within the community, but the people weren’t caring for the Levites, so the Levites had to work in the fields to care for themselves.
We could spend time talking about the importance of caring for God’s House, which is important, but I think the larger part of this story is, “How do a people experience such renewal in the Lord in chapters 10-12 and then fall away so quickly?”
This isn’t just the neglect of spiritual leaders in the community. The is a reflection of the people as a whole, so that at this point in the book of Nehemiah you have to be asking yourself, “Do people ever change?”
There’s a pattern of humanity in God’s Word where we see people wander from the Lord, the people experience consequences for wandering from the Lord, the Lord sends a leader to challenge them, the people repent, the people renew but overtime the people fall away and wander from the Lord.
That’s not only the pattern we see in Nehemiah, the pattern we see in God’s Word, but that’s the pattern we see in our life.
How many times have we wandered from the Lord, experienced the consequences of our sin, the Lord brings people into our life to challenge us and encourage us, we respond, we repent, we renew, and it isn’t long before we see those same patterns in our life again. Let’s look at our last sub-point; 3. The Sexual Immorality of the People.
- Sexual Immorality of the People. (vs. 23-31)
Nehemiah 13:23, “23 In those days I also saw that the Jews had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 24 As for their children, half spoke in the language of Ashdod, and none of them was able to speak the language of Judah, but the language of his own people.”
Again, this isn’t God’s Word warning against inter-racial marriages but God’s Word warning against inter-religious marriages because it speaks to values.
In the context of the passage the people were marrying who they want to marry and as a result the people of Israel were raising up children that didn’t speak in their own language, which means they are raising up a generation that couldn’t understand God’s Word. Look at verse 25:
Nehemiah 13:25, “25 So I contended with them and cursed them and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves.”
It’s possible that Nehemiah just showed up and started throwing punches at people, but we need to remember these are the same people that stood up and said, “We will follow the Lord!”
So that verse 25 isn’t justifying violence but more so a formal context of discipline in a public context to bring shame upon their behavior of the people, so that it isn’t to be hurtful but to hold people accountable to the decisions they made, so as to say, “That’s enough!”
We see something similar to this in the New Testament when Jesus, God in the flesh, enters into the temple in Jerusalem and people are using the temple to sell ox, sheep, doves so as to make money, and Jesus made a whip, poured out the money and overturned the tables, so as to say, “That’s enough.” (John 2). Look at verse 26:
Nehemiah 13:26, “26 Did not Solomon king of Israel sin regarding these things? Yet among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless the foreign women caused even him to sin.”
God loved Solomon, God did great things through Solomon, and yet the sins of Solomon still came to the surface so that eventually the Kingdom of Israel became a divided nation (1 Kings 11).
Again, we could spend time talking about the importance of sexual immorality, who we marry, submitting the whole of our lives to the Lord, which is important, but I think the larger part of this story is, “How do a people experience such renewal in the Lord in chapters 10-12 and then fall away so quickly?”
Nehemiah has been a great leader. Nehemiah has made great sacrifices. Nehemiah has overcome great opposition and at one point the people are moving in a great direction but as soon as Nehemiah steps away it feels like 1 step forward and 10 steps back, so that we are left with this weight of wondering, “Can people really change?”
In some ways, our passage this morning can be very discouraging. Is the whole of our life going to feel like one giant merry-go-round of failure?
I know in my life I see some of the same struggles I have been struggling with since I was 16-years old. I am 48-years old, and I still get nervous walking into a room of people I don’t know.
I still find myself worried about how I look, what people think, if people like me, will people include me, and I am 48 years old. So that there is a part of me that reads Nehemiah 13 with a lot of discouragement.
But in an odd way Nehemiah 13 is encouraging because Nehemiah 13 is a reminder that we aren’t the only people in life that struggle with the same challenges over and over.
In fact, these are stories of God’s people in God’s Word having the same challenges over and over, and their stories look like our stories. That’s encouraging.
In fact, a passage like Nehemiah 13 can be incredibly encouraging because the God of Scripture doesn’t give up on people who struggle with the same things over and over.
And the fact that we are struggling to follow the Lord is evidence that God is working in our life. God’s Word is convicting us of sin. God’s Spirit is moving us to confession. God’s Spirit is empowering us to persevere as we follow Him.
This encouragement not only applies to how we see ourselves but how we see others, so that Nehemiah 13 is really encouraging because God’s Word is reminding us that no matter how many times we might struggle, He’s never done working in our life.
But most of us all Nehemiah 13 is an encouragement because Nehemiah 13 reminds us that our sin is too deep and too dark to simply overcome with organizational leaders in our life.
In 400 years from Nehemiah 13 there’s another leader that shows up in the city of Jerusalem. In 400 years from Nehemiah 13 there is another leader that walks through the streets of Jerusalem, sees the same failures of the people, has some of the same feelings of Nehemiah but this leader doesn’t just flip tables and run people out of the temple.
No, this leader does something unthinkable. This calls out to all who are failures, all who are struggling, all who are weary and invites us to turn to Him.
This leader doesn’t just walk us through new habits and patterns to try hard, but this leader says, “Turn to Me, believe in Me, follow Me, and I will make you new.”
This is why we celebrate Christmas. This is why we give gifts for Christmas. This is why we decorate trees and light candles, because they are all reminders of the moment God took on flesh, born of a virgin, without sin, so that He might take our sin at the cross and give us His righteousness.
You see, when you believe in Jesus, you might not have the presence of sin removed from your life. Life is going to be hard. Life is going to be a struggle. Life is going to be 1 step forward and 10 steps back but when you believe in Jesus you are released from the penalty of sin.
The guilt of sin no longer hangs over you. The weight of sin no longer entangles you. The judgment of sin is no longer against you.
You are not only released from the penalty of sin but also the power of sin. You are empowered in His grace. You are empowered to struggle. You are empowered to fight. You are empowered to resist. You have an eternal hope that one day all things will be made new.
In Christ, we may not see heaven on earth today, but we can see slivers of heaven on earth today and one day we will see a new heaven and new earth that is free from any struggle.
In our church family in Austin, right now we are rallying around this focus of “build and belong” it’s possible that when you see “build and belong” you are thinking that is just about “building up the people of North Village Church.”
But the scope of “build and belong” is much greater than North Village Church. The scope is much greater than our city, because in Christ, we know Jesus has come to make all things new, so that we who are in Christ are building and belonging for eternity.
If you are just thinking about North Village Church, then you are thinking too small. We are building and belong to the One who is making all things new, therefore, let us lift our eyes to Him. His name is Jesus. He is worthy of our worship!