Rebuild: Nehemiah 13:1-14 – Why Is The House of God Forsaken?

Grace For The Journey

Our current Bible study series is entitled “REBUILD.”  We have noted that the Book of Nehemiah breaks down roughly into two categories:

Chapters 1-6; Physical Rebuild, where we read of the Rebuilt Wall

And

Chapters 7-13; Spiritual Rebuild, where we read of the Rebuilt People.

What we have in Chapter 13 is what many scholars believe to be the last portion of the Old Testament written.  It does not appear that way to us as the Book is in its canonical order rather than its chronological order.  It is placed along the other books of Old Testament history, but the contents concern the last events of God’s people in the history of the Old Testament.

Beginning at verse 4 Nehemiah says, “Now before this,” and that opening phrase tips us off to the fact that Nehemiah then tells us about some things that happened while he was actually away from Jerusalem, things that happened while he had gone back to Persia for awhile.  See that at verse 6 where he says, “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” – verse 7 – “and I came to Jerusalem…”  This tells us that quite a bit of time has passed.

Chapter 13 is something of a paradox.  It can be seen as both discouraging and encouraging.  It is discouraging in that it shows us that much of what Nehemiah led the people to do was soon forgotten.  The great covenant they had made with God back in Chapter 10, a chapter that concludes with the phrase, “We will not neglect the house of God” (10:39), is a covenant largely broken by chapter 13.  The people neglected the house of God as indicated by Nehemiah’s statement in Chapter 13, verse 11, “So I contended with the rulers and said, ‘Why is the house of God forsaken?’” 

The Book of Nehemiah is often hailed as a great book on leadership, yet by popular metrics of success, it would seem Nehemiah failed.  After all, he led the people to reform, but while he was away, the people fell back into old habits and old ways; they fell into sin.  So much for Nehemiah’s great leadership!  Maybe Nehemiah could have related to the statement that “the conference room is the place where everybody talks, nobody listens, and afterwards, everyone disagrees.”

Fortunately . . .

The Book of Nehemiah

Is not primarily

A Book about leadership,

But a book about God

And how God relates

To His people.

And this leads us to the encouragement of Chapter 13.  While much of what we study here can be discouraging – the people fall back into old sinful habits – the fact is that God will not abandon His people.  He had made a promise to them as far back as Genesis 12 to be their God and to never forsaken them.  That fact holds true for God’s people today.  He will not finally abandon us when we fall into old sinful habits.  The cross still stands to cleanse us from our sin.

I want us to look at the teaching outline that will help us journey through the passage together.  It is a descriptive outline, merely describing the events of the passage as we read through the text.  It shows how the people of God had neglected the house of God:

First from the opening verses, verses 1-3, we see that God’s people had fallen into sin . . .

1. By Neglecting Previous Teaching – Verses 1-3.

One of the positive marks of the people of God in Nehemiah is that as they read the Word they responded rightly to it.  While they had neglected previous teaching in the Word, they immediately seek to correct it.  Verses 1-3 say, “On that day (or at that time) 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.  So it was, when they had heard the Law, that they separated all the mixed multitude from Israel.”  The people were reading the Word or hearing the Word read aloud and they said, “Hey, there’s something we have neglected.  The Bible says we are not to have Ammonites or Moabites with us inside the city of Jerusalem and we have allowed them to intermingle with us.  We have got to change that!”  So they did.

A bit of context is helpful here.  Were we to go back and read the portion of Old Testament Law that was read aloud to them, we would go back to Deuteronomy 23, verses 3-6.  There we would read this very specific prohibition: No Ammonites or Moabites allowed to be among you!  Why?  Well, verse 2 tells us, “Because they had not met the children of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them.”  When God delivered His people out of slavery and bondage to the Egyptians and led them on a journey to the Promised Land, it was the Ammonites and Moabites who stood against them.  When God’s people were famished and thirsty, the Ammonites and Moabites refused to give them bread and water.  These folks did not follow the One True and Living God.  They were rebellious idolaters.  And verse 2 reminds us that they had once even hired a prophet to prophesy doom against God’s people, but it did not work.  You can read about that later in the Book of Numbers 22-24 where they hired this guy named Balaam to curse God’s people.  But every time Balaam opened his mouth to curse God’s people, God turned his cursing into blessing.   And all he could do was speak good things upon God’s people.  Remember . . .

God had made a promise,

A promise of blessing

Upon His children

As far back as Genesis 12

So Balaam could not change

That blessing into cursing.

The people are reading from the Book and they realize they had neglected this previous teaching about separating themselves from the Ammonites and Moabites and the say in verse 3, “We need to change that,” and they do, “they separated all the mixed multitude from Israel.”

Now remember, we have covered this ground before . . .

The problem with the

Ammonites and Moabites

Was not a racial problem,

But a religious problem.

It was not that the Ammonites and Moabites were of a different race and God’s people were of a superior race.  You will never find a single verse in all the Bible to support racism.  That is not what is going on here. 

The prohibition against intermarrying and intermingling

With the Ammonites and Moabites was due to their being

Unrepentant followers of false gods.  They would not

Follow the one true and living God – to Intermingle

With them was to compromise one’s convictions and

Open up the possibility of falling into sin by falling

Away from God and turning towards false gods.

If, however, an Ammonite or Moabite were to confess

And repent and turn from the false gods of the pagan lands,

They would be welcome among God’s people. 

Remember Naomi the Moabitess, a woman from Moab.  Remember what she said to her mother-in-law Ruth?  She said, “… Your God will be my God …” (Ruth 4:16e) and she turned from the false gods of the Moabites and was welcome into the fold of the people of God.  The doors remain open today for anyone to enter into a relationship with God if you come in repentance, breaking with sin, and entering into true worship of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The first area of neglect: the people had neglected previous teaching.  The second area of neglect is, God’s people had fallen into sin . . .

3. By Neglecting The Purity of the Temple – Verses 4-9.

As we look again at verses 4 and following, we enter into some events that occurred while Nehemiah was away.  Remember when Moses went up on the mountain to be with God and get the 10 Commandments and then he comes down to find the people in sin?  That is what’s going on in verses 4 and following; Nehemiah was away, having gone back to Susa, the capital city of Persia, and while he was away what happened?  

Verses 4 and 5 tell us, “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.”  Eliashib the priest allows Tobiah to move into one of the storerooms of the temple!  Can you believe it?!  It may actually be more like a suite of storerooms. Right there in the temple.

This is that same Tobiah who taunted Nehemiah and the Israelites back when they were rebuilding the wall.  He is the guy who was like, “You’ll never do it!  That wall will not even support a small animal if it were to try to climb upon it.  You guys are losers!”  That same Tobiah!  Tobiah was – incidentally – an Ammonite!  One of the people we just read about it in the previous verses, a pagan follower of false gods.  That is the guy who was allowed to live in one of the storerooms of the temple!!

Eliashib in verse 4 allowed it.  He was a priest there at the temple and because he was “allied with Tobiah,” a relative of Tobiah, he had allowed him to live in the temple storerooms.  Now Nehemiah did not know this.  He was away in Persia.  He tells us that in verse 6, “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 (433 BC). Then after certain days(or after quite some time)I obtained leave from the king.”

A quick timeline: Nehemiah had been governing in Jerusalem, leading the people in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem for some twelve years, from 445 to 433.  Then, he went back up to King Artaxerxes, thousand miles away, back to the Persian Capital of Susa.  Remember, he had a job there as the king’s cupbearer.  So, he was back in Susa for awhile, maybe 2-3 years, no one knows for certain how long, but after some time, he obtained leave from the king, asked for permission to go back and see how things were going in Jerusalem, and he comes back to Jerusalem. 

What does he discover?  Verse 7 says, “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.”  He describes it as evil.  The temple was sullied with the presence of the unbelieving thug, Tobiah!  How did you feel about that, Nehemiah?  He tells us in verses 8 and 9, “And it grieved me bitterly; (what did you do, Nehemiah?) 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.”

We are going to be reading more of his righteous indignation in future study of this chapter where he gets even more brutal.  He is quite a contrast to his contemporary Ezra.  In the book of Ezra when God’s people fall into sin it causes Ezra to pull his hair out.  Later in this chapter we will see that when God’s people fall into sin it causes Nehemiah to pull their hair out!  

Nehemiah discovers Tobiah is living in one of the temple storerooms – defiling the purity of the temple – So Nehemiah does a thorough spring house cleaning.  The purity of the temple had been neglected.  Nehemiah foreshadows another housecleaning event.  Hard to read this passage without thinking about a future housecleaning of the temple five centuries later when our Lord Jesus would knock over the tables of the money changes in righteous anger and clean house (Matthew 21:12ff).  Remember: anger itself is not a sin.  Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry and sin not.”  Righteous indignation is not a sin.  

Nehemiah kicks out the Ammonite Tobiah and verse 9 tells he, “commanded them to cleanse the rooms.”  And they bring back into the storerooms “the articles of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense.”  

This mention of grain offerings leads to the third thing the people had neglected.  God’s people had neglected previous teaching, the purity of the temple, and thirdly, God’s people had fallen into sin . . .

3. Neglecting The Practice of Tithing – Verses 10-14.

Verse 10 says, “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.”  God’s people were to support the Levites through tithing.  You will recall that from last time.  They were to bring in grain offerings and tithes to support the ministry of those who ministered at the temple.  But the Levites were not being supported.  There were no storerooms full of tithes because Tobiah was living in the storerooms.  So, the Levites – who were supposed to be financially supported by God’s people – had to leave the temple and go work the fields to support themselves.  Verse 11 tells us what Nehemiah did about that, “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.”  Nehemiah got things in order and the people began tithing again. 

Verses 12 and 13 state, “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.”

Then Nehemiah prays in verse 14, “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 is asking God to not forget what he did in restoring to order the temple and its services.

In closing, I would like to leave you with three reminders by way of application.  How can we rightly apply this passage to our daily lives? 

1. The Duty of Confrontation.

When Nehemiah discovered that God’s people had fallen into sin, he called them out on it.  He confronted them.  It is a lie that we should avoid confronting people out of love. That is just wrong.  It is unloving to leave them in their sin.  Let me say that again: it is unloving to leave a brother or sister in sin.

The Bible says in Galatians 6:1-2, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

The Book of James ends in chapter 5 and verses 19-20 with these words, “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”  If you love me you will want to save my soul from death and lovingly lead me to Christ whose atonement covers a multitude of sins.  

Jesus teaches in Matthew 18 that when your brother or sister sins you are go and tell them their fault between you and them alone (Matthew 18:15ff).  We have a duty to confront sin.  Deal with it.

Remember the Duty of Confrontation.  Secondly, Reminder . . .

3. The Danger of Compromise.

Chapter 13 is full of compromise.  The people of God compromised their faith and trust in the One True and Living God.  They allowed sin to creep into their lives, creeping into their community, and into their temple.  Tobiah the ungodly Ammonite was allowed to come in among them!

Have you compromised, by allowing an ungodly Ammonite to take up residence in the storeroom of your temple, your body?  Is there an evil Tobiah who lives inside your heart?  What are you going to do about it?  Nehemiah took quick, decisive action.  He did not stop to pray about it.  It was evil.  He already knew what to do.  He kicked it out.  

You who have compromised your faith by allowing little Tobiah’s into your lives, you must “clean house” this morning.  Confess those sins and repent from those sins.  Do you have any unhealthy associations?  I do not mean, “Do you have lost friends.”  I hope you do have lost friends.  Many of them.  We should be praying for and talking regularly with lost neighbors, lost friends and co-workers about their need to accept Christ as Savior.  Are there unhealthy and unhelpful relationships causing you to compromise your faith in Christ?  That man, that lady, who does not follow Jesus and you are in a relationship with them – and they are drawing you away from the Lord.

Did you know that Lottie Moon, the famed Baptist Missionary Woman we remember at Christmastime, did you know she was once engaged to Southern Seminary Professor Crawford Toy?  She broke off the marriage engagement once she learned that he had changed his theology and no longer believed as she believed.  Though she loved that man, she loved Jesus more.  She knew the danger of compromise.

The Bible says in Proverbs 13:20: “He who walks with the wise becomes wise but a companion of fools suffers harm.” This is a reminder that if we allow unhealthy and unhelpful associations into our lives, we will very likely and very soon go astray.  You cannot follow God with a compromised heart.  You cannot expect to have any influence if you compromise your Christian convictions.  Someone said, “The world will never be evangelized by Christians who compromise.

Thirdly . . . God’s people had fallen into sin . . .

3. The Delight of the Cross.

We said at the outset that Chapter 13 is at once discouraging and encouraging.  It is awful easy to read of the compromise of God’s people in Nehemiah’s day and shake our heads in disbelief.  But as I reflect upon this chapter, I sense God often shaking His head over me.  How often have I sinned by behaving no differently?  The people had said during the covenant they made with God in Chapter 10, “We will not neglect the house of God!”  But here they are just three chapters later neglecting and forsaking God’s house.

What commitments have you made previously to God in your life?  How many broken promises?  How many sins?  Aren’t you glad, Christian, aren’t you glad that when you sin, the cross still stands to meet your needs?  God convicts you of your sin and you confess immediately, repent, and turn back to Him.  Thank God for that Holy Spirit conviction to point out sinful compromise!

As one commentator writes: “Be encouraged by the evidence of grace in the ongoing impulse to repent.”  I like that.  Be encouraged, Christian, by the evidence of grace in the ongoing impulse to repent.  And repent today.  Turn from sin and turn to the Savior.  The cross still stands to meet our needs.  If you are not a Christian, you are not a believer, you have never placed your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior – The cross still stands.  Right now.  Turn away from your sin and believe in the One who has made a way for you to be saved from eternal hell and suffering in the final judgment.   The only way to escape that fiery judgment is to turn away from sin and turn to Christ.  Believe that Jesus is who He said He is.  He lived for you and died in your place to bear the punishment you deserved, and He rose from the grave to grant life to all who believe.  Turn to Him today and follow Him in baptism, getting connected to the church and growing.

Those of you who are Christians, remember the duty to confront, the danger of compromise, and the delight of the cross.

This is God’s Word …

This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

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