Faithfulness and Unfaithfulness
Sunday, 14th July 2019
How do you like stories to finish? Do you prefer happy endings? But what if a happy ending doesn’t ring true? In fiction a satisfying ending needs to fit in with what has gone before. And in non-fiction the writer needs to tell the truth. So what about the ending of the Book of Nehemiah? It depends how you look at it. It can be viewed as a record of Nehemiah’s faithfulness, and so a happy ending. But Nehemiah’s faithfulness is inextricably linked with the unfaithfulness of numerous other people, so it could also be considered an unhappy ending, but a truthful one.
It was tempting to focus on the positive side of the ending, on Nehemiah’s faithfulness. But I decided that I needed to emphasise both sides, both the happy and the unhappy, both faithfulness and unfaithfulness. So this is how I am going to work through Nehemiah 13 this morning, before suggesting that there is a third perspective to be considered.
Unfaithfulness in the Temple
So let us be people who rely on God’s grace, relying not on what we can do but what Jesus has done for our acceptance by God. Yet let us also be people who endeavour to be faithful followers of Jesus.
When we fail, God’s merciful forgiveness is available. But if we love Jesus we must endeavour to be faithful to him.
(Nehemiah 13:1-13) The full title for this first section should be “Unfaithfulness in the Temple, and Nehemiah’s Response”, but I didn’t want to make the title too long. Chronologically, this incident begins with the absence of Nehemiah, when he goes back to Artaxerxes the Emperor for a time, although this is not revealed until verse 6. The unfaithfulness begins with the actions of Eliashib while Nehemiah is absent.
Eliashib is the priest who was given responsibility for supervising the use of the storerooms in the temple. He was required to make sure that they were used in a way which honoured God, and which contributed to the right use of the temple. But this is not what he did – read 13:4-5.
“Before this, Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah, and he had provided him with a large room formerly used to store the grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil prescribed for the Levites, musicians and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests.”
Nehemiah 13:4-5 NIVUK
This was wrong for a number of reasons. First, as Nehemiah’s account implies, it involved making temple storerooms unavailable for their rightful purpose by handing them over for the private use of an individual. In addition to this, there is the identity of that individual. Tobiah is an Ammonite, and it is stated in Deuteronomy that no Ammonite or Moabite is to be accepted into the assembly of God’s people, because of the hostility of these nations to the Israelites when they came into the Promised Land. This needs to be properly understood.
It was not an unconditional ban on every individual. This is made clear in the Book of Ruth, where Ruth the Moabitess is accepted and honoured when she sincerely becomes a worshiper of the God of her mother-in-law Naomi, the God of Israel. It was a ban on those who hung on to the pagan religion of their ancestors, and the hostility of their ancestors to the people of God. Which brings us back to Tobiah. He has already shown himself in Nehemiah’s narrative to be hostile to God’s people and God’s purposes, being one of the main opponents of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. It is for all these reasons that Nehemiah reacts so strongly when he returns to Jerusalem. Read 13:7b-9.
“Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God. I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense.”
Nehemiah 13:7b-9 NIVUK
We can’t read these words without being reminded of Jesus’ reaction to misuse of the temple. Like Jesus, Nehemiah is zealous for the right use of God’s house. And he goes on to deal with an important consequence of what Eliashib did.
Since the storerooms were not used to store supplies for the priests and Levites, these men had left Jerusalem and gone back to their fields, abandoning their service in the temple. So Nehemiah restores these rooms to their proper use, and places four good men in charge of making sure that the priests and Levites are cared for.But there is more, more unfaithfulness and another strong response from Nehemiah.
Unfaithfulness on the Sabbath
(Nehemiah 13:15-22a) Read 13:15-18.
“In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. People from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this wicked thing you are doing – desecrating the Sabbath day? Didn’t your ancestors do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity on us and on this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.’”
Nehemiah 13:15-18 NIVUK
We need to understand that observance of the Sabbath was one of the markers of the Old Covenant, one way in which God’s Old Covenant people declared that they belonged to the only true God, who had called the people of Israel to be his people. To treat the Sabbath with contempt was to treat God with contempt. The next few verses record measures which Nehemiah took to ensure that they didn’t treat the Sabbath with contempt. But what should we do?
We should be faithful New Covenant people, who gather for worship on the Lord’s Day, the day of the Resurrection, and who endeavour to live every day as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. But there is one more story of unfaithfulness to be considered, and one more story of how Nehemiah responded.
Unfaithfulness in Marriage
(Nehemiah 13:23-28) Nehemiah describes this third form of unfaithfulness in only a few words – read 13:23-24.
“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.”
Nehemiah 13:23-24 NIVUK
So what is wrong this time? It might help to think of the Book of Ruth again in order to see what is notwrong. In that book Boaz is honoured for marrying Ruth the Moabitess, and both Ruth and Boaz are honoured as ancestors of King David. So there is nothing wrong with marrying a foreigner who has sincerely come to faith in the one true God.
But that is not what has happened here. It is significant that many of the children have not learnt Hebrew. This means that they are not able to learn to read the Scriptures, or listen to teaching from the Scriptures. It is also significant that Nehemiah compares their actions with those of King Solomon, who married many foreign wives. 1 Kings records that, far from bringing his wives to faith in the God of Israel, Solomon joined them in worshiping false gods, apparently thinking that he could worship these gods as well as the one true God. Clearly this is what was happening in Nehemiah’s day as well. This is why Nehemiah reacted so strongly – read 13:25-27.
“I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: ‘You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?’”
Nehemiah 13:25-27 NIVUK
I don’t think that we should endorse Nehemiah’s physical and verbal violence, but we should respect his zeal for faithfulness to God.
As Christians we should avoid anything which draws us away from Jesus. This includes marriage to someone who is hostile to our Christian faith, but is not confined to that. But there are a few verses which I have not yet considered, and these verses contain that third perspective which I mentioned earlier.
(Nehemiah 13:14,22b,29-31) Each of the sections which we have looked at ends in the same way, with one or two prayers. Let’s look at those prayers. The first section, concerning the temple, ends like this – read 13:14.
“Remember me for this, my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services.”
Nehemiah 13:14 NIVUK
The second section, concerning the Sabbath, ends like this – read 13:22b.
“Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.”
Nehemiah 13:22 NIVUK
And the third section, concerning intermarriage, ends like this – read 13:28-31.
“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. Remember them, my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites. So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task. I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me with favour, my God.”
Nehemiah 13:28-31 NIVUK
These verses which I have read are only a few within quite a long chapter, but they should guide our reading of the whole chapter. Nehemiah’s account is written for people to read, but they are God’s people, and his account is to be read and reflected upon in God’s presence.
We are reminded that it is what God remembers about us which matters most, more than what other people remember. But what about the character of Nehemiah’s prayers concerning himself – is there a problem here? Does Nehemiah rely on his own good works to earn himself acceptance with God? This would be an understandable interpretation, but I don’t think that it’s correct. First, they are prayers, not demandsfor God’s favour but requests. And, I believe, the wording of the second prayer guides our interpretation of all three. Read 13:22b again.
“Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.”
Nehemiah 13:22b NIVUK
Nehemiah asks God to remember his faithful actions, but he nonetheless asks not for justice according to his own actions but mercy, according to God’s great love.The Hebrew word translated “love” here in the NIV is a very important word in the Old Testament. It is used over and over to describe the character of God. In the AV it was almost always translated as “mercy”, while more modern translators have usually used expressions involving love, such as “steadfast love” and “loyal love” and “covenant love”. It is also closely akin to the word “grace” in the English New Testament. This word reminds us that none of us can earn God’s favour. All of us are dependent on God’s grace, his undeserved favour, which springs from his love.
So let us be people who rely on God’s grace, relying not on what we can do but what Jesus has done for our acceptance by God. Yet let us also be people who endeavour to be faithful followers of Jesus. When we fail, God’s merciful forgiveness is available. But if we love Jesus we must endeavour to be faithful to him.