Last Sunday we learned that Nehemiah left Jerusalem in 433 BC. He returned to Persia to serve King Artaxerxes, just as he’d originally sworn to do. While he was gone, the Jews reverted to their former ways. During this time a prophet known as Malachi emerged and spoke out against their sinful attitudes and behaviors. He warned them that God would soon send purification and judgment.
Sometime later, Nehemiah asked leave of the king and made his way back to Jerusalem for the second time. It is uncertain how long he’d been gone, but based upon the vast change in the Jews’ conduct it must have been quite a while. Historians debate on the exact time of his absence, but I suspect it was almost 10 years. I believe that nearing the end of King Artaxerxes reign, Nehemiah retired from his position and returned to Judah, probably around 424 BC.
What is certain is that when Nehemiah arrived, the atmosphere in the Holy City was completely different than when he’d left. Nehemiah had left a people enjoying revival and spiritual renewal. He came back to find the people practicing all sorts of misconduct, severely backslidden and distant from God. Oh how they had fallen in such a short period of time!
Have you ever left something one way and returned later to discover that it had changed? I like to drink coffee in the mornings. It helps energize me to face the new day. Occasionally I’ll get busy with some activity or distraction and set my cup aside. When I come back to finish drinking it later, the coffee has grown cold and disgusting. It has changed for the worse…
Nehemiah must have been appalled by the moral downfall of his people. I am certain he felt angered and disappointed that they had become so disobedient and irreverent toward God while he was gone. Nehemiah quickly implemented several reforms in an effort to correct and discipline the peoples’ behavior. These reforms will serve as the basis of today’s message and they make up the final chapter in the chronological narrative of the Old Testament.
I. PROMISES MADE (Review from Nehemiah 10)
After completing the wall, a mighty revival had broken out among the children of Israel. As you may remember, the congregation fell under strong conviction and all pledged to adhere to a written covenant. This would have been about 20 years earlier. They made 3 solemn promises...
They said that they would not engage in mixed marriages. This had been an ongoing problem throughout Jewish history, dating back to the days of Moses. Mixed marriages (with pagans) had been already addressed at least once with these Jews by Ezra before Nehemiah arrived.
They swore not to violate the Sabbath. The people were allowing merchants into the city and temple in order to transact business on the Sabbath day. They themselves were also buying and selling. They committed to stop this practice once and for all.
The vowed not neglect the Temple. The people were not providing for the needs of the Temple, the Levites, and priests as commanded in the Law of Moses. They were also failing to make acceptable and proper sacrifices to God.
II. PROMISES BROKEN - THE NEGLECT OF THE TEMPLE (Nehemiah 13:4-14)
The people had pledged not to neglect the house of God. But when Nehemiah returned from Persia, he found them doing so. The high priest had allowed a non-Jew (who had been their enemy) to repeatedly use a chamber in the temple courts as his own. In addition to this, the people had neglected the tithe and many of the Levites had left.
Back in chapter 4, Tobiah was one of the leaders who had ridiculed and tormented Nehemiah and the people unsuccessfully trying to prevent them from rebuilding the city wall. In chapter 6 we saw the Jewish nobles continuing to converse with him despite his antagonistic behavior. Tobiah was an Ammonite, but had married a Jewish woman. Tobiah’s son had also married a Jew, and thus he was related to many of them. Nevertheless, he had no business in the temple and Nehemiah promptly threw him out. The items that had been removed to make room for Tobiah were put back in their rightful place.
Portions of the tithes had not been given. The Levites and singers relied on these tithes as income, to help support their ministry. Because the people withheld them, many of the Levites and singers were forced to return home in order to make a living. Nehemiah took steps to resolve this issue so that these temple servants could return.
III. PROMISES BROKEN - THE VIOLATION OF THE SABBATH (Nehemiah 13:15-22)
The people had pledged not to violate the Sabbath day. But when Nehemiah returned from Persia, he found them doing so. They were conducting all kinds of business on the Sabbath, in clear violation of both the Law and their covenantal promise.
Nehemiah sternly reprimanded the people for their actions. He then prevented merchants from entering the city on the Sabbath to buy and sell. When they continued to come anyway, he warned them that he’d use force if necessary to keep them out. The merchants took his threat seriously and quit coming on the Sabbath day. Notice that Nehemiah's strategy for eliminating the sin was to remove the source of temptation.
IV. PROMISES BROKEN - THE ALLOWANCE OF MIXED MARRIAGES (Nehemiah 13:23-29)
The people had pledged not to allow mixed marriages with foreigners hostile toward God. But when Nehemiah returned from Persia, he found them doing just that. As such, the Jews were already beginning to lose the cultural and spiritual identity that they had just reestablished. Their allegiance to God alone was again being compromised.
The people had sworn not to practice mixed marriage, but they were. Strike one. The people had sworn not to violate the Sabbath, but they were. Strike two. The people had sworn not to neglect the temple, but they were. Strike three.
Isn’t it uncanny? The same three things that the Jewish remnant had vowed never to do again were the exact same things that Nehemiah found them doing. Astonishing! Their willpower to stop sinning, which at one time was very strong and sincere, had proven to be woefully insufficient. They just couldn’t help themselves from sinning… because they were sinners.
Although they were weak, and doomed to repeat their same mistakes again and again, still Nehemiah was right to reprimand them and call them to live righteously. Their inability to avoid sin was not an excuse to willingly practice it. As God’s children, they had the responsibility of living as obediently as possible and repenting when they fell short.
It is easy to see that we are much like the Jews in Nehemiah’s day. We too make promises to God, then break those promises. We too rise to lofty heights, only to fall back into familiar valleys. We too vow to make changes, but they seldom last. And still, despite our shortcomings, God desires our obedience. His grace is not a free pass for us to sin and those who truly saved will never be continually indifferent about their sin.
This remains the great paradox of our faith. God calls us to do something that he knows we can’t do. He demands perfection of us, which is a standard no person can reach. Why would He do this? Is it because he delights in watching us fail, or is it to teach us that without Him we can never succeed?
Our God is a big god. What he wants us to accomplish is much greater than anything we could ever do on our own. We need Him. We need him for salvation from our sins. We need Him for our daily living. We need Him so that we can successfully do all that He calls us to do. Beloved, we can’t do this on our own - we need God!