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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Nehemiah 13

 

 

Verses 1-31

THE RIGOUR OF THE REFORMER

Nehemiah 13:1-31

THERE is no finality in history. The chapter, that seems to be rounded off with a perfect conclusion always leaves room for an appendix, which in its turn may serve as an introduction to another chapter. Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s work seemed to have reached its climax in the happy scene of the dedication of the walls. All difficulties had vanished; the new order had been. greeted with widespread enthusiasm; the future promised to be smooth and prosperous. If the chronicler had laid down his pen at this point, as any dramatist before Ibsen who was not bound by the exigencies of prosaic facts would have done, his work might have presented a much more artistic appearance than it now wears. And yet it would have been artificial, and therefore false to the highest art of history. In adding a further extract from Nehemiah’s memoirs that discloses a revival of the old troubles, and so shows that the evils against which the reformers contend had not been stamped out, the writer mars the literary effect of his record of their triumph, but, at the same time, he satisfies us that he is in contact with real life, its imperfections and its disappointments.

It is not easy to settle the time of the incident mentioned in Nehemiah 13:1-3. The phrase "on that day" with which the passage opens seems to point back to the previous chapter. If so it cannot be taken literally, because what it describes must be assigned to a later period than the contents of the paragraph that follows it. It forms an introduction to the extract from Nehemiah’s memoirs, and its chronological position is even later than the date of the first part of the extract, because that begins with the words "And before this," [Nehemiah 13:4] i.e., before the incident that opens the chapter. Now it is clear that Nehemiah’s narrative here refers to a time considerably after the transactions of the previous chapter, inasmuch as he states that when the first of the occurrences he now records happened he was away in the court of Artaxerxes. [Nehemiah 13:6] Still later, then, must that event be placed before which this new incident occurred. We might perhaps suppose that the phrase "at that day" is carried over directly from the chronicler’s original source and belongs to its antecedents in that document, but so clumsy a piece of joinery is scarcely admissible. It is better to take the phrase quite generally. Whatever it meant when first penned, it is clear that the events it introduces belong only indefinitely to the times previously mentioned. We are really landed by them in a new state of affairs. Here we must notice that the introductory passage is immediately connected with the Nehemiah record. It tells how the law from Deuteronomy requiring the exclusion of the Ammonite and the Moabite was read and acted on. This is to be remembered when we are studying the subsequent events.

When Nehemiah’s extended leave of absence had come to an end, or when perhaps he had been expressly summoned back by Artaxerxes, his return to Babylon was followed by a melancholy relapse in the reformed city of Jerusalem. This is not by any means astonishing. Nothing so hinders and distresses the missionary as the repeated outbreak of their old heathen vices among his converts. The drunkard cannot be reckoned safe directly he has signed the pledge. Old habits may be damped down without being extinguished, and when this is the case they will flame up again as soon as the repressive influence is removed. In the present instance there was a distinct party in the city, consisting of some of the most prominent and influential citizens, which disapproved of the separatist, puritanical policy of the reformers and advocated a more liberal course. Some of its members may have been conscientious men, who honestly deplored what they would regard as the disastrous state of isolation brought about by the action of Ezra and Nehemiah. After having been silenced for a time by the powerful presence of the great reformers, these people would come out and declare themselves when the restraining influences were removed. Meanwhile we hear no more of Ezra. Like Zerubbabel in the earlier period, he drops out of the history without a hint as to his end. He may have returned to Babylon thinking his work complete; possibly he had been recalled by the king.

It is likely that some rumours of the declension of Jerusalem reached Nehemiah at the Persian court. But he did not discover the whole extent of this retrograde movement until he was once more in the city, with a second leave of absence from Artaxerxes. Then there were four evils that he perceived with great grief.

The first was that Tobiah had got a footing in the city. In the earlier period this "servant" had been carrying on intrigues with some members of the aristocracy. The party of opposition had done its best to represent him in a favourable light to Nehemiah, and all the while this party had been traitorously keeping Tobiah informed of the state of affairs in the city. But now a further step was taken. Though one of the three leading enemies of Nehemiah, the ally and supporter of the Samaritan governor Sanballat, this man was actually permitted to have a lodging in the precincts of the temple. The locality was selected, doubtless, because it was within the immediate jurisdiction of the priests, among whom the Jewish opponents of Nehemiah were found. It is as though, in his quarrel with Henry, Thomas A. Becket had lodged a papal envoy in the cathedral close at Canterbury. To a Jew who did not treat the ordinances of religion with the Sadducean laxity that was always to be found in some of the leading members of the priesthood, this was most abhorrent. He saw in it a defilement of the neighbourhood of the temple, if not of the sacred enclosure itself, as’ well as an insult to the former governor of the city. Tobiah may have used his room for the purpose of entertaining visitors in state, but it may only have been a warehouse for trade stores, as it had previously been a place in which the bulky sacrificial gifts were stowed away. Such a degradation of it, superseding its previous sacred use, would aggravate the evil in the sight of so strict a man as Nehemiah.

The outrage was easily accounted for. Tobiah was allied by marriage to the priest who was the steward of this chamber. Thus we have a clear case of trouble arising out of the system of foreign marriages which Ezra had so strenuously opposed. It seems to have opened the eyes of the younger reformer to the evil of these marriages, for hitherto we have not found him taking any active part in furthering the action of Ezra with regard to them. Possibly he had not come across an earlier instance. But now it was plain enough that the effect was to bring a pronounced enemy of all he loved and advocated into the heart of the city, with the rights of a tenant, too, to back him up. If "evil communications corrupt good manners," this was most injurious to the cause of the reformation. The time had not arrived when a generous spirit could dare to welcome all comers to Jerusalem. The city was still a fortress in danger of siege. More than that, it was a Church threatened with dissolution by reason of the admission of unfit members. Whatever we may say to the social and political aspects of the case, ecclesiastically regarded, laxity at the present stage would have been fatal to the future of Judaism, and the mere presence of such a man as Tobiah, openly sanctioned by a leading priest, was a glaring instance of laxity; Nehemiah was bound to stop the mischief.

The second evil was the neglect of the payments due to the Levites. It is to be observed again that the Levites are most closely associated with the reforming position. Religious laxity and indifference had had an effect on the treasury for which these men were the collectors. The financial thermometer is a very rough test of the spiritual condition of a religious community, and we often read it erroneously, not only because we cannot gauge the amount of sacrifice made by people in very different circumstances, nor just because we are unable to discover the motives that prompt the giving of alms "before men," but also, when every allowance is made for these causes of uncertainty, because the gifts which are usually considered most generous rarely involve enough strain and effort to bring the deepest springs of life into play. And yet it must be allowed that a declining subscription list is usually to be regarded as one sign of waning interest on the part of the supporters of any public movement. When we consider the matter from the other side, we must acknowledge that the best way to improve the pecuniary position of any religious enterprise is not to work the exhausted pump more vigorously, but to drive the well deeper and tap the resources of generosity that lie nearer the heart-not to beg harder, but to awaken a better spirit of devotion.

The third indication of backsliding that vexed the soul of Nehemiah was Sabbath profanation. He saw labour and. commerce both proceeding on the day of rest-Jews treading the winepress, carrying their sheaves, lading their asses, and bringing loads of wine, grapes, and figs, and all sorts of wares, into Jerusalem for sale, and fishmongers and pedlars from Tyre - not, of course, themselves to be blamed for failing to respect the festival of a people whose religion they did not share-pouring into the city, and opening their markets as on any weekday. Nehemiah was greatly alarmed. He went at once to the nobles, who seem to have been governing the city, as a sort of oligarchy, during his absence, and expostulated with them on their danger of provoking the wrath of God again, urging that Sabbath-breaking had been one of the offences which had called down the judgment of Heaven on their fathers. Then he took means to prevent the coming of foreign traders on the Sabbath, by ordering the gates to be kept closed from Friday evening till the sacred day was over. Once or twice these people came up as usual and camped just outside the city, but as this was disturbing to the peace of the day, Nehemiah threatened that if they repeated the annoyance he would lay hands on them. ‘Lastly, he charged the Levites, first to cleanse themselves that they might be ready to undertake a work of purification, and then to take charge of the gates on the Sabbath and see that the day was hallowed in the cessation of all labour. Thus both by persuasion and by vigorous active measures Nehemiah put an end to the disorder.

The importance attached to this matter is a sign of the prominence given to Sabbath-keeping in Judaism. The same thing was seen earlier in the selection of the law of the Sabbath as one of the two or three rules to be specially noted, and to which the Jews were to particularly pledge themselves in the covenant. [Nehemiah 10:31] Reference was then made to the very act of the Tyrians now complained of the offering of wares and food for sale in Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. Putting these two passages together, we can see where the Sabbath-breaking came from. It was the invasion of a foreign custom-like the dreaded introduction of the "Continental Sunday" into England. Now to Nehemiah the fact of the foreign origin of the custom would be a heavy condemnation for it. Next to circumcision, Sabbath-keeping was the principal mark of the Jew. In the days of our Lord it was the most highly prized feature of the ancient faith. This was then so obvious that it was laid hold of by Roman satirists, who knew little about the strange traders in the Ghetto except that they "sabbatised." Nehemiah saw that if the sacred day of rest were to be abandoned, one of his bulwarks of separation would be lost. Thus for him, with his fixed policy, and in view of the dangers of his age, there was a very urgent reason for maintaining the Sabbath, a reason which of course does not apply to us in England today. We must pass on to the teaching of Christ to have this question put on a wider and more permanent basis. With that Divine insight of His which penetrated to the root of every matter, our Lord saw through the miserable formalism that made an idol of a day, and in so doing turned a boon into a burden. At the same time He rescued the sublimely simple truth which contains both the justification and the limitation of the Sabbath, when He declared, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." In resisting the rigour of legal-minded Sabbatarianism, the modern mind seems to have confined its attention to the second clause of this great utterance, to the neglect of its first clause. Is it nothing, then, that Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man"-not for the Jew only, but for man? Although we may feel free from the religion of law in regard to the observance of days as much as in other external matters, is it not foolish for us to minimise a blessing that Jesus Christ expressly declared to be for the good of the human race? If the rest day was needed by the Oriental in the slow-moving life of antiquity, is it any less requisite for the Western in the rush of these later times? But if it is necessary to our welfare, the neglect of it is sinful. Thus not because of the inherent sanctity of seasons, but on our Lord’s own ground of the highest utilitarianism-a utilitarianism which reaches to other people, and even to animals, and affects the soul as well as the body-the reservation of one day in seven for rest is a sacred duty. "The world is too much with us" for the six days. We can ill afford to lose the recurrent escape from its blighting companionship originally provided by the seventh and now enjoyed on our Sunday.

Lastly, Nehemiah was confronted by the social effects of foreign marriage alliances. These, alliances had been contracted by Jews resident in the southwestern corner of Judaea, who may not have come under the influence of Ezra’s drastic reformation in Jerusalem, and who probably were not married till after that event. They afford another evidence of the counter-current that was running so strongly against the regulations of the party of rigour while Nehemiah was away. The laxity of the border people may be accounted for without calling in any subtle motives. But their fault was shared by a member of the gens of the high-priest, who had actually wedded the daughter of Nehemiah’s arch-enemy Sanballat! Clearly this was a political alliance, and it indicated a defiant reversal of the policy of the reformers in the very highest circles. The offender, after being expelled from Jerusalem, is said to have been the founder of the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim.

Then the social mischief of the mixed marriages was showing itself in the corruption of the Hebrew language. The Philistine language was not allied to the Egyptian, as some have thought, nor was it Indo-Germanic, as others have supposed, but it was Semitic, and only a different dialect from the Hebrew, and yet the difficulty persons from the south of England feel in understanding the speech of Yorkshiremen in remote parts of the county will help us to account for a practical loss of mutual intelligence between people of different dialects, when these dialects were still more isolated by having grown up in two separate and hostile nations. For the children of Jewish parents to be talking with the tones and accents of the hereditary enemies of Israel was intolerable. When he heard the hated sounds, Nehemiah simply lost his temper. With a curse on his lips he rushed at the fathers, striking them and tearing their hair. It was the rage of bitter disappointment, but behind it lay the grim set purpose in holding to which with dogged tenacity Ezra and Nehemiah saved Judaism from extinction. Separatism is never gracious, yet it may be right. The reformer is not generally of a mild temperament. We may regret his harshness, but we should remember that the world has only seen one perfectly meek and yet thoroughly effective Revolutionist, only one "Lamb of God" who could be also named "the Lion of the tribe of Judah."

The whole situation was disappointing to Nehemiah and his memoir ends in a prayer beneath which we can detect an undertone of melancholy. Three times during this last section he appeals to God to remember him-not to wipe out his good deeds, [Nehemiah 13:14] to spare him according to the greatness of the Divine mercy, [Nehemiah 13:22] and finally to remember him for good. [Nehemiah 13:31] The memories of the Jerusalem covenanters had been brief; during the short interval of their leader’s absence they had forgotten his discipline and fallen back into negligent ways. It was vain to trust to the fickle fancies of men. With a sense of weary loneliness, taught to feel his own insignificance in that great tide of human life that flows on in its own course though the most prominent figures drop out of notice, Nehemiah turned to his God, the one Friend who never forgets. He was learning the vanity of the world’s fame, yet he shrank from the idea of falling into oblivion. Therefore it was his prayer that he might abide in the memory of God. This was by itself a restful thought. It is cheering to think that we may dwell in the memory of those we love. But to be held in the thought of God is to have a place in the heart of infinite love. And yet this was not the conclusion of the whole matter to Nehemiah. It is really nothing better than a frivolous vanity, that can induce any one to be willing to sacrifice the prospect of a real eternal life in exchange for the pallid shadow of immortality ascribed to the "choir invisible" of those who are only thought of as living in the memory of the world they have influenced enough to win "a niche in the temple of fame." What is fame to a dead man mouldering in his coffin? Even the higher thought of being remembered by God is a poor consolation in prospect of blank non-existence. Nehemiah expects something better, for he begs God to remember him in mercy and for good. It is a very narrow, prosaic interpretation of this prayer to say that he only means that he desires a blessing during the remainder of his life in the court at Susa. On the other hand, it may be too much to ascribe the definite hope of a future life to this Old Testament saint. And yet, vague as his thought may be, it is the utterance of a profound yearning of the soul that breaks out in moments of disappointment with an intensity never to be satisfied within the range of our cramped mortal state. In this utterance of Nehemiah we have, at least, a seed thought that should germinate into the great hope of immortality. If God could forget His children, we might expect them to perish, swept aside like the withered leaves of autumn. But if He continues to remember them, it is not just to His Fatherhood to charge Him with permitting such a fate to fall upon His offspring. No human father who is worthy of the name would willingly let go the children whom he cherishes in mind and heart. Is it reasonable to suppose that the perfect Divine Father, who is both almighty and all-loving, would be less constant? But if He remembers His children, and remembers them for good, He will surely preserve them. If His memory is unfading, and if His love and power are eternal, those who have a place in His immortal thought must also have a share in His immortal life.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Nehemiah 13:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/nehemiah-13.html.

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