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Worldview Bible
Relax and Rebel


Nehemiah 13:19-22

As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day. Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said to them, “Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.” From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.

The Story: It was one thing for Nehemiah to convince the Jews who wanted to follow God to keep the Sabbath. It was another to convince the local Tyrians, Arabs, and others. Their interest in following the Lord God of Israel was probably not very keen. Business is, after all, business. So Nehemiah came up with a simple and effective solution: He closed the gates at sundown Friday and didn’t open them until the Sabbath was over. Jerusalem for one day a week was closed for business. After “the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares” spent a Saturday or two camped outside Jerusalem and heard Nehemiah’s threats, they changed their behavior. Commerce could wait because Nehemiah gave commerce no other choice. In this Nehemiah was not being mean or ornery. He spent himself for the good of God’s people. In that, I wonder whether his “Remember me . . .” was the prayer of someone growing increasingly tired. The people never quite understood that the point of the Sabbath was not to keep rules because “we have to,” but to spend a day rejoicing in the utter faithfulness of the covenant-keeping God who cares for His people and meets all their needs.

The Structure: In his book “A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah,” theologian J. I. Packer comments that whether or not Sunday is “the Christian Sabbath” or not obscures the point. It’s still the Lord’s Day and, he writes, “The Lord’s day is God’s gift to us for the health of our souls and the souls of others, and we must appreciate, honor, and use it accordingly. It is a day of spiritual opportunity, because it is a day of united worship; it is in the worship together of his people that God specially makes himself known.” He also notes that we live in an age when “secularism eats away at Christian public observance and our pagan culture assimilates Sunday more and more completely to be like any other day of the week, thus in effect returning to the paganism of the world to which Christianity first came, and from which Christians were instructed to be distinctly different.” Nehemiah understood God’s call to rebel against the prevailing pagan culture, and we should as well.

Regarding not just observing the Lord’s Day, but in all of life, how countercultural are you? What are the ways in which you’ve sold out to “our pagan culture”? What changes do you need to make?

 
Rest or Wrath


Nehemiah 13:15-18

In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself! Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.”

The Story: Once again, the promises the people made were clear: “And if the peoples of the land bring in goods or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on a holy day” (10:31). But my, the wine, grapes, figs, fish, grains, and vegetables at the Sabbath farmers’ market sure looked good. And who knew whether or not they’d still be available tomorrow? It may have been the Sabbath, but it seemed prudent to buy (and sell) what you needed. Again Nehemiah confronted the people, beginning with the leaders. Had they forgotten God’s words through the prophet Jeremiah (17:27): “But if you do not listen to me, to keep the Sabbath day holy, and not to bear a burden and enter by the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched”? (See also Ezekiel 20:1-32.) The Sabbath represented the entire covenant. Like the tree in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:16-17), rejecting this one simple commandment signified a rejection of all the commandments, of the Covenant, and of God Himself. That happened once and it was ugly.  It should not, Nehemiah insisted, happen again.

The Structure: The movie “Chariots of Fire” reminded us that Eric Liddell, world class sprinter and devout Christian, refused to race in the Olympics on Sunday, the Sabbath. Even when pressured by the ill-tempered head of the British Olympic committee and asked by royalty, he stood his ground. “God made countries,” he told them. “God makes kings, and the rules by which they govern. And those rules say that the Sabbath is His. And I for one intend to keep it that way.” We may disagree about whether his decision was necessary—though I believe we should all give Sabbath observance renewed and careful consideration—but this much is clear: Liddell in the movie and in real life was a man of principle who put God and His commandments first, above king and country, above fun and friends, and above career and profit. Eric Liddell and Nehemiah would have completely understood each other. Would they understand you?

How have you seen little acts of rebellion against God turn into big acts of rebellion? What are the little acts of unfaithfulness in your life?

 
Remember Me


Nehemiah 13:14

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 his service.

The Story: Here and in verses 22 and 31, Nehemiah asked God to remember him as he did in 5:19. We might be inclined to chastise Nehemiah for some sort of “works righteousness,” as though he was appealing to God by his good works. That would be to ignore the entire thrust of Nehemiah’s life. From the first chapter, he called on God to remember His covenant. Here he reminds God that he, Nehemiah, had been true to God’s covenant as well. Beneath the words “good deeds” is the Hebrew word hesed, and so a better translation might be “my deeds of loyal covenant love.” The travails of God’s people were entirely the result of breaking the covenant repeatedly, even in the light of God’s grace (9:16-30). Nehemiah’s life testifies to the sacrificial efforts he made on behalf of God’s people, how he strove to obey God and to encourage the people to obey God. In his absence, those sacrificial efforts were all but wiped out and so he called on God, asking Him to remember all that he had done, with the thought of renewing his efforts for God’s glory and the good of the people.

The Structure: The Gospel may be “just as I am without one plea,” but it is assuredly not just as I am without one change. Grace does not mean a behavioral free-for-all. In the Gospel, God calls us into the New Covenant through faith in Jesus, and all covenants come with stipulations, that is, with commandments about how to live. We, like the people of God in the Old Testament, are called to covenant loyalty. That’s why Paul in his letter to Ephesians spends chapters 1-2 expounding the glories of God’s free gift of grace, and then appears to change the subject in chapters 3-6 with a long list of rules for Christian living. The book turns on 3:1 and (after a long parenthesis) 4:1. “For this reason . . .” he wrote. What reason? God’s grace and kindness explained in chapters 1-2. “I . . . urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” And what is that calling? “That we should be holy and blameless before him,” that is, that we will live lives of covenant loyalty, lives we want God to see and remember.

What are you trying to get away with in your Christian life? What changes have you refused to make, using grace as an excuse? What do you need to do about it?

 
Promises


Nehemiah13:10-13

I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them, so that the Levites and the singers, who did the work, had fled each to his field. So I confronted the officials and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” And I gathered them together and set them in their stations. Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain, wine, and oil into the storehouses. And I appointed as treasurers over the storehouses Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and Pedaiah of the Levites, and as their assistant Hanan the son of Zaccur, son of Mattaniah, for they were considered reliable, and their duty was to distribute to their brothers.

The Story: During the great revival before Nehemiah journeyed back to Susa to make his report to King Artexerxes, the people promised to bring the firstfruits and tithes to the Temple to provide for the priests, Levites, singers, and others (10:37-39). Their giving would allow the priests, Levites, and others to perform all the services of worship required in the Temple. “We will not neglect the house of our God,” they swore. Now, years later, when Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he discovered that their promise had been forgotten and the house of God forsaken. In order to have sufficient food to survive, those who ministered in the Temple had been forced to farm like everyone else. Since farming is time- and labor-consuming, there was little time or energy left to run up to Jerusalem to lead worship and offer sacrifices. Nehemiah, as a good leader, confronted the situation head-on and found reliable men who would take their duty seriously so that God’s house would no longer be neglected.

The Structure: “I got a problem. Can you relate?” sang Eric Clapton. “I got a woman calling love hate./We made a vow we’d always be friends./How could we know that promises end?” Promises, of course, are not supposed to end, and yet Clapton’s problem is common in marriages, families, churches, and businesses, and among neighbors. We make promises that later become too difficult or too inconvenient or too expensive to fulfill. Sometimes we flat-out break the promises, but most of the time, we just neglect them and hope the demands will go away. And since almost everyone is used to broken promises, the demands typically do go away. But that doesn’t mean that the promises go away. Nehemiah shattered the silence of quiet promise-breaking in Jerusalem. A vow, he insisted, is a vow. That was true then and it’s still true now. We should not promise carelessly, but once we give our word, our word is given and we need to fulfill our vows. If our spouses, children, family, and friends discover that in this fallen world “promises end,” our steadfastness should give them pause to think again and conclude, “but not always.”

How good are you at keeping your promises? Are there promises you’ve made that have faded in the silence, but are promises nonetheless? How will you make good on those promises?

 
Under Authority


Nehemiah 13:6-9

While this was taking place, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I went to the king. And after some time I asked leave of the king and came to Jerusalem, and I then discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, preparing for him a chamber in the courts of the house of God. And I was very angry, and I threw all the household furniture of Tobiah out of the chamber. Then I gave orders, and they cleansed the chambers, and I brought back there the vessels of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense.

The Story: During his stay in Jerusalem, in all he accomplished, Nehemiah remained the king’s servant. His first term as governor lasted about 12 years, after which he returned to Artaxerxes to make his report and receive new orders. He was a man under authority and only returned to Jerusalem when the king granted him permission. There he found that in the absence of authority, Eliashib had given the storeroom in the Temple to Tobiah. Someone had the responsibility to govern Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s absence, and everyone knew Tobiah was using a storeroom in the Temple as a mini-storage unit or possibly an office. But no one at any level of administration in Jerusalem was willing to intervene. In Nehemiah’s absence, the residents and leaders of the city forgot about the revival they experienced and the oaths they took. Instead they settled into a comfortable compromise with the world. Nehemiah had every reason to become “very angry” and to evict Tobiah summarily.

The Structure: If sin with its attending selfishness is what’s wrong with the world—and a Christian worldview acknowledges that it is so—then what keeps us from completely running amok is accountability. In an ultimate sense, we are accountable to God. The day will come when “each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). The time-tested way to prepare to give a good account to God is by making ourselves accountable to others. That could be a formal accountability such as a minister might have with a church board, presbytery, or bishop. It could be slightly formal accountability such as a relationship with a spiritual director. Or it could be informal as friends meet together to “stir up one another to love and good works” and encourage one another, “and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

To whom are you accountable? Who may ask you hard questions about your spiritual, relational, business, and intellectual life? If the answer is “no one,” ask yourself why and remedy your dangerous situation.

 
Business as Usual


Nehemiah 13:4-5

Now before this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, and who was related to Tobiah, prepared for Tobiah a large chamber where they had previously put the grain offering, the frankincense, the vessels, and the tithes of grain, wine, and oil, which were given by commandment to the Levites, singers, and gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests.

The Story: We met Tobiah earlier in the book. His name means “The Lord is good.” This unfortunately did not translate to “Tobiah is good.” While his name indicates that he was a Jew, his ethnic background appears to be Ammonite. Nehemiah identifies him as “the Ammonite servant” (2:9), which probably meant he was an official of some sort in Ammon, east of the Jordan. Nehemiah and a renewed Jewish people living in the land represented a political and economic threat to Tobiah, and thus he was angry that someone had arrived to seek the welfare of the people of Jerusalem (2:10)—so angry that he opposed the work on the wall (2:19; 4:3,7) and participated in a plot to kill Nehemiah (6:1). He didn’t succeed, but through carefully chosen marriages—his own and his son’s—Tobiah was nonetheless well connected in and around Jerusalem and “many in Judah were bound by oath to him” (6:18), including, we may assume, Eliashib the priest, who gave him space to conduct business in Lord’s Temple. While the text is unclear as to whether Tobiah had access to the tithes as well as the use of the storeroom, that he was there at all defiled the Temple and the name and ministry of Eliashib.

The Structure: Our lives are filled with decisions that demand we choose between competing commitments. On the one hand, getting away to the beach for vacation is just what you need to relax and unwind. On the other hand, you haven’t visited your parents in two years or you need a new roof on the house or there’s a big deadline at work in September or your spouse hates the beach. These are all competing commitments. As a priest, Eliashib had a commitment to the purity of the Temple. As Tobiah’s relative, he had a competing commitment to Tobiah. Competing commitments are not easy to sort out. They cause us inner conflict as well as conflict at work, in our marriage, and among our families and friends. Resolving them begins by developing priorities. A children’s ministry has it right when they teach: “God, others, self.” Once we have our priorities straight, we have to acknowledge the various commitments that vie for our time, money, and energy. At that point, praying for prudence and for resolve, we’re ready to make a wise decision.

When have you confronted competing commitments in your life? What are they? How have you resolved the conflicts?

 
Foreign Influences


Nehemiah 13:1-3

On that day 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 enter the assembly of God, for they did not meet the people of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. As soon as the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.

The Story: As Moses and the Israelites traveled in the region east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan, they asked permission to pass peacefully through the land of Ammon, promising to stay on a single path and take nothing—not even water—from the land. The king of Ammon refused and instead mustered an army, resulting in his utter defeat by the Israelites (Numbers 21:21-16). The king of Moab saw what happened and hired Balaam, a true but evil prophet, to curse Israel in the name of the Lord their God before Moab met them in battle. Instead, warned by his donkey, Balaam blessed Israel and no battle occurred. The Moabites, however, seduced Israel instead with sexual immorality and their gods (Numbers 22-27). As a result, Moses, recalling these incidents, excluded Moabites and Ammonites from joining with Israel, lest war and seduction begin again. Note: By grace the exclusion was not absolute. Ruth, a Moabite, was King David’s grandmother (Ruth 4:18-22) and thus part of Jesus’ bloodline (Matthew 1:5-6).

The Structure: As I said in an earlier Worldview Bible entry, this separation from foreigners was not at its core ethnic, but spiritual and moral. Molech was the god of the Ammonites and Chemosh the god of the Moabites, although, at least in the minds of worshippers, they seem to have been thought of as one god with two names (1Kings 11:7). Regardless, these gods demanded human sacrifice, specifically child sacrifice, and babies were burned alive to placate them and call down their blessings. God’s people had burned their children outside Jerusalem in the Hinnom Valley, “though,” said God, “I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination” (Jeremiah 32:35). The example set by the people of Nehemiah’s day is, on the one hand, helpful. We should avoid taking our spiritual and moral cues from those who do not know and follow God through faith in Christ. On the other hand, most of us probably need to spend more time with nonbelievers in order to convince them of another far better way of life. Remember Ruth.

How would you evaluate your contact with those who are not Christians? Include not only friends, neighbors, family, and coworkers, but the media, advertisers, and thought leaders as well. How do you need to separate yourself? How do you need to engage?

 
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