One of the most frustrating things about watching movies today is wading through the plethora of options. The worst thing you can do is browse through the selection. The recommendations are all over the place. At least, they aren’t organized in a way that makes sense to me. I find movie selections based upon categories I have never shown an interest in. Obviously, they want me to watch something different.
Usually, I base my movie selections off an expert and audience consensus from Rottentomatoes. I haven’t always enjoyed the movies they recommend, but it has at least helped me to narrow down the seemingly endless selection.
In the past several years, I’ve noticed something about the differences in ratings. Sometimes the experts hated a movie while the audience absolutely loved it. When that is the case, it is almost certainly based upon one thing: the ending. Experts have grown tired of seeing contrived happy endings over and over again. The typical audience on the other hand, can’t get enough of happy endings.
We have been working our way to the conclusion of Nehemiah riding a wave of excitement and revival. The people completed the wall of Jerusalem (Neh. 6:15) transforming the shame and despair that opened the book into hope and celebration. They invited Ezra to read from the Book of the Law of Moses and it seems this event—which lasted 5-6 hours—was the catalyst for covenant renewal (Neh. 8:1-12).
The people heard the Word of God and they were convicted that they had not properly celebrated the Feast of Booths (Neh. 8:13-18). So they made sure that they did everything according to God’s instruction. Then a few days later, at the end of one o the busiest months on the Jewish Calendar, they added a day of corporate confession of sin (Neh. 9). This gathering was mixed with corporate confessions of faith and giving praise to God as a community of saints.
It is not surprising that the excitement led to renewed commitments. The leaders of the people seal their commitments in writing (Neh. 10). They will adopt God’s convictions, restrictions, and obligations above their own and agree to prioritize the centrality of worship in their community. They committed to giving generously in order to provide for the needs of Temple worship. The conclusion to this section reads: “We will not neglect the house of our God” (Neh. 10:39).
The people took their commitment seriously. Not only did they declare their commitment formally before the assembly, but they reorganized their lifestyles and established new routines in order to keep worship at the center of their community (Neh. 11:1-12:26). Some moved to the city in order to beef up the security there. They were concerned to protect the centrality of worship through devotion, contribution, and celebration. Finally, all of this closed with yet one more day of joyful festivities as they celebrated the day of dedication with choirs marching along the walls in opposite direction and leading the people in a Temple service of praise (Neh. 12:27-47).
However, despite all of the revival and spiritual activity, the book closes with a note of realism. The conclusion acknowledges how the people relapsed into neglect and rebellion within a relatively very short timeframe. Nehemiah asks the condemning question: “Why is the house of God neglected?” (Neh. 13:11).
Nehemiah seems to agree with the experts on this one. Rather than go out on the high note of revival, he concludes with several reforms that reveal an inconsistency in the people sticking to their commitments. Sound familiar? It doesn’t end in a way we might expect or want it to. But, it does ends in a way that we can personally understand.
Many of us probably have a tendency to respond to frustration with radical changes. We recognized that whatever we did in the past did not work. So we decide to try something new. We tend to think that our problem is some external activity we are or are not doing. In other words, we deal with the fruit and neglect the root problem.
Most of us do not need to make radically new commitments.
We need regular reminders of the priority of maintaining our most basic commitments
Read Nehemiah 13:1-3.
Read God’s Word (1)
When was “that day”? Did this occur on the day of dedication or was this another celebration where the Book of Moses was read? Is this taking place several years later? Most have suggested that this event took place 2-3 years after Nehemiah’s first governorship of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah was governor of Jerusalem for 12 years (Neh. 5:14; cf. 13:6). He returned to Susa, probably serving as the king’s cupbearer again. However, after a few years he returned to Jerusalem to find some significant problems. His absence from Jerusalem was likely no more than 3 years. If that is correct, the reforms discussed here are taking place somewhere between 12-15 years after the wall was dedicated. We can assume Nehemiah did not allow this neglect to take place while he was there. So that means, the commitments of the people relapsed within the short time that Nehemiah was away.
The Purity of Temple Worship
Whenever these particular reforms took place, they had to do with the purity of Temple worship. No Ammonites or Moabites were allowed to enter the assembly. This was clearly something with which they were familiar. You may recall back on the day of corporate confession of sin, they fasted in sackcloth and dirt, and they also separated themselves from foreigners in preparation (Neh. 9:1-2).
In the Septuagint, the “assembly” of God is translated with the word “ekklesia” which is translated “church” throughout the New Testament. This prohibition is in reference to foreigners gathering with the people during their corporate worship. The point is that the people have allowed syncretism to creep back into their worship gatherings. Foreigners brought their foreign convictions and beliefs into the Temple, and somehow, they did not feel out of place.
Read the Bible
We will look more closely at this prohibition in the next verse, but notice what sparked this reform. Whatever day they had gathered, however many months or years after Nehemiah had departed, “they read from the Book of Moses in the hearting of the people.” Specifically, it seems they were reading from Deuteronomy 23:3-5, of which this passage is a summary.
What led to their renewed conviction was a reminder that the God they worship will not be mocked by syncretism and compromise. And they were reminded of it because they maintained the priority of reading and hearing God’s Word whenever they gathered. This was a basic commitment that governed their lives and oftentimes disrupted them.
Your presence here at church this morning reveals a similar conviction that the Word of God should govern your life. You are committed to reading it personally, within your families, and hearing it preached in corporate worship. You don’t need to make a radically new commitment, but you should be reminded just how important this basic commitment is to your faith and practice.
The regular and systematic reading of God’s Word, sitting under a steady diet of expository preaching, is God’s will to equip you to glorify him in all that you do. Allow God’s Word, working alongside God’s Spirit, to daily convict you of your sin and comfort you with the hope of the gospel.
When Satan tempted Jesus to compromise God’s will, how did he respond? He quoted from the Book of Moses (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3): “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” When you neglect to eat, your body responds with hunger pangs. Similarly, your soul should respond with a longing for God’s Word because it cannot survive without it. “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Pt. 2:2). Crave his Word as a newborn infant craves milk.
Along with reading God’s Word, we should long to interpret it rightly, so that we might…
Know God’s Word (2)
Here’s where we answer the question about why they had to separate from foreigners. The Ammonites and Moabites were perpetual enemies of God’s people. These were the nations that resulted from the union of Lot with his daughters after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19). However, Nehemiah does not reference their problematic origins. Instead, he provides two reasons why they should not allow these nations to enter the assembly of God.
- The Ammonites were guilty of the sin of omission. Specifically, they lacked basic compassion to provide food and water to the wandering Israelites (Num. 21:22; Deut. 2:28-29).
- The Moabites were guilty of a sin of commission. Specifically, they hired Balaam to curse the Israelites (Num. 22-24; 31:16). Even though God used this to bless the Israelites, it was still proof of the wicked intentions the Moabites had against God’s people.
False prophets and teachers were condemned in the New Testament as those who “followed the way of Balaam” (2 Pt. 2:15-16) or “abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error” (Jude 11). These false teachers were compared to Balaam because they were apparently driven by greed. They used the appearance of godliness for financial gain (1 Tim. 6:5). Balaam is also referred to in Christ’s warning to the Church in Pergamum (Rev. 2:14). However, there the link to the false teachers has to do with the encouragement of idolatry and sexual immorality.
Friendship With the World
The point is that you cannot serve two masters (Matt. 6:24). Friendship with the world is enmity with God (Jam. 4:4).
A desire for earthly gain and financial security will lead us to commit the very same sins described here. How often are we unwilling to show compassion because we want to spend our time and resources in ways that further our own comfort? How often has a church refused to practice discipline out of fear that they might be sued in a civil court?
Compassion and discipline are never financially wise. They cost those who practice them, but they are characteristics that produce fruit for the kingdom nonetheless.
Brown “God corrects us as he identifies sins of omission and commission which need to be put right. He encourages us by reminding us that he can turn life’s curses into blessings, and, as with these Israelites, he urges us to rectify those things which damage our lives, hinder others and disappoint him.’
All of this is the result of rightly interpreting God’s Word so that it is more than simply reading, but involves the renewal of your mind. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:2).
After reading and knowing God’s Word, there is only one option for the faithful disciples…
Obey God’s Word (3)
They were quick to obey once they understood what was required. However, why were they so quick to become corrupt? Back in Neh. 10:28-29 the people had committed to separating themselves. Apparently, some parts of the community were being duplicitous when they made their oath. They were still hedging their bets with foreign gods and foreign wives. They thought, “Just in case this business in Jerusalem doesn’t succeed, we can flee.”
It is important to recognize that this prohibition does not pertain to all foreigners without distinction. It targets foreigners who continue to worship the gods of their nation. Any foreigner who failed to worship Yahweh was excluded from the temple. Foreigners who adopted Yahweh as God were not required to separate (Ruth 1:1-18, cf. Ezra 6:21).
Kidner “But let him come as a convert, like Ruth the Moabites, and he will be entitled to a very different reception.”
Religious separation is necessary. If economic or political ambitions require religious compromise, they must choose whom they will serve. Certainly, this is an ongoing point of tension in our day. How often are we willing to uphold our secular commitments that compete with our religious commitment?
The Old Testament saints were promised a time in the future when there would be no distinction between Jew and Gentile (Isa. 56:1-7). That was fulfilled in Christ’s first coming and we await its full and final consummation in glory—where there will be no more need for separation, and we will forever be with the Lord!
All of us are called to read, understand, and obey God’s Word. Celebration must be preserved, or as this chapter reveals, we will quickly wander into rebellion. We long for revival like they experienced under Nehemiah’s leadership. Yet, the book closes with a reminder that—in this life—revivals don’t last forever.
It is similar to the Lord Jesus Christ instituting the Lord’s Supper with his closest companions, just before he is betrayed and all of them abandon him to suffer alone. We routinely find ourselves going from the pinnacle of joy to the depths of despair.
This life is filled with constant reality checks. We have not arrived. We are not home. Let us remember that what preserves us through it all is the gracious hand of the Lord working through his Word and Spirit to guide and provide. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).