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“Promises, Promises”

Nehemiah 13:1-31
Bob DeGray
November 22, 2009

Key Sentence

It’s time to start over in the grace of God.


I. Provide (Nehemiah 12:44 – 13:14)
II. Prioritize (Nehemiah 13:15-22)
III. Purify (Nehemiah 13:23-31)


In some ways Nehemiah ends on a down note. After the victory of rebuilding the walls and the apparent victory of the repentance of the people, the last chapter, 13, records how Nehemiah had to deal with all kinds of failures by the people. Tim Rask set us up for this when he preached on chapter 10. He mentioned the reforms the people embraced: avoiding inter-marriage with the surrounding peoples; honoring the Sabbath; supporting the temple with tithes and offerings. But Tim also noted they weren’t going to stick to their commitments. Our chapter for today, chapter 13, records their failures, and how Nehemiah had to pull them up so they could start over and try again.

It may be you and I need to start over in God’s grace today. As we look at these people we’ll see they promised to provide, and failed. As we examine ourselves we’ll see ways we’ve failed to provide. We need the grace of God. They failed to make God a priority. As we struggle with our calendars, we need the grace of God. They failed to purify themselves from habitual sin. We fail in our own characteristic sins. We need the grace of God to start over. Let’s take the end of Nehemiah as the beginning of walking in grace.

I didn’t notice until I studied it this week that chapter 13 really starts in chapter 12. I want to show you that structure, which Bible students call a chiasm. It’s a simple one: in these four paragraphs the content of the first is reflected in the fourth, and the second in the third. So, Nehemiah 12:44-47 talks about provision for the needs of the temple and its servants. The people had committed to this in chapter 10. But the fourth paragraph, Nehemiah 13:10-14 shows how the people failed at this commitment. Nehemiah had to take drastic action to call them back to it. Similarly the second paragraph, 13:1-3, shows how the people had committed themselves to the purity of the temple. But the third paragraph, verses 4 to 9 shows how they failed at this. Nehemiah had to take drastic action to recover this commitment.

I. Provide (Nehemiah 12:44 – 13:14)

Let’s read the verses, with a few pauses to clarify. The first paragraph: Nehemiah 12:44-47 On that day men were appointed to be in charge of the storerooms for the contributions, firstfruits and tithes. From the fields around the towns they were to bring into the storerooms the portions required by the Law for the priests and the Levites, for Judah was pleased with the ministering priests and Levites. 45They performed the service of their God and the service of purification, as did also the singers and gatekeepers, according to the commands of David and his son Solomon.

46For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the singers and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. 47So in the days of Zerubbabel and of Nehemiah, all Israel contributed the daily portions for the singers and gatekeepers. They also set aside the portion for the other Levites, and the Levites set aside the portion for the descendants of Aaron.

The people were keeping the promises of chapter 10: “We assume responsibility . . . to give a third of a shekel each year for the service of the house of our God . . . We will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God . . . the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and oil . . . We will not neglect the house of our God.”

So at that point they were keeping their commitments. In the same way, the first verses of chapter 13 cite another commitment they made: Nehemiah 13:1-3 On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, 2because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) 3When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.

Notice the words ‘on that day.’ These are the same words used in 12:44. It was the same day the wall was celebrated, or maybe the same day the commitments of chapter 10 were made. Apparently they’d been reading Deuteronomy 23 and found they were to exclude unconverted foreigners, especially Moabites and Ammonites from the privileges of Temple worship.

So, two positive commitments. But if this was a movie the music would suddenly alert you to danger ahead. Nehemiah 13:4 In the face of this, Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah, 5and 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 oil prescribed for the Levites, singers and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests.

Now I know most translations say ‘before this’ or ‘prior to this’. But in this rare case, I don’t agree. The Hebrew literally says ‘before the face of.’ It’s translated either ‘his face’ or ‘before,’ but ‘before’ in place, not time, as in ‘I stood before the king.’ In this context I don’t see why it should refer to time. And it makes perfect sense in the literal way I’ve translated it: in the face of this commitment Eliashib, probably the high priest, though Ammonites weren’t allowed in the temple, gave a room to Tobiah the Ammonite.

But then Nehemiah shows up: verses 6-9: But while all this was going on, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission 7and came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God. 8I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah's household goods out of the room. 9I 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.

More than 10 years after building the wall Nehemiah went to serve Artaxerxes in Babylon. Sometime later he came back for a second term as governor of Jerusalem. When he did he found Tobiah in the Temple. Nehemiah was not happy. Tobiah was not only an Ammonite, but also one of the key opponents to the building of the wall. So Nehemiah, being a man of action, went into Tobiah’s rooms and threw all his stuff out. He thoroughly cleansed the room and returned it to its original purpose, storing the offerings the people gave.

One problem: there were almost no offerings. Verses 10-14: I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. 11So I rebuked the officials and asked them, "Why is the house of God neglected?" Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts. 12All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and oil into the storerooms.

13I put Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and a Levite named Pedaiah in charge of the storerooms and made Hanan son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah, their assistant, because these men were considered trustworthy. They were made responsible for distributing the supplies to their brothers. 14Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services.

In chapter 10 the people pledged to provide all that was needed for the house of God, but at some point, succumbing to self-interest they stopped giving. The human heart is deceitful. They didn’t set out to fail, but sin makes you stupid, and they did, epically fail. It got so bad the Levites had to go to the towns and work the farms. So Nehemiah rebukes the officials who had been in charge, re-gathers the Levites and appoints new leadership.

Nehemiah’s response doesn’t seem like an act of grace. He’s a man of action: he throws out Tobiah’s stuff; he rebukes the leaders. But I think his response does show grace. Like a father teaching his son to walk, God uses Nehemiah to reach down and pull these guys up and set them back on the right path.

That’s grace: God reaches down, helps us stand up, and sets us going. So we want to look at our lives, first in areas in which we’ve made commitments to provide. We’ve committed, for example, to give to the work of God, and we need to keep that. But more broadly we’ve committed to provide physically, emotionally and spiritually to our church, our family and our friends.

Think about a husband and father, committed not only to provide a home and food for his family, but to provide leadership, love, nurture, protection. What if he comes home at day’s end and his little kids are running around like banshees, his older kid has left the house with a bad group of friends, his wife is frantic trying to hold it all together. What if that dad walks through the chaos, hears but doesn’t react to the cries, sits down in his chair in front of his TV and doesn’t move until he drags himself to bed. That dad, no matter what his salary, is failing to provide for his family.

And it doesn’t have to be the dad. If you’re a wife or mother, a friend, a brother or sister in Christ, you have commitments to care for others. You probably make promises to be there to help, to give, to pray, to listen, to guide, to guard. And if you’re like me, you fail at times; not keeping your promises. So you neglect someone, you’re brusque to someone, you don’t give, you retreat into your cocoon and ignore as much of the need as you possibly can.

Maybe you say you’re too busy, too tired, or have too many problems of your own. I’m sure the people of Judah would have given all kinds of good excuses. But Nehemiah didn’t give them the chance. Instead he gave them the grace of a rough but steady hand up. He gave them another chance.

That’s grace. God’s grace, his love, his mercy is what causes him to extend his hand to us. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2But the more I called them, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. 3It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. 4I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them.”

II. Prioritize (Nehemiah 13:15-22)

That’s grace. When we’ve failed to provide as we should, when we’ve ignored our commitments, God gives us the chance to get up and try again. And it’s just as true when we blow our priorities. Nehemiah 13:15 to 23: In those days I saw men 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.

16Men 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. 17I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, "What is this wicked thing you are doing--desecrating the Sabbath day? 18Didn't your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath."

19When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day. 20Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21But I warned them and said, "Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will lay hands on you." From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. 22Then 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, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.

In Nehemiah 10 the people made a commitment: “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day.” That’s pretty clear. They committed to make the worship of God a priority, and utterly failed. The merchants were bringing stuff in by cartloads and the marketplace was busy on the Sabbath.

But again, Nehemiah in grace cuts it off. He rebukes the nobles and reminds them of Israel’s history, in which violation of Sabbath brought God’s judgment. Maybe he read from Jeremiah, who prophesied the burning of Jerusalem’s gates due to Sabbath violations. Then he stations men at the city gates to close them from sunset to sunset on Sabbath. When the merchants persisted and spent the night by the wall, he threatened to run them off by force.

Finally, as in the first section, he prayed: “Remember me for this also, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.” This is one of the great brief prayers of this book. Nehemiah knows that God is a God who rescues by grace, a God of loving-kindness; chesed. He counts on God’s mercy, his pity or compassion by which he covers our sin.

So Nehemiah asks this God to remember him. This word ‘remember’ appears in each section, in verses 14, 22 and 31. It’s a plea for God’s gracious help. As one commentator said: “God’s remembering always implies his intervention, not merely his recollection.” Nehemiah is asking God to act in grace.

What is this section saying as we look at our own lives? Nehemiah calls God’s people back to their priorities, putting God first on the Sabbath. In the same way, you and I have identified God as our priority, committed to give God our time and use it his way. But I invite you to mentally look at your calendar. My calendars have few white spaces, and yet not enough hours are given to what I know to be God’s priorities for me: serving, caring, resting, and developing my relationship with him through the Word and prayer.

If there is one universal complaint of our culture it’s ‘I’m too busy. Too much to do and not enough time to do it.’ I’m convicting myself with my own words, but it’s true. How do we deal with our calendars, with this huge difficulty in prioritizing our lives? Let me make three comments. First, it’s appropriate always to examine the calendar before God and ask: is this something you want me to do? Am I willing to subtract or even add based on his guidance?

Second, recognize that we fulfill our priorities by grace. As Paul told Titus, grace teaches us to say ‘no’ to world unprofitable distraction. When we find our time drifting from a Godward focus we have to cry out for grace, for that loving father’s hand to lift us up, put us on our feet and get us going again.

Third, I think a closer look at our calendars and our days will reveal a lot of grace already built in, a great deal of God-priority time hidden in the niches, the transitions, even the activities of our busyness. These are the moments when, if we’re aware of God, we can cry out to him, depend on him, lift needs to him, know his comfort and strength, and make him the priority of our hearts even when busy with tasks that have no obvious Godward component.

A simple example is emptying the dishwasher. I can have an almost un-interrupted, thoughtful conversation with God while emptying the dishwasher, especially if a grab the chance to do it when the kitchen is empty. I’ll bet you can think of activities, cleaning or driving or walking that offer the same opportunity.

III. Purify (Nehemiah 13:23-31)

So we need grace to meet our commitments to provide, we need grace to meet our priorities. Finally, we need grace to meet our commitment to purity. Nehemiah 13:23-31 Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 24Half 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. 25I 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.

26Was 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. 27Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?"

28One 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. 29Remember them, O my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites. 30So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task. 31I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me with favor, O my God.

In chapter 10 they said “We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons.” Simple enough. The same promises had been made under Ezra, and a similar failure took place. Ezra went so far as to require that these people divorce their foreign wives. Nehemiah does not appear to do that. What he does do is open his Bible to give them an example from history of the dangers of the course they are on.

He cites the case of Solomon, who was loved by God and blessed with wisdom and riches. But Solomon did not remain pure in heart: he married foreign wives, and then indulged their foreign gods. That’s the key. I mean Boaz married a foreign wife, a Moabitess named Ruth. But she’d already committed herself to the God of Israel. It’s clear that in Nehemiah’s day this commitment had not happened, because the children of these marriages were raised with no knowledge of Hebrew and therefore little knowledge of God or his Word.

God intended this ban on inter-marriage to help the people of Israel be set apart from the influence of pagan cultures. As Nehemiah points out, violating this command led Israel into the characteristic sin of idolatry. So Nehemiah responds strongly again, even beating some of the more stubborn of these people and pulling their beards out, a symbolic act intended to shame them.

Nehemiah cites an extreme case: a grandson of the high priest married a daughter of Sanballat, Nehemiah’s principle opponent. This level of compromise was dangerous to the stability of restored Judah. So Nehemiah chases that young man away from the temple, and works to restore the temple to its function.

Then in the last verse he says again ‘remember me with favor, O my God.’ What does remember imply? Intervention. Nehemiah is not asking for that intervention because of his worthiness, but because of God’s grace.

The words translated ‘with favor’ would more literally be translated ‘for good.’ ‘Intervene for good, my God’. Show grace in this situation.

So again we’ve seen a failure by God’s people to keep their commitments. This shouldn’t surprise us. Scripture teaches that fallen human nature cannot keep itself from sinning, and cannot commend itself to God. We focused on this last summer in Ephesians 2, which makes a clear case for the awfulness of sin and the greatness of grace. Paul teaches that because of our sin we are by nature objects of God’s wrath, justly receiving the punishment of eternal separation from him. But God, who is rich in mercy, but God, while we were still sinners, but God made us alive in Christ through the salvation of grace.

Only this grace can enable us to keep our commitments. Paul says we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works which he prepared in advance for us to do. He says that God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

This section reminds us that we’ve made commitments to purity. As a believer you may be aware of characteristic sin that plagues your life. It might be lust, it might be anger, it might be pride, it might be laziness, it might be addiction to pleasures that themselves are not sinful, but which consume you. In these areas, because they’re characteristic sins, you’ve made lots of commitments, but experienced lots of failure. You know it, and I trust that you hate it.

My counsel to you is to reach up your hand for the gracious hand of the Father who does not countenance your failures, but doesn’t condemn you because of them either, because the punishment of those sins was placed on his Son. Instead, in grace, as you repent, he lifts you up to walk again.

This last chapter in Nehemiah, sharply illustrates our struggle with characteristic sins. Like the people of Nehemiah’s day, I want to be pure, I want to prioritize, I want to provide. But time after time I fail to keep those commitments. And time after time God my Father offers the hand of grace.

You and I will find ourselves fallen to our knees, to the ground. We may be tempted to despair because of the power of our sinful nature. But there is a hand reaching out – picture this clearly in your mind – there is a hand reaching out, and as you turn from the ground, in repentance, you see that hand, which reaches down, and sets you on your feet, and brushes you off, and sets you to walking again. It is the hand of God’s grace to start over.