What happenend to his Happy Ever after?
I love reading, there is something just so satisfying about a well written story. Sometimes, you can read a book and the story will be written so beautifully, that it's like the author is painting a picture with words in your mind. But I suppose what I like most about a story, is the happy ever after. What makes a story worthwhile is that it should have a good ending. One that resolves all the plot lines and brings everything to conclusion. As we have read the narrative of Nehemiah, having learned many excellent lessons from him, how wonderful if at end of this narrative we could have concluded, “And they lived happily ever after.” But the history of mankind is unfortunately not a fairy tale. Nehemiah had done what he set out to do - the wall was rebuilt! He had appointed men to all the various positions of responsibility. The people had committed themselves through oaths to keeping the Laws of God and they were contributing to the work of supporting the Levites, singers and gatekeepers. Nehemiah thought that his job was done. I suppose he thought he was heading for a happy ever after.
But life is not that simple, it is no fairy tale. While Nehemiah was back at the court of the king, most of the abuses he had kept down with his strong leadership broke out again. He addresses 3 areas of disobedience: Defiling the Temple,
profaning the Sabbath and marriage to the ungodly.
Defiling the Temple
At Nehemiah's return to Jerusalem, he found Tobiah was living in a large room, in the Temple courts, by permission of Eliashib the high priest. Tobiah the Ammonite gained a connection to Eliashib through Sanballat. While Sanballat the Horonite and Eliashib were related to each other by marriage. Furthermore Eliashib was the custodian of the chambers and some commentators suggest that Tobiah was even admitted into the worship of God. This was a shocking thing to do as we read in Neh 13:1:
“On that day, they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people, and it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God...(then v3)...As soon as the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.”
Yet, while Nehemiah was away, Eliashib was doing exactly what the Law said not to do, and in the absence of strong leadership the people stood by and did nothing. So Nehemiah had to take swift action as we read in Neh 13:7-8:
“I 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 the vessels of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense.”
Nehemiah also found that the tithes to the temple had ceased. Thereby forcing the Levite priests and singers, who were meant to be supported by these offerings, to go back to their fields to provide for themselves. Nehemiah confronted the officials, and he asked them a very revealing question, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” Their neglect in providing for the priests was not a small infringement, some small sin to overlook. In Malachi 3, God said that He equates the neglect of His house to robbery. After Nehemiah rebuked the officials he re-instated them to their posts. Judah then resumed their tithes and Nehemiah appointed trusted treasurers over the storehouses.
The people of Israel had gone trough a time of spiritual awakening, especially as we saw them making oaths of obedience in Chapter 10. One commentator notes that any spiritual awakening has to go hand in hand with a re-ordering of priorities, he says:
“Spiritual awakening is inevitably confronted with not only the re-ordering of personal lives, but also the continuance of awakened spiritual life that, of necessity, involves the mundane matters. Herein lies the true test of whether spiritual conversion is genuine or merely a brief flight of religious experience. The same principle applies to attending church on Sunday. Let us suppose that the whole day has been one of great spiritual renewal, of heightened fellowship with God and His people. The real test is in the week that follows.”
The test for the people of Jerusalem came when there was no one to enforce their obedience. It can be assumed that when the people were not giving their portion to the Lord, they were using it themselves. It wasn't that they did not have enough to give, it was that they became lazy in their giving.
How about you? Have you become lazy in giving? God has made each of us stewards over our time and money. How are you spending your time and money in giving to God's house? Are you giving regularly to the church, to support the workers in the church? Are you giving of your time, to pray for your elders and pastors?
Luke 16:10 says that, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” And this was clearly seen in the people's allowance of the desecration of the temple. It lead to the same neglect in every day life as shown by the way the Sabbath was kept. Which brings us to the second disobedience.
Profaning the Sabbath
When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem he found that the people and their animals were working on the Sabbath. They also allowed merchants into Jerusalem and were trading with them on the Sabbath. We read in Neh 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.”
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.”
Nehemiah credited their profaning of the Sabbath in the past, as the reason why God sent the people of Israel into exile and caused the destruction of Jerusalem. But Why was the Sabbath such an important day? To understand that we have to look back to the book of Exodus. The Sabbath was a day of rest, instituted by God in the Law given to Moses as we read in Exodus 31:12-17
And the Lord said to Moses,“You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”
God established this pattern of working for 6 days and resting on the 7th in Creation. And the Sabbath was given to remind the people of God, that He alone purifies them. It was a holy day. God calls this day of Sabbath rest a, “Solemn rest.” This meant it was a rest with holy purpose and intention. On the Sabbath, the people of Israel were not meant to be idle or lazy, but to remember the Lord and delight in Him. This day was meant as a day when the nation of Israel focused on God as Creator and Provider. The Sabbath was also the framework on which God placed the feasts and festivals. And like all the feasts and festivals the Sabbath was meant to point to someone else - Jesus.
Many people today would ask: “Why are we not keeping to the Sabbath, yet we are instructed to obey the other 9 commandments?” The answer to this would be: we are keeping the Sabbath, just not as it was observed before Christ came. For Christ fulfilled the law, which included the keeping of the Sabbath. He did this by perfectly obeying the Sabbath commandment. Jesus was perfect in obeying the law. He did what we could not do. In Matt 12 Jesus calls Himself the, “Lord of the Sabbath.” He fully understood what the purpose of the Sabbath was (which was to be a day of holy remembrance and to delight in the Lord). Comparatively, the Pharisees only saw it as a day on which to keep the legalistic requirement of the Sabbath. Even today in Jerusalem, there are Shabbat elevators, which automatically stops on every floor during the Sabbath. This is to circumvent the Jewish law that requires people to abstain from any form of work or travel on this day. A mere legalistic act that misses the point of the Sabbath completely.
Another reason we do not keep to the Sabbath as required by law, is that Christ is our Sabbath rest. Outside of Christ, the law of God can only condemn each of us. For we are sinful and fall short of God's glory. But Christ said, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The author of Hebrew clarifies this issue of rest in chapter 4 he says:
“For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his....Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”
After Christ completed His work of redemption on the cross, He ceased from His work and entered His rest where He sits at the right hand of the Father. The Christian enters his rest, when he ceases his attempts to attain salvation by his own hands and enters the rest of Christ, who has done all the work on his behalf. Like the people of Israel, we are sinful and often return to our idols. So we cannot rest in the works of our hands, for all our deeds are tainted by sin. We can only find rest in the finished work of Christ for salvation. And as the Sabbath was instituted as a sign to remind the people of Israel that it is God who sanctifies, it is through Christ (our Sabbath rest) that we are sanctified.
Even though we do not have to keep the Sabbath as stipulated in the Law, the obligation to honor God with our time still remains and this involves planning for a day of rest to worship the Lord corporately with other believers.
To be sanctified, means to be holy or consecrated. The Lord said that the Sabbath was a sign of His sanctification of the people. But the nations around Judah (according to Ezra) were people that were impure and full of abominations. This brings us to point 3.
Marriage to the Ungodly
At Nehemiah' return to Jerusalem he found that the Jews had allowed their children to intermarry with the nations of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Even Eliashib the Levite priests had done this abominable act. Nehemiah then did quite a shocking thing. As we read in v25:
“And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them take an oath in the name of God saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves.””
Seems a bit harsh doesn't it? But Nehemiah understood the importance of their disobedience. Disobedience is a slippery slope. For a person to fall into sin like idolatry or adultery, the fall isn't far. Meaning, that in order to finally allow yourself to act on such a sin, many previous sins had to be overlooked and indulged in. This is why Nehemiah drew a clear line in the sand and mentions that even the great Solomon was led astray by marrying foreign woman. As we read in v26:
“Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless, foreign women made even him to sin. Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?”
Solomon was seduced by his wives to worship their gods. And if the great and wise Solomon was unable to resist the lure of pleasing his wives and worshiping their gods, how will Israel resist these temptations? Intermarriage caused two problems: the children of these mixed marriages did not learn Hebrew - thereby limiting them from understanding the Law of God. And the partners in these mixed marriages would've raised their children in their own idolatrous societies and worship. This meant that when these children grew up they would be torn between two societies and find themselves at home in neither.
The command not to marry into other nations seems not be applicable to the church today. As we are told in the Bible that the church is made up from all tribes, tongues and nations. The reason this command was given, was to keep the nation of Israel pure and to protect them from the seduction of serving idols. But the church does in fact, have a similar instruction in the New Testament.
We read in 2 Cor 6:14-18:
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, as God said;
I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.”
The reason the church is given this instruction is also to keep the church pure and to protect the people from divided loyalties and the seduction of idols. Yet the reality of life is that there are many men and women who are yoked in marriage to unbelievers. In these difficult circumstances the Lord calls each of the spouses to model the gospel in their homes, to pray for their spouses and to let the Word of God change their mundane moments.
Judah did not allow the Word of God to change their mundane moments, therefore their spiritual awakening was short lived. But are we any different? At times our spiritual awakening and resolutions last as long as the walk from the church door to the car. God has always wanted His people to live distinct lives and we should strive to be women whose mundane moments are being transformed by the Word of God. Let it change the way you drive, relate to your kids and husband. Let it transform the way you dress and what you spend your time and money on.
Israel could not help but return to their idols, they were incapable of keeping God's Law and returned to their sin repeatedly. But the Christian has the Spirit and He illuminates the Word to us. Paul explains in his letter to the Corinthians, he says
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” (2 Cor. 2:11)
The Spirit imparts truth and enables believers to live differently. This is the big difference between Israel and the church. Because of the sanctifying work of the indwelling Spirit, what is taught on Friday, can make an impact to your week during the mundane moments of life. But this will mean that you must make use of the means of grace which is: reading, studying and meditating on the Word, prayer and the community of the church. With these the Spirit cements the truths of the Word to the Christian. Practically you can do this:
- By reading the text that will be used for the Friday sermon ahead of time, to prepare you hearts in advance.
- Take notes on the sermon and use these notes to dwell on and guide your prayers in the week, asking the Lord to apply it's truths to your life.
- Meet with other ladies in the week, to discuss where you are encouraged by and where you struggle in applying the truths of the Word. You especially need these means of grace in fighting the deceitfulness of sin. We are blind to our own sin, and we each need to be in relationships with people who will speak truth into our lives.
As noted before, Nehemiah does not end with a “happy ever after”, rather Nehemiah ends on a sad note, an unfinished note. It just seems that the people were never going to be able to get their act together. If the account of the Bible ended here, it would have left us with no hope at all.
But in Ezekiel 34:11-16, unlike these shepherds who were misleading His people, God said that:
“I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land....I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak...”
And this prophecy in Ezekiel was perfectly fulfilled in Christ. We read in John 10 where Jesus said:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
What a wonderful conclusion. This is the good news of the gospel. The end of the story is that there is awaiting for the Christian a land where there will be no more tears or death. Where Jesus the shepherd dwells in the midst of His people - the new Jerusalem.
Lesson from Nehemiah
Most people would conclude that Nehemiah is all about leadership and they would use Nehemiah as a great role-model for leadership qualities. I would like to suggest that Nehemiah's leadership would not have been possible without his prayer life. We have seen this governor of Jerusalem pray in every circumstance. His prayers were grounded in God's promises and faithfulness. We can learn much from his attitude here.
What is your prayer life like? No matter who you ask in this room, I am sure that you will never hear, “I am completely satisfied with my prayer life and think I pray more than enough.” I know that there is much room for improvement in my own prayer life.
The 3 main reasons why people struggle to pray is: they don't know what to pray about, they feel to sinful to pray or they fail to plan for prayer. I would like to suggest 6 ways in which you can be helped in this area:
- If you struggle with feelings of sinfulness. Let your prayers be in response to Bible reading. Pray the words of God in the Psalms and other books of the Bible. Remind yourself of God's promises - especially of the gospel. Because the gospel assures you that you are not accepted by God because of your good deeds but because of Christ.
- If you struggle to know what to pray for. There are many excellent tools available like “Valley of Vision” - an old puritan prayer book. The membership directory can give you a handy list of people you can pray for each day and using the Psalms to guide your prayers are a wonderful way to give your prayers good content. Lastly you can also use the Friday bulletin to pray for the unreached people groups in there.
- If your struggle is with time. Unfortunately there is only one remedy, you are not going to pray unless you plan to pray. So look at your day and see where you can set time aside for a regular time of prayer.
- Just a practical note - I find that one of the best ways I can stay focused during praying is to pray out loud, it gives me opportunity to articulate what I say and keeps my mind from straying.
- Don't stop praying until you pray. One author once said that most people are like naughty children when they pray. They ring the doorbell and then run away.
- 6. And remember that praying is not just something to tick off on your list of spiritual jobs to be done today. It is a time to meet with the Lord and to know Him more.
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