Doing a Great Work for God
But in all this time was not I at Jerusalem: for in the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon came I unto the king, and after certain days obtained I leave of the king:
2 John 8
Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward.
In verse 6 of our text we learn that Nehemiah returned for some time to the Persian court as he had promised the king in verse 6 of chapter 2. He had been in Jerusalem as the governor for 12 years (from the 20th to the 32nd year of Artaxerxes). It is unknown how long he stayed in Persia before returning to Jerusalem but some scholars believe it was a short time of perhaps a year. It is too bad that we must end our study of the Book of Nehemiah on a sad note, but as we shall see, Nehemiah's return was not a happy one.
During the short time that he was away, sin crept back into the lives of the people of God. At least four problems are plainly described for us in our text. Amazingly, some of these problems were sins that the Jews had swore and committed not to do. In Nehemiah 10:29-31, the people had "entered into a curse, and into an oath" not to allow mixed marriages with the heathen inhabitants of Canaan and to refrain from buying goods on the Sabbath day. Both of these oaths were broken within perhaps a few years. What a disappointing and sorry testimony, but this is typical of our nature!
So, in this we may learn one final great lesson concerning our work for God. As long as the sin nature abides within our flesh, we will be prone to backslide, even when we have made binding promises to live right.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love
Therefore, we must carefully maintain the great work we are involved in or it will eventually come to naught. The apostle John warned us of this potential in verse 8 of his 2nd epistle exhorting us to be careful lest we lose all that we have done. Certainly this was a concern of Nehemiah's for three times in our text he cries out "Remember me, O my God" (verse 14, 22, and 31). In our final lesson in Nehemiah, let us study these four sins that were first to arise again in the midst of the people so that we may be extra careful to watch for them in our great work for God. Also, let us examine how Nehemiah dealt with these problems in order that we might follow his pattern.
In verses 1 - 9, we find the first sin which Nehemiah had to deal with upon his return to Jerusalem. The Word of God clearly taught that neither an Ammonite nor a Moabite were to "enter into the congregation of the LORD" (Deuteronomy 23:3). Perhaps this command prohibited them from joining the assembly of the Israelites or from entering into the Temple (see Lamentations 1:10). Whatever the exact meaning, it was clear that the Israelites had breached this command by allowing Tobiah the Ammonite to have a chamber within the Temple ("the house of our God"). Thus, they allowed the house of God to be contaminated.
As believers, we are the Temple of God, so we must be wary that self contamination may be one of the first areas in which we start to slip. When you find that you have allowed things back into your life that He has forbidden, you have allowed His Temple to be polluted! When you find yourself or your Church lowering the standards of holiness, it is a sure sign of a lapse in the work. We ought to watch this area carefully and maintain personal holiness - 2 Corinthians 7:1.
From the description in our text, there are two facts that God obviously wanted us to get a hold of. First, there is a reason God had verses 1-3 recorded for us. From these verses we learn that the Israelites had so clearly understood the prohibition against the Ammonites and Moabites that they had separated themselves from such people. Even with the clear knowledge of God's law, it is possible to slip back into sin. The other interesting point to consider is that it was Eliashib, the high priest, the religious leader, who allowed this contamination of the Temple. As Elihu said, "Great men are not always wise" (Job 32:9). It doesn't matter what your rank is or how spiritual you think you are, you are just as susceptible to sin as any other descendent of Adam. Paul reminds us, "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Now, Nehemiah did not take care of this matter gently or weakly. He personally threw Tobiah's stuff out and had the chamber cleansed. He was obviously more concerned with restoring Holiness than with offending this wolf in sheep's clothing. Christian, if you find that you have allowed yourself or your Church to be contaminated with the pollution of the world, the best thing to do is immediately cast out the unholy stuff and cleanse the Temple! We can receive cleansing from confessing our sins to God (1 John 1:9) and through taking in the Word of God (Ephesians 5:26).
Whereas the first problem Nehemiah encountered was a sin of commission, the next was a sin of omission. Sometimes we major on the sins that can be committed, but we better watch out for those commandments that we break through omission. In verse 10 - 14, we find that the Jews had neglected to provide for the Levites with their tithes and offerings. Consequently, the Levites had to leave their responsibilities and go out and find secular work in order to provide for themselves and their family. This in turn would continue the downward spiral leading to less teaching of the Word of God and deterioration of the house of God.
In our great work for God, when we begin to see the full time servants of God not being provided for with their due portion and the Church building neglected, it is a sure sign that sin has found its way back into the work. Oh Christians, we better be watchful of this and maintain our faithfulness in the giving of our tithes and offerings.
Notice that Nehemiah rather sheepishly and lovingly dealt with the problem quietly as to not offend anyone. Verse 11 says he contended with the rulers and set them in their place. Sin needs to be confronted as sin, and resolved!
In verses 15-22, we learn of a third problem that had arisen during Nehemiah's absence. He found that some Jews were working and some were buying and selling on the Sabbath day. One of the Ten Commandments delivered to Moses by God was to keep the Sabbath day holy (Exodus 20:8). They were to do no work but only to rest every seventh day. According to Nehemiah, these Jews had profaned the Sabbath, that is they had made that day which they were to treat with reverence as any other day.
There was a time when Sunday, the first day of the week, was treated with reverence and respect. Today it has become just like any other day and you will not have to look hard at all to see people doing just about anything on Sunday. Sadly the Church, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), has profaned the Lord's day just as these Jews had profaned the Sabbath. Sunday ought to be a special day given over to spiritual rest and worship of God. We better be careful with how we treat the Lord's day as this was one of the first areas that the Jews began to backslide. When you find yourself skipping the Sunday services for some pleasure of your own, when you plan vacations with no regard to the Lord's day, or when your Church starts to drop Sunday services "for the family", the great work is about to come to naught.
You might be one who considers this just a little thing. After all, what could be so bad about buying and selling on the Sabbath? During the wilderness journey, the Israelites found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath. A little thing? Perhaps, but God commanded that the man be stoned to death (Numbers 15:32-36). God expects us to be obedient in the little things as well as the big. In fact, it is the little things that we must watch most of all because that is usually where we begin to fall.
Notice the stand that Nehemiah took on this issue. Not only did he contend and rebuke those who were responsible, but he also made some provisions to ensure that no further occurrences would take place. He even involved himself with those who were not Jews and threatened them if they came back to sell their goods on the Sabbath again. If we are going to maintain our great work for God, we are going to have to contend for the faith (Jude 1:3), make no provision for the flesh (Romans 13:14), and reprove the unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11).
Finally, in verses 23-31 we read that the Jews had once again allowed intermarriages with the heathen inhabitants of Canaan. In fact, the grandson of the high priest had married one of the daughters of Sanballat, the chief enemy during the building of the walls. The mixing between the Jews and the heathen had become so great that Nehemiah had found some Jewish children who could not speak Hebrew. Separation from the world is another area in which we are prone to backslide if we do not keep a watchful eye.
We are to remain just as separated from the world as Israel and for the same reasons (2 Corinthians 6:14-17; James 4:4; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 John 2:15; 2 John 1:10). Nehemiah reminded the Jews that it was lack of separation that turned Solomon's heart away from God. Yet, in these times it is not hard to find a professing Christian getting married to a lost person, or a Baptist married to a Catholic. When you find yourself hanging around with the world more than believers, when you start speaking like one of them, or when it becomes difficult for others to identify you with Christ, it is very likely that you have started to slip away from separation. Parents, take a lesson from Eliashib and be careful who you let your children play with and who you allow in your house. Beware of television - your kids don't even need to have a lost friend in the house to become yoked up with the world.
Once again we see the calm easy going nature of Nehemiah. This time he became so angry against sin that he cursed some of the Jews, struck some others, and yanked out their hair. If you think this was uncalled for and that Nehemiah over stepped his bounds, just remember what Jesus did when He found that the Jews had turned the Temple into a house of merchandise (John 2:13-17)? This is probably nothing compared to what the Judgement Seat of Christ will be like. We better take this matter of maintaining separation seriously!
Allowing that which is unholy, neglecting God's full time servants, irreverence towards the Lord's day, and yoking up with the world - these are some of the first areas that we are prone to backslide. Brethren, look to yourselves that we lose not those things we have wrought!