Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
WHOLESALE APOSTASY OF ISRAEL IN NEHEMIAH'S BRIEF ABSENCE
This is one of the saddest chapters in the Bible, for it relates Israel's prompt rebellion against God's law as soon as Nehemiah's back was turned. Of course, Nehemiah once more attempted to get Israel back on the right track, as related in this chapter; but that great effort on his part may also be viewed as a total failure.
Israel obeyed God only so long as some powerful administrator compelled them to do so. The sadness of this tragic failure of the once Chosen People is emphasized by the fact Nehemiah was their last chance to get right in the sight of God.
After Nehemiah, there would be no more prophets until John the the Immerser; their king had been taken away from them by the Lord; and they would never have another; the whole racial nation, with the exception of a tiny "righteous remnant" sank rapidly and irrevocably into that state of `judicial hardening' foretold by Isaiah. Israel had stopped their ears, closed their eyes, and hardened their hearts; and, from that state of spiritual oblivion, there could be no recovery until the Christ should come; and the vast majority of them failed to seize even that opportunity.
READING OF THE LAW REGARDING THE EXCLUSION OF AMMONITES FROM THE CONGREGATION
"On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people; and therein was found written that an Ammonite and a Moabite should not enter into the assembly of God for ever, because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, to curse them: howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing. And it came to pass when they heard the law, that they separated from Israel the mixed multitude."
"The book of Moses" (Nehemiah 13:1). "This probably meant the entire Pentateuch."
It is not clear whether this was a special occasion for reading God's law, or if it was connected with the prescribed reading of it at the Feast of Tabernacles, which might have coincided, almost, with Nehemiah's return to Jerusalem, following his absence in Persia. To this writer, it appears most likely to have been a special reading of the law arranged at once by Nehemiah upon his return.
We have already noted that every word of Nehemiah is focused upon providing safety for Jerusalem; and the big thing in this chapter is that of Nehemiah's throwing Tobiah out of the temple; and it could hardly have been an accident that this reading from God's law was pointed squarely at that sinful treatment of Tobiah, an Ammonite enemy of Nehemiah, and of the Israel of God.
This little paragraph is somewhat of a prelude to the chapter. Neither the reading of God's law, nor Nehemiah's entreaties would suffice to correct this abuse. "Judicial proceedings would have to be taken, and the mixed multitude removed by authority."
TOBIAH; THE AMMONITE ENEMY; THROWN OUT OF THE TEMPLE CHAMBERS
"Now before this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, being allied with Tobiah, had prepared for him a great chamber, where aforetime they had laid the meal-offerings, the frankincense, and the vessels, and the tithes of the grain, the new wine, and the oil, which were given by commandment to the Levites, and the singers, and the porters; and the heave-offerings for the priests. But in all this time I was not at Jerusalem; for in the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king of Babylon I went unto the king: and after certain days asked I leave of the king, and I came to Jerusalem, and understood the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, in preparing him a chamber in the courts of the house of God. And it grieved me sore: therefore I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber. Then I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers: and thither brought I again the vessels of the house of God, with the meal-offerings and the frankincense."
We find it hard to understand the claims of some that they do not know whether or not Eliashib was high priest, or whether or not Nehemiah returned as governor. Eliashib is listed as a high-priest in Nehemiah 12:10; and, besides that, only the High Priest had sufficient authority to have done for Tobiah what was done here. And, as for Nehemiah, of course, he returned as governor; how else could he have "commanded" as stated in Nehemiah 13:9? The High Priest would not have obeyed him or permitted the disruption of that fancy nest he had made for Tobiah in the temple chambers, unless Nehemiah, indeed, was governor, backed up by the full authority of the king of Persia.
There is much diversity of scholarly opinion on how long Nehemiah had been gone from Jerusalem prior to his return to find wholesale rebellion against God's laws. Keil believed that, "Nehemiah's absence must have lasted longer than a year, because so many illegal acts by the people could not have occurred in so short a time." Nevertheless, "Nehemiah probably went to the court in Babylon in 433 B.C., and returned to Jerusalem in 432 B.C." Regarding such a sudden and complete apostasy by Israel, the scholars may scream, "Incredible," as did Oesterley; but a careful reading of this chapter supports the reality of it. If Nehemiah left early in 433 B.C. and returned in late 432 B.C., he might have been gone as long as eighteen months or a little longer. "Artaxerxes died in 423 B.C."; and the very longest that Nehemiah could have been absent was about eight or nine years. Israel did not need years to rebel against God; for they, in their hearts, were in a continual state of rebellion from the times of Hosea and afterward. It is this writer's opinion that Nehemiah was not halfway on his way back to Babylon, when Elisashib and his evil followers were dismantling all of the reforms Nehemiah had made.
"It is possible that Malachi was prophesying during this period," and from him, we understand that the whole priesthood of Israel was wicked (Malachi 2:2).
THE PEOPLE HAD STOPPED PAYING TITHES TO THE LEVITES
"And I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them; so the Levites, and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field. Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them together and set them in their place. Then brought all Judah the tithe of the grain and the new wine and the oil unto the treasuries. And I made treasurers over the treasuries, Shelemiah the priest, and Zadok the scribe, and of the Levites Pedaiah: and next to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah; for they were counted faithful, and their business was to distribute unto their brethren. Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds which I have done for the house of my God, and for the observances thereof."
"The Levites ... were fled every one to his field" (Nehemiah 13:10). The people, particularly the landowners, princes and rulers of the people, stopped paying tithes; and the Levites, left without support, fled at once to farms to make a living. Of course, the rulers (Nehemiah 13:11) had a financial interest in abolishing tithes; and that is why Nehemiah began by assembling them and demanding an answer as to why the temple was deserted.
"I contended with the rulers" (Nehemiah 13:11). "The sin of profaning the temple was principally charged against the priests; but the omission of the payment of tithes was due to the indifference or opposition of the rulers."
"Remember me, O my God, concerning this" (Nehemiah 13:14). This pitiful plea on the part of Nehemiah is understandable. The sudden and almost unbelievable totality of the people's rejection of God's Word and their wholesale violation of all his commandments surely must have alerted Nehemiah to the fact that all of his high hopes for the nation of Israel would never be realized. There are four similar prayers of this nature in this single concluding chapter.
THEIR WANTON VIOLATION OF THE SABBATH DAY
"In those days saw I in Judah men treading winepresses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses therewith; as also with wine, grapes, figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals. There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, who brought in fish, and all manner of wares, and sold on the sabbath to the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath."
"There dwelt men of Tyre also therein" (Nehemiah 13:16). It was not contrary to God's law for foreigners to live in Jerusalem; but, "This, however, was a new fact, and one pregnant with evil consequences." Men of Tyre had established a colony in Jerusalem; they were not bound by God's laws, and they no doubt led the way in advocating and encouraging the profanation of the sabbath.
NEHEMIAH'S STRONG MEASURES AGAINST SABBATH BREAKING
"And it came to pass that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath, I commanded that they should not be opened till after the sabbath; and some of my servants set I over the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day. So the merchants and sellers of all kind of wares lodged without Jerusalem once or twice. Then I testified against them, and said unto them, Why lodge ye about the wall? if ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the sabbath. And I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day. Remember unto me, O my God, this also, and spare me, according to the greatness of thy lovingkindness."
"When the gates o f Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath" (Nehemiah 13:19). These words take account of the Jewish custom of counting every day from sunset to sunset; thus the sabbath, as we would reckon time, actually began at sundown on the preceding day. "The Jews grounded this practice on the Genesis account of creation, where the successive days are listed after the formula, `There was evening and morning, one day,' etc. (Genesis 1:5)."
Nehemiah closed the gates on the sabbath and threatened violence against those who camped outside waiting for the end of it; and these stern measures were effective, as long as Nehemiah was governor with authority to enforce them; but the reform, in all probability, did not last ten days after Nehemiah's governorship was terminated.
"O my God spare me according to the greatness of thy lovingkindness" (Nehemiah 13:22). Again, we have one of Nehemiah's spontaneous prayers. This one is of special interest. "Here Nehemiah acknowledges that his salvation is dependent upon the greatness of God's lovingkindness, and not upon the multiplicity of his good deeds. The doctrine of God's grace in the O.T. is often tragically overlooked."
NEHEMIAH FACES THE RECURRENCE OF SINFUL MARRIAGES WITH PAGANS
"In those days also saw I the Jews that had married women of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: and their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the language of Judah, but according to the language of each people. And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons, nor for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? yet among many nations was there no king like him, and he was beloved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel.' nevertheless, even him did foreign women cause to sin. Shall we then hearken unto you to do all this great evil, to trespass against our God in marrying foreign women?
"And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Elisashib the High Priest, was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite: therefore I chased him from me. Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites.
"Thus cleansed I them of all foreigners, and appointed charges for the priests and for the Levites, every one in his work; and for the wood-offering, at times appointed, and for the first-fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good."
"Remember me, O my God, for good" (Nehemiah 13:31) This is the fourth of these little prayers in this chapter; and this proliferation of Nehemiah's earnest appeals to God may be understood to indicate his recognition of the desperate extremity into which the Chosen People had fallen. Candidly, there was little that any human being, or that even God Himself, could do for Israel that had not already been done, over and over again.
Not only had a son of the High Priest married a pagan; but Eliasbib the High Priest himself was "allied with Tobiah," probably by marriage; and the profaning of the priesthood was by no means restricted to these two violations. Again, we refer to Malachi 2:2 as the verdict of God Himself regarding Israel's priests. By the times of Christ, the party of the Sadducees (among the priests) were outright atheists, not believing in angels, spirits, the resurrection or anything else that the word of God teaches (Matthew 22:23); and they had preempted unto themselves alone the office of the High Priest. They along with the Herodians and Pharisees were the false shepherds who seduced and destroyed the vast majority of the Chosen People (Zechariah 11).
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