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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 13

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-3

1. The exclusion of foreigners 13:1-3

Discovery of the law that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:3-4) led the leaders to exclude all foreigners from the restoration community.

There are three explanations for Ruth’s inclusion. The best one, I believe, is that unbelieving immigrants from these nations were those denied full rights. This would explain why Rahab, a Canaanite, and Ruth, a Moabite, became citizens. They were both believers. Another explanation is that the use of the Hebrew masculine nouns, Ammonite and Moabite, refer to males exclusively. A third possibility is that the Israelites simply did not enforce this law.

Verses 1-31

D. The Reforms Instituted by Nehemiah ch. 13

To understand when the events described in this chapter took place, it is necessary to read Nehemiah 13:1-7, not just Nehemiah 13:1. Nehemiah returned to Artaxerxes in 432 B.C. (Nehemiah 13:6). It was customary in the ancient Near East for kings to require their servants to return to them periodically to reaffirm their allegiance. "Some time" later Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 13:6). The text does not say how much later this was. The prophet Malachi reproved the Jews in Judah for the same sins Nehemiah described in this chapter, and conservative scholars usually date his prophecies about 432-431 B.C. Therefore Nehemiah may very well have returned to Jerusalem about 431 B.C. Undoubtedly he would have wished to return as soon as possible.

Each of the following reforms dealt with a violation of the covenant these people had made with God (cf. Nehemiah 10:29-32).

Verses 4-9

2. The expulsion of Tobiah 13:4-9

Eliashib was the high priest (Nehemiah 3:1; Nehemiah 3:20; Nehemiah 13:28). He was evidently a close relative of Tobiah, the Jewish Ammonite leader who had opposed Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild the walls (Nehemiah 2:19; Nehemiah 6:1; Nehemiah 6:17-18). Probably Eliashib cleaned out one of the temple storerooms and converted it into an apartment for Tobiah because he was an influential relative (Nehemiah 13:7). Nehemiah was very angry when he returned to Jerusalem and discovered this enemy of the faithful remnant living in the temple, so he threw him out.

"With this incident Nehemiah set the example of his new approach to an unnecessarily close relationship with foreigners. The purity of religion had to be maintained at any cost. This was absolutely necessary if the small community, beset as it was with all the temptations of paganism, was to be prevented from reverting to a compromise with the neighboring nations and bringing their ancestral religion into danger." [Note: Ibid., p. 261.]

Nehemiah could legitimately call Artaxerxes the king of Babylon in 431 B.C. Artaxerxes was, of course, a Persian king, not one of the kings of the Babylonian Empire. However, in 431 B.C., Persia ruled Babylon.

Verses 10-14

3. The revival of tithing 13:10-14

Because the people had failed to bring their tithes to the temple, the Levites had to abandon their service in the temple to provide for their own physical needs. This failure may have resulted in rooms standing vacant for Tobiah to occupy as well. In response to Nehemiah’s reprimands, and Malachi’s preaching, the people began to tithe again (cf. Malachi 3:8-10)

Thus far all of Nehemiah’s reforms, following his return to Jerusalem, involved temple service. Nehemiah 13:14 records his prayer in view of these reforms (cf. Nehemiah 5:19).

Verses 15-22

4. The observance of the Sabbath 13:15-22

Nehemiah discovered that foreign merchants were selling goods in Jerusalem on the Sabbath, and that the Jews were also preparing and transporting goods on that holy day. He rebuked both the merchants and the Jewish nobles (cf. Nehemiah 10:31). Furthermore, he locked the city gates on the Sabbath and kept traders from gathering outside and tempting the Jews to buy and sell. He asked God to remember him for his fidelity to the Mosaic Law (Nehemiah 13:22 b).

"In opposing Tobiah’s personal use of a room in the temple precincts, Nehemiah was concerned about honoring holy space; in his anger against those who wanted to make the Sabbath just another day of buying and selling, he wanted to protect holy time." [Note: Holmgren, p. 154.]

Verses 23-29

5. The rebuke of mixed marriages 13:23-29

Nehemiah confronted this problem as Ezra had several years earlier (Ezra 9-10). The text records only Nehemiah’s words to the people, but since we know what kind of person he was, we can safely assume that he followed up his words with action. Evidently some of these Jews had divorced their Jewish wives to marry foreigners (Malachi 2:10-16). Plucking the beard (Nehemiah 13:25) was a form of punishment (cf. Isaiah 50:6), and it was a public disgrace (2 Samuel 10:4). The marriage of Joiada’s son to a foreigner (Nehemiah 13:28) was especially bad since he was the grandson of the high priest, and priests were to marry only Jewish virgins (Leviticus 21:14).

"Any person in the high-priestly lineage could become high priest. It was thus a dangerous situation." [Note: Fensham, p. 267.]

In the ancient East, marriages involving prominent families were often arranged to secure political advantage and to form alliances. Probably this was the case in the marriage of the high priest’s grandson and Sanballat’s daughter. Again, a similar prayer by Nehemiah marks off this significant reform (Nehemiah 13:29; cf. Nehemiah 13:14). [Note: The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, p. 681, contains a helpful chart of 13 problems Nehemiah faced and how he dealt successfully with each one.]

". . . Will Israel survive just to repeat the sins of the past? Intermarriage dragged Solomon and the entire nation into a vortex of doom that led to the exile. Will the postexilic generation go the same way?" [Note: Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 212.]

Verses 30-31

6. The summary of Nehemiah’s reforms 13:30-31

Probably we should understand these verses as summarizing Nehemiah’s reforms after he returned to Jerusalem, namely, those described in this chapter. How long Nehemiah remained in Jerusalem is unknown. He behaved in this chapter as though he still had the power of a Persian governor.

". . . as facilitator of political stability and as the resolute upholder of the law, Nehemiah’s mission has messianic features about it as well. He is thus a religious reformer who can be cast into the very best traditions of a Josiah or a Hezekiah." [Note: William J. Dumbrell, "The Theological Intention of Ezra-Nehemiah," Reformed Theological Review 45:3 (September-December 1986):70.]

"Nehemiah’s singlemindedness of purpose, attention to detail, willingness to delegate authority, dedication to service, and dependence on God were combined in a man who can simply be labeled as a servant of God." [Note: Breneman, p. 59.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Nehemiah 13". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/nehemiah-13.html. 2012.
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