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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 13

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-31

Chapter 13

1. On that day they read [ Heb. there was read] in the book of Moses [Numbers 22:5 ; Deu 23:3 ] in the audience [ Heb. ears] of the people; and therein was found written, that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever;

2. Because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, that he should curse them: howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing [see Numbers 23:7-11 ; Num 24:3-19 ].

3. Now it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude.

4. ¶ And before this, Eliashib the priest, having the oversight [ Heb. being set over] of the chamber [the entire out-building or "lean-to," which surrounded the temple on three sides, and was made up of three stories, each containing a number of rooms, some smaller, some larger (see 1Ki 6:5-10 )] of the house of our God, was allied [connected by marriage] unto Tobiah:

5. And he had prepared for him a great chamber, where aforetime they laid the meat offerings, the frankincense, and the vessels, and the tithes of the corn, the new wine, and the oil, which was commanded to be given to the Levites, and the singers, and the porters; and the offerings of the priests [ i.e. the portion of the offerings assigned for their sustenance to the priests].

6. 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 [ Heb. at the end of days] obtained I [ or, I earnestly requested] leave of the king:

7. And I came to Jerusalem, and understood of the evil that Eliashib did for Tobiah, in preparing him a chamber in the courts of the house of God.

8. And it grieved me sore: therefore I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber.

9. Then I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers: and thither brought I again the vessels of the house of God, with the meat offering and the frankincense.

10. ¶ And I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them: for the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field.

11. Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them together [Nehemiah gathered the Levites from their lands, and reinstated them in their set offices], and set them in their place [ Heb. standing].

12. Then brought all Judah the tithe of the corn and the new wine and the oil unto the treasuries [ or, storehouses].

13. And I made treasurers over the treasuries, Shelemiah the priest, and Zadok the scribe [probably the same as Zidkijah of ch. Neh 10:1 ], 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 office was to distribute unto their brethren.

14. Remember me [once more the faithful servant of God begs a merciful remembrance of what he had done for the honour of God in the "observances" of the temple], O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds [ Heb. kindnesses] that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices [observations] thereof.

15. ¶ In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day [ rather, concerning the day] wherein they sold victuals.

16. There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem.

17. 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? [The desecration of the Sabbath is first brought into prominence among the sins of the Jewish people by Jeremiah (see ch. Jer 17:21-27 ). It could not but have gained ground during the captivity, when foreign masters would not have allowed the cessation of labour one day in seven. On the return from captivity, the sabbatical rest appears to have been one of the institutions most difficult to re-establish.]

18. Did not your fathers thus [cf. Jer 17:21-27 ], 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.

19. And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath [ i.e. at the sunset of the day before the sabbath; since the sabbath was regarded as commencing on the previous evening], I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the sabbath: and some of my servants [comp. ch. Jeremiah 4:16-23 ; Jer 5:16 ] set I at the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day.

20. So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice.

21. Then I testified against them, and said unto them, Why lodge ye about [ Heb. before] the wall [ The Speaker's Commentary says: The lodging of the merchants with their merchandise just outside Jerusalem during the sabbath, while they impatiently waited for the moment when they might bring their wares in, was thought by Nehemiah to be unseemly, and to have an irreligious tendency. He therefore threatened the merchants with arrest if they continued the practice]? if ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the sabbath.

22. And I commanded the Levites [at first Nehemiah had employed his own retinue in the work of keeping the gates; but, as this was inconvenient, he now made a change, and assigned the duty to the Levites, as one which properly belonged to them, since the object of the regulation was the due observance of the sabbath], that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day. Remember me [In this prayer also Nehemiah commits his fidelity to the merciful estimate of God. But something in connection with the sabbath, or with his retrospect of his own conduct, gives the passing prayer a peculiar pathos of humility], O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness [ or, multitude] of thy mercy.

23. ¶ In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab:

24. And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod [a mixture of Philistine and Aramic], and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people [ Heb. of people and people],

25. And I contended with them, and cursed [ or, reviled] them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair [scarcely with his own hand. The meaning rather is that Nehemiah caused them to be thus punished], and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves.

26. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? yet among many nations was there no king like him, who was beloved of his God [comp. 2Sa 12:24-25 ], and God made him king over all Israel: nevertheless even him did outlandish women cause to sin.

27. Shall we then hearken unto you to do all this great evil, to transgress against our God in marrying strange wives?

28. And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was son in law to Sanballat the Horonite: therefore I chased him from me. [Eliashib himself was allied by marriage to Tobiah, and one of his grandsons was married to Sanballat Him Nehemiah drove into exile.]

29. Remember them [this priestly violation of law is committed to God alone for punishment], O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites.

30. [This is a brief recapitulation of the special work of Nehemiah after his return.] Thus cleansed I them [after the acts of discipline described above there was doubtless some formal service of expiation] from all strangers, and appointed the wards of the priests and the Levites, every one in his business;

31. And for the wood offering, at times appointed, and for the firstfruits.

[No special provision was made by the law for the supply of wood necessary to keep fire ever burning upon the altar; nor do David or Solomon appear to have instituted any definite regulations on the subject. It remained for Nehemiah to establish a system by which the duty of supplying the wood should be laid as a burthen in turn on the various clans or families, which were regarded as constituting the nation. The lot was used to determine the order in which the several families should perform the duty. A special day (the fourteenth of the fifth month, according to Josephus) was appointed for the bringing in of the supply; and this day was after a time regarded as a high festival, and called "The Festival of the Wood Offering."] Remember me, O my God, for good.

[With these words (Bishop Ellicott's Commentary ) Nehemiah leaves the scene, committing himself and his discharge of duty to the righteous Judge. His conscientious fidelity had brought him into collision not only with external enemies, but with many of his own brethren. His rigorous reformation has been assailed by many moralists and commentators in every age. But in these words he commits all to God, as it were by anticipation. It may be added that with these words end the annals of the Old Testament History.]

Nehemiah's Temper and Questions

WHAT a different man is Nehemiah when the first chapter and the last of his book are brought into contrast! In the first chapter Nehemiah is meek enough; we read that it came to pass, when he heard certain words, that he "sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven" ( Neh 1:4 ), all that could be done in a private house. In the last chapter we find him laying about him with tremendous fury. He hurls everything out of his way in a righteous rage. There is nothing about weeping, and mourning, and fasting. The last chapter is a thunderstorm. Yet the first and the last are related; the man who cannot weep that is to say, the man who cannot feel deeply and acutely can never do any great and permanent reforming work in the world; the man who cannot fast that is to say, hold himself in severest control can never strike with any real effect; the man who cannot pray that is to say, connect himself with all the highest forces and energies of the universe, ally himself with the very omnipotence of God can never stand forth in heroic fearlessness and courage almost divine. In the first chapter we have the man's inner nature in the last chapter we have the man at work; and between the two, though the contrast is outwardly so striking, there is an intimate and necessary relation.

What questions he asks! all reformation should be preceded by inquiry. Circumstances develop men. Nehemiah began in the history as a cupbearer; he ends in the same history as a mighty, resolute, beneficent reformer, never in any one of his reforms promoting his own interests, narrowly viewed as such, but everywhere considering the public weal, re-establishing law and order, that society may be secured and enabled to make useful progress. Nehemiah did not care who had done the mischief, he was bent upon undoing it. It was a priest who had "the oversight of the chamber of the house of our God," who had allied himself unto Tobiah, whose history we have studied; and that same priest had prepared for the enemy a great chamber, and when Nehemiah came he knotted as it were whipcord and laid about him, so that they who had done evil might suffer in the body for the mischief they had wrought. Possession was not to him nine points of the law. The man was in the wrong place, and he must be routed out. It was in vain to plead possession, prescriptive right, a kind of quasi-legal entrance upon the property: Nehemiah said, This is not yours; it was not in the gift of any man; you must be put out of this, and you must take care of your stuff, or it will be thrown into the fire. An awkward man to deal with! Tobiah could have borne any amount of argument, and he looked serene in the face of most eloquent persuasiveness; but Nehemiah was a man of action as well as a man of thought; he gave but little time to moving; the moving was to be accomplished; and it was well understood that when Nehemiah had made up his mind to a course, that course was as good as run.

Look at some of the questions which Nehemiah put:

"Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken?" ( Neh 13:11 ).

This is the voice of a man who means to hold the house of God in highest reverence. We dare not adopt the question now, because it is out of consonance with the spirit of Jesus Christ, that spirit being one of persuasion, reasoning, sympathy, entreaty, well imaged in the words, "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him." Still, we owe much to the spirit of Nehemiah. There was a time when the spirit of order and right could assert itself in very forcible terms. The earth was not made beautiful without much volcanic energy, without great upheavals and tumults: the sward that is on the top of it was not always there; it comes after great contention, conflict, stirring together, and a tremendous coalition of forces well-nigh infinite. It is the same with human history. We have come to halcyon days: we wonder that the sward is not more velvet-like, we complain if everything is not brought to the highest polish of civilisation; we now argue with men, and entreat them to do things which aforetime would have been commanded and insisted upon. The former is the better plan. It is founded on an eternal principle. Yet who shall say that we are not much indebted even to physical force and positive penal law for a good deal that is best amongst us to-day? Who can be sure that our penalties have not ended in very much of our best refinement, our highest forbearance and self-control and moral dignity? The point, however, to be kept in view is this that there was a man who cared for God's house. That man ought to live through all time. He does live. His influence is not always exercised in the same way; but there is always in the human heart a great wonder, a mighty passion, leading to strenuous effort in the direction of filling the house of God. When God's house is cared for, no other house is neglected. We are not referring to that sentimental regard for the building which can leave other things to run to ruin, but of that intelligent, rational, reverent solicitude for the house of God, which expresses itself in all industries, and in every aspect of loving conscientious faithfulness. Let this be judged of by reality and fact. The matter is open to inquest upon almost statistical ground. Who cares for God's business shall be cared for by God. "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" was the question which Christ propounded. Let us put it in the new form Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's house? The idea remains unimpaired. When we are about God's house in the right spirit the redemptive God is taking care of our home. He lives a foolish life who seeks his life upon narrow grounds. He that would save his life must know how to lose it; he who would save the little must attend to the great; he who would have all things added unto him must seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Look at another question:

"What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day?" ( Neh 13:17 ).

The same man here evinces the same spirit. The house of God and the day of God go together; they stand or fall together. The work of God is one, and his purpose is undivided, and all his ordinances interrelate themselves to one another, so that if you touch one you touch the whole, if you break the least you break the greatest. A marvellous unity of thought and purpose and law we find in the house of God! Nehemiah was a Sabbatarian of the severest type. We do well not to imitate his action in this matter. There can be no Sabbath-keeping by law. We cannot force a man to keep the day of God. We can compel him to withdraw from visible participation in merchandise; we can compel him to close his windows, and to give all his servants holiday; so far we can go. But unless the Sabbatic spirit is in the man there will be no Sabbath kept by him. It is the heart that obeys; it is the heart that is religious. We are not good because we assent to certain propositions and obey certain laws: we are only good because the spirit is at one in rational and loving consonance with God. Here again we must almost go to statistics for proof of the utility and beneficence of Sabbath-keeping. Let us rest this question on the strongest grounds, namely, those that are spiritual, social, healthful, beneficial, in every aspect and issue, and then our argument cannot be overthrown. If we should institute a comparison between those who keep the Sabbath with those who do not keep it, there can be no risk in believing that those who truly in their hearts consecrate a portion of their time to God are the best men: if they are not they ought to be; they do not live up to their profession of the Son of man. He ought to be the best man who sets apart a portion of his property, a portion of his time, to religious uses, and who does so not to escape a penalty but to express a high and noble sentiment of gratitude. If he is not the best man, then he is misusing his opportunity, playing false with his religious actions, and is unequal in his inner man and moral purpose to that which is outward and that which is externally attractive and good. The Sabbath, therefore, can only be kept by men who want to keep it. All our statutes and acts of parliament and preventatives are useless, and worse than useless, irritating and exasperating, unless there be a spirit in man which responds to the spirit of the Sabbath, and says, This is the gift of God; this is needful on social grounds, on healthful grounds, on religious grounds; therefore, the Sabbath should be kept holy unto the Lord.

So far did Nehemiah succeed that he drove out a good many who were doing business within the city on the Sabbath day. But they were not to be easily deterred: they loitered behind the wall; they thought they would watch their opportunity for doing a little business even on Nehemiah's Sabbath day. But Nehemiah was an out-and-out reformer; he did not look in one direction only, he looked over the wall, and seeing these men loitering about he said, If you come there again I will lay hands upon you be off! The tone was needed at that time. Historically, it was right; the men could understand no other argument. There are persons who cannot understand a preacher, but they have some dim conception of a constable. Nehemiah, therefore, played the inspector, and looked over the wall, and hunted the rats out of their hole, and drove them away with righteous indignation, threatening them that if they returned they would be detained. A man of this kind is always useful in society; and the men who criticise him most severely are not always unwilling to realise the benefits which his policy secures: they will take whatever he may bring to them in the way of advantage, and then they will scrutinise severely his policy and his spirit, and wish that he were a man of another temper. Men of so-called bad temper have been of great use in society. Their temper has not been bad when looked at within the proper limits and in the right light: it was only bad to the men who were themselves bad, and who wished to escape judgment. There is a righteous indignation. There is a godly jealousy. There is an anger that may not cease with the shining of the sun, but burn at night and be ready for the morning, that evil may be contemned and scorched and destroyed.

This was the man Nehemiah. What probably enraged him more than anything else was the intermarriage of the Jews with the heathen. There he became most sublimely indignant; said he, "In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: and their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' language, 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 in God's name that they would never do it again. This man was once only cupbearer; once he was a "mute inglorious Milton"; once he sat down and wept and mourned and fasted and prayed. Comparing the verse which represents him so doing with the twenty-fifth verse of the last chapter of his book, we find, though a great change passes in the matter of emotion and contemplation and action, the man is one and the same. The great argument was, "Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things?" his argument being, You have history to guide, you have example and warning on every hand; you are not guiltless, but doubly guilty, because even the king of Israel sinned in this way and incurred the judgment and displeasure of heaven. Here Nehemiah stood upon sound ground. He knew what had happened in the history of the world, which so few men know. Men may know the history of the world in bare facts and dates, in battles and victories, and coronations and changes of dynasty and policy, and yet know nothing about the central moral line that runs through all history and makes it organic, and turns it into a great teaching instrument. If we know dates only we know nothing about history. History has a moral aspect, and we must study its morale, its aims in relation to the moral health of the people, if we would grasp its philosophy and usefully apply its largest lesson.

Here, then, we have discipline, earnestness, definiteness, the very Cromwell of the Old Testament, the man with a rod in his hand; and nothing stands in his way when he has right to vindicate, when he has law to protect. Where are the Nehemiahs of to-day? There are none. Where are the Cromwells of to-day? They are in the grave. Look at this man's attitude as described by himself; omitting the interstitial matter, let us catch all words in which he describes his personal action: "I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber " "Then contended I with the rulers" "I testified against them" "I contended with the nobles of Judah" "I commanded that the gates should be shut" "I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves " "I said unto the Sabbath-breakers, If ye do so again, I will lay hands on you " "I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God" "I chased one of the sons of Joiada from me " "Thus cleansed I them." And so he passes away from us in a great storm of reformation. "I contended I commanded I cast forth I chased I said Thus I cleansed." He is not ashamed to speak of himself. He was indeed the only man of his time worth speaking about. He was as the very Spirit of judgment amongst the people. If we do not want Nehemiah's violence we want his earnestness. Never forget the distinction between these two terms. There may be those who condemn the violence of Nehemiah, and then sink into indifference regarding all that is sacred and noble and useful in human history. Do not let us escape on the plea that the day of violence has gone: the day of earnestness ought never to go.

What a time Nehemiah would have of it if he lived now! And what a time we should have of it if that same circumstance occurred! Nehemiah made his influence felt. Could he see what we see in all the capitals of the world, and yet hold his tongue, and pass down to church that he might say his own prayers, and find his own covert way to heaven? He would often be late for church; he would stand by the wayside to curse and denounce, and issue the judgments of God upon the things that are happening even in Metropolitan thoroughfares. Nehemiah could not look upon the sights which afflict our eyes without protestation. We have lost the spirit of Protestantism. We now make it a mere ecclesiastical term, whereas in its etymology and earliest history it was nothing of the kind. A Protestant is a witness a man who testifies, witnesses to certain truth. If there were no Roman Catholic Church, Protestantism would still remain, as vital, energetic, and beneficent as ever, because it means testifying, witnessing, laying the hand of identification upon evil, and saying, Thou art wrong! I curse thee in the name of God. That is Protestantism not going to chapel instead of going to church; not wearing a Geneva gown instead of some elaborately-decorated ritualistic garment. To protest is to witness. Nehemiah would be the leader of the Protestants. Could Nehemiah see the faces of the poor ground every day and say, "Nothing can be done: 'the poor ye have always with you:' it is a great mystery, and we must wait for its solution?" He might have to say that, but he would do a good deal before he did say it. He would go with these poor people and say, I will watch the whole process; I will see how you are treated, and you shall not be involved in my inspection, and I will beard the oppressor who crushes you, be his name what it may; though he be a pew-holder in my church, I will smite him in the face with a fist of righteousness. Could Nehemiah hear about our poor seamstresses being drilled by some commercial devil, and never say a word about it, but generalise on the mysteries of trade, and the difficulties of commerce, and the law of supply and demand, and the exactions of political economy? No! he would be more on the side of human nature than upon the side of any science that ever was invented for getting the last drop of blood out of a poor worker.

We much need Nehemiah's earnestness, we repeat, without Nehemiah's violence. We have already admitted that there was a time when violence itself might be historically justifiable, but even violence was inspired by earnestness. If the fury has been less, the passion and love of righteousness should still remain. If we were in earnest we could do more: we could make the country too hot for any man who was living by robbery and by oppression and cruelty; we should so organise ourselves as to get at the most skilfully concealed oppressor; we could make him feel that he is not to dine every day upon the flesh of human creatures, and drink his wine out of the skulls of his fellow men. Do not say that nothing can be done. A moral sentiment can be created, a grand public opinion can be organised, and the most cunning workers of evil can be made to feel that there is a spirit in the air, an invisible, ghostly, awful spirit, the spirit of righteousness, the spirit of humanity, the spirit of pity, the spirit of judgment: there may be absence of visible organisation and positive definition, yet there will be a feeling that the enemy is behind or in front, or on the right hand or on the left, or just above or just below, but there he is, the enemy so-called the enemy of wrong-doing, the enemy of cruelty, the enemy of shamelessness, but the friend of God, and the true friend of man.

Can we not rouse ourselves to some heroic endeavour in this direction? One thing surely we can do: we can ask significant questions. Nehemiah pushed his inquiries as he might have thrust spears into the consciences of men. When the question is raised the answer may come; but if we do not raise the question we cannot be concerned about the issue. Why are all these thousands of children so ragged, so poverty-stricken, so hungered, so neglected? We can at least put the question, and we can put it with unction, we can ask it as if we meant it; and there is a way of asking some questions that amounts almost to their solution. We are not to make them questions of conversation, not to be eating our own smoking venison and drinking our own foaming wine, and asking how the poor live, and say how shocking it is that so many people should have nothing to eat and drink. That is not moral comment that has any value in it. There is, let us never forget, a way of putting a question that means that we are on the outlook for opportunities, and that the moment the opportunity can be secured it will be realised in the interests of man, in the interests of righteousness. Now all this is in the happiest accord with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. We need not go to the Old Testament for heroic reformers, for fundamental reconstructors of human history. All the men that went before him, who burned with the right spirit, pointed towards One who was coming, whose name is the Son of man, who so loved the world as to die for it, who on his way to the cross made that way the steeper and thornier because he said, Woe unto you, devourers of widows' houses, plunderers, thieves, hypocrites, whited sepulchres! If he did go to the cross, he might have gone by another and smoother road, but his road was all cross, it was the way of the cross; when he was born he died, when he died he was born. Jesus Christ could not be in our streets without putting searching questions. The Saviour of the world could not see holy things trampled upon without protest at least. Blessed is that people among whom there are many men with loud, clear, resonant voices, who will not let evil pass unchecked, unchallenged, but who, even if they have no means of immediate remedy, will still ask questions, and make their inquiries solemn as the judgment of God. When the Spirit of Jesus Christ comes back to the Church, the Church will rectify social problems, will defend the weak, will secure the rights of the poor, and will show that it is not an organism for the cultivation of sentiment, but an organism whose symbol is the cross, whose baptism is of blood, whose object is to save the world.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Nehemiah 13". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/nehemiah-13.html. 1885-95.
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