Nehemiah 13:4-31

Nehemiah 13:4-31

SERIES: Godly Leadership

Eternal Vigilance Is the Price of Liberty

Introduction:  A better writer surely would have ended the book of Nehemiah one chapter sooner.  You will recall that the completion of the wall of Jerusalem in chapter six was followed by a significant spiritual revival, a return to the Word of God, the confession of sin, public written agreements to live in obedience to God, and a willingness on the part of many to repopulate Jerusalem and serve God faithfully.  Then they dedicated the wall in a great celebration of joy heard for miles around.  That’s where a great writer would have laid down his pen.

But Nehemiah wrote one more chapter—because he was more interested in truth than in good literature.  And I’m glad he did, because the last chapter of First Evangelical Free Church will not be written on the dedication of our building on the 13th of September. There is more to come, and I trust our last chapter will not read like Nehemiah’s.

The aphorism I borrowed for my sermon title this morning is commonly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but the probable originator was an 18th century Scottish statesman named John Philpot Curran.  In a political speech in Dublin in 1790 he said, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.” [i]  What he deemed true politically is also true spiritually.  The individual or the family or the church or the nation which relaxes its guard against the wiles of the devil, which forgets how to become outraged at immorality, and which assumes that historical commitments and creeds can be passed automatically from one generation to the next, is doomed to lose their spiritual freedom.

Though this final chapter of Nehemiah is something of a downer, I believe there is much we can learn as we conclude this series on Godly Leadership.  Let’s read Nehemiah 13:1-7: 

    “On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, 2 because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) 3 When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.

    4 Before this, Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah, 5 and he had provided him with a large room formerly used to store the grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil prescribed for the Levites, musicians and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests.

What we discover in these opening paragraphs is that, for reasons unexplained, Nehemiah returned to Babylon sometime after the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem.  As you will recall, he once had a pretty prestigious position in the court of King Artaxerxes, and the king had only given him a limited leave of absence back in chapter 2.  Apparently, the time was up, his job was done, and so he returned home.  Unfortunately, while he was gone the truth of an old saying demonstrated itself almost immediately: “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” I thought of making that my first point, but instead opted for this:  “The absence of godly leadership results in rapid spiritual decline.”  But the meaning is the same.  

The absence of godly leadership results in rapid spiritual decline.  

It can happen in a home, in a Christian organization, or in a church.  When there are godly leaders (whether they be parents or elders or administrators or pastors), spiritual progress is evident.  The goals are clear, the motives are pure, the methods are godly, and the teaching is biblical.  But when that godly leadership is no longer available (because of death or resignation or refusal to serve), it’s unbelievable how fast permissiveness can replace renewal.  It certainly did in Nehemiah’s absence.  We do not know exactly how long he was gone, but most scholars suggest two to twelve years.  By the time he returned he discovered four major areas of deterioration—all of which have occurred previously in our study, and regarding several of which the people had signed public commitments that they would never allow it to happen again!  First, there is the …

             The problem of tolerance gone-to-seed.  We read a few moments ago about how Tobiah was given an office in the very temple of God.  Ammonites weren’t even allowed in the court of the Gentiles, the outermost section of the temple grounds, but here is an Ammonite, Nehemiah’s #1 enemy, the guy who did everything he could to stop the rebuilding of the walls, the one who claimed that if even a fox got up on the wall it would fall down, setting up shop in God’s House!  Speaking of foxes, this one has been put in charge of the chicken coop.  He is as out of place in the temple as a statue of Martin Luther in the Vatican or an appearance by Axl Rose at a Focus on the Family Rally.  How could such a thing happen?

Apparently once Nehemiah went on sabbatical, some of the leaders left in charge began to question whether his exclusive, hard-nosed attitudes were all that necessary.  After all, shouldn’t we be tolerant of those who have different viewpoints and lifestyles and religious preferences from ours?  Excluding an Ammonite like Tobiah is not being very open-minded.  

Friends, if ever an age was guilty of taking tolerance and acceptance to a ridiculous extreme, it is our own.  We live in a day when no one can stand to be excluded from anything.  Women want to join men’s clubs.  Mexicans want to enter the U.S. without any restrictions whatever.  Homosexuals are demanding marriage and adoption rights.  And in at least one public high school in St. Louis County, girls have received full access to the boys’ locker room—all in the name of tolerance.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe in tolerance.  Where personal preferences and viewpoints in society do not put innocent lives and impressionable young minds in jeopardy, I believe tolerance is a virtue.  Where personal preference and viewpoints in the church do not involve sin, I believe tolerance is a virtue.  But tolerance can go to seed, and it has gone to seed in this country and in much of the church.  It certainly went to seed while Nehemiah was out of the country.  The result is that while Tobiah was unable to defeat Israel by military threat back in chapter 4, he is able to infiltrate to the heart of the nation because of tolerance and compromise.

A second and closely related problem Nehemiah discovered when he returned from Babylon is …

             The problem of neglected stewardship. This is at least the fourth time this topic has come up in Ezra and Nehemiah and perhaps you’re tired of hearing of it, but maybe there’s someone for whom the issue hasn’t yet sunk in.  Let’s read 10 & 11:  “I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields.  So I rebuked the officials and asked them, ‘Why is the house of God neglected?’  Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts.”  

I don’t know whether this neglect of stewardship was the cause or the effect of Tobiah’s presence in the temple, but I am sure it was one or the other.  It could have been the cause in that the people’s lack of giving left the storerooms of the temple empty, which in turn gave Eliashib an excuse to rent out the unused space in the temple to Tobiah.  More likely the neglected stewardship could have been the effect of Tobiah’s presence; the common people may have said, “If the priests and Levites don’t care anymore about God’s principles than to let that pagan inhabit the temple, we’re going to quit giving.”

This reminds me of a truth that I firmly believe and have shared before.  Churches don’t have financial problems; they only have spiritual problems which produce financial symptoms.  The first one to know that you have a spiritual problem in your life is generally not your best friend or your Bible study leader or even your pastor; it’s the church financial secretary.  He can spot trouble long before the rest of us because giving patterns change when we get out of fellowship with God or with other believers. 

             The problem of a secularized Lord’s Day.  Let’s begin reading in verse 15.  

    “In those days I saw men in Judah treading wine presses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads.  And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the sabbath.  Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day.  Men from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah.  I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day?'”

These people couldn’t control their covetous nature for even one day; they simply must increase their profits!  But God set aside one day in seven for the benefit of His people—Saturday under the Old Covenant, Sunday under the new.  We have talked about this in previous messages from Ezra and Nehemiah, and I don’t want to run the issue into the ground.  

But I thought I might offer a slightly different emphasis today and suggest that the Sabbath, to put it in modern terms, is God’s stress management program!  I believe burnout would virtually disappear as a major problem among God’s people if we learned to do just one thing differently—to honor the Lord’s Day appropriately.  Our bodies, our minds, and our emotions desperately need a respite once a week from the pressure and tension and exhaustion that plague us.  In fact, once in a while it would do us good to ask, “If I were to die a month from now from a heart attack such as took Peter Shaw recently, how would I spend my time differently?”  I have a suspicion that some of those urgent things that just have to be done today on the Lord’s Day might not seem nearly so important.  

             The problem of wholesale violation of God’s marriage principles.  Verse 23:  “Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab.  Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah.”  Further, we see in verse 28 just how far the situation had gotten so out of hand—the high priest’s grandson had married Sanballat’s daughter!  Once again God addresses the issue of the intermarriage of His people with those who follow false religions.  

Since we have addressed this issue three times this summer, I trust the point has been made explicitly clear—God allows believers to marry only believers.  But this is only one of the marriage principles in the Bible that are being violated wholesale today.  Adultery and fornication are rampant, divorce is the accepted solution to frustration, and spouse abuse is increasing.  These travesties are occurring principally because we are ignoring the simple commands of God that husbands are to love their wives and wives are to show respect to their husbands.  

And always the children are the ones who pay the dearest price.  Here in Nehemiah half the children born of these mixed marriages couldn’t even speak Hebrew; therefore, they obviously weren’t receiving instruction in the Hebrew faith.  When we Christians begin to adopt the world’s values and the world’s ways, we invariably turn our children away from the things that make for stability and strength in their lives.  

Having looked at the problems Nehemiah faced when he returned from his sabbatical to Babylon, let’s consider what he, as a godly leader, did about them.  

The exercise of godly leadership is difficult but rewarding.  

             The godly leader faces problems head-on and condemns sin fearlessly.  Nehemiah was nothing if not courageous.  Consider the way he handled the four problems we have looked at.  First, the problem of the presence of Tobiah the Ammonite in the temple of God, verse 8:  “I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room.  I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offersings and the incense.”  Nehemiah didn’t appoint a committee to determine what to do with Tobiah’s things; he just threw them out in the street and then fumigated the place.  

Second is the problem of neglected stewardship, verse 11: “So I rebuked the officials and asked them, ‘Why is the house of God neglected?’  Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts.”  

Third is the problem of a secularized Lord’s Day, verse 17: “I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day.”  Furthermore, we read in 19:  

    “When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day.  Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem.  But I warned them and said, ‘Why do you spend the night by the wall?  If you do this again, I will lay hands on you.’  From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath.” 

But that’s nothing compared to how he handled those who were violating God’s marriage principles, verse 25: “I rebuked them and called curses down on them.  I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair.”  Needless to say, a leader with Nehemiah’s style wouldn’t be tolerated in many churches today.  Why, some people are offended when the pastor mentions sin from the pulpit twice in one month.  “Be positive and encouraging” is the advice young seminarians often receive from the church growth experts.  

I am not suggesting that pulling people’s hair out is always the best way to handle conflict, but there is something we can learn from Nehemiah.  We can learn to get mad about the right things; we can learn to express outrage and public indignation over things that are clearly wrong.  Frankly, Nehemiah’s actions aren’t that different from Jesus’ reaction when he found a sordid scene of commercialization in the temple.  He made a whip and took after the perpetrators, upsetting tables and driving out the moneychangers who had turned the temple into a bazaar.

John White writes, “Doubtless we could debate the (method).  Yet in Christian work our cowardice in avoiding unpleasantness is currently doing more damage than any damage from (harshness) on the part of Christian leaders ….  The Church has become flabby, old womanish (not an acceptable term today, but it communicates), inept, unwilling to act.” Y7,.[ii]  Nehemiah saw the problem, recognized its evil, and stood to defend—not himself but his God.  He wasn’t afraid of losing friends or making enemies.  He couldn’t be intimidated by threats or bought with bribes.  He was God’s man and he wasn’t for sale.[iii]  

             He looks for a few good men.  The old motto of the Marines was “looking for a few good men.”  That was before it became politically incorrect to use “men” in a generic way.  Well, I’m using men generically here, and I’m suggesting that this motto is not a bad one for a godly leader.  The point is that even a strong and courageous leader cannot do it all himself.  This is seen most clearly in our text in the discussion o neglected stewardship.  After Nehemiah rebuked the officials because they were neglecting the house of God, we read the following in verse 12:

    “All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and oil into the storerooms.  I put Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and a Levite named Pedaiah in charge of the storerooms and made Hanan son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah, their assistant, because these men were considered trustworthy.  They were made responsible for distributing the supplies to their brothers.”

In every Christian organization the key to godly success is identifying faithful, trustworthy men and women to be responsible for the various ministries.  I like the way Ray Stedman describes the four qualities he looks for in leaders.  First, a searching mind, a person who is mentally alert and never quits learning.  Second, a humble heart, someone whose ego is not on the line all the time, who must be praised and honored and encouraged in order to get them to do anything.  Third, an evident gift for what they are being asked to do.  And fourth, a faithful spirit—someone who won’t quit.[iv]  Especially is it important for trustworthy people whose integrity is unquestioned to be in charge of financial matters.  

A third thing I see about Nehemiah’s exercise of godly leadership has to do with communication. 

             He offers a rationale for his actions, at least when helpful.  When Nehemiah rebukes the nobles for desecrating the Sabbath, he explains in verse 18, “Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our god brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city?  Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.”  Nehemiah is shocked at the ease with which the people seem to forget the lessons of the past.  By reminding them of the historical consequences of this kind of behavior he is offering an added incentive for repentance, beyond just fear of his own wrath.  You see him offering a rationale again in verse 25.  Immediately after the hair-pulling incident Nehemiah adds a verbal rationale.  He says, 

    “I made them take an oath in God’s name and said:  ‘You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves.  Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations where was no king like him.  He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women.  Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?'”

Sometimes godly leaders have to take drastic action, but they are wise to explain it when possible.  Only in the case of throwing Tobiah’s things out of the temple does Nehemiah deem it unnecessary to explain his actions at all, and that’s because no one in his right mind could question his right to do so.  

Finally, we see that the exercise of godly leadership involves committing decision-making to prayer.

             He commits his decision-making to prayer.  Four different times in this chapter we see Nehemiah shooting arrow prayers to God, or as we suggested, fax prayers (correction inserted in 2022: “text prayers”).  We see it in verse 14, in verse 22, in verse 29, and at the very end of the chapter and book.  Three times time his prayer is, “Remember me, O my God,” while the other time it is, “Remember them,” referring to the intermarriage of one of the high priest’s grandsons to the daughter of Sanballat.  Nehemiah doesn’t undertake spiritual reforms without committing the matter to God.  

This habit of Nehemiah of committing his decision-making to the Lord brings us to our final point this morning:

The success of godly leadership lies in a balance between activism and intersession. 

Nehemiah was an activist, no question, but that didn’t eliminate the need for him to be a man of prayer also.  A leader who acts without prayer, no matter how intelligent he is, will eventually make some very serious mistakes.  On the other hand, a leader who prays without acting will get very little done.  All of us must strive for balance in our lives between activism and intercession.  But none of us will ever achieve perfect balance in this regard, because our very nature will cause us to lean in one direction rather than the other. And that is why God wisely brings complementary leaders together.  

Nehemiah certainly leaned toward the action side, but he had a colleague named Ezra who leaned strongly toward the intercession side.  This was brought out so clearly in a recent issue of WallBuilder, a Christian public affairs newsletter that someone in the church shared with me last Sunday.  Allow me to read some of the insights found in this article:  

    “Nehemiah is an activist and is politically involved, whereas Ezra is neither.  Ezra spends most of his time in ‘spiritual’ pursuits–prayer, fasting, study of the Word, worship, etc.  These two co-heroes represent the differences often found in today’s Christian community. . . Too often, these two have been intolerant of each other:  the ‘Nehemiahs’ want the ‘Ezras’ to act like ‘Nehemiahs,’ and the ‘Ezras’ want the ‘Nehemiahs’ to act like ‘Ezras.’  The activists tell the prayer people that if they don’t get up off their knees and get involved, nothing will change; the prayer people tell the activists that if they don’t get down on their knees and do some serious praying, nothing will change….

    Here is where a major lesson from the book of Nehemiah can be applied: Nehemiah and Ezra did not demand that the other become what he was; instead, they joined arm-to-arm to work with each other.  It required both of them, with their unique abilities and in their own distinct arenas, to get the work completed…. What can be applied from their example?  An activist needs to find an intercessor to pray for him, and an intercessor needs to find an activist for whom to pray–the two need each other.  Prayer alone will not be sufficient, for God works through men; yet activism alone will be insufficient, for the Bible teaches that the real battle occurs in the spiritual realm.” [v]

I find it interesting how often God paired up people with diverse personalities and gifts to get the job done:  Moses and Aaron, David and Jonathan, Peter and John, Mary and Martha, Aquila and Priscilla, Paul and Silas.  And he’s still doing that.  One of the reasons our staff has worked together so well is that each one has different gifts, each respects the other’s gifts, and none tries to be someone else.  That’s also why our team-teaching concept in Sunday School and Children’s Church works so well.

Conclusion:  In conclusion this morning, I want to reiterate that if our spiritual freedom is to be preserved, it will only be at the price of vigilance, and that vigilance must be directed inward more than outward.  There are some Christians today who mistakenly believe that ACLU is our principal enemy, or the National Organization of Women, or ACT UP, or the heavy metal music industry.  Not so.  Our greatest danger comes from within our homes and from within the church in the form of compromise, neglect of God’s laws, and violation of God’s principles.

Perhaps the key truth that comes across to me as we conclude this study of the life and ministry of Ezra and Nehemiah is that godly leadership is indispensable in the church. Without it, we are like sheep having no shepherd; moral and spiritual decay sets in; and the result is the destruction of our national and spiritual heritage.  I trust that fact will encourage you to be bold in the area of leadership God has assigned to you—whether that be in your home, in your job, in a S.S. class, as an AWANA leader, in the nursery, teaching an SCL class, as an Elder, as a school teacher, as a businessman, whatever.  And don’t forget the final scene in Nehemiah’s life—it finds him on his knees asking for God’s grace.  

August 30, 1992`




The Lord’s Day


[i]  John Philpot Curran, citation lost.

[ii]  John White, citation lost.

[iii] Warren Wiersbe, citation lost.

[iv] Ray C. Stedman, “Looking for a Few Good Men,” sermon preached at Peninsula Bible Church on March 12, 1989, catalog # 4167.

[v]  The Wallbuilder, “Political Co-Heroes,” Summer 1992.