The post-exile period in Israel’s history gave us a vivid caricature of men who answered the call of God to lead the returning Jews back to God. Zerubbabel, Joshua, Ezra and Nehemiah led the exiles through this difficult time in Israel’s history as they sought to bring changes among their country men. However the pattern of Israelites confessing their sins but eventually falling back to the their evil ways kept repeating itself. Nehemiah was the last of these reformers and tried his best to host a spiritual intervention for the tribe of Israel.
When the Israelites started reading the book of law, they came across the passage in the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 23:3) where God banished the Ammonites and Moabites for rebelling against the Israelites.
When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.Nehemiah 13:3
The purpose of exclusion was to prevent God’s people from falling into the practices of the pagan people. The Israelites however adopted all the culture and traditions of their neighbours but expelled the people from their city, leaving them homeless.
Often after reading the scriptures, the first instinct of the people is not to correct themselves but to correct the problems they see in others around them. This problem is prevalent even today in our churches where no one wants God’s help in correcting their faults but still pray to God for their so called brethren and their erroneous ways.
House of God in Disarray
While Nehemiah was back in Babylon, the promises that he had made the Jews take and even had it sealed physically with a seal and metaphorically with a curse and an oath, were now being flagrantly broken.
The temple was being defiled and used as a storehouse by Tobiah, a non-Levite man of pagan ways just because he was the relative of the high priest. Also the Levites were not being given their regular portions as the Israelites had promised, resulting in the workers of the temple being so overlooked that the Levites and the musicians who were responsible for the service went back to their own fields and had to abandon the house of God.
So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?”Nehemiah 13:11
Nehemiah called everyone together and the people brought their tithes of grain, wine and oil. Then Nehemiah chose some trustworthy men to be put in charge of every storeroom of the house of God and made these men responsible to provide supplies to the Levites.
Remember me for this, my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services.Nehemiah 13:14
The promise of observing Sabbath was long forgotten by the Israelites as all the cargo full of grapes and figs were being brought to Jerusalem on the holy day. The people were even buying seafood from their neighbours living in the coastal city of Tyre.
I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day?Nehemiah 13:17
Nehemiah intervened again and reminded the Nobles of how their ancestors brought calamity on the city of Jerusalem when they defiled God in similar ways. So when evening came, Nehemiah ordered the doors of the city to be shut and not to be opened untill the Sabbath was over. He even stationed his own men to ensure that no one bypassed the security check. He threatened the merchants coming into the city and drove them away in order to preserve the ‘purity’ of Sabbath.
… Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.Nehemiah 13:22
Dilution of the Tribe
Nehemiah saw that the city was packed with children speaking strange languages as the men of Israel had married the women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. This was the one thing that he expected the Israelites to follow and not give their sons and daughters in marriage to the foreigners that surrounded them.
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.Nehemiah 13:24
The sense of nationalism and loyalty towards one’s own mother tongue transcends civilisations. Seeing the dialect being polluted would have angered Nehemiah and resulted in him getting physical with his fellow Israelites.
Nehemiah got violent with these folks and rained down curses on them, even beating some of the folks and pulling out their hair. He forced them to retake their oaths and not allow intermarriages to ever exist amongst their people.
He reminded them of Solomon’s transgressions and how his kingdom quickly fell because of his lust for the pagan cultures that surrounded him. Even the priests that Nehemiah had installed could not enforce the laws and even their sons were marrying pagan women. Nehemiah drove such people away. He purified the priests and Levites and reassigned them the duties so that they may follow the law faithfully.
Even today, people’s loyalty towards their homeland and mother tongue sometimes clouds their judgement and they often misquote scriptures so that they can back their claims for tribal integrity. We should always understand the context and the purpose of the passages that we read, and not try to blindly fit these verses in our present day scenario. While trying to preserve our tribal integrity, we must not dilute the word of God that is meant to liberate and not bind us.
Remember me with favor, my God.Nehemiah 13:31
Three times Nehemiah repeats different versions of this statement, as his end goal is to gain favour from God for his actions. Often times we also think that we deserve God’s favour because we helped our fellow beings come closer to God. We are saved purely by God’s grace and our entry to His kingdom does not depend on the number of people we correct in this lifetime but only on God’s will.
Real change can only be brought upon by the transformation of the heart and as we saw throughout the accounts of the post-exile writings, the Israelites only ever changed their words but never their ways. Like Nehemiah, let us not waste time in forcefully correcting the actions of our fellow beings but rather connect them to God who is the only one who can intervene and make real change in their lives.