“Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work; and I provided for the wood offering at appointed times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.” (Nehemiah 13:30-31 ESV)
We’ve come to the conclusion of our studies in Ezra/Nehemiah this Sunday as we turn to chapter 13. Our journey through these books passed through quite a number of twists and turns, from repeated opposition and deliverance to times of stagnation and revival. By the sovereignty of God and through the faithful leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Jews returned to their land, rebuilt their temple, rebuilt their walls, repented of sins, revived their coldheartedness, celebrated their festivals, warded off opposition, and settled down to serve God and each other. One would think that the entire narrative concludes with one final celebration, or a praise to God, or a commitment. Such a one would be disappointed, however, after reading this last chapter!
Chapter 13 records a time in which Nehemiah returns to Judah after a brief absence, only to find the people in need of rebuke, repentance, and reform – again! Once again, a spiritual leader needs to remind them of their commitment to not be unequally yoked with foreigners. Not only did they marry foreign women – again! – but they also allowed Tobiah (yes, that Tobiah, the Ammonite who taunted, mocked, and threatened Israel!) to take up lodging in the temple! In addition, the temple servants had to go find work elsewhere because they ceased to be compensated appropriately, bringing the spiritual work of the people to a halt. And even more, the people were profaning the Sabbath!
It’s no wonder the chapter presents to us an irate Nehemiah, who throws furniture and pulls out hair!
Perhaps he’s acting in the flesh. Perhaps he’s filled with righteous indignation. Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. In any case, Nehemiah comes back to set everything straight once again. His final reforms seem to foreshadow a time in which the ultimate Spiritual Leader of Israel would come into the temple and drive away those who would profane that which was to be dedicated to God.
We may be grieved that the children of Israel seem to find themselves in this unending cycle of sin, repentance, and reform, but we would miss the point if we limited this condition to them only. The cycle of sin reveals to all people that we are sinners by nature and without a changed heart we would all return to sin again. As believers in Jesus Christ, God has given us new hearts and new desires so that we can fight sin – and have victory!
That victory, however, requires that we understand our need to be always reforming, that is, always open to growth, to rebuke, and to correction. None of us this side of eternity ought to act as though we are immune to going back to the word of God in order to change areas of our lives that we have yet to achieve victory.
The story of the Jews in Nehemiah is not hopeless, because just as Nehemiah was sent by God to bring them back on course, we have a more perfect Leader – a Savior – who leads us to greater faithfulness by conforming us to his image.