In the interim between chapters 12 and 13, Nehemiah returns to Babylon. Though we don’t know how long he was gone, when he returned (probably around 430–425 b.c.) the people were backsliding. Though they had covenanted with God on these matters—first, not to intermarry with idolaters; second, to observe the Sabbath carefully; and, third, to take care of the temple and its personnel by tithe and offerings (Nehemiah 10)—they had violated all three of these promises.
By the time Nehemiah returned, he found them very lax in their devotion to God. The people had stopped returning tithes and offerings, begun using temple rooms for other purposes, ceased keeping the Sabbath properly, and even returned to intermarriage with the nations around them. Worst of all, it was the leadership whom he had left behind that contributed to the decline in the Israelites’ relationship with God. It is not surprising that Nehemiah was devastated when he discovered how much had changed. However, instead of accepting it, once again as his character demanded, he acted for God’s glory.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, December 14.
Nehemiah 13 begins with a concern about Ammonite and Moabite foreigners or idolaters in their midst (Neh. 13:1–3). These verses do not speak about driving away individuals from a different nation or race who followed God, but rather they refer to sending away those who were of a different faith—not converts but idolaters. See also Deut. 23:3–6.
Both Eliashib and Tobiah are known figures in the book of Nehemiah. Eliashib was the high priest of the nation, and he also was in charge of the temple. Tobiah is mentioned as the Ammonite enemy of Nehemiah who vehemently opposed his work in Jerusalem. The alliance of Eliashib and Tobiah suggests a relationship established through marriage.
Even though records of the marriage connection have not been preserved, we know that Tobiah had a Jewish name (meaning the “Lord is good”), and thus most likely came from a Jewish background. His wife’s family, the descendants of Arah, though unidentified, are believed to have been related to Eliashib’s family. Additionally, Sanballat the Horonite, Nehemiah’s other opponent, had a daughter who was married to Eliashib’s grandson. Therefore, the circle of intrigue around Nehemiah must have been intense as the highest-ranked officials in the land were related and in an alliance against Nehemiah’s leadership. During the governor’s absence, the high priest gave Tobiah one of the rooms in the temple that was designated to hold the tithe, gifts, and offerings. Tobiah was granted permanent residence in the temple, a way of establishing him as one of the leaders of the nation. The enemies of Nehemiah finally achieved what they wanted all along: to displace Nehemiah and be in charge themselves. Fortunately, Nehemiah wasn’t going to sit by and do nothing.
The singers, gatekeepers, and other temple servants had to go back to working in their own fields in order to feed their families, because the work for God was not being supported. The whole tithes-andofferings system that was so painstakingly established now lay in ruins. Nehemiah had to start over. The act of throwing everything out of the room shows desperation.
“Not only had the temple been profaned, but the offerings had been misapplied. This had tended to discourage the liberalities of the people. They had lost their zeal and fervor, and were reluctant to pay their tithes. The treasuries of the Lord’s house were poorly supplied; many of the singers and others employed in the temple service, not receiving sufficient support, had left the work of God to labor elsewhere.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 670.
It is fascinating to see that all of Judah came together again and rebuilt what had been destroyed. The people were on Nehemiah’s side against Tobiah and Eliashib, because they must have realized that Nehemiah did everything he could for the benefit of the people. Additionally, Nehemiah entrusted the temple grounds overseers’ positions to men whom he considered faithful and trustworthy. They were given the task of collecting tithes and offerings, making sure the goods were stored properly, and distributing the resources to the appropriate parties. In other words, Nehemiah came in and uprooted the corrupt system of leadership seemingly in one fell swoop.
Although Nehemiah appointed faithful men over the organization of the temple, the corrupt high priest, Eliashib, did not lose his position, because it was handed down through Aaron’s descent. His work in the temple might have been crippled by Nehemiah’s measures of appointing others over some of the high priest’s responsibilities, but he was still the high priest.
Nehemiah’s reforms of the temple services included the implementation of tithes and offerings.
Without the collection of tithes and offerings, the temple could not function. When tithing stopped, the services in the temple fell apart, and the whole worship system was in jeopardy. As temple personnel went to look for other jobs to feed their families, they couldn’t focus on taking care of the temple. Consequently, the worship of God diminished. “The tithing system is beautiful in its simplicity. Its equity is revealed in its proportional claim on the rich and on the poor. In proportion as God has given us the use of His property, so we are to return to Him a tithe.
“When God calls for the tithe (Mal. 3:10), He makes no appeal to gratitude or generosity. Although gratitude should be a part of all our expressions to God, we tithe because God has commanded it. The tithe belongs to the Lord, and He requests that we return it to Him.” —Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . (2nd ed.) (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press® Publishing Association, 2005), p. 304.
Just as happened with the Israelite temple, our church would fall apart without the support of the members’ tithes and offerings. Our church services would not function without people who are paid to put time into quality ministry, planning, and management of the church for God. Worship of God also would be diminished in quality. Most important, though, without tithes and offerings evangelism would be nonexistent.
Moreover, we give tithes because God established the system in His Word. There are times God doesn’t have to explain why He set something up. He expects us to trust that He is in control. We should find out and be informed on how the system works, but then entrust it into His hands.
It is not easy to stand up for God when you are in the minority. Because God said that the Sabbath was to be a holy day on which no one was to do any work, Nehemiah intended to make sure that this command was followed in Jerusalem. No doubt he felt a moral obligation to take the position he did and then act upon it.
The Sabbath was created as the pinnacle of Creation week because it was a special day on which people were to be renewed and re-created by spending time with God in ways that they can’t when engaged in their occupations or other worldly pursuits.
It has been said that “more than Israel kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept Israel.” The point is that the seventh-day Sabbath was, and remains, a powerful means of helping keep faith alive in those who by God’s grace seek to observe it and enjoy the physical and spiritual benefits it offers us.
Because Nehemiah is the governor of Judah, he sees his role as the enforcer of the rules. Because the rules in Judah were based on the law of God, he becomes a guardian of that law, including the Sabbath. Maybe if the nobles of Judah had stood up to the corruption brought in by the high priest, Nehemiah wouldn’t have found himself in this situation. However, the rulers and nobles perhaps already resented Nehemiah for making them give back to the poor earlier; thus, they didn’t seem to object to the changes Eliashib and Tobiah brought in either.
Nehemiah rebukes the nobles first and then commands that the gates be shut and posts servants at the gates to guard them. When the marketplace simply moves from inside the city to the outside, he takes even more drastic measures and threatens to lay a hand on the merchants the next Sabbath. Nehemiah must have been a man of his word, because the merchants got the point and stayed away from then on.
Nehemiah’s zeal for the Sabbath day is admirable. Nehemiah was so passionate about observing the Sabbath correctly that he even promised to “lay hands” on the merchants from other nations. In other words, he would have personally intervened if he had caught them in the city or by the gates on the Sabbath again. As a governor he had official responsibilities to make sure that this commandment was kept properly. “Nehemiah fearlessly rebuked them for their neglect of duty. ‘What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath day?’ he sternly demanded. ‘Did not your fathers thus, 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.’ He then gave command that ‘when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the Sabbath,’ they should be shut, and not opened again till the Sabbath was past; and having more confidence in his own servants than in those that the magistrates of Jerusalem might appoint, he stationed them at the gates to see that his orders were enforced.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, pp. 671, 672.
Nehemiah’s warning about Sabbath desecration, along with other warnings about violating it, had apparently echoed down through the ages even to Jesus’ time. We know this because the Gospels time and again portray Jesus as struggling with the religious leaders over proper Sabbath keeping.
In their zeal, however misguided, to make sure that the Sabbath was not “desecrated,” these religious leaders were so fanatical that they accused Jesus, the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5, NKJV), of violating it. Talk about taking a good thing too far! The irony is that while many of these men expressed great concern about the law, they forgot the “weightier matters” of that law: “justice and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23, NKJV).
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “Rejoicing in the Lord,” pp. 115–126, in Steps to Christ.
“As he set before them God’s commands and threatenings, and the fearful judgments visited on Israel in the past for this very sin, their consciences were aroused, and a work of reformation was begun that turned away God’s threatened anger and brought His approval and blessing.
“There were some in sacred office who pleaded for their heathen wives, declaring that they could not bring themselves to separate from them. But no distinction was made; no respect was shown for rank or position. Whoever among the priests or rulers refused to sever his connection with idolaters was immediately separated from the service of the Lord. A grandson of the high priest, having married a daughter of the notorious Sanballat, was not only removed from office, but promptly banished from Israel. ‘Remember them, O my God,’ Nehemiah prayed, ‘because they have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites.’ ”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, pp. 673, 674.