COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 13:1 On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience 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. 3 Now it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude.” (Nehemiah 13:1-3)
In this closing chapter Nehemiah will introduce some events that actually took place after the dedication of the wall. We will find a description of circumstances taking place after Nehemiah left Jerusalem, returning to king Artaxerxes in the thirty-second year of his reign – twelve years after he had gone to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall (2:1; Neh 3:6). Nehemiah now recounts something that was discovered by hearing the Word of God read once again. In the intervening years, after the wall was built, and even though a solemn covenant was made before God, there was a moral lapse among the people. This deficiency was uncovered in the blazing light of the Word of the Lord. This account will confirm the weakness of the flesh and the sensitivity and fervency of Nehemiah, a man of God. The extent of Nehemiah’s intolerance of sin confirms the strength and consistency of his faith. It also shows us what can happen after a great work has been done in God’s strength.
THEY READ AGAIN FROM THE LAW
“ 13:1 “On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people . . . ” There is some dispute about the time that is intended by the words “on that day.” Some feel it was on the same day the wall was dedicated. However, the things made known on this day, together with the evidence of moral degeneration, seem to forbid that view. Also, verse six informs us that Nehemiah was not present in Jerusalem at the time now described. However, he was there at the dedication of the wall, leading one of the groups that mounted the wall, making their way to the Temple area for the dedication. Although it is not something to be divisive about, I will proceed under the assumption that “On that day” describes a period of time during which Nehemiah was absent. A whole series of events will be initiated by this event – and it all starts with reading publically from the Law.
THE BOOK OF MOSES. This expression is mentioned five times in Scripture (2 Chron 25:4; 35:12; Ezra 6:18; Neh 13:1; Mark 12:26). “The book of Moses” is actually the first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy): “Penta” means five, and “teuch” means groups. The Law itself was the heart of Moses’ book. Thus we read of “the book of the Law of Moses” (John 8:31; 23:6; 2 Kgs 14:6; Neh 8:1). Jesus referred to the record of Moses seeing the burning bush as being in “the book of Moses” (Mark 12:26).
THE READING OF SCRIPTURE. This is not the first time the people have been subjected to the reading of Scripture. Earlier, the people came together “as one man,” beseeching Ezra to bring “the book of the Law of Moses” (8:1). Ezra read the book from the morning until midday, and the people “were attentive unto the book of the Law” (8:3). He opened the book in the sight of all the people, and “when he opened it, the people stood up” (8:5). The priests “read in the book of the Law of God distinctly, and caused them to understand the reading” (8:8). During the Feast of Booths, every day, from the first day until the last, Ezra “read in the book of the Law of God” (8:18). On the twenty-fourth day of the month, they “read in the book of the Law of the LORD their God one fourth part of the day” (9:3). Now the people hear the Word read once again. Something should be said about the value of simply reading the Scripture.
When Jesus began His ministry, He first read from the Scriptures, issuing the manifesto of His mission, which was the fulfilling of Isaiah 61:1-3 (Luke 4:16-20). When Jesus taught the people He did not focus on current events, or the themes of the day, but expounded the Scriptures (Lk 24:27,32,45). He declared the Scriptures testified of Him (John 5:39), i.e., that He is the Objective of their testimony.
Enough cannot be said these days about the public reading of Scripture. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he addressed this very subject. “Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, and to doctrine” (1 Tim 4:13). All of these were public in nature. Thus the NIV reads, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” Another version reads, “focus on reading the Scriptures to the church.” NLT
Because the “seed” of God’s kingdom is “the Word of God” (Luke 8:11), nothing acceptable can grow without it. The word that works profitable results in the people is the Word of God, not the philosophies of men. That is why Paul refused to enclose his message in the wrapping of human wisdom. “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:4-5). He knew that Divine power was required for any progress to be made in Christ Jesus. That power, however, cannot be accessed through anything that has its genesis with man. The knowledge of this single reality would revolutionize the approach to preaching.
Now the people give themselves once again to the hearing of God’s Word. They will be attentive, for no good can come from the Word of God while the mind is distracted. The reading will not be private, or addressed only to a select few. The “book of Moses” will be read “in the audience of the people” or “read aloud in the hearing of the people.” NIV It was a formal reading, but not merely a formal one. It was read to be heard and comprehended. This would require the extended attention of the people.
PEOPLE MADE AWARE OF THE AMMONITES AND MOABITES
“ 13:1b-2 . . . and therein was found written, that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever; 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.”
The attentiveness with which the people heard the reading of the Word is attested by what they gleaned from it. During the reading, a particular word was spoken in the hearing of the people that specifically pertained to their situation. It is as though God Himself so orchestrated the reading that needful areas would be addressed, and the appropriate action taken. All of this confirms the presence of the Lord during the reading of His Word. Truly, the Scriptures are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).
THE AMMONITE AND THE MOABITE. Here is a portion of Scripture that is very obscure – buried, as it was, beneath the surface. It is found in Deuteronomy 23:3. “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever.” This prohibition was not limited to ten generations, as it might appear through a cursory reading. It extended to “for ever.” This is confirmed by the fact that considerably more than ten generations had passed from the giving of this Law until the time of Nehemiah. There were “fourteen generations” from king David until the Babylonian captivity (Matt 1:17). Add to that the ten generations from Pharez to David, and the additional generations from the Babylonian captivity until Nehemiah’s day, and you have the passing of nearly thirty generations. Yet, no scribe arose to make a technical point of the prohibition. Everyone took it to reflect the mind of the Lord, having the utmost regard for the “book of Moses.”
Aside from our text, this is the only place in Scripture where this is affirmed. This saying is two-thirds of the way through the book of Deuteronomy. It is surrounded by a number of very detailed laws in which the casual person would have no interest.
God had specified that Ammonites and Moabites were not allowed to enter “the congregation of the Lord.” They could not be officially numbered with the people with whom God had identified Himself. A New covenant parallel is found in those who are not allowed to enter or inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-11; Gal 5:19-21).
THERE WAS A REASON – BECAUSE. And why is it that Ammonites and Moabites were not allowed to enter the congregation of the Lord? The reason is traced back to the time when Israel was wandering in the wilderness. There was a two-fold reason. (1) “Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt.” The Lord took due note of those who neglected His people, not helping them along the way. When Israel sought to pass through the land of Sihon king of Heshbon, they offered to buy bread and water from him. However, he would not allow them to do so, for God “hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate, that He might deliver him into Israel’s hand” (Deut 2:27-30). (2) “ . . . and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee” (Deut 23:4). This is the well known incident that found Balak offering Balaam money to curse Israel (Num 22:5-17).
Those incidents took place over 975 years before this reading – almost a millennium! Yet, the people were more sensitive to what had been declared than to the passing of time. That word was propelled into the present, just as though it had been uttered out of heaven to them. The coming day of judgment will confirm God is not forgetful.
THE CURSE TURNED TO A BLESSING. Moses said of this event, “Nevertheless the LORD thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the LORD thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the LORD thy God loved thee” (Deut 23:5. The way in which God did this is most remarkable. When Balaam opened his mouth, “the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth.” That word is recorded in Numbers 23:20-23 in which Balaam said God did not behold iniquity in Jacob, nor seen perverseness in Israel. God was with them, and there was no enchantment against Israel. What a God is this, that when a man opens his mouth to curse, a blessing flows from it! The people heard this with perception.
DOERS OF THE WORD
“ 13:3 Now it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude.” Other versions read, “they excluded all foreigners from Israel,” NASB “they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent,” NIV “they took out of Israel all the mixed people,” BBE and “all those of mixed ancestry were immediately expelled from the assembly.” NLT
THEY SAW THE PRINCIPLE. The people saw the principle behind this prohibition, as well as the restriction itself. They did not apply it only to the Ammonites and Moabites, but to all who were of mixed ancestry – those who were offsprings of mixed marriages. The flesh will view this reaction as excessive, being unable to comprehend the real circumstance. If God had chosen and separated this people from the rest of the world (Ex 33:16; Lev 20:24), they should have reasoned it was not proper to intermarry with the heathen. In so doing, they were bringing a cursed people into the congregation.
THE CASE OF RUTH. It might be reasoned that Ruth was a Moabitess, yet came into the congregation, even being placed in the fleshly lineage of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt 1:5). However, Ruth was not a Moabitess at heart. She was chosen as a wife for a Hebrew man when they were not in the promised land (Ruth 1:1-4) – much like Joseph and Moses obtained wives when they were in a foreign land. Further, widowed Ruth made a choice to serve the God of Israel, saying to her mother-in-law Naomi, “thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Her faith set her apart from the Moabites, aligning her with Abraham, “the father of all them that believe” (Rom 4:11).
GODLY PEOPLE HAVE THE SAME MIND. At Least twenty years previously, a similar separation was accomplished under the leadership of Ezra. Prompted by “the commandment of the Lord,” the people of that time determined to make a covenant with God to put away their “strange wives,” and “separate themselves from the people of the land” (Ezra 10:3-44).Ezra even listed the men who had taken “strange wives” and had children through them (Ezra 10:18-43. The offenders included sons of the priests (18-22), Levites (23), singers (24), and others (25-33).
Now, just as in Ezra’s day, the people acknowledge the Word of the Lord, and set out to correct their behavior. They perceived the gravity of mixing the holy with the unholy, and the accepted with the unaccepted. The lineage of the coming Messiah must be protected. When the inclination of this people is seen, it is nothing less than miraculous that the genealogy of Jesus was maintained. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. Even where Gentiles are introduced (Ruth and Rahab), they both proved to be women of great faith. In their hearts, they were truly “Jews inwardly” (Rom 2:29).
FOR THOSE IN CHRIST JESUS. There is a lot of loose thinking these days about the matter of separation – but there is perfect clarity throughout Scripture on this subject. Separation is not an option, but is a requisite for Divine acceptance. “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you” (2 Cor 6:17). I do not believe this is taken seriously by the average church member in our country. Professing Christians regularly choose to be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers, even though such a thing is strictly prohibited by God (2 Cor 6:14).
The Holy Spirit is quite clear on this matter. It really is not possible to mix the holy and the unholy, even though men zealously attempt to do so. Here is the reasoning of the Spirit: “for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?” (2 Cor 6:14-16). Such mixtures are not possible. It would be like having a wheat-tare, or an holy demon, or an unholy God. What comes from God cannot blend with what comes from the world and its god!
Throughout history, under both covenants, significant setbacks have been realized when those who were associated with God sought identity with those who were not. Such unholy unions are always the prelude to either severe chastening, or Divine rejection.
A PRINCIPLE. When great blessings have been received from God, and great accomplishments have been realized, great spiritual responses should follow. Those who are part of a work of God must do their utmost to be pleasing to Him. They have received more, and more is expected of them. The revival of a determination to get rid of everything that hinders faith would be welcome in our time – something like the mass book burnings that took place in Ephesus (Acts 19:19). Faith without works IS dead, being alone.