COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 13:15In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals. 16 There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the Sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. 17 Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath day? 18 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. 19 And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the Sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the Sabbath: and some of my servants set I at the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the Sabbath day.” (Neh 13:15-19)
Nehemiah has returned to Jerusalem, removed Tobiah’s goods from the Temple chambers, purified the chambers, and reinstituted the gathering and distribution of the provisions for Priests, Levites, and singers. The work, however, is not over. Conditions have deteriorated even more that he had imagined. Even though the 70-year Babylonian captivity was the result of not honoring the land-sabbaths, the people have apparently forgotten that judgment. Now they are dishonoring the Sabbath day itself, going about their personal business as though totally ignorant of the Law. Now, Nehemiah takes it upon himself to correct this condition. He does so by contending with the violators, then removing the opportunity for the sin to continue. In Nehemiah we have an example of how disobedience affects the righteous. They cannot ignore a disregard of the Living God.
THE SABBATH DEFILED IN JUDAH BY JEWS
“ 13:15 “In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals.”
Nehemiah has already witnessed two departures from the ways of the Lord. First, the assignment of sanctified Temple chambers as living quarters for Tobiah the Ammonite. Second, the provisions dedicated for those working in the Temple had not been gathered, stored, or distributed. Now, a third offense is noted – the profaning of the Sabbath day.
I SAW. Nehemiah was a good leader – he saw what was happening among the people. Faith does sensitize the heart, causing one to see more clearly. Some sights are most difficult to bear – like Moses beholding Israel sinning at the foot of the holy Mount, Jesus beholding the money-changers in the Temple, and Nehemiah witnessing the flagrant breach of the Sabbath day. However, while such sights stab at the hearts of the faithful, yet they do not run from the vision, but rather step up to address it in honor of their God.
THE SABBATH DAY DEFILED. In their covenant with God, these very people had stated, “And if the people of the land bring ware or any victuals on the Sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy it of them on the Sabbath” (10:31). Yet, they had become absorbed with their own business, and therefore forgot what God commanded, and what they had promised. Transgression had put them to sleep.
The Law itself was quite clear on how the people were to regard the Sabbath day. “Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (Ex 20:9-10). That was certainly clear enough – and the people had already covenanted to honor this day..
Yet, Nehemiah saw much activity taking place on the Sabbath – among the children of Judah. Men were “treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads.” NIV Not only was this being done on the Sabbath day, but “they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath,” NIV where God had placed His name.
The seriousness of the Sabbath day commandment is reflected in an incident that took place during the wilderness wandering. “And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the Sabbath day.” Those who found the man brought him to Moses and Aaron and the congregation. After incarcerating him, they waited for a word from the Lord. God finally spoke to the issue: “And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp” (Num 15:32-35). During the reading of the Law, the people had surely heard this account. Yet, they had lapsed into a thoughtless condition.
The inferiority of governing wayward people by Law should be evident. People need a change in their nature in order to serve God consistently and acceptably.
I TESTIFIED AGAINST THEM. Some versions read, “I warned them,” NKJV “admonished them,” NASB “gave witness against them,” BBE and “protested.” DARBY Already Nehemiah had “contended with the rulers” concerning the forsaking of God’s house (13:11). Earlier, when Nehemiah heard of leading brethren exploiting poorer ones, he was “very angry,” and “rebuked the nobles and the rulers” (5:6-7). His heart was tender toward God, and he could not endure abuses of the Law or infractions against the brethren.
And when was it that Nehemiah testified against those who chose to do business on the Sabbath day? He did it “on the day they sold food.” NASB While the people went about insensitively buying and selling, they did so with the words of Nehemiah ringing in their ears. One version reads, “So I forbade them to sell the food.” NJB
Such aggressive behavior is not comfortable for the flesh. John the Baptist rebuked Herod for having his “brother’s wife” (Mk 6:18). Paul “withstood” Peter “to the face” (Gal 2:11). Jesus drove “the changers of money,” with their sheep and oxen from the Temple, pouring out their money, and overturning their tables (John 2:14-15). Later, He cast out of the Temple “all them that sold and bought,” overturning their tables, and “the seats of them that sold doves” (Mk 21:12).
Although we are living in a time that objects to confronting people with their sin, the servant of God is exhorted to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim 4:2). The lack of sensitivity among religious people must not dull our hearts.
NEHEMIAH CONTENDS WITH THE MEN OF TYRE
“ 13:16 There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the Sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. 17 Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day? 18 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.”
The abuses of the Sabbath day were not confined to the brethren of Judah. Merchants from other cities were bringing their goods into the city and doing business on the Sabbath day. The matter did not escape the attention of Nehemiah.
MEN OF TYRE. The children of Judah had specifically covenanted before God that if someone brought merchandise or grain into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, they would not buy it (10:31). Yet, here are “men of Tyre” bringing in “fish and all kinds of merchandise.” These were not travelers from Tyre, but were residents of Jerusalem: “men from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem.” NIV Perhaps this is one reason why the dreadful custom of business on the Sabbath day had started in the first place – because of strangers within their gates, whose manners they learned. Evil communications do corrupt good manners (1 Cor 14:31).
SELLING ON THE SABBATH. These men are described as selling their goods “in Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.” NIV The Law had spoken specifically to this circumstance. “But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (Ex 20:10).
It is true that the more we are around the ungodly, the more apt we are to pick up their manners. This ought to be better known among professing believers than is apparent in our country. There have been remarkable omissions of godly response that are directly traceable to the influence of ungodly people among the household of faith.
CONTENDING WITH THE NOBLES OF JUDAH. Nehemiah does not contend with the merchants from Tyre, but with the Nobles of Judah. They had worked upon the walls of Jerusalem, made a covenant with God, and now lived in the holy city. They had a responsibility to see to it that whatever took place within those walls was proper and God-honoring. However, they were not doing their job.
The words of the man of God are sharp, like the sting of a scorpion. “What is this evil thing YOU are doing?” NASB In this case, they were probably not doing the buying and selling themselves. Rather, they were allowing it to take place – something strictly forbidden by God, and which they had promised not to do. This was not a mere oversight. They were DOING something wicked!
PROFANING THE SABBATH DAY. Nehemiah charges the nobles with profaning, or desecrating, the Sabbath day. This was not a profaning like the “priests of the Temple,” who “profaned the Sabbath” by eating the showbread, yet were “blameless” (Matt 12:5). The leaders had desecrated the Sabbath by allowing things to take place at that time that God had forbidden. The business that was taking place defiled, or polluted, the day, making it unacceptable to God. In our time, there are still things taking place on the Lord’s day that have defiling and polluting effects. May God raise up contenders who will not allow such things to go unchallenged.
YOU BRING MORE WRATH. Nehemiah reminds the leaders that they are living in the aftermath of a judgment that came because of profaning sabbaths. Their fathers also forgot the word of the Lord, and a curse came upon them because of it (2 Chron 36:21). Both the people and the city had been judged: “did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city?” There are times when it is proper to bring up the past, reminding people of previous judgments. Jesus reminded people of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt 11:24), and Tyre and Sidon (Matt 11:21-22). Peter and Jude remind us of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet 2:6; Jude 1:7). Paul places the judgment of Israel before us (1 Cor 10:1-13). These things were written for our admonition (1 Cor 10:11).
Does what we allow ever cause Divine wrath to come upon us? “Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.” NIV How sorely this knowledge is needed in our times! There are all manner of judgments and Divine wrath being provoked by the conduct of people, and what they allow. God is known for beholding what is taking place, even among the heathen, like the tower of Babel, Sodom, and the city of Nineveh. But He is even more aware of what is taking place among His people. Judgment does “begin with the house of God” (1 Pet 4:17), and we do well to remember it.
NEHEMIAH SECURES THE GATES ON THE SABBATH
“ 13:19 And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the Sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the Sabbath: and some of my servants set I at the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the Sabbath day.”
Nehemiah does not stop with rebuking the nobles. Like Jesus, he takes matters into his own hands. Jesus did not tell the people to purge the temple, but did so Himself. Paul said he would personally “set in order” things that were lacking in Corinth (1 Cor 11:34). He also told Titus to “set in order the things that are wanting” (Tit 1:5). This involves more than just making sure everything is done properly. It also includes avoiding the judgment and wrath of Almighty God. Thus Nehemiah does something about the situation.
WHEN IT BEGAN TO BE DARK. The man of God set out to prepare for the Sabbath day. When the “evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath,” things were made ready for proper Sabbath observance. The Sabbath began in the evening, following the creation sequence: “the evening and the morning” (Gen 1:5,8,13,19,23,31). Also, under the Law, the Sabbath related to the day of atonement was “from even unto even” (Lev 23:32). Preparations began when the shadows fell, and not in the deep dark.
One small note here. While the natural creation began with darkness covering the face of the deep (Gen 1:2), the new creation begins with light. Darkness concludes the old life, and light begins the new one.
SHUT THE GATES! Before it was fully dark, the gates to the city were shut, according to Nehemiah’s commandment. Thus the advantage was taken away from the merchants. The business men were not consulted on this, nor was the matter put to a vote. When it comes to doing what is right, men are not to seek a consensus, or attempt to negotiate godly conduct. What is right must be done, whatever the cost.
OPEN THEM AFTER THE SABBATH. Throughout the Sabbath day, merchants had no access to the city of Jerusalem. The closing of the gates was intended to keep those who would profane the Sabbath out of the city – throughout the entire Sabbath.
THE GATES SECURED. The man of God does not depend on everything being carried out automatically. He places some of his own servants at the gates to ensure the Sabbath would be duly honored, and the customs that had arisen among the people abruptly terminated. Thus Nehemiah moved the preeminence from men to God.
Of old time, godly people honored the Sabbath day, being very conscious of the Old Covenant requirements. For example, the women who went to anoint the body of Jesus waited until “the Sabbath was past” (Matt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Lk 23:56).
NO BURDEN BROUGHT IN ON THE SABBATH. The role of the servants was to stop any burdens from entering Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. This was a day of rest, not of bearing burdens. Jeremiah made a point of this. “Thus saith the LORD; Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the Sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem; neither carry forth a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath day, neither do ye any work, but hallow ye the Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers” (Jer 17:21-22). No burden was to be carried “through the gates of the city on the Sabbath day” (Jer 17:23). Nehemiah took the word seriously, and ensured that it would be kept.
AN APPLICATION. There is a lesson to be learned from this. While the Sabbath day itself is no longer binding upon men (Col 2:l6), the honoring of God is still compulsory. “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him” (Col 3:17). This involves both preparation and guarding. Those who have believed on the Son have not only come into Christ, they have also “entered into rest” (Heb 4:3). It is our business to see to it that burdens are not brought within the gates of the “house of God, which is the church of the Living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3: 15).
Jesus upbraided the religious leaders of His day for binding “heavy burdens and grievous to be borne” upon the people (Matt 23:4). They were, so to speak, bringing burdens in through the gates of the city. It is our business to close the gates to ungodly intruders, spiritual hucksters who seek to do carnal business in the place where rest for the soul is to be realized (Matt 11:28-29). This is one of the roles of spiritual leaders who “watch” for the “souls” of men (Heb 13:17). If spiritual “watchmen” (Isa 62:6) do not do their job, those who profane the things of God will come in “unawares” (Jude 1:4), bring grievous burdens and unlawful activities with them. O, for more men like Nehemiah, who are alert.