COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 13:20 So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice. 21 Then I testified against them, and said unto them, Why lodge ye about the wall? if ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the Sabbath. 22 And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy.” (Neh 13:20-22)
Nehemiah had found Tobiah living in the Temple chambers that were dedicated for the goods distributed to the priests, Levites, and singers. As if that was not enough, some of his own people were treating the Sabbath day as though it was a common day, and were thus profaning it. In addition, some men from Tyre were bringing fish and all manner of merchandise into the holy city, selling on the Sabbath day. The Levites had returned to their own fields to support themselves. The man of God has taken appropriate action. Tobiah and his goods have been expelled from the sacred chambers. The chambers have been cleansed. The vessels and goods belonging in those chambers have again been brought into them. The rulers were confronted and rebuked for their negligence. The portions of the priests and Levites were again gathered and stored, and the Temple workers brought back to their proper place. Treasurers were appointed. The sanctity of the Sabbath day was restored. The gates of the city were closed on the Sabbath day, and appropriate guards were placed there to ensure they remained closed throughout the Sabbath day. The zeal of God’s house had consumed Nehemiah.
MERCHANTS LINGER AROUND THE WALL
“ 13:20 “So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice.” Other versions read, “Once or twice the traders and merchants of every kind of merchandise spent the night outside Jerusalem” NASB
SOMETHING TO NOTE. As if things were not bad enough, Nehemiah faces yet another problem. Before going any further in this text, there is something important that must be noted. When a place is made for Satan and his hosts, they will come in like a flood. Those who flirt with sin are actually tottering on the brink of eternal ruin. This is particularly true when a recovery has already been experienced. The people of Nehemiah’s day had experienced a genuine revival. They had worked together to complete the rebuilding of the wall in record time (6:15). They had seen their enemies frustrated in all of their diabolical attempts (6:16). Where their brethren had been exploited, proper restitution had been made (5:11-12). Their hearts had been revived by hearing of the Word (8:9). Holy functions had been restored (10:37-38). Finally, they had made a covenant before God to walk in a godly and orderly manner (9:38).
Now, in approximately one year, all of this has fallen by the way in the absence of Nehemiah. Like the wicked spirit who had been expelled (Matt 12:45), spiritual weakness returns with vengeance, allowing all manner of contempt for God, His Word, and His ordinances to return among the people.
Ponder the enormous amount of activity that was required to correct these unacceptable conditions! Time could certainly have been spent more profitably in some spiritually productive enterprise. Thus, there was a sort of robbery that took place in these circumstances. God was robbed of glory. His servants were robbed of their benefits. Nehemiah was robbed of his time. Sin is always costly.
THE MERCHANTS AND THE SELLERS. The “merchants and the sellers” had actually been locked out of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. Some of Nehemiah’s personal servants had been “set at the gates” to ensure that no burden was brought into the holy city on the Sabbath day. A naive person would think that to be enough to correct the problem – but it was not. The “merchants and the sellers,” greedy for gain, were not easily discouraged in their unlawful activities. “Once or twice” they spent the night outside of the gates of the city. Perhaps they were hoping that some weak soul would open the gates for them, allowing them to come into the city and continue the practice to which they had grown accustomed. Note, these merchants did not go home, but remained in the vicinity of the city of Jerusalem, seeking a convenient means to gain access to the people.
SOMETHING TO BE LEARNED. Do not suppose that because you “make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lust thereof” (Rom 13:11), that “the flesh” will retreat in fear, leaving you alone. While “the body is dead” (Rom 8:10), the outward man is “perishing” (2 Cor 4:16), and “the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41), this does not mean you can ignore it, just as though it did not exist. The flesh, or “old man,” gains strength when “the things of the Spirit of God” are neglected. If the individual does not feed upon the Word of God, by which man “lives” (Matt 4:4), the flesh, or carnal nature, is renewed in energy and influence. It is true that the “old man” is crucified when we come into Christ (Rom 6:6). However, it is the responsibility of every believer to keep him in that condition, not allowing him to “come down from the cross.” Thus we are admonished, “Neither give place to the devil” (Eph 4:27), “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth”(Col 3:5), and “Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:11). Such admonitions are to be taken seriously. They are like shutting the gates and putting guards on the wall of the heart to make sure they stay closed.
SIN CROUCHES AT THE DOOR. When the Lord rejected Cain’s offering, and before he killed Abel, his countenance fell because his offering was not accepted. The Lord then told him, “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it” NASB (Gen 4:7). That is the nature of sin – it remains “at the door,” even when it is has been intently closed, just as the merchants spent the night near the wall of Jerusalem.
A thoughtless moment, a lack of vigilance, or a period of spiritual inactivity, and the door of the heart and mind are opened for the enemy. This is why we are admonished, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5:8). He is not “walking about” in a foreign country, but where you are, waiting outside your gate for an opportunity to market his wares.
WHY LODGE YE ABOUT THE WALL?
“ 13:21 Then I testified against them, and said unto them, Why lodge ye about the wall? if ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the Sabbath.”
When Nehemiah observed the merchants lodging near the wall on the Sabbath day, he did allow the condition to continue. After two or three times, it became evident they were ignoring the clear message that had been given. Therefore, he confronted them in the boldness and confidence of faith.
I TESTIFIED AGAINST THEM. Other versions read, “I warned them,” NKJV,NASB “I gave witness against them,” BBE and “I reprimanded them.” NJB Nehemiah did not draw back from rebuking those who insisted on sinning. He had already “rebuked the nobles and rulers” (5:7), “contended with the rulers” (13:11), and “testified against” those who were working on the Sabbath day (13:16). Now he testifies against the merchants who are stubbornly seeking to sell their goods to the Jews – on the Sabbath and in Jerusalem. He did not speak against them to his friends, but addresses the offenders themselves.
WHY LODGE YE ABOUT THE WALL? Other versions read, “Why do you spend the night in front of the wall?” NASB “why stay you before the wall?” DOUAY “What are you doing out here, camping around the wall?,” NLT and “Why are you waiting all night by the wall?” BBE A legalist might have said Nehemiah was not right in testifying against the merchants in this way. After all, the Law spoke of the Sabbath being honored by “the stranger within thy gates” (Ex 20:10), and these men were on the outside. Yet, their hearts were inside the gates, lusting for profits from their merchandise. This was “the city of God” (Psa 87:3), and the day was “the Sabbath of the Lord” (Ex 20:10). These covetous men were out of order even being near the city. They had no interest in the Lord’s Sabbath.
IF YOU DO IT AGAIN. “If ye do so again, I will lay hands on you.” Other versions read, “If you do so again, I will use force against you,” NASB and “if you do so again I will have you taken prisoners.” BBE If these merchants insisted on camping outside the wall one more time, Nehemiah would forcibly remove them, and keep them from continuing this practice. He had no tolerance for their manners, and would not allow them to continue. He was the governor of Judah and had the right to do this. He was also a representative of God, and was therefore under compulsion to do so. He knew all too well of the weakness of his brethren, and therefore was set to pull sin out by its roots.
THEY CAME NO MORE ON THE SABBATH. That was enough for the merchants. They saw the determination of this man of God, and did not care to be the recipients of his wrath. However, had not Nehemiah boldly confronted them, they would have continued their practice of spending the night prior to the dawn of the Sabbath before the gates of Jerusalem.
There comes a time when the adversary must be confronted. For those in Christ Jesus, this is depicted as resisting the devil (James 4:7; e Pet 5:8), wrestling against principalities and powers (Eph 6:12), and casting down imaginations and high thoughts (2 Cor 10:5-6). Faith does whet the appetite for spiritual warfare. Every place in Scripture where we confront a person living by faith, a certain forwardness to engage the enemy can be seen. It may be David confronting Goliath (1 Sam 17:45-50), Jonathan and his armor bearer engaging a Philistine troop (1 Sam 14:7-11), or Elijah taking on the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18:21-40). It may be Samson facing a thousand Philistines (Judges 15:15), Shamgar facing six hundred Philistines with an ox goad in his hand (Judges 3:31), or Eleazar who “defied the Philistines,” smiting them until his hand froze to his sword (2 Sam 23:9-10). There have been people of faith who have “turned to flight the armies of aliens” (Heb 11:34). Faith does manifest itself in the opposition of the wicked as well as the acceptance of the righteous. It is revealed in engaging the enemy as well as receiving the brethren.
Satan has much success in overthrowing many unstable believers because they have never really taken a stand against him. Threatened by the blustering of earth’s Goliaths, some choose to stand back from the very ones who seek their corruption. They are not only “secret disciples” like Joseph of Arimathaea was at the first (John 19:38), but choose to remain in that category.
Like the merchants of our text, Satan and his colleagues will remain as close to us as we will allow them to be. If we choose to remain unalert, they automatically gain the upper hand. During the most sacred times, they will be just outside the gate – until we choose to face them, resist them, and engage them in spiritual warfare.
CLEANSING, SANCTIFICATION, AND A PRAYER
“ 13:22 And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy.” Nehemiah had already made provision for his personal servants to position themselves near the gates, “that there should be no burden brought in on the Sabbath day” (v 19). Now he goes beyond that practical measure to ensure that the Sabbath day is fully sanctified. Perhaps the assignment of his servants was intended to be a temporary one. Now, the Levites are brought into the matter, becoming responsible for some things that were outside of the Temple, in which they regularly served. Their duties are enlarged, because this pertained more to their work than to the duties of his servants.
CLEANSE THEMSELVES. Earlier the Levites had “purified themselves, and purified the people, and the gates, and the wall” (12:30). Now, they must again “cleanse themselves,” readying themselves for responsibilities outside the confines of the Temple.
In every aspect of Divine service, purity and cleanness are imperative. Thus Isaiah admonished, “Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the LORD” (Isa 52:11). In this use of the word, “cleanse” means more to be sanctified for the work than to be purged from any present defilements. The heart must be pure, the mind devoted, and the will focused upon the glory of the Lord, if our service is to be acceptable to God.
Right here I believe there is a lot of loose thinking among professed believers. It appears to me that much is attempted for the Lord by those who have unclean hands and impure hearts. Too much is being done in a state of double-mindedness, attempting to straddle the fence between of carnality and spirituality – and that simply cannot be done. For those in Jesus, this kind of cleansing is seen in the words “readiness of mind” (Acts 17:11), “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts” (1 Pet 3:15), and “Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded” (James 4:8). Let every person who is involved in the work of the Lord take that work seriously, being spiritually pure and suitable for its accomplishment.
COME AND KEEP THE GATES. Some versions read “go guard the gates.” From Nehemiah’s point of view, they were to “come” and guard the gates. From their own perspective, their response was to “go” and keep the gates. The work did not come to them, they had to go to it. They were thus becoming responsible for the gates. Should the merchants come back again, they would have to do what Nehemiah did, even taking the violators into custody was necessary.
SANCTIFY THE SABBATH DAY. This is an important point. The objective was not merely to keep the Law – although that was involved. Neither was the aim to keep up a good appearance, or keep the traditions of the people. Rather, it was “to sanctify the Sabbath day,” allowing no contaminants to enter into it. What belonged to God was not to be soiled with the affairs of this world – even with otherwise legitimate business affairs. This was in strict conformity with the edict of the Law: “Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee” (Deut 5:12).
Those who know the Sabbath day cannot be bound upon believers (Col 2:16) are often heard to say that every day belongs to the Lord. While there is an element of truth to this, there is also some deception in it. There are times that require that the whole heart and mind be set upon the Lord, without any worldly influence. Scripture refers to this time as one in which we “give ourselves to prayer and fasting” (1 Cor 7:5), and “give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). The Table of the Lord is also such a time (1 Cor 11:27-29). Hearing the Word of God is also such an occasion, as seen in Mary (Lk 10:39). Our day could do with a good dose of this kind of sanctification. Too much of contemporary Christianity has the spot of the world upon it. Of much of it the Lord would say, “they have corrupted themselves, their spot is not the spot of his children” (Deut 32:5). Let the saints be about lifting up “holy hands” (1 Tim 2:8).
REMEMBER ME, O MY GOD. Nehemiah does nothing in the name of the Lord without seeking His approval and blessing. His harshness with the greedy merchants was an occasion in which He sought mercy – not because he had too gruff with them, but because he felt soiled by them. He does not regard his actions as meritorious, or deserving of a special reward. He rather seeks for God to spare him in accordance with His abundant mercy. He knows he has only done only that which it was his “duty to do.” In the New Covenant perspective, these good deeds could not justify him (Gal 2:16).