COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 13:23 In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: 24 And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people. 25 And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves.” (Neh 13:23-25)
The person who becomes a “laborer together with God” must be aggressive – eaten up with the zeal of the house of the Lord. A casual or half-hearted spirit will not be able to continue in the work. This is largely due to the pugnacity of the devil, who seeks to corrupt the people of God, and thus neutralize the impact of the truth and the influence of Divine workings. When a place is made for Satan, he rushes in, working eagerly with both hands. This is evident in the dramatic degeneration of the children of Judah after Nehemiah’s return to the court of Artaxerxes. Consider the zeal that is required to correct the conditions that had introduced themselves. The enemy had veritably come in “like a flood,” and now “the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him” (Isa 59:19). God will not leave spiritual degeneracy unchecked. It is His manner to send His servants the Prophets, “rising up early and sending them,” even if the people pay them no heed (Jer 29:19). It may appear on the surface as though Nehemiah had taken matters into his own hands, seeking and gaining approval to return to Jerusalem. However, this was actually the Lord rising up and sending Nehemiah there to turn the people from a pathway that was sure to bring judgment upon them. Seen correctly, this is a marvelous display of mercy.
THE JEWS MARRIED WIVES OF ASHDOD, AMMON, AND MOAB
“ 13:23 In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab.” Notice how much Nehemiah had seen upon his return to the holy city. Tobiah’s goods were in the Temple chambers (v 8). The vessels and goods belonging in the chambers were not there ( v 9). The house of God was forsaken (v 11). The tithes were not being brought in (v 12). The Sabbath day was being dishonored (v 15-19). Merchants and sellers were lodging outside the wall (v 20). Now, an additional transgression comes to Nehemiah’s attention.
THE JEWS HAD INTERMARRIED WITH THE HEATHEN. Earlier, when the people had been sensitized by the Word of God, they had made a covenant with the Lord. The people and their nobles had “entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God’s Law.” Solemnly they had vowed, “we would not give our daughters unto the people of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons” (Neh 10:30). But, alas, with the passing of time, their recollection of this oath had also passed. Now they were living in violation of the Law of God, and their oath to God as well.
ASHDOD. Ashdod was a chief city of the Philistines, and was the center of the worship of Dagon (1 Sam 5:5). This is the place where the Philistines had taken the captured ark of the covenant. They had “brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon” (1 Sam 5:1-2). The morning following this placement of the ark, Dagon was fallen upon its face before the ark. The Philistines set the idol up again. However the next morning it was found fallen before the ark once again. Its head and hands were cut off, so that only the stump of the idol remained (1 Sam 5:3-4). The “Ashdodites” had also joined in a conspiracy against the Jews, to “fight against Jerusalem,” and thus thwart the building of the wall (Neh 4:7-8). There was every reason to avoid these people, yet some of the Jews had chosen to take their wives from among those of Ashdod.
AMMON. These were the offspring of the son of Lot by his younger daughter. “And the younger, she also bare a son, and called his name Benammi: the same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day” (Gen 19:38). The Ammonites joined with the Moabites in seeking to have Balaam curse Israel. They were there excluded from the congregation of God. “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: Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee” (Deut 23:3-4). Tobiah was an Ammonite, and had opposed the work of Nehemiah from its very beginning (2:10,19; 4:3). Earlier in this last chapter of Nehemiah, when the wall was dedicated, the people had read in the Law that an Ammonite was not to be in the Lord’s congregation. They then separated themselves from the mixed multitude (13:2-3). But all of this had apparently been forgotten, and the people proceeded to intermarry with the very people who had opposed them when they first entered into Canaan, and when they built the wall as well.
MOAB. Moab was the eldest son of Lot, and was the father of the Moabites (Gen 19:37). It was their king, Balak, who sought to have the Midianites help him overthrow the people of God, and hired Balaam to curse Israel (Num 22:1-6). Eglon, who also opposed the Israelites, was one of their kings (Judges 3:12-13). The Lord delivered the Moabites into the hand of Ehud the Judge (Judges 3:28). King David also fought against the Moabites (2 Sam 8:2). Years later, Isaiah prophesied against the Moabites (Isa 15:1). Along with the Ammonites, they also were excluded from the congregation of the Lord (Duet 23:3-4). There certainly was sufficient knowledge available concerning those of Moab – consistent enemies of the people of God. Yet, the children of Judah had become accustomed to the Moabites, and had therefore forgotten what God has said about them, and what they had done against the people of God.
APPLICATION. When people do not live by faith, time has a way of eroding spiritual perceptions, dulling the mind, and hardening the heart. This becomes apparent in our text. Even though the people had experienced a genuine renewal, been blessed by God in a holy work, saw their enemies frustrated, and been moved to make a covenant with God, they “walked in the counsels and in the imagination of their evil heart, and went backward, and not forward” (Jer 7:24). They were zealous when they worked. They were attentive when they heard the Word. They were serious in making a covenant with their God, determined to do what was right. However, in the process of time, their ears became dull, their hearts hard, and the minds deceived.
Spiritual life cannot be maintained apart from personal involvement. Religious movements, fancy slogans, and past resolutions cannot sustain the soul. Let there be no mistake about it, if we do not walk and live by faith, we will begin going backward.
THEY COULD NOT SPEAK THE JEW’S LANGUAGE
“ 13:24 And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people.” Another version reads, “As for their children, half spoke in the language of Ashdod, and none of them was able to speak the language of Judah, but the language of his own people.” NASB
Sin is not only “the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4), it yields a destructive harvest. There remains among men the notion that sin can be committed with impunity, or without having to pay any consequences – but it cannot. For example, as soon as sin “entered into the world,” death entered with it (Rom 5:12). Immediately life began to dissipate, both in the body and in the spirit.
As soon as the children of Judah walked contrary to the Law, and broke their vows, their lives degenerated into all manner of grievous practices. Now we will see that intermarriage brought some disastrous consequences upon the children of Judah, from which recovery was most difficult.
This same principle continues to operate until this very day. When any one chooses to walk in the flesh, make a place for the devil, and love the world, they immediately begin to die spiritually. Sensitivity to God is lost, and therefore delusion captivates the soul.
THE SPEECH OF ASHDOD. The upcoming generation began partially speaking “the language of Ashdod.” Although some are of the opinion the text means half of the people spoke one language, and the other half spoke another language, this does not seem to be the sense of the text. The idea is that the children began speaking a sort of jargon that was an admixture of the language of Ashdod, and the Jew’s language. It was not pure speech, but was a sort of ancient version of Ebonics.
The NASB version accents this by adding that “none of them was able to speak in the language of Judah.” Other versions suggest the same thing – namely that the word “half” refers to the language that was spoken, and not to the people who spoke it. “Spake half in the speech,” ASV “talking half in the language,” BBE and “spoke half in the language,” DARBY “spoke half in the speech.” DOUAY
THE JEW’S LANGUAGE. All of the versions are unanimous on this point. The children in question “could not speak the Jew’s language,” KJV “none of them was able to speak the language of Judah,” NASB “did not know how to speak the language of Judah,” NIV and “could not speak the language of Judah at all.” NLT Thus an entire generation had adapted to speaking in the language of heathen peoples, who knew not God, having corrupt speech.
This means that the intermarriage did not result in the heathen learning the Jewish manners. Rather, the manner in which the Jews spoke was forfeited. The “language of the Jews” was not simply a dialect reflecting the geographical area in which they lived. Rather, it was a language saturated with the Law, the revelations of the Prophets, and the expressions of inspired psalmists. It was a language through which God could communicate with them, and in which they could communicate with Him.
The Jews used words to which great bodies of truth were attached: “sacrifice,” “Law,” “statutes,” “testimonies,” “Temple,” “covenant,” “sanctuary,” “Messiah,” etc. They had special words of distinction like “clean” and “unclean,” “holy” and “unholy,” and “pure” and “defiled.” To them words like “promise,” “altar,” and “ordinance” had special meaning. But now, there was a generation who could not speak such a language. Their’s was a language of the street – a sort of admixture of holy and profane – an attempt to merge the speech of a separated people with the language of the Gentiles, “which know not God.” It was all brought on by intermarrying with the heathen nations.
APPLICATION. We are living in a similar generation – when “spiritual words,” and speech that has grace, and is “seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6) is out of fashion. Within the fabric of religion, there has been a attempt to merge of the ways and expressions of the world with the truth of God. The result has been disastrous. A person who speaks in the language of Scripture appears to be most strange – even within the churches. Scriptural literacy is at an all time low, and a new language has taken the place of a revealed one.
When using speech like “justification,”“sanctification,” “imputed,” “reconciled,” “circumcision of the heart,” “heart of flesh,” “stony heart,” “good conscience,” etc., the average churchman reveals a near-total lack of familiarity with such language. Standard kingdom words like “old man,” “new man,” “flesh,” “law of the Spirit of life,” and “law of sin and death” are no longer common among church people. The people know not the language of the kingdom. They are more familiar with the world than with God, Christ, and Scripture.
Why does this condition exist? Because there has been an unlawful marriage between the church and the world, and “the world” is now her wedded name. It is found in religious education, church organization, religious authority, and faddish contemporary praise and worship. It is a generation with whom God can hardly communicate.
NEHEMIAH CONTENDS AGAINST THE OFFENDERS
“ 13:25 And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves.”
The presence of sin sometimes requires radical action. A soft word is often out of order because of the seriousness of the condition. Sin hardens, and never ceases to harden. There is never a point at which transgression stops being aggressive, or loosens its grip upon the heart and mind. In the beginning, when we came into Christ, the sinful nature had to be cut away from us through “the circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11-12). There was a death that had to be experienced before life could be realized (Rom 6:3-5). Now, Nehemiah will deal with the transgressors in a most aggressive manner. His actions will seem quite harsh, but you must remember this was the manner of the Old Covenant. Those who chose to transgress the Law could be subjected to judgment that was “without mercy” (Heb 10:28).
CONTENDED WITH THEM. Other versions read, “rebuked them,” NIV “took up the cause against them,” BBE “strove with them,” Septuagint and “reprimanded them.” NJB He thus argued against the transgressors, rebuking and upbraiding them. He took them to task, proving by words that they were in the wrong. Their actions were inexcusable! A few years earlier, Ezra had gone through the same procedure (Ezra 9:1-3). These very people had also covenanted with God not to marry the heathen (Neh 10:30). By their actions, they were contending with God, so Nehemiah contended with them.
CURSED THEM. Other versions show that he called down curses upon them:” “called curses down on them.” NIV,NLT There are numerous examples of such curses in Scrip-ture – under both covenants. “Cursed be Canaan” (Gen 9:25), “Cursed be the man who maketh any graven image” (Deut 27:15), “Cursed be the man who obeyeth not the words of this covenant” (Jer 11:3), “Cursed be the deceiver” (Mal 1:14), “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8), and “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema (accursed) Maranatha” (1 Cor 16:22).
Nehemiah’s curses were not expressions of mere human rage, but were the pronouncement of the mind of God upon the matter.
SMOTE CERTAIN OF THEM. Other versions read, “struck some of them,” NKJV “beat some of them,” NIV “giving blows to some of them,” BBE and “flogged them.” TNK I understand this to have been done in strict accord with the Law of Moses. “And it shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his fault, by a certain number” (Deut 25:2).
Truly, “the way of transgressors is hard” (Prov 13:15). The gravity of sin is also seen in the words of our blessed Lord: “And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes” (Luke 12:47).
PLUCKED OFF THEIR HAIR. Other versions read, “pulled out their hair,” NKJV/NASB/NIV/NRSV and “tore out their hair.” NJB When Ezra confronted mixed marriages, he plucked out some of his own hair – from both his head and his beard (Ezra 9:3). This was a mark of deep humiliation, as also seen in the sufferings of Christ, who also had hair pulled from His face because the transgressions of others, which were laid on Him (Isa 50:6).
Men ought to learn to associate sin with painful and humiliating consequences. It will assist them to avoid sin and transgression. And, should they choose not to consider such things in this world, they will experience them in the world to come. Then, for the wicked, suffering will be in unparalleled measures (Matt 13:42; 24:51; Lk 16:24; Rev 14:10).
MADE THEM SWEAR. Nehemiah made the transgressors “sware by God,”or “take an oath in God’s name.” NIV Thus he caused the people to bind themselves with an oath, calling down the wrath of God upon themselves, should they violate that oath. This is precisely what they did when they previously made a covenant with God: they “entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God's law” (Neh 10:29).
The oath was that they would not give their daughters to the heathen, nor take the daughters of the heathen for their sons or themselves. By so doing, they would be avoiding the judgment of the Lord. Their own personal interests and preferences were entirely beside the point. As individuals, they were part of a community that was identified with the God of heaven. Therefore, their sin would impact upon all the people, just as surely as did the sin of Achan (Josh 7). Thus, another grievous task is completed by Nehemiah, the man of God. I do not doubt this deed had a great impact upon his sensitive heart.