Bible Commentary: Nehemiah 13:4-31

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Nehemiah 13:4-31

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Returning Home and Finding a Mess

Nehemiah's first term as governor lasted 12 years—from the 20th year of Artaxerxes (444 B.C.) to the king's 32nd year (432-431 B.C.) (see Nehemiah 2:1; Nehemiah 5:14; Nehemiah 13:6). Either Nehemiah was recalled to the Persian court at this time or it was the agreed-upon term limit from the start (compare Nehemiah 2:6). Note that Artaxerxes is referred to in Nehemiah 13:6 as the king of Babylon. This was accurate since Babylon was now part of Persia. It remained a significant fact since Babylonia was where most of the Jewish exiles dwelt. Moreover, it could be that the emperor was in temporary residence in Babylon when Nehemiah returned to him.

We don't know how long Nehemiah remained at the imperial court. It could have been several months or even a few years. Verse 23 seems to argue for the latter, as we will see. In any case, it was evidently long enough for some serious lapses to occur in Judea during his absence.

When he finally comes back, Nehemiah encounters some major problems. First of all, his old nemesis Tobiah has returned. Recall that Tobiah, evidently the Ammonite governor who was probably part Jewish and related to some of the priests—and to whom many in Jerusalem had been pledged in service—was one of the main enemies who had attempted to thwart the rebuilding of the city wall, even writing threatening letters to Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:10, Nehemiah 2:19; Nehemiah 4:3; Nehemiah 6:10-12, Nehemiah 6:17, Nehemiah 6:19). And now this wicked man has his own guest quarters in the temple compound itself as sanctioned by the high priest! (Nehemiah 13:4-7). It is an unconscionable outrage—an affront, in fact, to God Himself. Stunned and dismayed at what has happened, Nehemiah takes immediate action, having Tobiah's furnishings thrown out and the defiled rooms cleansed (verses 8-9).

What brought the high priest Eliashib down from his wonderful example of personally working on the wall (see Nehemiah 3:1) to this disgrace is unknown. It may have been an act of desperation to keep a failing priesthood functioning. Consider that in his investigation of the matter, Nehemiah realizes that the people of Judea have not been giving their tithes and offerings to the Levites. With no means to live, the Levites employed at the temple returned to farming as a way to get by (verse 10). With very little supplied to them, the Levites did not in turn tithe and give offerings to the temple for the priests (compare Nehemiah 10:38). Notice that Tobiah was actually housed in the area that had previously been used to store the tithes and offerings (Nehemiah 13:5). These rooms were evidently empty and unused. Perhaps Tobiah had used this situation as an inroad back into Jerusalem, particularly if some who had been formerly pledged to him called upon his help. It could well be that Tobiah struck a deal with Eliashib to provide for the needs of the priests if he were given the access to the temple complex. Perhaps there were certain other incentives such as renewed pledges of loyalty.

As to why the tithing and offering system had broken down, nothing is said. Perhaps the people simply let down in what they should have been doing. This matter could have been brewing even before Nehemiah left—coming to a head when the problem finally manifested itself in food shortages during his absence. In any case, the governor takes the leaders of the nation to task over this situation and finally gets the tithing system going again, appointing faithful overseers to ensure fair distribution (verses 11-13). In contrast to the poor example of Eliashib, Nehemiah showed himself steadfast in God's way through all these years since we were first introduced to him. And he prays to God to reward his faithful leadership (verse 14).

It should be noted that if the covenant of chapter 10 was made years earlier, then the people let down in these areas despite its specific mention of maintaining faithfulness in tithes, offerings and providing for God's house. Yet, if the arrangement order of the book is not strictly chronological, it could be that the covenant was made after the events of chapter 13 because of them. The same applies to the other two major problems Nehemiah dealt with after his return—Sabbath violation (verses 15-22) and intermarriage (verses 23-28).

Concerning the first problem, foreigners were coming into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day doing work inside the city and hauling in provisions, which were then sold to the Jews. Yet the law had specifically forbidden even foreigners from doing work within the gates of the Israelites—that is, within areas they controlled (see Exodus 20:10). The Jews were in the wrong not only for permitting this but also for what they themselves were doing—going about their regular shopping for the coming days on God's Holy Day. Some see this passage as implying that it is wrong to pay for a meal on the Sabbath. Yet there is nothing in the Law that specifically forbids making a payment for something on the Sabbath. What the Law prohibited was working on the Sabbath such as doing regular business. Indeed, the Fourth Commandment is to treat the Sabbath as holy—distinct and separate, devoted to God. Yet here the Jews were engaging in routine commerce and stocking up on provisions for future use, thereby taking time and focus away from the observance of this special day.

Nehemiah's immediate solution to the problem is to close the city gates during the Sabbath. After a couple Sabbaths of merchants camping outside the city—obviously in an attempt to lure the Jews into a return to shopping—Nehemiah threatens to take them into custody if they persist, leading them to stop (verses 19-22). Again Nehemiah prays for God to remember his service and to grant him mercy and salvation (verse 22).

As quick as Nehemiah is to deal with this matter, it seems highly unlikely that it could have been happening in the latter years of his prior administration. It must have started while he was away. A spiritual letdown that had been underway for some time, as evidenced by the lack of tithing, moved out of the shadows and became full blown in Nehemiah's absence. Yet there was probably a more immediate reason for the buying and selling on the Sabbath. This whole situation was very likely connected to the presence of Tobiah. Perhaps many of the foreign merchants were part of the contingent the Ammonite governor brought with him. Allowing large numbers of foreigners to set up shop in the city may have been part of the bargain struck between Tobiah and the high priest (and other city leaders). It was only to be expected that these merchants would operate with no regard for the Sabbath just as they always had—or, if they gave it superficial homage to start with, that they would do all they could to push the boundaries so as to gradually flout this inconvenience.

This all speaks to the consequences of Eliashib's terribly wrong decision. It is unlikely that he foresaw or intended these corruptions, but they teach a painful lesson. What seems like a small compromise at the time can often snowball into a cascade of sins.

The other problem Nehemiah encountered, intermarriage, was also probably a result of the reintroduction of Tobiah and his allies into Jewish society. Indeed, a grandson of the high priest had married the daughter of—of all people—Sanballat the Horonite, the Samaritan governor and archenemy of the Jews of Judea! (verse 28; see Nehemiah 2:10; Nehemiah 4:1-3, Nehemiah 4:7; Nehemiah 6:1-9, Nehemiah 6:12-14). This may have been part of cementing the alliance between Eliashib and Tobiah. Nehemiah mentions some Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab (verse 23). The people of Ammon and Moab would have been from Tobiah's province. And the city of Ashdod was allied to Tobiah and Sanballat (see Nehemiah 4:7-8). This was a former Philistine city yet, as explained in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on chapter 4, its inhabitants were probably not full-blooded Philistines (compare Zechariah 9:6) as the city was destroyed by the Assyrians, repopulated by the Babylonians and given by the Persians to the people of Tyre and Sidon as an important port. Some of the Tyrian merchants of verse 16 may have been from Ashdod.

The "language of Ashdod" (verse 24) may have been Philistine, a Phoenician dialect or a local dialect of Aramaic, the international language of the Persian Empire. The language of Judea refers to either Hebrew or the Jewish dialect of Aramaic. Given that Judea was such a small province, it seems unlikely that the problem of intermarriage had been going on during the later years of Nehemiah's first term in office, for he would most likely have found out about it and taken steps to put a stop to it. Yet if these marriages took place during his absence, then he must have been gone a few years to allow enough time for children to be born to them and for the children to grow to speaking age.

There may not have been many such children. Perhaps there were relatively few offenders thus far. Nevertheless, intermarriage with pagans was a "great evil" (verse 27). This problem had faced Ezra upon his arrival in Judea. And here it was again. Ezra's initial response had been mourning and pulling out his own hair (see Ezra 9:1-4). Nehemiah's different temperament is illustrated in his more drastic reaction of pulling out the offenders' hair! (Nehemiah 13:25).

As with the Sabbath and tithing, it is not clear if the covenant to refrain from such intermarriage in chapter 10 came long before a resurgence of the problem in chapter 13 or if the covenant was made after Nehemiah's dealing with the problem in chapter 13. As the prophet Malachi addresses some of the same issues dealt with in Nehemiah 13, many date his book to the time of Nehemiah's absence. Yet it could well have been earlier, prior to Nehemiah's initial arrival. Since the matter is unclear, we will wait until we have covered all of Nehemiah before reading the book of Malachi.

Yet again, Nehemiah prays to be remembered by God (Nehemiah 13:31).