Nehemiah chapter 13 describes the dramatic reformation that occurred when Nehemiah suddenly returned from the Persian capital to Jerusalem and challenged the people of Israel with a message that shocked and startled them. The same challenge must surely stand as a warning to our own generation who await “the second coming” of the greater than Nehemiah, even the Messenger of the Covenant who will suddenly come to his temple. But who may abide the day of his coming?

The interval between Nehemiah’s return to Persia in the thirty second year of Artaxerxes and his coming again to Jerusalem was disastrous for the ecclesia. Despite the rejoicing which had occurred at the completion of the wall and the sealing of the covenant to “not forsake the house of our God” (Neh 10:39), the ecclesia had quickly forgotten when Nehemiah left and had allowed the influences of the nations round about them to enter in. We are in a similar interval today between the two advents of the Lord Jesus Christ who will be the future “governor among the nations”. The Lord himself warned his disciples of the disastrous consequences for the household caused by “the evil servant (who) says in his heart, my Lord delayeth his coming” (Matthew 24:48). We note that this is not openly stated but rather it infers a state of mind resulting in worldliness and ecclesial strife (see v49).

Moabites and Ammonites

 In Nehemiah’s days neglect of the Word of God had caused the people to overlook one of the most important fundamentals of the Truth, namely separateness. In Nehemiah 13:1, 2 we are told that the people learned that the Moabite and the Ammonite were prohibited from entering the congregation to worship. There were, of course, notable exceptions such as Ruth, who had accepted the God of Israel in faith, but in this case the very enemies of the Truth, such as Tobiah the Ammonite, were ensconced within the Temple itself. Not only so, but his chamber was the very area “where aforetime they laid the meal offerings, the frankincense, andthe vessels, and the tithes” which were to be given to the Levites (Neh 13:5). These were representative of that which was Yahweh’s and the people’s works of service and prayer, (Lev 24:5, 8; Exod 30:36). So the enemy of the Truth now replaced service to Yahweh!

The tragedy of how Tobiah and Sanballat managed to so infiltrate the ecclesia, with many prepared to speak favourably of Tobiah in particular (Neh 6:19), becomes clear when we discover that their families had intermarried into Israel. In fact, prominent families in the ecclesia were the chief offenders, including Eliashib the high priest and Meshullam the energetic worker during the building of the wall (Neh 6:18; 13:4, 28). We see this happen at times even today when principles of the Truth are discarded in favour of family loyalties.

The reason why Moabites were to be excluded from the congregation of Israel is given in Nehemiah 13:2 and Deut 23:4-6 and it goes back to the time when Balak king of Moab hired Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam confessed that God “…hath blessed and I cannot reverse it” (Num 23:20). The people were indeed blessed as Yahweh had said (Num 22:12) and He turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing. The prophet Micah says that Yahweh answered Balaam’s counsel and he caused Israel to cross from Shittim to Gilgal. They crossed the Jordan miraculously and entered the Promised land despite the disaster which occurred at Shittim involving immorality and defiance of Yahweh’s law. Balaam “taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication” (Rev 2:14). The result was that 24000 of the ecclesia perished (Micah 6:5; Num 25) but they also learned and experienced the “righteousness of Yahweh” in condemning sin and delivering those who repent and forsake the evil.

On the Borders of the Land

 The modern ecclesia is in sight of its inheritance just as Israel were at the last camp of the wilderness wanderings. The rolling away of the reproach of sin and mortality which Gilgal represented is in sight. We too are blessed. We cannot be cursed because Yahweh has blessed us in the Abrahamic covenant (Gal 3:9). However, like Israel, we can destroy ourselves from within by following the way of Balaam and introducing the world and its standards into the ecclesia. It is significant that the ecclesia in the wilderness met the challenge of immorality at its last stopping place before entering the land. So it is today, that we face the same challenge from the world and the “new morality” it almost universally accepts in defiance of God’s laws.

The Return of Nehemiah

 When Nehemiah returned, he found that, despite Malachi’s warning during his absence, a tragic state of affairs had developed. The Levites had “fled everyone to his field” (Neh 13:10) because, of course, they depended on the tithes to live and these had been neglected (Mal 3:8-10). The people were cursed, says Malachi, because they had “self destructed” from within, despite Yahweh’s blessings showered on them since their return from captivity. The defection of the Levites effectively left the ecclesia without its study leaders and Bible classes. Nehemiah was appalled to find the sabbath neglected and open trading with the merchants of Tyre (Neh 13:16). Even when Nehemiah contended with them, they tried to evade his orders by lodging outside the city to do their business. Only the threat of physical removal dissuaded them (Neh 13:21). We have no sabbath law, but do we sometimes find our halls and foyers abuzz with business deals and buying and selling after a Sunday memorial meeting to the detriment of spiritually uplifting conversation on the Word of God? Perhaps Bro “So-and-So” has a second hand car or appliance to sell and Sunday morning seems a good time to see him. Is this not in fact what Nehemiah was disturbed about?

 The Speech of Ashdod

 Worse was to follow however, as during his absence (which must have been long enough for young children to have grown up and learn to talk) many had married (Heb. “dwelt with”) foreign women. These children spoke a mixture of Hebrew and the language of Ashdod. First the Ammonite and Moabite and now the Philistines had affected the ecclesia and the language of the Truth was unrecognisable. This provoked a most decisive response from Nehemiah, who firstly contended with them and then physically dealt with them. No doubt, like the “new age” moralists of today, they would have been prepared to rationalise and argue their case, but to no avail when it came to such a clear thinking and totally dedicated servant of Yahweh as Nehemiah was. The Lord Jesus Christ will likewise deal severely with the modern counterparts to these people when he returns, as Malachi warned and as the Lord and the apostles also did (Mal 3:1; Matt 24:50-51; 2 Thess 1:7-8).

The issues of separation from the world, moral laxity and an alarming trend to follow the world down the path on “the marriage question” serve as warnings to the modern ecclesial world when we contemplate the attitude of Nehemiah to these things.

This issue of foreign speech is a real one in today’s environment. Many of our young people especially speak a language clearly influenced by the pop-music , TV, movie and surfing culture, not to mention the “Americanisation” of the language. This is scarcely intelligible at times to older brethren and sisters who are sometimes ignorant of its origins. Let us beware of these trends and let our speech be “with grace” and heed the lessons of Nehemiah Chapter 13. The Lord whom we say we seek will suddenly come. Let us make sure we are prepared. Malachi challenged the generation that Nehemiah found wanting, with the words, “but who may abide the day of his coming?” It is a good question to keep asking ourselves. May we all in sympathy with the thoughts of Nehemiah pray that Yahweh will remember us for good in that day.