November 28, 1999
KEEPING YOUR LIFE STABLE
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
Last Sunday I worshiped at Park Street Church in Boston. I went with a couple of friends who are also members of the Society of Biblical Literature and after the service, we were in the line to greet Gordon Hugenberger who is the senior pastor of the church. I have known Gordon for years. He was part of the college ministry at Park Street Church when I was the minister to students there. When Gordon shook my hand, he said, "Bob Ives!" and then he turned to the people around us in the narthex and said, "Here's the man who kept me stable when I was in college."
I know exactly what I did for him, because I did this with a lot of students. I encouraged him to read the Word and I got him a copy of Scripture Union's devotional guide. I told him it would be good for his faith to get into a campus Bible study he was at Harvard. And, I would stop by his room occasionally to talk and pray with him.
Everyone of us needs someone like that in his/her life. Someone who can keep you stable. Nehemiah was a person like that for Israel. When he came to Jerusalem, he got people doing right things. Nehemiah remained in Jerusalem for 12 years (2:1 and 13:6) and in verse 6, he returned to Susa in Persia. During the time Nehemiah was away, a lot of things went wrong in the lives of people in Judah. They stopped obeying what the Bible told them to do. They needed someone to keep them stable. And, a series of problems develop among them. Let us consider the problems that confronted the people and how Nehemiah helped people deal with them when he returned to Jerusalem. What happened didn't happen suddenly. It was gradually that people began to do things without stopping to ask, does God's Word have anything to say on this subject. So Nehemiah 13 is a warning about spiritual carelessness and it gives us an example of a person who helps keep the lives of people stable.
1. There is the problem of not reading the Word. Verses 1-3. Earlier (10:29) the people had bound themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God. And then they didn't do it, for as the Word is read in chapter 13, they see something about which they are in the wrong. Back in Numbers 21 and 22, as Israel was muddling around in the desert, the Ammonites refused to help give them water and the Moabites hired Balaam to curse Israel. As a result there was an ages-long curse on the Ammonites and the Moabites. Israel was not to inter-marry with them. But they forgot and in Nehemiah 13:1-3 as the Word is read, God reminds them of the old promise.
There are a lot of things we don't see in our lives until, one day, as we are reading the Bible, some sentence, some line, blazes out to show us sin in our lives. That's why you need to keep reading. It's like when a student takes an exam. She needs to review for the exam by re-reading the material so it stays fresh in her mind. We all need to do that with what we have once read in the Bible.
One evening during the time I was in Boston last week, I was having dinner with Elmer Martens, a professor from the Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Fresno. In the course of our talking, I mentioned that I was preaching on Nehemiah and Elmer said, "I want to ask you a question." He proceeded to say that a student in one of his classes had asked, isn't there a contradiction between Nehemiah 13:3, where Israel excludes all who were of foreign descent, and the theme in other Old Testament passages, like Isaiah 56, where Israel is to welcome foreigners. Several others at the table entered into the discussion, but I think the issue is holiness of the people and the example is verse 26, where Solomon polluted his own life and that of the nation by marrying foreign wives who did not convert. Ruth, by contrast, converted to trust the God of Israel and she was from Moab. We need to act in our lives in ways that do not cloud our own relationship with God.
2. But secondly, there is the problem of political influence. This is what we see in verses 4-5 and 28. The three leading enemies of the Israelites who plotted and worked to keep Israel from building the wall of Jerusalem and from resettling the land were, according to 6:1: Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem the Arab. In chapter 13, we learn that one of the priests, a man named Eliashib, is a friend of one of these enemies of Israel, Tobiah, and for some strange reason, he finds Tobiah a room in the temple itself. What is going on here? If you make friends with unrighteous people, they have an effect on you. Usually the effect is to cause you to lower your moral standards or to compromise something. It takes the return of Nehemiah to correct this and keep Israel straight. And then, one of the grandsons of this same priest, Eliashib, marries the daughter of Sanballat. Again, it takes the return of Nehemiah to straighten this out. In verse 28, he drives this man away. This was one part of a larger problem, the problem of not seeking counsel about what God's Word says, so one loses sharpness about moral problems.
3. The third problem concerns inter-marriage with pagan people. This is another problem Nehemiah finds when he returns from Susa. In verses 23-28, Jews had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Just a short time prior to this, in 10:30, the people had made a promise to Nehemiah and to God, "We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons." But then they did it. They had heard in the Law about how when there was inter-marrying, the wives or husbands brought their gods into the marriage. This had been a grave problem with Solomon, and many other kings of Israel and Judah. Jezebel's marriage to Ahab comes to mind.
When I was first in the ministry, I had a policy to not do weddings of a Christian to a non-Christian. Later I changed that policy. I would counsel people and then decide. The reason was that when couples come to see me, they have often already decided on marriage, and I came to recognize that all sorts of marriages can work, and I could help people by getting them to ask questions about their future relationship. I still believe that the faith of a person is such a big and a personal part of relationships that a non-believing partner needs to be open to that in his wife or husband or the marriage will never work. But there are other synergies which are important. Even for Israel, there was a Moabite marriage that worked. Ruth, a Moabite woman who has her own book in the Bible, pledged her faith to Israel's God and so she was accepted into the Israelite community, and she would marry Boaz and thus become an ancestor of Jesus. In Nehemiah 13, though, the inter-marriage was leading people astray from their faith.
What sometimes happens with young couples is the naive idea that "I can get her to change," or, "I can get him to change;" but people rarely change after marriage.
4. There was also the problem of giving, or, in this case, not giving. Verses 10, 11. Nehemiah learns that people had not been giving to the house of God and thus to the priests and Levites, so they are unable to continue their work which included helping people to hear what God said. Nehemiah rebukes the officials and asks in verse 11, "Why is the house of God neglected?" They knew well enough what should happen. In 10:39 the Israelites had made a promise, "We will not neglect the house of God." It was one of those promises that looked good at the time. The people had heard Ezra read the law. It was a moving time. They heard what God had said and it convicted them of places in their lives where they had been wrong, so the people confessed their sin and then they made a promise to God, "We will not neglect God's house." But they did.
Now let us notice what is involved because the same problem grips us. The people had made a commitment in a large public meeting, an evangelistic meeting, if you will, a Promise Keepers meeting. Out of the enthusiasm of that time they made a commitment. It was a good commitment. It would have helped them in their lives. What was missing was a method to help them keep their vow. So, in verse 13, Nehemiah establishes a method to help them. He appoints certain men to collect the tithes and distribute them fairly.
Think of your commitment to pay taxes. Were there no IRS, no forms, no penalty for not filling the forms out on time, would you pay your taxes for the love of your country? Probably not.
But when you make a promise to do something.... Many people in the Grantham Church and Nancy and I are among them promise to the Lord, at the beginning of each year, to give a certain amount during the year. Who is holding you responsible for that? Maybe your spouse, but usually it's the Holy Spirit. But dated offering envelopes help me keep that commitment.
Or, what about devotions? You like me believe that you need to meet with the Lord Jesus which happens personally as you daily read the Bible. Who holds you responsible to do that? Maybe a friend, but usually it's the convicting of the Holy Spirit. Having a guide that is dated for each day of the month is a method that helps me, though. It keeps me stable.
5. There is one other issue here. It is the problem of the Sabbath, verses 15-21. About the Sabbath, there had always been among the Israelites the question, what exactly is one permitted to do on the Sabbath, or not? What constitutes work, or what constitutes violation of the Sabbath? In Nehemiah 13 the issue is not so much what the Israelites are doing, but what they are permitting foreigners to do. They are permitting, among others, the Phoenicians, in verse 16, to set out merchandise and sell on the Sabbath. And Israelite people from the villages around the city were coming to Jerusalem on the Sabbath not to worship but to buy merchandise.
Nehemiah points out that when the law commands God's people in Exodus 20 to keep the Sabbath, it includes, "the alien within your gates." And in verse 18 Nehemiah says, "remember Babylon." Why were our fathers exiled into Babylon? Because they did not keep the Sabbath among other things. They didn't pay any attention to what God wanted for them.
In our day, as Christians, we are no longer under the law but under grace. While I am careful what I personally do on Sunday, I don't think Christians should transfer the Old Testament Sabbath teaching to the Lord's Day of the New Testament. We aren't to be governed by legalism, but by grace. For example, in the Old Testament, farmers were forbidden by the law to plough on the Sabbath. By the New Testament times, the rabbis forbade people to comb their hair on the Sabbath. On the other hand, the idea of one day of rest each week is God's pattern for people since creation and Sunday is a good day on which to rest.
Secularism threatens to swallow up Christian life in America.
Secularism has a definition: "an attitude of indifference
to religious institutions and practices and to religious questions."
(International Yearbook for the Sociology of Religion, vol 3,
1967, ed. Joachim Matther.) Secularism finds a foothold in Christian
households when Christian people ignore God's Word. What we need
as much as Judah did in Nehemiah's day is to confess our sins
and acknowledge we have disobeyed God as the people in 13:3 did.
If revival is to come to us, we need to see how our sin destroys
us and others. John says in the New Testament (1 John 2:15-17)
"do not love the world or the things of the world,"
and when the floodlight of God's Word shines on the sin in your
life, this can lead to a change in you when you repent and turn
back in obedience to God and find that God loves you and He is
sufficient for your need.
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Grantham, PA 17027