If you’ve ever been in the market to buy a house. You’ll have come across REAL ESTATE DOUBLE-SPEAK. The phrases real estate agents use that SAY / ONE thing, but MEAN something ELSE.
They’re experts at GILDING THE LILY. Disguising the truth. Focussing on THE GOOD BITS.
But I think most of us are pretty cluey when it comes to their code. For example, what do you expect to see when a house is advertised as CLOSE TO TRANSPORT? It’s either on a major highway, where you take your life into your hands crossing the road. Or it’s next to the railway line, and the windows shake when a train thunders past.
- Or what about… COSY? Obviously it’s so small, there’s no room to swing a cat.
- Or “compact garden”. No backyard
- “Rustic” means there’s no electricity, and there’s an outside toilet.
- “Water glimpses” means if you stand on one leg on the top of the verandah railing, you can see the neighbours BIRDBATH.
- Or the old favourite “Renovator’s delight”. Which means it’s a death trap, and watch your step or you’ll fall through the floorboards.
Real estate agents are EXPERTS at making the MOST out of a property’s assets. Of painting the ROSIEST PICTURE POSSIBLE/ out of the thinnest of evidence.
If you JUST LOOK AT A FEW HIGH POINTS/ OUT OF CONTEXT, you can easily get the wrong idea. You can easily mix up a good house with a bad one. A purchase worth making/ from one to run a mile from.
And it’s only when you see the WHOLE THING that you really get the message. When you see the REALITY/ that you know for sure.
Which is exactly how it works with the book of Nehemiah. We need to look AT THE WHOLE THING to get an accurate picture of its message.
It’s a funny thing, over the years there’s been a tradition. A tradition that’s only looked at the HIGH POINTS of the book of Nehemiah. The good bits.
The construction of the TEMPLE. The building of the walls. And you say, “Look how they BUILT THE GREAT WALL. That’s how WE SHOULD BUILD.”
The great spiritual revival of Israel. And you say, “Look at the great spiritual revival. That’s how WE SHOULD HAVE REVIVALS.”
The great leadership of Nehemiah. And you say, “Look at the great leadership of Nehemiah. That’s how OUR LEADERS SHOULD LEAD.”
Not noticing for a minute that when you read THE WHOLE STORY, that’s not what’s there at all. Because in the end, Nehemiah is a book about FAILURE. Nehemiah is the story of A TRAGEDY.
Nehemiah’s NOT a leadership manual. Or a HOW TO book on re-building a city, or a nation.
It’s a story of DISASTROUS FAILURE. That says to us, if you think BUILDING THINGS is important, there’s something MORE IMPORTANT. And that’s the SORT OF PEOPLE you put INSIDE your building.
And Nehemiah’s a story that says to us, if you think LEADERSHIP is important, leaders like Nehemiah just haven’t got what it takes. And for the people of Israel, ultimately – they need a leader like JESUS.
Well, after that cheery introduction. Let’s turn to these last chapters of Nehemiah.
We’ve seen how the people have come back. God’s given them a chance to make a NEW START… which according to God, has to start from the HEART. If they TURN BACK TO HIM FOR REAL – they’ll be blessed like never before.
And so we’ve watched while they’ve REBUILT THE CITY WALLS. Stone by stone. A wall that’s going to draw the line between THE PEOPLE OF GOD… and everyone else.
But there’s still the big question; and that is, what’s in their HEARTS? Have they REALLY REPENTED?
Sure, they feel bad. They feel sorry for their sins. And they’ve confessed… But is it repentance that goes all the way to the HEART… and then works its way outward in a CHANGED WAY OF LIVING.
When you come to chapter 10, and this is where we pick up the story today, it’s obvious they’re FULL OF GOOD INTENTIONS. But good intentions aren’t enough.
It’s a bit like new year’s resolutions. Every year I decide I’m going to keep my desk tidy; no more piles of papers and disks and coffee cups. And I decide that THIS YEAR I’m going to get more regular exercise.
Full of good intentions. That last til the second of January.
Is it like that with Israel? Have a look at THEIR good resolutions. At the end of chapter 9. Verse 38. They’ve confessed their sins. And now they’re making a fresh start.
And they say in verse 38,
38 “In view of all this, we are making A BINDING AGREEMENT, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.” NIV
These guys mean business. A legal document. Witnessed by everyone. They’re so confident they’re putting it in writing. And there’s a list of the names of the people who sign.
And the rest of chapter 10 goes on in detail to spell out THREE SPECIAL AREAS where they’re going to be DISTINCTIVE. Three New Year’s Resolutions. Where they’re going to stand out as the special people of God that they’re meant to be.
1. Intermarriage (10:30)
And here’s the first one. Ch 10 v30. It’s in the area of INTERMARRIAGE. Of their sons and daughters marrying into the surrounding nations.
Because the fact is, God always told the Israelites to be separate. And for that to happen, Israelites have got to marry Israelites. And not just mix and blend and blur with the all the other nations around them as if there wasn’t any difference.
Because that’s the point. God said if you start marrying into other nations, the next thing you know you’ll be following their gods. And leaving me behind. Marrying the outsider means marrying their god.
And in case you thought that was just an OT issue, you’re wrong. It’s just as clear in the NT. God’s people should only marry God’s people. A Christian shouldn’t marry a non-Christian. 2 Cor 6:14. “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers”.
If your faith in Jesus is a fundamental part of your life, what happens when you marry an unbeliever? Straight away there’s a tension. Straight away there’s a pressure.
And you say, oh, yeah, but it’s okay, I’m going to CONVERT them. But more often than not it works exactly the opposite way.
And it’s not just MARRIAGE either. For you TEENAGERS, it’s about who you go out with. Don’t go out with non-Christians. Fair enough, you’re not even THINKING about marriage. …YET.
But I know plenty of Christians who start going out with a non-Christian, not thinking it’s serious. And then it becomes serious. And they fall in love. And it becomes too hard to break up then.
And they start making all kinds of excuses to themselves. About why it’s alright to marry a non-Christian. About how it’s not too bad really. Or how they convert them. Missionary dating.
And sometimes that DOES happen. But often it’s a mess.
The point is, we’re not just talking minor issues here, it’s not just like marrying someone who supports a different football team, is it? We’re talking about a WHOLE LIFE ORIENTATION. The whole direction you’re going in. Which means that marrying someone who doesn’t SHARE that is always going to be hard work.
It’s never going to have the complete one-ness and intimacy God designed marriage to be. God wants your BEST, – believe it! So only marriage Christians.
And so in verse 30 of chapter 10 the people promise. Promise number 1. “We PROMISE not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us, or to take their daughters for our sons.” Because we won’t let anything drag us away from following God.
They sign it, they seal it. It’s a promise. How long’s it going to last? Keep watching.
2 – SABBATH REST (10:31)
Next. Promise number 2. Ch 10 v31. And it’s all got to do with the SABBATH.
You know, one of the things that really marked Israel out as being different was their Sabbath. Different from everyone else around them. The way that on the Seventh day, everything stopped. Sunset Friday, down tools, turn everything off, lock the cash register; and sit back and relax. While they remember the God who made them. And who gave them their land. No buying. No selling. Just resting.
Well, that’s how it was meant to be, anyway. Trouble is, since they’d been back in the land their GREED made them totally ignore it. If there was a buck to be made on the Sabbath, they’d make it.
But have a look at promise number 2. Because now, they say, it’s going to be different. Verse 31. Still in chapter 10. When the neighbouring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath, or any holy day.
Once again, a written guarantee. WE PROMISE. No matter how good a deal turns up at the gates.
3. The temple (10:32)
Now there’s one more promise. And it starts in verse 32. The life of Israel was focussed on the Temple. Because the life of Israel focussed on GOD.
And in promise number 3, they say, look, we know in the old days we IGNORED the temple a bit. We didn’t quite get around to bringing in our offerings. Let things run down a bit.
BUT NEVER AGAIN. We’re going to bring our offerings. We’re going to support the priests and the Levites; we’re going to fill up the store rooms. A whole new attitude. And it’s summarised in the last verse of the chapter. Those simple words right at the end of verse 39. Promise number 3. “We will not NEGLECT the house of our God.”
It’s all there in writing. Three promises, as a mark of their REPENTANCE. Signed and sealed.
Well, that’s the idea, anyway. But the big question is, what happens? They’ve made their new years resolutions. The question is, can they keep them?
Run your eye through chapter 11, you can see the details of how they bring people in from the Israelite towns to resettle Jerusalem.
Chapter 12. Details of all the Priests and the Levites. And the great Dedication Service for the new walls of Jerusalem. It’s a huge celebration, with two choirs marching around the walls singing songs. And everything’s terrific.
So far, it’s one big, long, happy story. Everything’s looking rosy. They’ve got plenty to celebrate.
And the first few verses of Ch 13 give a nice summary. A nice place to wrap up the story. The Book of Moses is read aloud. The people HEAR it and OBEY it. And in v3, they SEPARATE themselves as a holy people.
Which would be a great place to finish. A great RESOLUTION.
Remember a the start of Ezra we talked about NARRATIVES. How all good narratives have an ORIENTATION, a COMPLICATION, and a RESOLUTION. We all love a happy ending. And this would be a GREAT resolution. A perfect “and they all lived happily ever after”.
There’s only one problem. The story DOESN’T finish here.
At the time, Nehemiah HOPED that would be the ending. He gets to this point, and heaves a huge sigh of relief. Cause the job he came to do is done.
So, chapter 13, v6, he heads back to Babylon for a well-earned holiday. To report to back the King. He’s been in Jerusalem 12 years, it’s the thirty second year of the reign of Artaxerxes.
So Nehemiah, with everything shipshape, heads North.
Now they say the sign of a good leader is what happens when he’s NOT around. Which is why, at this point, you have to wonder why so many American Christian leadership books want to use Nehemiah as THEIR NUMBER 1 CASE STUDY.
Because what do you reckon happens as soon as Nehemiah’s tail-lights are out of sight around the first corner?
Remember the three-part promise?
- We’re not going to intermarry.
- We’re not going to trade on the Sabbath.
- And we’re not going to neglect the house of God.
Well, Nehemiah gets back from his little holiday in Babylon. And what’s he find? For starters, there’s Eliashib the priest. He’s in charge of the temple storerooms. The storerooms that were meant to be full to overflowing with the Israelites offerings they promised in promise number 3.
Last promise made. First promise broken.
The storerooms are empty. So Eliashib rents them out. And you won’t believe this, he’s renting them out to TOBIAH the AMMONITE; the guy who used to stand outside the walls yelling and making threats. The guy who’s been in Nehemiah’s face right from chapter 2. The guy who’s nationality Israel was to have NOTHING TO DO WITH.
Well, when he finds out, Nehemiah’s furious. And the first thing he does is throw all Tobiah’s stuff out of the room, like that ad you seen on TV with that girl who throws out her boyfriend. Yellow Pages lands on his head. Chapter 13 verse 8.
And in verse 9, he gives orders to purify the rooms and set them up again with the grain offerings and the incense. And he rebukes the officials in verse 11. And the words are exactly the same as the words they wrote down in their promise back in chapter 10. WHY IS THE HOUSE OF GOD NEGLECTED?
‘Cause they promised in black and white. And they’ve blown it already. Three promises. One down. Two to go.
And Nehemiah adds the first of three prayers. V14. “Remember me for this, O my God”.
It’s the sort of comment that we react to. That we think sounds a bit egotistical and self-centred.
Perhaps the first thing to remember is that we’re probably reading over the shoulder of his diary. And it probably fits THAT sort of setting pretty well. “God, I’m doing my best with these people. Keep that in mind when I’m called to account.”
But at the same time I think there’s a bit of despair and resignation to the prayer as well. He started off in Ch 1 praying for the whole nation. But now, He’s done all he can. And nothing’s really changed. And so all that’s left is himself. The only one who’s doing his bit. One lone Israelite. A bit sad really.
What about broken promise number 2. Verse 15. In those days, says Nehemiah, I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the sabbath, and bringing in corn and loading it on donkeys together with wine grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. And verse 16, men from Tyre are bringing stuff on the Sabbath as well, and they’re selling it.
And Nehemiah’s FURIOUS. He has to station his men at the gate to stop them doing what they PROMISED not to do.
And once again, at the end of v22. Another prayer from Nehemiah. “Remember me for this also, O my God”
It’s like a count down, isn’t it. Three promises. Two down. And one to go.
And here it is. V23. Remember promise number 1. No intermarriage. It’s the first one promised, and the last one to fall.
Moreover, he says, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Half their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and didn’t know how to speak the language of Judah.”
And Nehemiah just about explodes. Verse 26. Look what he says.
“Wasn’t it because of marriages like this that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel – but even HE was lead into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that YOU TOO are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?
And the ultimate insult. Verse 28. One of the sons of Joiadad son of Eliashib the high priest… was son in law to … SANBALLAT THE HORONITE.
Sanballat and Tobiah, the two greatest enemies of Israel. Tobiah’s renting the store-room at the temple. Sanballat is FATHER IN LAW of the high priest’s son.
These guys threatened. They tried trickery. They bribed. They sent armies. And Nehemiah fought them off every time. And as soon as he turns his back, they’re invited in the main gate. Given the red carpet treatment. Tragic!
These are the people who said they’d repented. These are the people who promised. Promised to be faithful to God. And distinctive. And different.
It’s an absolute FARCE. And from Nehemiah’s point of view, it’s a tragedy. Because the fact is, it’s the story of a huge failure.
And so Nehemiah, who at the start of the book prayed a prayer for ALL OF ISRAEL, all he can do at the end is pray for HIMSELF. That God will at least forgive HIM. And remember him with favour. All Nehemiah can do is pray and say, “God, remember me. Cause I did my best.”
Narratives need RESOLUTIONS. And there doesn’t seem to be one here.
In fact, you can’t even turn anywhere else in the rest of the Old Testament to FIND the happy ending. Because Nehemiah marks the end of the HISTORY section of the Old Testament. That runs all the way from GENESIS. What you get from here on is things like the Psalms. And the prophets. But the HISTORY LESSON stops here.
And it’s not a happy ending. It’s an ending that’s crying out for a new beginning. For a RESOLUTION. It’s an ending that leaves you with QUESTIONS. But not answers.
Like, if Israel failed, what happens now? Like, where are you going to get an Israel that REALLY REPENTS FROM THE HEART? Like, is there any possibility of the sort of LEADER who can do what Nehemiah FAILED TO DO.
All of which are answered, aren’t they, in JESUS. Who comes to Israel and says REPENT. Like you should have before.
And more than that, who lives PERFECTLY. And DIES SACRIFICIALLY. Who deals with the DEBTS OF THE PAST.
And more than that, who baptises us with his Holy Spirit. Who actually GIVES PEOPLE the ABILITY to repent. And to obey.
Jesus is the resolution to Nehemiah’s story. He’s the resolution to ISRAEL’S story.
The book of Hebrews spends a lot of space dealing with this very question. How Israel was INCOMPLETE. UNFINISHED. Until Jesus came.
Ch 4 of Hebrews. He gives REST like Israel never had.
Chapters 5-8. Jesus is a HIGH PRIEST like Israel never had. Who enters a HOLY PLACE like Israel never had. And who presents A SACRIFICE like Israel never had.
The sacrifice of himself. The sacrifice which cleanses us ONCE AND FOR ALL. The sacrifice which enables us to ACTUALLY, and TRULY, serve the God whose plan it was from the beginning.
Nehemiah is a great book for us. Not because it provides us with all the answers. But because it asks all the right QUESTIONS. It poses the problems. It sets up the complications. It leaves us hanging. Hanging out for Jesus.
11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are OUTWARDLY clean. 14 HOW MUCH MORE, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, SO THAT WE MAY SERVE THE LIVING GOD! Heb 9:13-14