I. Foreigners excluded from Israel (1-3)
- On what day did the events happen recorded in verse 1?
- Why did God not allow Moabites or Ammonites to be admitted into the assembly of God?
- What were the dangers or risks of disobeying this command?
- What major character in this book is an Ammonite? What light can this shed on the reasons for this ban?
Deuteronomy 23:3-5 – No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you.
Deuteronomy 10:18 – He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.
Ruth 1:16 – But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.
1. No Ammonite or Moabite should enter the assembly of God – In Genesis 12:3, God promised to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” Here is one fulfillment of this promise. The Moabites and Ammonites refused to help the Israelites or even allow them to pass through their own lands when the Israelites entered the Promised Land. These countries had declared enmity against the people of God.
Where following God is concerned, there is no middle road. You are either for him or against him. These nations had declared that they were against God. Therefore their people were not part of the covenant. They were not to be considered part of the family. Most of the Ammonites and Moabites were idol worshipers. Allowing them to mix with Jewish believers would be allowing a potential temptation and snare right in their midst. Would a church allow cult members to roam freely among the congregation? See Ezra 4:3
The command here is also similar to the New Testament command not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. We will see in the following verses that Tobiah himself was an Ammonite that had opposed God’s work. And yet the people were not only allowing him to live together with him, but giving him a luxury suite for free! There is something wrong with that picture.
2. This is not an example of racial prejudice – In Deuteronomy 10:18 we learn that God loves all people. In 2 Peter 3:9, we learn that God desires all to come to repentance. The command here is not an example of God saying, “you cannot become a believer in me if you are from the following countries.” Rather it is an example of God giving them a choice. They had to choose one or the other and could not try to walk the middle and pretend to be a believer in God while refusing to renounce their own sinful lifestyles. Even in the Old Testament the way to God was open to all. Ruth was a Moabitess. But we learn in Ruth 1:16 that she gave up her people and gods in order to become a Jew and follow Naomi back to Jerusalem. She married Boaz and there is never any indication in the Bible that this was wrong even though she was a foreigner. Actually this story is a clear picture that anyone who turns to the Lord is welcome as a believer no matter their heritage. Ruth was the ancestor of both David and Jesus. Rahab is a similar case.
Application: The principle here gives us a two-fold application. Firstly, we should not tolerate the sinful things of the world. We must get rid of ungodly influences. Secondly, we should not try to walk the line in the middle when it comes to serving God. We cannot love both God and the world. We must make a choice. “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve… But as for me and my house we will serve the Lord.”
3. The people obey – To their credit when they are reminded of this law, the people obey. They didn’t make excuse or claim that this command was given long ago in a different time. Instead they simply obeyed. When you are reminded of some principle that you are not obeying, what will you do?
II. The people regress while Nehemiah is absent (4-14)
- Why do you think Nehemiah returned to Babylon?
- What happened while he was away?
- What do you think is the relationship (if any) of Nehemiah’s absence combined with the people’s sinful behavior?
- What can we learn from this about people’s character?
- What can we learn from this about their relationship with God?
- What can we learn from this about leadership?
- How can we avoid similar types of mistakes?
- Why was Nehemiah so upset that Tobiah had a room in the temple?
- What can learn from his reaction?
- In chapter 10, the people promise to provide for the Levites. Why do you think they didn’t keep this promise? Were they intentionally lying?
- What is your opinion of Nehemiah’s prayer in verse 14?
Nehemiah 4:3 – Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”
Nehemiah 4:7 – But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry.
Numbers 30:2 – When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.
Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 –When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.
Verse by Verse Commentary
1. Nehemiah kept his word to return to Persia – In verse 6 we learn that Nehemiah had left Jerusalem for a period of time. The events of this chapter happen 12 years after the events of chapter 1 (found by comparing the year of Artaxerxes’ reign). We don’t know exactly when Nehemiah returned to Persia or how long he stayed there. It happened some time after the wall was rebuilt and the spiritual revivals mentioned in chapters 9-12. Back in chapter 2 he had told the king how long he would stay there. So he went to Jerusalem with both sides understanding it was for a specific period of time after which he would go back to continue his duties. Here in chapter 13 he was back in Jerusalem after an extended absence (the two-way journey itself would take around 8 months.) Nehemiah had made a deal with the king and he kept it.
2. The people regress – In the past several chapters we have seen some amazing revivals. The people were eager to learn God’s word. Obedience radically changed their lives, both individually and as a nation. But something happened and they regress. Backsliding is shown in almost every area they had made progress in including: separation from foreigners and ungodly influences, respecting the Sabbath day, and providing for the Levites. What can we learn from this?
We can see the importance of a strong, motivated, spiritual leader. It seems that Nehemiah was largely behind these changes. Though there was revival, it was short-lived because the people did not sustain it on their own. It seems that their obedience was caused in part by the external pressure of Nehemiah “forcing” or at least strongly encouraging them to obey God’s law. When he left, this external force keeping them accountable was removed and they were once again free to indulge themselves. In today’s world, we can often see this happening as well. One of the clearest examples is children who grow up in believing families. When they are young, they go to church every week, memorize Scripture, join service projects, etc. Yet when they graduate high school, many disappear. What happened? What happened to their relationship with Christ? It would seem that they didn’t have any. They did those things because of parental influence and not because of their own heart desire to follow after God.
Application: How can we avoid similar mistakes? How can we keep serving God over the long-term? We need to start by evaluating ourselves and our motivations. We need to consider why we go to church, study the Bible, or go to fellowship. Is it because of some external factor? If so, then our motivation is not pure and when that external factor is removed our lack of genuine relationship with God will be exposed. Beyond that, we need to develop a stronger and stronger personal relationship with God. There are advantages to Christian fellowship, which is why God established the church. At the same time, we must have the right motivations for serving God. If you make progress, don’t get prideful. Don’t get complacent. Forget what is behind and push on toward what is ahead.
3. Eliashib gives a special room to Tobiah – Back in Nehemiah 3:1, Eliashib was the high priest. He may or may not have still had that position, but he was clearly a high ranking priest. Eliashib offers a room (which had been used for storing temple supplies) to Tobiah. Here was a man who had actively (even vehemently) opposed God’s work in rebuilding the walls. In the ensuing years, he hadn’t repented or turned to God. Yet because of his relationship with the Jews through marriage (Nehemiah 6:18), he was given a prime spot to live in the temple. We should remember that Nehemiah himself had been tempted to take temporary refuge in the temple and had steadfastly refused to desecrate this holy place by making use of it for his own purposes.
4. Nehemiah was very displeased – Why was he so displeased? Isn’t it good to love your enemies? Doesn’t God wants us to be compassionate toward unbelievers? We are supposed to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. God wants us to be compassionate, but we should also use wisdom and discretion. Would a shepherd invite a wolf to make his home with the flock of sheep? Would you show a thief your safe combination? Instead of separating from ungodly influences they were inviting them right in! Essentially they were giving the devil a foothold to ensnare them from. Eliashib, as the spiritual leader, should have known better. But he didn’t. And there was no one who showed enough discretion or fortitude to confront him on it while Nehemiah was away.
5. Nehemiah acted decisively – He takes action quickly. No one could possibly misunderstand what was happening. He knew what he needed to be done and he did it. Does this remind you of anyone? It is quite similar to Jesus’ reaction when the people of his time defiled the temple. This is good leadership. Not only did he solve that immediate problem, but it also put the “fear of God” into those who would violate his commands in the future. His actions could serve as a rallying point for all the people who perhaps knew that they were drifting away from God, but who were too timid or quiet to do anything about it.
Application: When you see spiritual problems around you what will you do? Will you be like Eliashib who blindly welcomes temptation with open arms? Will you be like the people who silently stand by and watch as temptation comes in? Or will you be like Nehemiah? Will you do what needs to be done no matter how unpopular?
6. He gave the order to cleanse the rooms – Before the rooms could be used again for service to God, they had to be cleansed.
7. Nehemiah discovers other problems – Backsliding in one area will lead to backsliding in other areas. Sin cannot be contained. If sin is allowed, it grows and festers and spreads. It will not follow the restrictions you put on it. Sin is like a fungus or mold. Once it is present it keeps spreading and spreading. If you want to get rid of it, you have to get rid of all of it. If you leave any, it will just take over again.
8. The Levites were not being provided for – In chapter 10, the people had committed to giving tithes and offerings and taking care of the Levites and priests so that those could dedicate themselves to fully serving God. But they had gone back on their word. They had broken their contract. I don’t think they intended to break their word when they give it, but they did break it nonetheless.
Application: If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we do the same things. We make applications. We make commitments. We make promises. For a while we change. We improve. We obey what we know God wants us to do. But then we often fall back into our same habits. What can we do about this?
9. Remember me for this, O my God – We see here an honest and heartfelt prayer. Nehemiah had sacrificed a lot for these people. He had left his stable and comfortable job back in the Persian capital. He had traveled back and forth across vast wildernesses and endured all kinds of opposition while going about the mission God had given him. He had faced enemies outside and enemies inside. He had listened to people mock him. He had stood up against temptation. He had avoided temptations and snares. He had helped to bring about revival for a nation. But he had seen that same nation fall back into the same sins he helped them to escape from. People may or may not have appreciated him. But he had faith that God was watching and would see him through as well as reward him. This was enough. It was this faith that pushed Nehemiah forward, that strengthened him to accomplish near impossible tasks.
Application: God sees everything you do. Don’t worry about what people think of you. Don’t work for their accolades. Don’t desire their appreciation. Your rewards are in heaven. God sees. God will reward. That is more than enough. See Mark 10:29.
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