Introduction: The book of Nehemiah ends on an anti-climactic and sad note. In the prior chapter, the Jews celebrated the completed walls and their revival. As part of their revival, they vowed that they would not marry non-believers, buy and sell on the Sabbath, and that they would tithe to support God’s ministry (Neh. 10:30-39). In this chapter, the Jews sadly breached each of these promises. And they committed additional sins. From the Jews’ sins, God reveals lessons on why spiritual revivals frequently fail to last. These include: (1) legalism, (2) unholiness, (3) faithlessness, (4) greed, (5) the absence of the Holy Spirit, (6) worldliness, and (7) pride.
First, the Jews sought to prove their zeal for God by adding rules that God never endorsed. This was the birth of the legalism that was prevalent when Jesus took human form. Revivals also frequently fail when people seek to control the movement with legalistic rules that God has not sanctioned. Second, the priests failed to treat God’s Temple as holy and even rented rooms for profit. Revivals also frequently fail when leaders fail to encourage believers to be holy with their bodies, the temple where the Spirit now resides. Third, the Jews broke their vows to tithe to support God’s ministries because they no longer fully trusted in God to provide. Revivals also frequently fail when people stop trusting in God to provide. Fourth, the Jews also broke their vows not to engage in commerce during the Sabbath. Revivals also frequently fail when people prioritize making money over pursuing the things of God. Fifth, Nehemiah had to use physical threats to get people to obey the Sabbath laws. In the long-run, his coercion failed to inspire obedience. Without the Spirit to guide us, our best efforts to follow the Word will fail. Revivals therefore frequently fail when anything other than the Holy Spirit is guiding the people. Sixth, the Jews also broke their vows to not marry pagans. Their physical beauty simply mattered more to some than God’s Word. Revivals also frequently fail when people love the things of the world more than God’s Word. Finally, when confronted with the Jews’ sins, Nehemiah failed to pray for them as an intercessor. Instead, he listed his accomplishments and prayed for himself. Revivals also frequently fail when people become self-centered and prideful before God.
The Jews add new rules to God’s Word. In an effort to prove their holiness, the Jews ignored the meaning behind God’s Word and added rules without praying for guidance: “1 On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud as the people listened; and there was found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite was ever to enter the assembly of God, 2 because they did not meet the sons of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3 So when they heard the Law, they excluded all foreigners from Israel.” (Neh. 13:1-3). God issued a limited prohibition against the Ammonites and Moabites from entering His holy assembly for the reasons set forth below. Without prayer or understanding the reasons for this exclusion, the Jews added new rules to exclude all foreigners from Israel. But it should be noted that a difference exists between Bible translations regarding verse three. In the New American Standard Bible (“NASB”) and the NIV, the Hebrew is translated as “excluded all foreigners from Israel”. In contrast, the King James and New King James translations merely state that “they separated all the mixed multitude from Israel.” In the context of verse four below, the NASB and NIV interpretations make more sense.
The Ammonite and Moabite’s illegitimacy only barred them from God’s holy assembly. The Jews misunderstood the reason for God’s limited exclusion. Sin cannot be in the presence of God’s holy fire (Heb. 12:29; Rev. 21:27). Thus, His holiness required the exclusion of non-redeemed persons from “illegitimate” origins: “2 No one of illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of his descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” (Dt. 23:2). To a Westerner, the world “illegitimate” might suggest that it included any person born out of marriage. Yet, according to the Talmud, the word “illegitimate” corresponded to a person born of adultery or incest (Maimon., 'Issure Biah.,' c. 15. §§ 1, 2, 7, 9). Many Jews also interpreted this to also include any marriage forbidden in Leviticus 18:1. The Ammonites and Moabites were deemed “illegitimate” descendants because they were the descended of Lot’s incest with his daughters (Gen. 19:30-38). Indeed, in Hebrew the word Moab means “from the father.” Thus, they were barred from God’s assembly. The Jews interpreted the Hebrew words “to the tenth generation” to suggest that this was an indefinite exclusion (cf. Gen. 31:7; Nu. 14:22; Job 19:3; Ps. 3:6). But they failed to understand that this prohibition was limited to people from just two nations seeking to attend a “holy assembly”. And it did not include Jewish converts. There were many famous examples of Jewish converts. For example, Moses married a Cushite from Ethiopia (Nu. 12:1). Ruth was a Moabite who became the great-grandmother of King David (Ruth 1:14; 4:13-22). Rahab was a pagan prostitute who converted by faith to Judaism (Josh. 2:1, 9-13). Uriah the Hittite was another famous convert to Judaism (2 Sam. 11:5-27). Because Ruth was within Jesus’ genealogy (Matt. 1:5), the Jews’ misguided interpretation of God’s Word would have rendered Jesus both “illegitimate” and unfit to be a priest or enter God’s holy assembly. But He is our High Priest (Heb. 4:14). He now sits on the throne in His holy assembly advocating daily for each believer (1 Jo. 2:1; Heb. 7:25; 9:24). Like the Jews, are you judging others for their background? Or, is there any sin in your background that is allegedly holding you back from serving God? In either case, your condemnation is from the devil and not from God (Ro. 8:1).
The Ammonites and Moabites were also cursed because they tried to curse the Jews. The Jews also failed to understand the second reason for this exclusion. God cursed these nations because they tried to curse and oppress the Jews: “3 No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the assembly of the Lord, 4 because they did not meet you with food and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. 5 Nevertheless, the Lord your God was not willing to listen to Balaam, but the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you because the Lord your God loves you. 6 You shall never seek their peace or their prosperity all your days.” (Dt. 23:3-6). When the Jews approached the Promised Land, the Moabites feared them (Nu. 22:3). They worried that the Jews’ vast numbers would consume all their resources (Nu. 22:4). Balak was their king. His name meant “to lay waste, to destroy.” (Nu. 22:2). Like his name suggests, he sought to lay waste to the Jews. He hired the sorcerer Balaam to cast a spell on Israel (Nu. 22:7). But God used Balaam to bless the Jews (Neh. 13:2; Dt. 23:5; Nu. 23:7-24:9). God also fulfilled His promise to Abraham to curse those who cursed Him: “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” (Gen. 12:3(a)). The Ammonites and the Moabites then brought further curses upon themselves when they later attacked the Jews. For example, they joined together with others to wage war against King Jehoshaphat (2 Chr. 20:1). Jeremiah later gave God’s prophesy of judgment against Moab and Ammon (Jer. 48:1; 49:1). Ezekiel also gave God’s prophesy of judgment against these nations (Ezek. 21:28). Zephaniah likewise gave God’s prophesy of judgment against these two nations (Zeph. 2:8). Isaiah also gave God’s prophecy of judgment against these two nations (Is. 15:1). As a fulfillment of these prophecies, neither nation exists today. Yet, as stated above, a person could still repent and become Jewish. Thus, the Jews had no reason to exclude all descendants from these two nations. Nor could they justify excluding “all foreigners from Israel.” (Neh. 13:3).
Don’t add to God’s Word with your own. Moses expressly warned the Jews not to add new rules to God’s Word: “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, so that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I am commanding you.” (Dt. 4:2). “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take anything away from it.” (Dt. 12:32; cf. Rev. 22:18). Solomon also warned against adding to God’s Word: “Every word of God is pure; . . . Do not add to His words or He will rebuke you, and you will be proved a liar.” (Prov. 30:5-6). Adding to God’s Word takes control away from God and places it in the hands of men and women. The rules become a source of control for the leaders to keep people or churches in line. As one of the rebukes that Solomon warned of, Jesus rebuked the religious leaders who added countless unnecessary laws regarding the Sabbath.
Legalism can quench the fires of revival in a person, church, or nation. After the initial euphoria after a revival, leaders frequently feel the need to control the movement. Although maintaining the integrity of God’s Word is important, rules that are designed to centralize control can undermine the Spirit’s efforts to move differently in people. In the long-term, unnecessary rules can quench a person or group’s excitement about God.
Priests allow Tobiah to defile the Temple for their personal profit. Prior to the expulsion of all foreigners, Nehemiah became outraged to find that a priest named Eliashib had given Temple space to an enemy of God named Tobiah for use as his personal living space: “4 Now prior to this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, being related to Tobiah, 5 had prepared a large room for him, where previously they used to put the grain offerings, the frankincense, the utensils and the tithes of grain, wine, and oil prescribed for the Levites, the singers, and the gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests. 6 But during all this time I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had come to the king. After some time, however, I requested a leave of absence from the king, 7 and I came to Jerusalem and learned about the evil that Eliashib had committed for Tobiah, by preparing a room for him in the courtyards of the house of God. 8 It was very displeasing to me, so I threw all of Tobiah’s household articles out of the room. 9 Then I gave an order, and they cleansed the rooms; and I returned the utensils of the house of God there with the grain offering and the frankincense.” (Neh. 13:4-9). Tobiah was an Ammonite who worked with Sanballat to stop Nehemiah (Neh. 2:10, 19, 4:3, 4:7; 6:1). He also worked with various Jewish nobles to turn them against Nehemiah. They trusted Tobiah’s alleged good deeds and the money that they made trading with him (Neh. 6:17-19). Many nobles also trusted Tobiah because prominent Jewish families had intermarried with the Ammonites. For example, the priest Eliashib was “related to Tobiah” (Neh. 13:4) even though it was a prohibited marriage. Although Tobiah did everything possible to stop Nehemiah from building the wall, he decided that he could make more money inside of Jerusalem once the walls were rebuilt and the people began to return to Jerusalem. As a man of wealth, he viewed the Temple as having the nicest accommodations in the city under construction. His in-law Eliashib was willing to accommodate Tobiah by removing the holy things that were stored in the Temple (Neh. 13:5). The fact that the cleansing included “rooms” also establishes that this was not an isolated event (Neh. 13:9). Nehemiah had returned to the Persian capital when this happened after serving 12 years as the governor under King Artaxerxes, from 445 to 433 B.C. (Neh. 13:6). The fact that the priests rented out parts of the Temple for profit suggests that Nehemiah had not left behind Spirit-led leaders to run things in his absence.
Nehemiah threw Tobiah’s property out of the Temple1
Jesus also became angry when the Jews tried to profit from God’s Temple. Nehemiah became angry at the “evil” use of God’s holy Temple for personal profit (Neh. 13:7-8). The Jews previously made a vow that they would place the first fruit offerings in the storage rooms of the Temple (Neh. 10:37). Thus, he had Tobiah’s things thrown out, the defiled rooms purified, and he restored the holy things (Neh. 13:9). Jesus also became angry when money changers tried to profit from the Temple: “And He made a whip of cords, and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, ‘Take these things away from here; stop making My Father’s house a place of business!’ His disciples remembered that it was written: ‘Zeal for Your house will consume me.”’ (Jo. 2:15-17; Matt. 21:12; Ps. 69:9). “And He said to them, ‘It is written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”’ (Matt. 21:13; Is. 56:7; Jer. 7:11). In both cases, the Jews profaned God’s holy things for themselves. They had no regard for that which God called holy.
Keep your life holy to maintain the fire of spiritual revival. When King Hezekiah led a revival, he also ordered the Levites to cleanse the Temple from its uncleanness: “Then he said to them, ‘Listen to me, you Levites. Consecrate yourselves now, and consecrate the house of the LORD, the God of your fathers, and carry the uncleanness out of the holy place.”’ (2 Chr. 29:5). Today, your body is the temple where God’s Holy Spirit dwells: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19; 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16). Thus, believers are commanded to remain holy at all times (1 Pet. 1:16; Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7). Are you keeping yourself holy for the Holy Spirit to guide you?
Unholiness can also quench the fire of revival. When you rebel against God and render the temple of the Holy Spirit unholy, you then “grieve” the Holy Spirit: “But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; therefore He turned Himself to become their enemy, He fought against them.” (Is. 63:10). “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Eph. 4:30). This can also cause the fire of revival to fade away. People will become more enamored with their sins than the Spirit.
The Jews failed to tithe to support God’s house. The Jews also broke their covenant to support God’s house by withholding tithes from the priests and the Levites: “10 I also discovered that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them, so the Levites and the singers who performed the service had gone away, each to his own field. 11 So I reprimanded the officials and said, ‘Why has the house of God been neglected?’ Then I gathered them together and stationed them at their posts. 12 All Judah then brought the tithe of the grain, wine, and oil into the storehouses. 13 To be in charge of the storehouses, I appointed Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and Pedaiah from the Levites, and in addition to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah; for they were considered reliable, and it was their task to distribute to their kinsmen. 14 Remember me for this, my God, and do not wipe out my loyal deeds which I have performed for the house of my God and its services.” (Neh. 13:10-14). The Jews’ failure to tithe had a direct, harmful impact upon the priests and Levites. Some who would have stayed to sing or serve in the Temple were forced to return to the fields to grow crops. The Jews gave with joy when the wall was completed (Neh. 12:44). But they now did not trust God enough to tithe what was needed to support God’s servants. To remedy this problem, Nehemiah appointed faithful overseers to manage God’s resources. But competent managers could not cure the people of their lack of faith in God to provide.
The Jews broke their covenant to tithe to support God’s house. As part of their covenant with God, the Jews swore an oath to pay a Temple tax to support the Temple (Neh. 10:32-33). They also swore an oath to give the first fruits of their agricultural produce to support the Levites and priests (Neh. 10:34-37). On several different occasions, God commanded the Jews to tithe on a regular basis (e.g., Lev. 27:30-33; Nu. 18:26-28; Dt. 12:19; 14:28-29). Based upon Jacob’s example, the Jews were expected to tithe 10 percent of their income (Gen. 28:20-22). The Jews were also required to give their first fruits of their produce to support those in full-time ministry (Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Lev. 23:10; Nu. 18:12-13; Dt. 14:27-29; 26:1-2; Ezek. 44:30). But they failed to do this.
By failing to tithe, the Jews robbed from God. The money that the Jews received came from God (Jam. 1:17). By failing to properly tithe, they robbed Him of His resources: “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings.” (Mal. 3:8). This warning applied to the entire Jewish nation: “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you!” (Mal. 3:9). He wanted the Jews to “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High;” (Ps. 50:14). By their failure to properly tithe, they showed their lack of gratitude and their failure to fully trust God to provide for them.
Tithing was also meant to be an act of worship. The Jews honored God in worship when they tithed: “Honor the Lord from your wealth and from the first of all your produce; so your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will overflow with new wine.” (Prov. 3:9-10). Do you honor God by giving the best of your time, talent, and treasure?
A lack of faith or trust in God will also quench the fire of revival. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are instructive regarding how the devil attacks God’s people. His attacks are relentless. Only through faith in God and vigilance did the Jews stop him. By failing to trust and worship God with their tithes, the Jews placed their trust in themselves. This in turn allowed the devil to pull their hearts away from God. Over time, their revival diminished. A lack of faith or trust in God will also cause any revival today to fade out.
Many Jews sought profit over holiness on the Sabbath. The Jews also broke their covenant with God by turning the holy Sabbath into an opportunity to make money: “15 In those days I saw in Judah people who were treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs, and every kind of load, and they were bringing them into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. So I admonished them on the day they sold food. 16 Also people of Tyre were living there who imported fish and all kinds of merchandise, and sold them to the sons of Judah on the Sabbath, even in Jerusalem. 17 Then I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this evil thing that you are doing, by profaning the Sabbath day? 18 Did your fathers not do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath against Israel by profaning the Sabbath.”’ (Neh. 13:15-18). The prophet Jeremiah also rebuked the Jews’ forefathers for the same sin of using Jerusalem as a profit center instead of using it as a worship center during God’s holy Sabbath: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Take care for yourselves, and do not carry any load on the Sabbath day or bring anything in through the gates of Jerusalem.”’ (Jer. 17:21). Some Jews sadly placed personal greed over honoring God one day a week.
Nehemiah became angry when he found Jews seeking to make money on the Sabbath2
The Jews broke their vows to obey God’s Sabbath laws. The Jews previously made a covenant with Nehemiah to keep the Sabbath holy: “31 As for the peoples of the land who bring wares or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day; and we will forgo the crops of the seventh year and every debt.” (Neh. 10:31). “[T]he Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Ex. 20:11; Gen. 2:3). Because the day was holy, the Jews were prohibited from doing work on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:8-11; 31:13-17; Dt. 5:12-16). Among other reasons, God sent the Jews into 70 years of exile in part for failing to observe the Sabbath years (2 Chr. 26:20-21; Ex. 23:11). This was also one of the reasons why He allowed Jerusalem to be burned: “But if you do not listen to Me, to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying a load and coming in through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will set fire to its gates, and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not go out.” (Jer. 17:27). Thus, the Jews’ flippant breach of their Sabbath vows was most likely offensive to God.
Honor God with one day of your week. The Sabbath was never meant to be a burden. “Jesus said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”’ (Mk. 2:27). Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17). Through Jesus, your legal obligations were “nailed to the cross.” (Col. 2:14). Thus, “[l]et no man judge you . . . in respect [to] . . . the Sabbath days.” (Col. 2:16). These things are the “shadow” of Jesus (Col. 2:17; Gal. 4:10-11). You also have the freedom to observe any day of the week to honor God (Ro. 14:5-6). Although not required, there are still several reasons to observe a voluntary Sabbath. First, observing the Sabbath (along with the other Commandments) is a sign of your love for Jesus (Jo. 14:15, 21; 15:10; Matt. 19:17; 1 Jo. 2:3; 5:3; 2 Jo. 1:6). He is the great “I AM” who gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Jo. 8:58; Ex. 3:14). Second, keeping a “holy” Sabbath gives God the opportunity to refresh you. We were created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). On the Sabbath, God rested (Ex. 31:17). The Sabbath also allows God’s people to “refresh themselves.” (Ex. 23:12). Third, keeping a holy Sabbath allows time to worship and study God’s Word. Fourth, keeping a holy Sabbath can also bring fellowship and accountability (Heb. 10:24-25). Fifth, Jesus healed others during the Sabbath (e.g., Matt. 12:9-21; Mk. 3:1-6; Lk. 6:6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1; Jo. 5:1-18). His point was that a holy Sabbath should include serving others. Jesus never meant to turn the day into a day for hedonism. Finally, keeping a holy Sabbath allows you to receive a blessing from God. For those who spend the Sabbath seeking after God, He promises great delight (Is. 58:13-14). He also promises to “bless” you (Is. 56:2, 5-7). Although you are under no legal obligation to observe a Sabbath, why turn down God’s offer to bless you?
Personal greed can undermine a spiritual revival. If the Jews had devoted at least a day for God, they could have refocused their hearts to keep themselves on their walk. By failing to devote a day to God each week, they became focused on themselves. Their greed then became more important than worshiping and trusting God. Believers today can learn from the Jews’ mistakes: “Christians today ‘sanctify’ the Lord’s day by making it a day of rest, a day of worshiping together, and serving the Lord . . . Real trust in God will lead to doing His will even if it appears to bring financial disadvantage. In today’s consumer society the goddess of ‘economic security’ has so captivated even Christian affection that we are often blind to what God really wants in our lives.” (Mervin Breneman, The New American Commentary, Vol. 10, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (B&H Publishing Group 1993) p. 273). Do you trust God enough to give Him one day a week?
The Jews observed the Sabbath under threat of force. In order to get the Jews to obey the Sabbath laws, Nehemiah had to shut the gates of Jerusalem and physically threaten some: “19 And it came about that just as it became dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered that the doors be shut, and that they were not to open them until after the Sabbath. Then I stationed some of my servants at the gates so that no load would enter on the Sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the traders and merchants of every kind of merchandise spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21 Then I warned them and said to them, ‘Why do you spend the night in front of the wall? If you do so again, I will use force against you.’ From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. 22 And I ordered the Levites that they were to purify themselves and come as gatekeepers to sanctify the Sabbath day. For this also remember me, my God, and have compassion on me according to the greatness of Your mercy.” (Neh. 13:19-22). If the Jews only obeyed under physical threats, is it any wonder why they could not obey these laws over time?
Nehemiah used the threat of force to enforce the Sabbath3
A Spirit-led leader should encourage instead of coercing good behavior. As observed by one commentator, “Nehemiah was a man of volcanic temperament who quickly expressed his indignation by taking action.” (Frank Gaebelein, The Expositors Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, 1, 2 Kings, 1, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Zondervan Publishing House 1988) p. 761). The psalmist also felt rage at those who rejected God’s laws: “Burning indignation has seized me because of the wicked, who abandon Your law.” (Ps. 119:53). But Nehemiah’s threats would soon grow into battering sinners into obedience (Neh. 13:25). Anger, threats, coercion, and violence are the tools of the flesh, not the Spirit: “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so,” (Ro. 8:7). If he were led by the Spirit, Nehemiah would have gently rebuked the sinners and then encouraged them to do what was right: “Brothers and sisters, even if a person is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual are to restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you are not tempted as well.” (Gal. 6:1). “What do you desire? That I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21). “For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish, and may be found by you to be not what you wish; that perhaps there will be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, selfishness, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances;” (2 Cor. 12:20). Do you confront sinners with a loving and gentle heart?
Without the Holy Spirit, any revival becomes the work of mankind and will fail. Nehemiah’s reforms were bound to fail because humans are sinful, and he alone could not empower the Jews to break from their sins. He could not bully, coerce, or threaten people to make them want to obey God’s Word. Only God provides this ability. And He gives that strength to believers through the power of the Holy Spirit: “Nehemiah certainly carried a sense of failure. . . : the law - that is, rules, vows, promises, covenants, and the such, are all ultimately powerless to stop sin. Only the grace of God, alive and flowing in our lives, can give us the power to truly overcome sin. Paul expresses this in Romans 8:3, among other places: For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. Too many Christians look for victory in the making of rules, of vows, of promises - and fail to find it, because all those things tend to make us look to ourselves, instead of looking to Jesus. The Old Testament history of Israel, from beginning to end, illustrates this. When the nation was first born at the Exodus, despite the most spectacular miracles, displays of God’s glory, and revelation of the law, the people sinned, by crediting a gold calf with their deliverance from Egypt! And now here, at the end of the Old Testament history of God’s people in the promised land, Nehemiah is pulling hair out - his own and those of sinners - because they couldn’t keep their promises to God. If we could be saved by our own promises, by our own commitment to Jesus, then His death would have been noble, but unnecessary. We aren’t saved by some vow we make, or some leaf we turn over, but by trusting in who Jesus is, and what He has done to save us.” (David Guzik on Neh. 13).4 When you are trapped in a sin, pray for the strength of the Spirit to break free of it.
Jews broke their covenant to not marry pagans. The Jews also broke their covenant to abstain from marrying pagans from the Canaanite nations: “23 In those days I also saw that the Jews had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. 24 As for their children, half spoke in the language of Ashdod, and none of them knew how to speak the language of Judah, but only the language of his own people. 25 So I quarreled with them and cursed them, and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take any of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. 26 Did Solomon the king of Israel not sin regarding these things? Yet among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; yet the foreign women caused even him to sin. 27 Has it not then been reported about you that you have committed all this great evil by acting unfaithfully against our God, by marrying foreign women?’ 28 Even one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, became a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite, so I chased him away from me. 29 Remember them, my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites.” (Neh. 13:23-29). The Jews had repeatedly vowed to give up pagan spouses. But they were so intermixed with pagans that some could no longer speak Hebrew. The High Priest could not marry a foreigner (Lev. 21:14). But the grandson of the High Priest Joiada married the daughter of the Jews’ enemy Sanballat. Sanballat was a Samaritan and the chief opponent of the wall. Thus, at every level, the Jews had become worldly. Nehemiah moved from threats to actual physical violence to force the Jews to obey: “I quarreled with them and cursed them, and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God,” (Neh. 13:25). Not surprisingly, Nehemiah’s actions again failed to lead to any lasting changes. He only humiliated those trapped in their sins.
The Jews broke two vows against marring pagans. The Jews broke their prior oath to Nehemiah to stay separate in marriage from pagans: “30 and that we will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons.” (Neh. 10:30). They also broke a separate oath that they made to Ezra to avoid marrying pagans: “So now do not give your daughters to their sons nor take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or their prosperity, so that you may be strong and may eat the good things of the land, and leave it as an inheritance to your sons forever.” (Ezra 9:12). They could not keep their vows because they lacked the power of Spirit to obey God.
God’s purity laws for marriage were meant to protect His people. God wanted His people to remain holy and separate from the nations around them (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7). To keep His people holy and from turning their hearts away from Him, God prohibited the Jews from marrying any pagan person (Dt. 7:3-4). He also prohibited the Jews from forming covenants with the pagan nations (Ex. 34:12; Dt. 23:6). He was also clear that the Jews were not to adopt the sexual practices of the pagan nations (Lev. 18:1-3). When the Jews did these things, they “defiled” themselves (Lev. 18:24). God warned that pagan spouses would pull believers off their walk with Him (Ex. 34:16). This is exactly what happened to the Jews during the time period of the judges: “and they took their daughters for themselves as wives, and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods.” (Jdgs. 3:6; Ps. 106:35). This again happened with King Solomon: “For when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away to follow other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the LORD his God . . .” (1 Kgs. 11:4). Nehemiah rebuked the Jews for following after Solomon’s worldly example (Neh. 13:26).
Do not be unequally yoked in your walk. It is common for many Christians to incorrectly assume that Jesus made the lessons of the Old Testament irrelevant. In this case, the warnings are repeated in the New Testament: “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers; for what do righteousness and lawlessness share together, or what does light have in common with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14). If you allow yourself to be unequally yoked, you also risk being slowly pulled off your walk with Jesus to pursue worldly interests. Are you keeping your heart separated from worldly people and worldly influences?
The love of the world over God’s Word can extinguish any revival. When you love worldly things, these things distract your heart from God. This in turn will cause your passions for God to slowly fade out. Thus, the Bible repeatedly warns not to love the things of the world more than the things of God: “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (Jam. 4:4). “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 Jo. 2:15; Jam. 1:27). Have you kept yourself separated from worldly pursuits?
Nehemiah’s prayer for himself and his boasts of his accomplishments. The book of Nehemiah concludes with him listing his accomplishments and a prayer for just himself: “30 So I purified them from everything foreign, and assigned duties to the priests and the Levites, each in his work, 31 and I arranged for the delivery of wood at appointed times and for the first fruits. Remember me, my God, for good.” (Neh. 13:30-31). On three separate occasions, Nehemiah used the refrain “remember me” after rebuking others (Neh. 13:14, 22, 31). In contrast, when the book began, Nehemiah asked God to remember His promises to restore His people: ‘“8 Remember, please, the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, . . . 10 They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand.” (Neh. 1:8-10). Although Nehemiah was an amazing leader for God, he sadly became filled with pride.
Pride will also extinguish the fire of revival when the focus becomes the leader, not God. When Solomon listed the sins that God “hates”, pride was number one on the list (Prov. 8:13; 6:16-17; 16:5). Solomon also warned that pride leads to “strife.” (Prov. 13:10). Nehemiah’s acts of threatening some and striking other sinners reflected a lack of humility. He did not see himself as a sinner in the same need of God’s mercy and grace. His pride helped to destroy the fire of revival that he started: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” (Prov. 16:18; 18:12).
Jeremiah also warned that pride can “deceive” the prideful person from seeing the truth (Jer. 49:16). Because of his pride, Nehemiah could not see how his prayers were limited to himself and how he boasted of great works that only God made possible (Jam. 1:17).
Keep the fire of revival through humility and intercessory prayer. If Nehemiah had approached God in humility, God would have lifted him up (Matt. 32:12; Lk. 14:11). If he had then prayed as an intercessor, God would have also heard his prayers. For example, God answered the intercessory prayers of Abraham (Gen. 18:23), Moses (Ex. 32:11-14; Nu. 14:18-22; 16:21-24), Samuel (1 Sam. 12:23), David (2 Sam. 24:17), Elijah (1 Kgs. 17:21-22), and Jonah (Jo. 1:12). The apostles also continually prayed for others (2 Tim. 1:3; Col. 1:9; Eph. 1:16; 1 Thess. 3:10). You are part of Jesus’ holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6). This means that you have the power of intercessory prayer. Are you praying as an intercessor to start a spiritual revival and to then keep it burning?