Aug. 25, 2013
Background Scripture: Nehemiah 13:4-31
Devotional Reading: Mark 2:23-27
Both Nehemiah and Ezra pass in and out during the narratives in their books. Some may find it difficult to determine which is which. It was Ezra, a highborn priest, who visited Jerusalem and witnessed its ruin. He returned to Babylon and influenced emperor, Artaxerxes, to allow the return of those Jewish exiles that chose to do so.
In 458 B.C., he led a four-month caravan of Jewish exiles, 1,496 men and their families, across the desert to Jerusalem. Ezra instituted reforms: the reading and study of the law and a campaign to reverse the trend of marriage of Jewish men and alien women, and thus halt the spread of pagan influences.
Nehemiah, on the other hand, was a wealthy layperson who served Artaxerxes in the important role as cup-bearer. Appealing Jerusalem’s condition to Artaxerxes, he was made governor of Judea.
Under his leadership the restoration of Jerusalem’s walls was completed, inspiring an event of rejoicing and thanksgiving. Whereas Ezra was a man of dignity, Nehemiah was forceful and outspoken. We see this in our scripture for this week, Nehemiah 13:4-31.
In the performance of his official duties as governor of Judea, Nehemiah traveled back to Babylon. But when he returned to Jerusalem, he was irate at what he found: In his absence, Eliashib, the chief priest of the temple, had permitted Tobiah, a relative of Eliashib and an enemy of Nehemiah, to take over a temple chamber where tithes and offerings were stored.
“And I was very angry, and I threw all the household furniture of Tobiah out of the chamber. Then I gave orders and they cleansed the chambers; and I brought back thither the vessels of the house of God, with the cereal offering and the frankincense” (8,9).
He also discovered the Levites and singers were not receiving their designated share of the offerings and therefore, were deserting their vocation. “Why is the house of God forsaken?” Nehemiah demanded. In my mind’s ear I can hear frightened feet hurrying through the halls of the temple …
Nehemiah also discovered, contrary to the Sabbath rules, men treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in heaps of grain (13:15). He put a stop to that: “Why do you lodge before the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.”
He comments: “From that time on, they did not come in the Sabbath” (13:21). In reading this, it occurred to me to ask: If Nehemiah raised a force of guards to secure the gates on the Sabbath, wasn’t that work, too?
His next project was the foreign brides of Jewish men: “In those days I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab, and had their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah … And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair”! (13:23-25).
I realize some of you might want to cheer Nehemiah, while others would like to pull his hair.
As I have indicated previously, Ezra and Nehemiah wanted to protect the new Jewish people of Jerusalem from the pagan influences of the alien people. This is a theme frequently noted in the Old Testament.
But in the Old Testament there are also books – Jonah, Ruth and II Isaiah – that are more inclusive of strangers. Especially Ruth, a woman of Moab who accompanies her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel where she becomes an ancestor of King David and Jesus of Nazareth.
Even Ezra the priest is in sharp contrast to Nehemiah on this subject (Ezra 9:5). Yes, the returned exiles were subject to pagan influences, but by the time of Jesus and the New Testament there is a different attitude in place.
Then and now
When I was growing up it was a different world from the one we inhabit today. There were no Sunday football games to watch on TV, because there was no TV. In the evening we might sit around the radio and listen to Jack Benny, Fibber Magee and Molly or the Great Gildersleeve. Our local movie theater was not open on Sundays.
We might or might not go to church and/or Sunday school, but no one paid much attention to our attendance. Regardless of our religious orientation – ours was Lutheran – Sunday was pretty much a Sabbath and easy to keep.
I still believe in the Sabbath principle – the change of pace, the quiet day, the release from daily toil, the incentive to think more of life and God. But the Sabbath framework is no longer operable. Many have no “Sunday off.”
They may also work on other holidays, including Labor Day; only Christmas seems to be held in relative reverence. We must find a way to experience the Sabbath without going back to the 20th century. We can have the Sabbath, if we really want it.
Everyone today keeps mentioning the U.S. Constitution; some are even reading it. So, remembering those days when the Christian Sabbath was the community norm, why can’t we have it back? The answer: Because that was and would still be a violation of the Constitution of our nation.
There are only three mentions of religion in the Constitution. On is a prohibition of all religious tests for federal officeholders. The second is the First Amendment that begins with: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The 21st Amendment of 1964 extends this ruling to the states.
That’s it; there are no other constitutional provisions regarding religion. Thank God for our religious freedom!
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Those with questions or comments for Rev. Althouse may write to him in care of this publication.