Wait! This Is the Ending?
Good morning, friends. Good morning to all of those of you who are joining us via livestream. My name is Ryan. I’m one of the pastors here, and I’m excited to jump into this book with you this morning.
William Sidney Porter, better known to many as O. Henry, was an American short story writer in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In his story “Gift of the Magi,” O. Henry spins the tale of Jim and Della, a very young and very poor couple on Christmas Eve. Jim and Della owned only two things of any real value. The first was Della’s beautiful hair. The second was Jim’s gold pocket watch. As the story unfolds, we discover that both of them sacrifice their most precious possession to buy their spouse the perfect Christmas gift. Della goes and sells her hair to buy a pewter pocket watch chain for Jim’s gold pocket watch. Jim goes and sells his pocket watch to get Della these genuine tortoise combs for her hair. And while O. Henry’s last paragraph explaining the moral of sacrifice and love and giving is powerful, we get to the end of this story, and we still want it to end differently. It’s Christmas after all. They should have what they had and get the gift. That’s how good stories end, they wrap up. And I think in a general sense, most people, if not all, want a story to end in a good way. We want it to work out better.
Chapter 13 of Nehemiah ends in a similar way to a short story by O. Henry. We are left longing for a different ending. From the beginning of this entire narrative that we’ve looked at, this whole story that begins in Ezra and goes all the way through Nehemiah, the story seems to lend itself that it’s going to be a good ending. Just like the O. Henry short story, we think at the end everybody is going to get a beautiful gift at Christmas. In this narrative of Ezra and Nehemiah, we think it’s going to lead towards renewal.
So, if you haven’t been with us, let me kind of catch you up on what happens in this story so you understand chapter 13’s odd ending. Ezra and Nehemiah is the story of God moving in the hearts of pagan kings to release captured Jews from exile, to fund their trip and construction expenses when they go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and rebuild the walls. When that happens, God’s meeting place with man is restored. Worship happens once more.
In this guy Nehemiah, we see an amazing prayer-filled leader with vision who captures the hearts of the people and engages them in an infrastructure construction project of building the wall that they complete in record time. We see leadership skills in Nehemiah that align with kingdom purposes as Nehemiah confronts injustice and oppression of the poor. We watch Nehemiah and the people face opposition and yet not give up and keep exercising faith and keep working. The story of Nehemiah reaches a crescendo when Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor and a team of teachers and language interpreters and singers and leaders of thanksgiving and readers of the Law lead the people in an extensive reading of God’s Word, response to God’s Word, commitment to God’s Word, and then these joy-filled celebrations in response to all of that, as God makes a calling upon their lives as the people of God.
We witness a solemn moment where the people and their leaders, in response to God’s Word, make new commitments in writing that they’ll do what God tells them to do. That commitment is followed by another great worship service where there are these dueling choirs marching on the city walls where they end up at the temple. These choirs consecrate not only the temple, the worship place, but the entire city, Jerusalem, the center of God’s presence. The center of the worship of Yahweh is rebuilt and ready. Exile seems to be over. At this point, let Messiah come, let the promised Servant Rescuer show up. And then through Israel, let it be a blessing to the entire world, and let all God’s promises come true. Certainly, at this point, Israel has to be thinking, this is it. This is the time. This is the moment where we’re really going to do it this time.
And then we read chapter 13. And what we discover in chapter 13 is worse than any O. Henry story. See, Nehemiah had to go back to Persia for a while. Nehemiah, this leader, he went back to Persia, and then he got permission to come back to Jerusalem again for a second term as governor. And when he returns, everything is broken down … again. This final chapter shows us God’s people, they were so close, everything was going so great, yet they’re so far from complete renewal. Instead of celebrating in chapter 13, we’re left with this feeling of longing. We long for a different ending. We want it to end better.
Nehemiah discovers two things when he gets back to Jerusalem. First, he discovers that opposition continues closer to home. Opposition continues closer to home. Now, as we’ve worked through the book of Nehemiah, you might remember these two names — Tobiah and Sanballat. They’ve been kind of the antagonists through the entire story. They’ve gone against Nehemiah, have done a lot of terrible things against him and the people. But when Nehemiah returns, he
“discovered the evil that Eliashib the high priest had done for Tobiah, preparing for him a chamber in the courts of the house of God.”
Now, for us, really, that statement doesn’t have a whole lot of power. There wasn’t this corporate gasp of response when we read that. But there should have been because the high priest was basically using the temple as an Airbnb, renting out rooms. And even worse, he was renting out rooms to people who, by God’s Law, weren’t allowed to even come into the temple because they didn’t follow God. So, the high priest is kind of ignoring God’s rules of holiness about the temple. So, that’s Tobiah. Later, Nehemiah learns of Sanballat. He discovers this.
“And one of the sons of Jehoiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite.”
So, Sanballat’s daughter married the grandson of the high priest. His daughter married into the priestly family. Again, no collective gasp. But for the original readers there would have been. This is not a small discovery. Sanballat, the enemy of the people, has strategically worked his way into the realm of influence in the priest’s family via marriage. Both Tobiah and Sanballat, during Nehemiah’s absence, have placed themselves in close proximity to leadership structures. They’re in a place where they can influence the people of God. All earlier they’re outside the city setting traps for Nehemiah, lying about Nehemiah, mocking the people, making fun of the walls. But now in chapter 13, they’re inside the walls, inside the priestly office, inside the temple. Opposition is now closer to home.
Secondly, Nehemiah learns that the people have broken their promises. The people have broken their promises. In Nehemiah chapter 10 we learn that the people basically make three large groups of promises. I want to remind you of those promises so that we can more clearly understand Nehemiah’s response to the broken promises. So, here are their promises pretty quickly, just as a reminder.
Promise #1, they will distinctly worship God. God’s people will distinctly worship God. And where we get that is from God’s people separated themselves from the “people of the land.” Israel was distinctly called to follow God. And marriage to people who didn’t follow God was a potential threat because it could change their worship. This separation was a worship issue, not a race issue. I think it’s really important for us to take a moment, as we look at this ancient document, to understand the point. It is a worship issue, not a race issue. How do we know that? Let me give you two reasons. One, because of a lady named Ruth — Ruth the Moabite. There’s a whole book of the Bible about this lady. She converts and follows God. She follows the God of another woman named Naomi, who is a Jew. Ruth ends up becoming … after marrying a Jew named Boaz, she becomes the grandmother of Israel’s greatest king, David. And actually, through her line we end up coming all the way up to Jesus. That marriage was celebrated. Ruth’s origin was Moab (a place that did not follow God), but her God was Yahweh. We also know that this separation isn’t a race issue because of the way God speaks about other nations in his Word. Remember, the whole promise to Israel is, you’re going to bless every nation in the world. You’re not going to bless yourselves. You’re going to bless everybody. So, listen to this in Isaiah 56. I’m going to read eight verses because I want you to hear how God talks about the nations when it comes to worship.
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.’ Let not the foreigner [the non-Jew] who has joined himself to the Lord [who has converted] say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’ [God is saying, don’t say that]; and let not the eunuch say [This is someone who would not be allowed into the temple. They would not be allowed into the temple. Listen to how God describes them now being in the temple.], and let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’ For thus, says the Lord: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. ‘And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord [who follow God] to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain [to Jerusalem, to Zion] and make them joyful in my house of prayer [in the temple]; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar [in the temple]; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for [who?] all peoples.’ The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel [the exiles], ways, ‘I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.’”
Israel’s worship of God was distinct, but worship of God was not exclusive to Israel. And that is really important when we hear these “separated themselves from the people of the land” statements. It’s about worship.
Promise #2, they promised they would honor the Sabbath. The people committed they would not buy and sell on the Sabbath. This day was to be set apart to obey God.
Promise #3, they will provide for the temple. The people committed that through their gifts they would take care of the temple and its staff. They would not overlook the care of the God’s temple.
Three big promises. And when Nehemiah returns, he makes three painful discoveries. He discovers they have broken all three of these promises, and he lays out in chapter 13 what happens. He discovered discovery #1.
“I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them…”
The people did not care for the temple. Actually, so little care was being given to the Levites and the singers that they left the temple (and maybe even Jerusalem) and went home so that they could actually provide for themselves. They had no income to support their families. When those people left the temple, worship, as commanded, ceased.
“In those days I saw in Judah people treading wine presses on the Sabbath…” The people were not keeping the Sabbath, and they promised to. Nehemiah finds them crafting wine on the Sabbath. Even other people groups, specifically from Tyre, were allowed to come in and set up pop-up sales events that the people went to on Sabbath.
And finally, discovery #3.
“In those days also I saw the Jews had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab.”
The people were marrying nonbelievers. And future worship of God was at great risk because Nehemiah learns that children in these marriages were not being taught Hebrew. They didn’t know God’s name. They couldn’t read God’s Law. How could they worship God if they didn’t understand that language? So, once more, we find the people are in covenant crisis. Covenant, this strong deal between God and man that happens at the temple, was being completely ignored. Sure, they’re safe behind their brand new walls, but their worship is at great risk. Nehemiah in chapter 13 gives us a “State of the Union” address, and it’s not good. The totality of all the failure is daunting. All the commitments and all the promises that they made have already been broken. All of that momentum all the way back to the beginning of the book of Ezra is lost. It’s a return to distance worship, worshiping God from afar, even though they’re safe inside Jerusalem’s walls.
Can you imagine just for one moment? If we can make this story real, can you imagine how Nehemiah felt just as a leader, a guy who loved these people? He traveled several thousand miles more than once to just go to Jerusalem and serve. How would he have felt in all of these moments with these three discoveries? They’ve broken all their promises. They’ve let these guys who lied about me and threatened me and wanted to blackmail me, they’ve now let them move into the temple.
So, what does Nehemiah do now? Well, Nehemiah responds with both action and prayer. Action and prayer. Let’s look at what he actually does, his action. He certainly doesn’t sit around. So, when it comes to the opposition of Tobiah and Sanballat, here’s what Nehemiah tells us are his responses. When it comes to Tobiah, Nehemiah goes into the temple and basically throws all of Tobiah’s furniture out of the temple, calls in a temple cleaning crew, fumigates, consecrates the room, brings back in what’s supposed to be stored in that room, and kicks Tobiah out of his former apartment. When it comes to Sanballat’s son-in-law, Nehemiah is equally aggressive. He simply says in the text, “I chased him from me.” Nehemiah basically ran the son-in-law right out of the temple. That’s the opposition.
When it comes to those broken promises, Nehemiah responds pretty radically. So, let’s look at each of these areas to see how he responds to the broken promises. Here’s his response to them not taking care of the temple. The people aren’t providing for the temple, so Nehemiah comes in, confronts the officials in charge of this job of collection, puts them back into their roles, and then he appoints an entire new trustworthy leadership team in the temple to take care of all of the gifts and tries to get taking care of the temple happening again.
His response to the Sabbath. Sabbath was being ignored. Nehemiah swoops in and once again begins with the leaders and confronts them. He reminds the nobles of Judah, that ignoring the Sabbath is one of the very reasons you went into exile in the first place. Nehemiah basically looks at the leaders and says, “What are you guys thinking? What are you doing? This is why we went into exile in the beginning.” In order to remedy this situation of Sabbath, Nehemiah puts a plan into place that basically will force obedience. Nehemiah’s employees become guards at the gates. The gates are closed before Sabbath and are not reopened until after Sabbath, and they are guarded. Nehemiah as governor basically does a forced lock down and Sabbath quarantine. No in, no out. You’re home. Practice Sabbath.
Nehemiah then returns the Levites to their particular role. He brings them back into the city and tells them, “You guys are now the gate guarders. Watch the gates on Sabbath, make sure it happens.” Nehemiah directly confronts those citizens of Tyre, the people who come in and did the pop up sales and tells them move along. Because it seems like those guys from Tyre thought, “If we just hang out here by the walls long enough, Nehemiah is going to forget about us, and we can get back to business.” So, Nehemiah threatens them with physical force, police action. You’re trespassing. Move along on the Sabbath or there’s going to be a problem.
And finally, Nehemiah responds to the people marrying nonbelievers. Now remember, it’s not a race issue, worship issue. He unearths more than just the intermarriage. Children aren’t being taught Hebrew, so they can’t learn about who God is. And at this point, it seems like Nehemiah completely loses it. This is his reaction to this issue. Nehemiah confronts the people who did it. He curses them. He beats some of them. And for some of them, he pulls their hair out. It’s getting awkward. Then Nehemiah makes them take an additional oath or promise that they won’t keep doing this. He uses Solomon as an example of why they shouldn’t do this. Because Solomon, the great king, son of David, wisest man who ever lived, at the end of his life, he didn’t keep following God because he had married with people who had different gods, and his heart went after those gods.
So, that’s how Nehemiah responds. So, let’s stop in the story for a moment and ask ourselves a really important question. What do we do with Nehemiah’s actions? What do we do with that? How do we interpret what we are given? Why is he pulling people’s hair out? After all, if after this service you found me out front dealing with a couple of members in our church who sinned, and my response is beating, cursing, and hair-pulling, you might question if I should do this job. You know, that might not be the best response right now. So, what do we do with Nehemiah? Does he just get a pass because he’s in the Bible? Do we just kind of move on awkwardly as Christians with blinders going, “Okay, let’s just not talk about this and move on to Jesus.” We have to ask ourselves questions.
Let’s begin with charity towards Nehemiah. We can recognize in Nehemiah a desire for holiness. A desire for holiness. We saw this in Nehemiah chapter 5 where there was injustice and oppression of the poor, and his response was beautiful. He opposed it in a public way that led to real change. He laid charges, called assemblies, called witnesses, and he ultimately modeled the life he was calling people to live. He is a passionate man about holiness. And I think that continues here.
We can also see in Nehemiah a link to Jesus, or maybe a picture of Jesus is a better way to put it. There’s this moment in the life of Jesus that’s recorded in the gospels where Jesus walks into the temple and there, are people in there that are more concerned about making money than praying. Remember, we read a verse just a little while ago where God says, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.” Jesus, in response to people marketing in the church, makes a whip, turns over tables, throws change on the floor, and clears out the temple. And he says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” Now, in that moment, Jesus is not some wild, crazy WWE wrestler acting stupid. He is unbelievably passionate about holiness, what God said. So, we can see a link between Nehemiah and Jesus in response.
And we can ask ourselves questions like, when have I ever been so passionate about God’s rules, God’s laws, God’s commandments, God’s way of worship that I’ve actually wanted to physically respond? I hope there’s some of that in us that we then let out appropriately. If we hear about abuse, and we don’t get angry … If we hear about racism, and we don’t get angry, why? Because it’s a holiness issue. God’s house of prayer is for all peoples. So, anything that denies any people group access to God, we’re angry about that. Nehemiah, this man passionate for holiness, he physically responds and cleans up the temple.
But we should also recognize the need to pause. The need to pause. After all, Nehemiah is not Jesus. Nehemiah’s passion for holiness was not as pure as Jesus. So, as Bible studiers and interpreters, and as a family of God who place all of our weight on God’s Word, we have to take a moment here and pause and look at Nehemiah. Have you ever helped someone through a recurring problem in their life? And it can be a very simple thing. Teachers, any of you who are teachers in here, you’ve had to run into this in the classroom, or those of you homeschool. You’re trying to teach your kid to do a thing, to do a math problem, and you feel like I’ve done everything I can. And as you’re there, they get it. Then you step away to go do something else, you come back, and they’re doing the problem wrong again. Okay, we’re going to start again. Going to learn the process again. Step away, come back, they’re doing it wrong again. Parents, we know what this is like — training a child how to clean their room, how to work hard, how to do something. You feel like I’m teaching the same thing over and over and over. In discipleship, when somebody comes to follow Jesus, and they’re learning, what does following Jesus look like? The path of that looks like this.
Imagine Nehemiah coming back, being responsible for all the people of God. What are they doing? We’ve walked through this before. We have a history of Israel of walking through this over and over and over. This was our time, guys. Leaders, nobles, priests, Levites, what are you guys doing? We put this in writing this time. We signed a document to make it real. Then he comes back.
Brothers and sisters, as we review people in the Bible, we must take time to remember that they are not saints in a perfect sense. They are sinners made saints just like us. Nehemiah is no different than us just because he’s in the Bible. So, we get to this moment at the end of his life and Nehemiah, who is now older (some people guess in his 70’s), this man has to be somewhat work weary. We can look at his responses and go, “Nehemiah may have gone beyond the law.” He may have taken a step beyond the law to make sure Sabbath happened. There’s some evidence that the pulling of hair is actually Nehemiah mimicking the Persian culture. That’s not the law of God. So, it is very easy for us to be charitable to Nehemiah and go, yes, it is true. He was a passionate man about holiness. But his passion may have manifested itself in some really unholy choices.
As Tim Mackey writes about this section, describing how everybody likes to say that Nehemiah is about a lesson in leadership. He says this:
“Somehow, I have a feeling that none of the Lessons for Leadership from Nehemiah include this part of the story! That’s because he is not being offered as a model for successful leadership. Rather, his experience is telling the truth about the human condition.”
We look at Nehemiah and we go, “I’m like that. I do that. I get angry and make choices like that.”
Nehemiah then responds with prayer. Nehemiah has this habit of praying “remember” prayers, really short, and they almost always begin with the word “remember.” Remember. He does four of them here at the end. I’m going to summarize three of them in one sentence. Remember me for what I have done, why I did it, according to your love and for my good. That’s basically a summary of his three prayers, of three of his prayers in chapter 13. It’s beautiful, really. Those are a lot like prayers that we find in Psalms. Listen to Psalm 25:6-7.
“Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!”
His fourth prayer is actually about the opposition. And he says, God, remember my enemies for what they have done. Do you feel uncomfortable there a little bit? Oh, that’s a little awkward. The poets in the psalms do that as well. Psalm 109:14 is pretty blunt.
“May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord, and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!”
Ouch, that sounds pretty harsh, judgy, and non “Jesus-y.” But I think in both Nehemiah and that psalm, there is an honesty to it, though. It’s a prayer releasing judgment to really the only one who is allowed to judge perfectly. There’s in these prayers, “God, you remember them. They have hurt me, but you remember them for what you’ve done. I don’t want to hold onto that. You take care of that.” And even in the Psalms, when it’s expressed in very difficult, hard ways, it’s this poet giving voice to what’s going on in here and releasing it for God to handle. Nehemiah, he acted, and Nehemiah prayed.
So, brothers and sisters, we’ve come to the end, the end of Nehemiah — the ending we’re given, not the ending we want. So, what do we do with it? I want to suggest we recognize the reality while looking for a better ending. We recognize the reality while looking for a better ending. Again, Tim Mackey is here to help us see the reality.
“Apparently, the disaster of the exile did not accomplish the transformation of the human heart. Even grave consequences don’t bring about the deep level of healing required to change the human disposition [or think the human way of life]. Israel’s problem before the exile was a hard heart that resulted in rebellion against the terms of their covenant with God [their strong agreement with God]. And Israel’s problem after the exile … well, it’s exactly the same.”
We’re left with this reality that new hearts were needed. And for there to be new hearts, there had to be a new arrangement between God and man, a new deal between God and man, a new covenant (to use the biblical word) between God and man. We’re stuck in a system that can’t solve the problem in Nehemiah, and God knows that. And God actually talks to the exiles about that through a prophet named Jeremiah who wrote during the exile. Jeremiah says this about the agreement between God and man.
[00:31:19] “Behold I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah [Now, if you’re the house of Israel and house of Judah, at this point you might be getting really, really, really excited. A new deal, a new way for us to be right?] … not like the covenant I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord. I will put my laws within them and write it on their hearts. And I will be their God and they will be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord’ for they shall all know me from the least … to the greatest, and [I will be merciful toward their iniquities] I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
God promised a new covenant, a new deal, new laws that are written on hearts instead of scrolls, a new way to be right with him. This might be our better ending. The author of Hebrews in the New Testament goes to great lengths to tell us about this new deal between us and God and how it works. And he keeps coming back to the person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. He keeps critiquing the law. He says this, “For since the law has but a shadow” of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities. It can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually being offered, make perfect those who draw near. The law, the old covenant as it is with all of these sacrifices, never perfects people. It only covers people.
And speaking of a new covenant, when God spoke to Jeremiah about a new covenant, he made the first one obsolete. And that old covenant is ready to vanish away. The author of Hebrews looks at those of us who follow Jesus and says,
“Therefore holy brothers you share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus the apostle and high priest of our confession.”
Jesus is the new high priest in this deal between God and man. Therefore, Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant. Jesus is the go-between between us and God in order for our hearts to be made perfect. Jesus is the guarantee of a better covenant. Jesus is the down payment on a better covenant than the exiles had in Jerusalem. As it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant which he mediates is better. The new covenant is better. Why? Because it’s on better promises. It’s on the promise of Jesus, not the promise of sacrifice of lambs. Jesus entered into the holy place, not by the means of the blood of bulls and goats, but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
In order for there to be a better ending in Nehemiah, there has to be a new covenant, a new deal, a new arrangement between God and man. A new law was needed where renewal wasn’t dependent upon the sacrifice of a perfect lamb, through keeping the rules, through tithing correctly, through keeping Sabbath and marrying rightly to protect your worship.
So, my friends, what if Nehemiah is the arrow in Israel’s history, pointing us forward to Jesus who will really change our hearts? What if Nehemiah is actually an illustration in the whole sermon of the Bible to reveal the weakness of the old covenant (the sacrificial system) and the perfection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth? What if the ending of Nehemiah isn’t an ending at all, but just a lull in the story?
The real and better ending that we have is when Jesus Christ becomes a better temple than was rebuilt in Jerusalem. Jesus becomes a better priest, a better high priest than Ezra ever was or Eliashib ever was. Jesus is a better sacrifice than any of the exiles ever sacrificed with a bull, goat, or sheep. Jesus is a better king than Nehemiah ever had a chance to be. Jesus is a better covenant, a better agreement between God and man than the exiles ever possessed. Jesus is a better law keeper than you, me, or anyone who has ever lived in the history of humanity.
Truly, at the end of Nehemiah, we long for a different ending. We want to end better. And the truth is, we have one — Jesus. Let’s pray.
Father, we place ourselves under this book, as ancient as it is, because we believe you preserved it for us, and through your Spirit you will work it into us and out of us. Fill us with a true sense of longing for Jesus, the true end of the story. Just as the exiles longed for Messiah to come, we know Messiah has come. Jesus died for us and we are waiting for him to return. We live in the same tension as the exiles. We are the new exiles. This is not our home. We seek a better country that’s a heavenly country. So, Father, in this space, would you make us long for Jesus, all of us here. In your name, amen.