“Keep the Lord’s Day Holy”
Lesson Text: Nehemiah 13:10-12, 15-22
Background Scripture:Nehemiah 13:4-31
Devotional Reading:Mark 2:23-27
Nehemiah 13:10-12, 15-22 (KJV)
10And I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them: for the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field.
11Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them together, and set them in their place.
12Then brought all Judah the tithe of the corn and the new wine and the oil unto the treasuries.
15In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals.
16There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem.
17Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day?
18Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath.
19And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the sabbath: and some of my servants set I at the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day.
20So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice.
21Then I testified against them, and said unto them, Why lodge ye about the wall? if ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the sabbath.
22And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy.
To show how Nehemiah corrected the Jewish Nation's neglect of the temple and their abusing the Sabbath.
To understand that the Sabbath's rules of separation, rest, and praise in ancient biblical times have significance for Christians today.
Commit to living a holy life by eliminating bad spiritual habits.
A Look Back
Most businesses in the 1960's did not open on Sunday so employees and patrons would be free to attend worship services and otherwise have a day of rest. Some adults in churches spoke of the need to honor Sunday as “the Christian Sabbath.” Others argued that the biblical Sabbath had nothing to do with the Christian’s day of worship, Sunday (the Lord’s Day). This difference in interpretation may have been confusing to some people.
Most of these restrictive laws have been repealed or simply ignored. Sunday has become just another strong commercial day in the life of the average American. Today, many of us Christians think nothing of eating at a restaurant after worship on Sunday morning. Many of us find Sunday afternoon to be a convenient time to shop. With few exceptions, most stores are open for business on Sundays.
Is Sunday really “the Christian Sabbath”? Is the Jewish Sabbath still in force for Christians in some way? Such questions are important. But before they can be answered, we must understand the significance of the Sabbath as originally intended and ideally practiced in Old Testament times; as well as its relevance in New Testament times. Such are the major themes in today’s lesson.
Time: 432 B.C.
Nehemiah 12:44–13:31 is a unit devoted to telling how Nehemiah dealt with various problems among postexilic Jews after the dedication of Jerusalem’s rebuilt walls (last week’s lesson). First, Nehemiah 12:44-47 notes that provisions for priests and Levites had been put in place. The resources to do so came from the tithes, redemption of the firstborn, and firstfruits of the people (see Nehemiah 10:35-39; compare 2 Chronicles 31:19). Providing such support was not a new thing to the postexilic Jews; the reestablishment of such provisioning dated back to “the days of Zerubbabel” (Nehemiah 12:47), when the rebuilt temple was dedicated in 515 B.C.
Second, the people had been convicted by the Law of Moses regarding the need to separate themselves from foreigners. Ammonites and Moabites were of particular concern in this regard (Nehemiah 13:1-3); (compare Deuteronomy 23:3-5).
But then Nehemiah took a leave of absence from Jerusalem to report back personally to King Artaxerxes in Babylon. The time indicators in Nehemiah 13:6compute to about 433 B.C. as the year of Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem after 12 years away (compare Nehemiah 2:1; 5:14). On his return, he did not find things as he had left them!
Tobiah, one of Nehemiah’s strongest opponents when the walls were being built, had used his connections with the high priest, Eliashib, to convert a storage area on the temple grounds (“the house of …God”) into his Jerusalem living quarters (Nehemiah 13:4). Long before this, Tobiah had developed his network of supporters in Judah (see 6:17-19). The support of the high priest surely marked the pinnacle of his popularity. Tobiah probably felt he had little to worry about in his temple apartment.
Tobiah defiled the temple by his presence and robbed the servants of God at the same time. Nehemiah lost no time throwing out both the man and his furniture, rededicating the room to the Lord, and using it again for its intended purpose (Nehemiah 13:7-9). Like our Lord, Nehemiah had to cleanse the temple; and it appears that he had to do it alone.
The issue of Sabbath-keeping is also an important issue in today’s text, so a bit of background on this issue is called for. The word Sabbath means “ceasing,” and the first references to this day as a day of rest (ceasing from labor) for the people are in Exodus 16:23-30. The basis for this “cease day” is Genesis 1:1–2:3. In imitation of their Creator, the ancient Israelites were to work six days but cease from their labors on the seventh day (Exodus 20:8-11). This requirement extended to foreigners residing among God’s people and even to animals. This was part of a covenant sign (Exodus 31:13-17; Ezekiel 20:12).
Deuteronomy 5:12-14 repeats this requirement but adds another rationale: Israel’s deliverance from the slavery of Egypt by the mighty hand of God (5:15). The people were no longer to work as they had in slavery; rather, they were to work only six days and cease all labor on the seventh day as a free people. Violating this law carried dire consequences (see Exodus 31:14, 15; Leviticus 26:2, 14-35; Ezekiel 20:13-24). Nehemiah knew all this.
Support Neglected/ Worship Deteriorates (Nehemiah 13:10-12)
1. What did Nehemiah observe regarding support of the temple workers upon returning to Jerusalem(Nehemiah 13:10)?
Nehemiah discovered a sad state of affairs on returning to Jerusalem after an absence of 12 years (see the Lesson Background). Without his strong oversight, the local leaders allowed (or caused) support for “the Levites and the singers” to drop off. Nehemiah 13:5 indicates that the portersand the priests were also unsupported. This lack of support violated previous commitments (see Nehemiah 10:35-39; 12:44-47).
The two phrases: “that did the work” and “were fled every one to his field” in verse 10, revealed the consequences of this failure to provide support. The Levites are responsible for the functioning of the temple (1Chronicles 23:28-32). In anticipation of the construction of the temple by his son Solomon, the elderly King David had established that the duties of eligible Levites were to be divided this way: (1) about 63 percent “were to set forward the work of the house of the Lord,” (2) about 16 percent “were officers and judges,” (3) about 10.5 percent “were porters,” and (4) about 10.5 percent “praised the Lord with the instruments” (23:3-5).
At least some of the tasks of the “officers and judges” of the second category involved duties outside Jerusalem (see 1 Chronicles 26:29). The “porters” of the third category were gatekeepers (26:13); their duties involved ministry “in the house of the Lord” (26:12). Supervision of singers apparently was included in the fourth category (see 15:22, 27).
Without this kind of temple leadership readily available, worship practices deteriorated or disappeared altogether in Nehemiah’s absence. Failure to support the worship leaders meant that those leaders had to scramble about to provide for their livelihood—they were no longer able to attend to their temple duties as expected. This lack of support points to unbelief and selfishness as root causes.
What Do You Think?
What can you do to make sure that you don’t “slack off” in supporting God’s work faithfully?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Evaluating personal needs vs. wants | Giving as worship vs. giving to meet the perceived “needs of the church”
Weighing motives for giving | Other
Leaders Confronted (Nehemiah 13:11-12)
2. How did Nehemiah confront and correct the leaders regarding their forsaking the house of God? What was their response (Nehemiah 13:11-12)?
Nehemiah is not one to avoid needed confrontation (see Nehemiah 13:17, 21, 25), and he does not hesitate to confront those responsible for the deplorable situation: the rulers of Jerusalem. The implication of their failure is clear in Nehemiah’s question “Why is the house of God forsaken?” The ultimate issue is deterioration or abandonment of worship practices as prescribed by God.
“I gathered them together, and set them in their place” refers to the Levites and singers of verse 10. Nehemiah brings them back to Jerusalem from their farms to resume their proper tasks (compare Nehemiah 7:1). This is the initial stage for keeping the Sabbath day properly—having the necessary worship leaders attending to their work.
Nehemiah must be a powerful personality to be able to move the Judeans to bring in the tithe of the corn and the new wine and the oil! (see Nehemiah 13:12). This response implies repentance.
Nehemiah 13:13 lists some names of those placed in charge of the treasuries that Nehemiah reestablishes for the assets (compare 1 Chronicles 26:20). To get these treasuries back to their proper functioning, Nehemiah 13:4-8 reveals that he first has to do some “housecleaning.”
Sabbath Violated (Nehemiah 13:15-18)
3. What practices did Nehemiah find taking place on the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15)?
Nehemiah also observes a general disregard for the requirement to do no work on the Sabbath. Instead of resting, people are going about their daily routines of making wine, harvesting, packaging figs, etc. Some goods are loaded on donkeys for bringing into Jerusalem’s market; this violates the requirement that animals also are to have a day of rest (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14).
Keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest acknowledges God as the Creator, who also rested on the seventh day (Exodus 20:11). When the Judeans act like all other nations by working on the Sabbath, they fail to acknowledge God as Creator and giver of all good things. The people are forgetting the prophetic warning given before the Babylonian exile: “If ye will not… hallow the sabbath day, and not to bear a burden, even entering in at the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 17:27).
4.Whom else did Nehemiah confront and warn regarding profaning the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:16-17)?
Nehemiah went straight to the source of the problem: “the nobles of Judah” (see Jeremiah 27:20; 39:6). These leaders had not been entirely supportive of Nehemiah’s previous leadership in rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls (see Nehemiah 6:17-19). The leaders let the “men of Tyre” (13:16) who were Phoenician merchants famous for their trading skills sell merchandise to the Jewish residents. They establish merchant colonies in every possible area of economic advantage. In the case at hand, the corrupting influence is the temptation to transact business on the Sabbath, a problem that hardly touches the conscience of a foreign merchant.
The leaders probably were profiting from the illicit trading that is being conducted. Nehemiah doesn’t mince words: what they are doing is evil, and they are profaning the Sabbath.
A key theme in the Old Testament is God’s desire that His people recognize and maintain the distinction between the holy and the unholy (Leviticus 10:10; Ezekiel 22:26; 44:23). The nobles of Judah weren’t doing that. Their example would lead the people astray. Nehemiah, an extremely conscientious man, had to admonish men who are insensitive to the things of God. Sometimes people sin grievously without having even a twinge of a conscience (compare 1Timothy 4:2).
What Do You Think?
In what ways is the Lord’s Day profaned today? Or is the issue of profaning a certain day only an issue of the Old Testament era? Explain.
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Romans 14:5; 1 Corinthians 11:17-22; Hebrews 10:25; James 2:1-4 | Other
5. Was Nehemiah's rebuke of past and present leaders too harsh (Nehemiah 13:18)?
Nehemiah’s rebuke of the nobles of Judah includes a history lesson: past leaders of Jerusalem had neglected the Sabbath and had suffered the wrath of God as a result. Prophets had issued warnings concerning the profaning of the Sabbath (see Jeremiah 17:19-27; Ezekiel 20:13; 23:38). The Babylonian exile is “Exhibit A” in testifying to Judah’s punishment in this regard.
Since the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant (Exodus 31:13), then keeping the Sabbath holy (Deuteronomy 5:12) is equivalent to keeping the covenant (see Isaiah 56:1-8). Those who have returned from exile are in danger of experiencing God’s wrath anew for the very same offense of their ancestors: violating the Sabbath day.
Procedures Altered (Nehemiah 13:19)
6. What additional concrete action did Nehemiah take to insure proper Sabbath observance (v. 19)?
After rebuking the nobles of Judah for allowing the Sabbath to be profaned, Nehemiah did not fall into inactivity. Instead, he waited until the next Sabbath, when he ordered the gates of Jerusalem to be closed and barred. He issued the directive as the shadows of late afternoon darkened the recesses of the doorways (Neh. 13:19). The Sabbath officially began at sundown, but the Nehemiah shut the gates early and posted his personal guards to emphasize that business hours were done until the following evening.
What Do You Think?
What “gates” do you need to shut in some ways and open in other ways to serve and worship the Lord acceptably? How will you do that?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Gates of your eyes and ears (Acts 28:26-28) | Gate of your tongue (James 3:1-12)
Gate of your house (2 John 10; 3 John 8) |Gate of your bank account (2 Corinthians 9:6-15) | Other
Resolve Tested (Nehemiah 13:20-21)
7. What was the reaction of the “merchants and sellers” who stationed themselves outside the walls of Jerusalem (vs. 20-21)?
For the first couple of weeks, merchants showed up outside the locked gates of Jerusalem as they had done before (Neh. 13:20). Either they had not heard or did not believe the Jews were strictly observing the Sabbath. Nehemiah finally confronted the merchants with the pointed question as to why they were camping out during the night by the city wall. Nehemiah then sent them away with a threat that he would take decisive action if they showed up again before the start of the Sabbath (v. 21).
Guarding the City Gates (Nehemiah 13:22)
8. Why did Nehemiah have the Levites go through a ritual purification ceremony (v. 22a)?
Nehemiah had earlier stationed some of his own servants to guard the gates on the Sabbath. He probably did this to keep the regular gatekeepers from accepting bribes from merchants. Now Nehemiah now applies a permanent solution to “the merchant problem”: he orders the Levites to cleanse themselves in order to guard the city gates on the Sabbath (compare 1 Chronicles 26:12-19). Jerusalem is “the holy city” (see Nehemiah 11:18; Isaiah 52:1). From this point on, no one will sell or buy on the Sabbath. Nehemiah is determined that the remnant of exiles become God’s renewed people and that the Sabbath be sanctified as a sign of the covenant. Otherwise, history will repeat itself!
Nehemiah asked God to “remember” (Neh. 13:22b) him. In this case, the petition did not just mean to call to mind, for the Nehemiah was not afraid that God would forget about him. Rather, in this context, to “remember” means to intervene. Specifically, Nehemiah asked God to show His servant grace and loving mercy by preserving the work he had done for God’s people.
What Do You Think?
What challenges will you have to overcome to protect one day each week as “a personal
Sabbath” for rest and renewal?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
“He who cannot rest, cannot work.”—Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969)
“True silence is the rest of the mind.”—William Penn (1644–1718)
POINTS TO PONDER
1. When you see your brothers and sisters in error, do you intervene out of love? (Nehemiah 13:15-18; Galatians 6:1, 2; James 5:19, 20).
2. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58); Nehemiah 13:19-22.
Past, Present, Future
Nehemiah’s reforms honored the Sabbath as a sign of the covenant with God. What about today? The basis of Sabbath-keeping is that God rested on the seventh day of creation. Today we celebrate the new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). We “serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (Romans 7:6); those in Christ “are not under the law, but under grace” (6:14).
To be under grace is not a license for lawlessness (Romans 6:1, 2; 2 Peter 3:17; Jude 4), but certain requirements of the Old Testament law no longer apply. These include Sabbath-keeping (see Colossians 2:16). Even so, the principle of resting at least one day a week is good and humanitarian. Also, our Christian liberty requires that we be tolerant of those who honor certain days above others (see Romans 14:5, 6). We also keep in mind that the ultimate Sabbath-rest awaits us at Jesus’ return.
O God, may we honor You daily! As we labor, help us anticipate that great day when we will rest with You eternally. In Jesus’ name, amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
Honor God in days of rest as well as in days of work.