Ever had a flat tyre? You know, the kind you are aware of, but you just don’t get round to fixing. You’re too busy and you think you’ll make it to your destination. My most embarrassing flat tyre was late one night, in central London, near Lambeth Palace actually. And I had a sleeping Bishop in the passenger seat. That is until I hit the curb and blew the tyre.
He ended up changing the tyre for me. Very embarrassing. Most flat tyres don’t occur as a result of a blowout. They go flat gradually because air leaks out over time, slowly, imperceptibly until one day you are grounded. Apparently, a tyre can lose one or two pounds of air a month in cool weather, and even more in warm weather. Sometimes you don’t even know you’re going flat until the car becomes difficult to steer, and then it is too late. Spiritual decline is very much like that. Spiritual decline or back-sliding is like a slow flat tyre. We have all been there. We go a week without praying or reading our Bible. We miss a couple of home group meetings. We are so tired by the week or a late night on Saturday and we have a lie in on Sunday morning and before you know it, its lunch time.
As we conclude the story of Nehemiah, we come face-to-face with the reality of what I call ‘flat tyre syndrome’. Now you would think that the last chapter of this great book would contain encouraging and compelling stories of how God’s people, back in the Land, the walls of Jerusalem rebuilt, experiencing God’s blessing. As we left them last week in chapter 12, having rededicated themselves to love and serve the Lord, having signed a solemn covenant to hold each other accountable, you would expect to find God’s people taking their spiritual commitment to the next level. Frankly, this script does not have a happy ending. Between chapter 12 and 13 Gods people had a flat tyre. They backslide as a nation. The verb “backslide” means “To relapse into bad habits, sinful behaviour, or undesirable activities.” Lets find out how it happened, what they did about it and what we can do to avoid a similar flat tyre.
At the end of chapter 12, his job done, Nehemiah returned to Persia. You remember in chapter 1 how Nehemiah requested permission to lead a team of builders to reconstruct the walls surrounding Jerusalem. This short ‘Sabbatical’ ended up taking 12 years. Nehemiah found himself appointed governor but he was still on temporary secondment just as we are. This is not our home, we are only visiting Virginia Water. The book of Nehemiah records how he neutralised the opposition, organized the people, rebuilt the wall, set up the infrastructure for the city, and led a great celebration of dedication. When his work was complete he returned to work for the king of Persia. We don’t know how long for but it was probably several years. (See Nehemiah 13:6). Then Nehemiah retires on a government pension. Where is he going to live? Jerusalem of course. He wanted be buried in the city of his fathers.
When he had left, 12:43 says that the “sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.” Chapter 13 reveals Nehemiah found a very different Jerusalem just a few years later. Why is that? Its helpful to see the contrast between the solemn promises the people made before God in chapter 10 and what he discovered in chapter 13. The people made 4 vows. First, they pledged to submit to God’s Word; second, they vowed to live separate from the world; third, they promised to keep the Sabbath, and fourth, they agreed to support God’s work. Sadly, by the time Nehemiah returned, each of these promises had been broken. Lets look at these four promises and consider their application.
1. The Submission Promise
The promises of chapter 10 began with an affirmation of loyalty to God. They promised to obey God’s Word.
“The rest of the people… all these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the LORD our Lord.” (Nehemiah 10:29)
Now that’s pretty clear isn’t it? But in Nehemiah 13:1, we read
“On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God.” (Nehemiah 13:1)
And who was living in the Temple? Tobiah the Ammonite – one of their enemies! As the Scriptures were read they realized how flat their tyre really was. And that begs the question, how could they have allowed it to happen? Obviously because they were not following the Maker’s instructions. As they listened to the words of Moses they remembered what had happened to their ancestors when they were about to enter the Promised Land. The Ammonites’ sin was one of omission: they had not met the Israelites with food and water. The Moabites’ sin was one of commission: they had hired Balaam to call a curse down on the Israelites. (See Deuteronomy 23:3-5 for the story). The bottom line is that the Moabites and Ammonites were notorious for infiltrating Israel and contaminating their faith.
But when the Israelites heard what God’s Word had to say, they obeyed it, right? Check out verse 3:
“When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.” (Nehemiah 10:3)
Is that what God had told them to do in Deuteronomy 23? No. God only specifically excluded the Moabites and Ammonites – although even that injunction was subsequently revised. In the story of Ruth, we see a Moabite not only welcomed among God’s people but into the lineage of David and the Messiah. In the very same chapter of Deuteronomy 23, where the Lord commands the exclusion of some nations, He explicitly commands them to welcome others.
“Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:7-8)
For now, just observe that they went from one extreme to the other – ignoring God’s word to blindly obeying God’s word led them from tolerating their enemies to excluding all foreigners.
We too must be very careful therefore in the way we apply Scripture. Nehemiah 10:3 tells us what the people in Jerusalem did. It doesn’t necessarily mean they did right, or that we should do the same. The lesson is don’t allow your interpretation of one passage to contradict the plain teaching of another. And how do we avoid that? The same way we avoid a flat tyre. What does the car manual say? Read your tyre pressure once a week. What does God’s word say?
“It is written: ‘People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4)
Let’s make this very simple. The lesson we learn here is this. If we are not following the teachings of Jesus we are not following Jesus. That is why our bible study groups are so important. They complement your personal walk with the Lord. They give you an opportunity to study God’s word together. They help us ensure we are interpreting and applying God’s word correctly. So like the Israelites, let’s admit that we fall short. We break our promises. We mess up. We don’t always follow what we know to be true. The good news is that the Christian life is a series of new beginnings. It’s never too late to start taking God’s Word seriously. It’s never too late to start reading God’s word daily or join CBSI or one of our bible study groups. The Submission Promise.
2. The Separation Promise
Because they broke their promise to submit to God’s Word, they did not live separately from the surrounding pagan nations.
In verses 4-9, Nehemiah was horrified to find that Eliashib, who was the high priest in Israel, had prepared a guest room for Tobiah in the temple. Unbelievably, an arch-enemy of God’s people had set up residence in the Temple of God. From this position he could influence everyone. This is one of the first consequences of the breaking of the vow to not intermarry pagans. One of Eliashib’s relatives was married to Sanballat’s daughter (13:28), and Sanballat and Tobiah were golf buddies. Throughout the book of Nehemiah, Tobiah had been an enemy of God and a thorn in Nehemiah’s side. While Nehemiah was away, the high priest not only allowed Tobiah inside the city, he gave him the keys to a large suite of rooms where the tithes and offerings of the people were stored.
Eliashib misused his office and frustrated God’s work. Nehemiah saw Eliashib’s act for what it was an offence against a holy God, a public denial of the priority of spiritual things, and an act of blatant disobedience to Scripture. In verse 7, Nehemiah called it “an evil thing.” The identification of the problem demanded drastic, public, and immediate action.
“I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense.” (Nehemiah 13:8-9)
Nehemiah showed him the door and then threw his golf clubs, computer and stereo into the street. He then gave an order to have the rooms cleansed. Nehemiah wanted every trace of Tobiah’s presence removed from the temple. He had the room disinfected and fumigated so that no one could even smell his cologne after he left. Remember if Satan isn’t fighting churches he is joining them. Syncretism is just as dangerous as legalism. The first separation vow they broke was that they allowed a pagan unbeliever into the temple. The second separation promise they broke was to allow mixed marriages to take place. In Nehemiah 10 we read, the solemn declaration God’s people had made.
“We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons.” (Nehemiah 10:30)
When Nehemiah returned he saw that men of Judah had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. He also heard their children speaking foreign languages, which meant that they would not know how to read the Law of God or participate in temple services. Their sins were damaging their home and family life.
“I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name…” (Nehemiah 13:25)
This may seem rather inappropriate behaviour for a man of God. But seen against the backdrop of Israel’s history, his intense feelings make sense. This very sin was the primary reason they were taken into Babylonian captivity in the first place. Nehemiah knew that pagan women led even their wisest king into sin. And, Nehemiah himself had personally experienced the results of Solomon’s sin. That’s why his grandparents had been carried off to Babylon. That’s why he was a servant to King Artaxerxes. There was no way that Nehemiah wanted God’s judgment to fall on Israel again. If God did not tolerate it in Solomon’s life, he certainly would not do so now. Now please understand their sin was not marrying people of other races but people of other faiths. As we have already seen, the story of Ruth demonstrates that marriage to people of other races was honoured. God isn’t against mixed race marriages but mixed faith marriages.
The application today is given in letters to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 7, and 2 Corinthians 6 Paul addresses the question of singleness and marriage to unbelievers. If you’re not yet married and want to, make sure you marry a believer. And if you’ve become a Christian and your partner hasn’t yet, stay with them, and pray for them, but don’t leave them. The Submission Promise. The Separation Promise.
3. The Support Promise
The third fractured vow was that they neglected to support God’s work. Their final statement in chapter 10 was that they would “…not neglect the house our God.” (Nehemiah 10:39). What did Nehemiah find?
“I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and musicians responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?” (Nehemiah 13:10-11)
The temple storerooms were empty because people had stopped bringing their tithes and offerings. Nehemiah has to do some tough talking again. Then he sets up a system so that they could once again put God first with their finances. Nehemiah stationed the officials “at their posts.” (Nehemiah 10:11). In verse 12 we read that the people started bringing their “tithes of grain, new wine and oil into the storerooms.” They renewed their commitment to put God first in their finances and brought to God what was rightfully His. He then appointed four men in verse 13 to supervise the treasury and distribute the tithes and offerings. Interestingly, they were all different but they had one thing in common: “they were considered trust trustworthy.” (Nehemiah 13:13).
Are you trustworthy with what God has entrusted to you? When we start to develop a spiritual flat tyre, one of the first places it shows up is in our giving. Jesus put it this way: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Today you received details of our 2011 budget. We are asking you to read it carefully, pray diligently and give sacrificially. Please return your pledge form next Sunday indicating what you believe God would have you tithe to and through Christ Church next year. The Submission Promise. The Separation Promise. The Support Promise. Finally,
4. The Sabbath Promise
When they signed the covenant, the Israelites promised not to do business with the Gentiles on the Sabbath Day in 10:31: “…We will not buy from them on the Sabbath.” In 13:15-22, Nehemiah discovered that the people were not only doing business on the Sabbath, they were treating it as any other day of the week. They had broken their fourth promise by secularizing the Sabbath. Verse 16 tells us that there were men of Tyre who actually moved into Jerusalem and set up their own businesses.
The leaders allowed them to operate their shops seven days a week. Nehemiah didn’t sit back and let this promise be ignored either. He acted firmly by three actions First, in verse 15 he rebuked the Jews who were working and selling on the Sabbath and made them stop. Second, he rebuked the nobles for allowing business on the Sabbath day by reminding them that the violation of the Sabbath was one of the reasons for their captivity in the first place. Verse 18:
“Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.” (Nehemiah 13:18)
His third step was very practical: He ordered the city gates shut on the Sabbath and he put some of his own guards on duty in verse 19. He threatened those who wanted to sell their goods on this holy day and also ordered the Levites to set a good example and minister to the people in verse 22. In demanding that the people keep their Sabbath promise, Nehemiah was emphasizing the centrality of worship, the importance of witness, the necessity of rest, and the priority of love. Loving obedience is always better than a full wallet. This command was not intended to be a chore. God never demands anything from us that is not for our own good. When Nehemiah’s people ignored the Sabbath, they were damaging the very fabric of their spiritual, physical and social lives. No wonder they were heading for a flat tyre.
What is the application from these four promises? How do we avoid backsliding? How do we avoid a spiritual flat tyre?
1. The Submission Promise. It’s never too late to submit to God. It’s never too late to start taking God’s Word seriously. Renew your walk with God today and stay close in future.
2. The Separation Promise. Don’t play around with sin. Don’t get cozy with compromise. Don’t become yoked with unbelievers. Remain distinct. Stay holy.
3. The Support Promise. Don’t neglect your tithe. It’s a sign that you trust God to provide for your own needs. Be generous with what he has entrusted to you. Be open handed.
4. The Sabbath Promise. The evil one seeks to get us off track especially on Sundays through busyness, tiredness and selfishness. Keep to the rhythm of life God has created and protect your Sabbath. God wants us to live purposeful lives, focused on those things that matter to Him. Set aside one day a week for God and his people. And you will find refreshment, nourishment, fellowship and guidance for the week ahead.
In the closing verses of his book, Nehemiah prays three times for himself. And that is no bad thing.
“Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services.” (Nehemiah 13:14)
“Remember me for this also, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.” (Nehemiah 13:22)
“Remember me with favour, O my God.” (Nehemiah 13:31)
He reminds God of His faithfulness and prays that what he has done will not be blotted out. Nehemiah isn’t pleading for blessings on the basis of his achievements., He knows that God’s favour only comes by His grace and mercy. He is simply asking God to remember Him and what He had done. He wanted God’s favour and reward, not the accolades of other people. These prayers reveal an attitude toward life. Nehemiah could have built a monument to himself. He could have written this inscription on the wall: “Built by Nehemiah the Great.” He could have looked back at his life and been proud of his accomplishments. Or, he could have been frustrated because the believers had broken their promises. In other words, he could have been impressed with his past accomplishments or discouraged about the present situation. But he chose neither of those things. He simply said, “Lord, a day is coming when all of this will be over. I want the meaning of my life to be anchored in the future.” He knew that there was a time coming when He’d be rewarded by the Lord and embraced by Him. His prayers reveal that He’s living for that day, when the Lord will say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).
With grateful thanks to Brian Bill for a sermon entitled “Standing by our Promises” which I have drawn on in this sermon.