Dear radio friends,
Do you have zeal for the church of God? Is your life a testimony of sacrifice for the precious cause of God and His church, the cause of truth and righteousness, the cause of the gospel, of His grace?
The answer to that must be given today. Let us look into the Word of God.
We come today to Nehemiah 13:4-14. The events of our text took place after Nehemiah had been absent from Jerusalem and had returned the second time. He had been there, during his first visit in Jerusalem, for about 12 years. Then for a period of, perhaps, 4-5 years he had returned to the land of Persia. While Nehemiah was present in Jerusalem for those first 12 years he had exerted a strong influence upon the religious life of Judah. But apparently in his absence the light of Israel’s testimony had dimmed, probably slowly and imperceptibly. The people of God, you remember, were struggling to make a living. They were busy with their trade and livelihood. They rubbed elbows with the world. And slowly they stopped asking what the Lord had to say on each issue of the Christian life. More and more they consulted their own opinions and what was expedient. The flame of love flickered low. The purity of the church was broached and the people of God pursued earthly treasure and left the house of God to founder.
A healthy, spiritual church-life in one year can slip. Not always immediately. Not always perceptibly. But always there is the temptation to slip.
Now we read that God brought Nehemiah back to Jerusalem for the second time for reform, reform of the house of God. Our title today is Nehemiah’s question: Why is the house of God forsaken?
During Nehemiah’s absence in Persia, Tobiah the Ammonite had wormed his way into the temple of God and had taken up residence. Tobiah, called the servant in chapter 2:19, was one of the three, along with Sanballat and Geshem, who had tried to stop the rebuilding of the walls. He was a quasi-religious leader of a mixed religion of Judaism and the heathen Ammonites, which would later become the religion of the Samaritans and would be centered on Mount Gerizim. He was a false teacher. He was subtle. And he was a disarming man. He was the servant. He was the man at your service, at your pleasure. He was a religious guide to help you find your inner peace.
Of Nehemiah’s opponents, Tobiah was the most crafty and diabolical. He had tried numerous times to set Nehemiah up. His son had married the daughter of a prominent wall-builder who reported to Tobiah all that Nehemiah said. Tobiah was filled with self-aggrandizement and religious compromise. He resented the absolutes of Jehovah. He believed that religion should be self-made. It should be “pick-and-choose.”
During Nehemiah’s absence Tobiah had persuaded a priest named Eliashib (who had the oversight of the chamber of God’s house) to let him have the spacious chamber in the temple that was used to store the tithe or the supplies for the Levites and to give him that chamber for his personal living room – his apartment while he was in Jerusalem. We read in verse 5, the “great chamber, where aforetime they laid the meat offerings,… which was commanded to be given to the Levites.” Instead of using it as a storage chamber for the supplies of the Levites, Eliashib allowed Tobiah to use this chamber for his pent-house, his studio apartment when he came to Jerusalem. Eliashib was not the high priest, but was a priest who was put in charge of various things. And Tobiah, in Nehemiah’s absence, had weaseled his way into Eliashib’s favor. Eliashib had, we read in verse 4, allied himself to Tobiah through marriage. One of Eliashib’s grandsons was son-in-law to Tobiah’s crony, Sanballat. And the result was that the essential stores for maintaining God’s house and the priest were put out on the curb. And Tobiah’s stuff, his furniture, was put in.
Eliashib was entrusted with a sacred responsibility – keeping that room stocked with all that was necessary for the supply of the Levites and priests. But now that very room, the chamber that represented God’s faithful care of His people, that room was emptied. And into it came Tobiah with all of his stuff. This was evil!
Why did Eliashib the priest do this? Was he getting something on the side from Tobiah? Was it prestige? What was it? We are not sure. But, first of all, it is plain that Eliashib cultivated the wrong friendship. He was not careful who his friends were.
And, second, it was very plain that Eliashib was misusing his office. His office was all about the promotion and the maintaining of God’s name and God’s servants. His office was to please God and not men. What witness was left of God’s cause when those in charge give God’s house over to men like Tobiah? Eliashib was in a sacred office. In thankfulness to God, God’s people brought tithes for the support of the Levites. And, instead of storing up those gifts in the chamber of God’s house, Eliashib rents the chamber out to Tobiah.
And, third, Eliashib shows that he was not sensitive to the seriousness of sin. He was not close to God. He had lost his spiritual perspective. Think of it! The chamber for the tithes is rented out to one who wants to destroy the truth of God. Within the sanctuary, within the temple, is housed a man who wants to destroy the truth that the temple is representing. This sanctuary was given out for that. It was like renting the church’s sanctuary on Saturday for a disco or for a meeting of atheists. How could you ever entertain the thought–the local chapter of the atheists meeting in the consistory room of your church? But Eliashib did that. How did he do that? He lost sensitivity. He lost his spiritual common sense.
How does one lose his standards? How does one lose his spiritual common sense? There is only one way. Eliashib did not stand in awe of Jehovah. He did not walk with God. He did not humble himself daily before the absolutes of God’s Word. Sin in his life became known by another name: bad decisions. And the awfulness of sin and the sense of its horror before God were lost on him because his heart was not right with God.
When Nehemiah returned his remedy was dramatic. It was thorough. And it was now. You may read of it in chapter 13:7-9. Nehemiah, when he returned, did not call for a study committee to address the church’s response to the inroads of modernism. He did not say, “Well, we should probably get together and talk about this. Maybe we could find another place for these stores.” Or: “The church sanctuary looks like a dance-floor. What are we going to do?” Or: “The catechism classes–theistic evolution is being taught in these classes in the church. What should we do?” Or: “What are we going to do about women holding office? Well, let’s appoint a committee.” He did not do that.
We read this: “I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber. Then I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers.” He did not come and serve an eviction notice. But he simply came and took Tobiah’s things and threw them out at the street curb. Then he said, “Clean this place up and bring in what God says has to be brought in.” This chamber was built to glorify God. On entering the temple the worshiper must be reminded of Jehovah and of Jehovah’s praise.
Now apply this to your body and to your mind and to your life, to the mind and the heart that are the chambers of God, that are to store up all kinds of His thoughts and goods. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you. What have you placed within the chamber of your heart and of your mind? What have you given to take up residence there? What music, what pictures, what thoughts are in the chambers of your mind? Are you given to figure out how you can have more of this life? Or do you fill the chambers of your mind and heart with Scripture? Do you know the score of the game yesterday? Do you know Psalm 23?
Let us apply this to the church of God. The church of God is to be filled with fruits of repentance, humility, love, and kindness. Does there dwell in your heart unforgiveness, suspicion, evil talking, envy, jealousy, bitterness, and resentment? You need to clean it up. You need to sweep that stuff out and put it out in the gutter where it belongs. You must fill yourself with meekness and love for God and His people.
Nehemiah did what he did because he was sensitive to the holiness of God, because he loved God for who God was. He wanted the church, the temple, to be clean. He wanted the church to be filled with the good and pleasant things of God. He wanted in the church that which God had ordained and God had chosen. And, in awe of God’s holiness and love, he was committed to keep the chambers of the temple uncluttered, and filled with the things of God.
So it must be in the church. There must be the right, biblical doctrine, the truths of the inspired Scriptures. There must be the truths of godliness and love and zeal for the spread of the Word of God, and repentance and humility. And throw out that which is displeasing to God – out of the heart, out of the life, and out of the church.
But there was another problem that Nehemiah found to be most disturbing when he returned. The support of the Levites was neglected. Now, of course, these abuses were connected. It could be that, with no place to store up the supplies for the Levites because Tobiah was in there, the people’s giving slacked off and turned into a dribble. But I suspect that it was more this way. The people, in Nehemiah’s absence, slowly succumbed to materialism and brought in less offering. Tobiah could, perhaps, say to Eliashib the priest, “I see that the chamber in the temple to be a storehouse for the Levites isn’t really being used. You know, we are in an economic downtime and people just are not offering anymore. I’ll tell you what. Why should you have that place standing empty. Let’s be reasonable. Let’s be economical. Let’s be ecumenical. I’ll tell you what. I’ll rent it (or you can give it to me), and I’ll make a good use for it.”
You see, the Word is telling us that when the good that we are supposed to do is not done, then evil will fill the vacuum. When God’s people did not bring in the sacrifices to the temple, the temple did not remain empty. It became filled with the things that were abhorrent to God.
Nehemiah was the one who saw this. He saw that the Levites were going out to the fields to farm and were abandoning their calling. We read, “And I perceived that … the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field.” They were not being supported by the tithes, by the one-tenth of the produce of the people of God. And the result was that the ministry of God’s house was neglected. Behind it was a shift of priority from the spiritual to the earthly, from the heavenly to the material. And this was a great problem. The people of God, under economically hard times, sought to have their treasures here. They believed that life was first to take care of themselves and of their own things and of their own home. So the money went first for a boat, for clothes, for a new car. And the cause of missions, and the cause of Christian education, and the cause of the church–well, that is second, if we have something left over. The reason was that Jerusalem’s spiritual life was impoverished because their heart now was set on the things below instead of the things that were above. Jesus said, “This is a matter of the heart. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Do you treasure His Word? Do you treasure Christ? Do you treasure the gospel? Do you treasure God’s cause? Then the priority of your heart will be seen in how you handle your pocketbook, how you manage your money. Do you treasure the things that are below? Do you believe that they are the things that are the most important? Do you believe that they will give you happiness and pleasure and a sense of self-worth? Then that will be seen too. It will be seen this way, that the needs of the church will go begging.
Nehemiah’s remedy for this, too, was direct and now. We read in verse 11, “Then 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.” Once again, notice that Nehemiah addressed the rulers or elders, the ones who were responsible for seeing to it that the house of God was maintained properly. He set them in their place. That does not mean that he told them a thing or two, put them in their place. That is sin. It is sin to talk to the rulers of God’s people that way. You go to an elder and say, “I’ll set him in his place.” No, it means that he reminded the elders of their place. He said, “Sit in your place of leadership. He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God,” he reminded them. He said to them, “You know that the people are not doing what they should. They are not supporting the cause of the kingdom as they should. Now you must sit in your office as elder and you must address this.”
Then note, secondly, that he asked the right question, the hard one. “Why is the house of God forsaken?” No one wanted, in Nehemiah’s day, to put it in those terms. They would say, “Well, uh, it’s not really that I want to forsake God’s house or don’t believe that I should give to the church and to missions and to Christian schools. Don’t misunderstand. It’s not that I don’t want to support these things. It’s not that I’m opposed to the temple or to the Levites or to the ministry. It’s just that right now, um, well, right now we’re a little short.” Nehemiah cuts to the heart: “Why is God’s house forsaken?”
Nehemiah’s question means that if we do not make God, His church, and His causes our priority, we have forsaken them. You cannot have devotion to God in halves. That helps us. That makes the temptation of the flesh very simple. That makes the devil’s confused issues abundantly plain. Will you forsake the house of God? Will God’s work get the seconds, the left-overs? Will you serve God with second best? That strikes a deep chord–forsake God’s house, serve God with second-best, give God the retreads? God’s house and God’s cause demand my best, my all.
So Nehemiah organized things again. And he appointed men responsible to keep the books and to set up a system to assure that everything would be in good order. He picked out faithful men to keep record of what came in and what went out. Nothing was to be done haphazardly. Nehemiah was not a man who simply decried the wrong. Nehemiah was a man who was a leader. He was innovative; he was imaginative in promoting the right. He encouraged the good. He said, “Now this is how we’re going to do it. This is how we’re going to get everybody involved. This is how we’re going to promote the right. And we’re going to do it out of the right reason.” And God’s blessing came upon them.
Nehemiah sought the blessing of God, verse 14. “Remember me,” he prays, “O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof.” There Nehemiah’s heart is open for us. Not only his heart, but the heart of all those who are the servants of God in Jesus Christ. Listen to what is in that heart.
He cherishes God’s cause. “I have done this for Thy house, for Thee, for Thy glory, because that is dear to my heart. And I desire Thy blessing, for I know that without Thy blessing all of my works are utterly in vain. My chief desire, Lord, in all of these things is that Thou wilt preserve Thy church and preserve the gospel of grace and keep Thy church pure in order that the Word of the life of Christ in the light of Christ may go forth in all of its beauty. That is my desire.”
And such loving sacrifice and holy zeal for God and for His house is rewarded. It is blessed of God. Work done for God’s cause, God’s church, is never work in vain. All other human endeavor will be wiped out. It is in vain ultimately. But not this work. It abides. It passes beyond this life into glory. God will remember it. Life lived for God’s church is life that is worth it.
Beloved in the Lord, let this fruit of Christ’s death be unmistakably clear about you and about me. May it be said of us that we are those who remember in love the church of God and that it may be said of us that our love and our care for the church and for the cause of the gospel of grace shall never cease.
Let us pray.
Father in heaven, we again thank Thee for Thy Word so clear, so wonderful. Write it upon our hearts, apply it to us, give us to walk therein. In Jesus’ name, Amen.