Dear radio friends,
I read the Word of God at Nehemiah 13:15-17: “In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and…I contended with the[m]…and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath day?” Why is the Sabbath Day profaned? That is the question from God to you and me today to His church.
Nehemiah asked this question when he returned to Jerusalem. He had been in Jerusalem for 12 years to build the walls. Then he had gone back to the king of Persia for three-four years and again returned to Jerusalem. During his brief absence, the spiritual life of God’s people had gone downhill drastically. They were no longer a shining light of God’s love and covenant.
We saw in the last message that one of the great abuses was that the house of God was forsaken. The tithe (or offering) was not brought into the chambers of God’s house. The Levites, the priests, and the singers were not being supported. The people had put their businesses first, had put their money and property above God.
Now we come to an even more serious and widespread evil that Nehemiah sees in Judah. The Sabbath Day was profaned. It had become like every other day. There was no attempt to keep the day holy. The Sabbath, a sign that God’s people are devoted exclusively to God, was lost.
This is very applicable to us, God’s church today. The enemy of our spiritual life is a threat to our keeping of the Sabbath. The enemy of the Sabbath is materialism–making an end of earthly things, thinking that life consists in what you have. The pursuit of the earthly, then, so readily goes beyond the bounds that God has established. And the result is that not only are we ill prepared for the Sabbath Day, having spent ourselves six days only on the things of this life, but the things of this life and our own business and pursuits readily crowd out the Sabbath, crowd out the heavenly. The Sabbath is profaned.
This is the question that we have to place before ourselves today: Why is the Sabbath Day profaned?
Once again, we see that Nehemiah’s question is cutting through the layers of excuses and going to the heart of the matter. Nehemiah has the ability to do that. He is very direct. He asks in verse 17 of the 13th chapter, “What evil thing is that that ye do, and profane the Sabbath day?” We do not like it to be put that way. The people of Judah did not want to put it in those terms. They might have responded: “Profane? W-well, we are in God’s house aren’t we, at least once. And, well, yes, those loaded donkeys and bushels of corn and the farmer’s market that we have set up today, well, special circumstances warrant our need to do those things. We’re just trying to get a running start for tomorrow. We’re trying to fill the idle times of the Sabbath by getting things in shape for the business of the week. But, but, profane? We’re certainly not profaning the Sabbath!”
Nehemiah says, “Why do ye profane the Sabbath?” To profane is to corrupt by sin a holy thing, a special, holy thing of God. The Sabbath is a holy thing. We read in the commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy,” that is, it is intended for a special use. It is set apart as a day for the service of God. To use Sunday for purposes that God has not given, to use Sunday for the service of mammon, for our own earthly things and pleasures, to treat Sunday as a quasi business day, is to profane the Sabbath Day, the holy day of God.
That is not my interpretation. That is God’s, who gave the Sabbath!
In verses 15 and 16 of Nehemiah 13 we see that there were three ways in which Judah was profaning the Sabbath.
First of all, some were treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in sheaves. That alerts us to the fact that it was the time of harvest. Every farmer and orchard grower knows that when the crop is ripe you have to harvest it. This was a sore temptation. The crops were in the field and the Sabbath Day has arrived. The berries are ripe. But the law was specific. Exodus 34:21, “Six days shalt thou work; but on the seventh day thou shalt rest. In earing time and in harvest thou shalt rest.” God had promised that He would supply their needs, that He would give them strength for the harvest. He said that your busy season does not suspend the holy day.
The second evil was this, that they were lading asses, and bringing wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens into Jerusalem on the Sabbath Day. The donkey was their pickup truck. It was used to carry their wares to be sold in the markets of Jerusalem. They were loading everything up to be sold, bringing it into Jerusalem. Again, the law was specific. Deuteronomy 5:14: “In the seventh day do no manner of work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy cattle, nor thy ox, nor thy ass.” The man who owned a cartage business had his donkeys on the road for six days. He must rest on the Sabbath Day.
The third thing was that the peddlers and the hawkers were selling. They were buying and selling on the Sabbath Day. There was dried fish, perhaps, for sale – a food that the Israelites certainly could eat. There were household wares – pots and blankets and spoons. They had opened up farmers’ markets throughout the land on the Sabbath Day. And they were treating the Sabbath Day as a normal day of buying and selling.
Nehemiah comes to them and says, “What evil thing is this that ye do and profane the Sabbath?” It was an evil thing. All of that was evil in God’s sight. It was evil, first of all, because the people were ignoring the history of God’s people. This was Nehemiah’s word to them in verse 18: “Did not your fathers thus, and did not your God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the Sabbath.” Nehemiah is referring there to Jeremiah 17. One of the major reasons for Jerusalem’s destruction and their fathers being carried away to captivity was the very profaning of the Sabbath in the manner that they were doing it. They had been through this already. We see Nehemiah pointing to the gates. And he reminds them, “Was it not just a few scant years ago that we saw those gates charred and burned and these walls in rubble? Why did that happen? Because your fathers had done the very things that you are now doing to the Sabbath. This is an evil thing.”
When we do not pay attention to history, we forget what has happened in the past. The history of God’s church is filled with hundreds of examples of what happens when the Sabbath Day is lost.
Positively, it was evil because the Sabbath had positive, crucial functions, the same functions that it has today. It was, first of all, the testimony to the world that the people of Judah (you and I today) are the people of God, devoted to Him – a people who live for Him and out of God. Exodus 31:13: “It is a sign (that is, the Sabbath) between you and me throughout your generations that ye may know that I am the Lord, that doth sanctify you.” What is the sign that God has a people and that you are a part of that people, that God has a people who long for communion with Him? What is the sign of that? What is the sign to the world that we find in God the fullness of life? What is the sign that we are pressing, as Christians, to eternal glory to be with Him and His Son Jesus in heaven? What is the sign that we love God and we esteem Him as our chief treasure? What is the sign of that to the world? It is the Sabbath Day and the way we keep the Sabbath. By making the Sabbath like any other day, the sign of the covenant, the sign of commitment unto God, was not shown to the world. Instead, the god of materialism had taken over the people of God. The people of God were saying to the world, “We are, basically, just like you.”
Ask yourself this question: Does my Sabbath-keeping reflect to the world around me my seeking of my life with God, my loving devotion to Him?
The second positive reason that it was so evil was that the Sabbath is the source of spiritual life. The Sabbath is that source given of God to keep us on the pathway through the maize of the world, to remind us that we are pilgrims and strangers. The Sabbath means rest, rest with God. It is the pilgrim’s ordinance. It was given by God to refresh us, to keep us upon the path of life eternal. Without the Sabbath, if you do not keep the Sabbath holy to the Lord, you will be sucked into the stream of the world.
What then is life? Is it to buy and sell, and to enjoy pleasures and possessions and things, and for earthly cares and worries? Is it to crowd into the Sabbath Day as well? God has made the Sabbath in order that you, who must go for six days in this world, might stop and be refreshed and draw near to God and drink waters of life eternal. If you walk with God for six days, you will feel the need for the Sabbath. You will say with the psalmist: “When shall I come and appear before God?”
Nehemiah knew that the loss of the Sabbath was due to the inroads of materialism and to the giving of the Sabbath over to the pursuits of the week. And he knew that this would destroy God’s people spiritually. Do you know that?
Why is the Sabbath Day profaned in Christianity today? Do we profane the day by allowing materialism, pleasures, and possessions to flow into this day? Does the pursuit of the earthly choke the Word of God so that we have no time to come apart to rest awhile? We cannot stop from the things of this world?
Let us be reminded today of the sacred purpose of the Sabbath Day given by the risen Savior Himself. It is to reflect longingly on the eternal pleasure of God’s presence that awaits us. It is a day of anticipation. It is a day that puts all of our trials in spiritual perspective. It is a day in which we see that the difficulties of the week and the burdens of this week were all used of God for His purpose. All things are made plain in God’s house. It is a day that jars us awake. It brings us out of the stupor of the world’s pursuits. It fixes our eyes upon heaven and upon the light of heaven. It is a day that we may set aside our own activities and obligations and be with our families and pray and read the Scriptures and be devoted in good works unto God. It is a day to take as much pleasure in God and in His people as we possibly can.
Do not traffic in the earthly but be busy in the spiritual. Reap a harvest of spiritual things on the Sabbath.
Nehemiah took resolute action to correct this abuse of the Lord’s Day. He did not bemoan. He did not say, “Boy, things aren’t like they used to be. Too bad!” He took action.
First, he had the gates shut on the evening before the Sabbath, verse 19. “And 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.” He announced that the work week had ended. Tomorrow will not be like any other day. The city is not open for business on the Sabbath.
Second. He threatened to jail those who loitered around the gates with their goods and produce waiting till the Sabbath was ended. Verse 20 tells us that the merchants did not get the point. And, for a few weeks, they came to locked gates. So they simply waited for the Sabbath to be over. Outside the gates they would sit with all their wares. We read in verse 21, “Then 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.”
You see how practical the Bible is? Nehemiah knew that it was not enough simply to have the gates closed and to command that buying and selling cease. He knew that the people’s minds would still be on it. We think of a little boy who is told, “You may not ride your bike on Sunday.” He goes to the garage and looks all Sunday afternoon at his bike. Nehemiah says, “Now, listen. You have to put away those things that distract you. If you are tempted to resume your daily work, you have to close up shop, you have to put those things away, you have to put away the weekly worries and the weekly concerns. It is not enough that you simply do not do them.” But God is saying, “Don’t, with your mind and your heart, be thinking about all of those things. Put them away. If there are things that tempt you, put them away.”
Then he charged the Levites to sanctify the day, verse 22. “And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day.” Again we see that Nehemiah understood that if you leave a vacuum, evil will fill it. If the Sabbath is not kept with positive, spiritual things, then the world will fill the Sabbath. If you do not do positive, spiritual things on the Lord’s day— going to God’s house twice, organizing the day for your family around spiritual activities, visiting the sick and the afflicted, teaching and reading and praying with your children—if you do not do those things, you will soon be found out on the golf course. If you leave a vacuum, evil will fill it.
The fourth commandment envisions that on the Sabbath Day families will be together—talking, and reading, and teaching Scripture, and doing good, and visiting the needy, and memorizing the Bible, and resting on the Lord’s Day, and attending the Sabbath twice with the whole family. Sanctify the Lord’s Day!
The Word of God calls us to resolute action, lest our Sabbath Day be profaned, lest we find ourselves weak and listless Christians throughout the week, lest we find that we have a lack of purpose because the Sabbath has been lost.
Let us prepare for the Sabbath ahead of time because it is a special day. Let us use wise preparation. If you have young children, this is especially important. Perhaps you can select their clothes for them or find their shoes and their Bibles so that on Sunday morning you do not need to be in a rush or yelling, “Where’s this, where’s that?” Prepare. Finish up your work on Saturday afternoon. Open up the refrigerator and find out if you have some food for Sunday. Do not stay up past your normal bedtime on Saturday night. If you go to sleep at ten so that you can be alert for work, go to sleep at ten so that you can be alert for the worship of God and not be groggy.
Let us begin each Lord’s Day by reading the Scriptures personally and praying together as families before church. It may mean that you have to get up fifteen minutes earlier. It may mean that you have to schedule the showers and the hair-drying and all the rest in your home so that you can be at the table, at an agreed upon time, with the whole family on Sunday morning, before you go to church, so that you can be prepared for the Lord’s Day. Let us sit together as families in the church of God. Let us participate in that worship with our hearts, with our tongues, with our eyes. When Scripture is read on Sunday morning, let us open the Bible and read it. When the songs are announced, let us sing with all our hearts, paying attention to the words. Open your mouth in praise.
Let us return home from the service and talk about what took place in the service. Let us talk about the content of the sermon. Let us talk about what it means to you and how you will be trying to practice or remember what God has said to you in His Word throughout the week. Ask your children some good questions, geared to their understanding. Explain the things that they did not get in the sermon.
And let us spend the day with our family and with God’s people—especially the lonely and sick and aged. The Sabbath should not be: Everybody off to his own room. It is not a day to be off by yourself. But let us be together. The fourth commandment pictures (as I said) the family together on the Lord’s Day. Christian families need this day after a busy week. There have been many worries throughout the week. We have been bruised and beaten spiritually. We have trials and hurts. We need time to be alone with Jesus as a family. Invest in the Lord’s Day. As a young family, as young people, invest in this day. Put stock into it. Throw yourself into the wholesome spiritual activity of the day.
Nehemiah concludes with this prayer in verse 22: “Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy.” Remember me, O Lord, and spare me. That is striking, is it not? Let us not miss that today. Nehemiah has just performed one of the most courageous acts of faith. Here is a man who is doing what is right. He faithfully performed his calling. He called attention to an evil and he saw to it that the evil was addressed. He said, “This is where I stand. We’re going to put our stake down here. We are going to keep the Sabbath Day holy to the Lord.”
Now, if ever, we would say, “There is something that God must be pleased with. God will take note of that!” We would say, “Nehemiah, you have done right and good.” Yet Nehemiah asks God to spare him. Nehemiah sees that in his best works he has not earned. But he believes that God must forgive him in his best works. Do you understand? The best saint in his best works needs the sparing mercy of God because his sins are involved in his best work. The closer we come to the doing of God’s will, the more we realize just how sinful we are, just how much sin cleaves to our own works. Nehemiah did not go home to congratulate himself and to say, “Well, now! I did something.” Nehemiah went home to confess his sins and to plead for God’s mercy.
Let us conclude our time together in God’s Word today the same way. Let us conclude this way: by praying.
Lord, we love Thy day. And we do understand its importance. We see what the materialism of our own nature and of this world will do to us. We see how readily we get sucked up only in the earthly. And we see how crucial it is to come apart and rest on the Sabbath Day with our Savior. But we cannot do this, we cannot attain to this, in our strength. Lord, give us to observe, love, and honor the Sabbath Day. And may our keeping of the Sabbath Day, to the measure that we are able to do so, increase our faith. Let it not become something for us to boast of. Let us not think of it as a feather in our cap. But, O Lord, as we go about obedience to Thee, may we remember our sins and know the need of Thy sparing mercy for even our best earthly Sabbath. After that we must go to our knees and ask Thee to forgive us because now we feel our sins and imperfections. Until, O Lord, the gates of heaven shall be opened and we shall enter into the eternal rest where there shall be no more sin and we shall rejoice. So give us to keep the Sabbath that is the emblem of eternal rest. Amen.