An Enduring Legacy: “The Weakest Links” – Nehemiah 13

weakest-link-anne-robinson-8439893One of the BBC TV shows that was made famous in the first decade of the current millennium was that of “The Weakest Link”. The television game show first appeared in the United Kingdom in August 2000 and successfully ran until March of 2012. The show was so wrapped around the personality of its hostess, that when Anne Robinson ended her contract, the show was closed down. Ms. Robinson’s catchphrase “You are the weakest link. Goodbye!” dented pop culture, showing itself in overt references from TV shows like “Family Guy” and “Dr. Who” to ‘hat tips’ in pop culture movies like “Scary Movie 2” and “The League of Gentlemen”. The idea of the show was that contestants were pitted against one another, responding to increasingly tough questions. Though they worked as a “team”, they were eliminated by vote of the others. Anne stepped in each round to usher out the contestant voted to leave. Sometimes she seemed a bit gleeful, and sometimes quite harsh. At the same time, it was entertaining to watch people play a strategy against one another to gain personal advantage.

It is no secret; the weakest link determines the strength of the chain. If only one link is weak, the chain will falter exactly at that point– regardless of how strong all the other links are. What is true on your child’s bicycle is also true in a people project, or a ministry. Tensions will come, and the breaks will happen – leaders need to anticipate that from the beginning and keep an eye on those men, women and children who are struggling – because that is where a “break” will occur. That careful eye is made even more difficult when there are a number of people who are weak, all at the same time. The point is that building a work for God is not the same as maintaining and stabilizing a work of God. The necessary leadership skill sets are not identical. One can build well, but the ministry may not last if not maintained well.

One key to the successful navigation of trouble is the realism with which we set our expectations. When leaders don’t think trouble will come – their arrival brings a level of disillusionment that goes beyond the original problem. A second key is found in endurance… for no one ever accomplished a difficult goal without perseverance. This is a “given” in leadership. In Nehemiah 13, the leader we have been following ran his last lap on the job, and fell from the pages of history. The maintenance problems he faced were not new problems, but they were deeply discouraging ones that kept coming back around, again and again. The final chapter of the book records the struggle of a leader with three critical issues – inconsistent leaders, inconsistent practices and sliding malleable morals. The record is meant to warn us: building for God must be sustained by a careful approach to maintaining people. How? Nehemiah 13 offers…

Key Principle: People must be continually encouraged to stand firm, walk without compromise and see the value of a passionate testimony!

Before we look at the problem, let me share that I appreciate that Nehemiah was not a “Teflon man” – tough stuff stuck. He was passionate, and at times he became irritable and hurt by the people. His intense discouragement showed like the weft of a thread bare cloth in several places:

Note both his perception, and his pronounced reactions to those who brought sin troubles. When troubles were made known to him, they really got to him. I love the record of Nehemiah 13:8 “It was very displeasing to me, so I threw all of Tobiah’s household goods out of the room.” Can you see yourself doing something like that? You get SO upset at the actions of someone who should know better, you give their room a full “clean out”? It is as though you could hear the sound of the making of a whip in the south porch of the Temple, as Jesus was welling up inside with the “zeal of his house”!

The text offered that he tossed out the property of Tobiah hastily (13:8), but also that he threatened to physically harm the Sabbath breaking merchants (13:21) after repeated violations. He smacked the men and pulled out the beard hairs (in disrespect, cp. Isaiah 50) of those who intermarried and then raised children that couldn’t speak Hebrew (13:24-25). He chased out a compromise-laden young man from the room! (13:28).

Because the issues of the text are SIN issues, that is, people acting out of lust or fallen values – they really got under his SKIN. I can attest to the extreme discouragement of facing people’s sin issues – especially those who KNOW BETTER. We all make choices that don’t honor our commitment and calling, but sometimes it just STINGS. I love that Nehemiah related that part of his own walk – where he just about LOST IT on the people who just wouldn’t quit rebellion!

Let’s move in close. Remember that Nehemiah 13 demonstrates three areas that undermine and destroy any good work that God has done. The three problems cited are:

#1) Inconsistent Leadership that keeps the vision without compromise (13:1-14).

#2) Incremental Easing of Commitment to the Passionate testimony in a walk with God (13:15-22).

#3) A Refusal of God’s People to walk distinctly in relationships in the world (13:23-31).

Let’s Look More Closely at Each:

First, Inconsistent leadership (13:1-14):

Nehemiah 13:1 On that day they read aloud from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and there was found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, 2 because they did not meet the sons of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3 So when they heard the law, they excluded all foreigners from Israel. 4 Now prior to this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, being related to Tobiah, 5 had prepared a large room for him, where formerly they put the grain offerings, the frankincense, the utensils and the tithes of grain, wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, the singers and the gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests. 6 But during all this [time] I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had gone to the king. After some time, however, I asked leave from the king, 7 and I came to Jerusalem and learned about the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, by preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God. 8 It was very displeasing to me, so I threw all of Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. 9 Then I gave an order and they cleansed the rooms; and I returned there the utensils of the house of God with the grain offerings and the frankincense. 10 I also discovered that the portions of the Levites had not been given [them], so that the Levites and the singers who performed the service had gone away, each to his own field. 11 So I reprimanded the officials and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” Then I gathered them together and restored them to their posts. 12 All Judah then brought the tithe of the grain, wine and oil into the storehouses. 13 In charge of the storehouses I appointed Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and Pedaiah of the Levites, and in addition to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah; for they were considered reliable, and it was their task to distribute to their kinsmen. 14 Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out my loyal deeds which I have performed for the house of my God and its services.

The text opened with an issue that it did not close until the end of the chapter – like a summation. He started by relating that people were growing in the Word – when they heard it- and began to obey. That is the summary point of the first four verses – but the STORY of those verses appears at the end of the chapter. Suffice it to say that the first verses are a mere statement: “The people grew in the Lord as they heard His Word. One example I can share is what happened when they learned they were not to join families with the Ammonite tribe or the Moabite tribe. I will get back to that later…”

Between verses five and thirteen, Nehemiah engaged the problem of Eliashib and the Levites that literally halted the forward work of the Temple – a problem that occurred in a time of absence and travel of Nehemiah. The writer described the scene he discovered when he returned to Jerusalem from a trip to Babylon. Essentially, the original commitment to the Temple quickly waned in his absence, and the people were not bringing the tithes they promised. As the tithes shrank, the room they were stored in was not seen as valuable in a time when space – particularly well designed space – was easily attained. The priest in charge gave the hall of storage away to a relative so that he could live there – right in the courts of the Temple.

There are several layers to this problem that we are invited to observe. First, note that when the leaders didn’t fervently encourage the people to stay with their commitments before God, those commitments quickly dissipated. People have to be constantly called back to the place of commitment and surrender. It is a function of the work of a leader of God’s people to remind them, to exhort them, to encourage them to keep their commitments and surrender to God at the FRONT of their mind. Peter knew well that it was not a problem to remind people of things over and over (2 Peter 1:13). Paul reminded Timothy without hesitation (2 Timothy 1:6).

Second, we are reminded that leaders, like all people, make compromises – and they need to be careful about how that tendency affects the purity of God’s work. Eliashib, like many leaders, made personal compromises that affected his leadership:

His family was allowed to defect from the vision, but still gain from his personal sponsorship and enabling to sin. Eliashib’s grandson had intermarried into the family of Sanballat the Horonite who set himself as an enemy of Nehemiah (he was upset about Nehemiah’s work in 2:10; accused Nehemiah of rebellion in 2:19; mocked the attempt to build the wall in 4:1; attempted to lure and kill Nehemiah in 6:2; etc.). That connection was the weak link the enemy used to draw him into corrupting the whole work! God’s people, particularly leaders, need to be reminded that our personal connections affect our heart, our fervency, our walk. Choose your friends well. If you are a leader, choose them with even more scrutiny. Bad company corrupts good morals. Corrupted morals destroy great works of God.

Eliashib also forgot obligations he and the people made before God when the Spirit was at work in an earlier time (Nehemiah 10:39 “we will not neglect the house of the Lord”) as demonstrated by the way he gave Temple space for personal use to a friend that had been restricted by God to even be in that place (13:1-9; cp. Dt. 23:3-5). He gave something that belonged to God – not something of his own. Further, he did not maintain the God-ordained system of care for those who were to minister to the people and care for Temple (13:10).

Are there problems we face in our day that look the same? Sure there are. When we make the patterns prescribed from Heaven mere civil arrangements, we forget what they really are – commitments before God. If our country decides that marriage, for instance, is nothing more than a contract – that is fine. Yet, a believer knows the truth – they know it is a sacred symbol given by God and cemented in Heaven. They know “God has joined them together” and that is why they must not lightly “put it asunder” as the wedding ceremony reminds.

When we forget what our forefathers knew and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that life and liberty were not bestowed by government, but rather by God to people – we can be persuaded over time that government has the authority to remove those fundamental rights. Our freedoms as a society are held in place by firm memory of the truth – and the place from which truth comes. That is always the case. Nehemiah 13 demonstrates what happens when truth is allowed to slip from the minds of the leaders, and then the people. Good stops, while evil supplants it. Eliashib forgot that GOD instituted the Temple system, and made its precincts holy.

How can a problem like this be solved? Nehemiah took the necessary steps to model the answer for us:

First, he inspected what was done since his absence. Leadership requires investigation and consideration of events and facts (13:7). Second, when he determined the action to be evil, he acted against evil. He did not “tolerate” or “accommodate” – he never once suggested they move the tithe storage to another place, nor put it “together” with Tobiah’s things. There was no compromise with a breach of God’s holy precinct. He removed the things that were in violation (13:8) – though I admit he did it with some extra “gusto”! Next, he attempted to re-establish the vision by setting the problem aright (13:9). He faced those in the structure of the organization directly with the problem, and replaced them as necessary to reset the standard (13:11-13).

Toleration and compromise, when it comes to things God has commanded, leads only to a waning of God’s desired work. We need to remember that what God commanded to be sacred – IS – by virtue of God’s Word. It isn’t up to us to accommodate those who desire to rebel against truth – but to lovingly hold the line on what is true – because God said it is!

Second, Slipping Testimony (13:15-22):

A second issue also arose, and we can see how the first bled into the second…

Nehemiah 13:15 In those days I saw in Judah some who were treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading [them] on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs and all kinds of loads, and they brought [them] into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. So I admonished [them] on the day they sold food. 16 Also men of Tyre were living there [who] imported fish and all kinds of merchandise, and sold [them] to the sons of Judah on the sabbath, even in Jerusalem. 17 Then I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the sabbath day? 18 “Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.” 19 It came about that just as it grew dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and that they should not open them until after the sabbath. Then I stationed some of my servants at the gates [so that] no load would enter on the sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the traders and merchants of every kind of merchandise spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21 Then I warned them and said to them, “Why do you spend the night in front of the wall? If you do so again, I will use force against you.” From that time on they did not come on the sabbath. 22 And I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come as gatekeepers to sanctify the sabbath day. [For] this also remember me, O my God, and have compassion on me according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness.

The first problem was a relaxing the standards of God in regard to a HOLY PLACE. The second problem also concerned the relaxing of God’s standards – this in regard to the HOLY DAY.

Note the way such laxities occur. Three symptoms are given:

1) Truth was ignored when it lost its purpose among God’s people. The Sabbath was a command to show they were a distinct people that belonged to God (Exodus 31). By ignoring the way God told them to act as a testimony before the world (Nehemiah 13:15). When God’s people forget what the symbols of God actually denote – they lose all their intrinsic value – and are eventually abandoned.

2) Truth was ignored by allowing those of the world to participate in their disobedience (Nehemiah 13:16). The world is only too happy to help us abandon things God told us to do! We can easily begin to rationalize a reason NOT to obey – it was FISH, and they needed to be fresh. That is all predicated on the idea that we need FISH available every day. The point for us is NOT whether we need to keep the Sabbath that was prescribed to the Jewish people in uniqueness – but whether we recognize the ease with which we can lose our distinctiveness when we drop the symbols of our faith. Take, for instance, those believers that think they don’t need association with a local church. Probe them, and you will find that many think they can walk in obedience without the body, and find a new way to advance the faith. They have no clue that they are damaging their testimony and weakening the distinctiveness of the message of the body of Christ. They have little positive impact on the world, and blur the lines of what a believer should be.

3) Truth was ignored by forgetting the penalties they suffer through disobedience (13:17,18). People quickly forget that when believers abandoned the things God commanded in the past – it went badly for everyone. Judgment comes when rebellion is allowed to fester unanswered.

How did Nehemiah address this issue? He modeled a solution in steps:

• First, he pointed out the wrong with no ambiguity or uncertainty (Note the words in Nehemiah 13:15- testified; 13:17- contended; 13:18- questioned leaders).

• Second, he stopped the practice immediately (13:19) and got the others to participate in the change.

• Third, he expected opposition and took it on openly. If the standard is God’s, no less can demonstrate obedience (13:20-21).

• Finally, he got all God’s people to respond: (especially their leaders) to repent (i.e. clean up) and get back to the testimony of former days (13:22).

Third, Failed Persistence in a Distinct (Holy) Walk (13:23-31):

Yet a third problem was made known to him:

Nehemiah 13:23 In those days I also saw that the Jews had married women from Ashdod, Ammon [and] Moab. 24 As for their children, half spoke in the language of Ashdod, and none of them was able to speak the language of Judah, but the language of his own people. 25 So I contended with them and cursed them and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. 26 “Did not Solomon king of Israel sin regarding these things? Yet among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless the foreign women caused even him to sin. 27 “Do we then hear about you that you have committed all this great evil by acting unfaithfully against our God by marrying foreign women?” 28 Even one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite, so I drove him away from me. 29 Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites. 30 Thus I purified them from everything foreign and appointed duties for the priests and the Levites, each in his task, 31 and [I arranged] for the supply of wood at appointed times and for the first fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.

Look at the progression. When people let down their guard on Holy Places (the standards of what they can allow and where) and Holy Times (faithful observance of God’s Word and the central place of worship), they will find themselves attracted to COMPROMISE in the standards of relationships in life. How does this happen?

• First, believers flirt with the world’s standard, and are not held to the call of the Word regarding distinction (13:23; cp. Dt. 7:3-11).

• Soon after, they compromise even the most basic identifications with the people of God, and go far beyond what their parents ever imagined they would (Nehemiah 13:24).

How can this painful situation be rectified? Nehemiah offered four examples:

• First, he took a stand! Altered obedience is disobedience. If the slip is not rejected outright, the problem will only grow (13:25).

• Second, he pointed out the problems caused by their sin, for the history of God’s people permitted such a lesson (13:26).

• Third, he reminded them that the standard was for THEIR GOOD because of the LOVE OF GOD (Nehemiah 13:26). God wasn’t trying to “spoil their fun”, but rather keep them from inherent danger.

• He made clear they couldn’t compromise for “important” or “well placed” people (13:28).

People must be continually encouraged to stand firm, walk without compromise and see the value of a passionate testimony!

Don’t mistake what I am saying. We are not talking about EARNING God’s love by doing right, we are speaking of RESPONDING to God’s love by obedience. A relationship with God begins when we surrender to Him and trust Him – but it is carefully grown and nurtured when we become DOERS of His Word and not HEARERS only.

Remember, God doesn’t simply judge men by what they SAY they believed, but by what they SHOW they believed. Theoretical musings are not equal to faithful steps of obedience. As you leave today, perhaps someone will approach you and say, “Is the sermon done already?” Tell them simply this: “No, just the speaking part. The sermon isn’t DONE until we stand firm, walk without compromise and see the value of a passionate testimony before the world. The sermon has been HEARD, but now it must be DONE.