The final chapter of Nehemiah is nothing short of extraordinary. It powerfully records the bold characteristics of the man Nehemiah as his anger is inflamed when he surveys four situations the Jews had fallen into since he had been away from them. In this article, we will focus on only the first problem that Nehemiah comes across, and we will consider applications for our own lives.
As Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem in chapter thirteen, the first issue he sees is one that is quite astounding. A man named Tobiah had actually set up house and was living inside the house of God! Can you believe that? Tobiah was not a child of God by any means, in fact, he was an Ammonite official who was very hostile to God’s people. He was an oppressor, who took advantage of the Jews by use of threats and force. When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem on his first trip, he encouraged the people to get to work on rebuilding the broken wall of the city; but Tobiah attempted to prevent them from rebuilding any defense, knowing that the wall would affect his ability to oppress them (Nehemiah 2:10; 4:3; 6:1-9).
How did this terrible man come to live in God’s house? According to the text, Tobiah had “allied” with Eliashib, the high priest (13:4). The Hebrew word used here for “allied” is the same word used in Ruth 2:20 that speaks of Boaz being related (“near of kin”) to Naomi and Ruth. Thus the word “allied” is referring to the family tie of Tobiah and Eliashib. The Jews seemed to not realize that it was against God’s law to marry into the people of Ammon, or any other country (13:23). Thus, we see the grandson of Eliashib, the high priest, marry the daughter of the wicked Horonite leader, Sanballat (13:28). And it also might be notable that one of the priest’s daughters had earlier married the son of Tobiah (Nehemiah 6:18), and this relation to Tobiah could have also extended to Eliashib the high priest, but this cannot be confirmed. Whatever the case, we know that somehow Eliashib became kin to the wicked Tobiah. This family connection seemed to have granted Tobiah the use of a large chamber in God’s house to live. This foul misconduct of Eliashib to allow Tobiah to set up common residence and thus pollute God’s house was a great misuse of the power Eliashib had as high priest. This large chamber in God’s house which once stored elements for fulfilling God’s law now stores an evil Ammonite and his common household goods.
When Nehemiah came back to Jerusalem and saw this great evil, it grieved him bitterly (13:8). The Hebrew words for “grieved” and “bitterly/sore” carry the idea to be so broken-hearted as to quickly, diligently, and violently act on those feelings. And this is exactly what Nehemiah did. He wasted no time to enter the large chamber and cast (Hebrew: “hurl”) out all of Tobiah’s furniture and possessions. He then commanded the chamber to be cleansed before all the items for God’s service could be brought back to their rightful place.
What can we learn from all this? First, let us never be deceived, evil will always have a way of entering the house of God. Paul warns the elders of the congregation at Ephesus that savage wolves will come from the outside as well as the inside, these will not spare the flock (Acts 20:29-30). Paul’s meaning of savage wolves are those who are untamed toward the doctrine and authority of Jesus Christ. Such unruly men will never stay inside the territory of Christ’s authority. And even worse, their influence can have an effect on any believer who is not exercising the proper caution to keep the commands of Christ.
This great evil recorded in Nehemiah 13:4-9 was the result of not abiding by the authority of God’s law. Thus, we see the high priest allowing God’s holy house to be corrupted by common things. My favorite definition of holy is uncommon. Today, under the law of Christ, when we come together for worship we leave the common affairs and thoughts about this life at home. The home is the common place where we eat our common meals and carry out common dealings from day to day. However, when the church comes together collectively, the common things are left in their common places, for the church comes to worship God “in spirit and in truth.” God is holy, and true worship to Him is holy. We cannot allow that which is common ooze into uncommon worship. We worship in song, but not common songs with man-made instruments, but holy songs sung with the God-made instrument: our hearts (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). We worship with a memorial supper of the Lord Jesus just as He commanded. It is truly an uncommon supper, which means we must wait to partake of our common suppers in a common place, such as our homes (1 Cor. 11:22;34) or restaurants; because the house of God is not a common place for eating and entertainment, but for true, spiritual, holy worship that is in accordance with the authority of Jesus Christ. Authority, meaning: if it cannot be found in the New Testament, it should not be found in the assembly of the saints.
Nehemiah’s rage in throwing out the common possessions of Tobiah is applicable and inspiring. We need this same courage to address and eliminate anything in the church or in our lives as Christians that is contrary to the words and life of Christ. In Matthew 21:12, we observe Jesus in the temple of God, driving out (Greek: thrusting out) all those who bought and sold in the temple (i.e. they brought common affairs into a place of worship). He then “overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” Jesus’ reason for causing such a storm is unmistakable. He, like Nehemiah, would not allow anything into the place of worship that was contrary to holy worship. After Jesus’ ascension, His church was established (Acts 2:47). Let’s hold on to the example He gave us in Matthew 21:12, driving out the common things among uncommon worship. Would He be pleased with His disciples today if we brought common things into worship for our own business, pleasure, entertainment, or fulfillment? Who are we really seeking to please, ourselves or Christ (Galatians 1:10)? We will be known by our fruit (Matthew 12:33).
Article by Tanner Campbell