15 In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. 16 People from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. 17 I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? 18 Didn’t your ancestors do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity on us and on this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.”
19 When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21 But I warned them and said, “Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will arrest you.” From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. 22 Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy.
Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.
(Nehemiah 13:15-22 NIV)
In our last passage, Nehemiah had departed Jerusalem, traveled back to Babylon to resume his duties with the king, then returned again to Jerusalem. Upon his return, Nehemiah found three major issues, all related to assimilating into the culture of the surrounding non-Jewish people:
- Use and operation of the Temple was in violation of God’s Word
- Violations of keeping the Sabbath according to God’s Word
- Intermarrying with non-Jewish people, again in direct violation of God’s Word
As we discovered last time, Nehemiah dealt with the use and operation of the Temple first. In today’s passage, Nehemiah confronts the issue of not keeping the Sabbath.
Nehemiah recognized the importance of keeping the Sabbath – not from a legalistic “obey the rules” point of view, but from a heart and relationship perspective. Remember that God created the Sabbath for humanity to stop their work and enjoy their relationship with Him, and He with them. The Sabbath was also a day where people demonstrated God’s ability to provide for their needs – they could enjoy one day off without worrying that they would starve or evil would befall them if they did not work on that day. Also, setting aside the Sabbath was a distinguishing characteristic of God’s people – something that set them apart from all the other nations and showed God’s goodness and provision.
Nehemiah addressed the agricultural producers first. They were treading grapes to make wine, loading and transporting produce, and bringing their produce to market on the Sabbath (v. 15). As Jewish people, they knew better but still were treating the Sabbath like any other day.
Next, Nehemiah addressed the non-Jewish foreigners who were importing and selling goods on the Sabbath (v. 16). Nehemiah rebuked the city leaders for allowing the marketplace to be open on the Sabbath (v. 17) and reminded them that this desecrating of the Sabbath was one of the things that led to Israel’s and Jerusalem’s downfall and exile (v. 18). Had they already forgotten God’s goodness and His discipline for abandoning their relationship with Him?
Nehemiah was not simply scolding those he addressed. In order to reinforce his point, Nehemiah ordered the city gates to be shut throughout the Sabbath to prevent any trade or merchandise to flow in and out of the city (v. 19). A few times the merchants tried to keep the letter of Nehemiah’s command but violate the intent by setting up shop right outside the city gates. The merchants were hoping to entice the people of Jerusalem to come outside the city on the Sabbath, buy what they wanted, then go back in the city. Nehemiah put a stop to that and told the merchants that if they showed up again on the Sabbath, he would arrest them (vv. 20-21). The merchants knew that Nehemiah was not joking, and they did not show up again on the Sabbath.
Finally, Nehemiah commanded the Levites to do their job as gatekeepers of Jerusalem (v. 22a).
Once again, Nehemiah ended his notes with a prayer that the Lord would remember the good he was doing and not the disobedience of the Jewish people.
While we as followers of Jesus don’t celebrate the Sabbath per se as the Old Testament people of God did, do we take time each week to ponder and meditate on God’s goodness and faithfulness?
Do we trust that the Lord will provide if we take a day off, or are we too fearful, paranoid, and dependent on our own resources to trust the Lord for a day of rest?
Let’s balance this thought by noting that Jesus said that acts of mercy and kindness on the Sabbath were not in violation of God’s Law. If a child or an ox falls into a well on the Sabbath, it’s fine to pull them out (Luke 14:5). God’s mercy and grace are in effect 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
May we find joy and refreshment each week by focusing on the Lord and spending extended time with Him and other Christ followers.
May we take the time to thank the Lord for a successful past week and trust Him for the week to come and commit ourselves, the events, and the time to come for His glory.
May we remember that our relationship with the Lord transcends our fight for survival and our daily needs. A weekly day of rest is God’s way of reminding us of the eternal rest and time with Him that awaits us in the future.