Standing By Our Promises

Nehemiah 13

November 19, 2000 | Brian Bill

As many of you know, I really like Snicker bars.  For the past year, whenever I would go to Dairy Queen, I would always order a Snicker Bar Breeze.  All I had to do was walk in and one of the workers would start filling a cup with chunks of tasty nougat.  It was automatic for me, until the day I tasted my six-year-old daughter’s mint Oreo blizzard!  

From that point on, I’ve left Snickers behind – I guess that makes me a “Snicker Bar Breeze Backslider.” 

When Becky had her tonsils out, we told her she could have whatever she wanted at Dairy Queen.  She didn’t feel like eating anything for about a week, but when she was better, she remembered our promise.  One day, I stopped and got her a blizzard.  I tried every trick I could think of to get as many spoonfuls as I could!  She finally made me promise to not eat any more.`

When we got home, she put what was left in the freezer to save until she felt better.  A few hours later, I remembered it was in there, so I grabbed a spoon and finished it (I didn’t think she’d want it because she felt so sick).  When she opened the freezer, she saw that it was gone and said, “Dad, you promised!”  To make it up to her we went out to Dairy Queen a couple days later and split a large mint Oreo blizzard.  I was a good boy but she kept her eye on me to make sure I didn’t hog it.

A few days later, my wife bought her another blizzard.  Becky once again put was left in the freezer but this time I didn’t touch it.  A couple minutes later, Becky said that I could finish her tasty treat.  I thanked her, opened the freezer and pulled out an…empty cup!  She laughed so hard that she fell on the floor.

Well, just this week we went to Dairy Queen as a family and Becky once again ordered her favorite blizzard.  I ordered one as well but I could tell Becky didn’t trust me.  I noticed that she sat as far away from me as she could.  I tried to exchange cups with her when mine was empty but she was on to me.  She gave me one of her great smiles and said, “Dad, you promised!”  I smiled sheepishly and then mentioned that it was funny that I was speaking on the theme of “Standing By Our Promises” this Sunday.  To which Lydia, our 9-year-old, said, “Well then you better start keeping yours, Dad.”  Ouch

We all fail to keep our pledges, don’t we?  Our good intentions and plans often fall by the wayside.  Sometimes we blatantly break our promises but other times, we just kind of drift away, a little at a time.  Someone has said that moral failure and spiritual decline are a great deal like a flat tire.  Most flat tires don’t occur as a result of a blowout.  They get flat because air leaks out over time, often imperceptibly.  I’m told that generally speaking, a tire will lose one or two pounds of air per month in cool weather, and even more in warmer weather.  Sometimes you don’t even know you’re going flat until the car becomes difficult to steer.

In our passage for today, we come face-to-face with some backsliders.  The dictionary defines the verb “backslide” this way: “To relapse into bad habits, sinful behavior, or undesirable activities.”   You would think that the last chapter of this great book would contain encouraging and compelling stories of how God’s people took their spiritual commitment to the next level.  Frankly, this script does not have a happy ending.  Within a relatively short period of time, the children of Israel went spiritually flat and returned to their old ways of doing things – violating God’s laws and allowing the world’s system to press them into its mold.  That leads to one of the lessons of the book of Nehemiah: Good beginnings are no guarantee of happy endings.


Before we jump into chapter 13, I want to give you some background information.

1. Nehemiah went back to Persia at the end of chapter 12

In chapter 1 we learned that Nehemiah had a great job in the Persian White House.  Sensing God’s clear leading, Nehemiah requested and received permission to lead a team of builders to reconstruct the walls surrounding Jerusalem.  Nehemiah was appointed governor and served for 12 years in that position.   He dealt with the enemies, organized the people, rebuilt the wall, set up the infrastructure for the repopulated city, and led a great celebration of dedication.  When he was done with all this, he returned as a senior advisor to the king of Persia.  We don’t know how long he stayed but it was probably several years.  

When he finally retired from his government job in Susa, he returned to Jerusalem because he wanted to enjoy his retirement years and eventually be buried in the city of his fathers.  Chapter 13 records what Nehemiah discovered when he returned.  I can’t imagine what he must have felt.  When he left, 12:43 says that the “sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.”  Because these same people had violated the covenant they had publicly signed in 9:38, Nehemiah came back hitting as hard as the Pontiac Indians football team.  Like Tuley and Cunningham, PBC’s own “Thunder and Lightning,” Nehemiah attempted to jar team Jerusalem out of their comfortable compromise with the world. 

2. There is a literary link between chapter 10 and chapter 13.

In chapter 10, the people made 4 vows or promises.  First, they pledged to submit to God’s Word; second, they vowed to live separate from the world; third, they promised to keep the Sabbath, and fourth, they agreed to support God’s work.  Sadly, by the time we get to chapter 13, each of these promises are broken.  This reminds us that the most spiritual person, and the best church, can find its standards subtly eroded as we gradually accommodate to the pressures of contemporary worldliness.  At the dedication in chapter 12, the builders celebrated their moral victory in a battle against secularism and materialism, but they had certainly not won the war.

Since chapter 13 is best understood in light of chapter 10, I’m going to follow the same outline from two weeks ago so that we can look carefully at each one of their four broken promises.

The Submission Promise

The promises of chapter 10 began with an affirmation of loyalty to the Word of God in verse 29: “…to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our God.”  In Nehemiah 13:1, we read a description of Israel’s carelessness about what God had said in the Book of Moses concerning the purity of their worship: “On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God…”

We see again that Scripture was read publicly.  Those present realized how sloppy they had been about their exclusive loyalty to God.  As they listened to the words of Moses they remembered what had happened to their ancestors when they were on the threshold of the Promised Land.  The Ammonites’ sin was one of omission: they had not met the Israelites with food and water.  The Moabites’ sin was one of commission: they had hired Balaam to call a curse down on the Israelites.  We don’t have time this morning to go into much detail on this but I invite you to read Deuteronomy 23:3-5 to get a better understanding of what happened.  The bottom line is that the Moabites and Ammonites were notorious for infiltrating Israel and causing their worship to become diluted.  

The Christian life is a series of new beginnings

Here’s the good news.  When the Israelites heard what God’s Word had to say, they obeyed it.  Check out verse 3: “When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.”  That’s a great application for us.  Let’s admit that we fall short.  We break our promises.  We mess up.  We don’t always follow what we know to be true.  It seems to me we have two choices.  We can continue this pattern of disobedience or we can stop what we’ve been doing and determine to live out what God says.  The Christian life is a series of new beginnings.  It’s never too late to start taking God’s Word seriously.  

Is there something you need to do that you’ve been putting off?  Is there a decision you need to make?  I suspect that some of you have no question about what God wants you to do but you’re afraid to do it because it’s difficult.  Friend, if God is asking you to do something, He will take care of all the details.  Matthew 6:33 says, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”

The Separation Promise

While they broke their promise to submit to God’s Word, they determined once again to do what God says.  The next promise that they did not keep was to live separate from the world.  They ignored this vow in two ways

1. An enemy intruder. 

In verses 4-9, we see that one of these Ammonites was actually living in the Jewish temple!  Nehemiah was horrified to find that Eliashib, who was the high priest in Israel, had prepared a guest room for Tobiah in the temple.  This room was the size of a small warehouse.  Unbelievably, an archenemy of God’s people had set up residence in the nerve center of Jerusalem.  From this position he could influence everyone.

This is one of the first consequences of the breaking of the vow to not intermarry with pagans.  Eliashib had become a traitor because one of his relatives was married to Sanballat’s daughter (13:28), and Sanballat and Tobiah were friends.  Throughout the book of Nehemiah, Tobiah had been an enemy of God and a thorn in Nehemiah’s side.  Nehemiah dealt with him many times before and made sure that he was never allowed inside the walls.  While Nehemiah was away, the high priest not only allowed Tobiah inside the city, he gave him the keys to a large suite of rooms where the tithes and offerings of the people were stored.  

Eliashib had been entrusted with a privileged responsibility but, by cultivating wrong relationships, he misused his office and frustrated God’s work.  Nehemiah saw Eliashib’s act for what it was – an offense against a holy God, a public denial of the priority of spiritual things, and an act of blatant disobedience to Scripture.  In verse 7, Nehemiah called it “an evil thing.” 

The identification of the problem demanded drastic, public, and immediate action.  Take a look at verses 8-9: “I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room.  I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense.”  Nehemiah went off on Tobiah!  He showed him the door and then threw his furniture, TV, computer and stereo into the street.  He then gave an order to have the rooms cleansed.  Nehemiah wanted every trace of Tobiah’s presence removed from the temple.  He had the room disinfected and fumigated so that no one could even smell his cologne after he left.  Nehemiah could not live with wrong in a place that was built for right.  

The first separation vow they broke was that they allowed a pagan unbeliever to take up residence in their temple.  The second separation promise they broke was to allow mixed marriages to take place.

2. Mixed marriages. 

You’ll recall this vow from 10:30“We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons.”  Drop down to verses 23-28 in chapter 13.  When Nehemiah returned he saw that men of Judah had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab.  He also heard their children speaking foreign languages, which meant that they would not know how to read the Law of God or participate in temple services.  Their sins were damaging their home and family life.

Only a few years earlier, as God’s people were repairing the walls, 4:7-8 tells us that the “Ammonites and the men of Ashdod” had “plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem.”  Yesterday’s enemies had become today’s marriage partners.  In challenging them about their disobedience, Nehemiah uses arguments from experience in verses 23-24 and from history in verse 26.  

This really lit Nehemiah up and he went off on the people!  Check out verse 25: “I rebuked them and called curses down on them.  I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair.  I made them take an oath in God’s name…”  By calling down curses on them, he was pronouncing God’s judgment on their actions.  He was so mad, and his anger so intense, that he smacked some of the husbands and yanked out their hair!  When Ezra was faced with a similar situation in Ezra 9:3, he plucked his own hair out.  Instead of doing that, Nehemiah pulled the hair of some of the offenders.  This may seem like violent and inappropriate behavior for a man of God, but when we interpret Nehemiah’s actions against the backdrop of Israel’s history, it’s easier to understand his intense feelings.

This very sin was the primary reason they were taken into Babylonian captivity in the first place.  Nehemiah knew that pagan women led even their wisest king into sin.  And, Nehemiah himself had personally experienced the results of Solomon’s sin.  That’s why his grandparents had been carried off to Babylon.  That’s why he was a servant to King Artaxerxes.  There was no way that Nehemiah wanted God’s judgment to fall on Israel again.  If God did not tolerate it in Solomon’s life, he certainly would not allow it now.

The Support Promise

The third fractured vow was that they neglected to support God’s work in verses 13.  Their final statement in chapter 10 was that they would “…not neglect the house our God.”  When we come to this final chapter, Nehemiah discovers that the ministry at the temple was hampered in verse 10 because the Levites and singers had to get jobs in the fields in order to survive.  The temple storerooms were empty because people had stopped bringing their tithes and offerings.  By the way, this probably explains why the rooms were available for Tobiah to live in.

Nehemiah has to do some tough talking again in verse 11: “So I rebuked the officials and asked them, ‘Why is the house of God neglected?’”  Nehemiah then set up a system so that they could once again put God first with their finances.  Nehemiah not only rebuked them, he showed them what to do to make some changes.  That’s exactly what God does for each one of us.  He wants the bad removed and the good immediately restored.  When the Holy Spirit convicts us, He also prods us to positive behavior.  We are to stop doing something destructive and begin doing something constructive. 

Nehemiah set up some administrative systems to insure that the tithes would once more start rolling into the temple.  The temple officers in charge of the gifts had left their posts because there was nothing coming in or out, so in verse 11, Nehemiah “stationed them at their posts.”  In verse 12 we read that the people started bringing their “tithes of grain, new wine and oil into the storerooms.”  They renewed their commitment to put God first in their finances and brought to God what was rightfully His.  He then appointed four men in verse 13 to supervise the treasury and distribute the tithes and offerings.  Interestingly, these men represented the priests, Levites, scribes, and laymen.  They were all different but they had one thing in common: “they were considered trustworthy.”

When God’s people start to go flat spiritually, one of the first places it shows up is in their giving.  Jesus put it this way: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).  Just as the Israelites renewed their commitment to honor God with their wallets, so too, you and I need to do an honest assessment of our giving.  Are you putting God first in your finances? 

The Sabbath Promise

When they signed the covenant, the Israelites promised not to do business with the Gentiles on the Sabbath Day in 10:31: “…We will not buy from them on the Sabbath.”  In 13:15-22, Nehemiah discovered that the people were not only doing business on the Sabbath, they were treating it as any other day of the week.  They had broken their fourth promise by secularizing the Sabbath.  Verse 16 tells us that there were men of Tyre who actually moved into Jerusalem and set up their own businesses.  The leaders allowed them to operate their shops seven days a week.

Nehemiah didn’t sit back and let this promise be ignored either.  He spoke sternly and acted firmly by instituting three action steps.  First, in verse 15 he rebuked the Jews who were working and selling on the Sabbath and made them stop.  

Second, he rebuked the nobles for allowing business on the Sabbath day by reminding them that the violation of the Sabbath was one of the reasons for their captivity in the first place.  We see this in verse 18: “Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city?  Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.”

His third step was very practical: He ordered the city gates shut on the Sabbath and he put some of his own guards on duty in verse 19.  He threatened those who wanted to sell their goods on this holy day and also ordered the Levites to set a good example and minister to the people in verse 22.

God never demands anything from us that is not for our own good

In demanding that the people keep their Sabbath promise, Nehemiah was emphasizing the centrality of worship, the importance of witness, the necessity of rest, and the priority of love.  Loving obedience is always better than a full wallet.  This command was not intended to be a chore.  God never demands anything from us that is not for our own good.  When Nehemiah’s people ignored the Sabbath, they were damaging the very fabric of their spiritual, physical and social lives.  

Nehemiah’s Top Ten

As we wrap up this chapter, and our series on Nehemiah, I want to give you my top ten lessons from this very practical book.

  1. It’s never too late to do what’s right.  Even though God’s people had messed up pretty bad, it didn’t disqualify them from service or ruin their relationship with God.  Don’t let your past keep you from doing what is right.  It really doesn’t matter what you’ve done.  What matters is that you begin right now to renew your walk with God.  
  2. Don’t play around with sin.  Nehemiah dealt with sin decisively and abruptly.  Most of us underestimate our sinfulness and overestimate our goodness.  Friend, don’t flirt with sin.  Don’t get cozy with compromise.  Be vigilant.  As Romans 12:9 says, “Hate what is evil.  Cling to what is good.”
  3. Remember who God is.  He is great and awesome.  That means that He is large and He is in charge!  He is also good…all the time.  Even when bad things happen to us, He is good.  And, He is gracious.  He doesn’t treat us as we deserve but always grants us grace and fresh starts
  4. Cultivate a lifestyle of praise and prayer.  God desires for each of us to worship Him with reverence and with joy, both individually and corporately.  As we do, we’ll also cry out to Him in confession and supplication.  When we pray, we should pray doctrinally and also be ready to shoot up “popcorn prayers” throughout the day.
  5. Move out of your comfort zone.  Most of us are way too comfortable with the way we’re living.  We tend to default to what is predictable and easy.  God wants us to be available to Him.  When He asks us to do something that stretches us, let’s be ready to move!
  6. Don’t let difficulties derail you.  When hard times come, and they will, don’t bail on God.  God allows tough times in our lives for a purpose.  Use them to get closer to Him and ask Him to develop your character through the process.
  7. Seek to resolve relational ruptures.  As we spend time with people, we are bound to have conflict and disagreements.  Each of us sin against others, and others sin against us.  Don’t allow this conflict to go underground.  Meet face-to-face and seek resolution.
  8. Say “yes” to God’s priorities and “no” to the devil’s distractions.  God wants us to live purposeful lives, focused on those things that matter to Him.  The evil one seeks to get us off track through busyness and selfishness.  Commit yourself to God’s priorities, specifically as it relates to your time, your talents, and your treasures.
  9. Believe the promises of God and act upon them.  While it can be helpful to make promises, or vows, to God, it’s more important to believe the promises of God and act accordingly.  We don’t have to perform for God.  Instead, claim what God has promised to do for you and ask Him to give you the tenacity to take Him at His Word.
  10. Allow God to use you.  God takes great pleasure in using people who are available to Him.  You don’t have to be a super saint or a spiritual giant.  God delights in using ordinary people like us so that His extraordinary power can be unleashed in our lives.

God uses people that will give Him all.  Nehemiah prays three “popcorn prayers” for himself in chapter 13.

13:14: “Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services.”

13:22: “Remember me for this also, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.”

13:31: “Remember me with favor, O my God.”

He reminded God of His faithfulness and prayed that what he had done would not be blotted out.  Nehemiah wasn’t pleading for blessings on the basis of personal merit, because He knew that God’s favor only comes by His grace and mercy.  He is simply asking God to remember Him and what He had done.  He wanted God’s favor and reward, not the accolades of man.

These prayers reveal an attitude toward life.  Nehemiah could have built a monument to himself.  He could have written this inscription on the wall: “Built by Nehemiah the Great.”  He could have looked back at his life and been proud of his accomplishments.  Or, he could have been frustrated because the believers had broken their promises.  In other words, he could have been impressed with his past accomplishments or discouraged about the present situation.

But he chose neither of those things.  He simply said, “Lord, a day is coming when all of this will be over.  I want the meaning of my life to be anchored in the future.”  He knew that there was a time coming when He’d be rewarded by the Lord and embraced by Him.  His prayers reveal that He’s living for that day, when the Lord will say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

Are you living for that day?  

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?