No Time For Complacency
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / December 3, 2006
Everybody likes a happy ending. When we’re reading a book or watching a movie, we long to see a positive outcome. Most people, when they are reading the Book of Nehemiah, get the sense that everything is leading to such an ending. I wish this were the case.
I wish I could close this series on a more positive note. And, perhaps in 25 minutes you’ll find yourself wishing I had ended this series last Sunday! Indeed, until now, the latter chapters of this book have been very positive and uplifting.
Through an abundance of adversity, the wall of Jerusalem is completely rebuilt by chapter 6. The people engage in vibrant worship, recorded for us in chapter 8. In chapter 10, the people rededicate themselves to the Lord, solemnly promising, “we will not neglect the house of our God” (10:39). In chapter 12 we read about the celebration above all celebrations as the wall is finally dedicated.
These people were happy—genuinely happy. The joy of Jerusalem was palpable, and her neighbours were taking notice. As Nehemiah records, “the joy of Jerusalem was heard from afar” (12:43).
‘Nehemiah, well done. Your vision has been realized. The people of Jerusalem are satisfied. God is glorified. Now, put your pen down and close the book.’
Not so fast. The final chapter of the Book of Nehemiah reveals that the people eventually returned to their previous ways. Their former sins were repeated. The ordinances of God were again neglected.
While, on one level, I lament the way this Book ends. On another level, I greatly appreciate such an ending. We have a phrase for stories that end with the words, ‘and they lived happily ever after’. They’re called ‘Fairy Tales’! I appreciate the conclusion of Nehemiah’s Book because it is down to earth—it is reality. It is not unlike what you and I have experienced life to be.
Good times are not perpetual. Our times of ease are often interrupted by seasons of hardship. We don’t get to spend all of our time ‘lying down in green pastures’ or ‘walking beside still waters’, but eventually, we all spend time in the ‘dark valley’ described in the 23rd Psalm.
Chapter 13 of the Book of Nehemiah, while not ideal, is a realistic portrayal of the patterns of humanity.
The downturn in Jerusalem has many prongs, but for our purposes this morning, we’ll focus on the happenings between verses 4 and 14. In verse 4 we learn that an old nemesis resurfaces. Tobiah, the former critic of Nehemiah and the reconstruction project, has taken up residence in the temple of all places. Our Contemporary English Version identifies Tobiah as a relative of Eliashib the priest, but we should note that alternative translations simply regard the two men as closely allied.
Tobiah, you may recall, was among those who were displeased at the news that “(Nehemiah) had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel” (2:10). Tobiah is said to have personally mocked Nehemiah (2:19), causing Nehemiah to reply with the words, “you have no portion, right, or memorial in Jerusalem” (2:20). And here lies our current predicament. The man who was to have no portion in the revival of Jerusalem now has a cozy suite within the temple!
The man who once remarked that even “a fox” could knock down their inadequately repaired walls (4:3) was now enjoying a life of security within those walls.
How did this come to pass? How did one of Nehemiah’s fiercest opponents gain such privileged access to the temple? There is more to the answer than simply identifying the strategic alliance between Tobiah and Eliashib the priest.
We also need to note that a significant amount of time has passed since the walls were reconstructed. That is, there is a time lag between the events of the first 12 chapters and the events of chapter 13. We learn from the outset of Nehemiah that most of what transpires in this Book happens in the 20th year of the reign of King Artaxerxes (1:1, 2:1). In chapter 5, we also learn that Nehemiah’s first term as Governor of Judah spanned from the 20th year to the 32nd year of the King’s reign (5:14).
The events of chapter 13, however, take place some time after the 32nd year. Our pew Bible states that Tobiah moved into the temple during the 32nd year. Alternative translations, however, point to a later date. And while, it is unclear whether the downturn in Jerusalem happened 6 months or 6 years after the departure of Nehemiah in the 32nd year, the pervasiveness of the community’s sin would suggest that considerable time had past.
Under Nehemiah’s strong leadership, Jerusalem was rebuilt and the faith of the people had been revived. But following his departure, a reversal had taken place. Charles Swindoll suggests that this is a classic case of, ‘the cat was away and so the mice came out to play’.
Well, the ‘cat’ has returned and he is not happy! Having Tobiah reside in the temple would be about as welcome someone putting a statue of Martin Luther in the Vatican (Swindoll’s analogy). For Nehemiah, allowing Tobiah to take up residence in the temple was the height of imprudence. Accordingly, Nehemiah’s response was not restrained. He did not wait until he could assemble the temple leaders before acting. Nor did Nehemiah stop to pray for direction. He new the right thing to do and, without hesitation, he did something about this profound indiscretion.
In his own words, “it upset me so much that I threw out every bit of furniture. Then I ordered the room to be cleaned and the temple utensils, the grain offerings, and the incense to be brought back into the room” (13:8, 9).
Can you imagine such a scene? And imagine Tobiah’s response when he returns to find his belongings on the curb and his former residence filled with grain.
How shall we evaluate Nehemiah’s actions? The fact that I find it difficult to imagine doing what Nehemiah did doesn’t lead me to the conclusion that Nehemiah acted inappropriately. Nehemiah was not acting for personal gain here. Nehemiah was defending God’s honour. And I do not think it is far-fetched to compare this account with the account of Jesus angrily overturning tables in the temple (Jn. 2:14-16). Both, Jesus, and Nehemiah were chiefly motivated by a burning desire to defend God’s honour.
God’s honour was also at stake in the issue tithing. And the people’s neglect of the tithe had some very tangible implications for the religious community. With insufficient funds being collected, there wasn’t enough money to pay the temple musicians and the Levites an adequate stipend. Moreover, the neglect of the tithe meant that the people were not bringing in a tenth of their harvest. The result of this is that many had to leave behind their religious responsibilities and return to their farms to work.
Perhaps the people of Nehemiah’s day were saying things like, ‘Times are changing. Things aren’t the way they used to be. We have to look after ourselves, and our families, first. We’ll give what we can with what we have leftover.’
Perhaps the alliance between Tobiah and Eliashib the priest contributed to the problem of the neglected tithe. Maybe people were saying, ‘I’m tired of institutionalized religion. There’s so much corruption. We have priests playing favourites with suspect characters like Tobiah. I’m not going to help finance this crooked organization.’
Regardless of the reason for neglecting the tithe, the people were disobeying God’s law.
Some leaders might shrug their shoulders at such neglect. Not Nehemiah. Nehemiah wasn’t concerned with popularity polls. He did not aspire to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy. Nehemiah was determined to do what was right in the eyes of God. To this end, he reprimanded the leaders, asking them, “‘Why is the temple neglected?’ Then I told them to start doing their jobs” (13:11).
Admittedly, that sounds pretty harsh. If there are some managers or business owners among us this morning, I do not recommend you try this technique at work tomorrow. I would not want you to shout at an employee, ‘Start doing your job!’ and expect everything to improve.
What we should all glean from Nehemiah’s leadership approach, however, is his integrity. Nehemiah stood up for God’s honour, and he called for a community of people to do the right thing.
The leaders must have known—deep down everyone must have known that Nehemiah was right, because we read in the very next verse, “After this, everyone in Judah brought a tenth of their grain, wine, and olive oil to the temple storeroom” (13:12).
You can well imagine, that I would not have had us spend 11 weeks in the Book of Nehemiah if I did not regard it to have important lessons for us gathered here today.
I think the lesson from chapter 13 might be more obvious than some of the others—Don’t give up! Do not cease in working hard and doing the right thing. Always keep the honour of God before you. Be led by the Word of God in all things and at all times.
This is not easy. Most of us are prone to seasonal devotion. There are times when I thrive on working hard for the Gospel, and there are other times when I am greatly distracted from doing kingdom work. There are seasons when I regard God’s Word to be as sweet as honey, and I am eager to obey. And there are other times, when the requirements of Scriptures seem like a heavy weight that I am unable to lift.
Very few of us, if any at all, would say that we are altogether negligent with the things of God. But, if we are honest, many of us will admit that our devotion is sporadic, qualified, and somewhat lacking.
The threats to our relationship with Christ are many, but as I read Nehemiah the one that stands out is the threat of complacency.
We are reminded from this morning’s text of the temptation to rest on our laurels and to coast on the momentum of previous accomplishments.
Congregations that slip into this pattern are destined to diminish in size and influence. And if such complacency is left unchecked, the very existence of a local congregation is jeopardized.
If you are thinking of St. Giles Kingsway, you may be looking around this morning and thinking to yourself, ‘What in the world is this guy talking about? There are lots of people here. There is a vibrancy to what is going on. Hasn’t this preacher seen the terrific slate of programs or the balanced budget?’
Indeed, good things are happening here. We are seeing the blossoms of progress. Our children are actively engaged, our newer adherents are expressing their encouragement, and our longtime members are articulating their refreshment. Yes, things are going well, and we ought to be celebrating this!
But, when the celebration begins to wane, when we begin our descent from the mountain top, the great tempter named Complacency will be waiting. We must resist him.
We must keep pressing forward. We must continue to pursue Christ and His glory with all that is within us. And to this end, may we never let up, and may we never give up. Amen.