Nehemiah 11-13
(Getting Jerusalem Back on its Feet)
May 21st

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Copyright 2016

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Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verse

The leaders settled in Jerusalem, and the rest of the people drew lots to choose one family out of every ten to go and live in the holy city of Jerusalem, while the rest were to live in the other cities and towns. The people praised anyone else who volunteered to live in Jerusalem. In the other towns and cities the people of Israel, the priests, the Levites, the temple workmen, and the descendants of Solomon's servants lived on their own property in their own towns.

- Nehemiah 13:1-3 (GNB)

Summary of Chapters

These last three chapters of Nehemiah describe his final acts to get Jerusalem back on track with a spiritual focus. Nehemiah wanted Jerusalem to be repopulated with people from Judah who had been living outside the city because there were not enough people who had returned to fill it. In chapter 11, Nehemiah explains that the Judean families were asked to draw lots to determine who would be required to live in Jerusalem. People generally did not want to go there because they would have to restart their business, uproot their family lives, and may lose customers from outside Judah who did not want to enter Jerusalem. In addition, if they went to Jerusalem there would be greater pressure to obey all of the laws (1).

Nevertheless, the people held a celebration to dedicate the new wall, as noted in chapter 12. Instrumentalists and choirs were brought together to create music for the celebration and the people offered their sacrifices.

At some point, Nehemiah had to return to serve the king of Babylon. While he was gone the people broke the covenant. They allowed a foreigner to live in the temple (where only Levites were supposed to go) and conducted commerce on the Sabbath which was a direct violation of one of the Ten Commandments in the Mosaic Law (see Exodus 20). When Nehemiah returned he kicked out the idolater and vigorously enforced the laws regarding no commerce by closing the gates of the city on Friday at sundown and not opening until after the Saturday Sabbath.

    As the gates of Jerusalem were darkened by the shadows of the approaching Sabbath, I ordered the doors shut and not to be opened until the Sabbath was over. I placed some of my servants at the gates to make sure that nothing to be sold would get in on the Sabbath day.

    Traders and dealers in various goods camped outside the gates once or twice. But I took them to task. I said, "You have no business camping out here by the wall. If I find you here again, I'll use force to drive you off."

    And that did it; they didn't come back on the Sabbath.

    Then I directed the Levites to ceremonially cleanse themselves and take over as guards at the gates to keep the sanctity of the Sabbath day.

    - Nehemiah 13:19-22 (MSG)

Reflection and Application

The period of time in which Nehemiah served in Jerusalem was an era of a physical and spiritual renovation. We all need to be continuously renovating our spiritual lives which serves as a wall of protection for us against sin, and we need to continuously rededicate ourselves to God or we begin to drift away. Nehemiah was focused on his purpose, was direct with people, and always centered his life on prayer.

You can observe Nehemiah’s closed door policy carried out at modern kosher delicatessens and other stores owned or managed by Orthodox Jews. These establishments close at sundown on Friday, which is mid-afternoon in December for many cities, and remain closed on Saturday. I have been taken by surprise on a number of occasions when going to one of these places late on a Friday in search of a good sandwich or chicken soup only to find it closed for the Sabbath.

As with all of the commandments, God had a purpose for the one regarding the Sabbath. His purpose was not to be a spoilsport and business inhibitor. Instead, his purpose was to provide us with an opportunity to rest our bodies and minds and turn our hearts towards him without distraction. The human body is not made to work seven days a week non-stop. That pace accelerates wear and tear and breakdown of our bodies. My own experience is that productivity and mental sharpness decline after just a few weeks of this pace, thereby resulting in lower quality work over a seven-day period than a six-day one.

More importantly, when we take the prescribed break on the Sabbath we free our minds to focus on The One who gave us the week. Our hope and prayer is to spend eternity in God's presence. Therefore, it makes sense to dedicate one day a week to focus on the things that are eternal. Nehemiah knew that the breaking of this commandment was a key contributor to a loss of spiritual focus, so he put a stop to it.

The early Christians moved their Sabbath to Sunday, which is the day of the week that Jesus rose from the grave. The tradition of no commerce on the Christian Sabbath was upheld for many centuries in Europe and during the early years of the United States. Laws that were often referred to as "Blue Laws" were established to enforce the tradition. Unfortunately, our cultures have slowly chipped away at these laws so that very few remain in their original form, and those that do remain are considered by some to be archaic legacies that no longer have a place in our modern world.

How many of us remember the days when department stores were not allowed to be open on the Sabbath? By the beginning of the 21st century, nearly every state had taken those department store restrictions off the books. At that time the remnants of the Blue Laws included restrictions in a select group of states for specific activities such as off-premises sales of alcohol, the selling of automobiles, and hunting of animals (except, in some cases, for certain predatory animals). These laws may have been an inconvenience for some, but it helped to remind us of the purpose of the Sabbath and the closed door policy of Nehemiah.

However, just like in the days of Nehemiah, there has been perpetual resistance against these Sabbatical policies. For example, various groups have been fighting vigorously to remove Sunday restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and have been having success. In 2004 Massachusetts, the original Puritan state finally acquiesced and removed the prohibition against alcohol sales on Sundays. In 2011, the Georgia state legislature removed the state-wide restriction and allowed local authorities to decide whether to allow the sale of alcohol on Sundays (2).

In Connecticut, the restriction against selling alcohol off-premises officially ended on May 19th, 2012. Not all the store owners agreed with the idea and not all stores planned to open on Sundays after the law was passed. Workers at one store that I talked to just after the bill was passed said their owner would keep the store open part of the time on Sundays, but would not be requiring any employees to come to work. Some consumers are happy about it, but others found it a bit disturbing. States that have maintained the laws against Sunday off-premise alcohol sales include Arkansas, Indiana, and Minnesota - but there is a proposal in the Minnesota legislature to overturn this one too. The last bit of sanity in this arena is that most states don't allow these types of sales on Sunday morning - when folks should be in church. Let's try to hold on to that one if we can.

It's worth noting that the reversal of Blue Laws allows stores to be open, but doesn't require it. We can be inspired by businesses that chose to be closed on most Sunday - willingly foregoing any potential income to ensure that they and their employees can rest and demonstrating obedience to this ancient but important instruction. In my town, the businesses in this category include an independent department store and a bookstore where we held a book-signing one Saturday (Barrett Bookstore). One example of a chain of stores that is closed on Sunday is Chick-fil-A, a popular chicken restaurant in the Southern United State. The owners have upheld this tradition since 1946. The website explains the philosophy:

    "(We believe) that all franchised Chick-fil-A Operators and their Restaurant employees should have an opportunity to rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so. That's why all Chick-fil-A Restaurants are closed on Sundays. It's part of our recipe for success."

We can follow the lead of these business owners by doing our best to avoid or minimize shopping on the Sabbath and spend more time focusing our hearts and mind on God and resting our bodies for the coming week.

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions
    1. Have you ever drawn lots to determine who will take on an unpopular task?
    2. What are the Sabbath restrictions that you are aware of in your community?
    3. How can we raise the bar for our own Sabbath observance?

    Recommended Prayer
    Father in heaven, we know you gave us your instructions for own good. Please forgive us for ignoring your advice and help us to honor your words.

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    Independent Store Owners


    (1) Life Application Study Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, M; 1991 (with commentary from an inter-denominational team of experts), p. 815
    (2) "Blue law," Wikipedia,, 5/20/2012

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading: Overview of Esther and study of Esther 1-3

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