It was now some time since the remnant had returned. When Nehemiah looks into the practical state, he finds a sorrowful feature - a great departure from the primitive spirit of separation, and I ask you, beloved brethren, whether we have not got to search and see whether it be not so with ourselves. We have continually to watch and to guard. It is not that one does not rejoice at the Lord bringing in, and if the Lord brought in ten times more to His children than are brought in now, for my part I should give God thanks; but I should not be blind to the danger. I should not be blind to the danger that the incoming of tenfold more would bring in tenfold more reason for humiliation - not for the less joy, but for the more watchfulness. And so we find on this occasion that "On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people; and therein was found written that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever" (ver. 1) - it was like a new thing: they had not thought of it before - "because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water."
First principles, you see, they returned to. "It came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude." There it was: they had read it over and over again before. Now they applied it. It is not merely that we want the word, but we want the Spirit of God to make the word living. And now that they found its application they acted upon it. "And before this, Eliashib the priest, having the oversight of the chamber of the house of our God, was allied unto Tobiah." No wonder that there were sources of weakness. We see this man, Tobiah, the standing enemy of the people of God - but mark what has come in. "And he had prepared for him a great chamber, where aforetime they laid the meat offerings" - this man had found a place even in the sanctuary of God, in the house! - "the frankincense, and the vessels, and the tithes of the corn, the new wine, and the oil, which was commanded to be given to the Levites, and the singers, and the porters; and the offerings of the priests. But in all this time was not I at Jerusalem."
It would appear that Nehemiah paid two visits to Jerusalem, and that during his absence, there was this departure from first principles. "In the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon, came I unto the king, and after certain days obtained I leave of the king" - that is, a second leave besides the first. The first was in the twentieth year, and this was a dozen years after. "And I came to Jerusalem, and understood of the evil that Eliashib did for Tobiah, in preparing him a chamber in the courts of the house of God." Why, there was nothing so serious even when Nehemiah came the first time!
But there is another important principle. What did Nehemiah do? Did he stay away from the house of God? Did he not go up to worship there? It never occurred to him to do such a thing as stop away: nor ought we. Evil in another person is no reason for staying away from the table of the Lord - none whatever; for, surely, if that were a sufficient reason, it would be a reason for all that are righteous, and supposing all that are righteous were to stay away, where would be the Lord's table? No, beloved friends, it is a false and a bad principle. What is true is this: if there be evil there, look to God that you meet the evil in a good way. Look to God for wisdom to deal with it according to His word. Look to God to strengthen the hands of those that care for the glory of the Lord.
It is not the presence of evil that destroys the character of the Lord's table, but the refusal to judge it. There might be the most fearful evil: that is not a reason to stay away from the table of the Lord; but if I knew that there was the most desperate evil here at Woolwich, for instance, I should not stay away because of that but come down, perhaps, to help you. If I knew of it, and could help you, it would be my duty to do so - not to come down and do the work for you, but to come down and lay the responsibility upon you to look to God for grace and wisdom to do the work; for you are responsible. And so it was with Nehemiah. He did not stay away because Tobiah had managed, through the high-priest's influence, to have a chamber in the house of God. But he came to Jerusalem and understood of this evil, and "it grieved me sore." That was the first effect. "And it grieved me sore: therefore I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber," for an Israelite was entitled to act: everyone was bound. "Then I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers: and thither brought I again the vessels of the house of God, with the meat offering and the frankincense."
There is, however, this difference now - that God would have the church to act together. For not even an apostle would act alone. When the apostle heard of something fearful at Corinth he did not refuse to write, and he did not say to them, 'Ye are no longer the church of God.' On the contrary, he writes most carefully. He says, "To the church which is at Corinth," and he links them with all the saints that were on earth - "with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours" (1Co_1:2). He tells them of the fearful evil that he knew was there, and he says that he has judged what is to be done, but he tells them to judge. His judging would not do: they must judge. They must prove themselves clear in the matter, and this was the way in which God worked in the church. So I press this strongly as being full of instruction, the grand difference, you observe, being this - that the Spirit of God brings in a judgment of evil. We enjoy Christ together. I am not permitted to go to my home and take a bit of bread there and some wine, and fancy that it is the Lord's Supper: it is no such thing. That is a mere feast of my own that I am devising out of my own heart. But I come and take it in communion, and in true communion open to all the saints of God in the world that are walking according to the Lord; and, doing so, I look to God to work among His people to clear out whatever is inconsistent with that holy fellowship.
That is what Nehemiah did now. He knows and feels their grief, and he acts; only, as I have said, there is individuality of action here, whereas now there must be communion. And he sees everywhere other things very disorderly. He perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been together; "for the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field. Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them together, and set them in their place." And, further - "In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals. There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath."
A very important principle there is here. Now I do not mean to say that we are under the sabbatical law, but what I do say is that we need grace, and that the day of grace ought to be, at least, as important in our eyes as the sabbath was to the man of law. And it would be a very sinful thing, beloved brethren, if we were to take advantage of the Lord's day for our own selfish purposes. The Lord's day has a character of holiness beyond the sabbath day. The Lord's day has a claim of grace upon all the children of grace. May we never forget this. It is not that we are not to use it in the spirit of grace and liberty; but to use it for self is not to use it for Christ. It is to do what the Gentiles would do that know pot God. May we never be like them.
And, further, he draws attention to a still more terrible fact. "In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod." Everything was out of course. "And I contended with them." He seems to have dealt with the greatest severity, "and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves." He shows how even Solomon had gone astray through this very thing. Thus there is no thought of taking an example of evil to make light of evil now, but he warns even from the very highest in a day of great weakness. And, further, "one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib, the high priest, was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite"; there was no respect of persons - "therefore I chased him from me." "Thus cleansed I them from all strangers, and appointed the wards of the priests and the Levites, every one in his business: and for the wood offering, at times appointed, and for the first-fruits."
Thus, I trust, we have seen, a little more clearly and fully, the general scope of this most weighty book.