“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.” NIV
Speaking truth to powerful people can get you into a whole lot of trouble. In fact, in some circumstances, it could get you killed. It is almost always dangerous to challenge vested economic interests. But if he felt any temptation to keep quiet, Nehemiah didn’t succumb. Again, what an example he is.
- He had the courage to rebuke. He called out things that were wrong and was prepared to ‘carpet’ those in authority who were leading others astray;
- He had the ability to apply Scripture. ‘The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’ Nehemiah forcefully reminded his people that it was sins like these which had landed them in so much trouble in the past. Surely they didn’t want to keep riding this same ghastly merry-go-round?
- He had the wisdom to act. He knew human nature well enough to realise that some people would still try to bend the ‘rules’. So he erected ‘fences’ (‘electric fences’) you might say. He made it less likely that his contemporaries would transgress. He even used the threat of arrest.
Again, in the wake of this, Nehemiah asked the Lord to ‘’Remember’’ him (22b). There are times when a leader would love to tell the whole story, and explain everything, but they can’t. In some circumstances, even if they did, they would still be misunderstood. So on occasions you just have to say, ‘Well God knows, and that is enough.’
I also find it significant that, after rebuking the sins of others, Nehemiah also asks for God’s mercy himself. He wants holiness among the people, but he is not ‘holier than thou’. Some words of a hymn come to mind:
‘And those who fain would serve him best are conscious most of sin within.’ Whilst wanting less sin in the land, Nehemiah knew that he was not sinless. Where would any of us be apart from the mercy of God?