Saturday, August 24, 2013

Getting It Right

Scriptural Reading: Nehemiah 13:15-22
Devotional Reading: Mark 2:23-27

The Sabbath is defined as the seventh day of the week observed from Friday evening to Saturday evening as a day of rest and worship by Jews and some Christians. It is also observed on Sunday among Christians as a day of rest and worship as the Lord rose early on the third day. Whether observed on Saturday or Sunday, we are to “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy”. (Exo 20:8) God commanded this because He declared that we work six days and rest on the seventh as we keep the day holy unto Him. (Gen 2:2-3; Ex 20:8-10) I recall growing up with that mindset. All our “church clothes” had to be ready to put on that Saturday evening. We could not iron any clothes, paint any fingernails, etc on Sunday morning. It was forbidden in our household. And we were so happy! We just did what we had to do ahead of time. We always had a united family dinner with the children sitting at a separate table. The meal was always cooked on Saturday and we only set the table to sit down, ate, and cleaned up after ourselves. We had fellowshipped in God at church that morning and together in Him as a family as we supped. God is good when you get it right with Him.

This quarter of study is entitled “God’s People Worship”. We are in Unit III – “Worshipping in Jerusalem Again (Nehemiah)” of the three units of the quarter. This is the final lesson of a four-lesson study of worship in Jerusalem after remnants of Israel returned home from exile in Babylon.

Nehemiah was the third great leader in the Jewish restoration to be included as a great leader with Zerubbabel and Ezra who were responsible for returning exiles and building and/or maintaining the Temple. He did not immediately return with the exiles due to his position as the king’s cupbearer, but he had a love for the home of his forefathers. God gave him the answer and wisdom as to the rebuilding of the walls of the city. King Artaxerxes sensed Nehemiah’s sorrow. This allowed Nehemiah to explain the reason for his sorrow. The king gave him what he requested; i.e. timber and letters for safe passage. The king also made him governor of Judah and sent soldiers to accompany and assist him while he supervised the people as they worked on the wall. After many obstructive attempts by the enemies, the wall was completed in fifty-two days (Neh 6:15). It was built on the prior wall remains when the city was large, but that did not stop Nehemiah. They simply drew lots (chapter 11) to repopulate Jerusalem from some of the surrounding cities. Most of the returning remnant from the Babylonian captivity was from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

Neh 8:1-10:39 dealt with a great revival back to God under Ezra. They discovered feasts after hearing God’s Word read and explained to them, complied with the Word, confessed their sins when their hearts were convicted, and sealed a covenant unto God to change their wicked ways. After the security of Jerusalem (ch 7:1-3) was orchestrated, the city was repopulated, and a great revival period, a great dedication ceremony was held with two praise choirs led by Ezra and Nehemiah respectively. They walked in opposite directions on top of the wall while singing praises with their musical instruments and giving thanks unto God (ch 12:27-43)

It is believed that soon after the dedication ceremony Nehemiah returned to his position as a cupbearer in Babylon for King Artaxerxes as he had promised (ch 2:6). The Scripture does not state an exact time. It states “…I set a time”. (NKJV) However, this agreement between Nehemiah and King Artaxerxes was in the king’s twentieth year (ch 2.1) Following the dedication ceremony wicked activities are reported and in ch 13:6-7a Nehemiah states, “But while all this was going on, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Sometime later I asked his permission and came back to Jerusalem”. (NKJV) We can see, therefore, Nehemiah was in Jerusalem for twelve years (from the king’s twentieth to his thirty-second year). When he received permission to return he found that reforms were needed in three areas. Those areas were tithes, Sabbath, and intermarriage. The community had suffered a relapse of the same sins that brought God’s judgment on their ancestors earlier. After the reform of each of the three areas Nehemiah prays that God remember the good he had done. Each is a prayer request for His mercy for the community. (See Neh 13:14b, 22b, 31b)

When Nehemiah returned he found that Eliashib, the priest, had made a home for the wicked Tobiah, his relative and a foreigner, in the house of God using a room where the tithes should have been stored for the Levites and priests. The space was available because the people stopped tithing which would have supported the Temple, the Levites and the priests. Nehemiah threw Tobiah out of the house of God, purified the room, chastised the rulers who allowed the despicable wickedness, and reinstituted the tithing system for the Levites and priests (Neh 13:7-14).

Nehemiah had also found a number of the Israelites had intermarried with women from Asdod, Ammon, and Moab. Their children only knew the language of the mother. Nehemiah showed them they had frivolous excuses (Deut 7:3) when they tried to justify their sin, he cursed them, had some of them beaten and their heads shaved. Nehemiah explained Solomon was most wise but intermarriage had brought him down. Then Nehemiah drove Eliashib’s son, a young priest who had married Sanballat’s daughter out of Jerusalem (Neh 13:23-31).

Our main focus in this lesson is the reform Nehemiah took for their desecrating the Sabbath. He was not very happy as to what he observed as recorded at verses 15 and 16, “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. 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”. (NKJV) I am sure Nehemiah looked at the Israelites in total disbelief. They were working and selling food in total disregard to God’s commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, worship Him, and rest. They were allowing the seafaring foreigners to bring their wares for sell in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. The Israelites had befriended the people from Tyre who furnished building materiel for Solomon’s Temple. Their relationship continued, but they were not God’s people and did not share His laws and practices. The Jews did not cover up this sin. It was just business to them. How could it hurt anything?

Nehemiah quickly took offense at the attitude of his people and reminded them of the consequences of disobedience as recorded at verses 17 and 18, “I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this wicked thing you are doing-desecrating the Sabbath day? 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”. (NKJV) To the leaders Nehemiah turned his anger. They were responsible in shutting down the activity of their people and foreigners considered illegal unto God. The fact the rulers had done nothing to stop the desecrating activities of the Sabbath was not a good sign. They had not been under duress and required not to act. The leaders were simply passive or inactive in this responsibility, and Nehemiah was livid. Was not sinning on the Sabbath among the number of sins that caused our ancestors to fall into Babylonian captivity? Had it not destroyed our beloved Jerusalem? Why would you cause our loving God to be upset against Israel by your disobedience? When the apostle Paul was asked whether people could continue to sin so that grace could increase he responded, “By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom 6:2 NKJV) God expects us to obey. For this we will receive a reward. Should we disobey, we must expect the consequences of a punishment instead.

So Nehemiah instituted a reform to enforce the Sabbath law as declared in verse 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”. (NKJV) As governor of Jerusalem, Nehemiah took responsibility for the enforcement by closing all of the gates of Jerusalem at 6:00 p.m. Friday evening. They were not opened again until 6:00 p.m. Saturday evening. He trusted his men to close the gates and keep watch that no one was disobeying the Sabbatical law around the gate.

Then there were those who just could not or would not get it right. Nehemiah states at verses 20-22a, “Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. 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. Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy’. (NKJV) Perhaps those who did not intend to obey the new rules came back with their wares during the night in hope they would be able to sell to someone going in and out of the city. The gates were allowed to be opened for regular traffic, just not peddlers. Perhaps they were standing next to the wall in the belief they could make a sales transaction and send it over the wall unnoticed. For whatever reason, Nehemiah and his men noticed the peddlers who spent the night once or twice at the wall outside Jerusalem. Upon inquiry as to a reason for camping outside Jerusalem with their wares, they were warned they would be arrested. The disobedient of God’s law became obedient to man’s laws. They began to respect the Sabbath. Nehemiah then commanded the Levites to purify themselves. He returned them to their earlier task of guarding the gates reminding them to keep the Sabbath day holy.

No precise definition of “work” is given in the Bible. The Jews changed their view of the Sabbath by the time Christ arrived on the scene. They had a love for legal precision and laid down strict rules for the Sabbath. From the account of the prohibition of the gathering of manna on the Sabbath, it appears that cooking and baking were included. From Ex 34:21 it appears that plowing, sowing, and harvesting also were included in this prohibition. It is related (Num 15:32-36) that a man who was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath day was, by divine command, stoned to death.

In viewing the Jewish philosophy we can see the mindset of the Pharisees who approached Jesus and his disciples as they picked heads of grain. The Pharisees felt such work was prohibited to which Jesus responded, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath”. (NKJV) God never intended for the Sabbath to drag us down. We were made for God. The Sabbath day was made for us to worship Him. It is also to be a day of rest. Jesus Christ is also the Lord of the Sabbath. He will not stand by without correcting falsehoods. He was aware the Pharisees knew David was a man of God’s own heart. So He asked them if they had ever read of a certain incident in the lives of David and his mighty men when they were fed showbread by the priest Ahimelech. The showbread was not supposed to be eaten by anyone other than the priests and their families. When Saul killed the entire city of priests for feeding David and his men, Abiathar, the son of Ahimelech, escaped the massacre and became one of David’s men (1 Sam 21:1-9; 1 Sam 22:20-23).

So what is and where did the “blue laws” come from? They are designed to restrict or ban some or all Sunday shopping for religious standards, particularly the observance of a day of worship or rest. Blue laws may also restrict or ban sale of certain items on specific days, most often Sundays. Most blue laws have been repealed in the United States, although many states still ban the sale of alcohol or cars on Sundays.

Evolution of the blue laws: 1) 17th century: The term was first used in Connecticut and came from the blue paper on which the laws were printed. Sunday was to be a day of rest and worship. Outlawed behaviors included drunkenness and excesses in dress. 2) 18th century: After the colonies broke from British rule, states fashioned their own laws dictating Sunday behavior. 3) 1789: President George Washington, heading to church in New York, was charged with violating a blue law in Connecticut that banned unnecessary walking or riding. 4) 19th and 20th centuries: The prohibition movement brought more restrictive laws, including bans on cigarette sales and entertainment, such as books, plays and films. 5) 1961: The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of states to enact blue laws so long as their purpose was not religious. Sources: First Amendment Center, Columbia Encyclopedia

We have come a long way as a nation, but not everyone keeps the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day holy, worshipping God, and resting as we were commanded in Exo 20:8. When we have a large number of people breaking the community rule, it angers God. We may be spoiled now. How? Grocery stores are open, clothing outlets are open, fast food chains are open, etc., etc., etc., all on the Lord’s Day. If it is a necessity, as Jesus explained to the Pharisees when He and His disciples were hungry, work is acceptable. But if it is not a necessity we are to observe the Lord’s Day in worship and rest.

Written by Deborah C Davis

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