Devotional Reading: Genesis 2: 1-3 and Mark 2:23-27
Lesson Scripture: Nehemiah 13: 15-22
Lesson Aims: To recognize how quickly Judah dishonored the Sabbath; to determine if our behaviors parallel theirs; and to renew our commitment to keep the Sabbath holy.
Background: Nehemiah, King Artaxerxes’ cupbearer, led the third wave of returnees to Jerusalem in 444 BC. His task was to rebuild the portions of the wall around the city that the Babylonians destroyed. He had three outstanding qualities: he was committed to God, had excellent administrative skills and could motivate people. In the face of great opposition, he led the people to complete repairing the wall in only the 52 days (6:15). Many reforms occurred during his time as governor. Nehemiah served the people for 12 years (The Oxford Companion to the Bible).
Of the three leaders (Zerubbabel and Ezra being the others), he was the only one that had to return to the Persian court. He had to be proud of their accomplishments (repairing the wall, reestablishing feast days and reforms) made under God’s guidance. The reforms included the national confession of their sins and the long list of religious and social rules that they would abide by. Those rules are found in the Mosaic Law. The legal list of names totaled 84, including political and religious leaders.
Lesson: Several years later, Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem and is shocked by what he witnessed. All of the signed reforms are being ignored; a priest has allowed a foreigner to have a room in the Temple; and the tithes are not being given! Quickly, he corrects those problems, using force in some cases. When he sees their behavior on the Sabbath, he no doubt is appalled. God’s people are desecrating It! The Sabbath looked just like the other six days of the week. Keeping that day holy was a way to distinguish them from their neighbors and to honor God. The main focus of the Sabbath was to praise God and to bond with family, friends and neighbors. That day was not to resemble the others! What they’ve really done is return to practices before the captivity!
Nehemiah goes to the secular leaders first to make them aware of the unacceptable activities. He uses his men to close the wall gates on the eve of the Sabbath. Remember now the Jewish Sabbath is from sundown of day six to sundown of day seven. At first, the foreigners set up outside of the gates to carry on business as usual. It is here that Judah’s neighbors and probably some Jews realize that the Sabbath is not confined to a geographical location but a way of life. Do we get it? The merchants are warned by Nehemiah to leave or else! The Levites are commanded to cleanse themselves and to close the gates for the Sabbath.
Application: On the seventh day of creation, God declares the day be one of rest. In Exodus, the people are told to keep the Sabbath holy. The hustle and bustle of six days should not occur on the seventh day. It is not to burden people but to enhance their lives. Yes, there are people today who must work, but take heart; God knows your heart! Basically, we aren’t any different from our brothers and sisters in the Bible. We stray and must be led back to our gracious and forgiving God. We lose sight of the importance of rest, bonding and praise.
If you think about it, all of this is for our benefit. Our practices or lifestyles either draw us closer or push us away from God. You have to choose your course; God doesn’t force us. Why do you honor the Sabbath? Is it obligation or a response to His many blessings?