Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.” As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day. – Nehemiah 13:17-19 ESV
Nehemiah was an Old Testament prophet who went back to Jerusalem and helped to begin rebuilding the wall and temple there. It was far more than just a physical restoration, however. The people hadn’t kept up on what the Law said and didn’t follow it, sometimes even when they did know what it said. Nehemiah came in to build the physical city, but also to begin restoring the spiritual state of the people’s hearts. One example of how he does this can teach us a great deal about what it takes to make Godly change happen in our lives.
- Calling a spade a spade.
When Nehemiah came back, he found that there was a thriving market happening in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. They were working and selling as if it were any other day of the week. Upset, Nehemiah challenged the leaders about and called them out on it. He reminded them that their fathers had done this and they had been punished for it.
Often we are afraid to challenge things in our lives, especially things that have gone on for a long time or are in some way bringing us benefit. Jerusalem was a wreck and while there was some returning of the economy, it was hardly the thriving city it had been. While the scriptures don’t tell us what the reaction to Nehemiah’s cleansing was, it is not difficult to image that there were many people who didn’t want to lose the market and the money that went along with it.
Nothing about the situation or any seeming benefit from it caused Nehemiah to see sin as anything other than sin. He knew that God wanted His people to keep the Sabbath holy, and he could also clearly see that they weren’t doing that. Instead of pandering or trying to convince people to agree with him first, he came out and talked about the sin.
In addition to this being a way of life, many of the merchants weren’t Jews. They didn’t have to follow the laws the Jews did. It might have been tempting to say that they could stay. But, since the non-Jews selling to the Jews was profaning the Sabbath just as much, Nehemiah didn’t even let that argument stand. Nothing would profane the Sabbath as long as Nehemiah had something to do about it.
- Disrupting everyday living.
In order to make the changes happen, Nehemiah locked the gates at the beginning of Sabbath (sundown on Friday). No one could come in to sell for the full Sabbath day. This is the crux of the change. Nehemiah didn’t start a petition or a committee to talk about ways to phase out the profaning of the Sabbath. He drew a line and said, no more. He found a way to stop the sin from continuing on.
We must be willing to do this in our lives. Unfortunately, it’s not often as obvious or as easy as locking a gate to keep merchants out. Our troubles usually are more entwined with people and circumstances. No matter how complex the situation or how much we really like what we’re doing, as soon as we are enlightened to the sin, we must be willing to draw lines and make changes. What do you value more: the benefits of sin in your life, or a relationship of trust built with God through obedience?
- Protecting our interests
This also isn’t just a once and done event. After locking the gates, Nehemiah saw that some of the merchants had set up camp outside the city. How often does this happen? Just as we feel we’ve made progress on getting sin out of the center of us, we find that it’s set up a place right outside the door. It’s waiting right nearby to tempt us and try to take advantage of the first slip up we make.
Nehemiah knew that wasn’t a good option either. He went to the camped out people and threatened them if they didn’t move along. Sounds extreme, but Nehemiah knew that concession to temptation, even if in and of itself it isn’t a sin, is the first step toward failure. The camping out merchants had to go because they only reason they were there is to take advantage of a mistake.
We need to protect ourselves with as much wisdom as Nehemiah. Don’t allow a backup plan to exist for if you mess up. Don’t keep a temptation close at hand for when you mess up; by keeping it close, it becomes a guarantee of your failure! If your heart wants your troubles nearby, it’s most likely because transformation hasn’t truly happened. Guilt may have happened, even conviction might have happened. However, transformation hasn’t.
Transformation happens when we encounter God and His presence alters our very being to make us want Him more than anything else. Transformation makes us take precautions that protect our best interests: obedience. No more fudging or hiding a reserve supply of whatever it is that we’re into in the back of the closet. We draw clear lines and we find ways to remove the lingering temptation. Accountability with others who love us and want the best for us is one way that we can do this.
- In it for the long haul
Just because they finally got the Sabbath issues ironed out when it came to the merchants, there were more Sabbaths ahead. We can’t just get things right for the day and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. This is about establishing habits that set us up for a deeper relationship with God. It doesn’t mean striving for perfection, that’s not the goal. The goal is a real relationship with God and real relationships require give and take and showing up day after day, messy or dirty or late or whatever. Show up to be with God as you are day in and day out and watch the power that He allows to flow into your life.