Chapter 13:15-22 (ESV) - In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself! 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. Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said to them, “Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.” From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.
Question to consider: What do you think could have been a better response from Nehemiah rather than use the threat of force against the Gentiles coming into the city?
At the end of chapter twelve and beginning of chapter thirteen, Nehemiah left Jerusalem after the people had signed an agreement dedicating themselves to keeping the Law, and actions and appointments were put in place to that end. Remember that I had mentioned at that time I wish it could have ended with “they lived happily ever after.” Instead we read in Nehemiah’s epilogue that the priest Eliashib failed in his duties to take care of the house of God and instead made a place for his relative, Tobiah the Ammonite.
Now we read that the people were doing work on the Sabbath and bringing their harvests into the holy city even though it directly violated the Law to do so. Tyrians, people from another nation, were allowed to live in the city, and they violated the Sabbath by selling their goods to the people of Judah. I’m sure the people of Judah thought they had found a loophole in the Law with this, for the Tyrians were Gentiles. Gentiles wouldn’t be held to the Law of Sabbath, and the Jews were technically not “working” if they were merely buying the available wares. Obviously, Nehemiah did not see it that way, for he accused them of profaning the Sabbath. As a short-term solution, he physically obstructed the ability of the Gentiles to sell their wares on the Sabbath.
Maybe it was events like this that gave rise to the 39 categories of what is considered work on the Sabbath. However, I would argue that getting into the minutiae of defining what constitutes work was not the right solution to this problem. Today, we continue to pass law after law and dedicate thousands of pages to specifically account for all the possible ways a law can be exploited by a legal team. How well is that working out?
This was a heart issue. God gave the Sabbath to ensure that the worker would have the opportunity to rest from their labor and set aside everything that could interfere with their worship of God for one day each week. At the time this command was given, the people had spent hundreds of years in slavery where they were afforded no such rest. Ultimately, it would be fulfilled in Christ who redeemed us from our slavery to sin and gave us rest from works of the Law. In Christ, we have also been reborn with a heart of flesh. While we still war against our fleshly desires, we also are being renewed day by day with a desire to know and walk more closely with God.
Instead of writing additional definitions of work or setting up guard posts to keep from violating the Law, the emphasis should have been to do the things that encouraged the people to grow closer to God. Those who love God more than their pocketbook will look for ways to worship Him and honor Him with their time.
Dear heavenly father, please give us a heart of flesh that seeks to confess our sins and walk more closely with You. Thank You for sending Your Spirit to convict us of sin and mold us into the image of Christ. Amen.