Sabbath School Lesson for December 7-13, 2019
Nehemiah 13 gives us an understanding of reforms that were needed in Israel…
- How the temple leadership had become corrupted (Sunday)
- Why the Levites weren’t able to serve at full capacity (Monday)
- What our tithes and offerings are meant to accomplish (Tuesday)
- Why Sabbathkeeping is important to our spiritual health (Wednesday)
- How to keep balanced in our keeping of the Sabbath (Thursday)
Chapter 13, the last chapter of Nehemiah, describes the reforms that were necessary after their leader had been absent for about fifteen years. During that time when Nehemiah was in Babylon, the nation of Israel had backslidden, and several reforms were necessary for them to reconnect with God.
The Levites’ lack of leadership contributed most to the country’s unhealthy spiritual condition and the practices that hindered them from following God in the way outlined in their vows.
Eliashab, the high priest who helped oversee the building of the wall (Nehemiah 3:1), was chiefly responsible for the corruption that had found its way into the temple operations. But, Nehemiah was not hesitant to take bold steps to return the country into safe paths of righteousness.
Memory Text: “And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should go and guard the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of Your mercy!” Nehemiah 13:22 NKJV
How merciful of God to provide a way back for His backslidden people. They must once again clean up their lifestyles and “guard the gates” of their hearts to prevent Satan from getting a foothold again.
Keeping the Sabbath holy would contribute to keeping themselves holy. Spending quality time with God is always the best way back to enjoying the fullness of life that God provides every follower who desires that heavenly relationship.
We, too, are apt to drift away from our original conversion experience, and need to often hit the re-set button, in order to get back on track with God.
Sunday: Tainted Temple Leadership
Early on, in the establishment of Israel in the land of Canaan, God instructed that certain pagan tribes were to be driven away or destroyed. They were not to become entangled with them through marriage or in any way. The practice of idolatry was not to be accepted or tolerated by God’s people.
There were, however, foreigners among them who joined them in worshiping God. So, we must remember that it was more than just being a foreigner that banned them from their association. It was the pagan rites and idolatrous behaviors that God recognized as a threat.
The Ammonite and Moabite tribes (Ammon and Moab were descendants of Lot) were considered dangerous enough to avoid. It was intermarriage with them at this time that caused the Jews to backslide and forget their vows to God and the covenant they had signed earlier.
The decision of Eliashib, the high priest, to allow Tobiah (who was an Ammonite and related by marriage) to occupy one of the temple rooms (one that was used for storing tithes and offerings) was most troubling. This enemy, who mocked them so fiercely while they were rebuilding the city, was thus established as one of the temple officials.
Read Nehemiah 13:1-3 and Deuteronomy 23:3-6. How and why were these prohibitions meant to keep God’s people away from idolatry?
Read Nehemiah 13:4, 5, 7 and Nehemiah 2:10, 19. Why was Nehemiah so opposed to this alliance with Tobiah? What was so wrong with him being in the temple?
Read Nehemiah 13:8, 9. Why was this a good step in making reforms and helping the people return to the true worship of God? What steps do we, as individuals, sometimes have to make in order to make room for God?
Monday: The Levites in the Fields
It was easy for Nehemiah to see that having Tobiah occupy one of the storerooms, where offerings were stored, caused the people to reduce their giving or even stop giving altogether. They could no longer trust where their gifts of love would go.
This reduced offering then required the Levites to go back to working their fields in order to support their families. The reduced staff would then hinder the upkeep and operation of the temple. The worship service suffered because the system of tithes and offerings was neglected. And, of course, this resulted in lowered spirituality among God’s people.
Nehemiah did what he had to do to restore the system of tithes and offerings. Without this avenue of interaction and giving between God and His children, they would never be in a position to improve their relationship with the Giver of all things.
In correcting the existing problems, Nehemiah did not, and could not, remove Eliashib from his inherited position as high priest. He did, however, appoint new faithful officials to oversee his work, causing the people to regain their trust in the tithing process.
Read Nehemiah 13:10, 11. Why was it thought best to go to the leaders first? Why is that usually a good plan, when we notice problems in the church?
Read Nehemiah 13:12, 13 and Acts 6:2, 3. What kind of people does God like to see in positions of leadership?
Read Nehemiah 13:14 and 5:19. What is Nehemiah really asking of God in these two prayers? Why would we want God to remember our good deeds?
Tuesday: Tithes and Offerings
As we saw in the story of Nehemiah, worship declined sharply when God’s people neglected the practice of giving systematically to His chosen vehicle for our salvation, the church. Therefore, any serious reform must include the giving of tithes and offerings, if we desire to grow closer to God.
In order to be close to God, we must be holy. And a large part of being holy is respecting what God has declared holy. This includes one tenth of our increase (the materials things that make up our life). See Leviticus 27:30.
We are commanded by God to return a tenth of our increase. The tithe is considered holy, much as the Sabbath is holy. For those whom God has especially blessed, offerings are also expected. This remains the most fair and equitable way of giving, which benefits both God and man.
Malachi 3:8-12, probably the most often-quoted verses about returning tithe, has given some to see their gifts to God as a means to receive blessings. They focus on God opening the windows of heaven for them. In reality, our gifts are an indication of our gratitude for blessings we have already received.
Beyond that, the tithe should be returned, regardless of blessings or lack of them in our lives. The reason we return tithe is because it belongs to God and He has commanded us to return it to Him. That is why Malachi claimed that denying God a tenth of our increase was the same as robbing God.
Read Malachi 3:8, 9. Why is not returning tithe considered robbery? How are we “cursed” by not observing God’s instruction in tithing?
Read Malachi 3:10 and 1 Chronicles 26:20. Who was to oversee the offerings brought to God?
Read Proverbs 3:9, 10 and Genesis 7:11. What might the windows of heaven being opened refer to? And why would rain be an important blessing to them and to us?
Wednesday: Treading the Winepresses on Sabbath
Much as robbing God of their tithes and offerings, God’s chosen people were also robbing Him of their time. One day of the week was pronounced holy by God since creation, just as the one-tenth tithe was holy.
Nehemiah became quite disturbed to see God’s holy Sabbath ignored, as people went about their daily business as usual on the seventh day. The people were denying themselves a major avenue of communication with God by not reserving that day for growing their relationship with Him.
It’s understandable that Nehemiah centered his attention on reforms involving tithing and Sabbathkeeping. The people already had knowledge of God’s will concerning these matters. They had previously been convinced of God’s love and justice in making these requirements. They just needed firm reminders to practice what they should have been preaching.
Some may question the stern manner that Nehemiah used, when encountering wrongdoing among God’s people. But, keep in mind, his background was in civic leadership. His bold actions may have been different, if they had came from one of the priests or Levites.
His rebukes and commands, even threats of retaliation if the merchants didn’t comply with his rules, seem harsh. But, even Jesus saw a need for a similar action when He turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple (John 2:13-16). Often, we see people in the Old Testament offer us a glimpse into the character and actions of the future Messiah.
Read Nehemiah 13:15-17. Why were these behaviors considered profaning the Sabbath?
Read Nehemiah 13:19. What other kinds of burdens should we not be carrying on the Sabbath day?
Read Nehemiah 13:21 and John 2:14-16. How were Nehemiah’s actions similar to what Jesus did at the temple one day? In what other ways does Jesus show Himself as both King (representing justice) and Priest (representing mercy) during His ministry on earth?
Thursday: Did Not Your Fathers Do Thus?
Certainly, Nehemiah was justified in his desire, as governor, to enforce Sabbathkeeping with sensible measures that were available to him. Closing the gates during sacred hours was a reasonable step in accomplishing his goal of reforming Israel. He was so invested in this endeavor that he offered his own servants to guard the gates (Nehemiah 13:19).
Jesus, also, had several conversations with religious leaders over appropriate ways to keep the Sabbath. Over the years, they had become extremely fanatical, having added numerous unneeded “rules” to be enforced in order for Sabbath to be kept to their satisfaction.
The Sabbath, in many ways, had become a burden to the people, and Jesus made it plain that God did not demand or desire such a strict observance. This reminds us that the purpose of Sabbath is to bring us closer to God and each other, to grow our relationships, not restrict them.
Although that would mean treating the seventh day differently than the rest of the week, it would not mean making life uncomfortable or even unbearable on that day either. It should be the most delightful time of the week, because all distractions of work and business can be set aside, freeing us to know God better.
Read Nehemiah 13:22 and 1 John 1:9. How do we become clean?
Read Luke 6:6-9. What principle here might help guide us in how to keep the Sabbath?
Read Matthew 23:23. How is it possible to carry a good thing too far? Why hadn’t all the rules and regulations that the Pharisees placed on the Sabbath been enough to help them keep the Sabbath? What were they missing?
Despite how you feel about tithing or keeping the Sabbath, God has directed all His followers to pay particular attention to these two behaviors that affect our ability to be holy and draw closer to Him. The tithe and the Sabbath both belong to God, and are thus declared holy, set apart for divine use.
As part of any revival or reformation, either individually or the church as a whole, these two institutions must be addressed. When they are properly understood and carried out, other troublesome lifestyle problems will fade. Because getting closer to God is the key to solving them.
As seen in our lesson this week, people tend to become lax in returning tithe and in keeping the Sabbath. But God is always available and anxious for us to reform our practices. Even when we get too fanatical in our performance of them, as did the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, God invites us to start afresh and do it right.
Giving cheerfully and making sure the Sabbath is a delightful day naturally make us feel closer to God. We are partners with Him financially, and friends with Him socially, when we properly carry out these instructions for holy living.
Next Week’s Lesson: Dealing With Bad Decisions
To read the Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly or see more resources for its study, go to https://www.absg.adventist.org/
Other Outlook blogposts by Teresa Thompson, are at http://outlookmag.org/author/teresathompson/