Most people are familiar with Nehemiah’s leadership in getting the wall of Jerusalem built despite opposition. I have heard a number of sermons about working together, persevering, and standing up against opposition. But when is the last time you heard a sermon about cursing, striking, and pulling out the hair of sinful people in your church from Nehemiah 13?
In the context, Nehemiah had returned to Jerusalem to find the people returning to their ungodly ways. He found Tobiah living in the temple, people disregarding the Sabbath, and Jewish people married to Philistines, Ammonites, and Moabites. Nehemiah’s response to the first problem was to throw Tobiah’s belongings out of the temple and demand that the priests cleanse the room and start using it for its intended purpose (13:4-9). The second situation was handled by warning the people, contending with the nobles, and warning the merchants that he would “lay hands on them” if they returned on the Sabbath (13:15-22). (I’m pretty sure they weren’t thinking ordination.)
Up to this point, we all are with Nehemiah. The people needed to be straightened out and he found a way to do that. But what about the way he handled the third problem? When Nehemiah found that certain Israelites had married Philistines, Ammonites, and Moabites, he “contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear” not to do it anymore. Hmm… I think most people would rather overlook what happened here. Wasn’t Nehemiah a bit overzealous? Maybe not.
Are there not some things so important that extreme measures must be taken? In Nehemiah’s case, the answer would be yes. Think context here. The people of Israel and Judah had been sent into captivity under God’s curse because they rejected him and the Law. For seventy years, they had been captive in Babylon because of their sins against God. And now that the people had been given permission to return to the land, they quickly forgot the past. This was a big deal not only to Nehemiah but to God. What were the people thinking? Did they want God’s judgment to fall on them again? This is why Nehemiah’s reaction was so strong.
Should Christians do the same? Should we pronounce a curse on, strike, and pull out the hair of Christians who choose to return to their former sins? No, I don’t think so. But I do think that we should take a greater offense to sin than we normally do. Like Nehemiah we should view sin as a great wickedness against God. And when we see other Christians living in such a way as to anger him and influence others to sin, we should speak out and respond in such a way that shows the offender and those in the Church how serious his sin is. I’m not sure we do much of that anymore. Perhaps our desire to distance ourselves from the fighting fundamentalists of the past has taken the sting out of sin. Perhaps our emphasis on God’s love has led to license. And perhaps we need a few more Nehemiahs to shake things up.