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The Scriptorium

So Much for the Sabbath

The people ignored the Sabbath. Nehemiah 13.15-22

Return from Exile: Nehemiah 13 (4)

Pray Psalm 68.19, 20.
Blessed be the Lord,
Who daily loads us with benefits,
The God of our salvation!
Our God is the God of salvation;
And to GOD the Lord belong escapes from death.

Sing Psalm 68.19, 20, 32, 33
(O Store Gud: How Great Thou Art)
Blessed be the LORD, our burden daily bearing,
O God, our God, our Savior and our King!
With us salvation and deliv’rance sharing,
He life from death His people daily brings.
Refrain vv. 32, 33
Sing to the LORD, O kingdoms of the earth!
Ancient of Days—praise Him on high!
Behold He speaks; His Word is going forth;
Ancient of Days—praise Him on high!

Read Nehemiah 13.1-22; meditate on verses 15-22.


1. What were the people doing?

2. How did Nehemiah respond?

At the same time the storerooms of the temple were being depleted, the marketplaces of Jerusalem were thriving. People were bringing all their products and wares and inviting the merchants from pagan Tyre to join them, as they prospered in the blessings of the Lord and violated His Sabbath.


Nehemiah reminded the people of the curse they had invoked on themselves when they renewed covenant with God (v. 15). Then he laid into the rulers who had allowed this lapse into wickedness to occur (vv. 17, 18). He reminded the rulers that it was just this kind of behavior for which God had sent them into captivity. Now here they were encouraging the same kind of conduct.

Captive still, it seems. Just like many today for whom the Sabbath is a day for doing whatever we want, once, of course, we have tipped our hat to God in the morning.

Nehemiah took immediate action, and though he shut down the Sabbath commerce (vv. 20-22), he could not reform the hearts of the people. They would conform for the time, but once Nehemiah was gone, they would be back to their old Sabbath-breaking ways. Seeming to know this, Nehemiah prayed to be spared the wrath of God against His people (v. 22). We should do the same.

Treasures Old and New: Matthew 13.52; Psalm 119.162
“On that day they read from the Book of Moses…” (Neh. 13.1).
That would have included all the specific laws about obedient living—including the rules regarding the Sabbath. But alas, they were not taken seriously by the people of Jerusalem. They suffered severe memory lapses where the Law of God was concerned.

Nehemiah wisely posed several questions to the people:
1. Why is the house of God forsaken? (Neh. 13.11)
2. What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day? (Neh. 13.17)
3. Did not your fathers do thus?
4. Did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? (Neh. 13.18)
And then he asked the offending merchants a question:
Why do you spend the night around the wall? (Neh. 13.21)

There is an art to asking good questions, and Nehemiah knew how to get to the heart of an issue with his.

What were the people of Jerusalem actually doing on the Sabbath?
1. They were treading wine presses.
2. They were bringing in sheaves.
3. They were loading donkeys with wine, grapes, figs, and other burdens.

Let’s see how God would like us to spend the Sabbath:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God.
In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Ex. 20.8-11).

How did their “To Do” list measure up with God’s “To Don’t Today” strictures?

How about our Sabbath Days?
“Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice…” (1 Sam. 15.22).
“To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (Prov. 21.3).
“If you love Me, keep My commandments” (Jn. 14.15).

Obedience through omission takes the day on the Sabbath! Rest, worship, rest. Simple.

For reflection
1. The people of Nehemiah’s day did not take keeping the Sabbath seriously. Do we? Do you?

2. What does it mean to “hallow” the Lord’s Day?

3. Israel was taken into captivity for not keeping the Sabbath. If we refuse to honor the Lord’s Day, should we expect anything else? Explain.

Religion never prospers while Sabbaths are trodden under foot. No wonder there was a general decay of religion, and corruption of manners among the Jews, when they forsook the sanctuary and profaned the Sabbath. Those little consider what an evil they do, who profane the Sabbath. Matthew Henry (1662-1714), Commentary on Nehemiah 13.15-22

Pray Psalm 68.26-35.
Ask God to show you how to make the best use of the Lord’s Day. Wait on Him in prayer to help you prepare well for a day of rest in Him and His redemption.

Sing Psalm 68.26-35.
(O Store Gud: How Great Thou Art)
Bless God in all His holy congregations,
even the LORD, the Fountainhead of grace.
He calls His people forth from all the nations
and gathers them before His glorious face.
Refrain vv. 32, 33
Sing to the LORD, O kingdoms of the earth!
Ancient of Days—praise Him on high!
Behold He speaks; His Word is going forth;
Ancient of Days—praise Him on high!

To You, O God, are strength and exaltation;
You fill the skies and dwell in holy awe!
To us You give strength, pow’r, and full salvation.
Blessed be Your Name, our strong, majestic God!

T. M. and Susie Moore

Two books can help us understand our own captivity and lead us to seek revival and renewal in the Lord. The Church Captive asks us to consider the ways the Church today has become captive to the world. And Revived! can help us find the way to renewal. Learn more and order your free copies by clicking here and here.

Support for Scriptorium comes from our faithful and generous God, who moves our readers to share financially in our work. If this article was helpful, please give Him thanks and praise.

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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. For sources of all quotations, see the weekly PDF of this study. All psalms for singing are from The Ailbe Psalteravailable free by clicking here.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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