Nehemiah: No Burdens on the Sabbath Day

4 min

Many men find great satisfaction in their work. It is natural and healthy for a man to find satisfaction in the success of his vocational achievements. Nehemiah in the Old Testament provides a splendid example of God’s prescribed pattern for work, rest, and worship. Nehemiah is best known for his tremendous accomplishment of building the walls of Jerusalem, but his faithful legacy of remembering the sabbath day to keep it holy is worthy of our consideration.

This biographical sketch begins in the year 444 B.C. at Shushan, the winter retreat palace of the Persian monarchs. A few years earlier, Esther and Mordecai had been God’s choice instruments to spare His people from destruction in this same city. Zerubbabel, a royal descendant of King David, had led the first return of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem and had begun the construction of the Second Temple. Prophets such as Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people of Judah to keep their priorities right and to finish the construction.

Ezra the scribe had led a second return of exiles to Jerusalem. He also instructed the priests regarding some areas they were neglecting to obey in God’s Law: to sanctify themselves, to keep the appointed feasts, and to make the appropriate sacrifices according to the Law of God. Although the Jews had returned to the land, rebuilt the Temple, and resumed the feasts and sacrifices that God had commanded, much remained to be done. The walls of Jerusalem still lay in ruins. Jerusalem’s political stability was under threat by petty tyrants such as Sanballat to the north and Tobiah to the east. Mixed marriages with pagans had compromised the population of Jerusalem. The Sabbath Day was regularly profaned in the marketplace.

The time was ripe for a man of God’s choosing to accomplish these needed reforms. God chose Nehemiah. A Jewish leader born in exile, Nehemiah served Artaxerxes as royal cupbearer—a post given only to the most loyal officials. During this time of unrest in the Persian Empire, many assassination plots abounded. Often, the means of carrying out such a plot came by slipping deadly poison into the wine of the monarch. The cupbearer’s duty was to select and taste the wine before serving it to the king. Usually, the position of cupbearer was filled by a trusted eunuch, a man whose loyalty was above question. Such a man was Nehemiah.

Hearing from a relative that the walls of Jerusalem lay in ruins, Nehemiah fasted and prayed that the Lord would restore Jerusalem in remembrance of His covenant. God answered Nehemiah’s prayer by giving him favor in the eyes of the king and sending Nehemiah to personally oversee the work of restoration.

Upon his arrival at Jerusalem, Nehemiah first made a secretive evening inspection of the ruined walls. On horseback and under the cover of darkness, the Jewish leader examined the work to be done. Next, he presented his plan to the leaders of Jerusalem. Soon families were set to work. Nehemiah Chapter 3 details how each family was assigned a particular section of the wall on which to work that was near their own abode. Everyone worked, and fathers labored alongside their daughters (verse 12). Even men who were unfamiliar with manual labor, such as goldsmiths and perfume makers, did their part in restoring the city wall (verse 8). 

The enemies of God did all that they could to stop the work. They tried to distract Nehemiah by mocking him, slandering him, and finally attempting to assassinate him. But Nehemiah would not be turned aside from the work to which God had called him. This man of God boldly answered his enemies when they arranged to have a “meeting” with him: “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3).

Nehemiah kept his men at their tasks. He wisely instructed the people to work with the trowel for rebuilding in one hand and the sword for defending in the other hand (Nehemiah 4:17). Incredibly, the work that Nehemiah had set out to do was finished in less than two months; the huge task was completed in only fifty-two days!

But in all his work, Nehemiah did not forget the day of rest. Nehemiah the governor began to institute some reforms in Jerusalem. One of the most important things that he did was to carefully regulate a renewed observance of the Sabbath Day.

Nehemiah describes what he observed in Nehemiah 13:15–16: “In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals. There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem.”

His response was decisive and very typical of Nehemiah. “Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath” (Nehemiah 13:17–18).

Nehemiah used his lawful authority as governor to order the gates of Jerusalem to be shut and placed under strict guard on the evening before the sabbath so that “there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day” (Nehemiah 13:19). Nehemiah concludes his account with these words: “And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy” (Nehemiah 13:22).

The Lord did remember this man of God. Like Nehemiah, each one of us has been given by God a “great work” to do. A great work for God demands diligence, perseverance, and watchfulness. But Nehemiah’s example teaches us that, as the Lord is interested in our work, He is also attentive to our rest and worship.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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