In order to get to this morning’s lesson, we have to look at two background items. As you know, Nehemiah is one of the Bible’s historical books; it is not poetry or prophesy. Yet despite being history, like Acts, for example – it is filled with the application of solid theology. These nine verses describe Nehemiah’s anger at finding Tobiah residing in an apartment in the Temple. It “grieved him sore,” and after tossing the man out on his ear, he ordered the cleansing of the rooms he had been using. That probably involved the same purification ceremony we considered Wednesday from chapter 12.
But that is not my subject for this morning – it only lays in the background. The old fashioned boxer – before modern mixed martial arts – the boxer’s only weapons were his hands. But vitally important to the power of his punch was the stability of his feet. Before we get to the punch of this paragraph, we have to plant both feet properly on a good, solid foundation.
Two things lay in the background of this scripture.
Verse 1 – “On (the day of the dedication) they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people; and therein was found written (in Deuteronomy 23), that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever; Because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, that he should curse them: howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing.” This takes us back to the history we find in Numbers 22-24.
As Israel was on their slow speed journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, they neared the borders of some of their cousins – the Ammonites and Moabites. I call them cousins because these two nations descended from the children of Abraham’s nephew – Lot. Genesis 19 describes Lot’s two daughters. Verse 37 says, “And the firstborn bare a son, and called his name Moab: the same is the father of the Moabites unto this day.” The next verse adds, “And the younger, she also bare a son, and called his name Benammi: the same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day.” Both historically and spiritually, Moab and Ammon almost always acted in unison, sometimes even sharing the same king. As Israel approached their land, Jehovah, in His grace, commanded Moses – “Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle: for I will not give thee of their land for a possession; because I have given Ar unto the children of Lot for a possession.” Ammon and Moab were off limits to Israel, simply because God said so. It was not because they were righteous, or they were friends of Israel. They may have been cousins, but the children of Lot were as sinful as their father and mothers had been. Yet because of His nature, God was being gracious towards them, keeping them from the sword of Israel. Perhaps you, too, are enjoying the Lord’s blessings – while living in rejection of His authority. But I guarantee that this is a temporary situation which does not prove that you are safe from God’s wrath.
Balak, the king of the Moabites, in his faithlessness and fear, couldn’t believe that the people of God were not just like himself – bloodthirsty and disobedient to the Lord. So he hired a corrupt religious huckster named Balaam to pronounce a curse upon Israel. Balaam knew God well enough to do his best to avoid this volatile situation, but Balak insisted and kept raising the price of iniquity until the corrupt priest couldn’t say “no.” I hope you know the story of Balaam’s ass, as it attempted to avoid one of the Lord’s angels. God even permitted the animal to speak to Balaam – but the reward he was offered spoke more loudly. Finally the king and his religious concubine stood on a mountain overlooking the camp of Israel. Balak said, “Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel.” But Balaam again protested, “How can I curse whom God hath not cursed? Or how shall I defy, whom the LORD hath not defied?” When Balaam finally opened his mouth to utter his curse, the words which came out were all positive. More than once he attempted to curse Israel, but he failed each time, because God is truly sovereign. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” And the tongue of the false prophet is just as firmly in God’s hand as the heart of the king. Eventually Balaam earned his big fee by teaching Balak how to corrupt Israel through sin, but throughout it all, he could not curse what God had not cursed. And all of that invoked God’s condemnation in Deuteronomy 23:3-4 – “An Ammonite or Moabite shall NOT enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they NOT enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever: because they met you not with bread and with water in the way when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee.”
Here in chapter 13, Nehemiah had one foot firmly planted on the divine decree of Deuteronomy. And he had the other foot on the neck on Tobiah, a part-time resident in God’s temple. Tobiah’s name is mentioned thirteen times in this book. The first three call him, “Tobiah, the servant, the AMMONITE” – Nehemiah 2:10; 2:19 and 4:3. This powerful man, a friend of Sanballat, was forbidden by God to have the privileges which he enjoyed. And Nehemiah threw him out – dumping his furniture into the street.
Would you have reacted to Tobiah the way that Nehemiah did? What sort of person are you? Are you a “glass is half full” or the “glass is half empty” sort of person? Are you the kind to give a man the benefit of the doubt, or do you say in your haste with the Psalmist, “All men are liars”? Are you quick to apply God’s laws to others, especially when you dislike them – or do you fear to apply them because you know yourself to be just another sinner saved by grace? God’s words in Deuteronomy 23 are crystal clear, but Eliashib, the priest, gave to Tobiah some special privileges, probably receiving privileges in return. It doesn’t appear that Nehemiah even spoke to Tobiah – he just took action. “ I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber.”
One of the lessons of this part of the chapter is the need to obey God. But perhaps there are some peripheral lessons as well. For example, our obedience can be carried out with a variety of different attitudes – some more godly than others. We can be cold, and we can be mean, in our obedience. We can be mindlessly robotic, or we can be caringly considerate and human. We can obey with love to God and even to the sinner, or we can obey with hatred in our hearts. I suppose that Tobiah could have been politely asked to leave the temple. But Nehemiah doesn’t appear to me to be a “politely asking” sort of man – although I might be mistaken. Was that based on Nehemiah’s temperament, or was it founded on Tobiah’s past treatment of Nehemiah? I suppose it doesn’t matter, because Tobiah doesn’t appear to be the sort of man moved by politeness. This was the man who laughed at Nehemiah when he proposed to rebuild the wall. It was he who said, “Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.”
This is the background behind the story. And this is the history of the first part of Nehemiah 13. Now let me turn to the theology contained here – the blessed theological statement.
“Howbeit our God turned the curse (of Balaam) into a blessing.”
Our God is in the curse reversing business. When it comes to the hatred, curses and evil prayers of sinners, the robe of Christ’s righteousness becomes a rain-slicker or an hazmat suit for the saint inside. The curses of the Balaams of life may be either turned into blessings or simply cast aside by our divine Intercessor like the attacks of beautiful butterflies.
In Psalm 103, David was feeling pretty bruised up; he was in pain. But he was neither brooding nor feeling sorry for himself – he was reaching out to the Lord through prayer. “Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise; For the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me: they have spoken against me with a lying tongue. They compassed me about also with words of hatred; and fought against me without a cause. For my love they are my adversaries: but I give myself unto prayer. And they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love.” David concludes, “Help me, O LORD my God: O save me according to thy mercy: That they may know that this is thy hand; that thou, LORD, hast done it. Let them curse, but bless thou: when they arise, let them be ashamed; but let thy servant rejoice. Let mine adversaries be clothed with shame, and let them cover themselves with their own confusion, as with a mantle. I will greatly praise the LORD with my mouth; yea, I will praise him among the multitude. For he shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul.”
This Psalm teaches several lessons. First, he reminds us to pray about the things which bother us. And in those prayers be sure to leave your burden with the Lord; don’t present it and then take it back. Third, he teaches us to trust God to turn those curses into blessings – “Let them curse, but bless thou.” And through it all, we are reminded to praise the Lord for reversing those cursings.
There are dozens of cases in the Bible where curses were thrown at God’s people, but nothing came of them. What did the people think of Noah as the waters began to rise? Did they shout at the ark? Did they, after pleading for the door to reopened, eventually they begin to curse Noah and God? If they did, what did it accomplish? And then there were those nasty teenagers who cursed and taunted Elijah in II Kings 2. Those boys became bear food.
And do you remember the young shepherd, David, when he faced mighty Goliath? “The Philistine came on and drew near unto David; and the man that bare the shield went before him. And when the Philistine looked about, and saw David, he disdained him: for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance. And the Philistine said unto David, Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves? And the Philistine CURSED David by his gods.” You all know how that curse ended.
There is II Samuel 16:5 – “When king David came to Bahurim (escaping an assassination attempt), behold, thence came out a man of the family of the house of Saul, whose name was Shimei, the son of Gera: he came forth, and CURSED still as he came.” Shimei hoped and expected David to die at the hand of Absalom, but God reversed his cursing. In fact, eventually it ended in the execution of Shimei.
Another case of useless curses came from the lips of foolish King Saul. After Jonathan and his armorbearer initiated a defeat of the Philistines, Saul said, “CURSED be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies. So none of the people tasted any food.” “But Jonathan heard not when his father charged the people with the oath: wherefore he put forth the end of the rod that was in his hand, and dipped it in an honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes were enlightened. Then answered one of the people, and said, Thy father straitly charged the people with an oath, saying, CURSED be the man that eateth any food this day. And the people were faint. Then said Jonathan, My father hath troubled the land: see, I pray you, how mine eyes have been enlightened, because I tasted a little of this honey. How much more, if haply the people had eaten freely to day of the spoil of their enemies which they found? for had there not been now a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?”
In addition cases of useless curses, there are those where sinners expressed their hated God’s people, but the Lord stepped in to turn their curses into blessings. Besides that of Balaam, one notable example is Joseph, the son of Jacob, who was cursed and sent into Egyptian slavery. His brother’s hatred and curses were turned into salvation for the whole family.
The point is – let the wicked curse. Sticks and stones may break my bones but names, words and curses, cannot physically hurt me. They can damage my ego and hurt my feelings, but that is my problem not the nature of the curse itself, and it’s certainly not indicative of any failure in the Lord. The saint who is wearing the whole armor of God, need not fear the slings and arrows of evil lips and hearts. Proverbs 26:2 – “As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, so the curse causeless shall not come.”
But while the curses of our fellow sinners are not necessarily significant, there are other curses which are. There are at least four inter-related DIVINE curses, which need serious consideration. But praise to the Lord, our God can turn even His own curses into blessings.
The curses of God.
When ADAM sinned against the Lord, one of the results was God’s curse upon CREATION. Genesis 3:17 – “And unto Adam (God) said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: CURSED is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Isaiah 24 may be talking about Israel, but the implication is more widespread than just one nation. “Behold, the LORD maketh the EARTH empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof. And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the servant, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the taker of usury, so with the giver of usury to him. The land shall be utterly emptied, and utterly spoiled: for the LORD hath spoken this word. The EARTH mourneth and fadeth away, the world languisheth and fadeth away, the haughty people of the earth do languish. The EARTH also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore hath the CURSE devoured the earth, and they that dwell therein are desolate: therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men left.”
One of the effects of creation’s curse is death. Everything dies. Trees and flowers – things which never sinned against God, die – all because of the curse of Adam’s sin. Pets die, and sometimes sparrows, and even eagles, fall lifelessly to the ground. Wolves and lions get old and die of disease. Doctors, nutritionists and fitness experts die of heart attacks and cancer. I know we can say that humans die because they are sinners – in fact, we must repeat that constantly. But non-sinful things die as well – as a result of the curse God placed on creation because of Adam’s sin.
But the Lord has also promised to reverse that curse, just as He did the curse of Balaam. Paul speaks of it in Romans 8 – “For the creature (the creation) was made subject to (death and) vanity (emptiness and uselessness), not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” One day Jehovah is going to reverse the curse of death itself. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Some day soon, Christ will reign in sovereignty over His creation “till he hath put all enemies under his feet.” And “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” – I Corinthians 15.
Closely related to the curse of creation and the curse of death is the curse of the law and sin. In Deuteronomy – in the book describing the second giving of the law, there is a chapter filled with curses – God’s curses. Deuteronomy 27 says among many other things, “Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image… “Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger…” “Cursed be he that taketh reward to slay an innocent person (like the abortionists do)…” “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them. And the all the people shall say, Amen.” Earlier in Deuteronomy 11 Moses says, “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse; A blessing, if ye obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day: And a curse, if ye will not obey the commandments of the LORD your God…” Jeremiah reiterated God’s curses hundreds of year after Moses in chapter 11. “The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, Hear ye the words of this COVENANT, and speak unto the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem; And say thou unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel; CURSED be the man that obeyeth not the words of this covenant, Which I commanded your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt….”
There is a curse upon every soul which does not fully comply with God’s moral laws. It is not Jeremiah’s curse or Moses’ curse, but the curse of the Creator Himself. It is unalterable – unchangeable. Death is the guaranteed result of sin – or perhaps we should say the “punishment” for sin. God said in Ezekiel 18:4 – “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”
That is God’s curse. There is nothing WE can do to stop or even to slow the curse which the Almighty God has proclaimed. But there is one – only One – who can reverse the curse. The God who established it in the first place has created a solution.
In Galatians 3 the Apostle boldly proclaims – “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the CURSE: for it is written, CURSED is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But … Christ hath redeemed US from the CURSE of the law, being made a CURSE for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.”
It took a miracle of grace, but the curse of God against the sinner is cancelled by Christ in every sinner who repents and trusts the Saviour. Oh, physical death is still on the table and in our futures, because the curse on creation still stands at this point. But the curse of sin against the repentant believer has been reversed because Christ took that curse upon himself on that believer’s behalf. So for the believer “our God turned the curse into a blessing.” ‘Tis far, far better to be a sinner saved by grace than even to have never sinned at all.
I hope that you can say with me this morning, “Christ has turned the curse of my sin into the glory of His salvation.” I pray that you know the blessing of the pardon of sin. Remember, it doesn’t come through our works or efforts – our church or the ordinances we have received. It has been bought with the sacrificial blood of Christ. Therefore I say to you once again, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”