I’m referring to the Isralites’ celebration and obedience after they returned from their 70 year exile and re-built the wall of Jerusalem. In Nehemiah chapter 12 they have a major celebration:
Nehemiah 12 (ESV) 38 The other choir of those who gave thanks went to the north, and I followed them with half of the people, on the wall, above the Tower of the Ovens, to the Broad Wall, 39 and above the Gate of Ephraim, and by the Gate of Yeshanah, and by the Fish Gate and the Tower of Hananel and the Tower of the Hundred, to the Sheep Gate; and they came to a halt at the Gate of the Guard. 40 So both choirs of those who gave thanks stood in the house of God, and I and half of the officials with me; 41 and the priests Eliakim, Maaseiah, Miniamin, Micaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah, and Hananiah, with trumpets; 42 and Maaseiah, Shemaiah, Eleazar, Uzzi, Jehohanan, Malchijah, Elam, and Ezer. And the singers sang with Jezrahiah as their leader. 43 And they offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.
The context here is vital, and it really sticks out when you have gone through the Old Testament chronologically, as I just finished doing. If you read the OT straight through then Nehemiah comes before the halfway point. But if you read it chronologically then there are only 5 chapters after it (a Psalm plus the book of Micah). So it is basically at the end.
To reach this point you had to have read about dozens and dozens of judges and kings, most of whom were bad, the cycles of rebellion by the people (Baal worship, child sacrifice, and so much more), all the prophets warning them of doom, the Northern Kingdom taken away, then 200 years later the fall of Judah and the destruction of the temple. The people are taken away to Babylon. The books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and more describe in detail the grisly famine, pestilence, plague and sword that killed countless Israelites along with the humiliation of being carried away to other lands. Pretty bleak stuff.
But after 70 years in exile they get to come back, and in miraculous fashion — just like God promised. As Ezra and Nehemiah recount, there was great drama in King Cyrus letting the people return and in helping re-build the wall.
So in Nehemiah 12 the people celebrate. So what happens in Nehemiah 13, roughly 15 minutes later? Rampant disobedience: Foreigners in the temple, not paying the priests, violating the Sabbath.
Nehemiah 13 (ESV) 13 On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people. And in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, 2 for they did not meet the people of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3 As soon as the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.
4 Now before this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, and who was related to Tobiah, 5 prepared for Tobiah a large chamber where they had previously put the grain offering, the frankincense, the vessels, and the tithes of grain, wine, and oil, which were given by commandment to the Levites, singers, and gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests. 6 While this was taking place, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I went to the king. And after some time I asked leave of the king 7 and came to Jerusalem, and I then discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, preparing for him a chamber in the courts of the house of God. 8 And I was very angry, and I threw all the household furniture of Tobiah out of the chamber. 9 Then I gave orders, and they cleansed the chambers, and I brought back there the vessels of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense.
10 I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them, so that the Levites and the singers, who did the work, had fled each to his field. 11 So I confronted the officials and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” And I gathered them together and set them in their stations. 12 Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain, wine, and oil into the storehouses. 13 And I appointed as treasurers over the storehouses Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and Pedaiah of the Levites, and as their assistant Hanan the son of Zaccur, son of Mattaniah, for they were considered reliable, and their duty was to distribute to their brothers. 14 Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service.
15 In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. 16 Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself! 17 Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? 18 Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.”
19 As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day. 20 Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. 21 But I warned them and said to them, “Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.” From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. 22 Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.
As I read about their disobedience throughout the OT my first reaction is, “Why did you do that when you knew better? You were God’s chosen people! You knew him like no one else. You had direct access to his word, and you ignored it.” Then I’m convicted that I’m the same way. Think of how much we know about God and how easy it is to slip into sin. It is almost as if on our own we will continue to sin no matter how hard we try, and that we need someone with the power to save us and change us . . .
P.S. People who hold to the “mean OT God / nice NT God” need to read more of both. God’s grace towards the Israelites — and us — is profound.