Having rebuilt the wall, Nehemiah recognized that a physical defense for the city would be no good without a change in the hearts of the people. So he gathered the people together to hear Ezra read the law of God and express repentance for the sins that had put them into exile in the first place (Neh. 6–11). There was also a great celebration at the dedication of the wall around Jerusalem, for the Lord had been faithful to grant the people success in their important endeavor (Neh. 12:27–47).
Yet the sins of Israel were extensive, and there are hints in Nehemiah that a large majority of the people were not willing to give them up. Chapter 13 notes that there was much going on that could have led to the reintroduction of idolatry into the covenant community. Finding that Eliashib the priest was related to Tobiah the Ammonite and had been trying to make the house of God into a house for the pagan ruler, Nehemiah kicked him out and cleansed the holy place (vv. 1–9).
Intermarriage with forbidden peoples was also a significant problem for the restored exiles (vv. 23–27). God had commanded Israel not to intermarry with the Ashdodites, Ammonites, and Moabites because there was always the potential that they would lead the hearts of the Jews to follow other gods (Deut. 17:17; 23:3–6). This was not an absolute prohibition, for the people of God were able to take spouses from these foreigners if they turned from their false gods and worshiped Yahweh, the covenant Lord of Israel (Ruth 1; 4). But apparently the foreign women who had been taken for wives in Israel were unbelievers. For many of the Jews in that day, having the spouse of one’s choice was more important than obeying God.
Other violations in Nehemiah’s day included the breaking of the Sabbath and the failure to provide for the clergy (Neh. 13:10–22). Evidently, these sins were renounced in public, but the hearts of a majority of the people remained hard. Thus, Nehemiah’s reformation did not last, and the restoration fizzled out until the coming of Christ. Yet every reformation in history has tended to lose steam after a while, as there is always the problem of those who profess faith without possessing it. The work of reformation never ends — the gospel must be recovered anew in every generation, so that those who pay only lip service to Christianity may actually become converted.
Consistent preaching of the gospel both to ourselves and to the world around us is necessary if reformation is to endure. We need to be reminded of the gravity of our sin and the greatness of our Savior in order to live in grateful obedience to His Word. Others must realize their lack of trust in Christ, so that they might become converted and their lives transformed. There will never be a point in this life when the gospel is unnecessary.