We have here one instance more of Nehemiah’s pious zeal for the purifying of his countrymen as a peculiar people to God; that was the thing he aimed at in the use of his power, not the enriching of himself. See here,
I. How they had corrupted themselves by marrying strange wives. This was complained of in Ezra’s time, and much done towards a reformation, Ezra 9:1-10:44 But, when the unclean spirit is cast out, if a watchful eye be not kept upon him, he will re-enter; so he did here. Though in Ezra’s time those that had married strange wives were forced to put them away, which could not but occasion trouble and confusion in families, yet others would not take warning. Nitimur in vetitum—we still lean towards what is forbidden. Nehemiah, like a good governor, enquired into the state of the families of those that were under his charge, that he might reform what was amiss in them, and so heal the streams by healing the springs. 1. He enquired whence they had their wives, and found that many of the Jews had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab (Neh. 13:23), either because they were fond of what was far-fetched or because they hoped by these alliances to strengthen and enrich themselves. See how God by the prophet reproves this, Mal. 2:11. Judah has dealt treacherously, and broken covenant with God, the covenant made in Ezra’s time with reference to this very thing; he has profaned the holiness of the Lord by marrying the daughter (that is, the worshipper) of a strange god. 2. He talked with the children, and found they were children of strangers, for their speech betrayed them. The children were bred up with their mothers, and learned of them and their nurses and servants to speak, so that they could not speak the Jews’ language, could not speak it at all, or not readily, or not purely, but half in the speech of Ashdod, or Ammon, or Moab, according as the country was which the mother was a native of. Observe, (1.) Children, in their childhood, learn much of their mothers. Partus sequitur ventrem—they are prone to imitate their mothers. (2.) If either side be bad, the corrupt nature will incline the children to take after that, which is a good reason why Christians should not be unequally yoked. (3.) In the education of children great care should be taken about the government of their tongues, that they learn not the language of Ashdod, any impious or impure talk, any corrupt communication.
II. What course Nehemiah took to purge out this corruption, when he discovered how much it had prevailed.
1. He showed them the evil of it, and the obligation he lay under to witness against it. He did not seek an occasion against them, but this was an iniquity to be punished by the judge, and which he must by no means connive at (Neh. 13:27): “Shall we hearken to you, who endeavour to palliate and excuse it? No, it is an evil, a great evil, it is a transgression against our God, to marry strange wives, and we must do our utmost to put a stop to it. You beg that they may not be divorced from you, but we cannot hearken to you, for there is no other remedy to clear us from the guilt and prevent infection.” (1.) He quotes a precept, to prove that it was in itself a great sin; and makes them swear to that precept: You shall not give your daughters unto their sons, etc., which is taken from Deut. 7:3. When we would reclaim people from sin we must show them the sinfulness of it in the glass of the commandment. (2.) He quotes a precedent, to show the pernicious consequences of it, which made it necessary to be animadverted upon by the government (Neh. 13:26): Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? The falls of great and good men are recorded in order that we may take warning by them to shun the temptations which they were overcome by. Solomon was famous for wisdom; there was no king like him for it; yet, when he married strange wives, his wisdom could not secure him from their snares, nay, it departed from him, and he did very foolishly. He was beloved of God, but his marrying strange wives threw him out of God’s favour, and went near to extinguish the holy fire of grace in his soul: he was king over all Israel; but his doing this occasioned the loss of ten of his twelve tribes. You plead that you can marry strange wives and yet retain the purity of Israelites; but Solomon himself could not; even him did outlandish women cause to sin. Therefore let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall when he runs upon such a precipice.
2. He showed himself highly displeased at it, that he might awaken them to a due sense of the evil of it: He contended with them, Neh. 13:25. They offered to justify themselves in what they did, but he showed them how frivolous their excuses were, and argued it warmly with them. When he had silenced them he cursed them, that is, he denounced the judgments of God against them, and showed them what their sin deserved. He then picked out some of them that were more obstinate than the rest, and fit to be made examples, and smote them (that is, ordered them to be beaten by the proper officers according to the law, Deut. 25:2, 3), to which he added this further mark of infamy that he plucked off their hair, or cut or shaved it off; for it may so be understood. Perhaps they had prided themselves in their hair, and therefore he took it off to deform and humble them, and put them to shame; it was, in effect, to stigmatize them, at least for a time. Ezra, in this case, had plucked off his own hair, in holy sorrow for the sin; Nehemiah plucked off their hair, in a holy indignation at the sinners. See the different tempers of wise, and good, and useful men, and the divers graces, as well as divers gifts, of the same Spirit.
3. He obliged them not to take any more such wives, and separated those whom they had taken: He cleansed them from all strangers, both men and women (Neh. 13:30), and made them promise with an oath that they would never do so again, Neh. 13:25. Thus did he try all ways and means to put a stop to this mischief and to prevent another relapse into this disease.
4. He took particular care of the priests’ families, that they might not lie under this stain, this guilt. He found, upon enquiry, that a branch of the high priest’s own family, one of his grandsons, had married a daughter of Sanballat, that notorious enemy of the Jews (Neh. 2:10; 4:1), and so had, in effect, twisted interests with the Samaritans, Neh. 13:28. How little love had that man either to God or his country who could make himself in duty and interest a friend to him that was a sworn enemy to both. It seems this young priest would not put away his wife, and therefore Nehemiah chased him from him, deprived him, degraded him, and made him for ever incapable of the priesthood. Josephus says that this expelled priest was Manasseh, and that when Nehemiah drove him away he went to his father-in-law Sanballat, who built him a temple upon Mount Gerazim, like that at Jerusalem, and promised him he should be high priest in it, and that then was laid the foundation of the Samaritans’ pretensions, which continued warm to our Saviour’s time. John 4:20; Our fathers worshipped in this mountain. When Nehemiah had thus expelled one that had forfeited the honour of the priesthood he again posted the priests and Levites every one in his business, Neh. 13:30. It was no loss to them to part with one that was the scandal of their cloth; the work would be done better without him. When Judas had gone out Christ said, Now is the Son of Man glorified, John 13:30, 31. Here are Nehemiah’s prayers on this occasion. (1.) He prays, Remember them, O my God! Neh. 13:29. “Lord, convince and convert them; put them in mind of what they should be and do, that they may come to themselves.” Or, “Remember them to reckon with them for their sin; remember it against them.” If we take it so, this prayer is a prophecy that God would remember it against them. Those that defile the priesthood despise God, and shall be lightly esteemed. Perhaps they were too many and too great for him to deal with. “Lord” (says he), “deal thou with them; take the work into thy own hands.” (2.) He prays, Remember me, O my God! Neh. 13:31. The best services done to the public have sometimes been forgotten by those for whom they were done (Eccl. 9:15); therefore Nehemiah refers it to God to recompense him, takes him for his paymaster, and then doubts not but he shall be well paid. This may well be the summary of our petitions; we need no more to make us happy than this: Remember me, O my God! for good.