Recovering the Language of Judah (Nehemiah 13:23-31)
I want to pose a challenge to you. Over the next few days, listen to conversations around you—television, radio, work, and home—and you almost certainly will hear phrases from the Bible, many spoken unintentionally. For instance, just last week I heard a sports talk show host comment on a coach who had “fallen from grace.” Consider this short list of common phrases people toss around today: good Samaritan; it is better to give than to receive; salt of the earth; writing on the wall; and reap what you sow. The list could go on and on.
Obviously, it is one thing to say these phrases and quite another to know their meaning. Still, this demonstrates how a language and a people are interconnected. When the people of God start losing their grasp on His Word, they quickly find themselves in danger of falling away from Him. In the final chapter of Nehemiah, the Jews faced a similar problem. They had lost their language—the “language of Judah” as Nehemiah described it. But their language was far more than their national identity; for the Jews, it was the language of salvation.
Problem Described (verses 23-24)
This gradual loss of language resulted from intermarriage between Jews and foreigners, something strictly forbidden by the law. Ezra had pushed reforms regarding this behavior several years prior to Nehemiah’s account, but the reform obviously didn’t reach the entire population. Throughout the history of Israel, intermarriage between the Jews and surrounding nations was a serious spiritual stumbling block. Perhaps the most notable of those who stumbled and fell was Solomon. Nehemiah references Solomon and how his multiplied marriages turned his heart from God. What a tragic story! Yet, this passage shows the descendants of Solomon at it again. And Nehemiah makes it clear “the language problem” was a direct consequence of their sin: “And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people.” The ESV translates it this way: “And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but only the language of each people.”
The real tragedy reflected in these verses is not that Jewish children were fluent in another language, but they could no longer speak the language of the Jews—the language of salvation. The Word of God had been transmitted carefully, both orally and in Hebrew writings. While Nehemiah’s generation was fluent in the language of the cultures around them, they had no idea how to talk or listen to God.
Problem Resolved (verses 25, 28, 30)
How did Nehemiah solve the problem? In striking fashion…literally! Verse 25 reveals he contended with them, cursed them, hit them, pulled their hair, and made them swear an oath the behavior would change. In verse 28, he drove away those who would not comply, and in verse 30, he cleansed the priesthood from anything pagan or foreign. Wow!
This is our final glimpse of Nehemiah in Scripture, and it is a vivid one. The book started with the picture of a courageous, determined man who, after praying fervently, accepted the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding the Jerusalem wall. Throughout construction, he stood resolutely against opponents of the project, and along the way, he cleansed the Temple and confronted sinful behavior on the Sabbath.
In this passage, we find this man of conviction in action once again. Obviously, God doesn’t want us to change our families or loved ones or the church congregation by beating them, cursing them, or pulling out their hair (even if you feel like it). But we would do well to imitate Nehemiah’s conviction and courage. He understood things had to change, and he determined to do his part to purge Israel from pagan influence. He challenged his countrymen to follow the Lord wholeheartedly. He understood if they failed in this commitment, if they allowed their children to be swallowed up by the culture around them, it was likely their religion—their faith—would be lost.
Things must change for us as well. Today’s church faces a similar problem to the one in this passage. According to George Barna, less than 5% of Americans hold a biblical worldview today. Even more disturbing, the percentage of “born again” believers in America with a biblical worldview is only a few percentage points higher. He bases these numbers on responses to statements like the following in a nationwide survey:
Is absolute truth defined by the Bible?
Did Jesus Christ live a
Is God the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe, and does He still rule it today?
Is salvation a gift from God that cannot be earned?
Does a Christian have a
responsibility to share his
or her faith in Christ with other people?
Is the Bible accurate in all
of its teachings?
If you agree with these statements (and you should), you are definitely in the minority. According to Barna, however, only 9% of “born again” believers agreed (barna.com).
What does this tell us? Sadly, today’s American church is more versed in the language of culture than the language of Christ. Jesus told His followers, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Judging by the way we talk, our heart is no longer centered on the language of Judah but the language of Egypt. And the language of Judah is central to our relationship with God. He communicates to us through His Word—His language of salvation. Just as the Jews in Nehemiah’s day faced a significant “language barrier” to knowing God, the same is becoming true for the church today.
So, how do we restore the language of Judah? First, we must stop syncretism, or the attempt to fuse competing, even contradictory religions. We must avoid merging beliefs and practices that simply do not belong together. We cannot pick and choose our faith like a religious “buffet,” selecting only as much of God’s Word as we want, and leaving behind what we don’t like or want.
Instead, we must resolve this problem with the only biblical solution—repentance. It is clear the sinful marriages in Nehemiah’s day did not work—at least not for righteousness. Common sense tells us if a parent speaks a foreign language, the children in the marriage will also learn that particular language. The problem was that the Jews, who could or should have taught the language of their faith in their homes, failed to do so. Ultimately, they had a language problem. And, their problem was deeper than a marriage problem. It was a heart problem.
God’s people have always been taught that faith is a matter of the heart. Deuteronomy 6 makes it clear the commands of God should be on our hearts, and we must teach them diligently to our children, throughout the natural routines of life, and not just on Sundays. This teaching takes place from heart to heart. Whatever resides most in your heart comes out in your speech. The question is: are you more versed in the language of the world or the language of Christ?
God’s ultimate language, the message of salvation, is embodied in Jesus—the Word made flesh. He came and died in our place and rose again that we might know Him and have eternal life. The way to recover the language of Judah is to repent and return Jesus, the Lion of Judah, to His rightful place upon the throne of your heart.
About the Columnist: Dr. Barry Raper is program coordinator for ministry studies at Welch College and pastor of Bethel FWB Church near Ashland City, Tennessee.