Upon the completion of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem in fifty-two days under the leadership of Nehemiah, the former cupbearer of the King of Persia, Nehemiah became burdened concerning the activities taking place within the city on the Sabbath days. The city gates were open and people were coming and going all day long selling their wares, with customers buying what was made available for purchase. In celebration of the wall being completed, the people had gathered in the street before the water gate to hear Ezra, the priest, read the Book of the Law of Moses which included the command of GOD, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” (Exodus 20:8; Nehemiah 1:11-2:6; 6:15; 8:1-6).
Nehemiah was very specific in his writings of the activities taking place on the Sabbath days: some were treading the wine presses, others were bringing in sheaves, donkeys were laden with wine, grapes, and figs, with all manner of burdens to be sold in the city. Included were men of Tyre bringing fish into the city, along with merchandise from the Mediterranean coast to be available for sale on the Sabbath Day. Nehemiah testified against the people of such activities taking place on a day that was to be considered holy.
Nehemiah also contended with the nobles of Judah, saying, “What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our GOD bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? Yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the Sabbath.” It was because of the disobedience of God’s people and His commands they spent seventy years in Babylonian captivity before King Cyrus permitted those who desired to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the Temple (Ezra 1:1-3).
Nehemiah with deep conviction caused the gates of the city to be closed at sundown before the Sabbath and not to be reopened until after the Sabbath had ended. Nothing was permitted to come into the city on the Sabbath days. Nehemiah recorded, “So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice. Then I testified against them… if ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the Sabbath.” Nehemiah then commanded the Levites, those who were tasked with the maintenance of the Temple, to “come and keep the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day,” (Nehemiah 13:15-22).