When the enemy fails in his attacks from the outside, he then begins to attack from within; and one of his favourite weapons is selfishness. If he can get us thinking only about ourselves and what we want, then he will have got a foothold before we realise that he’s even at work. Christians start treating each other badly, divisions open up, the church’s witness is badly damaged and the work of evangelism and of playing our part in the building of the church and of God’s Kingdom comes to a halt. We see something of this happening in Nehemiah 5 and we must be on our guard against it as we play our part in building the church in Gateshead and here at JPC. Not that problems won’t arise from time to time, so it’s also important to learn from Nehemiah’s excellent leadership in this chapter. Of course it is Christ who builds his church and who is the head of his church but he calls us to play our part and those he calls to leadership have a particular role to play under him and with him. As we’ll see there is some truth in the saying, everything rises or falls on leadership.
At the end of chapter 4 we left Nehemiah and his workers building the wall in spite of opposition. But this external opposition had only prompted Nehemiah and his colleagues to work even harder and even around the clock! Look at Nehemiah 4:6&21:
So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart… So we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out.
And this is often the way in churches today. When there’s opposition from the outside the church pulls together, prays together and works together.
But in chapter 5 not a brick is laid. Why? What is the problem? Well that brings us to v1 and to my first heading:
NEHEMIAH’S PROBLEM v1-5
The key reason is given in v1:
Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers.
In the midst of a great work (4:19) for a great God (1:5), a great cry was heard among the Jews. Yet they weren’t crying out against the Samaritans or the Arabs, but rather against their own people! Jew was exploiting Jew, and the economic situation compounded by a famine (v3) had become so desperate that even the wives (who would normally have kept silent) were joining in the protest. Internal sin and strife was stopping the work. Look at v2-5:
Some were saying, "We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain."
So there were those who owned no land who needed food. The population was increasing and there was famine. These people were hungry, they couldn’t help themselves and they were crying out for help. Then (v3)
Others were saying, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine."
These were landowners who had to mortgage their property in order to buy food. Inflation was rising and prices were steep. The Northern Rock crisis is nothing compared to this, although bad loans can cause much misery. This is more like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, as we see in v4-5:
Still others were saying, "We have had to borrow money to pay the king's tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others."
This group had to borrow money to pay the Persian king’s taxes. In order to borrow the money, they had to give security and this meant eventually losing their property. And some of the wealthy Jews were even exploiting their own countrymen by loaning them money and taking their lands and their children for collateral. These were loan sharks like you’ve never seen before. These were loan great white sharks! And their actions were appalling. Not only were they exploiting God’s people they were also hindering God’s work when they should have been doing the opposite. So how did Nehemiah react and what was his solution? Well that’s my second heading.
NEHEMIAH’S SOLUTION v6-13
How do you react to such inhumane conduct by some of God’s people to their brothers and to such widespread poverty? How do we react to it today? Because similar things still go on in churches today, things that spoil the church’s witness to Christ, cause division and halt evangelism.
For example, some liberal American Episcopalian churches telling Anglican churches in Africa that they will no longer support them financially unless they basically renounce biblical Christianity and biblical sexual morality. If the African churches had gone along with that, that would be some enslavement wouldn’t it? We’ll give to you if you renounce the Bible! Praise God most of them rejected the Americans’ threat. Some Christians enslave themselves by mortgaging to the hilt and then think they can’t afford to stand up for Christ at work because they might lose their job and their home. Perhaps we need to be willing to free each other up to stand firm for Christ in the workplace and share the gospel whatever the cost by saying that we will support one another practically, if necessary, if their job is lost as a result. (See Acts 4:32-37 for more on that.) Are we enabling others to be building the wall as it were? If we have savings in a bank or building society are we reluctant to give to Christians who need it because we’ll lose the interest? Are we exploiting poor Christians overseas by buying clothing very cheaply on the high street?
Well in response to the serious situation here in chapter 5 Nehemiah showed true leadership. From v6-13 we see that he did 4 things: first he reacted deeply to the issue, and then before he did anything else he made a considered personal response to the grievance based on Scripture, next he arranged a public meeting on the issue and then finally he produced an irrefutable solution to put the matter right.
First, v6, Nehemiah says he was very angry. Last Sunday I was preaching on getting rid of all unrighteous anger. Well here’s a good example of when it’s right to be angry. One church minister once said:
“The world needs this kind of anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn't angry enough.”
But in his anger Nehemiah did not sin. He didn’t fly off the handle and immediately react publicly in a rash way. He didn’t just react emotionally. No he thought through the situation. V7:
I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, "You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!"
His pondering seems to have included studying Leviticus 25. He didn’t just ponder this matter with his own thoughts. He went back to God’s law on how to treat the poor and then accused the nobles and officials based on God’s Word. According to Leviticus we’re to help others and not take advantage of them, you can lend money but not at a profit. But he knew he wouldn’t convince them and resolve the problem on his own, so (v7) he “called together a large meeting to deal with them.” Here was a skilled leader at work. Calling a large meeting was tactically astute as it meant that the offenders could not ignore the governor or the people. A quick verbal private agreement with the nobles and officials could easily have been ignored but a public meeting kept them accountable. Next Nehemiah produces a watertight case to put the matter right. A wise leader knows that what he says at such a meeting is vital and has to be right. And Nehemiah got it right. He appealed to the nobles and officials consciences and to their love for their Jewish brothers. He said to them (v8):
"As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!" Such an appeal meant they couldn’t attempt to justify their conduct. So “They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.”
Nehemiah also appealed to their moral sensibility and to their commitment to God and his Word and to his own example. Their behaviour not only dishonoured God and ignored Scripture; it also nullified their witness to the Gentiles. V9:
So I continued, "What you are doing is not right. Shouldn't you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them—the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil."
The nobles and officials couldn’t argue with this appeal to repent (v12):
"We will give it back," they said. "And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say."
But Nehemiah didn’t leave it at that. This was not a time for vague promises. He wanted them to do what they had promised. So (v12-13) he:
“summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, "In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied!" At this the whole assembly said, "Amen," and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.”
Who here this morning needs to genuinely repent and go God’s way, trusting in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord? Repentance and following Christ can be costly. But it is far more costly in the end not to.Thirdly and finally
NEHEMIAH’S EXAMPLE v14-19
Peter Drucker said,
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
Nehemiah did the right things under & for God decisively. And Nehemiah led by example. In v14-19 he tells us that during his time as governor he was motivated by two biblical principles. First, reverence for God (v15); and secondly, compassion for others (v17&18). What about us? If we’re a leader whether at work or here at church do those principles motivate us? Well let’s look at those two principles and see how Nehemiah put those principles into practice.
First – reverence for God. Essentially he put God first rather than himself. Look at v14-16:
…neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land.
You see for Nehemiah reverence for God wasn’t just about how you behave in a worship service (8:6). It also had consequences in everyday life. For Nehemiah it meant honouring God’s name, obeying God’s word and loving God’s people. Why did he not take the people’s food (v14)? Why did he not grasp their money (v15)? Why did he not take their wine? Why did he not place a heavy burden on the people and lord it over them as previous governors and assistants had done (v15)? Answer – out of reverence for God. Because he feared God and wanted to please God. His reverence for God increased his respect for other people made in the image of God. And this reverence for God was a controlling principle in the whole of Nehemiah’s life. In fact he delighted in revering God’s name (1:11) and it determined his conduct (5:9) and helped him to judge the character of others (7:2). It also helped him to keep focused. V16 – he devoted himself to the work on the wall – to the work God had called him to do. And (v16) his men followed his example. They too were assembled for the work. Neither he nor they got distracted by selfish ambition – they did not acquire any land. They weren’t there for themselves but to serve God and his people.
How does our leadership and life compare with that of Nehemiah? Even if we’re not leaders how does our life and service compare, and compare with Nehemiah’s fellow workers? Remember Jesus’ words in Mark 10:44-45:
“…whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man [Jesus] did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Nehemiah had great confidence in God. In chapter 4 v20 he says, “Our God will fight for us.” And it’s important that we learn from his example in that as leaders and others. God wants us to believe him, trust him and take him at his word. He wants us to pray and work in faith for the growth of JPC and Holy Trinity Gateshead and for hundreds to come to Christianity Explored in January so they might discover new life in Jesus Christ. But Nehemiah’s assurance did not make him brash and presumptuous. He was confident and dependent, certain and reverent. And that’s where we need to be too – humble and yet full of faith in an awesome God.
Nehemiah’s second motivating principle derived from his first and was compassion for others. Look at v17&18:
Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people.
It’s clear that Governor Nehemiah had lived both generously, by providing meals for others, and considerately, by not taking food from others. He fed officials and visitors out of his own salary rather than burdening an already poverty stricken people with taxes. Instead of exploiting the people he served them. Although he devoted himself to rebuilding the wall he tried to help the people by lending them money and grain (v10) and met out of his own pocket the heavy costs of hospitality. He used the privileges he’d been given to help the people; he didn’t use the people to build a kingdom for himself. And v19 reminds us that he did what he did only to please the Lord. He wasn’t after praise or reward from the people; he wanted only the reward God would give him for his sacrificial service. He wasn’t perfect but he did try to model practical and generous social care. And leaders today both political and spiritual must not forget to care for those in need and encourage us all to play our part.
One Christian leader I met recently, a Christian committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, is now heading up The People’s Kitchen in Newcastle, which feeds the homeless, and he would love to have folks from JPC involved in helping to serve and share. As a church we support TEARFUND, the Christian relief agency, whose new ten year vision is to see 50 million people released from spiritual and material poverty through a worldwide network of 100,000 local churches. To be a part of that go to www.bepartofamiracle.org We also support directly the Navajeevana Health Care Centre in Sri Lanka, St Philip’s Community Centre Mburi in rural Kenya, Armonia in Mexico City and Lamb Hospital in Bangladesh, all of which minister spiritually and physically to the poor. Do be praying for and supporting them. Do also be prayerfully considering how you can help to meet people’s spiritual and physical needs as part of building Christ’s church today.