The book of Nehemiah begins, with Nehemiah hearing that the walls of Jerusalem are lying in ruins, and that the people, chapter 1 verse 3, are in 'danger and disgrace'.
They're in danger, because there aren't any walls(!), or at least none to really speak of. So anyone, good or bad, could come and go as they pleased.
They have no defence.
And they were in disgrace, because this was Jerusalem! This was the city of David, the capital city of the Jews, God's chosen people. At the heart of the city was the temple, where God dwelt among his people. They were supposed to be a light to the Gentiles, a model to the nations around them, but instead, they were in disgrace, and the name of God was dishonoured, because the walls were broken down.
The people were in danger and disgrace, so Nehemiah came to rebuild the walls. That's what we've seen in chapters 1-4, so far, and it's what we'll come back to, next week, in chapter 6. But in Nehemiah chapter 5, we see that dealing with danger and disgrace is about more than just rebuilding walls. In chapter 5 we'll see that the people were in danger, not just from their enemies on the outside, but from their own countrymen on the inside. And we'll see that God's people and God's name were in disgrace, not just because of the state of the wall, but because of the state of their relationships with one another.
So Nehemiah chapter 5 is a break from thinking about walls and opposition, but it's still a chapter all about danger and disgrace. It's about, avoiding danger and disgrace from within
A little while ago I was speaking with some of our gospel partners, who were visiting us on a short break. In my conversation with them, we spoke about their family, and their work, and about the team that they are a part of. But one thing in particular that they told me has stuck with me.
They told me that the main reason that people leave the mission field, the main reason that missionaries stop their work, and come home, isn't that they find the work too hard, or too discouraging, it isn't the stress and strain of living in another country and another culture, and it isn't anything to do with family issues or illness or old age. The main reason that missionaries stop their work, and come home, is a breakdown in relationships with other missionaries! The main reason that missionaries quit, is that they can't work with other missionaries.
And that got me thinking.
I don't know this for sure. And I have no data to back this up. But from my experience of working in churches for 10 years, I would say that the main reason that Christians leave the church, and sadly sometimes even leave the faith, isn't that they find it too hard or too discouraging to live life as a Christian in our non-Christian world. And it isn't that they feel overwhelmed with doubts, or are won round by arguments against Christianity.
No, from what I've seen, I think the main reason Christians leave the church, and sadly, sometimes, even leave the faith, is because of a breakdown in relationships with other Christians. Christians leave the church, because of other Christians in the church.
So we need to read Nehemiah 5. We need to learn how to avoid danger and disgrace from within. And we need to pray that God would help us to nderstand his Word, believe it and obey it. Let's pray.
I think this chapter splits into two halves, and the first half is about…
The need to avoid danger and disgrace, vv 1-13
Look at vv 1-2…
"Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. Some were saying, "We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain."
There were some people, in the Jewish community, who came to Nehemiah to say to him, 'We don't have enough food for our families.' Maybe it was because they'd given up their jobs to join Nehemiah building the wall? Maybe it was because they'd had to leave their farms to move into Jerusalem for safety as we saw at the end of chapter 4, three weeks ago? We don't know. But, whatever the reason, these people didn't have enough food, and they were in danger of starving.
But actually the situation was worse than that. Look at v3…
"Others were saying, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine."
Not only were the people struggling to find enough food, but to make ends meet some of them were having to take out mortgages on their property.
But actually the situation was worse than that. Look at vv 4-5…
"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 fellow Jews and though our children 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."
The people are trying to find enough food to eat, and then on top of that they had to find money to pay the mortgage, and on top of that they had to pay tax to Artaxerxes, the King of Persia. And the only way they could afford do all of that was to borrow money. But once they'd borrowed the money, they couldn't pay it back. They had no means to pay it back, and so they were selling their children into slavery, and they were losing all their possessions to loan sharks.
But the situation was worse, even, that that! Because the loan sharks, we're told in v5, were their fellow Jews. Not only were God's people in desperate poverty, but those who were exploiting their poverty and trapping them in debt were their own brothers and sisters!
So, Nehemiah says, vv 6-8…
"When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, "You are charging your own people interest!" So I called together a large meeting to deal with them and said: "As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!" They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say."
The nobles and officials among God's people were using their countrymen's misery to make themselves money. Nehemiah has been doing all that he could do to buy his fellow Jews out of slavery so that they can come back to live in the Promised Land. And now he finds out that it was the Jewish nobles and officials who had sold them into slavery in the first place!
And he is furious. So he calls them out. And, like school kids who have been caught and brought before the headmaster, they have nothing to say in their defence, v8. They are guilty, and they know it.
Anyone could see that what these rich men were doing was wrong, but in v9 Nehemiah explains why this is particularly wrong for the children of God. Look at 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?"
What they were doing was especially wrong first of all because it showed that they didn't fear God. Look at what it says in Lev 25 vv 35-38…
"If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt..."
And it says the same in Ex. 22 and again Deut. 30.
By charging their fellow Jews interest on their loans the nobles and officials were explicitly breaking God's law. They didn't fear God. It showed that they didn't care about keeping God's word, or facing his judgment.
Secondly what they were doing was especially wrong, v9, because it made God's people, and therefore God, a disgrace among the Gentiles. The Jews were supposed to live such a good life, under the law of God, that the gentiles around them would want to leave their false gods, and come and join Israel and worship the one true God. The Jews were supposed to honour each other, because they honoured God. But now they have brought disgrace upon both.
So Nehemiah goes on in v10...
"I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain."
(I think we can assume that he they didn't charge interest on their loans) vv 10b-11…
"But let us stop charging interest! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil."
Do you see? It matters how Christians treat each other.
Of course, the Bible tells us that it matters how Christians treat everyone, we are to love our neighbour as ourselves, whoever they may be. But it particularly matters how Christians treat one another, because it tells the world around us something about the God we serve.
What good was it if the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt to protect the people from their enemies on the outside and to restore the honour of God, if there are just as many enemies on the inside, and the way the people were treating each other brought dishonour to God?
And what good is it today if our friends come along to our evangelistic events, and hear about the God we believe in, if while they're here they also see no difference in our lives or the way we treat one another? As Jesus said in our NT readings from John 13…
"By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
So we need to ask ourselves some questions. Do we believe that every person has been made by God and bears His image? Well then, how can we act as if we're better than others? Do we believe that our Christian brothers and sisters are so precious that God sent his one and only Son to come and die to save them? Well then, how can we not care enough about them to help them when they are in need? Do we believe that God has forgiven our brothers and sisters of all the wrong that they have done against him? Well then, how can we refuse to forgive someone when they sin against us? Do we believe that God cares about them and every area of their lives? Well then, why are there some people in church that we've never even spoken to, to find out how they're doing and how you can pray for them?
Look around you. I know you hate it when we ask you to do this(!)…but look around you.
These are your brothers and sisters. And how we treat each other matters. So let me ask you…do you know their names? Do you know what they do, or about their families, or what they're struggling with right now?
And what about Christians beyond these 4 walls? I've got a friend who works for the council here in Gateshead, and for the last few months it's been his job to look after the Syrian refugees that have been sent to Newcastle/Gateshead by the government. There are 57 of them. And I think I'm right in saying, all of them are Christians. Most of the refugees coming out of Syria and fleeing persecution are Christians. They are our brothers and sisters! But are we doing anything for them?
It matters how Christians treat Christians.
We may not be lending money to each other and charging extortionate interest, like in Nehemiah 5, but are there some people you've never spoken to at church? Some people you won't sit next to? Some people you have had a fight with and refuse to forgive?
If we cut people out, or don't care for each other then we expose them to danger. They need us, and we need them. And by not loving one another we bring disgrace to God's name. What will people think of the God we say we love, if we treat each other like that?
Is what we're doing, or not doing, bringing danger and disgrace to our church?
Maybe you need to make more of an effort at the end of each service not just to talk to your friends who you always talk to, but go and introduce yourself to someone new? Maybe this week you could send someone in your home group a text saying you're thinking of them? Maybe you could cook someone a meal who's struggling? Or maybe before you leave this evening you could ask someone how you can pray for them, and then pray for them, and next week follow up and ask them how they're doing?
We need to avoid danger and disgrace.
Secondly we see in vv 14-19…
A model of avoiding danger and disgrace, vv 14-19
Look at vv 14-15…
"Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year—twelve years—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."
For the first time in this book Nehemiah tells us that when King Artaxerxes had sent him to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, he'd also appointed him as the governor of Judah. Now it might seem strange that he hasn't mentioned that before, but I think that's the point. Because Nehemiah wasn't like Judah's previous governors. He was a wonderful leader, who was wise and winsome, patient and persuasive, as we saw back in chapter 2. He was willing to get his hands dirty along with everyone else, and do his fair share of the heavy labour. As it says at the end of chapter 4, v23…
"Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water."
Nehemiah could have used his position and power like the previous governors, to charge his own tax and collect his 'governor's food allowance'. "Instead," Nehemiah says in v16…
"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."
But it doesn't stop there, he tells us in vv 17-18…
"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."
150 people ate at his table every day! Jews and officials and foreigners too. But he never drew his governor's allowance, because he didn't want to burden the people any further, so presumably he paid for it all out of his own pocket.
Do you see? Nehemiah does the opposite of the nobles and officials, he sacrifices himself to save others, and his actions saved God's people from danger and brought honour to God. And in that way he was a shadow of the one who would come 500 years later, to bring ultimate safety to God's people, and all glory to God.
When Jesus came, he came not to be served but to serve. He gave up his place and position in Heaven, to be born as a man, to suffer and die in our place. He put us first, and himself last. He saved us from danger, and brought us life. He saved us from disgrace, and brought God glory.
And today he calls you and I to follow his example.
The main reason that missionaries leave the field is because of broken relationships with other missionaries. And I suspect that the main reason Christians leave the church, leave because of broken relationships with other Christians, either not being loved and cared for as they ought, or through arguments and fights that never got resolved.
The danger and disgrace that we face doesn't just come from outside, it can also come from within.
So let me ask you, what do you need to do, what do we need to do, to avoid the danger and disgrace from within?