Grace For The Journey
We are studying through Nehemiah, a history that takes place in 444 BC. God’s people in the Old Testament had sinned and been unfaithful to God. He had warned them that if they were not faithful He would discipline them as a Good Father, sending them into captivity. And that is exactly what happened. First the Assyrians in 722 BC. Then the Babylonians in 587 BC. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. The palaces burned and the walls broken down. After the Babylonian Empire, the Persians came along. And that is where we are now. Persian Empire, 444 BC, led by King Artaxerxes. Nehemiah served as a cupbearer for the king in Susa, the winter palace of the king. 1000 miles away from Jerusalem. Nehemiah learns from fellow Jews that things were really bad in Jerusalem, walls still broken down. He gets permission from King Artaxerxes to go back and rebuild the wall. And they have been going at it like gangbusters. They have gotten half of the wall completed by the end of chapter 4.
We have noted that God’s people faced opposition as they rebuilt the wall. God’s will often includes opposition. In fact, you can trace it out this way . . .
- Derision, as the critics Sanballat and Tobiah and others mocked them.
- Then Discouragement – the task was not easy or safe.
- Then Danger – God’s people have to take up weapons to defend themselves; last
- Now Division – Division among the people of God.
This is recorded in the first thirteen verses of Chapter 5. We will see how the people were divided between the “haves” and the “have nots.” This division came on account of oppression – the rich oppressing the poor.
Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “Inside Job.” It is a term used especially in criminal investigation. It means, of course, that the perpetrators of a particular crime are those who had easy access to the goods because they either worked for the company or institution where the goods were stolen, or they were close to someone who had all the inside information. Thus, the criminals were able to breach security and use their passwords and embezzle from the organization. It was not a stranger from the outside breaking in; it was someone on the inside.
When Jesus was betrayed into the hands of the chief priests, scribes, and elders, that betrayal was an inside job. A man on the inside, namely Judas Iscariot, had easy access to the Lord and arranged for the outsiders to “break in” under the cover of darkness and arrest Jesus. It was an inside job.
When we compare Nehemiah Chapter 4 with Nehemiah Chapter 5, we have in chapter 4 opposition without – opposition from the outsiders Sanballat, Tobiah, and others; what we would consider an “outside job” if you like. In Chapter 5, we have oppression within, oppression from the inside, among the very people of God themselves; oppression that is an “inside job.”
What is this oppression? It is a financial oppression. The rich among God’s people are oppressing the poor of God’s people. They are charging them interest on loans, taking their lands and vineyards as collateral, making themselves wealthy at the cost of making others poor. It is a sin within the family of God.
These verses describe matters of money, mortgages, exploitation, greed, buying & selling, high interest rates, taxes, financial bondage, and insufferable debt. You would think we were reading this morning’s edition of the Wall Street Journal. The Bible is that way, always relevant to our situation.
The Bible has a lot to say about money. There are some 800 verses throughout the Old and New Testaments dealing with the subject of money. It is estimated that as much as 25% of Jesus’ teaching had to do with money and He said that the way we use our money says something about where our heart really is.
In Matthew 6:19-21, He said, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
The way we use our money – giving, not giving; tithing, not tithing; lending, hoarding . . .
All of these things are indicators of where our heart is.
We often say, “Money is not the problem.” Money is never the problem. It is how we use the money.
Possessions are not the problem.
It is whether those material things possess us.
What we are studying about here in Nehemiah 5 are the unrighteous rich and the righteous poor. The rich Jewish brothers who were oppressing the poor Jewish brethren. Let’s look at the text again.
Verse 1 says, “And there was a great outcry of the people and their wives against their Jewish brethren.” This is similar to the outcry of God’s people in the Book of Exodus, the cry of the children of Israel rising up to God who had seen the oppression of His people at the hands of the Egyptians (Exodus 3:9). And the outcry is described in the verses to follow. The phrase, “The people and their wives” indicates division within the families. Financial problems are one of the key areas the devil uses to try to split families. Husbands and wives often fight over finances. Especially as newlywed couples begin to grow and really get to know one another, they discover that they may have different ideas about how money is to be used. Maybe you have heard the verse:
Theirs was a perfect marriage,
but for one particular flaw:
While he was quick to make deposits,
She was quicker to withdraw
The problem in Nehemiah 5 is not so much different ideas about money within a marriage as it is about the rich oppressing the poor. Most of the husbands were away from their fields doing the work of rebuilding the wall. Because they were away, they were unable to work their fields which would have provided grain for them to eat.
Verse 2 says, “For there were those who said, ‘We, our sons, and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain, that we may eat and live.’” The people are many, many families, many husbands and wives and sons and daughters. There was not enough grain because the fields are unworked. The people had been working nonstop on the wall, no time to work their fields to grow their own grain for food.
Verse 3 states, “There were also some who said, ‘We have mortgaged our lands and vineyards and houses, that we might buy grain because of the famine.’” While building the wall, their fields were not being worked, so they loaned the land out to others who were growing grain on them. They loaned the land out in exchange for grain. We also learn in verse 3 that there is a famine. The famine adds insult to injury. It is a bad time, people are hungry. But that is not all.
Verse 4 says, “There were also those who said, ‘We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our lands and vineyards.’”
- Not only are the fields unharvested by the rightful owners because of the men’s dedication to the rebuilding of the wall.
- Not only did those same rightful owners have to borrow against their fields by mortgaging them to others.
- Not only was there a famine in the land.
Now we read of their having to pay taxes to the king on all of their lands and vineyards.
Apparently King Artaxerxes was fond of taxing. History tells us that when Alexander the Great conquered Susa (about a hundred years after Nehemiah) he discovered 270 tons of gold bullion and 1,200 tons of silver bullion. The Persians raised a lot of money for themselves through taxes. We know something of this, don’t we? Some of us can relate to the guy who said he wanted to visit Washington DC so he could be near his money! The poor folks in Jerusalem could not pay their taxes, so they borrowed money in order to pay the king’s tax. They borrowed against their mortgaged land to pay taxes, “robbing from Peter to pay Paul,” as we say. I have not heard that statement much lately. From my research I found that the expression goes back to the Protestant Reformation. Taxes were paid to the Roman Catholic Church to pay for St. Paul’s church in London and also to pay for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. You had to pay both. There were times when the people neglected paying the tax to St. Peter’s church in order to pay the St. Paul tax – robbing Peter to pay Paul. In any case, this is what is happening to the righteous poor living in Jerusalem. They ca not afford anything. They are borrowing from one thing to pay for another thing – going deeper and deeper into debt just to stay alive.
There are many people who go deeper and deeper into debt not to just stay alive, but to live beyond their means. They want to have things, so they borrow. They are discovering the true saying:
“Money is a wonderful servant,
But it’s a poor master.”
The righteous poor in Nehemiah have no recourse. They are being taking advantage of by their own Jewish brothers!
Verse 5 says, “Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren(in other words, “we are no different than they; they are not anymore loved by God than we), our children as their children(our children are no different than their kids! They run around together! They play with each other just the same!); and indeed we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been brought into slavery. It is not in our power to redeem them, for other men have our lands and vineyards.”
This is a really tragic situation. It appears that the righteous poor have been forced into literal bondage. They have been forced by the unrighteous poor to give up a son or daughter. Now it may be even worse than that. The last phrase of verse 5 says, “… and some of our daughters have been brought into slavery. It is not in our power to redeem them, for other men have our lands and vineyards.” This may be a reference to daughters being sent to the local Persian government officials as sex slaves to prevent foreclosure on their lands. That may be, we do not know for sure. But you get the idea – It is a very bad thing. And Nehemiah is outraged.
Notice what verse 6 says, “And I became very angry when I heard their outcry and these words.” He is angry – It is a righteous anger. He does not let his anger get away from him. The Bible tells us in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry and sin not.” It is okay to be angry.
It is not how you feel
That is a problem,
It is how you deal
With how you feel.
The first part of verse 7 says, “After serious thought…” The idea is, “I took counsel with myself.” In other words, Nehemiah did not let his anger get away from him. He paused and thought it over first. Some of us need that reminder. Remember . . .
If you your lips would keep from slips
Five things observe with care:
Of whom you speak
To whom you speak
And how, and when, and where.
Verse 7 goes on to say, “… I rebuked the nobles and rulers, and said to them, ‘Each of you is exacting usury from his brother.;” So I called a great assembly against them.” The Old Testament Law is clear on the matter of usury or interest on a loan. Nehemiah is saying, “What you are doing is wrong.” He is basing his response from at least one passage in Deuteronomy 23:19-20, “You shall not charge interest to your brother – interest on money or food or anything that is lent out at interest. To a foreigner you may charge interest, but to your brother you shall not charge interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all to which you set your hand in the land which you are entering to possess.”
Nehemiah gathers the people together in “a great assembly.” The guilty offenders are these unrighteous rich – the “nobles and rulers” mentioned in verse 7.
Verse 8 tells us, “And I said to them, ‘According to our ability we have redeemed our Jewish brethren who were sold to the nations. Now indeed, will you even sell your brethren? Or should they be sold to us?’ Then they were silenced and found nothing to say.” This is a sign of conviction! They were silenced and found nothing to say. They knew they were wrong.
Nehemiah notes the irony of the situation. Here God’s people had been brought out of bondage to the Babylonians – the outsiders – and yet the very people on the inside, Jew against Jew, the unrighteous rich were placing the righteous poor into bondage. Redeemed from exile only to be sold into slavery by their own people.
Nehemiah then says in verse 9, “What you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies?
Verse 9 is a great verse. Nehemiah does not need to cite Scripture here. The people already know it. They knew the truth of Deuteronomy 23. They had suppressed the truth. Nehemiah focuses upon the effect that their actions have upon outsiders. He appeals to the greater effect here. The unrighteous rich have brought shame upon the name of God. They have lost something of their spiritual influence.
Sanballat and Tobiah and all the other outsiders were watching them bicker among themselves over money and debt. And they are looking inside and thinking, “Well they are really no different than us! Just the same! So much for their God!” Let that sink in for a moment.
Then note that Nehemiah places himself among the people as one who also lent money and grain – but not usury or interest. Verse 10 says, “I also, with my brethren and my servants, am lending them money and grain. Please, let us stop this usury!” In verse 11, Nehemiah issues this correction, this truth, that is based upon the Word of God, “Restore now to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive groves, and their houses, also a hundredth of the money and the grain, the new wine and the oil, that you have charged them.” In other words, “Repent!” Turn from going your way and go God’s way. Give it back!
Verse 12 shows us the response of the people, “So they said, ‘We will restore it, and will require nothing from them; we will do as you say.’ (But Nehemiah’s not so sure!) Then I called the priests, and required an oath from them that they would do according to this promise.” Nehemiah wants to be sure they mean it.
Verse 13 states, “Then I shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out each man from his house, and from his property, who does not perform this promise. Even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.’ And all the assembly said, ‘Amen!’ and praised the Lord. Then the people did according to this promise.” Like an Old Testament prophet Nehemiah gives them a word picture. He gathers together his garment. There were lots of folds in the garment, especially around the belt where it was tied in the center. He shakes out the folds. It was a symbolic action that matched the words of the curse that would come upon anyone who did not repent and give the stuff back. He action is saying if the people do not make it right, may God shake them out! Shaking out every man from his house and possessions like dirt being shaken out of a garment! The people agree and praised the Lord. Then the people did according to this promise. They took action and did the right thing.
I invite you to take action by noting these takeaways . . .
In our study of the book of Nehemiah, we have seen Satan engineer several different attempts to cause the rebuilding work on the walls of Jerusalem to stop. The enemies of God, spell-bound by the whispering motivation of the Dragon, have come against the children of Israel. The people of Jerusalem have had to contend with cruel mockery by the enemy. The people have had to push back discouragement that nearly brought their work to a halt. But . . .
Neither ridicule nor discouragement
Have succeeded in stopping
The work on the wall.
I want to present some practical application to our study today that will help us today and beyond . . .
1. Notice Satan’s Strategy – Conflict.
Satan’s strategy against the work and the workers of God is primarily three-fold:
- He will attempt to discourage the believer.
This could come in the form of persecution. It could be, . . . “a thorn in the flesh” such as the troubling thing that Paul endured (2 Corinthians 12:7).
- He will attempt to deceive the believer.
This could come from false teachers. It could also be the deception that causes you to think about your life only; to believe that God’s work does not have a place for your gifts; that you are not important to the cause of Christ. If he cannot discourage the believers to get out of the race, if he cannot deceive the believers into believing something that is not true and biblical.
- He will attempt to divide the believers.
Warren Wiersbe, writing on Nehemiah, chapter 5, wrote, “When the enemy fails in his attacks from the outside, he then begins to attack from within, and one of his favorite weapons is selfishness.” He used this in the first family, where one brother killed the other, because he was envious and self-centered in his hatred. Satan used it in the very first church, where an outcry came from the Grecian believers because their widows were not being cared for as the Hebrew widows were. The Bible tells us about a dangerous situation in the Galatian church in Galatians 5:15, “But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another.” Is it any wonder then that, when conflict occurs among believers, the Devil becomes neutral and simply supplies ammunition to both sides?
I believe that frequently the worst enemy of the church is the church. The thing that often keeps the church from moving forward is the church. The thing that keeps the church from reaching the world is the world inside the church. The thing that keeps believers from growing in Christ is other believers who have not matured spiritually.
The title of the theme song of many in the church is, “Me, myself, and I!” Before we see how Nehemiah handled the selfishness of the Israelites, I think it is important that we define this strategy that Satan uses as clearly as possible and ask God to challenge our own lives and hearts wherever necessary.
I came across a good definition of selfishness, “Having the attitude that people exist merely to meet my agenda, my wishes and my needs; thus, the value of anything (people, church, God, etc.), is determined only in light of what they do for me. This attitude is revealed not only in outward behavior, but in secret thought; and, left unchecked, is ultimately destructive.”
Selfishness destroys relationships; it destroys marriages; it destroys ministries; it destroys churches; it destroys mission fields. I saw a picture of a bumper sticker on a car that had the name of a college with their motto underneath. It simply read, “Fighting Christians.” Obviously, it was not intended to convey the message that this college fought against Christians, but it struck me that it could be interpreted to refer to Christians who are fighting one another – fighting Christians.
From the very first church in Jerusalem to the church in Corinth and to the church today, our greatest threat may be ourselves. The Ephesian church struggled with this problem, so God led Paul to dedicat nearly an entire chapter to exhort them to simply get along and love one another. He wrote in Ephesians 4:25 through 27, “Therefore, laying, ‘let each on of you speak truth with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another. Be angry, and do not sin:” do not let the sun go down on your wrath,” notice verse 27, “and do not give place to the devil an opportunity.” In other words, the Devil, loves this kind of selfish activity. To him it is a wonderful opportunity. He baits his hook with selfish advice – Don’t think about others, think only of yourself – your desires, your life, your money, your plans, your career, your retirement. Paul goes on and write in verses 29 through 31, “Let no corrupt word proceed from your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were seal for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” The implication was that Ephesian believers were involved in bitter disputes that led to outbursts of anger and slander, but instead of acting like that they were to be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ had forgiven them.
These verses do not even leave room for secret thoughts of selfishness, much less outward deeds of selfishness. Do you know who has a big problem living out these verses? I do. The truth is, I would rather think about me, myself, and I, too often. The very first sin in the garden of Eden came on the heels of the serpent telling Eve, in effect, “Think about yourself, Eve. This is something you want. If God really wanted to meet your needs, He would let you have your way.”
There is a problem in Ephesus. There is a problem in Galatia. There is a problem in Jerusalem. There is a problem in my town and your town. No believer is exempt from it. We are all terminally infected with selfishness, and it lies at the core of every one of our sinful natures. That is why it is such a productive and powerful lure of Satan. He will use it against our God whenever he can. It must be dealt with, it must be battled against, or it will destroy us all.
We have seen what happened in Jerusalem when being self-centered momentarily brought the building project to a standstill. In verses 1 through 5 Nehemiah points out three problems were catalysts in this eruption of controversy. They are:
• High taxes.
You would think you were reading a copy of today’s newspaper. Four groups of people were involved in the crisis:
1. In verse 2, were the people who were going hungry because they did not own any land to farm.
2. In verse 3, were the people who owned land but had mortgaged their property in order to buy food.
3. In verse 4, were the people who owned land, but were so financially strapped, they were forced to borrow money in order to pay taxes.
4. In verse 5, were the wealthy Jewish leaders who loaned their kinsmen money to take care of the problem; but, for collateral, took their land and their children as slaves.
The Jewish people were having to choose between starvation or the slavery of their children to wealthy Jews. The leaders and wealthy Jewish people were selfishly exploiting the poorer Jewish people in order to make themselves even richer. It an epidemic of selfishness and greed.
2. Notice Nehemiah’s Strategy – Consultation And Confrontation!
Verses 6 through 11 tell us Nehemiah did three things . . .
- Nehemiah Consulted . . .
Verse 7 tells us that Nehemiah, “… consulted with myself . . .” This literally means, “I took counsel within my own heart.” Since the leaders of Israel and the wealthy, powerful citizens were the problem, Nehemiah could not really talk to any of them about this internal conflict. No one carried this burden but Nehemiah.
- Nehemiah confronted . . .
The second thing Nehemiah did was to confront the selfish citizens of Jerusalem. From a human standpoint, this was an incredible risk. At the very time the enemies have surrounded Jerusalem; at the very time all of the workers are building and, at the same time, prepared for battle – Nehemiah is confronting the very men who could cripple him, if they became offended and angry with his confrontation of their sin. If these nobles and wealthy citizens packed their bags and left, the loss of morale would only add to Nehemiah’s problems. Nehemiah had every reason to tell the people to go back to work, and he would figure something out about food!” But, not Nehemiah – he was willing to confront them.
- Nehemiah challenged . . .
Nehemiah challenges them on several fronts.
a. Their Selfish Disobedience Of Scripture . . .
Verse 7b says, “. . . I rebuked the nobles and rulers, and said to the, ‘Each of you is exacting usury form his brother.’ So I called a great assembly against them.”
The Old Testament made it very clear that Jewish people could loan money and goods to other Jewish people. But they were not allowed to charge interest. In fact, every fifty years they were supposed to wipe any and every debt off the books that they had against any other Jew. It was called the “Year of Jubilee,” and it kept the Jewish people from taking advantage of each other and becoming indebted to each other.
But these nobles and leading citizens have been charging interest. Later in the passage, we are told that it was twelve percent per year. Nehemiah is pointing out that they were breaking God’s Law and were doing it at the expense of their own brethren.
In other words . . .
They should not be treating family like this.
b. Their Selfish Violation Of God’s Purpose For Israel.
Verse 8a says, And I said to them, ‘According to our ability have redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations. Now indeed will you even sell your brethren? Or should they be sold to us?” Nehemiah is reminding them that God redeemed them from slavery as a people and He has brought them back to Jerusalem. Now, he asks them, how can you turn God’s redemption upside down and enslave Jewish people again?!” Notice their response in verse 8b, “Then they were silenced and found nothing to say.”
These men know they have been greedy and selfish; and, in front of the assembly, they are stumped! Nehemiah is not finished however. He then points out . . .
c. Their Selfish Failure To Represent God Before Unbelievers.
Is this not the heart of what is lost by believers who act selfishly, vindictively, and without love toward one another? In verses 9 through 11, Nehemiah finishes his speech, and probably held his breath. I am sure he is wondering how the people would respond:
- Would their hearts be turned and softened?
- Would they put their loyalty to one another above the tremendous wealth they were gleaning from their own people?
It is one thing to say, “I’m sorry, I won’t be selfish any longer.” It is another thing to say, “I’m sorry, I won’t be selfish any longer; and here’s the money back that I took from you.” It is hard to imagine the kind of character that returns a fortune because it is the right thing to do.
This is a wonderful display of . . .
Verse 12 tells us what the nobles and rulers did.
• They made a promise to Nehemiah.
• They made a vow before the priests.
• There was submission to God’s authority.
Verse 13 shows us what repentance led to, “I also shook out the front of my garment and said, ‘Thus may God shake out every man from his house and from his possessions who does not fulfill this promise; even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.’ And all the assembly said, ‘Amen!’” The word “amen” basically means, “So be it!” This is what genuine repentance leads to – Agreeing with God and yielding to His Word and Way. Verse 13 concludes, “And they praised the Lord. Then the people did according to this promise.” Repentance and unselfishness prompted a celebration. They had a party right then and there. It usually works the
same way, even today – just not in such obvious ways. People who live unselfish lives encourage those around them to praise the Lord. They are the kind of people who tend to leave a trail of confetti behind them. Their generosity produces gratitude toward God.
Let’s look at one final truth . . .
3. Notice How God’s People Should Respond Correctly to Truth.
When Nehemiah called out the people on their behavior, he issued a correction that was based on the truth of God’s Word – and the people responded correctly. They said “Amen” and did what they were told to do.
How about you? How do you respond to the correction of God’s Word? When you read in the Bible about sin, do you respond like God’s people in Nehemiah 5 and say, “Amen” – and do according to what the Bible teaches – and loving other people enough to tell them the truth, even if it’s hard truth? Do you respond correctly yourself when the Bible confronts you with your sin – lust, pornography, adultery in thought or deed, gossip, bitterness, unforgiving spirit, greed, or failure to make amends?
What we read about in this chapter is a powerful move of the Spirit of God among the people of God. God moved and they responded in full surrender.
I want to give you a chance to apply these truths in a personal way right now . . .
First, ask yourself, “What has the Holy Spirit pointed out that is not right or pleasing to God in my life?” Something I am doing or not doing – sin.
Second, ask yourself, “Am I willing to confess that sin to Jesus in prayer?” Jesus took our sin upon Himself. He went to the cross for us. He died that we may live. We can be forgiven of our sin, but we have to confess it. Jesus will give us the power to live the life He has called us to live if we will turn to Him for forgiveness. Confession, then repentance.
Third, ask yourself, “Am I willing now to break from that sin and obey God? I’m going to stop that sin and start obeying the truth of God in the Bible, responding correctly to truth.” It may be that there are some things you are going to need to do this week to make it right: people you need to call, apologize to someone, give something back, have a heart-heart with someone about something you have been doing; a family member, neighbor, a co-worker, or friend who needs the Gospel and you will go this week, talk with them about it, and invite them to church. Admitting, confessing, repenting.
If you are not a Christian, I am calling on you to confess your sin to God, turn to Jesus and ask Him to forgive your sin and be your Lord and Savior. Only as you do that will you experience and enjoy life and eternity.
This is God’s Word …
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”