Rebuilding: Nehemiah 5:14-19 – A God-First Life

Grace For The Journey

  As we have moved through the opening chapters of Nehemiah we have seen the people face derision, discouragement, danger, and division.  Wednesday we read about that division.  The haves and the have nots.  The unrighteous rich oppressing the righteous poor.  Unrighteous rich nobles and rulers among the people exploiting and oppressing the poor.  Chapter 5 reads like a modern-day account of corporate greed – dirty money, burdensome mortgages, exploitation, high interest rates, taxes, financial bondage, and insufferable debt.

We left off at verse 13 and we note a contrast: Verse 14 to the end of the chapter, the generosity of Nehemiah with the oppression of verses 1-13. 

Nehemiah is an example

Of the righteous rich

Who use their wealth wisely.

This is a reflection of Nehemiah.  He has written in his journal or memoirs.  These verses recall the 12 years Nehemiah served as governor of the people.  We are not sure exactly how Nehemiah became governor, but he was likely appointed governor by King Artaxerxes in Susa and, unlike previous governors who oppressed the poor, Nehemiah is a good governor who is generous to the poor. 

We will not two basic truths that will help lead us to live a God-first life . . .

1) Nehemiah Was An Example Before The People!

Nehemiah lived His faith.  As he did, two things became very clear . . .

a. He Lived In An Unselfish Way Before The People.

The rest of the chapter gives us Nehemiah’s personal example of unselfish service before the people.  Verses 14 through 16 state, “Moreover, from the day that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, for twelve years, neither I nor my kinsmen have eaten the governor’s food allowance.  But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people and took from them bread and wine besides forty shekels of silver; even their servants domineered the people. But I did not do so because of the fear of God.  And I also applied myself to the work on this wall; we did not buy any land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work.”

Do you get the picture here?  Nehemiah was no ordinary ruler who lived off the labor of his subjects or took advantage of his position.  He had every right to kick back in some ivory palace.

That is the way our culture is –

Success is revealed by

How many people serve you.

So, take advantage of the perks, if you have them coming.  Remember, life revolves around the theme, “Me, myself, and I”. 

Verse 16 makes it clear that Nehemiah is mixing mortar and hauling rock, right along with the rest of them. That was rare.  Before the people, Nehemiah unselfishly served.  Unselfish people are like lighthouses – they do not blow any horns, they just shine.

The second thing that becomes clear is that Nehemiah

b. Lived His Faith Before the Lord In An Unwavering Way.

This is more important than what he did before the people, because . . .

His living before the Lord

In an unwavering way

Was the only possible way

He could be unselfish.

Verse 19, “Remember me, O my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.”   

Worship seeks the pleasure of God over all else.

Selfish people want to be noticed by people.  Nehemiah wanted to be noticed only by God.  Notice that Nehemiah did not say, “Oh God, make those people around me appreciate my work.” Or, “Lord, make my family respect my decision to live for you.” Or, “God, make my friends and coworkers admire the decision I have made to walk a holy life for Your glory.”  No. He said, “Oh my God, if you remember what I am doing in obedience to You, that is enough for me.”

Dr. Campbell, former president of Dallas Seminary, told the story of a young man who once studied violin under a world-renowned master.  Eventually, the time came for his debut.  The concert hall was filled with expectant observers and the media.  The performing arts center was packed.  Following each selection, despite the cheers of the crowd, the young man seemed dissatisfied.  Even after the last number, when the shouts of bravo were the loudest, the talented violinist stood looking toward the balcony. Finally, his teacher smiled and nodded in approval.  Immediately, the young man relaxed and beamed with happiness.  

The applause of the crowd

Had meant nothing to him

Compared to the approval

Of his master teacher.

Oh, if we would learn to live like Nehemiah – to yearn for the Lord’s approval above anything else, then, the selfish desires of earth would fade and lose their appeal.  And, Satan would be defeated once again.

Some years ago, I had a lightweight jacket with a zipper that always came undone.  I would zip that thing up only to discover later that the zipper was slowly coming undone from the bottom up.  That happened a lot because it was easy to throw it on quickly, zip it up, and rush out of the house without it actually being zipped up correctly.  In fact, I would not have ever known there was even a problem until later when looked at it carefully.  I saw that the zipper’s first and second teeth were not correctly in place the whole thing would eventually come apart.  Only when I took that jacket and carefully ensured that the first and second teeth were carefully in place could I be sure that all the remaining teeth of the jacket would stay together.

A Pharisee once approached Jesus and asked Him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”  Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40).  Jesus taught that if a person loves vertically and horizontally he or she would, in essence, live according to God’s will and way.  Like the first two teeth of a zipper, get those to right and everything else will follow, everything else will be secure and hold together.

Nehemiah lived that way, he lived a God-first life, he loved the Lord with all his heart, soul, and mind – God first – and his neighbor as himself.  Nehemiah lived a “God-First Life.”   As we study these verse today, we will see the distinguishing marks of a God-First life.  I have grouped the verses under three headings . . . 

1. Integrity – Verses 14-16.

It is often said that . . .

Integrity is who you are

When no one is looking.

It is easy to have integrity when we are aware of the presence of others.  We are model Christians when others are watching.  But who are you when you are all alone?  Integrity is who you are when no one’s looking: Holiness . . . Purity . . . Honesty.

Verse 14 says, “Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year until the thirty-second year(that is 445-433 BC)of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the governor’s provisions.”  Nehemiah was governor and led God’s people there in Judah for 12 years and he says “Neither I nor my brothers – his close officials – ate the governor’s provisions.”  The governor’s provisions refer to a generous food allowance available to them that was raised by taxing the people of the land.  We have members in Congress who seem to think that we can just give away things as though there is an endless supply.  Free this, free that.  They govern with no thought of where that revenue must come from.  There is a cost, an expense, behind those things that the people of the country must pay.   Nehemiah knows that if he took “the governor’s provisions” it would hurt the local people financially.  There was a cost involved and they would be hurt.  As a matter of integrity, he denies himself of this right – unlike previous governors as the verse indicates, “But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on(taxed!)the people, and took from them bread and wine, besides forty shekels of silver(as a daily ration). Yes, even their servants bore rule over (tyrannized!) the people, but I did not do so, because of the fear of God.”

Unlike “the former governors who were before” him, Nehemiah chose not to tax, take from, or tyrannize the people.  He regarded them as equal brothers and sisters and worked right alongside them.

President Harry Truman once joked that . . .

Leaders are people

Who can get others to do

What they do not want to do –

And make them like doing it!

Nehemiah was a God-first leader.  He loved the Lord with all his heart, soul, and mind, and his neighbor as himself.   This caused him to be a servant-leader above all else.

Verse 16 states, “Indeed, I also continued the work on this wall, and we did not buy any land.  All my servants were gathered there for the work.”  Nehemiah did not think of himself more highly than he ought (Romans 12:3) but served right alongside others.   Though he could have profited by buying up land during the rebuilding of the wall and city he chose not to use his position for gain. 

This leads to the next mark of a God-First life . . .

2. Generosity – Verses 17-18.

Nehemiah was a very generous person.  Not only did he refuse to selfishly amass wealth for himself at the cost of others, but he used the wealth he already had to bless others.  The next couple verses indicate that God had prospered Nehemiah through his position as cupbearer to the king.   Verse 17 says, “And at my table were one hundred and fifty Jews and rulers, besides those who came to us from the nations around us.”  Nehemiah is telling us that each day he served as governor it fell to him to meet, greet, and entertain a number of leaders and visitors.  The phrase “at my table” refers to his eating with them and sharing with them.  The phrase “one hundred and fifty Jews and rulers,” refers to an entourage of civil servants apparently serving under Nehemiah.  The phrase “those who came from the nations around us” identifies a host of traveling foreign dignitaries.  As governor, it fell upon Nehemiah to show hospitality to these travelers on their way perhaps to the capital of the Assyrian Empire.

Verse 18 states, “Now that which was prepared daily was one ox and six choice sheep.  Also fowl were prepared for me, and once every ten days an abundance of all kinds of wine. Yet in spite of this I did not demand the governor’s provisions, because the bondage was heavy on this people.” 

Now get a sense of the situation . . .

Nehemiah has already told us that he did not eat “the governor’s provisions” the food allowance that was rightly his by Persian law.  He repeats that here in the last part of verse 18.  He does not appropriate the food allowance in order to feed all these people who are around him every day.  Yet they had to eat!  And if you do the math here it really is astronomical.  Verse 18 tell us that what was prepared daily was one ox, six sheep, and fowl or poultry.  This is daily provisions over a period of 12 years.  The math works out to over 4,000 oxen and over 26,000 sheep.  That is a lot of food!  Either Nehemiah had a herd that large that came with him from Susa or he had the financial means to acquire that many animals. 

The point is he had it

And he used his own money

And material things

To bless others.

He could have lived very comfortably by using the “the governor’s provisions,” that tax upon the people, but he does not.  He gives out of his own pocket. 

Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian and writer said, “Adversity is hard on a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity.”  Carlyle was being ironic.  He was saying . . .

That in many ways

It is easier to face

Adversity than prosperity.

Many people maintain their faith through times of adversity, but few people successfully maintain their faith in times of prosperity.  They collapse under so much wealth and gain.  They give in to temptation and bring financial ruin upon themselves.  Or they hoard and become self-focused and reclusive.  But . . .

Nehemiah lives a God-First Life. 

He is a man who loves God

With all his heart, soul, mind,

And his neighbor as himself. 

He believed that God has given

Him favor in order to bless others

And advance God’s kingdom,

Not to rule over them, and

Become rich off of them, and

Build their own little kingdom.

The third mark of a God-First Life is . . .

3. Reverence For God – Verse 19.

Verse 19 shows us what Nehemiah’s prayer was, “Remember me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.”  Nehemiah is a man of prayer.  He has a love for God that motivates his godly character.  Put another way . . .

His integrity and generosity are

Fueled by his reverence for God.

What makes Nehemiah a man of integrity and generosity is his love for the One True and Living God.  Recall in last part of verse 15 Nehemiah said that he did not want to place a burden on the people because, “of the fear of God.”  Nehemiah has a relationship with God.  He is a God-Fearer.  God was always before Nehemiah’s eyes.  He lived in the awareness of God’s presence. 

He prays in verse 19, “Remember me, my God.”  Note that the phrase “my God.”  Nehemiah is not giving in order to gain favor with God, to earn his salvation – Giving all of this stuff as though he could earn a spot in heaven.  No.  He is already God’s child by grace through faith.  He addresses God in a personal, covenantal way.  He is simply praying . . .

“Lord, remember what I have done,

Take note of my actions;

All that I have done for this people

Has grown out of my relationship with You.”

It is a bit like David’s prayer at the end of Psalm 139, verses 23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there is any wicked way in me …”  That is the idea: “See what I have done, Lord, and remember me.  Take note of it.  I have got my eyes on the kingdom.  I am living with a view to the future.  Take note, Lord, because I love You and I want to do right, and I know You reward those whose heart is set on You.”  I wonder if you would be comfortable praying a prayer like that?  “Remember me, my God” … “Take note of how I am living” … “Reward me according to the way I treat others …”

Nehemiah is a man of great piety.  He is faithful to God . . . He walks with God . . . He lives with an eye toward eternity . . . knowing it is far better to live by faith in what he cannot see . . . knowing it is far more rewarding than what he can see in this world. 

This is precisely what motivated

Nehemiah’s integrity and generosity.

What causes a guy to forego the privileges due him according to his position?  Why give up so much food, comfort, and pleasure?  Like our Lord Jesus in John 4 – When the disciples went into town to get food while Jesus talked with the woman at Samaria, the woman at the well?  Jesus led her to faith in Himself.  She comes to know Him as Messiah.  The disciples had gone into town to get food and Jesus is there with that woman, leading her to faith.  The disciples return and they see Jesus talking to this woman.  And they are standing there with their bags of sandwiches from Subway.  And they are like, “Master, eat!”  And Jesus says, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”  They’re like, “What?!  Did someone bring him something to eat?”  And Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me.”  And that kind of food will fill you up, like a bread that satisfies your eternal hunger and water that flows from an ever-flowing well.  

That is what Nehemiah had.  That is what he enjoyed.  Nehemiah lived in the awareness of the greatness and glory of God.  He was like the writer of Hebrews, who wrote in Hebrews 13:14, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek one which is to come.”

Let conclude our study today by pointing to two timeless truths that come out of these verses . . .

1. Fear Of God Trumps Fear Of Man.

Nehemiah has a robust fear of God.  He loves the Lord with all his heart, mind soul, and strength.  He lives in the awareness of the greatness and glory of God.  Because Nehemiah fears God, he does not fear man.  This is especially significant when Nehemiah faces opposition.  This phrase sets us up for the narrative that follows in chapter 6 where we will be reading about a conspiracy to instill fear in the heart of Nehemiah.  Fear of God trumps fear of man.  

I have got a couple questions I want to invite you to ask yourself:

  • “Do I live in the awareness of the greatness and glory of God?”

Like Nehemiah, are your actions motivated by a healthy fear of God.  You actually believe that God is the author of live and truth, that truth should govern your thinking, your words, and your actions.  You endeavor to live a God-First life.  Because of a fear of God, do you seek God first thing every day?  Do you seek to think, speak, and act in a ;way that pleases Him and honors Him each moment of your day? 

Here is another question . . .

  • “What privileges am I willing to deny in order to build His kingdom?”

Nehemiah denied himself of “the governor’s provisions” so that his witness and testimony would remain strong before the people.  All of our actions have the result of either drawing people closer to Jesus or pushing them further away.  Nehemiah lives in such a way as to draw people closer to the Lord.  He denies himself of something that was rightly his, he could have taken the provisions, he could have exercised his rights, but he denied himself these privileges in order to advance the kingdom.

What about you and me?  What privileges are we willing to deny in order to advance God’s kingdom?  Putting mission before personal interest.  As we endeavor to edify and multiply in the church how can we together deny ourselves of privileges in order to reach more people for Jesus?  How can our Bible Study classes put others first by focusing not just on those who are in our class, but focusing on those who are not here? 

Living in the fear of God, aware of the greatness and glory of God.  Fear of God trumps fear of Man. 

Second timeless truth . . .

2. Joy In The Lord Trumps Joy In The World.

Nehemiah lived with an eye toward eternity.  Because of that his whole life was shaped by eternal purposes.  He found his joy in the Lord and for that reason he did not feel the pull of the world – giving-in to greed and self.  His joy in the Lord motivated his integrity and generosity.  Some questions to ask yourself:

  • “What would my friends, family, and co-workers say about where I find joy?”

Someone asks them about you.  What would they say?  Would they say, “Boy, you can tell she/he has a joy in the Lord!  She/He is living for eternity!  Her/His love for the Lord and others is evident!”   Would they say that – or would they say something else?  What may need to change in your life? 

Second question . . .

  • “How does my money or stuff reflect where I find joy?”

Nehemiah was a generous man, giving out of what the Lord had given him.  Financial giving is simply our response to the One who gives to us.  Tithing – the word means “the tenth,” returning the tenth, or 10% to the Lord – tithing is not so much a sacrifice as it is simply returning to the Lord that which is His.  Deuteronomy 8:18 says it is God who gives us the ability to acquire wealth.  Giving back to Him is not only a matter of obedience, but it reflects that we do not find joy in our money or stuff.  We are cheerful givers (2 Corinthians 9).

Joy in the Lord

Trumps

Joy in the world.

Someone has asked . . .

“Do your children or those around you sense

That you are pursuing God or pursuing gold?”

And,

“What might make them think that

Money is too important in your life?”

Joy in the Lord trumps joy in the world. 

Final question . . .

  • “What sin in my life reveals what I am substituting for joy in the Lord?”

We have talked about finding joy in stuff,

But what about finding joy in sin?

Is there some behavior you are in, some habit, or some activity that reveals that you are trading a greater joy in the Lord for a temporary pleasure that ends in guilt, shame, bondage, and death.  What do you need to repent of right now?

Nehemiah’s actions point to the more perfect actions of the Lord Jesus Christ.  As God, the Lord Jesus embodies perfect integrity and perfect generosity.  Jesus denied Himself the privileges of the glory of remaining at the right hand of the Father and chose to humble Himself and enter into this fallen world for our sakes.  He delighted in doing the Father’s will.  Though He was rich, He became poor for our sakes that we through His poverty may become rich – may receive eternal life by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Look over those questions for a moment.  Look them over silently . . . Think on them a moment.  May God, through Jesus Christ, give us grace to live in the awareness of His greatness and glory.  May he help us to fear Min more than we fear man. May He grant that we would make time to be with Him in daily quiet and that we would be ever conscious of His presence every moment of the day.  Like Nehemiah, may the Lord help us think beyond ourselves, beyond our personal rights or privileges, that we may reach more people for Jesus.  May He grant that we would always remember that true joy is found in Him and not in the world.  May He help us take hold of Jesus and find life in Him.  May we turn from sin in repentance and take hold of Christ.  May the truth that God accept us not on the basis of our performance, but on the basis of our relationship with Him through Christ – May that acceptance motivate our living and prompt us to greater generosity.  When we struggle in the dark, struggling with sinful habits, sinful behaviors, may God awaken us to eternal truths, reminding us that true life, true joy, is found in Him – and not in the world!

This is God’s Word …

This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

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.”

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