Arise and Rebuild Series
The Book of Nehemiah
“Rebuilding Must Address Internal Problems”
As we have journeyed through the book of Nehemiah, we first saw Nehemiah’s response to the dreadful news that the remnant that had return from exile to Jerusalem under the edict of Cyrus the king of Persia were living in terrible conditions. Even though the Temple had been rebuilt, the walls and city gates were still in ruins. Nehemiah had risen to the prestigious position of cupbearer of king Artaxerxes, but Nehemiah knew that God had called him to serve the King of kings.
Rebuilding the city of Jerusalem was essential to the coming of the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ, so Nehemiah was ready to respond to the call of God upon his life. In chapter two Nehemiah received the king’s blessing and permission to return to Jerusalem and to lead God’s people in rebuilding the wall and the city gates. Chapter three gives us detailed information of how the people came together as one man under Nehemiah’s leadership and how the people were enabled by God’s grace and strength to rebuild the wall to half of its height in just a few months.
So, we see the first three chapters of Nehemiah are filled with encouragement and enthusiasm as the people put their hands to this good work (2.18a) and had a mind to work (4.6). But the next three chapters, chapters four through six, details the opposition Nehemiah encountered while building the wall and how he approached the opposition. We were first introduced to two fellow Jews, Sanballat and Tobiah, who were very displeased that someone would come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel. (2.10) These men verbally ridiculed the people for their efforts. (4.1-3) Both Sanballat and Tobiah came from a priestly pedigree, and you would have thought that they would have supported Nehemiah’s efforts, but they did not.
Even though the overwhelming majority of the people supported Nehemiah and personally participated in the rebuilding project, Sanballat and Tobiah acted more like outsiders and enemies to God’s people. But their ridicule, mocking, and slanderous smear didn’t stop the people from doing God’s work, so Samballat and Tobiah gathered an audience of Arabs, Ammonites, and Ashdodites and together they threatened the people with physical attacks and possible harm. Nehemiah called the people to pray to God for courage, formed a neighborhood watch program to keep watch day and night, and encouraged the people kept on building. The Lord frustrated Sanballat and Tobiah’s plan to stop the progress of the rebuilding project and the people continued building the wall and the city gates.
Problems from Within
As soon as it seemed that the external opposition of Sanballat and Tobiah was over a new form of opposition emerged but this time the opposition came from within the community of God’s people. Allow me to explain. Originally the Jews who had returned from Babylon were financially well-off. The book of Ezra tells us that it wasn’t just their personal wealth that the returning remnant brought back to Jerusalem, but all their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings. (Ez.1.6)
Once the returning remnant arrived in Jerusalem, they were either wealthy enough or had prospered enough to panel the homes, a luxury at that time reserved for kings. (Hag.1.4) Thirteen years before Nehemiah’s arrival, a second group of exiles returned with Ezra, and these brought additional “silver and gold” and “freewill offerings” from those remaining in exile. (Ez.7.16) Additional gifts from the remaining exiles arrived on a regular basis to Jerusalem to provide ongoing assistance to the remnant. (Zech.6.10)
So, the question must be asked, why are there so many poor people in Nehemiah chapter five? Well, the text tells us two the reasons. First, verse three mentions a famine. Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.” (5.3)
During the past couple of years, we have experienced a pandemic famine. Large and small businesses have closed, people have lost their jobs, and any people have faced financial crisis. I must pause to say that as God’s people we must look to Scripture to give us principles of biblical stewardship so we can face these “famines” for the glory of God. Principles like tithing, being generous and ready to help with special causes, and helping the poor and needy. I’m not saying that practicing these biblical principles of stewardship will be the shield you from every financial challenge, but you will have the confidence to know that you have lived your life and managed your money for the glory of God and that, I must say, is priceless.
Another reason for the financial collapse was the king’s tax. Verse four tells us, “Still others were saying, ‘We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards.’” (5.4) Most scholars generally agree that the king of Persia’s tax was not extremely burdensome but if you are suffering financially any additional financial requirement becomes a problem.
But the biggest problem was that the wealthier Jews took advantage of these hardships and were exploiting those who were suffering financially to the point that some were mortgaging their farms at a high rate of interest, and some were so desperate that they sold their children into slavery so that they and their children would survive. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”(5.5)
6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 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 8 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. 9 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? 10 I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! 11 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.”
A Time for Righteous Angry
Nehemiah response gives us godly principles as to how to handle opposition from within. Verse six Nehemiah tells us, “When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry.” (5.6) It seems that those employing this exploitation scheme kept it hidden from Nehemiah for some time but once he was made aware of it he was very angry. Boy, do I know that feeling. There have been things as a pastor, as an overseer, as a supervisor that have been withheld from me, and when I finally discovered the sin, the abuse, and the dishonesty it made me very angry.
Bible teachers talk about righteous and unrighteous anger. I believe that the Bible clearly identifies certain things that belong in the realm of righteous angry. Things like the exploitation of children, or the exploitation of the elderly, or the exploitation poor. And here in chapter five you have two out of three. The exploitation of children and the exploitation of the poor. Many use the example of Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers in the Temple as righteous angry because the moneychangers were exploiting those with foreign currency with high exchange fees so that they could participate in Temple worship. Jesus told them, “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers.’” (Mt.21.13) When I read this episode of Scripture it’s easy for me to think that Jesus could pull this off in a “righteous anger” sort of way, but for me it’s not so easy. I seem to always mess it up. That’s why the Apostle Paul says, “Be angry, andyetdo not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger”(Eph.4.17) The idea is that we are not holy like Jesus, so we need to take time to consider if our angry is appropriate or inappropriate. This is exactually what Nehemiah did.
I Pondered Them in My Mind
Notice Nehemiah tells us that when he “heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind.” (5.7a) Nehemiah pondered the situation before he acted. Notice, “I pondered them.” He thought about the nobles and the officials and considered if there could be any reason why they would exploit their fellow countrymen in such a way. He thought about the fathers, the mothers, and the children. He thought about how this injustice was causing the unity of God’s people and their fulfilling God’s purposes to be fractured. And after he gave the situation sufficient thought he told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” (5.7b)
Confronting the Offenders Privately
I am sure Nehemiah reminded them of Exodus twenty-two and verse twenty-five that says, “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest.” (Ex.22.25) And Deuteronomy that instructs God’s people, “You shall not charge interest to your countrymen: interest on money, food, or
anything that may be loaned at interest.” (Dt.23.19) Jews were not to charge interest to their fellow Jews. They could lend money to outsiders at going rates, but Jews were not to take advantage of the fellow Jews in any way.
Also notice that Nehemiah confronted the offenders privately.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!” (5.6-7) This is the first principle in dealing with offenses between brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus teaches us in Matthew chapter eighteen, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.’ (Mt.18.15a) Nehemiah wasn’t trying to hide the problem or cover it up. Even though their sin was public, Nehemiah was going the second mile with these guys and sought to resolve the problem between brothers. But it seems that the offenders didn’t have any remorse for their behavior, so Nehemiah called together a large meeting to deal with them. (5.7c) This is exactly what Jesus tells us we should do. If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. (Mt.18.15-16)
Confronting the Offenders Publicly
In this situation there were many witnesses. The work of rebuilding had been stopped but not from slander and threats from Sanballat and Tobiah and their band of outsiders, but the work had been stopped because Nehemiah called together a large meeting to deal with the internal problem. (5.7b) “What good was it to build a wall if inside the wall there were people who were exploiting one another?” (Frank Tillapaugh)
Christians are good at condemning the secular world for their behaviors and actions while neglecting to clean up our own house. The Apostle Peter reminds us that “judgment begins in the house of God.” (IPt.4.17) That’s where Nehemiah begins and that is where we should begin too.
With their accusers standing right in front of them the offenders once again stood silent. (5.8) But now Nehemiah brings charges against the offenders publicly saying, “The thing which 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?(5.9) He commands them to stop charging interest. (5.10) He orders them to give back their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves, their houses, and to pay restitution back to those they had offended. (5.11)
Then they said, “We will give it back and will require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say.” (5.12a) But their admission wasn’t enough for Nehemiah. This was a spiritual matter so, I called the priests and took an oath from them that they would do according to this promise.(5.12b) Unity among God’s people is very important and Nehemiah wanted the offenders to know that their admission was witnessed by God Himself. And to visualize the importance of this oath Nehemiah shook out the front of his 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!” And they praised the Lord. Then the people did according to this promise. (5.13)
Nehemiah’s Godly Example as Governor
Nehemiah takes the rest of the chapter to highlight his godly example as governor. King Artaxerxes had appointed Nehemiah as governor prior to his journey to Jerusalem and he served as governor for twelve years. (5.14a) During his reign as Governor Nehemiah didn’t live as other governors but rather chose to demonstrate a godly example to the people. He did not utilize the food allowance giving to governors by the empire. (5.14b, 18b) He did not impose a tax on the people. (5.15) He did not sit in the governor’s mansion but rather joined the people daily in the work of rebuilding the wall. (5.16a) He did not purchase any land. (5.16b) Every day he would host an evening meal with one hundred and fifty of his fellow countrymen together with guests from surrounding nations. (5.17) The menu included one ox, six choice sheep, and birds. Every ten days wine was served to all the guests in abundance. (5.18) Nehemiah did all with his own money.
Why did Nehemiah do all of this? Out of reverence to God. Brothers and sisters, God’s Word calls us a peculiar people and truly we are! (IPt.2.9) Why do we do the things we do? Why do we give a tenth of our income to support the Lord’s work through the church? Why are we generous and ready to help with special causes? Why do we help the poor and needy? Out of reverence to the One who was rich yet for our sakes become poor. (2Cor.8.9) We do these things out of gratitude to Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light! Nehemiah was not looking for praise from man. He was living his life for the glory of God and the people of Jerusalem were the benefactors of God’s great grace shown to Nehemiah. He prays, “Remember me, O my God, for good, accordingly to all I have done for this people.” (5.19)
This chapter teaches us that rebuilding must address internal problems. We must be willing to address internal problems within ourselves, our relationships, our family, our employment, and our church. Brothers and sisters, we must hold purity and unity as high values in the church of Jesus Christ.
Before I close this morning, I want you to see the analogy of the Gospel given to us in this chapter.
We all were living as slaves to the great oppressor because of past mistakes and failures. God sent the Governor of our souls, our Lord Jesus Christ, to confront and condemn the great oppressor, to set us free from our bondage, and to restore our lives. Our great Governor gave us an example to follow. That we should do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves;do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil.2.3-4)