Fighting  an Insidious Enemy

Nehemiah 5:1—13

Nehemiah and his people had scored a major victory against the Samaritans. God came through for them in a big way.

When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work. (Nehemiah 4:15)

The enemy on the outside had been taken care of; he was no longer a relevant factor in the rebuilding of the great wall around Jerusalem. But Nehemiah faced opposition, not only from without, but also from within. He now faced an economic crisis. No sooner had one problem been cleared up when another one reared its ugly head. Right in the middle of the rebuilding effort, we read this:

Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. (verse 1)

Bible scholars cite numerous reasons for the great national outcry. The familiar refrain “the rich got richer and the poor got poorer” was as loud a few thousand years ago as it is today. Every economic crisis seems to hinge on “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Of course, when reasonable people actually think about that statement, it makes no sense. But that doesn’t stop some people from joining in the refrain when times get tough.

And times were tough during the rebuilding of the wall. Economic pressures were due to both natural causes and the unintended the consequences of this massive rebuilding effort. Some 75 years earlier, the prophet Haggai had spoken of a terrible famine caused by a long drought. There simply wasn’t enough food during Nehemiah’s day. Even wealthy land owners had to mortgage their land to buy grain. Those who had the foresight to store food and were able to feed their families were excoriated by others. So this food shortage hit all classes of people, the so-called rich and the poor.

In addition to the food shortage caused by the drought, the enemy had succeeded in intercepting food supplies heading into the city, which added to an already desperate situation.

But there was another problem caused by the governing authorities themselves. Because the rebuilding of the wall was such a massive undertaking and because the men and women involved in that great work devoted all their time and effort to it, there was an unintended consequence. People couldn’t work; they had no income while they were engaged in their volunteer work. And when people don’t get a paycheck, they can’t buy grain and they can’t pay their taxes. The taxes mentioned in verse 4 were taxes due the Persian king, not any king or ruler of Judah.

Consequently, Nehemiah faced problems he probably never dreamed of. How he handled this crisis shows us not only the greatness of Nehemiah’s character but also the stability of it. Nothing, not the whole Samaritan army and not the whining citizens, seemed to phase Nehemiah and shake his faith. Here are some aspects of Nehemiah’s character that every believer should cultivate in his or her life.

1. He was morally upright, verse 6

When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry.

Only a truly righteous person is able to be truly outraged at unrighteousness in any form. There are times when it is entirely appropriate to get angry. Ephesians 4:26 teaches that a believer may be angry but not sin. Moses got angry. Jesus got angry. Great men in Scripture all expressed their anger at the appropriate times. The problem is, of course, knowing when it is appropriate to get angry. Generally speaking, getting angry is a temptation that leads to sin. Proverbs warns us in numerous places to keep a careful check on our tempers.

A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control. (Proverbs 29:11)

Very often the things that get us angry are at worst irritants; things that frustrate us or annoy us, and usually things or people we have no control over. Of things like these, the Bible counsels:

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. (Psalm 37:7)

Do not say, “I’ll pay you back for this wrong!” Wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you. (Proverbs 20:22)

The idea put forth in these two verses, but echoed throughout the Bible, is that while there are people and things that bother us and annoy us, there is something else going on: God is aware of the situation, and God is ultimately in control of the situation whether we see Him in it or not.

When Jesus got angry—at the moneychangers, for example—it was because they were exploiting the faith; using faith for personal gain instead of using it to bring people closer to God. It wasn’t just “social injustice” that angered Jesus, it was throwing God into the mix; ripping people off in His Father’s Name.

Nehemiah got angry when he heard the complaints of his people. This was the right reaction.

2. He was courageous, verse 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…

When made of aware of the situation, Nehemiah did what a true leader always does. He consulted, not with a large group of advisors, but with himself. Then he called a meeting of “nobles and officials” to accuse them of taking advantage of their fellow citizens in this time of crisis. But who were these “nobles and officials?” Some scholars see them as “wealthy Jews.” So all some scholars see is Nehemiah putting the rich in their place; warning those who have “corporate airplanes” and such of how evil they were. However, key in understanding Nehemiah’s anger is understanding that it wasn’t the rich Jew taking advantage of poorer Jews, it was the governing class! The people taking advantage of average citizens were the very ones who were supposed to watching out for them! No wonder Nehemiah was angered!

Now this was real courage. He called together all the members of the “ruling class” and rebuked them, in front of everybody, for taking advantage of other citizens. What’s important to note here is that Nehemiah did this only after he “pondered.” The Hebrew word is difficult to put into English, and the New English Bible gives us an alternate translation: “I mastered my feelings.” So the sense is that Nehemiah got control of his emotions, considered what actions to take, probably even prayed about, then he went out in courage and sternly rebuked the members of the “ruling class.”

3. He was unselfish, verse 8

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!”

It seems that, among other things, the “ruling class” was engaging in the particularly nasty practice of loaning money to those who needed it but charging them unreasonable interest on their debt. Many of these “needy people” were so because of the drought or because they were engaged in the reconstruction work. Not only that, some were apparently selling their fellow citizens to the Gentiles for profit. This was strictly forbidden, yet some of the “ruling class” were doing just that, even after Nehemiah had bought the Jews back from the Gentiles. This was a heinous sin indeed.

Now, it wasn’t the loaning of money that bothered Nehemiah, it was the unreasonable interest being charged. In fact, Nehemiah loaned people money when they needed it. He bought back slaves. But he did it to the benefit of others, not only himself.

We read this in verse 10—

I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest!

Borrowing money and loaning money are not condemned in Scripture, but Scripture certainly does condemn greed and avarice; seeking to profit at other people’s misery. The “ruling class” of Nehemiah’s day was doing just that. And this was unconscionable to Nehemiah. So he called them out and rebuked them in front of everybody.

4. He was jealous for God, verse 9

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?

He didn’t forget God. Nehemiah wasn’t offended because of his beliefs and practices. He was offended because God was offended! Nehemiah understood what Paul put into words generations later in Romans 2:24,

As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

When God’s people refuse to walk in His holy fear, they bring reproach upon His Holy name. When you behave badly, God is embarrassed. It’s a sad fact that many of Christ’s would-be servants are more jealous about the honor of their name than His.

When you hear God’s name taken in vain, are you offended? When Scripture is defamed, how do you react? Or are you more irritated when somebody says something bad or inaccurate about you?

Nehemiah was hurt because the “ruling class” was taking advantage their position of trust to take advantage of others. Nehemiah wasn’t effected in any way, but he was hurt nonetheless because God was hurt by their actions.

5. He spoke with authority, verse 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.

Nehemiah was not lukewarm and he was not half-hearted. His words carried the very authority of God Himself, for the “ruling class” received them.

We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.” (verse 12)

This kind of moral authority in a leader does not just happen; it does not come by virtue of a position or by accident. It is the result of a lifetime of self-discipline and the cultivation, through prayer, of the presence of God in life. Nehemiah, the humble Jewish cup-bearer from Persia, was a man of prayer and a man who had disciplined himself to do what he believed God would have him do. Does anybody think his goal in life was to give up a cushy, lucrative job to travel, live a life of hardship to build a wall around a city he had never seen? A true leader is somebody who serves cause greater than himself. A true leader is rare because he is willing to do what most others won’t.

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. (verse 15)

Nehemiah was a great leader because he was willing to be different; to step out from the crowd and lead. How the Church needs more Nehemiah’s today!

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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