Overcoming Problems in God's Work: Internal Strife Part 1 (Neh. 5:1-9)
I hope you all know that today is a very important day in the history of EFC. After this message, if you are an active member, you will have the privilege to take part in voting for a name that will be used to represent this ministry. So I am really excited about that! I was also kind of nervous, because these are the things that often breed church splits. For example, this past week I read about a church-planting team that was divided whether to call their new congregation “First United Church” or “United First Church!”
I don’t see that happening here today, but let’s decide right now that whatever name is chosen, that we will humble ourselves, join together and put all our energies toward continuing to move forward in this ministry, remembering that there is really only one name we are ever to die over, amen? That is the name of Jesus Christ, the name above all names!
Our series in Nehemiah has been titled, “Building God’s People for God’s Work.” Half of the book is about doing God’s work and the second half is about building God’s people. So far we have seen God preparing us for the work (Neh. 1-2), how God prospers us in the work (Neh. 3) and now the last section, overcoming problems in the work (Neh. 4-7). Today, the title of the message, which will be preached in two parts (mostly due to the events following this message), is “Overcoming Problems in God’s Work: Internal Strife Part 1.”
Isn’t it interesting that the majority of the chapters in the first half of the book are attributed to problems in the work? We saw that there were external problems as the enemies ridiculed God’s people in the work (Neh. 4:1-6), then we saw more external attack, but with the combination of the right timing (the halfway hurdle) and inward discouragement in Neh. 4:7-23, the people of God collapsed and Nehemiah rallied them back to work. Now we are going to see the worst attack of all. This time it is not external, but it will internal. It will not be from strangers, but from friends. There is nothing worse for the work of God and the people of God than internal division that is caused by tolerated sin.
Think of the last church split you heard about. Was it an attack from the world? Was it governmental invasion? Was it false teaching? Most likely, it was internal strife. This is the latest challenge Nehemiah will have to face. Brothers are exploiting brothers. Internal discord brought on by sin that goes unchecked, tolerated and ignored. How will our hero deal with this? He will have to deal with it, because even if the walls were rebuilt, what difference does it make if the people on the inside of the wall are the same as those who are outside of the wall? This was hypocrisy that needed to be corrected. We are going to explore that today. Let’s start with this:
I. Sin destroys the unity of God’s people and the progress of God’s work (Neh. 5:1-5)
Let’s pick up the story in Neh. 5:1. Notice there was a great “outcry.” In other words, this is not a small complaint one or two people had here and there. This is serious trouble. We have never seen this word used to describe any opponents’ attacks or even last chapter when they were discouraged. The loudest cry from the people comes when there is internal conflict. This seems to always be the case right?
By the way, let us make sure if we have a complaint or even suggestions to improve this ministry that we make it known to the right people. We cannot deal with problems that we are not aware of. We do have a servant team here, which we hope to eventually become our deacon board. Will the servant team please stand up? Each of these individuals is heading up various aspects of ministry. So if you do have questions regarding anything in any of these areas, please inform them. We have servant team meetings once a month where we can then bring those issues up and discuss them. Ok? End of commercial.
Notice that the women have also joined in. We know some women worked on the walls like Shallum’s daughters (Neh. 3:12), but most of them were homemakers and mothers. So it is not unusual that they joined in the complaint because this was a domestic problem.
Three reasons are given for the trouble. First of all, they had big families, according to Neh. 5:2. The bigger the family, the more mouths you have to feed. But with all the work they were doing on the wall, the less time they had to farm and raise crops. Remember this is an agricultural community and Nehemiah in Neh. 4 had people working during the day on the wall and guarding the wall by night. How much time did they have to work on their farms? It was a huge sacrifice for them, which was now taking its toll. So they needed grain or they were going to die.
There was more to this. Look at Neh. 5:3. Now we find out there is also a famine. Boy, when it rains, it really does pour! Also if you recall, there are a lot more people in Jerusalem than normal, because people came from all over to help rebuild this wall. In short, if you put all the problems together, there is not enough food to go around. But to add to the problem is that some have mortgaged their property---including their fields, where the grain was grown and vineyards, where wine can be produced---to other Jews, so that they can use the money to buy grain, which has become very scarce and costly, due to the famine.
And there’s more. Notice Neh. 5:4. They were also forced to pay taxes, since Judah was a Persian state. Since they were already struggling with other financial burdens, they were forced to borrow money from other Jews to pay taxes. Certain Jewish moneylenders took advantage of this, by charging really high interest rates. So what happens when you cannot pay your debt? Today you can declare bankruptcy or get a bail-out right? But back then, the debtors were forced to give up their children to work for the creditors, the people you took the money from, until the debts were paid. Some are outraged about this, since it was coming from their own fellow Jews. In Neh. 5:5, the mention of the daughters twice, could mean, that some of these creditors have taken them to be their wives. They have lost everything from their livelihood, freedom, their possessions and even their own children.
Now what was so wrong about what was going on? Turn to Deut. 23:19-20. It was wrong to ask for interest from a fellow Jew. God wanted His people to be distinct from the people around them. So when the nations around them look at them and wonder, “How are they so prosperous without charging interest?” They can boldly say, “The Lord our God has provided all of our needs without us having to charge interest.” Secondly, turn to Lev. 25:35-40.
So here is the problem. It was not wrong to lend money to your fellow Jew, or to lend money and charge interest to a foreigner, but it was wrong to charge interest to a fellow Jew. Moreover, it was not wrong to hire a fellow Jew to work for you to pay off debt, but it was wrong to enslave a fellow Jew. A hired hand has freedom and in the seventh year, if there are any remaining debts, you were to take the debt and throw it away. See when God gave them those rules, it was for their own good and well-being. It was to avoid things like in Neh. 5. The wealthy Israelites had defied God’s Word. They ignored it and tolerated it and now it was threatening to destroy everything they had built and the unity within them.
Take a look at this tree. It is hollowed out by termites. It took years to for this tree to grow this tall. But eventually the termites took over. Can you believe something so small can bring down this tree? So it is with sin. A small leak can bring an entire ship down. Like these termites, tolerated sin will hollow you out and then eat away at everyone around you. It receives sunlight and it receives moisture to help it grow, but what use is it when there are termites on the inside destroying it?
We tend to think that our pet sins is just our own. We might excuse it by saying, “Oh God knows I’m weak in this area.” But the truth of the matter is, our sins affect everyone around us. And you keep playing with it and coddling it, and like mold, it keeps growing in the dark and it starts to infect everyone around you. Sin is a threat to the unity of the people of God and the progress of the work of God.
This is true for all kinds of sin. This coming week will mark two years of losing a good friend of mine, who died in a car crash because some guy decided not to stop at a red light. Small decision, but it impacted an entire community. Think of the husband who is an alcoholic. Who is affected by his drunkenness? Is it just his hangover that he has to worry about? If he drives, he can kill people. His wife and his kids are scared for their lives and that impacts everyone in their lives. Think about gossip. You start talking about someone behind their back to someone else at church. Now you have two people who start to think ill of someone and on and on it goes, until you have a cliques forming all around and soon the termites eat away at the joy, love and unity of the fellowship and brings the whole thing down.
So because of the seriousness of this, take note of this:
II. Sin is to be confronted immediately (Neh. 5:6-9)
This whole incident reminds us that we cannot ignore people’s needs, even when we are involved in a special project. Sometimes there is sin involved and it should be dealt with. How should sin be confronted?
a) Confront with Righteous Anger (Neh. 5:6)
Look at how Nehemiah responds in Neh. 5:6. He was “very angry.” In the last chapter, the same words were used to describe Sanballat and his goons. It means to “burn hot,” often used to describe God Himself. Not all anger is a sin. Obviously we see Jesus with righteous anger toward the Pharisees. God never rebuked Moses for throwing the tablets of the Law and smashing them in seeing the people’s sin (Ex. 32). Paul even says, “Be angry and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). It’s a command! I like what Warren Wiersbe says here, that “Nehemiah was not a politician who asked, “What is popular?” or a diplomat who asked, “What is safe?” but a true leader who asked, “What is right?” His was a holy anger against sin, and he knew he had the Law of God behind him. So anger is the proper emotion when sin threatens to destroy the progress of God’s work and the unity of God’s people.
b) Confront directly following self-reflection (Neh. 5:7-8)
Nehemiah had to pause for a second. The phrase “took counsel with myself” means “to think things over.” It means to “give one self-advice, to counsel oneself.” When God is angry, He is angry sinlessly and righteously. However for us, anger is a dangerous emotion because our emotions are affected by our fallenness. We need to pause, take counsel with ourselves and make sure it is not an expression of our own unrighteousness, injured pride or wounded pride or selfishness. We need to find a quiet place to lay all of our emotions before God, before facing the situation head-on. Here Nehemiah, always taking time to think, plan and pray before moving forward in haste serves as a good example for us.
Since he took time to cool down and think, he was able to get to the root cause of the issue. The sin was caused by the people with the fat wallets, i.e. the nobles and the officials. Nehemiah does not penalize everybody, but addresses the person responsible. He calls out the sin: “exacting interest.” In other words, it was usury, charging interest on the loan. Nehemiah attacks the problem directly, probably appealing to all the Scriptures we mentioned already. He goes on to say that the Jews were doing to their own people, exactly what God had delivered them from in Neh. 5:8. In other words, “God redeemed us from slavery and has brought us back to Jerusalem. Now, how can you turn God’s redemption upside-down, betray your own people, and enslave Jewish people again?”
What we can learn here is that unity is not natural, even among Christians. Nehemiah had to confront the sin. It takes work. It was not easy to stop the work to deal with this. He could have been like, “Well, let’s deal with this later, after the wall was built.” Unity must be cultivated, developed, worked at and protected. This is why Paul says, “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3). Therefore, since it is not natural, anything that threatens it needs to be dealt with immediately. This is true with your spouse, your children and in the church of Jesus Christ.
Think what happens when a particle falls into your eye. Do you sit there and smile and say, “Oh it’s just a particle in my eye. I’ll let it sit there and go about my day.” I don’t think anyone does that? You are probably freaking out and going crazy bothering everyone around you to blow in your eye. You deal with it immediately and directly. Let us do the same with sin.
c) Confront with the consequences in mind (Neh. 5:9)
Nehemiah did not talk about how angry he was. He did not talk about the wall. Notice what he appeals to: the consequences. The first consequence is loss of God’s favor. He says, “walk in the fear of God.” Their sin was against God. Walking in the fear of God is the dread of displeasing Him. This is why it was serious. It defeats everything else. Why build this wall if God is not being worshipped wholeheartedly? Who cares?
Secondly, this sin was a failure to represent God before unbelievers. Pastor Art Azardia says, “Who laughs the loudest when the word gets out that a minister has fallen? Who gets the greatest glee in that? What do we do? We run and hide---go to the store, ball field and hope no one mentions it. It is the world which says, ‘You miserable Christians aren’t any better than us. At least we are open about it. You cloak it in spiritual hypocrisy.’ God’s people sin. It goes tolerated. It goes unchecked. We ignore it and it undercuts the testimony we are attempting to have in the world God has called us to reach.”
There are consequences to our sin. Sin will take you farther than you ever planned to go. It will keep you longer than you ever planned to stay. Sin will cost you more than you ever planned to pay. Though God forgives us, He will not take away the consequences because choosing to sin means choosing to suffer, as my old pastor used to say.
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, the elderly one 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.
May we continually seek the applause of the nail-scarred hands. May His pleasure drive us away from sin and all that threatens to destroy us and His work.
Wiersbe, Ne 5:6.
Arturo Azardia, “When a holy ambition gets confrontational” http://www.spiritempoweredpreaching.com/downloads/399_10.mp3 accessed July 29, 2009.