Overcoming Problems in God's Work: Internal Strife Part 2 (Neh. 5:10-19)
Good afternoon Living Hope! By the way, it is a biblical name (1 Pet. 1:3). Praise God! Well, we have been talking about problems in God’s work, which covers Neh. 4-7. This will be our last section before we talk about building God’s people. Last time, we left off talking about the worst attack that can happen to God’s people, eventually destroying the progress of God’s work. This attack is not external, but internal. It is not with strangers, but with friends. I like how J. Vernon McGee puts it: “Now we see opposition coming from within. This is where the Devil strikes his greatest blow. In the history of the church we have seen that when the Devil could not destroy the church by persecution, the next thing he did was to join it!”
How did this internal attack occur? It happened because of tolerated sin. Look at the outline. Our first point was that:
I. Sin destroys the unity of God’s people and the progress of God’s work (Neh. 5:1-5)
Sin, left unchecked, goes underground and spoils the soil that God had been watering and cultivating. Brothers were exploiting brothers. Wealthy Jews were charging exorbitant interest to fellow Jews. Because the poor could not pay the debt, they sold their children to slavery. God’s Word said they were not allowed to charge interest to fellow Jews (Deut. 23:19-20). Secondly, it was wrong to enslave fellow Jews (Lev. 25:35-40). So this was an openly defied disregard toward God’s Word. They ignored it and tolerated sin.
Do you want to destroy God’s work? It’s easy. Let sin go unchecked in your life. Go week after week without doing anything about it. Let it keep growing like mold in the dark. The Scriptures say, “Be sure you sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23). Before you know it, it will destroy you and take down everything you have invested in and built up.
You better believe Nehemiah saw this. Who cares about a wall if the people on the inside are no different from the people on the outside? Who cares about this building project if we have lost God’s favor and we have become the laughingstock of everyone around us? So Nehemiah realized that, and so this was the second point:
II. Sin is to be confronted immediately (Neh. 5:6-9)
He confronted it with righteous anger (the proper emotion when sin threatens to destroy God’s work and the unity of God’s people) and after some personal reflection, he addressed the guilty directly: the nobles and officials (they had the big wallets and were guilty of this greed) and warned them of the consequences. Remember the two consequences of tolerated sin? You lose the favor of God and you fail to represent God to unbelievers. Commentator Ray Brown says, “Inconsistent lifestyles seriously damage the effectiveness of Christian witness. W.E. Sangster used to pose the searching question: ‘Are some people outside the Church of Jesus Christ because I am inside?’” The Jews were confronted later by Paul for the same thing. Look at Romans 2:17ff. Look closely at Rom. 2:24. Jot this prayer down: “Lord, never let your name be dragged through the mud because of me.”
With that said, let’s start with this for today, that when sin threatens to destroy the unity of God’s people and the progress of God’s work and once the sin is confronted, then:
III. Repentance and accountability is to be called for decisively (Neh. 5:10-13)
Look at Neh. 5:10-11. Neh. 5:10 is tricky. Is Nehemiah confessing his involvement in the sin too? Or is he offering himself as an example? It seems to me that the latter is the case here. It seems odd that he could be “very angry” (Neh. 5:6) of which he too is guilty and secondly, we are going to look at his outstanding generosity in Neh. 5:14-19. It would be strange for him to say this whole thing, while he is looking for interest from these poor people. So I think he’s saying, “See some of us here did lend money, but we didn’t charge interest. Let’s stop this exploitation right now.” He’s urging others to follow him as an example.
Notice the word “abandon.” Other translations say, “leave off” (NASU). There is a stopping, a forsaking or an abandoning of sin and a there is a correction of wrong. Nehemiah is asking all property, proceeds and people (though not mentioned directly here) be returned. One commentator notes here that, “In times of crisis or at any time the well-being of the community of faith is more important than the comfort and security of the affluent; they must be willing to sacrifice (cf. Prov 22:16).” This was repentance.
Restitution of wrong is always a mark of genuine repentance. The more and more I am in church world, the more and more I am realizing that repentance is not a popular word anymore. But when you look at Scripture, every prophet in the OT’s sermon is about it. It comes out of the mouth of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:2), Jesus (Matt. 4:17) and the apostles (Acts 2:38; 3:19-20). Even in Revelation, Jesus is still talking about it (Rev. 2:5; 3:19).
Here is a definition: Repentance is defined as a change of mind producing a change of behavior. There are three parts to repentance. Your head, heart and your hands are involved. There is first, a recognition of sin (head—the mind). Then there is heartfelt sorrow (heart--the emotions). This results in a change of behavior (hands—the will). This is how repentance works. You need all three working here for true repentance. If you just have the mental part, it is regret (King Saul had that). If you just have the emotional part, you have remorse (like Judas). But when you have all three working, you have truly repented (like the prodigal son in Luke 15 or Peter).
Notice the recognition of sin here in Neh. 5:10-11. It was a blatant disregard to God’s Word. Notice how specific the issues are mentioned in Neh. 5:11. Anytime you feel like to say, “God, I’ve messed up today, forgive me,” you probably are not repenting. You have to be specific. So let’s get specific. Pastor James Macdonald says that usually our sins fall into either the pride category, pleasure category or the priorities category.
Pride—me, myself and I--says things like, “Why aren’t people appreciating and thanking me? Don’t you know who I am? Can’t you see my degrees?” Secondly, pleasure. Pleasure in of itself is not wrong, but when it causes you to desire wrongly, it is sin. Pleasure at the wrong time, at the wrong place or with the wrong person is when it becomes sin. This is true, whether it is sexual pleasure or pleasure in substance abuse or with stuff. Lastly, our priorities—these are the things left undone. Not doing the things we are supposed to be doing. This is when you are not taking care of our body, not taking care of the home or our spouse. This is when we are withholding ourselves in worship on Sundays, or withholding ourselves from the Lord during the week and not having any time with him. This is when you are not serving the Lord and coming week after week to receive and not give.
Why am I going into all of this? Because I want all that God has for me and for us. I had to sit down this past week and go through this last paragraph I shared with you for my own life. I was in prayer saying to the Lord, “God, I cannot take anyone where I haven’t gone.” Men, this is true for you as well as you lead your homes. Beloved, this is true for any ministry you are serving in right now and for every discipleship relationship you have. But the way that God channels His blessing and pours it out is through repentance. Where do we need repentance today? If God is confronting you in your sin right now, repentance is how you respond.
Dale Hayes in Leadership magazine shares the story that “On a recent trip to Haiti, I heard a Haitian pastor illustrate to his congregation the need for total commitment to Christ. His parable: A certain man wanted to sell his house for $2,000. Another man wanted very badly to buy it, but because he was poor, he couldn't afford the full price. After much bargaining, the owner agreed to sell the house for half the original price with just one stipulation: He would retain ownership of one small nail protruding from just over the door.
After several years, the original owner wanted the house back, but the new owner was unwilling to sell. So the first owner went out, found the carcass of a dead dog, and hung it from the single nail he still owned. Soon the house became unlivable, and the family was forced to sell the house to the owner of the nail.
The Haitian pastor's conclusion: ‘If we leave the Devil with even one small peg in our life, he will return to hang his rotting garbage on it, making it unfit for Christ's habitation.’ " Repentance is a lifestyle that makes sure not even the smallest nail in our heart is left for the devil to claim. As David prayed, “Search me O God and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24). We must turn immediately from sin to the Lord.
Look at how these wealthy Jews responded in Neh. 5:12. They all agreed! If only everyone in the congregation was always like that when we are confronted with sin! I guess that is how we see revival!
I love what Nehemiah does here. He is not satisfied with a verbal agreement. He calls the priests over. He is calling for public accountability. If you are going to make a vow before God, do it looking into the eyes of those who are his ministers. Let’s make sure you are serious about this and that it is not some emotional thing, he says. Have you ever had gum that has such a great initial taste, but then it ends up tasting like cardboard? Let’s make sure your repentance is not like that. Let’s make sure it is real, through and through. This was the equivalent of drafting a notarized agreement.
Then Nehemiah reminds them of God’s judgment upon sin in Neh. 5:13. He uses an object lesson. The people back then wore long robes with pockets. So here Nehemiah takes off his robe and shakes everything out of it. He says like a prophet, “May God take and shake all that you own if you don’t live up to the promise you have kept.” Why so severe? Because God’s name is at stake and this sin was threatening to destroy everything they had, all of the work they had done and the unity of the people This was like when your appendix ruptures. You need to get to a hospital immediately and take it out. You cannot afford to sit around with it. And the people here all agreed and another problem is overcome in God’s work. This is what doing God’s work is like. You move ahead, persevere through every setback, until God calls you home or He comes to take us home.
Loved ones, accountability is key if you want to be serious about repenting from sin. The purpose of accountability is three-fold: Protection, Correction and Direction. I need people in my life to protect me, correct me and direct me. There is absolutely no way to have victory over sin without this. This is one of the reasons why we do the Bible Reading Plan. It’s not about checking off boxes. It’s not about catching up. It’s about getting God’s Word into you and getting into the Word of God more and more in my life. If some of you have given up, let me ask you, since then, have you been able to get into God’s word more and better? If not, get back in according to the date and use this as an opportunity to receive accountability in your life. So you confront the sin immediately and you call for repentance and accountability, then what?
IV. Exemplary living is to be maintained carefully (Neh. 5:14-19)
Nehemiah now inserts some personal thoughts here about his leadership position. This section teaches us that it is not enough to teach truth to others, but we must be just as diligent to model truth as well. D.L. Moody said, “A holy life will produce the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns; they only shine.” You probably have heard it said that we are the only Bible some people will ever read. You may also have heard it said, “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.” Well, I don’t necessarily agree with that completely, since faith comes from hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). There has to be a time when you open your mouth, but I do agree, nevertheless, living and modeling truth is essential. If the way we live is different from what we teach, we are hypocrites and the worst of all sinners. Here we see three marks of an exemplary living in doing God’s work. First of all:
a) Sacrificing personal gain for the good of others (Neh. 5:14-15)
In Neh. 5:14, we find out that at some point during the wall-work, Nehemiah was appointed governor, which was the highest position of leadership at the time. He ended up being this for 12 years! I wonder what the King thought about this? It does not seem from Neh. 2 that this was going to be a 12 year project! Hopefully he found a new cupbearer.
What Nehemiah saying here is that as governor, there were some perks, or “fringe benefits” for the job. You would get a certain allotment of food and certain wine. These were the benefits of occupying such a position. Where do you think the money came from for these perks? It came from the people you governed. What Nehemiah was saying is that he and “his brothers,” who were high ranking officials under him, did not sit back on their easy chair smoking cigars in their air conditioned office, so to speak, as the people were struggling for food and in poverty. He sacrificed his personal gain for the good of others. I pray we are always marked by this!
I was so blessed in talking to Pastor Chieng the other day. He is such a busy man, but do you know that when recently a restaurant owner approached him saying that he wanted to study the Bible, he did not hesitate at all. So in the midst of his busy schedule, he meets up with the restaurant owner and 10-12 of his crew for an hour a week to study the Bible with them! Praise God for such a model of sacrificial service for the good of others.
The opposite of sacrificial service is abuse. He tells us the previous people in leadership abused their authority in Neh. 5:15. These people are probably those who had leadership positions in Judah since they came back from exile.They demanded a food and wine allowance from the people and then on top of that, took 40 shekels (about one pound of silver) from each person’s wages. I am wondering if the wealthy Jews who were confronted of their sin in this chapter learned from these leaders? When there is a fog in the pulpit, there is mist in the pew! Look at Neh. 5:15. Why didn’t Nehemiah do the same? He tells us: “the fear of God.” This was the same thing he accused the wealthy Jews of not having in Neh. 5:9. I will come back to this in a second. Secondly, exemplary living means:
b) Serving alongside in the work (Neh. 5:16)
Look further at Neh. 5:16. Nehemiah says he was right there on the wall every day. He didn’t emerge from his ivory tower once in a while to look at the progress. He didn’t delegate from a distance. He was there, everyday, in the middle of it all. He is a great example of servant leadership. He walked in integrity and made sure all those under him valued character above everything else as well. He was not out purchasing land to make himself look great, he adds. You can never be too small for God to use you, but you can be too big. If you are too big to serve here—that something is beneath you--in any capacity, God cannot use you. Such thinking is pride that needs to be repented of.
c) Sharing our resources (Neh. 5:17-18)
Then he says in Neh. 5:17-18 that because he was governor, he also had to entertain dignitaries and high ranking VIP from all over. There was a never-ending stream of people coming in day after day. And much like maybe the Asian culture, when you show up at someone’s house, this means you also need to get fed. As a result, each day they had some steak, lamb curry and birds (maybe some of you can explain this part) and an abundance of wine. It is estimated that this amount of food would meet the needs of over 500 guests, so Nehemiah must have kept “open house” constantly. He says in essence, “Mi casa es su casa.” This is an expensive hospitality account, but Nehemiah paid it all out of his own salary, because of his compassion for people. He committed his table, his wealth, and his servants to the work of God. Nehemiah’s mentality was that he owned nothing. He was just a steward. So what’s mine, is yours. May we be marked by these qualities!
Now what motivated Nehemiah and what should motivate us to live so sacrificially? First of all from Neh. 5:15: the fear of God. For Nehemiah, the fear of God wasn’t something he sang about in the worship services. It was something that rocked him in his inner being, having even implications in everyday life. It does not mean Nehemiah was afraid of God, but that he loved God and wanted to obey God and His covenant. In Deut. 6:1-4, we see that fear and love are associated with obeying God. Where did this fear come from? It came out of his relationship with God in the prayer closet (Neh. 1:11). So he says, “I might be governor, but I have a governor above me, even past the King, that I have to answer to.”
Look at how he commits himself to God in Neh. 5:19. This is the fourth of his prayers recorded here (1:5ff, 2:5, 4:4) and it is a prayer of commitment. He is not looking for pats on the back or praise from the people, but for God’s reward. May the Lord purify our motives like this!
In 1994, there was a Presidential prayer breakfast. Mother Theresa was invited to attend and say a few words. She got up, the presence of then president Bill Clinton and his vice-president Al Gore and their wives. She so feeble, frail and bent-over, you can barely notice her as she stood up. But unashamedly, she spoke boldly against abortion. She said things like, “Abortion is the greatest destroyer of peace and love.” She said it right in front of strong abortion proponents. When she was done, she sat down. The crowd gave her a standing ovation, except for President Clinton and Al Gore, who sat there, stoic. Then Clinton got up and said, “It is hard to argue with a life so-well lived.”
Beloved, may our lives shine before men that they praise our Father in Heaven (Matt. 5:16). And do you know the one person, whose life was so well-lived, that it was hard to argue with? It was our Lord Jesus. He said, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Exemplary living comes from the Example Himself, Jesus. Paul wrote in Phil. 2:1-11, which I want to read in the Message: “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.” Like Nehemiah, when our Lord Jesus was done with His work, He too committed himself to God.
Problems in God’s work come from the outside and from within ourselves, but it is devastating when it comes from the inside, among ourselves. Let’s expect it. That is one of the reasons why we are doing Peacemakers this year. But before it happens, let us examine our hearts to see if there is any sin that needs to be confronted and repented of in our own lives. Is there anything in the pride, pleasure or priorities category we need to turn from today? If we need accountability in certain areas, let us be courageous and ask for it, because otherwise sin will work underground and eventually destroy all of us. Lastly, let us commit ourselves to God again, walking in the fear of God, to live in such a way that we model all that we teach, for the glory of God.
J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible Commentary, Based on the Thru the Bible radio program.,electronic ed., 2:522 (Nashville:Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1981).
James MacDonald, from the sermon, “Self in the Dirt: A Picture of Repentance” preached October 9, 2005 at Harvest Bible Chapel.
Dale A Hays, Leadership Vol X, #3 (Summer, 1989), p. 35. Accessed August 2, 2009 from http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/weekly/97-12-01/803.html
Wiersbe, Neh. 5:14.
“A life well live!” http://www.hiswillministry.com/well_lived.html accessed August 6, 2009.
Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Php 2:1-11 (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2002).