Leading by Example
As the people of God, we want God’s blessing on our lives and the Bible encourages us to seek that blessing. Psalm 1 says, Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night (vv. 1–2). God’s blessing comes when we separate ourselves from sin and devote ourselves to his Word.
Ironically, though, both God’s blessing and the lack of his blessing bring us face to face with temptation. The Lord, of course, does not tempt us, but we are tempted when we are drawn away by our lusts and enticed (Jas. 1:13–15). The temptation is the same in both cases. Listen to what the Holy Spirit wrote in Proverbs 30:8–9: Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient [i.e., appointed] for me: lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain. To put it another way, whether we have much or little, we are tempted to trust ourselves for the things that we need. If we have a lot, we start to think that our abundance came by our own power. We deny the Lord to be our provider because we figure we no longer need him. And if we have little, we think that God has failed us and so we justify theft. We abuse God’s name when we steal because we are called by his name.
The preceding section in Nehemiah was a good example of this. A famine had made food scarce. Rich Jews dealt with it by despising God’s law and taking advantage of their poorer brethren. Poor Jews also spurned God’s law. To satisfy their bellies and meet their tax obligations, they mortgaged their property and sold their children into slavery.
Nehemiah’s position as governor gave him more than enough opportunities to exploit this situation for his own financial gain, but he steadfastly refused to do so. Today’s text describes he dealt with this temptation and, even more importantly, it explains why he did what he did.
According to verse 14, Nehemiah served as the governor of Judah for twelve years (445–433 BC). Actually, it’s more likely that he served two terms as governor. After his first term, he returned to Persia for an unspecified period of time and later came back to Jerusalem (cf. Neh. 13:6–7).
Keep in mind that the rebuilding of the wall was not yet finished at this point in the story. Chapter 6 describes its completion and adds that the project, even with all its difficulties, took less than two months. So, obviously the information given in today’s text goes far beyond the rebuilding of the wall and tells us something other than chronology. But what was its purpose? Nehemiah gave it to show the nature of his government. He contrasted it with the behavior of the Jews in the first thirteen verses. While they misused God’s harsh providences to take advantage of one another, Nehemiah went out of his way to use it for good.
One of the benefits that Nehemiah could have enjoyed as the Persian governor of Judah was eating the governor’s bread. The governor’s bread was food that was either given in payment of taxes or purchased with tax money. The Persian king allowed the governors to do this, as do most governments, because he wanted his officials, their advisors and visiting dignitaries to feast on delicacies to manifest the kingdom’s prosperity. Every king wants his kingdom to look good, whether it is actually doing well or not.
The governors who immediately preceded Nehemiah had used the king’s bread. In fact, we can say that they did so brutally. In order to enjoy the finest foods, they taxed the Jews heavily and oppressed them in numerous ways. Nehemiah says that they took the people’s food and their wine, and collected a monetary tax of forty shekels of silver. One shekel in that day represented four days’ wages, so forty shekels was the average man’s income for more than five months. It’s no wonder, then, that the Jews complained that they had to mortgage their property and sell their children just to pay taxes. In fact, the previous governors, according to verse 15, were so oppressive that they even allowed their assistants to rule over the Jews.
But Nehemiah was not like the previous governors. During his tenure, he and his brethren refused to eat the governor’s bread. This meant that he could reduce his people’s taxes. He was more interested in fulfilling what God had called him to do than living an opulent and comfortable life. He wanted to help God’s people more than he wanted to help himself.
What made Nehemiah different than those who had preceded him? The end of verse 15 says he behaved as he did because he feared God. He had that childlike reverence for and trust in God that made him not want to offend God either by violating his law or by hurting the very people for whom he was responsible. He obviously took Leviticus 25:17 seriously. Moses wrote, Ye shall not therefore oppress one another; but thou shalt fear thy God: for I am the LORD your God. But he also exemplified, though to a lesser de gree, the gentleness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus said, Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28–30).
Nehemiah fear the Lord. There are many things in the world that people fear. With our uncertain economy, workers are afraid of losing their jobs, managers fear low productivity, and investors worry about reduced profits. Some people are afraid of water, and others are terrified of spiders, flying in airplanes or being alone in the dark. Sometimes our fears are understandable, but most of the time they’re just plain silly. In any case, men can and do fear just about everything.
The fear of God is different from all these other fears. The things people commonly fear make them nervous, excited or alarmed. Their fears steal their peace and quiet. But the fear of God makes us safe and secure. Listen to the following passages of Scripture. Psalm 19:9 says, The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. Several verses in Proverbs offer similar reassurances. The fear of the LORD prolongeth days: but the years of the wicked shall be shortened (Prov. 10:27). In the fear of the LORD is strong confidence: and his children shall have a place of refuge. The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death (Prov. 14:26–27). The fear of the LORD tendeth to life: and he that hath it shall abide satisfied; he shall not be visited with evil (Prov. 19:23). By humility and the fear of the LORD are riches, and honour, and life (Prov. 22:4).
Nehemiah knew the blessings of fearing the Lord. He had encouraged his fellow workers to fear the Lord in verse 9. Here he set himself up as an example of one who did exactly that. His point in our text was not to boast about this, but to cheer the hearts of the discouraged and to urge them to move forward in their service of God.
Verse 16 reinforces this by affirming that Nehemiah did what was pleasing to the Lord. He worked on the wall. That’s what God had called him to do. And though he was obviously wealthy, so that he could have bought all the land he wanted when the Jews were mortgaging their property, he chose not to do so. He could have ruled with the proverbial iron fist and allowed his assistants to be even more oppressive than the assistants of his predecessors. But he didn’t. His primary reason for coming to Jerusalem was to rebuild the wall and thereby remove the reproach of God’s people. The king of Persia not only let him do this, but also appointed him to serve as governor of Judah. And that’s what he did. Like Jesus, who set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem, Nehemiah allowed nothing to sidetrack him or interfere with his work.
The Word of God exhorts us to be singularly focused on doing the will of the Lord, too. According to Luke, those who were converted on the day of Pentecost continued receiving instruction at the temple daily, broke bread from house to house, and ate their meat with gladness and singleness of heart (Acts 2:46). And in his letters to Ephesus and Colosse Paul encouraged servants to obey their masters according to the flesh not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God (Col. 3:22; cf. Eph. 6:5).
Nehemiah successfully avoided abusing his position, but that’s only part of the story. Verses 17 and 18 go on to say that he, in fact, did exactly the opposite. Instead of taking advantage of those whom he governed, he showed them enormous generosity. That’s because his fear of God moved him to love his neighbors. These two things cannot be separated. What did John write about this? He said, But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? (I John 3:17).
In the Old Testament the largeness of a man’s financial power was seldom calculated by the size of his portfolio, as it is today. Rather, in the earlierst days it was measured by his livestock. Abraham, according to Genesis 12:16 had sheep, oxen, asses, male servants, female servants, she asses and camels. Job owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred she asses, and a very great household (Job 1:3). But in later periods a man’s wealth was based on how many people he fed. Based on the amount of food Solomon required, it has estimated that he fed approximately five hundred people every day. Even Jezebel seated four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah at her table. She was obsessively committed to her Canaanite deities and gave generously in their support.
Nehemiah’s table wasn’t quite as full as Solomon’s or Jezebel’s, but it was still quite full. Verse 17 says that he fed only one hundred and fifty Jews and rulers. Most of these were no doubt officials, although our text doesn’t really tell us who they were. Perhaps he also fed some of those who, at the beginning of this chapter, were unable to afford food for their families. Further, the number given here does not include visiting dignitaries from the surrounding nations.
Feeding all these people required a huge supply of food. According to verse 18, Nehemiah needed no less than one ox, six sheep, and an unspecified number of birds every day. And every ten days his servants restocked the wine cellar.
Now, remember that Nehemiah refused to eat the governor’s bread. The food that he consumed and shared at his table was not bought with Persian money, nor did he tax his own people for it. Verse 18 says that he believed that the Jews were already burdened enough with the necessity of rebuilding the wall and paying the king’s taxes. He chose not to add to their burden. So, where did the food come from? Apparently, it came from his own personal resources. Nehemiah himself fed these people out of the goodness of his heart. Even without the royal allotment of food, he maintained the decorum and hospitality expected of a Persian governor. That’s how committed he was to doing the Lord’s work, and the fact that he was able to do this suggests that that the Lord had blessed his previous position as cupbearer and/or his present position as governor.
In all of this, Nehemiah prefigured the generosity of the true king, the Lord Jesus Christ. While he and Solomon fed a few hundred at their tables, Jesus took a few small fish and some bread and fed great multitudes — four thousand on one occasion and five thousand on another. And he did it also out of his own abundance. The few fragments of food that were on hand were hardly enough to satisfy the needs of so many. So Jesus multiplied the food for them. But even that was only a small foretaste of his generosity, for he promises to feed his people richly at his wedding feast. In fact, the streets of the New Jerusalem will be filled with all kinds of fruit and living water. He does and will satisfy all of our needs, and he will do so exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or think.
In the last verse of chapter 5, Nehemiah breaks out in prayer to God once again. We’ve had glimpses of his prayer life before. This time he didn’t even introduce his prayer. He just started praying. It was as natural for him to take his concerns to God in prayer as it was to do the work that God had given him.
His prayer was short, though what he wrote in verse 19 may only be a summary of what he actually said. In any case, his prayer shows what his priorities were. First, he sought the blessing of God on his labors. He wanted the Lord to think favorably of him. Why? Because he loved the Lord and wanted to please him. Second, he begged God to prosper his labors specifically in regard to the needs of the people, especially the rebuilding of the wall.
Thus, his prayer had the same emphases that we’ve seen throughout the preceding verses: the fear of God and love for our fellow man. These are, in fact, the first and second commandments as summarized by the Lord Jesus Christ. Obedience to these two commandments is the hallmark of a great leader.
Seven times in his prayers Nehemiah asked God to remember (here; 1:8; 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31). In four of these prayers, he specifically asked the Lord to remember him. As the leader of God’s people, he knew how important it was to have God’s blessing and protection. Without it he could easily have ended his life like Asa, i.e., not trusting the Lord for something as simple as a foot disease.
Nehemiah led the people of God by example. He was God’s servant and, therefore, he made himself a servant of the people.
Our Lord Jesus Christ did the same. He said, For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Whereas Nehemiah provided the guests at his table with food, Jesus surrendered his life on the cross in payment for your sins. He suffered God’s wrath so that you might have peace with God forever. He bore the suffering of hell to give you everlasting life. He did this as your king, wearing a crown of thorns that had been mashed down into his skull. And now he reigns as King of kings and all the kingdoms of this world belong to him.
He commands you to serve him in the same spirit. The verses immediately preceding the one just quoted make this clear Jesus called his disciples together and said to them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:42–45).
May it ever be so among us as we strive to be servant-leaders in the kingdom of Christ! Amen.