A bit about me to start with…
I was brought up in a Christian family, going to church, reading the Bible, praying. I had an active and growing relationship with Jesus the whole way through school and that only grew when I went to university, after graduating from studying Maths at Southampton Uni, I felt God call me into full time ministry and at the time, I didn’t know where that was.
He took me on a 6 month Youth With A Mission Discipleship Training School where I spent time learning more of him and his plan for my life. For the final 3 months of my school, we spent time in Kenya and the Philippines sharing the good news of hope in Jesus with those we met alongside giving out food and help.
Whilst I was there, I started to see what incredible poverty was out there. This one village we went to was called Smokey Mountain and it was situated on a landfill site, recently the government had stopped dumping rubbish there so the whole village were out of a job, they had no money and no food. Seeing the children look through the rubbish, eating month old food, and some black liquid really hit me as to how real this was. On reflecting about it later that week, we were all heartbroken for what we had seen, people were crying, and then one of the guys in my group, with tears down his face shouted out “THIS IS NOT RIGHT!”
Social Justice has been such a big thing on all of our hearts in society at the moment, thinking about those who are in need who don’t have anything else, and this is where our story starts off today in Nehemiah 5.
This story in Nehemiah 5 is undoubtedly a message for us in Christ Church today.
This message that we need to hear is about how we, like the Jews in the story, act towards each-other, how Nehemiah’s predecessors acted, and how nehemiah acted.
So, to set the scene, there is a need at the start of this chapter, there’s a food crisis in Jerusalem, a famine caused by the returning Jews and their families, people have been working on the food also, so now the land has not been looked after.
There is also heavy taxation imposed by the king and to make matters worse, their fellow Jews were granting loans to them but at extortionately high interest rates, causing those in need to have to make mortgages, sell land and even their children as slaves to pay this interest.
There are 4 different groups of people mentioned here in these first 5 verses:
- Those who owned no land
- Those who had to mortgage their land and were in danger of losing everything
- Those who couldn’t afford to pay the high taxes for their land and so had to sell their children
- Those who were lending to all the others and charging a lot for it
Discerning God’s Heart
We then get to verse 6, up until this point, they have all been working away at the wall, they’ve experienced opposition with regards to their safety in chapter 4 and now Nehemiah learns of these economic problems and is angry.
Do we still get angry when we hear about the needs around the world, or even of those in Barnet?
He accuses this fourth group of people, the nobles and officials of what they’ve done in saying “You are charging your own people interest!”
This was clearly a big deal as even though the wall only took 52 days to build, it’s clearly one worth stopping the work for and calling a large meeting together to deal with this situation.
“Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!” - They had nothing to say.
Then it comes, in verse 9, “What you are doing is not right” - THIS IS NOT RIGHT
Nehemiah in reverence of God, knew God’s will for these people, had a heart for these victims, and confronted the nobles about it, saying “This is not right”
“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?”
“My brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain, but let’s stop charging interest!”
“Give back to them immediately everything you have falsely charged them for”
They agree and take an oath to promise
He calls on God to keep them accountable.
Going back to that for part, he says: “What you are doing is not right” Then challenges them “Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?”
Do you fear God? Another word that is commonly translated here, and in the NIV translation is this word ‘revere’. Nehemiah revered God, but what does that even mean?
What does it mean to fear or revere God?
Well, simply put, when we fear God in this context, its a good thing and it can be seen of as being in reverence, having deep honour or respect for him. When you revere something, you love it beyond any doubt.
I’d be tempted to take it one step further and say that here we’re being asked to direct our hearts towards God in awe of his glory and love for us.
In Romans 3, a classic chapter on sin, it says that our chief sin is that we "have no fear of God at all" (Romans 3:18).
So, looking back to our passage, in verse 9, these Jewish nobles are challenged as to not fearing God, not centring their heart on him, and so consequently fell into selfish and unjust ways.
Nehemiah in this situation accuses them publicly and in seeing God’s heart for the poor and oppressed, tells them that “This is not right” and then encourages them to give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses and any interest that has been charged to them.
Throughout the whole Bible, we see how there is such a strong bias towards the poor, that as followers of Christ, we aught to take a stand against injustice, to look after the poor and needy.
In the same way that Jesus stood up for those in need, we aught to take a stand, a stand up for the truth, who Jesus is, the way the truth and the life.
Instead of being selfish or inward looking, we should be fighting against poverty and slavery, and injustice, in whatever way we can.
And as Nehemiah did, when we fear God, when our hearts are set on him, we can discern God’s heart for others, seeing what injustice there is in the world, and make a stand saying “This is not right”.
So, in the story he has confronted them, summoned the priests and nobles to make an oath to do as they’ve promised. (verse 12)
Next in verse 14 he starts sharing about how long he has been governor for, and talking about the previous governors. He shares with us about how these previous leaders in the land always continued the work of previous governors in their oppression of the people.
Those before him:
- Placed a heavy burden on the people
- Took 40 shekels of silver/incredible tax
- Took food and wine
- Their assistants lorded it over people
- No reverence for God
They made it a practise to profit at the expense of the people.
For Nehemiah, even though the area had historically done things one way for such a long time and there was a big expectation for him to continue that, it was time for him instead to say, no longer.
He tells us that he had the opportunity to receive the government’s food quota, to oppress these Jews, but he never did.
These predecessors were unwilling to change, they were selfish and looked to their own desires and not that of God.
But then we read in verse 15 “…[They did all these bad things]…But out of reverence for God, I did not act like that.”
Even though these others were all doing it, caught in their worldliness, because he feared God, because his heart was set on God, he said “But I did not act like that”, “I didn’t follow suit”.
I feel like there are so many pressures in today’s society to conform to this socially accepted worldview, to follow the crowd and just accept “well, everyone’s doing it”.
When I went to university, as you can imagine, people all around me were living for their own pleasure, following in the ‘university expectation’ even when they may have not been like that before, “everyone’s doing it” and so it’s fine. Drinking, sleeping around, drugs, university is such a buzzing place with so much going on, it’s quite easy to get caught up in all of it.
Now for myself, this wasn’t particularly an area in which I struggled, but maybe a more subtle thing I noticed was a drive for success, for wealth, to be better than everyone else.
I feel this drive was just as strong at university, and following university, I had always assumed I would become the very best Mathematician, the wealthiest graduate with the highest paid salary.
Now God has called each of us to careers in different sectors, and there’s nothing wrong with working hard, but I realised whilst I was at university that my heart was starting to drift away from doing this for him, I was no longer working out of reverence for God, but for my own selfish ambition of being rich in the future. God really humbled me when he showed me that he wanted me to work in a church instead, because I suddenly realised that now, the idea of being wealthy, of having a successful graduate job with a high salary was no longer an option for me.
There’s nothing wrong with living in the world, God wants us to be a part of the world, to have influence in every area, to love everyone no-matter what, but here, we are challenged, as Nehemiah was, to avoid living for the world, avoid worldliness by fearing God, by aligning our hearts on him.
In Proverbs 16:6 it says: Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for; through the fear of the LORD, evil is avoided.
And then, in Romans 12:2 again, instead of following these worldly patterns and desires it says:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.
And that brings us onto our third and final point:
When we fear God, we follow Christ’s example.
Following Christ’s Example
Following along in the story, in verse 16, he said he didn’t act like his predecessors, he didn’t live a worldly selfish life, but it says “Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall.”
He said “This is not right” in the first part,
Next he said “I did not act like that”, and now
He said “I devoted myself to the work”… the work of God!
After saying no to evil, we should replace it by saying yes to God.
In the same way Jesus lived a selfless life, showed love to all those he met, and gave himself up for us all, Nehemiah selflessly worked on the wall, God’s will, was generous and loving to those he met and travellers, and he put his life on the line against the enemies schemes and tactics, despite what everyone else was saying and obeyed God till his work was done.
Instead of doing what the Nobles were doing, or what his Predecessors were doing he, out of reverence for God:
- Devoted himself to the work of the wall
- Ordered all his men to work and not acquire any land
- Supplied food and wine for hundreds of Jews and travellers
- Never demanded the governor’s food allotment because the demands were already heavy
Nehemiah is an incredible example of Christian Leadership in dealing with those in his community, from external threats, to problems amongst the same people.
He stayed faithful to God’s big picture plan throughout everything.
So finally, in aligning our hearts towards God, we ought to not only say no to sin but also say yes to God’s will and purpose, Nehemiah went on with the positive as well as refusing the negative.
Be encouraged from 1 Corinthians 15:58 which tells us: Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
How should we respond to this today then?
When we fear God, we can discern his heart, we can evade worldliness and we can follow in Christ’s example every step of the way.
When we fear God, we can discern his heart.
If our hearts are aligned with God’s heart, we can see what breaks his heart, we can be aware of the social injustice around the world, and we can act upon it.
It’s incredible that we have so many compassion ministries such as the food bank and winter shelter which are exactly there because of God’s heart for these people, wanting to house them and feed them. Maybe we should be thinking about how we can get involved in projects like this, or if not them, then going out ourselves into the rough streets of Barnet, or beyond, and sharing God’s love with those we meet, feeding them physically and then helping them spiritually.
When we fear God, we can evade worldliness.
This is an easy one, there’s so much change going on at the moment in society, and even within Christian organisations, but our job is to seek God’s heart for these things. If God decides to bring about change, we should be supporting it, even if it’s against our own desires. And if things happen in society or anywhere that is not in line with God’s plan, then we should be thinking about what we can do to change it. Christians have influence in every single sphere, from Laws, to Media, to Healthcare, what can we be doing to be bringing God’s kingdom here on earth in our different sphere’s of influence?
When we fear God, we can follow in Christ’s example.
Just like Nehemiah, once we’ve done these other things, we are left with the option, having said no to sin and worldliness, with our hearts aligned on God, we can now say YES to his plan for our lives, his perfect and pleasing will. Are we listening wholeheartedly to what God wants us to do, or are we just following our own desires, are we being obedient to his plan, even when it’s not the easiest, or are we just seeking for his validation and blessing for what we’ve already chosen to do ourselves?
God, help us now to revere you in every area of our lives, to be able to discern your heart for others, to be able to avoid worldliness and sinful desires, and to follow in Christ’s example, giving up our lives fully for you.