We’ve been studying the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for several weeks. The book of Ezra records for us how the Lord moved the heart of King Cyrus — the king of the Persian Empire — to let the people of Israel return to Jerusalem from their exile in order to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. And we saw how a number of people returned; and they set about the work.
And do you remember? Almost immediately there was opposition to the rebuilding of the temple; and their enemies did everything they could to stop them. But the Lord was with them and enabled them to persevere and to continue the work on the temple, until at last it was finished and they gathered in the presence of the Lord to worship him in his temple.
But then — do you remember? — they returning exiles faced more trouble, didn’t they? But this time, the trouble originated not from their enemies, but from within. Because of their own sinful rebellion, they were putting themselves in danger of provoking the Lord’s wrath once again, so that if they continued in their sinful rebellion, they would risk being sent away from the Promised Land into exile once again. But again the Lord was with them; and he sent them Ezra, who gathered them together so that they could confess their sins and shortcomings and agree to repent of their sins and to return to the Lord.
That’s what happened in the book of Ezra. And the book of Nehemiah tells the story of how Nehemiah also returned to Jerusalem; but he returned, not to rebuild the temple, but to rebuild the city wall which was in ruins.
And do you remember chapters 3 and 4? Chapters 3 and 4 tell us that as soon as Nehemiah and the people began the work, they faced opposition from their enemies. Sanballat and the others with him first ridiculed them and poured scorn on their efforts in order to discourage them. And when that didn’t work, they plotted together how to attack those who were rebuilding the wall; and they threatened to kill the builders. But the Lord was with his people and they became aware of the plot against them; and were able to put guards in place. And so, the work continued. Back in Ezra’s day, the Lord’s people faced trouble from without. And the same happened in Nehemiah’s day as well.
But then, just as the Lord’s people faced trouble from within in Ezra’s day, so the Lord’s people faced trouble from within in Nehemiah’s day. And that’s what today’s chapter is about, because this chapter tells us how some of the Lord’s people were taking advantage of their fellow Jews by charging them interest on loans which they were unable to pay. And because they were unable to pay back the loans and interest, they were having to give up their property and give up their children to slavery. And so, while the walls were being repaired, the people of God were destroying one another.
What we read in Nehemiah is a kind of repetition of what we found in the book of Ezra where God’s people faced trouble from without and from within. And this is the way it’s always been, because we can go back to the the days of Moses even, where we find the same thing. In those days, God’s people faced terrible opposition and persecution from without, when the Pharaoh and all the Egyptians oppressed them and made their life miserable. But then, after the Lord rescued them from Egypt, and was leading them through the wilderness to the Promised Land, we read how the Israelites faced trouble from within, because again and again the people grumbled and complained about their circumstances; and they turned against Moses and Aaron, their leaders; and they provoked the wrath of the Lord by their sinful rebellion. They faced trouble from without and trouble from within.
And then, we can jump forward in time to when the Lord Jesus was on the earth, because he too faced trouble from without, didn’t he? The Pharisees and teachers of the law plotted together how to get rid of him; and they falsely accused him before Pilate. Opposition from without. But then, from within, Peter, the Lord’s own disciple, rebuked the Lord and stood in his way; and Judas, another disciple, betrayed him into the hands of his enemies. Trouble from without and trouble from within.
And when we read the New Testament letters, we read about the persecution which God’s people faced from outsiders. But we also read about the ways God’s people in the early churches sinned against one another and were divided. Think of all the trouble that took place in the church in Corinth: the divisions in the church; and how they were taking one another to court; and the ways they were flirting with idolatry; and the ways they were abusing the Lord’s Supper; and how they used to boast about spiritual gifts.
It’s always been this way. God’s people face trouble from without: from an unbelieving world which hates the Lord and his people. But God’s people also face trouble from within, because instead of obeying the word of the Lord, we disobey the word of the Lord. And when we remember that the work of Nehemiah to rebuild the city wall points forward to the work of Christ, who is building his church on the earth, then we ought to be ashamed, because whenever we disobey the word of the Lord and whenever we cause trouble in the church, we’re hindering the Lord’s work to build his church. He wants to build the church; but often we end up destroying the church, or damaging the church, because we will not obey the word of the Lord.
And so, let’s turn to this chapter today to see what we can learn. And the chapter can be divided into three parts. First, in verses 1 to 5, we have the great outcry which was raised. Second, in verses 6 to 13, we have Nehemiah’s reaction. Third, in verses 14 to 19, we have Nehemiah’s example.
Verses 1 to 5
In verses 1 to 5 we have the great outcry which was raised. Nehemiah tells us that the men and their wives raised this great outcry against their Jewish brothers. These men and their wives were the workers who had left their homes and their businesses to work on the city wall. And you might recall from chapter 4 that Nehemiah had them stay in Jerusalem at night, so that by day they could work on the wall and at night they could serve as guards. But it meant that their farms and businesses were being neglected. And in verse 3 we’re told that there was also a famine in the land, which would have added to their problems.
And in verses 2 to 5 there are three groups of people complaining. Some were saying that they needed grain in order to feed all their sons and daughters. Since this group of people don’t mention land, it’s possible they were the goldsmiths and perfumers and merchants which were mentioned in chapter 3.
Then some were landowners who had been forced to mortgage their fields and vineyards and even their homes in order to get grain. Because of the famine, they had presumably used up all their reserves; and now they needed loans in order to buy grain to eat.
And then some complained that they had to borrow money in order to pay the king’s tax on their fields and vineyards. So, they were required to pay tax to the emperor of Persia. And the historians tell us that this tax rose sharply at that time. And because these landowners were struggling to pay the tax, they had to sell their daughters into slavery in order to raise the necessary funds. And some of them had already lost their fields and vineyards.
And because of the hardships they were suffering — having to sell their children; and their property; wondering how to pay their bills and buy food — because of the hardships they were suffering, they raised a great outcry. And, of course, their outcry was directed against their Jewish brothers, because the ones who were benefitting from their hardship were wealthy Jews in Jerusalem who had plenty of money and were able to offer loans to those in need, but who were now gathering up the fields and vineyards and homes and children of those who were unable to repay the interest on the loans.
Verse 6 to 13
According to verse 6, when Nehemiah heard their outcry and the reason for it, he was very angry. However, he did not vent his anger as we might do, but he pondered in his mind what he should do about it.
And having pondered it in his mind, he went to the nobles and the officials — the wealthiest members of the community — and he accused them of exacting usury from their countrymen. Well, according to my dictionary ‘usury’ is lending money at high rates of interest. Now, that’s not exactly what the original Hebrew text says. In the original Hebrew text, Nehemiah simply accused them of charging interest. He doesn’t make any comment about whether the interest rate was high or low. And you see, in the law which God gave to the Israelites in Exodus 22:25 and in Leviticus 25:36, he forbade his people from charging any interest when lending money to one another. Or, to put it another way, any interest was usury or excessive, because the Lord commanded that the interest rate on loans should be zero percent. They were meant to lend freely to one another.
And having accused them of this, Nehemiah called a great assembly of the people in order to deal with this problem once and for all. And when they gathered together and heard his accusation, there was nothing they could say in their defence. They knew they were guilty. They knew that what they were doing was wrong and that they had disobeyed the word of the Lord. And, according to verse 10, Nehemiah himself had lent money and grain to the people. But now, he said, the charging of interest must stop.
And instead of taking advantage of one another, they must now walk in the fear of the Lord. Do you see that in verse 9? What does it mean ‘to walk in the fear of the Lord’? Well, he doesn’t mean ‘be frightened’. God’s people don’t need to be frightened of God, because for those who believe all of God’s promises and who have received forgiveness from him, and have been added to his people, God is no longer a frightening judge, who is going to condemn them for their sins and punish them. No, he’s become for those who believe their loving heavenly Father. And so, ‘to walk in the fear of the Lord’, doesn’t mean being frightened of God. But this is what it means: it means taking care not to do anything which will displease or dishonour your loving heavenly Father. Because you love him, you hate the thought of displeasing him. Because you love him, your biggest fear is that you might do something or say something that displeases or dishonours your loving heavenly Father who has been so good to you.
And Nehemiah wants the people in Jerusalem to live like that. Hasn’t God commanded them not to charge interest? Hasn’t he made clear that he wants them to lend to one another without charge? Well, in that case, you must give back — says Nehemiah — what you have taken from these people. You must give back to them their fields and vineyards and olive groves and houses; and you must give back to them the interest we charged them. You must give it all back, because we no longer want to displease our loving heavenly Father, but we want to please him by obeying his word.
And, of course, if you look at verse 9 again, not only does Nehemiah mention the fear of the Lord, but he also refers to their Gentile enemies. He’s saying to the wealthy Jews that they must fear the Lord and stop taking advantage of one another in order to avoid the reproach — or the disapproval — of their enemies. He’s saying that there’s a watching world around them; and the watching world has seen what they were doing to one another and how they were treating one another. And the watching world — even though it’s sinful — knows that this is not right. And so, Nehemiah is saying to them: let’s show a watching world what it means to fear the Lord and how to live as his people; let’s show a a watching world that those who love the Lord love one another.
And isn’t that a message for us? There’s an unbelieving world which is watching the church. So, will you show the watching world that those who love the Lord love one another? And will you walk in the fear of the Lord, so that you will take care every day not to do anything or say anything that will displease or dishonour your loving heavenly Father?
Will you do that? According to verse 12, that’s what the people in Jerusalem did. They said to Nehemiah:
We will do as you say.
And to ensure that no one went back on their promise, he made the nobles and officials take an oath before the priests to do what they promised. And then he performed this symbolic action of shaking out the folds of his robe to represent how God will shake out and empty any of them who did not keep his word.
Well, I’m not going to perform a symbolic action as Nehemiah did; and I’m not going to ask you to take a public oath. But while you’re sitting there today in your seat, will you make a silent promise to the Lord that you will do what you have heard and that you promise to show a watching world that because you love the Lord, you will do everything you can to love the Lord’s people? And will you make a silent promise to the Lord that you will walk in the fear of the Lord, so that you will take care every day not to do anything or say anything that will displease or dishonour him? Will you promise him that instead, depending on his help, you will do everything you can to please and honour him by obeying his word?
Verses 14 to 19
We had the great outcry in verses 1 to 5. And then we had Nehemiah’s reaction in verses 6 to 13. And in the third part of the chapter we have Nehemiah’s example. As the governor of the people, Nehemiah had the right to receive a food allowance from the people. He also had the right to take tax from them. However, he tells us here that even though previous governors had taken the food allowance and the tax, he refused to do so. He wasn’t going to burden the people like that.
Why didn’t he take the food allowance and the tax which he was entitled to take? Well, look at the end verse 15 where he says he did not do so ‘out of reverence for God’. More literally, he tells us that he did not do so ‘out of the fear of God’. So, just as he appealed to the people in verse 9 to walk in the fear of the Lord, he himself was careful to walk in the fear of the Lord. He didn’t want to displease or dishonour the Lord by being a burden on God’s people.
And instead of being a burden on them, he devoted himself to rebuilding the wall. So, he didn’t leave that work to others, but he got on with it himself. Moreover, neither he nor his men acquired any land for themselves. He hadn’t come to Jerusalem to benefit himself or to add to his own wealth. He was there to serve the Lord and his people. And furthermore, instead of taking a food allowance, he provided food for at least 150 Jews and officials and others who dined at his table every day. And he provided for them richly, because every day he prepared for his guests one ox and six sheep and some poultry. It was more than enough for the people at his table. And there were regular amounts of wine for them to drink and enjoy. Those who came to his table, feasted at no expense to themselves.
Nehemiah tells us he did not take the food allowance or the tax he was entitled to and he did not acquire any land for himself. In other words, he did not come to benefit himself, but to serve the Lord and his people. In this way he points us to Christ, who did not come to earth to be served by us, but to serve us. He did not come to burden us with his demands, but he came to take from us the burden of our guilt and to give us eternal rest. And instead of coming and taking from us, he came to give: to give himself as the ransom to set us free from condemnation. He came to give us forgiveness. He came to give us the hope of the resurrection. He came to give everlasting life to all who believe in him. And so, if you believe in him — the one who gave his life as our ransom — he will gladly give to you the forgiveness you need and the hope of the resurrection and everlasting life in God’s presence.
And more than that, he’ll also give you his Spirit to help you to live in the same way he did. The Holy Spirit is able to help us to love and serve the people around us, so that instead of living selfishly — thinking only about ourselves and what we want — the person who has the Holy Spirit is able to do what Nehemiah did and Christ did and to live a selfless life of service to others. The Holy Spirit is able to help us to walk in the fear of the Lord.
And then, just as Nehemiah invited all these people to sit at his table where they were able to eat without charge, so the Lord Jesus is preparing a feast for all who trust in him. We read about this feast in Revelation 19 where it mentions the wedding supper of the Lamb. The Lamb is another name for the Lord Jesus, because he’s the Lamb of God who died as the once-for-all sacrifice to deal with our sin and guilt. And it refers to a wedding supper to convey the idea that the day is coming when the church — which is the bride of Christ — will be brought into his presence; and we will live with him and dine with him forever and forever in that fullness of joy and with those pleasures forevermore which he has prepared for his people. In the meantime, while we wait for that day, the Lord has given us the Lord’s Supper as a foretaste of the marriage supper. And so, in this life, we’re able to gather around the Lord’s Table and take the bread and the cup which speak to us of how he died to give us life; and how one day all who trust in him will live with him in glory.
But then the final thing to mention today is Nehemiah’s prayer in the last verse in which he asked the Lord to remember him with favour for all that he has done for these people.
Do you know what this prayer signifies? Do you know what it means? This prayer means that in all that Nehemiah did to rebuild the wall of the city and to help the people in Jerusalem, in all that he did, he was thinking about the life to come. While he sought to serve the Lord and his people, he was thinking about the world to come. Why do I say that? Because in his prayer, he was asking the Lord to remember him. And he means:
When the Day of Judgment comes, remember me with favour.
He’s not claiming here that he has earned God’s favour. He’s not claiming here that he deserved God’s favour. But he’s asking God to be gracious to him when the Day of Judgment comes; and to raise him from the dead and to give him everlasting life in his presence. By this prayer, Nehemiah shows us that he was seeking, not treasure on earth, but treasure in heaven. If he were seeking treasure on earth, then he would have taken the food allowance and the tax he was entitled to; and he would have acquired land for himself; and he would have charged interest on any loans he gave. But he was not seeking treasure on earth, but something better than that; he was seeking treasure in heaven. He was seeking everlasting life in the presence of his God and Saviour.
And you too should seek something better than earthly treasures and earthly pleasures, because earthly treasures and earthly pleasures are destined to perish. But whoever believes in the Lord Jesus Christ is promised a heavenly treasure: an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, of fade, but which is kept safe for you in heaven. In this life, you may suffer loss and hardships and trouble. But if you trust in the Lord Jesus, your present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in you in the life to come. So, do not set your heart on earthly things, which are destined to perish. But trust in the Lord who promises eternal life to all who believe. And while you go on living on the earth, be careful to please and honour him in all you do and say.