Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
The most visible rebuilding project in Nehemiah is the wall, but what good is a strong wall if the relationships of the people meant to live in it are in shambles? This passage in Nehemiah shows us why rebuilding means rebuilding our relationships.
Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Derek Kidner
We’re continuing our series this morning in Nehemiah, a book about rebuilding. A few years back Diddy released a song called “Homecoming,” which is also about rebuilding. In it he has a line where he says, “Is a house really a home when your loved ones is gone?” His point is you can rebuild a house, but if you don’t rebuild relationships, you aren’t really coming home. The most visible rebuilding project in Nehemiah is the wall of Jerusalem, because in the ancient world, if you didn’t have a wall, you weren’t a city. But today we’re going to see that rebuilding involved much more than rebuilding a wall. It also meant rebuilding relationships between the people of Israel. So also, we as a church should never lose sight of our relationships with one another. As we rebuild, let’s make sure we rebuild our relationships, and this passage gives us three reasons to do so: Because we’re a family, because God is awesome, and because our reward is in heaven.
We’re a family
Our passage begins with a great outcry of the people and their wives against their Jewish brothers. The complaint has a few basic pieces. First, verse 2: The families have grown to the point where they are in danger of not having enough food to sustain their lives. As a result, verse 3, the next part of the complaint: People are mortgaging their fields, vineyards, and houses to get grain because of the famine; a big deal when you live off the land like they did, in ways hard for us to understand today. Not only do they need grain though, they have to pay a tax to the king of Persia, and in order to do that verse 4 says they began borrowing money, and got so far into debt that they actually had to start selling their sons and daughters into slavery, verse 5. It’s worth noting that this was debt-slavery, not chattel slavery. Their sons and daughters didn’t actually become the property of those to whom they sold them; they were more like indentured servants, whose services were sold until the labor they offered covered the debt they owed.
A bit of background on this: When God first constituted Israel as a nation and settled them in the land of which Jerusalem is a part, he actually doled out the land according to the tribes. So the tribe of Reuben got a certain plot of land, the tribe of Judah, and so forth. You could then survive and even turn a profit by farming the land, but there were also many ways to fall into poverty: If the weather was bad one year, if the crops were infected with some kind of disease, if someone more powerful than you stole your stuff, or, of course, if you didn’t put in the work. Here the issue seems to be that the families had just begun to outgrow what their land could supply and that perhaps the King’s tax had become overly burdensome. In any case, when someone fell into poverty, there were a few ways provided for in God’s law that they could get help: They could sell or lease their land, which we see happening here, they could get an interest-free loan, which we’ll see in a moment wasn’t exactly happening here, or you could sell yourself or someone in your household into debt-slavery and work for someone else until your labor paid off your debt. That was basically Old Testament bankruptcy law.
But those laws were in place to help the poor, not to line the pockets of the rich. Those laws were in place to ensure that nobody would get near starvation, and yet we come to Nehemiah 5, and what do we find? People near starvation. And the thing that’s so heinous about this is stated in verse 5: “Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children.” In other words, we are Israelites too! God promised this land and its resources as much to us as he did to those who are getting rich off of us. Back in chapter 2 Nehemiah looked at Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, the enemies of Israel, and said to them, “You have no right or portion or claim in Jerusalem,” but these poor, starving Israelites do! The wealthier, more powerful Israelites had begun to treat them as slaves rather than as brothers. While God’s law permitted debt-slavery as a means of helping the poor, God also said this in Leviticus 25:39: “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner.” In other words, your brother can become poor and sell himself to you, but don’t treat him like a slave. He’s your brother!
Now as is often the case in applying the Old Testament today, there are important differences. The church and state are separate now; our economy and bankruptcy laws are different. In America, the state has assumed some of the responsibility to care for the poor. Every Christian’s God-given inheritance is a place in a new heaven and new earth, not a particular piece of land on this earth. But here’s one thing that remains the same: Every church member can look at one another and say, “Our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children.” The church is called the family of God in 1 Timothy 3:15. We are a family.
I know not all of you have had the privilege of being part of a healthy family, but one of the basic things healthy families do is they look out for each other. When my brother moved to Philadelphia, he didn’t yet have a job. So what did we do? We weren’t going to let him go live on the street; he lived with us for free until he found a job and an apartment he liked and could afford. And my brother and I aren’t best buds, but he’s family, and that’s what family does. That’s the kind of responsibility you should feel for each of your fellow church members. If there were ever a member of this church at risk of dying from starvation, it would be an indictment on our love, just as it was an indictment on Israel’s love in this case. Do you feel this kind of responsibility for one another? Do you find yourself avoiding or distancing yourself from the members who seem more needy? Do you know one another well enough to know when needs like these arise? The time to address them is not when someone is about to starve; it’s when the cycle of poverty first begins.
There are ways helping can hurt of course, so typically when we are assisting a fellow member, we should do so in conversation with other church members and pastors, and eventually perhaps church deacons as we develop those at Citylight, who have been the officers in the church historically who have overseen the church’s care for the poor. The point, though, is this: We are a family! It’s been hard to feel that way for the past year with how distant we’ve had to be from each other, but let’s rebuild those relationships by taking responsibility for one another’s material well-being.
And, as we realize that our ultimate land inheritance is a new heavens and new earth, let’s take responsibility for one another’s spiritual well-being. Hebrews 12:15 tells us to, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God…” Let’s do everything we can to ensure that no one in our family fails to persevere to the end and receive their inheritance. Let’s encourage one another to fix our eyes on Jesus, and let’s exhort one another so that none of us becomes hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Let’s rebuild our relationships because we’re a family. And let’s rebuild our relationships because God is awesome.
God is awesome
When I say God is awesome, I mean that in the literal sense of the word: He is worthy of our awe, which is basically a synonym for what the Bible means when it talks about fearing God. In this next section of verses, we’re going to see how the fear of God compels and empowers us to rebuild relationships. Continuing in our story then, when Nehemiah hears members of the family are dying of starvation while their land gets sold, their money borrowed, and their children sold into slavery, he gets very angry. He didn’t just say, “Hm, this is a violation of law #213, section B.” It bothered him! Love gets angry like that when it sees the objects of its love suffering. But righteous anger is also controlled anger, so he takes counsel with himself, and brings charges against the nobles and officials. Part of rebuilding relationships is confronting sin in our midst.
He begins by making a specific charge connected to a specific law that God had actually given. Jews were permitted to give interest-free loans, but the nobles and officials were charging interest on their loans, in disobedience to God. We should only confront sin if we can be clear about what specific command of God the person we’re confronting failed to obey and how they failed to obey it. He then shows why such a thing is not good: The Jews themselves had just been in captivity in Babylon and Persia, and they’d been working to buy them back from their slavery, only for them now to be selling one another back into slavery! Then in verse 9 he adds that they ought to be walking in the fear of God and preventing the taunts of the nations.
So there’s this idea of the fear of God, and what does this have to do with anything? Leviticus 25 helps explain again. That’s the passage I quoted earlier that said even when your brother becomes poor and sells himself to you, don’t treat him like a slave. Then God says why in verses 42-43: “For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God.” God’s saying, “They’re my servants; not yours. Don’t rule over him as though he is yours. Fear me.” If you are ever even tempted to abuse, mistreat, or neglect one another, you should realize this: That person you are tempted to abuse, mistreat, or neglect: They belong to God, not to you. And you may feel powerful compared to them, just as the nobles and officials of Israel did here, just as the powerful on earth so often do, but your power is nothing compared to God’s. The anger Nehemiah felt in this passage will seem light in comparison to the anger of God you will face if you abuse one of His servants. He loves His servants, and He is angry with those who hurt them. That’s not even to mention yet what Nehemiah mentions here in verse 9: The reproach brought on God’s name among the nations their enemies. When the people of God abuse and neglect one another, it communicates to the world that God is a God who abuses and neglects His servants, and that is false! That is taking the LORD’s name in vain, and God will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain. Fear Him.
Even Nehemiah upon saying this realizes his complicity, as he confesses in verse 10 that he also was lending money and grain, though perhaps not at interest or with the slavery element. Whatever the specifics of his sin, now having issued the charge, having explained why such a thing is not good, and having reminded the people of the fear of God, he calls them all to repent, and spells out what the repentance will look like. We’re going to abandon the practice, but not only that, we’re going to pay back the interest we took, and not only that, we’re going to give back even the part that wasn’t interest: The fields, vineyards, olive orchards, and houses they leased. The people agree, Nehemiah puts them under an oath before priests, and they do it. In Matthew 18, when Jesus talks about confronting sin, this is how he describes the outcome of a successful confrontation: “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” This is a vivid illustration of what that means: It means not only that the sinning party agrees, not only that they apologize, but that they repent. They give up the sin they were committing, and they actually do whatever is necessary to repair the damage they’ve done.
Now when many of us read this story, we’d like to think we’d do the same thing. Speaking truth to power, which is basically what Nehemiah does here, is glamorous today. But let’s not underestimate all the ways our flesh resists it. First, consider that it wasn’t culturally cool in Nehemiah’s day to stand up for the poor. In a place like Philadelphia we think that’s cool today, honestly because the Bible has had such an influence on our culture, and praise God that’s the case, but are you also willing to confront the sins in our midst that our culture affirms? It’s also just scary to confront sin, and it can be especially scary when the people committing the sin are powerful, like they are in this passage: We’re talking nobles and officials here. They seem awe-some to us, and that is why if we are to rebuild our relationships, we must see God as more awe-some. The ultimate cure to the fear of people is the fear of God. If you ever see or hear of people in our church perpetrating abuse, I know it will be scary, but please, fear God enough to not let that continue. His people and His name matter too much for us to say nothing because it’s uncomfortable. If you don’t know how to confront the abuser, talk to a pastor. If a pastor is the abuser, God forbid, tell another pastor. If he won’t listen, we’re part of a denomination: Contact the Eastern PA district office of the Christian & Missionary Alliance and tell them. There are plenty of churches today that have brought great shame on God’s name by covering up abuse in their midst; let’s rebuild by showing the world a church that doesn’t. And if you see other forms of serious, observable sin, the same basic logic applies. You aren’t helping anyone but yourself by letting people continue in sin without confrontation. The name of God and the people of God matter too much. There’s an eternal inheritance at stake, and we want our brothers and sisters to receive it. Confrontation is part of rebuilding our relationships, and we can and should do it because God is awesome. And finally, let’s rebuild our relationships because our reward is in heaven.
Our reward is in heaven
In the final section of our passage, Nehemiah talks about his own contribution to rebuilding relationships in Jerusalem, despite his previously admitted imperfection. He was technically permitted certain privileges as governor, but the fear of God compelled him not to take them. He didn’t eat the food allowance of the governor, and he shows us why in verse 15: The food allowance of the governor came at the expense of heavy burdens on the people. He feared God too much to do that to God’s servants, even though in the eyes of Persia, they were Nehemiah’s servants. He didn’t just ask what he had the right to do; he asked what God would have him do. He goes on to say he so devoted himself to work on the wall that he and his servants acquired no property of their own. As a governor, part of his job was to host foreign leaders along with his people, so he regularly had 150 people over for dinner and prepared good food with good wine at his own expense. Yet for all this he did not demand the food service of the governor, because he did not want to burden the people he led. The fear of God enabled him to do this, but then he adds verse 19: Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people. He gave to the people with no expectation of return, because he was looking to God to see what he did and give him his ultimate reward.
In order for relationships to be rebuilt in a church, the leaders have to lead in this way. It’s easy for those in power to tell others to be generous while they are hoarding. But if people sense the leader is really out for themselves, they’ll also feel a need to look out for themselves. It’s when people know they’re under a generous leader who will care for them and needs nothing from them, that they feel free to care for others without needing anything back from them. And we have such a leader: If there is anyone who needs nothing from us, it’s God. As He says in Isaiah: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?” He needs nothing from us, so He could give everything for us. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich.
Instead of taking our homes from us, He left His heavenly home for us. Instead of taking money from us, He became poor for us. Instead of enslaving us, He took on the form of a servant for us. Instead of charging us with sin, He took the charges for our sin upon Himself on the cross, that we might be released from them through faith in Him. And God remembered for His good all that He did for His people by raising Him from the dead and promising Him a people as His reward. Therefore, all the Father has given Him will come to Him, and whoever comes to Him, He will never cast out. He is the ultimate rebuilder of our relationships, first with God, and then with one another.
So come to Him today. Join the family. Return to your father and join your brothers and sisters. And for those of you who are members here, let’s take responsibility for one another’s material and spiritual well-being. We’re a family. Let’s fear God enough to not let any of His servants be abused and to not let any sin go unconfronted. Let’s not get caught up in what we have the right to do; let’s ask what we can do to love one another and in some dim way reflect the incredible love we’ve received. Our reward is now secure in heaven; what can’t we give up here to rebuild our relationships?