by Chris Ritter
During its long history, Jerusalem has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice. Nehemiah, a contemporary or Ezra and Esther, lived at the very tail end of the Old Testament timeline and was the key figure involved with rebuilding the ruins of Jerusalem 150 years after its destruction by the Babylonians. The book that bears his name is sourced from Nehemiah’s personal journal kept during the time. It serves as a master class in leadership.
The obituary for Jerusalem has been written many times. This is true of the Church, as well. People are saying that the church is Western culture is waning. Secularity is taking over. Christian ethics are obsolete and churches must rush to adjust them to the times or become irrelevant. But we have seen all this before. Whenever the Church begins to falter, the Holy Spirit moves God’s people to relight the lamps of faith and advance the Gospel in new and surprising ways. Our Methodist history is replete with Nehemiahs like John Wesley and Francis Asbury. Now it is our turn.
What can we learn from Nehemiah?
Nehemiah’s leadership is prayerful. His journals are punctuated with abrupt and heart-felt prayers at key moments of conflict or decision. Without warning, he will start talking to God about the challenges facing him. His heart is always reaching back to its source as he faces the many obstacles involved with rebuilding the walls.
Nehemiah’s leadership is sacrificial. He left a very comfortable life as cupbearer to the emperor to become governor over a heap of ruins surrounded by enemies. We are given vivid details of the hardships he and the people encountered as they restored the defenses of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah’s leadership is also proactive. For four chapters, the threats have come from outside the city. But in Chapter Five we learn that there were also problems inside the walls that needed to be addressed. Amidst all the other challenges, it might have been tempting to back-burner these internal challenges. Nehemiah does not do that. He calls the people to new relationships to one another. Let’s read the story:
1 Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. 2 Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”
3 Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”
4 Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”
6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” So I called together a large meeting to deal with them 8 and said: “As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!” They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.
9 So I continued, “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? 10 I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! 11 Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.”
12 “We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.”
Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. 13 I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!”
At this the whole assembly said, “Amen,” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.Nehemiah 5:1-13, New International Version
Question: What is worse that rebuilding a long-destroyed wall city you are under constant threat from multiple enemies? The answer: Doing all this in the middle of a famine.
When grain is scarce, the price goes up. Nehemiah starts to hear from people who are suffering. These include:
- Large families with lots of mouths to feed and no means to purchase grain. Some of these folks left their normal work in the rural areas to come into Jerusalem and help with the rebuilding of the wall.
- People who owned land and vineyards but the famine meant that they had to mortgage these properties in order to buy grain.
- There were people who had to borrow money to pay the high Persian taxes and their children were being sold into slavery to other Jewish families.
The people holding mortgages and buying slaves, in many cases, were fellow Jews.
Nehemiah gets “very angry.” Getting angry, in and of itself, is not sinful. Jesus was angry when he drove the money changers out of the temple. In the face of certain injustices, it might be sinful NOT to get angry. But Ephesians 4:26 warns us, “Be angry, but sin not.” It is often what we do with our anger that is most important.
Nehemiah did not immediately act. He “pondered” in his mind what to do next. One translation says he, “consulted with himself.” That is a great response when our emotions are up. Take a few deep breaths. Be deliberate. You cannot unsend a venomous e-mail or delete words spoken in haste. Consult with yourself.
The decision Nehemiah reaches is to publicly confront those oppressing their neighbors. Politically speaking, this was a brave move. Governors tends to need the support of people with wealth. But Nehemiah fears God more than he wanted to ingratiate himself to the powerful. He feared God above man.
John Newton might have been thinking about Nehemiah when he wrote, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” The fear of God relieves us from other fears. You can always tell a person that fears God because they will treat all people with respect… even those without power and influence… even those who can do nothing for them. God will judge us all alike and our ultimate accountability is to Him.
Nehemiah had to remind them of what God’s Law said about how to treat one another:
35 “‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. 36 Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. 37 You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit. 38 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.
39 “‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. 40 They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.Leviticus 25
Hundreds of years earlier, God had commanded through Moses that Israelites should not take unfair advantage of one another They were not to enslave one another. They were to reject charging predatory interest in order to take control of properties. In contrast, they were to interact with one another in such a way as to build one another up.
The Old and New Testaments are in perfect harmony that our faith must be demonstrated in how we treat one another. James tells us that pure and undefiled religion is to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Paul wrote:
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.Galatians 5
The Threats Within
Nehemiah refused to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem only to see the city rot from within. As we think about rebuilding the church, we must acknowledge that many more congregations are killed from inside rather than attacked from the outside. This happens when:
- We start to use the Word of God to congratulate ourselves instead of challenge ourselves.
- We get a consumer mindset instead of a discipleship/servanthood mindset.
- We are more concerned with our role in the church than with the overall health of the church.
- We start to be protective of our own interests.
- We start to think the church exists for us instead of those who have yet to believe.
- We are driven by the preferences of our members instead of the demands of the mission.
Even though he lived over 400 years BC, Nehemiah called a “Come to Jesus meeting.” He calls those oppressing the poor to repent. Miraculously, they do. Properties are returned. Food is shared. Slaves are liberated.
The other thing we discover in Chapter 5 is that Nehemiah led by example. As governor over the land, he refused to levee a tax against the people for his own administration. He fed 150 people a day at his own table. Every day this required an oxen, ten sheep, and lots of birds. He reached into his own pocket to see the city through its crisis.
Right relationships are at the heart of the Gospel. When asked the greatest commandment, Jesus said:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”Matthew 22:37-40
The sacrificial, servant leadership of Nehemiah points toward to the Lord Jesus who would give his life as a ransom for us all. The health of our church will be quality of our relationships with God and one another. Nehemiah teaches us to examine our hearts and actions as they are connected with others. What happens inside the walls is every bit as important as the walls themselves.