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Worldview Bible
The Growing Threat

Nehemiah 6:1-2

Now when Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies heard that I had built the wall and that there was no breach left in it (although up to that time I had not set up the doors in the gates), Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come and let us meet together at Hakkephirim in the plain of Ono.” But they intended to do me harm.

The Story: When Nehemiah first introduced Sanballat and his friends into the narrative, we read only that “it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel” (2:10). The welfare of Israel did not fit with their ambitions. Later, “angry and greatly enraged,” they showed up with an army to taunt, intimidate, and, if possible, discourage the workers (4:1-3). When none of that worked, they plotted murder. The work had progressed beautifully, and the parts of the wall the Babylonian army had smashed were repaired. Yet the city was still vulnerable, since they had not completed the gates. If Sanballat and the others were going to derail the project, it was now or never. Rather than risk a full-on assault, something Artaxerxes would have frowned upon, they planned subterfuge. Ono was near the Mediterranean coast about seven miles south of Joppa and about thirty miles from Jerusalem. The ruse suggested it was a neutral location. It was also isolated.

The Structure: We are called to build the City of God in the midst of the City of Man, and that is a difficult and risky business. The story of the opposition of Sanballat and his cohort to Nehemiah’s work is replayed over and over in this world. Having no other way to stop him, a group of Jews “made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul” (Acts 23:12). The communists in Poland, Russia, and elsewhere already had thick files on the man we know as John Paul II. When he was elected pope, they were at least “angry and greatly enraged.” George Weigel in his book “The End and the Beginning” documents the intimidation, plots, and deceptions they used to discredit and discourage. When this did not seem to work, they hired an assassin. Christians, and Christian leaders, in particular will face opposition in this world. And while we in the West don’t face people trying to kill us, we remember that our brothers and sisters elsewhere do. We should expect opposition, pray against it, and see it for what it is when it comes along.

Who are the Christians you know or know about who face intense opposition? Spend time today praying for them, their families, the success of their work, and the defeat—and conversion—of their enemies.

 
Remember Me


Nehemiah 5:19

Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.

The Story: The word “remember” shows up repeatedly in Nehemiah’s book. In 1:8, Nehemiah asked God to remember His promises made through Moses. In 4:14 he told the people to remember God as they built and guarded the wall. Nehemiah asked God to remember those who wished to sabotage the rebuilding in 6:14 and 13:29. In this text and again in 13:14, 22, 31, Nehemiah called on God to remember the good things he had done for the people. And certainly Nehemiah did a great deal for God’s people at great personal expense. That last part, I think, is critical. Nehemiah’s work required personal sacrifice. He labored in prayer (1:5-11), put his career—and possibly his life—on the line (2:4-5), labored hard to organize and manage a huge project (2:17-18), and supported a significant part of the local economy (5:17-18) in order “to seek the welfare of the people of Israel” (2:10b).

The Structure: On the one hand, Nehemiah’s words can strike us as a bit self-righteous. On the other hand, what we do in this world makes a difference to God, and so our good works should make a difference to us. While we are saved by grace and our good works are manifestations of God’s grace, the New Testament nonetheless makes it clear that we will be judged for our actions in this life. To take only a few examples, Jesus said, “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:27). He also warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). The Apostle Paul promised that at the Second Coming of Jesus, He “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5. See also 2 Corinthians 5:10). Asking God to remember what we have done and look on it with favor as we face judgment seems a wise and appropriate thing to do.

As you reflect on your family life, church life, and professional life, can you in good conscience pray, “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people”? If not, what needs to change?

 
Dinner for 600


Nehemiah 5:17-18

Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people.

The Story: Lavish entertainment was part a great king’s duty. Given the daily provisions for his royal court, King Solomon must have fed multiple thousands every day (1 Kings 4:23). As a result, it became the duty of the great king’s representative to do the same. Nehemiah was expected to and did provide dinner to hundreds. Given the food list, one estimate is that Nehemiah served dinner served to 600 to 800 every day—150 Jews and officials plus all the others from the region who were visiting Jerusalem. He had a right to tax the people of Judah for his food allowance, but such an arrangement would cause no economic growth for the already poor populace. Whatever he took, be it silver, cattle, sheep, wine, or birds, would be consumed, giving nothing back. Instead, Nehemiah paid for the provisions himself, thus putting money into the local economy to increase prosperity.

The Structure: At a dinner party, most of the guests were Christians and one an Orthodox Jew. Somehow we got on the subject of celebrating the Sabbath, and the Jewish man said that after worship at his synagogue, whole hosts of people get together for lunch at one home or another. “Don’t you Christians do that on Sunday?” he asked. Two of us said almost in unison, “We used to.” Such gatherings marked Sundays for much of my childhood. Yet in our culture, wealth often means more privacy and fewer relationships: gated communities, exclusive clubs, private aircraft, small families. Through most of history, however, greater wealth meant less privacy and more relationships. Having attended banquets with six hundred or more people, I can’t imagine eating that way every day. I’m not sure I could even imagine ten or twelve every night à la Downton Abbey. My privacy is important to me. But why? What cultural blinders am I and others wearing that we don’t fill up our houses and tables as often as possible?

How open and available are you to relationships with lots of people? How can you help make your home and church more welcoming?

 
Doing Good, Not Well


Nehemiah 5:16

I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work.

The Story: Judah was a minor and, we might say, colonial province of King Artaxerxes’ great empire, and colonies throughout history seem to exist to be plundered and exploited. The Romans, the Spanish, the British, and others brought enormous wealth home from the far-off lands they controlled. Nehemiah and his inner circle could have done the same as their predecessors apparently had (15). Yet the people were poor, and many had already been persuaded to mortgage or part with their ancestral lands (5:3-5). And so Nehemiah’s mindset differed from so many who represented colonial powers. Nehemiah and his servants had come to serve by rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall. Their goal was to turn the ruin back into a city and the survivors back into a people—God’s people. That called for discipline, honesty, and single-mindedness. They had come to do good, not to do well, and they stuck to that.

The Structure: Once again, the issue is how we use power. In the ancient world, governors sent from great kings to provinces and colonies had the monopoly on the power of the sword. As a result, they could do as they pleased and could take what they wanted at the people’s expense. Today, while despoiling others is frowned upon, the temptation to abuse power for personal gain remains with us all. Globalization allows all sorts of profitable exploitation, from sweat shops to the sex trade to leaving workers at home jobless. Charities that begin with the needs of others in mind can degenerate into organizations that, while they do some good, are mostly profitable and perpetual employment for the charity’s staff. Pastors can abuse their churches, and more than one church lay leader has been caught embezzling. Even as we govern our families, we can make rules that unjustly apply to everyone except us. If the issue in this text is the same for us as for Nehemiah, the solution is the same. Nehemiah and his team served others “because of the fear of God” (15b). We need to learn to do the same.

How have you been cheated by those who abused their power over you? When have you done the same to others?

 
The Will to Power and the Fear of God


Nehemiah 5:14-15

Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God.

The Story: Nehemiah’s first term as governor of Judah lasted from 445 B.C. until 433 B.C., a total of 12 years, after which he returned to Susa and King Artaxerxes to give a report (13:6). After that, he returned for a second term as governor (13:7). It was (and is) customary for a governor to tax the people he ruled in order to provide feed, house, and pay himself and his administration. While there is nothing wrong with public servants receiving salaries, the system Nehemiah inherited allowed for a great deal of abuse. Former governors and their servants—invoking the governor’s name, no doubt—took advantage of the people. Given the poverty in Jerusalem, Nehemiah permitted none of it. His goal was to rebuild a city and a people, not to enrich himself and his staff. Like the Apostle Paul (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9), Nehemiah set an example for others to follow out of the same fear of God.

The Structure: The great American statesman Daniel Webster (1782-1852) famously said, “An unlimited power to tax involves, necessarily, a power to destroy.” Nehemiah understood that back in the fifth century B.C. And it’s not simply true of the power to tax. Any power we hold over others can become corrupted and can destroy. This does not mean that we ought never to hold power over others. Some hierarchy is needed in this world. Parent to child, employer to employee, general to private, police to motorists, governor to people, IRS to taxpayer—these are all legitimate power relationships, but all are subject to horrible abuses, as is only too clear when we read the news. In the final analysis, fear prevents abuses. Either those in power fear those who have power over them—a servile fear—or they fear the King of the Universe (Colossians 4:1). Fear of God is a holy fear that causes us to honor God and care for those in our charge with love, concern, and sacrifice.

Who are the people over whom you have power? How have you abused that power? Take that to God in confession. How have you exhibited the fear of God in your relationships?

 
Promise


Nehemiah 5:12b-13

And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.

The Story: Nehemiah knew his own heart and therefore knew the hearts of others. That is why he didn’t rely on an emotional “We will do as you say” (v 12a) to secure the future of the poor in and around Jerusalem. While we might ask people to sign an agreement of some sort, Nehemiah pulled out the big guns and made them swear an oath. In the Old Testament, an oath would bring blessing if fulfilled and an often-stated curse if broken. Thus when Eli asked young Samuel to tell him about his late-night conversation with God, he brought him under oath with the words, “May God do so to you and more also if . . .” (1 Samuel 3:17). Nehemiah’s gesture of shaking his garment indicates that the words of this oath were similar to the words of Eli. Exploitation of the poor was never right, but with the oath the stakes were doubled. Anyone who broke their word would not only incur the sin of taking advantage of the needy, but of breaking their oath made before God, the Just Judge. The people, who, I think, included the nobles and officials, all said, “Amen,” harkening back to the people agreeing to the curses in Deuteronomy 27:15-26.

The Structure: Through most of history, oaths were not just nice sentiments. They were rock-ribbed commitments that directed the course of the oath-taker’s life. Swearing to love one’s spouse “till death do us part” meant just that: As long as we’re alive, we’re married to each other. End of conversation. That does not sit well in a culture where divorce is rampant. In fact, oaths in general don’t work well when the prevailing worldview holds “keeping my options open” among the highest values. We sign non-competition agreements knowing that most of them won’t hold up in court. We sign contracts, knowing that, in a pinch, we can find some lawyer to break them for us. While most congregations still have membership vows, many don’t, perhaps tacitly acknowledging that people take such vows more as suggestions rather as commitments. Yet vows, taken in the fear of God (v. 9), keep us sinners on the straight and narrow (Matthew 7:13-14, King James Version) by limiting our choices to the right ones. Recovering the power of oaths and promises can go along way to revitalizing our spiritual lives as individuals and churches.

Think back on your life. What have you promised? Have you fulfilled your vows? If not, why not? What can you/should you do to make good on your word?

 
Repentance


Nehemiah 5:12a

Then they said, “We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.”

The Story: Nehemiah, in order to rescue the poor in Jerusalem, asked the nobles and officials to agree to what amounted to a Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25:8-55; Deuteronomy 15:1-18). All debts were to be forgiven, the rich would supply gifts to the poor rather than loans, all lands taken to pay debts would be returned to the original owners, and, as a result, children sent to work off the family debts (slaves) would be set free. The cost to the creditors would have been substantial, yet they agreed. Either they already knew they were doing wrong and were embarrassed to be exposed, or Nehemiah’s words convicted them of sin they had not before understood. Regardless, the nobles and officials repented of taking advantage of the needy and did the right thing. The outcome is both a testimony to the grace of God at work among the elites and a testimony to Nehemiah’s character, spiritual life, and leadership. Nehemiah was God’s instrument not only to build the wall, but to bring about justice and the relief the poor.

The Structure: When we see righteousness triumphing over economic gain, we should always rejoice. Chuck Colson loved the story of William Wilberforce’s lifelong struggle against the British slave trade, an enormously lucrative and therefore popular form of exploitation. Commenting on slavery documents released in 2015, one researcher said, “What these letters reveal, apart from a total lack of empathy for their human commodities is the sheer amount of money involved. Many anti-slavery campaigns were grassroots efforts by ordinary people, while the pro-slavery lobby had significant wealth and influence they could use to exert pressure on Parliament.” Yet in what may be the most selfless act of a government in modern times, Parliament in 1833 voted to abolish slavery and the highly profitable (and taxable) slave trade. Why? Because Wilberforce and other Christian thinkers, preachers, politicians, artists, and activists convinced the British people and their representatives that, regardless of cost, it was the right thing to do. Today we need to do the same with the systematic human exploitation of abortion, sex trafficking, consumerism, the deterioration of marriage and family, and profiteering that falsely claims to be helping the poor.

When have you or people you know sacrificed financial gain in order to do what is right? What ills in our troubled world can you support with at least a bit of your time, talent, and treasure?

 
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