Ought ye not to walk in the fear of God? Let that question hang over your soul today. It is a rhetorical question. You know the answer. Of course it is “Yes.”
You who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ from the cruelest bondage and slavery of sin, ought you not to walk in reverence for God? You who have been given to belong to God’s glorious cause and covenant and given the privilege to represent Him and to work in His church, ought you not walk in the fear of God? You to whom God has shown such mercy, kindness, and faithfulness, and who have received the blessing of His covenant of fellowship, ought your life not be characterized by reverence for God?
Ought you not walk in the fear of God towards your brother? Ought you not be forgiving? Ought you not be forbearing? Ought you not be understanding and compassionate toward one another in marriage, in your weaknesses, towards your sister, towards your husband, towards your brother? “Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee?”
Beloved, if God so loved us, ought we not also to love one another? Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven you. Ought ye not to walk in the fear of God because of the reproach of the heathen, our enemies? What will the unbelieving world say about your God if you who confess His name and represent His cause do not walk a new and holy life? Is your life, as a believer, is mine, the occasion for the name of God to be blasphemed among the unbelieving world?
Is God reproached because of how we treat each other in the church? What is said about God in the way you think about your fellow church member, how you treat each other? And how you live within your family (husband and wife)—what is said about God in how you live together as husband and wife, or as a congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ?
What is your answer? What do you have to say when confronted by God’s Word?
There is a silence of conviction. We read in Nehemiah 5:8, “Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer.” There is a promise of repentance (v. 12): “Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them.” Then there is the vow to keep the promise (v. 13): “And the people did according to this promise.”
Continuing our study of the book of Nehemiah, we come today to the fifth chapter. In each chapter God’s servant Nehemiah is confronted with yet another crisis, a problem always more grievous than the one formerly endured.
The crisis of chapter 5, which Nehemiah addresses with the heartrending cry: “Ought ye not to walk in the fear of God?” came when Nehemiah’s hands were full and his mind was absorbed in the great struggle of building the walls. His plate was full. He could hardly be blamed if he said when another problem came to him: “I’m overwhelmed. You will have to see to this problem. Don’t you understand? I haven’t even changed my clothes for the last two weeks.”
We must learn that God works this way in Nehemiah and in us. We must not think that just because we are enduring a great trial now that we ought, therefore, to be exempted by God from enduring yet more.
The problem that Nehemiah faced in chapter 5 could not have come at a worse time, humanly speaking. He was enduring bitter slander, threats, and plots from the enemies to get the work of rebuilding the walls to cease. And it was at that time, when his hands were full and he was fully engaged in a great work, that the people, according to verse 1 of chapter 5, came to him. Specifically, the wives came to him with a great cry, a great lament. And the cry is this: “Our families are starving. We can’t buy corn. We can’t mortgage our property for cash to get groceries and to pay real estate tax. We can’t pay. Our wealthy brethren want 12% on the dollar. And they have taken our land in default. Now, for payment, they want us to give them our sons and daughters as slaves. And some of our daughters have already been sold as chattel.”
That was the most serious problem yet, as Nehemiah knew. Worse than Sanballat’s words and worse than the weariness of the bricklayers. It was the threat of sin among the people of God. Nehemiah knew that, though he might build Jerusalem’s walls ever so high and ever so thick and ever so strong, it would all be meaningless if such sin among the people of God would be tolerated, if the people of God did not walk in compassion for each other. The church may be strong in head-knowledge, but what is the life within the walls? How do the saints treat each other? What about the marriages? What about the families? What goes on within? It is there that the devil seeks to destroy a church. It becomes a false front for the enemy. Like the neighborhood store, perhaps in Chicago, which has its sign up for vegetables and flowers and ice cream—only as a front for the mob to do drugs and for prostitutions and for loan sharks. This is how the devil would seek to have the orthodox church—as a front. On the front are the signs of orthodoxy, but within are the evil works of backbiting, callous indifference, malice, and whispering.
Exactly what was the problem? We learn of it in verses 1-5 of chapter 5. Economically it was a hard time. Ever since the return from the Babylonian captivity it was tough. Many families had not been able to get their feet under them. Due to a dearth, or famine, it had been especially hard. And in Nehemiah’s day it was hard to get grain or food. No doubt the enemies restricted the trade. But, remember, many farmers had left their fields to work on the walls. And Nehemiah had wanted them now to stay within Jerusalem to continue the work. Their wives and children were home alone. There were large families. The daughters and sons were many. It was hard for these families to put bread on the table, to feed hungry mouths, while their dad was gone working on the walls. Then there was the king’s tribute, the tribute to the king of Persia. There were taxes to pay. And the result was this: In order to buy groceries, they were forced to mortgage their property (land, vineyards, houses) so that they could buy corn. They borrowed money from wealthier brothers of the Jews. They used their property, then, as collateral. And they were charged interest—as high as 12%. When the property tax came due, and when the taxes came due for the Persian government, they had to borrow again. “We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute,” they tell Nehemiah. And when they could not pay their brethren back, then the brethren foreclosed and took their land and vineyards. And when, still, even the value of the land did not settle the account, then their brethren came and began to barter with them for their sons and daughters, for servitude to their creditors. They say it this way, in verse 5: “Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children.” Yet, they were being forced to sell them into slavery to their own brothers.
The complaint was this: “Nehemiah, we are at the mercy of our brothers. And they are heartless. They are cruel. We love our children as much as they love theirs. Yet, we have been forced to sell everything we have, even our children into slavery.” This was a grievous wrong. There was a great wail arising from the women against their brethren. That opposition was brought on by a grievous failure to love the brother in the love of God, by a lack of the bowels of compassion in Jesus Christ. It was brought on by greed and self-love and by self-advancement and by power and by monopolization and dominance. All of these things had cauterized the love of God in their heart. It was caused by “Me-first,” love of earthly things, resulting in an inward indifference to the need of one’s brothers and sisters. Materialism makes a scrooge of the child of God.
And it had gone to unimaginable lengths. Sons and daughters were being taken from the arms of their mother. The times were tough. The bills needed to be paid. Now son and daughter had to be sold. Then there was this too: “We have to borrow money for the king’s tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards.” The creditors took the title. The creditors took the possessions and said, “You pay the past property tax. That’s your debt, not mine.”
Shall we, then, simply pass on today and say, “Boy, that was heartless. That was really cruel.” We may not do that. We must seek to apply the Word of God to ourselves. That, you see, is our nature. Apart from grace, that is exactly how we would treat each other in the church and in our marriages and in the home. Do you see that? Do you forgive your brother his debts? Or have you been charging interest on that debt? Have you been vindictive, just waiting to get even? Do we do good to one another, thinking that this puts them in our debt and makes them beholding to us? Do we gossip about each other, backbite? Do we take away their land, their vineyard, their place among the people of God? Do we lower them to the place of a pauper? Do you berate your children? Do you oppress them? Do you deal with them in irritation and in anger? Do we show compassion to each other, or has this spirit of the age, this spirit of materialism, this spirit of “Me,” made the bowels of compassion to be constipated within us? “Do not let another person’s need in the church or in the church throughout the world interfere with my time, my pleasures. I’m not going to sacrifice for them!”
Nehemiah took immediate steps to correct this sin. We read, “And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words.” We can understand that! Here Nehemiah is engaged in the great work of God’s cause—building the walls of Zion with blood, sweat, and tears; and this is how the people of God who are going to be benefited from his labors were treating each other? With such cruelty, with such absence of compassion? He was very displeased!
But note, he did not act in that anger. He mastered himself. He consulted, and he carefully prepared his response. We read, “Then I consulted with myself.” He thought it over. He did not allow anger to control his response. He pondered how best to approach this grievous condition. He views the men as erring brothers to whom he would appeal with spiritual argument and seek their repentance. He did not say, “Those reprobates, those charlatans! Bring them here. I’ll settle the score with those guys!” But he did choose firm, strong measures.
He called them to a great assembly. He did not decide to reason it out privately with each one. He decided to make it a public matter. He did not want to spend hour after hour with the problem. He wanted the people of God all to witness what he would say and what would be done. Strong, firm, unanswerable arguments in which he showed them their sin.
His speech to them can be summarized in three ways.
First, he appealed to the union that had been established in the blood of Jesus Christ. “And I said unto them.” This is, now, after Nehemiah has gathered the people and the perpetrators of this evil all together. “And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? Or shall they be sold unto us?” The returning captives from Babylon had done their best to purchase, to buy the release of fellow Jews who had been sold as slaves. They wanted them to be free. Why? Because they were their brothers. Nehemiah said, “How can you oppress your brothers by making them your slaves, we who have been trying to free every Jew? And you, in your business practices, are enslaving them? You are driving them to be your slaves?”
Behind this whole point of redemption, of course, was the picture of the precious blood of Jesus Christ that was to be shed for the church. Through the blood of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven and made to belong to Jesus Christ. All of us have had a debt released that we could never have paid. And now, shall we treat each other that way? Can you treat a member of Christ that way—you who have been redeemed with the precious blood of Christ from a debt that you could never have paid?
His second appeal was this. “Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them.” Nehemiah was simply bringing the requirement of the Old Testament law that required that they could not take advantage of their poor brothers, that they could not charge usury, that they could not profit on loans, that they could not make another Jew, by compulsion, a slave, and that the debts had to be released in the year of Jubilee. “Restore them their possessions. Treat them as you would treat something of mine,” says God. God says, “I have redeemed you. Now you must treat them as I have redeemed you.”
Finally, Nehemiah appealed to the testimony that would be left of God’s name. That was the heart of it (v. 9), “Also I said, It is not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?” Everything that we say and do to each other as the people of God has to do with what is said about our God. The worst thing possible is that our life, as we live with each other, would give occasion for the enemies of God to reproach our God. You say that your God is merciful? You say that your God is gracious to the undeserving? You say that your God is the God of love unimaginable—to give His Son even unto hell for you? You say that your God has compassion on the lowly and is filled with lovingkindness for those who are destitute? You worship Him—and you are cruel, merciless, mean toward your brothers and sisters? You laugh at their mistakes? You hurt them with your words? You torture them when you get together by gossiping about them? You blow up—you cannot forgive? You hold a grudge? You cannot take anything? What kind of God, then, do you serve? You say your God is compassionate, but we do not believe you. We believe that your God is the same as you are—just as cruel as you are.
Beloved, our behavior with each other is our testimony of God. Our behavior with each other is louder speech than words spoken from our mouths. We can speak eloquently of the love of Jesus. But the world says, “I can’t hear you. You are catty with your friends. You are bitter as a husband. You are resentful as a wife. You are not honest in your business. You are not pure with your eyes. You are just like us.”
Everything we do with each other is our testimony of God. And the world is always watching. The world may not study the Bible. But the world does study those who profess the Bible. What a reproach of God when the children of God do not walk in love.
Nehemiah, as I said, was aiming at their repentance. The people acknowledged their sin and promised to make amends. “Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest.” So the people were brought, by the grace of God, to repentance.
Then Nehemiah did something dramatic as a warning that they must walk in repentance. Verse 13, “Also I shook my lap, and said, So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, and emptied.” This was very significant to the Jews. It was a sign. In other words, Nehemiah stood up and he shook the crumbs off his lap. And he said, “Just as I shake the crumbs from my lap, so will God shake out of His covenant, out of His people, out of His church, those imposters who do not walk in repentance that is seen in compassion toward their brothers and sisters.”
God brought repentance.
We are left then with a pointed example. Nehemiah knew the power of example. He led the people of God from the front. He was a man himself of compassion and reverence for God and self-sacrifice. Therefore, Nehemiah did not oppose a legitimate tax for the support of the governor, something that former governors had done. But he used this as an example. He said, “I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor.” Before him, the practice had been that a portion of the food had to be given, just given, to the governor. That was legitimate. That was proper. But Nehemiah says, “No, not I. I don’t need it. I’m not going to sequester oxen and corn from you. I’m not going to do that.” Why? He says, “because the bondage is heavy upon this people.” He paid the cost of his own upkeep and of the functioning of his governor’s house. When visiting dignitaries on the way to Shushan stopped by his house as a governor, he bore the expense. He did not tax the people to pay for it. The example he gave was in his own life of sacrifice—an example of being aware of the needs of God’s people.
Then he concludes with these words: “Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.” He did not do this for the praise of men. He said, “If men forget me, that doesn’t matter. I’m not doing this for the recognition of people. But let my God think upon me. Let my God be pleased with me. Let my God say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.'” So he labored to promote the good cause of God’s people in self-sacrifice. And he himself lived as an example to follow.
Now we are back to the beginning. Ought we not to walk in the fear of God? Ought we, who have received the gracious pardon of God, the fullness of His covenant blessing, ought we not to seek our brothers and sisters’ good to edification?
The answer is: Of course, yes! Then, let us do that. Let us advance the cause of God. Let us show mercy and compassion to the destitute. Let us testify of the glory of our God. Let us do that by showing mercy and compassion and patience and forgiveness one to another. Let us do that because God has so loved us.
Let us pray.
Father in heaven, we again thank Thee for Thy Word and ask that it may be the light upon our pathway in this week. Bless the study of Nehemiah and return us next week again to another portion from this wonderful book. In Jesus’ name, Amen.