An Internal Threat
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An Internal Threat

Nehemiah 5:1–13  (ID: 1723)

In the midst of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall, wealthy members of God’s people exacted usury on their brothers and sisters. God’s people were supposed to be a holy nation, set apart for obedience to Him, but their actions were no different than their unbelieving neighbors. Nehemiah confronted this corruption with God’s divine standard. Alistair Begg points out the continuing significance of God’s law in the life the Church as it leads Christians to repent from sin and turn to God.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Nehemiah, Volume 1

God’s Work, God’s Way Nehemiah 1:1–7:3 Series ID: 11601

Sermon Transcript: Print

Our God and our Father, we come to you expectantly that you will speak to us through your Word. We certainly long that beyond the pages of Holy Scripture and beyond the voice of a mere man, that we may encounter you, be encountered by you. So speak to our waiting hearts, we pray, and show us ourselves, and show us your greatness and your glory. And match, if it please you, the needs of our lives to the truth of your Word today. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

When we concluded chapter 4, some of us might have been tempted to believe that having raised the wall to half its height, having been able to defend it against these initial attacks of the enemy, that all would be well. But in actual fact, it isn’t so. They had managed to contain and to control the external threat, but they had not dealt with the notion that was about to creep upon them—indeed, to unleash itself upon them—which was to come from a surprising source—namely, from within their own ranks.

In the reading of chapter 5, some of us may also be tempted to believe that it’s a kind of remote chapter, somewhere far removed from our own time and circumstances. But yet a more careful reading points out that it is actually a very contemporary chapter, having to do with taxes, loans, money, status, and the effect that those things have upon the lives of individuals and, more pressingly, the effect which these things have upon the lives of God’s people.

The building of their walls had been able to contain what was outside, but it was ineffective in tackling what was inside. And since unity of purpose and harmony of disposition was absolutely essential to the effective completion of this great project, the Evil One would know that if he could get God’s people disunited, disgruntled, at war with one another, then that would be just as effective a way of closing the operation down as if they were standing with swords, awaiting a potential attack from outside their ranks.

It is a reminder to us that the same remains true in every generation. By the time Paul speaks to the elders of the church at Ephesus, before leaving them—it’s recorded in Acts chapter 20—he reminds them of their custody of the people of God, of the flock which is in their charge. He says, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock”[1]—in other words, people will invade from the outside, and that that will have a detrimental effect on what’s going on. But beyond that, he goes on to say in verse 30, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”

So the problem throughout the whole of biblical history, throughout the whole of church history, has been namely this: that when God’s people do God’s work in God’s way, they will encounter opposition. It will come from expected sources, if you like, such as we considered last time. And it will come also from less expected sources, such as we’re about to consider this morning.

Now, I’d like to try and gather our thoughts in chapter 5 under three main headings. First of all, we’ll consider how the problem surfaced, in verses 1–5; we’ll consider how the problem was solved, in verses 6–13; and as time allows, we’ll consider how Nehemiah’s integrity prevented the emerging of further problems, particularly as it related to him. So follow with me, if you would. You need to have your thinking caps on this morning. You need to be alert and awake if you’re going to stay with this.

How the Problem Surfaced

Consider how the problem surfaced. It’s described for us here: there was “a great outcry.” And the source of the concern was surprising. But note for a moment that what we have here is a scene, described in 2–5, where apparently, a whole crowd of people took to the streets, as it were, or at least took to where they could find Nehemiah, so that they might declare before Nehemiah the extremity in which they found themselves.

When God’s people do God’s work in God’s way, they will encounter opposition.

I think it is fairly obvious that the extremity of these circumstances are not as a result, or as a direct result, of this building project, which, after all, we’re told lasted only fifty-two days.[2] It’s highly unlikely that the social and economic infrastructure of Jerusalem, and particularly of the people of God, could crumble in so fast a period of time—unless, of course, what it had been was simply the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And I think that’s far more likely—namely, that as we see there was a famine; and presumably, there were existing economic struggles in which these people shared; and now, in engaging in this vast project, it was having an effect upon their financial circumstances.

Because as long as the building project was going on, a number of things would be true. First of all, man power would be diverted. There wouldn’t be the same number of people involved in agriculture and in the raising of crops. That would mean that there wouldn’t be as much grain. Secondly, workers were separated from other sources of gainful employment. Because you will remember that in the evenings, the instruction was given that the workers should not leave the city, and that would prevent them from having a night job which would give them the opportunity to raise a wee bit more cash. Thirdly, farmers would be hindered from supplying the city. After all, we’re putting up all these walls, and there’s all this kind of stuff going on, and so that would have an impact on it. And also, fourthly, because of all the animosity surrounding the work of the people of God, there would be disruption of the normal commercial ties and opportunities. Sanballat, Tobiah, the Ashdodites, the Ammonites, etc. were potential trading people, but as soon as you go to war, the trade status changes dramatically. And so these people were in deep trouble.

And the focus of their outrage is not Nehemiah, not the project, but “their Jewish brothers,” as you would notice from verse 1. And some of the people shouted out from the group, in verse 2, “We’re far too many, and there’s far too little food. Our daughters and our sons are too numerous. And in order for us to eat and stay alive, we need to get grain”—the implication being, “And we’re not getting it!” Somebody else shouts out in verse 3: “We[’re] mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to [try and] get grain [in this] famine.” In other words, putting it in a different way, “Do you know how many times, Nehemiah, we’ve had to go to the pawnshop in the last week? We’re taking everything that we have, all that represents security to us, and we have to keep going and saying to people, ‘I’ll give you this, if you’ll give me cash, because I need the cash to get the grain. Because if I don’t have the grain, I can’t have the food, and if I don’t have the food, I can’t feed my family.”

And then someone else shouts out in verse 4: “We[’ve] had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and on our vineyards.” And the king’s tax was not inconsequential; it was significant. There’s even a suggestion, in the second half of verse 5, that in this experience of slavery, they’ve had to go to the extent of enslaving their daughters. Perhaps people are even beginning to take them as second wives. And you’ll notice the offense: “Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet on the basis of finance we are forced to sell our children into slavery.”

When capitalism goes wrong, as it’s gone wrong here in chapter 5, it brings about bondage as fast as any communism. Because the same inhumanity in the heart of man—the same greed, the same rapacious, aggravating demand for that which will make me beneficially supplied to the detriment of others—rises in the iniquitous heart of an individual, irrespective of what great trumpet we sound concerning freedom, etc.

Now, as unpalatable as that may be to our ears, history testifies to its truth. And it was because they had a free system of finance that they were able to create this tyranny whereby the rich became richer while the poor became poorer. And it would have been bad enough if it was as a result of what the external communities were doing to the people of God, but the offense lies in the fact that the people of God were doing it to each other. God’s people, involved in God’s project, take time out from the overarching conquests to rip one another off.

Verse 5, the sum total of the situation in one phrase: “We are powerless.” “We’re powerless! Our sons and our daughters are being carried away into slavery, and we can’t do a thing about it. We are unable to do anything because everything that we have, we are mortgaged up to the eyeballs and beyond. And the bankers who are repossessing all our stuff are our own flesh and blood. Their kids play with our kids. They have the same blood in their veins as do we. Nehemiah, this isn’t right!” And it isn’t.

Now, some have suggested that what we have here is a strike, that the people go on strike. I think that has more to do with imagination than anything else. You know, it’s kind of to set it up as a more dramatic story: “Verses 1–5: the people on strike.” They’re not on strike!

There’s no suggestion here that they’re saying to Nehemiah, “If you don’t sort this out, we won’t build the wall,” or “If you don’t do this, we’re finished with you, Nehemiah.” No! Their focus is on the greedy, insensitive, wealthy members of their community.

Now, it so happens, as we’re going to see, that Nehemiah was one of the wealthy members of the community. He may even be one of the wealthiest members of the community—pointing out that it is not the existence of the wealth that is the issue; it is the way the wealth is used and/or abused. There’s no problem, ultimately, in having stuff. The problem is when the stuff has us. So that’s how the problem surfaced—verses 1–5. That’s how it surfaced.

How the Problem Was Solved

How did Nehemiah deal with the problem? How was the problem solved? If you are unfamiliar with this story, you will read, I hope, with a sense of expectation. You come to the end of verse 5, and you don’t know what happens next. You put the Bible down, and you say, “Boy, he’s got a problem! What’s he going to do now? This is a real beauty.” I mean, on the outside, they can all band together and fight the enemy. But when you’ve got the trouble in your own house, when you’ve got that kind of war happening between brothers and sisters in the same family, when you’ve got that kind of thing going on inside the one church, you got a problem. So what will Nehemiah do?

Well, look: verse 6 tells us. His immediate reaction is he was really angry: “I was [really] angry.” If you want a subtitle, call it “Righteous Indignation.” Because the source of his anger was not that he himself was accused—although, as we will see in verse 10, he includes himself in this wider process—but rather, his anger is the measure of his concern. Because he recognizes that what is taking place here is wrong, and he is driven by a sense of reverence for God, righteousness, and a compassion for God’s people.

That, incidentally, will always be what drives us to righteous indignation. You know, the Bible says—I think in James it says—that “in your anger do not sin”;[3] that it is possible to be angry and yet not to sin, but not a lot. In my case, I don’t think 5 percent of the time. Indeed, I’m tempted in the saying of it to assume that 5 percent’s a little high. Maybe 1 percent of the time, and 99 percent of the rest of the time is the balance for me. Most of my anger isn’t righteous. Most of my anger’s selfish. The kind of righteous anger—how we know that we have righteous indignation—is when it relates to something that is offending against God’s glory, is in denial of God’s law, and is harmful to other people.

For example, turn forward to the book of Mark, and see Jesus displaying righteous indignation in Mark chapter 3. He goes “into the synagogue,” Mark tells us there at the beginning of the chapter. There was “a man” there “with a shriveled hand.”[4]

Now, we don’t know the details of the shriveled hand, but we understand the word “shriveled,” and it’s not supposed to be an adjective for “hand.” It’s a different adjective from normal. You can have shriveled prune or shriveled something, but you’re not supposed to have shriveled hand. And the idea of a shriveled hand is dramatic and says to us, “Here is a man to be pitied.” Anybody with a modicum of humanity in them at all is going to look at a man in that condition and feel bad for him.

Righteous indignation relates to something that is offending against God’s glory, is in denial of God’s law, and is harmful for other people.

And so he’s there, and he’s in the synagogue. But there are people there who are “looking,” verse 2, “for a reason to accuse Jesus”—just looking for a chance to catch him out. “So they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath.” So “Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’” There was nothing clandestine about what Jesus was about to do. He knew that they wanted to catch him out. He wasn’t going to zap him, as it were, while he was looking over here; he zapped him over there. He could have done that. He could have been talking to somebody over here and healed his hand over there—and, you know, kind of did a number on them. But no. He says to the man, he says, “Why don’t you just stand up in the middle of everybody.”

So now the poor guy with the shriveled hand is standing up in the middle of everyone. Everybody looks at the man, says, “I’m glad my hand’s not like that, and I wish somebody could do something for his hand”—that is, everybody except these rascals who are trying to accuse Jesus and trying to catch him out. They’re more concerned about their little external regulations than they are about the man’s shriveled hand.

So, verse 4, “Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’” Now, they knew there wasn’t a good answer to that question, so they were smart enough to remain silent. And then listen: Jesus “looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, [and he] said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’” What was his concern? His concern was for God and for his glory and for his power and for his might. And these offensive people were dragging it down.

And that is exactly the response of Nehemiah in verse 6. Righteous indignation is followed by careful contemplation. Verse 7: “I pondered them in my mind.” Pondered what? What does “them” refer to? “Them” refers to the “charges” he’s mentioned in verse 6. There were charges brought, and he pondered the charges. His concern was both controlled and it was constructive. He doesn’t launch into a speech that he’s going to later regret.

There’s a lesson there for many of us. We get the righteous anger part, right? It’s the 1 percent of the times when we’re allowed to be angry, and it’s a righteous anger—and then we sin as soon as we open our mouths, because we don’t take time to think about the fact that there is reason to be righteously offended. There is every reason to be offended by the abortion scandal of our nation. There is no reason to become offensive to non-Christian people who are only different from us because the grace of God has not transformed their lives. So it is righteous indignation that says, “This is wrong that this should be happening to children in the womb.” It is not right then to start banging them over the head, metaphorically or literally, and trampling on them, and jumping on them, and screaming at them, and bellyaching at them. That is all sin. It’s sin! For who made them different from us, and who made us different from them? What’s the difference? The grace of God. And who’s in charge of God’s grace? God! So why would we look down our long religious noses? It is the spirit of the Pharisee. The indignation is righteous. The response is unrighteous.

But in Nehemiah’s case, he did both right. He got really mad inside, then he got ahold of his anger as he contemplated the charges.

If your lips would keep from slips,
Five things observe with care:
Of whom you speak; to whom you speak;
And how, and when, and where.[5]

He doesn’t launch off.

Righteous indignation, careful contemplation, and then direct confrontation: “I pondered them in my mind and then…” Then he goes straight at it. There’s something very refreshing about this: “Then [I] accused the nobles and [the] officials.”

“Oh,” people say, “well, you shouldn’t—if you’re a nice leader, you shouldn’t be accusatory. I mean, if you’re going to be a nice man and lead God’s people, then you can’t go around accusing people.” Well, you shouldn’t make it the hallmark of your life, but there will be times when you must, unless you’re just a coward—unless you just want to do what everybody else does, and that is deal in the realm of political inuendo and maneuverings and send little signals here and there and round and about in the hope that George, who is over in the far left-hand corner, will get the signal as a result of having passed it down through section 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, ’cause you don’t have the guts to go to section 6 yourself and say, “Hey, George, you got a big problem, son.”

Think how much confusion is caused in the work of the people of God because the people of God are unprepared to respond in righteous indignation, careful contemplation, and direct confrontation. They go and they tell fifty other people about the problem rather than addressing the problem at its source. And they often justify it by saying, “Well, I don’t want to harm the guy,” or “I don’t want to hurt her. So I’m not going to say it to her face. I’ll just say it to fifty other people, and then they can hurt her.” Do you know the hurt that’s caused by that kind of stuff? Far greater than ever going straight at it.

You’re a leader? You got a problem in your office? You got a situation in your school? Got a sales team, and one guy’s driving everybody nuts? Tomorrow morning, first thing, grab ahold of him, sit him down. Think about it this afternoon and tonight, and tomorrow morning, sit him down and tell him straight to his face. I dare you. I dare you! Or else be a wuss like all the rest of the guys in your company—whatever one of them is. I learned that word. Never use a word you don’t know what it means. It could get you in deep trouble.

Okay, now look at this. What does he accuse them of? “I told them, ‘You are exacting usury.’” That means that they are charging exorbitant levels of interest. To charge interest was wrong. To charge it at this unbelievable level was really wrong. They were treating their fellow Jews the way that harsh pawnbrokers or really bad little bankers would treat them. (You notice I said not “as bankers would treat them” but “as really bad little bankers would treat them.” That’s a very important distinction, especially for all who are bankers here this morning.) What they were doing was they were lending only with the best of cover for themselves and with the worst of motives. Now, some people would call this skill. Some people would commend this. Great segments of our society, frankly, uphold this. Young men are going to school to learn this: how to offer cash with the best of cover and the worst of motives to make the largest profit in the shortest time.

Now, you see, the fact that they had legitimacy from what was going on around them did not legitimize what they were doing. Because in hard times, legal rights, to say nothing of wrongs, can deal mortal blows to people. Presumably, these characters were sitting around congratulating themselves—at least up until they got the confrontation from Nehemiah. They were sitting in those rooms in the corner of the country club that have those tables where you play cards, and they smoke cigars, and they have the CNN, the C-SPAN, going all the time, with the Wall Street thing coming right across the top. And they’re sitting in there, and they play, and they smoke, and they gamble. And every so often, they look up to see how it’s going. And every so often, somebody goes away and makes a telephone call and comes back and smiles.

And they said to one another, they say, “Man, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. I mean, these are difficult days for poor old Jerusalem, but they’re not difficult days for us. Oh, no. Somebody’s got to keep the economy going, after all. Somebody’s got to be making a buck, or a few, or a lot. Somebody has got to have enough money so when it all goes down, we’ll be able to refloat it and refund it and relend it.” That’s what they were doing. And they were doing it to their brothers and their sisters.

You see, the offense was these folks were supposed to be a family. And there were rules for the family. God had laid down in his law the way that God’s people were to relate to one another when it came to these financial factors. And it would seem in verse 7 that there’s no reaction to his initial statement. And so he “call[s] together a large meeting,” in the middle of verse 7, and in verse 8 he says, “Listen, historically, you will remember that our Jewish brothers were already enslaved to the gentiles. You will remember, too, that we expended a fair amount of cash to redeem them from slavery so that they don’t need to be enslaved anymore. Now, fellas, think about it,” he says. “You’re selling your brothers back into the same slavery from which we have liberated them, only for the cycle to repeat itself!” And like the Pharisees in Mark chapter 3, “they kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.” This is the eloquent sound of silence.

What had they done? Well, they had violated the covenant of brotherhood which existed amongst them by enslaving their fellow Jews. Consequently, they had fractured the social harmony of relationships with one another within the group—hence the huge outcry. And thirdly, they had endangered not only the economic infrastructure, but they had endangered the complete project. In other words, the social and economic problems made it very difficult to see how they would be able then to go on and successfully complete the building of the wall.

Now, up until this point, Nehemiah has pointed this out without making any value judgment on it. In verse 9, he makes his judgment: “So I continued, ‘What you are doing is not right.’” Now, I don’t have time this morning to go back through the Old Testament references in Deuteronomy and Exodus and Leviticus, etc. You can take my word for it, and then you can go check it yourselves. Let me tell you what lay behind this statement, “What you’re doing is not right.” God had made it clear, number one, that for the Jew, it was not wrong to lend money to a non-Jew and charge interest. They were allowed to do that. You could charge interest as long as they weren’t Jews. Secondly, it was not wrong to lend to a Jew within the community. Thirdly, it was wrong to demand interest from a fellow Jew. And fourthly, it was wrong to enslave a fellow Jew. Okay? So on the strength of that, which was information those people had and knew, Nehemiah says to them, “What you’re doing is not right.”

You see, incidentally, loved ones, the place of the law of God in making those kind of statements. You see, the great problem with our culture today, or one of the great problems with it, is that it is completely unacceptable for anybody to stand up and say, “What you’re doing is not right.” The response of that is “Hey, it might not be right for you, but it’s right for me.” Because right is on a sliding scale. Nobody can believe in a right right, or in a true truth, or in an absolute standard. And anyone who suggests such a thing, they are the enemy. They are the enemy of all.

And yet, you see, it is on the basis of that absolute standard that the whole nation is established, that cultures are developed, that economic infrastructures are formed. Because, you see, the ability to enjoy the freedom of a capitalistic system of finance is founded, is posited, upon the notion that the law of God will have an impact in the rule of man. But as soon as you remove God’s law from any structure that is created societally, then you have absolute chaos. It will just show itself up in different ways. And so the people of God had the law of God. They chose to ignore the law of God. And so he says to them, “What you’re doing isn’t right.”

And then he gives them a wee word of encouragement there in verse 9. He says, “Listen, don’t you think you should walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our gentile enemies?” In other words, “They’re looking at us. I mean, we’ve been fighting off these people—the Ashdodites, the Ammonites, and all these little ‘ites.’ And they’re all over the place. And we’re standing up, saying, ‘We’re doing the work of God. We are building the…’ Now” he says, “you’re doing this to your brothers and your sisters. The people are looking over the wall going, ‘They’re no different from us. They do the same stuff!’”

See, when your non-Christian clients start to confuse your activities with the activities of your non-Christian friends, you’ve got a problem. When they come to you for tax advice prior to April 15, and you manage to give them information that is so skirting with dishonesty that they can’t believe that you’re the same guy that was inviting them to an evangelistic outreach with their wives, you’ve got a problem—when the outside world looks on and says, “The people of God have nothing to offer, because look at what they do to one another!”

Think about it this morning in relationship to the work of God in the continental United States. Where is all the energy expended by the church at the moment? It’s expended in pointing out how bad the world is: “Oh, isn’t this a dreadful world? And aren’t these dreadful people? And don’t they think dreadful things? And don’t they do dreadful things?” Of course they do! But has the church looked in the mirror? Have the people of God considered what they do to one another? Have they considered how much this army shoots its own wounded? And the outside world looks on and says, “If that’s the church, forget it!” And that’s exactly what was happening. The people looked on and said, “You call that the work of God? You can keep it! I have no interest in the work of God. They are doing to their brothers and their sisters, to their mothers and their fathers, what we wouldn’t even do to them, and we hate their guts.” So they had a problem.

And he appeals to them. He doesn’t condemn them. He says, “[Listen,] shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God …?” “After all,” he says in verse 10, “I’ve been lending stuff to the people.” Clearly, he was lending without asking for interest; otherwise, he’d be a total hypocrite. He was within the framework of the law; otherwise, his righteous indignation had no basis to it at all. He says, “I’ve lent. But you know what?” he said. “We’re going to have to stop this exorbitant interest. We’re going to have to start giving things back. We’re going to have to start thinking gifts instead of loans here.”

And so he gives them the instruction, verse 11: “Give back the fields, vineyards, olive groves, houses, and also this exorbitant interest that you’re charging them.” Now, what “the hundredth part of the money” means I don’t know. Maybe it means that this is the monthly charge on the thing which works out at a kind of annual percentage rate of 12 percent that was on top of everything. So their Visa bill was clicking up by 12 percent. They couldn’t get out of it. Their daughters were slaves. Their sons were slaves. Their house was gone. Their land was gone. Their vineyards were gone. And all the time, they’re looking into the eyes of someone who wants to say, “Hey, brother…”

You see, there was a classic absence of the kind of love about which we’ve been reading in 1 Corinthians 13—the love that “always protects” and “always trusts” and “always hopes” and “always perseveres” and “never fails.”[6] People had been coming around their own people and saying, “You know, I know you have a problem here, Mr. Mordecai. I don’t like to see you in these circumstances. I know your children haven’t had shoes for a while, and now your son is looking a lot skinnier. I saw him playing in a sporting event the other day, and he’s really dropped a lot of weight. I’d love to be able to help you. I mean, I’d love to just to be able to reach into my pocket and just write you a check or bring you a couple of bags of grain. But you know that I can’t do that. I can’t do it for everyone. But Mr. Mordecai, you know, I don’t know if you’d be willing to part with your house. I mean, I could take over your house. I noticed your daughter as I was coming in. Cute girl. You don’t think you would give up your daughter for a couple of bags of grain, Mr. Mordecai, do you? After all, my wife, she’s been sick for some years now, and marriage is—you know, it’s not the way it should be. If you let me have your daughter, Mr. Mordecai, your circumstances could change very quickly.”

They did it then. The church did it in slavery. The church has done it in South Africa. The church still does it. And the cry of Nehemiah is the same cry: “What you are doing is not right.”

Now, what about the people who are looking and saying, “Well, you know what, Nehemiah? You’re such a smart guy. What are you planning on doing?” He says, “Well, I’ll tell you about that in just a minute. But let me have your response first.”

“Well,” they say in verse 12, “we’ll give it back. And we won’t demand anything more from them. We’ll do as you say.” So he gets a promise from them in verse 12. And then, in the second half of verse 12, he takes an oath from them. He’s a shrewd character, Nehemiah. All the people come up, and they say, “We’re not going to do this anymore. We’re done with it. We make a promise.” “Fine,” says Nehemiah. “Hang on there just a moment”—brings in the officials, and he says, “Guys, we’re going to formalize the promise that these people are making today. I’d like you all to stand up front here and look out on your brothers and sisters and say it to their faces: ‘We’re not going to do this anymore. We’re giving you all your stuff back.’ So now let’s have you all up on stage, and let’s go.” “Oh, we never… We thought maybe…” The cunning little guys had already thought, you know, “If we say we’re making a promise, promises haven’t meant much to us in the past. We can always get out of them.” So he says, “No, we won’t have any of that. Let’s all come up on the front, and we’ll do the oaths together. All right, gentleman, ladies, here we go. Okay, let’s have the oath.” So they made the oath in front of the priests and the nobles and everybody else.

When we bring our will in submission to God’s truth, then there rises in our hearts a great song of praise.

And then Nehemiah starts dancing around in front of them, metaphorically. He starts to act out a symbolic curse. And he takes his robes, and he starts shaking his robes all over the place. And the guys must have been looking at him, saying, “What are you doing, Nehemiah?” He’s shaking out all the stuff, like in your turnups here. Or what do you call them? Cuffs? When you go in that, there’s usually a bunch of junk in there. (Actually, these are pretty clean. I’m surprised.) But you go in there. Every so often, when you’re sitting in an airport and you don’t know what to do, you run your finger around there and clean that stuff out. And so he’s shaking all that stuff out—shakes it all out on the ground. And he says, “Listen, you made a promise, you made an oath, and I’m bringing a symbolic curse in front of you today. And this is what I’m going to say: You made a promise about what you’d do. You covered it with an oath. May God shake you out of his house if you do not fulfill what today you have promised.”

And all the people said, “Amen,” and then they “praised the Lord.” But the voice of praise was silenced by internal corruption. Internal corruption had to be confronted by a divine standard. The divine standard penetrated to the very core of these people. They confessed what was wrong. They promised they would put it right. They understood the enacted curse. The congregation looked on and said, “Let it be so.” And great joy filled the place.

So it is with any sin in our lives. How do you deal with sin when the Word of God reveals it? Number one, you confess it. Number two, you promise that with God’s help you’re not going to do it again. Number three, you go public with the issue as it is right, and you let people know, “I am done with this, and I am going on from there.” And you recognize the severity of what’s involved in making promises to God, lest in reneging on a promise made he should shake us out of the robes of his blessing.

And you know, that’s some of us this morning. We once were glad when they “said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[7] Now it’s a grudge. It’s a dirge. We were once effective in our witness and in our testimony. We were once happy for the people who were outside the kingdom to ask us questions, but today we cower, and we run, and we hide, because we made a promise that we refuse to keep. There will never be the “Hallelujah” in your life, in mine, in this church or any church, until first there has been the “Amen.” Because it is in “Amen” that we say to God, “Let it be so.” And when we bring our will in submission to his truth, then there rises in our hearts a great song of praise.

Well, we’ll come back, God willing, to chapter 5 next week, and we’ll see just how the rubber met the road, as it were, for Nehemiah—a man of great substance in a context of great need.

Our God and our Father, bring your Word to bear upon our lives. It is your truth. Touch us at our point of need, we pray. Give us generous hearts. Save us from the disruptive affairs that we’ve considered in these moments. Thank you so much for the book of Nehemiah, for Nehemiah himself—for his fearlessness in leadership, for the example of what it means to be righteously indignant, to carefully think things out, and then to be brave enough to take on the wealthiest and most powerful, for their good and for your glory.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of the Lord Jesus, and the fellowship of the Lord Jesus be the portion of all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Acts 20:29 (NIV 1984).

[2] See Nehemiah 6:15.

[3] Ephesians 4:26 (NIV 1984).

[4] Mark 3:1 (NIV 1984).

[5] Commonly attributed to William Edward Norris.

[6] 1 Corinthians 13:7–8 (NIV 1984).

[7] Psalm 122:1 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.