There is nothing like the
test of your leadership from within your
The emotional and
spiritual stress can become unbearable upon the
leader who is under pressure. Some leaders break
under the pressure, others become too discouraged
and quit, some build walls around themselves to
insulate the hurts. Some become embattled,
embittered, and vindictive and further isolated
resulting in failure. Still others grow from the
experience and become effective leaders under
The whole project of
rebuilding the Jerusalem wall was nearly wrecked by
internal dissension and strife.
Famine, food crisis,
taxation, made the times exceedingly difficult. But
the problem was aggravated by self-indulgent
standard of living by a few nobles. Selfishness and
greed will destroy the most commendable project.
People who had been
greatly united when opposed by the external enemy
were threatened by internal strife and dissension.
If you want a work of God
ruined, let misunderstanding, discouragement and
THE GREAT OUTCRY OF
The grievances were no
light matter. There was a "great outcry" of the
people for help suggesting a heart full of deep
distress. The women are at the forefront of the
protest over the prevailing conditions of these
families. The people living in Judah were living in
miserable conditions. The women were panic-stricken.
It is interesting that "women" are expressly
mentioned only here in Ezra-Nehemiah suggesting that
the situation is now life threatening. There is
urgency in the matter. Their husbands have been
working on the wall for about a month since it is
half way completed.
"Now there was a great
outcry of the people and of their wives against
their Jewish brothers" (Nehemiah 5:1, NASB 1995).
The internal problem
Nehemiah faces has to deal with the division between
rich and poor.
Destruction and despair
marks the opening verses in Nehemiah 5:1-5. With
this chapter we are face to face with an internal
enemy which is potentially more dangerous than the
others because it threatens their unity. It is the
age-old gap between the rich and the poor. Instead
of the rich Jewish leaders in Jerusalem helping
their Jewish brothers, they were exploring the poor.
Many of the Jews who
returned from Babylonian captivity came back well
off financially (Ezra 1:11; 2 Chron. 36:18; Dan.
1:1-2). People gave generously when the Temple was
rebuilt (Neh. 7:71-72).
Taking advantage of
There was poverty beyond
description leading to slavery. Selfishness and
greed raised their ugly heads in a day of crisis.
Some of the families did not have enough to eat.
"For there were those who said, 'We, our sons and
our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain
that we may eat and live'" (Nehemiah 5:2).
The families had
mortgaged their farms. "There were others who said,
'We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our
houses that we might get grain because of the
famine'" (Nehemiah 5:3). Inflation was spiraling out
of proportions. Crop failures had drastically
reduced the family income. Because of the famine,
money was unavailable for the farmers to pay their
taxes. These taxes further reduced their holdings.
The farmers' resources were used up and their farms
were mortgaged so they were unable to pay. In
desperation they were selling their children into
slavery. Mortgage interest rates were enormous, and
there was no relief in sight. The family farms were
folding and as a result in despair they were selling
their children into slavery.
The wealthier Jews had
taken advantage of the terrible situation of those
who were less fortunate and reduced many of them to
slavery. They were taking advantage of the
unfortunate situation of the poor Jews.
Everyone was affected by
the famine and exploitation. A vicious cycle ensued.
The famine led to inadequate food production with
the farmers unable to pay mortgages and taxes. The
problem kept going from bad to worse. Now it had
reached a critical mass. I cannot help but wonder if
these were the same "nobles" also referred in 2:5
who did not work on the wall.
"Also there were those
who said, 'We have borrowed money for the king's tax
on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is
like the flesh of our brothers, our children like
their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons
and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our
daughters are forced into bondage already, and we
are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong
to others'" (Nehemiah 5:4-5).
Despair was written all
over their lives. "We are forcing our sons and
daughters to be slaves" (v. 5). The creditors were
taking the children of the farmers as slaves.
PERSONAL REACTION OF
"Then I was very angry
when I had heard their outcry and these words"
Nehemiah got hot with
anger because the nobles and leaders were disobeying
This is the anger of a
righteous man. There is a time for anger.
Nehemiah acknowledged his
reaction to what was happening to the common people.
This is righteous anger of a righteous man. There
are times when the only response to a situation is
anger. Righteous anger is appropriate when the
situation is called for. We should be angry when
moral principles are at stake.
leadership involves personal risks.
"We live in a world
largely motivated by selfishness, dominated by
greed, and controlled by money. In such an
atmosphere sacred things are ruthlessly sacrificed
and even spiritual things commercialized and
cheapened," writes Owen White.
"I consulted with myself"
"I consulted with myself
and contended with the nobles and the rulers and
said to them, 'You are exacting usury, each from his
brother!' Therefore, I held a great assembly against
them" (Nehemiah 5:7).
Nehemiah thought the
situation through before he expressed his anger. He
did not fly off the hammer or explode all over the
place. He contained himself. Self-control is
essential for every leader. The pastor who explodes
will not be in the pastorate long. Find a quiet
place alone and tell it all to God. He will quietly
The word "consulted"
means "to give one self-advice," "to counsel
oneself." This is essential before confronting the
The "nobles and the
rulers" were no doubt the power players. Every
organization has these on board. Some are on the
board of trustees, the deacons, WMU director, youth
director, music, financial committee, etc.
Nehemiah refers to the
redemption Jewish people who had been "sold to the
nations." Had the Jewish community been able to free
some of their brethren from the Gentiles in recent
What a tragic contrast
between this triumph of Jewish idealism and the
current situation in which the Jews are themselves
exploiting their own Jewish brethren.
The repetition of
"selling" in v. 8 reinforces this problem. Nehemiah
suggests that some of those who were being brought
back from the "nations" had actually been sold off
by Jews. If so, the presenting problem is even more
Nehemiah first confronted
in privacy those who were exploiting the poor
"I consulted with myself
and contended with the nobles and the rulers and
said to them, 'You are exacting usury, each from his
brother!' Therefore, I held a great assembly against
them" (Nehemiah 5:7).
Nehemiah tried to resolve
the problem in private before going public.
Apparently he did not succeed. Therefore he went
public and called a "great assembly."
The Old Testament law was
very clear regarding the abuse of the poor (Ex.
22:25; Lev. 25:35-41; Deut. 23:19-20). The Jewish
people were not to exploit their own citizens. In
doing so they were acting like their Gentile
neighbors. They were not to take advantage of their
After confronting the
nobles privately, he proceeded to call "a great
assembly against them" (v. 7). This is also the
proper manner of confrontation taught by Jesus. "If
your brother sins, go and show him his fault in
private; if he listens to you, you have won your
brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one
or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or
three witnesses every fact may be confirmed"
What was the specific
observable behavior that Nehemiah confronted? It is
wrong to charge fellow Jews interest on loans, and
force a fellow Jew into slavery (vv. 7-8).
Another factor for
Nehemiah was the testimony of God's chosen people
before the watching world was profaned. "Again I
said, 'The thing which you are doing is not good;
should you not walk in the fear of our God because
of the reproach of the nations, our enemies?'"
A church split is an evil
testimony before lost people. The devil applauds the
loudest when a church is filled with dissension and
The assembly Nehemiah
called for brought together the powerful rich
landlords and the poor disadvantaged residents.
Keep in mind this
internal conflict between the rich and the poor had
a negative effect on the rebuilding of the wall. The
morale of the people was affected. It had reached a
boiling point and had to be dealt with immediately.
"What good was it to build the wall, if inside the
wall there were people who were exploiting one
another?" asks Frank Tillapaugh.
We face the same inner
turmoil in evangelical Christianity. "We need to
stop calling the world to repent until we repent
ourselves." Integrity begins at home. Judgment must
begin in the house of the Lord.
The nobles in Jerusalem
were disobeying the Word of God (Lev. 25:35-41;
23:19-20; Deu. 23:19). We are held under stricter
demands than the lost world. One day we will stand
before the Lord God and give answer to Him. No Jew
was ever to enslave another Jew. It was wrong to
demand interest on a loan to a fellow Jew.
The nobles were looking
out for number one. They had an eye for personal
gain rather than for the good of Jerusalem. They
were becoming rich at the expense of the poorer
brethren. Love for money has not changed even in
denominational circles. There is a great tendency to
enjoy the good life at the expense of others. The
"perks" that come with the office, the popularity
and privileges can lead to arrogant pride and
spiritual fall. What was happening in Jerusalem
among the nobles was nothing short of evil.
Mosaic law was meant to
create a very different kind of society from the
surrounding Gentile nations. God intended for His
people to be different.
Part of Nehemiah's
argument is the injustice on the part of the Jewish
people that reflected on the righteousness of God
before a watching world. The character of the
community reflects upon God. Israel was to be
different from the rest of the world.
Nehemiah called for
specific observable action.
The only behavior that
changes is observed behavior.
Nehemiah called upon the
leaders to stop the evil behavior. "And likewise I,
my brothers and my servants are lending them money
and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury"
(Nehemiah 5:10). Break the behavior pattern now.
Immediate action was called for. He asked them for a
specific time to implement the decision. "Please,
give back to them this very day their fields, their
vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also
the hundredth part of the money and of the grain,
the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from
them" (Nehemiah 5:11). He called on specific
behavior to change and gave a time to begin.
Chuck Swindoll has some
excellent words. "When God shows us a particular sin
that we are guilty of, He doesn't tell us to take
our time dealing with it. No, He says, 'Deal with it
NOW!' When we realize what we are doing wrong, now
is the time to stop it. Making long-range plans to
correct a problem allows the sands of time to hone
off the raw edges of God's reproof in our lives. We
end up tolerating that sin and perhaps even
protecting it. Such laxity greatly concerns our
Lord. A prompt and thorough dealing with wrong in
our lives is essential. As in finances, it is best
to keep all accounts current" (Hand Me Another
Brick, p. 106).
The response of the
nobles at the public meeting was noble. "Then
they said, 'We will give it back and will require
nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say.'
So I called the priests and took an oath from them
that they would do according to this promise"
Words are cheap,
therefore, Nehemiah called for a public promise for
change in behavior. "It was a public hearing, a
public declaration, and a public promise before
God," says Swindoll.
"I also shook out the
front of my garment and said, 'Thus may God shake
out every man from his house and from his
possessions who does not fulfill this promise; even
thus may he be shaken out and emptied.' And all the
assembly said, 'Amen!' And they praised the Lord.
Then the people did according to this promise"
The nobles and public
officials took an oath before the priests. It was
like calling in the notary public for an official
statement that would be upheld in a court of law.
Nehemiah has been lending
money too, but he was not guilty of usury (vv. 10,
12). Therefore, he can say with personal conviction,
"Please, let us leave off this usury" (v. 10). In
essence, he was telling the nobles, "You made God a
promise" and that is not something to be taken
The symbolic act
described in verse thirteen where Nehemiah is seen
shaking out his garments as a prophetic warning that
God would hold accountable anyone who had promised
to do the right thing and disobey. Nehemiah was
calling upon a prophetic judgment of God for
disobedience. He believed that we will all one day
answer to God for our actions. When Nehemiah "shakes
out his lap" it is the equivalent of emptying his
pockets, symbolizing the loss of all that one has.
If the people break their vow with God, Nehemiah
invokes the judgment of God so they shall possess
nothing. It was a serious matter.
Old Testament scholars
Keil and Delitzsch write, "The symbolic action
consisted in Nehemiah's gathering up his garment as
if for the purpose of carrying something, and then
shaking it out with the words above stated, which
declared the meaning of the act. The whole
congregation said Amen, and praised the Lord for the
success with which God had blessed his efforts to
help the poor. And the people did according to this
promise, i.e. the community acted in accordance with
the agreement entered into."
PERSONAL INTEGRITY OF
The secret to Nehemiah's
focused leadership was a close relationship with God
(vv. 14-19). Here he reflects on twelve years'
experience as governor of Judah. Probably sometimes
while the wall of being rebuilt, Nehemiah was
appointed governor of Judah. This was the highest
position of authority in the nation at that time.
"Moreover, from the day
that I was appointed to be their governor in the
land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the
thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, for twelve
years, neither I nor my kinsmen have eaten the
governor's food allowance. But the former governors
who were before me laid burdens on the people and
took from them bread and wine besides forty shekels
of silver; even their servants domineered the
people. But I did not do so because of the fear of
God. I also applied myself to the work on this wall;
we did not buy any land, and all my servants were
gathered there for the work. Moreover, there were at
my table one hundred and fifty Jews and officials,
besides those who came to us from the nations that
were around us. Now that which was prepared for each
day was one ox and six choice sheep, also birds were
prepared for me; and once in ten days all sorts of
wine were furnished in abundance. Yet for all this I
did not demand the governor's food allowance,
because the servitude was heavy on this people.
Remember me, O my God, for good, according to all
that I have done for this people" (Nehemiah
He was a man of
integrity. Here is his personal testimony. He set an
example and modeled for all great leaders in public
life. He is a good example of servant leadership in
which he did not "lord it over the people." He
served the public with a pure heart and did not take
advantage of them.
One of the advantages of
being governor was the food allowance granted him by
the Persian officials for entertaining guests.
Nehemiah did not take advantage of this benefit that
was rightfully his. He provided these needs from his
own personal funds.
He did not take advantage
of the "perks" that come with the job and leads the
"good life" at the expense of the people. He stayed
within his own means and used his personal wealth to
feed the less fortunate. Nehemiah's life was a
public demonstration of an honest administrator.
There was no abuse or misuse of power, privilege or
The motive of
"The fear of God" was the
motive of Nehemiah's service. "But I did not do so
because of the fear of God." Verse fifteen sets the
contrast clearly between Nehemiah's fear of God and
"the former governors" who were "business as usual."
The bottom line for Nehemiah was "the fear of God"
which is equivalent to the "the love of Christ" for
the Christian. It is the love of Christ which
constrains us. When His love controls us, everything
else finds its rightful place in our lives.
Jesus said, "Enter
through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and
the way is broad that leads to destruction, and
there are many who enter through it. For the gate is
small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and
there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).
Moreover, Nehemiah was a
generous man as revealed in verses seventeen and
Nehemiah could lay his
head down to sleep at night and say, "Remember me, O
my God, for good, according to all that I have done
for this people" (v. 19).
What men think about our
ministry or us becomes very insignificant when
Christ speaks, and the charter of our freedom from
them lies in our redemption by the blood of Jesus
Christ. He is our Judge and the ideas of the men of
the world are only vanity. "He that judges me is the
Lord." "So did not I, because of the fear of God."
When we love Him with all
our heart, mind and personal being we can refuse to
be one of the crowd. We have the inner power of the
Holy Spirit if we desire only to love and serve
Christ. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to glorify
Christ. When you trust in Christ, God the Holy
Spirit goes to work and empowers you to live His
life in and through you to the glory of God the
You have all the power of
God the Holy Spirit within you from the moment you
believed on Christ to save you. All you need to do
to allow Christ to live through you is trust in
Christ. "Lord, I can't live this day by myself. I'm
trusting You. Here is my life. Come, live in me." In
your frustration say to Him, "Lord, I need You."
When you trust in Christ, God the Holy Spirit loves
to go to work.
Stanley Toussaint, well
said, "Some people think that the filling of the
Spirit means that you receive more of the Holy
Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is a person, not a
divine liquid poured into a bottle. When you receive
the Holy Spirit, you have all of the Holy Spirit you
are ever going to receive. The issue is not getting
more of the Holy Spirit. The issue is the Holy
Spirit controlling more and more of us."
The world places a higher
standard upon our Christianity than many Christians
do. The world expects us to be different. Many
Christians are eager to impress the world with their
similarities in thinking and behavior. But Jesus
permitted no such exceptions. He said clearly, "You
are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has
become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It
is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown
out and trampled under foot by men. You are the
light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be
hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it
under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives
light to all who are in the house. Let your light
shine before men in such a way that they may see
your good works, and glorify your Father who is in
heaven" (Matthew 5:13-16).
In what way has the
contemporary church lowered the standard of thinking
about moral issues? What does the Bible teach
regarding abortion, homosexuality, and sexual
practices? What about integrity in business
Why should we lower our
standard to the world's system of moral behavior? We
do not answer to men of this world, but to the LORD
Without holiness no one
can see God. When we fail we can flee to the blood
of Jesus that cleanses from all sin and every stain
of guilt. There is no other fountain for cleansing.
Our lives have been made pure by His atoning
sacrifice for sin.
The love of the Lord
Jesus Christ is the only motive that inspires a
person to stay right before God and keep his life
pure and clean.
Where do we find the
power to overcome? It is in the cross of Jesus. If
every leader held that cross high the moral
integrity of our churches, businesses and government
would be a standard for all the world to follow.
"The secret of triumph is
found not only in saying 'no' to sin but also in
saying 'yes; to God's will and purpose," writes
Clarence Macartney said,
"Every evasion of duty, every indulgence of self,
every compromise with evil, every unworthy thought,
word, or deed, will be there at the head of the
pulpit stairs to meet the minister on Sunday
morning, to take the light from his eye, the power
from his brow, the ring from his voice, and the joy
from his heart."
PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS
1. "But I did not
so because of the fear of God" (v. 15) should be
etched into our minds. Do you have a hard time
saying "no" to the world's standards? Do you have a
tendency to drive near or to live near the precipice
of the lure of that which is not like Christ? Wide
is the gate and broad is the way that leads to hell.
"Everyone's doing it," and everyone is going to
hell. Do you want to go there with them? "But I did
not so because of the fear of God." If you do not
have that kind of reverence for Him may God bring
you to that degree of love for Him.
2. A person of integrity
must be able to say "no." Unless you can say "no"
and do it often, your life will be shattered from
the beginning. If you cannot say "no" you are in
trouble at the core of your integrity. A leader in
crisis is one who cannot say "no."
3. When you have
the "fear of God" and compassion for your people,
you have character that makes for a great leader.
4. It is possible
to maintain a façade of righteousness before men for
a time, but not before God.
5. In response to a
self-indulgent society of nobles, Nehemiah could
respond, "But I did not do so because of the fear of
God." His life was absolutely beyond suspicion. His
integrity was intact after twelve years of public
service. In a time of moral confusion, he was able
to stand before his people with a life that was
lived above reproach.
6. "The Christian
is to live in such a way that men looking at him and
seeing the quality of his life, will glorify God,"
says D. M. Lloyd-Jones.
7. No leader
suddenly loses his integrity. It is a quiet and
prolonged process. The erosion of sin goes on
unnoticed until the fall becomes apparent.
8. You have to be
absolutely ruthlessly honest with yourself when
dealing with sin. Never put off what must be done
this Series on the Nehemiah
5:1-19 The Test of Leadership