Chapter 5 opens with a new source of opposition to building the wall, but not from the enemies of Israel. Unlike the previous ridicule and physical violence threatened by Sanballat, Tobiah, and their allies, the opposition now arises from within the Jewish community. It is the result of wrong attitudes and conduct by the privileged minority.
Dr. Boice makes the point that Israel’s history along with that of the church has a long tradition of opposition from within the ranks. During the days of the monarchy, God sent prophets to warn the Jews of judgment. If they persisted in idolatry; they were killed by their own people. “In the same way, an examination of church history will show that the most successful attacks upon the church have come not from unbelievers but from those within, from people who have professed to know God and Jesus Christ. They have been from ‘Christians’ promoting heresy or ‘believers’ denouncing, persecuting, or even killing other Christians.”1
Problems that arise from within the church, local Christian community or parachurch organization are frequently more troublesome than those that threaten from without. How disheartening it is when people that we once considered close friends and trusted associates line up against us. As true colors are revealed in times of testing, some professed believers that we once considered to be “wheat” are found to be nothing more than “tares” (Matthew 13:24-30). Even more disquieting is the conflict between two dedicated Christians whose opinions conflict on certain issues (Acts 15:36-41).
The way in which Nehemiah addressed the problem within the Israelite community is instructive for all of us. Injustice is a wrong that plagues all levels of society. As Christians, we are responsible to address such problems in our churches, communities, and families. Even if you are not in a position to rectify inequality in a larger sphere, as a parent you are responsible for judging unfairness between your children. In the home children gain an appreciation for justice and fairness as parents judge sibling disputes. It is in the home that children learn a sense of compassion for those who are smaller, weaker and less able to fend for themselves. Therefore, whether you are called upon to provide leadership in the community, church, or home, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the way in which Nehemiah addressed the complaint of the people at Jerusalem.
DAYS ONE and TWO: The Complaint of the People (5:1-5)
A. The problem in society between those of means and those in want has not changed because human nature has not changed. Greed and selfishness are constants that produce conflict in every age. At certain times in every democratic society the inequality between the “haves” and “have nots” must be addressed. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson said, “…when the laws undertake…to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society …have a right to complain of the injustice to their government.”2 We remember that the American government was built on the foundation of the Judeo-Christian religion. In God’s economy, it is not acceptable to disregard the needs of those less fortunate. In modern America and around the world, it is equally unacceptable.
B. Those who returned from the Babylonian exile were not destitute (Ezra 1:3-11[first returning group]; 7:13-24[second returning group]). In addition, King Cyrus of Persia had sent the items that belonged to the temple with the returnees (II Chronicles 36:18; Daniel 1:1-2; Ezra 1:7). When the temple was rebuilt the leaders, as well as the general population, were able to give generously to the temple treasury (Neh. 7:70-72). So how had such a disparity between people of relative equal wealth happened? The answer can be found by observing the complaint of the people.
1. What were the three lines of complaint expressed by the Jerusalem community? Write a brief statement describing the reason for the disproportionate distribution of wealth.
2. From our previous lesson, what stressful factors were the people already dealing with that might have brought this underlying social injustice to boil?
3. How were the wealthy exploiting the poor in a time of crisis?
a. How was the practice a violation of Levitcus 19:18?
b. How do you suppose they justified such an attitude?
c. What importance did Jesus place on the Leviticus command in Matthew 22:37-40?
4. Read the following references and make note of what is said by way of commendation, command, or counsel concerning brotherly love: Galatians 5:13; Philippians 1:9-11; I Thessalonians 4:9-10; I Peter 1:22; 4:8; I John.2:9-11, 4:19-21.
a. In what way are you challenged to show brotherly love to those considered your “kin” in Christ?
b. How may you have allowed an attitude of callous indifference to dictate your actions toward others, especially those who are less fortunate than yourself?
c. In light of the above scriptures, what should your attitude be and what action should you take?
DAYS THREE and FOUR: Nehemiah’s Confronts the Leaders: (v.6-13)
A. Nehemiah’s anger at the exploitation of the poor is not unlike the righteous indignation of the Lord Jesus towards those who abused the needy. Instances of this type of justified anger are found in Mark 3:1-5 and John 2:13-16. The apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:26 that not all anger is sinful. However, it should be noted that among fallen mankind, pure righteous indignation is rare.
1. In your opinion was Nehemiah’s anger justified? How did Nehemiah control his anger?
2. What conditions might evoke justified, righteous indignation on the part of a Christian?
a. In that case, what should one’s response be toward the offending party?
b. Perhaps you have been faced with a situation that aroused your indignation. What scriptural basis did you have for such righteous anger?
c. How does Paul tell us to deal with such anger in Ephesians 4:26-27?
d. Note: anger is an emotion that most of us deal with on a regular basis. Anger becomes sinful when one loses self-control. Some helpful scriptures concerning anger: Psalm 37:8; Proverbs 16:32, 19:11; Ecclesiastes 7:9; James 1:19-20. One technique that may be helpful to overcome sinful anger is to memorize a passage that deals with anger such as Ephesians 4:29-32. Recite it before you speak, allowing the Holy Spirit to bring your emotions under control. I recommend it because it is of sufficient length to give you time to cool down and think rationally before you speak!
B. Consider Nehemiah’s position: No one thus far had the courage to tell the wealthy, influential people of the city that what they were doing was wrong. The group presents a unified front. Nehemiah can ill afford to alienate them because he needs them to work on the wall. (This position is commonly known as “between a rock and a hard place”.)
1. List the details of the way in which Nehemiah confronted the leaders.
2. What is the twofold basis of the pronouncement that what they were doing was “not good” (v.9).
3. To better understand the violation of God’s principles that Nehemiah felt compelled to address, read Exodus 22:25-27; Leviticus 25:35-43 and Deuteronomy 23:19.
4. Relate Nehemiah’s initial private confrontation with the offending leaders to the way in which Jesus commanded believers to deal with sin amongst brothers in Matthew 18:15-16.
C. After Nehemiah had addressed the leaders privately, he spoke to the entire group openly. He was effective in his to ability to publicly (vs.9-12) call the leaders to repent because he had set the example (v.10). If we are to call others to repent of their sins of disobedience to God’s Word and indifference to humanity, we must first make sure that we are following God’s principles in our personal lives.
1. From his position of confidence, Nehemiah challenged the leaders to restore what had been taken. What were some of those things?
2. The guilty offenders agreed to Nehemiah’s orders. Then Nehemiah takes it a step further with requiring the priests to take an oath (v.12). We do something similar in our court system today. Godless people who have no intention of keeping their oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, take the witness stand and lie. So Nehemiah enacts a prophetic type judgment against any who may take the oath lightly and continue in the “not good” way.
a. How does Paul employ this same type of oath in Acts 13:49-52 and 18:6?
b. What does such an act say about one’s belief in the power of the invisible God, who is not only transcendent but immanent?
3. In all our dealings with our fellow Christians and non-believers, we must remember that God is completely aware of the commitments we make and our failure to keep them. If we are to lead others and set good examples for our children, we must be women of integrity who follow through when commitments are made. Sometimes God gives us a “shake-down” to remind us that we are to do what we say we will do when we said we would do it. One simple way to become more faithful to our promises is to keep a calendar in which you write down every activity. When asked to do something, carefully analyze the time obligation in light of your priorities and everything else taking place at that time. By taking careful control of your agenda, you will be able to be more consistent in finishing tasks and following through with commitments.
4. Take some time to journal the most important lesson learned from this day’s study.
DAY FIVE: Nehemiah’s Personal Integrity (vs.14-19)
A. As we have seen, internal dissension is more difficult to deal with because one is dealing with those who supposedly have the same mindset. The history of the Christian church is testimony to the fact that the most devastating attacks come from internal troubles rather than the more obvious outward attacks of the enemy. Interestingly, the source of conflict usually stems from differing standards of conduct among Christians.
1. In what way does Nehemiah distinguish himself from the conduct of the previous governors (vs.14-15)?
2. Why did Nehemiah choose a different standard of conduct?
B. Alan Redpath helps us to gain a clear perspective on the application of Nehemiah’s example to our lives. He has said, “Unless you and I as Christian people can say that (‘So did not I’) frequently to the vain practices of our day, our life and testimony will be a failure. That sort of refusal to comply with custom, to follow the crowd is, I believe, the foundation stone, the bedrock of Christian integrity of life. It is so easy to do as other people do, partly because of cowardice, and partly because of an instinctive desire to be like other people…Nehemiah challenges us all in his autobiography: ‘…so did not I, because of the fear of God.’”3
C. The theological concept for this practice is sanctification. Sanctification refers to the believer’s progressive growth in holiness or conformity to the image of Christ. It means to be set apart for God and His purpose. Sanctification is brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit in the individual’s life. Yet we are also responsible to avail ourselves of the means of grace by which this work is accomplished. Some of those means that God has made available to His children are: prayer, Bible study, fellowship, and worship along with the ordinances of baptism and communion. In addition, the use of one’s gifts in service to the body of Christ and others is also a means of grace by which we are sanctified.
D. “Your Christian experience is valueless, regardless of what you believe, unless it leads you to a standard of conduct which is in violent opposition to a lot that goes on in the world today.”4
E. How distinctive is your Christian life and testimony?
1. Is there any standard of conduct that God would have you rise above?
2. Perhaps you once had a higher level of conduct than you have now and it needs to be regained.
3. Will you choose to examine the integrity of your personal walk and make necessary changes out of reverence for God?
4. It is a good practice to journal these thoughts. In so doing you will be able to see the progress you make in sanctification and rejoice in the work of the Holy Spirit in your life.
1. James Montgomery Boice, Nehemiah, Learning to Lead (Tarrytown, New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1990), p.88.
2. Watson, Harry L. (1998). Andrew Jackson V. Henry Clay: Democracy and Development in Antebellum America. Palgrave Macmillan.
3. Alan Redpath Victorious Christian Service (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1958), pp.112-113.
4. Ibid. pp 118.
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