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Laying the Cornerstone

Date: Jul. 14, 2013

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Nehemiah 5:1-19

Key Verse: Nehemiah 5:15

“But the earlier governors – those preceding me – placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that.”

This is our fourth week in the book of Nehemiah. So far, we’ve learned that the book of Nehemiah is about rebuilding: rebuilding the wall and Jerusalem. We’ve seen prayer about rebuilding, boldness in serving God to rebuild his city, preparation for building and we’ve even seen the hard work of building the wall. We’ve also seen that wherever God’s work is, there are people who wish to stop it, and they will use fear and intimidation to stop what they don’t want to happen. In those times, we have to remember the Lord our God, as we heard last week. We have to remember God and how great and mighty he is. He will fight for us and he will guide our hands as we swing our swords. In this passage, the focus switches from rebuilding the wall and external opposition to handling internal affairs, effectually rebuilding the people of God.

In the midst of all the building, a dire issue arose. The Bible says, “Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews.” (1) The issues brought up in the passage must have been really bad. They were in the middle of a massive public works project, which would have been a source of national pride and protection from their enemies. Remember, their enemies were threatening to kill the Jews to stop their work. Nehemiah urged the people to keep working and set up guards around the weak points in the wall. He knew that the work needed to keep going. A wall at 50% strength is as good as no wall at all. A wall has to be complete for it to be effective, but the people had a real need. There was another indicator as to how serious this issue was. Verse 1 mentions that the men and their wives raised the outcry. As you might know, women, at this time, did not have the same legal rights as men. Men were the ones who would go to officials and plead their case, but things were so bad this time, that the women also joined in. If you remember Jesus’ Parable of the Persistent Widow from Luke 18, when a woman brings her outcry, things get done.

Honestly, what was this outcry? Why were the people so upset? Verse 1 says that the men and their wives were upset with their fellow Jews. We’ve seen the people afraid of the Samaritans, the Ammonites, and the Arabs, but their beef right now was with their own countrymen. Their own countrymen were taking advantage of those less fortunate. The Bible says, “Some were saying, ‘We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.’ Others were saying, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.’ Still others were saying, ‘We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.’” (2-5) There are a lot of complaints here, but it is organized into three groups of people: the landless, who didn’t have enough food (2); the landowners, who had to mortgage their fields (3); and those who were forced to borrow money at excessive interest rates and sell their children into slavery (4-5).

The first group, the one with too many children to feed, was very poor. They didn’t have much of anything to put up as collateral for money. All they knew was that food was going to run out. A man would need six to seven bushels of grain, which is about 56 to 65 gallons of grain. A Chicago trashcan, the ones you have in your alley, are 96-gallon trashcans. A family would need about two-thirds of that every month in order to survive. That is not a small amount. These people who were having trouble feeding themselves were among the people who were helping in rebuilding the wall and protecting the people. It was very hard work and the people doing the hard work needed the strength to do the work. It’s hard to work when you’ve barely had anything to eat. You’re stomach is growling and it is all that you can think about. Even as hard as that is, it is even harder to work knowing that your children are hungry and the work you are doing will do nothing to feed them. The mind loses focus because the well being of your family is far greater than the condition of the wall. The wall is important in the long run, but if you and your family die from hunger before the wall is completed, what point is there in completing the wall?

The second group wasn’t better off. There were a number of property owners who were having a tough time. It was a time of famine, which means that crops weren’t growing and there was little food. In order for them to get grain, the landowners had to mortgage their fields and vineyards. In order to survive, the people had to take out loans with their property as collateral. If they defaulted on their loans, the people would lose their lands. The longer the famine went, the more likely the people would default. Their livelihood was also on the line.

The third group also had to borrow money, but in this case they were doing so to pay the king’s property tax. Like nearly everywhere, the people who owned land had to pay tax to the government, in this case the Persian government. Unlike here, where our taxes pay for government services like rebuilding the roads, education, law enforcement, fire protection, water, garbage, sewer systems, and the like, the money taken in from the Persian taxes offered no benefit to the provinces. The money would go from the province to the king, where he would have it melted down into gold and silver bars and store it in his citadel. The Persian government would essentially take money out of circulation and store it, making the region where it came from even poorer. After a while, there would be no more money left to pay taxes with, and that is what was happening in Judah.

To pay those taxes, the people had to take out a loan, and they only could turn to people who still had money. The rich were benefiting from the poor’s misfortune. The Jews turned to their fellow Jews for help, but instead of a helping hand, the poor Jews found opportunistic, greedy countrymen. The rich had plenty of grain and they offered it at a fair price to their fellow Jews, all that they had to do to ensure that they would repay was to use their children as collateral. The poor children would work to pay off the loan so that their family could eat and survive the famine. The king’s tax was heavy, but the rich were there to lend a helping hand to their brethren. All they needed to do was to make their children slaves. Some had already done so, but more were feeling the pressure to subject their sons and daughters to slavery.

It was an economic crisis, not unlike what we experienced a few years ago. I don’t think that anyone sold their children into slavery, but people who saw an opportunity to take advantage of those who were in great need made the economic crisis even worse. One of the factors in our crisis was a bunch of risky mortgages. Financial institutions were giving out loans based on speculation of the real estate market. People who couldn’t normally afford a home were told that they were because the value of their home would just go up and up. The bubble burst in 2007 and a number of prestigious financial institutions, like Lehman Brothers, went under in the latter half of 2008. People lost their homes, but the CEO’s of some of these financial institutions earned bonuses in the millions of dollars. A small few were benefitting, while the majority were hurting.

That is not to say that every rich person is a greedy, scheming person, or that every poor person is virtuous and oppressed. We don’t want to go around blaming the rich for everything. There are godly rich and evil rich, just as there are godly poor and evil poor. In the Bible, Abraham was a godly rich man. He didn’t seek to grow his wealth trough illegal and immoral methods. God just blessed him wonderfully. God called him righteous, but he was rich. Jesus grew up in a relatively poor family. They were hard workers, but they were not rich by any standards. However, there are also men who lie and cheat in order to gain wealth. There are rich who take advantage of people, oppressing them by using their wealth. And there are poor, who resort to a life of crime in order to live the good life. They steal and cheat and sell drugs to gain power and influence. The Jews complained about their fellow Jews because they were using immoral methods to increase their own wealth, regardless of the consequences.

Nehemiah, then, writes, “When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, ‘You are charging your own people interest!’ So I called together a large meeting to deal with them and said: ‘As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!’ They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.” (6-8) When Nehemiah heard about what was happening, he was really, really angry. What was going on was not a small matter. The Law of Moses stated that a Jew could not charge another Jew interest (Exodus 22:25-27, Leviticus 25:26, Deuteronomy 23:20). It was written in three different locations: in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. We kind of know that if God repeats something, he sees it as something very important. These rich Jews were going against God’s law and they showed no compassion to the impoverished. It was an insult to God. Moreover, the Law said that a Jew should never be a slave to another Jew (Leviticus 23:39-42), instead they should only be hired as servants. Here, however, it really sounds like the rich Jews were even selling the poor ones as slaves to other nationalities. Not only was this forbidden, it was ironic. In exile, the families were kept together, but back home in Judah, families were split and sold as slaves. The poor were better off in exile than in the hands of their fellow Jews.

When Nehemiah confronted the nobles and officials, they had nothing to say. Their guilt was obvious and they were just dumbfounded in silence. It kind of reminds me of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. In that passage, the Pharisees, some of the Jewish religious leaders of the day, brought a woman who was caught in the act of adultery to Jesus. They wanted to know what Jesus had to say about that. The Jewish law said that adulterers were to be stoned to death, but Roman law forbade the Jews from carrying out executions. Jesus answered the Pharisees, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her…At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.” (John 8:7-8) In that passage, the people couldn’t deny their own sin, their accusations stopped, and they left. Their sins were obvious because no one there was righteous. It was the same in Nehemiah’s time: the nobles’ and officials’ sins were obvious.

And Nehemiah continued, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.” (9-11) Nehemiah called on the nobles and officials to fear God and to be above reproach. God’s people are to act according to God’s ways out of respect and reverence to God. We should want to please God by obeying his word and when we do so, we find that any enemies have nothing bad to say about us. You see that in King David, Daniel, and Jesus, and it is something that we need to strive for in our lives. When we are not above reproach, the enemies of God find it ever so easy to ridicule and insult his people. The world just looks at us and sees that we are no different than they are, so they question the existence of God. As an example, Christians are called to be the most loving people on the planet. We are called to love one another and by that love to show that we are followers of Christ (John 13:34-35), but honestly Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet. We look down on and think ourselves better than others. In other words, we are not so different than the rest of the world and that invites scorn and ridicule because we say that we are different. We should be the most loving, especially to each other, and then we will truly be above reproach in this area.

As Nehemiah was rebuking the nobles and officials, he reveals that they were not alone in the schemes. Nehemiah also mentions that he and his brothers were lending people money and grain, which in itself was not a problem, but he goes on to say, “But let us stop charging interest!” (10) He says “us”. It looks like Nehemiah was also in error and charging people interest. He had a little side business going. He must have been under the impression that it was normal to charge interest to people when lending. It seems obvious to us, but when the men and their wives began to cry out, Nehemiah realized that he, too, was in error and he went to confront his fellow Jews. According to society, they were doing nothing wrong. There were no laws stopping them from making a quick buck or two from their fellow Jews, but according to God’s law, they were very wrong and Nehemiah made sure that everyone knew about that and gave back what they took. Those nobles and officials felt the weight of their sin and agreed to return that they took and not to demand anything else (12), and Nehemiah made them take an oath to promise that they would do so, and as verse 13 says, “the people did as they had promised.”

As the passage continues on, it switches gears from what the rich were doing in their business deals to what Nehemiah was doing during his time as governor. He explicitly states, “Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year—twelve years—neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor.” (14) The entire time that Nehemiah acted as governor, he didn’t take any of the food that was allotted him. As governor, it was expected that he would get a portion of the people’s food in order to survive; it was his salary. We pay our government officials, and it was something that was due him. However, he didn’t take the salary. It kind of reminds me of Paul from the New Testament. He was a guy that went around planting churches in cities where nobody knew about Jesus. He was the pastor of a church until it became established. Since he was a pastor that worked full time preaching about Jesus, we could have taken a salary from the church in order to support himself, but he didn’t.

Nehemiah refused the salary because it would have been too hard on the people. The Bible says in verse 14, “But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that.” A number of the previous governors placed a tax on the people above the king’s tax in addition to the food and wine, but the people were having trouble even paying the king’s tax. It was a time of famine, so Nehemiah didn’t want to burden the people even more. He wrote, “out of reverence of God I did not act like that.” (15) Nehemiah showed his respect for God by respecting the people’s needs. He was fully within the law to take the food, but he chose not to, because as God was concerned, it wasn’t right. God had called him there to work on the wall, so he devoted himself to that work and didn’t seek to increase his own wealth.

In fact, instead of increasing his own wealth, he was quite generous with it. He had one hundred and fifty Jews and officials, as well as some foreigners, over at this house everyday. If you look at the food that was used every day, it was enough to feed 600 to 800 people in a single meal, including the one hundred and fifty guests. That is a massive party but out of reverence for God, Nehemiah never demanded his portion from the people, because so much was demanded from them already. The previous governors were living for themselves and living for the moment, but Nehemiah was living for God. Nehemiah still sinned, he wasn’t Jesus, but when his error in judgment was brought to light, he did something about it. He repented and turned even that part back to God.

Now, it might be hard to see how this applies to us. None of us are rich and making questionably immoral business decisions by bilking our brothers and sisters out of their homes. Also none of us are in government positions that we can abuse for our own sake, but the underlying principles still hold true. When we live for ourselves, we don’t see what is going on with others. When you live for the moment, there is little thought of the consequences of our actions. Living for now and living for ourselves are very common thoughts in our society right now. Pepsi recently redesigned their bottles for their 20oz sodas, and along with a redesign came a new slogan: “Live for now”. When I first saw that, I was very surprised. They were effectively saying, “Don’t think about the implications and consequences of your actions and just live for now. Revel in your pleasure and don’t think about what can happen as a result.” It sounds very alluring because you don’t have to worry about what is going to happen, but we can’t run from the consequences forever.

When we are selfish and only thinking of ourselves, people will get hurt. The nobles and officials were only thinking about the money, but the people were being hurt and even sold into slavery. In our culture, pleasure first will usually lead to pain. Our culture makes sex look like a normal part of the dating culture. You have sex because it is fun and you also need to see if you are compatible. But all that promiscuity has its consequences in unwanted pregnancies, abortions and ruined lives of regret. Do you know that most people who are promiscuous end up feeling dirty or unwanted because of their lifestyle? Sex was designed for a husband and a wife, and when it happens outside of marriage with multiple partners, a part of yourself is ripped apart, because it was intended to unite and man and his wife physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and you can’t truly be united to more than one person. It is very damaging.

When we live for now and live for ourselves, our lives end up in a mess because there is really nothing to guide us in the right direction. We are literally all over the place, aimless, and that doesn’t make for a very sound structure. If you have your hands next to your eyes and only see what you are doing at that exact time, the state of you life will be shoddy. Think about this: if you have blinders on and only can see right in front of you and you are working on a wall, what will the wall eventually look like? The brick will be all over the place. It won’t look like a uniform wall, but it will be a rough patchwork of bricks, with each brick angled different from another and with any little force, it will come crashing down. We need to have something to refer to keep our wall inline. We need something that is so perfect and precise that when we look to it, we know whether or not we are aligned.

In building, this is called a cornerstone. A cornerstone is the first stone that is placed and it sets the position and direction for the entire building. Cornerstones are usually large and precisely cut so they can serve as the foundational stone for the whole building. Nehemiah’s cornerstone was God. Fear of God or reverence to God is mentioned a couple of times in this passage. Nehemiah held God as the basis for his life and he sought to bring the people back to that foundation that is God and it is no different for us. God should be our cornerstone; Jesus should be the foundation of our lives. The Bible mentions that Christ is the chief cornerstone of the church (Ephesians 2:20). Jesus is the cornerstone because he is God and he is the only perfect person to ever walk the earth. If you think that you are perfect, just take a look at Jesus and you’ll see all your dirt. He showed us how to live, but more than that he died for us so that we could live. He takes our messed up lives, that horrible wall that we built and starts over with himself as the cornerstone. He doesn’t just fix the wall; he rebuilds it from the ground up, because our lives aren’t really a wall, its rubble.

Like I said before, Christians are called to love with the greatest love and it is not easy. I don’t think it was easy for Nehemiah to love all those people with all that food everyday, but he did it out of reverence for God. As the Bible says, “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) Our reverence of God starts with remembering our God. We saw that last week. At that time, it was about not fearing external threats, but now we remember God so that we treat others the way God has treated us. That’s the cornerstone of our lives. It has to be set down first or the rest of our lives will be all out of whack. We should examine our lives to see what is first. Like Nehemiah, when we realize that something is out of place, we need to repent of it being out of place and turn ourselves back to the cornerstone, Jesus. Then, Jesus will heal us and rebuild our lives from the ground up.

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Daily Bread

Seek Righteousness, Seek Humility

Zephaniah 2:1-15

Key Verse: 2:3

  Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land,
    who do his just commands;
  seek righteousness; seek humility;
    perhaps you may be hidden
    on the day of the anger of the LORD.

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