(Nehemiah 5: 7)
Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. These are the three books that form the closing section of Old Testament history. But it's Ezra and Nehemiah that deal specifically with the ending of the Assyrian/Babylonian captivity, which began when the humane Cyrus, the Persian monarch allowed all willing hearted Jews to return to their homeland, Palestine.
As this portion of history unfolds we read that Zerubbabel - the civil leader, and Joshua the priestly leader led the first return from the exile with close on 50,000 people. Ezra and those with him returned to Jerusalem around eighty years later. Thirteen years after them, Nehemiah as governor with an army escort, went to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem at government expense.
The theme of these books is restoration: In the years they cover we read of the temple, the law, and the walls being restored. Under Zerubbabel the temple was finally restored. Ezra greatly helped restore the law; and - Nehemiah restored the walls of the city.
They weren't beginning a new religion - The temple, though not as grand as the one destroyed, was built to reinstate the religion of the pre-Babylonian captivity days. The same worship would ensue there as in the days of Moses, Samuel, David, and Josiah.
Ezra didn't bring a new law or a new covenant, his work saw the old law and the covenant being restored; Moses and the prophets still constituted their standard, that was their pattern, and to it they authoritatively held!
Prior to the arrival of Ezra and his company, the traditions and customs of temple worship had resumed in the restored temple (Ezra 6: 15-22), however, when he and those with him arrived, the law began to be taught in its entirety .
A few years later when Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, it was not to build new walls, he came back to restore old, dilapidated, collapsed walls that no longer shielded the city where the temple stood. He and his dedicated band of wall builders completed the gigantic task in just fifty-two days. With the job done, they had restored walls, in the same position as before, using the same stones that had stood there before; nothing was new, only restored.
As we turn our attention to, and draw a lesson from an episode in the book of Nehemiah, we can see how solidly the law of Moses was being preached. The preciseness and the faithfulness of the Word taught can be observed by the immediate response to the teaching regarding marriage (Ezra 10.) Despite the unhappiness of the experience, and being convinced that they had broken the law, that they had sinned, all the unscriptural inter-marriages with non-Israelites, were dissolved. The standard of Moses and the prophets, was now firmly in place. This then is the setting as we go to our text in Nehemiah 5:1-19.
With the law being restored, good and faithful acts of worship developed, however, out in the community social and economic problems were brewing, divisions were occurring; there were outcries from the poor.(vs.1-5) Verse 2 reveals that the primary reason for their misery was insufficient food. A famine was causing great shortages of essential food and as a result, the law of supply and demand took its ugly hold - and the price of commodities soared.
There was desperate need for money, some were mortgaging their property to buy their food. Others, less fortunate, were borrowing money to pay their taxes, and with no collateral, (perhaps their property was already in the hands of others) they were forced to place their children into slavery. The summary of the problem was that the wealthier Jews were taking advantage of the poorer ones. The poor were being forced into debt to obtain food.
What was the result? The rich were getting richer, and the poor were getting poorer. Here was a situation which was contrary to God's law. The very Law they had returned to, and embraced, the Law that was being preached by Ezra. Each and every Sabbath they would hear the lessons faithfully taught from the books of the law. They would hear the words in Exodus 22:25 is written: "If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him; you shall not charge him interest." They would learn from Moses second reading of the Law, Deuteronomy 23:19-20: "You shall not charge interest to your brother; interest on money or food or anything that is lent out at interest. To a foreigner you may charge interest, but to your brother you shall not charge interest, that the LORD your God may bless you in all to which you set your hand in the land which you are entering to possess. . ."
They knew these things all right, so we can imagine the guilt of those whose self-interests had contravened law when Nehemiah confronts them about their business activities. Faces them with the sin of creating financial and emotional havoc among their fellow countrymen. By breaking of God's law they had burdened their brethren with dreadful problems in trying times. No wonder the Bible says Nehemiah was angry.
As we look at part of his background we learn that before travelling to Jerusalem, Nehemiah had repented of his sins (1: 4,6b).Now as the governor of the region, we note that he never ate the food normally allotted to one in his position (5:14), even though governors, as rulers, would entertain lavishly. Instead, and no doubt because he was mindful of his repentance, he declined even what was normally his in order to serve as an example for his people. Actually, he serves as an excellent example for Christians today. He did not go down the path which may have left him wide open to temptation.
Nehemiah wasn't only the ruler of the region, he was a man with spiritual integrity. Here we see a God-fearing man in a powerful public office, using his situation to serve both God and man as he sets about correcting these awful problems. (Keep in mind, that all the while his hands were fully occupied with the reconstruction of the cities walls. He criticises the officials for charging interest on loans (5: 6-11) pointing out that, having bought the freedom of their countrymen from exile; these wealthy Jews, are now forcing the poor into slavery to pay their debts.
All knew the word of God! Ezra and the priests were seeing to that. Nehemiah was able to point out that he and his brethren, were lending money and grain, free of interest to people. "Now," he says, weren't they God's people, restored through His mercy to their lands? Had not they agreed to abide by the Law of Moses? (Ezra 10:7 ,8) now why are you breaking the law? " They stood in silence with nothing to say (6: 8b). With righteous anger, Nehemiah spells out the change he expects from them. - 5:1 0b,11: "Please, let us stop this usury! Restore now to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive groves, and their houses, also a hundredth of the money and the grain, the new wine and the oil, that you have charged them." They agreed, promising to honour this commitment. These things in place, Nehemiah warns them of the consequences if the vow is broken. As we ponder the actions of these selfish opportunists, we wonder what got into them. These men so obviously blessed with money and possessions. Why on earth did they have such blatant disregard for the laws of God, laws which were now being taught so regularly. Why did they turn a blind eye to the very purpose of God's provision for His people in times such as these? There can be only one answer, they lacked spiritual integrity! When God's law got in the way of personal gain, something had to go.
What a sad result! Instead of being a blessing to the less fortunate, instead of being fine examples of God-fearing men, their disobedience brought about heart-breaking misery within the community.
Even as we read the account, we feel a sense of relief, when, after Nehemiah had confronted them, they changed their ways. The authority of the governor, plus the good example set by him and others may have gone some way to influence their decision, or perhaps the way he conducted his affairs, which were so contrary to their own, shamed them - both thoughts have merit. But the real reason for their change lies in the challenge of Nehemiah's words, when he asked them: "Ought ye not walk in the fear of the Lord?" (v.9)
The Christian Age is seeing people from every nation volunteering to come out of the captivity of worldliness and sin. They're just a remnant of the generations who have left their rightful state - being at peace with God.
We're a people returning to the New Covenant of Jesus Christ, a body of people not about seeking to reform something gone sour like Romanism and Protestantism. We're seeking to be now as God's people were in the first century, at the time when the New Testament was written. We are to take into account the experiences of the people in the Old Testament, as it is written in I Corinthians 10:11 "Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come." Christians, Paul says, are to learn from these illustrations of how God works, for they are written to warn us. And there's a mighty lesson we can learn from this portion of Nehemiah. We can see that though the age and conditions have changed, (today we're not under the law, but under grace (Rom. 6: 14). We have returned from the mistake of denominationalism with its scholarship and creeds; away from the mistake of Catholicism, with its respect of the interpretations by the Pope.
Week by week we're taught by men who faithfully adhere to the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, their lessons directing our hearts to a system of life taught by Christ and His apostles, a system of life that extends way beyond our acts of worship within the assembly. But now, are some being like those folk who gladly embraced the restored law within the restored temple in the city surrounded by restored walls? - Yes, there are! Today, there are Christians who disregard the gospel when it conflicts with their own interests. As in the days of Nehemiah, there are among God's people, those who lack spiritual integrity.
Every Christian, but particularly those who lack spiritual integrity, can get a first-class lesson by heeding the words of the Hebrew writer, when he reminds his readers, about a wonderful fact and a privileged responsibility. He says in 12: 28 "Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken," (that's the fact - that's what God is giving us) "let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear" (that's the commitment He expects from us).
We're to serve God ACCEPTABLY, and with REVERENCE and GODLY FEAR. When we get a grip on that we'll have integrity! Crucial to serving God acceptably is a sound knowledge of the Scriptures, and the Scriptures particularly relevant to Christians are those contained in the New Testament because they contain God's will for this age. However, knowledge of His will was possessed by those men whose integrity flopped so miserably back in Nehemiah's time.
If we're to serve God acceptably, it's the application of His will that is important. Our Lord in His sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5,6,7 together with His teaching through His holy prophets and apostles (Ephesians 3:5b) makes it abundantly clear, that the application of God's will is a command to be taken into every aspect of life. When that becomes our way of life, we'll be is serving God acceptably. That's biblical Christianity - that's spiritual integrity!
But, and here's the fact - this quality doesn't just fall into the Christian's lap. From day one, when he steps from the waters of baptism the Christian faces an uphill battle when personal desires conflict with the teaching of Christ; when what they want to do, is not what their Lord wants them to do.
But those with hearts described by Jesus as being "good soil" (Mark 4: 8,20) have His word in their hearts watered many times by the tears of godly sorrow (II Corinthians 7:10). Many times they kneel before the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16) repenting, Many times they have, and will need, God's mercy because of the failure to apply His will in their lives. Time and again each one of us has had, and will have, this experience, as we strive to serve our God acceptably. We praise Him for the grace that allows us to use the gospel to diligently pursue His way of truth, righteousness, and love, giving us time to change so that we no longer practice our will but His. Time to grow so as to possess the quality of spiritual integrity!
The failure to possess this quality lies with those who regard what they perceive to be necessary, as being more important than the application of the gospel; and that dreadful short-coming is caused by a lack of trust, (the biblical word for this is faith.) Whilst they believe that God through Christ has saved them from condemnation, believe that heaven awaits them if they aren't guilty of murder, theft, fornication, and the like, they also believe that their own decisions, not the teaching of Christ, best serves them in their daily circumstances. They are quite happy to receive the wrong change in their favour, at the counter, after all the fault wasn't theirs. They're quite happy to omit important truths which may give a different and proper meaning to their statements. They continue to deceive by showing no outward covetousness as the result of the good fortune of another. It is these and similar attitudes which are the traits of a personal lack of spiritual integrity. And Christians guilty of them are not serving God acceptably.
The Hebrew writer says that we serve God acceptably with REVERENCE. Those who lack spiritual integrity are oft times guilty of irreverence. It can be seen in their absence from assembling with the saints using flimsy excuses, which would never deter them from other outings or activities. That's irreverence! It can be seen in their liberal expenditure on personal indulgences, without ever making the effort to increase their financial contributions to the Lord's work. That's irreverence! It can be in the lack of earnestness when being led in public prayer, and in the singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. That's being irreverent! Christians who fail in shortcomings such as these aren't serving God acceptably. In fact, it may be said that their worship of God, is no more than an irreverent ritual, and in that they sadly lack integrity.
Finally, the Hebrew writer says that we serve God acceptably with GODLY FEAR. Our God is omnipresent, He is ever present. The Psalmist cries in Psalm 139: 7-8 " Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there." Acts 17:27 teaches that He is near each one of us.
Christians who fail to serve God with godly fear, remember that "God is love (I John 4:8) They remember that: "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). .Unquestionably, these are great truths, but His love toward us is to bring us to SALVATION, a spiritual state that can only be ours when we are in Christ. Therefore, it cannot be said that we are in Christ, when in our daily activities we aren't serving God with godly fear When one's attitude belies the fact that he is a Christian by his conduct in front of brethren, in front of those outside, and in his private moments. That person forgets, or doesn't think about (the result is the same) that "our God is a consuming fire." (Hebrews 12:29). They forget the side of God, which caused Him to send His Son so that we may never experience it.
Christians who are growing in spiritual integrity, and that is a continual thing, usually have experienced all of these shortcomings. They have seen them for what they are, and by God's grace and being led by His Spirit, they continue to learn how to "serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear." Their Christ life presents to all spiritual integrity. That is the quality that can only had when one "walks in the fear of the Lord."
People in Nehemiah's day had a restored temple, a restored law, with restored walls to protect the temple city. They were again established as the nation of God. Today, we are God's nation - we have the New Testament Gospel free from the traditions and creeds of men, we are members of the Lord's church. Spiritually we're akin to those people in Nehemiah's day. Our challenge is not to make the same mistake as they did, that of expressing faith in God on one hand, yet lacking the integrity to reflect that profession in our manner of life. Are the inspired words of Nehemiah as appropriate for some of us as they were back then when he said "What you are doing is not good. OUGHT YE NOT WALK IN THE FEAR OF THE LORD? Back then, those people made the necessary resolve to change. .
The Bible tells us "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." (Psalm
111:10) God has vowed a condemnation to unrepentant sinners, He has also
promised salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ that's the gospel message, and
its invitation, is to believe that wonderful news, and to promise to turn from
worldliness to God (the Bible calls this repentance). God had insisted on this
in every age. Then to confess trust in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and then
to be baptised for the remission of sins. These are the steps that must be taken
to escape the wrath of God. -- These are the only steps that one can take to be