I saw an article the other day which was entitled – “Social Justice; America’s New Religion.” I didn’t take the time to read it, but I thought “Yes, I can see that.” Since casting aside the God of the Bible, Americans have made the creation of new religions one of their favorite pastimes. And many of those new religions aren’t even remotely spiritual. How about “The International Church of Cannabis” and the “Tattoo Parlor United Methodist Church.” How many men own a copy of “The Fisherman’s Bible” or “The Hunter’s Bible,” but they don’t own the Bible
As I was reading Neh. 5 this week, my mind returned to that article, and the subject of false, quasi-religions. To the potentially long list false faiths, I’m going to add the religion of “Capitalism.” You may be an avid capitalist, and I’m not going to criticize you for that. As opposed to Communism and Socialism, Capitalism is a good thing. But a great many “good” things can be abused and turned into evil. And it seems to me that many Americans practice Capitalism as their religion. How many worship money and the methods of making money – the old fashioned way? How many never attend the services of God’s church, because they are worshiping at the cash register of their shop or store? How many Christians think of Capitalism as a doctrine of Christianity?
During my first year at university, I took a course in economics – Economics 101, or was it Economics .01? That course didn’t make me an economist any more than visiting a barn in Saskatchewan made me an Canadian cow. But if I remember correctly, “Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Central characteristics of capitalism include private property and the recognition of property rights, capital accumulation, wage labor, voluntary exchange and competitive markets.” Capitalism involves private ownership of land and businesses and a free market in which to sell goods. A capitalist may charge whatever he would like for his product and services, and he wants no government restrictions or support. He has the right to hire workers at whatever rate he deems appropriate to him. And those workers have the freedom to work at his terms or to find employment somewhere else.
With these things in the backs of our minds, my text this afternoon comes from verse 9 – “It is not good that ye do; ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God?” Here is scripture which could be applied to anyone claiming to be a child of God – a worshiper of Jehovah. The language is found only once in the New Testament, but it is quite common in the Old Testament. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge…” “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth…” “The fear of the LORD prolongeth days…” “The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life…” We could on with a couple dozen other scriptures from all over the Old Testament.
“Ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God?” Of course. Absolutely. I suppose that Baptist preachers throughout the centuries have taken texts like this and developed messages, applying the details to the societies of their particular day. Today, under this text, I could condemn people’s the addiction to sports, Christians wasting time and money on the things of the world, marijuana and few dozen other aspects of our modern life-styles. The “fear of God” condemns all false religions, including “Capitalism” – if it has gone that far. My approach this afternoon will be to consider this post-exilic Judean society under Nehemiah. And then I will try to let the Holy Spirit make some more modern applications as He chooses.
Nehemiah was upset – he was furious as he learned how the Judean economy was being managed. “I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words.” What words, Nehemiah? Apparently, even while building the wall, people were coming to him complaining against the economic abuses of their brethren.
This chapter describes the situation.
“And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews. For there were that said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live.” While nearly every able-bodied man was working somewhere on the wall, their wives were at home trying to scrape together a bit of food to feed their families, sometimes with tears streaming down their faces. When Dad and the boys came home hungry after a day’s work, they complained when there was no food. Then their wives started to complain even more bitterly, because they couldn’t find or buy food. Family tensions were high because family bellies were empty. Their small gardens were unproductive because of drought, and for the most part they couldn’t farm their acreages outside the city because of the threats of the enemy. Many were being forced to turn to the rich and well-connected in order to buy grain. Sadly, those people with food to sell, were doing so at exorbitant prices, because the market permitted it. The free-market economy was driving prices up and driving the common man to poverty and starvation.
“Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth. There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards.” It is one thing to accept a mortgage and make payments in order to have a house to live in. It is something entirely different to have to take out a mortgage on that house in order to buy food. Something is amiss; there is sin involved. The Hebrew word “dearth” is far more often translated “famine.” Some of this “dearth” had natural causes – either not enough rain or too much rain. But it was being exacerbated by Judah’s enemies outside the camp and by wealthy Jews inside the city. And then there were the taxes. Justice John Marshal once said, “The power to tax is the power to destroy.” The poor among the Jews were being destroyed through poll taxes and property taxes. They were having to turning to the rich to borrow money to pay their obligations to a foreign government. And in the process the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer.
The people said to Nehemiah, “Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards.” They pointed out that there is no difference among the people of the city – they were all Jews. They should have all been free men. But the poor were being forced to indenture their children as servants to the rich. And in fact some children had already been conscripted by the wealthy to cover their parents’ unpaid debts. Many of the people couldn’t even work their own lands to earn money to redeem those children, because the rich bankers had put tenants on those properties. The rich, because of their power, had a strangle-hold on everyone else. Jewish children were becoming slaves to people of their own nation.
This was the disturbing situation. Nehemiah tells us, “And I was VERY angry when I heard their cry and these words.” “Also I said (to the rich rulers), It is not good that ye do: Ought ye not to walk in the fear of God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?”
What were the Jews doing which was contrary to walking in the fear of their God?
Nehemiah tells us, “Then I consulted with myself.” There are things which are so blatantly evil that no committees, consultations, or even scriptures need to take place before condemning it – and this was one of those situations. “And I REBUKED the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact USURY, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them.” By the Biblical definition, “usury” was simply charging interest on loans. The word has come to mean charging exorbitant interest. Some Capitalists might say, “Hey, if the man agrees to my terms, then it is my right to charge whatever I would like.” Is that so? Sometimes circumstances force good people to ask for help from a neighbor. Sometimes people are coerced by circumstances beyond their control into agreeing to usury. Nehemiah slams those loan sharks and says, “Ought ye not to walk in the fear of God?”
His reference to “the fear of God” is interesting in this context because of some related scriptures. “Capitalism” is worldly, not spiritual, and it caters to the flesh – it can be sinful according to the Word of God. Exodus 22:25 – “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt NOT be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.” Deuteronomy 23:19 – “Thou shalt NOT lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury.” And Leviticus – 25:37 – “Thou shalt NOT give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase. Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee.” According to God’s law, usury stands in direct contrast to “the fear of God.”
I think, verse 11 mentions something interesting – “Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them.” Was that hundredth part the interest charged? If so it doesn’t sound very exorbitant – 1%. Even so, 1% was too much according to the Lord – whom we are to fear. But John Gill insists, and I’ve seen others say the same thing, that this was 1% per month, or actually 12% interest – compounded monthly. Now that usury is starting to get a little high. In today’s free market economy, 4% interest on a mortgage is high, but what is the usual interest on a credit card? If someone wants to pay 22% interest to borrow on that credit card that is his choice, but it is a sin before God to actually charge 22% interest – or 12% or even 2%.
Nehemiah said “And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words.” “Also I said, It is not good that ye do: Ought ye not to walk in the fear of God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?”
What can we learn about walking in the fear of God from looking at Nehemiah?
What is it to “walk in the fear of God?” First we see that he was angry – but he SINNED not. He didn’t slap anyone’s face. He didn’t burn down any banks. Despite having a large number who agreed with him (verse 7), he didn’t encourage rioting in the streets. He was angry, but he sinned not.
That is what Paul told the Ephesians in the midst of a larger passage about living like a saint – about the Christian version of “walking in the fear of God. “ “Put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful LUSTS; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another. Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil. Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to GIVE to him that NEEDETH.”
What is the purpose of this way of life? This fear of the Lord? Our text tells us that we should “walk in the fear of the Lord” for the sake of our testimony. Our unsaved neighbors are judging our God by examining the way we live our lives. And if they are already hate Jehovah, our sins just add fuel to that flame. But we should walk in the fear of God the sake of our own consciences as well. And then ultimately we should live every moment of our lives for the glory of God.
Nehemiah 5:8 offers some interesting incidental background information about walking in the fear of the Lord. “And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us? Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer.” Apparently, Nehemiah and few others had, with their own money, purchased the freedom of some of the servants of the Persians to allow them to return to the Promised Land. Nehemiah was among the wealthy as other scriptures indicate, but he did not behave like the wealthy. He freed some of the slaves of the Persians, but now there were Jews enslaving them once again. Debt is a form of slavery. The more someone owes to others, the more enslaved he is. Christians should avoid debt and slavery as much as possible. But as I said earlier, sometimes the Capitalistic economy dictates the details of life.
In the fear of the Lord Nehemiah tried to set a good example. At some point, perhaps with Artaxerxes’ authority in his hand when he arrived, Nehemiah became governor, or the Tirshatha, of Jerusalem and possibly all Judah. But unlike the previous Tirshathas he refused to receive the remuneration of the governors office. Verse 14 – “Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that is, twelve years, I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor.”
Verses 17 and18 describe Nehemiah’s daily hospitality – “Moreover there were at my table an hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers, beside those that came unto us from among the heathen that are about us. Now that which was prepared for me daily was one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and once in ten days store of all sorts of wine: yet for all this required not I the bread of the governor, because the bondage was heavy upon this people.” The tone of Nehemiah’s words suggests that he was stimulating the economy of Jerusalem out of his own pocket – out of the wealth he already possessed. He was buying all this food himself, stimulating economy. He was an extremely generous and hospitable man. And who was he feeding? Not only city officials and various minor rulers, but more common Jews, and foreign visitors. And not only the Jews, but he entertained heathen – people I will assume are not proselytes and believers. It’s my guess that these many diners were different from day to day. And over time he gave meals to a great many city residents. Isn’t hospitality one of the indications of a man’s fear of the Lord? Isn’t hospitality one of Paul’s exhortations to the New Testament saints?
Verse 16 says something else about Nehemiah’s Christian life. “Yea, also I continued in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land: and all my servants were gathered thither unto the work.” First, he was not averse to hard work when it came to the glory of the Lord. The deteriorated wall and the shame that it brought were the things which first broke his heart. So he applied himself to its rebuilding. The “fear of God” always includes hard work. Then additionally, despite his personal wealth and political power, he refused to buy the lands of others. He had the opportunity to join the wicked wealthy by accumulating land and businesses at low prices. He could have behaved like a great many other successful Capitalists, but he chose not to. You might say that he “set (his) affection on things ABOVE, not on things on the earth” – in Jerusalem. Harry S. Truman is credited with a quote that is phrased in several ways, but I think the original was, “Show me a man that gets rich by being a politician, and I’ll show you a crook.” Nehemiah was no crook, because he lived in the fear of the Lord.
Verse 15 – “But the former governors that had been before me were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver; yea, even their servants bare rule over the people: but so did not I, because of the fear of God.” If you’ll remember, Zerubbabel was the first governor of Judah as the Babylonian captivity came to an end. History tells us that he returned to Babylon, and his son Methullam, and then his grandson Hannaniah succeeded him, before Nehemiah came along. Ezra, the priest, was never governor. By the time of Hannaniah, the governor, in the midst of everything else, was demanding 40 shekels of silver a day as his salary – something like $100. And then the lesser bureaucrats were taking what they considered their share. No wonder by Nehemiah’s day the people were in poverty.
What was the Tirshatha’s solution to this desperate situation?
Verse 11 – “Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them.” What right does the governor have to interfere with the lawful transaction of business? In our society, the Capitalist would say that there should be no government interference – and most of us would agree. In Nehemiah’s day, things were different. And he may have had paperwork from King Artaxerxes which granted him that authority, in the society of that day. But let’s ignore that for a moment.
As a picture of a Christian man, an elder in the Lord’s church, he said, “Restore, I pray you….” I beseech you. Like a godly member of one of the Lord’s churches, he pointed to Heaven, and then to the destructive policies under which some in the city were working, and he pleaded with them. He didn’t issue any edicts; he didn’t call out his personal body guards; he didn’t draw out his sword. He was somewhat like our Lord, bending down and writing in the sand – words which condemned the sinners. And the Holy Spirit fell on the hearts of those bankers and rulers. “Also I shook my lap, and said, So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, and emptied.”
Before going on, what would you consider to be the most outstanding thing in this chapter? Is it that there were Jews so wicked that they willingly enslaved the children of their neighbors? Is it Nehemiah’s perception of the situation – or that initially he didn’t see the situation? Was it Nehemiah’s controlled anger?
I think that perhaps the most outstanding thing in this chapter was the response of those rich rulers. When they were confronted with their sin, they took the steps necessary to fix things. They responded the way David did when Nathan confronted him with his sin. Those men changed their attitudes and actions. “Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest.” And the starving, enslaved people shouted “Amen,” and they praised the Lord. There was good reason on several levels to shout “Amen” and to praise the Lord. It borders on the miraculous, when Christ’s people hear the Word of God and respond so quickly and so whole-heartedly. “Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest.”
By the way, the reference to the priests in verse 12 is not to their participation in this social sin. “Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest. Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise.” Nehemiah was telling them to see to it that they offenders kept their word.
My desire this afternoon was to expound this chapter so that you might understand it. This might be our only message from Nehemiah 5 – so I hope that you’ve paid attention. And a single message is fine, if we all grasp my theme – walking in the fear of the Lord and its negative counterpart. “It is not good that ye do; ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God?”
What is the solution to not walking in the fear of the Lord? It is obviously simple – it is to walk in the fear of the Lord. It is to live the way a Christian should live. It is to read the Bible with a desire to know God’s will and then to live according to the principles we find there.
The rich rulers of Jerusalem responded well in Nehemiah’s day. But there was a rich young ruler in Jesus’ day who didn’t. When he heard the words of the Lord, “he went away sorrowful, for he was very rich.” His capitalism superceded his professed desire for Christ and Christianity. He had a choice, just as we all do. That man made a bad choice and it cost him his eternal soul. How will you choose? Remember – “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…” “The fear of the LORD prolongeth days…” “The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life…”