The title of this lesson is “Penniless Preachers.” Twenty years ago I would have had a hard time preaching this message because of the connection it would have exposed between you and me. It might have appeared to be self-serving, worldly or even downright greedy on my part. Not only didn’t I have any money, but the church didn’t either, because none of you were particularly rich, and there weren’t very many of us. But today, things are much different. This is not about you, and it isn’t about me. It is about other churches across this country and around the world. It is always easier to preach about other people and their sins than it is about us and our sins.
When Nehemiah originally left Persia, he told King Artaxerxes he would be gone only a certain length of time. After the completion of the wall and certain other things, he was obligated to return to Sushan the palace and to make a report to his boss. But obviously, by that time Nehemiah’s former position as cupbearer had been filled by another, so he wasn’t returning to his old job. Artaxerxes apparently didn’t have need of his services any longer. So permission was granted for him to return to Jerusalem as governor – perhaps as a permanent position.
We aren’t told how long Nehemiah was away, but it was probably more than a year and perhaps longer. Upon his return, just as he had the first time, Nehemiah made an inspection of the city. But this time, he was not looking so much at the physical condition of the walls, the temple and government buildings, but at the spiritual condition of the people. And he was appalled at what he found.
He found Tobias living in one of the rooms on the temple grounds – a room which should have been used to store the offerings of the people. Why was that room even empty and available for lease? And once again Nehemiah found the gates open on the Sabbath, and heathen merchants were setting up their stalls and selling their wares to the Jews. Not only that, but the Jews were carrying out business in disregard for the Lord and His day. “Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath” – verse 17-18.
And for some reason the mixed marriages of the people now came to his attention. Verse 23 – “In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people. And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? yet among many nations was there no king like him, who was beloved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel: nevertheless even him did outlandish women cause to sin. Shall we then hearken unto you to do all this great evil, to transgress against our God in marrying strange wives?”
A fourth problem involved the emptiness, the unkempt condition and quiet atmosphere of the temple and the grounds surrounding it. “The Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field. Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them together, and set them in their place.” The house of God was forsaken not just by the “church members” but by the ministers. That room, which had been taken over by Tobias, was supposed to be filled with grain, dried fruit and other commodities to support the families of the priests, Levites, singers and Nethinim as they served Jehovah. But those men were not being properly sustained, and thus they were forced into the countryside to pick up plows and scythes in order to feed their families. Nehemiah was aghast, and he “set them in their place.”
How did God’s agent recognize that there was a problem?
Remember that all of this can be used to illustrate 21st century Christianity – modern churches of Christ. Shortly after his return from Shushan, Nehemiah went into the temple – to church. Not only was the attendance of God’s people poor, but many of the worship leaders were missing as well.
In applying this, here is what so often happens in our day – When the young Levite graduates from seminary and takes his first pastorate, he is filled with godly excitement and optimism. He has been taught to be prepared to live on rice and beans, but to keep buying good books. His expectation as a missionary is to live near starvation levels until the Lord saves few souls. But, you know – those new babes are sometimes slow in coming, and sometimes they don’t grow quickly. On the other hand, babies start entering that Levite’s family, and his rent goes up, and inflation makes the grocery budget rise. It doesn’t take long before that Levite can see the writing on the wall. He is going to have to find employment; he has to start his own business; he has to return to the farm. And whereas the temple should resound with good music, gospel messages, and shouts of praise, it becomes as quiet as a tomb.
But, of course, that Levite doesn’t actually quit; he has more character than that. He might be forced to leave the ministry at some point down the road, but not yet. He remains faithful to his calling, knocking on doors, preaching Christ, witnessing to the lost whenever he isn’t working his wheat crop. However, when he knows there will be only a dozen people to hear his next sermon, he isn’t as driven to spend much quality time in really developing the message. Eventually his preaching becomes weaker and weaker; he may cut corners and “borrow” the messages of others. And as his ministry becomes more insipid, so do those faithful few who come to hear him. The offerings drop even more, and the incentive increases for the man of God to become more worldly. It is easy for a cycle of destruction to develop in a church – weak preaching creates weak members, which further adds to weakness in the ministry.
Nehemiah found that “the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field. Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them together, and set them in their place.” The house of God had been forsaken because the people were not faithful in their support of the ministry.
Therefore, Nehemiah “set them in their place.” How are we to understand that statement? John Gill says that Nehemiah called the Levites and singers back from their secular jobs and set them in their places of service. But the way I was raise to read English grammar, the antecedent for “set them” would have to be the immediately preceding people – the rulers. I think that Nehemiah gathered the most influential people of the city and read them the riot act – “setting them in their place.”
Do you know who is not mentioned in verses 10-11? The ordinary church members. The common citizens of Jerusalem– as backslidden as they might have been. Even though they are a part of the problem, they aren’t mentioned because they aren’t the source of the problem. Nehemiah, God’s prophet, lay the responsibility for the condition of the congregation on the High Priest and the people in positions of leadership. If those people would draw nigh unto God, getting excited about the Lord’s service, then others will follow. If those people would work, and invite, and encourage, then there will be hope for the rest, and for the congregation as a whole. Revival begins when one or two people humble themselves before God and begin to serve Him with all their hearts, souls, minds and strength.
Nehemiah found the house of God in the vortex of a downward spiral of backslidden people. From the top to the bottom, no one was serving the Lord as they should have been. The lack of spiritual enthusiasm spread from one person to another and to another. And as a result there was a lack of qualified ministry leaders.
So Nehemiah set up treasurers for the treasuries.
Verse 13 – “And I made treasurers over the treasuries, Shelemiah the priest, and Zadok the scribe, and of the Levites, Pedaiah: and next to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah: for they were counted faithful, and their office was to distribute unto their brethren.”
Chapter 12 ends with a confusing paragraph. It seems to contradict what we have in our text this evening. “And at that time were some appointed over the chambers for the treasures, for the offerings, for the firstfruits, and for the tithes, to gather into them out of the fields of the cities the portions of the law for the priests and Levites: for Judah rejoiced for the priests and for the Levites that waited. And both the singers and the porters kept the ward of their God, and the ward of the purification, according to the commandment of David, and of Solomon his son. For in the days of David and Asaph of old there were chief of the singers, and songs of praise and thanksgiving unto God. And all Israel in the days of Zerubbabel, and in the days of Nehemiah, gave the portions of the singers and the porters, every day his portion: and they sanctified holy things unto the Levites; and the Levites sanctified them unto the children of Aaron.”
The explanation for the difference between the two chapters is Nehemiah’s absence from Jerusalem. In the days of Nehemiah and Zerubbabel things went smoothly in the operation of the temple. But during Nehemiah’s return to Persia either the old treasurers died or they had became corrupt. There was no one taking charge to replace the missing servants and to correct those who were negligent. Without good treasurers, the Levites and singers were not being supported, and they were leaving the ministry. Thus, when Nehemiah returned he found the house of God neglected. As secular and as filthy lucre may be, it is as necessary for the running of the House of God as it is necessary for the running of your house. The ministry needs the offerings of God’s people. That is lesson number one from this text.
Now, with this I need to shift gears just slightly, and move to lesson number two. Nehemiah found new treasurers to distribute God’s blessings to the singers and Levites. From a different perspective, let’s look at these treasurers as if they were the ministers of God. They were God’s ministers. To them was the given the responsibility of God’s bounty; to them was the task of sharing it with others. They had the commission to “keep the books.” Then on Wednesday and on the Lord’s Day it was their commission to dispense the great gifts that God had made available. We can look at these men as the preachers of God’s word.
The treasurers Nehemiah sought and appointed had to be “faithful men” perhaps in contrast to the last treasurers. “And I made treasurers over the treasuries, Shelemiah the priest, and Zadok the scribe, and of the Levites, Pedaiah: and next to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah: for they were counted faithful, and their office was to distribute unto their brethren.” Nehemiah looked for men who were proven to be faithful before they became treasurers.
The minister of God must be faithful in the little things as well as the big things. Matthew 25:21 – “His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” These four men apparently remained true to the house of God during a period when others were leaving. We might say, they were faithful in learning and putting into practice the principles of God’s word – even if they had to study it on their own, because the priests had forsaken them. They were faithful in encouraging each other and others even when there was little response. They were men of prayer; they were honest, godly examples to both the believers and the lost. And THEN they were called to become treasurers of the blessings of God.
Can you see the preacher, the minister of Christ, as a treasurer of sorts? Doesn’t he have a responsibility to collect, store, refine and then share the blessings God has given to him? He is a distributor; a steward of the Word of God. As Paul spoke of others, Peter testified that Silvanus was “a faithful brother unto you, as I suppose, I have written briefly, exhorting, and testifying that this is the true grace of God wherein ye stand.” “Moses verily was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken after.” A dozen different Bible characters are described as faithful before they began testifying of the grace of God.
Let’s say that Shelemiah, one of those treasurers, started short weighing some of the grain he was to give to the singers… What if he was withholding the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, or he put his thumb down on the scales as he preached the coming of the Messiah… If he was not being FAITHFUL to his duty, then he wasn’t WORTHY of his duty. “Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” – 1 Corinthians 4:2. Paul said, “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
The man whom God has set over His congregation is certainly very important to the spiritual condition of that church. If he is not what he ought to be in his study and in his declaration of the Word, in his spiritual life, and in his moral life, he could potentially destroy that church. But at the same time, it has to be remembered that the rest of God’s people have something to contribute to the condition of that minister. When he doesn’t have to worry about the secular side of his life, if he is the man the church needs, then he can focus on the spiritual, which will ultimately be a blessing to everyone. But if he has to scrape the bottom of the barrel to give a meal to his wife and family, then, not only will his family suffer, but his church will suffer as well.