Nehemiah Helps the Poor
5 Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. 2 Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”
3 Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”
4 Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 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.”
6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 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 8 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.
9 So I 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? 10 I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! 11 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.”
12 “We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.”
Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. 13 I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!”
At this the whole assembly said, “Amen,” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.
14 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. 15 But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels[a] 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. 16 Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we[b] did not acquire any land.
17 Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. 18 Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people.
19 Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people.
BUILDING A SPIRITUAL WALL: Five Imperatives of Spiritual Growth
But it came to pass, that when Sanballat heard that we builded the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews. And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, “What do these feeble Jews?” “Will they fortify themselves?” “Will they sacrifice?” “Will they make an end in a day?” “Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?”
Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, “Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.”
The walls of Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed by Babylon when they defeated the kingdom of Judah and took the Jews into captivity. At the rise of the Medeo-Persian Empire, the Jews were sent home to repopulate and rebuild their homeland. However, after about 94 years they still had not rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. This put them at a disadvantage to the hostile surrounding states, especially Samaria. A wall would enable the re-establishment of Jerusalem as a major city and center of trade, making it a competitor to Samarian cities. More pertinently, however, the wall would serve as a means of protection and separation from their enemies. For that reason, God chose Nehemiah to lead the Jews in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. The Jews responded heartily to Nehemiah’s leadership and went to work promptly, but their efforts encountered opposition from the Governor of Samaria (Sanballat) and his assistant (Tobiah).
However, the physical wall erected by the Jews under Nehemiah’s leadership, was also intended as an object lesson for Believers today.
“Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise.” ~ Isaiah 60:18
The Jews had special privilege as descendants of Jacob, but their security, their well-being, depended on their relationship with God. God had brought them back from captivity and re-established them in the land of their fathers, as He had promised. But for them to flourish in the land they needed to have a genuine relationship with Him. Real victory was to be found within walls of Salvation.
“…Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein: For I, saith the LORD, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her.” ~ Zechariah 2:4b-5
To be clear, these verses specifically refer to the ongoing work of salvation which involves the spiritual growth of a Believer: the purification and edification process by which a Believer is set apart by God as a vessel for service in The Kingdom of God. In other words, the “building-up” the spiritual man that those who have “received Christ” are called to do.
“As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.” ~ Colossians 2:6-8
“But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.” ~ Jude 1:20-21
The wall around Jerusalem gave the Jews two main advantages. The first was the protection that it provided for the people of God (the Jews) from their enemies. Accordingly, for Christians, the wall represents the spiritual protection God wants to be established in each Believer’s life. In the New Testament Paul refers to it as “armour of God”:
“Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” ~ Ephesians 6:11-12
Just like the Jews, it is crucial for Believers to each have a spiritual wall to defend themselves from their adversary, the devil.
The second advantage the wall provided was that it enabled the Jews in Jerusalem to control their interaction with their enemies. Specifically, the presence of the wall meant that everyone had to enter and exit through the gates, which could be locked as needed, e.g., to allow them to celebrate the Sabbath without distractions/temptations (Nehemiah 13:19-22). Likewise, as Believers our interaction with the world around us is to be controlled by our relationship with God. Sometimes we will need to shut out the world so that we spend intimate time with our Saviour. Similarly, not every worldly thing/style/craze is to be allowed into a Believer’s life.
“All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” ~ 1 Corinthians 6:12
Scripture further makes it clear that if we fail to grow spiritually, if we fail to build up our spiritual wall, we are vulnerable to attack.
“He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls.” ~ Proverbs 25:28
When the Jews’ adversaries, Sanballat and Tobiah, saw them begin their work, they mockingly challenged them with six questions that we should also ask ourselves (NOTE: the sixth question/challenge came in the form of a statement in vs. 3). These questions are paraphrased as follows (with the actual quoted words in brackets):
- What can the weak do? (“What do these feeble Jews?”)
- Will the weak do the work? (“Will they fortify themselves?”)
- Will the weak pay the price? (“Will they sacrifice?”)
- Will the weak finish in time? (“Will they make an end in a day?”)
- Will the weak build with what’s left? (“Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?”)
- Will the weak build well? (“Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.”)
Believers today are faced with the same challenges from our adversary, the devil, as he tries to discourage and defeat our spiritual growth. Therefore, it is crucial that we are able to resist the devil’s opposition as well as the Nehemiah-led Jews resisted the opposition of their enemies while building the physical wall around Jerusalem. So let us explore the application of these questions (and answers) in the life of a Believer.
What can the weak do?
In asking this question, Sanballat was pointing out what was already painfully obvious to the Jews: they were few in number and very weak (Nehemiah 7-12). From a purely physical standpoint rebuilding the wall was a colossal undertaking.
Likewise, spiritual growth is a huge, overwhelming and impossible project for any believer to accomplish in his/her own strength. And, like Sanballat, our adversary the devil constantly reminds us of our weakness. Indeed, we are told in Ephesians 6:12 that we are not in a battle with humans like our selves: we are in a battle with supernaturally powerful forces of evil. Alone in our own strength we are hopelessly overmatched, doomed to defeat. However, we are NOT alone. Each believer is inhabited by the omnipotent Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 1:14). Indeed, as much as we yield ourselves to Him, Christ Jesus lives in us:
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” ~ Galatians 2:20
Therefore, because of Jesus, no believer is weak! We can overcome the devil; we can grow spiritually; we can build the wall!
“Ye… have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” ~ 1 John 4:4
Will the weak do the work?
In asking this question of the Jews, Sanballat sought to get to heart of the matter: their will. Again like the Jews, the key factor behind believers’ spiritual growth is our will. We know what needs to be done. And we know God has empowered us to accomplish the task. The fundamental question is: “Will we do it?” For far too many of us this first step is where we fall. For various reasons we just don’t have the desire to make the step.
As presented above, Scripture tells us that Believers are in the middle of a high stakes spiritual battle (Ephesians 6:11-12), and that our adversary, the devil, is trying to destroy us:
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:” ~ 1 Peter 5:8
God had supplied the Jews all the resources they needed to build the wall. So the only question was whether they would use them. Similarly, God has already given Believers ALL the resources (the Word, Salvation, Truth, Faith, Righteousness, Prayer and the Gospel of Peace) needed to fight the battle. Will we use them? Will we take up the sword of the Word and learn how to use it? Or will we just let it sit there; never learning how to use it to wound our adversary? Will we use the shield of faith to defend ourselves when we are under attack? Or will we rely on the things we can see (naturally) to repel the devils supernatural onslaught? It is by exercising the Spiritual tools/resources that God has supplied, that we grow spiritually. Spiritual growth is a deliberate act, it requires us to intentionally embark on the course of action outlined in Scripture
“Exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” ~ 1 Timothy 4:7b-8
“Follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called… ” ~ 1 Timothy 6:11b-12a
In other words, a Believer does not become able to resist the devil by accident or by some involuntary process. Until we make the conscious decision to exercise the tools of spiritual growth, we will remain weak and vulnerable to every attack of the devil. Others have fought “the good fight of faith” and obtained spiritual growth thereby (2 Timothy 4:6-8), we can too… but only if we want to.
Will the weak pay the price?
Sanballat knew the Jews would have to pay a personal price for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He was hoping that when they realized how big the price was they wouldn’t bother. It would cost them precious time that they could have used to tend to their livelihoods; the more time on the wall the less time to ‘get ahead’. It would cost them sweat and back breaking effort: life was already hard, now they would have to toil on the wall and still have to catch up with their regular duties.
As before, the challenge to believers is the same. Spiritual growth comes at a price. Learning God’s Word and how to use it takes time and effort. Developing a relationship with God means setting aside time to spend with Him in prayer and meditation. Living by faith rather than sight (2 Corinthians 5:7) is costly: it means valuing the things that God says is important rather than those things the world and our flesh (human nature) tell us we can’t live without. Being a disciple is hard work: it means using our time to work in the Kingdom of God: witnessing, teaching, discipling, helping, encouraging, and even working with people as difficult as we are.
How important is our spiritual growth to us? Are we willing to pay any price to “work out our Salvation”? Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his seminal work “The Cost of Discipleship” opens with the line: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.” Somehow, Christians have become deluded that spiritual growth will somehow just happen without some effort, some dedication, on our part. This is not true. If we intend to grow in Christ it will cost us. And if we intend to grow greatly in Christ, it will cost us greatly. Indeed, Paul wrote:
“…Five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers… in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness… in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness… …I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” ~ 2 Corin. 11:24-27 & Galatians 6:17b
Genuine spiritual growth does not happen by a wish, there is a price to pay. But, in the end, not growing in Christ is far more costly.
Will the weak finish in time?
The Jews had taken a long time to rebuild their temple, and an even longer time to start building the wall around Jerusalem. In the meantime competing cities, especially Samaria (only about ~30 miles away), in the region were growing stronger and were able to exert ever increasing influence on the region in general, and the Jewish nation in particular. Then to make matters worse, they suffered frequent raids from Ammonite and Arab tribes which weakened them even more. So Sanballat’s question pointed to the stark reality that the there was a limited time for them to build the wall before they would lose their chance to compete economically, and thereby socio-culturally, with the other cities in the region. Without the wall they would be inexorably assimilated into the dominant regional culture and likely lose their identity.
Just like the Jews in Nehemiah’s time, each Christian has a finite time in which to start developing spiritually. While we dither in distractions, the influence of the world on our outlook and our value system increases. The devil’s kingdom is already established in the secular world in which we live. Our only chance to resist its influence is to allow God to establish His kingdom in our hearts: we must grow spiritually or spiritually perish.
If our faith, understanding, hope, love, joy, and knowledge are not being built up, then we are being assimilated by the world. If we continue to live our lives with broken down walls, easily attacked by the devil and easily influenced by worldly values, then eventually we will become too weak to build and too embedded in the world to understand why.
“How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.” ~ Proverbs 6:9-11
Jesus puts it this way:
“Then Jesus said unto them, Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you…” ~ John 12:35a
The implication is darkness is trying to overcome us; therefore, we must make progress before it does. Otherwise, if we wait too long, if we waste time, darkness will overtake us and we won’t know which way to go.
“…for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.” ~ John 12:35b
Nevertheless, while we can still hear God’s voice, there is hope. If we can still feel the Holy Spirit prodding us to put on the Armour of God, then the door is not yet closed. While we can feel the hand of the Lord turning us away from sin, we still have some time left to build, we still have some light.
Will the weak build with what’s available?
Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had earlier razed Jerusalem and its walls. When the Jews started rebuilding the walls, about one hundred and sixty four (164) years later, they had to use leftover rubble from the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction. And their chief enemy Sanballat took pleasure in reminding them of that fact. As he would discover, however, there is a lot that can be done with rubble.
The devil is our adversary, and he likewise takes pleasure in reminding us that we too don’t have much more than rubble to build with. Like Nebuchadnezzar, sin has destroyed the life of every believer to varying degrees. Sin/Human-nature ruins our thinking; it leaves us with distorted values; it diminishes our capacity for faith and love and hope; it blinds us to the truth. Sin left unchecked in our lives, results in a variety of abuses: drug/substance abuse, sexual immorality, greed, thievery, murder, and so on. By the time we come to God, our spiritual man has been battered.
The questions then come from our adversary: “What can you build with that wreck of a life?” “What can you build with your weak faith?” “What can you build when you can’t even read?” “What can you build with your weak morals?” “What can you build with your record of failure?”
But God answers for us:
“Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God… And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten…”~ Joel 2:12-13a, 25
If we turn to God and dedicate ourselves to him, He will restore “the years the locusts have eaten”: God will rebuild us spiritually as if we had never left Him! All the ground we lost to sin can be regained if we give Him our all.
Indeed, those who had returned from captivity in Babylon were themselves a pile of rubble. They had lost everything and now had to rebuild their lives from scratch. God’s message to them was the same as it is to us: He will use us to rebuild His Kingdom. Despite our losses, despite all we have suffered due to our sin, we have great value; we are more than just rubble, because of Jesus living in us.
“To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” ~ 1 Peter 2:4-5
Will the weak build well?
Sanballat’s Ammonite deputy, Tobiah, casted the last seed of doubt. He averred that whatever the Jews did build would be easily destroyed. Similarly, satan tries to discourage believers that despite their best efforts he will still be able to defeat them. We all have weaknesses: “the sin that so easily besets us” (Hebrews 12:1). And it sometimes seems that despite our spiritual growth, we fall to that weakness all too often. It can feel as if all that has been built up in us is just a flimsy façade.
However, this is yet another trick of the devil. The wall, our spiritual growth will not fall down because it is God who is orchestrating its construction, just like Nehemiah led the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. If we will but do God’s bidding, if we obey the instructions given to us in His Word, we will grow spiritually, we will be built up.
What Tobiah was doing was but a ‘bait and switch’. As we see in later chapters (Nehemiah 6, 13) Tobiah had built up alliances through joint business ventures and marriages between his family and the leaders of Jerusalem. This allowed him continued access to influence and corrupt the Jewish leadership. In other words, the problem was never the strength of the wall that would be built: the problem was who would be allowed through the gates.
Likewise, if we are growing in Christ, the increase in spiritual development is never the problem. Rather, the problem lies with our interaction with the world around us. Often, even as we are growing, we allow the enemy to slip within our gates, to sneak under our guard. That is what causes our downfall. It’s not that our spiritual growth isn’t real; it’s that we are still vulnerable and have to continually be on our guard.
For example, in Nehemiah 13:15-22, Nehemiah ordered the gates be closed on the Sabbath to stop merchants from coming in and to stop the easily distracted inhabitants from going out. While living in captivity in Babylon there was no national observance of the Sabbath. Therefore, having lost both the habit and the importance over the years, this was now a real point of weakness for the Hebrews who returned to Judea.
We too must guard our gates so that the enemy does not get in and undermine us so that we fall into sin. Jesus, reproving His disciples, put it this way:
“Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.” ~ Mark 14:38
“The spirit truly is ready”: they had matured/grown spiritually enough to be sent out (to start the Church). “But the flesh is weak” they still had weak areas in their lives. So the solution was to “Watch ye and pray”: they must guard the gates look out for their adversary who was trying to infiltrate their lives and lead them into temptation. As believers, let us respond to God’s call/directive to grow spiritually. If God is the architect of our spiritual growth it will be perfect/complete and secure. But, even as we grow, let us “guard the gates”; let us watch and pray so the evil one does not sneak in to lead us into temptation.
Nehemiah 4-6 shows us that the Jews showed their adversaries what the weak could do, as they built a good wall in an astonishingly short time: fifty-two (52) days. Like them, we can build up our wall of salvation/spiritual-growth. We are weak, but we “can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth” us (Philippians 4:13). The only thing in question is our wills.
Will we do what God calls us to do?
Will we build up ourselves on our “most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost” (Jude 1:20)?
We know there is a price to pay to gain spiritual growth. If we are going to grow we must “count the cost” like any wise builder (Luke 14:28). It will cost us our time; it will cost us our (worldly) ambitions; it will cost us our comfort zones. But we are called to grow from milk drinking babies (1 Peter 2:2-3) to mature Christians (Hebrews 5:12-14) to the full stature of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:13).
Like the Jews rebuilding the wall it is crucial that we work quickly, because the night is approaching. When we are saved, God transforms us into new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17). But the devil is in pursuit to destroy us (1 Peter 5:8) before we can start accomplishing the work of the Kingdom of God.
Despite the damage sin does to us spiritually and physically, the Blood of Jesus Christ washes us clean and makes us new. From human eyes, it might not look like much, but we have everything we need to build up our spiritual wall of salvation. And that wall is indestructible, because God is its architect. Therefore, if/when we fall into sin let us not doubt our spiritual growth (if indeed we have been growing!). Rather, we should keep an eye on the gates watching and praying so that the enemy does not infiltrate our spiritual wall and lead us into temptation (Mark 14:38).