Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Nehemiah 13: Working the Wall

In 1987, the Berlin Wall came down. It had been a hated symbol of Communist oppression for forty years. But few people know what really caused its fall.

The leaders of East Germany agreed to let certain people pass through the wall to visit relatives in the West for a weekend pass. People stormed the checkpoints to visit relatives in the West. Soon the pressure of people wanting to see family nearly broke the wall.

But that wasn’t all. Germans lined up to visit the West just for the fun of it. Germany is famous for its Autobahn, a long interstate with no speed limits.  In East Germany they made a little car called the Travi. Like most cars made under Communism, it was a terrible car—nevertheless, East Germans were curious to see how they would perform on the Autobahn. They flooded the checkpoints trying to get their cars through to race them on the Autobahn.

It’s often little, ordinary things that tear down spiritual walls, too. The same pressures that brought down the Berlin wall—family connections and the desire for worldly things—can destroy the walls God builds around us to protect our lives, more than the devil ever could.

We see this in Nehemiah, chapter 13.  The wall around Jerusalem had been completed and dedicated. Now they had to use the wall to preserve the nation. Nehemiah wrote in 13: 1-4


“On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people. And in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, for they did not meet the people of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. As soon as the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.”


The Law of Moses was their spiritual wall.  When they read it, they discovered that they had missed something important. The Ammonites and Moabites—the pagans living in their land—were not only living in Jerusalem, but intermarrying with the Jews, even though the Bible expressly forbade this. This wasn’t racism, this was obedience. It probably made no sense to the average Israelite. Why should they discriminate against Ammonites and Moabites?  It wasn’t their place to question God’s motives—they should just obey.

Today, we have the same problem. We should not discriminate against any race or ethnicity. African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans, and Arab Americans should fully participate in American churches, and there is nothing wrong with intermarriage with them. In Numbers 12, when Moses married an Ethiopian woman and his brother and sister complained, God rebuked Miriam and Aaron for complaining. To discriminate against those whom God calls us to welcome is a sin.

But the Bible does not approve intermarriage with unbelievers, nor does it approve sexual relations of any kind outside of marriage. The reasons why are the same as they were in Nehemiah’s day, and that was to keep ourselves pure for God.

In Nehemiah 13: 4-9 we see an example of what happens when we don’t.


“Now before this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, and who was related to Tobiah, prepared for Tobiah a large chamber where they had previously put the grain offering, the frankincense, the vessels, and the tithes of grain, wine, and oil, which were given by commandment to the Levites, singers, and gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests. While this was taking place, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I went to the king. And after some time I asked leave of the king and came to Jerusalem, and I then discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, preparing for him a chamber in the courts of the house of God. And I was very angry, and I threw all the household furniture of Tobiah out of the chamber.


One of the three enemies of Nehemiah was Tobiah, and he was discovered to be living in Jerusalem! Tobiah had lost his position as an Ammonite chief, and was living off his in-law, Eliashib, the High Priest of Jerusalem! Tobiah had been unable to get through the wall, but his relative did! So the High Priest opened up the wall to the Jews worst enemy and gave him an apartment inside the temple itself. 

We have a responsibility to take care of our loved ones, but we have a greater responsibility to take care of the things of God. If our race, nation, or family comes before God, then our race, nation, or family has become an idol.

There is only one member we can choose, and that is our spouse. With that choice comes responsibility for our spouse’s entire family. Be careful what in-laws you choose. That’s one of several reasons why God forbids sexual relations outside marriage. We risk creating children with them, and that is a responsibility that lasts forever. Choosing the wrong spouse is risking a lifetime of bondage. To become entangled with the wrong family endangers not only our relationship to God, but all our children after us. 

Our society pushes a life priority that is entirely wrong. It goes like this:  Feelings first, family second, and God last.

Feelings first.  We have sex or get married because we have feelings for someone.  “Love” in our common understanding is a helpless, hopeless feeling, which we are not able to control. If we have sexual feelings for someone, we believe if we don’t act on them we will die. We have been told constantly to follow our heart, instead of following God’s Law or even or own reason. As a result, we get into relationships that defy not only God, but common sense.

Family second. Because we have been told that families are important, we go along with our loved ones who live immoral lifestyles. If a family member sins, we feel we should cover up for them, if they get in a foolish argument we take their side even when they are wrong, if they refuse to work we still support them, and if they get involved in a sinful relationship, we turn and look the other way. We accept things in our own family that would horrify us in someone else’s family.  This was Adam’s first sin, to put his relationship with Eve over God’s commandment. Not only did he not rebuke Eve when she ate the forbidden fruit, but he joined her in eating it. The same sin is repeated in modern families all the time.

 God last. Our honor of God is conditional on our first two priorities. If our feelings tell us we no longer love our families or spouses, then we feel justified in dropping them. If our families tell us that honoring God in worship is inconvenient with family plans, then we quit the church to go with the family.  If we don’t feel like worship, then we don’t worship, because in our minds, God is a distant third to our feelings and family.

 God has a different order. His order is God, family, and then feelings. Our first obligation is to obey God. Because when we obey God, we honor our families. If we don’t feel like honoring our families we do it anyway because our God commands it. “Honor your father and mother.”

This isn’t easy. We are not used to saying “no” to either our feelings or our family. Sometimes our feelings seem so strong that we think we’ll go crazy if we don’t listen to them.

But our feelings change from day to day. Recognizing and resisting our feelings makes us stronger, not weaker. Feelings are like kids: we should cherish them, love them, and listen to them. But we should not let them run our lives.


Eliashib was high priest, but he was a prisoner of his relatives. He put a relative first who was the devil himself, and gave him a room in God’s temple, because at some time he or one of his relatives became married to an unbeliever. I have seen the same thing in many Christian families—even my own. If we are to be serious about God we must put God first and build our homes upon solid connections.

Nehemiah’s reaction was stern and swift.  He had Tobiah kicked out, his grain supply cut off, and his furniture thrown out on the street. Nehemiah would not allow Tobiah to be supported by the temple. 

But family is not the only cause for walls coming down. Business and entertainment can take the place of family in this order. We see this in 19-23


“As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day. Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said to them, "Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you." From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.”


Here the order was feelings, business, and then God. The merchants and sellers felt that if they could not work seven days a week at selling stuff, then they were being cheated. So they set up shop at the gates of the temple on the Sabbath Day. They justified this by saying it was good for business. God’s law may have been against it, but business came first.

But God has a different priority: God, business, and then feelings. Our business is dictated by God’s law, not what we feel like doing.

Jerusalem twice is still a walled city. But now there are no gates on the walls. There are just roads and highways that go right through the city walls. It would be impossible to close the gates today, if they wanted to. The walls are just decorations, no more.

Are our spiritual walls more than decorations?  Do they matter to us? We may call ourselves righteous all we want, but if don’t listen to God, our faith is useless. 

Christ said in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  Seek God first before family, business, and entertainment and He will reward you. Set God first in your life. That is ultimately the only way to survive this dangerous world.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Nehemiah 6: Gossip!

There is no rest from trouble! Just as soon as you think you have peace from your problems, they pop up again! 

Take Nehemiah, for example. They got the wall around Jerusalem built, but they had a famine, and people were starving. Then the rich men in Jerusalem started taking advantage of the poor and starving people. Then, when Nehemiah got them straightened out, the three enemies who had bothered them while they were building the wall, who they thought would be defeated while they were building the wall, popped up again, worse than ever!

These three men Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, are the villains in this story. They have one purpose, and that is to keep the wall from being built. The wall around Jerusalem was for the purpose of protecting the people from these three men and their followers, just as the wall around the Church is meant to protect us from the destruction that the Devil causes in our lives. 

While the wall was down, they would ride into town like bandits in an old Western, taking whatever they wished. When the wall was rebuilt, they were powerless. So they tried to lure Nehemiah out of the protection of the wall.  Verses 1-2
“When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it-though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates- Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message:

‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.’ But they were scheming to harm me;”
Notice one little detail. Nehemiah did not say, “They were scheming to kill me.” But he did say they wanted to harm him. When the Devil attacks, don’t make the assumption that he wants to harm us physically, or even financially. Sometimes the biggest dangers are not to life and limb, but to our hearts and souls.

When he comes after you, he doesn’t wear horns and a tail. He wants you to think that he’s not such a bad guy. It is easier to deal with the Devil when he acts like the Devil than when he comes in the guise of your best friend. He tries to convince us that the war for our souls is over, so that we will not be on our guard.

When Satan attacks, it usually looks like a blessing. He can come in the form of an attractive, sympathetic woman or man, a sudden windfall of cash, or a pleasant day off. These joys may be real, but they are live bait. If we are foolish enough to bite, then he will have us hooked, and he can have us. 

Sanballat, Tobias, and Geshem offered peace to Nehemiah. All he had to do was meet them in an open, undefended field. They may have even promised him gifts. Nehemiah sent this message back.  Verses 3-4
“So I sent messengers to them with this reply: ’I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?’ Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer.”

They did not just ask once, but four times. Satan never attacks once: he always comes back. We cannot prevent temptations from coming, but we can respond. With the first temptation, we need to start praying. We also need to be looking for help from others. To fight Satan we need both strength from God and strength from others.  Verses 5-7 

“Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter in which was written: ‘It is reported among the nations-and Geshem says it is true-that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: “‘there is a king in Judah!”’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us confer together."
When the false overtures of peace did not move Nehemiah, they tried gossip and slander. They claimed that he was planning to revolt against the Persians, who were their overlord. One of them, Geshem, was prepared to swear falsely to this. They threatened to take this to his boss, unless they could meet with him.

When we are slandered, there are two reactions we have, and those two reactions are to fight or flight. I’m sure Nehemiah wanted to fight back. But in order to do that, he would have to leave his protective wall. 

Consider how Christians react to slander.  We are being slandered in the world today, and Christians want to fight back, too. But it is God who protects us. When we leave God’s protection to seek after vengeance or retribution, then Satan has us where He wants us. 

When the Muslims drove Christians and Jews out of the Holy Land, European Christians launched a series of Crusades to take it back. Not only did they fail to take it by force of arms, but the last two Crusades wound up being fought against other Christians! One wonders if the time, effort, and lives wasted in the Crusades had been spent on loving the Muslims and sending in missionaries, if the Muslims would still be in power today. 

Satan does want to kill you, but not if he can use you. Satan often uses us against each other, especially when it comes to slander.

The second reaction we have to slander is to run away. Of all the attacks Satan uses on the church, none are more effective than gossip, except one. That is the fear of gossip. The gossip does not really have to be spread.  All we have to do is think that people will be talking about us, and we will refrain from doing good.

Social scientist Jerry Harvey cites a study done on peer pressure in his book, The Abilene Paradox. These studies have shown that peer pressure does not mainly originate in other people, but in our own minds. People do not have to gossip about us. We are so afraid of people talking that we will not do what we know to be true. People were put into a group with five other people without knowing they were part of a social experiment. The five other people were instructed to give the wrong answer to a simple question, while the other person gave the right answer. The five with the wrong answer were specifically instructed not to pressure the other one in anyway. Nevertheless more than half the time the person would change their answer to go along with the crowd, even when the crowd said nothing. They would change, for fear of standing out. 

People will always talk—so what?  It does not necessarily mean anything. Even if they are malicious, we have a God who loves us. What are wagging tongues next to a God who stands by us?  Verses 8-9

 “I sent him this reply: ‘Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.’” They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, "Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed." [But I prayed,] "Now strengthen my hands."

Notice what Nehemiah does. First, he denies the gossip. We should deny it. But he doesn’t try to stop it. He can’t stop it. The more he argues the worse he would make it. Instead, he prayed to God to make his hands strong, so that he could put up with the gossip.

Gossip was used against the early church. They were called libertines, cannibals, baby snatchers and especially intolerant. Nevertheless, it was God’s power and their resolute following of Him that eventually showed the gossipers for the liars they were. Verses 15-16

“So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.”

Have you ever been afraid of speaking out in a meeting or standing on a stage? Have you ever worried about being overdressed or underdressed for an occasion? If you have what you really fear is what others may say or think. 

Remember this, God has not given you a spirit of fear. Our fear does not come from God, but from our fear of people, often from a fear that has no basis in fact. 

When people do slander us, it is not because they hate us so much as because they fear us. If they were not afraid themselves, then they would have no reason to slander. Because they are afraid, they resort to slander.

When we do not allow other people’s opinions to dictate our behavior, then our enemies lose their weapon of last resort. They should be afraid because they are helpless. From then on, they fear us.

The early Christian church endured terrible slanders, but they were not moved. They continued to preach Christ. It shocked Roman society that the Christians did not seem to care about the slander. In time the actions of the Christians, their good deeds and good qualities, became so well known that people did not believe the slanders. Later, the Romans started to fear the Christians, because the emperors who persecuted believers usually came to bad ends. God takes care of us. We do not have to fear.  

Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people persecute you and despise you, when they say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake, for great is your reward in heaven.” God does not let slander go unanswered or unrewarded.

Persecution is coming in America to Christians—in fact, it is already here. It is not physical persecution or legal persecution, though it is not impossible in the future. The persecution of Christians in America today is that of slander. It is the one kind of persecution that is best dealt with by paying no attention. Stand firm, and it will go away.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Nehemiah 5: Hard Times

We have been following the story of Nehemiah, a butler to king Artaxerxes of Persia, who heard that Jerusalem was in a mess, and got permission from King Artaxerxes to go back to Jerusalem and oversee the rebuilding of its walls. After many trials and over great opposition, he organized the people, fought off their enemies, and completed the repairs of the wall. He did all of this by the end of chapter 4!

Chapter 4, would have been a good end to the book, but there are still 9 chapters to go.

By chapter 5, they were having more problems. A famine devastated the land and people were starving. 

It seems so unfair!

They had just rebuilt the wall. They scared off the enemies that surrounded them. They were well on their way to restoring the temple. They should have been experiencing God’s blessings.  Now instead, their crops were dying in the field, their animals were starving, and their children never had enough to eat.

We tend to think that hard times are an exception to life, that if we only make it through a hard patch things will be all right. But when we get through one hard patch, another one seems to be on the horizon. Troubles roll in like waves in the ocean. No sooner does one challenge pass us, then another is rolling in to take its place. When do we get to experience God’s blessings?

 Life sometimes seems like a cruel joke. You work hard to achieve something good, noble and holy. You’ve done God’s will, or at least you have tried, but you are no better off. Another trouble is always on the horizon.

I see frustrated young pastors. They go off to school and study seven years for the ministry.  Then they go to their first church and run into trouble. In a year or two or three, they drop out of the ministry. The blessings they expected were not there.  I see that in parents. They raise a child to believe in God and to be good. Then, just when they think they’ve done a good job, the child becomes a teenager, and will have nothing to do with God. Instead of a blessing we get heartache. I see it in older people. They get over one illness, just to get another.  I see it in people who take jobs, only to lose them in a month or two. Why does God allow so much trouble in our lives for so long?

We think about trouble too simplistically. Trouble is not a temporary state but the permanent condition of fallen people. Trouble persists as long as our lives persists. Buddha said, “To live is to suffer.” We are going to have problems as long as there is bread in our bodies. Trouble follows us our whole lives.

Sometimes trouble comes from our own mistakes. The Jerusalem famine might have occurred because they planted the wrong crops in the spring, or because they should have had more people farming while others were building the wall. It often takes years for us to experience the result of our wrong choices.  By then, we may have changed our ways, but the consequences still come.

More often trouble comes for no apparent reason. Famines hit even good farmers. We might lose our shirt in the stock market, even if we do everything right.  We might have a heart attack or get cancer even if we’ve taken good care of our health. We did nothing to cause it.

Don’t try to figure out why trouble comes. It comes because the world is a mess. God is in charge, but He is constantly challenging us to grow by allowing trouble. God never removes all trouble from us permanently. He depends upon trouble to keep us growing. We can either see our troubles as a doom or a challenge. That is our choice. 

The people of Jerusalem responded to this new challenge in a manner that is typical of believers today, and that was making a mess of it.

The majority of the people became so desperate that they nearly threw away their futures trying to fix it.

They mortgaged their fields and homes. If they lost their fields, what would they eat in the future? Debt is a form of slavery. We sell our future to pay for the present. Debt is also a form of gambling. We bet that we can pay off the present in the future. But who knows what tomorrow will bring? We may have prosperity or we may have ruin.

They mortgaged their sons and daughters by selling them into indentured servitude. If they lost their kids, what was the point of going on?  When we neglect our kids to make money, we are selling our kids’ happiness to provide for our wants and needs today. 

In hard times we must take stock of what is essential to us. Do we really need all these so-called “necessities?”  Can we live without our televisions and gaming systems?  Do we really need the best and the latest, or can we make do with what we have? We should not sell our children and our futures for current luxuries.

A small group of people—the rich and powerful among them--took advantage of the others. They used the famine as an opportunity to make money through usury.

“Usury” is the sin of making money off other people’s troubles by lending money at a high rate.  “Loansharking” would be a more common term. 

Go down the road in any major city and you will see usury.  It is what goes on in places that say “Payday loans,” “Quick Cash Loans,” and “Title Loans.”  Every day, you receive ads in the mail for credit cards inviting you to borrow money at a high rate of interest. These places are not selling, they are buying your future.  When you deal with them, you are selling pieces of your life. They will keep after you until you pay every last penny.

I do not believe these people are necessarily “greedy.” “Scared” would be a better word. They are concerned with storing up treasures for their future.

Making money is good, but not when we take advantage of the trouble of others, or when we mortgage our futures or our families to acquire it.

Nehemiah 5 suggest better responses to hard times. 

First, we should trust God

In verses 9-12, Nehemiah had a “sit down session” with the moneylenders about their food loans. 

"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?”

Consider what you are doing, Nehemiah says.  You call yourselves God’s people, yet the pagans around you are showing more sense than you. Aren’t you afraid of God?  Don’t you want to please Him more than you want to make money? 

The problem here is not greed or gluttony, but trust. Either you trust God to supply your needs or you don’t. If you do, then you don’t have to break God’s rules to supply your needs. Fear Him, not the famine. God will take care of you if you put Him first.

 God has been with us in the past. He will be with us in the future. When we try to do it our own way, then we just make matters worse.

Second we should Praise God.

The second answer comes from verses12-13


“Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, "In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied!"


At this the whole assembly said, "Amen," and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.”


The leaders repented of their usury. But before they did what they were supposed to do, they praised God.

Praising God is how we remind ourselves that God is in charge. If we do what God wants, but we don’t praise the Lord, then all the anxieties and temptations will stay, even if the problems get better. If we don’t trust Jesus now, then what makes us think we will trust Him in the future unless we first acknowledge that He is trustworthy?

Third, we join others.

Nehemiah’s response to the famine is found in verses 14-18. He did not take advantage of people.  As governor, he was entitled to eat well. Instead, he ate like everyone else. Moreover, those who had nothing found a place at his table. At one time, he had more than a hundred and fifty people regularly dining with him.

Not only did Nehemiah love God, he also loved the people and provided for them.

Our best bank account against hard times are the people we help along the way.  When we care for others, they will care for us. 

Nehemiah curried favor with the people by refusing to put himself first, and by accepting their burdens as his own. In this way, he encouraged others to be generous

People follow their leaders. If their leaders are outgoing, generous and concerned, then they will be the same to each other. 

Our leader is Jesus. As Jesus treated others, so we should treat them. 

God upholds us in times of trouble, and we uphold each other. It’s time to lift each other up, so we can all make it together.