The Lord preserved me from a lot of heartache by keeping me single throughout high school. However, it wasn’t for a lack of interest. I remember somewhere near the end of my sophomore year, talking to a girl I was interested in getting to know better. She was sharing with me her excitement about going to Summer Camp because it always brought her closer to God. I asked her why she felt the need to wait several months for Summer Camp before drawing near to God. The conversation abruptly ended and I’m pretty sure that was the last time I spoke to her.
I had grown skeptical of “mountain top experiences” in the years I belonged to Jr. High and High School Youth Groups. You know what “mountain top experiences” are right? They are spiritual encounters you have whenever you get away from the noise of the city and focus your attention solely upon your spiritual life. They are generally characterized by deeply emotional responses including professions of faith and rededications.
The problem I had come to learn over the years was that—for many people—those responses were short-lived. We call them “mountain top experiences” because they feel like life transforming encounters, but they are prone to fade like the face of Moses once we return to the valley. I may not have been the most tactful Christian in high school, but I think I was right about this one…
Nehemiah seems to come full circle in this chapter. Last week, we saw what appears to be his admission of guilt in Judah’s corrupt lending practices (10). But here we find him to be entirely generous with his resources. He does not accept the benefits afforded to him as governor because of the undue burden it would have placed upon the people.
Not only do we see Nehemiah’s repentance, but we also see a similar response from those he has just rebuked!
Unfortunately, it is all too common for the people of God to pay lip service to the spiritual purposes of God. Emotional reactions of faith and repentance are not only few and far between, but they are oftentimes short-lived.
Unlike “mountain top experiences,” if repentance is a way of life, The fruit of true repentance should always characterize the believers walk with God.
Read Nehemiah 5:1-19.
The Promise of the Rich (12-13)
Possibly the most remarkable aspect of this passage is the way the social elites respond to these accusations. They actually had consciences. They felt conviction for sin. God had apparently softened their hearts to respond to Nehemiah’s rebuke with complete agreement. Not only would they restore everything they had taken, but they would cancel the debts as well (12).
Nehemiah doesn’t stop there. He calls upon these nobles and officials to take a ceremonial oath before the priests (12b). He doesn’t merely take their word for it, he ensures that the whole city understands the promise that had been made. In other words, there was now social and religious accountability for these men to follow through on their promise.
Beyond that, Nehemiah calls a curse upon them should they go back on their commitment. He grab his garment where it had been folded over to form a pocket and shook it out in front of everyone so that the contents would fall out. As he demonstrated this gesture he said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied” (13a). May these nobles and officials lose their homes and jobs and be left with nothing if they go back on their word!
Once again, the people responded with agreement. In fact, “all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the Lord” (13b). This is a picture of true repentance. Not only were they correcting the physical wrongs they had done against their neighbor, but they also recognized the spiritual sins they had committed against God.
They are so convicted of their sin that they praised the Lord in response to a curse that had been called upon them. They agreed with Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend…” They understood that Nehemiah’s rebuke was justified. They promised to correct their injustice, then they followed through and did everything they agreed to do (13c).
We learn a lot about repentance from this passage. It begins with a readiness to accept a true sense of our sin and it concludes with a full purpose toward new obedience.
Being good at repentance is not the goal in business. You should not follow Nehemiah’s example when you get the most dreaded interview question: What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? Instead of admitting your weakness, you should couch in language that makes it sound like another strength. The best answers go something like this: “I would have to say my greatest strength can also be my greatest weakness. Because I care so much about success, I can overextend myself in my professional career.”
Unfortunately, that tends to be our approach before God as well. We know we should repent of our ongoing sinfulness, but we either downplay the depths of our sin (“At least I’m not like _____.”) or we minimize what repentance entails (“I’m sorry…”). We view sin as something we must learn to live with.
Christians have a reputation of loudly chastising the world for its open immorality, all the while indulging in secret immorality. For instance, we might express a righteous disdain for same-sex attraction in public while coddling a growing addiction to pornography in private. For Nehemiah, it seems the danger was rebuking their love of money while justifying his own greed.
Whatever your situation, the solution is not to go silent about all sin, but to recognize your own guilt. That is where it started for Paul. He continued to do the evil that he did not want to do (Rom 7:19). It was not until he cried out for deliverance through Jesus Christ that he could declare:
Romans 8:1–4 ESV
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
God accomplished for us what we did not do for ourselves, in order to fulfill in us what we could not fulfill on our own.
When the Holy Spirit provides us with the combination of a true sense of our sin and an apprehension of the mercy of God held out to us in Christ, we will be filled with a growing hatred of our sin and an increasing endeavor after new obedience.
› That is why the promise of the rich is followed by…
The Example of the Governor (14-19)
Nehemiah became the governor of Judah in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes (14a), which was also when the king gave him permission to return (2:1). He had served in that position for twelve years. Nehemiah is reflecting upon his overall time as governor and showing how he exemplified the generosity he was calling the nobles and officials to show.
This reflection is intentionally inserted at this point for stylistic purposes. We might consider it a footnote or parenthetical statement in an otherwise typically chronological timeline. Nehemiah was unlike previous governors who added their own taxes—to pay for administrative costs, local projects, and accumulate wealth for themselves—on top of collecting the king’s tax.
Before Nehemiah explains how he acted, he first distinguishes himself from the previous governors by describing what he did not do. He highlights his refusal to take a food allowance from the people that was generally alloted to the governor (14b). This was unlike Judah’s former governors who took “forty shekels of silver” for—or in addition to—their daily bread and wine ration (15a). It is unclear if the each citizen was required to pay forty shekels of silver, or if that was the amount spent by the governor each day. Regardless, it was an exorbitant amount of money.
Every governor had an entourage of servants and they were also prone to lording it over the people. Nehemiah ensured that his servants treated the people with respect (15b).
He did this because he feared God unlike his predecessors. The fear of God led Nehemiah to a love for his country and fellow countrymen. Those officials who mistreated and took advantage of their citizens had no fear of God. The same reverence with which we enter into corporate worship, is the reverence that leads us to conduct ourselves lovingly toward others.
Next Nehemiah provides examples of his generosity. In fact, Nehemiah had his servants working on the wall with the people rather than devoting their attention to the duties surrounding his governorship (16). Nehemiah’s administration did not acquire any land because their interest was in the preservation of the people, not personal prosperity at the people’s expense.
Not only was Nehemiah generous in the use of his and his servants time, he was hospitable to a large group of Jews, officials, and foreigner dignitaries (17). It certainly was not cheap to feed this large group every day. Still, he served the best food available at his own expense (18). He was not governing them to further his own reputation, but he sacrificially served them and promoted their good.
Some scholars have questioned whether Nehemiah’s statement at the end of this chapter reveals a prideful and self-congratulatory spirit. Has he pointed out his generosity simply to request the Lord’s favor (19)?
It is easy to find something to criticize if you search for it. We might like to think that we would never say something like this in a prayer to God—but that reveals our proneness toward false humility. Maybe you think Nehemiah should have said that he did all of this for God’s glory. Since he only mentioned his own good, we question his motivation?
Nehemiah concludes the book with more prayers like this. He mentions several reforms he instituted during his time in office and asks the Lord to “Remember me, O my God, for good” (Neh 13:14, 22, 31).
These are not self-congratulatory prayers. The Lord knows his heart. He is acknowledging the fruit of a sincere faith and entrusting his work to the Lord—even though the evidence of the fruit is not so obvious on surface. He boldly says, “I did what you asked me to do.”
This passages reveals the importance of generosity. It is something a leader promotes from his office and exemplifies in his lifestyle.
Something that I have consistently witnessed since being in pastoral ministry, is the tendency for the most generous people to be those who are the most unassuming and the least demanding. I was genuinely surprised by this. I had always assumed that the biggest givers would be like political lobbyists. I figured I would have to be on guard around them, anticipating that they had some agenda behind their gift. I’m happy to say that I could not have been more wrong.
Generous people do not only give freely of their treasures, but they are the first to offer their time, and their talents as well. In fact, I would say it is rare to find someone who is generous with their money, but stingy with their time.
Matthew 6:21 ESV
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the gift of true repentance results in a generous character. Are you generous with the resources and talents God has granted? How might your generosity increase? Repentance involves honestly assessing areas of ongoing weakness and seeking the Spirit’s work in transforming it into a strength.
A lively faith is always accompanied by a fruitful repentance (Jam 2:14-17). Generosity doesn’t have a percentage attached to it. God doesn’t set the bar so high that you continually fail to clear it in frustration. He simply says to give cheerfully, not reluctantly (2 Cor 9:7).
There is no higher motivation than the gospel of grace!
2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
And that same grace is sufficient to reveal his perfect power in your weakness (2 Cor 12:9). It is a power vastly superior to your temptation, which means that it does not have to be short-lived. Bring your sin before Christ in honest repentance and receive the life transforming grace of a generous Savior!