Men of Compassion

Men of Compassion

A Study of Nehemiah

Dr. Jim Denison

Nehemiah 5

With today’s economic woes and worries, we could not have today’s study in a more appropriate setting. We have been called to be men of wisdom, commitment, sacrifice, and courage. Now God will call us to be men of compassion. Who needs your help this week?

See the need (vs. 1-6)

The problems faced by the nation to this point were external: Permission from the king to rebuild the city, and opposition from their enemies in the region. Now Nehemiah comes to the most difficult and disastrous issue of all: Internal conflict. The text begins: “Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers” (v. 1).

“Outcry” translates the Hebrew word used for the cry of the Jews against their Egyptian masters during their slavery in Egypt. This is shortly before the wall was finished in August-September, near the end of the harvest. Creditors were requiring payment of capital and interest on loans. Nehemiah had asked the men to stay in Jerusalem to do the work, leaving their villages. Now an economic crisis resulted, resulting in four problems.

Food shortages: “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain” (v. 2). They had neglected their fields and crops in order to work on the walls, and now were running out of food for their families.

Debt: “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine” (v. 3). As a result, they would have no means to eat in the future. This was like eating the grain for next year’s harvest, or drinking the water needed to prime the pump.

Taxes: “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards” (v. 4). They owed Artaxerxes property taxes, perhaps as much as 40% (the rate in the Persian Empire) and had no means to pay them. So they borrowed from their fellow Jews, at exorbitant rates of interest.

Slavery: “Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons 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” (v. 5). This was permitted by the law, and would last six years: “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything” (Exodus 21:2). But they would have no workers for their fields or a way to be together in the meantime.

Nehemiah’s response: “When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry” (v. 6). This was not the only response he could have made. He could have been frustrated with their complaint. After all, he had sacrificed everything to help them rebuild their city, and was doing what he had promised to do. While they had famine, debt, taxes, and slavery, at least they were a people again.

He could have been apathetic to their plight. None of this was his problem, or would affect him directly. His response was the opposite: “I was very angry.” The word means to feel pain and indignation in one’s very soul.

Jesus gave us the example for showing compassion with those in need. And Acts 3 is one of the greatest biblical teachings on showing compassion.

Start where the need is great; ask God to break your heart with what breaks his heart.

Get involved (vs. 7-13)

Nehemiah started with the debt problem: “You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!” (v. 7c). This was forbidden by the Law: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest” (Exodus 22:25).

Money could be loaned: “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). But interest could not be charged. They were in direct violation of Scripture.

He then confronted the larger assembly: “So I called together a large meeting to deal with them” (v. 7d). He began with his own example: “As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles” (v. 8a). Leviticus 25 gives guidelines for purchasing those who have been sold as slaves; Nehemiah and his leadership team have been doing that for the people.

Then he confronted their actions: “Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!” (v. 8b). With this result: “They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say” (v. 8c).

Now he turned the issue to its greatest significance: the honor of their God. Verse 9: “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?” They had been delivered by the grace of God, and now were defaming his name.

They must change now: “I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them–the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil” (vs. 10-11). They had been charging one percent a month, and were to return even this amount.

With this response: “We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say” (v. 12).

So Nehemiah solidified their decision: “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” (vs. 12-13).

Men of Courage

Men of Courage

A Study of Nehemiah

Dr. Jim Denison

Nehemiah 4

Every day in America: 40 Americans turn 100; 5,800 become 65; and 8,000 try to forget their 40th birthdays. The U.S. government issues 50 more pages of regulations. 20,000 write letters to the president. 13,000 get married, while 6,300 get divorced. Dogs bite 11,000 people, including 20 mail carriers. We eat 75 acres of pizza, 53 million hot dogs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 3,000 tons of candy. We then jog 75 million miles to burn it all off.

So it is in a “normal” day. But these days are anything but normal. Historians are already calling this financial crisis “the Great Recession.” Pre-owned home sales in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area fell 28% from a year ago; Southwest Airlines’ revenues declined in February and are doing the same in March; late mortgage payments are rising in Texas.

Things aren’t much better for pastors: Monday’s Dallas Morning News reported that “authorities charged a South Carolina pastor accused of setting fire to his own church with second-degree arson. Anderson County Fire Chief Billy Gibson said Christopher Daniels, 40, reported a fire at Blue Ridge Baptist Church in Belton when he opened the church for services Sunday morning.” Now it seems that he set the fire himself. Anything to get something moving in the church, I guess.

What makes it hard for you to follow and serve Jesus today? Is it temptation from the enemy? Hardships and fears with regard to the economy and your job? Struggles within your family?

Jesus warned us that in this world we would suffer tribulation (John 16:33). Paul said that we must through much tribulation enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). Following Jesus is always a matter of courage; taking up our cross, getting out of the boat; standing up to the authorities. If you don’t need courage to serve Jesus today, you’re not serving Jesus fully. Here’s what to do when you need such courage this week.

Expect to be ridiculed (vs. 1-6)

The text begins: “When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble–burned as they are?” (vs. 1-2).

“Sanballat the Horonite” was probably from Beth-Horon, a town 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem. A papyri written in 407 B.C., 37 years after the event, tells us that he was the “governor of Samaria,” the region just to the north. He wanted to consolidate his power, and rightly saw the reestablishment of Jerusalem as a significant threat to his agenda.

He ridiculed the Jews in the most public manner, before his ruling cabinet. He spoke before “the army of Samaria,” marshalling them in military maneuvers as a threat to Jerusalem. He called them “feeble,” a word which means to be “withered” or “miserable.”

He claimed that they would not be able to restore their wall or offer sacrifices. They think they can “finish in a day,” before their enemies attack them. Their stones are “burned” by the Babylonians, thus missing the iron which held them together and significantly weakened in their composition.

In short, their project was doomed before it began.

He was joined by “Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side,” meaning that they were partners in leadership. Tobiah added, “What they are building—if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!” (v. 3). A fox (more likely a “jackal”) weighs only a few pounds; one was likely to climb up and over any wall built in that part of the world. If even a fox could destroy their protective walls, what might an invading army do?

Nehemiah’s response was exactly the right thing to do: “Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders” (v. 4-5).

Go to God, first. Do not try to solve your problem yourself, call on your advisors, or negotiate with your enemy. If he had attacked the Samaritan governor, he would have been in violation of the law and would have brought Persian reprisal.

Tell him your specific problem. Ask him for his specific answers, protection, and help.

With this result: “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart” (v. 6).

Nehemiah later wrote that the entire project was completed in 52 days (eight weeks of six days each); this part probably took four weeks to finish. The people knew that God would be their protector and provider. But only because Nehemiah went to God first.

Ridicule is one of the enemy’s tactics against the people of God. What did Goliath do when David came to fight him? “He looked David over and saw that he was only a boy, ruddy and handsome, and he despised him. He said to David, ‘Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. ‘Come here,’ he said, ‘and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!'” (1 Samuel 17:42-44).

Jesus fared no better on the cross: “The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, ‘Prophesy! Who hit you?’ And they said many other insulting things to him” (Luke 22:63-65).

So it has been for all the heroes of the faith: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison” (Hebrews 11:36). When we face challenges, it is human nature to wonder if the fault is ours, if we are to blame. “I am not who I think I am, or who you think I am—I am who I think that you think I am.”

Men of Sacrifice

Men of Sacrifice

A Study of Nehemiah

Dr. Jim Denison

Nehemiah 3

Did you know that deer have no gall bladders? Crocodiles can run rapidly over land but cannot change directly quickly, so if you’re chased by one it is best to run in a zig-zag pattern. Every hour, 12,500 puppies are born in the United States. The Washington Monument sinks six inches every year. The Mona Lisa has no eyebrows. A sneeze can travel as fast as 100 miles an hour.

Sometimes sections of the Bible look at first glance like that—facts with no apparent relevance. Genealogies, long lists of dietary laws. In this lesson we will study the list of the people who helped rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. By my count, 46 different people or groups. Eliashib rebuilt the Sheep Gate; the Fish Gate was rebuilt by the sons of Hassenaah; the west gate was rebuilt by Ralph; and so on. Useless facts? Only until we study them.

We are going to learn about men of sacrifice, men whose commitment to God was so significant that they played a part in one of the most crucial activities in all of biblical history. Without their sacrifice, the story stops here. The nation dies here. God’s redemptive plan ends here. What they did for the Kingdom, we can do for the Kingdom. Your work, your life, your place, your influence plays a role in human history. Do what God calls you to do, and your life will matter for eternity. Where on the wall has God placed you?

Work for God (v. 1)

You know the setting of Nehemiah—the nation was destroyed by Babylon (modern-day Iraq) in 586 B.C. The Persians (modern-day Iran) have overthrown the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return and rebuild their city. Nehemiah, the king’s chief counselor and most important advisor, has been called by God and permitted by the king to lead the rebuilding effort. He has surveyed the damage and assessed the issues. He has called and motivated the people to join him in this work. Without their walls, they cannot have a city or nation. With their walls, their future is secure. Now the work begins.

The first in the story: “Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests went to work and rebuilt the Sheep Gate. They dedicated it and set its doors in place, building as far as the Tower of the Hundred, which they dedicated, and as far as the Tower of Hananel” (Nehemiah 3:1).

The “Sheep Gate” was located at the northeast corner of the city. The repairs began here, and proceeded counterclockwise. We know that the Sheep Gate was located here, because it was near the Pool of Bethesda: “Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesdaa and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades” (John 5:2). Archaeologists have located this pool in the northeastern quadrant of the Old City.

The Sheep Gate was the place where the sheep entered the city to go to market. The principal function of sheep in ancient Israel was for sacrifice. These were the animals whose deaths would atone for the sins of the people and enable them to worship and serve their God. Without a gate for the sheep to come into the city, the sacrificial system could not be restored and the people could not be right with God.

“Eliashib” was the grandson of the high priest when Zerubbabel began rebuilding the city 60 years earlier. As High Priest, he was the spiritual leader of the nation. He was the only man permitted into the Holy of Holies, and that only on the Day of Atonement. If he were Catholic, he would be Pope; if he were Baptist, he would be pastor of our largest church. Yet we find him working at the wall, rebuilding the gate which would be critical to his work. Sawing lumber, driving nails, working alongside the rest of the men of the nation.

With him were “his fellow priests,” the “clergy” of the day. Their typical work was presiding over worship services, making sacrifices, leading the people spiritually. They were the staff of the church, showing up to help pave the parking lot or clean the carpets.

We might understand their interest in rebuilding the Sheep Gate, as it was vital to their work. But these men also worked to rebuild the walls “as far as the Tower of the Hundred, which they dedicated, and as far as the Tower of Hananel.”

“The Tower of the Hundred” was named either for its height, the steps which were necessary to climb it, or a military unit stationed in the area. The “Tower of Hananel” was an adjacent military structure.

The northern side of Jerusalem was the only part of the city not naturally protected by a steep hill. These towers were vital to protecting the city from northern invaders.

This is the only part of the work specifically “dedicated” by the priests to God, both the Sheep Gate and the walls surrounding it. And so we find the priests engaged in “spiritual” work, but also in the “secular” defense of the city as well.

As you know, there is no clergy/laity distinction in the Bible. The “spiritual/secular” division so popular today comes from Greek philosophy, not biblical teaching. See all your work as “spiritual,” as vital to the Kingdom of God. You will speak to people today who will not listen to me. You will impact lives I can never touch.

You are God’s ministers, his priests, sent to rebuild your part of the wall of his Kingdom. Dedicate your life and your work to the God of the universe, for it is his.

Do what it takes

The story continues: “The men of Jericho built the adjoining section, and Zaccur son of Imri built next to them” (v. 2).

“The men of Jericho” came from the oldest city in the world. Jericho was located 15 miles to the southeast of Jerusalem. The climb takes 10 hours or more on foot, ascending 3,000 feet through some of the most difficult and dangerous terrain anywhere in the world. It is no coincidence that the man who was robbed and beaten in the Parable of the Good Samaritan was traveling this road. But these men took the risk and paid the price to do their part.