Nehemiah: Generosity: But Was It the Right Motive?

Sermon by on October 5, 2008

Nehemiah 5:14-19

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The Lord’s Day
Evening

October 5, 2008

Nehemiah 5:14-19

“Generosity: But Was It the Right Motive?”

Dr. Derek W. H.
Thomas

Please be seated. Now turn with me if you would to the book
of Nehemiah, chapter 5, and we’re going to be reading from verse 14 to the end
of the chapter. Now before we read the Scriptures together, let’s look to God in
prayer.

Lord God, this is Your word: the holy Scripture
infallible, inerrant, true in all that it affirms, able to make us wise unto
salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ our Lord, for our instruction,
for our reproof, for our correction in the way of righteousness. Father, help us
now by the outpouring and illuminating work of Your Spirit to read, mark, learn,
and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God’s holy inerrant word:

“Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land
of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the
king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the
governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the
people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even
their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the
fear of God. I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no
land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover, there were
at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the
nations that were around us. Now what was prepared at my expense for each day
was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine
in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the
governor, because the service was too heavy on this people. Remember for my
good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.”

So far God’s holy inerrant word.

Two weeks ago we were in the beginning of Nehemiah 5,
the chapter about bad debts and loan sharks and mortgages at high interest
rates, and fiscal liquidity, economic greed, opportunism…it sounds, doesn’t it,
a bit like the news of the last two weeks? But this is Jerusalem, 445 B.C.

Jerusalem is a troubled city. The problem isn’t
coming now from outside, but within, among the people of the Jews. Brothers and
sisters are oppressing each other. The poor, the blue-collar section of
Jerusalem, are complaining because all this wall-building wasn’t putting food on
the table. The bourgeoisie of Jerusalem, the land owners, were also
complaining. They apparently didn’t have a lot of money. They needed to borrow
capital to buy seed to plant crops. As guarantee for the loan, they were
mortgaging their land. Because the crops were poor (and now they’re facing even
poorer crops because they’re not tending to their crops because they’re building
this wall), they are fearful that they may have to place their children into
work — a form of slavery — to pay off these debts. Their fear is that the
poverty cycle may get their children into perpetual slavery.

And then there were others who were complaining not
so much about fellow Jews demanding, perhaps, high interest for loans that
they’re unable to repay, but the oppressive taxation policy of Assyria that
equally is causing them to go into a debt cycle.

The tension is palpable, and especially when we read
in the previous section that Nehemiah himself perhaps …there was a difference of
opinion as to how to interpret exactly what Nehemiah was saying, but some at
least think that Nehemiah was confessing that he too, as someone who is
relatively well-off (he is, after all, the governor, the Persian governor in
Jerusalem)…and he too perhaps had been loaning to those in need at a certain
interest rate. That point is disputed.

He’s gathered the men (and leaders especially)
together. They’ve banged heads together…not that usury is wrong, although Old
Testament economics said that you couldn’t charge interest on loans to people
who are poor, but charging interest in and of itself was not wrong. But — and we
all know from the past two weeks — there was a crisis: a crisis seemingly
economically that could bring the city of Jerusalem down. And he urges the
people to charge no interest, to give back any land that they may have acquired
in the process.

And now in verse 14, it’s twelve years later. This is
a section that is chronologically out of sequence. Nehemiah — as he’s writing
the book of Nehemiah from his political memoirs (and every politician keeps
memoirs, and Nehemiah is a politician and he’s kept his memoirs), he’s giving
now further evidence of just what a servant heart had motivated that previous
decision to charge no usury, and he’s now giving, as it were, an example of how
that attitude prevailed for the next twelve years.

I want us to see three or four things in this
little section.

I. Self-denial.

The first thing I want us to see is self-denial.
He’s been made the governor. Now when he first came back to Jerusalem, he was
not the governor — at least we don’t think so. But somewhere in the next twelve
years, he was made governor. Perhaps after the wall was finished he went back to
Susa, was commissioned as the governor (he’d done such a fabulous job in the
eyes of Artaxerxes perhaps). He was sent back to Jerusalem as the governor. It’s
a conjecture.

But as a governor he has a mansion. As a governor he
has an entourage of civil servants; there is mention here of 150 of them. He has
a stipend. He has a food allowance…a food allowance, you understand, that didn’t
come from the purse of King Artaxerxes, but it was a food allowance that was
levied upon the people. He had the right as governor to levy taxes; to levy
taxes and collect taxes not only for King Artaxerxes, his boss, but he had the
right as governor to collect taxes for his own office, for the needs of the
governorship of Jerusalem. Some of these taxes would go to pay for the repair of
infrastructure in Jerusalem. Perhaps some of it would even go towards the repair
of this wall that was being built. And some of it would have been utilized for
paying for these day to day expenses of entertainment, of feeding 150 civil
servants and what appears to be an entourage of foreign dignitaries, probably
from Egypt, who would be heading towards Susa and the capital of the Assyrian
Empire and would stop in Jerusalem along the way. And as the governor of the
city, he would be responsible for providing them with hospitality. But he tells
us in no uncertain terms that he did not levy this taxation on the people. He
did not take what was his right.

Now it’s important for us to see a principle here.
Nehemiah isn’t saying that it was wrong for him to levy this food allowance, to
raise this tax. He’s simply saying that he chose not to do so.
He denied
himself his right. He denied himself the privilege of his office. It’s an
important principle. It’s exactly the same principle that Paul is elaborating in
I Corinthians 9. He wants to speak about Christian liberty, but he tells the
Corinthians in I Corinthians 9 that there are certain things that are his right
as an apostle, as a preacher of the gospel. He has a right to live off the
gospel. Ligon and I live off the gospel. We live off your generosity. We live
off part of your tithe that you give to the church. We are full-time ministers
of the gospel. [Actually, I have two jobs, so my illustration is now falling
apart! But you understand!] Let me just say this about Ligon, then.

Paul is saying, in I Corinthians 9, that as an
apostle he had the right to expect to be supported. He had the right because he
had been set apart by the church. He had been commissioned by Jesus Christ as an
apostle. He had a right to expect the people of God to support him, to give him
sufficient to enable him to do the work of ministry without worrying about
worldly cares. [There’s a marvelous little expression that…eludes me now!] But
he chose especially in Corinth not to do that. You remember when he was in
Corinth, he worked. He was a tent maker. He made tents. He worked. I have no
idea how many hours a day he would work. One imagines that probably he would
work early in the morning. There would probably be a lunch time meeting in the
lecture room of Tyrannus in Corinth where he would put aside his daily vocation
of tent making and he would give himself now for perhaps two or three hours
during siesta time in Corinth. That room was available for gospel ministry. You
understand what Paul is saying.

It’s exactly what Nehemiah is saying here. He had the
right to levy taxes. He had the right as governor to demand of the people. It’s
fascinating. I was reading some archeological background to the book of
Nehemiah. [Some of it was deadly dull, I have to say.] But I came across some
artifact — or at least, pictures of artifacts, utensils dated to this period of
the fifth century B.C., and they were believed to be the utensils in which these
taxes would be collected, perhaps at certain gatherings. Perhaps when the people
of God would gather together in some communal setting there would be these
utensils that would be sent around for the gathering of this money.

It’s an example of self-denial. It’s a Jesus-like
attitude, isn’t it? You remember what is said of Jesus by Paul in Philippians 2:

“Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but
He made Himself of no reputation.”

He humbles Himself; He denies Himself. Deity was His
right; to sit as it were on the throne of heaven was His right. It was His
privilege; it was His prerogative, because He was God. But He denied himself
that right. And Nehemiah is saying, ‘That’s what I did. I denied myself my
rights.’

Now we live in an age that is terribly self-conscious
about rights. Our little children are aware of what is their right. They can
very easily demand something as a right. But here’s a Christian principle, a
Christian principle that is exemplified in the life and character of Nehemiah.
He sacrificed his rights. He engaged in self-denial. It’s a beautiful thing.
It’s a Jesus-like thing, and oh, for more of it among you and me, that we might
deny ourselves our rights for the sake of others!

II. Generosity.

The second thing I want us to see here is
generosity.
It follows from what we’ve just been saying, but I want to see
this as a separate thing and I want to focus on it.

There’s a spirit of generosity about Nehemiah. He
tells us (verse 18) what it cost him. An ox…this is a daily requirement to feed
these 150 men and the entourage of diplomats that would stay in the governor’s
palace perhaps…an ox and six choice sheep, and fowl of some kind, and every ten
days all kind of wine in abundance. “Yet for all this, I did not demand the food
allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people.”

He’s generous! This would have cost a significant
amount of money, which he evidently paid out of his own purse. He tells us about
previous governors who demanded forty shekels of silver as a daily ration. Now,
translating that into today is notoriously a difficult thing to do, but this
much at least we should understand: that it’s meant to be a figure that brings a
level of surprise. It’s a figure that tells us something of the exorbitant
demand that was being levied upon the people just to administer this provision.
And Nehemiah pays for it himself. There’s a spirit of generosity about him.

That’s a biblical principle. Paul in many places in
the New Testament (in I Timothy 6:18) pleads for Christians to be generous and
to be ready to share. Luke describes Cornelius in Acts 10 as “giving alms
generously.” Again, in that passage in II Corinthians 9, Paul thanks the
Corinthians because of their generosity. “Each one must give as he has means, as
he has made up his mind; not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a
cheerful giver.” [Well, yes, this is Stewardship Season. The text landed in my
lap, so let me apply it.] Here’s an example of a man who has certain rights, but
he denies himself those rights and out of his own pocket, for the sake of the
kingdom of God, for the sake of the Old Testament church, he gives — and he
gives generously. He gives…what was Elder Harper’s term in the prayer?
“Hilariously.” There’s a measure of enthusiasm here about what he has done, so
much so that he’s actually recorded it for us. He wants us to see this.

Christians of all people should be generous. We who
have received so much…I didn’t have the right bulletin this evening, so I wasn’t
able to sing How Deep the Father’s Love for Us. It’s a deeply moving
hymn. I love those words. There’s a certain section of it that bring tears to my
eyes. I can’t sing a certain line of it. If you follow the words of that hymn,
emotionally with that tune it really does something to me. We have experienced
the love of God. We have experienced the propitiary work of Christ on our
behalf. Of all the people in the world, we ought to be generous!

III. Nehemiah’s motives.

But what were Nehemiah’s motives? He mentions
two of them. Why the spirit of self-sacrifice? Why the spirit of generosity?

He tells us in the first place, in verse 15,
because of the fear of God.
Because of the fear of God…. It tells us
something about Nehemiah, doesn’t it? About the way he viewed his life, about
the way he lived his life: he’s a man who lived with God before him every day.
He lived in the fear of God. He lived reverencing God. He lived with God before
his eyes, with God before his heart, with God in his affections. He took the
word of God seriously. He loved it, he treasured it. He hid it within his heart.

You know, when you fear God it changes everything.
Ligon was reminding us this morning about Acts 2. He’d mentioned Acts 6, about
the way deacons embryonically come into being in the New Testament, and he took
us back to the time of Pentecost. And immediately after Pentecost you remember
the Christians shared everything. They had all things in common, not because of
communism, but this was a voluntary act on their part because…well, Luke tells
us why. Immediately after that section in Acts 2 where Luke says, “And they
continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and in the apostles’ fellowship,
and in the apostles’ breaking of bread, and in the prayers,” Luke tells us
immediately after that that “fear came upon every soul.” Fear came upon every
soul — they lived with an apprehension of the greatness and the glory of God. I
think…let me put it this way. For Nehemiah, God was real. He was more than just
a philosophical principle. He was more than just something to argue about over
the water cooler on a Monday morning. God was real to him! God filled his
vision! God filled his life! He understood that there was coming a day when he
would have to give an account before God. I think that’s why he was so generous.
I think he grasped the point that “here we have no continuing city, but we seek
one which is to come, whose builder and maker is God.” What better things can
you do with your provisions than give them to the Lord, and for the service of
the Lord?

But there’s a second motivation. Not only did he
fear God, but do you notice (at the end of verse 18) this is sheer compassion
for the people.
Because the service was too heavy on this people, he didn’t
demand this tax as other governors had done, because the people couldn’t bear
it; because they were groaning because they were in distress, because they were
hurting. His heart responded to the hurt of the people of God. He loved the
people. He was their governor. He had political authority over them, but he
loved them and he had a shepherd-like heart. He has compassion.

And then there’s this prayer. I wonder what you
make of it.
“Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for
this people.”
I wonder what you make of that.

I have to tell you, I have…oh, I don’t know…25
commentaries on Nehemiah. I consult them all. Some of them are not worth
consulting very long, I have to tell you, but I glance at them all! I glance at
some of them several times to try and see what exactly they thought about
Nehemiah. I’ll tell you what some of them think about Nehemiah: that he’s a
self-righteous prig…he’s drawing attention to himself. Some (with an agenda, to
be sure) remind us that he’s a politician. He’s writing his memoirs. He wants to
be remembered well in history, so he’s telling us all the great accomplishments
because history may not be kind to him. So he is kind to himself. Well, it’s a
misunderstanding of Nehemiah.

Is it ever right to bring before God the works that
you do and say, ‘Lord, I’ve done this thing and I’ve done it for you. Now bless
it’? Turn back with me just for a little experiment…no, you have to turn
forward. Turn forward to Psalm 35, and let’s take as an example verse 24:

“Vindicate me, O Lord, my God,

According to Your
righteousness….”

Now I’m tempted to ask, “Hands up, those of you who
have ever prayed a prayer like that.” I venture to think that not many. Doesn’t
sound right, does it? I don’t want God to vindicate me according to His
righteousness; if God deals with me according to His righteousness, according to
His justice, I have no hope! Isn’t that the problem that Luther had that made
him begin to hate the righteousness of God? It’s not “remember me according to
Your righteousness” that we pray; we pray, “Lord, remember me according to Your
mercy.”

But we confuse two things. We confuse retributive
righteousness and remunerative righteousness,
and what we have here is the
latter. Let me explain. The psalmist (and for that matter, Nehemiah in his
prayer) isn’t praying this prayer saying, ‘Lord, remember all the things that I
have done and vindicate me. See my good works and reward me so that I may be
justified in Your sight.’ That’s not what the psalmist is saying. That’s not
what Nehemiah is saying. He’s already been justified. He’s already in a right
relationship. He has trusted by faith in the covenant promise, and what Nehemiah
is praying is ‘Deal with me according to the terms of Your covenant.’

Now what had God said in His covenant? Well, broadly
speaking, what God had said in His covenant was that He would reward and bless
certain behavior and He would rebuke and chastise certain ill behavior; that
within the covenant, within a right relationship with himself, He expects us to
do good works.

It’s exactly the point of James, and I think that
what Nehemiah is doing here — although I think it probably makes us a little
nervous that what Nehemiah is saying, ‘Lord, what I did, I did with honesty…at
least with as much honesty as I’m capable of.’ He’s not saying ‘I’m sinless.’
Because even if I have sinned, I still want You to deal with me according to
Your righteousness, because what does the righteousness of God’s covenant say?
That there is forgiveness with God, that He may be feared. We take our sins and
we take them to Jesus Christ. We take our failures and we take them to the
cross, and we say, “Wash me of all my sins and iniquities, but these are things
that I have done, and I have done them for You, and I’ve done them for the cause
of the kingdom of God, and I want You, Lord, to see them. I want You to bless
them.”

I wonder what you think of Nehemiah’s prayer. It’s
not the {last} time that we’re going to see this prayer. We’re going to see it
again in chapter 13, so we’ll have a little quiz on retributive and remunerative
righteousness when we come to chapter 13 of Nehemiah!

“Remember for my good, O my God…” — he already knows God — “…all that I have
done for this people.”

IV. Application.

Now what’s it teaching us tonight? Well, two
quick things.

Firstly, that we ought to be generous. Yes, I
think it’s teaching us that. We ought to be generous. Is there a way in which
you can be more generous than you are? Of course there is. Well, let this word,
let this passage, let this chapter, let the example of the life of Nehemiah have
its way with us. Let’s ask ourselves in the course of this week and in the
course of this stewardship season, let’s ask ourselves, “How can I exemplify
more of the spirit of generosity in a particular way, in a very practical way?
What is that way? What is that practical way that I can demonstrate the spirit
of generosity, because it’s a Jesus-like spirit?”

But secondly, it teaches us this: that like
Nehemiah, we need to live in the presence of God.
The one single most
powerful motivation in Nehemiah’s life was the fear of God. He lived Coram
Deo

C. T. Studd…let me close with this quotation. C. T.
Studd says that if Jesus is God and died for me, no sacrifice is too great for
me to make for Him.

Let’s pray together.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures, and we
pray that You would write them now upon our hearts and have Your way with us,
for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.


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