Wealth, Poverty, and the Fear of the Lord

Pastor Kyle McIver

Wealth, Poverty, and the Fear of the Lord
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Sermon Text: Nehemiah 5

Think about a moment in your life when you were deeply focused on something important. Your attention was directed at a single task, driving toward accomplishing a particular goal. Perhaps it was finals week recently for some of our college students, or maybe a deadline for a significant project that you lead at work. Or could be a house project you’re working to complete before the school year ends and your schedule changes significantly. And as you’re relishing the joy of productivity, something goes wrong. A girl on your floor needs to talk about a difficult relationship. A colleague didn’t complete their tasks which in turn throws a wrench into your team’s progress. Or a sick child needs to stay home for a few days, and your time to focus on that house project evaporates.

I think we’ve all experienced something like this to one degree or another. We can identify with an interruption, a problem that arises which pulls our attention away from an all-important goal. And Nehemiah can identify with us too. As we hit chapter five together this evening, Nehemiah has been laser-focused on the work of completing the wall. He himself is dedicated to the work, and he is rallying God’s people to likewise give themselves wholly to this all-important task. But then there arises an outcry from the people. Something is wrong within the covenant community of, and it is going to require much of Nehemiah’s attention in the midst of continuing construction on the walls of Jerusalem.

So as we get into chapter five together tonight, here’s the simple outline:

  1. The people’s outcry
  2. Nehemiah’s response
  3. Nehemiah’s example

Once we’ve walked through those three points, we’re going to make applications toward one of the central themes in this passage: money and wealth.

Before we get into the passage, let’s pray and ask for God’s help:

Father - we ask for ears to hear and eyes to see. You speak to us and build us up through your Word, and we need to hear from you. We need to be built up and strengthened by your grace. Please work in us tonight by your Spirit we ask, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Alright, let’s take a look at our first point together, the people’s outcry. This is right away in the first verse of chapter five, and what we see are three different statements from the people. The first significant detail to notice here is that these statements, these cries for help, are directed against their Jewish brothers. This is not outside oppression or opposition like we saw in chapter four with the opposition to the wall. This is internal - this is a family issue, a problem directly within the covenant community.

The first statement, which comes in verse 2, is very brief: With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive. And what we see here is that the people are hungry. The first sound of this outcry is the rumbling of empty stomachs. Men and their wives were desperate to provide food for their families. And there are a few elements at play here which together have created this hunger problem amongst the people. The first one with the statement we just read is that, in all likelihood, the focus on building the wall was siphoning time and energy away from those same people working their fields.

We’ve seen thus far in this book the central significance of the wall for the identity and protection of God’s people, but here we also see the very human, earthy reality that time and resources are finite. Going all out to build the wall inevitably means other endeavors will slow, other important aspects of community life will take a back seat. This first outcry demonstrates the tension, the added pressure that the people are facing because of the significant effort and focus required to rebuild the wall.

Now let’s look at the second outcry, which we see in verse 3: We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine. So not only was there the added pressure and constraint of maximizing efforts to build the wall, there was also a famine in the land. Time and energy to cultivate crops was short to begin with, and now the land and the weather are making the situation that much more difficult by adding the complexity of a food shortage to the already trying circumstances.

As a result, the people are forced to sell the deeds and ownership to their land in order to obtain grain. And this is devastating for the people - losing ownership and control of their land is economically crippling for these families. So the situation is dire, and we’re about to see one more layer which makes it even worse.

The final of these three outcries comes in the second half of verse 4, and to sum it up for you, many of God’s people have had to borrow money and even sell themselves and their children into slavery to afford the kings tax. The loss of their fields and being forced to sell their children into slavery has left many in a truly desparate position. And remember that the one’s buying these children as slaves are not a foreign power or enemy invader - this is all happening within the covenant community. God’s people are buying and selling God’s people. Some out of desperation, and others in a deeply unjust greed for personal gain.

So the people have cried out amidst deep suffering and oppression at the hands of their own Jewish brothers. And these cries reach Nehemiah, which brings us to our second point, Nehemiah’s response. Listen to verse 6: I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. When was the last time you were angry? What was the situation? I confess that my anger is often much less noble than Nehemiah’s. Anger often springs in our hearts when we are wronged, or at least perceive that we’ve been wronged. Our anger often arises as a self-defense mechanism, as a means to protect ourselves and vindicate our sense that someone has wronged us. In Nehemiah’s case, he is very angry, but not because of anything that was done to him personally. He feels righteous anger, holy indignation because of what has been done to the weak and vulnerable amongst God’s people.

There are times when it is good to be angry. When we see legitimate oppression, the weak and needy being taken advantage of, our hearts should not be cold and distant. But we must still walk in wisdom, which is exactly what we see here with Nehemiah. Listen to verse 7: I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. Now before we get to those charges, take note of that first phrase, that Nehemiah took counsel with himself. That phrase, “I took counsel with myself” literally means “his heart was ruled” - he got himself under control. His righteous anger drove him to action, but not foolishness. Wisdom channels passionate emotions like righteous anger to productive action.

So he’s checked himself, examined his own heart in light of the situation before him, and then he acts. He brings charges against the nobles and officials, saying, “You are exacting interest, each from his brother.” So what exactly is going on here with this charge? The translation seems to have been tricky when it comes to the phrase “exacting interest”. Here’s what one commentator noted on this phrase within the passage:

The terms here and in verse 10 mean, at their simplest, “lending” (not “exacting”) and “a loan” (not “interest”). But the words implied a strict business relationship, and Nehemiah’s charge is therefore that (in our terms) the lenders were behaving like pawnbrokers - and harsh ones at that - instead of like brothers. They were lending only with the best of cover and, in their case, with the worst of motives. It was quite legal to demand a material pledge against a loan… But in hard times legal rights, to say nothing of wrongs, can deal mortal blows.

That is so helpful in understanding the charge here against the wealthy amongst God’s people. They were transacting business in a manner not marked with care and concern for a fellow brother, but as a shrewd and even harsh businessman concerned only with profit. The manner of their dealings was putting their own people’s lives and livelihoods at risk. They were getting wealthy very directly off the impoverishment of others. They saw this, and proceeded to deal in this way heedless of the devastating effect on their fellow citizens.

So then Nehemiah takes his accusations one step further. We see at the end of verse 7 that he gathers a great assembly against these men, and levels another charge in verse 8: We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!” So not only are some of God’s people dealing corruptly in their normally legal transactions, they’ve descended all the way to buying and selling their own people.

Note that at first, it sounds like there was a noble act embedded here - when they returned from exile God’s people were buying back their brothers and sisters who had been sold into slavery so that they might return home and regain their freedom. But now there is buying and selling not stemming from a noble heart of rescue, but from a dysfunctional heart of greed, operating well outside God’s commands for his covenant community.

And before this great crowd, those whom Nehemiah is bringing these accusations against know they are guilty. At the end of verse 8 we see that they were silent and could not find a word to say. And from here, in verses 9-13, Nehemiah calls these men to repent: to turn away from exacting interest of their brothers, from taking ownership of their fellow citizens’ fields, vineyards, orchards, and houses, and from the interest they’ve been taking in the sale of grain, wine and oil.

Listen to how Nehemiah begins this call to repentance in verse 9: The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? The standard for God’s people is set by God himself. These men need to walk in accordance with God’s word - they need to recognize his glory and his authority and submit to it in both their posture toward their neighbor as well as their personal finances. Don’t let it escape your notice that the way God’s people handle their money reflects on God’s character and goodness to the watching world. We’ll come back to this a bit later when we get to application for our passage.

Now as the rest of this section progresses, the people respond. Those who are guilty of exacting interest and oppressing their own people repent - they commit to giving back the possessions and money they’ve acquired by means of dealing in ways contrary to God’s law, and then follow through and do so - that’s the end of verse 13, where we read: And the people did as they had promised.

And then the passage shifts. The focus moves from the outcry of the people and Nehemiah’s handling of the situation to Nehemiah’s own dealings and the way he navigated his finances and dealings over a 12 year period governing Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king. He explains that in the past, governors required the people of the city to fund the food supply for the governor and his household and guests. It was a heavy burden on the people. But Nehemiah rejects this practice, saying in verse 15 that he did not do so because of the fear of God.

Instead of lording his position over the people, he not only gave up his right as governor to be supported by the people, he remained dedicated to building the wall, both he and his servants. He wasn’t aloof from the people living comfortably off their labor - he was forgoing his right to live at their expense while personally investing himself in the labor at the wall and the well-being of the people.

And then he shares a very interesting detail - look at verses 17-18: 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. Nehemiah is feeding 150 people with an ox, six choice sheep, birds, and fine drinks. He’s doing this daily. And remember the time period in view at the start of this section, in verse 14? 12 years!

So Nehemiah, at his own expense over 12 years has supplied an ox, six sheep, a variety of birds, and drinks for 150 people. Every day! For those of you curious about the math, 12 years providing feasts at this rate comes out to 4,380 oxen and 26,280 sheep - besides all of the birds and wine and other drinks! That is a staggering amount of food and drink! And this tells us two very simple things about Nehemiah: he was wealthy, and he was generous. You can accurately say that Nehemiah was fabulously wealthy. And that he was also extremely generous.

Now that we’ve reached the end of chapter 5, I have two questions raised by this text that I want us to answer together. This gets us into the application, and we’re going to focus primarily on money and finances in application tonight, since that is what much of this passage is specifically addressing.

First, what governs your financial decisions? We saw in our passage that after leveling specific charges against the guilty parties, Nehemiah summarizes that they have not been operating out of a fear of the Lord. God’s people know God’s commands by means of God’s Word. And in the case of our passage, there are clear commands found in places such as Exodus 22, Leviticus 25, and Deuteronomy 23 (we’re not going to look those over tonight), which clearly condemn the behavior of those who were taking advantage of their fellow brothers and sisters.

God cares about how we relate to money. Yet I think many of us are shy when it comes to talking about personal finances. Perhaps it feels uncomfortable when your pastor speaks about money. This is understandable, but also an interesting take since the Bible is undeniably not shy in speaking about money. Personal finance and managing money needs to be part of our discipleship! Growing in wisdom and maturity ought to include learning how to steward the finances that God has given to you. So church, I want to exhort you to take your finances seriously. Study what the Bible has to say about money, read some good books, talk with someone who is wise with finances. The sheer volume of verses in the Bible addressing money highlights that we must approach it with great care - with the fear of the Lord - so that we may steward it well.

Our second question, building off the first, is this: how should we think about wealth? As I look around and observe our culture, our politics, and our news cycle, I see two prevalent approaches to wealth. The first demonizes wealth. When I listen to some of the mainstream voices on the political left, or perhaps those associated with social justice movements - whether those individuals or groups identify with Christianity at all or not - I see a push against wealth. Those who think along these lines often view the accumulation of wealth as morally questionable, if not wrong. This perspective also gives rise to social and political positions concerned with the redistribution of wealth, citing moral concerns both about the accumulation of wealth and the well-being of the poor.

Now if we look at this through the lens of the Bible, there are some valid points here. We should care about the poor. We should give thought to the well-being of our neighbors, including how they might become financially stable if they are not at present. Consider also 1 Timothy 6:9-10: But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. Are there grounds to be concerned about the accumulation of wealth? Certainly! And at the same time, note that this passage does not condemn money or wealth itself. The specific target of this pointed passage is the desire to be rich. It does not condemn money or wealth itself - it warns against the heart’s posture toward such wealth.

Listen to how this is balanced just a few verses later in 1 Timothy 6:17-18: As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. Again, we certainly see no condemnation of wealth in this passage. God richly provides us with everything to enjoy! Wealth is viewed in this passage as not just a monetary currency, but a currency by which one can do good - be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.

There is an affirmation of the value of wealth, but we also see a warning. If one common approach to wealth demonizes it, the other common approach worships it! How many men and women have sacrificed the good of their marriages, children, churches, and health in order to accumulate wealth? Careers often serve as a means to financial success, which then unlocks a lifestyle of lavish living, unnecessary spending, and indulgent consumption. This also misses the mark. Money is not evil, but it’s also not God.

So I bring us back to the question, how should we think about wealth? I have five statements for you that build toward what I think we can see as the highpoint of everything we’ve looked at tonight:

Wealth is not evil. Nehemiah was incredibly wealthy, yet there is no mention of guilt or repentance in Nehemiah 5 when it comes to his wealth.

Money is not worthy of your worship. Those who desire to be rich - who orient their hearts and lives around money and the accumulation of wealth - fall into a snare and pierce themselves with many pangs.

Poverty is not as simple as we often make it out to be. There are many reasons that individuals and families struggle with finances. The book of Proverbs, for example, condemns the lazy person who has no resources because they refuse to work. On the other hand, we see in Nehemiah 5 that circumstances outside of your control - such as famine, taxes, and oppressive behavior from those in power - can indeed conspire to inflict poverty and financial hardship on hard-working, well-meaning people. It is irresponsible to speak of poverty one-dimensionally - either that poverty is always the result of oppression and injustice, or on the other hand that poverty is only caused by laziness and irresponsible behavior.

Wealth is likewise multi-dimensional. Nehemiah 5 gives us two sides to wealth: accumulation through oppression and injustice on the one hand, but on the other extravagant wealth apart from injustice put to work for the good of those around you. If we are going to stick close to the Bible - and we are - we cannot simply say that wealth is wrong. And, the Bible is also very honest that the presence of wealth brings with it a host of temptations and complications that we ignore to our own great risk.

Wealth is not ultimate. Lack of wealth does not condemn you to a life of inescapable misery, while the presence of wealth is not a fool proof path to happiness and fulfillment. And whether we have little or much, the way we handle our money is meant to display Jesus to the world. Those who have little display the greater worth of Jesus by their contentment, their satisfaction in Jesus despite the absence of some or even many material blessings. And those who have much display the worth of Jesus in their generosity and by being rich in good works. They enjoy the good gifts God has given to them with grateful hearts, while also demonstrating that the presence of material goods is by no means the ground of their joy in life.

Those are my five statements on wealth, which lead us to the high point of the passage, where Nehemiah leads us to the table.

Nehemiah was extravagantly wealthy and equally generous. Nehemiah was a governor unlike other governors who gave up his personal rights in order to better serve and bless the people under his care. And hearing this ought to have us thinking about Jesus! When Paul is speaking at length about money and generosity in 2 Corinthians, he puts the grace of Jesus right at the heart of financial stewardship and generosity. Listen to 2 Corinthians 8:9: 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. Do you want to get your heart right toward money? Soak yourself in the riches of God’s grace.

Money is good, necessary, and useful. But the greatest financial fortunes pale when compared to the riches of God’s grace. When grace is precious to your soul and Jesus is your great treasure, you’re well on your way to having the kind of heart to receive money and material possessions, whether small or great, with a grateful heart that will use it well. To meet real-life needs, to be a blessing to others, and to enjoy good gifts that God delights to give.

The New Testament frequently uses words like riches or treasure in reference to Jesus… He is the one in whom are hidden all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. We are called in Colossians 2 to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.

And this brings us to the table. The table tangibly demonstrates for us that when we to come and eat and drink, that we’re receiving riches we did not pay for… that we’re recipients of a feast we could never afford. Jesus gave of himself and became poor for our sake so that we might inherit the riches of his grace for all eternity. So as we eat and drink together tonight, revel in the true riches of God’s grace over any temporary riches that will one day fade away.