The Influence of Passion

Gordon MackleyPosted on Monday, July 1, 2013 by Gordon Mackley

In the next two blog posts, Gordon examines two passages from the Bible, Nehemiah 5:1-13 and Philippians 2:12-16.

The two passages here might seem not to have too much in common but perhaps ‘grumble’ is common. One is a grumble from the workers on the wall in Jerusalem, whilst the other is a command to a new church not to grumble!

Grumbling workers

It will be worthwhile to explore the differences in the grumbling whilst at the same time also looking at the character of Nehemiah.

But first we may need a bit of historical background to make sense of what is happening in Chapter 5 of Nehemiah.

  • Jerusalem had been captured by the Babylonians in 588 BC and following that, most Jews from Judea had been exiled to Babylon (modern day Iraq) in three separate exiles under Nebuchadnezzar 582.
  • Cyrus led the Persian Empire which overthrew the Babylonian Empire in 538 and Cyrus was much more amenable to the Jews than the Babylonians had been. In the same year, Cyrus allows the temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt. Darius (a later Persian King) is reminded of the promise of Cyrus to the Jews and locates the documents. He then honourably continues the same policy.
  • Artaxerxes was King of Persia from 465 BC and in Ezra 7, Artaxerxes allows Ezra the priest to return and reinstate Jewish Torah law.

At the start of the story, Nehemiah is in Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire (now in modern day Iran) 1270 kilometres (790 miles) from Jerusalem.

He asks a man called Hanani who has been in Jerusalem, what is happening there?

It is not good news. The walls of Jerusalem are broken down, and its gates have been burned. Now walls and gates were not only important for practical purposes, but also because they reflected the status of a city. Jerusalem had become effectively a ‘nothing’ place in world affairs.

There is an aside at the end of Nehemiah 1,

“I was cupbearer to the King.” (Artaxerxes)

A cupbearer was an officer of high rank in Royal courts, whose duty it was to serve the drinks at the Royal table. On account of the constant fear of plots and intrigues, a person must be regarded as thoroughly trustworthy to hold this position. He must guard against poison in the King’s cup, and was sometimes required to swallow some of the wine before serving it.

His confidential relations with the King often gave him a position of great influence. The position of cupbearer is greatly valued and given to only a select few throughout history. Qualifications for the job were not held lightly but of high esteem, valued for their beauty and even more for their modesty, industriousness and courage.

So having not been poisoned, Nehemiah currently has a good life and is almost certainly very wealthy.

Having heard the news, he weeps but what does he do about this?

He could have said, “That is all very sad, but I’m too far away and too busy to do anything about it!”

Alternatively, he could have prayed for God to put it right. What he actually does is, we are told, that for some days he mourned, fasted and prayed. He confesses past sins and asks God that he may be God’s servant to put right the issue of the walls. Thus by selflessness, he converts his empathy into a practical plan to redress the problem.

Now Nehemiah has to go to ask to be released and in chapter 2, he goes to Artaxerxes very much afraid. Rulers in those days especially the most prominent in the world at that time could easily have you killed for one wrong word, so Nehemiah shows great courage. Artaxerxes asks him what he wants.

Cleverly, Nehemiah does not say that he wants to reinstate Jerusalem as a city of importance, which would immediately initiate resistance and would probably result in refusal to allow him to go. Instead he refers to his ancestors,

“Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (v3)

Here Nehemiah shows his wisdom and his cunning (in a nice way). Ancestors and their tombs were very important to ancient peoples, even pagans.

Thus the King allows him to go for a limited time.

There are already opposing external forces who, for their own reasons, do not want Jerusalem rebuilt.

“When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.” (v10)

Again Nehemiah shows his courage in not being afraid of these powerful forces.

Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem in 445 BC as the provincial governor of Judah. He immediately surveys the damage to the entire city on a night journey around the walls (Nehemiah 2:12–15). He then enlists the help of the people to quickly repair the breaches in the wall. He can be seen to be very active and also able to assess the situation accurately and swiftly.

He has no army of labourers or stonemasons, so he convinces some priests, local rulers, goldsmiths, perfume makers and other professionals to all become involved in the rebuilding. He can therefore be considered to be a ‘motivator par-excellence’.

He now finds the external opposing forces trying to stop the work and so he also urged them to set up guards to defend against the constant threat of those who opposed their efforts, including the armies of Samaria, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites. So he is a good strategist too.

When we get to chapter 5, we note that as a governor, he doesn’t take advantage of the food and land allotments that were allowed him due to his office and so he is a man of integrity.

Now this story is not that of rich against poor. The Jews rebuilding the walls are not intrinsically poor (they are goldsmiths etc.) but they have no income at this time, as they are giving their time to do the rebuilding. Despite this, they still have to buy food (expensive because of famine) and they have to pay taxes to the rulers, even though they have no income.

So now there is an internal enemy to rebuilding the walls – selfish greed! Some of the other Jews, who are not rebuilding walls, start to exploit the position and they loan money to those doing the work. They not only exact interest but take possession of land etc. as a guarantee of repayment.

Those in great difficulty have to sell their relatives info a form of bond service to the lenders (usually referred to as ‘slavery’ in English translations, but actually very different to the later practice in Africa).

Nehemiah is angry, not only because of the intrinsic injustice of this, but also because these Jews are acting against their Jewish Torah law and thus are a bad example to the other (Gentile) nations. Nehemiah thus shows his compassion and his sense of justice and legality.

We are told that Nehemiah ‘ponders’ what to do. The Hebrew means ‘to control my feelings’ and so Nehemiah does not act hastily out of this anger, but can be seen to be reflective and thoughtful.

He calls a meeting and uses shame as his weapon. However, Nehemiah still does not trust these wealthy Jews, so he demands that they take an oath in God’s name.

What they said they would do, they now have to swear they would do. Nehemiah does a shaking out of his garment. This is an acted out drama to explain that there would be a curse of shaking out the money of those concerned, leaving them in emptiness and poverty (verse 13). This seems to be very effective with those whose first priority was personal wealth.

So Nehemiah’s character is typified as being brave, honest, a go-getter (energetic) empathetic, spiritual, having a sense of justice, a good motivator and leader, and above all, very wise.

We are perhaps reminded in Nehemiah’s dealings with Artaxerxes and these Jewish money lenders of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:16.

“Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

He is a great role model!

Artaxerxes who is a ruler of an empire as powerful as later emperors comes out well, as did all the Kings of Persia, unlike most of the Roman Emperors later. This reminds us not only that God uses non-believers but often they behave better than some believers! (It was fellow Jewish ‘believers’ who were the exploiters).

Can shame work today? We might compare this to the current campaigns against tax avoidance by large companies where shaming campaigns have caused some to change their business policies.

As individuals, we should follow Nehemiah’s model in the modern world, not only to not exploit people ourselves, but also to be good examples working to eradicate exploitation, always remembering the tactics of Matthew 10:16.

How do we measure up to Nehemiah as individuals? Do we get righteously angry when things are not as they should be? Do we personally respond to God’s call to do something about it, even if it means inconvenience and danger?

How do we measure up as a fellowship of believers (or church)? I’ll explore that some more as we look at the Philippians 2 passage in the next post.

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