Problems Inside & Out
If someone asked you 'what’s your problem?', something would automatically pop into your head. We all have problems. Some problems are physical like sickness, pain, stress, or monetary issues. Other problems are emotional like loneliness, fear or anxiety. Whether big or small, problems are a part of everyday life for everyone in the world. And, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we have even bigger problems ~ we all suffer from heart problems as sin rears its ugly head in our lives and attempts to distract us and pull our attention from God to the world.
We shouldn’t be surprised by problems because Jesus Himself tells us that we’ll have them. In John 16:33 "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.'", Jesus promises His followers that we will have trouble in this world, but to “take heart” because He has “overcome the world.” As long as we are in the world we will have problems. The question isn’t whether or not we’ll have problems, the question is what we’ll do when we have problems.
So far in the book of Nehemiah, we’ve seen Nehemiah come up against problem after problem and each time he has been faithful to God in the way he’s handled those problems. In chapter one, Nehemiah struggled with a personal problem when he heard the news of his beloved hometown. In chapter two he faced a political problem as he wonders if there is any chance he’d be released from important duties in the Persian palace to go and help. In chapter three Nehemiah faced an administrative problem as he organized the people for the task of rebuilding the wall. Last week, in chapter four we saw Nehemiah lead the people to face fear and the problem of imminent attack.
You would think that Nehemiah and the people of Israel had had just about everything possible thrown at them and that their problems would be over, but as we move into chapters 5 and 6, we see Nehemiah face two more problems... first a problem on the inside as he, the Governor of Jerusalem, has to deal with the economic and social problems of his people and then a renewed problem from the outside as the wall nears completion and the opposition heats up again.
Problems on the inside (Nehemiah 5:1-5)
First, let’s look at the problem on the inside. If you look back over the first 4 chapters of Nehemiah you'll be reminded of the work schedule that these men in Jerusalem had been following for the last couple of months. They were working all day with a sword in one hand and then were standing guard at night. It would be an understatement to say that these men were dedicated to their task. These men had taken a step of faith to build this wall. They had put their jobs and homes and families on hold to complete this task. And, they did all of this during a time of famine. God’s people were in need physically and yet they sacrificed the little they had for the building of the wall.
So, we shouldn’t be surprised when we hear them complaining to Nehemiah about their situation in Nehemiah 5:2-5 where we read..." 2 Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.” 3 Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”4 Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 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.”"
This was no small problem for God’s people. They were hungry, out of money and were risking loosing their homes, livelihoods and even their families. On the surface you would think that these physical problems were the worst thing that Nehemiah had to face. How would he help them rescue their children? How would he help them get their homes back? How would he help them feed their families?
Nehemiah deals with these physical problems by getting to the heart of the matter ~ by dealing with the sin that led to this pain and suffering. Nehemiah saw that what made this situation worse was that their fellow Israelites, were cheating them and charging interest and living out the detestable practices of the pagan nations around them. In just a few short years they had fallen back into the same cycle of sin that had led them into exile in the first place. They had forgotten God.
Let that sink in for a minute....the people of God had forgotten God. As you read through the Old Testament over and over you read the command to remember the Lord or remember the Words of the Lord or to not forget His law or to not let His Law depart from your lips or to remember to teach the next generation. And once again we see that the people have forgotten the Lord.
I don’t know about you, but I when I read some of the Old Testament narratives about the people forgetting the Lord, my first reaction is less than humble. My first reaction is to wonder how they could have forgotten God and to let myself feel holier than them, even to let myself think that in their situation I wouldn’t do the same thing. But thankfully in those moments of pride, the Lord humbles me and reminds me of the many times I have forgotten Him and the times I have forgotten His Word and the times I have fallen into the detestable practices of the world around me.
How about you? Are you remembering the Word of the Lord? Are you delving deep into the Word? Have you hidden God’s Word in your heart to protect you from sin as Psalm 119:11 reminds us? Are you teaching His commands to the next generation? Have you forgotten that God is holy and that He calls His people to be holy? Are you living like the world around you, or are you living as one who has been set apart as a child of the King?
You know, the truth is that whether we want to admit it or not, we’ve all forgotten God. Back in the Garden, Adam and Eve were given 1 rule and they chose their own way, forgetting the God who created them in His image. In the wilderness the people were given 10 laws and even before they’d had a chance to hear the laws they were already breaking them and worshipping a golden calf, forgetting the God who rescued them from slavery. The truth of the matter is that as humans we are completely incapable of following God’s law. One of the songs we often sing with the kids in children’s church ("Jesus Came to Save Sinners"- from the Village Church) has a line in it that says, “we are all sinners, we are sick with sin, we are separated, we are far from Him.” That is the diagnosis that we’re all living under apart from Christ.
Left to ourselves, just like the people in Nehemiah’s day, we would all continue in sin forever, but thankfully that’s not the end of the story. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Ladies, according to God’s Word there are only two options~ a life of sin and separation from God or a life of submission to Him and His Word.
A good question for us to ask ourselves right now is this ~ am I living in a cycle of sin or have I repented of my sin and turned for forgiveness to the only One who can save me?
The problem rising up from within the people in Jerusalem was a sin problem: sin in each of their hearts that led to selfish gain and had tragic results for the people. And that’s the same problem that’s rising up in each of us day in and day out.
Before we look at Nehemiah’s response to this problem within his community, let’s skip ahead to chapter 6 and look at the problem coming up from the outside.
Problem from the outside (Nehemiah 6)
The problem from the outside is reminiscent of the opposition problem in chapter 4, in fact it includes some of the same main characters, but this time they go straight for Nehemiah figuring that if they get rid of this wonderful new leader that the people will turn their allegiance back to Sanballat , Tobiah, Geshem and the leaders of the other surrounding territories.
As Nehemiah chapter 6 opens, we read, “When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it—though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates— 2 Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villageson the plain of Ono.”
The first attack from the outside is in verses 2-4 where Sanballat and the others call Nehemiah to meet them. Sanballat and the others are attempting to do him physical harm. But Nehemiah is a discerning man and knows they’re up to no good, so he politely refuses their invitation.
When Nehemiah refuses to fall into their trap, Sanballat tries a different tactic. This time he tries to malign Nehemiah’s character and accuses Nehemiah of setting himself up as king in Jerusalem. When Nehemiah doesn’t give in and fight back, they hire a priest of all people to try to lead him into sin by tempting him to go into the temple and there break God’s law forbidding someone who isn’t a priest from entering the temple. Once again Nehemiah is wise and knows that there’s something fishy going on.
Finally after a rather anti-climatic announcement that they finished the wall, you would think that the opposition would die down but we read at the end of the chapter that Tobiah was sending letters to intimidate Nehemiah.
Through each of these external oppositions, we see the subtlety of attack and are reminded of the importance of being watchful lest we fall into temptation. The truth we all need to remember is that the attacks we face are just as subtle and we too need to keep our eyes open and watch for them, lest we fall into temptation.
Nehemiah’s Response to Internal and External Problems (Nehemiah 5:6-19 & Nehemiah 6)
So, what can we learn from the ways that Nehemiah handled these problems?
- Firstly we see that when Nehemiah was faced with the problems in Jerusalem that he was angered by sin in the lives of the people around him. We see this in Nehemiah 5:6-10. ~
Ask yourself, what makes you angry? Do you get angry at the sin in your own heart? Are you troubled when you find yourself following the detestable practices of the world around you? Are you fighting against sin your heart?
One of the classic resources about the practice of getting rid of sin in our lives is John Owen’s “On the Mortification of Sin” and a simple quote from that weighty book is “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” There is huge truth in that little statement. If I’m not actively fighting against the sin in my life, it will kill me. We need to remember that we’re in a battle and unlike Nehemiah and the men of Jerusalem who built a wall with swords in one hand, our battle is against sin and even against our own hearts.
Are you in relationships with people in the church who can call you on your sin like Nehemiah did these people? One of the greatest tools God has given us for our sanctification is relationships within the body. Do you have someone in the church who you can admit your struggles to? Are you prepared for someone to say as Nehemiah did in Nehemiah 5:9.... “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God...?” I know I’ve been greatly blessed by women who have come alongside me and supported me in my struggle with sin.
- Secondly we see that as Nehemiah faced problems he was concerned about the testimony of God’s people to the watching world. We see this in the second part of Nehemiah 5:9.... “Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?” Nehemiah knew that the people around them were watching and he wanted them to remember that they were to be holy and set apart for God. Nehemiah knew seeing them treat their brothers unjustly would ruin their witness to the surrounding nations.
In Matthew 5:16, we are told to “let our light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Our lives are a visual testimony. The question we have to ask is... are they testifying about God or about ourselves?
When you look at your life, are you aware of the people watching you? For those of you who are moms, you’ve experienced firsthand what happens when you’re not careful how you speak or what you do in front of your children, right?....at the most inappropriate time, your sin will come out of their little heart.
Just as our children are watching us and learning what it means to be women of faith, the outside world is watching and your life might be the only example of genuine Christianity they’ve ever seen. Are your friends and neighbors seeing Christ or are they seeing the world when they watch you?
A couple of years ago, my mom told me about a conversation that she had with a young local girl at a wedding. This girl and my mom were talking about all kinds of things when she spoke up and said to my mom that the only different between Christians and Muslims is that Christians don’t have to be virgins when they get married. My mom was floored and quickly corrected her which led to a great conversation. But in that moment she realized that this young woman had never truly seen or known a Christian. You see, this girl had seen movies and TV and had wrongly equated the American media with Christianity.
For my sisters in Christ, the question we all need to ask ourselves is this.... is my life different because of Christ, or when someone looks at me do they see the world?... This might come out in areas of modesty, finances, work ethic, parenting, or so many other areas of our lives.
- Thirdly as we see Nehemiah face problems we see that he knew God’s law and he called the people to repent. We see this in Nehemiah 5:10b-12... “But let the exacting of usury stop! 11 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.” “We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.”
Nehemiah wasn’t a priest or a scribe or a religious leader. He was just an ordinary man of God who knew God’s Word and it had changed his life. Nehemiah knew the law from Leviticus 25 and knew that they were breaking God’s command not to take advantage of their brothers. Nehemiah called his brothers to repent of their sin, to stop breaking the law and instead to love their brothers. Nehemiah called them to a change of heart and called them to complete obedience of God’s law.
Some of the moms in the room may have even used this tactic with your children when you call them to obey “right away, all the way and in a happy way.” This is the kind of obedience that God calls His children to. In Joshua 22:5, the people were told ....“But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you: to love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to obey his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and all your soul.”
Are you in the Word enough to know what God expects from His children? Are you obeying Him wholeheartedly and with joy? Are you quick to repent when you are made aware, either by someone else or your own conscience, of sin in your life?
- Fourthly, we see Nehemiah Respond to problems in Prayer. We see this in Nehemiah 6:9b where we read... “But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”This response of Nehemiah’s to the problems around him shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s the same response we’ve seen from him in every situation from hearing the news of Jerusalem to entering the king’s presence to dealing with the opposition in chapter 4. Nehemiah is clearly a man of prayer.
We've seen this over and over through Nehemiah, but each time we read of Nehemiah responding in prayer we should examine our own prayer life. I know this is an area I’ve been challenged in through this study. When we face a problem, do we turn to God in prayer or turn to our friends to complain?
- Finally we see through Nehemiah’s response to problems that he was a discerning man. Throughout chapter 6, we see Nehemiah respond to opposition with discernment. In verses1-4, he discerned that Sanballat and the others were up to no good so he stayed away. In verses 5-9 he discerned that their attempts to malign his character were designed to ruffle his feathers and get a reaction out of him, so he stayed quiet. In verses 10-14 he discerned the plan to lead him into sin and he stood his ground.
What we see in Nehemiah is a man who was able to discern right from wrong. He wasn’t easily swayed by the things of this world. He saw danger and he stayed away.
Reading through this made me think, well that’s all good and well for Nehemiah, but what about me? The amazing truth is that if you are a child of God you have the Spirit dwelling in you and one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to discern truth. In John 16:13 we read... “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” Christ did not leave His children guessing, but God sent the Spirit to dwell with His people and guide us into all truth.
When faced with a problem, from within or without, do you stop and take time to discern where this attack is from or do you give into the sinful tendencies of your own heart? The best way to develop discernment in your life is to be in the Word and to be in prayer. Sound like anyone we’ve been reading about? Being in the Word and being a man of prayer seem to pop up all the time when we look at Nehemiah and His life.
As you think back through Nehemiah 5 & 6, ask yourself, what do you need to learn about your reaction to problems in your life? Are you facing problems as Nehemiah did in the knowledge of the Lord, or are you being crushed by your problems. Let’s close by remembering the verse I read at the beginning. John 16:33b says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
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