I’m a bit of a sucker for a BARGAIN. Some of you know I love EBAY. The Internet auction site.
And sometimes you get a GREAT bargain! Last week I bought a Mistral sailboard for $58 – complete with a two-piece mast, two near-new sails, and a boom. All those EXTRAS would cost about $600 if I wanted to buy them separately. I was almost embarrassed to pay that LITTLE.
But there’s also the other side. There’s a couple of sayings that can ring true when it comes to Ebay “You shouldn’t JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER.” And “IF IT SEEMS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE… IT PROBABLY IS!”
Early on, I made the mistake of buying a second hand laser printer. It was reasonably cheap, but it was OLD. And when it needed a new drum, I was quoted about $500 to replace it. I knew I’d made a mistake.
It looked fine ON THE OUTSIDE, but things weren’t good ON THE INSIDE. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
See, it’s no good just LOOKING the part, is it. The reality’s got to go further. It’s no good just looking good ON THE OUTSIDE if it doesn’t go any further than skin deep.
And that’s the issue Nehemiah’s up against with the Israelites in the passage we’re looking at today. The question is, what does it mean to be the people of God? What does it mean to be an Israelite? What does it take to be a TRUE BLUE JEW?
And the answer is, it’s got to be something that goes a lot further than SKIN DEEP.
They’ve arrived back in the land. And they’re well and truly settled. For most of them, Babylon is a distant memory.
First the altar was rebuilt. Then a while later, the temple gets finished. But then things STALL for nearly seventy years. Nothing much seems to happen. The TEMPLE’s fine, but the REST of Jerusalem resembles a RUBBISH DUMP.
It’s in the same sort of shape as BAGHDAD is today.
1. Enemies On The Inside
And so, as Nehemiah takes up the reins, they’ve started rebuilding. Most importantly, THE WALL.
And here they are. By chapter 4, where we left things last week, the wall’s up to half its height.
And all in spite of the mocking of their enemies. They keep at it. Because they’re trusting in the promises of God. The promise that if they TRULY repent, if they turn back to God with all their hearts, he’d bring them back to the land he promised Abraham. He’d RESTORE them. And BLESS them.
But that plan comes to a couple of hiccups this week. Two spanners thrown into the works.
There’s something worse than the taunts and insults of the enemies. Even worse than the planned attack. And you see it in chapter 5. It’s ONE thing to have enemies on the OUTSIDE. But it’s FAR WORSE… having enemies on THE INSIDE.
And as you read chapter 5 you see the story. There’s a famine. And the RICH Jews take advantage of the poor ones. Who have to mortgage their homes to buy food. Who have to sell their sons and daughters into slavery so they can even survive. It’s a terrible situation. And all the while the rich Jews are getting RICHER. And the wall builders starve.
We’ll have a closer look at it in a few minutes. Nehemiah sorts them out.
2. Enemies on the outside
And then in chapter 6 it’s time for more trouble. Trouble from the OUTSIDE again.
And you’ll see in verse 1 of chapter 6 Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab try to set a trap. Nehemiah knows what they’re up to; have a look at verse 9. “They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.” But I prayed, says Nehemiah, “Now strengthen my hands.”
Which God does. Because, in spite of false prophets, in spite of traps, in spite of traitors, by the end of 52 days the wall’s finished. Verse 15 of chapter 6. “So the wall was completed on the 25th of Elul in fifty two days. When all our enemies heard about this and all the surrounding nations saw it, our enemies lost their self confidence, because they realised… that this work had been done with the help of our God!”
Who’s the true blue Jew?
The walls of Jerusalem are finally finished. But here’s the interesting point. City Walls are designed to keep some people in. And some people out. And the city walls of Jerusalem were meant to mark out a BOUNDARY. Between God’s people. And all the rest.
But here’s the big question. When it comes to the boundaries of the city of God, when it comes to the gates of Jerusalem, who qualifies to come IN? And who do you want to keep OUT?
Who’s the true blue Jew?
BORN into the people of God
Well, the first step, back in those days, was you had to have THE RIGHT PEDIGREE. That was important. To be BORN into the people of God.
He’s promised the land to Abraham and to Abraham’s DESCENDANTS. So if weren’t a descendant of Abraham, you didn’t count.
You can see that if you have a quick look at chapter 7. It’s a census. A list of all the families who’ve come back to Israel. It starts in verse 6. “These are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon had taken captive.” And it lists them. In detail.
Now, Ch 7 reads a bit like a telephone book. Not much that’s interesting. But I want you to notice two verses in particular. Verse 61. And verse 64. Because back then, your family tree was the most important thing you could ever have. Your pedigree was sort of like your passport.
And in Verse 61 and 62, it’s the story of 642 people who didn’t have the right papers.
“The following came up from the towns of Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon and Immer, but they couldn’t show that their families were descended from Israel.” Wait a minute guys. What do you think you’re DOING… I mean, just have a look at their names. It’s the family of Delaiah. The traitors back in chapter 6 who tried to make Nehemiah run away. And the family of TOBIAH. The sworn enemy of Israel. Trying to sneak in the back door.
You can’t be too careful. Slightly different in verses 63 and 64. This family of priests. It says in verse 64 that they searched for their family records everywhere. But they couldn’t find them.
Gee, you think it’s bad when you can’t find your car keys. These guys can’t find THEIR FAMILY PAPERS, so they’re excluded from the priesthood, it says, as unclean.
To be fair dinkum Jews, you had to have the RIGHT FAMILY TREE. Descendants of Abraham. The true inheritors of the promises of God.
LIVING LIKE THE PEOPLE OF GOD – Chapter 5
But that’s not all. Because in the end, being a true Jew means more than just being one ON THE OUTSIDE. It means more than just having the right sort of ancestors. That was important. But there’s something else that has to go with it.
And that’s the REAL issue that was facing Nehemiah back in chapter 5. It’s not just an ON THE SURFACE sort of problem. The real problem, what happens if these people of God WON’T LIVE LIKE THE PEOPLE OF GOD?
And it’s not just something RECENT. It’d been going on for DECADES. Back before the temple was built. Nearly a hundred years earlier. The prophet Zechariah warned the people against this sort of EXTERNAL focus. About keeping up APPEARANCES.
Zech 7. The people want to know whether to keep celebrating the feasts and fasts. The religious festivals. And listen to what God said, through Zechariah.
5 “Ask all the people …, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really FOR ME that you fasted? 6 And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting FOR YOURSELVES? …9 “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.’ NIV
A true change on THE INSIDE should be seen in a consistent, regular, godly lifestyle. Not just in ticking the religious boxes. Justice and compassion are more important than sacrifices and fasting.
It was a lesson they’d forgotten by Nehemiah’s time. Or perhaps they’d NEVER learned it. Turn back to chapter 5 and have a closer look. And you’ll see what’s happening. Like we saw before, there’s a famine. And the rich Jewish nobles and officials are ripping off the workers.
There’s a huge outcry, and Nehemiah’s furious with them. And you can see what Nehemiah says to them in verse 7. He says, “I pondered them in my mind, then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are exacting Usury from your own countrymen.”
Usury is UNFAIR INTEREST. Usury is taking advantage of someone else’s situation. And profiting from it. And most important of all, if you have a look back at God’s covenant, the rules the people of Israel were meant to be living by, the rules that made them DIFFERENT to everyone else, guess what you find. Exodus Chapter 22. USURY is absolutely forbidden. Absolutely clear in black and white. And here are these Jewish leaders who are doing it anyway. Carried away by their own greed.
And Nehemiah can’t get over it. I mean, they’re struggling to get re-established after 70 years as slaves to the gentile Babylonians. And now their doing the same thing to one another. He says “We’ve just bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. And now you’re selling them all over again.”
And they’re speechless.
So he goes on. Verse 9. “What you’re doing is not right! Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our gentile enemies?”
I mean, it’s a matter of respecting GOD. Because they’re doing exactly what God said NOT to. And not only that, they’re wide open for reproach from the gentiles. Because they can see the way the so-called people of God are ripping one another off.
And even WORSE THAN THAT. Remember what we saw last week. There’s the question hanging right through the book of Nehemiah… because God said, coming home, the whole deal… it hinged on whether the people of Israel were going to REALLY REPENT. From the heart.
So Nehemiah goes on to set things right. And he makes them promise to give everything back, and cancel the interest. Which they do.
And have a look at what he says in verse 13. They’ve taken an oath. And Nehemiah says this. He shakes out the folds of his robe. And he says, “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.”
He says, there’s NO ROOM HERE for people who are going to ignore the covenant with God. There’s no room here for people who are going to treat their brothers like YOU’VE been doing. He says, you’re acting worse than the gentiles. And it’s got to stop.
And not only that, but he SETS AN EXAMPLE. By lending his corn without any interest. By making a point of not profiting from the situation himself. And he doesn’t even take his salary as governor. Because, he says, the demands on the people were heavy enough already.
The point is/ having Jewish blood in your veins isn’t enough. The people of God have got to LIVE like the people of God.
And yet too often it’s the same with us, isn’t it? Christians by NAME, but their BEHAVIOUR doesn’t back it up. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.
Like Ross Cameron, ex-federal MP for Parramatta. He campaigned as a professing Christian on a platform of family values. Until he was forced to admit his affair with a Canberra solicitor.
I wonder if the media would even have bothered running the story if he hadn’t been a high profile Christian.
We have to LIVE as the people of God. We need to remember; everything we do, it’s got the potential to either bring honour to God. Or reproach. ’Cause people are just waiting to say, “Ah, those Christians, they’re just hypocrites. There’s nothing in it. It’s all just a sham.”
People are WATCHING the way you live. So let them see the fruit of the spirit. Compassion. And generosity. And integrity. Instead of selfishness. And greed.
That’s the point, isn’t it? And it’s the point Nehemiah wants to make as well. He calls it FEARING GOD. Respecting God enough to actually LIVE LIKE IT. Holding God in AWE, so you think about what HE’S GOING TO THINK/ about what you’re doing.
It’s a term he uses in verse 9; because that’s their problem. You can’t be the PEOPLE OF GOD unless you FEAR GOD. And that’s what he says; “Shouldn’t you walk in the FEAR OF GOD.” And take notice of what he says?
And the same thing down in verse 15. Other rulers throw their weight around. Other rulers lived it up and lorded it over the people. But what’s Nehemiah say in verse 15? He says, “OUT OF REVERENCE FOR GOD, I didn’t act like that. Instead, I devoted myself to work on the wall.”
And it’s the same when you turn over to the start of chapter 7. The walls are finished. And Nehemiah’s looking for someone to guard the gates. And who does he choose? Verse 2. I put in charge my brother Hanani; we met him right back in chapter 1; along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel, BECAUSE HE WAS A MAN OF INTEGRITY AND FEARED GOD MORE THAN MOST MEN DO.”
We’re not talking about a QUIVERING sort of fear here. Not trembling in terror. When the bible talks about the FEAR OF GOD, it’s talking about the sort of RESPECT FOR GOD’S HOLINESS that leads you to a life of INTEGRITY.
What difference does A RESPECT FOR GOD’S HOLINESS make in YOUR life? What PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS are there that you FEAR God? How is your THOUGHT life affected? Your ethical decisions? Your interests – the books you read? The TV you watch? How you bring up your family? The words that come out of your mouth?
Is your life at HOME the same as your PUBLIC life to outsiders?
Is your SUNDAY behaviour the same as your MONDAY TO FRIDAY behavour?
Is YOUR LIFE marked by a consistency and an integrity that reflect your FEAR OF GOD?
RESPECT FOR GOD’S HOLINESS that leads to a life of INTEGRITY. And that’s Hananiah. The perfect man for the job.
And, you’ll notice, among the Israelites he’s A RARE BREED.
And that’s the whole problem. Nehemiah’s finished his wall. But the trouble is, the enemy’s just as much INSIDE as OUTSIDE. The problem isn’t just the guys like Sanballat and Tobiah who are cursing and plotting on the outside. It’s the Jews who look Jewish when you check out the family tree; but they’re not interested in honouring God.
And like I said, eventually, that’s what spells the END for the Israelites. And the start of something new.
Jump forward in time. John the Baptist, hundreds of years later; face to face with the LEADERS of the Jews. The religious experts. The Pharisees and the Sadducees. And as he calls Israel TO REALLY REPENT, hear what he says… it’s in Matthew chapter 3. “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce FRUIT IN KEEPING WITH REPENTANCE. 9 And don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” He says, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit… and with fire.”
See, the trouble with the true blue Jews was that there were far too few. So it was time for something new. They had their law. But they wouldn’t keep it. They did their repenting. But it was only PRETEND.
And so God sent Jesus; who deals with our sinful rebellion by DYING FOR IT. In a much bigger version of the sort of sacrifice Nehemiah made… on behalf of his people. And then BAPTISES WITH HIS SPIRIT. Changes our hearts. So that whether you’re born Jewish or not, doesn’t matter any more.
And your righteousness, it won’t come from taking on the Old Testament law; but through faith in Jesus Christ… to ALL WHO BELIEVE.
Nothing to do with building walls any more. But there’s still one thing that’s exactly the same. And that is, THE SORT OF PEOPLE GOD’S LOOKING FOR TO MAKE UP HIS KINGDOM. Not religious people with a good pedigree. He can make those out of rocks. They’re a dime a dozen.
And yet there are still people who reckon that’s all they need. Like being brought up Presbyterian. Being baptised when you’re a baby. Going to church. Giving money to the church. Ticking the boxes.
Which isn’t what it’s about. God wants a people who are RIGHTEOUS RIGHT TO THE HEART. Who honour Him in the way they live. And the way to that righteousness is to TRUST JESUS WITH ALL YOUR HEART. And let him CHANGE you from the inside. Baptised by the Spirit. Which was always the promise.
So that there’s actually a CHANGE in the way we TREAT ONE ANOTHER as Christians. The way you treat your HUSBAND or your WIFE or your FAMILY. The way we resist the sort of temptations that pop up in front of us. Justice and mercy. Consistency and integrity.
Because people are watching. To see what the REAL people of God look like.
Can you do that? You want to say, it’s too hard. But what Jesus says, is with MY SPIRIT AT WORK, it’s NOT TOO HARD AT ALL. So surprise people with your honesty. With your concern. With your love.
Don’t be like that laser printer I bought on Ebay – okay on the OUTSIDE, but crook on the inside. We’re meant to be different ALL THE WAY THROUGH. Because that’s the sort of people the people of God were always meant to be.