We're now in our eighth week under the study of Nehemiah's prophecy entitled 'Building For God'. The title I have put unto the study of chapter 5 this morning is 'The Fifth Column of God's Work' - the fifth column of God's work. Now you may not know what a fifth column is, but 'the fifth column' really is a military or political term about a group of people within a country, a country who are at war - but that group of people are sympathetic to the enemy of that country, a hidden enemy if you like. The term 'fifth column' dates from the Spanish Civil War when General Mola, leading four columns of troops toward the city of Madrid, declared that he had a fifth column of troops inside the city. The fifth column was working against the inhabitants, because they were in allegiance with the enemy.
Now what we're going to talk about this morning is the fifth column of God's work, a hindrance that comes from within. What we're going to see in chapter 5 are really two things, the first is this: first of all the hindrance, the potential hindrance that God's people can be to His work because of compromise in their lives, the potential hindrance that God's people can be to His work because of compromise in their lives. Then secondly we'll also see the potential influence of only one person who has a godly example to give to the rest of God's people, and can actually affect them all for good and for God - a godly influence, even just one that can make an impact upon all of God's people.
Let me just reminisce with you over the events that we have studied in these last weeks in our series 'Building For God'. We looked at the opposition that this man of God, this man for the hour, had. First of all we saw that he had opposition from outside, external opposition to building the wall. In chapter 4 and verses 1 to 6 we saw that there were people who ridiculed the man of God and the people of God for building this wall. They said: 'Will they be able to have the strength and the resources to build the wall, these puny, feeble weak Jews? Could they build a wall for God?'. We saw that when ridicule doesn't work in our lives as opposition to what we're doing for God, that the enemy often takes a gear up and he then uses force. If he can't get us through words - sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me - he resorts to the sticks and the stones, and he comes in with real force. At the end of chapter 4 we saw that Satan inspired these people to actually take up arms against the people of God and threaten them with violence to stop the work of building the wall.
Now let me just recap, do you remember how they overcame that external opposition from outside? We learned that they had prayerful hearts. Nehemiah especially had a heart to pray, and we find him right throughout this whole book praying before God, bringing the need before Him. They had industrious minds, we read that wonderful verse: 'The people had a mind to work, a heart to work'. Then thirdly we saw that they had watchful eyes, they weren't just working away in some kind of spiritual fairytale land where they thought nothing could happen to them as long as they were praying, but they were watching and praying. They were ready to fight if necessary, but they were also on their knees when they had to be.
So, they had prayerful hearts and industrious minds and watchful eyes. Now, last week we looked at the opposition that was from inside - do you remember that? We saw that this can be the most damaging, perhaps, because it often comes and discourages us. We saw last week in chapter 4 verse 10 that the people of Judah were discouraged at the rubbish, the rubble and the debris, that was all around them that just didn't seem to be getting built up again. They were halfway through the work, but they couldn't see the half of the work that was already done, all they could see was the half that hadn't been done yet - we read that they were getting depleted in their strength, their vision was disappearing, and their confidence was becoming deflated. Then at the end of chapter 4 we see that fear entered into them, they were discouraged first of all because the work was getting done as fast as it could, and then they heard this word from the enemies that wherever you go, whether it's your houses, whether it's the walls, wherever you turn, we'll be behind you, we'll be hunting you down to stop you and dissuade you from this work of God.
We saw how sometimes in the work of God we can get discouraged; our strength can become depleted; we can lose our vision, it disappears; and our confidence can deflate - and we give in to the fear of the enemy. Now let me just recap again with you how they overcame that internal opposition from inside. We read that Nehemiah got them together and gave them a common goal to build a wall for the glory of God unitedly - one common goal with a united focus. You remember that if the trumpet was blown the people were to rally around Nehemiah, the commander of the hosts of the Lord if you like, and there he was going to tell them where to go and where to fight. We saw that we as Christians ought to rally round the gospel cry and unite together around our Saviour for the cause of the gospel and the furtherance thereof.
He had a balanced approach, the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other. It wasn't all fighting and it wasn't all working, it was a bit of both - and we had to take it in turns and relieve one another. Then we saw finally that they were involved in an others-orientated occupation, simply meaning this: they were thinking about their brothers and sisters who were under threat, and if they saw they were under threat they were to go and help them at whatever point of the wall that may be. When they were thinking of others they weren't thinking about themselves. So often when we get discouraged in the work of the Lord the reason is that we're thinking about ourselves rather than others.
Well, let's move on this morning. We have to say that these weapons that Satan had thrown at the man of God and the people of God failed. Now they had come very close to succeeding, and they had discouraged them, but there's a foe we're going to look at this morning and this is the only foe that really succeeded in at least temporarily stopping the work of God. At this enemy the people of Judah downed tools. At this enemy Nehemiah became very angry at how the people had just fallen down at the face of this great enemy. So you might say: 'Well, what was Satan's great weapon that succeeded?'. Well, let me just caution you there before we go on any further, because we could hardly even call it Satan's weapon. The reason being, what we find in this passage was that the factor that stopped God's work in building the walls was located within the breast of the people of God. It was not owned by Satan, it was owned by them. Now it was found in their hearts, and admittedly Satan found it and exploited it, and he does that whenever he finds it in all of our hearts - but nevertheless it was owned by ourselves.
What is it? Simply this: it was the gremlin of greed, the gremlin of greed. I want us to look first of all at the gremlin of greed, and then I want us secondly to look at the answer to avarice - which is simply another name for greed - or indeed any other vice that may be in our lives that is hindering the work of God, that is like a fifth column in our lives working against the Holy Spirit's influence coming from within. Then thirdly I want us to look at the influence of Nehemiah's example on us all. Now you mightn't know what a gremlin is, but a gremlin - if you look it up in the dictionary - it's not a wee green monster, but it's an imaginary mischievous sprite of some kind of spiritual world that is responsible for mechanical faults, maybe in an aircraft or something. You might hear these technical people, engineers, or computer engineers, saying 'I've got a gremlin in my machine', or 'I've got a gremlin in my plane'. It's just something that's really mucking up the mechanism.
Now the gremlin of greed was what was mucking up and messing up the mechanisms of the work of God building these walls. They had faced opposition of ridicule, of physical force from armies of other nations; they had faced discouragement from within of all sorts - but yet it was greed within their own hearts, as the people of God, that stopped and halted the work of God. It's staggering, isn't it? Now I have to fill you in with some of the facts of the situation in Jerusalem so that you can understand what a great gremlin this greed was.
In verse 1 we read: "And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives" - you notice that it doesn't mention husbands there, I'm not reading anything into that - the wives were crying all the time against the brethren of the Jews. The situation in Jerusalem was dire. Basically what you have in verse 1 is a strike, a strike on the walls. The people, there was a great outcry from them and their wives against the Jewish brothers, and they were saying: 'We're on strike, we've had enough, we've got our rights. This is not fair, this is exploitation'. That cry of grievance from within their hearts halted the work of God on the walls.
Now Nehemiah was a good leader, and we see that he didn't just say: 'Go to your work or you'll lose your job', but he got them together and he listened to their complaints. It says here in the Scriptures that he sized up the situation, and he decided what way to go. Let me show you why these people were grieved, and they had good reason to be so. The first thing that we find in verse 2 is that they said: 'We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live'. The people had large families, and they had to feed these large families, and there was not enough food within the city to feed them - very simple. Now if you were working and you couldn't feed your family, you would have a right to complain to your employer that you couldn't do so - if it was genuine, of course. Now here's the second reason, this time in verse 3: 'Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth'. Others owned property, now perhaps we're a wee bit more wealthy, but they're saying here: 'We have to mortgage again our houses and our property to survive the spiralling inflation that is in the land'.
There was spiralling inflation as well as big families, and then we see in verses 4 and 5: 'There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king's tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards'. King Artaxerxes was taxing the people in Judah, remember that he was in charge here of the city of Jerusalem, but these people have heavy debt because they couldn't pay the taxes. They were borrowing money and they didn't have enough money to pay back what they had borrowed. Then verse 5: 'Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants'. What happened? Well, those that they owed the money to had come and taken their land - and when they had no more land to give, what happened was they came and took their sons and their daughters, and all their cattle and their animals because they couldn't pay the money.
Now friends, if you see this situation that was there you can understand why the people were stopping the work for just a moment and saying: 'Now hold on a minute, we can go on any further in this. We can't feed our children, we can't pay back the debts that we owe for paying these taxes, some of our children are even being taken off us and we haven't got money to buy them back again and redeem them. What's going to happen? We can't go on any further until we know what's going to become of us'. Let me go a bit further into the reasons why the financial situation was as it was. In verse 3 we read that there was a famine. They had to buy corn because there was a dearth, that simply means a famine. Now imagine this: Jerusalem is in famine, Nehemiah decides to build the walls of Jerusalem again, so hundreds of people come from the countryside to help the man of God build the walls. There is already great pressure on the resources that are depleted in the city, and now all these - not illegal immigrants - but legal immigrants come. What a further force that was on the resources that were in the city, a further pressure, and there was a famine.
Then we read that there were too many taxes, as I mentioned in verse 4: 'There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king's tribute'. They couldn't pay their taxes, and if you know anything about tax collectors - even in the Old Testament, as well Zaccaheus in the New - they were people who tended to take more off the people than they owed, they exploited the people and lined their own pockets. So there was famine, there was exploitive taxes, and then there was the high and inappropriate interest rate - so much so that they had to sell their children and themselves into slavery, and the creditors took everything that they had - and the work stopped!
Some people say the Bible is outdated, or the Bible is irrelevant, but look at these subjects for just a moment. Maybe as you read chapter 5 you thought: 'What's he going to get out of this this morning?'. Overpopulation, famine, high taxes, interest rates higher than they have ever been, no relief in sight, inequalities in the classes, strikes among the work force - but unfortunately, just as those are similarities with today and our contemporary situation, one thing that was in Nehemiah's day that is still around with us today is that there were people who were prepared to take advantage of the awful situation that even the people of God were in. The staggering thing is this - and this is the main point - that those who were wanting to take advantage of the people of God in poverty were the people of God themselves! They were taking advantage of their own.
The rich Judaeans, instead of helping the poor and pulling them out of these holes that they were in financially, were exploiting them to their own advantage. They were feathering their own nests. Imagine this: they were actually lending them money and charging them interest upon it, so that they could pay money to others, but they were getting their gain out of it and their pound of flesh. Now imagine what would happen if this happened in a family, or if this happened even in the church - what would happen among the people? Distrust would enter in, discouragement would enter in - that your brother could do such a thing on you. Doubt would even enter in - is this thing of God? How can people of God behave in this way? And they probably felt used, used of the people, taken advantage of for the furtherance of other people - and the doubly painful sword about this thing was that it was their own brethren that were doing it! People that they knew, people that they went to the temple with, people that were their neighbours, their friends, their family!
I'm sure that some of you have had this experience where someone who calls themselves a brother, maybe a brother of flesh and blood, or a brother in the spirital sense in the church has diddled you out of money, has been disloyal to you, has found your distrust as they took some information that you told them was confidential and passed it on, and now everybody seems to know about it. This is what happens!
I think nothing, perhaps, is more damaging to the work of God today than compromise among Christians. If Christians took God's word seriously there would never be an accusation like the one we often hear: 'Oh, Christians, can't have them! They're a bunch of hypocrites if ever there was one!'. You've heard that - and I say publicly this morning that it's not unfounded. I was witnessing recently to a Roman Catholic man in my home, he was doing a bit of work for me. He was quite open to the gospel and quite sympathetic to religious things in general, but he told me of his experience of a man who was 'born again'. They were all sitting one day around a business table, and this born-again man was about to really suggest doing a dodgy deal. As he was in the middle of his statement, this Roman Catholic gentleman said: 'Sir, if you don't mind me saying, that's not very Christian - are you not good living?' - that's what people call us - 'Are you not good living?'. This dear gentleman told me that this so-called Christian man, I don't know who he is and I don't want to know, grabbed that man by the lapels, pulled him over the table and said: 'What's that got to do with business?'.
Well, the fact of the matter is, it's got everything to do with business - because your business, whatever it may be, is God's business. What the church suffers from today in our age is what Judah suffered from in Nehemiah's age, and it was this: they compartmentalised their faith. On the Sabbath, Saturday, they took it out of the closet, dusted down their suits and their Torah, and went along to the synagogue and worshipped God - put it away on Saturday evening and then were diddling everybody, even their brothers, on Sunday morning. Has the situation changed today? I'll tell you: there's nothing, I say, nothing - this is what stopped the work of the walls, it wasn't the devil, it wasn't the false gods of other nations, it wasn't even the discouragement and the complaints of the people of God around Nehemiah, it wasn't even their depletion of physical strength or spiritual vision - but it was the greed that was in their heart, and the compromise that was in their lives that even the world could see.
Nehemiah's reaction is an interesting one in verse 6, he was angry. Now we're all guilty of being angry too often - it's a hard thing to be angry in the right sense, towards the right things, isn't it? We get angry at the wrong things, we get angry in the wrong sense, our anger boils over sometimes to hate - but remember what Paul said in Ephesians: 'Be ye angry and sin not'. Here we have Nehemiah being angry, and after his anger at the external opposition that was coming from other nations, can you imagine how his anger was almost going to boil over when he thought: 'We have been able up to now to avert all opposition and rebellion towards this work, we've kept at bay the thwarting vile plans of the enemy - yet look at what has stopped the work!'. Compromise in God's own people, God's people shooting themselves in the foot simply because they disregarded the law of Moses - 'that's for the Sabbath, the wallet is for the rest of the week'.
Now I don't know whether, he doesn't tell us, whether they had forgot the law of Moses; or whether they had remembered but completely disregarded it. Now we don't have time to look into all of this, but Nehemiah knew God's word, that's for sure - and that's what we need around us today, men who know God's word. But just quickly, Exodus 22, Deuteronomy 23 and Leviticus 25 all give rules and regulations for God's Old Testament people with regards to lending money. Here's four of them, the main ones: one, it is not wrong to lend money to a non-Jew for interest. So you can lend money to a Gentile for interest, to get back gain on the money when it comes back to you - it's not wrong to do that for a Gentile. Two: it is not wrong to lend money to a Jew, it's not wrong to lend money to a Jew. Three: it is wrong to demand interest on a loan to a Jew. You can lend them the money but you're not allowed to take interest from a Jewish brother if you are a Jew. And fourthly: it is wrong to enslave a fellow Jew. In other words, if he can't pay the money back, that you take him as a slave and his family and all his kith and kin and make them work for what they owe - that is wrong!
Now God's people had set it aside, maybe they had forgotten, but I think probably they knowingly ignored and were disobeying God's word, and that was what weakened God's work because the ordinary people who were working hard were suffering! Isn't it interesting that hardship often can be traced to some sin somewhere or another? Remember after Joshua led the people over the Jordan into the promised land, it was Achan who saw and coveted and took the wedge of gold and the Babylonian garment. Do you remember Ananias and Saphira in the early church in the Acts of the Apostles, they conspired after selling a field to give the money to the church, but they kept back part of it and they lied to the Holy Spirit and were struck down for it. The Bible tells us in Revelation that the characteristics of the end of the age, the age that we are in now, is the Laodicean period where the rich people will be increased with goods even in the church, and will be in need of nothing. A time of spiritual compromise, but it's married with a time of love of money.
It was well said that the love of money is the root of all evil, and here we have the gremlin of greed. Now let me say secondly that there is an answer to this avarice, this greed, and indeed it is an answer to any other vice or sin. Whatever is in your life, or in the life of the church, that is hindering the work of God, that's in your heart, there is an answer to it - but it must be dealt with if you want the work of God to go on. I don't think we realise the seriousness and the import of all this, that prolonged personal sins take a heavy toll on God's work, they pull it down. Dr Clarence McCartney, that great pastor I think was in Pittsburgh in the United States many years ago, said these words: 'The better the man, the better the preacher' - now you just replace that word 'preacher' with 'Christian' - 'The better the man, the better the Christian. When he kneels by the bed of the dying, or when he mounts the pulpit stairs, then every self-denial he has made, every Christian forbearance he has shown, every resistance to sin and temptation will come back to him to strengthen his arm and give conviction to his voice. Likewise every evasion of duty, every indulgence of self, every compromise with evil, every unworthy thought word or deed will be there at the head of the pulpit stairs to meet the minister on Sunday morning to take the light from his eyes, the power from his blow, the ring from his voice, and the joy from his heart'. In other words, sin follows you like a shadow if you don't deal with it.
The message of Nehemiah in this passage, as he was angry with the people, was simply this: 'If there is sin in your life, get rid of it. You Judaeans, if you're exploiting your brethren, if you have them as slaves against God's law, finish it now!'. Let me summarise his message in three short points - one: quit! That's it, simply, verse 10, look at it: 'I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury' - let us stop it! Now that is God's word to sin! Some people say to me: 'Oh, I'm seeking God's guidance on whether it's right to go out with this non-Christian or not' - God's word says it's wrong! There's not a period to wait and to seek God to see whether it's right, here's what Matthew 5 says: 'If your hand offend you, cut it off; if your eye offend you, pluck it out' - throw it away! Get rid of sin! If in doubt, cut it out!
It's not just quitting sin, there's a second thing: correct. 'Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day', verse 11. There's not just quit, but there is correct - you have to put right what has been done wrong against someone. We're not too fond of that one, are we? Facing our problems, and facing the people that have been problems perhaps, or we have been a problem to. Quit, correct, and then thirdly: commit. Nehemiah told them in verse 12: 'Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest. Then I called', Nehemiah, 'the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise' - and he shook his lap, which was a sign saying 'God curse you if you don't honour this vow'.
They quitted the sin, they corrected their lives, and they committed themselves. Sometimes we're very quick at vowing things to God. Maybe you have a time in your life when you recommitted your life to Christ, or you vowed to serve Him and do all this - I know people, and you hear of it all the time, and they're lying on their deathbed, and 'If I get out of this deathbed, well I'm going to serve God all my life' - and they never do. Listen now, this is serious: a vow that you make to God is a very very serious thing. Solomon said in Ecclesiastes: 'When thou vowest a vow unto God defer not to pay it, for He hath no pleasure in fools. Pay that which thou hast vowed, better it is that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay'.
The answer to avarice or any other sin in the life of the believer, or in the church, that is hindering God's work, is simply this: quit it, correct it, and commit yourself again to God. Thirdly and finally, there is the gremlin of greed, the answer to avarice, and thirdly the influence of example. This is where I want us to home in - we've looked at the people now, we've looked into their hearts at their sin and what their sin did, now we're homing in and focusing on Nehemiah on his own. Now after he was righteously angry in verse 6, in verse 7 we see - and this is interesting - that there was a time of contemplation: 'Then I consulted with myself'. He wasn't a knee-jerk reaction person - sometimes people turn to me and others, and want an answer right away, or want wisdom right away - and it doesn't happen like that! Sometimes you have to go away and think about a thing, not just pray, but even think about a matter. He says 'I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers'.
So there was anger, there was contemplation, but there was resolution. When he knew what he had to do - rebuke the nobles - he went and did it, and there was no fear in doing so. But this is what I want you to see: it was his example. Verses 14 to 19, we'll just look at verse 15: 'But the former governors' - people like me, Nehemiah said - 'that had been before me were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver; yea, even their servants bare rule over the people: but so did not I, because of the fear of God'. What he was saying here was that the leaders and governors of Jerusalem that have been before me, they had rights - and they were rights now - they had rights to take bread and wine and all sorts of things off the people for themselves, and Nehemiah is basically saying: 'That was my right as well, but so did not I'. Isn't that a remarkable statement?
Do you know what some Christians say to us today, and others, for an excuse of their compromise with the world around us - whether it's in business or pleasure, or vice of sin of every kind - they say this: 'Sure, isn't everybody doing it? Isn't everybody at it? Every Christian does that nowadays!'. Listen to one man, one man and his example - what an impact it had! He said: 'So did not I, I'm not going to do it. You can all do it, I'm not doing it, I'm taking my stand'. Now there is also a spiritual principle here, and it's simply this: anything of value usually involves a denial of self in one form or another. If Nehemiah wanted the work of God to go on, he couldn't behave like everybody who had gone before him. He had to deny self in some way, and he did, and the work of God went on!
Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, Paul counted all things that were gain to him as loss that he might win Christ, our Lord Jesus it says 'Humbled Himself and made Himself of no reputation'. Do you know what Nehemiah was simply saying here? If we could hear him singing it: 'Take the world, but give me Jesus'. Now friends, this is where it really becomes very serious, because no one today listens to 'Do as I say, not as I do' Christianity. You might have your big Bible and your fancy suit, and your orthodox theology, but at the end of the day the world is not listening! It is not enough! The 'Do as I say' day is gone, you need to see in the believer's life more than ever the life of Christ! You need to see that self-denial, and I'll tell you: often the world places higher standards upon Christianity than we do in the church. The world expects to see a man or woman who is different - what the church is trying to do today is show you Christians that are the same! Even the world knows that that is only a counterfeit!
Alan Redpath, in his book on Nehemiah, made this statement: 'Your Christian experience is valueless, regardless of what you believe, unless it leads you to a standard of conduct which is in violent opposition to a lot that goes on in the world today'. Now I'm asking, and I'm speaking to someone here this morning, and you have lowered the standard in your life, and you're now involved in compromise in some sinful way - and that is what is hindering the work of God in your life, and - who knows but God - it could be what is hindering the work here!
Notice what he said in verse 15: 'so did I not' - why? 'Because I'm a big fellow, and I have a reputation to keep, and I believe A...B...C...' - no. 'Because I fear the Lord' - the man that fears God need fear none else. We could say in our day and age today: 'Look, I'm not going to do that, I'm not going to do that because I love Jesus'. Do I think that way when I'm tempted to sin? Do I say, like Joseph in Potiphar's house, 'How can I do this thing and sin against the Lord Jesus Christ?'? Do I think of the nailprints? Do I think of how He bore in His own body my sin there on the tree, and because He loved me so He died for me in that way - how can I indulge myself in that habit, how can I look at that thing, how can I be involved in that practice? Yes, you'll be unpopular, you will be despised perhaps, but it doesn't matter! If you fear God you'll not fear anybody else!
There's a very interesting verse that I want to finish with, verse 19: 'Think upon me, my God, for good', Nehemiah says, 'according to all that I have done for this people'. Many scholars believe that the latter verses of this chapter date to a later period long after the building of the wall when Nehemiah was made the Governor of the city. It seems to indicate that he's looking back at the period after the wall was built, and even after - mark this - the wall has been built, he has been made the Governor of the city, and there he is ruling: he still feels that the people don't appreciate what he did, those who he sought to serve. Yet even though Nehemiah didn't get the praise from men that was his due, he didn't seek it, all he sought was the 'Well done' of God, and he was comforted in the knowledge that one day he will get a reward in the sight of the God in whom is all we have to do, the God with whom we have to do with, the God with whom we have to answer with. Nehemiah said: 'Lord, think upon me, according to all that I have done for this people'. That's all that matters - not what your wife thinks, not what your husband thinks, or your children, or your parents; not what the church thinks, not what your generation thinks. I wanted to sing it, but one verse says:
'Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise,
Thou mine inheritance, now and always.
Thou and Thou only first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my treasure Thou art'.
Is there a fifth column in your heart working against the work of God? Quit it, correct it, and commit yourself to the work again, and get up and start building.
Father, help us to be done with sin if sin there be, and to commit ourselves completely and fully to Thee and Thy cause. In the Saviour's name, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the eighth tape in his 'Building For God' series, entitled "The Fifth Column Of God's Work" - Transcribed by Preach The Word.
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