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Denying Our Rights

Nehemiah 5:14-19 - Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year--twelve years--neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. But the earlier governors - those preceding me - placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that.

Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land. Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people. Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people.

Read all of Nehemiah 5

Background

In 539 BC, the Persian emperor, Cyrus, issued an edict that allowed the Jewish people in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple. The Jews had been held as captives in Babylon ever since Nebuchadnezzar had conquered the kingdom of Judah in 586 BC and destroyed the beautiful temple that King Solomon had built in Jerusalem. After Cyrus granted permission for the Jewish captives to return, about 50,000 Jews traveled back to their homeland in 538 BC. They rebuilt their Temple after a delay of about 20 years, but the wall around Jerusalem remained in ruins. We read in the book of Ezra that some attempts to rebuild the wall had been made before Nehemiah's time, but these results were feeble and futile.

The events in the book of Nehemiah occurred almost 100 years after the first group of Jews returned to Jerusalem. Nehemiah lived in Susa, the Persian capital, and was a descendant of the Jews who were taken into captivity almost 150 years before. He had attained the enviable position of cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia. Cupbearers in those days were not menial servants who brought the king's favorite beverages to him. They were trusted officials of high rank with the responsibility of making sure that the king's drinks were not poisoned - an easy way of doing away with an unguarded king!

When Nehemiah got the report that the walls around Jerusalem were still in ruins and the Holy City was thus open to enemy attack, he was very concerned. After much prayer, he took advantage of an opportunity from the Lord to ask the king for permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city's wall. In a marvelous answer to prayer and display of divine providence, permission was granted. In addition, the king made Nehemiah governor and gave him money and supplies to accomplish the task. Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem in about 445 BC and after an inspection of the ruined walls, he challenged and organized the fearful and lethargic citizens to rise up and build.

The people of Jerusalem rose to the challenge and in a great show of determination and hard work they were able to finish the project of rebuilding the wall in 52 days - an amazing accomplishment! Parts of Nehemiah's wall can still be seen in Jerusalem today in the archaeological excavations of the ancient city of David.

Doctrinal / Teaching Points

There is teaching in a number of different areas in the book of Nehemiah.

1. First of all, we are given a lot of late Old Testament history in Nehemiah. We learn of the geo-political conditions that prevailed for the Jewish people during the closing days of the Old Testament period. This is important, not only because of certain intertestamental prophecies that were fulfilled, but also because these conditions set the stage for the coming of the Messiah.

2. In addition, there are lessons for spiritual wall-building that come to us from the book of Nehemiah. In ancient times, walls protected cities from enemies, and provided security for the citizens to conduct their lives and raise their families in safety. Just as God wanted the city of His Temple to be a well-defended city with strong and secure walls, so He wants the Temple of His Holy Spirit today to be surrounded and protected by strong spiritual walls. Each individual today is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), and believers together as the Church are also the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16).

Thus we see that spiritual wall-building is important both on an individual level and a community (local church) level. Building strong spiritual walls should be a priority for individual believers, for Christian families and fellowships, and for the Church in general. Unfortunately, just like the people of Jerusalem in Nehemiah's day, too many Christians today are content to live in the midst of broken down spiritual walls.

Satan, of course, as the enemy of our souls, will do everything possible to prevent us from building strong spiritual walls, and keep us content with living in spiritual insecurity. Satan doesn't like to see churches that carefully proclaim the entire Word of God, and churches that disciple and care for the flock. Satan doesn't want to see Christians who know God's Word well enough to recognize and reject theological error, or detect and avoid subtle temptation to sin. Satan doesn't want committed Christians with strong spiritual walls who can defend the faith and stand up against threat of persecution and personal attack. He doesn't want to see strong and secure Christian families where the children are protected from evil and the Word of God is consistently modeled and carefully taught.

All of Satan's various tactics to tear down our spiritual walls are seen in the efforts of Israel's enemies to stop the wall from going up in the book of Nehemiah. And all of Nehemiah's responses to overcome the opposition are biblical principles for overcoming Satan's opposition to spiritual wall-building today. So building strong spiritual walls is a major theme in the book of Nehemiah, and there are many lessons to be learned concerning this subject.

3. Thirdly, we can learn a lot about spiritual leadership in the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah is a great book from which to learn the biblical principles of Christian leadership, and these principles are important for all believers, not just applicable to Christian leaders.

a. Nehemiah had vision. He saw that a job needed to be done, and rather than look for someone else to do it, he took action himself, looking to God for strength and direction.

Every Christian can see jobs that need to be done, and can take action, just as Nehemiah did.

b. Nehemiah was a motivator. Throughout the book we see that Nehemiah was able to lead other people to accomplish God's will. By personal example, challenge and exhortation, Nehemiah was able to motivate the people to rise up and build the wall. Thus Nehemiah is a model of a spiritual leader-a godly leader whom people are willing to follow.

c. Nehemiah set the example. In Nehemiah 5, we see one of the foremost principles of Christian leadership: A leader must set the example at all times and under all conditions - even to the point of setting aside his or her own personal rights. Nehemiah did just that! As governor of the province of Judah with authority from the Persian emperor, Nehemiah could have collected exorbitant taxes from the people and taken a huge cut for himself. Furthermore, as governor he could have lived in luxury and just directed the project of rebuilding the wall without getting his own hands dirty. And finally, Nehemiah could have manipulated the project for his own advantage in order to make a name for himself - even inscribing his name in stone on the wall!

But Nehemiah did none of these things! He did not tax the people. He didn't sit back and "call the shots" without working on the wall himself. When he reprimanded the more wealthy people for selfishly taking advantage of the poor, he did not do so without selflessly providing for the less fortunate - out of his own pocket! Nehemiah denied his own rights because his bottom line was not to make a name for himself, but to bring glory to God. No wonder Nehemiah was greatly used by the Lord.

Practical Application

Go the extra mile!

We too can bring glory to God by making sure we go "the extra mile" and deny our own personal rights. We have little choice but to deny our rights when we are in an inferior position and can't selfishly take advantage of the situation, even if we wanted to. But we glorify God when we are in a position of power or authority and could easily be demanding or take advantage of others for personal gain or prestige, but we choose to set aside our personal interests for the sake of God's kingdom.

Denying our rights may cost us in terms of status, time and money--and may not even be appreciated by the very people we are trying to help. Don't look for thanks from people or some kind of reward in this life! It's certainly nice if these benefits come our way, but more often than not, they are like that hoped-for yearly financial bonus--maybe next year! We should do what Nehemiah did here at the end of the chapter. Just turn the whole matter of thanks or reward over to the Lord."Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people"(5:19).

Denying our rights is not just a biblical principle for Christian leaders to practice, it's a principle for all believers. Most of us have far less to give up than Nehemiah did when he denied his personal rights to serve God and His people. But the Lord asks us to deny our rights in every area of our lives.

We need to read Philippians 2:3-4, and ask ourselves some questions. Does my life bring glory to God if I only deny myself in the interests of others at church, for example, but am selfish and demanding at home? How much glory does God receive when I serve and put others first in my Christian fellowships, but then I don't deny myself in the interests of my co-workers on the job, or even my own family members? Denying our rights at home is probably the hardest of all because that's where all the masks come off, and that's where it's easiest to push others around and demand our rights. We are to treat others with love and respect in every area of our lives.

The supreme example, of course, of denying personal rights is the Lord Jesus. Read Philippians 2:5-11 and think of how much He gave up when He denied His personal rights to become Man forever, and take the penalty of sin for you and for me! As His followers, we should be actively working at developing His humble attitude of serving others. We should be willing to lay aside our personal rights, our petty preferences and our selfish ambitions, and be willing to serve others in all areas.

Let's deny our rights and glorify God.
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