Nehemiah 5

Nehemiah 5: Selfishness

Throughout the study of Nehemiah we are seeing the problems and obstacles that arise when we begin to rebuild what has fallen into disrepair. The enemy will begin to launch his attack and the Word of God tells us to be on guard for our enemy seeks to devour us. Our Lord Jesus, Himself has told us to ‘ watch and pray, lest we fall in temptation.’

The enemy uses several weapons against us which we should as believers recognize as his handiwork.  Discouragement is one of his favorites. Discouragement kept Israel out of the Promised Land for a generation, didn’t it?  Discouraged by the size of the enemy, the nation of Israel chose not to enter the promised land in spite of the promise that God had already given them this land.  Discouragement arises out of fear- fear that comes from lack of faith in God’s Word. Fear not only paralyzes one, it is also contagious.  That is why FDR in his famous radio address said: “ the only thing we have to fear- is fear itself.”

Discouragement comes out of fear which comes from lack of faith. It comes from doubters and compromisers who are called ‘ double-minded’ by James in James 1. And a double-minded man is unstable and tossed about by every wind that blows. Doubt short-circuits the power of faith.

But this chapter 5 in Nehemiah reveals another weapon the enemy uses – selfishness. Selfishness is thinking of self first. Taking care of number one. Making one’s self the center of everything, your goals, your well-being, your way. And yet the Word of God tells us the two greatest commandments on which the whole Bible are based are:  ‘to love the Lord thy God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and the second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself.’ The expert in the law who asked Jesus this question in Luke 10 wanted further clarification on who was his neighbor. Jesus answered with a parable that is famous today- the parable of the Good Samaritan. He showed us how selfish most of us are- indifferent to the needs of others we think less of- or simply do not want to take the time to deal with because we are selfish.

So we find in chapter 5 so many similarities as to where we find ourselves today. It is as relevant as this morning’s newspaper and the current issues we face.  The chapter begins with a ‘ great outcry’ from the people against their Jewish brothers. Is this not where we find ourselves not just in America but in the whole world- a great outcry from Los Angeles to NYC ‘s Wall Street protest, from Cairo to Yemen, Libya to Syria there is a great outcry.

Look at what caused the great outcry in this 2500 year old story:  an economic crisis brought on by famine, borrowed money, mortgages, high taxes and greed. Sometimes an economic crisis brings to surface  and to light a root problem that has not been addressed for years that is bubbling beneath the surface.

There are four groups involved here in this situation:

  1. People who owned no land or property who needed food. (The poorest group.)
  2. People who owned land but had mortgaged the land to buy food. When debt meets inflation- it can wipe out one’s equity in no time. (the struggling middle class)
  3. Third group of people who had borrowed money from their Jewish brothers, to pay taxes to the Persian king and now had put up their children as security as indentured servants. ( the overextended upper middle class)
  4. The fourth group are the wealthy Jews who were exploiting their own countrymen to make exorbitant amounts of money during a time of crisis. Greed that comes from selfishness.  Sound familiar?  ( the rich get richer –the 1%)

In 2008, we found ourselves in an economic meltdown that almost took the world under. In fact, it is still in a precarious situation. While many look upon the surface of the problem and how to best resolve the problem, we need to understand the spiritual implications and look at how the enemy is attacking us.. What  caused the great outcry in Nehemiah’s day is the same thing causing the great outcry in today’s economic crisis- there are people who have exploited others and taken advantage of their situation to prosper themselves. But at the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.  Selfishness, a selfish heart- which is clearly the  work of the enemy who in ally with our old nature, wants to seek only what benefits self. After all it was selfishness that entered through the gateway of pride that led to Lucifer’s fall from heaven. And it is selfishness that has led to his battle against all that is God’s, including God’s people and most of all God’s Glory. Pride and selfishness are two sides of the same coin.

Nehemiah calls a large assembly to confront the problem head on.  In doing so, Nehemiah shows us how a godly leader addressed such situations.  A true leader does not seek a solution to the problem that is the most popular with the people, as a politician would. A true leader does not ask what is the safe thing to do, as a compromising diplomat would. A true leader asks what is the right thing to do, what does God’s Word tell us to do.

Building the wall and repairing the gates did not cause this problem. The famine did not cause this problem, nor did the king’s taxes or the high interest loans cause this problem. They revealed these problems.

When one begins to rebuild what has fallen into ruin, problems will surface that you were not aware of before. When we built a new house in the 1980’s, we were as proud of it as anyone is of a new house.  Our front door developed a leak underneath it that in a hard rain, caused water to come into our entrance hall on our wood floor.  Calling a carpenter, we knew and trusted he began to repair the problem. In doing so, he removed a section of our floor and sub-flooring that revealed larger problem.  In building our house, someone cut the joists that the floor was set upon too short and did not even reach. Rather than re-cutting and replacing, he covered them up with sub flooring hoping the others would hold the floor and this would go unnoticed. So a surface problem revealed  a larger problem underneath that was the root cause. It had to be the person who did this – did not want to admit his mistake, have the expense of replacing those joists and so we could surmise- self and potential expense to self were root causes for not making things right.

The economic problems we encountered and are still dealing with from 2008, showed a structure built upon a flawed foundation.  The foundation had as its root and motivation- greed and selfishness. So do not be surprised when you begin to rebuild something and get down to the foundation, you will get down past the symptoms and discover the root cause is one of selfishness.  One of satan’s most subtle weapons is selfishness. That is why we must deny self.

Here is something else this story reveals- these episodes in our lives and in our churches   and in our country will bring out the best in us and the worst in us.

In Nehemiah 5: 7-11, Nehemiah rebukes the wealthy Jews who have taken advantage of their brothers. But notice also, with the rebuke comes an appeal to do what is right.  God rebuked Cain for his attitude of anger when God did not look with favor on Cain’s sacrifice but looked with favor on Able’s. But with the rebuke, God made an appeal and told Cain if he did what was right, he would be accepted.  This is what Nehemiah would do- he would rebuke them for doing what was wrong according to the law of Moses but at the same time make an appeal to for them to do what was right based on the law, love and the fear of God.

Nehemiah appeals to their love by using the word ‘ brothers’ four times in his rebuke. He also appealed to them based on the fact that what they were doing was explicitly forbidden in the law of Moses concerning usury practices among brothers. He appealed on the basis of God’s redemptive purpose  for Israel. God had redeemed Israel from Egypt and Babylon and now they were being enslaved by their own countrymen. (vs.8)

Paul writes in Galatians 5: 1- “ It is for FREEDOM that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let YOURSELVES be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.”   And in John 8, Jesus tells us: “ If you continue(abide) in my word, you are my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

So many people , believers and non-believers have believed the lie that abundance of possessions will make you happy.  So they accumulate possessions with debt and find themselves with a yoke and burden that enslaves them.  They look at the ones who loaned them the money and there is a great outcry, but the truth is in their pursuit to feel significant they have allowed their selfish motives to borrow unwisely from those who took advantage of their selfishness- being selfish themselves.   Do you see what a mess selfishness creates? In our lives, our families, our churches and our country?  Did you know most advertising is to make one unhappy with what they currently have and create a desire for what is newer and more desirable in their eyes? You deserve  a break.  You deserve to be a little selfish. So goes the message from television, radio , print, billboards, magazines and ads popping up on your computer. Words and images that appeal to our old, selfish nature.

So the question is what is freedom from a Biblical perspective for a believer?  It is first of all a life motivated by love.  The two greatest commandments on which all of Scripture are based are to love the Lord thy God with everything in your being and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Second it is governed by truth. The truth will set you free, because the truth provides the guidelines in which we are to live.

And third freedom for a believer involves a fear of God. A reverence and awe but also an understanding that sin has consequences.Let’s see how this works:  Jesus said if you love me – you will keep my commandments. A life motivated by love and governed by truth and shaped by a healthy fear of God.

Nehemiah appeals to these money lenders on the basis of love and the truth of God’s word. He also warns them of the consequences of not obeying God’s Word- by shaking his robes a symbol of what God would do to them.  He invoked the fear of God. For the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

You see life is a series of choices. And choices have consequences.  We all have a selfish nature. That is why the old nature has to be crucified. That is why we must take up our cross daily. When we look at those who made unwise choices based on selfishness, Lot stands out as a poster boy for the consequences of bad choices. For we are told in Genesis 13:11-´So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of Jordan and set out toward the east.”  A choice he made out of selfishness and watch the consequences as his rose to wealth and position in Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot would sacrifice his witness for wealth. He would sacrifice holiness for harmony- go along to get along. And finally Lot would sacrifice his family for his fortune. But he ends up in a cave committing the most awful of sins. Lot’s wife sacrificed everything- including her life.

Do you fear God?  Do you fear the consequences of disobedience?  When we talk about the fear of God, we are talking about a reverence, an awe of Almighty God.  Oswald Chambers wrote: “ The remarkable thing about fearing God is when you fear God- you fear nothing else; whereas when you do not fear God, you fear everything else.”

This is what Nehemiah was bringing to their attention in verse 9:  “ So I continued, “ What  are you doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in fear of God to avoid the reproach of our enemy?” When you walk in fear of the Lord, you will walk in obedience. You will walk in faith, trusting God to deal with the enemy, including self and selfishness. God will defend us and fight for us against the enemy’s attack and guide us through troubles and times of testing.

Jesus knew what it was like to live on this earth and face the troubles and pressures and temptations. He showed us by example how to deal with those. From his experience of living in a family dealing with day-to-day needs, he understood our frailties and weaknesses. And here is what He told us: “ Therefore I tell you , do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important that food, and the body more important that clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet our Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and thrown into the fire tomorrow, will He not much more clothe you, of you of little faith? So do not worry, saying what shall we eat? Or what shall we drink? Or What shall we wear? For the pagans(unbelievers) run after these things and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them.

But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” ( Matthew 6)

Did you realize anxiety and worry, according to Jesus, are a byproduct of unbelief in God’s grace and promises?

This is what is means to walk in fear, in reverential awe  of the God. It means to trust in the Lord with all your heart and not leaning to your own understanding. God has promised to supply your needs and direct your paths. You must not believe the lies and false promises of sin. Our chief enemy is the lie that says sin will make our future happier. And our chief weapon is the truth that says God will make our future happier.

The priority of our life must be our relationship with God. If we make our relationship with God our number one priority- it will first of all push our needs into second place and guard against selfishness. Then having made His kingdom work our priority, the Lord tells us God will be faithful and can be trusted completely to take care of our other needs. He is saying I will help you manage your life if you will follow me. Ask yourself this question: do you believe this promise of Jesus??

Thus motivated by love for God and love for others and governed by His truth, His law we can overcome the attacks of the enemy for if God be for us- who or what can be against us.

Know and expect this and learn from these historical accounts for they were written for our examples:   *Expect problems from without and within.

*When God’s work is prospering, expect increased attacks from the enemy.

*When problems arise, confront them and do not cover them up. Ignoring the problem only makes the roots grow deeper.

*See every problem as an opportunity for the Lord to work in you.

*Nehemiah teaches us that solving problems for a believer is not just an intellectual activity and exercise; it is also a spiritual experience.

*If you depend on the wisdom of the world you will get what the world can do.

*If you depend on the wisdom of God , you will get what only God can do.

In the closing this chapter, we read how Nehemiah practiced what he preached. He shared un-selfishly with others from his abundance.  Many leaders prosper as a result of their position of power and influence- but that is a sign of selfishness. Nehemiah was a living example. He didn’t just talk the talk…he walked the walk.


We all make choices each and every day. We will either be led by the Spirit or our sinful nature. Paul wrote in Romans 8-“ For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to the death  the misdeeds of the body, you will live,…”

We must kill selfishness which comes from our old sinful nature or it will destroy us. How do we put to death the misdeeds of the body by the Spirit? We wield the Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God and we sever the lifeline of sin by believing the promises of God.

Let me paraphrase Joshua in closing:  “ But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve….”   Each day we face that choice whom we will serve and whose promises we will believe. It’s your choice.

The deception of sin is that it can provide you with future happiness which is a lie. Only God can provide us with future happiness and to do so- He sacrificed His own Son!

Copyright © 2010 Linda Benthal
Last modified: 08/12/14