A Wartime Lifestyle On A Millionaire’s Budget?
A Wartime Lifestyle On A Millionaire’s Budget?123
A Wartime Lifestyle On A Millionaire’s Budget?
Main Idea: The bad way to use wealth is to disregard others in order to gain more for oneself. The good way is to steward one’s wealth and be generous to others to advance God’s kingdom, as Nehemiah did.
- The Outcry (5:1-5)
- Nehemiah Addresses the Situation (5:6-13)
- Nehemiah and the Governor’s Allowance (5:14-19)
Would you feel guilty if you were a millionaire? I think there is a strand of evangelical thinking that suspects, if not believes outright, that having a lot of money (and in some cases just a little surplus) is something to feel guilty about. Shane Claiborne has quoted Rich Mullins: “We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too” (Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution, 98-99).
When we read the passage to which Claiborne refers in context, we see that Jesus was exposing to the rich young ruler the fact that he loved money more than God. By contrast, the whole New Testament teaches that all people need to be born again, made alive, regenerated for salvation (see Eph 2:1-5; Titus 3:5-6; Jas 1:18; 1 Pet 1:23). Obviously it is wrong to love money more than God, but that does not mean that it is categorically wrong for anyone to have money. Jesus did not tell Zacchaeus to sell everything he had and give to the poor. Zacchaeus demonstrated that he worshiped God, not money, by repaying those he had wronged and giving away half of his possessions, and Jesus said salvation had come to him (Luke 19:1-10).
John Piper has called people to a wartime lifestyle. He writes, “In wartime we spend money differently—there is austerity, not for its own sake, but because there are more strategic ways to spend money than on new tires at home” (Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad!, 44). Later he writes, 124“A $70,000 salary does not have to be accompanied by a $70, 000 lifestyle.... No matter how grateful we are, gold will not make the world think that our God is good; it will make people think that our God is gold” (ibid., 106).
Piper has a point, and we need to hear that point. We also want to balance that point with other truths the Bible affirms. Piper is not necessarily responsible for making people feel guilty for having funds and being blessed by God, but I think that people influenced by his teaching on the wartime lifestyle have felt guilty about their savings accounts and have felt guilty about God’s blessings. They might even feel guilty about putting new tires on their cars. But it’s good stewardship to make sure that you’re not going to have a blowout that could result in a tragic accident, especially if we are talking about the car that will be driven by your wife as she transports your children.
Our need is to balance all of the Bible’s teaching on the subject of money. Our need is to see that even if we sell what we have and give it away, we haven’t necessarily done what would please God. We also need to see that indulging ourselves at the expense of others does not please God. Our need is to know how to steward what we have for the glory of Christ, the good of others, and the advance of the gospel.
In Nehemiah 1-2 we saw that Nehemiah was a man of prayer and Bible study who took action to be used of God in answer to his own prayers. In chapters 3-4 we saw that Nehemiah exemplified Christlike valor as he led the people of God to rebuild the wall at great risk to himself. Now, in Nehemiah 5 we will see him living a wartime lifestyle on a millionaire’s budget.
In Nehemiah 5:1-5, the financial dealings of those with money are not being regulated by the Torah of Moses. The ability of the covenant community to rebuild the wall is therefore hindered. We read in verse 1(my trans.),
125And it came about that there was a great outcry of the people and their wives against their Jewish brothers.
The outcry is from Jews about Jews. That is, the Jews are not crying out against the people of the land, and the people of the land are not crying out against the Jews. This is an infraction that deals with the way that the people of God relate to one another. If we are going to apply this to ourselves today, we must apply it to the way the people of God relate to one another because that is the concern in this text.
We must know what the Torah of Moses required of the Jewish people in order to understand this outcry. Deuteronomy 23:19-20 says,
Do not charge your brother interest on money, food, or anything that can earn interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you must not charge your brother interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in everything you do in the land you are entering to possess.
It appears that the concentrated work on the wall has meant that fields have gone un-worked. Perhaps if the people had worked their fields rather than the wall, they would have been able to get food for themselves. Thus we read in verse 2,
Some were saying, “We, our sons, and our daughters are numerous. Let us get grain so that we can eat and live.”
With the fields un-worked, however, the people had to find a way to buy food. It appears that what they did was allow others to work the fields in exchange for grain. This appears to be the mortgage spoken of in verse 3:
Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, vineyards, and homes to get grain during the famine.”
Though the work in the fields had not been done, the king did not suspend his tax on the produce of the fields, and on top of that the land was suffering from a famine. We see the complicated situation in verses 4-5 (my trans.):
And there were those who said, “We have borrowed silver for the tax of the king on our fields and our vineyards. And now, our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our sons are as their sons. And behold, we are subjecting our sons and our daughters to slavery, and there are from 126our daughters those who have been subjected, but there is no power in our hand, while our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”
In addition to mortgaging their fields, they were selling their children into debt-slavery. The Jewish people of wealth are primarily concerned with themselves here. They are not thinking about the effect their financial dealings have on the ability of the poor to feed themselves, care for their children, or devote themselves to the work on the wall.
Do you think beyond yourself when you think about how you deal with your money and how you go about accumulating money? Do you ever ask whether what you do with your money harms other Christians or keeps them from being able to devote themselves to the work of the church?
Nehemiah Addresses The Situation
There are several concerns at work in the outcry:
- the inability of the poor Jews to work the land and provide for themselves,
- the way the work on the wall will suffer if they leave it to work the land,
- the mounting financial burden of mortgaging the fields and vineyards and borrowing to pay the king’s tax on mortgaged land,
- the devastation of selling one’s children into slavery,
- and the compromised position of vulnerable children, especially daughters, enslaved to others.
All of this provokes Nehemiah, who from what we see in this book was a fiery, volatile man. He tells us how he responded in verses 6-8 (ESV):
I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, “You are exacting interest, each from his brother.” And I held a great assembly against them and said to them, “We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!” They were silent and could not find a word to say.
127When Nehemiah says in verse 7 that he “took counsel with” himself, the literal idea is that his heart was ruled. It seems that after his initial outrage, he got control of himself. Then when he charges “the nobles and the officials,” he addresses them specifically for breaking the Torah of Moses by “exacting interest, each from his brother.” Here again, Jews are charging other Jews interest, which was explicitly forbidden in Exodus 22:12-27, Leviticus 25:35-54, and Deuteronomy 23:19-20. Look at what Nehemiah says in verses 9-10:
Then I said, “What you are doing isn’t right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God and not invite the reproach of our foreign enemies? Even I, as well as my brothers and my servants, have been lending them money and grain. Please, let us stop charging this interest.”
After he ruled his heart, Nehemiah focused his appeal on Yahweh and His Torah. He called the transgressors to fear God, to be concerned for God’s reputation among the nations, and to bring themselves into line with the Torah by lending without interest, as it appears he was doing.
Do you fear God in the way you deal with your money? Do you deal with your money in a way that reflects your concern for God’s reputation among the nations? Do you regulate your finances according to God’s instructions in the Bible?
We are not under the Mosaic covenant, and we are not Jews in covenant with our kinsmen before Yahweh. This means that we are not constrained by the ordinances in the Torah of Moses on dealing with money. Where, then, do we turn? We can learn principles from the Old Testament, and I would suggest the following set of guidelines from the Old and New Testaments for dealing with what God has given to us.
- “The Lord brings poverty and gives wealth” (1 Sam 2:7).
Conclusions to draw from this:
- Some people try to make themselves rich and cannot.
- Some people try to make themselves poor and cannot.
- “The earth and everything in it ... belong to the Lord”(Ps 24:1).
Conclusions to draw from this:
- Everything belongs to God, and we are stewards.
- Everything that we have has been entrusted to us by the One who will evaluate how we have stewarded it.
- 128“The one who oppresses the poor person insults his Maker, but one who is kind to the needy honors Him” (Prov 14:31).The rich young ruler was instructed to sell everything and give to the poor (Luke 18:18-30), but Jesus did not give that instruction to Zaccheaus (19:1-10).
Conclusions to draw from this:
- God is generous and instructs His people to be generous.
- In order to be generous, you have to have means. The more money you have, the more generous you are ableto be.
- “Go to the ant, you slacker! Observe its ways and become wise.... it prepares its provisions in summer; it gathers its food during harvest” (Prov 6:6, 8).
Conclusions to draw from this:
- Wise people work hard and save in times of plenty to prepare for times of want.
- You should not feel guilty if you have learned from the ant to open a savings account.
- Paul calls the Corinthians to the spiritual discipline of giving as the Lord prospers them (1 Cor 16:1), as each decides in his heart, under no compulsion, for God loves cheerful givers (2 Cor 9:7).
Conclusions to draw from this:
- There is no minimum or maximum percentage that should be given.
- People should give what they have cheerfully decided in their own hearts to give.
Obviously much more could be said on these matters. For instance, Proverbs 14:24 really does say, “The crown of the wise is their wealth,” which would seem to indicate that people who have worked hard, saved, and honored God with their wealth will enjoy the “crown” of having means at their disposal and visible signs of their prosperity (cf. Prov 3:9-10). The Bible teaches that. Rich people should not feel guilty. They should obey what Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:17-19—trusting God not money, doing good, being generous and ready to share.
There are no specific directives that we give certain amounts or everything away, but there are guiding principles: under God’s sovereignty over what we have, we are responsible to image His generosity129 and wisdom to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, using our money to advance God’s kingdom through the church.
Where we are not doing this, where we are not doing to others as we would have them do to us, where we are abusing others to benefit ourselves, where our financial practices are bringing shame on the name of Christ, we must repent, and repentance requires action. Nehemiah calls the Jews oppressing their brothers to repent in Nehemiah 5:11:
Return their fields, vineyards, olive groves, and houses to them immediately, along with the percentage of the money, grain, new wine, and olive oil that you have been assessing them.
This is a call from a leader of the covenant community for the oppressors in the covenant community to give the covenantal allotment to those to whom it was allotted and the covenant-breaking interest back to those from whom it was wrongfully taken. This solution will enable those who participate in this covenant before God and one another to advance the work of the covenant community in rebuilding the wall for the benefit of all within the covenant—to advance the kingdom of God on earth.
I stress the covenant here because that is the moral basis for Nehemiah’s indignation, the moral authority for his appeal, and the moral direction for his instruction. Apart from the knowledge of Yahweh, and apart from the covenant between Him and Israel, there is no basis for moral indignation, no moral authority for an appeal, and no moral direction for instruction. Therefore, those who would learn from this instruction and call people to repent today must participate in the new covenant for there to be any basis for moral authority, any authority for moral appeal, and any direction for moral instruction.
If our contemporaries who are called to repent about their financial dealings do not know God and do not participate in the new covenant, they will not feel the force of the moral appeal and will only comply with the moral directive if they have some other reason for doing so. It will not ultimately please God. Whatever is not from faith is sin (Rom 14:23).
If our contemporaries who do the calling to repentance do not know God and participate in the new covenant, their basis for moral indignation will be clouded with self-righteousness and self-interest, and so their only moral authority will be what they can create for themselves. It will not ultimately please God. Whatever is not from faith is sin (Rom 14:23).
130Those who know God and participate in the new covenant will want to honor God in their financial practices, will want to do unto others as they would have done to themselves, and will want to use what they have to promote the knowledge of Christ and the advance of the church.
Nehemiah 5:12 shows us that those Nehemiah called to repentance felt the fear of God, for they repented:
They responded: “We will return these things and require nothing more from them. We will do as you say.” So I summoned the priests and made everyone take an oath to do this.
Nehemiah knows that a promise to repent is one thing, but following through on the promise to repent is another. So he calls the priests to have the people swear in verse 12, and in verse 13 he calls down a curse on those who do not follow through on their promises.
Do you know God? Are you trusting in Christ?
Do you feel moral indignation? On what basis? Because you have been wronged financially? Because God and His Word have been disregarded such that people have been hurt?
If you do not know God, and if you do not participate in the new covenant by faith in Jesus and the salvation He accomplished by His death and resurrection, what is the basis for your moral indignation, moral appeal, or moral direction? Shared belief?
The Aztecs apparently shared the belief that it was right to rip the heart out of the chest of a living human being (Wilson, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, 14). Do you want shared belief to be the basis of right and wrong? Won’t that leave you with nothing more than evolving standards of decency, and doesn’t that leave you with no basis for moral indignation, moral appeal, or moral direction?
The one true and living God determines right and wrong, good and evil. Do you want to know an absolute standard and be on the good side of that absolute standard? You need to know God by faith in Jesus. I would invite you to believe in the real God and to trust in the only Savior.
Nehemiah And The Governor’s Allowance
From what Nehemiah tells us about himself in Nehemiah 5:14-15, we know that he trusted God:
131Furthermore, from the day King Artaxerxes appointed me to be their governor in the land of Judah—from the twentieth year until his thirty-second year, 12 years—I and my associates never ate from the food allotted to the governor. The governors who preceded me had heavily burdened the people, taking food and wine from them, as well as a pound of silver. Their subordinates also oppressed the people, but I didn’t do this, because of the fear of God.
There is a remarkable balance between what we see here in verses 14-15 and what we will see about Nehemiah in verses 17-18. What we see here is that Nehemiah was free to forgo privileges that belonged to him. Nehemiah steps into a situation where, as we see in verse 15, there is an established practice of the governor of the land of Judah having economic and culinary privileges. Nehemiah breaks the pattern. He not only ceases to take advantage of his people (v. 15), he ceases enjoying the advantage of the “food allotted to the governor” (v. 14).
Do you know what enables people to let go of privileges of their own choice? No one has forced Nehemiah to do this. What freed him from the enjoyment of those privileges? I’ll tell you what: his experience of something better than those privileges. Nehemiah knows something better than money and food: love for people and faith in God. Nehemiah cares more about the people who would bear the burden of taxation to provide the governor’s allowance than he cares about his own ease. Nehemiah also believes that there is something higher and better and more enjoyable than indulging oneself in this world, and we will see that from what he prays in verse 19.
We see the devotion to the work and the people modeled by Nehemiah and his men in verse 16:
Instead, I devoted myself to the construction of the wall, and all my subordinates were gathered there for the work. We didn’t buy any land.
Bigger to him than his prestige as governor, better to him than the privileges the governor would enjoy, was the good that would come to the people as the kingdom of God was advanced through the building of the walls. Nehemiah wanted God’s name exalted and God’s weak and vulnerable people protected. He trusted God, and he loved God’s people.
A moment ago I said there was a balance between the way Nehemiah willingly surrendered privileges in verses 14-15 and what we see in verses 17-18. I said that because what we see in verses 17-18 shows us that Nehemiah was phenomenally wealthy:
132There were 150 Jews and officials, as well as guests from the surrounding nations at my table. Each day, one ox, six choice sheep, and some fowl were prepared for me. An abundance of all kinds of wine was provided every 10 days. But I didn’t demand the food allotted to the governor, because the burden on the people was so heavy.
Can you imagine slaughtering an ox a day? I don’t know how big Nehemiah’s herd of oxen was, but he referred to a 12-year period of time in verse 14. Twelve years multiplied by 365 days is 4, 380 oxen. He either had a herd big enough to sustain that or he had the money to buy that many oxen. He also slaughtered six sheep per day, and in 12 years that’s 26, 280 sheep.
This is enormous wealth! Nehemiah trusted God and loved God’s people, so he did not take advantage of the privileges of his office, but I see no indication at all here that he feels the slightest bit guilty about having the means to sacrifice an ox and six sheep every day and have “an abundance of all kinds of wine” every 10 days (Neh 5:18). There are poor people in the land. Nehemiah does not give any indication that he feels badly about being extravagantly wealthy while others are poor.
Would you feel guilty if you were a millionaire? I don’t think Nehemiah would share that sense of guilt. If you say, okay, so he’s a millionaire, but he’s using his money to benefit others not living the high life himself. I would point you back to the big feast of oxen and sheep and that enjoyment of all kinds of wine every 10 days. There were probably more economical ways to feed 150 people than an ox and six sheep every day, and “an abundance of all kinds of wine” sounds luxurious. Apparently Nehemiah felt no guilt about enjoying the way that God had blessed him.
If we recognize that God makes poor and rich, we will see wealth and all it enables as blessings from God, not sins about which we should feel guilty. If God makes poor and rich, then we have as little control over how much we have as we have control over who our parents are. Were you blessed with great parents? If so, do you feel guilty about that? You shouldn’t feel guilty. You should praise God. I think you should praise God if He has made you wealthy. What about this: would you feel guilty for having a great time with your great parents? If not, then I suggest that if you love God and serve Him, if you worship God not money, if you steward your wealth as a blessing from Him, if you are doing unto others in your financial dealings as you would have them do unto you, and if you are using your wealth to advance the gospel133 through the church, you should not feel guilty about the blessings of God that become available to you through the wealth with which He has blessed you.
Nehemiah is as generous as he is wealthy. He feeds 150 people at his table. Apparently he believes that God has sovereignly given him plenty, believes it his responsibility to steward what he has been given rather than divest himself of it, and believes that he can use the excess at his disposal to advance God’s kingdom.
Nehemiah is a man of prayer, and he closes this account of financial dealings with the prayer we find in verse 19 (my trans.),
Remember for my good, my God, all that I have done for this people.
Why would Nehemiah ask God to remember for his good what he has done? It seems that he wants the good that he has done for God’s people to be remembered because he is looking to the reward. He is looking to the great accounting, when breathtaking pleasures and heart-filling joys will be known by those who lived for God rather than for themselves. Here we see the source of Nehemiah’s selflessness. Nehemiah wants to serve God and God’s people because he believes that living by faith in what he cannot see will be more rewarding than living for what he can see in this life.
If you worship money, you are a sinner and you should repent and trust Christ, not money. If you use your money to abuse others to benefit yourself, you are not treating them as you would have them treat you. You need to repent of your sin and trust Christ. If you do not love God and His people, if you do not seek to use your money to advance the cause of the gospel through the church, you must repent of your self-centeredness and trust in Jesus.
If God is your God, not mammon, if you are wisely seeking to steward what God has sovereignly given you, acting out the golden rule, seeking to advance the gospel, experiencing the blessings of God, then don’t let anyone take you captive to feelings of guilt for enjoying God’s blessings. There are all kinds of disparities in this world. The gospel is the great leveler.
Tall people who trust in Christ should not feel guilty for being tall. People who trust in Christ and have great marriages should not feel guilty for having a believing, faithful spouse. Those who trust in Christ 134and whom God has made rich should not feel guilty because God did not make someone else rich also. God is God. We will give account to Him for the way that we stewarded what He gave us. Refusing to enjoy the way that He has blessed our bank accounts is along the lines of refusing to enjoy the blessing of a sunset or a spouse, a flower or a forest. If He has lavished largesse upon you, praise Him.
Reflect and Discuss
- What does it say about Nehemiah that he would follow the account of the financial oppression of God’s people with indications of his own phenomenal wealth? What point was he trying to make?
- Evidently some of the wealthier Jews were taking advantage of other Jews who had put themselves at financial risk so they could work on the wall. In what ways do some people today oppress or take advantage of those who are devoting themselves to gospel ministry?
- Are there any ways that you are taking advantage of others for financial gain?
- Do your children or those around you perceive that you are pursuing God or pursuing gold? What might make them think that money is too important in your life?
- Do you think what your church pays your pastor would be characterized by words like “an ample honorarium” (1 Tim 5:17) or sharing “all his good things” (Gal 6:6)? Does it enable him “to refrain from working” for a living on a second job (1 Cor 9:6)?
- Do you feel guilty about the ways that God has provided for you financially? Should you feel less guilt than you do? Explain.
- Should you feel more guilt than you do? Are you worshiping money rather than God? Is your hope set on wealth rather than God? Are you un-generous? Explain.
- If you are obeying 1 Timothy 6:17-19 and you still feel guilty, do you think that guilt comes from the conviction of the Holy Spirit? How might pride be a source of guilt in this situation?
- If you had the means to provide 500 pounds of food every day and you were feeding 150 people, would you feel guilty about it? Why?
- If guilt arises from our own pride, are we honoring God? Explain.