14 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. 15 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. 16 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.
17 Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. 18 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.
19 Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people.
(Nehemiah 5:14-19 NIV)
While dealing with external neighboring foes who tried to shut down the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and gates, Nehemiah encountered a far more insidious enemy – the Jewish people themselves.
A famine in the land brought out the worst in the Jewish people. The wealthy Jews took advantage of their poorer Jewish neighbors by lending them money with interest, by confiscating their land when the poor people could not pay them back, and even forcing the poor peoples’ children into servitude (slavery).
This was not an economic issue – this was a spiritual matter. Nehemiah confronted the Jewish rulers and pleaded with them to treat their Jewish neighbors according to God’s Word. Their motive was to be love, not profit.
In today’s passage, Nehemiah offers himself as an example of living according to God’s Word. In the twelve years he was governor of Judah, Nehemiah nor any of his officials demanded the governor’s food allowance from the Jewish people. This form of “taxation” was completely legal and rightfully his to claim, but out of respect for the Lord and His Word, Nehemiah did not burden the people and lived within his means (vv. 14-15).
Also, Nehemiah and his servants helped rebuild the wall (which he could also have claimed his exemption from doing) and did not buy land and profit from it (which was also his right to do).
Finally, Nehemiah records the fact that he fed over 150 people each day, all without imposing the governor’s food allowance tax on the people. The tax burden on the people was already heavy – Nehemiah did not want to make it even worse (v. 18).
As I studied today’s passage, I was reminded of Paul’s ministry to the Corinthians. Although Paul had every right to ask for food and wages for his preaching, he did not demand that from the Corinthians. Instead, like Nehemiah, he chose to minister to them without any economic burden (1 Corinthians 9).
Nehemiah ends with a humble plea to the Lord to see that both his heart and his actions were good towards God’s people. Nehemiah was operating with pure, unselfish motives; he was not looking out for his own interests, but those of God’s people.
As we look at today’s passage, each of us must look in the mirror and check our motives – we must ask ourselves why we do what we do.
Do we operate out of love for the Lord, respect for His Word, and love for others?
Or are we motivated by economics, by seizing the opportunity, even when it is rightfully ours to take but will create a burden on others?
Simply asked, are we givers, or are we takers?
Do we give like Nehemiah, or do we take what is legally and rightfully ours to have?
Do we give expecting nothing in return, or do we give, expecting others to reciprocate?
May we follow Nehemiah’s example of selfless giving.
Jesus provided the ultimate example by giving Himself for us (Philippians 2:1-8).
May we do the same for others.