Who Needs the Devil — We’ve Got Each Other
“The devil made me do it!”
That was an expression coined by the comedian Flip Wilson. It was an expression that was humorously used in the skits on his comedy television series a number of years ago. Flip Wilson played the role of Geraldine, who was always trying to stay in the good graces of her boyfriend Killer. Whenever Geraldine did anything wrong she would simply tell Killer, “The devil made me do it!”
While Flip’s expression makes for good comedy, it makes for bad theology. Many Christians have a tendency to blame everything on the devil. As a result they do not accept responsibility for their own actions. It may come as a surprise to learn that we can’t blame everything on the devil.
We must come to grips with the fact that there are some things we do simply because we are sinful, mean, nasty, and unforgiving. And when we do not allow Christ to govern our lives then we are all the more inclined to be as mean as the devil. In fact, Christians can sometimes treat one another so shamefully that one might be inclined to exclaim, “Who needs the devil — we’ve got each other!”
The Jews treated one another so poorly that one could have easily exclaimed, “Who needs our enemies — we’ve got each other!”
Exploitation: The Outcry of the People
Nehemiah and the people deal with a variety of external threats, opposition, and problems. We are introduced to a new threat to the work of rebuilding the walls in Nehemiah 5:1. This new threat was an internal threat.
Nehemiah 5:1 records, “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers.” The complaints of the people are enumerated in Nehemiah 5:2-5.
Notice first that the some people cried out because of a shortage of food (verse 2). Many of the people who gave themselves to the work had large families and had sacrificed all to contribute to the work. Now they had no food to feed their families.
Second, others had to mortgage their property in order to buy food (verse 3).
Third, the people were suffering under a heavy burden of taxes (verse 4). These taxes were especially burdensome in light of the poor economic conditions in Jerusalem.
Finally, some people had to sell their children into slavery in an effort to pay off their debts (verse 5). The people felt totally helpless because they could see no prospect of relief.
Indignation: The Anger of Nehemiah
Nehemiah’s response is recorded in Nehemiah 5:6-7: “Then I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. And I consulted with myself.”
Nehemiah became angry when he learned of the selfishness, greed, and lack of compassion on the part of the rich. The rich were more concerned about how they could make another dollar through the difficult days of the rebuilding effort than with how they could help the less fortunate who had sacrificed so much to participate in the work.
Nehemiah was very angry. Nehemiah 5:7 tells us how he handled his anger: “And I consulted with myself.” Rather than impulsively “fly off the handle,” Nehemiah took some time to “cool down” before acting. He took the time to get his facts together and get some perspective on the issue before tackling it.
Confrontation: The Rebuke of Nehemiah
Once Nehemiah had prayed and thought the matter through, he was ready to take action. He did not ignore the problem in the hope that it would go away but rather confronted the problem head-on.
Nehemiah 5:7 informs us that he went to the source of the problem by contending with the nobles and the rulers. He accused them of violating the Mosaic Law which did not allow the Jews to charge a fellow countryman any interest. He further stated that while he and others had worked to redeem Jews from slavery to pagan masters, they were guilty of enslaving their fellow Jews. Nehemiah considered it an outrage to have to redeem Jewish slaves from fellow Jews. Nehemiah’s words were so convicting that the nobles and the rulers “were silent and could not find a word to say” (verse 8).
According to Nehemiah 5:9, Nehemiah pressed the issue further by telling the nobles and the rulers that the Jews were in danger of losing their distinctiveness in the eyes of their neighbors because of these evil practices.
In Nehemiah 5:10 he asked the guilty individuals to stop their abusive practices. That is always the best way to deal with sin, just determine to stop it immediately.
Nehemiah again pressed the matter by asking the guilty individuals to return what they had taken “this very day.” He did not ask them to go home and think about what they had done. He didn’t even ask them to pray about it. He simply asked them to rectify the situation at once. That is another good lesson regarding how to deal with sin. We should always deal with sin immediately and without delay.
Restoration: The Response of the Guilty
The response of the guilty nobles and rulers is recorded in Nehemiah 5:12. “Then they said, ‘We will give it back and require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say.’” In order to ensure that they would carry out their promise, Nehemiah had the guilty individuals take an oath before the priests stating that they would fulfill their word. In addition, Nehemiah symbolically pronounced a curse upon anyone who violated the oath. He shook out the front of his garment which had a fold used as a pocket for carrying possessions. This was a dramatic way of showing the violators that God would shake them and empty them of their possessions if they violated the oath which they had taken before the priests.
Illustration: The Example of Nehemiah
At this point in the story, Nehemiah inserted a summary statement concerning his conduct while serving as governor of Jerusalem. It is a statement of Nehemiah’s integrity through his twelve year term (444 to 432 B.C.) as governor. He recorded the fact that although he was entitled to a food allowance as governor, he never used it. He bore the operating expenses of the office out of his own pocket because he feared the Lord and did not want to add to the burden of an already heavily burdened people.
In addition, Nehemiah did not use his position as governor to try to line his own pockets or increase his land holdings. He simply concentrated on giving guidance to the rebuilding project and on being a godly leader. Nehemiah concluded with a prayer (verse 19) which reveals that part of his motivation for living a godly life as a leader was to secure the blessings of God. And that’s o.k.!
Sin has a greater social impact.
We must realize that our sin often has a greater social impact. When Achan sinned by taking things under the ban during the battle of Jericho, the entire nation suffered the consequences (see Joshua 7). When the wealthy inhabitants of Jerusalem took advantage of the poor during the rebuilding effort, many families suffered as they went hungry and experienced the agony of having to give their children into debt slavery. The rich failed to realize and recognize the impact of their sin on their community.
When angry, we must take time to “cool down” before acting.
Nehemiah did not impulsively “fly off the handle” when he was angry. He took some time to “cool down” to gather the facts, gain some perspective, and contemplate his course of action. We would be wise to follow Nehemiah’s example when angry.
We must face difficult problems head-on.
Nehemiah did not ignore problems in the hope that they would go away, deny problems and pretend that they did not exist, or rationalize problems. Nehemiah dealt with problems by facing them head-on. He went straight to the source of the problem rather than just dealing with the symptoms of the problem. Swindoll comments, “Correcting any problem begins by facing it head-on.”
We must be sensitive to the cry of the needy.
Nehemiah was touched by the cry of the poor and needy. He listened to the concerns of their hearts and then took the appropriate action to assist them. We too, must be sensitive to the cry of desperate humanity and be ready to respond with assistance in the name of Christ.
We must deal with sin expeditiously.
When Nehemiah confronted the nobles and rulers regarding their sin, he asked them to deal with their sin immediately. He did not leave them room to gradually stop sinning. He appealed to them to stop sinning and make restitution “this very day.” We must deal with sin in the same manner. We must not tolerate sin in our lives or try to gradually stop sinning. When the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin we must deal with it immediately.
It is helpful to be held accountable for decisions.
In order to insure that the guilty nobles and rulers followed through on their decision to make restitution, Nehemiah asked them to take an oath before the priests stating that they would keep their word. In addition to that, Nehemiah warned them (through enacted prophetic judgment) that they would be held accountable by God as well. Nehemiah 5:13 tells us that “the people did according to this promise.”
Leaders must set the example.
Nehemiah’s credibility as a leader was wrapped up in his godly lifestyle and example. Nehemiah did not abuse his privileges as governor of Jerusalem to promote selfish ends. Rather, he remained faithful to God and a servant of the people. His altruism is seen in his willingness to support himself while in office in order to lighten the heavy load of the people. Nehemiah’s credibility also strengthened his position when contending with those who were abusing the people through usury.