Nehemiah 5

Nehemiah 5

SERIES: Godly Leadership

The Scylla and Charybdis of Christian Leadership

Introduction:  You’re probably shaking your head at the strange title of today’s sermon.  Well, it’s an allusion to Greek mythology.  Between the toe of the boot of Italy and the island of Sicily is a narrow passageway of water known as the Straits of Messina.  Though this constituted by far the shortest route between Rome and Athens, it was also very dangerous for ancient sailors because of Scylla and Charybdis.  Scylla was a dangerous rock formation, which, according to Greek mythology, was once a beautiful sea-nymph, loved and pursued by the sea-god Glaucus.  

When Scylla scorned him Glaucus went for help to the sorceress Circe.  Circe, however, fell in love with Glaucus herself, and when she realized that his love for Scylla was unquenchable, she turned Scylla into a sea monster, part woman, part fish, with heads of dogs growing out of her waist.  She was forced to live in a cave in the Straits of Messina and reportedly destroyed ships and devoured sailors who strayed too close.  According to Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses lost six of his men to Scylla when he passed that way on his way home from the Trojan War.

Charybdis, on the other hand, was a whirlpool, which according to Greek mythology, was once Poseidon’s daughter.  Because of her greed, Zeus struck her with a thunderbolt and cast her into the Straits of Messina where three times a day she would gulp water and spew it out again. Sailors tried desperately to steer a middle course between the monstrous rock formation and the vicious whirlpool.  The expression “going between Scylla and Charybdis” came to be used whenever a person had to run an obstacle course or take a path between two evils.  

Last week we saw that in the face of major opposition from the enemies of the Lord’s work, Nehemiah’s leadership prospered.  But can he survive the monster of greed and the whirlpool of power—twin dangers that have drowned many a Christian leader?  As our chapter opens, we discover that …

Internal strife shuts down the rebuilding project.  (3:1-32)

The first verse of Nehemiah 5 looks very much like the first verse of Acts 6 in the NT.  Let me read them back-to-back.  First, Nehemiah 5:1 “Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers.  Some were saying, ‘We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.'”  Now Acts 6:1: “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.”  

In both of these cases there developed a kind of class struggle in the community of believers, stirred up over issues of basic survival.  In both cases the complaints were largely justified, and the leaders took them seriously.  And in both cases great wisdom was required to prevent further division and to facilitate healing among God’s people.  

             The surface problems are overpopulation, famine, debt, and taxes. Sounds pretty relevant today, doesn’t it, particularly in the Third World?  Jerusalem is overpopulated because the danger from enemies has required the Jews from outlying areas to stay in the city at night rather than return to their homes.  The overpopulation is in turn creating a famine, complicated by the fact that every able-bodied person is building on the wall rather than working on his crops.  The debt is piling up as people mortgage their fields and vineyards and homes to get grain.  And taxes, mentioned in verse 4, have to be paid to the government even if the money has to be borrowed.  

Most of us here this morning have never been absolutely destitute, but we have had enough experience with debt and taxes to imagine the level of tension that would be created in a family or small community when fathers don’t even know how to get food for their children.  If these families had simply fallen on hard times due to acts of God or nature, like drought or a locust plague, I doubt if they would have rebelled and gone on strike.  But they are being victimized by some of their wealthier countrymen.  

             The root cause is the sin of exploitation, in the form of exorbitant interest, unfair foreclosures, and slave labor.  Verse 7 indicates that the nobles and officials who are lending money to people to feed their families are exacting usury, or exorbitant interest.  These guys are loan sharks taking advantage of the poor in a time of national emergency.  In fact, verse 11 suggests that the rate was 1% per month, or 12%, which may not sound shocking to those of us who lived through the 70’s, but by ancient standards it was incredibly high.  To make provision for the poor, the Lord had established that the rich were to lend to them (Deut. 15:7-11), but without charging interest (Exodus 22:25 reads, “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a money-lender; charge him no interest.”).  

Verse 11 indicates that in addition to charging high interest rates, these rich people were foreclosing on the fields, vineyards, olive groves, and houses when the poor couldn’t pay up.  And worst of all, they were demanding that the children of the debtors be pressed into forced labor in order to satisfy the debts.  

Obviously, Nehemiah is facing a crisis here, and at a most inopportune time, at that.  But he sees the complainers as people who are hurting and treats them as more important than his production schedule.  He knows that people who are deeply concerned over some personal misfortune or hardship cannot give of their best.  So he encourages them to air their grievances.  

The second stage of our story finds that …

Nehemiah confronts the problems openly.  

His personal reaction to the outcry of the poor and disadvantaged is found in verse 6:

             He becomes very angry but wisely he “consults with himself” before taking action.  He becomes angry at the selfishness, greed and insensitivity of the rich nobles.  Anger is an emotion that all of us experience, but not everyone handles it wisely.  Some project their anger and blame other people for the way they feel.  Others try to maintain a semblance of control when in public, only to take out their resentment in private on their spouses or their children.  Still others work off their frustration in competitive sports or by becoming workaholics.  The majority of us, however, repress our anger and soon forget its cause.  But when we don’t deal with the issues that caused it in the first place, it can have a damaging long-term effect on our personality.  Anger, of course, is not inherently wrong.  It becomes sinful only when we lose control of ourselves or harbor resentment.  

But Nehemiah admits his anger.  He doesn’t excuse it, ignore it, or minimize it.  He doesn’t project it on others.  What he does is to “consult with myself,” as the NASB puts it, or to “ponder these things in my mind,” as the NIV reads.   And then he acts.  Thus, he avoids the temptation of maligning others and steers clear of the sin of losing control.  It’s never wise to act precipitously when one is angry even if the anger is appropriate, as it was in this case.  

             He accuses the guilty and calls them to public repentance and restitution.  A good leader is willing to confront problem-causers rather than allow the problems to fester and destroy the group.  Confronting others is not easy; in fact, it is one of the most difficult things in the world, but antagonists don’t often go away just by ignoring them.  Notice that Nehemiah’s accusations are based in fact.  He has checked out the allegations and says plainly, “You are exacting usury from your own countrymen.”  It’s very important for a leader to be sure of his facts if he’s going to level charges against those under him.  

Furthermore, since the behavior of the nobles has affected the whole community and stopped the work on the wall, the accusations are brought publicly, as noted in verse 7 where Nehemiah says, “So I called together a large meeting to deal with them.”  He also provides an opportunity for the guilty to respond.  As it turns out, they keep quiet because they can find nothing to say (an indication of guilt on their part), but it is always important to give a person the opportunity to respond when he is accused of wrong behavior.  There’s always the possibility that previously unknown facts might change the accuser’s perspective.  

Most importantly, Nehemiah charges the nobles and leaders to repent and make restitution.  A man of less stature might have been tempted to be thankful for the fact that the nobles agreed not to continue their evil practices.  But Nehemiah realizes that God’s Law has been broken and they cannot expect His blessing to be resumed until they right the wrongs.  In verse 10 Nehemiah says, “Let the exacting of usury stop!  Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them.”  And even after they agree to do as Nehemiah suggests, he summons them to take a public oath to fulfill what they had promised.  In all this it is evident that …

             His concern is for both the welfare of the people and the reputation of God.  His concern for the poor is seen not only in his willingness to confront the wealthy and powerful, but also in his contrasting personal behavior.  He is obviously one who sees people as people.  To him they have value and are not to be regarded as things to be used or exploited.  In fact, he has been busy buying back the freedom of the brothers who were sold into slavery by the nobles.  

But he has an even greater concern for the reputation of God.  Notice it first in verse 9:  “What you are doing is not right.  Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?”  Later in verse 15, after describing the behavior of previous governors and their assistants, Nehemiah says, “Out of reverence for God I did not act like that.”  The Psalmist and the writer of Proverbs both tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  (See Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, 9:10).  It was the “fear of the Lord” that kept Joseph from committing adultery with Potiphar’s wife.  It was the “fear of the Lord” which led Moses to renounce the affluence of Egypt for the hardships of the wilderness.  It was the “fear of the Lord” that motivated Paul in his service for the Lord.  

The worldly people of Nehemiah’s day could exploit their own people because they did not demonstrate reverential awe of God.  But Nehemiah understood the holiness of God and the fact that the people of God were designed to be a model of love and righteousness to the nations, not a showpiece of greed and manipulation.  That enabled him to stand against the trend of the times and do a work for God’s glory.  In the NT as well, the call to the church to love one another is not simply for our own good or because it is “nice,” but because it shows the world what God is like.  

Nehemiah demonstrates the kind of servant-leadership that pleases God in at least seven ways.  

In the process of evaluating these ways, we are going to see how Nehemiah was able to navigate around the twin dangers of greed and power.  

             He sets an example by lending without interest.  (10)  Such action obviously costs him money, but he does it because God requires it and because the people can’t afford to pay.  I think the reason Nehemiah mentions this is not to build up his reputation but rather to demonstrate that he is not asking the people to do something he is not exemplifying in his own life.  

             He refuses the normal perks of his office.  (14-18) Sometimes it’s OK to take advantage of the privileges of one’s position; sometimes it’s not. It depends upon how it affects other people.  If a Carl Icahn can make money by pulling off a leveraged buy-out of TWA, more power to him.  But if at the same time he milks the company and puts thousands of people out of work, it’s wrong.  You see, some things are legal but not ethical.  Nehemiah wanted to be sure his actions qualified as both.  The fact that previous governors had lined their pockets in ways that were acceptable to the culture was not the issue for him—what was right was the issue.    

             He prevents his associates from taking advantage of the people.  (15) 

Sometimes a leader is not personally crooked, but he tolerates abuse by those who work for him.  Ronald Reagan by most estimates was an honorable man when it came to personal integrity in the White House.  But literally dozens of cabinet members and key individuals in his administration ended up being indicted for various kinds of corruption.  The same is true of the governors who preceded Nehemiah, but he assumed responsibility for those who were his assistants (15) and refused to allow such behavior.  

             He works side-by-side with everyone else.  (16)  Look at verse 16: “Instead I devoted myself to the work on this wall.  All my men were assembled there for the work.”  He didn’t direct this work from the safety of a bunker; he was out there in the dirt and sweat and danger encouraging others by his example.  He was there to rebuild a wall, not a personal empire.  

             He refuses the temptation to self-aggrandizement.  (16)  The last phrase of verse 16 reads, “We did not acquire any land.”  Nehemiah was of such financial means that he could have taken advantage of the economic situation to buy up the property of many poor people to sell later at a huge profit.  But he refused to do so.  In this he reminds me of the founder of a company I worked for in Dallas, Texas for six years in the 1960’s.  John E. Mitchell was the founder of the company, and when the Great Depression hit, he was one of the few industrialists in Dallas who found himself in a strong cash position.  Mr. Mitchell could have bought up half the homes in east Dallas and rented them out to his employees, but instead he offered to buy a home for any of his full-time employees, which they could pay off at a very reasonable rate through payroll deductions.  

When I went to work at the John E. Mitchell Co. more than 30 years after the Depression, some of those same employees were still with the company, and, believe me, they swore by John Mitchell.  They worked so hard that the company made a profit every year for over 50 years until he died in 1970.  Unfortunately, the relatives that took over were like the governors that preceded Nehemiah, and in less than ten years the company was broke and went out of existence. 

             He demonstrates hospitality par excellence. (17,18)  “Furthermore,” it says in verse 17, “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.”  

As we were singing the song, “Freely, Freely” this morning I couldn’t help but think of Nehemiah. “Freely you have received; freely give.” This sense of gratitude is the most powerful motivation a believer can experience.  Did any of you see the story on 60 Minutes last Sunday night about the pediatrician and his wife who have adopted 21 children with Down Syndrome and provided a loving home for them?  Their grocery bill was thousands of dollars a month, to say nothing of the clothing bill and the other expense of operating two homes.  They received a few donations but most of the funds to keep this household going were their own.  That couple had sufficient income to own a million-dollar home and vacation every other month in Cancun, but instead they decided to give.  

I was not only impressed but also humbled by that kind of love and compassion.  I don’t know their spiritual state, but if anyone ever deserved a spot in the House of Heroes, it is they.  Finally, Nehemiah characteristically closes this account with prayer, as he shows his willingness to wait on God for his reward.  

             He is willing to wait on God for his reward.  (19)  Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people.”  Seven times in his prayers recorded in this book Nehemiah asks God to remember.  What he is doing is appealing to God’s gracious promise to care for the needs of those who walk with Him.  The writer of Hebrews put it this way:  “God is not unjust.  He will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”  That’s what Nehemiah is praying for.  He does not demand anything, nor does he ask for anything specifically.  He does not bargain with God. He is merely calling upon God to honor His promise.

The list of character traits and actions by Nehemiah we have looked at here reminds me of something written by Dwight Eisenhower.  He said, 

“In order for a man to be a leader he must have followers.  And to have followers, he must have their confidence.  Hence the supreme quality for a leader is unquestionable integrity.  Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.  If a man’s associates find him guilty of phoniness, if they find that he lacks forthright integrity, he will fail.  His teachings and actions must square with each other.  The first great need, therefore, is integrity and high purpose.”[i]  

Nehemiah’s unquestioned integrity helped him cope with opposition from without and strife within.  It provided him with courage and undergirded his conduct.  It made him single-minded and helped him navigate between the Scylla of greed and the Charybdis of power.  But compare this list of Nehemiah’s character traits to those of the typical politician in our nation.  If they aren’t millionaires before they get there, most of them become millionaires while they’re there.  The temptations of money and power are apparently almost irresistible.

But we don’t have to go to politicians; we can look at the clergy—the Jim Bakkers, the Robert Tiltons, the Jimmy Swaggarts.  And we don’t have to go to the obvious examples among the media preachers; we can see it in the evangelical church. I know a Christian leader quite well who has milked his organization for every conceivable benefit for himself.  He justifies it on the basis of how the organization has grown and prospered under his leadership, but if the people who support that ministry knew how he had worked the angles to obtain his luxury car, his second home, and many other perks they would not give so generously to that ministry.  He keeps most of it pretty well hidden, however.  

But perhaps we don’t even need to look at the clergy.  Could it be that some of us in our jobs have abused our positions of authority to manipulate others and have robbed others to feather our own nest.  Whenever a leader is more interested in himself, his investments, and his personal ventures than he is in his company, his employees and colleagues soon learn about it and they, in turn, will lack motivation, their morale will sag, and the best laid plans will come apart at the seams.  

Conclusion:  It has been said that in Christian service the pay isn’t much, but the retirement benefits are out of this world!  The salary for S.S. teachers and ushers at first Free is not large, though we plan to double it when we move to the new building.  (Two times zero is still zero, you know).  But the retirement plan Nehemiah was counting on is still in effect.  “Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people.”  The rewards may come in this life; they may not.  But they will come. 

The greatest servants of the Lord have always been vitally involved in the present, yet at the same time looking to the future.  Abraham, Hebrews 11 tells us, had his eyes set on “a city, whose builder and maker was God.”  Moses chose to “endure ill-treatment with the people of God, rather than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of the Messiah greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking away to the reward.”  Nehemiah too, put more stock in the future blessings of God than in the present trappings of greed and power.  May we learn from his example.

Prayer:  Our Father, strengthen us to act like Nehemiah of old and stand against the pressures of our day.  May we particularly avoid the monster of greed and the whirlpool of power, which have caused shipwreck of so many lives.  Help us to be men and women who visibly live according to what we profess.  We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

DATE: July 12, 1992





Servant leadership



[i] Dwight D. Eisenhower, see