Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working through the book of Habakkuk. This short book captures a conversation that the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk had with God during a time of great trouble in his nation.
Everything around him was falling apart – the people were fighting one another, violence ruled the streets, and the judges and lawmakers were corrupt and wouldn’t deal with it. And when a good person finally did stand up, the bad ones would strike him down. If you’ve ever seen the new Batman movies, or watched Gotham on Netflix, then you know what Habakkuk was going through. Think of him as one of the worship leaders in one of the churches in a Gotham City without Batman.
But, instead of donning a black cowl, Habakkuk did what believers do, and starts to pray. His first prayer is a cry for help that contained a very important question: “Why?”. “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you look idly at wrong?” (1:3) God’s answer is that He has not been idle, and has been working out a much bigger plan than Habakkuk could conceive. God’s response is to give Habakkuk a vision of what’s going on, giving him a helicopter ride high above his problems, the city’s corruption, and even Israel’s massive issues. He gives the prophet a global view of what God’s been doing and will do next.
God’s been raising up the Chaldeans, who will later become the Babylonian Empire. God’s plan to deal with what all of what Habakkuk has been complaining about, is to have a powerful enemy rise up and swallow God’s people whole, destroying Jerusalem, and dragging them off into captivity.
This wasn’t exactly what Habakkuk had in mind when he had started praying, so he asks a follow-up question in verse 13: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” In other words, “God, why would you use a more evil nation to punish the lesser wrongs of your own people? That doesn’t seem fair.”
God’s answer to that question comes in an intense section we call the “Woes against the Chaldeans”. His answer, in short, is that no one will be getting away with anything. All sin will be punished, justice will be done, and everyone will get what’s coming to them.
Habakkuk’s prayer started with, “How can you look at sin and not do anything?” And God’s answer is, “I am about to do something – but you’re not going to like it. I’m about to pour my wrath out against sin. That includes all the people you were complaining about in your nation and all those who come against you.” God would use the Chaldeans as a rod of discipline against His children so they would stop doing evil and come back to Him and His Law. And then after, God would turn His righteous wrath against all the wrongs of the Chaldeans. “Don’t worry, Habakkuk, the violence and sin will be dealt with, justice will be done, and no one will be getting away with anything.”
Covering these woes has been an intense experience for me – and I wonder if it has been for you too. Going through this section has been both convicting and difficult. It’s hard to talk about these topics sometimes, but it’s important that we don’t gloss over them in favour of seeking more pleasant topics. I think it is critically important that we come face to face with the sins that surround us and that are inside us or we will never feel the need to come to the Saviour. People who aren’t sick, or don’t know they’re sick, don’t seek out a doctor.
As we’ve been talking about these woes, we’ve covered some big topics. We talked about God’s hatred of sin and the extreme lengths He will go to do deal with it. We’ve talked about how sin starts with pride, which leads to the dangers of addiction, which then, as the sin leads to deeper sins, turns us into greedy and out of control consumers who only think of ourselves.
That’s what these woes are all about – confronting out of control sin with hard truths. A Woe is simply a pronouncement of judgement, a warning against a person who doesn’t realize how dangerous their situation is. They think they’re going along fine, but the trajectory of their sin is leading them to destruction. The prophet pronounces a woe against these people because their sins have been seen by God, and God is going bring judgement against them – but not fire and brimstone from the sky. No, most of God’s plan is to let the natural consequences of their actions bring the judgement against them. Certainly, God would be the guiding hand, but none of that which comes upon them would be spectacular.
The first woe, found in 2:6 was against their greed. “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—for how long?—and loads himself with pledges!” Their greed had gotten out of control, which caused them to take things that wasn’t theirs. They took what other people had so they could have more. This gave us a chance to talk about our own out of control spending and debts, and how dangerous it is to live a life as a “slave to the lender” (Prov 22:7), instead of living with Jesus as our Lord.
The second woe, which we covered last week, was against their self-security. “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm!” (2:9) God was telling them how foolish it was to believe that destroying their relationships with the people around them in favour of gathering more wealth would make them safe. This gave us a chance to ask ourselves some important questions about our own sources of anxiety and the foolish and selfish ways we try to mitigate or moderate them, instead of trusting God to meet our needs.
Woe 3 & 4: Self-Centredness
Today we’re going to talk about the third and fourth woe, found in 2:12-17. Let’s read it together:
“Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness! You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the LORD’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.”
Both of these woes have something in common, which is why I’m covering them both at the same time. They are both woes against self-centredness.
If you remember the previous sermons, we talked about the downward spiral from pride to sin to addiction to greed. The natural outworking of a life of addiction and greed is self-centredness. We start to believe that the world revolves around us and exists to meet our needs and bring us pleasure. Our addictions and greed make us start to see the world and people around us as objects rather than gifts.
This certainly happened to the Chaldeans (or Babylonians), and we’ve talked about this before. They consumed all they could within their own borders, and then decided to move further out. They weren’t content with what they had, but wanted more and more – at any cost. They didn’t see the world as a gift meant to share, but an object meant to be owned. They didn’t see the people around them as fellow humans, but as enemies who stood between them and that which they desired. Their pride in believing they were their own gods fueled their addictions, which bled beyond their borders, eventually driving them to take over almost the whole world and become one of the largest empires in history.
The third woe says, “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!” (2:12) The fourth says, “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness!” (2:15) Notice the similarity there – the exploitation and consumption of their neighbours.
Their need to fuel their addictions and greed has them reaching beyond their borders to get more. But instead of asking for more, or partnering with others to build mutually beneficial relationships, they simply take. They use brute force to get what they want, taking everything in their path, destroying anyone who gets between them and the object of their desire. All that they have, their whole city, is built on “iniquity”, which is simply the word for “sin” or “wrong”. All they had was dripping with the blood of those they had taken it from.
And the next woe is the natural, next step. The Babylonians were famous for their wild drinking and sex parties. The picture here is that of the enemy nation coming into town, taking over the houses, lands and cities, and then corrupting those around them. They did this in two ways: First, by inviting those who they didn’t kill to join them in their sin and second, by forcing the ones who wouldn’t into addiction and sexual slavery.
This was especially condemning because Israel had a lot of laws about drunkenness, sexuality, and indecency. Their scriptures are full of bad examples of people who got drunk and naked and brought themselves and many others a lot of trouble. Noah, Lot, and Samson got drunk, naked and in trouble.
Babylon was a nation of people dedicated to their own self-pleasure and anyone who wouldn’t join their party was either killed or exploited.
Our Babylonian Culture
This all sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? But does it still happen today? It’s tempting to get into a diatribe against the pride, addictions, greed and exploitation that is happening at a national level. Most of us know about alarming rise in binge drinking, drug addiction and pornography use among young people – that leads directly into fueling of what is now being called the “Rape Culture”. Countless articles have been written about how rampant violence and drug addiction is in the pornography industry and the terrible amount of human trafficking and abortions that are happening to keep the sex industry going.
It’s getting pretty Babylonian out there, folks.
We’ve been reading about the insane interest that Canada is taking in legalizing marijuana. We live next to Ottawa, which has for the past five years had “Sexapolooza”, which, though sold to the public as a “consumer trade show”, is simply a public celebration of pornography, cruelty, perversion and sexual exploitation. Abortion could be considered the highest form of violence, and Canada is guilty of murdering three hundred babies every day. We compound our appetite for lust with murder.
And, just like fighting against the Babylonians, we know what happens to anyone who doesn’t fall in line, right? You either join the party by choice or by force – or you’re in trouble. Behind the alcohol, drug and sex trade are people with lots of guns, money and influence. Beware anyone who tries to get in their way.
Our Own Self-Centredness
But I don’t only want to talk about the ills of our nation today – I want to make this much more personal. We may not be able to change the path of the nation, but we can certainly examine the sins that beset our own souls. Self-Centredness, or the belief that the world exists to serve you, is something we all suffer from.
Kay Arthur, in her study guide on Habakkuk says,
“The proud, evil lifestyle of the wicked begins with greed, which in turn leads to self-exultation, which cuts off others. Then, because self is exalted above others, what else would you expect? Violence and bloodshed. Not only do you steal what others have so that you can have more, you abuse anyone who gets in the way of self! Drunk on self and power, you then seduce your neighbours for your own sensual satisfaction. And why not? The idols you worship don’t condemn you! And God, if there is a God, doesn’t notice or get involved in the affairs of mere men!”
This isn’t talking about the excesses of the Babylonian Empire, it’s talking about you and me. We are, every day, faced with the decision to choose to love people or love things. Most of us don’t even think about it. We finish the milk, take the last cookie, and we don’t even think of anyone else. We buy our clothes, buy our groceries, order our coffee, use our cell phone, eat at a restaurant, head off to work, drive our cars, watch our tv shows, visit our websites, and head off to bed without even the passing thought that every single one of those actions has repercussions on others.
Why? Because we are self-centered. Instead of loving people and using things, we use people and love our things. Philippians 3:19 condemns people like this saying,
“Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things…”
What that means is that our desire for earthly things like wealth, possessions, comfort, and pleasure, causes us to override our love for God and others. God says that we should love others sacrificially, but our belly-god just keeps crying out for more until we feed it. Like the Woe to the Chaldeans, if we live self-centred life, driven by our appetites, then our end will be destruction.
A Christian, like Jesus, thinks of God first, and then others second. This concept is all over scripture, and it is presented as a very big deal. How we see ourselves and how we treat others, is directly connected to what is going on in our hearts and our relationship with God. Listen:
Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He answered in Matthew 22:37-40:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
In Philippians 2:3 Paul implores the church to work together saying:
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
In James 4:1-3 we read that all of this self-centredness comes from the desires of our heart:
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
And in 1 John 4:19-21 we are told that our love for others is directly connected to our love for God:
“We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
This is pretty serious. Our treatment of others shows our relationship with God. 1 John 2:9 says: “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.”
“Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.”
Remember, Jesus said, “…if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:15) and “…in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2)
Jesus was very serious about how we treat each other. Our relationship with God doesn’t merely exist between us and Him. Making Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour means asking God to change us from self-centred people who worship our stomach and idolize self into people who put God first and others second. “We love because he loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Examples of How We Exploit Others
But, as I said, we all struggle with being self-centred. So much so that we don’t even know that our most regular, mundane activities have ripple effects that impact people both nearby and far off. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and so I want to give you a quick rundown of the kinds of things I mean. (This may get a little weird, but I hope it helps you see my point.)
Remember how I just said that “we finish the milk, take the last cookie, buy our clothes, groceries and coffee, user our phone, eat at a restaurant, head to work, drive our cars, watch tv, visit our websites, and head off to bed without even the passing thought that every single one of those actions has repercussions on others”? Well, they all do.
Let’s start with the milk and cookies that we finished. Where did the milk come from? Who bought it? Was there more? It may just something as simple as drinking the last of the milk, but if we live in a home with other people, then even the smallest actions have ripple effects. The people around us are a gift from God and we are to treat them as such. Not only that, they are also our primary learning ground for how we interact with the world. Our home and family is where we learn how to show love, share, and deal with conflict. It’s also where we learn what happens when we are greedy, or self-centred. Parents and families have the responsibility to help each other grow into people who know that God is the boss, Jesus is Lord, and we don’t exist merely for ourselves.
Next, in our little scenario, we put on our clothes, get in the car, buy some groceries, and grab a coffee. I want you to consider the effects that those actions have on others. Where did bananas, chocolate, tuna and shrimp you bought come from? It’s not only possible, but likely, that they were picked by child or slave laborers. Did you know most of our cell phones, the rubber in our tires, the diamond on our finger, and the clothes on our back can be tied directly to slavery and human rights abuses? Some of the people that picked the fruit on our counters, cotton in our clothes, and cocoa for our Valentine chocolates, and the beans for our morning coffee were stolen from their families, sold as slaves and are never paid. Others who made our electronics were kept in prison-like conditions and worked so hard that some companies have taken to installing nets in high places to curb the rampant suicides among their workers.
Next, we head to work. Of course, these interactions are full of ways that we can be either be self-centred either or show our care for others. What kind of worker are we? Do we show respect to the employer and our fellow employees? Do we steal from work? Do we abuse the vacation and sick-day system? What kind of e-mails do we send? Do we waste other people’s time?
Next, we go to the restaurant for lunch. Again, where did our food come from? Is it a company that respects the environment? Do they respect the local economy by buying from local farmers and producers, or are they ruining lives by putting them out of business? Did we even consider how the company treats their employees? Or are we perpetuating a system that underpays the delivery people, cooks, staff and managers? We just want a hamburger, but what is the human cost required to fill our belly? Does it even cross our minds?
After we’re done at the restaurant, in our little scenario, we finish up work, go home, watch TV and surf the web. We may believe we are merely passive in this process – after all, we don’t produce the shows or the internet content, right? We just and watch. However, I want you to remember what we learned about Babylon.
God’s woe against them was that anyone who didn’t join their party would be forced into addiction or the subject of violence. I want to read that verse again:
“Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness!” (Hab 2:15)
What was their end goal? Drunkenness and sexual sin.
Viewing Pornography is Exploitation
Every time we witness a sexual act on the TV or the Internet, we are perpetuating a culture of abuse. Babylon used violence and alcohol to entice and force people into performing lewd acts. Our culture and media producers do the same with drink, drugs, money and threats.
I’m not going to get into the abuses that young people, especially young women, suffer in the movie and tv industry, because that is incredibly well documented and we get to witness the destruction of their souls every day in the newspapers. Every day we sacrifice more of our mothers and daughters on the altar of entertainment.
No, what I want to talk about, briefly, is the sex industry. The picture of Babylon is a picture of prostitution, pornography and human trafficking. All around the world, men steal or lure women and children into the sex industry with both promises and threats. Some they flatter, others they intimidate, but it’s always for the same goal – to exploit them.
Addiction is extremely common among prostitutes and pornographers. It not only masks the pain, but oftentimes, the perpetrators will purposely get the girls addicted to drugs and alcohol so they can control their captives. And then either tie them up in legal contracts or literally tie them up with chains so they can’t escape. (“Porn Fuels the Rape Culture“. “Pornography and Human Trafficking” (also here). “19 Year Old Commits Suicide After Shooting First Porn Scene“. Porn Destroys People, Families and Communities. Also check out Porn Harms.)
Remember their motives: Get them drunk so they can look on their nakedness. Listen closely: every time you look at pornography – every time – they are perpetuating a system that destroys lives. One reason people keep falling into the trap of porn addiction is because they think it doesn’t affect anyone else. That is a demonic lie! It hardens our hearts, destroys our marriages, ruins our ability to love, turns women into objects, and perpetrates some of the worst crimes imaginable against people we should be protecting, not exploiting. (Read/Watch this)
Anyone who has ever used a prostitute or looked at pornography is guilty of the same sins as Babylon – self-centred exploitation of others. Every is another excuse for the pornography machine to grab another young women or child and do it again. They make billions of dollars every year – even off their free sites. Even if you’ve never paid a cent for it, your attention to that website, tv show, or magazine, drives the industry.
I could keep going on this all day, but I think you see my point. This world makes it extremely easy to be a self-centred person who exploits others for their own benefit. We do it every day. Why do the banana and coffee slave owners, abusive technology companies, evil corporations, and pornographers keep getting away with it? Because most people don’t know, and most of the ones who do, don’t care.
Let me close with this: God ends each woe with a prophecy about what will happen to these people. He pronounces His woes and then concludes with, “Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the
“Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea…. The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory!” (Hab 2:14, 16)
This is a reminder that God is going to deal with these sins once and for all. He’s been showing His patience, waiting for His people to come back to Him, but that patience is limited. “The cup in the Lord’s right hand” is the cup of divine retribution. One day, He will pay back everyone for their wrong.
For some, that payment will be made by Jesus Christ. The Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God has looked into our self-centred hearts and though He has judged us as sinners, has also made a way for us to be free from the consequences of our sin. Jesus came and lived as sinless man who could die in the place of sinners. God poured out all of His wrath and hatred against sin onto Jesus.
No one will get away with anything – but for some, who believe in Jesus Christ – the payment for their sin has been made for them. He died for our sins. That’s the Good News. We are terrible sinners, but we have a wonderful Saviour. God was willing to trade the perfection of His Son for our imperfection, so we could be with Him forever.
However, others will not accept this gift, and they will pay for their own sins. God’s hatred of their exploitation of others will be upon their heads. All the shame they made others feel, they will feel. All the pain they inflicted – physical, mental, and emotional – will be brought down upon them. Every tear they have caused someone else to shed will be held against them. The hell they put their captives through will be their home for eternity.
Human Traffickers won’t get away with what they’ve done. Abortionists won’t get away with murder. Doctors that kill their patients for money instead of treating them won’t get away with it. Those that manipulate the system for their own benefit and ruin opportunities for others, won’t get away with it. All sin will be dealt with. God has seen it and deal out perfect justice.
I invite you today to realize you are a sinner and turn to God for forgiveness in Jesus name. And then, as you walk with Him, He will change you from self-centred, to Christ-centred – and you will learn how to live for God and others instead of yourself.
What is Lent?
We are currently in the traditional season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and goes until Easter Sunday. Most Protestants, Baptists included, don’t really celebrate much of the liturgical calendar, but the Lenten season has been celebrated by many Christians around the world since the third century.
Evangelicals usually avoid it, though it’s making somewhat of a comeback these days, because it’s associated with the rituals of Catholicism and old-school Christianity. The idea is that since the protestant reformation, we have thrown off the shackles of mindless pharisaical religion and now live as modern worshippers of God who follow the Bible and not the rules of man. But I think that by ceasing the practice of many of these traditions we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and have lost some very powerful tools of Christian discipleship.
The protestant reformation was all about combatting false teachers who had moved away from the message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus and were telling people they had to do certain things (like go in pilgrimages, say certain prayers, do penance, and give the church money) before God would forgive them.
But the protestants didn’t just get rid of the false Roman Catholic teachers, they also demonized many of the teachings of the traditional church, including the church calendar. The thinking was that since the Roman Catholics came up with it, it must therefore be wrong. In my opinion that’s too closed minded. I believe we can get a lot of benefit by participating in some of these traditions. Though they were eventually corrupted and used to manipulate ignorant people, they began with good intentions. Christians were encouraged to remember and celebrate the life of Jesus throughout the year, celebrate the saints and martyrs that had come before, and practice many important spiritual disciplines.
Lent is a period of 46 days – 40 regular days and 6 Sundays – that the church fathers set aside as a time of reflection and preparation before the high-holy days of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Instead of being like the world and avoiding feelings of sadness, lamenting, suffering and sacrifice, we choose to take a period of time to be more like Jesus and meditate, mourn, repent and fast.
Christians traditionally stopped eating certain foods and avoided celebrations so they could contemplate the meaning and significance of the ultimate sacrifice Jesus gave us on the cross. We choose to take a long time to think about why Jesus was crucified, what He went through, how much our personal salvation cost, what that means to us individually, to our family, and to our church.
It is a spiritual practice, a spiritual discipline, a spiritual exercise – something we are not very good, and is grossly undervalued these days. Lent is a time of prayer, meditation, fasting and repentance where we confront the sins in our life and try to put them to death. It’s a time to think less of ourselves and more about Jesus. It’s a time to give a special sacrifice of our time, energy, and efforts to God as an act of worship. It is a time to practice self-discipline and open ourselves to the amazing thing that God has done to save our souls.
We are Consumers
In the theme of thinking less of ourselves and more about God and others, I want to take some time today to address something that many of us struggle with – selfishness. If the season of Lent is about giving something up (like TV time, desserts, celebrations, internet) so that we can replace it with something better (a deeper relationship with God and a clean spirit), then the temptation to go along with that will be toward selfishly wanting to have it both – to have our cake and eat it too.
That’s what our society is all about, right? That’s the consistent temptation of where we live, isn’t it? Our society worships at the altar of consumerism. We are trained from very a young age that life is about accumulating pleasurable things and avoiding painful ones. We are born to go to school to get a job to get the money to buy the things that will make us happy. We find a person to live with that will make us happy and ward off pain. And if the job or the relationship brings pain, we get rid of it and get a new one.
Christianity doesn’t believe that. Christianity doesn’t agree with consumerism. Humans are not products, nor are the only valuable when they are contributing to society. Christians believe that all people, from their conception to death and at every stage in between – and even beyond death – have inherent dignity and worth. Every life is sacred and worthy of love and protection. Even the lives of our enemies are worth love and protection.
That’s what Jesus demonstrated to us when He died for us, His enemies. He came into the world that He created for goodness and perfection, but sinned, rebelled and destroyed itself in an attempt to usurp His position as God. But God made us His image bearers, and He loved us so much that He was willing to trade the life of His Son for us. Jesus was willing to trade His life for a bunch of disobedient, stubborn, gluttonous, vile, sinners who keep straying from His way, opposing His authority, abusing His goodness, twisting His privileges, and selfishly destroys His creation and continuously hurts the people around them.
But He came. He demonstrated the opposite of consumerism. He showed perfect unselfishness. He gave everything, received nothing, so we could have everything.
Nehemiah and the Wall
Nehemiah 5 describes a group of people that are just like us – people who have been saved from slavery to a foreign power, brought back to the promised land, but have to work with God every day to restore the ruins that were created by their own sin and rebellion. That’s the story of Nehemiah and the Israelites, but it’s also the story of every Christian.
The Jewish people had rebelled against God in every way possible and were disciplined by Him through being captured by their enemies (the Babylonians) and sent into 70 years of slavery. After that time, God brought them back to their land so they could start again. The land they returned to, especially the city of Jerusalem, was in ruins. The temple, homes, gates and defensive walls were all broken and burnt.
God raised up two important men, Ezra and Nehemiah to guide the people to rebuild their faith and their city. Ezra taught them the Bible and Nehemiah organized the rebuilding of the city. They faced many challenges from enemies outside the walls, but the work continued as people grew in faith and strength.
Then comes Chapter 5. If the story of Nehemiah is the story of the rebuilding of the people of God, then Nehemiah 5 shows what happens when Satan alters his attack against them from opposing them from the outside to tempting them from the inside.
Exploiting the Cracks
The wall, at this point, is a little more than half done, and the enemies outside the walls have been dealt with. Satan sees he’s not going to be able to shut down the city and the people by attacking them from outside the wall, so he changes his tactic to see if he can corrupt them from within.
“Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, ‘With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.’ There were also those who said, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.’ And there were those who said, ‘We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.’” (vs 1-5)
So there’s the switch. The troubles move from outside the camp to the inside – which is a common tactic of the Enemy. If he can’t rattle our church or our families by having people attack us, he’ll switch to having us hurt ourselves.
The walls were being built up so there would be no cracks in their defenses, but the cracks were showing in their relationships. It’s not that they weren’t there before, but now that the community was coming together, the city was being rebuilt, the spiritual reformation was occurring, Satan chose to use one of the existing problems toward his advantage – and that problem was selfishness.
This will always happen, and continues to happen today. When revival and Godly spiritual growth is about to happen to an individual or to a group, whatever cracks are there will be exploited. Whether it’s a church, a friendship, a marriage, or a leadership team, the sin will be exposed and the fractures will deepen.
To the church in Ephesus Paul gave the warning to watch their relationships because their enemy would exploit their weaknesses:
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” (Ephesians 4:25-27)
He told them to watch themselves for lies, and be careful with their anger, because their words to each other would give an opportunity to the devil to create divisions within the church.
You’ve no doubt seen this in your own homes. A husband and wife decide to recommit their lives to Jesus and strengthen their marriage. Suddenly all manner of hell breaks loose on them from the outside – job issues, money issues, car issues, illness all come at them, but they stay together and remain strong. The next attack comes from within. Satan looks for the crack in the spiritual armour – and it’s often selfishness.
The man starts to believe he deserves more “free time” because he’s earned it and spends more time away from his wife and family… or he believes he deserves something new and shiny so he spends more time at work. The wife feels likes she deserves more help because she’s doing everything, all the time, for everyone… she’s the victim, she deserves more respect, more free time, more presents, more affection, and since she’s not getting it, she’ll go get it herself from something or someone else.
It’s the same for the individual. They recommit their lives to Christ and all hell breaks loose. And then the inward battle starts. Fatigue, pride, anger, fear start to become more present – thoughts that never occurred before start to bubble up. That’s the spiritual battle we face.
It’s the same in a church. We commit ourselves to one another, preach, teach and sing the Word of God faithfully, serve one another, and commit to staying here. We are attacked from the outside, and it doesn’t shut us down, but causes us to grow closer to God and one another. Then he attacks us from the inside.
Like a boxer exploiting his opponents cuts and bruises by hammering on them until they break open, the enemy starts to hammer on the sins he finds in the individuals in the body. And, very often, the sin he hammers on most is selfishness and pride.
Little things that were never a big deal before – like the format of the bulletin, the name of a ministry, where someone sits, the placement of furniture, the clothes someone wears, people being late – start cause more frustration. Critical thoughts abound. People forget that God is the great provider and start talking about nickels and dimes. Relationships get stressed out. Volunteers feel unappreciated, leaders disconnected, bitterness starts to grow. Worries about attendance and finances and too few committee members start to take over conversations – and people start to look for where to lay the to blame.
None of these are new problems, but it keeps the church from concentrating on their mission. As long as they are arguing and stressing about the temperature of the room, how much ink costs, the colour of the music leader’s socks, they aren’t thinking about building their relationship with God or others – and Satan’s happy.
The attacks are subtle. We would so much rather have a frontal attack, but Satan knows that’s where your strongest – so he tempts us with pride, selfishness, laziness, fear, anger, lust, holding grudges, causing division, being overly critical, or giving in to distraction. We sense God calling us to go deeper, and at the same time the enemy is trying to set us up to be our own worst enemy.
I know I’ve been through this. I get more sensitive to what people say and see simple comments as attacks. “What did they mean by that!?” Innocent and helpful criticisms meant to help me do my job better throw me for a loop and I’m up all night wondering why that person doesn’t like me and if I’ll be fired at the next meeting. Satan takes my besetting pride and fear of man and presses on it until I’m half-crazed with worry and aren’t concentrating on anyone except myself and my own feelings.
When we commit ourselves to serving God, doing His will and living out his plan for our lives, we become a spiritual target. You may have been feeling that over the past while as you’ve been coming here – I know many of you have had the desire to connect deeper with God. But there is something nagging at you, trying to shut that down. It doesn’t want you do think spiritually, give up that sin, rebuild that relationship, or change your plans to line up more with God’s. The devil has ramped up his attacks and you’re feeling it.
All the little cracks get exploited and pounded on – and that’s exactly what was happening in Jerusalem. And the crack that Satan found and exploited was selfishness.
Exploiting the Poor
The Jewish brothers were taking advantage of the scarce resources and growing population and giving ample opportunity for the devil to have a field day with God’s people. The taxes were high because they had a foreign king and had to pay for the rebuilding of the city, so people had to borrow money against their homes and lands to pay their taxes. There was a famine in the land and people were on the edge of starving to death. So they would mortgage themselves to the hilt so they could by food for their families, but because of the drought, their crops weren’t paying off their debts.
But not everyone was poor. There were a group of successful Jewish businessmen and landowners who had left the exile in Babylon with a lot of money, and they were more than happy to lend it to those who didn’t have any – at a price.
The poor people, on the edge of starvation, were putting up their land, their homes, and their cattle – but it wasn’t enough. The only thing they had left was their children, and so they sold them to be slaves of the wealthy. And when that wasn’t enough, they sold themselves. They had to choose between starvation and slavery, and the wealthy men were snapping up houses, lands and slaves all over the place. Hostile takeovers, guaranteed forclosures, and the added bonus of free, slave labour.
In the Law given to Israel by Moses, we learn that it was fine for a Jewish person to lend to another Jew, but God forbid charging interest and exploiting people. Deuteronomy 24:10-14 teaches how God wanted His people to lend money to each other:
“When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the LORD your God. You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.”
Basically, God is making sure that wealthy people don’t exploit poorer ones. If a man is so poor that the only thing he has left is his last blanket, and you take it as a pledge for the money you’ve lent him… at least give it back at night so he can sleep on it! Don’t go stomping into someone’s house and take whatever you think they owe you – stand outside and wait respectfully. If someone is just barely eking out a living, give them pay at the end of the day – don’t make them wait for it – because they need it more than you do! God told people to work hard to pay off their debts, but also had a lot to say to the lenders.
And those laws were governed by love, not greed or selfishness. In fact, if a person was totally destitute, the rich person was supposed to simply give the money as a gift!
Loving People and Using Things
What it comes down to is Loving People and Using Things. The greatest definition of Selfishness I’ve ever heard is: Selfishness is loving things and using people. Christians are supposed to love people and use things… or even better, use things to love people… but selfishness means Loving Things and Using People.
Warren Wiersby says in his commentary:
“When the Devil, or the enemy, fails in his attacks from the outside, he will begin or intensify his attack from within; and one of his favourite weapons is selfishness.”
We’re reminded in Ephesians 6:12:
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
And those spiritual powers spend a lot of time tempting people and messing with relationships among the people of a community of faith by playing upon their fear, greed and selfishness. Fear of losing something that they want, greed to get what they want their way, and selfishness to take it from others who need it more.
And that destroys our witness and our relationships. A few people end up rich and happy while others die away. Good deeds are replaced by a lust for good things. Godly spirituality is replaced with a religion that worships religious things. Worship of God is replaced by worship of control and security. The costly risks that God asks us to take are forgotten and pushed aside so we can keep our treasures on earth for as long as possible.
When selfishness takes hold of a soul, a community, a church, or a nation, Godly Spirituality and a relationship with Jesus cannot continue. Jesus said:
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
James echoed Him saying:
“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
And the Apostle Paul did the same saying:
“But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
We must be very, very careful to Use Things and Love People – never to Love Money or Things and Use People. If we get that backwards we will give the devil a foothold in our souls, homes, work, ministry, and community. Jesus loved people and used things, so should we.
How To React to Selfishness
So what should we do? I believe that Nehemiah sets a good example for us, because his example is like Christ’s.
1. He Got Angry
First, we see in verse 6, he gets angry. “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words.” His first reaction to selfishness was to be action. Jesus did the same thing when he saw the selfishness of the money changers in the temple. This is a good, godly reaction to seeing people who are being exploited and abused by people who have means. We are right to get angry.
Selfishness is far too common among God’s people. It happened in Nehemiah’s time. It happened in Jesus’ time. And it happened again in Paul’s. He had to confront the Corinthian church because there were people that were starving in their church meetings while others were gorging themselves and getting drunk on the Lord’s Supper. (1 Cor 11:17-22) Selfishness among believers is a perennial problem that has to be continuously confronted by angry saints.
2. He Thought About It
Ephesians 4:26 says, “In your anger do not sin” and part of that is taking a minute to think about what you’re going to do. That’s exactly what Nehemiah does. In verse 7 it says, “I took counsel with myself…”. He wasn’t so tied up in the building of the walls that he didn’t have time to deal with the needs of his community. His job was to fix the rebuild the city, not mediate economic reform. But when he heard the outcry, saw the injustice, witnessed the greed, he took some time away from his work to think (and we can assume pray) about it to come up with a solution.
3. He Accused
The third thing Nehemiah did absolutely shows the heart of Jesus. Verse 7 again, “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.’”
He got them together and flat-out accused them. He pinned them to the wall. He showed godly passion and conviction, knew his Bible, and knew what was wrong, and accused them using Biblical words. He does it privately at first, not publically, so that they are not embarrassed, and so the emotional charge doesn’t deflate morale and harm people who aren’t directly affected.
We must learn this courage! This is all over scripture:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Jesus in Matthew 18:15)
“If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)
“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him…” (Titus 3:10)
When we see sin and injustice, selfishness and ungodly behaviour, we have the responsibility to go to our brothers and sisters and accuse them.
4. He Taught Against It
After accusing the smaller group of nobles and officials who were part of the problem, it says at the end of verse 7 that Nehemiah “held a great assembly against them”. He gave a general warning to everyone involved in the sin. He privately accused the worst offenders to their face, and then, essentially preached a sermon to everyone else warning them of the same corruption.
Nehemiah was in a spiritual battle. He knew that Satan wouldn’t give up without a fight. He reminded all the people that God had freed them from Babylonian slavery, and how hypocritical it was for them to force these same people into slavery under themselves! He says, “Your selfishness – you’re using of people and loving things – is making us look like fools to the nations around us!”
Jesus said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) and that works both ways. The world is watching us and is looking for any excuse to call us hypocrites. They will either see us loving one another and trusting God… or using one another and trusting ourselves. We destroy our witness if we are selfish individuals, selfish families, or a selfish church.
5. He Made Them Give it Back
The next thing Nehemiah does is to tell them to make it right.
“Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” (vs 11)
And to their credit they do. And Nehemiah goes even further.
“And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.’ And all the assembly said ‘Amen’ and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.” (vs 12-13)
Nehemiah knew how dangerous and insidious the sin of greed and selfishness is, and so he forces them to make a public confession and an oath. That’s how you heal a deep hurt. That’s how you show repentance. That’s how we honour God. We ask forgiveness, and then make it right. Turn selfishness to forgiveness and promise not to do it again – and ask God to help us keep our word.
This shows everyone around how serious we are about following God, dealing with sin, loving one another, and committing ourselves to living by His Word. And the assembly ends with an AMEN! God is worshipped, the hungry fed, relationships restored, debts managed, the rebuilding of the walls continues, and God is honoured. It was hard work, and very costly for some, but it was the only way they could expect to receive God’s blessing on their lives.
6. He Demonstrated Generosity
And the final thing Nehemiah does was to go above and beyond. Satan was trying to corrupt the people through selfishness, so His response was to be overwhelmingly generous. He poured cold water all over hell’s flames by not only doing what was right, but by doing even more.
“Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people. Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.” (vs 14-19)
A faithful believer will set the example of how to do it best. He trusted God for provision and lived generously with others. That’s what good Christians do. He refused to give the devil a foothold in his city, his work, or his life. Satan tried to destroy the work through selfishness, he fight with generosity.
That’s my hope for us too. As we enter this season of Lent, my prayer is that we use it as a time to refocus our lives away from loving things to loving God and His people, from storing our treasures on earth to storing them in heaven. Not to be known as a philanthropist, but because it’s the good, godly, Christ-like thing to do.