By Justin Borger with assistance from Generous Giving staff
Inspired by God’s word to Jeremiah the prophet, Nehemiah gave up a comfortable position as cupbearer to the king of Persia in order to lead a dangerous reconstruction effort in the city of Jerusalem. Upon his arrival, Nehemiah encountered intense opposition, both from the surrounding peoples as well as from social uproar caused by issues of injustice within Judah. A famine had swept over the region, leading to an economic crisis that caused many of the poorer members of society to become vulnerable to high interests rates set by their wealthier countrymen. Nehemiah responded not only by instituting political reform, but also by setting an example of personal generosity in public service without precedent in his own day.
Our study of Nehemiah consists of two parts. In the first section, readers will find our stewardship study notes. These notes analyze, in a passage-by-passage fashion, the implications of the book’s teaching for Christian generosity and related issues. The second section consists of short essays describing the book’s major stewardship themes. These notes and essays are not intended to be comprehensive explanations of the author’s goals in writing this book, nor do they exhaust the book’s possible applications in matters related to stewardship and generosity.
While Generous Giving’s Bible study material will aid anyone who is searching the Scriptures for guidance, they may prove especially useful as sermon helps for pastors and as a resource for teachers, advisors and lay leaders interested in obeying and teaching the message of Scripture in matters of generosity and stewardship. We readily acknowledge our fallibility in writing these study notes, for they are the work of humans, not God. Please search the Scriptures (Acts 17:11) as you read this material critically, carefully and prayerfully. May God bless you in your studies.
Passage-by-Passage Study Notes
Nehemiah 5:1 — The Old Testament treats the cries of the poor with the utmost seriousness. Such cries were, after all, an essential part of Israel’s identity as a nation comprised of former slaves who had cried to God for deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 2:23-25). After the exodus, God codified his special concern for the cries of the poor in the law itself: “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you ...” (Exodus 22:22-24). Throughout both the wisdom and prophetic literature of the Old Testament, similar emphases are made concerning the ethical importance of hearing and responding to the cries of the poor. For example, in the Psalms we are repeatedly reminded of the special attention that the poor receive from God when they pray (Psalms 34:6; 40:17; 86:1; 109:22; cf. 10:14, 17; 12:5; 35:10; Proverbs 22:22-23). This background enriches our understanding of the verse before us and helps to set the tone for Nehemiah’s response in the following verses. We must listen and respond when the poor cry out for help because if we don’t, God will hear their cries as cries against us, resulting in our judgment (cf. Matthew 25:41-56; 1 John 3:16-18). It is also worth comparing this economic crisis which Nehemiah faced with a similar crisis that emerged within the early church when the office of the deaconate was instituted (see key passage Acts 6:1-7).
Nehemiah 5:2-5 — These verses describe four contributing factors in the Judean crisis. First, many Judeans had big families (“our sons and daughters are numerous”) that they were unable to feed, presumably because the work of farming had been slowed significantly by Nehemiah’s reconstruction project in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 5:2). Second, there was a famine in the region, and this had taken its toll on poorer families, who were mortgaging their property just to pay for food (Nehemiah 5:3). Third, some of these farmers also were being forced to borrow money in order to pay the Persian king’s tax on their fields and vineyards (Nehemiah 5:4). Finally, all of this was compounded by the fact that cutthroat creditors were seizing properties and enslaving the children of borrowers who were not foreigners but fellow Jews (Nehemiah 5:5). Even though lending money at interest to the poor was in direct violation of God’s law (see notes on Exodus 22:25-27; Leviticus 25:35-37 and Deuteronomy 23:19-20), the wealthy landowning Jews exploited the economic crisis by taking interest and enslaving those who could not pay.
Nehemiah 5:14-19 (Key Passage) — Modeling Generosity: Nehemiah not only protected the poor on a political level (Nehemiah 5:6-13) but also set a personal example of generosity for the entire province that he governed. In this passage he points out several personal measures that he took to model godly leadership through personal sacrifice and generous service to others, anticipating the servant leadership of the apostle Paul and the Lord Jesus in the process (Acts 20:35). First, Nehemiah relinquished his right to collect taxes as well as “the food allotted to the governor” (Nehemiah 5:14-15a). Second, he and his staff refused to acquire personal property—using their authority for the public good and not for private interests (Nehemiah 5:15b-16). Finally, he maintained a practice of radical hospitality that came at his own personal expense (Nehemiah 5:17-19). See Philippians theme essay Relinquishing Our Rights and Nehemiah theme essay Modeling Generosity.
Nehemiah 5:14-15a — As a governor, Nehemiah had the right to receive a large food allowance and to collect taxes for the Persian king and his own treasury. By relinquishing these rights, Nehemiah set an unprecedented example of generous leadership and personal sacrifice in public service. All other governors before Nehemiah had taken advantage of their “rights.” But Nehemiah saw sacrifice as a way to achieve greater success, not for himself but for God’s kingdom. In his willingness to relinquish his rights, Nehemiah’s example foreshadows that of the apostle Paul, who would not accept reimbursement from the Corinthians even though it was his right (1 Corinthians 9:12). Likewise, the Lord Jesus did not consider his divine rights something to be “grasped” but became a servant even to the point of death on the cross (Philippians 2:5-11). In light of Christ’s ultimate example and through the power of his saving grace, we cannot consider our bank accounts, incomes, jobs, U.S. citizenship, time, cars, houses, education, retirement, social status or anything else that legitimately may belong to us as something to claim as our right. Rather, like Nehemiah, Paul and our Lord Jesus, we must willingly relinquish these rights for the sake of God’s kingdom. For we know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor so that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). See Philippians theme essay Relinquishing Our Rights and Nehemiah theme essay Modeling Generosity.
Nehemiah 5:15b-16 — Reverence for God—the fear of the Lord—was Nehemiah’s motivation for refusing to demand his rights (Nehemiah 15b). He and his officials also refrained from using their political power, influence or even their personal resources to acquire property. This is an amazing detail given the fact that being landless in an agricultural economy was almost unheard of for anyone who was not poor and destitute. And Nehemiah was a governor appointed by the king of Persia himself! In his refusal to acquire property for himself, Nehemiah’s example is strikingly similar to the description of the ideal king contained in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. According to the law, the king was not allowed to amass earthly wealth or other trappings usually expected of public officials. Indeed, wealth and power are not merely absent from the law’s description of this godly governor, they are explicitly rejected as utterly inappropriate for the leadership (Deuteronomy 17:16-17). Rather than a uniquely privileged individual, the ruler was intended to be the quintessential example of contentment and humility in obedience to the law for every Israelite to follow. Of course, we know that Israel’s monarchs and many of Jerusalem’s governors failed to live up to this simple standard. Especially notable here is Solomon, who failed to obey God’s command in Deuteronomy 17 to avoid heaping up gold and silver, going to Egypt for horses and power, and obtaining literally hundreds of wives. We tend to read Solomon’s downfall as only having to do with his wives (1 Kings 11:1-8). But once we read 1 Kings 10:14-29 in light of Deuteronomy 17, it becomes clear that heaping up women is only the culmination of Solomon’s decline (meaning that the chapter division at the end of 1 Kings 10 is somewhat misleading). By heaping up gold and silver and power, he put himself in danger of wandering form the Lord and the law. Until Solomon’s perfect Son came to be King of kings and Lord of lords, we lacked a perfect model of generosity for all to follow. Instead of a palace, Jesus was born in a barn and lived a homeless life, and like Nehemiah, Jesus lived on earth without accumulating any property for himself whatsoever. Finally, to announce his kingship and to reveal the true nature of his rule, our Lord borrowed a donkey (Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 21:1-9), rode into Jerusalem and died for his subjects. Today, we always are tempted to heap up possessions, power and pleasure. But we are no wiser than Solomon. While these are good things, heaping them up—though it seems wise—will in the end harm us if we become proud and puffed up by power, use cutthroat business tactics to gain prosperity, or are otherwise led to neglect God’s command to love him and others with all we have (Luke 16:19-31; 12:15-21). Rather than keep our eyes on the King, we would become distracted by other pleasures and entertainments. We should follow the examples of countless people in the Bible—Nehemiah, the apostle Paul and even Jesus Christ—who shunned riches and instead learned there is greater value in being content with God’s daily provision. See Philippians theme essay Relinquishing Our Rights and Nehemiah theme essay Modeling Generosity.
Nehemiah 5:17-18 — Nehemiah not only declined his right to collect the gubernatorial food allowance but also maintained a radical practice of personal hospitality by paying for over 150 people to eat at his own table every day. Of course, Nehemiah must have had a great deal of personal wealth to be able to provide so much food for so many people over such a long period of time. But because of his fear or the Lord and compassion for the poor, he did not demand his own food allowance. Instead, he used his own resources to feed the people “because the demands were heavy” on them (Nehemiah 5:18; cf. John 3:16; 1 John 3:17-17). See Philippians theme essay Our Rights and Nehemiah theme essay Modeling Generosity.
Nehemiah 5:19 — This verse reveals the ultimate motivation for Nehemiah’s generous behavior: “Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people.” Our ultimate reason for being generous with our resources is that it will bring us thunderous praise and applause from God himself (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:5). Nehemiah understood what author and philosopher C.S. Lewis once expressed: “Perfect humility dispenses with modesty. If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself.” While some of us may not like the idea of asking God to take notice of us, “proud misunderstanding is behind that dislike. In the end that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or the other, either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 38). When we give in love, we do something with which God promises to be very pleased (Matthew 25:31-40; Hebrews 13:16).
Nehemiah 7:70-72 (Key Passage) — Building God’s House: God’s people contribute to the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Today, however, God’s people have replaced the temple as God’s dwelling place (1 Corinthians 6:19), and so building God’s house is no longer a matter of constructing physical buildings but, rather, of caring for the needs of people. In other words, we build and beautify God’s house by doing good deeds of mercy and sharing our resources with one another. As the New Testament explains, God’s people are like “living stones” that are “being built into a spiritual house” for our God (1 Peter 2:5). This fact has enormous implications for the way we use our money and church resources. After all, if God really has replaced the physical temple in Jerusalem by inhabiting the hearts of his people, shouldn’t we devote the same amount of money and resources to caring for people that Israel used to adorn the temple? Especially if some of God’s people are poor or in “disrepair,” shouldn’t church resources be used, first and foremost, to build them up? While building God’s house today sometimes may include contributions to physical building campaigns, it is of far more importance that we attend to the needs of people whom God actually inhabits. Indifference toward the needs of other Christians in our own churches or around the world is no different from indifference toward God’s temple or Jesus himself (Matthew 25:41-46). See Ezra theme essay Building Campaigns.
Nehemiah 8:10 (Key Passage) — Call for Generous Joy: This verse calls God’s people to enjoy “choice food and sweet drinks” (Nehemiah 8:10a). It therefore affirms the goodness of God’s bountiful creation and the legitimacy of rejoicing in material abundance. But the instructions go one step further. The people were called not only to enjoy food and festivity but also to send portions to those who had no food of their own (Nehemiah 8:10b; see especially note on key passage Esther 9:17-22). This call for joy that receives completion in compassion (cf. Nehemiah 12:43) shows us that our “luxuries” must be used in life-giving ways if they are going to be properly and fully enjoyed. See also Leviticus 23:40; Deuteronomy 12:18; Luke 14:12-14; 2 Corinthians 9:11.
Nehemiah 9:13-14 — The revelation of God and his law is a great gift. As Jesus said, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” (Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3). As a gift, God’s word must be gratefully received and eagerly shared.
Nehemiah 9:15-35 — These verses, which comprise the heart of the larger passage, compare various episodes of disobedience and rebellion in Israel’s history (Nehemiah 9:16-18, 26, 28) to God’s steadfast love, compassion, chastisement, grace and generosity (Nehemiah 9:15, 19-25; 27; 29-31). One of the themes emerging from these verses is that when God’s people experienced peace and prosperity, they became self-sufficient and arrogant and began to wander from God (e.g., Nehemiah 9:28, 35). Because of sin, there are great dangers to wealth and satisfaction. In fact, it is never easier to forget God than when we’ve been blessed by him. While poverty can engender mistrust, wealth can eliminate the feeling that we need to trust God at all (cf. Deuteronomy 6:10-12; Mark 10:17-25; Luke 12:13-21; Revelation 3:17-18). Money makes us feel mighty—like Pharaoh, who said to Moses, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him?” (Exodus 5:2; cf. Proverbs 30:8-9), or like Israel, who “grew fat and kicked; filled with food, he became heavy and sleek. He abandoned the God who made him and rejected the Rock his Savior” (Deuteronomy 32:14-15). Deuteronomy 32:11-12 warns us not to forget God or to become satisfied with worldly comforts. Passages like this remind us that wealth is an eternal liability; the more we have, the harder it is to trust God. It’s that simple. As Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). Because prosperity is perilous, wisdom calls us to ask God for neither poverty nor riches (Proverbs 30:8-9), just as our Lord taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). See Proverbs theme essay Neither Poverty nor Riches.
Nehemiah 9:36-37 — This passage ends with a cry of distress in light of God’s mercy. For commentary on God’s response to cries of distress see note on Nehemiah 5:1.
Nehemiah 10:31 — The refusal to participate in commerce on holy days is based on fourth commandment, which prohibits work on the Sabbath. For commentary on the fourth commandment see key passages Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Similarly, the commitment to allow the land to lay fallow and release fellow Israelites from debts is based upon other sabbatical provisions. For commentary see note on Leviticus 25:1-7 and key passage Deuteronomy 15:1-3. See Exodus theme essay Rest and Giving Rest.
Nehemiah 10:32-33 — Originally, God commanded the Israelites to consecrate every firstborn son (see notes on Exodus 13:1-2, 11-13, 14-16). However, it also was understood that Israel itself was God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22). Biblical commentator Alan Cole notes that although God accepted the tribe of Levi in lieu of all Israel as a whole (Numbers 3:12), this passage is an extension of the same principle of redemption. Israel was God’s firstborn, and so when there was a census, each man was to pay a ransom for his own life. The standardized payment for both rich and poor alike helped to symbolize the fact that the nation was being redeemed as a whole (Exodus 30:11-16). The money was to be used for the service of the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 30:16) and later for temple worship, rites and appointed festivals (Nehemiah 10:32-33; Matthew 17:24). This complex law is a good reminder that biblical giving has a systematic as well as a spontaneous aspect. See note on Nehemiah 12:44, 47.
Nehemiah 10:35 — The significance of the firstfruits is that the part of the harvest which ripened first represented everything that was to follow. By giving God the firstfruits, the worshiper was symbolically giving God everything: first, last and in-between. See also Exodus 23:18a; Leviticus 23:10; Deuteronomy 26:2, 10; Numbers 18:13. See Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy theme essay Tithing and Generosity.
Nehemiah 10:36 — For commentary on the consecration of the firstborn, see key passage Exodus 13:1-2.
Nehemiah 10:37-38 — God gave each tribe in Israel its own inheritance in the promised land, but to the Levites he said, “You will have no inheritance in their land, nor will you have any share among them; I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites” (Numbers 18:20). In place of a portion in the land, God gave the Levites all the tithes in Israel in order to provide for their material needs. In turn, the Levites gave a tenth of what they received to the priests (Numbers 18:26-28). “Even ‘full-time religious workers’ were subject to the laws of tithing” (Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches, 46). Similarly, the New Testament reminds us that we are to support religious leaders like pastors and missionaries, linking this responsibility with the Old Testament principle: “Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14; cf. Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:17-18). See Numbers theme essay Supporting Ministers and Missionaries and Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy theme essay Tithing and Generosity.
Nehemiah 10:39 (Key Passage) — Refusing to Neglect God’s House: God’s people refuse to neglect God’s house. Of course, today God’s people have replaced the temple in Jerusalem as God’s dwelling place (1 Corinthians 6:19), and so building God’s house is no longer a matter of constructing physical buildings but caring for the needs of people. In other words, we build and beautify God’s house by doing good deeds of mercy and sharing our resources with one another. As the New Testament explains, God’s people are like “living stones” that are “being built into a spiritual house” for our God (1 Peter 2:5), and this fact has enormous implications for the way we use our money and church resources. After all, if God really has replaced the physical temple in Jerusalem by inhabiting the hearts of his people, shouldn’t we devote the same amount of money and resources to caring for people that Israel used to adorn the temple? Especially if some of God’s people are poor or in “disrepair,” shouldn’t the church’s resources be used, first and foremost, to build them up? While building God’s house today sometimes may include contributions to physical building campaigns, it is of far more importance that we attend to the physical and relational needs of people, particularly those in whom God dwells. Neglecting the needs of other Christians in our own churches or around the world is no different from neglecting the house of our God or even or Jesus himself (Matthew 25:41-46). See also key passage Ezra 3:7-9. See Ezra theme essay Building Campaigns.
Nehemiah 13:1-3 (Key Passage) — Greed and Church Discipline: The Moabites were excluded from the assembly of God because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but instead had hired Balaam (whose name is synonymous with greed in the New Testament: 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11) to call a curse down on them. Similarly, the apostle Paul identifies greed as a critical sin to be judged within the church, sometimes even leading to excommunication—being cast out of the church (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). “Greed” here is probably a summary word for all manner of financial sins. Based on Paul’s teaching on money, this probably encompasses unjust gain, covetousness, tightfistedness, love of money and desire for wealth. Paul calls such economic sin idolatry (see Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5 and their contexts). Paul regularly places financial sins on a par with all manner of other sins that get much more attention in the church, such as sexual misconduct or violent criminal activity. Such comparisons remind us of the need for spiritual discipline within God’s family—not just over sexual matters but over other supposedly “personal” matters like our budgets and spending habits as well. At the head of the list for Paul (though not for wealthy Americans) is financial sin. Do we place such sins on a par with idolatry? Do we find love of money to be as dangerous as adultery? This verse probably anticipates the concrete example of greed in the financial lawsuits that Paul addresses in the next chapter, as well as the rich and poor at the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11) and the call for giving to the poor (1 Corinthians 16:1-5). Those who fail to follow Jesus with their money and do not repent should be disciplined by the church. Are we willing to do this? Note that Paul does not require the church to separate from people in the world (1 Corinthians 5:10-13); it is purity within the church that is our responsibility, not the purity of society as a whole.