3 Lessons on stewardship we can learn from the broken promises in Nehemiah

Bishop Emeritus Robert M Solomon // January 26, 2023, 4:36 pm


"We need to examine ourselves. Is there any unbaptised part of our life that we haven't handed to the Lord for His glory?" challenges Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon. Photo by Ayaneshu Bhardwaj on Unsplash.

When I was young, I was told this: Your treasure, your time, your talents, all belong to God. So commit yourself entirely to the Lord. 

That was the kind of commitment required whenever we had preachers challenging Christians to live a consecrated life for the Lord. 

“The greatness is not in me, but through me.” 

Maybe we do not understand stewardship that much these days. Because we tend to think of whatever we have achieved and whatever we have, even our talents and capabilities, as our very own.

We live in a world of self-made people who take pride that whatever they have been able to achieve is their own. Not realising that it belongs to God.

A few centuries ago, one writer said this: “The greatness is not in me, but through me.” 

But the day I begin to believe the lie – that the greatness is in me – I’m finished. Everything that goes through my life, and everything that’s found in my hands in my life, they all come from God – the greatness is not in me, but through me.

That is stewardship.

A promise made, a promise broken

There is so much in the book of Nehemiah that is worth reflecting on. One would think that a book like Nehemiah would end in a fantastic way – very successfully. But actually chapter 13 is kind of anti-climactic. Why?

In Nehemiah 9, a great revival took place: After the rebuilding of the walls, there was great celebration, a wonderful service and then the people and leaders made a binding covenant (Nehemiah 9:38).

Not just any covenant – the Hebrew word “amana” is different from the usual word for “covenant”– but a “binding covenant”. This was serious business. 

The people had broken every part of the promise that they had made to God.

There were three things in the binding covenant:

1. They promised not to give their daughters in marriage to peoples around them. No intermarriage.

2. They promised to keep the Sabbath holy, to make sure that the Sabbath is reserved for the Lord as the Lord had indicated. 

3. They assumed responsibility to give a third of the shekel for the temple (Nehemiah 10:32). It was a reference to the tithes and the giving to the temple so that the temple could sustain its rhythms of worship. 

Maybe Nehemiah was actually very happy with this: “Whoa, this is great. The people of Jerusalem have understood the demands of the law. And they love the Lord, they have committed themselves. They made this binding promise to God.”

And so he left. And we don’t know how many years but after a few years, he came back to Jerusalem. 

But when he came back, he was grossly disappointed and utterly upset.

Why? Because on each of these three points, he discovered that the people had fallen back.

They had actually broken every part of the promise that they made to God in the binding covenant. 

A lack of tithes

One of the first things he discovered was that Tobiah, an enemy of Israel who opposed the work of God, was living in the temple. Eliaship, the high priest, had made an agreement and allowed Tobiah to move in.

For Nehemiah, this was terrible. How could the enemy, the man who cursed God live in the temple? He quickly threw out Tobiah and all his belongings out of the rooms.

Then he had the rooms reconsecrated and he appointed new leadership to make sure this would never happen again.

The stores were empty because the flow of tithes had stopped.

One of the reasons why this happened was because the store rooms were supposed to be given to the work of the temple. People were supposed to bring tithes and contributions, put them in the store rooms, and then it would be given it to the Levites, so that they could continue to serve the Lord.

Whatever Levites received, they contributed to the priests, so that the priests could carry on their priestly work. This was the way it was all arranged.

But the stores were empty because the flow of tithes had stopped. And so the Levites actually went back home to whatever land they were assigned to, because they had no food, no supplies. They had to actually do their own farming, and make sure that they and their families were sustained. Likewise, the priests also were affected.

The temple was in shambles. The worship of God was affected.

Decades earlier, the prophet Haggai encountered the same situation.

He had come to Jerusalem and saw that the Jews who had started the building project of the temple had abandoned it because of opposition. He said: “Give careful thought to your ways. This is not the time to live in your panelled houses when the house of God remains in ruins, this is not the time!”

But the Jews said: “Who cares? We are just interested in our own houses, our renovations and refurbishments, etc.”

This was the same situation Nehemiah faced. The storerooms were empty and the worship of God was affected. That’s what upset Nehemiah so terribly.

Where was the Sabbath?

The second thing had to do with the Sabbath. The Jews were doing things on the Sabbath like treading wine presses which they were not supposed to.

Basically, business was 24/7.

Profit was the main thing that motivated them, not the glory of God, nor the worship of God, nor the obedience of God. It was just profit, profit, profit, wealth, and personal comfort.

They did not serve the Lord. They did not fear the Lord. 

Nehemiah posted Levites at the gates and said: “Guard the gates carefully.”

Not only that, businessmen were entering and leaving Jerusalem at all times because the gates were open. Trade was going on all the time, even on the Sabbath (when it was prohibited).

Nehemiah was very, very upset. Why did we rebuild the walls when God is not honoured, not feared, trusted nor obeyed? 

And so Nehemiah brought some Levites back, posted them at the gates and said: “Guard the gates carefully. Don’t let anything come in on the Sabbath day.”

Recently, I was meditating on the office and ministry of gatekeeping. It’s very interesting.

In 1 Chronicles, the Levites’ job description changed. Because during the time of Moses, the Levites carried, dismantled and then reconstructed the tabernacle. That was the Levites’ job. 

But when the temple was built, their traditional jobs became redundant. So it was redefined. And if you read 1 Chronicles, there are three main subgroups among the Levites: The singers, the gatekeepers and the finance people.

But we have made the gatekeepers so mild by turning that ministry into one of ushering: Just smile and be friendly.

But the ministry of gatekeeping is very important.

Some years ago, Sri Lanka, on Easter Sunday, experienced several bomb blasts in different churches and some hotels. One evangelical church in particular, was a growing church called Zion Church with about 600 worshippers. They had a very strong Sunday School which was just finishing and the main service was about to begin.

Ramesh Raju was a businessman, about 40 years old. He had volunteered to do ushering. So he was there, helping the children to come in and managing the crowd outside the church building, when he saw a suspicious character trying to enter the church with two large bags on him. He thought: Something is wrong.

The ministry of gatekeeping is very important.

Interestingly, the pastor had seen that man earlier, a few minutes before, and the pastor said: “Welcome to our church, come in.”

But Ramesh was more of a watchman than the pastor.  So he tried to stop the man, asked him who he was and prevented him from entering. There was a tussle, and he pushed the guy beyond the church door into the parking lot on the grounds of the church.

The bomb went off. Ramesh died and so did 29 others.

When his father at home heard the news and what Ramesh did, he said: “I’m so proud of my son. He saved 600 people from death. He was a true gatekeeper.”

That’s true gatekeeping.

The enemy is trying to come in. And those of us entrusted to be gatekeepers, yes, we need to be welcoming, but we also need to guard ourselves, not just physically against terrorists, but all kinds of influences.

We need gatekeepers who can stand and say: “No, be careful of this.”

A loss of communication

The third thing that upset Nehemiah was that he found many of the people, especially the leaders, had intermarried. When the Bible talks about intermarriages being prohibited, it is not a matter of ethnicity but religious purity because the Messiah was going to come through Israel.

But there’s also a more dangerous issue here. 

Nehemiah 13:24 says: “Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, or the language of one of the other peoples and did not know how to speak the language of Judah.”

Half of all the children of the intermarriages were no longer speaking Hebrew.

Nehemiah saw what was happening: Half of all the children of the intermarriages were no longer speaking Hebrew. And if they were not conversant in Hebrew, immediately, two things were affected:

First, access to the Bible. The Word of God existed as the Hebrew Bible. And if you don’t know Hebrew, you cannot read the Hebrew Bible, and you have no more access to God’s word. That’s the first thing that goes.

Second, worship. Why? Because the songbook, the liturgical book of Israel are the Psalms – also written in Hebrew. And if you don’t know Hebrew, you cannot sing those Psalms, you cannot worship God. 

Can you see the danger here in the loss of the language?

And so, Nehemiah says, this cannot be. In one or two more generations, we would have lost our Jewish faith because we would have forgotten the law of Moses and we would no longer honour, worship and fear Yahweh.

The lesson for today

These three things are also applicable to us today. We are not just studying history, we are studying the present condition in our churches.

Think about it: We have more money in the bank accounts and pockets of Christians than is available to the work of the Lord in missions and evangelism. We are living in our panelled houses, when the temple of God is in ruins, or is in need of a lot of help. That is a tragic truth.

Do we really believe that “naked I come and naked I go”? 

And I think we need to part company with our possessions more and more and more than what we have done till today.

Do we really believe that “naked I come and naked I go”? 

If I’m just a steward of all that has been given to me, I must learn how to hold things lightly. And everything that I have must be available to God. Every day, I must consecrate my possessions to God. That’s important. 

So the challenge continues.

When the Europeans were evangelised – the Celts in Ireland were the one of the first. When they were baptised, they agreed that they would be baptised with whole body – except their right hand. So they would go into the water, but with their right hands sticking out.

They said: We can be baptised, everything else can be baptised, but the right hand is the fighting hand. And for us Celtic tribes, this is very important, we cannot baptise it. This is the one part that still belongs to us.

Likewise with the Germanic tribes, and so on. Many of them had the same idea: “Lord, take everything else except this.”

Apply it in our lives, and it’s possible that, yes, we are baptised, but what part of our lives remains “un-baptised”? That we have not handed over to the Lord and said: “Lord, this belongs to You, take it and use it for Your glory”?

That’s something that we need to examine ourselves. Is there any unbaptised part of my life?

What part of our lives have we not handed over to the Lord and said: “Lord, this belongs to You, take it and use it for Your glory?”

For many people, the one unbaptised part is their finances.

So we need to see that baptism happens. And if this really happens in the church today, the church, the mission field and the world will be very different.

The second thing: We have largely forgotten the Sabbath.

But the whole idea of the Sabbath is that it is an expression that all our time, our lives, our work, all these things belong to God. And because they belong to God, we are obliged to set aside one-seventh of our time in a week to the Lord. If you’re not willing to do that, it is an indication that we have not consecrated our time.

It is not just our treasures, but also our time, that needs to be consecrated. We are stewards of our time, not just our possessions. This is a challenging thing for us.

And then the last speaks about our stewardship of the gospel which has been entrusted to us.

It is not just our treasures, but also our time, that needs to be consecrated. We are stewards of our time, not just our possessions.

Because what was happening in chapter 13, was that Israel was failing in passing on the Jewish faith, the Word of God, to the young.

Within a few generations, it would all be gone, lost. That’s the failure of this important sacred task. We are stewards of this Gospel that has been given to us and we are to pass it on to the next generations. If we fail in this, we are done for.

In Singapore, let us not fail in the task God has given us.

We are losing young people. It bothers me that a lot of younger people in church are just leaving the faith, imbibing the things and the language of the world. They no longer understand the language of faith, the language of the Bible. So they take on different stances. I don’t want to get into the details. But there is an increasing gap. We are losing the next generation,

So, I want to broaden this view of stewardship to not just our possessions, our money and our bank accounts, but also the way we work, the way we handle our work life, our time and, most important of all, our responsibility of passing on the faith to the next generations.

May God help us in understanding the demands of stewardship in our lives as individuals, as families and as churches. Amen.

This article was adapted with permission from a talk by Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon at the N5 Conference 22: Arise and Build for Generations to Come. The N5 Conference, named after Nehemiah 5, deals with economics and personal finance. It was one of the largest Kingdom-focused personal finance conferences of 2022.


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About the author

Bishop Emeritus Robert M Solomon

Bishop Emeritus (BE) Robert M Solomon was Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. BE Dr Solomon has degrees in medicine, theology, intercultural studies, and a PhD in pastoral theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has contributed many articles to books, theological dictionaries and journals, and has authored over 20 books.