Few of us know much about Nehemiah or the times he lived in. Our mental picture of him is that he was austere, harsh, and perhaps even pharisaical. From what the Bible presents of him, he was undoubtedly serious about his responsibilities, brave, and circumspect, and he loved and feared God. His character displays a lofty nobleness. Regardless of our estimation, God thinks highly of him, and his life was so remarkable He included a few vignettes of it in His Word for our instruction.
When the Persian king appointed him governor of the Jewish exiles who had returned to the land of Judea from Babylon, Nehemiah discovered that the governors before him were in the habit of "squeezing" the people for their own gain. Nobody would have wondered if Nehemiah had done the same. Is that not the way people in government operate? Everybody does it! The people would have simply shrugged their shoulders, fully expecting it as the way things are done. It was the custom. Nehemiah's standard, however, was exceedingly higher: His hands must be absolutely clean.
Why did he do it? He feared God! Nehemiah's way of living reached down into the nitty-gritty of everyday life and may have involved considerable sacrifice. He would not operate the way the world does. Certainly, the laborer is worthy of his hire, but sometimes sacrifices must be made, and Nehemiah determined this was one of them. He would not conform to what everyone else did. Several other vignettes from the same book confirm this was not a one-time occurrence. Unless we are willing to say, "No," to what everybody else is doing, and do it often, our Christian life will be static from its outset.
God and the world do not have the same perspectives on how to live life. Once we have the right standards, God's standards, saying, "No," to ourselves is of paramount importance if we want to put on the image of God and remove the image of this world. The world, combined with our own carnality, keeps pressuring us to conform to its attitudes and ways, and if we are passive, it is easy for us to drift with its way of thinking. We must make choices. Sometimes, they are very difficult because of the sacrifice involved. In them, we will show whether we respect God and His purpose or this world.
The fear of God must become a foundation stone to us, one of the kind of nobility and strength of character Nehemiah possessed. It does not matter whether the issue is losing weight because of gluttony or eliminating debt because of covetousness. The people of the world take little notice of God until trouble is already upon them. But we must learn to do all things to glorify God, and it takes deeply respecting Him to do this. Honestly, would Jesus allow Himself to drift from His focus on glorifying God to become obese or in debt to the point of bankruptcy? His respect for—fear of—God would not permit Him to do these things.
The Christian has to rip himself from the world's way of thinking and doing. He must be a nonconformist in this regard. He must always understand that the world, though mentioning God frequently, does not fear Him, as its conduct shows. Romans 3:18 asserts, "There is no fear of God before their eyes." A Christian must consciously march to the beat of a different drummer.
Why do we not all conduct our life the way Nehemiah did? Partly because of laziness, to a degree because of cowardice, and sometimes because of ignorance. At times, we are so out of touch with God, we become swept up in sinful activity before we are aware what is going on. Yet, at other times, we fail because of this powerful sheep characteristic to give in to the impulse of the moment because everybody else is doing it. There is no tyranny like the tyranny of the majority. It can be every bit as harsh as the tyranny of a despot. Either can put us into bondage. Unless we are willing to look at things through the eyes of God and stand on our own two feet because we fear Him, we will be just as helplessly enslaved to the opinions of the hour as ever.
It is a historical truism that truth on an issue often lies with the minority. The opinions and ways of the majority are often impulsive, taking the path of least resistance without being concerned about the long-range effects. Those in the minority usually have the advantage of thinking things through because they know their ideas will be unpopular and resisted, and so they prepare themselves better.
God is most concerned about how things end, the conclusion of a matter. He wants us to understand what the fruit of an action will be. Nehemiah was willing to be different, a non-conformist if conforming was wrong. His respect for God and what God thought was greater than his fear of what men would think of him or what he would have to deny himself.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Elements of Motivation (Part One): Fear