Dealing with Distractions

Posted: April 8, 2011 in Nehemiah

Nehemiah 5-6, “Dealing with Distractions”

How do you deal with distractions?  Not necessarily the distractions we might have while driving (though that’s not good!), but the distractions that inevitably come when we’re doing something in service of the Lord.  You’ll be praying & all of a sudden you start thinking of a conflict you’re having with someone at work.  Or you’re leading your family in a devotional & the phone starts ringing.  Or you’re just trying to spend extra time with your children & a friend you’ve been having issues with picks that exact time to want to pull you away.  Or (perhaps more commonly) you’re trying to spend time in worship & temptations of sin start flooding in your door.  How do you deal with those distractions?

Nehemiah had his own share of distractions to endure.  Through a miraculous work of God, Nehemiah was given permission by King Artaxerxes of Persia to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the protective wall that had been broken down.  Despite opposition, much construction had been completed as the entire city of Jerusalem came together to help in the work.  Now, as the wall nears its completion, Nehemiah experiences a slew of distractions from the work.  First he has the distractions of sin among his own people – then the distractions of lies & attacks from the enemies that surround him.

Nehemiah 5 (NKJV)

1And there was a great outcry of the people and their wives against their Jewish brethren. 2For there were those who said, “We, our sons, and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain, that we may eat and live.” 3There were also some who said, “We have mortgaged our lands and vineyards and houses, that we might buy grain because of the famine.” 4There were also those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our lands and vineyards. 5Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children; and indeed we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been brought into slavery. It is not in our power to redeem them, for other men have our lands and vineyards.”

  1. Big problem in the land!  The people had moved back to Israel, but many had ended up in poverty through a vicious downward spiral: (1) Some didn’t have enough food to feed their families, perhaps because they spent more time working on the wall than tending crops.  (2) Others sold their lands in order to buy food. (3) Once their lands were gone, they borrowed money to pay taxes & sold their children.  The very mouths they were attempting to feed were sold into slavery in order to buy food.  (4) Because all their lands & possessions were sold, they had no way to earn income to redeem them out of slavery. … Things had spiraled out of control.
  2. Several things were wrong in how this was handled.
    1. There’s zero mention of any trust in the Lord & His provision in all of this.  Nehemiah was a man of prayer, but apparently the people of Jerusalem were less so.
    2. There’s no indication that those in need actually asked for help from people who might have been able to give it (like Nehemiah).
    3. They had just come back into the land & received their inheritance from the Lord – they were not to sell it off so quickly.
    4. According to the Law, Hebrews were technically allowed to have other Hebrews as slaves, but they weren’t supposed to be treated as slaves, and their servitude was only supposed to be temporary. (Lev 25:39-40) The basic idea is that they weren’t supposed to have one another as slaves at all; they were brothers & sisters in the Lord!  Desperate times may have forced someone to sell himself, but ultimately the community was supposed to try to see the person restored.  Hebrew slavery itself was distasteful, and yet it seems to have become common practice among the people of Jerusalem during this time.
  3. What do you do when things start spiraling out of control?  Be careful not to get away from the word of God!  The Jews thought they could just handle their problems on their own, in their own way & only made things worse.  The fastest way not to go into a deeper hole is to stop digging.  When we get into trouble because we’ve done things according to our own wisdom & not the wisdom of God, the best thing to do is get back to the word of God!

 

6And I became very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. 7After serious thought, I rebuked the nobles and rulers, and said to them, “Each of you is exacting usury from his brother.” So I called a great assembly against them.

  1. Nehemiah had a righteous anger.  We have a tendency of thinking anger is always bad; not true!  The way we handle anger can be bad, but anger itself is a God-given emotion.  It was right for Nehemiah to get angry at the oppression of the poor by his own people – his anger demonstrated how his own heart reflected that of the Lord’s.  The suffering of sin & attacks of the enemy ought to anger us – after all, because of sin people go to Hell every day.  That’s a good reason to be angry!  Yet that anger ought to drive us to action.  When the rest of our culture is being systematically driven away from the things of God, it falls on us to stand up & say something, as well as fall to our knees in prayer.
  2. Nehemiah had a measured response – “after serious thought…”  He may have had a righteous anger, but he did not respond irrationally or emotionally.  He took the time needed to calm down & figure out a godly response to the sin that had taken place. Proverbs 14:16–17 “(16) A wise man fears and departs from evil, But a fool rages and is self-confident. (17) A quick-tempered man acts foolishly, And a man of wicked intentions is hated.” []  Anger can be holy, but our expression of it can get us into as much sin as what we were originally outraged by.  Be careful to have a measured response in your anger, seeking the Lord’s will in the Scripture.
  3. What was the problem?  Usury/unfair interest charged on the loan.  For the Hebrews, it was illegal to charge usury to one another. Exodus 22:25–27 “(25) “If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him; you shall not charge him interest. (26) If you ever take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down. (27) For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What will he sleep in? And it will be that when he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am gracious.” []  Why? Ultimately, usury is profiting off of someone’s personal pain.  That’s directly the opposite of agape love… We’re supposed to love one another – especially our brothers & sisters in Christ!  If we can help one another, we ought to do so gladly, as an expression of our love of them & our love & devotion to the Lord Jesus.

 

8And I said to them, “According to our ability we have redeemed our Jewish brethren who were sold to the nations. Now indeed, will you even sell your brethren? Or should they be sold to us?” Then they were silenced and found nothing to say.

  1. Points out the hypocrisy of the people.  The Jews had just been redeemed from captivity & slavery, and here the people go selling themselves off into it again. God had done incredible things in bringing the Jews back into the land to give them a modicum of freedom in the midst of the Persian empire, and yet the Jews end up enslaving themselves.  Amazing insanity!
  2. How often do we find ourselves doing something similar regarding sin in our own lives?  Jesus has forgiven us our sins – we have the power of the Holy Spirit to help us live righteously – we have the supernatural work of the word of God to equip us for every good work – and yet we still go running back to the same old sins that were our downfall before.  Amazing insanity!  This is the draw of our fleshly nature & the struggle of every believer in Christ.  What do we do?  The 1st step is what is implied by the silence of the Jewish offenders: acknowledgement that our sin is indeed sinful & needs to be dealt with. Confession – repentance – receive the forgiveness of Jesus by faith (1 John 1:9) & then walk new again…

 

9Then I said, “What you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies? 10I also, with my brethren and my servants, am lending them money and grain. Please, let us stop this usury!

  1. What the Jews needed was the fear of the Lord. …  God had already taken them out of the land once before because of their disobedience to the national covenant; there’s no reason God wouldn’t go right ahead & do it again due to the law-breaking of the Jews.
    1. The fear of God changes behavior.  When we come to a proper understanding of who God is & the reverence that He so rightly deserves, we can’t help but change our actions & attitudes.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom & the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Pro 9:10)  The more we understand His holiness & righteousness & infinite perfection, the more we’re left in awe of God & His power.
    2. Even beyond the fear of God, we know the love of God through Christ Jesus!  If there is anything that ought to cause us to desire to walk rightly, it’s the love we have for our Savior.  Jesus is the one who took our punishment & death upon Himself – He’s the one that gave us life & forgiveness & a promise.  We love Him because He first loved us – but the love that we have (which hopefully grows by the day) ought to compel us to walk rightly before Him, giving glory & honor to our Lord & King!
  2. If step #1 was to acknowledge their sin & fear the Lord, step #2 was to stop the behavior. “Please, let us stop this usury!” Sometimes we have a tendency of making sin more than what it is.  Granted, the causes of sin are many – the temptations to sin surround us.  But ultimately, sin occurs when we act upon those temptations.  The way not to sin is to stop acting out.  STOP IT!  Do you look at websites you shouldn’t? Stop it!  Do you lie to other people?  Stop it!  Do you steal time from your boss?  Just stop doing it.  Whatever your besetting sin may be, ultimately there comes a point where you have to draw a line in the sand is just stop doing the sin.  Does it mean crucifying your flesh?  Sure.  Does it mean relying about the power of the Holy Spirit?  Absolutely.  But eventually we’re the ones that have to make a choice that we’re not going to engage in the sin & just stop doing it.

 

11Restore now to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive groves, and their houses, also a hundredth of the money and the grain, the new wine and the oil, that you have charged them.”

  1. Beyond the ceasing of usury, Nehemiah goes a step further & calls for restoration. The poor had already been taken advantage of; those who oppressed them needed to do more than just stop taking their money – they needed to return at least some of the money that had already been taken. … [Zacchaeus – Luke 19]
  2. When we’ve sinned against a brother or sister, we need to take responsibility.  Do what it takes to make it right.  

 

12So they said, “We will restore it, and will require nothing from them; we will do as you say.” Then I called the priests, and required an oath from them that they would do according to this promise. 13Then I shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out each man from his house, and from his property, who does not perform this promise. Even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said, “Amen!” and praised the LORD. Then the people did according to this promise.

  1. Their promise was followed up by an oath – which Nehemiah confirmed with a curse.  To shake out his robes was to say God would basically disown them if they went back on their promise.  Just like their usury had taken everything from those they oppressed, God would allow the oppressors to lose everything as if they had been shaken out of His own robes.
  2. Obviously we don’t need to swear oaths; we need to let our ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ & our ‘no’ be ‘no.’ (Mt 5:37)  But the overall idea here is accountability.  Just because those charging usury had promised that they would stop didn’t mean they actually would.  Nehemiah was putting an accountability system in place to ensure action would be taken.  This wasn’t so much a matter of a lack of trust; this was just wisdom in action.

 

14Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year until the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the governor’s provisions. 15But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people, and took from them bread and wine, besides forty shekels of silver. Yes, even their servants bore rule over the people, but I did not do so, because of the fear of God.

  1. With all the history regarding usury & oppression, it was important for Nehemiah to draw a contrast between himself & the others.  Nehemiah’s financial dealings were honoring to the Lord, and showed compassion upon the people. … Nehemiah had the right as the governor to live off of the taxes of the people (and apparently, other governors had taken advantage of this), but Nehemiah didn’t put any financial burdens upon the people.
  2. Why didn’t he?  Because Nehemiah feared God – “because of the fear of God” (vs 15).  What he had exhorted the oppressors in vs 9 to do was something he practiced himself.  The fear of the Lord is not something that’s needed for “other” people; it’s needed for us!  We cannot make anyone else fear the Lord, but we can certainly humble ourselves before God in reverence.  Nehemiah understood that as a leader, he would be called into account by God for how he treated the people – and that was enough motivation for him to treat the people well.  Likewise for us.  We will also face a judgment when we see Jesus face-to-face.  Obviously our salvation is secure in His work at the cross, but we will still be called to account for every idle word (Mt 12:36).  Teachers in the Church ought to be especially careful, as they will be held to a stricter judgment (Jas 3:1).  Maintaining a proper fear of the Lord will help us be prepared for that day.

 

16Indeed, I also continued the work on this wall, and we did not buy any land. All my servants were gathered there for the work. 17And at my table were one hundred and fifty Jews and rulers, besides those who came to us from the nations around us. 18Now that which was prepared daily was one ox and six choice sheep. Also fowl were prepared for me, and once every ten days an abundance of all kinds of wine. Yet in spite of this I did not demand the governor’s provisions, because the bondage was heavy on this people.

  1. Lists off the various people Nehemiah was personally responsible for.  Taking in taxes from the people would have been very helpful to Nehemiah – yet he refused to do it, preferring to provide for his house out of his own personal funds.
  2. Note that Nehemiah had compassion upon the people: “the bondage was heavy on this people.”  They already had enough on their plate to worry about & they didn’t need the extra burden of providing for Nehemiah’s house.  Compassion upon people compelled Nehemiah to live sacrificially. …
  3. Basically, Nehemiah is living his life above reproach. He’s setting an example for how the leaders in the area ought to have acted. [] Likewise for leaders in the NT Church.  One of the qualifications for elders & deacons is to be “blameless” in their service.  That’s not to say that leaders are “perfect,” but their character is to be such that blame does not stick to them.  How to do this?  By living life above reproach…taking the necessary steps to where you could not be rightly accused of habitual sin.

 

19Remember me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.

  1. Was this a selfish prayer?  No.  Nehemiah simply understood that if no one else saw his sacrifice, God did.  And God would provide for Nehemiah in all things – not only for his immediate physical needs, but his eternal needs as one of God’s servants.
  2. Not unlike what will happen at the Bema Seat for believers in Christ.  This is the judgment for reward, where the work we’ve done for Jesus will be revealed & what is proven pure will be rewarded (1 Cor 3:13-14). []  God knows what we’ve done for Him.  What may be overlooked by men is noticed by our God.  When we do good works or when we sacrifice for others, it’s not so that we can get the attention & accolades of men.  (If that’s what we’re looking for, that’s the only reward we’ll get!)  Instead, it’s done for an audience of One: we want to be pleasing to our Heavenly Father!

 

Nehemiah 6 (NKJV)

1Now it happened when Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall, and that there were no breaks left in it (though at that time I had not hung the doors in the gates), 2that Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come, let us meet together among the villages in the plain of Ono.” But they thought to do me harm.

  1. Chronologically, the wall had almost been completed.  All the breaks were filled, the only thing that remained was getting the doors hung.  This was a critical time for the city.  If momentum continued, the doors could be hung & the protective wall finished.  If things got off track, then the wall is basically useless with gaping holes open where doors ought to be. 
  2. This was Sanballat’s last best opportunity to stop the completion of the wall & he took it.  The message he sent to Nehemiah sounds rather innocuous, but apparently it hid a planned ambush.  Nehemiah saw through the false words to their true intent.

 

3So I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” 4But they sent me this message four times, and I answered them in the same manner.

  1. Dealing with distractions #1: Nehemiah had the right priority.  The construction of the wall was at a critical juncture, and Nehemiah could not afford to be gone at this time.  It didn’t matter how much Sanballat may have been nipping at his heels, Nehemiah wasn’t going to leave his post because finishing the wall had a far higher priority than the whining of someone who didn’t want to see the wall finished.
  2. It’s no different with us.  As a believer in Jesus Christ, you have already been called to His service.  It’s vital for you to have right priorities in place as you serve Him.  There will always be distractions away from the work of the Lord in your life, family, ministry, etc.  It’s essential that we prioritize correctly.  Objection: “But what if they’re demanding attention?”  What about it?  Determine whom it is you serve: them or the Lord Jesus.  If Jesus has called you to a task, you’re to see it through to its completion.  “How do I know if Jesus has called me to it?”  Through the Bible.  The Bible is clear that we’re to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Is the distraction taking us away from worship?  The Bible tells us that our families are more important than ministry (hence the qualifications for bishops to rule their own houses well – 1 Tim 3:4-5).  Is the task demanding undue sacrifice away from family?  When our personal priorities reflect those of the Lord, it’ll go a long way to minimizing distractions.

 

5Then Sanballat sent his servant to me as before, the fifth time, with an open letter in his hand. 6In it was written: It is reported among the nations, and Geshem says, that you and the Jews plan to rebel; therefore, according to these rumors, you are rebuilding the wall, that you may be their king. 7And you have also appointed prophets to proclaim concerning you at Jerusalem, saying, “There is a king in Judah!” Now these matters will be reported to the king. So come, therefore, and let us consult together.

  1. Sanballat couldn’t entice Nehemiah to leave, so he turns to threats.  The letter is an attempt to start an untrue rumor about Nehemiah attempting to become king in Jerusalem, in place of the king of Persian (thereby committing treason).  Basically, he’s attempting to provoke a response from Nehemiah, forcing him to leave the wall & come walk straight into ambush.
  2. Our Enemy also attempts to provoke a response from us.  Sometimes he uses people – sometimes he uses situations in our lives that set us up to get all of the “right” buttons pushed & we’re provoked into a response that either causes us to sin or gets us distracted from that which God has called us to do.

 

8Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say are being done, but you invent them in your own heart.” 9For they all were trying to make us afraid, saying, “Their hands will be weakened in the work, and it will not be done.” Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands.

  1. Dealing with distractions #2: Nehemiah had the right discernment.  He understood these things were lies & he called them out for what they were.  He wasn’t going to go chase after the rumor, but instead relied upon God to let the truth be known. …
  2. Notice Nehemiah’s prayer here.  It’s easy to call a lie a “lie” & say that our trust is in the Lord; it’s harder to actually trust Him when we know we’re being lied about.  We need the strength of God in those times!  David experienced something similar: Psalm 31:12–15 “(12) I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; I am like a broken vessel. (13) For I hear the slander of many; Fear is on every side; While they take counsel together against me, They scheme to take away my life. (14) But as for me, I trust in You, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.” (15) My times are in Your hand; Deliver me from the hand of my enemies, And from those who persecute me.” []  What to do when people lie about you & attack you?  The same thing David & Nehemiah did: flee to your Deliverer!  We have the same God & Savior.  Our times are ultimately in His hands; He has not stopped being sovereign; we can trust Him.  Discern a lie from the enemy for what it is, and then cast yourself upon your Deliverer – trusting in His saving power.

 

10Afterward I came to the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was a secret informer; and he said, “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you; indeed, at night they will come to kill you.” 11And I said, “Should such a man as I flee? And who is there such as I who would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in!” 12Then I perceived that God had not sent him at all, but that he pronounced this prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. 13For this reason he was hired, that I should be afraid and act that way and sin, so that they might have cause for an evil report, that they might reproach me.

  1. Sanballat’s third attempt was another ambush, but this time through the use of a hired snitch: Shemaiah.  The thought was is if Semaiah could get Nehemiah to go into hiding, then Sanballat would be able to use that to show everyone what a coward Nehemiah was, and that the work on the wall was futile.  (A prophet telling Nehemiah to go hide himself within the temple when Nehemiah would not have been allowed inside!?  A good indication that the prophecy was false was because it contradicted the revealed word of God!)  As it was, the truth eventually came out, and the ruse was revealed for what it was: an attempt to discredit Nehemiah as a sinner & a coward.
  2. Dealing with distractions #3: Nehemiah had the right attitude.  He understood his responsibilities, as well as God’s calling of him.  If he would be attacked in the middle of daylight, so be it – God would protect him.  In the meantime, Nehemiah wasn’t going to leave his post until either the job was done or God called him to something else.  He especially wasn’t going to leave it to go run inside the temple!
  3. Keep in mind that Nehemiah was in danger of sin: “that I should be afraid and act that way and sin”  Can we be in potential danger of sin based on our response to our enemies?  Yes.  For Nehemiah, it was to run inside the temple when he wasn’t a Levite & had no right to be there.  For us, it could be any number of ways we respond to distractions & spiritual attacks.  We understand that spiritual attack is inevitable, and that personal conflict is a fact of life – these things are simply going to happen at some point.  Undergoing conflict isn’t a sin; but our response to it definitely can be. … Peter’s response to Jesus’ arrest was cutting off the ear of Malchus (Jn 18:10).  His distress was understandable; his reaction was sinful. …

 

14My God, remember Tobiah and Sanballat, according to these their works, and the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who would have made me afraid.

  1. Just as Nehemiah prayed that God would remember his good works, he prays that God would remember the evil works of Tobiah & Sanballat.  He’s praying for God’s justice to be made known…

 

15So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of Elul, in fifty-two days. 16And it happened, when all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations around us saw these things, that they were very disheartened in their own eyes; for they perceived that this work was done by our God.

  1. 52 days!  That’s a fantastic timeframe for what was done.
  2. Even the nations around them recognized the hand of God in the wall construction.  It disheartened them because Jerusalem was made strong again, but it underscored the idea that God’s blessing was upon His people.

 

17Also in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah, and the letters of Tobiah came to them. 18For many in Judah were pledged to him, because he was the son-in-law of Shechaniah the son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah. 19Also they reported his good deeds before me, and reported my words to him. Tobiah sent letters to frighten me.

  1. Tobiah was apparently more subtle than Sanballat in his opposition of Nehemiah.  Instead of sending messengers & threats, Tobiah played a political game by getting some of the nobles on his side & using that to put pressure on Nehemiah.
  2. How sad is it that any of the Jewish nobles would side with Tobiah?!  Nehemiah had not demanded anything of them (aside from ceasing from usury), and yet they were willing to side with an enemy rather than the one seeking the good of the city.  Worse than that, they were really trying to ride the fence.  On one hand, they put on their pious face – a good citizen of Jerusalem; on the other hand they made their political alliances with an enemy of the city.  This is an example of hypocrisy at its worst.
  3. Interestingly enough, we don’t get a response from Nehemiah as to how he responded to this latest threat.  Ch 7 goes on to describe how Nehemiah posted guards along the wall, but this threat seems to have been ignored.  Tobiah could send all the letters he could send to threaten Nehemiah, but it didn’t do anything to sway Nehemiah from his task.  He was dedicated to the work God had given him to do, and by this point it was just “another” distraction which the Lord would protect him from.

 

Conclusion:

Distractions are going to come – no doubt!  There will always be people who attempt to drain your time away from the things that are most important.  There will always be tasks that seem to be super-pressing, but aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things.  There will always be attacks from the enemy of our soul that attempt to take our eyes off of Christ & trust away from the Lord.  We need to expect these attacks & distractions & deal with them properly.

When the distraction is sin: admit it & repent.  Nehemiah saw the problem for what it was, and called the people to fear the Lord as they stopped the sin & made restitution.  For us, confess the sin, humble yourself before the Lord, and repent.  Stop what it is you’re doing, and do what’s necessary to make it right.  The longer we allow sin to distract us, the worse off we’ll be.

When the distraction is spiritual or personal attack: keep the right priorities, discernment, and attitudes.  See it for what it is, and cast yourself upon the Lord Jesus for strength.  We can never control what someone else does; we can only control our response to them.  Take your battles to the Lord & let Him fight on your behalf.  In the meantime, stay faithful to what you know God has called you to do.

Notice what’s in common in both cases: our reliance upon the Lord!  We’ll never be able to deal with these distractions in our own strength – we need the strength of our Lord Jesus who has promised never to leave us nor forsake us.

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