How to Stop Strife

Nehemiah 5

October 8, 2000 | Brian Bill

As we continue in our series through the Book of Nehemiah, we’ve learned that Nehemiah confronted a different challenge in each chapter

  • In chapter one, he was faced with a personal challenge.  When he heard about what was happening in Jerusalem, he sat down and wept and then broke out into prayer.
  • In chapter two, his challenge was political.  When the King asked him what he needed, he prayed a “popcorn prayer” and boldly made his requests.
  • In chapter three, he confronted an administrative challenge by positioning the right workers in the right place for the right reasons.
  • In chapter four, he dealt with the challenge of discouragement.  The workers were afraid of the enemies and convinced they couldn’t work anymore.  Nehemiah rallied the troops to come together under pressure.

As we come to chapter five, this same community is starting to self-destruct because of some festering grievances.  The workers now face a new enemy who is harder to conquer than the previous ones.  The timing could not have been worse because the walls are almost done!  Nehemiah has to put down his hard hat and turn his attention from the construction of the wall to the walls that were being put up between his workers.  While their external enemies helped to rally the people, internal conflict threatened to divide and destroy them.

I’m told that when a group of thoroughbred horses face an enemy attack, they stand in a circle facing each other, and with their back legs, kick out at the foe.  Donkeys, on the other hand, do just the opposite.  They make a circle and face the threat while using their hind legs to kick at each other!

It’s much easier to conquer and subdue an enemy who attacks us than it is to forgive and restore a friend who hurts us.  Psalm 55:12-14 puts it this way: “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him.  But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng at the house of God.”  

Complaints Nehemiah Heard (1-5)

There’s a word in verse 1 that sets the tone for chapter 5 – it’s the word, “against.”  Strife was brewing, tension was mounting, and horns were locked.  Let’s look at the complaints Nehemiah heard in verses 1-5.  

In the midst of a great work” in 4:19 for a great God” in 1:5, in 5:1 “the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers.”  This was not just a little disagreement or a minor problem.  They weren’t crying out against the Samaritans or the Ammonites, but against their own people.

Do you remember when hurricane Andrew tore through southern Florida several years ago?  After the storm we got a glimpse of the greed of some people.  While there were many who reached out to help, there were others who saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of those in need by price gouging and stealing.  That’s similar to what we see in our text.  The city of Jerusalem lies in ruins and people are powerless to help themselves.  Taxes are high and because of a long drought there is a bad famine.  Most everyone has been working with all their hearts to build the walls but there are others whose alarming acts of greed resulted in widespread poverty and injustice.

There were four different groups of people who were involved in the community crisis:

  • People who owned no land but needed food (verse 2).  The population was increasing, the families were growing, there was a famine, and the people were hungry.  They were working so hard on the wall that they didn’t have time to plant or take care of their crops.
  • Landowners who had mortgaged their property in order to buy food (verse 3).  Inflation was on the rise and prices were going higher and many had their homes repossessed by the moneylenders. 
  • Another group complained that taxes were too high (verse 4).  Many people were forced to borrow money just to pay their tax bills – some of us might have to do the same thing in a couple days!
  • Those who were exploiting others (verse 5).  The wealthy were making loans with exorbitant interest rates and taking land and even children as collateral.  Families had to choose between starvation and servitude.  When the crops failed because of the famine, the creditors took away their property and sold their children into slavery.

While it was not against God’s law to loan money to one another, they were not to act like pawn shop owners or bankers who charge high interest when lending money to fellow Jews.  This is clearly stated in Deuteronomy 23:19-20: “Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest.  You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, so that the Lord your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess.”

Steps Nehemiah Took (6-13)

Nehemiah heard their complaints in the first five verses.  Now, in verses 6-13, we see the steps that he took to stop the strife.  Notice verse 6: “When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry.”  This lit him up!  It wasn’t just that Nehemiah had a short fuse or a bad temper.  This is what the Bible calls “righteous anger.”  Moses expressed this kind of anger when he broke the stone tablets of the Law in Exodus 32 and Jesus was filled with holy rage when he saw the Pharisee’s hard hearts in Mark 3:5 and when he cleared out the Temple in Luke 19.

While Nehemiah was very angry, verse 7 says that he took the time to “ponder” the charges before he accused the nobles and officials.  The New English Bible puts it this way: “I mastered my feelings.”  The Hebrew literally means, “My heart consulted within me.”  Instead of just “going off” on the people in the heat of the moment, Nehemiah paused, took a deep breath and thought about it for a while.  He did what Proverbs 16:32 challenges us to do: “It is better to be slow-tempered than famous; it is better to have self-control than to control an army.”

After thinking things over, Nehemiah decided to publicly confront the people whose selfishness had created the strife.  Since it involved the whole nation it demanded public rebuke and repentance.  This rebuke consisted of six different appeals:

  1. He appealed to their love (v. 7).  Nehemiah reminded them that they were robbing their “own countrymen,” not the Gentiles.  He uses the word, “brother” four different times in his speech.  Psalm 133:1 must have been echoing in his mind: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!”
  2. He reminded them of God’s redemptive purpose (v. 8).  While God’s people had been redeemed from Egypt and most recently from Babylon, and Nehemiah himself had bought back some of the Jews who were in slavery, their fellow Jews were returning people into bondage just to make money.
  3. His appeal was based on God’s Word (v. 9a).  Nehemiah calls them on the carpet: “What you are doing is not right…”  As we’ve already learned, they were going against God’s clear commands.
  4. They needed to remember their witness (v. 9b).  Israel was to be a light to the nations but their behavior was dark and shady.  They were to “walk in the fear of the Lord in order to avoid the reproach of their enemies.”  Because they weren’t right in their relationship with God they weren’t able make a positive impact on those around them.  Instead of making people thirsty for God, they had lost their saltiness.
  5. He appealed to his own actions (v. 10-11).  Nehemiah lent money but he didn’t charge interest.  He had integrity when he told the other moneylenders to stop what they were doing: “Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them.”
  6. Finally, he appealed to the judgment of God (v. 12-13).  I love verse 12 because it shows that they really wanted to do what was right and didn’t have to wait and think about it: “We will give it back and we will not demand anything more from them.  We will do as you say.”  Since the brokers promised to obey, Nehemiah made them take an oath in the presence of the priests.  This was a way of saying that the promise was not just between the bankers and the builders but between them and the Lord.  Nehemiah then concluded this special business meeting with three actions in verse 13 that lifted up the seriousness of what they had decided to do:
  • Nehemiah shook out the folds of his robe, which symbolized what God would do if they broke their vow.
  • Next, the congregation responded with a collective “amen” which was a solemn assent to what had been said.  The word literally means, “So be it” and it made the entire assembly a part of the decision.
  • Then they praised the Lord in unison.  What started as a great cry of outrage led to a confrontation which led to a commitment to change and concluded with shouts of praise in a corporate worship service.

The Example Nehemiah Set (14-19)

In describing his own lifestyle during this period, Nehemiah’s memoirs tell us how he behaved.  He was motivated by two biblical principles during the 12 years he was the governor in the land of Judah.  He was devoted to the Great Commandment as spelled out later by Jesus in Mark 12:30-31: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Before thinking about how he could make a profit, he considered what was pleasing to God.  In verse 15 he describes how previous governors got wealthy at the expense of the people.  When comparing himself with what others did, Nehemiah stated, “But out of reverence for God I did not act like that.”

Because he loved and revered God, he also loved the people he was called to serve

In verses 17-18 we see that he did not live extravagantly but instead lived generously by providing meals for others and not using his expense account to do so.  Because he loved and revered God, he also loved the people he was called to serve.

That’s a great example for us to follow as well.  Start first by focusing on God and your relationship to Him.  As you do, you will have more love and compassion for others – even for those you have conflict with.

Principles to Ponder

Having walked through a brief exposition of this passage let me draw out some principles to ponder.

  1. There is a direct correlation between the effectiveness of our mission and how we treat each other.  We must be the church before we can build the church.  We must care for one another before we can hope to reach this community and county for Christ.
  2. Relational problems are inevitable and we can’t ignore them.  Even though it’s painful and it may seem easier to avoid or deny relational ruptures, we must face conflict head-on.  If we don’t, we’ll pay because it will go underground, grow deep roots, and bear bitter fruits.  One of my pastor friends puts it this way: “The first price you pay is always the cheapest.”  It’s painful to stop strife but it will only get more difficult the longer you wait.
  3. We must take the initiative to restore relationships whether we want to or not.  Don’t wait for the other person to come to you.  You need to go to them.  Be tenacious about this one.  If you’ve been hurt, go and talk it out as Jesus commanded in Matthew 18.  If you’ve hurt someone else, go and confess what you did according to what Jesus said in Matthew 5.  We’re covered either way.
  4. God’s reputation is at stake when we have conflict.  In John 17:23, Jesus prayed that lost people would know God’s heart of love when brothers and sisters in Christ are brought together in complete unity.  Let’s be like Nehemiah and walk in the fear of God to not only avoid the reproach of unbelievers but to also make God attractive to those who need Him – and we can do that by living in loving community with each other.

4 Action Steps for Stopping Strife

I came across something this week called, “How to Turn a Disagreement Into a Feud.”  I wonder how many of us have done these things?  I know I have:

  • Avoid conflict so that your feelings build up and then you explode.
  • Be vague and general when you share your concerns so the other person cannot do anything practical to change the situation.
  • Assume you know all the facts and that you are totally right.
  • Avoid possible solutions and go for total victory and unconditional surrender.

I want to focus our remaining minutes on some practical action steps you and I can take to stop strife – these come right out of Nehemiah 5.

1. Make sure it’s a moral issue. 

Nehemiah was very angry because of the injustice he saw in verse 6.  If you’ve been wronged and sinned against, your anger is justified.  On the other hand, if you’re ticked off at someone just because they’ve done something that you don’t like, and it’s not a moral issue, then cut them some slack and give some grace.

2. Think before speaking. 

Anger is a gift from God that motivates us to action but it can just as easily backfire if we just let things fly out of our mouths

If you’ve been sinned against, take some time to ponder what was done and how you feel about it.  That’s exactly what Nehemiah did in the first part of verse 7.  Anger is a gift from God that motivates us to action but it can just as easily backfire if we just let things fly out of our mouths.

3. Meet face-to-face. 

Someone has said: “Confrontation is caring enough about another person to get the conflict on the table and talk about it.”  Just as Jesus commanded in Matthew 18, we are to be direct with the people we have strife with.  Nehemiah went right to the source in verse 8 and confronted the people with what they had done wrong.  

When we ignore this critical step we often end up talking to someone else about how we’ve been offended by someone else.  When you go to a third party you create a “communication triangle.”  So go directly to the person you’re upset with.  If someone comes to you to express anger at another person, your first question should always be, “Have you talked to him?  Have you met with her?

4. Seek Resolution. 

Our goal in stopping strife or confronting conflict should always be resolution and restoration of the relationship.  We shouldn’t be set on proving ourselves right and the other person as wrong.  We’re not to vanquish our brothers and sisters but to build them up and have the issue resolved so that we can all get back to kingdom work.

Woodrow Wilson once said, “If you come at me with your fists doubled, I think I can promise you that mine will double as fast as yours; but if you come to me and say, ‘Let us sit down and take counsel together, and, if we differ from one another…we will find that we are not so far apart after all, that the points on which we differ are few and the points on which we agree are many, and that if we only have the patience and the candor and the desire to get together…we will.”

When the workers took these steps, the team was able to get back to the job they were commissioned to do.  If we allow strife and discord to go on, kingdom work will come to a standstill.  If we would follow Nehemiah’s example, my guess is that 95% of our relational problems would be solved.  If we have an issue with anyone in this church, let’s follow these four steps: #1: Make sure it’s moral; #2: Think before speaking; #3: Meet face-to-face; and #4: Seek resolution.

In an old monastery in Germany, I’m told you can see two racks of ancient deer antlers permanently interlocked.  Apparently the animals had been fighting fiercely, and their horns became so tangled that they could not be disengaged.  As a result, both of them died of hunger.  

Anyone here this morning who is tangled up with someone right now?  Is there strife in your life?  In your home?  In your workplace?  With someone in the church?  Don’t let it fester any longer.  I love how the people responded to Nehemiah’s challenge in Verse 13 when it says that the “people did as they had promised.”

What about you?  Are you willing to make a promise to stop strife in your life – and in our church?  

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?