Making Investments That Last

Nehemiah 10

November 5, 2000 | Brian Bill

I heard about this man who bought a parrot.  It was a beautiful parrot but he had a really bad mouth.  He could swear for five minutes straight without repeating himself.  The man was embarrassed because the bird was driving him crazy in front of people.

He tried to appeal to the bird by asking him to clean up his language.  The parrot promised to change but nothing happened.  In fact, his swearing increased in both volume and frequency. 

It finally got to be too much, so the guy grabbed the bird by the throat and started shaking him and yelled, “Quit it!”  But this just made the parrot angry and he swore more than ever.

Then the guy got really mad and locked him in a kitchen cabinet.  That really aggravated the bird and he started clawing and scratching and making all kinds of racket.  When the guy finally let him out, the parrot let loose with a stream of swear words that made the man blush.

At that point, the guy was so ticked off that he threw him into the freezer.  For the first few seconds the bird squawked and screamed and thrashed around.  And then there was silence.

At first the guy just waited, but then he started to wonder if the bird was hurt.  After a couple minutes of not hearing anything, he was so worried that he opened the freezer door.  The bird calmly climbed onto the man’s outstretched arm and said, “I’m really sorry about all the trouble I’ve been giving you.  I make a solemn promise and vow to clean up my language from now on.”

The man was astounded.  He couldn’t believe the transformation that had come over the parrot as a result of being in the freezer for only a couple minutes.  The parrot then turned to the man and said, “I just have one question…what did the chicken do?”

Vow Making

This morning we’re going to learn about 4 vows, or promises, that the people of God made in Nehemiah 10.  We’ll tackle these in Part 2 of the message a little later on.  While God’s people weren’t thrown in the freezer, they did feel the sting of God’s spoken Word in chapters 8 and 9.  After hearing what God wanted from them, and owning their own persistent rebellion, verse 38 of chapter 9 says that the people made a “binding agreement” to follow the Lord wholeheartedly.  They put it in writing and sealed it.  Putting a seal on a document is a serious matter because it meant taking a solemn oath before the Lord.  Those who agreed to this covenant are listed in 10:1-27.  

The law governing oaths and vows is found in Numbers 30:2: “When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.”  Ecclesiastes 5:4 says, “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it.  He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.”  Since an oath involved the name and possible judgment of God, it was not to be taken lightly.  Jesus also warned against using empty oaths in Matthew 5:33-37.

The Bible contains many examples of people making vows and covenants with God, only to break them later on.  In Exodus 24, the Israelites promise to do “everything the Lord has said.”  But in less than six weeks, these same people construct a golden calf and bow down in worship before it.  In Mark 14:29, Peter promises Jesus, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”  Hours later, Peter responds to a servant girl’s questions by swearing in verse 71: “He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about.’”

That leads to a question.  Are vows of any use today?  I think they are for at least two reasons.  First, they help us focus.  When you make a vow, you are saying that you are going to do something specific.  We can say, “Lord, I need to witness more” or we can say, “I’m going to invite my neighbor to the Christmas cantata and I’m going to give a book to him so that I can open up a conversation with him.

Second, vows allow us to express our love.  That’s why couples make vows during a marriage ceremony.  They’re the language of love.  Love is more than just a feeling, it’s a commitment or promise to be married until death do us part.

God is a covenant-keeping God, even when we don’t keep our end of the deal.  You may have made some promises to God in the past that you haven’t kept.  You may have broken some vows.  If you have, you’re not alone.  Jeremiah 31:32 says that God’s people broke the covenant on a regular basis.  Verse 33 says that He will one day make a new covenant in which he says, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

Jesus inaugurated this new covenant.  Listen to what He said in Mark 14:24: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”  In the Old Covenant, we are expected to live up to our end completely – everything comes from us.  In the New Covenant, nothing comes from us, and everything comes from Jesus.  Because of His grace, we can surrender, submit and obey out of love, not fear.

While it may be helpful to make a vow or an oath to God today, remember this: We don’t succeed as Christians because we make promises to God, but because we believe the promises of God and act upon them.  

Having said that, many of us never come to the point of getting serious in our walk with God simply because we never get specific with Him.  We hear sermons and sense the Spirit’s tug at our heart, but until we decide to be completely committed to Him, we won’t be.   Perhaps you’ve been challenged or convicted by the Lord during this series.  Listen to Him and decide right now to put into practice what you know you need to do.  If you’ve broken some promises with Him or with others, confess it right now. 

Vow #1: Submission to God’s Word

As a result of hearing God’s Word, the Israelites made four decisions.  The first one is found in 10:29: “All these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our God.”  

William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army was once asked what his secret was to his incredible ministry.  This is what he said, “God has had all that there was of me.  There have been men with greater brains than I…but from the day I got the poor of London on my heart and caught a vision of what Jesus Christ could do with me and them, on that day I made up my mind that God should have all of William Booth that there was.”

In Nehemiah 10, the people are saying that they are so seriously submitted to God and His Word that they are willing for the curses of God to fall on them if they do not carefully obey what He says.  I wonder if we have that same submission and dangerous devotion today?  Does God have all of you?

Vow #2: Separation From the World

After submitting themselves to God and His Word, the believers make a second vow to be separate from the world in verses 28 and 30: “We promise to not give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or to take their daughters for our sons.”  When you think about it, separation is simply total devotion to God, no matter what the cost.  When a man and woman get married, they separate themselves from all other possible mates and give themselves completely to each other.  We separate from others to the one who is our life mate.  The Israelites separated from the peoples around them and to God and His Word.

Wrong relationships can nullify a believer’s distinctive witness

This was not about ethnic pride or a sense that the Israelite gene pool was superior to that of other peoples.  Rather it had to do with how they worshipped God and honored Him. Wrong relationships can nullify a believer’s distinctive witness.  God wanted his followers to be a missionary people and so it was vital that their message not be corrupted.  In declaring this prohibition, the Lord was concerned about both the purity of their faith and the holiness of their lives.  They had been entrusted with the most wonderful message in the world and nothing was to be allowed to corrupt it.

There were at least two reasons why marriages with pagan people were disastrous.

First, there were clear biblical warnings.  When two people in the ancient world made a marriage agreement, they normally confirmed their commitment in the presence of their gods and gave each other’s idols a prominent place in their new home.  Joshua 23:13 says that heathen spouses would become “snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes…”

Secondly, there was abundant historical evidence that unequally yoked marriages led to a decline in Israel’s spiritual and moral life.  Nehemiah 13:26 asks the question, “Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned?  Among the many nations there was no king like him.  He was loved by His God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women.”

We are more influenced by other people than most of us care to admit.  Mixed marriages were a danger then, and they’re a danger now.  God’s concern is that when a believer marries a non-believer the stage is set for conflict, compromise and at times outright conformity.  

2 Corinthians 6:14 very clearly states: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.  For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?  Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”

Let me be clear.  I know some of you are married to an unsaved spouse.  I respect and applaud your commitment to Christ and your determination to live out the teaching of 1 Peter 3:1-6.  The New Living Translation puts verses 2 and 3 this way: “Your godly lives will speak to them better than any words.  They will be won over by watching your pure, godly behavior.”

I want to address those of you who are not married yet.  Perhaps you’re dating someone who is not a believer.  It may seem harmless to date a non-Christian, especially if you’re a teenager, but watch out.  God cares about your spiritual life and He cares about your ability to be a clear witness to Him.  On the authority of God’s Word, don’t deliberately disobey God in this area.  The question is not, “Will this relationship work out?”  but, “Will this relationship enjoy God’s best blessing and fulfill God’s will?”  I know this is not easy for some of you to hear but if you are truly submitted to God and His Word, you will honor Him in all your relationships as well.  If you put Him first, don’t enter a marriage relationship with someone who does not also put the Lord first.

Vow #3: Sabbath for God’s People

After pledging themselves to submit to the Word of God and to live separated lives, the believers renew the covenant with a third vow: the Sabbath for God’s people in verse 31: “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or any holy day.  Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts.”  In Nehemiah’s time, it was necessary for God’s law about the Sabbath to be clearly understood.

First of all, this day was set aside to honor God.  It was distinctive from other days and given to God so that they might offer their worship to Him without being distracted by the demands of everyday life.

Secondly, it was a day of rest.  Relaxation is a vital ingredient in effective living.  God set the pattern for this in Exodus 20:11: “He rested on the seventh day.”  The Israelites worked with no breaks in their weekly schedule when they were slaves in Egypt – God did not ever want this repeated again.

One man challenged another to an all-day wood chopping contest.  The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break. The other man ate a leisurely lunch and took several breaks throughout the day.  At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that the other guy had chopped a lot more wood than he had.  “I don’t get it,” he said.  “Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did.”  To which the winning woodsman responded, “Didn’t you notice?  I was sharpening my ax when I sat down to rest.”  If you’re feeling a bit dull today, perhaps you need to schedule some rest into your schedule so that you can get ‘sharp’ again.

Thirdly, it was a day to help others.  Israelite employees had a compulsory rest day automatically written into their employment contracts.  This helped others enjoy the blessings of rest.

Fourthly, the Sabbath was a day to declare truth.  It was a silent witness to God’s supremacy and gave the Israelites multiple witnessing opportunities.  To their unbelieving neighbors it proclaimed, in very practical terms, the truth that God comes first.

This is an important paradigm or model for us today.  From the very beginning of the church, Christians made the Lord’s Day their appointed day for worship, rest, service, and witness.  While avoiding the legalism that the Pharisees fell into, most of us can do a much better job of looking for ways to keep Sunday special.  

We cannot always see what’s coming up, but if we are doing what God says, He will never disappoint us

The Israelites also promised to observe the “Sabbatical Year.”  Every seventh year, they were to let the land lie idle so that it might restore itself.  To obey God in this way, they certainly needed to trust Him with their needs during the seventh year.  It seems to me that obedience to God always involves trust.  We cannot always see what’s coming up, but if we are doing what God says, He will never disappoint us.  Their commitment to commemorate the Sabbatical Year was a great step of faith and is a beautiful illustration of Matthew 6:33: “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Notice that they also canceled all debts in verse 31.  They promised that every seven years, they would live out a renewed scale of values that people matter more than money.  The keeping of the Sabbath and Sabbatical Years were ways of saying “no” to a life of maximum acquisition.  My highest goal is not to make the most I can and then spend my life trying to keep everything that I have.

Vow #4: Support For God’s Work

That leads to their fourth pledge: support for God’s work in verses 32-39.  The phrase “house of our God” is used nine times in this section and refers to the restored temple.  The people were promising to follow God’s priorities by submitting to Him, by separating from the world, by keeping the Sabbath, and by supporting the work of God.  Verse 39 sums up their commitment: “We will not neglect the house of our God.”

The temple in Jerusalem stood at the heart of the country’s religious, moral and spiritual life.  In symbolic terms it proclaimed the presence and power of God among His people and the centrality of spiritual matters.

This passage covers an impressive series of promises to support God’s work in a variety of different ways and gives us 7 insights into how our giving can support God’s work today.

  1. It was responsible giving.  Look at verse 32 and verse 35 where the people say that “they assume responsibility…” They owned it and gave what they owned because they saw it as their privilege and their responsibility.
  2. It was obedient giving.  They didn’t practice “impulse giving” but instead gave as an expression of practical obedience.  Those who love Him will do what He says.  They were “carrying out the commands to give” (32), as it “is written in the Law” (34, 36).   God had been good to His people, and generosity was expected from them.  There was nothing remotely optional about the support of God’s work.  Everyone was required to give in one form or another.  This was yet another way to demonstrate that God came first in their lives.
  3. It was systematic.  There was nothing haphazard about their giving.  Verse 32 says that they were to bring a third of a silver shekel each yearVerse 34 states that lots were drawn to determine when families were to bring a contribution of wood at set times each yearVerse 35 tells us that first fruits were brought each year.  There was an orderliness about these offerings and a system that was followed.  The people knew precisely what was expected of them.  The New Testament teaches systematic giving as well in 1 Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income…”
  4. It was proportionate.  The reference to the wood offering suggests that many poor people in Israel had an opportunity to make a gift to the Lord that would demand time rather than money.  The temple needed a regular supply of firewood to keep the sacrificial fires burning.  Everyone, regardless of income, could gather wood and take it to the temple.  

In addition, Israel’s sacrificial system recognized that not everyone could make the same kind of offering.  If someone could not afford the cost of a young bull, a male goat or lamb, they were able instead to offer two doves or young pigeons.  It they could not even afford that, Leviticus 5:11 allowed them to bring some fine flour as an offering.  It is not the amount that is given which is important; it is the spirit in which we make our offering.  We should give in proportion to how we’ve been blessed.  The New Testament echoes this principle in 1 Corinthians 16 and 2 Corinthians 8-9.  

  1. It was sacrificial.  They were to bring to God’s house the “first fruits” of their crops “and of every fruit tree.” (35) To offer the first of their crops was to declare that God was the giver of all things, that everything belongs to Him, and that He is worthy of the best we can offer Him.  Here’s a helpful principle to remember: while not everyone can give the same amount, everyone can make the same sacrifice.  Not equal giving, but equal sacrifice.  It was Mother Teresa who said, “If you give what you do not need, it isn’t giving.”  And, C.S. Lewis put it this way, “I don’t believe one can settle how much we ought to give.  I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”
  2. It was comprehensive.  They were to not only bring their crops and their money; they were to also bring their first-born sons and their animals to the Lord in verse 36.  God is not just interested in our money, He wants our hearts.  Actually, He wants everything.
  3. It was prescribed.  They were not only to bring their “first,” but also a “tithe” of their crops to the Lord in verse 37.  Giving a tenth of their produce or income to the Lord has a long and dignified history among believers and is an appropriate guide for Christian giving.  As someone has said, “the tithe is a great place to start.”  I’m convinced that the tithe is the minimum we should be giving to further the Lord’s work.

Tithing can be a great blessing, and I practice it and recommend it highly, but there are at least three dangers:

  • It’s easy to give with the wrong motives.  We can give out of a sense of duty or fear, or even greed (“If I tithe, God must prosper me!”)
  • Thinking that we can do whatever we want with the 90% that remains.  
  • Giving only the tithe and failing to give love offerings to the Lord.

Someone has said that we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.  Jesus put it this way in Matthew 6:21: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  Let’s determine to be like the believers in Nehemiah 10:39: “We will not neglect the house of our God.”

When it comes to giving, we can do it for at least three reasons:

  • Because we have to – that’s law
  • Because we ought to – that’s obligation
  • Because we want to – that’s grace

I don’t know about you, but I want to give to the Lord.  I came across a list of 10 reasons to give 10% or more to the Lord’s work.  A guy from the great state of Wisconsin (not me) put these together (Brian Kluth, Dimensions, Vol. 20, Fall 1997, pp. 1-2).

  1. It is a tried and true pattern of giving (Malachi 3:7-15).
  2. It will help you revere God more in your life (Deuteronomy 14:23).
  3. It will help you harness the dragon of materialism (1 Timothy 6:6-10).
  4. It will serve as a practical reminder that God is the Owner of everything (Haggai 2:8).
  5. It will allow you to experience God’s provisions in incredible ways (Luke 6:38).
  6. It will encourage you to trust in God (Proverbs 3:5-6).
  7. It will ensure you of treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20).
  8. It will strengthen the ministry and outreach of your local church (2 Corinthians 9:12).
  9. It will support church staff and missionaries (Galatians 6:6).
  10. It will help accomplish needed building projects (1 Chronicles 29:2-10).

Are You On the Wrong Runway?

I’m sure you heard the tragic news this week about the Singapore Airlines jumbo jet that crashed on take-off, killing at least 81 people.  Investigators have now determined that the jet was on the wrong runway when it tried to leave for Los Angeles.  The pilot realized at the last moment that he was on a strip closed for repairs and plowed into some heavy construction equipment.

Seconds before the jetliner crashed, caught fire and broke into three sections, the pilot swore and screamed out, “Something there.”  Apparently the pilot knew what runway he was supposed to be on and was not misdirected by the control tower.  However, the officials have admitted that there was no barrier set up to block planes from going onto the closed runway.  In addition, the lights on this runway were turned on because of the bad weather.

I’m wondering this morning if any one here is on the wrong runway.  It might look like everything is going ok in your life, but you actually might be headed for a crash.  The Bible is clear – if you do things your way, you’re going to have a collision.  God wants you and me to make investments that last by:

  • Submitting to God – that answers the question, “Who’s the pilot of your life?”
  • Separating from the world – that covers who we spend time with
  • Practicing a Sabbath rest – that deals with how we spend our time
  • Supporting God’s work – which involves how we spend our money

If you’re submitted to God, and He has “all of you,” then you’re cleared for take-off in your relationships, with your time, and with your finances.

Here’s another way to look at it.  If you could look at a person’s friendships, their calendar, and their checkbook, you could determine whether or not they are fully submitted to God and completely committed to His cause.  

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?