Would you feel guilty if you were a millionaire? There is a strand of evangelical thinking that suspects, if not believes outright, that having a lot of money (and in some cases just a little surplus) is something to feel guilty about. John Piper has called people to a wartime lifestyle. He writes, “In wartime we spend money differently—there is austerity, not for its own sake, but because there are more strategic ways to spend money than on new tires at home.” Later he writes, “a $70,000 salary does not have to be accompanied by a $70,000 lifestyle. . . . No matter how grateful we are, gold will not make the world think that our God is good; it will make people think that our God is gold.”
Piper has a point, and we need to hear that point. We also want to balance that point with other truths the Bible affirms. Piper is not necessarily responsible for making people feel guilty for having funds and being blessed by God, but I think that people influenced by his teaching on the wartime lifestyle have felt guilty about their savings accounts and God’s financial blessings. They might even feel guilty about putting new tires on their cars. But it’s good stewardship to make sure that you’re not going to have a blowout that could result in a tragic accident, especially if we are talking about the car that will be driven by your wife as she transports your children.
Nehemiah 5 shows us a bad way to use wealth and a good way to use wealth. The bad way is the way some in Israel used their wealth without regard for others in order to gain more for themselves. We read that some were using money in a bad way in the account of the outcry related in Nehemiah 5:1–5. Nehemiah addresses that selfish use of wealth in 5:6–13. There is, on the other hand, a good way to use wealth, and that good use of wealth is the subject of this post. Consider the way Nehemiah stewards his wealth so that he can be generous to others and advance God’s kingdom in 5:14–19.
Nehemiah and the Governor’s Allowance (Nehemiah 5:14–19)
From what Nehemiah tells us about himself in Nehemiah 5:14–15, we know that he trusted God:
Furthermore, from the day King Artaxerxes appointed me to be their governor in the land of Judah—from the twentieth year until his thirty-second year, 12 years—I and my associates never ate from the food allotted to the governor. 15 The governors who preceded me had heavily burdened the people, taking food and wine from them, as well as a pound of silver. Their subordinates also oppressed the people, but I didn’t do this, because of the fear of God.
There is a remarkable balance between what we see in Nehemiah 5:14–15 and what we will see about Nehemiah in 5:17–18. From 5:14–15, we see that Nehemiah was free to forgo privileges that belonged to him. Nehemiah stepped into a situation where, as we see in verse 15, there was an established practice: the governor of the land of Judah enjoyed economic and culinary privileges. Nehemiah broke the pattern. He not only ceased to take advantage of the people (5:15), he ceased enjoying the advantage of the “food allowance of the governor” (5:14).
What enables people to forgo the exercise of their privileges? No one forced Nehemiah to do this. What kept him from being enslaved to those privileges?
Could it be anything other than Nehemiah’s experience of something better than those privileges? It appears that Nehemiah knew something better than money and food: love for people and faith in God. The text indicates that Nehemiah cared more about the people who would bear the burden of taxation to provide the governor’s allowance than he cared about his own ease. The text also indicates that Nehemiah believed that there are things higher and better and more enjoyable than indulging oneself in this world, as we see that from what he prays in verse 19.
We see the devotion to the work and the people Nehemiah and his men modeled in 5:16,
Instead, I devoted myself to the construction of the wall, and all my subordinates were gathered there for the work. We didn’t buy any land.
Bigger to him than his prestige as governor, better to him than the privileges the governor could enjoy, was the good that would come to the people as the kingdom of God was advanced through the building of the walls. Nehemiah wanted God’s name exalted, and he wanted God’s weak and vulnerable people protected. He trusted God, and he loved God’s people.
A moment ago I mentioned a balance between the way Nehemiah willingly surrendered privileges in 5:14–15 and what we see in 5:17–18. I said that because what we see in Nehemiah 5:17–18 shows us that Nehemiah was phenomenally wealthy:
There were 150 Jews and officials, as well as guests from the surrounding nations at my table. 18 Each day, one ox, six choice sheep, and some fowl were prepared for me. An abundance of all kinds of wine was provided every 10 days. But I didn’t demand the food allotted to the governor, because the burden on the people was so heavy.
Can you imagine slaughtering an ox a day? I don’t know how big Nehemiah’s herd of oxen was, but he referred to a twelve year period of time in 5:14. Twelve years multiplied by 365 days per year is 4,380 oxen. He either had a herd big enough to sustain that or he had the money to buy that many oxen. He also slaughtered six sheep per day, and in twelve years that’s 26,280 sheep.
This is enormous wealth. Nehemiah trusted God and loved God’s people, so he did not exploit the privileges of his office. But I see no indication at all that he felt the slightest bit guilty about having the means to sacrifice an ox, six sheep, and enjoy “all kinds of wine in abundance” every ten days (Neh 5:18). There are poor people in the land. Nehemiah does not give any indication that he feels wrong about being extravagantly wealthy while others are poor.
Would you feel guilty if you were a millionaire? I don’t think Nehemiah would share that sense of guilt. If you say, okay, so he’s a millionaire, but he’s using his money to benefit others not living the high life himself. I would point you back to the big feast of oxen and sheep and that enjoyment of all kinds of wine every ten days. There were probably more economical ways to feed 150 people than an ox and six sheep every day, and “all kinds of wine in abundance” (Neh 5:18) sounds luxurious. Apparently Nehemiah felt no guilt about enjoying the way that God had blessed him.
If we recognize that God makes poor and rich, we will see wealth and all it enables as blessings from God, not sins about which we should feel guilty. If God makes poor and rich, then we have as little control over how much we have as we have control over who our parents are.
Were you blessed with great parents? If so, do you feel guilty about that? You shouldn’t feel guilty. You should praise God. I think you should praise God if he has made you wealthy.
What about this: would you feel guilty for having a great time with your great parents? If not, then I suggest that if you love God and serve him, if you worship God not money, if you steward your wealth as a blessing from him, if you are doing unto others in your financial dealings as you would have them do unto you, and if you are using your wealth to advance the gospel through the church, you should not feel guilty about the blessings of God that become available to you through the wealth with which he has blessed you.
Nehemiah is as generous as he is wealthy. He feeds 150 people at his table. Apparently he believes that God has sovereignly given him plenty, believes it his responsibility to steward what he has been given rather than divest himself of it, and believes that he can use the excess at his disposal to advance God’s kingdom.
If you worship money, you are a sinner. You should repent and trust Christ, not money. If you use your money to abuse others to benefit yourself, you are not treating them as you would have them treat you. You need to repent of your sin and trust Christ. If you do not love God and his people, if you do not seek to use your money to advance the cause of the gospel through the church, you must repent of your self-centeredness and trust in Jesus.
If God is your God, not mammon, if you are wisely seeking to steward what God has sovereignly given you, acting out the golden rule, seeking to advance the gospel, experiencing the blessings of God, don’t let anyone take you captive to feelings of guilt for enjoying God’s blessings. There are all kinds of disparities in this world. The gospel is the great leveler.
Tall people who trust in Christ should not feel guilty for being tall. People who trust in Christ and have great marriages should not feel guilty for having a believing, faithful spouse. Those who trust in Christ and whom God has made rich should not feel guilty because God did not make someone else rich also. God is God. We will give account to him for the way that we stewarded what he gave us. Refusing to enjoy the way that he has blessed our bank accounts is along the lines of refusing to enjoy the blessing of a sunset or a spouse, a flower or a forest. If he has lavished largesse upon you, praise him.
This post is excerpted from James M. Hamilton Jr., Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah, Christ-Centered Exposition (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2014).
Dr. Jim Hamilton is Professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Seminary and preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church. His most recent books include an attempt at whole Bible Biblical Theology, an introduction to Biblical Theology, a children's book on Biblical Theology, and a study of Daniel in Biblical Theology. He also blogs at www.jimhamilton.info, and you can follow him on twitter @DrJimHamilton.