Taking the High Road

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Nehemiah, an obscure Old Testament character most often remembered as the re-builder of the wall of Jerusalem, was in fact a significant figure in the re-establishment of the Jewish homeland following the Babylonian exile. He was himself a child of the exile. He was born and bred in the capital city of Persia, a member of the Jewish aristocracy, and rose to the highest ranks of the Persian royal court. Upon learning that Jerusalem still lay in ruins, despite the crown's generous investments in its restoration, Nehemiah was distressed to the point of depression. Every Jew across the empire had expected Jerusalem to be rebuilt by this time. Nearly a century and a half had passed since its destruction. The highly respected Ezra, scribe-laureate of the exiled Jewish community, had inspired high hopes when he was appointed governor of Judah by King Artaxerxes. Ezra left his home in Babylon carrying millions in cash and treasures and a royal mandate to re-establish Jerusalem as the center of Yahweh worship. That had been twelve years ago. But bitter political infighting among Palestinian Jews had sabotaged Ezra's rebuilding plans, conflict that had been churning for generations. Ezra's reconstruction efforts had been no more successful than his predecessors' aborted attempts. This news was an embarrassment to Nehemiah - an indictment upon his people. But it was more than that. It was one more crucial failure of the children of Abraham to reclaim their birthright - even when it was freely offered to them.

The riskiest decision of Nehemiah's life came the day he asked the king for a leave of absence to travel to Judah to rebuild Jerusalem. To relinquish his very lucrative position with no guarantee of reinstatement was indeed a risky career move. But for the chief of security to reveal that he was distracted by another mission could be suicidal. Yet the war that raged within his soul would simply not subside until he put the fateful question to the king. Nehemiah became convinced that this was indeed a calling placed by Yahweh upon his life. This was something he must do.

Thankfully, the king's response was positive. Nehemiah was soon en-route to Jerusalem armed with passports, a line of credit from the royal treasury and a writ of authorization declaring him the new governor of Judah. Upon his arrival he wasted no time assessing the damage, organizing a reconstruction plan and mobilizing manpower to rebuild the city wall. He accomplished the wall rebuilding project in an amazing 52 days using largely unskilled volunteer labor. It was a testimony to the faithfulness of Yahweh and to the remarkable leadership ability of this Jewish layman.

The securing of Jerusalem was just the beginning. A stable government had to be established. A local militia had to be trained. The temple programs had to be re-instated. The city had to be re-populated. It was a daunting mission but Nehemiah took on each challenge in systematic and decisive manner. In due course Jerusalem was rising from the rubble into a functioning capital city, poised to be a regional powerhouse of commerce and culture.

A governorship is a windfall. If a king's appointee has any entrepreneurial instincts, he can levy from the populace the required taxes due the crown and then use the remaining revenues for local investments. He could impose assessments for running the local government (including his own substantial income needs), he could collect tariffs on trade conducted within his jurisdiction, he could leverage his position for personal business transactions with no fear of conflicts of interest. These were a governor's perks. The king knew well that an empire is no more secure than the contentment of local leaders. These were Nehemiah's legitimate rights.

Economic opportunities were soon abounding in Jerusalem, in the whole greater-Jerusalem area for that matter. No sooner had the city been secured by a strong wall and grand new gates than did commercial traffic begin to stir. It didn't take a genius to figure out that this location would soon attract business from all over the region. If trading had persisted for years under threatening conditions when Jerusalem was an "open trade zone" without walls, it was certain to burgeon now that a credible government and armed security force were in place. Nor was it unreasonable to expect international trade relations with cities all around the Mediterranean rim.

There was money to be made in Jerusalem, especially in real estate. Prior to Nehemiah's arrival, property values had never recovered from the siege of 586BC when the walls had been systematically destroyed and the gates burned completely away by Nebuchadnezzar's troops. Though a new temple had been erected and a few homes and government buildings restored, whole sections of the city still lay in ruins. But when the sounds of new construction were heard throughout the city - the governor's new home, no less - it was a tip worth betting on. Speculators who had never had any interest in Jerusalem property started circling like buzzards over carrion. The competition immediately drove prices up. Land that only a few months earlier couldn't be given away was all of a sudden bringing prices not seen since the glory days of Solomon.

No one was in a better position to predict the land market than Nehemiah. In the first place, he understood from years of successful personal investing the forces that caused land values to rise or fall. He could spot an opportunity, read the market, get in at the right time. His personal portfolio was ample evidence. And no one was better situated to see just around the bend what commerce was about to do for this city. It would be explosive! This was almost too easy. Not only could Nehemiah predict with reasonable certainty the growth of the economy, he virtually controlled it! He could determine how the city developed, what areas would be zoned for commercial revitalization, where residential development would move. He and the insiders in his administration could easily stay a jump ahead of the real estate market and make tidy profits, even if they did nothing but buy and flip properties. He could even allocate tax dollars for infrastructure improvements to facilitate the process. A governorship was indeed a windfall.

But this assignment was more than a governorship to Nehemiah. It was a divine calling. This mission was not about amassing more personal wealth, though no one could have faulted him for making legitimate returns. It was about restoring Israel to a place of respect among the nations and exalting Yahweh as the one true God. The moral authority to provide leadership for such a sobering task must come from uncompromising personal integrity. Nehemiah would avoid the very appearance of conflict of interest. He and his administration would refrain from profitable lending practices as well as all land speculation.

In his personal memoirs he writes:

I would like to mention that for the entire twelve years I was governor of Judah,… my aides and I accepted no salaries or other assistance from the people of Israel. This was quite a contrast from the former governors who demanded food and wine and…cash, and had put the population at the mercy of their aides, who tyrannized them; but I obeyed God and did not act that way. I stayed at work on the wall and refused to speculate on land. I also required my officials to spend time on the wall. All this in spite of the fact that I regularly fed 150 Jewish officials at my table, besides visitors from other countries! The provisions for one day were one ox, six fat sheep, and a large number of domestic fowls; and we needed a huge supply of all kinds of wine every ten days. Yet I refused to make a special levy against the people, for they were already having a difficult time. (Neh 5:14-19 TLB)

Some might have counseled that it was perfectly legitimate for Nehemiah to invest his own money in valid business deals and real estate projects in Jerusalem, especially once prosperity had begun to return to the land. Surely nothing was wrong with profit. But Nehemiah understood human nature. And he knew the seductiveness of the deal. He knew how one small self-serving decision would make the next a little bit easier, how one lucrative venture could so easily lead to another, and another. He knew himself. If he were going to keep a single-minded focus on his mission, he must put a check on the intoxicating allure of wealth-making. So he drew a line in the sand - no mixing of personal business with ministry.

Bob Lupton

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