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.”[1] 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.”[2]

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.[3] 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.