Week Four – Nehemiah 5
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen Nehemiah burdened by the conditions of Jerusalem, leave his post as the king’s cupbearer. We’ve followed along as he gathered supplies and resources to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, surveyed the damage, made plans and organized the Israelites and of course, dealt with opposition from those on the outside. But, as human nature goes, opposition starts to brew on the inside. And now, Nehemiah faces problems within the wall.
When Nehemiah had arrived in Jerusalem, his primary focus was on rebuilding the wall. The Israelites living within the city were enthusiastic and joined right in. There was a real sense of community as they joined forces to protect themselves from Sanballat and the other outside enemies. Well, just when Nehemiah thought they could build in peace, he discovers that the Israelites were being taken advantage of.
“Many of the poor people began to complain against their fellow Jews. Some of them were saying, ‘We have many children. We must get some grain if we are going to eat and stay alive.’ Other people were saying, “This is a time of famine. We have to use our fields, vineyards, and homes to pay for grain.’ And still other people were saying, “We have to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. But we cannot afford to pay, so we are borrowing money to pay the tax. We are as good as the others. Our sons are as good as their sons. But we will have to sell our sons and daughters as slaves. Some of us have already had to sell our daughters as slaves. There is nothing we can do. We have already lost our fields and vineyards. Other people own them now.” Nehemiah 5:1-5
Their economic state was already pitiful. They were in the midst of a famine. They had been taxed so highly and had borrowed so much from others that they had to sell their children and wives as slaves. They had sacrificed the goods of their lands in order to pay back these never-ending loans. They were so deep in debt there seemed to be no relief in sight.
Not only that, but they were being charged high interest rates to the extent that they would never be able to recover financially. Nehemiah had called upon all of them to help with the rebuilding of the wall. The problem with this became evident to Nehemiah when the people basically said, “We are spending our time building the wall and we’re happy to do that, but because of this, we are unable to work in our fields, gather our crops or fish for food. We are having to mortgage our children, spouses, grains, etc. in order to keep from starving.”
Can you just imagine what’s going through Nehemiah’s mind? Personally, I’d be thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this!” Here’s Nehemiah’s response.
“When I heard their complaints, I was very angry. I calmed myself down, and then I went to the rich families and the officials. I told them, ‘You are forcing your own people to pay interest on the money you loan them. You must stop doing that!’ “ Nehemiah 5:5-7a
You have to admit that Nehemiah handles things the way we should. He gets angry BUT he calms himself down before he went to confront anyone. It doesn’t even say he prayed for God to calm him. Instinctively, he knew that he needed a moment to gather his thoughts and let the anger subdue before he proceeded. How many of us could take a lesson or two in that approach?
But we have to question why Nehemiah would have been so angry. Looking at Deuteronomy 23:19-20 gives us a good reason. “When you loan something to another Israelite, you must not charge interest. Don’t charge interest on money, on food or on anything that may earn interest. You may charge interest to a foreigner. But you must not charge interest to another Israelite. If you follow these rules, the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do in the land where you are going to live.”
They had been told not to charge their fellow Israelites interest. It’s pretty simple language no matter what translation you use, the bottom line was “don’t take back more than you loaned”. But this directive has a hook at the end. “If you follow these rules, the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do…” It’s a cause and effect thing: You do this so that God will do that.
We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t outgive God”. We have all experienced it and can testify to the truthfulness of that statement.
Luke 6:38 emphasizes the balance of giving. “Give to others, and you will receive. You will be given much. It will be poured into your hands—more than you can hold. You will be given so much that it will spill into your lap. The way you give to others is the way God will give to you.”
I’ve known unbelievably selfish people who wouldn’t pay you a nickel over what they owed you. They hoarded what they had and wouldn’t dare lift a finger or open a wallet for anyone in need. Ebenezer Scrooge is their role model.
On the flip side, I’ve known unbelievably generous people who gave even they hadn’t been asked to contribute. They not only shared what they already had but they also went out and got what someone needed. For people like this, it literally takes no prodding for them to volunteer their time, effort, resources, and, of course, money at the mention of a need.
Take a guess as to who lives a happier life.
Nehemiah finds himself upset at the fact that people of God are being taken advantage of and harmed by other people of God.
That’s a tough one to swallow, isn’t it? I was doing some studying this week and one preacher mentioned that their church has a lot of couples wanting to use their facilities for weddings. The problem is, they don’t rent out their facilities to non-members. So guess what many of these couples will do. Yep! You guess it. They’ll join the church, attend a Sunday service or two, book their wedding and then never seen again once the blissful day is over.
I recall a night in choir practice many years ago when our rehearsal was interrupted by a couple who came in claiming to be suffering from car trouble. They needed funds to make the necessary repairs so that they could get back home. A collection was taken up and they gleefully took the money and went on their way. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times they had used that story to take advantage of God-fearing Christians. The truth of it, though, is that God blessed those who gave.
Nehemiah knew that the same God who blesses our giving today was the same that He’s always been so he halts the rebuilding to settle this crisis.
“Then I called for all the people to meet together and said to them, ‘Our fellow Jews were sold as slaves to people in other countries. We did our best to buy them back and make them free. And now, you are selling them like slaves again!’ The rich people and officials kept quiet. They could not find anything to say.” Nehemiah 5: 7b-8
Did you happen to notice that when he addressed the issue, they had nothing to say. They knew what they had done was wrong. There was no defense, no justification. I can’t think of any circumstances, any situation in which it’s okay to take advantage of someone. And yet, we’ve either done it ourselves or we’ve seen it take place. The question is- do you address it? Do you stand up for those who are being mistreated and taken advantage of? Nehemiah did. In fact, he intervened and he called for a commitment for the mistreatment to stop.
“So I continued speaking. I said, ‘What you people are doing is not right! You know that you should fear and respect our God. You should not do the shameful things other people do! My men, my brothers, and I are also lending money and grain to the people. But let’s stop forcing them to pay interest on these loans. You must give their fields, vineyards, olive fields, and houses back to them, right now! And you must give back the interest you charged them. You charged them one percent for the money, grain, new wine, and oil that you loaned them.’ Then the rich people and the officials said, ‘We will give it back and not demand anything more from them. Nehemiah, we will do as you say.’ “ Nehemiah 5:9-12a
Hmmm. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Do you really think these people could be trusted? Yeah, Nehemiah wasn’t 100% convinced either. No pinky promises are good enough for this. Nehemiah wants the promise certified! He calls in the priests.
“Then I called the priests. I made the rich people and the officials promise to God that they would do what they said. Then I shook out the folds of my clothes. I said, ‘God will do the same thing to everyone who does not keep their promise. God will shake them out of their houses and they will lose everything they worked for. They will lose everything!’ I finished saying these things and all the people agreed. They all said, ‘Amen’ and praised the Lord. So the people did as they had promised.” Nehemiah 5:12b-13
The part of this that endears Nehemiah to us is that he stands up for the underdog. He stops what he’s doing, confronts the issue and resolves it. He was implementing the golden rule of “treat others as you would like to be treated” as well as the platinum rule: “treat others the way the like to be treated”. He thoroughly lived his life applying these rules.
Nehemiah 5:14-19: “And also, during the whole time that I was appointed to be governor in the land of Judah, neither my brothers nor I ate the food that was allowed for the governor. I never forced the people to pay taxes to buy my food. I was governor from the 20th year until the 32nd year that Artaxerxes was king. I was governor of Judah for twelve years. But the governors who ruled before me made life hard for the people. The governors forced everyone to pay 1 pound[b] of silver. They also made the people give them food and wine. The leaders under these governors also ruled over the people and made life even harder. But I respected and feared God, so I didn’t do things like that. I worked hard at building the wall of Jerusalem. All my men gathered there to work on the wall. We didn’t take any land from anyone. Also, I regularly fed 150 Jews who were always welcome at my table, and I fed those who came to us from the nations around us. Every day I prepared this much food for the people who ate at my table: one ox, six good sheep, and different kinds of birds. Every ten days all kinds of wine were brought to my table. But I never demanded that they give me the food that was allowed for the governor. I knew that the work the people were doing was very hard. My God, remember all the good I have done for these people.”
There is a recent commercial that I see from time to time that kind of rubs me the wrong way. It depicts this older lady and she says something like, “There were so many benefits I was missing out on. Now I’m getting everything I’m entitled to get.”
I guess it bothers me because it sounds a bit greedy. She’s not just getting what she needs, she getting everything to which she’s entitled. Isn’t that quite reflective of our society?
There are some who will not hesitate to take advantage of their position, their authority or their circumstances. We’ve seen it from the White House to the lunchroom lady at the local elementary school. People get greedy with lots of things. Power, attention, perks. Well, once again, Nehemiah proves to be the exception to the rule.
We learn that he has been appointed governor by the king. In fact, he serves as governor of Judah for twelve years. But during that time, he doesn’t do what’s always been done. He doesn’t take the land from the people. He doesn’t eat the rich foods and wine that governors normally eat and drink. Instead of taking, he gives.
Nehemiah could have rightfully done some things differently. He could have told the ones who were starving and greatly in debt to work it out for themselves. He could have taken the word of the leaders who promised they wouldn’t keep taking advantage of others. He could have assumed the position as well as the perks of being governor. But his love for God was so abundant, his desire to please God ran so deeply, that Nehemiah couldn’t help but live his life in a Godly example mode.
Do you know people that live their lives in Goly example mode? Those people that you observe and think, “that’s a fine example of how God wants us to be”. Those people who live their lives in a state of joyfulness despite their circumstances and have a genuine heart for others. Those who are always looking at the blessings that God has purposefully tucked into each day.
Nehemiah was like that. He was well-respected by his employer, King Artaxerxes. The hand of God was evident on him throughout his journey to Jerusalem. Even though he was invited to fight with Sanballat and the others, he took the more dignified and divine route and turned it over to God. And now, when turmoil is found at home, he speaks to the Israelites with authority and he peacefully resolves a major conflict.
Not only did Nehemiah have the hand of God on him, but along with that, he had something else. Nehemiah had moral authority. Simply stated, Nehemiah had the credibility! It’s that credibility you earn by walking your talk. It’s the credibility you earn when people look at you and think, “That’s a sincere, honest and trustworthy person.” Moral authority means that your opinion is valued because others know you do your very best to see others as God sees them. A love for others is so deeply rooted in your heart and you live your life as a humble servant of God. You are the same person, inside and out, whether you are in Sunday School, a Braves game, a board meeting, at the gas pumps, out shopping on Black Friday or posting on social media. Your behavior is consistent, your values are stable and your beliefs don’t waver. There’s a great disappointment when you see someone from church in a setting outside of church and their treatment of others or their behavior isn’t at all Godlike. Nothing will ruin a person’s testimony quicker.
“Good people will be guided by honesty. But dishonesty will destroy those who are not trustworthy.”Proverbs 11:3
Some personal things for you to consider. Do you live your life in Godly example mode? If so, how often? 50% of the time? 75%? 99%? How strong is your moral authority? A good measure of that is this: If someone has a dirty joke or juicy gossip to share, are you at the top of their list to call? Or do you live your life so that when prayer is needed, people automatically think to contact you? However you measure up, it’s never too late to change.