Clear the Air

Lesson Focus: You will want to make fair treatment of others a priority for stepping up to serve the Lord. Stepping up to serve the Lord does not give you permission to mistreat others.

Hear the Hurt: Nehemiah 5:1-5.

[1]  Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers.  [2]  For there were those who said, "With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive."  [3]  There were also those who said, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine."  [4]  And there were those who said, "We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards.  [5]  Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards."   [ESV]

The scene changes dramatically from Jerusalem’s wall to Judah’s urgent economic needs. To his work as building-site manager Nehemiah adds new skills as an imaginative and effective social worker. The builders had given themselves sacrificially to an exacting task, and their main work was gradually coming to an end. Once the huge gates had been set in place, the assignment would be complete. However, for some time the exhausted workers had been laboring under severe economic difficulties and, with increasing pressure from distressed homes, they could hold out no longer. There was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers concerning some alarming acts of greed which had resulted in widespread poverty and injustice. Several factors had combined to produce a situation in which many families had been reduced to destitution and despair. We have already seen that, in order to build the wall, the team of builders and laborers had been recruited from a wide area. Many of Judah’s towns and villages supplied men and women for the arduous tasks of clearing rubble, cleaning and re-shaping the large stones, and skillfully replacing them along the walls in forty different sections. To undertake this work, the people had taken a step of faith. They had left their normal trades, crafts and professions for a period of two months, and the sacrifice was now beginning to cut deeper into home and family life. With the leading bread-winner away from home, many large families [2] were without food. But Judah’s economic hardship was not simply due to the events of the past couple of months. The region had been through a period of famine and food supplies had become scarce. Greedy merchants used the opportunity to inflate the price of grain, and some people had been compelled to mortgage their fields, vineyards and homes to raise money to feed their hungry families [3]. Moreover, the Persian king’s taxes on their fields and vineyards had been increased to meet rising imperial expenditure, and as a result many people had found it impossible to meet these additional burdens. To make matters worse, having parted with their fields, some of these destitute families were in such dire straits financially that they had been compelled to sell some of their family members into slavery. The practice was common enough in the ancient near-east but the Mosaic law provided for the complete restoration of every slave’s freedom after a period of six years’ service. The law also insisted that debtors should be released from all financial liability in every seventh year, a provision which had probably suffered neglect in this period just as the slave-law had in their earlier history. Some Israelite moneylenders made capital out of this economic hardship and increased the anguish by demanding exorbitant interest rates, a practice condemned by God’s Word. Ezekiel had earlier described the exacting of excessive interest and making unjust gain from your neighbors as one of Jerusalem’s detestable practices [Ezek. 22:2,12]. Yet despite that condemnation and its threatened consequence, here they were in the next century repeating one of the offences which had led them into exile. To meet the cruel demands of greedy moneylenders, borrowers had been forced either to sell themselves or their sons and daughters into slavery [5] despite the fact that the Mosaic law expressly prohibited the charging of interest on loans made to fellow-Israelites. Such blatant indifference to the teaching of God’s Word was a sin which could not be overlooked.

Confront the Wrong: Nehemiah 5:6-9.

[6]  I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words.  [7]  I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, "You are exacting interest, each from his brother." And I held a great assembly against them  [8]  and said to them, "We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!" They were silent and could not find a word to say.  [9]  So I said, "The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies?  [ESV] 

[6-7]  When Nehemiah heard about such inhumane conduct and widespread poverty, he did three things: he made a considered personal response to the grievance, arranged a specific public occasion to discuss the issue, and produced an irrefutable case for putting the matter right. On hearing the people’s outcry and these charges of greed, inconsistent conduct, heartless behavior and injustice, Nehemiah became very angry [6]. Yet, once again, we see a leader in perfect control of the situation. Although emotionally stirred by what he had seen and heard, he refuses to act merely on the level of intense anguish. Emotional distress was followed by intellectual reflection which in turn led to practical action. Confronted by a tense, difficult and widespread problem, Nehemiah says he took counsel with himself and then brought charges against the nobles and the officials. His response is at three levels: emotional, intellectual and volitional. The heart is moved, the mind is engaged and the will is motivated. Nehemiah then arranges a specific public occasion to discuss the issue. Even with the authority of the imperial court behind him, the governor knows that he cannot possibly rectify this grim situation on his own. He sensitively hears the oppressed, boldly addresses the offenders and wisely convenes a meeting. The whole community must be brought together, so that deprived families can voice their complaints directly to these greedy citizens. Nehemiah knew that it would not do merely to obtain a quick verbal agreement with the individual offenders. They could stand arguing with him for hours if their precious money was at stake. They must be brought face to face with the problem and not merely rely on Nehemiah’s information about the heartbreaking poverty of many Judean homes. Convening a great assembly assured deprived people that something was about to be done, and at the same time convinced the greedy offenders that the governor could not be ignored.

[8]  Thirdly, Nehemiah produced an irrefutable case for putting the matter right. What he had to say at the meeting was crucial and he presented a persuasive and well-integrated argument for rectifying such an injustice. The appalling situation was all the more distressing in that, prior to Nehemiah’s return, some impoverished people had been forced to sell themselves or their children as slaves to Gentile homes but, wherever possible, they had been generously bought back by their fellow-countrymen. Now, without houses and lands and in deeper poverty still, many were compelled to return to slavery, this time in Israelite homes, enslaved by people who belonged to the same community of faith. Surely the offenders’ consciences are disturbed that the abundant generosity of those Israelites who had bought them back from Gentiles had been overshadowed by the appalling greed of their new masters. These Jewish slave-owners were probably guilty of robbing their slaves of their “seventh year” freedom promised by the law of Moses. One of the most alarming aspects of this cruelty was that the offenders had ignored the special relationship which every Israelite believer had with others united by the same covenant. These deprived neighbors were their Jewish brothers and they are accused of selling their brothers. That dimension of unique intra-personal relationships was a marked feature of the covenant. They enjoyed a special relationship not only with God but with one another, and Nehemiah’s repeated use of brothers is meant to confront them with another aspect of their covenant obligation which they had either overlooked or ignored. The laws of Moses about generosity towards debtors and kindness to others repeatedly emphasize the nature of that brotherly relationship. The impoverished person is a ‘poor brother’ or a ‘needy brother’. Such people belong to the same family of faith and ought to be loved, not robbed. These brothers who had been condemned to slavery in Israelite homes were worse off than their compatriots in exile. Before returning to their homeland, they did at least have the privilege and security of living together as united families. Now the greed of fellow-Israelites was destroying family unity. Nehemiah’s words opened the eyes of the offenders to their markedly incongruous behavior, touched their consciences, and robbed them of any attempt to justify their conduct: They were silent and could not find a word to say.

[9]  Building on the conscience and compassion argument, Nehemiah then appeals to their moral sensitivity. His exposure was not merely designed to make them feel uncomfortable about their selfish lifestyles, but to confront them with essential moral obligations in a good and just society. People who want to enjoy the benefits and advantages of community life cannot live selfishly and totally heedless of others. Nehemiah chooses his words with care because he believes that, although greedy, they are capable of moral persuasion. There is invitation as well as reproach in his Ought you not. Nehemiah pleads with the offenders on the basis of fundamental ethical principles which are at the root of any secure and well-ordered society. That involved the recognition that our fellow-humans are made in the image of God, and that we have a responsibility to determine our moral values from what we know of God’s nature and what we read in God’s Word. Nehemiah now appeals to their knowledge of God’s character: walk in the fear of our God. As Israelite people, committed to a covenant relationship with God, do they not want to acknowledge His uniqueness, reverence His holiness, receive His mercy, reflect His love, pursue His will, and obey His Word? In their callous treatment of others these greedy Israelites had failed to display these qualities. The Hebrew people knew that doctrine must not be divorced from life; belief and behavior are the inseparable components of authentic faith. Moreover, the inconsistent conduct of the offenders not only dishonored God and ignored Scripture; it nullified their witness to the unbelieving world. The offenders must rectify this evident social injustice for only in this way could they prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies. Israel had been entrusted with a unique testimony to the nations. They were not only to declare what God is like but manifest those qualities in their lives. That was the theological and moral basis of the covenant God had made with them, an agreement embodied in the Ten Commandments. It was both a visual as well as a verbal testimony. Who would believe that Israel’s God was kind, merciful and compassionate when His worshippers were cruel, merciless and mean towards the people He loves? Inconsistent lifestyles seriously damage the effectiveness of Christian witness.

Set the Example: Nehemiah 5:10-16.

[10]  Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest.  [11]  Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them."  [12]  Then they said, "We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say." And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised.  [13]  I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, "So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied." And all the assembly said "Amen" and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.  [14]  Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor.  [15]  The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God.  [16]  I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work.  [ESV]

[10-13]  Nehemiah does not deal with the situation as a detached observer. He is also involved personally in what is happening. Nehemiah, his brothers and servants have loaned money and grain to fellow-Israelites but totally without interest, and he is urging others to do the same. The governor’s demand that the situation be rectified without delay meets with a prompt response: We will do as you say. He believed in the necessity of specific, immediate, irrevocable and public resolution so he called the priests as the religious officials, ordering them to attend a public oath-taking ceremony to ensure that these nobles will do as they had promised. Nehemiah’s use of priestly witnesses is followed by prophetic practice with the shaking out the folds of his garment. It was like an act of prophetic symbolism, one of those stark visual aids which sometimes accompanied the prophetic word. Their purpose was not merely to illustrate truth and make the prophet’s sayings more memorable. To the eastern mind the sign was inseparable from the event it portrayed. It almost initiated the action it described. Nehemiah was determined that the enormity of this social sin should be recognized for what it was, a blatant act of rebellion against God’s person, Word and people. By what the offenders did (attended the great assembly), said (oaths), saw (Nehemiah’s shaken robe) and heard (all the assembly said, “Amen” and praised the Lord), they would be held to those firm promises, made in the presence of others, to put these things right without delay. The whole assembly praised the Lord that such a dire situation had been rectified and those who took the oaths did as they had promised.

[14-16]  Nehemiah was motivated by two biblical principles during the twelve years he served as governor in the land of Judah. First, before he contemplated what was profitable for himself, he considered what was pleasing to God. In Nehemiah’s thinking fear of God was not merely a posture in public worship. It had a practical consequence in everyday life. For this governor it meant honoring God’s name, obeying God’s word and loving God’s people. It was because he feared God that he did not take their food [14], grasp their money, drink their wine or abuse their subservience [15]. The fear of God increased his respect for other people made in the image of God, and it was a controlling spiritual principal in Nehemiah’s life. He worshipped a God who was awesome [1:5; 4:14] and, like others, he found delight to revere Your name [1:11]. That reverential fear determined his conduct [5:9,15] and became a decisive principle in judging the character of others [7:2]. Second, he was motivated by a compassion for others [17-18].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Describe the problem confronting Nehemiah in these verses. What was the great outcry of the people?

2.         What was Nehemiah’s threefold approach to the problem? Note how Nehemiah’s approach is based upon principles found in God’s Word and on the people’s relationship as members of the covenant community.

3.         What can we learn from Nehemiah about how to handle problems in the church?

4.         What two biblical principles did Nehemiah use as governor of Judah? How can we apply these principles in our own individual lives?


Nehemiah, Mervin Breneman, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Nehemiah, Raymond Brown, Inter-Varsity Press.

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