While the previous chapters of Nehemiah have focused upon the work being done to restore Jerusalem’s wall, Nehemiah chapter five will feature no mention of work assignments, progress reports, or the efforts of those who sought to prevent this work from going forward. In fact, Nehemiah chapter five will barely mention this rebuilding project at all.
Instead, Nehemiah chapter five recounts an apparent pause in this work effort to address a situation that was as serious as anything that Nehemiah had confronted up to this point. You see, while Nehemiah had already faced a great degree of external opposition, the conflict he will encounter here in chapter five will come from within.
Like many restoration efforts today, an attempt to restore something that has fallen into disrepair may sometimes reveal previously unforeseen problems that must be addressed before that work can move forward. In this instance, the effort to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall brought forth a number of other issues…
“And there was a great outcry of the people and their wives against their Jewish brethren. For there were those who said, ‘We, our sons, and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain, that we may eat and live'” (Nehemiah 5:1-2).
When a person gains a reputation as someone who is capable of solving problems, others are sure to bring that person problems to solve. Such was the case with Nehemiah. Since God had enabled Nehemiah to successfully undertake the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall, its not surprising to find that others looked to him for assistance in addressing other issues as well.
So unlike the external difficulties presented by people like Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod (Nehemiah 4:7), Nehemiah was now faced with an internal problem. Verse two identifies the issue when it tells us, “We have large families, and it takes a lot of grain merely to keep them alive” (CEV).
One source estimates that the monthly grain requirement for an average family amounted to six to seven bushels. (1) Because of this, its significant to note that this “widespread outcry” (HCSB) came from both the men and their wives. Since women held the primary responsibility of managing household affairs in the culture of that day, its not surprising to find that these wives and mothers were at the forefront of this effort to secure enough food to feed their families.
However, these women had an even greater concern for their children, a concern that will become clear very shortly.
(1) New International Version Study Bible Nehemiah 5:2 pg. 696. A “bushel” is roughly equivalent to 8 gallons or 3.5 decaliters.
“There were also some who said, ‘We have mortgaged our lands and vineyards and houses, that we might buy grain because of the famine.’
There were also those who said, ‘We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our lands and vineyards. Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children; and indeed we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been brought into slavery. It is not in our power to redeem them, for other men have our lands and vineyards'” (Nehemiah 5:3-5).
One Biblical paraphrase summarizes the problem facing these citizens during that time: “What was happening was that families who ran out of money for food had to sell their children or mortgage their fields, vineyards, and homes to these rich men; and some couldn’t even do that, for they already had borrowed to the limit to pay their taxes” (Nehemiah 5:2 TLB).
So it seems that a number of those who had returned to Jerusalem were now suffering at the hands of other Jewish returnees with greater financial means. These wealthy individuals had lent money to those who could no longer afford the basic necessities of life in exchange for their homes and ancestral lands as collateral.
As these borrowers began to default on those loans, their creditors assumed control over their homes and farmlands. Once that occurred, these men and women would be left with no further means of income. The only remaining option would involve selling their children into slavery, a common practice of that time.
But that was not the only problem: “‘…We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards'” (NIV). Remember that Jerusalem was under the control of the Persian empire during this time and maintaining an empire can be an expensive proposition. Apparently, the tax burdens imposed by the Persian government were so heavy that many had to borrow money just to satisfy them.
If those issues weren’t enough, we’re also told that these events took place during the time of a famine, a condition that made the task of finding enough food to eat even more difficult.
Since the effort to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall had been ongoing for just a few weeks at most, it seems clear that these problems had been building for some time prior to Nehemiah’s arrival- and while Nehemiah bore no liability for these complaints, he would have to assume responsibility for addressing them if he wanted to see this rebuilding effort move forward.
“We and our children are just like our countrymen and their children, yet we are subjecting our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters are already enslaved, but we are powerless because our fields and vineyards belong to others” (Nehemiah 5:5 HCSB).
Having now lost their homes, farmlands, and the ability to meet their financial obligations, many members of the Jewish community were left with one final option: “…we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others” (NIV).
In ancient times, a person might elect to sell himself (or another family member) to a creditor in order to pay a debt. A husband, wife, or child would then serve as a slave for a specified period of time or until a redeemer could be found to pay off his or her liability.
Today, such a person might be identified as an indentured servant, a term that describes someone who is placed under contract to work for an amount of time, usually without pay. Whatever wages that person would have received as a laborer were then applied to his or her debt until their obligation was fully satisfied.
The problem with this arrangement was that the people of Israel were imposing such conditions upon their fellow citizens: “Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery” (NIV). While one might expect a conquering enemy to act in such a manner, it was difficult to accept such treatment from a fellow Israelite.
So these verses describe a situation where the economically disadvantaged were being exploited by the wealthy. These creditors were not only collecting interest on loans that were made to their fellow citizens (an illegal practice that we’ll later address in greater detail), but repossessing the homes, farmlands, and even the children of those individuals as well.
In addition, we should note that this passage specifically mentions the fact that “Some of our daughters have been subjected to slavery…” (NET). This may imply that some of these young women had been taken to meet the physical needs of these lenders or had been forced into marriage relationships against their will.
So unlike the legitimate financier who offers a business loan with the hope of gaining a return on a commercial investment, these opportunists were instead trading in the lives of their fellow citizens.
“We belong to the same family as those who are wealthy, and our children are just like theirs. Yet we must sell our children into slavery just to get enough money to live. We have already sold some of our daughters, and we are helpless to do anything about it, for our fields and vineyards are already mortgaged to others” (Nehemiah 5:5 NLT).
To illustrate the inequities described within this passage, we might consider two 21st century examples- the very young and the very old.
For instance, let’s consider the example of an elderly person who lives alone on a fixed income. A person in this situation may begin to experience financial difficulties if his or her income cannot meet expenses. Under these conditions, a person may have little recourse but to offer his or her home as collateral in order to obtain a loan that offers the promise of financial relief.
However, if this person were to subsequently default on the repayment of that loan, a creditor will eventually take possession of his or her home. He or she would then be left with little or nothing, much like the situation described here in Nehemiah chapter five.
At the opposite end of this spectrum is the example of an 18-24 year old person. As a person in that age group begins to enter the world of secondary education and employment, he or she may also choose to accept the seemingly attractive propositions offered by credit organizations with incentives to buy merchandise now and pay for it later.
The problem arrives when that person is faced with the responsibility of paying off a large amount of accumulated debt at exorbitant interest rates. This harsh reality is often compounded by the burden of student loans and the limited financial resources that are typically available to a person who is just entering the workforce. These conditions may sometimes make it difficult (or even impossible) for someone to get married, buy a home, or start a family.
In a sense, the people in these examples are not unlike those who approached Nehemiah in the opening verses of this chapter. Some had lost their homes to creditors. Others had borrowed money and were forced into making difficult decisions when they could not make payments on their credit balances and associated interest.
So even though we are separated from the events of Nehemiah by many centuries, the conditions that are described within this chapter are all too familiar for many today- and we’ll see how Nehemiah reacted to this situation next.
“And I became very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. After serious thought, I rebuked the nobles and rulers, and said to them, ‘Each of you is exacting usury from his brother.’ So I called a great assembly against them” (Nehemiah 5:6-7).
Nehemiah chapter five begins by describing three economically disadvantaged classes of people. First there were those who had lost their homes to creditors. Then there were others who had been compelled to mortgage their properties. Finally, there were some who had been forced to sell their children into slavery due to their inability to repay the principal and interest on loans they had taken.
So how did Nehemiah respond to the news of situation? Well, Nehemiah’s initial response was one of anger. We can say that Nehemiah’s anger was certainly justified in this instance because these people were suffering at the hands of those who desired to profit from their financial hardship.
Much like Nehemiah, it is possible to become justifiably angry when an injustice has been committed against someone else. However, the Scriptures tell us that all anger -even justifiable anger- must be handled in a healthy, God-honoring manner…
“Be angry, but don’t sin — don’t let the sun go down before you have dealt with the cause of your anger; otherwise you leave room for the Adversary” (Ephesians 4:26-27 CJB).
A God-honoring person understands that anger can be utilized as a motivational tool for good if handled properly. However, it can also turn into something highly destructive if dealt with improperly. One way to implement the counsel found here in Ephesians 4:26-27 is to promptly seek the Lord’s assistance in channeling those feelings of anger into something constructive and beneficial to others.
We might also benefit by considering some additional Biblical counsel on the subject of anger…
“A wise man controls his temper. He knows that anger causes mistakes” (Proverbs 14:29 TLB).
“When you pray, if you remember anyone who has wronged you, forgive him so that God above can also forgive you” (Mark 11:25 Voice).
“Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:31-32 CEB).
“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20 NIV).
“When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, ‘You are charging your own people interest!’ So I called together a large meeting to deal with them” (Nehemiah 5:6-7 NIV).
Nehemiah’s response to the exploitation of those who were financially destitute brings to mind another Biblical passage on the subject of anger: “Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4). In fact, this passage from Psalm 4:4 accurately describes the way in which Nehemiah managed his anger over this situation, for we’re told that he “thought the matter over” (CJB), “turn(ed) it over in my mind” (BBE), or “…considered these things carefully” (NET).
In other words, Nehemiah did not immediately respond on an emotional level upon hearing of this news. Instead, Nehemiah chose to delay his response until he could take the time to analyze this situation. In doing so, Nehemiah observed an important piece of wisdom from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: “(There is a) time to be quiet and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7b).
You see, a person who speaks in anger is someone who is likely to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. But this concept is something that actually goes beyond the words we say. Remember that our spoken words are just another form of communication- and it is possible to say a lot without ever uttering a word.
For instance, let’s consider the example of a person who has written a letter in anger but later suffers regret over what he or she has said. Or perhaps it might be more appropriate to note the example of someone who has experienced the consequences associated with an angry post, text, or email. In today’s age of social media, it especially helps to remember that “There is a time to be silent…” (ESV).
So after thinking the situation over, here’s what Nehemiah decided to do: “I rebuked the nobles and rulers, and said to them, ‘Each of you is exacting usury from his brother.'” To “rebuke” means to sternly reprove or admonish someone. “Usury” refers to an interest payment that is excessively high or interest that should not be charged at all.
In the words of one commentator, “Such usury took advantage of people’s desperation and was virtually impossible to repay, consuming their entire family assets and reducing the debtors to permanent slavery.” (1)
(1) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Ne 5:7). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers
“…I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother” (Nehemiah 5:7 KJV).
The act of extracting usury (the charging of excessive, unfair, or inappropriate interest on a loan) was something that was specifically prohibited by the Old Testament Law…
“If you lend money to any of my people who are in need, do not charge interest as a money lender would. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as security for a loan, you must return it before sunset. This coat may be the only blanket your neighbor has. How can a person sleep without it? If you do not return it and your neighbor cries out to me for help, then I will hear, for I am merciful” (Exodus 22:25-27 NLT, see also Leviticus 25:35-38 and Deuteronomy 23:19-20).
In addition to this violation of God’s Word and the exploitation of the poor, these individuals were also engaged in another objectionable practice…
“And I said to them, ‘According to our ability we have redeemed our Jewish brethren who were sold to the nations. Now indeed, will you even sell your brethren? Or should they be sold to us?’ Then they were silenced and found nothing to say” (Nehemiah 5:8).
One Biblical version translates this passage by saying, “As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!” (NIV). Based on this information, we can infer that Nehemiah had a standing policy in regard to his fellow Israelites who had been sold into slavery.
It appears that whenever Nehemiah learned that a Jewish slave had been offered for sale, he made an arrangement to buy that person and restore his or her freedom. Unfortunately, it seems that these others were selling their Jewish brothers and sisters into slavery again as fast as Nehemiah could buy them back. This explains the nature of Nehemiah’s complaint: “We are doing all we can to redeem our Jewish relatives… but you are selling them back into slavery again. How often must we redeem them?” (NLT).
If the thought of auctioning their brothers and sisters ever began to trouble the consciences of these individuals, they could always ease their discomfort with the knowledge that Nehemiah would eventually re-purchase them anyway. That is, until Nehemiah revealed this scheme and subjected these leaders to public humiliation for their desire to enrich themselves at the expense of others.
“Then I said, ‘What you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies?'” (Nehemiah 5:9).
In our modern vocabulary, the word “fear” (as found in the passage quoted above) is often used to refer to a general sense of apprehension or the state of being afraid. But lets consider something that Jesus once said regarding our responsibility to fear God…
“And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him! (Luke 12:4-5 NKJV).
Notice how Jesus separated the words “afraid” and “fear” in these verses. He said, “…do not be afraid of those who kill the body…” but “…Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell…” (emphasis added).
When the word “fear” is used in this kind of Biblical context, it refers to the idea of reverence, honor, or respect and signifies our responsibility to revere and esteem God above everything else. So when Nehemiah says, “Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God…” (NIV) he is effectively saying, “Shouldn’t you live in a manner that demonstrates respect for God?” The clear implication was that these leaders were not doing so, at least in this regard.
There is another episode from Jesus’ life that has some bearing on this passage as well. In Mark 11:15-17 we read how Jesus ejected a group of merchants from the Temple complex. In doing so, He said, “‘…Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers'” (Mark 11:17 NIV).
While the term “robber” is usually associated with someone who unlawfully takes the property of someone else, Jesus applied this term to the business practices of these merchants instead, thereby indicating that they had been acting in a dishonest manner.
Like the New Testament merchants that Jesus expelled from the Temple, these Old Testament nobles and rulers were also conducting business in a manner that did not reflect well upon God or His Word. In both instances, the love of money had displaced a love for God as their primary motivation.
These examples help remind us that our business relationships must also be governed in a manner that honors God as well.
“Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders” (Nehemiah 4:4-5 ESV).
In His famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was quoted as follows…
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:43-45).
Its important to measure the aggressiveness of Nehemiah’s prayer in Nehemiah 4:4-5 against the fact that he lived many centuries prior to Jesus’ revolutionary message from the Sermon on the Mount. Nevertheless, there are a few aspects of Nehemiah’s prayer that parallel some other New Testament ideas.
For instance, if Sanballat, Tobiah, and the rest of Nehemiah’s detractors had also experienced the pain of being forcibly relocated to a foreign land, then perhaps they would have been more tolerant of these efforts to restore the Israeli capital. This may help explain why Nehemiah prayed, “…let them be taken as prisoners to a foreign land” (GNB).
Such an experience would provide these men with an opportunity to “see how it feels” and furnish them with an entirely new perspective on these rebuilding efforts. A more positive New Testament analogy to this idea can be found in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 where we learn that God may allow us to experience trials and difficulties in our lives for the specific purpose of helping others who may be going through similar difficulties.
Another commentator draws a parallel between Nehemiah’s prayer and Jesus Himself…
“Nehemiah regards this attack as an insult against God himself. Note that he does not argue back, nor does he retaliate. He does not blister these men with angry rebuttal. He simply responds by praying. It reminds us of Peter’s words about Jesus: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate. When he suffered, he made no threats,” (1Pe_2:23 NIV). This is a helpful picture of how to handle that kind of attack.” (1)
(1) Don’t Back Down — Build Up Ray C. Stedman http://www.raystedman.org/old-testament/nehemiah/dont-back-down–build-up
“I also, with my brethren and my servants, am lending them money and grain. Please, let us stop this usury! Restore now to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive groves, and their houses, also a hundredth of the money and the grain, the new wine and the oil, that you have charged them” (Nehemiah 5:10-11).
Like a good leader, Nehemiah was someone who was wiling to lead by example. For instance, Nehemiah (along with those who held a similar God-honoring mindset) provided these unscrupulous money lenders with the right example to follow: “The rest of us are lending money and grain to our fellow Jews without any interest…”(TLB).
The New Testament book of Ephesians also provides us with an important reminder in this regard when it says, “…I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1 NIV). Nehemiah chose to conduct himself in a manner that honored God and thus, lived up to his calling by doing so.
But Nehemiah didn’t only inform his listeners of what was wrong by doing what was right- he also asked these money lenders to act on what they had heard: “…let the exacting of usury stop! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them — the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil” (NIV).
This reference to the “hundredth of the money” probably alludes to the percentage of interest that these men had already received. This interest (which is thought to have amounted to about 12% annually) represents the price that these lenders had unlawfully charged their fellow Israelites.
So Nehemiah asked these leaders to change their attitude and demonstrate that change by offering the evidence of a tangible response. If we were to rephrase this idea by way of another Biblical concept, we might say that Nehemiah was essentially asking these money lenders to repent of what they had done.
This concept of repentance involves a change of mind that leads to a change of behavior and it implies more than just a feeling of sorrow over what someone has done. You see, real repentance always involves action, much like a vehicle that stops traveling in the wrong direction by making a U-turn.
In this instance, the “U-turn” meant restoring the homes, property, and money that had been unfairly taken from those who were too destitute to prevent it.
So Nehemiah asked the leaders and nobles who had lent money to those who were financially destitute to follow his good example and not demand interest on such loans in return. The good news was that Nehemiah received a positive response to his call to repentance…
“So they said, ‘We will restore it, and will require nothing from them; we will do as you say.’ Then I called the priests, and required an oath from them that they would do according to this promise” (Nehemiah 5:12).
Nehemiah was honest and upfront in challenging these rulers concerning the impropriety of what they had done and these leaders responded with a commitment to restore the homes and properties they had illegally seized.
This was an honorable response, especially considering the fact that it is rarely easy for someone to admit when he or she has done something wrong. It is perhaps even more difficult to follow by doing the right thing, particularly when there is a substantial amount of money involved. Nevertheless, these nobles lived up to their titles by demonstrating a willingness to reverse course and make good on this mistake.
Nevertheless, Nehemiah still found it necessary to establish an additional level of accountability for these men. For instance, these wealthy officials might have been sincere in their desire to restore the money and property they had unlawfully seized. But if that desire was rooted in the emotion of this initial conversation with Nehemiah, perhaps they might feel differently later.
This may explain why Nehemiah took an additional step to help ensure that those who had lost their homes and possessions received them back: “Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised” (NIV) In effect, Nehemiah compelled these nobles and officials to “sign a contract” that would obligate them to follow through on their promise to restore these properties The priests (as representatives of God) served as the official witnesses to their acceptance of this agreement
In requesting their presence, it seems clear that Nehemiah recognized the limitations he faced as a leader. You see, Nehemiah was restricted in his ability to ensure that these men were good to their word despite his position of authority. On the other hand, God is unlimited in His ability to enforce an oath that has been sworn in His name.
Therefore, it made good sense for Nehemiah to call upon these rulers to formalize their promise in the presence of God’s representatives. Nevertheless, this action says something else regarding Nehemiah’s opinion of these men. We’ll consider that point (along with the larger question of swearing and oath-taking) next.
“Then I sent for the priests and made them take an oath that they would keep this agreement” (Nehemiah 5:12 BBE).
Its not unusual to hear others preface a statement with the words, “I swear…” in the course of a casual conversation. While some may be accustomed to using this term in such an offhand manner, the Scriptures tell us that this is something that God takes very seriously…
“When you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not put off doing what you promised; the LORD will hold you to your vow, and it is a sin not to keep it” (Deuteronomy 23:21 GNB).
This passage reminds us that there are consequences involved with the act of making this type of statement. You see, whenever someone uses the words “I swear” in a sentence, he or she is effectively taking an oath. This is why witnesses are placed “under oath” and swear to tell the truth when giving testimony in a court of law and why government officials are “sworn into” office
The reality is that the term “I swear…” represents a vow or promise whether we recognize it or not- and God will hold us accountable for making such statements. For those who may feel as if such concerns are over-exaggerated, two additional passages from the New Testament may prove helpful…
“Above all, my friends, do not use an oath when you make a promise. Do not swear by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Say only ‘Yes’ when you mean yes, and ‘No’ when you mean no, and then you will not come under God’s judgment” (James 5:12 GNB).
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37 NIV).
A person who consistently tells the truth will not need to back up his or her word by swearing to it. Unfortunately, it appears that Nehemiah did not have confidence in these leaders to keep their promise- that’s why he required them to take an oath.
Once Nehemiah had successfully persuaded the nobles and rulers to return the homes and properties they had illegally seized, he finished with a visual aid to help reinforce their commitment…
“Then I shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out each man from his house, and from his property, who does not perform this promise. Even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.’ And all the assembly said, ‘Amen!’ and praised the LORD. Then the people did according to this promise” (Nehemiah 5:13).
Another Biblical version of this passage renders this act in a manner that is somewhat more accessible to 21st century readers: “Then I emptied my pockets and said, ‘If you don’t keep your promise, that’s what God will do to you. He will empty out everything you own, even taking away your houses'” (CEV).
We can find a comparative version of this visual demonstration in Jesus’ message to His disciples as He commissioned them to begin a missionary tour…
“…He said to them, ‘In whatever place you enter a house, stay there till you depart from that place. And whoever will not receive you nor hear you, when you depart from there, shake off the dust under your feet as a testimony against them…” (Mark 6:10-11a).
The act of shaking the dust from one’s feet was recognized as a culturally appropriate demonstration of rejection and/or separation in the society of that day. Nehemiah used a similar form of visual imagery to warn these leaders about what would happen if they failed to follow through on their promise.
To their credit, these nobles and officials responded by officially affirming their commitment to restore the homes and properties they had confiscated. In doing so, these leaders set the right example for others, for they not only responded in word only but in action as well
Their response serves to remind us that people generally act upon what they believe- and what people do is often the best indication of what they really believe. These leaders not only acknowledged that Nehemiah was right but acted in support of their stated belief by agreeing to modify their behavior. Then they followed by verifying their commitment before God.
Real beliefs are almost always demonstrated by actions- and while these nobles and officials may have started poorly, they finished well by committing to this God-honoring act of repentance.
“Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year until the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the governor’s provisions” (Nehemiah 5:14).
This verse provides us with some additional detail regarding Nehemiah’s role throughout this period. You see, it appears that king Artaxerxes not only authorized Nehemiah to undertake the work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall, it seems that he also appointed Nehemiah to serve as governor over the entire area of Judah as well.
As an official representative of the Persian government, Nehemiah therefore had access to a number of entitlements that were beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. Numbered among these benefits were meals and other such amenities. Yet even though Nehemiah was entitled to partake of these advantages, he chose instead to refuse them.
The following verse provides us with the rationale behind that decision…
“But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people, and took from them bread and wine, besides forty shekels of silver. Yes, even their servants bore rule over the people, but I did not do so, because of the fear of God” (Nehemiah 5:15).
So Nehemiah refused to demand additional support from those who were already struggling to survive. Instead, he chose to break from the example set by the previous governors of that area and place God’s reputation ahead of his own personal interest.
Again, we should take note of the motivating factor behind this decision: “(The former) officials had acted like high and mighty rulers over them. But because of my great respect for God, I didn’t act like that” (NIRV). In setting this example, Nehemiah foreshadowed a similar decision later made by the Apostle Paul…
“For you remember, brethren, our labor and toil; for laboring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:9).
“nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us” (2 Thessalonians 3:8-9).
Much like the Apostle Paul, Nehemiah provides us with a good example to follow in this area as we interact with others in our daily lives.
The depressed economic conditions among those who owned homes and property in Judea helped provide speculators and opportunists with a excellent opportunity to acquire valuable real estate at discounted prices. But Nehemiah declined to pursue such lucrative business opportunities in favor of a different course…
“Indeed, I also continued the work on this wall, and we did not buy any land. All my servants were gathered there for the work” (Nehemiah 5:16).
One commentator explains the significance behind this decision: “Even though the time to purchase property from those forced to sell couldn’t have been better, Nehemiah maintained a consistent personal policy not to take advantage of another’s distress.” (1) So rather than view these circumstances as an opportunity for personal enrichment, Nehemiah chose instead to focus instead upon the work that needed to be done.
Another example of Nehemiah’s God-honoring leadership can be found in the example of his subordinates. While Nehemiah 5:15 tells us that the lower-level officials assigned to the previous governors had oppressed (CEV), tyrannized (TLB), or taken advantage (GW) of those under their authority, Nehemiah’s representatives instead “…were assembled there for the work” (NIV)
There can be little doubt that Nehemiah’s good example had a positive effect on the conduct of those who worked for him just as the negative character traits associated with the previous governors helped influence the detrimental conduct of their own assistants. For instance, while Nehemiah’s subordinates spent their time working to restore what had been broken, the bureaucrats who served under the previous leaders “…bullied the people unmercifully” (MSG).
As mentioned previously, Nehemiah’s example serves to remind us that everyone exerts a certain degree of influence upon others for better or worse. You see, every relationship provides an opportunity to positively or negatively impact others and our choices (along with their associated consequences) may have a far-ranging effect that extends far beyond our immediate circle of friends
We should never underestimate the effect produced by the small, God-honoring choices we make throughout the course of our daily lives. Remember that everyone leaves a legacy for those who follow, and the daily example of Nehemiah’s Godly influence resulted in a beneficial impact that continued long after his term as governor ended. In fact, we might say that the effect of Nehemiah’s good example continues to this very day through the Biblical book that bears his name
Unfortunately, those who preceded Nehemiah also left a legacy, but it was one that impacted others in a very different manner
(1) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Ne 5:16). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
“And at my table were one hundred and fifty Jews and rulers, besides those who came to us from the nations around us” (Nehemiah 5:16-17).
In his capacity as governor over the region of Judea, Nehemiah was entitled to an official meal allowance. In part, this was meant to supply for his daily provisions as well as those of his staff and administrators. It was also intended to permit Nehemiah to receive various dignitaries and preside over state functions in a manner that reflected well upon the Persian government
However, it appears that Nehemiah’s interest went far beyond the typical concerns of a government official in this area. You see, the act of taking a meal with others was viewed as an important cultural activity in the society of that time- and as a political leader, Nehemiah undoubtedly recognized the benefit of such gatherings in helping to develop relationships, exchange ideas, and network with others.
These opportunities for social interaction evidently functioned as an important element of Nehemiah’s effort to recruit support for the Jerusalem rebuilding project and overcome the resistance of those who sought to prevent that work from going forward. But how would a man in Nehemiah’s position typically provide for such a large guest list? Well, one source provides the explanation…
“…a Persian governor had the right to collect taxes from his subjects for his own treasury, not just for the Crown. Monies collected in this way paid for local projects and supported the administration. Food and drink went to the governor and his household.” (1)
Any surplus remaining from these acquisitions might have been sold back to the members of the community at a profit. However, it appears that Nehemiah provided for all of these needs from his own personal resources: “…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” (Nehemiah 5:14 ERV).
To put this decision into perspective, we should pause to remember that an average family consumed approximately six to seven bushels of grain on a monthly basis during that time. If we were to convert this amount into an approximate daily requirement, we could say that Nehemiah took responsibility for providing the equivalent of an entire month’s worth of meals for an average family on a daily basis.
However, Nehemiah didn’t simply feed his guests bread and water. We’ll examine the extensive daily menu that Nehemiah provided for these gatherings next.
(1) The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament Copyright © 2000 by John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas
In addition to the political benefit derived from his decision, Nehemiah also demonstrated an exceptional degree of graciousness, compassion, and generosity in providing for the dietary needs of over one hundred and fifty people on a daily basis. In fact, Nehemiah 5:18 goes on to provide us with an idea of how much that decision actually cost…
“Now that which was prepared daily was one ox and six choice sheep. Also fowl were prepared for me, and once every ten days an abundance of all kinds of wine. Yet in spite of this I did not demand the governor’s provisions, because the bondage was heavy on this people.”
An ox can weigh as much as 3000 lbs. (1360 kg) while a sheep might weigh 100-200 lbs. (45-90 kg) at time of slaughter. One ox and six sheep would therefore yield well over a thousand pounds (453 kg) of meat in addition to the unspecified numbers of birds (likely chickens) that were prepared each day for Nehemiah and his guests. Although the text doesn’t specify it, its possible that Nehemiah maintained, purchased, or leased some sort of ranch operation to provide for these daily requirements.
In any event, Nehemiah also displayed a considerable amount of perception and discernment in recognizing the severe economic difficulties that plagued many of the citizens of that area. This led him to make the decision to provide for these daily needs at his own expense rather than place an additional burden upon the people. In taking this course of action, Nehemiah demonstrated a model of leadership that would later be exemplified by Jesus Himself…
“But Jesus called (His disciples) to Himself and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.
And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many'” (Mark 10:42-45).
As one commentator points out…
“Nehemiah, in his own life, lived the way he told the nobles and rulers to live – to not take personal advantage of another’s need. He did what every godly leader must do: he never expected more of his followers than he expected of himself.” (1)
(1) Guzik, Dave – Nehemiah 5 – The Work Is Threatened Internally http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/1605.htm
The final verse of Nehemiah chapter five provides us with an intriguing clue regarding the possible origin of this Biblical book…
“Remember me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people” (Nehemiah 5:19).
While it may seem unusual for this section to end with such a seemingly pretentious and self-serving request, this statement begins to make better sense if we consider the possibility that it once formed a portion of Nehemiah’s personal journal or diary.
You see, many commentators believe that the portion of Scripture that we now recognize as Nehemiah 5:14-19 may have originally been part of a written work that Nehemiah never intended to make public. For instance, if this passage was originally contained within a journal or diary of some sort, then we might understand it to represent a natural (and private) expression of Nehemiah’s desire to experience God’s blessings in his life.
If this is the case, then this passage actually provides us with some insight into Nehemiah’s mindset during this period, one that we might not possess if this verse had not been included. As touched upon previously, this heartfelt request tells us that Nehemiah was unafraid to express his feelings in his private devotional time and serves to remind us that we can be completely honest with God in our personal communication with Him.
Nehemiah’s closing prayer also implies that God served as Nehemiah’s primary source of validation, acceptance, and approval before anyone else. This serves to remind us of the need to maintain the right priorities in this area and is further illustrated by Jesus’ message to the religious leaders of His day: “…you are consumed by the approval of other men, longing to look good in their eyes; and yet you disregard the approval of the one true God” (John 5:44 Voice).
Finally, Nehemiah’s request for God to consider his efforts brings to mind something else that Jesus said as found within the Gospel of John…
“…everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God” (John 3:20-21).
A person who is motivated by a desire to honor God and fulfill His calling can feel confident in making such a request, for as we’re reminded in 1 John 3:19, “Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God” (NLT).