Date: 29 May 2016
Text: Nehemiah 5:1-5
After having a couple of Sundays away from Nehemiah, I want this morning to return to our walk through this wonderful journal. I hope that you’ve read at least some of this book because the more I read it, the more I see in it. After all the hard work that we read about in Nehemiah 1-4 we now come to some of the economic and social problems that the people faced. Yes, the walls and gates were being successfully rebuilt but at what cost? As we reach Nehemiah 5 we come down to earth with a bump as we see the people experiencing the same sort of problems that we experience today.
Current State of Play
When we left Nehemiah and the people a couple of weeks ago we were at the end of Nehemiah 4 where everyone was working hard at rebuilding a half height wall around the entire perimeter of Jerusalem. As a result of the threats that they had had 4:1-3 and 4:10-11 they were armed as they worked and were prepared to deal with any attack that was likely to come their way.
Up until now Nehemiah’s plan was working. He had gathered together a workforce of over 42000 and motivated them to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem as quickly as they possibly could. He organised the necessary paperwork to allow safe passage on the journey from Susa in Babylon to Jerusalem and obtained a letter from the King so that he could take timber from the Royal forests. As a result of this God led planning, the huge group of people that Nehemiah assembled worked enthusiastically in small groups to enable the work on various parts of the walls to proceed simultaneously.
During this time the only dissent from within had come from the group of nobles from Tekoa who refused to work under their supervisors. There was however some dissent from outside Jerusalem which we first meet in Nehemiah 2 and comes in the form of verbal jibes and insults. However, by the time we get to Nehemiah 4 that dissent had grown in strength such that the threat if physical violence didn’t seem too far away. Whilst physical attacks had not yet begun, as a security measure Nehemiah ensured that everyone was armed as they worked and as an added security he also organised groups of guards stationed in strategic places around the City. We should never forget that at every stage of this mammoth project Nehemiah turned to God in prayer and always followed His leading.
I suspect though that without being complacent, Nehemiah wasn’t really expecting any dissent from within the camp, only from those outside looking in. Unfortunately for him he was in for a surprise!
When it came, I doubt very much that Nehemiah expected any dissent to come from within his own camp. Consequently I can’t begin to wonder how he felt when the opposition and dissent came from the unexpected source of the men and their wives! Our focus up until now has been on Nehemiah and the workers; on all those involved in the exacting task of rebuilding the walls and gates of Jerusalem as part of improving its defences and restoring it to its original glory as the Holy City. There has been no mention of the wives and families of these workers apart from those sons and daughters who are mentioned as being part of the huge workforce. While the men were away working it was of course the wives who were left behind to keep the family together and ensure that they were well fed and well cared for. It’s no wonder really that they were now complaining bitterly about the situation in which they found themselves.
Whilst it was mainly the wives who were complaining, there were three distinct groups of families from different backgrounds who faced the same problems. In 5:2 we meet the landless, those who rented their property; in 5:3 we meet landowners who, whilst they owned their own property, had had to take out mortgages in order to obtain money to pay the bills; and in 5:4-5 we meet the borrowers, those who borrowed huge amounts of money to pay their taxes by selling family members into slavery and as a result were paying huge amounts of interest.
The landless (5:1) rented their property as they obviously couldn’t afford to buy anywhere. In many cases these were the people who had stayed in Jerusalem after the invasion by the Babylonians. Following that invasion the young, intelligent and strong were taken to exile in Babylon to work in for the Babylonians. Many of those who remained were old or frail and struggled to survive. The men of the families were all involved in the rebuilding project and so weren’t around to earn money or tend the land to grow food. When you take into account the almost inevitable famine you may begin to see the problems that they faced; they simply didn’t have enough food or enough money to buy food.
The second group, the landowners (5:3), faced a similar situation although they did at least own their property. However, given that the men of these families were also involved in the rebuilding project it meant that they weren’t around to work to earn the money they needed. Because they owned their own land though, they were at least able to obtain a mortgage to give them enough money to buy the food they needed and to pay all the other daily living expenses. Their problem centred on the high rate of interest that they were paying to fellow Jews, very wealthy Jews.
The third group were the borrowers (5:4-5), those who were forced to borrow money at exorbitant rates of interest to pay taxes to the King. Unfortunately they were forced to borrow the money by committing members of their family to lives in slavery. Under Jewish Law they would normally be able to buy themselves or their family members out of slavery when they had the money to do so. Sadly they had no way of obtaining that money and so frequently found themselves putting more family members into slavery simply to make ends meet.
This dire situation that they all faced was causing great social injustice and unfortunately much of what was happening was out of their hands and simply down to circumstances.
Whilst there may have been three groups who were complaining, they all faced the same problems: shortage of food and shortage of money.
The men were away working on the wall; the wives were left at home to care for their families whilst trying to look after whatever crops they may have been growing; as funds ran lower and lower the task got harder and harder for the women in their struggle to feed their families. As they saw it there appeared to be two groups of Jews. The first consisted mainly of those who had remained in Jerusalem during the period of the exile. They hadn’t been taken into captivity in Babylon probably because they had nothing to offer an already thriving empire. After the already wealthy, young and talented people had gone, these families struggled to survive. They managed somehow but it was a real battle for them to cope and look after themselves. The second group were those Jews who had gone into exile but had now returned as wealthy people. Whilst this may not have applied to all returnees it most certainly applied to a significant number of them. Things hadn’t been too bad for them in exile in Babylon and many had managed to become successful businessmen and accumulate huge wealth. That obviously meant that when they returned to Jerusalem they had far more money than those who had remained and sadly these wealthy Jews seem to have used their considerable wealth to generate yet more money. Even in Nehemiah’s time the old adage applied – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer!
Those who were forced to borrow money complained that whilst they all belonged to the “same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs...” (5:5a), they were still basically being ripped off by their own kith and kin. It was this huge disparity in wealth between those who remained and those who returned that was causing dissent and sowing the seeds of division within the people whom Nehemiah was trying to motivate to keep working. The complaint went on, “we have had to subject our sons and daughters to slavery” (5:5b) and they had already sold some of their daughters into slavery.
There is no mention of the Law at this stage although Exodus makes it very clear that lenders should not charge interest when lending to fellow Jews. In a passage on social responsibility in Exodus 22:25-27, Moses recorded God’s words when he wrote, “’If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. If you take your neighbour's cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbour has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.’“ That was the Jewish Law and rather interestingly the much newer Sharia Law also forbids the charging of usury, the old word for interest. Muslims are not permitted to either charge or pay interest on loans. Meanwhile the wealthy Jews who were charging this exorbitant interest either forgot that edict or quietly ignored it! The people who were borrowing the money either by way of loans or mortgages, were caught in a cleft stick, they had no choice if they wanted to feed their families. That reminds me very much of those pay day loan companies who were charging exorbitant interest rates to lend money to people who had no other way of borrowing money. Yes, they provide a service but at what social cost.
The struggle to feed their families and pay their debts weren’t the only problems that these families faced. They also had to deal with the additional problems of a famine and paying huge taxes to the King in Babylon. Thankfully we in this country don’t ever face famine although there are many who find it difficult to cope with paying the various taxes that we are all charged.
The famine was a natural event that was beyond their control and not helped by the men being away rebuilding the City which meant that they weren’t around to tend the fields and grow what crops they could. Famines happened from time to time and were natural events generally caused by adverse weather conditions that were unsuited to growing crops. In Old Testament times the people frequently saw famine as a way of God passing judgement on them. For example, some 75 years before these events the prophet Haggai spoke of just such a situation in Haggai 1:5-11 where he tells of God bringing famine because the people failed to build His house, which was in ruins, whilst they built their own homes. Because of that God said, “the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labour of your hands." (Haggai 1:10-11).
The second problem beyond their control was the huge amount that they had to pay in taxes to the King, none of which was returned to help the people or the community in any way. It seems that the money collected in tax was simply hoarded by the King in Babylon. So much so that when Alexander the Great entered Susa about 100 years after these events he found vast quantities of gold and silver bullion. References that I consulted suggest that when Alexander arrived he found approximately 340 tons of gold and 1500 tons of silver lying in the vaults. All of this had started life as coins but had been melted down into ingots presumably for ease of storage. This action led to a shortage of coins for the people to use, which then led to ever increasing inflation. In many ways that sounds very similar to the problem that we witnessed in Greece during 2014-15; the Banks ran out of money and bank notes and couldn’t produce any more because production was controlled by the EU Central Bank leading to ever increasing inflation.
The people may have faced these problems but these verses don’t make clear that they caused the people to stop work. The Message translation calls this “A great protest” (5:1) although that doesn’t necessarily mean that they downed tools. Having said that, one source that I consulted did suggest that the whole project came to a grinding halt until Nehemiah sorted out the problems. However, I don’t detect that from reading these verses over and over again. Yes, there was dissent and yes there was a deal of unhappiness at what the people saw as great social injustice, but I cannot see any explicit or implicit mention of work having stopped.
Famine, lack of food, ever higher prices, taxes and high interest charges all came together to produce a toxic mix that simply stoked the fires of dissent. The question is, what was Nehemiah going to do about it?
In the first four chapters of this journal things have gone quite well for Nehemiah and his ambitious plans to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem. The King co-operated with all that Nehemiah requested of him; the people joined Nehemiah in his enthusiasm to get the job done; the external opposition was dealt with and the people willingly worked and worked. It is only now that we meet some internal opposition and dissent.
For the first time in this story we meet some of the social and economic issues that the people faced while they worked. It is now that we see some of Nehemiah’s management skills come to the fore as he deals with these unexpected problems. In the next sermon from Nehemiah 5 we’ll see how he dealt with the problems and the response he got from the people. For now in a strange way we may be able to take some comfort from knowing that whatever problems we face each day, the people of Jerusalem also faced. Although thankfully we don’t have to deal with famine and slavery some of us certainly have to deal with high interest charges, taxes and mortgage repayments. Throughout all this however, God was with Nehemiah just as He is with us as we deal with similar problems.