Date: 05 Jun 2016
Text: Nehemiah 5:6-13
Last week we took a rather dry and dull look at the first five verses of Nehemiah 5. They may have been a bit boring but they were important since they set the scene for the verses that follow; after all we can hardly consider Nehemiah’s response to a major problem if we don’t know what that problem is!
Just to recap quickly; Nehemiah had organised thousands of people to work really hard by rebuilding the walls and gates of Jerusalem. They were having some success and making great progress despite having to work whilst armed as a result of the verbal threats that they had received from the likes of Sanballat, Tobiah and the Arabs. Whilst all this was happening the wives of the workers stayed at home to care for their families and grow whatever crops they could given the famine conditions that they faced. They were growing poorer by the day and were struggling to make ends meet, a task made even harder by the need to pay taxes to the King in Babylon.
Such was their need for money that some mortgaged their land whilst others borrowed money by putting family members into slavery. Whatever method they chose, everyone borrowed the money from other, far more wealthy, Jews who charged exorbitant amounts of interest. It was that situation that caused the biggest internal problem yet that Nehemiah had had to deal with. Wealthy Jews appeared to be ripping off poorer Jews and consequently making them poorer by the day. This act of Jews charging any kind of interest on money lent to fellow Jews was most definitely against Jewish Law as Moses outlined in Exodus 22. That edict was either conveniently forgotten or was being ignored.
We have no real idea for how long this had been happening although I would suspect that it had been going on for quite some time. Rather strangely I get the impression that, for whatever reason, Nehemiah was totally unaware of what was happening. When Nehemiah did hear of these complaints “he was very angry” (5:6b). Why didn’t he realise what was happening, and why was he unaware of the activities of the wealthy Jews exacting huge sums of money from the poorer Jews? In mitigation I would suggest that he was so busy managing this huge project that he had instigated that he lost sight of what was happening amongst the families who weren’t actually involved in the building work. The huge effort that was going in to completing the building of the walls and the gates was obviously taking up all of Nehemiah’s time and energy. Let’s face it, even the very best leaders can get so engrossed in their work that they miss what is happening to those around them.
Although he may have been angry, Nehemiah didn’t immediately go on the attack; he writes that he “pondered them [these complaints] in my mind” (5:7a). In other words he sat down and thought things through. Do we do that or do we immediately go on the attack without thinking about the problem? I certainly have, and such an attitude doesn’t pay in the long run! We aren’t told explicitly but I wouldn’t be surprised if Nehemiah’s pondering included a time of prayer, after all he had turned to prayer throughout the entire project up to now so why not at this time as he faced dealing with a major social problem? Again, I have to ask, is that what we do when faced with these sorts of problems or do we just whinge about things and get angrier? Notice though that it was only after this period of reflection that Nehemiah acted. Having thought through the situation he then called together the nobles and officials and accused them of charging their own people interest on loans and mortgages. Nehemiah makes no mention of the Law at this stage although Moses writing in Exodus is very clear that Jews should not charge interest when lending to fellow Jews. In a passage on social responsibility in Exodus 22:25-27 which I read last week, 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 that all Jews were expected to abide by. Despite that the wealthy Jews who were charging this exorbitant interest whilst conveniently forgetting that edict or quietly ignoring 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. We’ve seen such a situation in recent years when those various pay day loan companies were charging exorbitant interest rates to lend money to those who had no other means of obtaining loans of any description. Those short term loan companies were obviously providing a service just as the wealthy Jews were, but at what social cost.
Nehemiah’s health and temper can’t have been improved when he learned that all those Jews who had been bought back from slavery with Gentiles were now being sold as slaves to Jews! Nehemiah was very obviously furious with those of his fellow Jews who were involved in this disgraceful practice. He called together the nobles and officials and “told them”. The words in the NIV in 5:7 say “I told them...” although I can’t imagine that Nehemiah spoke as if in an ordinary conversation! He accused them of “charging your own people interest!” Those words really hit home; “They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say”. (5:8). I have a picture in my mind of telling off one or other, or all, of my children and them standing there with their heads bowed feeling very sorry for themselves. Perhaps you too have similar memories?
That was only the beginning of Nehemiah’s comments since he went on to remind them that, “What you are doing is not right” (5:9a). He then asked them what seems to be a rhetorical question, “Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentiles enemies?” (5:9b). What did he mean by that? I believe that in making that comment he was reminding them that God should be involved in everything, even deals involving money. He should be at the centre of such activities not just tacked on as a disposable extra thought. When going about their work of lending money to other Jews and charging them high interest at the same time, these wealthy people had totally ignored God’s will or wisdom; they had left Him out of things altogether. Their main concern seems to have been, will we make money rather than whether the deal was right or wrong. By working in that way they showed that they were totally ignoring God, something which Nehemiah obviously felt could lead to Gentiles pointing fingers at them about their lack of faith or concern. The big problem with their attitude centres on the fact that they showed no compassion whatsoever for those they were lending money to, seemingly being more concerned with making money for themselves. Christianity and faith in Jesus is about nothing else if it isn’t about love, care and compassion, and if we forget that then we aren’t really living out our faith. The money lending Jews gave the impression that they weren’t bothered about their faith or God’s role in their lives just so long as they made a few more shekels. We all need to avoid falling into that trap.
Even after that Nehemiah wasn’t finished, that rebuke was just the start. He let everyone know that he too was lending money and grain to others although he wasn’t charging any interest. I can just see in my mind’s eye Nehemiah getting very red in the face as he denounced those who were guilty of these immoral practices. Just look at what he says in 5:10b-11 and try and picture him saying it, “...let us stop charging interest! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them – one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.” That comment about one percent actually means interest payable at 1% per month which adds up to 12% per year; quite a decent return for the lender especially given that such charges were forbidden under Jewish Law!
There must have been something in his tone or body language as he said those words that had a major effect since Nehemiah’s angry words very obviously hit home. The instant response from these lenders was to agree with what Nehemiah had said. We can read their response in 5:12, “We will give it back, and we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.” I believe that that final sentence, “we will do as you say” gives us a clue as to Nehemiah’s standing and to the respect that he was able to command. No one argued with him or objected to his demands. They must have had a collective twinge of conscience for them to go along with Nehemiah’s request; or was it demand! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if organisations such as Banks, finance companies and HMRC could respond to complaints in a similar way!
The response that Nehemiah got may have sounded good enough but he wanted more. Perhaps he didn’t trust them to keep their word or perhaps he just wanted them to be sure of the seriousness of the situation, whichever it was Nehemiah demanded that they take an oath to ensure that they would keep to that commitment.
We then read a rather strange statement in 5:13a, “I also shook out the folds of my robe”. He went on to add, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep his promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied” (5:13b). What does he mean by that? This symbolic act was a curse. It meant that anyone not keeping to their promise would be “shaken out and emptied”; in other words they would lose all that they had. In this way Nehemiah was ensuring accountability, something which he obviously felt was needed so that these errant Jews didn’t forget the solemn promise that they had just made. This interesting custom of “shaking out” lasted well into New Testament times. In Matthew 10 we can read of Jesus sending out the 12 disciples in pairs with His authority to “drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and illness” (Matthew 10:1). Jesus gave them full details of where to go and what to do. He also said to them, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town” (Matthew 10:14-15). Referring to the same episode, Mark says, “...shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them” (Mark6:11). Both those comments sound very much like a form of judgement to me and match exactly what Nehemiah was telling the nobles and officials who stood before him.
The final response from “the whole assembly” was a united “Amen”, meaning so be it. They fully intended to stick to the promise they had all made and Nehemiah records in the final sentence of 5:13, “And the people did as they had promised”. Success!
The people had a problem. Whilst the men were away working long, hard hours on the rebuilding project, the wives and families were left at home to care for the children and tend the land. They faced huge difficulties; they were short of money and there was a famine leading to the added problem of their being little or no food. To alleviate that problem many of them were borrowing money in various ways from wealthy but seemingly unscrupulous fellow Jews. Nehemiah was so busy managing his huge workforce and keeping focussed on the big picture that he seems to have been totally unaware of the social unrest that was building up.
As soon as he became aware, or perhaps was made aware, he faced the problem head on. He didn’t, however, go bull at a gate and took time to think about his response and what he should do. We can all learn from that. Sitting back and thinking through a problem is not a sign of weakness, rather it is a sign of strength, a sign that we are prepared to ponder a problem and no doubt involve God in our thinking. That was certainly what Nehemiah seemed to do as he considered the best course of action to take.
After a short period of contemplation, Nehemiah arrived at a workable solution. He immediately summoned together all those involved in these corrupt practices. I say corrupt since the act of lending money to fellow Jews and charging them interest was clearly against Jewish Law. Nehemiah confronted the assembly and told them what they were to do. No one objected and they all did as they were told. Just to be sure, he made them take a solemn oath, an oath that if broken carried with it severe consequences.
All of this illustrates great management skills by Nehemiah. He may have initially been unaware of the financial difficulties that people faced but as soon as he learned of their predicament he acted compassionately but forcefully. The lesson that I see from this story is quite simply that we should sit back and think, pray and then act. It worked for Nehemiah and it will work for us.