Nehemiah 5:1-5 (ASV) Then there arose a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews. (2) For there were that said, We, our sons and our daughters, are many: let us get grain, that we may eat and live. (3) Some also there were that said, We are mortgaging our fields, and our vineyards, and our houses: let us get grain, because of the dearth. (4) There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute upon our fields and our vineyards. (5) Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought into bondage already: neither is it in our power to help it; for other men have our fields and our vineyards.
Reading through Nehemiah 5 is heart rending. Here we find a people struggling against themselves. The need for food and the necessity of paying heavy tributes taxed the meager resources of the marginalized majority. Need and necessity had eaten away property rights and any hope of being able to pull themselves out of the economic black hole[i]. Need and necessity had driven some to mortgage their fields, while others mortgaged their family, both sons and daughters[ii]. To read Nehemiah 5 and not weep is evidence of the callousness of hearts untouched and unrepenting of the evil which condemns millions to the harshest reality in a system built to realize the dreams of the few.
The People’s Plight
So the irony of rebuilding a city that represented the enslavement of its own sons and daughters is cutting. It’s a wonder the masses were able to get anything done living under these situations. It must have been a source of continual turmoil, yet what control, what vision must have inspired all to focus their attention on the larger social issue of rebuilding the Jewish nation? Somehow God must have inspired them with the thought that spiritual revival meant economical renewal and family reunion. Yet, without addressing the voices within the walls, we have no chance of reversing the reproach. Without attacking the systems of empowerment which actually enfeeble, without reflecting on our individual and corporate attitudes and obligation to the poor among us, there can be no true spiritual revival, no permanent rebuilding[iii]. If the poor are doomed to owning only visions and not verities, will they not question, “For whom were we rebuilding Jerusalem?”
The people’s plight within the walls highlights the fact that people often work at cross-current with their own stated intentions. Implicit in the exhortation, “Let us rebuild!” was the promise of repossession and restitution for all. Yet, as individuals grow more powerful, as systems become more entrenched, they often fall prey to the dichotomy of intentionality, meaning to prosper all, but resorting to privileging the few.
Personally, Nehemiah is offended by the actions of the leaders. But he does not react in anger to their despicable practices. Instead, he reflects on his strategy for combating this evil without jeopardizing the work on the wall. After reflecting, he confronts the leaders directly, pointing out two grave errors in their dealings with the people: the first is an issue of illegality while the other is an issue of inconsistency. Nehemiah confronts them personally with the issue of the illegality of them charging exorbitant interest rates on their own kinfolk. This was a practice that was explicitly prohibited in the Law of Moses. Yet, here they were, plunging their brothers into deeper economic depression through their illegal practice. How well had they learnt the laws and practices of the world around them at the expense of the weak and disenfranchised!
Then Nehemiah confronts them with the inconsistency of their stated intention and their daily practice. Did they not see that in building back Jerusalem, God was turning back the captivity of His people? If they were to be freed from oppression abroad, were they to become slaves at home? To be consistent with God’s intentions, we must acknowledge that God has not called us out of slavery to the world to become slaves to despotic churchmen[iv]. Sometimes we hide behind the cloak of legality in order to excuse our unethical, inconsistent behavior. So many leaders have sold out to the laws of the land, forgetting about the laws of God, forgetting about the higher calling, forgetting about the call to serve and not to be served. Their actions are legally correct but morally, ethically inconsistent, lacking the depth of perception to see that the reproach reaches even within the walls to the situations that enslave our people everyday. So many have sacrificed their daily agendas in order to make a commitment to the church. Therefore it is imperative that we ask ourselves, “What commitments will we make to the people?”
Nehemiah’s rebuke had that much more weight as his example was one of consistent servant leadership. Today the concept of servant-leadership has gained significant grounds among Christian and business think tanks alike. Many talk the talk, but in their practices, inconsistencies abound. It’s not that most are bad people; many times it’s simply a matter of not thinking through and acting in line with the implications of Jesus’ commands on servant-leadership. Nehemiah’s own example contrasts with that of the previous governors of Jerusalem and the present rulers of the people. The size of the daily feasts to him was not a measure of his worth to God or to this people[v]. Knowing the situation the people were in, he took a pay cut even though he must have been the most effective governor of them all (Nehemiah reminds me of Paul’s stance on the issue[vi]). He did nothing to enrich himself at the people’s expense and never sought to own any property[vii]. Other governors before were a burden to the people, and their entourage acted like little despots. Nehemiah’s regime was different; all his men served, emulating his consistent example. Nehemiah consistently sought the welfare of Israel, not personal wealth, for he lived and moved in the fear of God. The moral authority of Nehemiah’s plea to restore the dignity of all Israel came from his consistent practice with the people.
Promise, Punishment, Progress
Confronted with the illegality and unethical nature of their actions, the rulers agree to restitution[viii]. Nehemiah seals this agreement with a pledge to God as the mediator between the poor and the powerful. Many ethical agreements and so many promises fall flat because the powerful feel no obligation to fulfill their promises. The powerful feel they answer to no one at any time. They will promise to do good whenever public opinion threatens their privileged positions, but as soon as the nation is distracted by other matters, the promise is nullified. Nehemiah, however, links his covenant between the powerful and the poor in the concept of Divine Punishment. God would watch for the poor. God would plead their case. God would defend. God would judge. God would watch between the poor and the powerful. The greatest checks and balance system is to be answerable to God[ix]. It motivates us to act not only in line with the law but above the law, loving, serving as we ourselves have been loved and served.
Seeing that the promise is binding, the people agree and worship erupts. This may indeed be the very first and only instance of Jubilee actually practiced within scriptures. Though it is not called by this name, the implications are the same. Freedom means more than political or religious opportunities for all. There are practical and economic aspects to freedom that only restitution can address. We are ethically and morally responsible to the people we sure. We ought not to fleece the flock of Jesus neither should we substitute our aims and visions for the aims and visions of God. We stand, bound by a promise to work faithfully and fearfully for all for whom Christ died. We cannot enter into ministry with the idea that the multitudes are here to serve the few: we must into our ministry with the understanding that Jesus had of his own ministry and mission here on earth, “That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served--and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.” (Matthew 20:28, MSG).
1. Rebuilding is not some grand scheme for the privileged but is inclusive of the poor
2. Reform and restitution go hand in hand. In order to lead out in reform, our example must be consistent with God’s Word
3. A promise to reform must be rooted in the ethical thought that God is the God of the oppressed. This is the surest way forward in rebuilding for all
[i] “World poverty is a hundred million mothers weeping . . . because they cannot feed their children.” Ronald J. Sider (Poverty: Draper's Book of Quotations for the Christian World)
[ii] “To obtain food for their families, the poor were obliged to buy on credit, and at an exorbitant price. They were also compelled to raise money by borrowing on interest, to pay the tribute to the king of Persia…. Their distress had not been caused by indolence or prodigality. They had been compelled to contract debts because of the failure of crops, and to pay heavy taxes.” pg 39 (Nehemiah, Restoring the Breach, E. G. White: TEACH Services, NY)
[iii] “Unless we drastically reshape both our theology and our entire institutional church life so that the fact that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed becomes as central to our theology and institutional programs as it is in Scripture, we will demonstrate to the world that our verbal commitment to sola scriptura is a dishonest ideological support for an unjust, materialistic status quo.” Ronald J. Sider (Poverty: Draper's Book of Quotations for the Christian World)
[iv] “Worship, ritual, cult, and Temple are not just the celebration of the covenantal God but the celebration of that God as liberator from oppression and domination, slavery and death in Egypt, into a land where opposites reign, a land of righteousness, justice, and freedom.” John Dominic Crossan, pg 205 (The Birth of Christianity)
[v] Many leaders need the perks to feel as if they are doing something significant. Still others lose sight of the significance of their work when surrounded by the trappings of success. Philippians 2:5-8, among other things, teaches us that people who serve in the lowest places need to have a very strong sense of who and whose they are.
[vi] 1st Corinthians 9:11-15 (MSG) So if we have planted spiritual seed among you, is it out of line to expect a meal or two from you? (12) Others demand plenty from you in these ways. Don't we who have never demanded deserve even more? But we're not going to start demanding now what we've always had a perfect right to. Our decision all along has been to put up with anything rather than to get in the way or detract from the Message of Christ.
[vii] This may be very significant as it harkens back to the Levitical call to be totally dedicated to the work of the Lord. Nehemiah understood more than any other governor the spiritual nature of this practical task and he was totally dedicated to its completion.
[viii] “It is one thing to mourn for sin because it exposes us to hell, and another to mourn for it because it is an infinite evil; one thing to mourn for it because it is injurious to ourselves, and another thing to mourn for it because it is wrong and offensive to God. It is one thing to be terrified; another, to be humbled.” Gardiner Spring; “Repentance is another way of saying that the bad past is to be considered as the starting point for better things.” Dorothy L. Sayers; “Repentance is not a fatal day when tears are shed, but a natal day when, as a result of tears, a new life begins.” Ilion T. Jones; “Repentance means the opportunity of a new start, the chance to correct what man had left crooked, to fill that which is wanting in one’s life.” Abba Hillel Silver (Repentance: Draper's Book of Quotations for the Christian World)
[ix] Luke 19:8, 9 “Later that day Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘I will give half of my property to the poor. And I will now pay back four times as much to everyone I have ever cheated.’ Jesus said to Zacchaeus, ‘Today you and your family have been saved, because you are a true son of Abraham.’” We are remiss when we preach repentance without any hint of restitution for past wrongs. Both in the Old and in the New Testament, restitution was an integral part of revival and reformation.