Nehemiah Helps the Poor (5:1–19)
1–5 Because many Jews from the countryside were involved in rebuilding the wall and thus could not tend their fields, many families in Judah began to suffer severe hardship. The worst part of it was that Jews were suffering at the hands of fellow Jews—their Jewish brothers (verse 1).
Three groups of Jews were suffering particular hardship. The first group consisted of the landless, such as hired laborers and tenant farmers; because food was scarce and prices high, they could not buy food to feed their families (verse 2). The second group consisted of small landowners who were being forced to mortgage their fields to pay for food (verse 3). And the third group consisted of Jews who had been forced to sell their own family members into slavery in order to raise money to pay the king’s tax (verses 4–5). In all these cases, it was wealthy Jews who were taking advantage of their poorer countrymen. And to add to everyone’s troubles, there was a famine in the land at that very time (verse 3).
6–8 Nehemiah was justly angry. First of all, the wealthy Jews, the nobles and officials, were exacting usury (interest) from their poor countrymen. While it was legal to charge interest for commercial loans, the law forbade charging interest on personal loans to fellow Jews (Exodus 22:25–27; Leviticus 25:35–37)—especially when such interest would cause hardship to a poorer brother.
Second, wealthy Jews were selling their poor brothers into slavery. It was against the law for a creditor to force a fellow Jew into slavery for failing to repay a debt; the debtor was to be treated as a hired worker, not as a slave (Leviticus25:39–42). Worst of all, wealthy Jews were selling their own people as slaves to Gentiles, to non-Israelites; this was always forbidden (Exodus 21:8).
The nobles and officials kept quiet at Nehemiah’s rebuke; they knew they were in the wrong (verse 8).
9–13 It wasn’t wrong for Jews to lend money to Jews; even Nehemiah and his men had been doing that (verse 10). What was wrong was the exacting of usury and the taking of poor people’s land, thus driving them further into debt and despair. Therefore, Nehemiah demanded that the wealthy Jews give back the land they had seized and that they stop charging usury on the loans they had made14 (verse 11).
The people agreed to do as Nehemiah said; Nehemiah even made them take an oath to do what they had promised (verse 12). The taking of an oath implies that there will be consequences if the oath is not kept; in this case, Nehemiah acted out the consequences: anyone who did not keep his promise would be shaken out and emptied (verse 13)—that is, he would forfeit his own wealth and property.
“What you are doing is not right,” said Nehemiah (verse 9). Throughout the Bible, those who exploit the poor are repeatedly denounced; God is grieved when rich people take advantage of the poor. The poor—especially poor believers—are watched over by their heavenly Father; to mistreat them is to insult God. Today, as in Old Testament times, Christians must continue to stand against every form of injustice and exploitation. Here again, Nehemiah has given us an example to follow.
Notice that Nehemiah faced two kinds of opposition in his work of rebuilding the wall: first, opposition from the outside—namely, Sanballat and his associates; and second, “opposition” from the inside—first fear, and then greed. In doing God’s work, the opposition or hindrance from within is usually more difficult to overcome. It is SATAN who incites these internal problems among God’s people: fear, greed, divisions. And Nehemiah, as any good leader should, faced these problems head on and dealt with them decisively; and as a result, the work continued on to its completion.
14–19 In these verses, Nehemiah gives a summary account of his behavior during his first twelve-year term as governor of Judah. He had not taken advantage of his position, as other governors had done before him. He had not eaten the food allotted to the governor—that is, food provided by the populace; he had paid for his own food (verse 14). He had not taxed the people, as former governors had done (verse 15). He had not lorded it over his people, as even the lesser officials were accustomed to doing (see Mark 10:42–45). In every way, Nehemiah had acted without self-interest for the good of the people (verse 16). This is the essence of godly leadership. And Nehemiah acted this way out of reverence for God (verse 15). He knew that he himself was but a servant of God, and therefore was required to treat those under him with justice and kindness (Ephesians 6:9). Let all those in authority never forget that they, too, have a Master in heaven (Colossians 4:1).
Then, in verses 17–18, Nehemiah describes how, out of his own pocket, he provided hospitality for more than a hundred people each day. And he ends, in verse 19, with a plea to God: Remember me with favor . . . for all I have done for these people (see Hebrews 6:10).