Nehemiah 5:1–16comment (0)
March 19, 2009
By Thomas Fuller
Related Scripture: Nehemiah 5:1–16
Bible Studies for Life
Director of Ministry Leadership Development, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University
CLEAR THE AIR
Last week’s lesson dealt with appropriate steps to take when our service to God and neighbor encounters difficulties. This week’s lesson is the same, only different. In Chapter 4, Nehemiah and the Jews faced threats from the neighboring peoples who opposed their rebuilding efforts. In Chapter 5, this week, the threat comes from within. That is often the case for us even today: Internal strife and dissension can wreck righteous efforts. Nehemiah responded to the threat from within to preserve the integrity of the community and its sacred mission. His example is once again instructive to us, as we face similar problems in the course of Christian service.
Hear the Hurt (1–5)
One cannot address a problem if he or she fails to pay attention to the people around him or her. Nehemiah must have been busy with many responsibilities, but he was not too busy to hear the outcry of his workers. The Hebrew word for “outcry,” used in verse 1, is the same word used in Exodus 3:9 for the cry of the Hebrews in Egyptian bondage. Nehemiah’s workers were in bondage of a financial sort. Combine that with crop failures and the daily demands of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and the people were languishing. The stress they were bearing threatened to interrupt the important work God had given them. Like Nehemiah, we must never become so task-focused that we fail to regard the people around us. Ministering in Jesus’ name, whether as clergy or lay people, is a high calling and noble task, but it never justifies neglect of human need in our midst.
Confront the Wrong (6–9)
Upon hearing the people’s outcry, Nehemiah did not act impulsively but gave careful consideration to their complaints. They were struggling with two situations. First wealthy creditors among them were requiring unreasonable pledges of collateral for loans. The “lands, vineyards and houses” the Jewish creditors were requiring left the people with nothing. Second the creditors were taking people’s children as collateral, making them slaves to be bought and sold. Both practices were legal within the boundaries of Jewish law. Acting legally, however, is not always synonymous with acting righteously. The creditors’ practices amounted to exploitation of the poor; they caused severe hardships among the people and threatened to compromise the fabric of the faith community and its work. Nehemiah was indignant over the conduct of these men. He called them together and confronted them with their actions. Nehemiah did not indict them on legal grounds but on the grounds of due regard for the Lord’s name. His actions were quite courageous, and he ran the risk of alienating influential men within the community. Nevertheless Nehemiah did the right thing, trusting God to bless his efforts as he defended the cause of the poor. Our response to such circumstances today often reveals the true content of our faith — if we indeed trust God over man.
Set the Example (10–16)
There is some debate among biblical scholars over the meaning of Nehemiah’s words in verse 10. Some believe he was implicating himself with the abusive credit practices, while others believe Nehemiah, though engaged in lending, had not acted unjustly in the taking of pledges. The testimony of verses 14–16 certainly paints a picture of him acting in a fair and selfless way in fiscal and material affairs. Such an example in one’s personal dealings is essential to establishing credibility in the eyes of others, especially if one presumes to call others to account for their actions. To use a common expression, we must “walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.”
Nehemiah was able to call the creditors to account for their unjust actions because he was willing to be accountable for his actions. And they responded positively to Nehemiah’s challenge to return the collateral to the people (not necessarily to forgive the debt, mind you) because the challenger himself led the way by his example. Does the example of our lives lend credibility to the challenge we would extend to others in the household of faith (2 Cor. 1:12–14, 17–19)?