Read Nehemiah 5
Nehemiah Helps the Poor
Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. 2 Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”
3 Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”
4 Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”
6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” So I called together a large meeting to deal with them 8 and said: “As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!” They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.
9 So I continued, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? 10 I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! 11 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.”
12 “We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.”
Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. 13 I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!”
At this the whole assembly said, “Amen,” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.
14 Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year—twelve years—neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. 15 But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. 16 Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land.
17 Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. 18 Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people.
19 Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people.
In chapter 5, we find Nehemiah focused on the goal of rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. But why was this so important in the first place? The wall placed a boundary around Jerusalem. It protected it and kept it safe. With God’s help, Nehemiah has convinced Jewish officials and city residents to rebuild together. While engrossed in the project, some of his fellow Jews claimed to be mistreated. Nehemiah certainly could have told them he was extremely busy and to come back once the wall was finished. He didn’t. Nehemiah did not hesitate. He stopped working to listen. Nehemiah put others’ interests above his own and paused his work on the wall.
Nehemiah learned Jews were being taken advantage of by outsiders and other Jews. Poor Jewish families were being forced to borrow money to buy food during the famine and pay the king’s taxes. Jewish lenders, often nobles and officials, were taking advantage of them by charging high interest rates and demanding property in exchange for debt owed. Jews were even enslaving the children of parents who could not pay back debts.
With the wall project still waiting, Nehemiah called a meeting to address the issues among the Jews. Nehemiah confronted and then encouraged the Jewish people to walk in fear of the Lord and do what was right. Confiscated fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses exchanged for debt should be returned. God stirred their hearts. All agreed to return what belonged to their neighbors and end the exorbitant interest rates and demands.
What lessons can we learn? Some lessons are simple. Love our neighbors as ourselves (see also Mark 12:31; Gal 5:14). Take care of the poor (see also Prov 19:17). The main lesson is more complex. Through Nehemiah’s story, God illustrates how we should be concerned about the project and the people. The project may be good. Nehemiah’s project was good and worthwhile. But good projects can (and sometimes should) be paused to help people. He calls us to be aware of and not ignore those around us, bearing the burden of others (Gal 6:2).
Nehemiah helped with the issues and concerns of the poor and then returned to the wall to devote himself to completing the repairs. Nehemiah prioritized God’s work and was very generous to God’s people over the years that followed. He continued to look out for the needs of his people, outwardly focused and God-honoring.
- What project are you focused on at the expense of people?
- What action(s) can you take today to ensure that you do not solely focus on your own interests but also the interests of others (Phil 2:4)?
- Who can you lovingly encourage to help others?
“Nehemiah was not a politician who asked, ‘What is popular?’ or a diplomat who asked, ‘What is safe?’ but a true leader who asked, ‘What is right?'”–Warren Wiersbe
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