Week 5 – Nehemiah 5:1-13

If you and I were inventing a religion and writing the backstory, what we would make up would never look like what we read in the Bible. We would flaunt superhuman heroes who always win in the end, but the Bible instead features broken leaders, seemingly mundane events, and failure after failure. One reason for this is the Bible’s jealous defense of God’s glory—you won’t find a single character in the Old or New Testament who can compete with his infinite glory and utter perfection. That’s why the Bible includes the biggest failures of leaders like David and Abraham, and of God’s people as a whole, to keep our focus on God’s grandeur and to disillusion us of human grandeur.

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Here in Nehemiah 5 we see a similar motif. After the past few weeks of our study, one would expect Nehemiah to have pep talked the poor disheveled Jerusalemites into a new heroic community working on the wall, defending their city against all odds, and sacrificially taking care of each other. And to an extent this is true; by chapter 5 they’ve accomplished far more than had been done in the 140 years since the fall of Jerusalem. But in this passage we come upon a flaw in this rejuvenated community, a rift beginning to form, and old patterns of injustice being revisited.

Many of the resettlers returned to Judea with meager means and then spent what they had to get their houses, fields, and communities back into order. Famine (5:3) and taxes owed to the King of Persia (5:4) made matters worse, forcing the poorer members of the community to borrow money from the wealthy, to sell their land, and to even hire their children out as indentured servants.

As an aside, when you read “slaves” in 5:5, keep in mind that this was the kind of slavery that ended after a set debt was paid, which was a categorically different practice than the race-based slavery we’re familiar with in the American South. Even so, the passage does seem to hint at mistreatment of these Jewish debt slaves, and Nehemiah brings out the irony in 5:8 of Israelites being freed from foreign captors only to find another kind of captivity in their homeland.

All of this led to a great outcry among the people, and rightly so. The Mosaic law explicitly commanded care for the poor, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”(Deut. 15:11) Furthermore, in the time just before the exile, the prophets pointed out how God’s people were refusing to care for the poor, adding this disobedience to the long list of reasons for the impending exile (Isaiah 3:14-15, Amos 2:6-7, Jeremiah 5:28, Haggai 1:4, etc.). Surely this was the scariest dimension of the conflict to Nehemiah: not only were the resettlers neglecting the vulnerable among them, who were being crushed under debts that could be easily absorbed by wealthier Israelites, but they were also imitating the same sort of disobedient stubbornness that got Israel exiled generations prior.

Interestingly, there’s a chance Nehemiah was implicated in these predatory practices too. Notice what he says in 5:10, “Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest.” It seems as though Nehemiah was also lending food and money at interest along with the rest of the elite, and his willingness both to confront his peers and to repent of the practice himself shows the depths of his convictions.

May the same be said of us—may we, when confronted with injustice, be as willing to address the matter. This is one of the big hopes of Abound, and the primary reason Vintage Church is trying to plant 20 non-profits over the next 20 years, to put our hands to the work of doing justice in our city. Lord willing we, as a church, will be able to look back on those 20 years and, while injustice won’t be totally solved in our communities, we’ll be able to say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight.”(2 Tim. 4:7)

And may we also, when confronted with injustice, repent of our own contributions and listen just as intently to God’s heart for those in need. This is another reason the Bible is honest about human flaws, because they reveal the depth of our shared need for God. By reading about these sorts of failures and offenses we get a glimpse behind the curtain, where we can see that even the most impressively godly people, the Nehemiahs and Solomons and Moseses of the world, were broken and in desperate need of God’s mercy. And in hearing God speak the truth of these individuals, perhaps we’ll be ready to hear him speak the truth about us, that we too are in desperate need of the provisions of his kindness in our lives.

Then we could also say with Paul, “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”(1 Tim. 1:16) This too is part of the work of seeking justice in our communities, to recognize the depths of our need before God in order to disillusion us of our own self-sufficiency, so that we can open wide our hands to the men, women, children, and families in our communities that are crushed under need and so that all honor and glory would be to God alone.

Questions for Discussion

• Would someone read Nehemiah 5:1-13 for us?

• What’s the problem in this passage?

• Why do you think Nehemiah used the word “brother” in verse 7?

• How was this injustice affecting the people of Jerusalem, both in separate groups and as a whole?

• Why do you think this injustice was offensive to God?

• What can this tell us about God’s priorities for his people?

• What do you think it looks like for our church community to live out of those same priorities?

• What do you think is the next step for you personally in pursuing justice?

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