Week 5 – Nehemiah 5:1-13
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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)
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
• 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?