A Famine of Righteousness
Although the book of Nehemiah is ostensibly historical, it is also eminently practical. Nehemiah has assessed problems, planned responses, faced opposition and handled discouragement. At each point, he has demonstrated absolute faithfulness to the Word of God. Chapter 5 introduces another practical lesson: financial responsibility.
Financial concerns seem to dominate the newspaper these days. The housing market is in a huge slump, major banks have failed, and even automotive lenders and credit card companies are far more hesitant to make loans than they were just a few months ago. Further, the financial picture of many individuals is not that much better. How many people across the United States have bought homes that they cannot afford, or loaded up a bunch of credit cards with debt they can never repay? There is no distinction anymore between good debt and bad debt. Good debt secures tangible necessities (houses and cars) or makes an investment (education and business). Nor is there an understanding that debt turns the borrower into a slave. Proverbs 22:7 says, The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.
The people of Nehemiah’s day had financial problems, too. Their problems were different than those we face today, but the underlying issue is the same. Both fail to recognize that Jesus Christ is Lord of our finances just as much as he is Lord over everything else.
Our text begins with the poorer Jews expressing their cries and complaints against their richer brethren. But what had the richer Jews done to them? It all goes back to one thing — a famine that probably started before the Nehemiah began rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem but became especially severe during the reconstruction. The work on the wall was done during the summer, which meant that those who helped were not able to care for their crops.
This seems to be the most likely explanation for the immediate shortage of food. Some commentators try to connect the famine to some extremely heavy rainfalls that are mentioned in Ezra and Haggai, but those stormy seasons were probably too early to be a problem here. Note that our text says nothing about bad weather, locusts or anything else that might account for the crop failure.
If the famine was at least partly the result of rebuilding the wall, then that only aggravates the complaint of the poorer Jews. It’s bad enough that people take advantage of one another at any time, but what made the rich Jews think they could abuse their poor brothers when they were doing the Lord’s work? These men had volunteered to help rebuild the wall knowing that their crops might suffer as a result.
Now, think about what’s going on here. We really need to put the famine in perspective to get the whole picture. The Jews had spent the last few weeks working on the wall. They told Nehemiah in the previous chapter that they were exhausted — partly because the work itself was extremely demanding and partly because of the added stress of Sanballat threatening to destroy them. But they continued to work because the rebuilding of the wall meant that God was looking favorably upon his people once again. It is no exaggeration to say that it painted a picture of a bright future and looked forward to the coming of the Messiah himself. So, it gave the people hope — more hope than they had had in decades! But the famine and the way that the rich used it to oppress the poor was like a slap in the face. Having no food and being taken advantage of made them question whether there was any real value to their work. Was God leading them through this toward something new and better? Or was he only playing a cruel trick on them to make them a laughingstock among the nations? Just what was his purpose?
Sometimes when we face trials we must be like Job. When there’s nothing we can do, we have to wait and see what God has for us. Other times we can do something. Here the Jews took their complaints to Nehemiah. Although there wasn’t much he could do about the famine, as governor he could deal with the problems that the famine had caused. Being a faithful governor, he heard the cries of his people.
The Jews’ first complaint was that there was no food. Verse 2 says, For there were that said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live. These people needed food for their families, but no one listened to their pleas for help. But note what they were really saying.
To begin with, they blamed the shortage of food on the overpopulation of Jerusalem and surrounding communities. They said, We … are many. They didn’t have enough food, they reasoned, because there were too many mouths to feed. This concern was ridiculous. God commanded Adam and Eve in the very beginning to fill the earth with their children, and he told Abraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore. The fact that Jerusalem was populated was a manifestation of God’s blessing, not his curse. Yet, how true it is that we often turn blessing into cursing in our minds! Isn’t this what we do when we think that two worship services each week is too much? God blesses us with the opportunity to gather together twice to feast upon his Word and fellowship with his people, but the only thing we can think of is what attending a second services means we can’t do. We can’t watch a ball game, go skiing or visit Aunt Mary.
A more justified concern was that the rich Jews had plenty of food, but they were refusing to make it available at a reasonable cost to those who had sacrificed so much for the rebuilding of the wall, which they all benefited from. The poor brothers had given up their own crops to make sure that the wall was rebuilt. Their richer brothers should have appreciated their sacrifice.
The second complaint of the Jews was that some of them had to mortgage their property in order to buy food. This means that one of two things was happening, or perhaps both. Either the property values were extremely deflated or the cost of food had skyrocketed. This scenario is not impossible. After World War I, the German economy was in such a sorry state that it literally took a wheelbarrow load of cash just to buy one loaf of bread. But, again, the complaint of the Jews goes a little deeper. In an agricultural society, mortgaging one’s property not only put his property at risk but also threatened his ability to provide for his family, since his livelihood was tied to his use of the land. If he were to lose his land, there would be little chance that he could ever repay his debts. Even if the famine were to improve, the fact that he lost his property would mean that he could not help himself.
The third complaint is that the king’s taxes still had to be paid. Some of the Jews had to borrow money to satisfy their tax burden, but this only compounded their problem because it made it even less likely that they would be able to buy food or reclaim their property. A few of them, knowing that they could not repay their loans otherwise, even sold their children into slavery (v. 5) with no hope of ever being able to buy them back.
With morale at its lowest perhaps since Nebuchadnezzar first razed Jerusalem a century and half earlier and sin abounding all around him, Nehemiah had to do something. When David saw the wickedness that existed in his kingdom, he wept. Psalm 119:136 says, Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law. Ezra likewise mourned the intermarriage of God’s people with unbelievers. Upon hearing that this had become a problem, he tore his clothes, plucked the hair out of his head and beard, and sat down in bewilderment (Ezra 9:3). But Jesus, seeing the profiteering of those who sold sacrificial animals in the temple courtyard, made a whip of small cords and drove the money-changers out of the temple, while overturning their tables (John 2:15). Our reaction to sin may vary in different circumstances depending on a number of factors, but the fact that God hates sin should always be clear in our actions.
Nehemiah’s response was more like Jesus’ than David’s or Ezra’s. He responded with righteous indignation. Anger is wrong when it’s irrational or driven by hatred or revenge, but anger that shows a zeal for the law of God is good and holy. Jesus demonstrated this when he drove out the money-changers. Remember also how Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, executed God’s wrath against the Moabite prostitutes and was consequently blessed with an everlasting priesthood, i.e., a priesthood that typified the priesthood of Christ (Num. 25:6–13)? We find the same kind of holy anger in Nehemiah. The fact that the richer Jews were taking advantage of the Lord’s harsh providence to increase their own wealth at the expense of their poorer brethren not only showed a lack of compassion, but was a severe injustice. Sadly, the people who were the most guilty (the nobles and rulers) were the least compassionate of all. Nehemiah could not allow this to go unchallenged.
So, after serious reflection (v. 7 literally says, “my heart advised me”), he rebuked the nobles and rulers. The specific crime that he charged them with was usury. Leviticus 25:37 says, Thou shalt not give him [i.e., the poor] thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase (cf. Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:35–38 and Deut. 23:19–20). Thus, the Jews were not allowed to charge interest to other Jews who had fallen upon hard times and were in need of ordinary necessities, nor were they permitted to charge a profit when selling them food.
In fact, the law went even further to protect the poor from such abuse. It forbad a creditor, for example, from accepting a millstone as collateral on a loan (Deut. 24:6). Without his millstone, a miller cannot work and therefore cannot repay the debt. Taking his millstone would be cruel. Not could a creditor take possession of any asset that he wanted (Deut. 24:10–11). If he took a man’s cloak as pledge, he wasn’t allowed to keep it overnight, since that would put the man’s life in jeopardy when the nighttime temperatures fell (Exod. 22:26–27; Deut. 24:12–13). The point is that all of these regulations emphasize the rich have an obligation to show generosity to those who are truly poor, not seizing their persons or property to replace lost money. These are all applications of the sixth commandment. On the other hand, the poor were not permitted to take advantage of the kindness of their richer brethren. The eighth commandment protected their interests.
After rebuking the leaders, Nehemiah called all the Jews together in a great assembly (v. 7). Yes, the rich had taken advantage of the poor, but the poor were not without fault of their own. Instead of seeking the counsel of Ezra or Nehemiah, they sold their sons and daughters into slavery. Their behavior was especially offensive, as Nehemiah points out in verse 8, because they had had a program of buying back their relatives who had been sold as slaves to the heathen. And yet, when their bellies growled with a little huger, they turned around and sold their own children.
The law of God provided several options for men and their families that fell on dire straits. First, they could sell the crop value of their land until the next year of Jubilee, at which time it would revert back to their family (Lev. 25:8–17). Second, they could sell themselves and their families into the service of another Jew for a period of six years. Although this debt-slavery was a bondage of sorts, it was really more a compassionate servitude than slavery. These Jewish servants would be paid twice the rate of non-Israelites, which, of course, would allow them to pay off their debts and still provide for their families. At the end of six years, they had the option of leaving with enough capital to make a go of it or becoming permanent servants (Deut. 15:12–18).
The problem in Nehemiah is the Jews did not make use of either of these stipulations. The law was meant to protect their property, but their mortgaging of it put it at risk of permanent loss. Nor was the fact that they sold their children acceptable. First, the law did not allow families to be subdivided by the sale of underage children, which seems to be what we have in our text. And second, the Jews, whether young or old, were to be regarded not as slaves, but as hired servants. But in our text we read that they were in bondage.
The Fear of God
At this point Nehemiah reminded the Jews how they should have responded to God’s providences, viz., they should have turned to him with godly fear. He said, It is not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies? (v. 9). If we truly fear the Lord, we will want not to offend him whether things are going well for us or not. The thought of mistreating our brothers should never even enter our minds.
This means that the mortgaging of their property and the selling of their children to the heathen not only showed a lack of faith, but brought shame to the Lord. It gave the heathen an opportunity to criticize and despise God. Although the Lord had delivered his people from the slavery of Egypt, they seem to have regarded slavery, and consequently their deliverance, as but a light thing.
We have a tendency to do the same thing. Jesus Christ died for all of our sins, even the ones we don’t remember or never considered to be sins. He endured the judgment of God for our little white lies. He agonized and writhed in anguish for the hatred that we harbor in our hearts. He suffered separation from his Father’s love to atone for our lust of this world’s treasures and for the meanness that we show to one another. Yet, when we are tempted to lie or hate or covet, how often do we say to ourselves, “It’s not that big of a deal”? Even as Christians, we sometimes are like the dog that returns to his own vomit (Prov. 26:11; II Pet. 2:22).
One of the signs of great leadership is accepting fault. Nehemiah does this in verse 10. He confessed to having participated in the practice of usury. Our experience with political leaders is that they tend not to admit fault. Unlike Harry S. Truman, who kept the motto “The Buck Stops Here” on his desk in the oval office, most men deny that the buck ever came anywhere near them. Not so with Nehemiah. In the first chapter he prayed not only for God to forgive the sins of the nation, but specifically that God would forgive the sins of his fathers and himself. Here he admitted to being as much at fault as anyone else.
Does this mean that Nehemiah had himself oppressed the poor for his own financial gain? No, not necessarily. When he confessed his sin in chapter 1, he couldn’t have meant that his personal sins had resulted in the fall of Jerusalem. He wasn’t even born until several decades after the city was destroyed. But he was guilty, along with all the other Jews, of failing to do anything about to fix the situation. Here his crime is, again, one of omission. He had to have known that the famine was causing problems, but he had not investigated to find out what was happening or what should be done about it. By not doing anything, he had made himself complicit in the crimes of his day.
In any case, Nehemiah’s solution was simple. In verse 11, he instructed those who had unjustly enriched themselves to return all property, money and goods that they had taken, and they were to return these things with interest.
The interest here is identified as the hundredth part of the corn, the wine and the oil. This, of course, is 1 percent. Today, with new mortgages slightly above 6 percent and credit cards over 15 percent, a 1-percent loan sounds like a pretty good deal. In fact, we might wonder how it could even be called usury, which we often associate with exorbitant interest. But we have to keep four things in mind here. First, the word usury (מַשָּׁא) in the Old Testament simply means interest. It did not have the connotation, as our English word does, of excessive interest. So, the amount of interest is not really the issue. Second, 1 percent was probably not a yearly rate but a monthly rate. If so, the annual compound rate would be closer to 12.7 percent, which would have been considered excessive. To be sure, it was not as high as the rate commonly charged in Persian, which was usually between 20 and 40 percent and sometimes went as high as 75 percent. But it was still high. Third, God’s law prohibited the Jews from lending money at any interest to the poor. This is the main issue here. The Jews were allowed to loan money at interest to foreigners. They could loan money at interest to fellow Jews, as long as those who borrowed the money had a genuine ability to repay it. But they were not allowed to take advantage of adverse providences to destroy the poor. And fourth, those who loaned the money were missing the point of the law altogether. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who paid tithe on insignificant amounts of common spices but neglected the weightier matters of the law — things like judgment, mercy and faith (Matt. 23:23), they had forgotten that law teaches mercy.
Upon hearing Nehemiah, the richer brothers promised to do the right thing. But knowing that a man’s words are often cheap, he also required them to take an oath to follow through with their pledge. He even summoned the priests to witness their oaths.
After all of this was done, Nehemiah shook out his garment to show how God will shake out and empty anyone who does not fulfill his word. In the New Testament, Jesus told his disciples to shake the dust of their feet against Jewish towns that refused their ministry (Matt. 10:14). Paul literally followed this practice when the Jews of Antioch and Corinth rejected his preaching (Acts 13:51; 18:6). The Lord does not play with vow-breakers.
Finally, the people said Amen and praised the Lord. They attested to the sincerity of their agreement by actually doing what they had promised. What a wonderful thing it is when God’s people not only agree to do what’s right but actually do it! What a blessing when they see for themselves the obligation of embracing God’s goodness! May it ever be so among us!
On a strictly economic level, the Amish tend to live by the kinds of precepts that Nehemiah applied in his day. In 1988 a severe drought caused tremendous hardship for farmers throughout Ohio and Indiana. Two and a half months of 100 degrees and no rain in areas that do not use irrigation systems destroyed thousands of acres of crops. But the Amish not only survived, but did so without any assistance.
There were several reasons for this. For one thing, they disapprove of debt and therefore do not put their property at risk. They don’t even borrow the money for seed each year because they cannot predict what the harvest will be. They make sure they have enough food each year by following Joseph’s example and setting aside a little of each bountiful year’s harvest for lean years. When one family falls on hard times, the rest of the community comes together to help him. And they also have a wide variety of interests. If their crops fail, they can still work as carpenters or smiths, wheelwrights or handymen to provide for their own.
Certainly, the present text reminds us of the comprehensiveness of our duty to God. Christ is Lord of our whole life. We must therefore be obedient to him in all things, including finances. Compassion and mercy should characterize how we walk with suffering brothers and sisters in Christ.
Remember, after all, that Christ made himself poor to make you rich in his grace. He made himself of no reputation, took the form of a servant and humbled himself to the point of death, so that you might inherit the unimaginable wealth of heavenly joy and glory. Whatever you give up in this life for the kingdom of God will be more than adequately repaid in the next life. Paul wrote, Let his mind be in you (Phil. 2:5).
Brethren, use what Christ has given you to honor him and to bless those in the household of faith. Amen.