The Threat Within
The church of God has always had to deal with threats from two directions. The first is the obvious threat from without, from the enemies of God and the gospel. But the other threat comes from sin within the camp, from internal dissension, and from poor leadership. Nehemiah here sets us a wonderful example.
And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews . . . (Nehemiah 5:1-19).
No sooner was the external threat dealt with that uproar began among the Jews and their wives (v. 1). There were three reasons for this: the first was too many people and not enough food (v. 2), the second was debt slavery because of the famine (v. 3), and the third was debt slavery because of the tax burden (v. 4). The end result was bondage (v. 5). Nehemiah’s response to this was one of godly anger (v. 6). Nehemiah then rebuked the ruling class and called for a popular assembly against them (v. 7). Then in his public rebuke, he said that we have brought the Jews back here for freedom. Are you then going to sell and buy them (v. 8)? They had nothing to say, and Nehemiah then asked what kind of testimony this was (v. 9). Nehemiah did not take advantage, so why should they (v. 10)? Restore what you have taken (v. 11). They said they would, and so Nehemiah called the priests and exacted an oath (v. 12). Nehemiah then acted out an imprecatory curse for any who did not keep his word, and the result was joy (v. 13). The king had appointed Nehemiah as the governor over the course of twelve years, but Nehemiah did not use his stipend (v. 14). Because of the fear of God, Nehemiah behaved differently in this than did the previous governors (v. 15). Neither did he abuse his position as leader of work on the wall (v. 16). Despite having a large household, Nehemiah (because of the financial bondage) still did not take a draw on the taxpayer’s money (vv. 17-18). For all this, he asked God to think upon him for good (v. 19).
A Double Danger:
Not only does the flock face danger from the surrounding wolves, it turns out that the simple sheep face danger from the clever sheep. Earlier in the series, we addressed the fact that nobles are not always noble. Despite their common adversary outside the walls, this did not prevent the nobles and rulers (v. 7) from taking advantage of their opportunities, which also involved taking advantage of their people. First, times were hard (v. 2). But in hard times there are always people present with a hard edge and a hard eye. They know how to profit in lean times. One of the ways to do this is by mortgaging the people’s means of making a living, and running them into the ground.
Usury (charging interest to the poor under these circumstances) was prohibited in the law of Moses. Charging interest to someone who has borrowed money from you so that they can buy groceries is wicked (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-37; Prov. 28:8; Ps. 15:5). But usury is not an action that is inherently wicked, as can be seen from the fact that Israelites were allowed to charge interest in loans to aliens (Dt. 23:20). It would make no sense to see interest as inherently wicked the same way adultery is. Adultery is prohibited simply. Charging interest is prohibited under these circumstances, not under those circumstances. What we are looking at here in Nehemiah is the use of interest to enslave fellow Israelites, those who had just been freed by God (v. 8).
Notice also that many of these people were close to the waterline because of oppressive taxation (v. 4). Taking one thing with another, poverty loans to a fellow believer ought to be gifts, or interest-free loans. Loaning money to a poverty-striken unbeliever (with interest) is permissible, for reasons that should become a blessing to him. The law of love should govern. And in our modern day, these laws do not apply to fully-collateralized loans or business investment opportunities. There is a difference between using high-interest rates to take a poor man’s vineyard from him, and using low-interest capital to obtain a vineyard for him. But even here, we must be careful.
When Nehemiah heard what had been done to the common people by the nobles, it says that he was very angry (v. 6). It is striking that Nehemiah’s response to the oppression of the people was the same as Sanballat’s response to the liberation of the people (4:7). What makes you angry? Injustice? Or justice? This anger led to a just tax revolt. Nehemiah called a great assembly (v. 7), and using the moral high ground he had, he let fly. The nobles were ashamed of themselves, and agreed to economic reforms, and took an oath to that effect (v. 12). Nehemiah argued from the redemption of the people (v. 8), and from the poor testimony this was before the heathen (v. 9). His third argument was his imprecation (v. 13), and his fourth was his own example (vv. 14-19), which we will address separately.
A Fine Line:
On the one hand, Jesus teaches us that we are not to let the right hand know what the left is doing (Matt. 6:3). We are not to blow a trumpet before us when we are about to donate something (Matt. 6:2). There is a way of behaving generously that ensures we already have our reward. We should seek to give in secret (Matt. 6:4).
But the Bible teaches us that those in leadership do not always have this luxury (although it is a very great blessing to have that luxury). When those in leadershp abuse their position, as the nobles here had done, it is important for those who want to lead in a godly way to be visible in their open-handedness (Matt. 5:16). This is because many have seen in the ministry of God an opportunity for plunder (2 Cor. 2:17), and godly elders must not be that way (1 Tim. 3:3). The apostle Paul is able to make an open appeal about his way of life, and the men he is talking to know the state of his finances (Acts 20:33). He is able to tell the Philippians that he is not seeking a gift from them selfishly, and they know the truth of his statement that he knew how to rejoice in lean times (Phil. 4:10-11).
This principle is so important that someone who has a right to something by law will, if he is wise, forego that right for the sake of his ability to lead. Nehemiah does that here (vv. 14-19). This is good leadership—whatever covenant you are under. Paul takes the same stand. “Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel. But I have used none of these things . . .” (1 Cor. 9:13-15). St. Paul would rather die than give up this point.
A simplistic mentality slips into an “us/them” approach instead of thinking of the biblical line between righteous and unrighteous. In our situation, it would be easy to wave off the “intoleristas” and forget the fact that it is very easy for some of us to wrong others of us. Conflict within the walls threatens the wall-building as much as the armies and enemies outside. And the devil has not changed his tactics.