“I said, ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies?’” (v. 9).
Despite foreign opposition to the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem, Nehemiah and the postexilic Jewish community proceeded with the work (Neh. 1–4). However, not everything was well in Judah even though the construction project was moving forward. As we learn in today’s passage, significant social problems threatened the ongoing existence of the nation.
Nehemiah 5:1–5 reports that while the rebuilding continued, a large number of Jews cried out against some of the others in the covenant community. Hunger was leading to extreme poverty and creating stresses that threatened to tear the remnant apart. A famine created a lack of food, and people were having to mortgage their lands just to survive. As payments were coming due, the people were having to sell their children into slavery. Now, it is true that the law of God permits holding collateral against a loan and even makes a provision for paying off debts via indentured servitude (Ex. 21:1–11; Deut. 24:10–13). Yet, such laws presume ordinary times when it would be possible for people to pay their debts and eventually redeem themselves from servitude. In fact, Israelite land was never to leave a family in perpetuity (Lev. 25:23–34). But these were not ordinary times. Things were so bad in the postexilic community that people were entering a cycle of poverty that they would never be able to break because they had surrendered their income-producing properties. Moreover, the law also ordered the Jews to not take advantage of a poor citizen of Israel by charging him interest when he was in dire straits, and to treat those fellow Jews who served them in order to pay off debts as hired hands, not as slaves. (vv. 35–43). Evidently, the Jews in Nehemiah’s day were breaking those laws as well (Neh. 5:10). In sum, many wealthy Jews misused the law of God, with the result that many poor Jews were on the verge of entering into perpetual slavery. So, Nehemiah got the people who misused the law to return land to the poor and to stop exacting interest (vv. 6–13).
Today’s passage also reveals that Nehemiah sacrificed what was rightly due him for the sake of the people. To relieve the burden on the Jews, he did not take the taxpayer-funded governor’s salary. He also provided for his servants’ needs himself (vv. 14–19). The letter of the law did not require Nehemiah to do this, but his actions were in keeping with the law’s intent, which was to never add burdens to the people.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
God’s law is given to redeemed people as a delight (Ps. 119:97). When people use the law to put burdens on us that cannot be fulfilled, the law is being used improperly. Nehemiah worked to apply the law properly and ease the burden on the poor, as the law was intended to do. This took great wisdom, and we will be able to apply the law properly only if we seek God’s wisdom and study the law carefully for its intent and right application.