Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Dec 20 2019 - Nehemiah 5 – Help for the poor

The Jews who had returned to the area around Jerusalem were struggling to re-establish themselves on land that had been neglected or that was now owned by others. They also faced a harsh burden of taxation from the Persian Empire and its officials. Most of the Jews were struggling with poverty while a few had used these difficulties as a means of making themselves rich. Moreover, the building work had taken many of the men from their work on the fields. This was the last straw for many families, particularly the women. They came to Nehemiah to protest against their fellow Jews who were exploiting, impoverishing and enslaving them (vv1,5). The poor were having to borrow money and to part with the deeds to their properties as security to pay taxes and buy grain (vv.2-4)

Nehemiah was filled with anger at what is going on. His anger is not expressed in a sudden outburst of wrath but in careful consideration of what can be done to address the situation. He begins by confronting those who are exploiting their fellow countrymen (v.7), before calling a public meeting at which he declares that what is going on is undermining the work of rebuilding the kingdom and destroying the witness of God's people to the surrounding nations (vv. 8-9).

Nehemiah and his officials have also been lending money to those in need (though not an exorbitant interest like the others). All of this, says Nehemiah, must now stop – the people must be given back their lands and any money that has been extorted from them must be returned. It is, in effect, to be a time of Jubilee (vv. 10-11, cf. Leviticus 25). Amazingly, the people agreed – perhaps because of Nehemiah's example. Their promise to return land and money was sealed with an oath (v. 12). In a prophetic act Nehemiah shakes out his robe, indicating that those who exploit their brothers have no place among the people of God.

Nehemiah is seeking not just to rebuild walls but to rebuild the life of a covenant people. Their behaviour had become dangerously like that which caused God to send them into exile in the first place (see Ezekiel 22:2, 12). The way in which they treated one another was foundational to building God's kingdom and to their calling to be a light to the nations.

Do you get angry at the social injustice you see around you and in the world? How might this be converted into constructive action that begins to put things right? Are we more concerned with acquiring ever more for ourselves than with using what we have for the good of others?

Building the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ is not about pursuing our own favoured projects but about building good relationships with our fellow believers. Our witness to the world depends upon it. How could we build stronger and more supportive relationships with one another?

Nehemiah had returned to Jerusalem with the authority of governor (v.14).  It was the custom of governors and officials to live well by imposing taxes on the people. Those who preceded Nehemiah had behaved that way (vv. 14b-15a, compare Matthew 20:25). But Nehemiah (who must have had considerable personal resources), provided for others rather than living off them (vv. 17-18). He and his subordinates also worked alongside others on the wall. Out of reverence for God (v.15b) Nehemiah adopted a servant model of leadership. He acts as an example to those whom he governs and looks to God and not to the people for his reward (v.19).

Jesus provides us with the ultimate example of servant leadership. He calls us to follow him.

Living God, we give you thanks for the life and example of the Lord Jesus. But we thank you even more for his atoning death through which our sins are forgiven. Thank you for his risen life and for your Spirit who pours that life into our lives. By the power of your Spirit help us to give ourselves to your service and to the care of one another and so bear witness to the power of our God and the beautiful character of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Peter Misselbrook