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Outside foes may rage, but they cannot really harm the people of God if there be love and harmony within. “Only,” writes the apostle, “let your conversation (the conduct) be as it becometh the gospel of Christ; that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; and in nothing terrified by your adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God”(Philippians 1:27-28). The contrary is involved in the warning given by James: “Where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work” (James 3:16). And this Paul also set before the Galatians, when he wrote: “If ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Galatians 5:15). The sheep of the Lord’s flock need to keep close to the Shepherd and to one another if they would be guarded from the prowling wolves who ever seek their destruction. But how sad, and what shame it is when they fall to devouring one another, thus giving place to the devil. Of this we are warned in the happenings narrated for our instruction in this chapter.
The opening verses of this fifth chapter remind us of the beginning of the 6th of Acts: “And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews. For there were that said, We, our sons and our daughters, are many, and we must procure corn for them that we may eat, and live. Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards and houses, that we might buy corn in the dearth. There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards. Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought into bondage already; neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards” (vers. 1-5).
What a pitiable state of affairs is portrayed here by the simple narrative of the complaints of the people against their own brethren! The worst of it all was, that the accusations were true; and the demands of the usurers were so far as business principles are concerned, such as all nations recognize as legitimate. But God’s people were not to be guided by such principles. From the beginning He had told them not to exact usury of their brethren, but rather to make provision for the poor, as giving unto Him. They had all been in poverty once, and He had enriched them according to the grace of His heart, not according to their deserts. Alas, how soon had they forgotten this when it came to dealing with one another.
And what sorrows have come upon the children of God in all dispensations because of this very thing! The full manifestation of grace in the present age has not hindered the same mercenary spirit often appearing among those who owe all to the mercy of God. We have already referred to Acts 6:0; and the conditions prevailing in the assembly at Corinth, long after, were the fruit of a similar state. Brother dragged brother to law, and that before the unjust-men who, whatever their reputation in the world, were not suited to deal with things in the Church. How incongruous are such conditions with the grace of Christianity!
Nor is it only in connection with temporal things that such a spirit has been manifested, but, alas, in fancied zeal for the holy things of God how often has the same evil principle of exaction prevailed. Questions have arisen, often of the most perplexing character, concerning which an almost instantaneous judgment has been demanded; and if tried souls and weak gatherings have not been able to bow to the ipse dixit of certain carnal leaders, excision or excommunication have been resorted to, in defiance of the word of God and the Spirit of Christ. What is all this but the same thing prevailing in spiritual matters which wrought so much havoc in these temporal affairs?
Oh for more men who, instead of tacitly acquiescing in these unholy conditions, are stirred to a righteous anger by such un-Christlike ways! Nehemiah’s righteous soul was moved to indignation, and with the assurance that came from knowing he sided with God, he rebuked the nobles and the rulers for thus exacting usury of their brethren. The matter was brought up for open consideration in a “great assembly,” and the guilt of the leaders charged home upon their consciences before all the people. “We,” he says, “after our ability, have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us?” They were speechless; what answer could they make?
Apply it to conditions such as I have referred to above. Think of the toil, and labor that have been expended by devoted servants of Christ to bring lost sinners to His feet. Think of the ministry exercised afterwards to lead on these young converts and establish them in the truth. Think of the pastoral care exercised by earnest, faithful men who knew them as individual members of the flock of Christ-not as a mass without heart or conscience-and then think of the spirit of exaction that can press some test-question on such saints, and ruthlessly cut off and cast out souls for whose blessing others have labored so persistently-and this by men who profess to act for God and to seek His glory!
Oh, brethren, let us listen to the words of Nehemiah and bow our head in the dust if we have been parties to such unholy ways. “It is not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the heathen our enemies? I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury. Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil that ye exact of them” (vers. 9-11).
These are suited words for the present solemn time when God has been exercising many as to the very things of which we have been speaking. It is not a time to demand the uttermost farthing of one another, but rather to heed the word, “I pray you, let us leave off this usury.” If we have been guilty of robbing any of our brethren of their blood-bought privileges, let us hasten to restore what we can ere the Lord arise as their champion and we be put to shame. For He has said, “Hear the word of the Lord, ye that tremble at His word; Your brethren that hated you, that cast you out for My name’s sake, said, Let the Lord be glorified; but He shall appear to your joy, and they shall be ashamed” (Isaiah 66:5). Cutting and comforting words are these, mingled by the Lord Himself. Oh, for a heart to take heed to them ere it be forever too late!
On the part of the rulers in Judah there was an instant response when the words of Nehemiah had moved them to repentance. “Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest” (ver. 12). And this was sealed with an oath, and further confirmed by a graphic action on the part of the Tirshatha. He shook his lap and said, “So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labor, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, and emptied.” And this was attested by the solemn “Amen!” of the congregation, who praised the Lord for the mercy shown. It was the same spirit that led the apostle Paul, long afterwards to write: “I would they were even cut off that trouble you!”
In the closing verses, Nehemiah contrasts his own behaviour with that which he had so severely censured. One is again reminded of Paul. It was an occasion where he was compelled to “speak as a fool” that he might close the mouths of any gainsayers. He relates how that from the day of his appointment as governor he had never availed himself of the perquisites of his office that he might not be burdensome to the people whose blessing he sought.
Former governors had felt free to do this, but the fear of God restrained him from doing the same. Instead, he had kept open house for a hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers, besides strangers from the surrounding villages. He was one who had learned that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” and he acted accordingly.
The people might forget all this-alas, too often do; but he cries, “Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people” (ver. 19). This may seem to savor of self-complacency, but who of us would dare judge so devoted a servant? And again we need to remind ourselves that the dispensation of grace had not yet dawned. Law was still in the ascendant, and the spirit shown by Nehemiah is so beyond his age that we can only give thanks for what God had wrought in the soul of His dear servant, while we pray for wisdom and grace to serve His people in our own generation unselfishly, and in the Spirit of Christ, leaving all question of reward to be settled at His judgment-seat.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Nehemiah 5". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/