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THE GREED OF RULERS REBUKED
At a time when many were laboring unselfishly for the Lord, it is distressing to hear that others, and in fact those who were nobles and rulers, were guilty of oppressing the poor. This was brought to Nehemiah's attention by a great outcry of the people and their wives against their Jewish brethren (v. 1). There were many who had been reduced to poverty to the point of hunger for food (v. 2). Some also had mortgaged their lands and vineyards and houses in order to buy grain (v. 3). Others had borrowed money to pay tax on their lands and vineyards. It is evident too that the mortgages and borrowed money were subject to interest. This was plain disobedience to the law of God, which said, "If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him: you shall not charge him interest" (Exodus 22:25).
If the Jews under law were forbidden to charge interest in lending to another poor Israelite, now that we are under grace, should we ignore such instruction? Rather, under grace we might go much further, by giving instead of lending.
These oppressed people made a perfectly right appeal, "Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children; and indeed we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been brought into slavery. It is not in our power to redeem them, for other men have our lands and our vineyards" (v. 5). How dreadfully pathetic a situation! The rich were taking advantage of the poverty of others, to make them sink deeper into poverty. Does this ever occur in Christian civilization? Sadly, yes! There are those who so set their minds on wealth that they do not hesitate to make others suffer. The very suggestion of greed (accompanied by deceit) was solemnly judged at the beginning of the dispensation of grace, when Ananias and Saphira were put to death by God for this sin (Acts 5:1-10), even though this was not the sin of oppressing others. Let us judge our selfish motives in the light of the cross of Christ, where He has in total unselfishness given Himself for us!
Nehemiah was righteously very angry in hearing this cry of oppression (v. 6), but there was no one whose help he could enlist in combating the evil because the nobles and rulers themselves were the offenders. He therefore, in the energy of personal faith in the Lord, firmly rebuked the nobles and rulers, telling them they were guilty of exacting interest from their own brethren. He called a great assembly, to have these matters publicly faced (v. 7).
In speaking to the whole gathering Nehemiah reminded them that, according to the ability God had granted them, they had redeemed their Jewish brethren out of bondage to the nations. This involved proper care and grace toward their brethren. "Now indeed," he demanded, "will you even sell your brethren? Or should they be sold to us?" Should the rich in Israel now be content to see those sold back into slavery whom they had before been gracious enough to redeem from slavery?
These words of Nehemiah may remind us of Paul's words publicly to Peter when Peter and other leaders had shown partiality to Jewish believers in contrast to Gentile believers (Galatians 2:11-16). Paul did not first seek someone else to agree with him, but spoke directly to Peter before all, for he was a true prophet, speaking on God's behalf. Just as Peter could not reply to Paul, so the nobles and rulers in Jerusalem had nothing to say in answer to Nehemiah's faithful words (v. 8).
There was another reason for them to consider that their actions were not good. Their enemies were watching them, and for them to see that the poor of Israel were oppressed by the rich would give cause for their reproach and ridicule (v. 9). Are we also not concerned about what the world around us sees in our testimony? Timothy was told not only to separate from a mixture of believers and unbelievers, but to "flee also youthful lusts" (2 Timothy 2:21-22), which surely includes the greed for monetary gain. Unbelievers will certainly be watching to see what our attitude is in this matter. Nehemiah added that he also and his servants were lending the people money, and though he certainly was not charging interest, he linked himself with all the money-lenders in urging, "Please, let us stop this usury!" (v. 10).
Not only did he urge them to cease charging interest, but to make this matter retroactive, that is, to restore immediately the vineyards, olive groves and houses and the 100th part of the money and grain, wine and oil that they had charged the people. What could the nobles and rulers do but respond as they did, "We will restore it, and will require nothing from them: we will do as you say" (v. 12). If they had not responded this way, they would be guilty of defying the law of God. But Nehemiah was not going to drop the matter there. He called the priests and in their presence required an oath from the nobles and rulers that they would do as they promised. Nehemiah knew that even a ruler could adroitly slip out of a promise if he is not held to it. Thus the priests were witnesses to this oath and authorized to see that it was kept.
Then Nehemiah shook out the fold of his garments and said, "So may God shake out each man from his house, and from his property, who does not perform this promise" (v. 13). At this, all the assembly responded, "Amen!" and praised the Lord. Then it is simply said, "The people did according to this promise." How long the process of restoring took we are not told, but the decisive action of Nehemiah was affective.
THE EXAMPLE OF NEHEMIAH
In contrast to the way the nobles and rulers had acted, these last verses of chapter 5 show the unselfish attitude of Nehemiah for the 12 years he had been appointed governor. We may think his words sound a little too much like pride of his own character, but we must remember that this is scripture: God required him to write as he did. Compare2 Corinthians 11:1-33; 2 Corinthians 11:1-33.
Nehemiah writes that for 12 years neither he nor his brothers accepted provisions that were generally given to governors, though the former governors had required from the people bread and wine and money. In fact, even the servants of the governors considered themselves entitled to the support of the people. But Nehemiah writes that he did not do this "because of the fear of God" (v. 15). This reminds us of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 9:14-15, "Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel. But I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me." This thorough unselfishness for Christ's sake is beautiful to witness.
Also neither Nehemiah or his servants bought any land by which to make a profit, though this would have been fully within their rights. They solely occupied themselves with the work of the Lord (v. 16). However, Nehemiah must have been a man of substantial means, for he provided food for 150 Jews and rulers as well as for visitors who came from the nations around them! (v. 17). Having been the king's cup bearer, his salary would have been large, of course, but to minister a household provision of one ox and six sheep every day for 12 years, plus fowl and abundance of wine, seems nothing short of amazing (v. 18). We might wonder, was the king continuing to pay Nehemiah his salary all this length of time?
He tells us that the reason he did not demand the provisions due to his governor's position was that the bondage was heavy on the Jews. He desired to ease this as he could. We must remember too that Nehemiah was still under law, when he wrote, "Remember me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people" (v. 19). Under grace Paul does not ask to be remembered, for God has remembered all believers in saving them for eternity, and we may have full confidence that He will not forget any work that has been done for Him. Therefore Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4:7-8, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that day, and not to me only but also to all who love His appearing."
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Nehemiah 5". Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/