Just when Nehemiah thought that he had defeated the plans of the enemies that surrounded the city of Jerusalem, we see signs of unrest within the Jewish community. The famine and exorbitant rates of taxation had left the lower strata of the Jewish community with nothing and they had to sell their sons and daughters as slaves to make ends meet. Those who were wealthy saw this as an opportunity, not to lift up the downtrodden amongst them but to take advantage of their current situation.
The pattern repeats itself again later in the final chapters of the book, where Nehemiah thinks he has won over the enemy, only to find that the enemy had already infiltrated their camps. Like the apostle Paul, Nehemiah had to deal with both external and internal forces, which tried to separate the people from God.
Outcry of the People
Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews.Nehemiah 5:1
While Nehemiah was busy focusing on the rebuilding activity, famines wreaked havoc in the lives of the people leaving them destitute, burdened by the relenting pressure to pay the king’s taxes as well. They had to mortgage their fields, vineyards and even their homes, while some had to sell their children to slavery just to put food on the table.
Sometimes we get too focused on the big picture that we forget about the little things that can mount up and cause big problems. Allowing internal bickering and unresolved quarrels to fester in our fellowships, can hamper with a church’s spiritual growth. The disciples understood this when similar injustice was being carried out in the early church (Acts 6).
Nehemiah was taken aback by the outcry of the people and his first reaction was anger against their oppressors. He called an emergency meeting with everyone present and tried to deal with this problem openly.
“What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?Nehemiah 5:9
Nehemiah reprimanded the nobles and officials who were guilty of the grave sin of overcharging their brethren. Nehemiah even cited his own faults, as he along with his brothers was also charging interest but demanded that everyone stop this practice immediately and give back the fields, vineyards and houses back to the people of Jerusalem.
Moved by Nehemiah’s speech and his knowledge of the mosaic law, the people agreed to abide by his rules and give back whatever they had taken.
Remember how Zacchaeus the Tax Collector in the new testament gave back all that he had taken from the people, when he found salvation in Christ. Jesus did not ask him or even nudge him to give back his wrongful earnings but when true change comes in our hearts, we do not wait for instructions from someone but rather the Spirit living in us takes charge of our ways.
Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised.Nehemiah 5:12
People assume that if one takes an oath in the presence of priests and reverends, their word would hold true forever. Wedding ceremonies and baptisms are based on this concept. Once, when one of our missionary was being given a car for his use by one of our sponsors, he called all the elders and priests to ensure that car giving ceremony is held in the presence of witnesses, so that the sponsor does not back out on his word later.
Such is the faith that people place on promises made in a church or in a large gathering. But we still see broken marriages and backsliding Christians. Till the heart is not transformed, no amount of external promises or people giving their word will hold water.
I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!”Nehemiah 5:13
Nehemiah made a symbolic gesture of shaking off the folds of his robe denoting that God will take back his blessings poured out on them in a similar way. In the ancient world, people carried their valuables in the folds of their clothes instead of pockets and bags. We see Paul use a similar gesture in Acts 18:6.
Nehemiah goes on to list out all that he has been doing for the betterment of the people of Jerusalem. How he entertained the royal guests out of his own pocket and did not touch the treasury allotted for this purpose. How he and his men did not acquire land in Jerusalem but simply devoted themselves to the work of rebuilding the walls.
Nehemiah reminded the people that unlike his predecessors, he did not burden his constituents with overbearing taxes and did not even demand the food allotted to the governor because he had a clear purpose in his mind.
Sometimes we start with good intentions saying that, “I will not take bribe ever”, but circumstances change people and they become more accommodative to the ways of this world. It’s good to see that Nehemiah and his brothers stood for what they believed in, but is it right for us to expect others to do the same?
Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people.Nehemiah 5:18-19
God said give without expecting and don’t let anyone know what you give but we all expect something in return for our generosities. Whether it be a simple note of thanks from the people we are helping or credit that we can later cash-in during our times of trouble, we all give to others expecting something in return from them or from God.
We need to understand the gravity of the greatest gift that has been given to us and no matter what we do we, will never be able to pay back for what Christ did in our lives. Let’s stop living as we are auditioning before God but rather give freely out of the genuine generosity of our hearts just like Christ without expecting anything in return.
If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount.Luke 6:34