This is God’s Word for us today. Let’s turn to Nehemiah 5. Nehemiah chapter 5. Whether you’re here or at home, God has a word we need to hear today.
Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818 on the eastern shore of Maryland. He taught himself to read, despite the intense opposition of his master, with the encouragement of his master’s wife. He escaped from slavery in 1838. He was 20 years old, and he began working at a wharf, unloading ships. He was married, had four kids, joined the abolitionist cause. He was an extremely gifted orator and writer and eventually became the publisher and editor of the North Star. Ten years after escaping slavery, on the tenth anniversary, he published an open letter to his former master, Thomas Auld. It was titled very simply, “To My Old Master.” This was 1848. And the letter leads the reader through a gut-wrenching, relational paradigm shift. And what do I mean by relational paradigm shift, this massive shift in how you view their relationship. He begins by focusing on his relationship with Mr. Auld. The letter begins, “Sir, the long and intimate, though by no means friendly relation.” And he goes on to talk about his relation, long and intimate, by no means friendly relation. But then throughout the letter, you’ll notice this shift in the nature of their relation. What began economic, ownership, intimidation, whipping, possession — that kind of relation — morphed into something that was created by God, fellow man, human to human, neighbor to neighbor. This transformation of relation was subtly (not so subtly, but sort of subtly) expressed as he introduced Mr. Auld to his wife and four children in the letter. Then, as he described or asked about his own (He had three sisters who were still owned by Mr. Auld and one brother and a grandmother.), he began asking about their well-being and confronting him for keeping them in ignorance, that is, not allowing them to learn to read or write. I wish I could read the whole letter to you. It would take a long time because it’s a very long letter. But let me read the last couple paragraphs, and you’ll see this shift come to its climax. He writes this.
“The responsibility which you have assumed in this regard is truly awful … ” [Now, the responsibility here he’s talking about is the responsibility of leaving my siblings in ignorance, not allowing them to learn to read and write and stripping them of their freedom.] “… and how you could stagger under it these many years is marvelous. Your mind must have become darkened, your heart hardened, your conscience seared and petrified, or you would have long since thrown off the accursed load and sought relief at the hands of a sin-forgiving God. How, let me ask, would you look upon me, were I some dark night in company with a band of hardened villains, to enter the precincts of your elegant dwelling and seize the person of your own lovely daughter Amanda, and carry her off from your family, friends, and all the loved ones of her youth — make her my slave — compel her to work, and I take her wages, place her name on my ledger as property — disregard her personal rights — fetter the powers of her immortal soul by denying her the right and privilege to read and write — feed her coarsely, clothe her scantily, and whip her on the naked back occasionally; more and still more horrible, leave her unprotected — a degraded victim to the brutal lust of fiendish overseers, who would pollute, blight, and blast her fair soul — rob her of all dignity — destroy her virtue, and annihilate all in her person the graces that adorn the character of virtuous womanhood? I ask, how would you regard me, if such were my conduct? Oh! The vocabulary of the damned would not afford a word sufficiently infernal, to express your idea of my God-provoking wickedness. Yet sir, your treatment of my beloved sisters is in all essential points, precisely like the case I have now supposed. Damning as would be such a deed on my part, it would be no more so than that which you have committed against me and my sisters.
“I will now bring this letter to a close. You shall hear from me again unless you let me hear from you. I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery — as a means of concentrating public attention on the system and deepening their horror of trafficking in the souls and bodies of men. I shall make use of you as a means of exposing the character of the American church and clergy — and as a means of bringing this guilty nation with yourself to repentance. In doing this, I entertain no malice towards you personally. There is no roof under which you would be more safe than mine, and there is nothing in my house with which you might need for your comfort, which I would not readily grant. Indeed, I should esteem it a privilege, to set you an example as to how mankind ought to treat each other.
“I am your fellow man, but not your slave. Frederick Douglass.”
Do you see the shift? What began with a long and intimate, though unfriendly, relation that was purely economic — one human being owned another human being and used that human being for their own benefit — ends with two human beings made by God, persons, fellow humans who are to treat one another accordingly. This paradigm shift from fiscal to filial, from money to family, reflects the shift that we’re going to see in Nehemiah 5.
Nehemiah and his work teams are busy building the wall, and they’re making great headway. But as we saw last week in chapters 2-6, waves of opposition kept crashing down upon the productivity of this team. Many of these other forms of opposition came in the wave of external opposition. But Nehemiah 5 describes a different kind of opposition, a kind of opposition that comes not in the form of external persecution, but internal perversion. If the enemy of our souls can’t attack us externally and destroy us, he will seek to attack us internally and pervert the mission so as to lose the integrity of the whole ordeal.
You saw the same thing in the early church, right? In Acts, the beginning of Acts, the Spirit of God was filling the church of God and the Word was spreading. But in Act 6 the Greek widows cried out, “What about us? We’re starving!” And the apostles had to stop, restructure to ensure the integrity of the mission. Are we caring for people? It’s not enough just to build the wall if people are being crushed beneath it. The integrity of the mission requires addressing these kinds of injustices. And Nehemiah’s response to this crisis is a call to all of us to experience this paradigm shift from fiscal to filial. Now, look at Nehemiah’s response. Let’s look at four different ways in which he addressed this crisis.
First, he listened. He listened (verses 1-5). Verse 1,
“Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers.”
This cry came in three forms. Verse 2, We have more mouths to feed than food to eat. We are kid rich, grain poor. The cause of this was most likely two factors. One is they were building rather than harvesting. Trying to get the wall up, so they’re not in their fields. The other, verse 3, describes a famine.
The second form, we have no other options than to mortgage our fields. In verse 3 they had mortgaged their assets, their fields, their vineyards, their houses. They were running out of options with no other form of collateral. We’re starving.
And then third, we have had to borrow money to pay our taxes, and now our children are being sold into slavery. Sold into slavery in verses 4 and 5. Now the taxes being described here are Persian taxes. Artaxerxes was religiously lenient, financially ruthless. If you didn’t pay your taxes, you could lose your life. You could be enslaved. So, Jewish creditors, the wealthy, figured they were doing the poor a favor by offering them loans so that the poor could pay their taxes. But by offering them loans at high interest, the poor could not maintain those payments and had lost everything. Remember, they had no options. And so therefore, they were being forced to put up their kids as collateral, sell their kids as slaves for a period of time to work off their debts. It was completely legal in Persia. Completely immoral. Notice in verse 5, the cry, how pitiful it was. “It is not in our power to help it.” Literally in the Hebrew it says, “There is no power for our hands.” There is no power for our hands. What they’re basically saying is, “We have a crisis, but we have no options.” And essentially that’s what poverty is. It’s not just a deficiency of money, it’s a deficiency of connections and options. Most of us, when we go through crises, we know someone — someone we could go live with, someone we could borrow from, someone we could raid their pantry, something, some option. And these people were saying, “We’ve got nothing. And now they’re forcing us to sell our very children.”
The powerful point here is in the midst of this crisis, while Nehemiah is leading this massive wall endeavor, people are crying out. He could have very easily … You know what it’s like when you’re in the middle of a big project. It’s like, “Stop. I’ll get to you after the wall is done.” But Nehemiah doesn’t do that. He realizes he’s there to restore more than walls. And all of us are in that business. It doesn’t matter what business you are in; it is the people business. You are there to make more than money or products. So, he stops, and he listens.
Secondly, he responded. Verses 6-9 describe three primary ways he responded. First, he responded passionately. Verse 6, “I was very angry.” Nehemiah here is a beautiful picture of Jesus Christ. For example, in Mark 3:5 when Jesus noticed that the religious leaders were using vulnerable people as pawns in the middle of their political cat and mouse game, he looked on them. Verse 5, “He looked at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” The only time you see Jesus really ticked is when he sees this kind of injustice — taking a whip, flipping tables — when the strong or the deceitful try to take advantage. Passionately.
But then notice in verse 7, thoughtfully. “I took counsel with myself.” I love that phrase. I took counsel with myself. He contemplated, he thought things through. If you don’t feel angry when the poor are being taken advantage of, you are cold-hearted. But if you react without thinking, you are hot-headed. The one does nothing, the cold-hearted. The other does the wrong thing. The one neglects casualties, the other multiplies them. And we would do well to learn from Nehemiah here, because what we’re seeing across our country, both of these play themselves out. Half the country, there’s no problem. The other half of the country, a hot-headed response that simply multiplies casualties, perpetuates injustice. Let’s hurt more people, let’s shoot more people, let’s do more damage in the name of justice.
And Nehemiah is confronting both of us, right? — the cold-hearted and the hot-headed, the heartless and the headless. It’s not enough just to do something. It needs to be the right thing. It needs to be something that actually helps and doesn’t perpetuate injustice. This is Jesus, folks. Jesus, passionate, and yet the gospel brings about solutions that don’t multiply injustice, actually remedies.
He responds passionately, thoughtfully, and third, relationally. And this is big. This is where you see this paradigm shift from fiscal to filial, from financial to family. He is bringing strong charges in verse 7. But listen for the word, “brother.” Verse 7.
“I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, ‘You are exacting interest, each from his brother.’ And I held a great assembly against them and said to them, ‘We, as far as we are able, have brought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!’”
In other words, we’re in the business of restoring. We’re going to other nations, bringing our brothers back, even if we have to pay fees and fines to free them from slavery. And you’re selling them off. What are you doing? Everything you’re doing is undoing what we’re doing.
“They were silent and could not find a word to say. So, I said, ‘The thing that you were doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies?’”
Do you see what he’s getting at there? He says, the integrity of everything we’re doing rests on this. We can’t say, “We’re people of God. We’re doing a great work for God,” and then shaft our brothers. What are you doing? You’re acting like brokers, not brothers. You’re trying to make money off of people in a desperate condition. And in Persia, that’s completely legal. And from God’s perspective, it’s completely immoral. So which lens are you going to look through?
Leviticus 25:35, “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. [Notice proximity. Bring him near.] You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God. If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave.”
So, even if worst case scenario, your brother … Back then, they didn’t have bankruptcy. So, when you got to the very bottom, you had to sell yourself to pay your debt. He says even in worst case conditions, a situation like that, you still never treat him like a slave. He is your brother. Now, the point here is not that it’s wrong to make money off investments. That’s not it. The Bible doesn’t condemn charging interest, making money off investments. The point here is a specific kind of making money off of someone in a desperate condition. This isn’t a business deal. This is identifying the very vulnerable who are in a place where they have no options. You provide an option that is not a good option. A neighbor does not do to the other what you would not want them doing to you if you were in that position. This is what Frederick Douglass’s letter was. Would you want me to treat your daughter as you treat my sisters? That tells you the morality of it. If you were in that condition, would you want a Christian businesswoman or man to come to you and offer the deal you’re offering me? No. This is a time for restoration, not exploitation. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s moral.
Businesswomen and men need to really (Christian businesswomen and men) need to really rethink the way we think about things like predatory loans that are specifically targeting the very poor and desperate, situations like payday loans, high interest. It’s assumed that the person isn’t going to be able to pay it off, so they roll into higher interest and get caught in a debt trap. That person doesn’t need a loan. They need help.
And so what Nehemiah is doing with these leaders is the same thing Jesus is doing with us right now. All that creativity that makes you a great business person, switch that from just financial to being relational. Stimulate all that imaginative power to think about what could I do for this person? Maybe they need a handout, but long term that’s not what they need. Maybe they need a kind of help that gets them back on their feet, that allows them to own their property again so that they can generate their own resources.
Proverbs 14:31, “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him [honors God].”
So, what we see in verse 9 is the fear of God metamorphosizes the needy into a neighbor. Just like Jesus taught us. It’s the fear of God. You have rescued me from Egypt, and so now I can’t look at my neighbor the same, because I know what it’s like to be a slave. And when you’ve been a slave set free by Jesus, you can’t look on your neighbor the same. You know what it’s like to have no options, to be in bondage to sin. Like Douglass said, “I’m your fellow man, but not your slave.”
He listened, he responded, and then he restored. He calls the wealthy to (verse 10) stop charging interest. Verse 11, return confiscated collateral. Give them back their means of productivity. Verse 12,
“They said, ‘We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will so as you say.’”
Now, I just want us to soak in that for a minute. This never happens. Somebody confronts. Can you imagine this, confronting very successful people? What you did was legal, but it was not helpful. You need to repent, and you need to actually give everything back. Okay. I just want us to take that in and then practice that. Just imagine going to church, you’re making bank. Your business is flourishing and then the Spirit convicts you. What I’m doing over here is not right. Can you stop and say, “Yes, Lord. Being a neighbor is more important than the size of my bank account.” That’s when you know the Spirit is really speaking to you. He restored. They restored.
And in verse 13, Nehemiah, he doesn’t play around. Have you noticed that? He brings in the priest, notaries who are going to seal the vow. And then he does something to us is strange. He empties out the fold of his garment. Essentially, he reaches in his pockets, takes out his cell phone, credit cards, wallet, everything, and just dumps it on the ground before them and says, “This is what God is going to do to you if you go back on this.” If you say, “Yes, we’re going to do this” and then you walk out the door, and you keep practicing what you’ve been practicing, taking advantage of the vulnerable. God is going to empty your pockets. You will not gain from that.
“And all the assembly [verse 13] said, ‘Amen’ and praised the Lord. And the people did as they promised.”
They restored. And then finally, Nehemiah practiced. In verses 14-19, he practiced what he preached. I want us to again imagine something. Imagine a leader who lives what he legislates. That’s what this passage is talking about. And I just want to read it, and I’ll comment as I go over it, through it. Verse 14,
“Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years [so, he’s talking about 445-433 B.C. was his first term as governor over this region under Artaxerxes], neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God.”
So, because my stewardship flows from my worship, I decided at this time I would not take the normal rations that come to the governor. They were allowed, expected, to take a portion of the taxes for their own table to support their administration. And he said, “We didn’t do that at that time.”
Verse 16, “I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land [In other words, I didn’t use my position for personal gain], and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us.”
This is talking about his responsibility as the governor to host his work supervisors, other administrative officials, other Persian officials who came through town. He was responsible to feed them. And look at how he fed them.
Verse 18, “Now what was prepared at my expense each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds [that is the first Chick-fil-A], and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people.”
So, he said, “We didn’t just feed them peanut butter and jelly. I fed them big meals with good wine.” He’s emphasizing, I carried out my responsibility as governor, but it was all from my own pocket. Why?
“Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.”
There are two reasons he did this. One, the fear of God, (verse 15, “because of the fear of God,” and two, love of people. Verse 18, “the service was too heavy on this people.” I could have rightly, justly imposed a tax on them. But these people were starving. How could I, as a leader with integrity, take taxes at this time? Maybe later. At this time, it would be wrong, because it would be too heavy on them.
Do you see the love he has for his people? He is not viewing his people purely through fiscal lenses, but through family lenses. I’m not just a governor, I’m a brother. They’re fellow human beings who are suffering. We’ve got to find a way to work this out, and I’m willing to pay from my own bank account. The dude was wealthy to provide this, but it cost him dearly because of the lens through which he looked. His awe of God overflowed in his love of neighbor. It’s beautiful. And notice the source of his approval (verse 19) is not popularity polls. It’s not even getting pats on the back from the nobles and officials. In verse 7, when he confronted the powerful people, he would never have done that if he was looking for their backslap. He was willing to go nose-to-nose with the powerful people because he stood in awe of God. His approval came from God, not from people.
So, in Nehemiah 5 you see the shift that’s occurred throughout the chapter? It’s very similar to Frederick Douglass’s letter. The shift from — this is all about money, get what you can, even though it’s a crisis, you can still wheel and deal and charge high interest — to shift to brother. What would you want people to do to you? How do we love our neighbors through this difficult time? Nehemiah exemplifies that in the way he himself lived. The movement is similar to what we talked about in the past with listen, lament, and then love in tangible ways. Nehemiah opened up his ears. He opened up his heart. He responded passionately. He opened up his mind thoughtfully. He opened up his hands. And then he opened up his wallet. It’s miraculous.
This paradigm shift can be offensive to both political conservatives and political progressives. Political conservatives generally put the emphasis on individual responsibility, which is good. But Nehemiah 5 emphasizes, there are times where people need help. And it illustrates how does a believer think about that, not just politically, but relationally. But that’s offensive to many progressives because progressives are big on social justice, not big on relational justice. What do I mean by that? I hate putting at any adjective in front of justice. It can be contaminative. But if you’re going to put one, put relational. Because what Nehemiah 5 is talking about is not just, “Hey, I hope if I vote right, someone will take care of this problem.” Nehemiah 5, he gathers an assembly. Can you imagine being in that where the nobles and officials are here. He’s confronting them, and they’re looking face-to-face with the poor people they shafted. That changes everything. When it’s not just about if we can get somebody up there in Washington to fix this mess, but it’s me actually moving close enough to a person in need to love them, to hear them, to help them, to sacrifice. Those are two different things. And that’s the movement of this passage to relationships, proximity, where we can truly help.
Chew on this, those of you who own businesses. How does this help you think about if there’s somebody, an adult, working hard for you and not making it? How do you think about that, not making a living wage? How do you think about that relationally, not politically, relationally? How do you think about that neighbor down the street who’s ruining house values? Not financially, relationally. That changes things, doesn’t it? But it’s going to look different for all of us because God puts us in different places and different kinds of businesses, but all with the same mindset.
I Timothy 6:17, “As for the rich in this present age [Paul is doing to believers today just what Nehemiah did to the nobles and officials], charge them not to be haughty [Don’t think you got what you got just because you’re so smart], nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. [Don’t be guilty. Don’t feel guilty about being rich. Nehemiah didn’t. That doesn’t help anybody. God blesses you with stuff. He gives you gifts to produce, but don’t stop there.] They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”
Want to really live? Let’s pray. Father, thank you. We have seen Jesus in this chapter. The passion, the thoughtfulness, the way the gospel remedies without multiplying casualties. The way when your Spirit moves, we don’t just shed tears (We may shed tears). We don’t just say we’re sorry (We may say we’re sorry). But there is restoration. There is a reaction, a response. There’s a doing and a restoring. Lord, thank you for the movements of repentance, the cries that are going across our country at a time where we desperately need your Spirit to bring revival in your Church, where our eyes are locked onto Jesus, not the news, where our hearts are moved passionately and thoughtfully. Please, Lord, help us. Show us how to live this out. Continue to lead the elders. Thank you for the burdens you’re putting on our hearts for new creative ways we can be good neighbors in this community. And be with our brothers and sisters around the world. Many of whom are dealing with horrible tyrants, unjust situations where they have no options. Pour out your mercy. Show us creative ways where we can help. For the glory of your beautiful name, amen.