“Hard times and hard hearts made the poor miserable.” ~ Matthew Henry. This is how the great Bible commentator starts his analysis of Nehemiah chapter 5. We saw how wise and bold Nehemiah was as he battled enemies from the outside (Tobiah, Sanballat,Gesham, and all the others), but in this chapter, we see that the Jewish people were destroying themselves from the inside.
It was indeed hard times in Jerusalem because of a famine in the land (5:3). They were literally selling their children into slavery in order to keep themselves in grain. They were also mortgaging their lands and houses and being charged exorbitant interest rates by their own kin folk. And so we see similarities in chapter 4 and 5: Nehemiah and the Jews were facing enemies from within and without. The word used for interest in Nehemiah is usury (mashsha’ in Hebrew). The Bible clearly teaches that usury is not to be exacted on the poor (Ex. 22:25). Rather,we are to take care of the poor and not expect to be paid back. This principle is also squarely taught in Acts 4:32-35 as the members of the newly formed church made sure that everyone was taken care of.
We fall so short of this principle of giving in today’s world. We have decided to be cynical about those in need around us and so we have hardened our hearts to those who ask for help. We question their motives and what they would possibly do with any contribution we make to them. Why don’t we just let God take care of their motive and let’s do what Jesus told us to do? Jesus did tell us that when we take care of the needy around us, it is just like we have taken care of Him.
When the people started telling Nehemiah about the wrong that was happening, this great leader was angry (see 5:6). But, he didn’t blow up and say things he would live to regret. Take a look at verse 7: I consulted with myself and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them,”You are exacting usury, each from his brother!” Therefore, I held a great assembly against them.
Did you catch the pause he took to think before he spoke? Oh boy – that is a lesson in and of itself! When we become angry, we can choose to take a moment and consult with ourselves (better yet, consult with God in a whispered prayer) so we can properly choose our words. Too many times, we just let whatever comes into our brain come right out of our mouth. Some people have no filter – the anger just spews all over everyone! The choice Nehemiah made was to express appropriate anger.
Leaders sometimes have to let those who follow know that they are truly upset about a serious situation – and this sin that was being committed toward each other was serious. Nehemiah just told them right out that what they were doing “was not good” and that they should be walking in the fear of God. Then he logically explained why charging usury and taking advantage of each other was so wrong. This plea brought the Jewish community into a state of repentance and what started out as a great assembly against them ended up as a praise session to the LORD (5:13).
As a Sunday school teacher,a parent, a Christian friend, and a director, I have found myself in situations where hard conversations were necessary. While it is no fun for the receiver of the conversation, trust me, it is no fun to be the giver of them either. I am sure Nehemiah felt the weight of what the possible repercussions might have been in that moment as he “consulted with himself”. There is always the risk that the message will not be received well. Leaders truly have to be so sensitive to the Spirit’s leading so they know when a little anger is appropriate or maybe when some compassion and listening are truly needed.
How do you handle it when a preacher or a teacher speaks directly to a sin that is present in your life? Do you ignore the warnings and just carry on with life as usual? The proper response is repentance just as we see in this chapter. The hard conversation and admission of wrong is not fun, but the praise session that follows is awesome. Restored fellowship with our great and awesome God is always the goal of repentance! A person’s response to needed correction reveals volumes about their character.