Through the fourth chapter of Nehemiah, the guy faced some challenges. From the get-go, Nehemiah had to overcome the fact that he was hundreds of miles away with no apparent leadership skill and absolutely no resources. But God took care of that. Then he had to survey the scene and convince the people to rebuild the wall, and God took care of that too. Then Nehemiah had opposition from outside enemies. But of course, God handled that also. No problem. But the fifth chapter of Nehemiah brings the biggest challenge yet -- selfishness.
God's people had been repeatedly oppressed. When his people cried out that they were helpless, God miraculously freed them from the Egyptians and brought them into the promised land. But then they gave themselves up to the false gods of their neighbors only to be exiled to Babylon. Oppression again. Once more they cried out to God, helpless and oppressed. Our God is a faithful, forgiving God, so again he heard their cries and brought them into the promised land. So you can imagine Nehemiah's reaction when the people said, "We are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it." (Nehemiah 5:5). You can probably understand why Nehemiah was angry when he learned that the people doing the work on the wall were being enslaved by their own people--their fellow brothers and sisters.
It's one thing to deal with opposition from outside, but to take hits from your own people is entirely different.
The issue was selfishness. Greed.
As the people were laboring on the wall, struggles surfaced. Some people had large families and fell short to feed their kids while they were giving their attention to the building project. There was a famine and others didn't have enough of a harvest, so they had to mortgage their land to eat. Others didn't make enough money (likely from a short harvest) to pay the high taxes levied by the king. It was a tough situation.
Any time a community situation gets tough, two kinds of people surface: those who seek to be a blessing and those who seize the opportunity to better their own position. (Remember the New York Starbucks that sold firemen three cases of water for $130 on 9/11?) The way of the world says 'get it while the gettin's good,' but God's way says otherwise.
Nehemiah, some of his brothers, and his servants were lending money and grain, but lending money was not the problem. They feared God and followed in God's way, which was to help their brothers in need by not charging interest (Nehemiah 5:9-10). Unlike other men within God's covenant people, Nehemiah obeyed Scripture (Exodus 22:12-27, Leviticus 25:35-54, and Deuteronomy 23:19-20).
Those charging interest and forcing endured servitude upon the people threatened to tear about the fragile community. They also could have greatly damaged the Jew's witness to their non-believing neighbors.
But before we get mad at bankers, we need to remember two things. First, the building project did not create the problem. It only brought the selfish, greedy hearts into the open. Second, even though God's rule for the covenant Jewish people precluded charging interest, interest is not the issue. If it were, how could Jesus say to put your money in the bank where it could earn interest? (See Matthew 25:14-30). Some might even be temped to say the issue is with wealth, but that's not true either. There's something under the wealth. It's a matter that resides deep down, at the core. Jesus commanded the rich, young, ruler to sell everything (Luke 18:18-30). A few lines later Jesus withholds those instructions from Zaccheaus (Luke 19:1-10). Why?
"The bad way to use wealth," according to Jim Hamilton, "is to disregard others in order to gain more for oneself. The good way to is to steward once's wealth and to be generous to others to advance God's Kingdom, as Nehemiah did."
According to Psalm 24, everything belongs to the Lord. 1 Samuel 2:7 says "The Lord brings poverty and gives wealth." All wealth is God's wealth. When we withhold from our Christian brothers and sisters in need, we are actually doing a great disservice to the Kingdom of God and we're forgetting where our wealth came from in the first place.
It is not that the Christian should be poor. In fact, a person of great wealth is a blessing to the Body of Christ so long has he or she listens to Paul's words in 1 Timothy 6:17-19. He said,
"As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 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."
But Nehemiah 5 is not just about wealth and interest, greed and selfishness. There is an evangelistic perspective here too. Look back at Nehemiah 5:9. The other reason for generosity with our fellows Christians is about our witness. Nehemiah was concerned that the actions of the selfish would bring about "taunts from the nations of our enemies." Outsiders see how we care for one another and they are quick to pounce when we don't love other Christians.
Notice how the unity of the early Church produces "favor with all people" (Acts 2:42-47). Imagine what might of happened to the early Church had the church in Antioch not taken up an offering to help the church in Jerusalem when the famine hit (Acts 11:27-30). I suspect this offering and help when along way to unify the Church on the mission of God. What destruction would have come had the church in Antioch seen the famine as an opportunity to make great profit.
And let us not forget Jesus instruction to his disciples. He said,
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35).
I'll be preaching from Nehemiah 5 this Sunday. I would love to see you there. We meet at the Northwest Community Center at 11am.
Soli Deo gloria!