Summary: God cares for the poor and oppressed; one of the most prominent themes in the Bible is our response toward the poor. It is the duty of God’s people to provide for those in need as best as we can with compassion, following the example of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah has resisted outward attacks, but now there’s corruption within. It’s been said that, “No test of leadership is more revealing than the test of opposition” (Boice). Nehemiah wasn’t expecting opposition from his own people. The outcry of the poor reached his ears, and as governor of Judah, he has to set policy and correct this injustice.
The gap between rich and poor has always existed, even in Jerusalem after the exile. Many of those who returned from Babylon were well off. Even in captivity the Jews were free to work, and many did well. They returned with considerable assets. Others weren’t so prosperous. The resulting class struggle was threatening progress on the wall and Jerusalem’s security.
Conditions were hardly favorable for the poor. Insufficient rain caused crop failure and famine. And work to restore the wall was keeping people from tending their fields. On top of this were high property taxes owed to Persia, money which was not going back to benefit Israel. It was worse than living in “Taxachusetts”! And since Israel was cut off from their hostile neighbors, no trade agreements were in place to help the economy.
Many people were forced to borrow money, so the greedy rich saw an opportunity here, and were all too willing to exploit the poor for personal gain, charging high interest rates for loans. This was morally unacceptable. Resources were quickly depleted. People were going into debt, just to eat. The resulting financial crisis was having a damaging effect on the overall economy and particularly among poor, desperate farmers who had to mortgage their fields and send their children into indentured servitude, a kind of temporary slavery to pay off debts and survive. The returning exiles went from one form of bondage to another! Some outright lost their land and were faced with having no inheritance to pass on to their children. It was a desperate situation.
While our economy is not exactly in great shape, things were grim in Israel. There were shortages caused by the influx of people who’d come to work on the wall, that outpaced the ability to supply food for everyone. Yet notice the complaint of the poor was not leveled at Nehemiah; they understood the necessity of rebuilding the wall. Their criticism concerned the wealthy who shamefully misused their power.
God cares for the poor and oppressed; one of the most prominent themes in the Bible is our response toward the poor. It is the duty of God’s people to provide for those in need as best as we can with compassion. While society cannot remedy the plight of the poor or resolve all matters of social injustice, a nation’s integrity is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. This is why we operate a food pantry; we choose to be part of the solution, out of concern for those in need.
The plight of the poor was brought to Nehemiah’s attention. In verse 6, he admits, “I was very angry.” Some translations try to soften the language, but there is a time for anger. He was enraged; yet he didn’t just fume; he took action. He set out to correct this injustice. He directed his anger toward fixing the abuse.
He decided to confront the offenders privately, to give them an opportunity to make things right. The Hebrew Scriptures condemn usury--the charging of interest when loaning money--particularly to fellow Jews. For example, Exodus 22:25: “If you lend money to a fellow Hebrew in need, be not like a moneylender, charging interest.” The wealthy were exploiting the helpless poor with this practice. These “loan sharks” were taking advantage of their countrymen’s troubles, getting rich at their expense. And they were setting Israel up for reproach from her ungodly neighbors, a poor testimony indeed.
Nehemiah urged (and warned) them in verse 9 to “walk in the fear of the Lord.” Fleming Rutledge observes, “If we insist on removing the Bible passages about the ‘fear of the Lord’ we will have a wishy-washy god of our own construction, who will not, in the end, be the real God at all. Only a God of fearful power is strong enough to overcome evil.”
Nehemiah apparently didn’t succeed by meeting privately with these lenders, so he went public with it. He summoned the elders. All the while, the wall repair was continuing, yet this was a necessary distraction. Some of the elders had to stop working temporarily to deal with this internal matter…because people were more important than projects. The real project was not the wall; the real project was building a community. Nehemiah was a people-builder.
After openly exposing this injustice, and shaming the wealthy offenders, they repented. They took oaths, agreeing to refund the interest charged and stop their practice of usury. No nation can survive without correcting moral corruption within. So can we repent without taking action, without doing something? Repentance isn’t passive; it always involves action. It is a radical change of mind and behavior.