We noticed in Nehemiah 3-4 revealed how the people had a mind to work in spite of the intense opposition they faced. There were people who refused to help. There were people who were insulting and discouraging. There were people who were causing confusion. There were people who were physically confronting them. There were people who were attacking them. In spite of all of these obstacles and even their own feelings of inadequacy and discouragement, the people had a mind to work. They refused to stop doing the great work that God had given to them. All of the attention of these chapters have been on the external problems in doing the work. But now we are going to see the internal problems that existed. We are going to look at how we need to handle internal problems and the kind of leadership needed to continue the work.
The Outcry (5:1-7)
Nehemiah 5 opens by telling us that there was a great outcry from the people. The problem is that the people are struggling to have food (5:2). Verse 3 tells us what is going on economically. There is a famine in the land. Further, verse 4 tells us that the Persian taxation on them is burdensome. They are struggling at every turn. There is not much grain coming in. There is a famine. There is heavy Persian taxation. The people are paying for these taxes by borrowing money. So they are getting hit with the interest payments. The situation is dire according to verse 5. The debts are so great that they are enslaved to these debts. They say that they are not better off than their flesh and blood that are captive in Persia. Their children are now being forced into slavery to pay for these debts. But the people have no way to get back out of this debt because their fields and vineyards have been mortgaged to others. Now here is the surprising part of the problem. Verse 7 reveals that the charging of interest, enslaving the children, and mortgaging the fields is being done by their own Jewish people. It is not Persian outsiders that are doing this to the people. It is not the surrounding nations that are doing this to the people. The Jewish people are doing this to each other.
Nehemiah is outraged when he hears this news. There are a number of reasons for his outrage. First, there is a complete lack of compassion for their fellow brethren. There is no mercy or compassion because of the situation. It is an economic crisis but the people are taking advantage of each other in the crisis. Second, what the people were doing was sinful. The Lord specifically condemned what the people were doing.
You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the LORD your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. (Deuteronomy 23:19–20 ESV)
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. 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: he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. (Leviticus 25:35–40 ESV)
If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest. If you ever seize your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else is he to sleep in? And it will come about that when he cries out to Me, I will listen to him, for I am gracious. (Exodus 22:25–27 NASB)
What the people were doing to each other was outrageous and that is why Nehemiah is outraged. They are not showing love for their neighbor. They are not caring for each other or looking out for each other. They are sinning against each other. So what will Nehemiah do with this problem?
Confronting The Sin (5:8-13)
Nehemiah accuses the nobles and officials and gathers a large assembly over this matter (5:7). Listen to what Nehemiah says. First, Nehemiah and his brothers have been buying their Jewish brothers out of slavery because they had been sold to the nations. But you are selling our Jewish brothers right back into slavery. We are spending our money to set our people free from the nations only to have you put them right back into slavery to our own brothers. It is unbelievable!
Further, why are you not walking in the fear of God? Why are you not doing what God has commanded you to do (5:9)? We are going to invite the reproach of the nations by taking advantage of each other. Not only this, Nehemiah says that he and his brothers have been lending to the people free of charge (5:10). So you need to stop charging interest on your Jewish brothers. Return all the interest you have taken from them. Return their fields, vineyards, houses, money, and goods today. Thankfully, the people respond and declare that they will do what Nehemiah says (5:12-13). Nehemiah places an oath on the people to keep their word and return everything that they have taken from their fellow people.
Important Leadership (5:14-19)
Now the rest of the chapter reveals the important work that Nehemiah was doing in the land. In verse 14 we are told that Nehemiah had been appointed as governor over the land of Judah by King Artaxerxes. Nehemiah never said, “I am the appointed governor of Judah. You all need to give to me and do what I say.” Nehemiah did the opposite. Look at verse 14.
Nehemiah says that he did not even take the food allowance given to the governor. Why would he refuse this? Verse 15 explains the reason. Former governors over the land put heavy burdens on the people. They took a daily ration of 40 shekels of silver and took food and wine from the people. Even the governors’ servants had lorded it over the people. It seems that the prior governors took everything they could from the people. They looked to take the maximum that they could. Not only did they take whatever they could from the people, they also acted in a domineering way over the people. They looked to take advantage of the people.
Nehemiah did not do this. Why did he act differently? Verse 15 says that he acted differently because of the fear of God. His fear of the Lord dictated how he would act. Nehemiah devoted himself to working on the wall. He did not sit back and tell everyone what to do. Nehemiah did not acquire land as governor. He was not going to take from the people or take advantage of the people. This is really seen in verses 17-18. Nehemiah fed 150 of the Jewish people each day, as well as people who came from other nations. The food that was prepared for himself and the people was prepared at his own expense. It did not come by demanding the food allowance from the people because the burden on the people was so heavy. Do you see how Nehemiah had compassion on the people as well as a fear of God? This is what allows Nehemiah to ask God to remember his actions. Nehemiah gave himself to the work. Nehemiah gave himself to the people. Nehemiah gave himself to the Lord.
Trait of a Leader
Before we look at the primary application from this chapter, I think it would be a mistake to not observe the spiritual leadership of Nehemiah. Nehemiah led the people with compassion. Nehemiah did not take advantage of the people. Nehemiah did not sit back and tell everyone else what to do while not lifting a finger himself. Nehemiah showed generosity to the people. What we are seeing is that leadership is always by example. There is no other leadership except to lead by example. Leadership is not telling people what to do. Leadership is not wanting people to listen to you. Leadership is simply being at the forefront of the work that needs to be done. Listen to what the apostle Peter proclaimed.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1–3 ESV)
Please notice what Peter says. Peter says that leadership is not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. This is what Nehemiah is doing. Leaders do not say, “Do what I say.” Leaders do what needs to be done and ask the flock to follow. We do not appoint leaders to shepherd the flock if they are not already leading by example. You start being the example now and we will recognize that leadership. I believe the people recognized and followed Nehemiah’s leadership because he led by example. He led from compassion. He led for the welfare of the people. He led in the people’s best interests and not his own. He did not consider his own interests. He is modeling a picture of leadership that we will perfectly see in Jesus. But let’s ask how Nehemiah had this great character. This brings us to main point of the lesson.
What made Nehemiah do what he did? Nehemiah says that the fear of God was on him (5:15). Look again at verse 15. Earlier governors put heavy burdens on the people, took excessive money from the people, and lorded their power over the people. Why didn’t Nehemiah follow precedent? Why didn’t he do what all the other governors did? Why did he break the mold when it was not expected from anyone? Nehemiah lived different because of the fear of God.
Nehemiah cared more about having a reverence for God than seeking glory from the people. Nehemiah was controlled from treasuring God in his heart and life rather than being controlled by power, greed, or other fleshly desires. He did good for the love of God and knew that God saw his actions and words (5:19). Friends, this is so important. We have to treasure God above all else. Why is this so important? Treasuring God is everything because it is the only way we will be dead to sin and alive to God.
Nothing else will keep you from sin. Peer pressure will not keep you from sinning. You can find someone who will agree with your sinning and join you in it. Accountability will not keep you from sinning. You will always find moments when you are alone and can get away with your sins. Nehemiah could have done whatever he wanted. He could have been like the other governors before him. He could have oppressed the people. He could have taken in more money. He could have taken advantage of the people. He did not have to provide meals for 150 people at his own expense. He could have lorded his power over the people. He could have sat back and told the people to build the wall while he sits in the governor’s house. There is only one reason he did right. He feared the Lord. He treasured God above all else. This is the only way we will die to sin and live to righteousness.
The strength to serve the Lord comes from treasuring the Lord above all else. The strength to fight temptation and live for the Lord comes from building a real relationship with him so that you love him above all else. This means getting into God’s word daily and regularly through the day. This means praying through your day. This means thinking on the purity of God from the songs we sing or the words of God you studied. These things start changing the way you think. These things start changing who you are so that you treasure God above all else. This will lead you to say no to sin and yes to righteousness. Treasure God for the path to success over Satan.