Read the Passage: Nehemiah 5
Complaint and Rebuke (5:1–11)
Earlier, in Neh. 3:5, the narrative hinted at a rift between the nobles and the common people in Israel, as Nehemiah observed, “Their nobles did not put their shoulder to the work of the Lord.” Here in Neh. 5:1–5 the text notes that some who were working on the wall complained about their poverty that was caused, at least in part, by oppression from wealthy Jewish brethren. This grievance arose because the work on the wall kept the poor from their subsistence-type labor in the fields. The essence of the complaint is that the poor had mortgaged their homes and fields (cf. Neh. 5:3a) and indentured themselves and their children (cf. Neh. 5:5) to raise funds to buy food and to pay the king’s tax (cf. Neh. 5:3b–4). While these events may have seemed necessary on account of a famine, they were unjust given that those who held the mortgages and labor-rights of the poor were fellow Jews.
Jewish civil law did allow for poor citizens to indenture themselves to the wealthy, with guaranteed release on the Year of Jubilee (cf. Lev. 25:39–43). The law also specified the release (or suspension) of debts every seven years (cf. Deut. 15:1–3). Furthermore, under the law, there was a ban on taking someone’s livelihood as collateral for a loan (cf. Exod. 22:26–27; Deut. 24:6, 12–13), and the wealthy were instructed not to charge interest on loans to their impoverished brethren (cf. Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:35–38; Deut. 23:19–20). The fact that wealthy Jews were profiting from the poverty of their neighbors is why Nehemiah rebuked them in Neh. 5:6–9. Nehemiah also set an example by lending money without interest (cf. Ezra 5:10). Moreover, he encouraged wealthy Jews to return the collateral they had seized, as well as to refund the interest they had charged to those in need (cf. Ezra 5:11).
Reply and Promise (5:12–13)
Nehemiah’s challenge to the wealthy was: (1) to release their indentured servants, (2) to return their mortgage collateral, and (3) to give interest-free loans to the poor. There were two practical factors behind Nehemiah’s request: first, he was the governor; and second, his request embodied the spirit, if not the letter, of the Jewish civil law. Yet, a more important spiritual factor is the conviction his rebuke caused upon the wealthy. These factors resulted in the wealthy declaring, “We will restore it, and will require nothing from them; we will do as you say” (Neh. 5:12a). Since he knew that the Jews had a history of not keeping their promises, Nehemiah called for the priests and required the rich to take an oath of obedience (cf. Neh. 5:12b). Finally, Nehemiah warned the wealthy by shaking out the folds of his garment (cf. Neh. 5:13), which solicited an “Amen!” from the people.
Generosity and Rule (5:14–19)
Earlier, when he declared, “I also, with my brethren and my servants, am lending [the poor] money and grain” (Neh. 5:10), Nehemiah conveyed that his economic requests were not just political decrees, but also were his personal practices. In Neh. 5:14–19 the details of Nehemiah’s generosity are explained. Here it is reported that during Nehemiah’s twelve-year term as governor, which lasted from 445–433 BC, he did not partake of the so-called “governor’s provisions” (Neh. 5:14). In sum, Persian law allowed for the governor to tax his people “bread and wine, besides forty shekels of silver” (Neh. 5:15a). While former governors of Jerusalem had taxed the people, Nehemiah explains that he did not tax them “because of [his] fear of God” (Neh. 5:15b). In short, while taxing the people was legally permissible, given their destitute estate, Nehemiah viewed it as morally reprehensible.
Neh. 5:17–19 shows the extent of Nehemiah’s generosity. While we may be tempted to think that Nehemiah’s waiving of the governor’s provisions only entailed him forgoing material goods for he and his family, Nehemiah explains, “At my table were one hundred and fifty Jews and rulers, besides those who came to us from the nations around us” (Neh. 5:17). Nehemiah notes that the daily nourishment of such a crowd entailed one ox, six sheep, many fowl, and much wine. Despite this large quantity of food, Nehemiah again notes, “I did not demand the governor’s provisions, because the bondage was heavy on this people” (Neh. 5:18). The waiving of the governor’s provision means that either Nehemiah provided for the material needs of his household out of his own resources, or that God miraculously met the material needs of Nehemiah’s household each day.
- Is it more spiritual to be poor or to be wealthy? Why is history filled with accounts of tension between the rich and the poor?
- How can we tell when an aid-based model of poverty relief is best, or when a developmental-based model is appropriate?
- How can we best discern from whom we should borrow monies, and to whom we should lend monies?
- What effect would the freeing of servants, the return of loan collateral, and the presence of interest-free loans have had upon the culture?
- How should Christians, both political leaders and common citizens, view taxation (cf. Matt. 17:24–27; 22:17–21; Rom. 13:7)?