Persian taxes were fairly exorbitant, and as the Exiles’ money was taken out of circulation, inflation took its place. The price of food, for instance, skyrocketed to the point where the Jews had to start borrowing from their wealthy brethren in order to feed their families.
Unfortunately, the wealthy Jews had no conviction whatsoever on what God’s law demanded during such situations. There will always be the poor among us (Jesus said so Himself) but God put into place laws to make certain that the poor would be treated fairly.
35 “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him[kjv says: thou shalt relieve him] as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. 36 Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. 37 You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. Leviticus 25:35-38 esv
The wealthy Jews were doing exactly that. When the poor came to them for food and money, they charged a hefty price, including some interest. People who were fortunate enough to own a little of their own land were forced to mortgage it (with an enormous rate of interest) for food and money so that they could support their families. And when they couldn’t make the payments, because they used the money to pay the Persian taxes, the property was confiscated, and sometimes even the children were taken as additional collateral and made slaves.
This is something that God has always forbidden, yet the wealthy Jews didn’t seem to want to honor God’s desire.
In contrast, Nehemiah’s family and some of his workers had actually paid off the debts of some of the exiles with their own money. He found it unbelievable that the wealthy Jews would try to profit in direct conflict with God’s law.
As a result, Nehemiah blows his stack. In the midst of rebuilding the city walls, he drops everything and calls an old fashioned come-to-Jesus meeting.
9 “What you’re doing is wrong. Is there no fear of God left in you? Don’t you care what the nations around here, our enemies, think of you?
10-11 “I and my brothers and the people working for me have also loaned them money. But this gouging them with interest has to stop. Give them back their foreclosed fields, vineyards, olive groves, and homes right now. And forgive your claims on their money, grain, new wine, and olive oil.”
12-13 They said, “We’ll give it all back. We won’t make any more demands on them. We’ll do everything you say.”
Then I called the priests together and made them promise to keep their word. Then I emptied my pockets, turning them inside out, and said, “So may God empty the pockets and house of everyone who doesn’t keep this promise—turned inside out and emptied.”
Everyone gave a wholehearted “Yes, we’ll do it!” and praised God. And the people did what they promised. Nehemiah 5:9-13 msg
George Williams notes:
The opening verses of this chapter illustrate the deep evil of the natural heart; the closing verses, the deeper love of the new heart. The one lesson humbles; the other cheers.
—George Williams, The Complete Bible Commentary
When confronted in their sin, the people repented. They abandoned their natural hearts, and sought after new hearts – the hearts that would have love and compassion for suffering brethren.
For us, we can take this principal in two ways:
- Literally. When we see our fellow man suffering because he/she doesn’t have enough to eat, or enough to pay the rent, or enough to cover a doctor’s bill, etc., we can loan/give them the money. Don’t expect it to be paid back, and don’t charge interest. Don’t hold their possessions as collateral. If they want to pay it back, great! Allow them that honor. Not everybody is in a position to loan money, but everybody can show compassion and at least pray for those who are down trodden
- Spiritual Application. The wealthy Jews in Nehemiah 5 obviously knew God’s law because they didn’t argue about what they’d done, they just repented and returned the foods and money to the people from whom they’d taken it. This had to have to been a powerful testimony to the Gentiles living nearby. Returning profits to the poor had to have looked pretty strange to the people living around the Jews, but I’d bet it got their attention.
17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:17-24 esv
The wealthy Jews, before God and the Gentiles, put off their former manner of life and their old selves, and put on brand new selves in obedience to God’s law. And everybody in the region noticed.
The next thing you know, there are conspiracies planned against the man who urged the revival and obedience. Satan wants to put a stop to Nehemiah, and he sets about to lay three separate snares. Nehemiah is delivered from each snare by specific spiritual energies that we can employ as well.
Snare # 1. Treachery. 1-2 When Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall and that there were no more breaks in it—even though I hadn’t yet installed the gates— Sanballat and Geshem sent this message: “Come and meet with us at Kephirim in the valley of Ono.”
2-3 I knew they were scheming to hurt me so I sent messengers back with this: “I’m doing a great work; I can’t come down. Why should the work come to a standstill just so I can come down to see you?” Nehemiah 6:1-3 msg
Honestly, did Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab really think that Nehemiah was going to meet with them in some quiet little out-of-the-way valley for an afternoon of fellowship? Nehemiah’s intense connection with his God warned him of the danger afoot. The spiritual energy that saved Nehemiah from this snare was full engagement in God’s work. He knows that his enemies are planning to hurt him, so he just keeps his nose to the grindstone for God.
Snare # 2. Compromise. 4 Four times they sent this message and four times I gave them my answer.
5-6 The fifth time—same messenger, same message—Sanballat sent an unsealed letter with this message:
6-7 “The word is out among the nations—and Geshem says it’s true—that you and the Jews are planning to rebel. That’s why you are rebuilding the wall. The word is that you want to be king and that you have appointed prophets to announce in Jerusalem, ‘There’s a king in Judah!’ The king is going to be told all this—don’t you think we should sit down and have a talk?”
8 I sent him back this: “There’s nothing to what you’re saying. You’ve made it all up.”
9 They were trying to intimidate us into quitting. They thought, “They’ll give up; they’ll never finish it.”
I prayed, “Give me strength.” Nehemiah 6:4-9 msg
The open letter was designed to insult Nehemiah. It was open for all to see, and it was filled with false accusations and slander. Though Sanballat pretended to be Nehemiah’s friend, Nehemiah saw through what was really going on. Sanballat sought to coax Nehemiah into compromising his work for God, abandon it for a time so that he could at last bring harm to Nehemiah.
The spiritual energy that saved Nehemiah from this snare was prayer –“Give me strength.” He stayed on the wall, and continued his work.
Snare # 3. Religious Falsehood. 10 Then I met secretly with Shemaiah son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, at his house. He said:
Let’s meet at the house of God, inside The Temple; Let’s find safety behind locked doors because they’re coming to kill you, Yes, coming by night to kill you.
11 I said, “Why would a man like me run for cover? And why would a man like me use The Temple as a hideout? I won’t do it.”
12-13 I sensed that God hadn’t sent this man. The so-called prophecy he spoke to me was the work of Tobiah and Sanballat; they had hired him. He had been hired to scare me off—trick me—a layman, into desecrating The Temple and ruining my good reputation so they could accuse me.
14 “O my God, don’t let Tobiah and Sanballat get by with all the mischief they’ve done. And the same goes for the prophetess Noadiah and the other prophets who have been trying to undermine my confidence.” Nehemiah 6:10-14 msg
This last snare was very subtle. It was very believable for Shemaiah to suggest that Nehemiah seek safe harborage in the temple area of the altar of asylum.
For instance, when King David was getting ready to die, and shortly before he named Solomon king, one of David’s other sons, Adonijah, decided that he should be king. When Adonijah realized that Solomon was king, he knew he was in big trouble. His actions would be regarded as treasonous. So, Adonijah took hold of the horns of the altar, hoping that he didn’t get executed. (1st Kings 1) The horns of the altar were the last stop in the road for someone who’d gotten themselves into legal trouble. (Exodus 21:13-14)
The problem here, however, was that Shemaiah had suggested that Nehemiah go inside The Temple. He didn’t say anything about the altar of asylum, and there’s a big difference. Only those of the tribe of Levi, and specifically the sons of Aaron, can go inside The Temple. (Numbers 18) Nehemiah was of the tribe of Judah.
King Uzziah tried to offer incense once inside The Temple and God struck him with leprosy. (2nd Chronicles 26) Had Nehemiah taken Shemaiah up on his offer, he would have either been stricken dead, or with some disease. At the very least, as he points out in Verse 13, the action alone would have ruined his good reputation as a godly man.
Shemaiah’s idea that Nehemiah do something against God’s Word exposed him as a false prophet – and apparently, according to Verse 14, there were other instances where false prophets and a prophetess had attempted to fool Nehemiah.
The spiritual energy that delivered Nehemiah was his knowledge of the Scriptures.
Our intimate knowledge of the Scriptures cannot be underscored enough. It’s gotten me out of countless jams. Never made me popular, but after the smoke had cleared I was the one without regrets.
15-16 The wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of Elul. It had taken fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard the news and all the surrounding nations saw it, our enemies totally lost their nerve. They knew that God was behind this work.
17-19 All during this time letters were going back and forth constantly between the nobles of Judah and Tobiah. Many of the nobles had ties to him because he was son-in-law to Shecaniah son of Arah and his son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam son of Berekiah. They kept telling me all the good things he did and then would report back to him anything I would say. And then Tobiah would send letters to intimidate me. Nehemiah 6:15-19 msg
Nehemiah was verbally tortured the entire time he did God’s work. There was a “popular” crowd there in Jerusalem that threw in with Nehemiah’s enemies.
Tobiah was related to an influential family in Judah, since his son Jehohanan was married to the daughter of Meshullam, who had helped repair the wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:4, 30).
—NIV Study Bible © 1984 by Zondervon
And they took turns bragging about how wonderful Tobiah was, while Nehemiah worked on the walls of Jerusalem.
Now that the wall was finished, Nehemiah has to go back to the Persian court and he starts to make arrangements for his impending absence. He puts a close family member in charge, along with Hananiah.
I thought it was interesting that Nehemiah gave special instructions regarding the opening and closing of the city gates:
“Don’t open the gates of Jerusalem until the sun is up. And shut and bar the gates while the guards are still on duty. Appoint the guards from the citizens of Jerusalem and assign them to posts in front of their own homes.” Nehemiah 7:3 msg
I found a great explanation in my commentary:
In the East it is customary to open the gates of a city at sunrise, and to bar them at sunset… Nehemiah recommended that the gates of Jerusalem should not be opened so early; a precaution necessary at a time when the enemy was practising all sorts of dangerous stratagems, to ensure that the inhabitants were all astir and enjoyed the benefit of clear broad daylight for observing the suspicious movements of any enemy.
—Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
In other words: I’m a Christian, I’m not stupid. Deep faith and conviction compels us to always be on guard for attack.
Ezra then makes an appearance with the Law of Moses. This is a special day for the Israelites. It’s the Feast of Trumpets, and there is to be no work on this day. (Leviticus 23:23-25; Numbers 29:1-6). Ezra reads the Law and explains it to the people. And as they listen and understand and realize their sins, they start to weep. This is a spiritual revival that’s set off by the public reading of God’s Word.
9 Nehemiah the governor, along with Ezra the priest and scholar and the Levites who were teaching the people, said to all the people, “This day is holy to God, your God. Don’t weep and carry on.” They said this because all the people were weeping as they heard the words of The Revelation.
10 He continued, “Go home and prepare a feast, holiday food and drink; and share it with those who don’t have anything: This day is holy to God. Don’t feel bad. The joy of God is your strength!”
11 The Levites calmed the people, “Quiet now. This is a holy day. Don’t be upset.”
12 So the people went off to feast, eating and drinking and including the poor in a great celebration. Now they got it; they understood the reading that had been given to them. Nehemiah 8:9-12 msg
They repented, and they celebrated their forgiveness and healing.
35 As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” 42 And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” 43 And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God. Luke 18:35-43 esv
Ezra continued to read from the Law of Moses on the next day, and they learned that they had to celebrate what would have been called the Feast of Booths, or some translations render it the Feast of Tabernacles.
The more they learned from the reading of God’s Word, the more they obeyed what they found in it. They’d gotten so out of their Scriptures that they hadn’t celebrated the Feast of Booths since Joshua’s time. Or, to say it another way, they’d forgotten so much of God’s Word that they’d become complacent to the point of disobedience. Like the blind man near Jericho, their faith was making them well, and they had a lot to praise God about.
Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You. Psalm 119:11 nkjv
It’s a tried and true method. Study the Scriptures and meditate on them daily. Hide God’s word in your heart of hearts, and it will keep you from sinning.
We teach our Cubbies this song: Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow…forget your Bible, forget to pray, and you’ll shrink, shrink, shrink.
I don’t know what’s more clear than that!
© 2016, Ta`Mara Hanscom
There is no worksheet for this week’s lesson. Please read Nehemiah 9-13 for November 20.
This is part of our continuing series: