Men of Compassion
A Study of Nehemiah
Dr. Jim Denison
With today’s economic woes and worries, we could not have today’s study in a more appropriate setting. We have been called to be men of wisdom, commitment, sacrifice, and courage. Now God will call us to be men of compassion. Who needs your help this week?
See the need (vs. 1-6)
The problems faced by the nation to this point were external: Permission from the king to rebuild the city, and opposition from their enemies in the region. Now Nehemiah comes to the most difficult and disastrous issue of all: Internal conflict. The text begins: “Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers” (v. 1).
“Outcry” translates the Hebrew word used for the cry of the Jews against their Egyptian masters during their slavery in Egypt. This is shortly before the wall was finished in August-September, near the end of the harvest. Creditors were requiring payment of capital and interest on loans. Nehemiah had asked the men to stay in Jerusalem to do the work, leaving their villages. Now an economic crisis resulted, resulting in four problems.
Food shortages: “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain” (v. 2). They had neglected their fields and crops in order to work on the walls, and now were running out of food for their families.
Debt: “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine” (v. 3). As a result, they would have no means to eat in the future. This was like eating the grain for next year’s harvest, or drinking the water needed to prime the pump.
Taxes: “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards” (v. 4). They owed Artaxerxes property taxes, perhaps as much as 40% (the rate in the Persian Empire) and had no means to pay them. So they borrowed from their fellow Jews, at exorbitant rates of interest.
Slavery: “Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others” (v. 5). This was permitted by the law, and would last six years: “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything” (Exodus 21:2). But they would have no workers for their fields or a way to be together in the meantime.
Nehemiah’s response: “When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry” (v. 6). This was not the only response he could have made. He could have been frustrated with their complaint. After all, he had sacrificed everything to help them rebuild their city, and was doing what he had promised to do. While they had famine, debt, taxes, and slavery, at least they were a people again.
He could have been apathetic to their plight. None of this was his problem, or would affect him directly. His response was the opposite: “I was very angry.” The word means to feel pain and indignation in one’s very soul.
Jesus gave us the example for showing compassion with those in need. And Acts 3 is one of the greatest biblical teachings on showing compassion.
Start where the need is great; ask God to break your heart with what breaks his heart.
Get involved (vs. 7-13)
Nehemiah started with the debt problem: “You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!” (v. 7c). This was forbidden by the Law: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest” (Exodus 22:25).
Money could be loaned: “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). But interest could not be charged. They were in direct violation of Scripture.
He then confronted the larger assembly: “So I called together a large meeting to deal with them” (v. 7d). He began with his own example: “As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles” (v. 8a). Leviticus 25 gives guidelines for purchasing those who have been sold as slaves; Nehemiah and his leadership team have been doing that for the people.
Then he confronted their actions: “Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!” (v. 8b). With this result: “They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say” (v. 8c).
Now he turned the issue to its greatest significance: the honor of their God. Verse 9: “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?” They had been delivered by the grace of God, and now were defaming his name.
They must change now: “I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them–the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil” (vs. 10-11). They had been charging one percent a month, and were to return even this amount.
With this response: “We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say” (v. 12).
So Nehemiah solidified their decision: “Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied!” At this the whole assembly said, “Amen,” and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised” (vs. 12-13).
He put the officials on record (v. 12). He “shook out the folds” of his robe, a sign of rejection, and predicted that God would do the same to all who went back on their word. And the crisis was averted.
God is calling more people into public service than are answering the call.
Set the example (vs. 14-19)
Nehemiah became governor, the highest position in the land: “Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year–twelve years–neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor” (v. 14). His term lasted from 444 to 432 B.C.
This food allotment was likely used to entertain guests and foreign dignitaries, something like formal dinners in the White House today. Solomon’s daily allotment is an example: “Solomon’s daily provisions were thirty cors of fine flour and sixty cors of meal, 23 ten head of stall-fed cattle, twenty of pasture-fed cattle and a hundred sheep and goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roebucks and choice fowl” (1 Kings 4:22-23).
However, he refused to used this position to his benefit. He did not use “the food allotted to the governor,” refusing the example of those who went before him: “But the earlier governors–those preceding me–placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that” (v. 15).
Rather, “I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land” (v. 16). Other governors loaned to the people, then took their lands when they could not repay their debts; Nehemiah refused this example.
Not only did he not take from the people; he gave to their needs personally: “Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people” (vs. 17-18).
With this prayer: “Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people” (v. 19). He prayed this seven times in the book, knowing that success is determined not by man but by God.
We cannot lead people further than we are willing to go.