Nehemiah 5:1-13 – Real Problem-Solving

Orthodox icon of Nehemiah

Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”

Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”

Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children 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.”

When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” So, I called together a large meeting to deal with them and said: “As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!” They kept quiet because they could find nothing to say.

So, I continued, “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?I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.”

“We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.”

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 their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!”

At this the whole assembly said, “Amen,” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised. (New International Version)

There is nothing pleasant about poverty – especially the circumstances and events which create it. Probably worse than being poor is feeling locked into poverty with no way out.

Nehemiah was a faithful follower of God. He was taken into exile, along with many of his fellow countrymen, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and Judah. Yet, through his prayerful initiative, Nehemiah laid plans for a return to his homeland and rebuild the broken down wall which surrounded the city of Jerusalem. 

Once Nehemiah arrived and arranged for work teams to busy themselves on the wall, he discovered there was a whole lot more to rebuild than just a physical wall. A wall of separation existed between fellow Jews based on economics. There were some very real class differences. The poor were being taken advantage of. Their fellow Jews were exacting usury from them.

The response of Nehemiah to such a sticky situation is instructive for us. Notice how he handled it:

  • Nehemiah did not ignore the people problems and only focus on the physical wall. He firmly and squarely addressed what was happening and was downright angry about the circumstance of Jewish families essentially living in a state of slavery. 
  • Nehemiah was clear, concise, and direct about the nature of the problem. He threw himself into being part of the solution instead of only complaining about what was happening.
  • Nehemiah did not over-involve others in the process of handling the conflict but handled the issue by taking counsel with himself. 
  • Nehemiah attacked the problem without alienating others, while holding people accountable for their actions and their promises.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is something of a leadership case study in how to engage significant problems and conflict. So, it’s a lesson for us not to quickly skim over but to ponder, examine, and absorb Nehemiah’s dealing with the situation. 

We all need some guidance and direction when it comes to confronting the problems which surround us. Let this story serve us well in approaching issues with wisdom and sagacity.

Holy God, you have a special concern for those who are poor and needy. Enable us to live and speak wisely into the crucial needs which exist around us, so that justice is done, mercy is demonstrated, and humility is practiced, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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