The main theme in the story of Nehemiah is of course, rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. We’ve talked about this for several weeks now so I’m not going to rehash all that. But this morning our story takes a short pause and it goes down a little rabbit trail. Now I’ll admit, that quite often we go down these little rabbit trails primarily because my mind has all these random thoughts that don’t always have anything to do with the main point – but our rabbit trail today isn’t even my fault. This one is written right into the pages of Scripture.
For the past several weeks, we’ve been talking about some of the challenges that Nehemiah has had to face as he rallies the people of Israel to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. I mean, it was a challenge for Nehemiah just to get permission from King Artaxerxes to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. The job itself was a huge challenge with about 4 km of massive walls to repair and rebuild. It was a challenge to keep the people motivated and excited about the project when – especially when their enemies were making fun of them and mocking their efforts. It was an even greater challenge to keep the people safe as their enemies ramped up their opposition and resorted to physical threats and violence.
But today, we’re going to read about another challenge that Nehemiah faced. And this one came from within the walls – right from the Israelites themselves. And I say it’s a rabbit trail because it’s not directly related to the rebuilding of the wall – it’s almost like a little sidenote – but it certain has the potential to derail the whole project.
So let’s take a look at Nehemiah chapter 5 this morning – starting at verse 1.
About this time some of the men and their wives raised a cry of protest against their fellow Jews. 2 They were saying, “We have such large families. We need more food to survive.”
3 Others said, “We have mortgaged our fields, vineyards, and homes to get food during the famine.”
4 And others said, “We have had to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay our taxes. 5 We belong to the same family as those who are wealthy, and our children are just like theirs. Yet we must sell our children into slavery just to get enough money to live. We have already sold some of our daughters, and we are helpless to do anything about it, for our fields and vineyards are already mortgaged to others.”
So in the midst of this great project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, we find out that there are a lot of people who are really in some desperate situations.
We see some families who just don’t have enough food to survive – it seems there is a bit of a famine going on and with their large families, they’re having a hard time keeping everybody fed. Other families have had to mortgage everything they own (their fields, vineyards, and homes) – they’ve mortgaged everything to buy food so they can survive – but now they are massively in debt. In fact, some are so far in debt because of the famine and the King’s taxes, that they’ve had to sell their children into slavery in order to survive. These are some very desperate times for these folks – and yet, it seems at the same time, there are still those among them in their own family who are still wealthy and doing just fine.
So there is a problem here. And it seems that Nehemiah has now built up enough credibility with these people for them to come to him for help. He’s proven his leadership abilities and his concern for the people throughout this project, and so now they feel confident that they can go to him with their issues and know that he will work hard to come up with a good solution for everyone.
And this isn’t a simple problem to solve. It’s a bit of a perfect storm scenario. They have three things working against them – and two of them, I don’t think Nehemiah really can’t do anything about.
The first issue is the famine. Can’t really change that. At least not at this point. Perhaps Nehemiah could help them plan for the future a bit better – but that doesn’t solve the problem at hand. The second issue is the taxes. Of course, it was common practice that conquered people pay a generous tax to the king so that the king can pay his army and maintain control over his kingdom. So I don’t think even Nehemiah could convince King Artaxerxes to ease up on the taxes.
Now of course, God could certainly intervene and deal with both the famine and the tax issue – but neither of those two problems were the real issue. They were contributing factors, yes – but the real issue here are the other wealthy Israelites and how they were treating those who were in need. And we get a better picture of this as we continue reading. Verse 6
6 When I heard their complaints, I was very angry. 7 After thinking it over, I spoke out against these nobles and officials. I told them, “You are hurting your own relatives by charging interest when they borrow money!” Then I called a public meeting to deal with the problem.
8 At the meeting I said to them, “We are doing all we can to redeem our Jewish relatives who have had to sell themselves to pagan foreigners, but you are selling them back into slavery again. How often must we redeem them?” And they had nothing to say in their defense.
So here’s what’s been happening: Because of the famine and because of the king’s taxes, certain families were forced to borrow money from their fellow Israelites in order to survive. Now that’s not a problem. In fact, that’s a good thing that the wealthier Isrealites were willing to loan some of their money to those in need. Its important to help others out when they have a need and we have the ability to meet that need.
In fact, we’ll read a little bit later that even Nehemiah was loaning out money to different people as they had need. So the issue wasn’t that they were loaning out money – the issue was that they were charging interest on that money. And from what I understand – it was a pretty healthy interest rate – probably about 12 percent. A typical mortgage rate today is about 3 or 4%, so you can imagine how different your mortgage payments would be if your interest rate was 12%.
So for families who were just barely surviving as is – that interest made their loans impossible to repay. They could never get ahead.
So not only were people having to mortgage their homes and their lands just to get food – but they’ve also had to resort to – in essence – mortgaging their children and themselves. Back then, if you couldn’t repay your debt, you couldn’t just declare bankruptcy – basically you would have to work it off. If necessary, you and your family would become slaves to the people that you owed money to until your debt was paid.
And that’s what we see happening here. Because of the interest that they were charged on their loans, their debt just grew and grew – and it became impossible for them to pay it off. They were forced to sell themselves and their children into slavery.
And so you can understand Nehemiah’s anger and frustration with them. Nehemiah says in verse 8….
“We are doing all we can to redeem our Jewish relatives who have had to sell themselves to pagan foreigners, but you are selling them back into slavery again. How often must we redeem them?” And they had nothing to say in their defense. Nehemiah 5:8
It seems that Nehemiah and those with him were doing everything they could to redeem (or to buy back) their fellow Jews who had been sold into slavery – somehow they were working together to pay off their debts so they could be freed – only to have them put right back into that same situation all over again at the hands of their fellow Israelites.
And by the way – I should point out that God had already given the Israelites very clear guidelines regarding their practices of loaning money and charging interest. If you go way back to Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy – there are several instances where God clearly lays out how they are to deal with this issue. Look first at Deuteronomy 23:19, it says…
19 “Do not charge interest on the loans you make to a fellow Israelite, whether you loan money, or food, or anything else. 20 You may charge interest to foreigners, but you may not charge interest to Israelites, so that the Lord your God may bless you in everything you do in the land you are about to enter and occupy. Deuteronomy 23:19-20
Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? “Do not charge interest on the loans you make to a fellow Israelites.” Clearly, they are acting in direct violation of God’s commands. But I also want to point out that God is not condemning loaning money for profit. God’s not condemning banks and mortgages and investment companies and things like that. He says the Israelites could charge interest on the loans they make to foreigners, but not to charge interest on loans to their follow Israelites.
It comes across almost like a free-trade kind of deal. But it’s not just simply an issue of economics. We get a little more clarity in Leviticus 25:35 – and this verse sounds like it’s addressing Nehemiah’s situation exactly. It says….
35 “If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and cannot support himself, support him as you would a foreigner or a temporary resident and allow him to live with you. 36 Do not charge interest or make a profit at his expense. Instead, show your fear of God by letting him live with you as your relative. 37 Remember, do not charge interest on money you lend him or make a profit on food you sell him.” Leviticus 25:35-37
Again, we see this command not to charge interest to your fellow Israelite – especially when they are already struggling financially. So we’re not talking about a loan for a brand new Ferrari – this is a loan for the necessities of life.
So the key idea behind all these commands is an idea that God communicates throughout the Scripture and that is that God expects his people… #1. to be generous. and #2. to take care of those in need – especially those in their own family.
And the reason that God expects us to be generous and to take care of those in need is because that’s exactly what He does. Throughout the Bible we see how God generously takes care of those who are weak and needy. Psalm 68 verse 5 says.
5 Father to the fatherless, defender of widows—
this is God, whose dwelling is holy.
6 God places the lonely in families;
he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy. Psalm 68:5-6a
This is the character of God – to care for the weak and the helpless. We see that in how he chose the people of Israel in the first place – freeing them from slavery in Egypt. We see that in the life of Jesus – as he heals the sick and feeds the hungry and restore the sight of the blind. And of course, we see that most clearly in how He offers us Salvation. If anyone was weak and needy and in a desperate situation, it was us! Our sin had condemned us to an eternity apart from God. Yet in Romans 5:6 we read:
6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Romans 5:6
God’s love and concern for the weak and the helpless is what allows any of us to have forgiveness and life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And if we’ve been on the receiving end of God’s goodness and generosity, then I think it’s only natural that we would want to respond to that in kind. Christians should be the most generous, caring people in the world.
If we have been forgive our debt of sins – a debt that should cost us an eternity of separation from the life and the goodness of God – if that debt was paid for us – then how can we not be equally as generous to the people around us?
Or maybe to put it another way – if we trust God to give us the riches and glory of eternity with Him – shouldn’t we also trust him to take care us right here and now – whatever needs we might have here on earth?
With that perspective – it seems pretty silly to be stingy with the resources God’s given us. It seems very odd that we wouldn’t freely share everything we have with those in need around us.
If we really understood the generosity of our God, I think we would give lavishly to those in need. And I think that’s maybe why we read about the early church in Acts 2:44…
And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. 46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity— 47 all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved. Acts 2:44-47
I think these guys had a proper understand of the generosity of God. Now I’m not saying that you need to put your house up for sale and give the money to the poor. But what I am saying is that Christians, in response to what God has done for them, should be the most joyful, generous & caring people on the planet. And if we’re not, I’m not sure we really understand who our God is and what he’s done for us.
Perhaps that was the case in our story – these rich Israelites had failed to recognize what God had done for them. God had blessed them immensely. He had brought them out of exile. He had given them homes and land around Jerusalem. God had provided for them even in the midst of a famine.
But yet as if that wasn’t enough, instead of using their wealth to bless and help out their fellow Israelites who were struggling to survive – instead, they made their situation worse by demanding interest on whatever they loaned out.
And so Nehemiah was very angry – and rightly so. If you remember, one of the reasons that they wanted to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in the first place was because Jerusalem and the temple in it was symbolic of how they were God’s people. They had been chosen to be a holy people – set apart from all the other nations – as God’s representatives to world. They were to show the world what God was like. But this stingyness, this greed, this selfishness – was not a reflection of Nehemiah’s God. And so Nehemiah called them on it. Verse 9.
9 Then I pressed further, “What you are doing is not right! Should you not walk in the fear of our God in order to avoid being mocked by enemy nations? 10 I myself, as well as my brothers and my workers, have been lending the people money and grain, but now let us stop this business of charging interest. 11 You must restore their fields, vineyards, olive groves, and homes to them this very day. And repay the interest you charged when you lent them money, grain, new wine, and olive oil.” Nehemiah 5:9-11
And I love how clearly Nehemiah lays out exactly what needs to be done. Stop charging interest. Give them back their property. And pay them back the interest you charged.
These were very practical, straightforward steps to making things right. Its a great template for repentance. When God points out something in your life that is not honouring to him, this is exactly how we have to deal with it.
We stop doing that wrong thing and we start doing that right thing. And we do whatever’s necessary at whatever the cost to make sure that we set things right again.
Perhaps we can’t ever fully undo the damage that our sin has caused – but true repentance means we stop and we try to repair the damage to the best of our ability.
And so to their credit, that’s exactly what these wealthy Israelites did. Verse 12
12 They replied, “We will give back everything and demand nothing more from the people. We will do as you say.” Then I called the priests and made the nobles and officials swear to do what they had promised.
13 I shook out the folds of my robe and said, “If you fail to keep your promise, may God shake you like this from your homes and from your property!”
The whole assembly responded, “Amen,” and they praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised. Nehemiah 5:12-13
It seems that all’s well that ends well. The wealthy Israelites repent of how they had been taking advantage of the poorer Israelites. They follow through on their promise and give back all that the had taken. And as far as we know, everyone lives happily ever after – and in the next chapter, we’re right back to rebuilding the wall.
But I just wonder how this all impacted the people in the years to come – both the wealthy and the poor? Did the wealthy end up losing all their wealth as they returned all the land and the homes and vineyards and all that interest back to the people? Did the poor end up becoming rich – having been able to borrow all that money at no cost to them?
The Bible doesn’t give us those kinds of details, but it does include an interesting little footnote to this whole story. Nehemiah is obviously writing this all down years after the fact, and in these next few verses he reflects on his own practice of generosity during the years that he was in Jerusalem. This what it says, starting in verse 14…
14 For the entire twelve years that I was governor of Judah—from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of the reign of King Artaxerxes—neither I nor my officials drew on our official food allowance. 15 The former governors, in contrast, had laid heavy burdens on the people, demanding a daily ration of food and wine, besides forty pieces of silver. Even their assistants took advantage of the people. But because I feared God, I did not act that way.
16 I also devoted myself to working on the wall and refused to acquire any land. And I required all my servants to spend time working on the wall. 17 I asked for nothing, even though I regularly fed 150 Jewish officials at my table, besides all the visitors from other lands! 18 The provisions I paid for each day included one ox, six choice sheep or goats, and a large number of poultry. And every ten days we needed a large supply of all kinds of wine. Yet I refused to claim the governor’s food allowance because the people already carried a heavy burden.
19 Remember, O my God, all that I have done for these people, and bless me for it.
Basically, Nehemiah is recounting for us that he practiced what he preached. Even though, as governor, he was entitled to a significant food allowance, he never took it. He paid out of his own pocket for his own food, the food of his servants, and the food for 150 Jewish officials. He lived a life of generosity – and it would seem that God did indeed bless him for it. And that fits the pattern we see elsewhere in the Bible as well.
It seems the more that we are generous – the more God is generous with us.
24 One person is generous and yet grows more wealthy,
but another withholds more than he should and comes to poverty.
25 A generous person will be enriched,
and the one who provides water for others will himself be satisfied.
Proverbs 11:24-25 NET
When we mimic the amazing generosity of our heavenly father, we will never be in want. God has promised to provide for us everything we need. In fact, 2 Corinthians 9:8 says plainly…
God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. 2 Corinthians 9:8
I can certainly testify to that – and I know many of you can as well. We serve a pretty amazing and generous God who delights in taking good care of his children.
So how do we conclude after a message like this? After all this talk of being generous, perhaps we should take up the offering one more time. Just kidding! We’re not going to do that!
However, I will encourage you to practice generosity this week. Being generous is one of the character traits of who God is – and as his representatives, Christians should be the most joyfully generous people on the planet. Paul tells us that…
“…God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” 1 Corinthians 9:7b
That word ‘cheerfully’ is the greek word ‘hilarós’ – which is where we get the word ‘hilarious’. We should be hilarious givers! God doesn’t want us to give ‘till it hurts. He wants us to give ‘till it’s hilarious! We should have great joy in sharing with others!
We need to mimic our Heavenly Father and make it our joy to take care of the weak and needy – especially those in our own families. Pauls writes in 1 Timothy 5:8…
8 But those who won’t care for their relatives, especially those in their own household, have denied the true faith. Such people are worse than unbelievers. 1 Timothy 5:8
Those are some pretty harsh words – but they’re true. How could we possible say that we have the love of God in us – if we don’t take care of our own family – our own church family and those in our own neighborhood?
Later this afternoon as we ratify our constitution and elect our first board members – we’re also going to approve our first budget. And I know that right now we’re still in the early stages and we’re just trying to get our feet under us – but I would love to see within the next 5 years that 50% of our annual budget – whatever that ends up being – but 50% of the money that comes in – we get to give away to people in need. Maybe that’s to provide for those in need right here in Penhold – maybe that’s to support several missionaries – maybe that’s to plant a whole new church somewhere else…
But I’d love to see us be a church that gives hilariously! I would love to see us be a church that reflects the generosity of our God. And I think we’re already well on our way to becoming that church.
I love our Christmas tradition of putting together as many food hampers as we can to help those families in need right here in our community. Of course, Christmas isn’t the only time we’ve been able to help folks out – it’s been a joy to watch you guys give away furniture, groceries, gift cards and all sorts of stuff to different people as they’ve had need.
In the 2.5 years that we’ve been a church we’ve supported and sent out two short-term missionaries. (Sarah was our first, and Jake is heading down to Mexico in just few weeks.) We’ve taken on Greg as pastor to our youth and the youth of Penhold. And Greg doesn’t get a salary – he’s just supported as a missionary by the people who love what He’s doing – and I know many of you are making that possible for him. This last summer we commissioned the Mitton’s – a family right from our own congregation – as missionaries to the hurting families in Central Alberta. They are in the process right now of trying to raise full-time support so they can do the work that God’s called them to do – I would love to see the generosity of our church make that possible for them.
And who knows what other opportunities God is going to bring our way? All I know is that we’ve got to be an accurate reflection of the generosity of our God.
God has been so good to us – how can we do anything but share that goodness with the people around us?