Nehemiah 5:1-19.
Resolving Internal Strife

American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2015, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


Constructive confrontation is not an easy task.  Perhaps the anxiety of confrontation is one reason why confrontation doesn't occur more often.  In the church setting where we preach peace, harmony, and unity, the impression is often given that conflict is sin.  Inner conflict often remains under the surface where it does much more damage rather than being brought into the open and dealt with.  Confronting an internal problem strips it of its damaging power and opens the door for restoration and justice.

Leaders of any organization are responsible to hear complaints and to respond.  In the context of the following biblical passage, Nehemiah carefully disclosed his own fair dealings with the Jews to demonstrate his integrity and honesty.[1]  Unfortunately, not all leaders can feel Nehemiah's freedom to confront, because they are involved in unfair or unjust practices themselves.  The following passage illustrates some good methods and strategies for confrontation, even in the family of God.

Nehemiah 5:1.  And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews.

Nehemiah has been leading the Jews of Jerusalem in the rebuilding of the walls surrounding the city.  He has dealt with numerous problems that have come from outside the body of Jews, particularly threats of violence from the Persians and their pagan allies.  He went so far as to put together an armed force as large as the workforce, and to arm all of the adult workers.  They were able to finish the task in only 52 days,[2] even under these conditions.  By the time we get to Chapter 5, the enemy insults have been debunked, and the enemy threats have been thwarted.  Now conflict begins to grow from within the community.  This conflict came from at least two sources:

·       The enemy promised to frustrate their efforts by infiltrating their body with people who would plant seeds of strife.

·       The people, though relatively safe, were still under an emotional siege by their neighbors, the Persian King, and their own fears. 

We may recall that, prior to coming to Jerusalem, Nehemiah’s heart was broken for the state of the people, a condition that was largely the consequence of seventy years of exposure to traveling marauders and warring tribes due to the lack of a defensible perimeter.  It was the condition of the people that caused Nehemiah’s sadness, not the lack of a wall.  However, Nehemiah knew the first step towards restoration of the city was to rebuild those walls.  When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, before addressing any other issues, he organized the city to rebuild the walls.  This was his primary objective in coming to Jerusalem.  It is likely that Nehemiah may have thought that he would simply bring the gift of the wall and its protection and then return to the court of Artaxerxes.  However, had this been his plan, it does not seem to have been the LORD’s plan. 

Nehemiah had succeeded in entering the city as a stranger, and mobilizing the people to accomplish a project that had vexed them for seventy years, doing so with a population that, even by Nehemiah’s testimony, had been suffering for years.  The walls were rebuilt, and they were now relatively safe from the pillaging they had suffered for several generations.  However, now that the walls were rebuilt, the infrastructure of the city needed to be rebuilt.  The economy had been destroyed, the landed had lost their land, and the people were on the brink of starvation.  Nehemiah demonstrated to Jerusalem his God-given gift of administration, and turned to him for leadership.

The scripture states that the "men and their wives raised a great outcry."  What is the significance of mentioning the wives here?  Women had very little influence in public matters in ancient near-eastern culture, so for their voice to be heard and recorded the outcry had to have been extremely remarkable.  If an event was taking place within the modern church fellowship that caused the men and their wives to raise a great collective outcry, what would be the response of the church leadership?  Most likely they would be led to listen carefully, consider the nature of the complaint, and respond in a constructive and peace-making manner that will lead the congregation towards a godly resolution of the conflict.  

The complaints that were voiced by the people identified several of the sources of injustice that they had suffered, and not all of them were from their pagan neighbors.  With the walls completed, the injustices at the hands of those outside of the Judean community were no longer a threat.  However, during their period of abuse, not all of that abuse came from outside of their fellowship.  Though Ezra had succeeded in bringing Jerusalem back from paganism to the worship of the LORD, there were still many left in the community who were not so led.  Now that their attention towards the Canaanites was ended, they turned their attention to the injustices that were taking place within the community of Jerusalem.  Typically, when a community responds to an external stressor it can promote unity.  Unfortunately, when a community responds to an internal stressor it can promote division.  The stresses on Jerusalem had been tremendous, and the administration of this latter stressor would require godly wisdom from its few-found, and somewhat hesitant, leader: Nehemiah.

Nehemiah 5:2-5.  For there were that said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live. 3Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth. 4There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards. 5Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards.

There were at least three real problems that were mentioned here.    

The people did not have much food.  This was a common problem in this area of the world, since most of the land was arid, and the governments were unstable, and generally dictatorial or tribal.  Such instability makes it difficult to maintain an agricultural economy.  The state of the Jews was particularly desperate as they had to scrape and glean for their food.  With the walls rebuilt it will be more difficult for them to enter the pagan lands for gleaning.

The people were in debt to one another.  Because of the terrible economic situation, people were paying a high price for scarce necessities.  They had taken one another's lands and properties, sons and daughters, and even themselves as collateral for debts they could not pay.  Though the Mosaic Law required a Jubilee that would remove debts every seven years and restore land every 49, the tradition had long been abandoned.  Those who were wealthy were taking advantage of the situation, becoming more wealthy. 

The "Flesh and blood" refers to Jewish creditors who had lent money, exacted excessive interest payments and seized collateral.  The second reference to daughters in slavery actually refers to daughters being taken into sexual slavery, or rape by the creditors.

In addition to paying inflated prices for their basic needs to the wealthy, the people were paying tribute to a foreign King who had declared his ownership of all of their lands, tribute collected by unscrupulous Jewish tax collectors who would exact far more payment, keeping the largess for themselves.  This further damaged their economic state and demoralized their self image because they perceived the land as theirs by birthright as a gift from God.  Giving up their land to the King or to others stripped them of their dignity and robbed them of the opportunity to get out of debt.

All these problems are interrelated and each makes the others worse.  These problems were neither created or exacerbated by the building of the wall.  Also, they were not caused by, or made any worse by the coming of Nehemiah.  However, up to this point in their community memory, Jerusalem had been totally subject to their environment with no leadership that would respond to their needs.  In Nehemiah they had some hope of resolution since he had already demonstrated successful God-centered leadership that they had never experienced, and as an emissary of the King, he had come to help the people.  For the first time, people had hope, but their status was desperate.

Nehemiah 5:6.  And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words.

Nehemiah's response was one of anger.  Actually, the use of the term here may refer to am astonishment arising from the grief of a broken heart.  Obviously, Nehemiah was surprised by the state of the people as testified to by their reports.  We must realize that Nehemiah came to Jerusalem from the King's court in what would be modern Iraq, and had not been a resident of Jerusalem before.  However, he was very familiar with the Mosaic law, and its prescriptions for Godly living.  He had learned that the people had become their own enemy because by rejecting the law, they were rejecting God, and subjecting themselves to the very wrath that sent them into exile in the first place.  Having a clear understanding that the stress placed upon Jerusalem came from its exposure to those who would ravage the city, he never would have expected that so much of their difficulty found its source in egregious injustices that came at the hands of their own, self-centered, influential Jewish brothers.

How should we respond when we hear of injustice against the church by members of the church?  Like Nehemiah, our hearts should also be broken.

Nehemiah 5:7.  I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them.

It may be interesting to note that Nehemiah did not respond immediately to the news he had heard.  He spent the time that was needed to analyze the information to separate truth from fiction and ascertain where the real stressors were.  He used his intelligence to control his emotions, considering proper action.  He concluded that the problem lay with the nobles and the officials, the men of influence.  The nobles were the wealthy Jews who were carrying the debts of the poorer Jews.  The officials were Jewish representatives of the Persian authority.  The word "accused" is a legal term that refers to bring specific charges against someone for breaking a covenant.  The charge he brought before them was “usury.”  This term refers to exacting exorbitant interest on loans.  When that interest includes taking property, land, and family members as slaves, we are observing what we may call “loan sharking.”  Mosaic law specifically forbids the collection of any interest on a debt to another Jew.[3]

Nehemiah 5:8-9  And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us? Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer. 9Also I said, It is not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?

Nehemiah met with and confronted the nobles and the officials.  He simply stated to them what they were doing without exaggeration, and kept his presentation within the context of God's Word.  With the walls rebuilt and the city secure, the Jews were now free of their burden that came at the hands of their pagan neighbors.  They have been “redeemed” from those outside the walls.  Yet, their redemption is not complete while they live under such a debilitating system driven by the leaders of their own community.  He then, without apology, declared that what they were doing was a clear violation of the word of God, actions that should cause them to fear the judgment of God.  Their fear of judgment should be particularly keen since they have seen how the LORD uses the military action of their neighbors to exact His judgment upon Israel, a situation that is quite timely, in light of the events that have taken place over the last seventy years. 

One of the great errors we make in the church is to fail to confront those within the fellowship who are engaged in wrongful actions.  Instead, we tend to keep our concerns from the leaders, perhaps share them among ourselves, and by so doing we fail to deal with the issue, and tend to divide the church into factions.  We may hope and pray that the LORD will change the heart of the oppressor(s), but since we distain conflict, we tend to shy away from involvement.  Had Nehemiah shied away from involvement, the injustices would have continued.

Responding to injustices within the church fellowship is proper and necessary.  The largesse of the New Testament epistles was written to address injustices in the body.  Responding to these issues requires courage, wisdom, and prayer.  When we do respond, we would be wise to follow Nehemiah's example.  He:

·       dealt with his emotions.

·       ascertained what were the real facts and who was really responsible.

·       confronted those who were responsible.

·       did not insult those responsible, and concentrated his criticism on the acts that were taking place, not on those who were doing it.

·       he defended the error of the acts in the light of the truth of scripture, not on his own opinion that could he challenged by others.

He did not simply leave them with criticisms.  He had already formulated a plan to extricate the abusers from their situation.

Nehemiah 5:10-11.  I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury. 11Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them.

As an emissary of the King, and as the one who could lead the entire city in the rebuilding of the walls, Nehemiah had quickly become the most influential person in Jerusalem.  None of the nobles or officials were in a position to pull rank on him.  So, the first recorded statement he makes in his strategy to convince them is to point out his position, and the greater right that he would have to take tribute from the people, and even to do so with usury.  His argument brings him into an understanding with the nobles and officials, and some may actually think he is joining their fraternity.

Nehemiah then brought in the argument of fairness.  They and we would probably not think that charging 1% interest is not exorbitant, though we do not know what the loan “period” would be.  We would gladly pay 1% to borrow money for major purposes such as a car or home.  However, these were not home loans and car loans.  People borrowed to purchase their everyday necessities out of their poverty, bought at exorbitant prices with a demand for their lands, vineyards, oliveyards, and houses as collateral, sending them deeper into poverty and taking from them all they have.  It is that collateral that the nobles and officers have taken.

He worded his argument as “let us…” and while assessing the situation, Nehemiah argued that since their acts were in disobedience to God and unfair, they could resolve the problem, at least in part by ending the practice of usury and collateral, and return all of it at once.   Nehemiah did not stop with his charges and criticism.  He provided a realistic and reasonable solution to the problem. 

Nehemiah 5:12-13.  Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest. Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise. 13Also I shook my lap, and said, So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, and emptied. And all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the LORD. And the people did according to this promise.

Nehemiah’s idea was quite convincing.  The nobles and officials probably never gave serious thought to the dramatic consequence that their actions were having on the community.  When the walls were down, life was chaotic, and they were acting like their influential pagan neighbors whose behavior they mimicked.  Nehemiah gently confronted them with the real nature of their actions, and they quickly understood, agreeing to return the collateral and interest they had taken.  Do note that the loans are not forgiven:  they were simply vowing to return the collateral and interest.  With the loans still intact, the nobles and officials could live with the solution.

There is something very important here that we should not overlook.  At no time did Nehemiah attack the nobles and officials.  He did not accuse them of their inappropriate behavior.  He did not insult them, call them stupid, or selfish, or anything else.  He never said anything that would place himself in an adversarial position. 

We minimize our effectiveness in dealing with others when we attack the person and not the problem.  When God saved his elect from the consequence of their sin, He does not attack them for their sin, but rather sheds His light of truth on it, allowing the sinner to choose repentance and faith.  The LORD has brought attention and illumination to the sin in our lives and empowered us to overcome it by love and direction.  Likewise, our response to those who we are in a difference of opinion must always be immersed in unconditional love.  When we disagree with another Christian, we must fight off the temptation to compromise the value of the individual, and focus our concern on the real conflict and its resolution.

Note the response of the nobles and officials when they were exposed with Nehemiah’s style of direction.  Not only did they respond to his recommendations, they did in full agreement with him because his resolution was presented in kindness and reason.  The people accepted his recommendation and his leadership.  His leadership of the people in the building of the wall gained their acceptance of his leadership, and now the nobles and officials were included in that number.

Most people, when attacked, will withdraw, defend, or attack back.  However, when we leave the personal attack out, that does not lead the individual in any of these ways.  When confronted in wisdom and love, a positive resolution can often be found.

Nehemiah 5:14-15.  Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that is, twelve years, I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor. 15But the former governors that had been before me were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver; yea, even their servants bare rule over the people: but so did not I, because of the fear of God.

When news of Nehemiah’s leadership in Jerusalem became known to Artaxerxes, the king appointed him Governor over Jerusalem.  This appointment was not insignificant.  We may recall that the king asked Nehemiah how long it would take for him to build the walls and return.  The king did not intend that Nehemiah would remain in Jerusalem.  The king, known for his brutality, also knew Nehemiah very well, yet as a pagan would not have fully understood that the wisdom of the LORD dwelt in Nehemiah’s heart.  There was simply something about him that the king liked to have as a resource in his court.  After dealing with a string of failing leadership in the city, Artaxerxes’ decision was practical.

It is evident that the text of Nehemiah’s book was written after he returned to the court of the king.  He served in Jerusalem as its governor for twelve years, and served in a manner that was rare among Israelite “kings.”  Given the opportunity to act like a king over the city, Nehemiah never allowed his self-definition to rise above his service as a governor.  Where the governors before him lived lavish lifestyles by taking from the people, Nehemiah lived within his own means.  Where previous governors built a cadre of people around themselves who served to exact his influence, Nehemiah had none.  The people did not live in fear of their governor.  The people were given a gift of time to heal, the rebuilding of their infrastructure so they could repay their loans, and bring their lives back to some form of normalcy. 

What separated Nehemiah from his predecessors is his sincere faith in God.  His decisions were shaped by the wisdom that comes from a close relationship with God, a wisdom that guided him from the moment he heard of the need in Jerusalem, through his request of the king, his journey to Jerusalem, the building of the wall, and the restoration of civil government in the city.

Nehemiah 5:16-19.  Yea, also I continued in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land: and all my servants were gathered thither unto the work. 17Moreover there were at my table an hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers, beside those that came unto us from among the heathen that are about us. 18Now that which was prepared for me daily was one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and once in ten days store of all sorts of wine: yet for all this required not I the bread of the governor, because the bondage was heavy upon this people. 19Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.

It is evident that not only did Nehemiah stop the taking of taxes that was done by his predecessors; he invited the nobles and officials to fellowship with him on a regular basis.  He kept the avenue of communication open so that future problems could be averted.  His relationships with the people, with the nobles, and the officials were sincere.  This dynamic would serve Nehemiah as his leadership and advice would lead the city closer faith in God.

Pretty good job for a butler.  His example is one to follow.

 

[1] Nehemiah 5:14-19.

[2] Nehemiah 6:15.

[3] Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:20.