This chapter is based on Nehemiah 5.
The wall of Jerusalem had not yet been completed when my attention was called to the unhappy condition of the poorer classes of the people. In the unsettled state of the country, tillage had been to some extent neglected. Furthermore, because of the selfish course pursued by some who had returned to Judea, the Lord’s blessing was not resting upon their land, and there was a scarcity of grain.
In order to obtain food for their families, the poor were obliged to buy on credit and at exorbitant prices. They were also compelled to raise money by borrowing on interest to pay the heavy taxes imposed upon them by the kings of Persia. To add to the distress of the poor, the more wealthy among the Jews had taken advantage of their necessities, thus enriching themselves.
The Lord had commanded Israel, through Moses, that every third year a tithe be raised for the benefit of the poor; and a further provision had been made in the suspension of agricultural labor every seventh year, the land lying fallow, its spontaneous products being left to those in need.
Faithfulness in devoting these offerings to the relief of the poor and to other benevolent uses would have tended to keep fresh before the people the truth of God’s ownership of all, and their opportunity to be channels of blessing. It was God’s purpose that the Israelites should have a training that would eradicate selfishness, and develop breadth and nobility of character.
God had also instructed through Moses: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.” “Do not charge a fellow Israelite interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest.” Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19. Again He had said, “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Deuteronomy 15:7, 8, 11.
At times following the return of the exiles from Babylon, the wealthy Jews had gone directly contrary to these commands. When the poor were obliged to borrow to pay tribute to the king, the wealthy had lent them money, but had exacted a high rate of interest. By taking mortgages on the lands of the poor, they had gradually reduced the unfortunate debtors to the deepest poverty.
Many had been forced to sell their sons and daughters into servitude; and there seemed no hope of improving their condition, no way to redeem either their children or their lands, no prospect before them but ever-increasing distress, with perpetual want and bondage. Yet they were of the same nation, children of the same covenant, as their more favoured brethren.
At length the people presented their condition before Nehemiah. “Lo,” they said, “we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought into bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards.”
As I heard of this cruel oppression, my soul was filled with indignation. “I was very angry,” I said “when I heard their cry and these words.” I saw that if I succeeded in breaking up the oppressive custom of exaction I must take a decided stand for justice. With characteristic energy and determination I went to work to bring relief to my brethren.
The fact that the oppressors were men of wealth, whose support was greatly needed in the work of restoring the city, did not for a moment influence me. I sharply rebuked the nobles and rulers, and when I had gathered a great assembly of the people I set before them the requirements of God touching the case.
I called their attention to events that had occurred in the reign of King Ahaz. I repeated the message which God had at the time sent to Israel to rebuke their cruelty and oppression. The children of Judah, because of their idolatry, had been delivered into the hands of their still more idolatrous brothers, the people of Israel. The latter had indulged their enmity by slaying in battle many thousands of the men of Judah and had seized all the women and children, intending to keep them as slaves or to sell them into bondage to the heathen.
Because of the sins of Judah, the Lord had not interposed to prevent the battle, but by the prophet Oded He rebuked the cruel design of the victorious army:
“ And now you intend to make the men and women of Judah and Jerusalem your slaves. But aren’t you also guilty of sins against the LORD your God?” 2 Chronicles 28:10. Oded warned the people of Israel that the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and that their course of injustice and oppression would call down His judgments.
Upon hearing these words, the armed men left the captives and the spoil before the princes and all the congregation. Then certain leading men of the tribe of Ephraim “The men designated by name took the prisoners, and from the plunder they clothed all who were naked. They provided them with clothes and sandals, food and drink, and healing balm. All those who were weak they put on donkeys. So they took them back to their fellow Israelites at Jericho, the City of Palms, and returned to Samaria.” Verse 15.
I and others had ransomed certain of the Jews who had been sold to the heathen, and he now placed this course in contrast with the conduct of those who for the sake of worldly gain were enslaving their brothers. “Neh 5:9 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 showed them that I, being invested with authority from the Persian king, might have demanded large contributions for my personal benefit. But instead of this I had not taken even that which justly belonged to me but had given liberally to relieve the poor in their need. I urged those among the Jewish rulers who had been guilty of extortion, to cease this iniquitous work; to restore the lands of the poor.
These words were spoken in the presence of the whole congregation. Had the rulers chosen to justify themselves, they had opportunity to do so. But they offered no excuse. “Neh 5:12 “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.” “And all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the Lord. And the people did according to this promise.”
This record teaches an important lesson. “The love of money is the root of all evil.” 1 Timothy 6:10. In this generation the desire for gain is the absorbing passion. Wealth is often obtained by fraud. There are multitudes struggling with poverty, compelled to labor hard for small wages, unable to secure even the barest necessities of life. Toil and deprivation, with no hope of better things, make their burden heavy. Careworn and oppressed, they know not where to turn for relief. And all this that the rich may support their extravagance or indulge their desire to hoard!
Love of money and love of display have made this world as a den of thieves and robbers. The Scriptures picture the greed and oppression that will prevail just before Christ’s second coming.
Jas 5:1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.
Jas 5:2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.
Jas 5:3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.
Jas 5:4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.
Jas 5:5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.
Jas 5:6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
Even among those who profess to be walking in the fear of the Lord, there are some who are acting over again the course pursued by the nobles of Israel. Because it is in their power to do so, they exact more than is just, and thus become oppressors. And because avarice and treachery are seen in the lives of those who have named the name of Christ, because the church retains on her books the names of those who have gained their possessions by injustice, the religion of Christ is held in contempt.
Many people’s faith and spirituality are being destroyed by excess, overreach, and extortion. The church bears a heavy share of the blame for the transgressions of its people. If she doesn’t speak out against evil, she lends her support to it.
The world’s traditions are not a benchmark for Christians. He must not mimic its shady tactics, overreach, or coercion. The golden rule is broken if someone treats another person. Every wrong done to the children of God is done to Christ Himself in the person of His saints. Every attempt to take advantage of the ignorance, weakness, or misfortune of another is registered as fraud in the ledger of heaven. He who truly fears God, would rather toil day and night, and eat the bread of poverty, than to indulge the passion for gain that oppresses the widow and fatherless or turns the stranger from his right.
The slightest departure from rectitude breaks down the barriers and prepares the heart to do greater injustice. Just to that extent that a man would gain an advantage for himself at the disadvantage of another, will his soul become insensible to the influence of the Spirit of God. The gain obtained at such a cost is a fearful loss.
We were all debtors to divine justice, but we had nothing with which to pay the debt. Then the Son of God, who pitied us, paid the price of our redemption. He became poor that through His poverty we might be rich. By deeds of liberality toward His poor we may prove the sincerity of our gratitude for the mercy extended to us.
“Let us do good unto all men,” the apostle Paul enjoins, “especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” Galatians 6:10. And his words accord with those of the Saviour: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” Mark 14:7
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”; Matthew 7:12.
This chapter is based on Nehemiah 5.