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. Nehemiah 5:6-13
Nehemiah The Principled Leader
The first section of Nehemiah 5 chronicles the grievances of the poor Jews against their richer compatriots who were practicing usury by charging unlawful interest on borrowed money. In that section, we learned that the famine in the land caused undue hardships to the people who, because of their focus on repairing the walls, were not able to make enough money to buy food and take care of their families’ needs. We also learned that a majority of the people struggled to pay the King’s taxes, even after mortgaging their homes. The situation was so dreadful that many of the poorer Jews subjected their sons and daughters to slavery so they can raise funds to buy food. When the grievances of the poor Jews were made known to Nehemiah, he was angry (v. 7). Despite his anger, Nehemiah carefully pondered the crisis in his mind and developed a strategy for addressing it. He skillfully avoided personally alienating the nobles and officials since these individuals were critical to the success of the rebuilding project. That does not mean he did not confront them and rebuke them for their duplicitous actions against their poorer Jewish brothers and sisters. He called a large meeting during which he accused them of exacting usury against their own people, which was a violation of God’s law (Exodus 22:25).
Nehemiah reminded the nobles and officials that they were condoning practices that were enslaving their fellow Jews. It was against the Law of God for an Israelite to sell a fellow Jew (Leviticus 25:42). Indeed, these nobles and officials were selling their poverty-stricken fellow Jews to gentile masters. In verse 8, Nehemiah reminded these nobles and officials that he actively buying back the Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. The language of verse 8 suggests that the nobles sold their fellow Jews in Gentile markets, knowing that Nehemiah would buy them back. These nobles and officials did not refute or deny Nehemiah’s accusation. Instead, they remained silent as Nehemiah exposed their unethical and ungodly practices. In verse 9, Nehemiah reminded these officials that even the enemies of the Jews were critical of their treatment of their poverty-stricken fellow Jews. In other words, these officials were unwittingly helping the enemies of the Jews to halt the rebuilding of the walls.
In verse 10, Nehemiah disclosed that he, his brothers, and his men were also lending the people money and grain. But unlike the nobles and officials, he was not charging interest as is suggested by some scholars. The fact that he says “let us stop charging interest” does not indicate that he was involved in the same practice. “This was merely a tactful identification of himself with the violators, to promote goodwill and to avoid antagonism; and this is by no means the only example of a Biblical writer's using that very same device for the sake of avoiding unnecessary bitterness. "Ezra identified himself with the marriage offenders (Ezra 9:6) although he had not contracted an illicit marriage." Paul uses similar language in Hebrews 6:1, 3 where he writes "Let us press on ... not laying again a foundation of repentance, ... and this will we do if God permits.” “In this passage, Paul used the first person plural twice (capitalized words in the passage above); but he was not confessing that he was guilty of the same errors he was attempting to correct in the recipients of his letter. In the same manner, here, Nehemiah's use of the first person plural was not a confession that he was the same kind of heartless usurer as the rulers and nobles.” In verse 11, Nehemiah demanded that the nobles and officials do the same and stop exacting usury on their fellow Jews. Moreover, he insisted that these nobles and officials give back immediately, the fields, vineyards, olive groves, and houses, to their rightful owners, including the interest they are charging the people—one percent of the money, grain, new wine, and olive oil.
According to the James Burton Coffman Commentary on Nehemiah, the demand in verse 11, “was a public request, backed up by the support of the general assembly that all the abuses be ended at once. Several types of oppressing the poor are in evidence in this blanket request. (1) There was the interest charge (a hundredth part of the money. "This was a monthly charge, amounting to 12% a year." (2) Then there were the fields confiscated through foreclosures, and (3) the extravagant rental charges "in kind," the grain, wine, oil, etc.” The response from the nobles and officials to Nehemiah's compelling argument and convicting words were as expected. In verse 12, they agree to give back as demanded by Nehemiah. However, Nehemiah summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they promised because he did not trust them. He knew these greedy men could easily relapse into their old habits. Nehemiah further cemented the vows of the nobles and officials in verse 13, by shaking out the fold of his robe, saying “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!” “This was a symbolical action, as were the deeds of many of the prophets, designed to emphasize their words. It was an appeal that God would drastically and completely punish and remove all violators of the promises they had sworn to honor.”
In this section of Chapter 5, Nehemiah demonstrates the 3 C’s of effective leadership. The first C is courage. When Nehemiah heard what the nobles and officials were doing to their poverty-stricken fellow Jews he confronted them. The spiritual leader must have the courage to exercise spiritual authority over those they lead. Such a leader must have the courage to make godly decisions, confront sinful circumstances, and rebuke un-repenting sinners and those that are undermining the vision of the organization. They must possess the aptitude of humility even as they administrate the affairs of God with bold determination and prophetic authority. They must be willing to say “thus sayeth the Lord,” even when the message is unpopular. They must not be afraid to make hard decisions even if that may endanger their life and safety.
The second C is conviction. Nehemiah was a man of godly convictions. He felt very strongly that the nobles and officials violated the core principles of God’s law and human decency. Although he needed the support of the nobles and officials, he did not hesitate to confront them and to compel them to change their sinful ways. Because of his convictions, he used his own money to redeem Jews sold to Gentile masters.
A Spirit-led leader must be a person of conviction. Their action must be predicated upon their obedience to the word of God. Without strong convictions, it is difficult to know where a leader stands and the core values that shape their decisions. Such fundamental information is critical for transparency and accountability. That helps to shape the identity of the organization and the way the organization is perceived internally and externally.
The third C is compassion. Nehemiah’s demonstrated anger against the nobles and officials was due to his compassion for the poverty-stricken Jews. He was angry at the fact that the people were mortgaging their homes and enslaving their children so they can get food to eat. Nehemiah, his brothers, and his men loaned money to some of the people without interest. He made the nobles and the officials take an oath to “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.” In chapter 4, Nehemiah volunteered as a guard to help protect the people against their enemies while they were doing the repairs. Nehemiah’s compassion shaped his response to the officials and the way he managed the rebuilding effort. He prioritized the wellbeing of the people over the success of the rebuilding, though he was committed to the success of the rebuilding work.
Blessed Lord, may we learn to exemplify the characteristics of godly leadership as we administrate your affairs.