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.” Nehemiah 5:1-5
In chapter 4, Nehemiah implemented a strategic plan to ensure the maintenance of the building projects. The plan was quite successful and the repair was ongoing. However, chapter 5 gives us a glimpse of an internal conflict that Nehemiah has to deal with. There are four causes of the conflict: 1. Over-population- More and more people were returning from Exile (Nehemiah 5:2) 2. Recent Famine (Nehemiah 5:3) 3. Heavy Taxation (Nehemiah 5:4) 4. Predatory lending (Nehemiah 5:7)
In verse 1, the poor Jews who were landless raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews because they were desperately short of food. These were people who repatriated to Jerusalem without any source of income or land to sustain them. They had money problems because they worked hard on the walls and did not spend the same time providing for the needs of their household. They relied on the benevolence of their fellow Jews to get grain to eat.
Another group of Jews who were landowners was compelled to mortgage their fields, their vineyards, and their homes because of the famine (v. 3). According to Benson Commentary: Not long before this, there had been a great scarcity because of a drought caused by God as a punishment for the people’s taking more care to build their own houses than his temple, as we read Haggai 1:9-11. And, in this time of scarcity, the rich had no compassion for their poor brethren, who were forced to sell all they had to get enough food to eat. The famine worsened for the multitude of the people in and near Jerusalem because they were too busy working on the walls. These people did not their land as much as they could because of the expectation of their enemies’ invasion. You may recall in Nehemiah 4:22, Nehemiah asked the people working on the walls to stay inside the city. Thus the people could not go about to fetch provision, and the people living outside the city could not bring provisions inside to them.
Verse 4 talks about another group of Jews who were forced to borrow money at the exorbitant rate of 12 percent to pay the king’s taxes. The usurious rates caused some to be in default. Therefore, they gave their children as servants to their lenders to pay off the debt. To make matters worse, these Jews were not able to redeem their sons and daughters from servitude because they struggled to pay their taxes and could not raise any money because they had already mortgaged their fields.
The internal conflict among the Jews threatened to do far more damages than Tobiah, Sanballat, Gershem, and the other enemies of the Jews who wanted to stop the rebuilding of the walls. At the heart of the conflict is greed and a disregard for the sacrifices that many of the poorer Jews made by investing all their time in working on the walls instead of working to provide for their families. The poorer Jews were not asking for handouts, per se. Many of them offered their children as indentured servants so they can get grain to eat.
The rich Jews who profited from the misfortune of their fellow Jews were violating the law. Exodus 22:25 specifically says, “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not charge interest as a money lender would.” This is repeated in Leviticus 25:35-36; Deuteronomy 15:7; Deuteronomy 23:19-20. In addition, these Jews knew that because of the threat of those who wanted to stop the repair of the walls, many of their brethren could not work their fields or do anything other than working on the walls. The rich Jews demonstrated a lack of empathy for their poorer brothers and sisters.
What’s more, many landowners still struggled to feed their families because they had to pay the King’s taxes. Not paying the taxes could have led to a possible invasion from the King’s army. Nehemiah had tried very hard to stay in the good graces of the King to ensure the walls would be repaired. The people could not afford to upset the King by not paying their taxes, even amid a famine.
In times of crisis, people must come together and not allow personal agenda and greed siphon off the momentum they can gain by their concern for one another. It is not for a lack of vision that great nations fall. Whenever a privileged minority begins to take advantage of the less affluent or poorer majority, implosion is unavoidable and the vision will perish. Those who have been given many shares a greater burden to do more to help others. Whereas it may be tempting to take advantage of people in their misfortune, it usually leads to dysfunction and destruction. The greed of the rich Jews almost ruined the great work that was done. Had it not be for the wisdom of Nehemiah, that crisis could have disrupted the rebuilding of the walls which was exactly what the enemies of the Jews wanted.
Blessed Lord, please help us to be as concerned about the needs of others as we are about our own needs