Greed, The Enemy Within Nehemiah 5a
Stephen Caswell © 2000
In Hank Ketcham's comic strip "Dennis the Menace," Dennis is looking through a catalog saying, This catalog's got a lot of toys I didn't even know I wanted. Greed is a problem that has always plagued mankind. Even God's people aren't immune to this insidious enemy.
Last Sunday we saw four types of opposition that Israel faced. They faced ridicule, force, discouragement and fear. For the most part the opposition came from without. Today we will see an even more dangerous enemy; greed. This chapter reveals to us the depths of sin in the human heart and how each of us must learn to love our neighbors as ourselves. This moving drama has three acts.
I. A Great Cry II. A Great Assembly III. A Great Example
Firstly A Great Cry
Nehemiah 5:1 And there was a great outcry of the people and their wives against their Jewish brethren.
In the midst of a great work for a great God, a great cry was heard among the Jews. They were not crying out against the Samaritans, the Ammonites, or the Arabs, but against their own people! Jew was exploiting Jew, and the economic situation had become so desperate that even the wives who usually kept silent joined in the protest. Four different groups of people were involved in this crisis.
Nehemiah 5:2 For there were those who said, We, our sons, and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain, that we may eat and live.
Firstly, there were people who owned no land but needed food. The population had increased; there was a famine; and the people were hungry. These people could not help themselves so they cried out to Nehemiah. They were starving and no one cared about them.
Nehemiah 5:3 There were also some who said, We have mortgaged our lands and vineyards and houses, that we might buy grain because of the famine.
The second group was composed of landowners who had mortgaged their property in order to buy food. The choice was mortgage their land or starve.
Nehemiah 5:4 There were also those who said, We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our lands and vineyards.
The third group complained because the taxes were too high, and they were forced to borrow money to pay them. In order to borrow the money, they had to give security; and this meant eventually losing their property. The Persian king received a fortune in annual tribute, very little of which ever benefited the local provinces.
Nehemiah 5:5 Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children; and indeed we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been brought into slavery. It is not in our power to redeem them, for other men have our lands and vineyards.
The fourth group was made up of wealthy Jews. They were exploiting their own brothers and sisters by loaning them money and taking their lands and their children for collateral. Jewish boys and girls had to choose between starvation or servitude! It was not unlawful for Jews to loan money to one another, but they were not to act like money lenders charging interest. The Law required them to treat one another with love even in the matter of taking security or making a brother a servant. Both the people and the land belonged to the Lord, and He would not have anybody using either one for personal gain. A reason for the Year of Jubilee was to balance the economic system so that the rich could not get richer as the poor became poorer.
How do these matters apply to the Church? From the Church's beginning, there have been poor folk needing help. We are to care for them. We must never exploit them for personal gain! The early Church was careful to minister to the poor and the widows. We ought to follow their example. God wants us to help the needy by giving to meet their needs. Unfortunately many Christians can't give because they are like Dennis the Menace looking through shopping catalogues. They spend everything on themselves. Are we concerned for the needy in our midst? Do we assist the elderly, the widows and the unemployed when we are able? Christ calls us to. How did Nehemiah respond to this situation? He called:
Secondly A Great Assembly
Nehemiah 5:7 After serious thought, I rebuked the nobles and rulers, and said to them, Each of you is exacting usury from his brother. So I called a great assembly against them.
It is one thing to confront foreign enemies but something else to deal with your own people when they fight each other. Nehemiah showed true leadership in his response to the problem.
Nehemiah 5:6 And I became very angry when I heard their outcry and these words.
Nehemiah became angry at the way the rich had taken advantage of the poor. They had no compassion for their brethren. Ephesians 4:26 says: Be angry and sin not: neither let the sun go down on your wrath. How can you be angry without sinning? By being angry only at sin. Nehemiah was angry at the sins of the nobles who were oppressing the poor.
Nehemiah was not a politician who asked, What is popular? or a diplomat who asked, What is safe? but a true leader who asked, What is right? His was a holy anger against sin, and he knew he had the Law of God behind him. Moses expressed this kind of holy anger when he broke the stone tables of Law. Jesus was angry at the money changers in the temple.
Nehemiah 5:7a After serious thought
The KJV says I consulted with myself. This literally means my heart consulted within me. A friend of mine calls this putting my heads together. Actually, Nehemiah put his heart and his head together as he pondered the problem and sought God’s direction. He got control of his feelings and his thoughts so that he could give constructive leadership to the people. Proverbs 16:32 says: He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. If a leader can’t control himself, he will never be successful in controlling others. Nehemiah decided to call a great assembly and publicly confront the people whose selfishness had created this difficult and painful situation. Theirs was a grievous public sin, involving the whole nation. It demanded public rebuke and repentance.
Nehemiah 5:7b I rebuked the nobles and rulers, and said to them, Each of you is exacting usury from his brother. So I called a great assembly against them. Nehemiah’s rebuke of the exploiters consisted of five different appeals.
1. Brotherly Love
Nehemiah 5:7b-8 Each of you is exacting usury from his brother. And I said to them, According to our ability we have redeemed our Jewish brethren who were sold to the nations. Now indeed, will you even sell your brethren?
In his challenge Nehemiah uses the word brethren four times. They were sinning against their own family. He appealed to them to show compassion to their own people. God wanted his people to work together in harmony, not take advantage of each other. Psalm 133:1 says: Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! Jesus commands us to love one another. If we love some one we won't exploit them for personal gain. Jesus and Paul both said to love is to fulfill the Law and the prophets.
2. God's Redemptive Purpose
Nehemiah 5:8 And I said to them, According to our ability we have redeemed our Jewish brethren who were sold to the nations. Now indeed, will you even sell your brethren? Or should they be sold to us? Then they were silenced and found nothing to say.
God had enabled his people to return from exile in Babylon. He had released them from slavery. God originally brought them out of Egypt to set them free that they might be His people and serve Him. He didn't want His people to be enslaved but free. This verse informs us that Nehemiah and others of the leading Jews had helped redeem some of their people, and now their fellow Jews were putting people into bondage just to make money.
These selfish money lenders were tearing down everything that God and Nehemiah were trying to build up. They had forgotten why God had called them. He wanted them to be a godly nation not a greedy one!
3. God's Word
Deuteronomy 23:19-20 You shall not charge interest to your brother—interest on money or food or anything that is lent out at interest. To a foreigner you may charge interest, but to your brother you shall not charge interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all to which you set your hand in the land which you are entering to possess.
The Law of Moses forbade Jews to exact interest from one another. The Jewish nation went into Babylonian Captivity an agricultural people, but some of them came out a mercantile people, having learned how to use money to make money. There is certainly nothing wrong with lending money, providing we don’t violate God’s Word and exploit those who are helpless. We are to obey God's Law and the laws of the land. It is remarkable how much the Bible has to say about the right and wrong use of money. Many people think that because they tithe, or give offerings to the Lord, they can do what they please with the rest of their income. They forget that we are stewards of all that God gives us, not just of what we give Him. God will hold us accountable for the stewardship of all our belongings.
4. Their Witness
Nehemiah 5:9 Then I said, What you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies?
By exploiting one another these nobles left a bad witness to the surrounding nations. Instead of helping one another in the fear of God they were motivated completely by greed. What can I get out of it? God called Israel to be a light to the Gentiles, but their conduct was certainly anything but a witness to their pagan neighbors. How could some of the Jewish citizens build the city wall on the one hand but enslave their neighbors on the other hand? If we truly fear the Lord, then we will want to honor Him before those who don’t believe in Him. The nations who saw how they exploited each another must have been amazed. They cared for their fellow countrymen better then the Jews who claimed to fear God. To fear the Lord means to seek to glorify God in everything we do. It means listening to His Word, honoring it, and obeying it.
5. Nehemiah's Example
Nehemiah 5:10-11 I also, with my brethren and my servants, am lending them money and grain. Please, let us stop this usury! Restore now to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive groves, and their houses, also a hundredth of the money and the grain, the new wine and the oil, that you have charged them.
Nehemiah and his brethren lent money and grain to the needy. But they didn't charge interest. He didn't take away their security by possessing their property when they couldn't pay. Unlike some leaders, Nehemiah was not saying, Do what I say, not what I do! He was not a hypocrite; he practiced what he preached. In fact, this chapter will conclude with Nehemiah pointing out all that God had enabled him to do for his people.
He was a good example as a believer and as a leader. These wealthy nobles ought to follow the example of Nehemiah their Governor. Nehemiah closed his challenge to the nobles with a command to restore everything. The hundredth part in verse 11 was the interest charged for the money, probably applied monthly, making a total of 12 percent interest a year.
Nehemiah 5:12 So they said, We will restore it, and will require nothing from them; we will do as you say. Then I called the priests, and required an oath from them that they would do according to this promise.
A man of action, Nehemiah told the brokers to restore both the interest and the security they had taken from their fellow Jews, as well as the property they had claimed in foreclosure. The nobles promised to restore their lands, houses, olive groves, vineyards, interest and the produce from them. They even went further and forgave the debts. This would give the people a chance to make a fresh start. It gave them hope for the future!
e. Recorded It
Nehemiah 5:13 Then I shook out the fold of my garment and said, So may God shake out each man from his house, and from his property, who does not perform this promise. Even thus may he be shaken out and emptied. And all the assembly said, Amen! and praised the Lord. Then the people did according to this promise.
The great assembly concluded with 3 actions emphasizing the seriousness of the occasion.
Firstly, Nehemiah shook out the folds of his robe, symbolic of what God would do with the money lenders if they didn’t fulfill their vow. It was a typically Jewish act of condemnation.
Secondly, the congregation responded with a collective Amen, which was much more than a Jewish ritual. It was their solemn assent to what had been said and done at the assembly. The word amen means so be it. In other words, May the Lord do all that you said! It was an act of worship that made the entire assembly a part of the decisions that were made.
Thirdly, the congregation unitedly praised the Lord. Why? Because God had enabled Nehemiah to help them begin to solve their problems, and he had directed the money lenders to acknowledge their sins and make restitution.
This great assembly was not an economic summit; it was a worship service where Nehemiah had lifted a financial problem to the highest possible level. God’s people need to follow his example and deal with every problem in the light of the will of God as declared in the Word of God. Do you treat your brothers honestly? Have you taken advantage of someone? If so then you need to put things right. Do you owe someone a debt? This passage does not mean you don't have to repay them. It only means that believers mustn't take advantage of one another and charge interest. In the final verses of chapter 5 we find: A Great Example
Thirdly A Great Example
D.L. Moody said, A holy life will produce the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns; they only shine. In our day of public scandals in almost every area of life, especially the political, how refreshing it is to meet a man like Nehemiah who put serving the people ahead of getting gain for himself. During his first term of twelve years as governor, and then during his second term of office, he used his privileges for helping the people; he did not use the people to build a kingdom for himself. In that day, most officials exercised their authority in order to promote themselves and protect their personal interests. As children of God, our example is Jesus Christ who cared for others, not the leaders of this world
a. Paid For His Own Needs
Nehemiah 5:14-15a Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year until the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the governor’s provisions. But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people, and took from them bread and wine, besides forty shekels of silver.
Nehemiah was entitled to receive money from the people to supply his needs as Governor. But he paid his own way. Nehemiah drew from the resources he had saved up as the king's cup bearer. The previous Governors had taken generous wages from the people but Nehemiah wouldn't do this because the Jews were struggling [verse 18].
b. Properly Used His Position
Nehemiah 5:15b-16 Yes, even their servants bore rule over the people, but I did not do so, because of the fear of God. Indeed, I also continued the work on this wall, and we did not buy any land.
Nehemiah didn't abuse his position as Governor because he feared God. He also made sure that his servants didn't abuse their authority. This had happened under previous establishments. This included using your position to build up an empire. As Governor he could have easily acquired land and wealth. Politicians do this today. They buy land at low prices and then have it rezoned to make a large profit.
c. Participated In Rebuilding The Wall
Nehemiah 5:16 Indeed, I also continued the work on this wall, and we did not buy any land. All my servants were gathered there for the work.
Nehemiah didn't mind getting his hands dirty. Even though he was Governor, he got in and worked on the wall. Too many people think that leadership is organizing others to do all the work. Nehemiah didn't think this way. Although he organized the project he also worked on it too. This was the reason he came to Jerusalem and he wasn't distracted from it. He and his servants worked hard with the people.
d. Provided For Other's Needs
Nehemiah 5:17-18 And at my table were one hundred and fifty Jews and rulers, besides those who came to us from the nations around us. Now that which was prepared daily was one ox and six choice sheep. Also fowl were prepared for me, and once every ten days an abundance of all kinds of wine. Yet in spite of this I did not demand the governor’s provisions, because the bondage was heavy on this people.
Nehemiah was an example in another way: He not only paid for his own food, but he shared what he had with others. He regularly fed over 150 guests, both residents and visitors, and he gave them a marvelous meal! It is estimated that this amount of food would meet the needs of over 500 guests, so Nehemiah must have kept open house constantly. Or perhaps he shared what was left with the people working on the wall. At any rate, he was generous to others and asked for no reward.
e. Pleased The Lord In Everything
Neh 5:19 Remember me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.
Nehemiah 5:19 indicates perhaps the greatest thing about Nehemiah’s service: He did what he did only to please the Lord. This is the fourth of his prayers. It is a wonderful expression of worship and humility. He didn’t want praise or reward from the people; he wanted only the reward God would give him for his sacrificial service.
Greed And Giving
Greed can overpower nearly all elements of spiritual maturity. That is why giving is so important. Giving should not be like an overflow valve on our wealth, that is, giving away our excess. Rather it should be like a fountain freely bubbling over. You see for wealthy people, tithing is actually an escape from real giving, since they can easily spare 10 percent! Nehemiah certainly thought this way! He gave up his rights and shared his goods freely!
A holy life lived for the Lord produces the deepest impression. Nehemiah lived this way. He put others first. Do we put ourselves or others first? Do we seek to build up our own empires or try to help others? Do you give to the needy? Do you have them over for a meal? Are you involved in the Lord's work? Is your motive to please the Lord in everything?
Today we have seen the enemy at work within through greed.
I. A Great Cry - Many oppressed people cried out to Nehemiah for help.
III. A Great Assembly - After reflection he assembled the people to deal with this sin.
III. A Great Example - Nehemiah set a wonderful example for people to follow. He was a godly leader that put others first.