Building with Compassion (Nehemiah 5:1-13)

Bible Passage: Nehemiah 5:1-13

The book of Nehemiah is about building the city walls of Jerusalem, but it is also about building the people of God and forging a community that lives in God’s way. In Nehemiah 5, the issue of money and oppression comes up. We know that there are powerful people in the world who have a lot of sway over how wealth is distributed. They have opportunity to create fair and just systems for the benefit of all, or they can exploit the system to take much for themselves at the expense of others.

Nehemiah 5 deals with both sides of the coin. It is about lifting poor people out of poverty, and about seeing the rich embrace generosity. The thing that motivated Nehemiah to build in the first place was that the people were vulnerable and shamed. It would be unthinkable now they are hungry and impoverished for Nehemiah to do nothing. The building project could be interrupted to take care of the human need.

The need was quite extreme. There were a lot of people but very little food. They needed more grain than they to feed everybody. In order to secure the food they needed people had to secure loans against their homes, their field and their vineyards.There were no regulations about how loans were to be made and exploitation was rife. Extortionate interest rates, repossession of property and violent intimidation were not uncommon. Taking such loans put people in a bad situation, but with their families starving they had no other choice. As well as the cost of food and interest payments on debts, another factor causing the poverty of the people was heavy taxation.

Their situation had become so desperate that people were forced to sell their children into slavery. They didn’t have a choice. Debt was owed. All their property had been mortgaged and so belonged to others and yet they owed money, so their children were taken.

Nehemiah responded in three ways:

  • Emotion – Nehemiah was not indifferent to the problems the people faced. He was moved to anger. This is the right response. Human suffering and the oppression that causes it is something that angers God and it is right that it angers us too.
  • Confrontation – He brought the issue up with those who were causing the suffering. He was direct and to the point. He didn’t shy away from stating directly that what they were doing was wrong. He also proposed an alternative course of action, pointing out his own practice as a model for how things could be done. Moreover, Nehemiah was winsome in how he addressed the issue. He didn’t handle the conversation in a way that alienated those he was speaking to, even though he needed to challenge their practice. Instead by putting his case clearly, persuasively and personally, he was able to win them to his cause and they changed their practice.
  • Personal – Nehemiah himself bought back many of those who had been sold into slavery and provided another option for those who needed loans by offering loans himself without asking for interest.

Potential Applications:

  • In our context there are also many in need. This passage challenges us not to be indifferent to the injustices around us, but to be moved and to find ways to confront the problems and be part of the solution.
  • Perhaps there are particular giving campaigns or social justice projects that are focussed on these issues that you can suggest people get involved in.