Follow the Money
Brad Mills / General
Nehemiah / Oppression / Nehemiah 5:1–13
In his Netflix special, Colin Kaepernick seriously compared the NFL combine to a slave auction. Dressed in all black, wearing a grave countenance, and staring through the camera into your soul, without a trace of cringe, he says:
“What they don’t want you to understand is what’s being established is a power dynamic. Before they put you on the field, teams poke, prod and examine you searching for any defect that might affect your performance. No boundary respected. No dignity left intact.”
As he is speaking the scene transitions from NFL players being measured and examined by medical professionals, to slaves at an auction.
Let me get this straight, Kaepernick voluntarily slaved for the NFL in order to make almost $50M. When he was set free by the 49ers, he spent several subsequent seasons trying out for every other slave owner’s team and then complaining that they had blackballed him. The comparison is simply absurd.
When everything is racism, nothing is racism. We need to be able to separate genuine slavery from the modern trend of finding counterfeit examples everywhere in order to stoke rage and division.
Slavery is a topic in this mornings passage but we need to set aside our emotional reaction to that phrase so we can read the passage without imputing all of our cultural baggage into the context. Admittedly, that is hard for anyone to do.
We know that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil and that power tends to corrupt. The two oftentimes work in conjunction. The corruption that results from the combination of money and power can wreak havoc upon nations for generations.
So far in Nehemiah, all of the threats against the Israelites have come from outside the city. Nehemiah had managed to develop a unified defense against those outside threats, but now he must deal with a mounting division developing between those within the city.
Although the injustice of oppressing the weak exists in every society of fallen humanity, that doesn’t excuse the practice. Therefore, it is alwaysappropriate to respond to injustice with righteous anger and/or true repentance.
Read Nehemiah 5:1-13
The Outcry of the Poor (1-5)
Just as Nehemiah finds a way to strategically get back to work he hears “a great outcry” (1). All we know from this first verse is that the strife is among one another (“the people” + “their wives” against “their Jewish brothers”).
Nehemiah mentions the involvement of their wives in the outcry to highlight the severity of the situation. Even those who were quiet and typically out of the picture on civil matters were raising their voices. Private tensions are now exploding in public. We see why they were so upset in the following verses. They were losing their children to slavery and didn’t see any way of escaping their predicament.
No doubt, these internal struggles did not arise upon Nehemiah’s arrival. This strife had been building over decades. But the stress and tension of their present work was beginning to boil—causing lingering frustrations to surface. Having just dealt with external strife, the last thing Nehemiah needed was to deal with complicated internal strife.
People were growing desperate because of a famine. The famine was likely one of judgment due to the corrupt ways in which they were treating one another (Deuteronomy 11:16-17). Some of the poor families were desperately trying to purchase grain for their daily sustenance (2). Some were having to mortgage their fields, vineyards, and homes in order to buy grain (3). While another group was borrowing against their fields and vineyards in order to pay the king’s tax (4). And, finally, some have even resorted to selling their own children into slavery—to their own kinsmen—because they no longer own their fields and vineyards (5).
In order to pay off their debts to one another they have sold their sons and daughters into slavery. This is the climax of the complaint of injustice, but it is important to mention that the slavery described in the Bible was not exactly like the African slave trade, even if there are some parallels. These were generally temporary economic arrangements until a debt was paid off. There were no intentions of keeping people in perpetual enslavement. Yet, clearly, those who have had to sell their children are in grief over the situation.
Verse five gives special attention to the daughters. Some scholars believe something akin to forced prostitution was in view here. At the very least, the submission of the daughters often involved becoming the second wife of someone who had the money and interest. Their situation was all the more vulnerable due to the sexual perversions of society.
Laws pertaining to slavery can be found in Exodus 21:2-11; Leviticus 25:39-43; and Deuteronomy 15:1-18. The maximum length of indentured servitude was six years. On the seventh year he was to be set free without any remaining debt. Daughters were to be cared for as sons, allowed to be redeemed, or set free. Every fifty years was the year of jubilee. No matter what, all slaves were to be set free that year. So every generation had an opportunity at a fresh start. The Israelites appear to be violating God’s stipulations in several ways.
America’s history of chattel slavery is a significant blight upon our past. It is a history that should be taught to future generations without equivocation. It is crucial that we never become indifferent about the injustices that have been perpetuated by the society to which we belong. Otherwise, we are prone to let it happen again. On the other hand, we should not act as if our nation still practices slavery.
Nor should we act as if the corrections of the Civil Rights era left black people no better off today. I appreciate what Winsome Sears said in her victory speech last Tuesday night. The first black women elected to Lt. Governor in Virginia said, “There are some who want to divide us and we must not let that happen. They would like us to believe we are back in 1963 when my father came.” Unfortunately, the liberal media is already labeling her as another black voice stumping for white supremacy.
With tensions as high as they are right now, it would be easy to grow cynical about the state of our country and indifferent about genuine injustices taking place all around us. We must not become so jaded that we fail to listen to the complaints of others. Learn the needs of others and support them however God has gifted you. A growing indifference will eventually lead to a willingness to oppress. But true and undefiled religion cares for the weakest and most vulnerable members in their affliction (James 1:27).
It is an implication of the impact the gospel has had upon you to be filled with a compassionate love for those suffering injustice.
Supporting them will look different depending on the needs, but it begins with a Spirit-filled interest.
› When Nehemiah heard the outcry of the poor he was filled with a righteous anger.
The Anger of Nehemiah (6-11)
When Nehemiah understood all that was taking place he became very angry (6). Instead of immediately reacting, he took some time to gather his thoughts (7a). He considered how he should react in light of God’s will. Interestingly, we have grown to expect some mention of prayer, whether long or brief. But, we read that he simply “took counsel” with himself.
Bringing charges against the nobles and officials was apparently not all that difficult of a decision for him to make (7b). It’s not as if he didn’t need the Lord’s guidance on the issue. He wasn’t going rogue and making rash decisions on his own all of the sudden. The truth is, God had already made his will perfectly plain.
These nobles and officials were acting out of accord with Scripture and they needed to be held accountable. It would appear that the civil leaders were colluding with the wealthy members of the community to take advantage of the poor. Taxes were raised to support and fund the enslavement of the poor. This would be a legitimate example of systemic injustice where the rich secure their prosperity by exploiting the poor. The complaint recorded in the previous section was validated by Nehemiah’s response.
The first step Nehemiah took was to call everyone together (7c) and rebuke them for coming back from their enslavement in exile only to begin enslaving one another (8). Instead of redeeming Jews out of slavery to surrounding nations, Nehemiah’s administration was being asked to purchase them back from fellow Jews! His comparison left them speechless.
Nehemiah continues, suggesting that the taunts of the nations would be prevented if they would walk in the fear of God (9). By enslaving one another they prove that they are no better than the pagan nations. In fact, Nehemiah seems to admit playing a role in the injustice himself.
As someone who belonged to the wealthy class, Nehemiah had the means to lend money and grain. Because it had gotten out of control, he calls for a halt to the practice of exacting interest (10). We cannot be certain whether Nehemiah was offering loans with or without interest, but he does use the same language for himself that he accused the nobles and officials of being guilty of in verse six. Therefore, it would not be ridiculous to believe he had been contributing to the problem. Many who had been living in exile had grown out of the habit of reading and applying the law of God.
However, his anger in verse six may point slightly in favor of his innocence. If that is the case, then he is exhorting the people to follow his example and provide loans without interest.
Either way, God had forbidden the charging of interest to another Israelite who is living in poverty (Ex 22:25) and Nehemiah was seeking to enforce that rule once again.
Derek Thomas shares an analogy from Dale Ralph Davis that I found quite remarkable.
Ezra & Nehemiah Inequality
The circumstances described in Nehemiah 5 are akin to those experienced during the American Revolutionary War. The Continental Army suffered badly during the winter of 1777. Clothes were threadbare and blankets were so rare that soldiers sometimes sat up all night rather than sleep and risk freezing to death. When the French General Marquis de Lafayette arrived, he saw men whose legs were black and in need of amputation. The trouble was not the severity of the winter, which by some standards was a mild one; the issue was that the army had no clothes because merchants in Boston refused to move government clothing off their shelves at anything less than profits ranging from 1,000 to 1,800 percent. They did this to their own people out of greed.
Not only does Nehemiah call for an end to their practice of greedily exploiting the poor, but he calls them to return what had been mortgaged or purchased in order to pay those debts (11). Whatever they had received as collateral for the loan (fields, vineyards, olive orchards, and houses) in addition to anything they had collected on interest (money, grain, wine, and oil) was to be returned.
Nehemiah’s angry response was entirely justified. It was a righteous anger similar to Paul’s confrontation of Peter, when he refused to eat with Gentile believers (Gal. 2:7-14). It was like the anger of Jesus who overturned the tables of the greedy money-changers and whipped everyone out of the temple (Mark 11:15-17). We are taught to “Be angry and do not sin…” (Eph. 4:26).
We need to distinguish righteous anger from worldly anger. Scripture is equally clear that “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:20) and that “bitterness and wrath and anger” should be put away (Eph 4:31-32). So how can we tell the difference?
1. Are you angry at the things that anger God? If the bible states that a situation angers a holy and righteous God, we can be assured that is a godly response.
2. Has the law of God been violated? Is the anger expressed in ways consistent with God’s law? Christians don’t fight evil with evil.
3. Is the reaction one of wild rage or controlled zeal?
The remarkable thing about this is that Jesus became the object of the same righteous anger that he expressed in his life. On the cross, Jesus endured the sinful injustice that he railed against.
2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
He took the penalty of the oppressor. He bore the righteous wrath of God against sin that we might become the righteousness of God.
Anger is not the problem, indifference is. The love of God ought to compel us to speak boldly on behalf of those suffering under the unjust hand of the wicked. Let us seek the Lord’s help in experiencing a godly compassion for the weak and wisdom to fulfill the purposes of God in the midst of growing corruption. If we are led by the same Spirit, we will experience a righteous anger at the things that anger God.