This chapter is about loans, greed, and a lack of brotherly love. And disobedience to God’s Law. And generosity. Maybe it’s about having an open hand versus having a closed hand. And again, it’s about brotherly love.
The people were lending money at interest to each other – to the point some were deeply in debt. Some were struggling to put food on the table. Some were even selling their children into slavery. And some had lost property to others.
I wonder whether the work on the walls of Jerusalem was causing a financial hardship for the people. They were so taken up with that work that they couldn’t adequately take care of the work back home – the tending of fields and flocks.
It was against God’s Law for Israelites to lend money at interest to other Israelites. “You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest” (Deuteronomy 23:19). A lot more is written about it in Leviticus 25. The point seems to be that God delivered his people – all of them – from slavery in Egypt, and he wasn’t going to allow his children to further enslave each other. “Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you” (Leviticus 25:36).
This is family business. The Israelites literally were a family – descended from Abraham. For God, there are things a family does and doesn’t do. And family members don’t make a profit off of other family members. Family members don’t take other family members as slaves. And if a family member struggles financially, other family members were to take him or her into their homes and care for that person’s needs. “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him …” (Leviticus 25:35).
You’ll notice how often the word “brother” is used in Leviticus 25 – and in Nehemiah 5. “Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. … ‘Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers.’ … ‘You are exacting interest, each from his brother.’ … ‘We, as far as we were able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!'”
There’s something here to which to pay attention.
Nehemiah also took issue with the leaders who participated in this – the nobles and the officials. There was something disturbing to Nehemiah about the way in which the leaders were using their authority to take advantage of their “brothers.” This was wrong. Even the king of Israel (had Israel had one at that time) was supposed to recognize his place within the family – as a member of the family (Deuteronomy 17:18-20).
And so Nehemiah set things right. And he set the example for the people by sacrificing his own resources on their behalf. He didn’t tax them as he could have. And he set his own servants to work on behalf of the people. Nehemiah was generous out of “the fear of God.” This was the same motivation for the people of Israel to show generosity to their brothers in need (Leviticus 25:36, 43).
So what are we to make of all of this? Nehemiah was working to bring the people to holiness – to complete obedience to God’s Law. God would dwell with his holy people, but they had to be a people intent upon following God’s Law. The intermarriages that Ezra had to deal with and the unbrotherliness that Nehemiah was dealing with had compromised the people’s holiness.
We are to be a holy people. Today, we know that holiness comes from Christ.
Of course, God’s holy people today are supposed to look a lot like God’s holy people of the Old Testament. For instance, leaders within God’s people still are supposed to serve humbly and not use their authority to take advantage of God’s children. Leadership within God’s people doesn’t look anything like worldly leadership. Remember our reading in Matthew. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
God’s people today are supposed to look like ancient Israel in another key way, too. That is, we’re supposed to be a family. “Brothers” and “sisters” are words that are used a lot in the New Testament in reference to other Christians. We’re to be a family. We lend generously. We take in our brothers and sisters who are in need. We forgive. We look out for one another. We protect one another. We seek freedom, not bondage, for one another.
“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:44-47).
It’s a costly kind of love that we must give to our brothers and sisters in Christ. But that’s the kind of love Christ has given us. Nehemiah, in his own way, demonstrated that kind of love. He gave generously for the sake of the people. We ought to strive to do the same.
And sometimes, the love we give to our brothers and sisters in Christ – to the church – isn’t necessarily returned. It sometimes isn’t noticed or appreciated. And that’s OK. Well, it’s a bummer. But it’s OK – because we’re being obedient to the call of Christ to love one another as he has loved us. We can pray with Nehemiah, “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.”