Violating the Spirit of the Law
To this day, we humans struggle with the question of wealth, poverty, and the gap between the rich and the poor and what can be done about it. Yes, Jesus said that “you have the poor with you always” (Matt. 26:11, NKJV), but that’s hardly an excuse to do nothing about helping them. On the contrary, Scripture admonishes us to do our part to help. We can barely call ourselves Christians otherwise.
How fascinating, too, that even amid the trials and tribulations of the returned exiles in rebuilding Jerusalem, this theme appears, not just that of poverty and the poor, but that of the even more problematic question of the rich oppressing the poor. This was a problem before the exile, and now, even back in their own land, it reappears.
This week we will see another manifestation of this age-old theme and how Nehemiah worked to deal with it. As we will see, what made this oppression even worse was that it was being done within “the letter of the law,” a powerful example of how we need to be careful not to let rules and regulations become an end in and of themselves rather than a means to an end, which is to reflect the character of Jesus.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, November 2.
The Jewish community seems to be united under Nehemiah’s leadership against the outside pressures. But all is not well within the nation that is standing up to persecution and defending itself from foreign assaults. Despite the outward appearance of toughness and cohesive efforts against the enemy, the community is broken inside. The leaders and the rich have been using the poor and underprivileged for their own gain, and the situation has become so bad that the families are crying out for relief. Some families were saying that they did not have any food to feed their children; some were crying out that because of a famine they had mortgaged their property and now had nothing; other families moaned that they had to borrow money for the Persian tax and even their children were slaves.
It appears that the main culprit of the trouble was a famine and tax payments that caused the poorer families to seek help from their neighbors. The Persian government required a tax of 350 talents of silver annually from the province of Judah (see note on Neh. 5:1–5 in the Andrews Study Bible, p. 598). If a person couldn’t pay the designated portion of the mandatory tax, the family would usually mortgage their property or borrow money first. If, however, they couldn’t earn the money the next year, then they had to do something about the debt they now owed. Usually debt slavery was the next option. They had already lost their land, and now they had to send someone from the family, usually children, to be in the service of the creditor in order to work off the debt.
There are times in life we find ourselves in trouble because of the consequences of our own actions; of course, there also are times we end up sick or in financial straits through no fault of our own. The story above recounts a time that government policies disadvantaged the people, leading to intensified poverty. They were caught in the spiral of deepening poverty, with no way out.
However difficult for us to grasp today, slavery was a cultural norm in the ancient world. A parent could either become a slave himself/ herself or sell a child. Socially and legally, the parents had the right to sell their sons and daughters. However, since God is all about giving freedom, He regulated the practice in Israel by requiring creditors to release their slaves every seven years. Thus, God protected people from becoming permanent slaves and demonstrated His desire for people to live freely.
Although lending was permitted by the law, charging interest was not (for biblical regulations against usury, see Exod. 22:25–27; Lev. 25:36, 37; Deut. 23:19, 20). And yet, the interest that the lenders charged was small compared to what the nations around them charged. They were asked to pay 1 percent every month. Mesopotamian texts from the seventh century show interest of 50 percent for silver and 100 percent for grain annually. Thus, the 12 percent interest per year was low compared to the practice of the countries in Mesopotamia. But overall, according to God’s Word, the only thing the creditors did wrong was to charge interest (Neh. 5:10), and surprisingly, the people didn’t even mention that in their grievance. Everything else was within the social norm as well as within the provisions of the law. So, why is Nehemiah “very angry”? Remarkably, he doesn’t act right away but gives the matter some serious thought.
The fact that Nehemiah deals with the issue so decisively is very admirable. He doesn’t leave a grievance alone just because it doesn’t technically break the law or is socially acceptable, even “nice” compared to the practices of the land. It was the spirit of the law that was transgressed in this situation. Especially during a time of economic hardship, it was the duty of the people to help each other. God is on the side of the oppressed and needy, and He had to commission prophets to speak against the evils and violence committed against the poor.
Seemingly, the rebuke to the nobles and rulers—“each of you is exacting usury from his brother” (Neh. 5:7, NKJV)—didn’t bring the desired results. Thus, Nehemiah did not stop there but continued to fight for the oppressed among them. He could have just said that he had tried to teach the nobles and rulers but it didn’t work, and so he was forced to drop the issue. After all, these were the rich and powerful of the land that he would be going up against. But he was not satisfied until a solution to the problem was implemented, even if he created powerful enemies in the process.
Nehemiah calls a great assembly—all of the people of Israel are brought together to deal with this matter. He is most likely counting on the possibility that when all the people are present, the leaders will be ashamed, perhaps even afraid, to continue their oppression.
Nehemiah’s initial argument centers on slavery. Many of the Jews, most likely Nehemiah included, purchased freedom for other Jews in servitude to foreigners. Now, he asks the nobles and rulers whether they find it acceptable to buy and sell their own people. Does it make sense for the Israelites to buy Jews and give them freedom only to have them end up as slaves of their own people?
The leaders offer no response because they see that this argument is reasonable; therefore, Nehemiah continues. He asks them, “Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies?” (Neh. 5:9, ESV). Then, Nehemiah admits that he himself has been lending the people money and grain. By declaring “let us stop charging interest” (Neh. 5:10, NIV), he affirmed the law that forbade this practice with fellow Hebrews and demonstrated that under his governorship, he would like people to be solicitous toward each other. Amazingly, the response is unanimous. The leaders agree to restore everything to the people.
Even though the leaders agree to restore and give back what they have confiscated, Nehemiah is not satisfied with mere words. He needs solid proof; therefore, he makes them swear an oath before the priests. This action also gave the proceedings legal validity in case he had to reference the agreement later.
But why does he pronounce a curse? Nehemiah performs a symbolic act of gathering up his garments as if to hold something in them and then shaking them out as a sign of losing it. Thus, those who would go against this oath would lose everything. It was customary to utter curses in order to impress upon others the significance of a certain law or rule. The people also were less likely to go against the law when a curse was associated with the breaking of it. Nehemiah apparently felt that this was such an important issue that he needed to do something drastic in order to enhance the probability of its success.
In the end, speech is a powerful gift that God has given to humans; it exists as something radically different from what animals have. And there is power in our words, the power even of life and death. Hence we need to be very careful in what we say, in what we promise to do, and in what verbal commitments we make. It also is important that our deeds match our words. How many people have been turned off to Christianity by those whose words sound Christian but whose actions are anything but? Think about just how much impact your words have on others.
Nehemiah most likely wrote the account in these verses after his return to the court of King Artaxerxes, after his 12 years of governorship in Judah. Although governors were entitled to receive revenue from their subjects, Nehemiah never claimed this right, but rather financed his own living. Not only did he pay for his own expenses, but he also provided for his family, as well as the whole court. Zerubbabel, the first governor, is the only other governor whose name we know. When Nehemiah says “the former governors,” he is most likely referring to the governors in between Zerubbabel and himself. As a result, by the time he was done with his term in office, he very likely lost money. Rather than acquiring riches, as one would expect from a prestigious position, he probably forfeited wealth and possessions. Nehemiah was wealthy, which is why he could provide the daily food for many people, and he was generous in supplying plenty to others (Neh. 5:17, 18).
Though it was not the same thing as what Abraham did after the rescue of those taken captive by some of the surrounding nations (see Genesis 14), what Nehemiah does here nevertheless reveals the same crucial principle.
What we see with Nehemiah is an example of someone who put the Lord and the Lord’s work before his own personal gain and advantage. It’s a good lesson for us all, regardless of our particular situation. It’s easy to work for the Lord when it doesn’t cost us much.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “A Rebuke Against Extortion,” pp. 646–652, in Prophets and Kings.
“As Nehemiah heard of this cruel oppression, his soul was filled with indignation. ‘I was very angry,’ he says, ‘when I heard their cry and these words.’ He saw that if he succeeded in breaking up the oppressive custom of exaction he must take a decided stand for justice. With characteristic energy and determination he went to work to bring relief to his brethren.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 648.
“Jesus proceeded to lay down a principle that would make oath taking needless. He teaches that the exact truth should be the law of speech. ‘Let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one.’ R.V.”—Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 67.
“These words condemn all those meaningless phrases and expletives that border on profanity. They condemn the deceptive compliments, the evasion of truth, the flattering phrases, the exaggerations, the misrepresentations in trade, that are current in society and in the business world. They teach that no one who tries to appear what he is not, or whose words do not convey the real sentiment of his heart, can be called truthful.” —Page 68.