The Great Cry
Doing a Great Work for God
Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.
And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.
At first glance, Nehemiah chapter 5 might seem like it is out of place. Chapter 4 concentrated heavily on the building of the walls in spite of the opposition, and we shall see that the progress of the building program is picked up again in chapter 6. In contrast, chapter 5 contains only a single reference to the great work in which Nehemiah was involved. Sandwiched in between the building of the walls in chapters 4 and 6 there was a "great cry" in chapter 5.
Verses 1-5 of our text describes a division that had arisen among the people of God. Apparently, at this time, there was a shortage of crops in the province of Judah and we see in verse 2 that in order to provide food for a large family, some Jews were having to buy extra corn at exorbitant prices. In addition to this, in verse 3 we find that some had been forced to mortgage their property in order to buy this food. In verse 4 we find that there was also a problem with high taxes, and some Jews had been obliged to borrow money in order to pay their taxes. Unfortunately, some of the wealthier Jews were taking advantage of this situation. The rich were loaning money to the poor with interest (usury). They were buying up their property, and they were allowing the poor to be sold into bondage. The great cry from the people was: "We are all supposed to be brethren".
Nehemiah's reaction to this situation shows the importance that he placed on the dilemma. First, in verses 6-13 we have a record of his rebuke of the rich Jews who had been in the wrong. He was so angry with them that it was probably good that he consulted with himself first (This is definitely akin to preaching on the radio in order to vent holy anger). By the way, there is a difference between a reproof and a rebuke. A reproof is telling someone that what they have done is wrong, but a rebuke is telling them how sorry they are for doing wrong.
Nehemiah went on to correct the problem by ordering them to restore their property and an additional 1%. This 1% was most likely the amount of interest they had charged. He pronounced a curse upon all those that did not follow through with this restitution (Note: the lap was a fold in the outer garment used to hold various articles). According to Paul, a pastor is to take care of problems this same way (2 Timothy 3:16-4:2), but it is too bad that the church does not always have the fear of God to willingly obey as these Jews did.
Next, in verses 14-19, we have Nehemiah's personal testimony of his dealing with the famine and taxes. He had been appointed governor of Judah, but he had not followed the practice of previous governors who had exacted money and food from the people as an extra salary. Neither had he bought land from the poor. In contrast, he had used his own servants to do part of the rebuilding work, and he had provided food for certain of the Jews and heathen. All this he had done he said, "because the bondage was heavy upon this people".
Though chapter 5 barely mentions the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls, it does mention an internal problem that had developed among the Jews which had a direct bearing upon the work. So, this passage is really not out of place in the book of Nehemiah, because there is a relationship between a great work and the workers. Obviously, God wanted us to learn that the interrelations between the people of God can have a great impact on the work of God. So let us look now at three important reasons why we should maintain a good relationship with our brethren.
What effect on the attitudes and motivation to rebuild the walls do you think resulted from the way the rich had treated the poorer Jews?
If we look at the book of Nehemiah as whole, chapter 5 was an interruption in the work that came as a result of the wealthier Jews improper treatment of their brethren. What work can be accomplished when the workers are at war with one another? Strife, discord, bitterness, and evil speaking among the people of God bring division and kill productivity. Well did Jesus say, "if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand" (Mark 3:25). In most churches when brethren are at odds with one another, the desire for the work is replaced with the desire for vengeance and vindication. Winning an argument becomes a higher priority than winning souls; getting the victory over a "lesser" brother takes precedence over getting the victory over sin; and gossip is promoted over the gospel. God help us!
Division among brethren affects more than just the productivity of the workers involved. It also affects the leadership. Obviously in this situation we find that Nehemiah had to take time out to resolve the problem. We find a similar account in Acts 6:1-7 where the daily ministration of Grecian widows had been neglected. The apostles said, hey, we need to "give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word". So, they appointed seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom to do the work.
If we turn back to the very reason that brought on the need for the walls to be rebuilt, we will find another incentive to do right with our brethren. When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the walls, he brought the people into captivity for precisely 70 years. What was so significant about the number 70? If we read what God had to say about the destruction of Jerusalem in 2 Chronicles 36:17-21, you will find that the "threescore and ten years" were a sabbath for the land. Each year out of the 70 represented a sabbatical year that the Jews had failed to observe (see also Leviticus 26:34-35). According to the Mosaic law, the Jews were to observe a Sabbatical year every 7th year. This would imply that at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, Israel had not kept that kind of sabbath for 490 years.
Now, what does this have to do with treating other believers right? The Sabbatical year was also called the "year of release" (Deuteronomy 15:9). Besides giving the land a rest from being cultivated (Leviticus 25:2-7), the year of release also included the canceling of all debts between brethren (Deuteronomy 15:1-4)! Considering that God would create such a law and considering Deuteronomy 15:7-8, it ought to be quite clear that God cares about the way we treat one another. You will also notice that this is exactly what the wealthy Jews in our text were not doing. But if we read on in verses 9-11 in Deuteronomy 15, we find that God promised to bless the Jews when they took care of their poor. No wonder Nehemiah was so angry! No wonder he asked God, "Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people" (Nehemiah 5:19).
When the people of God treat one another the right way, God will bless them (see also Psalm 133).
One of the greatest events that took place in the book of Acts was recorded with a specific reference to unity. The record of the 3,000 souls saved on the Day of Pentecost is preceded by the statement that the believers were "all with one accord in one place" (Acts 2:1). The record that "with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 4:33) is directly preceded with this verse: "the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common". Perhaps if every church member would carefully and prayerfully maintain a proper relationship with their brethren, God would pour out His blessing upon us, and we might see multitudes saved and added to the church. We ought to take some time to examine our lives and make sure we are kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving towards each other (Romans 12:10, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:12-13).
Finally, let us compare the testimony that results from discord and strife with that
which results from brethren dwelling together in unity. What would the world think of
Christians if the relationships they saw between believers were no different than the
relationships between themselves? Nehemiah had asked the offenders, "ought ye not to
walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?" What
kind of example do we set before the world when we have division among ourselves? How
utterly embarrassing it is for lost people to come to a church service and witness discord
or even a church split. The right kind of testimony will produce what is recorded for us
in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, "falling down on his face he will worship God, and report
that God is in you of a truth".