When I was a high school student in Canada, I heard a story told by our history teacher. He related it with deadly anger. He had just returned from the battle-fields of World War II, where he had seen many of his friends killed. Furloughed home because of a war wound, he was riding a bus in a major Canadian city. Seated behind two prosperous-looking women, he overheard one of them say to the other, “I hope this war doesn’t end soon. We’ve never had it so good.”
There are almost always people who profit from the disasters of others, not least from war. So it was in Nehemiah’s day (Neh. 5). Even while there was a disciplined effort to rebuild the city, in the surrounding countryside the fiscal pressures of the times, coupled with famine conditions, made the rich richer and the poor poorer. In an effort to keep going, the poor mortgaged their land and then lost it; they sold themselves or their families into slavery. From Nehemiah’s perspective, slavery was slavery; to be a slave to a fellow Jew was still to be a slave. In some ways it was worse: Nehemiah was concerned not only with the slavery itself, but with the moral hardness of the rich who were profiting from the bankruptcy of others—the want of compassion, the failure to obey the Mosaic code that forbade usury, the sheer covetousness and greed. Transparently they did not need more. Nor was this a question of buying off the lazy. What conceivable justification could they offer for such profiteering?
Yet, mercifully, the consciences of these rich people were tender enough that they did not rebel when they were rebuked. “They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say” (Neh. 5:8). Indeed, in due course they repented, returned what had been taken, and stopped charging interest to their brothers.
Clearly one of the factors that enhanced Nehemiah’s credibility as he labored to bring about these reforms was his own conduct. Doubtless the vast majority of governors at the time used their positions of power to accumulate considerable wealth for themselves. Nehemiah refused to do so. He received, presumably from the central treasury, an ample stipend and sufficient support for himself and his staff, and he therefore declined to use his power to demand additional material support from the local population. Indeed, he ended up supporting many of them (Neh. 5:14–18).
Obedience to God, compassion toward one’s fellows, consistency in the leadership, covenantal faithfulness that extends to one’s pocketbook, repentance and restoration where there has been either corruption or rapacity—these were values more important than the building of the wall. If the wall had been rebuilt without rebuilding the people, the triumph would have been small.
_This podcast is designed to be used alongside TGC's Read The Bible initiative (TGC.org/readthebible). The podcast features devotional commentaries from D.A. Carson’s book For the Love of God (vol. 2) that follow the M’Cheyne Bible reading plan._