Jan 29 - Change And Others

Change And Others

January 29, 2017

Nehemiah 5



Nehemiah 5

January 29th, 2017


A woman answered the knock at her door to find an obviously destitute man who wanted to earn some money by doing odd jobs.  She was touched by his need and as, “can you paint?”  “Yes,” he said, “actually I’m a pretty good painter.”  So she goes back in the house and comes back with a brush and a gallon of green paint.  “Go around to the back of the house and you’ll see a porch that needs repainting.  Be very careful and do a good job and I’ll look it over and pay you accordingly.

It wasn’t more than an hour before he knocked again.  “All finished,” he reported.  “Wow, that was quick ... did you do a good job?” she asked.  “Yes, but Lady, there’s one thing I’d like to point out.  That’s not a Porsche back there.  That’s a Mercedes.” 


Today I will be speaking on the topic of love and compassion as we continue through the book of Nehemiah.  If you haven’t been a part of this series, let me give you a quick recap of what brought us to this point.


During the relative short rule of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, deported a large number of Jews from Jerusalem and the surrounding area to Mesopotamia, including to the capital city of Babylon and the city of Susa. 


When the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians, many of the exiled Jews were able to return to Judah and its capital Jerusalem.  In fact there were three major returns, one under the Persian king Cyrus (the great), another time under the Persian king Darius I, at which time the temple was rebuilt, and another time in the days of Artaxerxes I


The book of Nehemiah relays the events of the Jew by the name of Nehemiah, who was a close attendant to King Artaxerxes I of Persia. In 444 BC, Nehemiah was given permission by the king to leave the Persian capital of Susa and the royal court, in order to travel with other Jews and a military escort from Susa to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the walls.


When we left the book of Nehemiah (chapter 4) a few weeks ago, the wall had begun to be rebuilt, to the point that all of the breaches had been closed and the wall was at least ½ as high as it was going to get. 


Things looked up, even though those building the wall had been under the real threat of attack from the Samaritans to the North, the Arabs from the South, the city state of Ashdod on the Mediterranean coast to the West, and the kingdom of Ammon to the East. 


But now, an even greater threat to the project emerged. The men from among the common people, likely many among them who had been working on the wall, were caught in a terrible bind due to the greed of their wealthy neighbours. 


If you were here a few weeks ago, one of the precautions that Nehemiah took against an attack, was to have the people who were living in the surrounding areas build the wall during the day and then stay inside the city to guard it at night.  This would have made it impossible for them to actually work their fields and orchards. 


Also, remember that the area was surrounded by enemy states that might have severely restricted trade and commerce. 


Whatever the case, it seems that the rural farmers no longer produce enough to feed themselves and their families, nor enough to pay the taxes that were exacted by the Persian overlords. 


The wealthier Jews who likely held large tracks of land and lots of grain in storage or the Jews in the city itself who had money to purchase grain, took advantage of the situation by making money off the plight of their poor neighbours, who didn’t have the funds to buy grain or to pay their taxes.  .


They sold them grain at a profit, and on top charged them interest, and if they weren’t paid they took away their property as collateral and, worst of all, insisting that their creditors sell their children into slavery in order to repay them. 


The common men and their wives cried out loudly against their (wealthy) Jewish brothers.[1]  2 Some said, “We have to indenture our sons and daughters in order to get grain, so that we can eat and stay alive.”  3 Others said, “We have to mortgage our fields, vineyards, and houses in order to buy grain during this time of hunger.[2]  4 And again others said, “We have to borrow money against our fields and vineyards in order to pay the king’s taxes.  5

Aside:  The Persian king Darius I, grandfather to Artaxerxes, had imposed a tax on both land and crops that was a heavy burden on the small farmers in Judah.  It is likely that this form of taxation continued in Artaxerxes time.  Then comes a summary of the position of the poor:

Are we not of the same flesh (today we would say, flesh and blood) as our fellow Jews, and are not our children equal to their children?  Yet we have to force our sons and daughters into slavery. In fact, some of our daughters have been enslaved already.

Literally, the daughters had already been submitted, likely indicating that the rich who had become their owners took them as a slave wives.

We are powerless (to prevent this) - our fields and vineyards belong to others.”[3]              Nehemiah 5:1-5


It was a miserable situation and because Nehemiah was the governor of Judah, they came to him to complain.  As the highest Persian official of that area he also functioned as the highest court judge and the arbiter of conflicts.


I think that the people could just as well have complained that part of the reason for the problems they encountered was because they were building the wall, but they seem to accept this as a necessary evil. Instead they complain about those who callously are taking advantage of the situation.  This is how Nehemiah responded:


6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I became very angry. 7 I pondered them (the charges) in my mind and then called the (rich Jewish) nobles and (government) officials to account. I told them, “You are oppressing your fellow Jews by charging them interest!


Nehemiah was outraged, and first confronted the rich privately.  To no avail. The rich kept doing the same thing.  But Nehemiah had not acted in his anger.  He had already figured out how to reverse the fortune of the poor without getting a huge negative backlash from the rich and influential and powerful Jews.


Because of them (the rich) I called together a large assembly 8 and said to them: “We have bought back as many as possible of our fellow Jews who were sold (into slavery) to the Gentiles.  But you, you are selling your own people (to the Gentiles), only for them to be sold back to us!” They kept quiet, because they did not know what to say.                                   Nehemiah 5:6-8


Nehemiah knew that the unrest not only threatened the economic infrastructure of the region, but also the peaceful coexistence of the Jews among themselves.  He figured, that the best way to handle this problem is to bring it to the attention of everyone in a public forum, including those who had suffered under the actions of the wealthy.


Nehemiah begins by contrasting his actions and the actions of the fellow Jews who had come with him from Susa with the actions of the wealthy Jews.  While Nehemiah and his friends were using their resources to purchase fellow Jews out of slavery, the rich Jews were purposefully causing the enslavement of their fellow Jews.  They were working against the best interest of their poorer cousins and intentionally counteracting the good that was being done. 


The reason why the rich Jews did not speak out in public to defend their actions is because they knew that they had not only acted in direct opposition to Nehemiah, but also in direct opposition to the direct will of God as outlined in the commandments of the Mosaic Law. They really didn’t have a leg to stand on.  For example, we read in Lev 25:


If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself among you, you shall support him as though he were a foreigner and a sojourner, so that he can live among you.

Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live among you. You shall not lend him your money nor give him your food for interest or profit.  I am YHWH your God, who has brought you out of Egypt in order to give you Canaan and be your God.                                                         Leviticus 25:35-38


Even in the Mosaic Law, there were numerous stipulations about not taking advantage of other Jews.  In this passage in Lev 25, the reference to the foreigner and sojourner is made because just as many passages in the Mosaic Law exist that tell the Jews to treat foreigners properly and make sure that they have enough to eat.  Here are just three passages that refer to loving and taking care of the foreigners.


And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:19


The foreigner who lives among you shall be to you as the fellow Jew among you, and you are to love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt; I am YHWH your God.                        Leviticus 19:34


In the year of the special tithe you must give your tithes to the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows, so that they will have enough to eat in your towns.

                                        Deuteronomy 26:12


I don’t know if you noticed that phrase in the passage from Leviticus ... the Jews were to love the foreigners as themselves.  This concept is completely countercultural to that day and age.  Also that expression about loving others as one loves oneself is already the second time it is used in Leviticus 19, which I’ll get back to in a moment. 


In any case, there are a host of commandments in the Mosaic Law that have to do with God’s desire that the actions of his people are marked by social justice and compassion.


So there is the passage in Leviticus that prohibits charging interest or even making a profit when a fellow Jew is struggling financially or in need


[There is another passage in the Mosaic Law, in Deuteronomy 23, which also categorically forbids Jews to charge their fellow Jews interest - at any time and for any reason.[4] ]


But to get back to the passage in Leviticus 25 forbidding charging interest or making a profit from the poor, there are there are basically two reasons why the Israelites are called to this kind of ethic. 


If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself among you, you shall support him as though he were a foreigner and a sojourner, so that he can live among you.

Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live among you. You shall not lend him your money nor give him your food for interest or profit.  I am YHWH your God, who has brought you out of Egypt in order to give you Canaan and be your God.                                                         Leviticus 25:35-38


First they are to fear their God, and secondly they are in a covenant relationship with their God.  I will deal with these in reverse order.


1. The covenant bond between God and His people


At the end of Lev. 25:38, God makes the point that the reason why he freed the Israelites from an existence of slavery to the Egyptians is because he decided to be their God. The Jews were selected by God to be God’s people in some special sense. 


YHWH being their God is a shortened version of the expression that signified the covenant relationship that was to mark out Israel and YHWH. 


We find this covenant statement - I will be your God and you will be my people - repeated time and time again throughout the OT.  Here are just two examples:


I will take you for my people and I will be your God.  And you will know that I am YHWH your God who brought you you out from under the burden of the Egyptians.

                                                        Exodus 6:7


I will live among you, and I will not despise you. I will walk among you; I will be your God, and you will be my people. I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt so you would no longer be their slaves.                                                   Leviticus 26:11-13


Again, the Israelites were to be God’s people and have a bond and connection with God that marked them out from all other people in the world. 


By implication, if there is this special bond between God and his people, then God’s people are connected to each other in a way that they are not connected to those who are not part of this bond. And thus they would treat each other like they would family.


Do you remember how the Jews were to treat the foreigners according to Leviticus 19?  They were to love these foreigners as themselves.  If that was true of foreigners, how much more would it be true among God’s people?  In that same chapter, Leviticus 19, God in fact commands the Jews to love their neighbours, that is, their fellow Jews, as they love themselves.


You shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am YHWH.

                                                Leviticus 19:17


Leviticus 19 goes on to tell the Jews what loving their neighbours as oneself looks like - at least in part.  I’ve included an abbreviated list on the overhead:


  • Don’t harvest your fields to the edges nor pick up the harvest that has fallen ... leave it for the poor.

  • Don’t steal or lie or cheat others;

  • Don’t say something untrue in court,

  • Don’t oppress or rob your neighbour (when it is in your power to take advantage of them);

  • Pay your employees at the end of the day. 

  • Don’t treat the poor poorly and the rich with deference.  Don’t tell untruths about other Jews. 

  • Protect the life and property of your neighbour. 

  • Don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge (speaking of their fellow Jews). 


That is what it means in part to love someone as oneself.  It means not doing anything that would harm or injure another person, instead doing everything in our power to help where we can, with acts of compassion and kindness. 


If you know your NT at all, you will remember that Jesus told his followers that their primary ethical duty was to love their neighbours as themselves (Mark 12:31; Matt 22:39-40; Luke 10:27-28).  Why? Jesus said, because this commandment in Leviticus 19:17 encapsulates God’s will as revealed in the Law of Moses and the Prophets.   


Jesus also told his followers that the one thing that was to mark them out as his followers is the exceptional or extraordinary compassion and love that they have for each other (John 13:35).[5]


The apostle Paul was aware of Jesus’ teaching and therefore calls the commandment found in Leviticus 19:17 the Law of Christ (Gal 6:2). 


He also writes that this commandment in Lev.19 is the sum and fulfillment of the Mosaic Law because, if people actually acted accordingly, if they acted lovingly toward others, then they will do nothing that is wrong or harmful to another person. Therefore, Paul writes, the one who loves his neighbour in this unselfish way, has in fact fulfilled the whole of the Law of Moses (Romans 13:8-10; Gal 5:13-14).[6]


To Paul, all believers, all Christians, have the kind of covenant connection to God that the Jews have because they have been filled with God’s Holy Spirit and so have become God’s children, who will inherit the promises made by God to Abraham and the nation that descended from him, God’s people.[7] 


In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body ....

     1 Corinthians 12:13


In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through what you believe.  For as many of you who were baptized into Christ  (he could have added, have been filled with the Holy Spirit) have put on Christ ... you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are children of Abraham, heirs according to the promise (made to Abraham).                                     Galatians 3:26-29[8]


The promise made to Abraham is that God will make an everlasting covenant with him and his descendants, that God will be the God of his descendants (the covenant formula) and would give them as their inheritance the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:7-8).[9]


So if there is a covenant connection with God, then 

those who are part of it WILL IN FACT act toward each other and toward others accordingly.  It really is not an option.


God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.                  Romans 5:5


The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.                                    Galatians 5:22-23


But Paul is not the only NT writer who deduces this from the Mosaic Law and the teachings of Jesus.  This is a recurring theme among many NT writers.

Whoever does not love does not know God.  1 John 4:8

Whoever does not love abides in death.       1 John 3:14


James writes that if we don’t help the hungry and poor, our profession of faith is dead and meaningless (Jam 2:15-17). 


John writes repeatedly that if someone claims to be a Christian but then doesn’t love others and doesn’t help them out whenever possible, that person is just kidding himself or herself (John 2:9-11; 3:10,14-17).  I’ve added two sentences from 1 John that encapsulate the many other passages that speak of this.


So what was the second reason that the Israelites were to show compassion, not charge interest, and not profit from the needy? 


If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself among you, you shall support him as though he were a foreigner and a sojourner, so that he can live among you.

Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live among you. You shall not lend him your money nor give him your food for interest or profit.  I am YHWH your God, who has brought you out of Egypt in order to give you Canaan and be your God.                                                         Leviticus 25:35-38


Take note of the sentence, “Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God” 


1. The covenant bond between God and His people.


This was to be a bond that was to lead to an ethic that was completely different from the surrounding nations, ... one characterized by extraordinary acts of love and compassion.


The second reason for this kind of ethic is, what I call, ...


2. The holy otherness of God


The Israelites were to act in this way because God is to be feared.  This may seem like a weird concept.  In fact, aren’t we told that love drives out fear (1 John 4:18)? 


Indeed, there is a fear that God’s love for us overcomes.  It is the fear that God is not on our side.  That God is mean and harsh and capricious, and loves to make things go wrong in my life. 


However, there IS a fear that God’s people are to have.  Like the Israelites who were to fear God, that is they were to revere, be in awe, be overwhelmed, be devastated, by God because of his majesty, his greatness, his power, his vastness, his complete otherness.


Imagine a spirit being so powerful that it is capable of creating matter and having that matter order itself from chaos to beautiful complexity. A spirit being that is eternal.  A spirit being whose intellect is vastly above that of humans.  A spirit being who can be present in dimensions that we can neither see nor imagine. 


Such a being is not some mamby pamby, milk-toast god that we can manipulate to our own ends.  A god who is weak and easily duped.  A god who can be placated with empty promises and good intentions. 


But the second reason why the Israelites were to fear God is because of his holiness, his lack of moral fault or ethical failure.  The OT writers were clear that they, sinful and fallible as they were, could not hope to survive a personal encounter with God because of his holiness, his otherworldly goodness, his terrifying purity, which is often described as light. 


He (God) is the blessed and only sovereign, the king of kings and lord of lords, who alone is immortal and lives in light so brilliant that no human can approach him. No human eye has ever seen him or can see him.  All honour and dominion be his forever! Amen.  1 Timothy 6:15-16


With an appreciation that God is a holy, morally perfect being, who literally cannot stand a lack of holiness on the part of his people, which includes a lack of concern for others, should cause us to revere, to submit, to obey, to stand in absolute awe. 


Jesus echoes this sentiment when he taught his followers that they should fear God because He is the only one who has the power to destroy their souls (Matt 10:28).[10]


Now that was a long rabbit trail I went down, so let’s return to Nehemiah. 


Nehemiah had confronted the wealthy Jews who had been enriching themselves even further by purposefully impoverishing the poor to the point where they forced them to sell their children into slavery.  They have nothing to say in front of the assembly because they clearly knew that they had directly disobeyed God’s command, and that this command wasn’t just some minor infraction, but of major importance to God.  Nehemiah continues to accuse them - and remember this is taking place in an open forum where everyone had gathered and was listening in.


9 So I continued, “What you are doing is not right. Should you not conduct yourself in the fear of our God in order to avoid the taunts (or sneers) of our non-Jewish enemies?


In other words, you are showing absolutely no fear or respect or reverence toward God.  You neither honour the covenant bond nor are you thinking about God’s “awful” his awe-inspiring holiness, because you are obviously unconcerned about disobeying the commandments that forbid such callous and capricious behaviour. 


By causing the poorer Jews into abject poverty and their children into slavery, they are simply adding more grist to the mill for Sanballad and his fellow Samaritans, Tobiah and his fellow Ammonites, Geshem and his fellow Arabs, and others who wished no good thing on the Jews, to continue to make fun of them.  Nehemiah goes on,


10 I and my brothers and my men have also lent our fellow Jews money and grain.  Let us absolve them from their loans! 11 Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses as well as the interest - the percentage of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil you have charged them.”  12a They replied, “We will give it back and we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.


Nehemiah tells them that he and the Jews who had come with him from Susa had also loaned money and grain to the poor, with the hopes to have it repaid.  And he and his entourage are willing to forgive the debts.  And so should the wealthy.


On top of that, they are to return everything that they had claimed as security against food sold and money loaned, all that they charged their Jewish brothers in terms of interest and profit, all that they had done to force Jewish children into slavery. 


He is telling them to do what the Law of Moses commands them. And, standing publicly convicted of their misdeeds, they agree to make things right and to do exactly what Nehemiah demanded of them. And they promised not to make any more claims or charges in the future.


However, Nehemiah wanted to make sure it didn’t stop at good intentions or public promises. 


12b Then I summoned the priests ...

(these were to be the spiritual witnesses to the oath that was about to be made)

... and made the (wealthy) people swear to do what they had promised.

13 I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In the same way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied!” 

(In those days, people kept their personal belongings in a fold of their garment, much like pocket in a gown.  The act of emptying is gown, shaking out everything, was a symbolic act meant to illustrate the curse he uttered on those who did not do as they had promised.)

At this the whole assembly said, “Amen”, (lit. Let it be so!) and praised YHWH. And the (wealthy) people did as they had promised.


The problem has been solved, the tension had been broken, all witnesses gave their assent and ended up praising God for what had happened - that things were set right. 


So what, from these events, can we take home with us today?  Throughout our journey with Nehemiah, I have been talking about change, positive change in our lives.


  • The need for change.

  • Believing that, with God’s help, I really have the ability to change.

  • What to do in order for change to actually happen.

  • How to deal with opposition to change. 


However, in all of this talk about change, it is easy to become rather self-centered.  I need to become healthier.  I need to become fitter.  I need to become more organized.  I need to become more effective.  I need to become more successful. I need to get my devotional life in order.  I, I, I.


So the change we seek is change that is of benefit to ourselves.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with that kind of change, we often forget that this is not the most important change that God seeks for us.


So if you or I, if we call ourselves followers of Jesus and children of God, Nehemiah 5 might be a good reminder that God is most interested in the kind of change within us and our lives that actually benefits others


That the most important and most impactful change in us is the kind of change that makes us revere and love God to the point that we want to live our lives according to his will - that our lives become an act of worship and adoration to the creator of the universe, perfect and holy, living in unapproachable light.


May we seek the kind of change that will mark us out as those who truly display the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and the unquenchable desire to treat others with the kind of love and compassion and care with which we ourselves have been treated by God.


To that end let me quote to you from an email I received from Daniel Edeh a few days ago. 


You might remember that Daniel and his wife Esther visited with us not too long ago. 


You may also be aware that we bought and sent a trailer full of hospital supplies to the clinic in Lokoja that we helped build.  Here is a picture of the outside of the clinic. 


Since then Paul Welle has visited the clinic and reported what an incredible difference the container has made in equipping the Clinic. 


Well, just a week and ½ ago, we sent another 10,000 $ US. 


Dear Pastor Spencer and the entire family of Friendship Community Church,


Extravagant love is the hallmark of Christ–likeness: “Consider the kind of extravagant love the father has lavished on us - He calls us children of God!  It’s true: we are His beloved children.” (1 John 3:1)

You learned well from your Father. There are no words to express our profound and immense gratitude for your recent extravagantly generous donation of over $10,000 USD to Ministry of Mercy.


Daniel goes on to ask if the funds could be used to help cover the many smaller costs in getting the clinic up and running, especially those items that are constantly used, as well as providing funds toward the education of the children.


Keep in mind that this is a Christian organization that truly is a light to those in the community surrounding them as well as the children they care for. 


I don’t know about you, but Daniel’s words hit me hard as I thought about this week’s sermon: 


Extravagant love is the hallmark of Christ–likeness: “Consider the kind of extravagant love the father has lavished on us - He calls us children of God!  It’s true: we are His beloved children.” (1 John 3:1)

You learned well from your Father.


Brandon Heath wrote a song, now already 9 years ago (July 2008) called “Give me your eyes.”


Let me quickly read you the refrain:


[Looked down from a broken sky
Traced out by the city of lights
My world from a mile high
Best seat in the house tonight
Touch down on the cold black-top
Hold on for the sudden stop
Breathe in the familiar shock of confusion and chaos
All those people going somewhere, why have I never cared?]


Give me your eyes for just one second
Give me your eyes so I can see,
Everything that I keep missing,
Give your love for humanity.
Give me your arms for the broken-hearted
The ones that are far beyond my reach.
Give me Your heart for the ones forgotten.
Give me Your eyes so I can see.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah


I thought about just how little I go out of my way to do something small for someone, but just how profoundly life changing the result can be.  Which brings me to my last question, one that you might be familiar with:




God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.                               Matthew 5:7





[1] Since women were not allowed to speak in a court of law and remain very much in the background in the rest of Ezra/Nehemiah, it would have been an unusual event for them to speak out in public ... indicating just how severe the situation was.

[2] LXX, “Let us pledge our fields, vineyards and houses, and we will buy corn and eat.”  Nothing about a famine.

[3] LXX “... belong to the nobles.” 

[4] You shall not charge interest on loans to your fellow Jew, neither interest on money, nor interest on food, nor interest on anything that (normally) is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your fellow Jew interest, that YHWH your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.  Deuteronomy 23:19-20


[5]Everyone will recognize you as my disciples by this: Your love for one another.” John 13:35

[6] Be indebted to no one, except to one another in love, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the Law. The commandments “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and any other commandments, are summed up in this one decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13:8-10).  Serve one another in love. The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14).

[7] Cf. 2 Cor 6:16,18 - covenant formula applied to Christians;

[8] John 1:12 To all who receive him (Christ Jesus), to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

[9] I will establish my covenant between me and your descendants throughout their generations. It will be an everlasting covenant where I will be your God and the God of your descendants.  And I will give you and your descendants the land into which you will sojourn, all of the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God (Genesis 17:7-8).

[10] Matt 10:28, “Be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Luke 12:5, “Fear the One who, after you’ve been killed, has power to throw you into hell.  Yes, I tell you, fear Him!” 

Hell = Gehenna.