It was the year 444 B.C., during the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia, that Nehemiah, the Jew who was royal cupbearer to the king, embarked on a courageous mission to rebuild Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the city of his fathers and the once-great capital of Israel. Because of their sins and rebellions against God, the Jews had been conquered and forced to serve as captive slaves of Babylon for many years. Then the Medo-Persians under King Cyrus came along and overthrew Babylon, establishing a vast empire which lasted for more than 200 years. Cyrus, who was both a friend and patron of the Jews, issued a decree in the first year of his reign that the Jews could begin their return to their own homeland, Israel.
Now, some 100 years later, still very little progress had been made to restore Jerusalem. The once towering walls still lay in heaps of charred and blackened ruins, and the gates of the city remained completely broken down and burned with fire.
Burdened by the sad plight of his people, Nehemiah was able to persuade King Artaxerxes to allow him to return to Jerusalem. This was nothing short of a miraculous answer to Nehemiah's ardent and desperate prayers! Because of his faithful service as cupbearer as well as his friendship with Artaxerxes, the king appointed Nehemiah as Governor of the province of Judah. He also gave him his own official letters of recommendation as well as considerable material and financial support for the construction of the walls of Jerusalem.
Soon after Nehemiah's return to Jerusalem, he convinced the nobles and people of the city to unite under his faithful leadership to rebuild the city. At first everything went well, and the work progressed rapidly. Soon the city walls were going up, despite enemy opposition. But there were other serious problems to deal with.
At the same time a great drought had begun to strangle the land. Food production had dropped disastrously and many of the poorer Jews who lived off the land had begun to suffer greatly. But famine was not the only cause of their hardship. There were certain well-to-do nobles and Jewish money lenders in Jerusalem who began to take advantage of the impoverished state of the common folk. They viewed economic disaster not as a reason to HELP their needy brethren, but as a way to make even more money!
First of all, with food production nearly at a standstill, most families who normally grew their own crops, were suddenly forced to go out and buy provisions until drought conditions improved. Then money-hungry profiteers offered them loans, charging interest rates to make profits. To obtain these loans, many of the starving, desperate families were forced to mortgage their own fields, vineyards and homes to the moneylenders. Others had already mortgaged their properties in order to pay taxes to the Persian government, which were levied every year throughout all the provinces.
Some were so bad off that having already mortgaged their lands and still being short of necessary food, they were forced to sell their own children into SLAVERY in order to get enough money to survive! Worse yet, because of the high interest on their loans, it became impossible to clear their debts and soon the moneylenders foreclosed on their mortgages, assuming the ownership of their lands. Now there was no hope of ever buying their children back into freedom!
Things had finally reached the breaking point. Already some of their leaders had complained that the work on the walls had become too difficult. "The strength of the workers is decayed," they cried, "and there is so much rubble and debris that we will never finish! And our enemies are threatening to attack us at any moment!" Never had the situation looked more grim.
Up to this point Nehemiah had always been able to inspire more faith in the men to continue building the walls in spite of all the odds against them. His indomitable courage and perseverance had been contagious. But now he recognised an even greater adversary which threatened to destroy all that he and his people had dreamed of. It was the evil enemy of GREED which now threatened the success of their mission. Some of his own nobles and wealthy civic leaders had almost guaranteed their defeat!--All because of their selfishness!
One afternoon as Nehemiah rode out along the walls to inspect the work, suddenly a large crowd of poor bedraggled workers approached him, angrily protesting against the money men who had virtually allured them into economic slavery! "We are brothers of these wealthy men, and our children are just like theirs, yet we must sell our children into slavery to get enough money to live. Already we have been forced to sell some of our sons and daughters, but we are helpless to redeem them, for our fields and lands have been confiscated by these men."
When Nehemiah heard the situation first hand, he was outraged. Calling a public trial before a great assembly, Nehemiah dealt sternly with the profiteers. "What IS this you're DOING?" he demanded. "How DARE you require a mortgage as the condition for helping another brother of your own kind? Do you not remember that in the laws which God delivered unto Moses it is FORBIDDEN for a Jew to lend money to one that is his brother in order to make PROFIT by it?" (Exodus 22:25-27 and Deuteronomy 23:19,20)
As the trial continued, Nehemiah raged with indignation, "The rest of us are doing all we can to HELP, even buying many brethren back from slavery with our own money! But YOU are forcing them back into slavery AGAIN! How often must we redeem them?" A hush came over the crowd as he anxiously awaited their reply, but the guilty ones had nothing to say in their own defence.
In the first place, they knew that it was unlawful to demand interest on loans, which was called "usury". All loans made to fellow Jews were to be made WITHOUT interest. And furthermore, the lender was always obliged to consider the financial condition of the borrower and his ability to pay back the loan. That was God's plan to HELP the poor, not to extort from them what little they had! (Deuteronomy 15:1-11)
Nehemiah pressed his point further before the assembly: "What you are doing is EVIL in the sight of God! How can we ever expect the Lord to BLESS our country and our people if we ourselves have become our own worst enemies? Should you not walk in the fear of our God? Don't we have enough enemies among the nations around us who are trying to destroy us, without having enemies amongst our own people?
"I have lent the people money and corn WITHOUT interest, and so also have my companions and the men who work for me. Now, therefore let each one of you who has made loans charging interest, CANCEL this very day ALL of your claims to repayment and all debts that they owe you, whether it be money or corn or wine or olive oil, and give them back their fields and vineyards and olive groves and houses AT ONCE!"
As the accused men faced Nehemiah and the whole assembly, one by one they shamefacedly began to agree with his demands. Their selfishness had been exposed before all, and there was nothing more to say about it. The common people looked on in astonishment as the men who had so cold-heartedly taken advantage of them promised to assist their brothers both financially and materially without interest and without requiring them to mortgage their lands or to sell their children into slavery.
This seemed an occasion for a celebration. But Nehemiah was not taking any chances. At once he summoned the priests and required the offenders to make a FORMAL VOW to carry out their pledges. (In those days a public vow was as binding as a written contract!--Deuteronomy 23:21-23). Then Nehemiah took off the sash from around his waist and shook it at them. "This is how GOD will shake any of YOU who don't keep your PROMISE!" he warned. "I invoke the curse of God upon any of you who refuse! And may God destroy your homes and livelihood if you fail to keep your word!" And all the people shouted "Amen!" and praised the Lord with great rejoicing! And every one of those rich men did as they had promised.
Because of this victory over the most dangerous of all enemies--the ENEMY WITHIN--the work on the walls was resumed with even GREATER speed! After the wall was completed, because of the unity that had been achieved and because of the people's obedience to the Lord and His chosen leader ship, a great spiritual revival swept through the hearts of all the people.
It would have been difficult for Nehemiah to persuade these men and to bring about such a victory had he not first been an EXAMPLE to all of them of HIS love for God and his people, as well as his unselfishness and sacrifice. During the 12 years that he had reigned as Governor of Judah he had clearly understood the plight of his countrymen and their difficult living conditions. Because of this he refused to accept any wages from the government. In his diary Nehemiah wrote, "I accepted no salaries or other assistance from the people of Israel."
This was quite a contrast to the FORMER governors of the land who had demanded food and wine and $100 a day in cash and had put the population at the mercy of their AIDES who TYRANNISED them. But Nehemiah continued, "I obeyed God and refused to follow the example of Jerusalem's former governors who were charging the people. I stayed at the work on the wall and neither I nor those who worked with me took advantage of our positions for personal gain, neither did we acquire any properties of our own.
"I also required EVERY ONE of my officials to spend time working on the wall THEMSELVES, all this despite the fact that I regularly fed 150 Jewish officials at my table daily, besides visitors from other nations, and all this at great personal cost. Yet I REFUSED to make a special levy against the people, for they were already having a difficult enough time."
This is a true historical account right from the Bible. Nehemiah was a wonderful example of Godly, dedicated and unselfish leadership. HE not only lived that way, but he was not afraid to call the hand of those who for personal gain sought to take advantage of the poor common people of his day.
Perhaps we should stop to consider what would have happened to Jerusalem if the poor had continued to be exploited and mistreated. After all, they were the ones who made up the main body of the work force! It was the common people who formed the vast majority of the forces who carried weapons night and day to defend their homeland against the attacks of the enemy! Without their support, help and cooperation, the struggle to restore Jerusalem would have been lost!
(1) It seems that so often the rulers of this world are blind because of their sin: Oppression of the poor! The rich may be very smart in making money, but by adopting the evil policy of trying to operate the government and everything else for their own benefit at the cost of the poor they are insuring their eventual downfall--because God is almost always on the side of the poor, and He makes sure that the poor win in the long run!
(2) In this case God sent a deliverer of the poor in the form of Nehemiah. Because the selfish money manipulators did as he insisted, the Lord blessed the people and preserved their land. Had they not obeyed, their downfall would have been certain. God's Word warns that "Whoever stops his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard!" (Proverbs 21:13). But it also says, "BLESSED is he who considers the poor, for the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble! The Lord will preserve him and keep him alive, and he shall be blessed upon the Earth!" (Psalm 41:1,2)
(3) God is not against riches. Some people have the wrong idea. He is not against wealth. He is only against riches and wealth in the hands of too few when too many don't have enough! In fact, God thinks wealth is great, and He will give you more than you can possibly stand, if you will give it away and share it so everybody has enough! It is NOT a sin for the rich to live in comfort and convenience so they can work better to help the poor. Many times they can get things done BETTER that way! But their sin is that they don't share with those in need.
(4) As in the case of Nehemiah, quite often God's men are loners if they are willing to be honest and used of the Lord! They can't always please the people, and because they have to fight for the truth and the right, people don't always necessarily like them. But which is better: To please God or man? The Apostle Paul said, "For am I trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I were still trying to please men, then I should not be the servant of Christ!" Galatians 1:10). Whose servant are you?
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