Good works never just happen. How we treat others is always determined by what we think about God, by who he is and what he’s done.
Whether implicit or explicit, this is fundamentally the case. It’s not by accident that the greatest commandment is to love God, and then the second, which “is like it,” is to love others (Matthew 22:36–40). Our vertical relationship inevitability impacts the horizontal. And in fact, it’s just this point that ruins the Book of Nehemiah.
Now, what I mean by “ruin” is that the story doesn’t turn out like we’d hope. It starts big. Things look promising. But then it all blows up and leaves us unfulfilled.
Figuring the Hope
The opening scene tells us the walls of Jerusalem are torn down. Nehemiah repents for Israel’s sin, which he knows is the reason for this mess of exile. Then he remembers, drawing on Deuteronomy 4:29–31, that Moses promised one day that God will again gather his dispersed people. God will bring a repentant, obedient people to Jerusalem, the place he has chosen (Nehemiah 1:8–9).
This is huge. This is the restoration that the prophets have foretold. Moses himself makes mention of this again in Deuteronomy 30:3: “Then the Lᴏʀᴅ your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lᴏʀᴅ your God scattered you.” Later Isaiah picks it up: “And the ransomed of the Lᴏʀᴅ shall return and come to Zion with singing” (Isaiah 35:10). Then there is Jeremiah 32–33 and Ezekiel 36 — all forming the expectation that by the time we get to Nehemiah we have this vision of a restored Jerusalem, a new kind of city, that is filled with a holy people who obey God’s law because he’s written it on their hearts.
Nehemiah opens his book by pointing here. He wants to go back to Jerusalem and start on those walls because, presumably, he can’t reconcile the Jerusalem of this dream with the one found in shambles (Nehemiah 1:3). So he goes back to rebuild, and for all we know from inside the story, it looks good. The team makes progress, each with a role and each getting it done (chapter three). Then they rise above the opposition, trusting in God and resuming the work (chapter four). But then there is chapter five, the explosion.
When the Outcry Started
We know something’s not right when 5:1 begins, “Now there arose a great outcry.” This word for “outcry” is the same one used in Genesis 18:21 when God heard the outcry about Sodom and Gomorrah, and then in Exodus 3:7 when Israel cried out about their unjust taskmasters. It’s the kind of word that we’d think has no business in the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, it’s there. And this time the outcry has nothing to do with evil outsiders. It’s coming from the family, from among the people themselves (Nehemiah 5:1–5).
The nobles and officials were oppressing the vulnerable. The advantaged folks were exploiting the disadvantaged. Angered by it all, Nehemiah gathered the guilty and pinpointed two charges against them:
- The wealthy were exacting interest from loans to their poor brothers.
- The wealthy were selling their poor brothers into slavery.
This is bad, both of them, the interest and the slavery. Now according to our modern minds, there’s no way we’d bunch these two injustices together. Really, Nehemiah? A little interest is on the same scale as human slavery? But if we get stuck here, it may be that we’re missing the full picture.
Then Came the Crash
There’s a reason why Nehemiah targets these sins. It goes back to Moses and his laws — remember those laws and the obedience that was supposed to characterize the people of the restored Jerusalem? Well, let’s consider some of those laws. Let’s say Leviticus 25:35–43, a passage that happens to be found under the ESV’s helpful heading “Kindness for Poor Brothers.”
If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you . . . . Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. . . .
If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. . . . For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God.
So what does Moses command the people not to do? Do you see? Moses says that when it comes to how Israel treats their poor brothers: 1) don’t charge them interest, and 2) don’t sell them as slaves.
This is why Nehemiah is livid in chapter five. And that’s why our hopes for this story come crashing down. This Jerusalem, with its newly rebuilt walls, isn’t the Jerusalem we’ve been promised. Not with a people in it like this.
Digging Up the Root
The people are mistreating one another because they don’t really know God. They don’t understand who he is. Their flawed view of him is affecting their flaw behavior toward one another. The text makes this clear. Notice again Nehemiah’s indictment on these crooked nobles and officials:
“The thing you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies?” (Nehemiah 5:9)
The interest and slavery are not good. It is sin. It is wrong. And it is connected to the fact that they don’t fear God. That’s also the rationale in Leviticus 25 for how Israelites treat their vulnerable brothers. Intertwined with the commands not to charge interest and not to enslave the poor are the positive commands, “but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you” (Leviticus 25:36) and “[you] shall fear your God” (Leviticus 25:43).
This is the part Nehemiah goes after. The people don’t fear God. That’s their problem. The people, this people of the hoped-for restoration, do not fear God. And when there’s no fear of God — no awe of his sovereignty, no respect of his power, no grasp of his will and the good he works for his covenant people — then there’s no basis for us to truly love others. Sooner or later the good works will go. The compassion will dwindle. How we treat other people is always determined by what we think about God.
Made New and Rich
And now we see. Betrayed by this truth, this people in Nehemiah working on these walls, rebuilding a new Jerusalem, don’t have the hearts that will inhabitant the real new Jerusalem. The restoration is not here. Not now.
So then what?
We can be sure of this: God will make for himself this people, and he will have a restored Jerusalem. He will have a people on whose hearts his law is engraved, and through whose lives his love overflows. God will have a people who care for their poor brothers. Yes, he will.
God will have a people who care for their poor brothers because God himself actually became our poor brother to care for us. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor so that we by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The God-man, poor, humbled to the point of death, even death on a cross, came to save a people for God, to bring us back to God, to free us to know him, and make sure it happens. “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Jeremiah 31:34). God will have a people who think rightly about him, and by that alone, through this people, he will bring mercy to the needy. He will make us rich in good works, and generous, and ready to share (1 Timothy 6:18).
Because how we treat others is determined by what we think about God.