One of the proofs that the bible is authentic and therefore the authoritative word of God is that it is not edited or airbrushed to remove all blemishes! It is authentic in that it is not a triumphalistic version of events but is real about even the sad stuff.
Chapter 4 is a rousing chapter of overcoming opposition by praying and working together in unison, chapter 5 however brings us right back down to earth. Not everything was rosy in Jerusalem with those who had come to rebuild and those Jewish people living nearby.
The rich and the powerful were exploiting their economically weaker brothers, making themselves rich by exacting interest from those who were struggling in a time of famine even ruthlessly demanding that poor people mortgage their fields, houses and sell their children into slavery to pay their way in the midst of a famine! In response the poor rose up with a ‘great outcry’ (vs1). Not exactly a harmonious picture of unity amongst God’s people.
What was needed was leadership! Leadership who would not be pressurised by the rich and powerful but would be willing to stand up against injustice and exploitation, to speak out on behalf of the poor and the weak and the marginalised.
And that’s exactly what we find Nehemiah doing (vs6) – he is outraged on hearing of the exploitation, calls the rich to account, has the courage to challenge the status quo and calls all God’s people together for an assembly to correct the wrongful ungodly actions of extortion.
God honours this courageous step and the wealthy who were in the wrong are silent before their leader; ‘They were silent and could not find a word to say” (vs8). Nehemiah exhorts them to ‘fear God’ (vs9). God honours courageous leadership which acts according to God’s heart for people and so those who had been in the wrong respond saying; “Let us abandon this exacting interest from one another.” (vs10)
Amazingly, Nehemiah doesn’t just call for a stop to the exploitation but he goes beyond calling for restitution from those who had sinned agains their fellow-country men. Saying; ’return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine and oil that you have been exacting from them.’ (vs11).
God’s social justice here wasn’t merely the stopping of exploitation but a form of ‘making good’ restoring back to people what had been taken from them! Remarkably, the powerful and rich commit themselves to such restitutive actions (vs12) even though it was going to be costly to them to do so. This is a move of God! When our attitudes to money and possessions, when our attitudes to what we have done wrong in the past and when there is a willingness to make good what was wrong and to praise God for the change God has brought about in your heart (vs13) – then you know there has been a move of God’s Holy Spirit!
Writing as a white South African, this passage causes me to consider our own nation, our sad history and how stopping evil practices is a good thing, but not necessarily all God calls us to do. Currently, amongst even believers who are white, the concept of ‘restitution’ is like a swear word to some. But when God moves, I believe there can be restitution even with praise and an Amen! Lord heal our land.