THE PROBLEM (vv.1-5)
The word appears twice in chapter 5. The poor “Have already borrowed to the limit on our fields and vineyards to pay our taxes.” (v.4) They’ve had to take out loans against their land – their birthrights and their only long-term economic hope – and some have even been forced to mortgage their very children (v.5)
It is ironic and deeply unfortunate that the rebuilding of the wall, while a step toward liberation in the long run and for the collective, should cause the immediate enslavement of individuals. On the bright side, at least there was a light at the end of the tunnel. At least there was a restoration underway. And at least there was a community leader with the people’s interest at heart.
THE SOLUTION (vv.6-13)
Nehemiah saw the seriousness of the threat to the rebuilding project, and was apparently able to articulate it well enough that he triggered the closest thing to Jubilee since the direction came down, back in the day (Leviticus 25:23-55). Israel had carried this command, to view land sales as temporary and to cancel all debts every 50 years. But it was ironically during a time of difficulty and crisis that they apparently got around to their most comprehensive obedience.
There were no recorded concerns that this redistribution would be bad for the economy at the time when entrepreneurs were needed to get Jerusalem back on its feet.
When Nehemiah laid out a radical solution, that the community “stop this business of loans” and demanded that the leaders “repay the interest you charged” after returning the foreclosed property (vv.10-11) the response was swift and unequivocal.
“We will give back everything, and demand nothing more from the people. We will do as you say.” (v.12)
Well, that took care of that problem.
HOW WAS THAT POSSIBLE? (vv.14-19)
The whole thing was pretty implausible, especially considering that Nehemiah’s pronouncement began with an admission of his own guilt. Or perhaps that was what made it work, that Nehemiah was subjecting himself to the same standard.
The chapter ends with an odd aside that “I would like to mention that…neither I nor my official drew on our official food allowance.” (v.14)
Despite his greater responsibility, Nehemiah did not fall back on the perks of his power. He, like everyone else, would feel the pinch of doing the right thing