Violating the Spirit of the Law

Nehemiah 5
Lesson Number: 

Lesson 5 Violating the Spirit of the Law

(Nehemiah 5)

Copr. 2019, Bruce N. Cameron, J.D. All scripture references are to the New International Version (NIV), copr. 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society, unless otherwise noted. Quotations from the NIV are used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. Suggested answers are found within parentheses. If you normally receive this lesson by e-mail, but it is lost one week, you can find it by clicking on this link: Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as you study.


Introduction: What causes poverty? In my country some say it is because the poor made bad choices. If you finish high school, get a job, and don't have children until you are married, your chances of being poor are very slim. Others say poverty is the fault of society. It comes from discrimination on the basis of race or gender. It comes from economic dislocation. World-wide, I think poverty is mainly caused by government policy. Many are poor because of the impact of war. Many are poor because the government refuses to allow economic freedom. Sometimes poverty exists because of weather problems. What does the Bible say? Our study this week deals with complaints about poverty. Let's dive into the Bible during Nehemiah's time and see what we can learn about poverty!


  1. Complaints


    1. Read Nehemiah 5:1-2. Who is the target of this complaint about food? (Their fellow Jews.)


      1. What is the stated reason for poverty? (They have large families.)


        1. Who is at fault for that? Why would you blame "fellow Jews" when you are the one having so many children?


      1. Let's ask a fundamental question. I thought in agricultural times having more children meant you had more food, not less. (Notice that verse two says "we must get grain." That suggests that they are not raising their own grain.)


    1. Read Nehemiah 5:3. What is the reason for poverty here? (Borrowing money.)


      1. Why is this group borrowing money? (To get grain.)


      1. What is the reason for a shortage of grain? (A famine. Now this is beginning to make sense. If you have a famine, having more mouths to feed is a challenge. If you have a famine, the price of food goes up and you raise the additional money by borrowing.)


    1. Read Nehemiah 5:4. What is the source of poverty here? (Government policy in the form of high taxes.)


    1. Read Nehemiah 5:5. How can you complain that you made your own children slaves? (While it might not be obvious, the text explains it. These poor people have sold their other assets, their fields and vineyards. Their last asset to sell is their children into slavery.)


  1. Nehemiah's Response


    1. Read Nehemiah 5:6-7. What is Nehemiah's first reaction? (He is angry!)


      1. Why? Is he angry with those who are complaining or those they are complaining about?


      1. What is Nehemiah's second reaction? (He is like us. He is contemplating what caused this poverty.)


      1. What is his third reaction? (To blame those running the country. He has decided that those complaining are right.)


    1. Look again at the last part of Nehemiah 5:7. What does Nehemiah conclude is the cause for poverty? (One reason is charging interest.)


      1. Wait a minute! I've got a deal for Nehemiah. If he will give me $10,000 dollars today, I'll give it back to him twenty years from now. Is that fair? (There is something called "present value." The value of getting $10,000 twenty years from now is much less than its present value. Interest represents the difference. Giving me $10,000 now without charging me interest cheats you.)


    1. Read Exodus 22:25. How were loans to the poor supposed to be handled? (No interest was to be charged. Thus, the poor had valid complaints about being charged interest. Nehemiah stands against charging interest to the poor.)


    1. Read Deuteronomy 23:19-20. Does God accept the present value concept? (Yes, for foreigners. Notice that this instruction about interest is not limited to poor Hebrews.)


    1. Read Nehemiah 5:8. What is the nature of the problem? (Nehemiah is not specifically commenting on selling children as slaves, rather he talks about the irony of what is happening. Parents sell their children as slaves to Gentiles, and then Nehemiah and other more wealthy Hebrews buy them back. How does this make any sense?)


      1. Are you unhappy that Nehemiah does not directly attack selling children? (Read Exodus 21:2. We do not have the full picture without understanding this verse. In general, Hebrews were not to own fellow Hebrews long-term. On the seventh year, the Hebrew slave was let free. This undoubtedly depressed their value, thus the parents are selling their children to Gentiles. If they sold them to fellow Jews, it was more like renting them out for a limited period of time.)


      1. Who is the source of this problem? Look at Nehemiah 5:8 again. Who is keeping quiet? (It must be the parents. It obviously is not the wealthy people who are buying back the Hebrews.)


    1. Read Nehemiah 5:9. What concern does Nehemiah raise here? (God's reputation. How do His people look in the eyes of their enemies? How do God's people handle their problems?


      1. Do you ever ask yourself that question when you face problems? How will your solution look to the world?


    1. Read Nehemiah 5:10. What is Nehemiah doing to fix the problem? (He reminds them of God's direction in the matter and he leads by example. He lends money and grain, but does not charge interest.)


      1. Do you ask people to do things you are not willing to do?


    1. Read Nehemiah 5:11-12. What is the result? (Those who are charging interest and taking the land of the debtors agree to stop it and give back the land.)


      1. What about the children? (This should cure the problem of selling children. Those suffering from the famine first borrow grain and money. But, when their resources are gone, they then sell their children. This restores their resources.)


      1. Did you notice that the amount of the interest being charged is disclosed here? They are charging about 12% a year.


    1. Read Nehemiah 5:13. What else does Nehemiah do to be sure the problem has been fixed? (He demands that the people take an oath in front of the priests to do as they have promised. Obviously, in this meeting those who have been charging interest feel a great deal of pressure. He does not want them changing their mind later on.)


    1. Read Nehemiah 5:14-16. What else does Nehemiah do to help the poverty problem? (He lowers taxes. He does not take the income to which he is entitled as governor.)


      1. Have you ever heard of a political leader like Nehemiah who did not take any salary?


      1. Have you ever heard of a political leader who cut taxes to help the poor?


  1. Principles for Today


    1. Re-read Nehemiah 5:9. We looked at this before. How important a point is this? (Isn't bringing glory to God our primary duty? Nehemiah is concerned about how the Hebrew approach to poverty is affecting God's reputation among pagans.)


      1. What is the application for today? (Some of these principles apply within the body of believers. They are not necessarily the policy that a secular government should apply.)


    1. What seems to be the main cause of poverty in Nehemiah 5? (The famine. It seems like a cascading problem. The famine put greater financial pressure on the people. Likely those with limited resources were harmed the most.)


      1. What can be done about famine? (Nothing, assuming it is not man-made, except to save resources for difficult times.)


    1. What is the next source of poverty? (Lending practices.)


    1. Is this how problems arise in your life? Something outside your control arises. You have not prepared for it. Others take advantage of your situation.


      1. What lesson do we learn from Nehemiah? (To turn to God's answers to problems. To practice what we preach. To demand accountability.)


    1. Friend, will you make it a priority for your life to bring glory to God?


  1. Next week: The Reading of the Word.