The book of Nehemiah is the story of God’s people rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, but this chapter is an interruption to the flow of that story. As such, it should alert us to the fact that there may be some important lessons for us here.
Apparently when the exiles began to return from captivity, some brought great wealth with them. Others may have become wealthy once they returned and started businesses. But these well-off Jews began to loan money to their countrymen who were having a more difficult time financially, charging them exorbitant interest that amounted to oppression. Like the “payday loan” and “title loan” businesses of our day, these people were preying on the misfortune of the needy.
As the appointed governor of the Jews, Nehemiah began to hear the sad stories of those who were being taken advantage of. Some of them were having to indenture their children to their creditors in order to make the high interest payments. That was a common practice in that day, but it should never have been necessary among God’s people. The Law of Moses was clear: “If you lend money to any of My people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him” (Exodus 22:25).
When Nehemiah heard the “outcry” of the oppressed, it broke his heart. He knew that among God’s people caring for each other is more important than personal gain. He knew that the exploitation of the poor did not reflect the grace of God and that it sent a confusing message to unbelievers. So Nehemiah called the wealthy citizens together and confronted them, saying bluntly, “The thing that you are doing is not good” (v.9). He demanded that any property taken to secure debts be returned and that no more interest be charged on loans. The people knew it was the right thing to do, and it felt so good to repent and make it right that they broke out into spontaneous praise (v.13)! It is important to note that when Nehemiah confronted sin, he did so from a place of personal integrity. Scripture records his testimony of generosity in verses 14-19.
As believers, we reflect the grace of God in the way we treat others. We should be generous with the poor (see Proverbs 28:27). We should take special care of our brothers and sisters in Christ when they are suffering. Members of the original church in Jerusalem were so committed to meeting each other’s needs that “there was not a needy person among them” (see Acts 4:34). We can learn from Nehemiah that God rewards diligence, hard work, and wise investments in business — but He will not reward the kind of shrewdness that is devoid of grace or the kind of opportunism that disguises greed as “good business”.