About this time there was a great outcry from the people and their wives against their fellow Jews.
I. THE POOR.
1. Numbers tend to poverty. "We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live" (ver. 2).
2. Borrowing tends to poverty. "We have mortgaged our lands" (ver. 3).
3. Taxation tends to poverty. "We have borrowed money for the king's tribute" (ver. 4).
4. Poverty may sometimes have cause for protest against injustice.
5. Poverty is experienced by the people of God who are engaged in holy toils.
II. THE RICH.
1. The rich must not take undue advantage of calamitous circumstances. "Because of the dearth" (ver. 3).
2. The rich must not be inconsiderate. "Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren" (ver. 5).
3. The rich must not be cruel. "Our daughters are brought unto bondage" (ver. 5).
4. The rich must not violate the law of God. "Ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God?" (ver. 9).
III. THE REBUKE.
1. Angry. "And I was very angry."
2. Reflective. "I consulted with myself" (ver. 7).
3. Impartial. "The nobles and the rulers."
4. Sustained. "And I set a great assembly against them."
5. Argumentative (ver. 8).
6. Unanswerable. "They held their peace, and found nothing to answer."
7. Successful. "We will restore." - E.
And there was a great cry of the people.I. THE COMPLAINT OF THE POOR. It is sometimes alleged the poor have a morbid disposition to complain of their indigence and sufferings; and this may be true of certain classes of them. The ignorant and vicious, the idle and intemperate, are prone to bewail their hardships in querulous words. They complain bitterly of the miseries of their lot, and perhaps charge those with having a hard heart who do not give them the relief they desire. They try thus to excite the pity of the benevolent, or to extort the gifts of charity which they do not deserve. But it is altogether different with the industrious and pious poor. The poor of the children of Judah are manifestly brought to the very extremity of suffering before they disclose their sorrowful circumstances; and when they are compelled to make them known, it is in language remarkable for dignified sobriety and true pathos. The complaint of these poor Israelites unveils their varied load of sorrow.
1. Some complained of the extent of their necessities. "We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live." The calls of hunger were many; the means of supply, on their own inheritance, were small; and they required to purchase corn for bread from others. Their straits, too, were increased by the present dearth. It is one of the many glories of the religion of the Bible that it makes a benevolent care of the poor a paramount duty in all who have it in their power to relieve their necessities, and enforces this duty by threatenings for its neglect, and by promises of reward for its observance.
2. Some of the poor here also complain of the severity of public burdens. They were still subject to the Persian king, and to secure the continuance of his favour to Jerusalem they had made every possible effort to pay his tribute. Their more wealthy countrymen met this tax without abridging their home comforts, but the burden was heavy on the poor.
3. The sorrows of the poor were in this case deepened by the thought that they were occasioned by the ungenerous conduct of their own brethren. "Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, neither is it in our power to redeem them." They possessed a common relation to the covenant inheritance. They had left the land of their exile animated with the same faith, and embarked in the same enterprise. Many of them had quitted comforts in that foreign land, out of love to Jerusalem, and were now enduring the first trials of returned captives. They had laboured, too, by their united endeavours, to restore the city of their fathers, instead of seeking every man his own things in the care of his patrimonial inheritance. It might have been expected that, thus labouring for a common object, they would have shared a common sympathy, and been free from the grasp of selfishness.
4. How mysterious are sufferings like these, especially of the poor people of God engaged in His service. We do not wonder that those Jews who remained in the land of idols, after they were free to return to Judah, might suffer adversity. They despised the Lord's goodness in offering deliverance from exile, and preferred ease in a strange country to spiritual blessings in the holy land. It is not wonderful though they might be visited with trials in providence, and be made to read their sin in their suffering. But here those endure affliction who willingly left the land of the heathen, and they are involved in deep trouble while doing a service to the city of God. Shall we think that they disprove either the wisdom or goodness of God's providence to His people? Do they not rather show His thoughts to be far above our thoughts, and His procedure in carrying out His great plan to be too high for us to understand? Do they not clearly indicate that He tries the faith of His servants in the very moment of accepting their love, and rewards their affection, not in the comforts of earth, but in the glories of immortality? It is thus that the world in which we dwell is still a place of weeping, where the poor and needy pour out their tears in floods. Thousands of righteous ones languish in poverty, or are persecuted for their fidelity to the truth of God.
II. NEHEMIAH'S EXPOSTULATION WITH THE NOBLES. The promptitude with which he listens to the complaint of the poor does honour to his heart, and the courage with which he proceeds to redress their wrongs sheds a lustre on the justice of his administration. The cry of the lowly for relief from distress or opposition is often disregarded, yea, proves the occasion of augmenting their misery. And in his very first step for reform of these abuses in Judah he evinces again the self-reliance of a great mind. "Then," says he, "I consulted with myself." To this, indeed, he was shut up by his peculiar and trying circumstances.
1. He "rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother." To see the full force of this charge, it must be borne in mind that the Israelites were forbidden in the law of Moses to lend money to the poor on interest. With strangers, or perhaps with the rich, they might trade in this way; but this is the law interdicting such a practice with their poor brethren: — "If thou lend money to any of My people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury." This, then, is a grave charge against the nobles of violating the Divine law; and it falls on ears not accustomed to such plain words. Men of rank and affluence seldom hear this language of remonstrance addressed to them, and they can ill bear such reflections on their honour. But no earthly station exempts wrong-doers from just reproof; and Nehemiah's zeal for God, as well as his love to His people, inspires him with faithfulness. True kindness to them, not less than compassion for the lowly objects of their exactions, prompted his faithful expostulation. The reproof here was administered with firmness, yet it was accompanied with the prudence of wisdom, adopting a course fitted to fortify remonstrance, and to secure its desired effect. "I set," says he, "a great assembly against them." What was the object of this concourse? We cannot suppose that the servant of God intended, through this means, to overawe the nobles by numbers, or to constrain them to a decision contrary to reason. He appears rather to have convened this assembly to allow the free expression of sentiment on the evil complained of, and to bring all under the salutary influence of public opinion. In no free community can public opinion be set at defiance with either justice or safety. It may, indeed, be sometimes corrupted by designing men, and it may for a season be swayed by impulses perilous to the common-weal. It requires, then, to be corrected and regulated by the power of truth. But a healthful public opinion, wisely formed, rightly guided, freely expressed, is the bulwark of national liberty, and an essential condition of the progress of mankind.
2. Nehemiah addressed to the rulers of Judah persuasive argument. The arguments he employed are threefold. He first of all pleads the efforts already made to redeem Judah from captivity. And on this ground he asks if it is right they should be again sold into bondage. "We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, who were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren?" This appeal reminds believers in Christ of their duty, not to come again into bondage to sin. "Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made you free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." Nehemiah, moreover, pleads the exposure of the common cause to the reproach of the enemy as a reason for the nobles ceasing their oppression. "Also I said, It is not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?" This is a powerful argument for watchfulness and consistency in all who love Zion. Many are jealous for their own reputation, and quick to wipe off any reproach from themselves, while they have little care for the honour of God. Nehemiah, once more, appeals to his own conduct as an example of a generous spirit to his poor brethren. He, too, might have exacted money and corn, but he freely surrendered his private rights for the sake of the public good. It is not in a boastful spirit that he thus refers to himself and the course of self-denial he pursued. Perhaps, also, he wishes to suggest that he gained far more in enjoyment than he gave up in substance. The powerful and persuasive appeal was crowned with complete success. The result of this appeal also proves the power of religious motive in remedying social evils. These often grow and spread in face of all arguments deduced from considerations of humanity and justice. But here, in Jerusalem, religion pours the oil of love on the troubled waters; she addresses a winning appeal to open hearts, and at once the grasp of oppression is relaxed. If any great social evils are allowed to prevail where religion is professed, it is only by neglecting or denying its power. Christianity will either destroy every iniquity that abounds in a land, or itself will decline and depart from a people who will not hear its voice, to break off their sins by righteousness.
III. NEHEMIAH'S TESTIMONY TO HIS OWN DISINTERESTED CONDUCT.
(T. C. Finlayson.)
Homiletic Commentary.I. THAT SOCIAL INJUSTICE MAY EXIST EVEN AMONGST FELLOW-WORKERS IN A GREAT AND GOOD CAUSE.
II. THAT SOCIAL INJUSTICE, IF NOT CORRECTED, WILL UNDERMINE THE STABILITY OF ANY CAUSE, HOWEVER RIGHTEOUS.
III. THAT SOCIAL INJUSTICE SHOULD BE REGARDED BY ALL GOOD MEN WITH FEELINGS OF RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION.
IV. THAT SOCIAL INJUSTICE, WHENEVER DISCOVERED, SHOULD BE CALMLY, YET PROMPTLY, DEALT WITH.
V. THAT CONCILIATORY APPEALS ARE SOMETIMES MORE EFFICACIOUS THAN COERCIVE MEASURES IN DEALING WITH SOCIAL INJUSTICE.
Homiletic Commentary.I. THE UNENDING STRUGGLE. Wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, brain and brawn, capital and labour — when in all ages have not these come into collision?
II. ELEMENTS OF BITTERNESS IN THIS STRUGGLE.
1. On the side of the oppressors there is power (ver. 7).
2. The oppressed are the brethren of the oppressors.
3. They were engaged in a common cause.
III. LIGHT IN DARENESS.
1. Christ cams to proclaim the brotherhood of humanity.
2. Signs of the times. The teacher is abroad. Society is tending towards redress.
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