The walls of Jerusalem are now built to half their height. The people have worked tirelessly and under stress. The neighbors have been relentless in their attacks, not so much physical as psychological. They have made threats and the people have worked with one hand while holding a weapon in the other. Never could they let their guard down. Now we see the beginnings of despair. The returned Jews were experiencing financial problems. Many of them had stopped raising crops to divert their efforts to building the walls of Jerusalem. This meant their families had few options in terms of what to feed their families. The option was to stop work on the wall and go back to their fields, orchards, and vineyards so they could provide for their families. Some of the land holders had mortgaged everything they owned just to survive. On top of all that there was a famine in the land making grain harder to obtain and pay for. Scarcity made prices go up. Despite the famine the Persians did not change the tax burden for the Jews and the tax/tribute was due at the end of the harvest. Some gave serious consideration to selling their children to gain enough money to survive. Scholars estimate the tribute or taxes charged the Jews by the Persians would be close to 100,000,000 in todays economy. Yes, you read that correctly, one hundred million dollars every year in tribute. And it wasn’t like the money was being reinvested in the countries and provinces. The majority of it was melted down and turned into bullion.
Nehemiah was busy leading the rebuilding of the walls but when he heard of his peoples struggles, he took action. Part of the problem also had to do with other Jews. There were wealthy Jews who had returned to Jerusalem and they were selling the grain they had at exorbitant prices and charging high interest rates when the poorer folks came looking for a loan. This was in direct opposition to Levitical law where God charged His people not to loan money at interest to fellow Jews. Nehemiah scolded the wealthy for abusing their fellow Jews and he indicated that he and others had been lending the poor money and grain without interest. His solution was simple; give financial help without pushing people further into debt by charging interest. Nehemiah demanded the wealthy lenders restore the people’s fields AND repay the interest which they never should have collected in the first place. It did not really matter how much interest had been charged because any amount violated God’s covenant.
So, a little bit about banking and money in the ancient world. The earliest monetary exchanges were made on the basis of a barter system. In some cultures, like Mesopotamia, barley and dates were often standards of trade because they could be stored easily, and they kept for a considerable period of time. Tithes, taxes, and tributes were often paid in agricultural produce. Coins were introduced in the 7th century B.C. in Lydia. However, they did not become common until the time of Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. Bartering was still used much later, even in Roman times. Precious metals were also used as a means of currency. In these times an items weight was the primary indicator of its value, but weights changed over the centuries. Some of the common units of weight were the gerah which was .02 ounces, the shekel which weighed .4 ounces, the mina that weighed 1.5 pounds and the talent which weighed 75 pounds. As for the Israelites, money was safeguarded in temples and palaces or buried underground. Loans were documented and witnessed, and six-month agricultural loans were not uncommon. Jewish laws regulated the abuse of collateral. If someone used their outer garment as collateral, the garment had to be returned by nightfall because that was often their covering for their nights sleep. You could not take a millstone as collateral and creditors were not allowed to enter debtor’s homes to collect collateral. Exodus 22:25 prohibited the collecting of interest from another Jew.
Nehemiah made the nobles and officials swear to not charge interest, to give back the interest they had charged and return their property. Both God and the community would hold them accountable. In 5:14 we see the first mention of Nehemiah as the governor of Judah. Persia’s government officials usually drew an official food allowance from the local population, but Nehemiah and his associates purchased food instead out of their regular pay. His speech here is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul as he reminded new believers that he never asked for anything from the people. He too supported himself so that he did not burden the people. It was customary Persian practice to exempt temple personnel from the taxation/tribute, so the burden fell even heavier on the lay people. Nehemiah’s prayer at the end of chapter 5 is a prayer for God to remember and bless him. This is a sign of his dependence on the Lord.
As long as the Jews were working on the wall there was opposition. The financial crisis was resolved and now the attention returns to the building of the walls once again. The enemies tried to intimidate Nehemiah or eliminate him, but he refused to hide or back down. Sanballat even invited Nehemiah to meet him in the plain of Ono, located about 7 miles southeast of Joppa. This was perhaps a neutral site that would have been unprotected. There may have been some Jewish settlers in the region, but this was a clear attempt to eliminate Nehemiah. Nehemiah refused…four times…to meet Sanballat and the fifth invitation brought a letter accusing Nehemiah and the Jews of plotting a revolt with Nehemiah being named king. All this was to be led by prophets that Nehemiah appointed. Sanballat knew that Persian kings did not tolerate rebellion or illegitimate claims to kingship. The Romans were no different in their time. Nehemiah recognized that the enemies were trying to frighten the Jews thinking the threats would cause the people to eventually give up…their hands would get weak, and they could not finish the work. Nehemiah prayed for strong hands.
Again and again the enemies tried to trap Nehemiah, this time inviting him to come to the temple in fear for his safety. But Nehemiah knew that a good leader set a good example and they would not run from danger. By the grace of God, they completed the city walls in 52 days. God made their success possible. When the wall was completed all the enemies lost their bravado because they knew the Lord had caused this to happen. That meant He was on the side of the Jews who lived in Jerusalem and Judah, and they had heard stories about what God had done for His people.
Once the wall was finished, and we will read the dedication in chapter 12, Nehemiah appointed the gatekeepers, singers, and Levites. Levites assisted with caring for the temple area including guarding its gates. The gatekeepers were supposed to keep the gates closed during the afternoon when people were resting, and they did not open them at sunrise like was the custom. Nehemiah wanted to be sure the people were awake and alert so they could see and prevent any enemy attack. Many of the people who were working on the city walls lived in the country near their fields, so the population of Jerusalem was fairly small. It seems that a registration would encourage more people to settle in and near Jerusalem. The lists we see here in chapter 7, along with the lists in Ezra 2 are not complete and the totals of those listed do not add up to the totals given. However, they were the best records available to verify who really was a Jew. Nehemiah wanted to make sure that only legitimate priests and Levites served in God’s temple.
The exiles were settled into the land. Now it was time to be faithful to the Lord and His commands, laws, statutes, and covenants.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W