Nehemiah 5: Confronting injustice

Let’s get back to looking at the Life of Nehemiah.   When we left him in  chapter 4, Nehemiah was facing external threats and opposition.  Chapter 5 opens up with a new set of problems for Nehemiah to deal with, and that is internal conflict.   Let’s take a look at how a leader deals with problems inside his own house.

The Problem:  Nehemiah 5:1-5

Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”

Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”

Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”

The problem that Nehemiah was facing was internal corruption within the leadership of the Jewish remnant.   Those who were in authority and influence were not only taking advantage of the people, but were literally enslaving them by charging them exorbitant fees and stacking the prices of basic needs and services.  When the people weren’t able to pay, then their lands would be seized and they’d be placed in servitude to the ones they owed.   There was nothing they could do to pay off the debt and so there was a general outcry to Nehemiah, who, as the new “Boss” in town, probably was not aware of when he stepped on ground to take over governorship of Judah.   Somehow, it’s been brought to his attention, and now the work has ground to a halt.   This happens in leadership.   We spend so much time looking outward that we have a tendency to not notice the internal.  We don’t notice that there are people who are hurting or being taking advantage of, we don’t notice that there are those that are doing the hurt and taking the advantage over others.   Does this happen in all organizations?  NO!!  But, internal conflict will happen in organization in some form or fashion, and the leader must know how to deal with it.

The Confrontation: Nehemiah 5:6-11

When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” So I called together a large meeting to deal with them and said: “As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!” They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.

So I continued, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? 10 I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! 11 Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.”

When Nehemiah found out about the situation, he went ballistic.   Now the interesting thing about this is, in verse 7 it says “I pondered them in my mind….”  He thought about it first.   He didn’t react immediately and fly off the handle and start kicking butts, no.   He thought about it.   Once he thought about it though, he confronted the elders and rulers with the evidence he had.   That’s what a leader must do.  When confronted with “wrong” in his organization, he must confront it wisely, decisively, and immediately.   The key is to do it wisely.   Not a knee jerk reaction or hasty emotional reaction, but he has to have thought about the problem and then the solution and also has to consider if consequences and punishment have to be given out to the offenders.   In this case, the consequence for the offenders was public embarrassment and restitution.  There has to be some kind plan for  restitution and consequence for the offended, but also a plan of restoration for the offenders.   Do you keep the offenders in your organization, if so, how do they continue and what does their plan of restoration look like.   If they have to go, how is it presented to the offender and offended.

The Results: Nehemiah 5:12-13

12 “We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.”

Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. 13 I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!”

At this the whole assembly said, “Amen,” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised

The results, well, public embarrassment is a huge motivator.   It doesn’t seem like it would be, but it is.  In this case, the priests and nobles were busted and presented with their injustice to the people.   Nehemiah called a general meeting of the community and exposed what was going on, now it was in the open.  The priests and nobles had a choice, comply or lose face and place.   Nehemiah had the authority and the backing to take everything, but he gave them the opportunity to make restitution and restoration.   I believe by doing this he was giving them the chance at restoration, of doing the right thing to restore the peoples trust in them as leaders.   It restores accountability and it sets a precedent that the “boss” is paying attention to the people who are under him and is holding their leadership accountable for how they treat them.

Nehemiah’s testimony.  Nehemiah 5:15-19

14 Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year—twelve years—neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. 15 But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels[a] of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. 16 Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we[b] did not acquire any land.

17 Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. 18 Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people.

19 Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people.

Nehemiah’s testimony as to his leadership style is impressive and extraordinary.   As the governor of Judah for 12 years, he states he basically took a pay cut.  The leaders before him not only took their salary from Artaxerxes (which was pretty extravagant), but also charged the people a tax for their “presence and protection”.  In fact, Nehemiah states he devoted himself to the work and did not seek to benefit from his position.  In fact, he even did his best to bless others with his position.   As a leader, the question should not be “how can I best benefit myself with my position”, but it should be, “how can I bless others and take care of others with the position that I have”.   If all we’re doing is seeking our personal gain from a position of leadership and trust then, in my opinion, we’re doing it wrong.   As a leader, our focus should be on what I call “soldier care”.   As a retired Army NCO, I remember every leadership course I ever went to preached about “soldier care”; taking care of soldiers, making sure their needs are met and their training is top-notch.  If a soldier is happy, motivated and feels like he’s being led correctly, they will do the impossible.  The same in any organization.   If an employee/volunteer feels valued, challenged, and motivated, then there’s nothing stopping an organization from doing great things.  It all stems from the leader though.   Is the leader doing due diligence and looking after his subordinates to make sure they’re doing the things they should be doing and holding them accountable for when they screw up.

Nehemiah had a big problem that needed fixing immediately.   He rose to the challenge and gave us an example of how to handle problems within our organizations.   The model is twofold:
1. Confronting the problem head on after placing thought into it and holding people accountable.

2.   As a leader, focus on my people, not what I can get from my people.

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