When we fail to stand up for God’s people who have been hurt by Christians or non-Christians, we too cause hurt.
Nehemiah 5: “Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, “With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.” There were also those who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.” And there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.”
I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, “You are exacting interest, each from his brother.” And I held a great assembly against them and said to them, “We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!” They were silent and could not find a word to say. So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” Then they said, “We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.” And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.
Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people. Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people. (ESV)
Would you agree that it hurts the most when you are hurt by your own family? Growing up in Pakistan as a believer it was expected that people outside the family of God would hate us and hurt us because of our faith in Jesus. But what hurt the most was seeing God’s people hurting each other, either directly by oppressing each other or indirectly by not standing up for each other against injustice.
The problem is when you are hurt and you say nothing, do nothing, and allow the hurt to grow. Eventually a day will come when it does not only hurt you, but it also hurts others, directly or indirectly because you chose to say nothing and do nothing. As God’s people, we need to learn to stand up for God’s people no matter the cost.
In Nehemiah 4, God’s people were hurting because they wanted to do God’s will and accomplish God’s work by building the wall. In the next passage, Nehemiah 5:1-19, God’s people were hurting not because of the outsiders like Sanballat and his cronies but by fellow Jews. Verses 1-5 is an outcry of God’s people against fellow Jews. Verse 6 through the end of the chapter is the response of a man with holy discontent who decided to stand up for God’s people no matter the cost.
God’s people are commanded in God’s Word to bear each other’s burdens and stand up for truth and justice, however, when we choose to do nothing and say nothing, we too hurt God’s people. We ought to stand up for God’s people no matter the cost whether the hurt is external or internal.
Now the question is, how do you do that? This passage outlines three steps to help God’s people to stand up for God’s people by caring for them, confronting them, and by committing to them.
Caring for God’s People
We stand up for God’s people by caring for them. Whether the hurt is external or internal, if we want to stand up for fellow believers, caring is the first step because when you care you hear their cries. Verse 1 says, “Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers.” The phrase “a great cry” is the Hebrew word tseaqah, which is the agonizing plea that carries a shrieking noise because words are not enough to articulate the anguish and pain of the victim of great injustice in need of help.
In the Bible, this outcry tseaqah appeared 21 times and almost always God heard the cry and made provisions for deliverance. Why? I think because there is something special about God’s people crying out together. In verse 1 the outcry is coming from Jewish families against fellow Jews. In verses 2-4, we see three groups with three sets of complaints.
First, in verse 2 it says, “For there were those who said, “With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.” They needed food to live.
The second group is in verse 3. It says, “There were also those who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.” Notice their sorry state of affairs was due to famine, an act of God, and therefore for food they had to mortgage their properties.
The third group is in verse 4. It says, “And there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. They were forced to borrow money to pay taxes. Verse 5 says that they were forced to sell their children into slavery. Can you put yourselves in their shoes? All of this was because they wanted to eat food to live. You would have to be callous hearted to not hear such an outcry.
Anytime I hear anyone say, “I am starving,” because they don’t get their dinner on time, it bothers me. When you are actually starving, you do what the people in our text were doing, selling properties and their children to buy food. Unfortunately, that is true in many parts of the world even today, and yet Americans waste about 60 million tons of food every year. That’s about $218 billion that could be providing 130 billion meals.
I want you to know that slavery in our text is not the same as that practiced in our nation. Jews were commanded to treat fellow Jews as hired laborers, not as slaves in Leviticus 25:39-43, but here in verse 5, the phrase, “some of our daughters have already been enslaved” in the Hebrew language implies that either their daughters were forced into marriage by their owners, or they had been sexually assaulted as their property.
Finally, in verse 6 we see Nehemiah’s reaction: “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words.” People with holy discontent do not just pray when they see injustice, they get angry and spring to action.
What is the application? Injustice should provoke righteous anger in us all. We cannot simply look away or lock ourselves in our prayer closet to pray the injustice away. By the power of the Spirit, we are to move and become the answer to the anguished and agonized pleas of the victims of injustice in need of help.
Recently at my church’s VBS, our little children became the answer to the outcry of children they never met. When we shared that a quarter can provide a meal for a child like them, they collected about $2000 to provide about eight thousand meals to children they will never see. That is standing up for God’s people by caring for them. In this church, we are teaching our families and our children to be the answer to the prayers of those who are in need.
Confronting God’s People
The second step, if we desire to stand up for God’s people, is to confront those causing hurt. In Chapter 4:1, Sanballat was very angry when he heard what God’s people were doing. In Chapter 5:6, Nehemiah was very angry when he heard what God’s people were doing but his anger was against injustice.
So, in verse 7 because he cared, he confronted the perpetrators directly and privately, “I took counsel with myself, [meaning he thought it over] and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials [he confronted people in power and position]. I said to them, “You are exacting interest, each from his brother.”
In verse 8 he brought the accusers and the accused together. It troubles me as a pastor when believers want to accuse other believers but wish to remain anonymous. If they cannot stake their own names when they try to ruin someone else’s name, they should not be given an ear to hear.
In verses 9-12, we learn three truths about confronting others:
First, we confront others with the truth of the fear of God: Verse 9: “So I said, ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies?’” When fear of God is the motivation, people right the wrongs.
Second, we confront others with truth in love. Verse 10: “Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest.” Some think the use of “let us” indicates Nehemiah’s confession of him acting unjustly toward God’s people. That cannot be possible because he left everything to step into their pain to redeem them. Why in the world would he extort them?
When Jesus left heaven and became poor it was not to identify with us in sin, for he was sinless, but it was to identify with us as human. Nehemiah was doing the same. He was showing them, the extortioners, a better way to live by joining Team Nehemiah to walk in the fear of God.
Third, we confront others with truth in confidence. Verse 11: “Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” He was direct because he was confident in the truth. In our culture of political correctness, many believers are afraid to call sin, sin, but we must speak truth in confidence.
Notice their response when confronted with truth in verse 12: “Then they said, ‘We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.’” Though their response was positive, Nehemiah didn’t want to take a chance, notice what he did next: “And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised.” He made them take an oath.
Nehemiah intentionally and strategically put all these safeguards to ensure people fulfilled their promises to each other and in the end verse 13, says, “And the people did as they had promised.” The purpose of confrontation should always be building up people and restoring relationships.
I am not the confrontational type. My wife will tell you I concede when it is about me, but when it is about family, God’s people, and God’s work I stand up and do not fear confrontation no matter the cost. How about you?
How do we apply these verses? Though we should never be afraid of standing up for what is right we should always be careful and confront others privately first. We should always confront in love and truth to build people up.
Committing to God’s People
Finally, we stand up for God’s people by committing to them. One of the integral parts of Nehemiah’s leadership is his commitment to God’s people. We learn two principles here about commitment:
The first principle of commitment is that we yield our rights. Verse 14: “Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor.” Notice he was sent as their governor, but he set aside his rights as governor to focus on their welfare. The length of time is another measure of his commitment to God’s people. He was there for twelve years. In all relationships, the length of time shows the strength of the commitment.
The second principle of commitment is that we yield our position of power. Verse 15: “The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God.” The source of his commitment was the fear of God, so in verses 16-18 he yields his position of power to a life of servitude and sacrifice. Therefore in verse 19 he writes, “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.” He didn’t do it for human praise he did it to be remembered for his commitment to God’s people.
Somewhere I heard a story about a man who paid somebody’s tuition fees anonymously and left a plea that one day when the student became a successful doctor and had money, he would pay the school tuition for someone in need and leave the same. People committed to transforming the lives of God’s people stand up for God’s people.
So, the application is this: people committed to doing good for God’s people never seek recognition. They do it for the Lord.
Earlier this year, Hindu mobs launched a terror campaign in the state of Manipur in India to kill and destroy the local tribal Christian community. So far, more than 350 churches have been destroyed, more than 100 people have been killed, and hundreds have been injured. Over a hundred villages have been destroyed and some 66,000 people have been displaced by extreme violence.
Holy discontent should not just make us angry it should give us the courage to stand up for God’s people whether the hurt is external or internal. But we cannot do that unless we care for them and are willing to confront for them because we are committed to them.
One of the local believers while hurting by the violence said, “we believe that God is with us in this battle.” This is happening all over the world to God’s people for their faith. Do we hear their outcry? Do we even care? They are fighting the fight on their knees, and they need their fellow believers around the world to join them in this fight to stand up, say something, and do something.
If you care, if you hear their outcry, stand up for God’s people. When I was studying the word tseaqah, “outcry,” in Hebrew in our text, I came across an author who said, tseaqah is the “moral outrage at the total disregard for human compassion and civility…[He said] If you want to see what this looks like, you do not have to descend into the brothels or the porn shops. You can watch the news about ‘racial cleansing’ across the globe.” What is happening to Christians in Manipur India is nothing less than ethnic cleansing. Human Right Watch says it’s because of India’s Hindu government’s policy of Hindu majoritarianism.
My appeal to you is this: whatever you do, do not ignore the outcry because if we say nothing or do nothing then eventually a day will come when we will need someone to stand up for us but there will be no one left to stand for us.
Please don’t let your care and concern end in sympathy. Sympathy sounds good but it does not do much. Allow empathy to work in your life. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in their position. In sympathy you may say, “I care about them,” but in empathy you say, “I am hurting with them.” It is then you act, you say something, you do something, and you stand up for God’s people. Nehemiah was hurting with God’s people, so he said something and did something by standing up for God’s people.