After overcoming so many difficult obstacles described in the previous chapters, Nehemiah now faces one of his greatest challenges—internal dissension and complaint. The chapter commences by describing a great cry amongst the people of God. It is no ordinary cry. The Hebrew word means a cry of affliction, a cry of oppression, a piercing, pitiful cry. In fact it is the same word used in Exodus 3:7–9 to describe the cry of the children of Israel in Egypt against their taskmasters. But in Nehemiahʼs day the taskmasters were “their brethren the Jews”, specifically the rulers and nobles of the nation (v7).

It is one thing to face oppression from without, but how evil is it to face oppression like this from within! The law in Exodus 22:21–24 specifically stated that Israel should not vex their own brethren because if they did, and they cried unto God, God would hear their cry and His anger would become hot against them. Nehemiahʼs anger in verse 7 was simply a reflection of how God felt about this matter.

This surely is a very great warning for us today, because if we are oppressing our brethren and sisters in the Truth, and they cry unto God, we are placing ourselves in a very dangerous situation in relation to our eternal well being, as these rulers and nobles were.

From verses 2 to 5 we are introduced to three different types of situations that these people were in as they approached Nehemiah. The first group come to Nehemiah, saying in verse 2: “We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live”. The expression “take up corn” is an expression full of urgency in the Hebrew: “We must take up corn”. There were no ʻifsʼ or ʻbutsʼ. All of a sudden, families engaged in the work of the Truth found that they could not continue in the work because they could not support themselves.

Imagine the scene, as these people come to Nehemiah and say: “Iʼm sorry Nehemiah. We love the work of the Truth, we want to help you but weʼve got to provide for our own families. We must take up corn”. Their enthusiasm, that had put them shoulder-to-shoulder on the wall, now begins to diminish. The people had a mind to work, but their own brethren were destroying their zeal and commitment.

In verse 3 we have another group of people who had run out of savings and had been forced to mortgage their lands, vineyards, and houses to buy corn for their families, because of the dearth. Why was there a dearth in the land? God wanted them to consider their ways (Haggai 1:5–11), as well as to know what was in their heart and what really motivated them (Deut 8:2,3).

God does exactly the same today. He tests us with trials and tribulations to know what is really in our hearts, to give us an opportunity to consider our ways as we labour in the service of our Master. The trial, however, was compounded by brethren afflicting each other.

In verses 4 and 5 we are introduced to another group of people who had run out of money and were forced to sell their own children into slavery just to pay off their taxes. They had no one to turn to; they were desperate and it was this intense plea by the people, which caused Nehemiah to become very angry in verse 6. The Hebrew word for “angry” means “to become hot, to become furious”. Was this a sinful reaction? Well, the simple answer is ʻnoʼ. This reaction is the same reaction as the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:2—a “godly jealousy”. Nehemiah, seeing the harm that was done to the ecclesia, flares into a godly jealousy, to protect the people against the rulers and the nobles.

Notice the way in which Nehemiah handles the situation in the following verses. He doesnʼt ʻfly off the handleʼ. He consults with himself, and the idea of this word means to reign, to take counsel, and thatʼs exactly what Nehemiah did. He went away to get control of himself, as the psalmists says in Psalm 4:4: “Stand in awe [RSV ʻbe angryʼ] and sin not… be still. Selah”. Pause and consider, and this is precisely what Nehemiah does (Prov 14:29).

Nehemiah privately rebukes the rulers and nobles and then sets “a great assembly against them”. Was this the right thing to do? He followed the principle expressed by Paul 1 Timothy 5:20: “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear”. Elders have a great responsibility in the ecclesia, but if they sin they will answer before the majority. Why? So that others may fear. “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation” (James 3:1).

Nehemiah endeavours to appeal to their conscience first that they might repent. He tells them in verse 8 that he and his brethren had taken great pains to give the people liberty, and now their own rulers had enslaved them to strangers.

According to Exodus 21:1–5 a servant working for a Hebrew master, could only work for six years, and then he would be released on the seventh year. This was a good law, but if the servant had to mortgage his property to pay off his debts he couldnʼt get his inheritance back until the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:9,10). Worse, if he had to sell his inheritance to a Gentile he could never get it back. Thus the Law placed the duty upon the nearest of kin (Lev 25:47,48) to buy it back from the stranger. The spirit of these laws was to provide freedom and release (cp Lev 25:55 where God states that He had brought forth the children of Israel out of Egypt at great cost and expected Israel to make the same kind of sacrifice for their brethren). And He expects us to make the same sacrifice for each other.

We, too, have been brought out of slavery from spiritual Egypt, and if we really appreciate the price that has been paid on our behalf, even the precious blood of Christ, we should not take advantage of our brethren and sisters for whom Christ died. These ideas are expounded by our Lord, in regards to the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18. This is where one servant is forgiven a huge debt by the king but refuses to forgive a trifling debt owed to him by his brother. When the king learns of this he is very angry (v34), just like Nehemiah.

The context of this parable is found in Peterʼs question to his Lord in verse 21: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Till seven times?” Jesus, answering Peter, says in verse 22, “I say not unto thee, until seven times; but, until seventy times seven”. Peter thought that seven times was a generous offer. Christ says to Peter, you canʼt keep count at all. To talk of counting is to miss the point of forgiveness. There is no limit to forgiveness, and to illustrate this he gives the parable of the unmerciful servant to demonstrate the point, that as God has forgiven us so we should forgive one another.

From this parable we can see how God looks upon a person with an unforgiving spirit. Such a spirit can be nurtured in our hearts, unknown by our brethren and sisters, and this is what Christ warns us of in verse 35. If we treasure evil thoughts we are unfit for Godʼs forgiveness.

Nehemiah goes on to say in verse 9: “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?” Walking in the fear of God is a quality that all rulers and leaders should develop (2 Sam 23:3), and they had forgotten this.

His argument was clear. Look what you have done to the truth. Imagine Geshem, Sanballat, and Tobiah and their friends, outside those walls; just imagine what they would be saying, with utter contempt: “These Jews that profess so much devotion to God, see how barbaric they are one to another”.

Jesus said to his disciples, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). We must realise that whatever we do in the Truth, the world is watching us, because it is so easy sometimes to bring the name of God into disrepute.

Nehemiah finishes his exhortation with his own personal example in verse 10. He had with his brethren lent money to free the people, not to enslave them. We should be helping our brethren and sisters in the Truth, not taking advantage of them.

In verse 11 Nehemiah earnestly pleads with them to restore that which they had taken. Notice the way in which Nehemiah identifies himself with the rulers and nobles in this verse: “Let us leave off this usury”. Notice too how humbly he persuades them: “I pray you leave off; I pray you restore”. Though he had authority to command, yet, for loveʼs sake, he rather beseeches. See how he particularly presses them to be kind to the poor, to get them to release their brethren from their mortgages, to put them again in possession of their estates. Nehemiah called upon the nobles and rulers to adhere to the spirit of the Jubilee Law by asking them to forgive the debts and proclaim liberty throughout the land.

To their credit the response from the rulers was positive (v12). That still doesnʼt stop Nehemiah from calling the priests, and taking an oath from them, that they should do according to this promise. Nehemiah was not interested in words only. He wanted to make sure that they understood that God was listening to their promise. The exhortation is clear for us. We must keep our promises, and we must remember that God hears those promises too.

From verse 14 to the end of the chapter, Nehemiah sets out his own personal example to show them a better way.

Firstly he states that he had the right to tax the people. What a contrast to the rulers and nobles who exacted usury from their brethren. Nehemiah understood the principle that “all things were lawful unto him, but all things were not expedient” (1 Cor 6:12). He was just like Paul. He had certain liberties and entitlements but he didnʼt exercise them.

In verse 15 Nehemiah reminds them of their former governors who had burdened them. Nehemiah had not done so, and would not, because of the fear of God. Firstly, the fear of God restrained him from oppressing the people, and secondly, he was there to help and build, not to cast down and destroy.

We can ask ourselves the question, “Do we have the fear of God as Nehemiah did?” Do we really believe that God is alive and remember this throughout the day? Proverbs 23:17 says, “Be thou in the fear of Yahweh all the day long”. Or do we walk as though God doesnʼt exist? Nehemiah saw the invisible. He was not there to ʻfeather his own nestʼ, but to help the needs of others (cp Acts 20:35).

In verse 16 Nehemiah indicated that he was pre-occupied with “this wall”. His point was, “Iʼm not interested in other walls and property. Itʼs this wall that is so important to me.” No one had to ask him what he meant by “this wall”. They all knew. This was where his priority lay. Nothing else mattered except the work of God. They never saw him off that wall. They never saw him sleep, as he walked around those walls, and his servants were the same—fully pre-occupied with the same work.

This has got to be our focus as well—building up people in the Truth, protecting brethren and sisters from the enemy without, contributing to the work of God (1 Cor 3:9,10).

In verses 17 and 18 we learn that Nehemiah had many honorable guests, at least 150 of his own countrymen, besides strangers that came unto him. He showed hospitality without grudging (1 Peter 4:9), at his own personal expense. Why did he do this? Because “the bondage was heavy upon this people”. The word “bondage” means, “crushing”. He took pity on them because life was hard, taxes were heavy, there was much work to do, and little money to go around. Nehemiah was like the Apostle Paul labouring for others (Acts 20:23). This surely is the antidote to oppression. Instead of taking, we ought to be giving.

Nehemiah concludes in verse 19 with a prayer: “Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people”. Nehemiah only wanted God to remember the good, and this is what was demonstrated in the Burnt Offering, under the Law, where Israel was told, in Numbers 10:10, to blow the trumpets over a Burnt Offering and Peace Offering, as a memorial before God. The trumpets were blown to call Godʼs attention to the dedication and fellowship of the offerer.

It is significant to note that Yahweh later answered this prayer. He said in Malachi 3:16,17 that He would remember those who thought upon His Name. Let us all follow Nehemiahʼs great personal example, that we, like him may be remembered for good.