Coming off the relative successes of chapter four, Nehemiah 5 starts with a struggle.
The problem is within the people (v.1), and is a financial one (vv.2-5). The fact that they had been giving so much time to the building project coupled with the famine had meant that they had evidently found it difficult to provide even the most basic of necessities for themselves and their families (v.2). As a result, they had borrowed money, mortgaged fields, and, sadly, forced their sons and…daughters to be slaves (v.5).
Nehemiah’s response was to feel very angry (v.6). If we just pause and think back to chapter two, he has been given resources for the task (2.8), so, logically, his anger must be that financial problems are dividing the people, not the project.
After thinking things through, Nehemiah takes a strong course of action: he confronts those in the wrong (vv.7-13). His confrontation and conviction can be boiled down to this – stop making money off the basic needs of others. Thankfully, those in the wrong listen and commit to putting things right (vv.12-13).
As the leader, Nehemiah needed to practice what he preached here, didn’t he, otherwise it would become a case of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. However, Nehemiah is seen leading from the front here, so to speak. In vv.14-19 we read
14 From the day that I was appointed governor in the land of Judah, that is, from the twentieth year until the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes—twelve years in all—neither I nor my relatives ate the food allotted to the governor. 15 But the former governors who preceded me had burdened the people and had taken food and wine from them, in addition to forty shekels of silver. Their associates were also domineering over the people. But I did not behave in this way, due to my fear of God. 16 I gave myself to the work on this wall, without even purchasing a field. All my associates were gathered there for the work.
17 There were 150 Jews and officials who dined with me routinely, in addition to those who came to us from the nations all around us. 18 Every day one ox, six select sheep, and some birds were prepared for me, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Despite all this I did not require the food allotted to the governor, for the work was demanding on this people.
19 Please remember me for good, O my God, for all that I have done for this people.
Before the confrontation and the conviction of Nehemiah, the people were dividing themselves with exploitative financial practices. His conduct stands in stark contrast to this (vv.14-19), and if we were trying to summarise in what way Nehemiah was different we could say this,
The people were concerned with getting,
Nehemiah was concerned with giving.
For twelve years, as we read here, he put others first, fed others, treated others with financial grace, and he did this because of the fear of God (v.15).
Nehemiah is a good model of leadership for us in so many ways, but chapter five gives us a model of financial leadership: be more concerned with giving than getting.