Sabbath School Lesson for October 27-November 1, 2019
The fifth chapter of Nehemiah helps us see that obeying God must involve caring for those who are poor and needy, and not contributing to their poverty by charging them needlessly for their help. We see in this chapter…
- the complaints of the poor (Sunday)
- the problem of charging interest to their brethren was breaking the spirit of the law (Monday)
- the actions that Nehemiah took to resolve the issue (Tuesday)
- the oath of the oppressors that Nehemiah’s speech recommended (Wednesday)
- the example of Nehemiah’s generosity while he served as their governor (Thursday)
There has always been a sharp contrast between the rich and the poor in our world. At some times, and in some places, it is worse than others. But, the last place we should see inequality of this kind should be among God’s people, or today in God’s church.
This is why Nehemiah was so overcome with emotion when he learned that the poor were being taken advantage of by their brothers and sisters, who should have instead been the ones to save them from their impoverished state.
Nehemiah’s story reminds us that even among God’s people there is oppression that must be identified for its unloving and lawless character.
When we cease to care for others, we are putting ourselves in the position of contributing to their oppression. It is only when the heart is touched with the extent of God’s love can His law be fully obeyed.
Memory Text: ” ‘Restore now to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive groves, and their houses, also a hundredth of the money and the grain, the new wine and the oil, that you have charged them.’ ” Nehemiah 5:11 NKJV
Like Zacchaeus, the reformed tax collector in Jesus’ day, restitution was seen as the best way to make amends for their oppression of the poor. Restitution not only helps the poor break away from their poverty; ideally it releases feelings of generosity and love that helps the oppressor break away from selfishness and develop new habits of giving.
Sunday: People’s Grievance
Anyone who has worked for impoverished, refugee, or homeless populations experiences feelings of anguish over the plight of those they serve. Nehemiah, as well, was overcome with feelings of anger when stories of needy individuals and families reached him in Judah.
Grievances ranged from not having enough food to feed their families because of the famine, to having to borrow money, mortgage their homes, and enslave themselves or family members, including children, in order to pay the enormous taxes being exacted upon them.
Even the Jewish authorities and wealthy residents took advantage of their impoverished brothers and sisters by charging interest on loans that were meant to help alleviate their unfortunate circumstances.
Nehemiah was heartsick that some of the returning exiles, who had thought to free themselves from slavery in Persia, were brought to the point of enslavement once again in the land that had promised them freedom and hope.
Read Nehemiah 5:1-3. How does famine affect populations, even today? What other circumstances today, beyond our control, may lead to even the basic necessity of having enough food?
Read Nehemiah 5:4 and Matthew 22:19-21. Why did Jesus endorse paying taxes? Why are taxes needed in our world, but how can we help ensure that they are fair to all citizens?
Read Nehemiah 5:5 and Isaiah 58:6, 7. How was not helping their fellow Jews seen in God’s eyes? What should they have been doing for their brothers and sisters to help bring them out of poverty?
Monday: Against the Spirit of the Law
Slavery, like divorce, was never in God’s original plan for mankind. But it had become so prevalent in ancient times that God at least set regulations on it, when it came to His chosen people. For example, slaves were to enjoy their freedom after seven years. Seven years of service was all a lender could expect as payment for a debt.
Lending was also permitted in Jewish society, but God specified that no interest should be exacted on loans between their people. No wonder Nehemiah was angry when he learned of the plight of so many needy families, which was made even more painful by the unlawful lending practices of his wealthy brethren in Judah.
Nehemiah was not only angry, but the scriptures say he was VERY angry, when he heard the grievances of his people. He not only gave the matter thought, he gave it SERIOUS thought. Strong emotions often lead to strong responses.
But Nehemiah wisely did not act immediately or rashly on his anger. Thinking through our actions would prevent many ugly incidents resulting from events and situations that bring us to that level of anger.
Read Nehemiah 5:6, 7 and Ephesians 4:26, 27. How was Nehemiah following Paul’s advice about anger in his letter to the Ephesians? What additional ways have you found that help manage your anger?
Read Nehemiah 5:8. How did having a “great assembly” meeting contribute to the silence of those Nehemiah was accusing?
Read Exodus 21:2-7. How were these limitations of slavery fair to everyone living in those times? How did the limitations show that God was on the side of freedom, rather than slavery?
Tuesday: Nehemiah Acts
After rebuking the nobles and rulers of Judah privately, Nehemiah decided that a general assembly was necessary to correct the problem that had come to his attention.
Meeting with all the Jews was helpful for everyone to see firsthand the poverty their faulty, selfish business dealings had brought to those families involved. It would also shame and convict those guilty of charging unfair interest, and make public the resulting oath. The oath on the part of the rulers made it a valid, legal transaction.
Although the charging of interest addressed only one facet of the problem of poverty, it was certainly a step in the right direction. Not having to pay interest on their loans alleviated a significant burden on many Jewish families.
Sometimes, we allow the enormity of a problem to blind us to the actions, even small ones, that would lessen the extent of damage or lighten someone’s burdens even minimally. We forget that any action, no matter how small, is better than doing nothing to fix a problem.
Read Nehemiah 5:7. Why was it wise to speak to the rulers first, before calling for the great assembly?
Read Nehemiah 5:8. What line of reasoning silenced the Jewish rulers?
Read Nehemiah 5:9-10, Leviticus 25:36, and Exodus 22:25. What do their actions say about the condition of their hearts? Why is it easy to forget God’s law when our hearts have wandered from keeping it?
Wednesday: An Oath
Oaths were taken very seriously in Jewish culture, despite the fact that they were a promise to another person, and not necessarily to God (as in a vow).
Nehemiah, after hearing their oath that day, dramatically drew up his garment and shook out the folds, reminding them that they would be shaken out as well, if they failed to adhere to their promises. His symbolic act was considered a curse that showed them the seriousness of their promise and made it less likely that they would violate their verbal promise to correct their behavior.
God understandably takes our oaths and vows seriously, and expects us to honor anything that comes out of our mouths. This is why we must avoid rash promises which may have significant consequences, if we are unable to fulfill them. Our honesty is in jeopardy, and in turn, God’s character is in question, when we fail to live up to our word.
Financial integrity, including paying our debts when it is in our power to do so, and not taking on excessive, unnecessary debt, is a part of this dynamic. Business transactions are very much a form of oath-taking in our world today, and they must be undertaken with great caution, as much as any oaths we read about in the Bible.
Read Nehemiah 5:13, Numbers 30:2, Leviticus 19:12, and Matthew 5:33-37. What was the difference between an oath and a vow? What did Jesus mean about not taking an oath?
Read Matthew 14:9. How was John the Baptist’s fate tied to taking an oath, and how could his death have been avoided?
Read Matthew 10:14, 15, Acts 13:50, 51 and 18:5, 6. What did the shaking of their clothing or sandals signify in that culture?
Thursday: Nehemiah’s Example
The end of chapter 5 was a reminder of Nehemiah’s generosity. His governance was intended to be a model for those wealthy Jews who had contributed to the poverty of their brethren. Nehemiah wanted to make it clear that he never profited from his position as governor of Judah.
Nehemiah had accumulated wealth and status in the Persian government, and was thankful that this allowed him to help his beloved Jewish countrymen by not taking any wages or compensation for his work in Judah. He not only turned down money that would have been rightfully his, but he also contributed by supporting his own family and helping and feeding many others besides.
It is clear that it was a great sacrifice for Nehemiah to be as generous as he was. Just as Jesus gave up the glories of heaven to come to our poor earth, we should expect sacrifice as part of our mission for Him. The Lord’s work should always come before personal gain or ambition.
The reward is in the giving. Nehemiah was clearly a wealthy man, spiritually, by putting God’s mission before his own success and prosperity.
Read Nehemiah 5:14-18. What reasons did Nehemiah give for his generosity?
Read Nehemiah 5:19 and Luke 21:1-4. How does God measure the size of our gift, and what determines if our gift will be remembered?
Read Philippians 2:3-8. Who is our greatest example in giving, and how can we ever attain His level of generosity?
Besides teaching us the value of cultivating a spirit of generosity as a means of battling inequality in the world, the story in Nehemiah 5 reinforces God’s expectations when it comes to our anger and the words we speak.
The easiest way to support and obey the spirit of the law is to watch our actions and listen to our words. They both reveal what’s in our heart. If we don’t use our words and actions to glorify God and uphold His will, we will sadly miss the mark when it comes to obeying the spirit of the law.
Nehemiah was emotionally distraught when he first heard about the problems of his homeland so far away. King Artaxerxes noticed his sad countenance and questioned his cupbearer. See Nehemiah 2:2.
Later, he felt emotional turmoil again, which was described as anger, when dealing with the oppression of God’s people by God’s people. God’s counsel had been ignored as they greedily charged interest on loans to their countrymen. See Nehemiah 5:6.
Both responses led Nehemiah to prayer and serious thought, which should always be our first action when dealing with disturbing situations. Seeking God is therefore our only way to keep the spirit of the law, for His Spirit is needed to fully appreciate what the law can do for us.
Obeying the law draws us closer to God, whose character is intricately woven into the words of His commands. This is why Jesus was said to be the Word (John 1:14). His life embodied all the laws and precepts found in scripture. His most famous sermon (Matthew 5-7) focuses especially on the spirit of the law.
For true peace and happiness in the world, we must embrace His teachings and keep the law as God intended, through a heart of love for our Creator. This was surely Nehemiah’s heartfelt desire and prayer for his people.
Next Week’s Lesson: The Reading of the Word
To read the Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly or see more resources for its study, go to https://www.absg.adventist.org/
Other Outlook blogposts by Teresa Thompson, are at http://outlookmag.org/author/teresathompson/