Fear of God
The starting point for living a moral life begins with fearing God. Fearing God does not mean having a boogeyman-type fear of God; nor does fearing God mean He is like Little Bunny Foo Foo, a rabbit who went about bopping field mice on the head. God will not bop us on the head with a billy club. To fear God means having an awe and reverence for God, our Creator. To fear God means recognizing that we have an audience of One 24/7. As a seminary professor put it, to fear God means recognizing that, “there is no such thing as a secular moment.” God calls Christians to walk or behave in such a way that brings His name glory and honor. Christians who walk or behave in this way have a proper fear of God. Having a fear of God should lead us to lament and seek to eradicate economic injustice.
Those who Exploit the Weak: Not God-fearers
Let’s reflect on Nehemiah 5. These were the worst of times: there was a famine or scarcity of food (Nehemiah 5:3). There was a scarcity of money to pay heavy taxes to the Persian government (5:4). Poor, less-resourced Jews were oppressed monetarily by their wealthy, fellow flesh-and-blood Jewish brothers. In a nutshell, the strong and wealthy Jews were exploiting the economically weaker members of their own community. All of this led to anxiety, fear and desperation (the addition of “and their wives” in 5:1 suggests this desperation). Finally, all of this led to a great outcry (5:1) from the oppressed, from the exploited.
Do you hear the oppressed crying out? Do you hear their voices?
Three groups raise their voices and cry out:
- First group (5:2): large families whose husbands and fathers or the primary breadwinners were attending to the wall for no pay. This meant they had no time for their usual work to earn money to buy grain to feed their large families. The first group’s problem was life-threatening; they were starving.
- Second group (5:3): some had to sell their assets or mortgage their fields, their vineyards, and their houses to acquire food or grain for their families. This meant, sadly, that the second group was on a trajectory to insolvency.
- Third group (5:4): many had to borrow money from their Jewish brothers to pay the Persian king’s tax on their assets. However, on top of this loan, the wealthy Jewish brothers were charging interest. Property might be taken in a pledge pending repayment of a loan; however, taking interest from a fellow Israelite who borrowed out of poverty and need was a major no-no (Deut. 23:19-20). Some were so behind in paying their debt that they were selling their sons and daughters into debt-slavery (Deut. 15:12; Lev. 25:35-42; see also 2 Kings 4). While this practice was legal, it nonetheless hit these financially strapped families quite hard and simply added insult to injury.
All three groups had slightly different complaints, but all suffered “from inequities that cause people to fall into a debt that they could not manage” (David M. Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books, p. 297).
God Fearers Get Angry
Upon hearing about fellow Jews in particular (and fellow imago Dei bearers in general) being oppressed or exploited, what might be a proper response by someone who fears God? Anger. Nehemiah was said to be “very angry” (5:6). He acts promptly by convening a meeting with the officials and nobles (the wealthy leaders of the Jewish community) and chides them publicly for oppressing their fellow brothers and sisters. Nehemiah lectures them for not walking in the fear of God (5:9). These wealthy Jews were acting immorally in other words. Nehemiah orders that the exacting of interest stop immediately. While lending money at interest per se was not illegal, Nehemiah appealed to justice and to the spirit of law, otherwise, the people could not have survived much longer. He orders that land and money confiscated be returned immediately. And Nehemiah appeals to general amnesty – that these brothers go beyond what the law required. That is, instead of releasing these debt-slaves or indentured servants following their sixth year of service (Deut. 15:1-11) or at the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25), Nehemiah urges their immediate release. These Jewish brothers promised to follow through on their word in the presence of priests (5:12-13).
God Fearer’s Generosity
In a stark contrast to his Jewish brothers’ greed and perpetuation of economic injustice, Nehemiah models generosity, grace and fairness. As governor, Nehemiah had the prerogative to raise taxes for his food allowance which was very great: one ox, six choice sheep per day, along with birds and much wine. Nehemiah’s predecessors “laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver” (5:15). These former governors used their position for their personal enrichment and for their servants’ enrichment. Unlike his predecessors, Nehemiah did not ‘lord it over his people.’ Nehemiah not only refused to lay this heavy financial burden on the people but he and his servants labored side by side with their fellow Jews on the wall project. Nehemiah did not desire to live comfortably while his people were in great need. Additionally, Nehemiah hosted Jews and delegates from the nations at his table – providing food and drink at his own expense.
Fear of God: Revisited
Those who fear God are moral. Or those who desire to live a moral life fear God. Those who fear God hear the voice of the oppressed. Those who fear the Lord hate evil – like social and economic injustices (see Proverbs 8:13). Those who fear God recognize injustice and are angered over such injustices. Those who fear God are concerned for the poor and oppressed because God is cares for the poor and oppressed. Those who fear God use their position and privilege to remedy injustices. Those who fear God are generous. Those who fear God seek the interests of others before seeking their own.
Lord, help us by your Spirit, to fear you. Help us to be aware of the oppressed – especially, those who are being exploited economically. God, you care dearly for the poor and the vulnerable. Lord, help us to imitate you in this regard. In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Dr. Luke Bobo (Ph.D) is the Director of Resource and Curriculum Development at Made to Flourish, in Overland Park, KS.