Nehemiah 5
Pulpit Commentary
And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews.
Verse 1. - A great cry. Compare ver. 6, where the "cry" is distinguished from the "words." The Oriental habit of shrill lamentation must be borne in mind it is always shrillest when the women have a part in it, as on this occasion. Their wives. Mothers, whose children had been sold into slavery, or who anticipated losing them in this sad way speedily (ver. 5). Their brethren the Jews. i.e. the richer Jews, who had adopted the practice of lending upon pledge.
For there were that said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live.
Verse 2. - There were that said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many. Those who had large families were foremost in making complaint. They found their numerous progeny not the blessing that abundant offspring is ordinarily reckoned in Holy Scripture, but a burthen and an anxiety. Therefore we take up corn for them. We are obliged to get corn for them, or they would die, and have to run in debt for it. Corn, wine, and oil seem to have been lent, no less than money (ver. 11).
Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth.
Verse 3. - Because of the dearth. Some, who could not say that their families were large, claimed relief on account, as it would seem, not so much of a present as of a past famine, which had forced them to mortgage their fields, vineyards, and houses. That Judaea was liable to famines about this time appears from Haggai 1:6, 9-11; Haggai 2:16-19.
There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king's tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards.
Verse 4. - The king's tribute. Judaea, like other Persian provinces, had to pay a tribute, partly in money and partly in kind, yearly to the Persian monarch (see the comment on Ezra 4:13); but there is no reason to believe that this burthen was generally felt as oppressive, nor that it was heavier in Judaea than elsewhere. But by the very poor even a small amount of direct taxation is felt as a grievance; and the necessity of meeting the demands of the tax-gatherer was in the ancient world often the turning-point, which compelled the contracting of a debt (Liv., 2:23); and so it seems to have been with these complainants,
Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards.
Verse 5. - Our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren. We love our own flesh and blood, poor as we are, just as much as do our richer brethren; our children are as dear to us as theirs to them. The necessity which compels us to bring into bondage our sons and our daughters is therefore most grievous to us. Some of our daughters are brought into bondage already. On the power of fathers to sell their daughters, see Exodus 21:7. Neither is it in our power to redeem them. Literally, "nor is aught in the power of our hands" (see Genesis 31:29). We have no remedy; it is not in our power to effect any change.
And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words.
Verse 6. - I was very angry. It is not clear that the letter of the law was infringed, unless it were in the matter of taking interest (ver. 11), of which the people had not complained. That men might sell their daughters to be concubines or secondary wives is clear from Exodus 21:7; and it is therefore probable that they might sell their sons for servants. But the servitude might only be for six years (Exodus 21:2); and if a jubilee year occurred before the sexennial period was out, the service was ended (Leviticus 25:10). Land too might be either mortgaged or sold (ibid. vers. 14-16), but under the condition that it returned to the seller, or at any rate to his tribe, in the jubilee year (ibid. vers. 10, 13). The spirit, however, of the law - the command, "Ye shall not oppress one another" (ibid. vers. 14, 17) - was transgressed by the proceedings of the rich men. It was their duty in a time of scarcity not to press hard upon their poorer brethren, but freely to alleviate their necessities. Nehemiah, his near relations, and his followers had done so to the utmost of their power (ver. 10, with the comment). The rich men had acted differently, and made all the profit that they could out of the need of their fellow-countrymen. Hence Nehemiah's anger.
Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them.
Verse 7. - I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury. So the Vulgate, and most commentators; but Bertheau has shown that the expression used, which is peculiar to Nehemiah, cannot have this meaning, since it is not the taking of usury that has been complained of, or that Nehemiah is especially anxious to stop, but the lending of money upon the security of lands, houses, or children, with its consequences, the forfeiture of the lands and houses, with the enslavement of the children. He therefore translates, "I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye lend upon pledge." I set a great assembly against them. It is evident that Nehemiah's rebuke had no effect. The nobles gave him no reason to think that they would change their conduct. He was therefore compelled to bring the matter before the people; not that they had any legal power, but he felt that the nobles might be ashamed or afraid to continue their oppression when it was openly denounced by the chief civil ruler in the hearing of a great assembly of their countrymen.
And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us? Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer.
Verse 8. - We after our ability have redeemed our brethren. "We," here, may be either "we Jews of the captivity," in contrast with "you who have long returned from it," or "we of my house and household" (equivalent to the "I, my brethren, and my servants" of ver. 10), in contrast with "you rich Jews not of my household." Nehemiah must appeal to a well-known fact, that he and others had been in the habit of redeeming enslaved Jews among the heathen. Will ye even sell your brethren? An argumenturn ad verecundiam. Will ye do the exact opposite? Cause your brethren to be sold into slavery? And not to heathen masters, but to men of their own nation, unto us? Roman creditors, if they sold their debtor slaves, were required by law to sell them across the Tiber - to men of a different race. It was felt to add to the indignity of the slave condition that one should have to serve one's own countryman, recently one's equal and (perhaps) acquaintance. They held their peace, and found nothing to answer. Or, "found never a word. The argument told. It admitted of no reply. The nobles were ashamed, and had not a word to say.
Also I said, 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 our enemies?
Verse 9. - Also I said. To silence the nobles was not enough. To shame them was not enough. What was wanted was to persuade them. Nehemiah therefore continued his address. It is not good that ye do. It is not good in itself, apart from any contrast with what I have been doing. Ought ye not to walk - or, literally, "will ye not walk"- in the fear of our God? Will ye not really, "fear God and keep his commandments, not in the letter only, but in the spirit? Will ye not cease to oppress your brethren? Will ye not deal kindly and gently with them? Because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies. If the mere fear of God, the desire to escape his displeasure and win his approval, is not enough, will not the thought of the light in which you will appear to the heathen influence you? You make a profession of religion; you claim to be actuated by high motives; to be merciful, compassionate, and self-denying. If they see you as keen after gain as any of themselves, as regardless of others, as pitiless and oppressive, what a reproach will not this bring on your religion! What a proof will it not seem to be that you are no better than your neighbours, and your religion, therefore, no whit superior to theirs!
I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury.
Verse 10. - I likewise... might exact of them. Rather, "have lent them." I and mine have advanced to the poorer classes, in this period of their distress, money and corn; but not as you have, not upon security. Let us then, all of us, you as well as I, henceforth relinquish this practice of mortgaging and pledge-taking.
Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them.
Verse 11. - Restore, I pray you, etc. Nay, more. Let us not only give up this practice in the future, but let us remedy its evils in the past. You are in possession of lands and houses that have become yours through these mortgages, and you have received a heavy interest on the sums of money, or on the corn, wine, and oil that you have advanced. I bid you restore it all. Give back at once the houses and the lands that you will in any case have to restore in the year of jubilee. Give back the interest that you have illegally taken, and so, as far as is possible, undo the past; make restitution of your ill-gotten gains, relinquish even your legal rights, and become self-denying patriots, instead of tyrants and oppressors.
Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest. Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise.
Verse 12. - Then they said, We will restore them. Nehemiah's eloquence prevailed, and brought about a "day of sacrifices." The nobles, one and all, agreed not only to give back the interest that they had illegally received on the corn and money borrowed of them, but to restore the forfeited lands and houses, which must have been of far greater value, and to which they were by law fully entitled. "We will restore them," they said, "and will (in future) require nothing of them, neither interest nor security, but will do as thou sayest." The promise was sweeping in its terms, and probably not insincere; but Nehemiah mistrusted all sudden impulses. He would have something more than a promise. Then called I the priests, and took an oath of them (the nobles), that they should do according to this promise. i.e. he swore the nobles, in the sacred presence of the priests, to the performance of the promise which they had made.
Also I shook my lap, and said, So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, and emptied. And all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the LORD. And the people did according to this promise.
Verse 13. - Also I shook my lap. Even the taking of the oath did not seem sufficient to the prudent governor. He would strengthen the oath by a malediction, and a malediction accompanied by a symbolical act, to render it the more impressive. Among the nations of antiquity few things were so much dreaded as falling under a curse. The maledictions of Deuteronomy 28:16-44 were the supreme sanction which Moses devised for the Law, whereof he was the promulgator. Curses protected the tombs and inscriptions of the Assyrian and Persian kings, the contracts of the Babylonians, and the treaties of most nations. Nehemiah's curse is an unusual one, but very clear and intelligible. He prays that whosoever departs from his promise given may be cast forth a homeless wanderer, emptied of all his possessions, as empty as the fold in his own dress, which he first gathers into a sort of bag or pocket, and then throws from him and so empties out. To this the assembly responded by a hearty "Amen," and then praised the Lord for the happy ending of the whole affair; in which they piously traced the directing and over-ruling hand of God, "restraining the fierceness of men," and "turning it to his praise" (Psalm 76:10 - Prayer-Book version).

CHAPTER 5:14-19 GENERAL ACCOUNT OF NEHEMIAH'S GOVERNMENT (vers. 14-19). Having given this account of the internal difficulties which threatened to put a stop to the building of the wall before it was well begun, and been led in the course of it to speak of the poverty and sufferings of the common people, Nehemiah not unnaturally goes on to inform us of the methods by which in his general government he endeavoured to alleviate the distress, or at any rate to avoid adding to the burthens which pressed upon the poorer classes. From the time that he entered upon his office, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, B.C. 444, to the time of his writing this portion of his Book, in the thirty-second year of the same king, B.C. 432, he had lived entirely at his own expense, requiring no contributions from the people, either in provisions or money, for the support of himself or his court (ver. 14). This was quite contrary to the previous practice of Jewish governors (ver. 15), and indeed of Oriental governors generally, whether under the Persian system or any other, such persons almost universally taxing their provinces, sometimes very heavily, for their current expenses, and often accumulating princely fortunes by their exactions. Nehemiah had also maintained a noble hospitality, of which he may be excused for being a little proud, during these twelve years of his governorship, entertaining daily at his table 150 of the chief inhabitants of Jerusalem, besides many foreign Jews who from time to time came on visits to the Judaean capital (vers. 17, 18). It is conjectured that he was able to take this course, and spend so largely without receiving any income from his province, because he retained his place of cupbearer, and as such drew a large salary from the Persian court (Ewald, 'History of Israel,' vol. 5. p. 150, E. Tr.). However this may have been, he certainly disbursed large sums of money in Jerusalem, and must have done something to alleviate the general poverty by his lavish expenditure. He takes credit, further, for giving the services of his private attendants to the work of the wall during the whole time that it was in building (ver. 16), and for having abstained from the purchase of any land, when, through the general poverty, it might have been bought at a low price from those who were anxious to part with it (ibid.). HIS conduct beyond a doubt stood in the strongest contrast with that of the ordinary Persian satrap, or other governor, and we cannot be surprised that he looked on it with some complacency. He felt that he had done much for his people. He looked, however, for his reward not to them, not to man, but to God; and desired that his reward should be not present gratitude and thanks, not even posthumous fame, but God's approval and remembrance only (ver. 19). "Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people."
Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that is, twelve years, I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor.
Verse 14. - From the day that I was appointed. Literally, "from the day that he (i.e. Artaxerxes) appointed me." From the twentieth year. See above, Nehemiah 2:1. The appointment, having taken place in Nisan, was in B.C. 444. Unto the two and thirtieth year. We see here that this chapter, and therefore, probably, the entire first section (chs. 1-7.) of this Book, was not written until B.C. 432, the year in which Nehemiah returned to the Persian court from Jerusalem (Nehemiah 13:6). I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor. i.e. "have not lived at the expense of our subjects, as Persian governors do ordinarily." Nehemiah's brethren here are probably not his brothers only, but his entire court.
But the former governors that had been before me were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver; yea, even their servants bare rule over the people: but so did not I, because of the fear of God.
Verse 15. - The former governors that had been before me. Of these, two only are known to us, Zerubbabel and Ezra; but it is probable that there had been others. Were chargeable unto the people. The words of the original are stronger, and should be rendered "had oppressed the people (ἐβάρυναν, LXX.), "had been heavy upon them. Had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels. Rather, "had taken from them, for bread and wine, above forty shekels." (So Ewald and Bertheau.) Forty shekels a day from the whole people would seem to be intended - not forty shekels a year from each person, as some explain. Even their servants bare rule. The oppression exercised by the domestics and other hangers-on of rulers is often worse than their own. This is especially the case in the East, where eunuchs and other domestics have been the most fearful tyrants. Haman under Xerxes, Sejanus under Tiberius, Narcissus under Nero, are examples. So did not I. I neither exacted money, nor allowed my servants to bear rule. Because of the fear of God. Because I felt that it would be wrong, either absolutely or under the circumstances.
Yea, also I continued in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land: and all my servants were gathered thither unto the work.
Verse 16. - I continued in the work of this wall. Literally, "I repaired," like the others (Nehemiah 3:4-31). I employed myself not in buying up men's fields at low prices, and so enriching myself, but in the restoring and repairing of the wall, over which I exercised a constant superintendence. All my servants were gathered thither. See Nehemiah 4:16.
Moreover there were at my table an hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers, beside those that came unto us from among the heathen that are about us.
Verse 17. - An hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers. The "hundred and fifty" were, all of them, "rulers." Nehemiah means to say that he entertained continually at his table 150 of the Jewish chief men or "rulers" (segdnim), and also an indefinite number of foreign Jews, who came on short visits to Jerusalem.
Now that which was prepared for me daily was one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and once in ten days store of all sorts of wine: yet for all this required not I the bread of the governor, because the bondage was heavy upon this people.
Verse 18. - Once in ten clays store of all sorts of wine. Literally, "all sorts of wine in abundance." Wine was probably drunk every day, but laid in every ten days. Yet for all this. Or, "with all this"- notwithstanding this great expenditure, I took no allowance as governor. Because the bondage was heavy upon this people. The bondage intended must be that under the Persian crown, since neither the labour at the wall nor the oppression of the creditors lasted during the twelve years that Nehemiah was governor. It would seem that the tribute, already complained of in ver. 4, must have been felt as a heavy burthen at this period.
Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.
Verse 19. - Think upon me, my God. Compare Nehemiah 13:14, 22, 31. This is no "prayer for posthumous fame" (Stanley, 'Lectures on the Jewish Church,' Third Series, p. 135), but simply an appeal to God, beseeching him to bear in mind the petitioner's good deeds, and reward them at his own good time and in his own way. As Butler observes ('Analogy,' Part I. ch. 3.), the sense of good and ill desert is inseparably connected with an expectation of reward or punishment, and so with the notion of a future life, since neither are the righteous adequately rewarded nor the wicked adequately punished in this life.

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