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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit Commentaries

Nehemiah 5

 

 

Verses 1-13

EXPOSITION

INTERNAL DIFFICULTIES, AND NEHEMIAH'S MODE OF MEETING THEM (Nehemiah 5:1-13). While the building of the wall was in progress, but not, so far as it is stated, in direct connection with the employment of the mass of the people in unremunerative labour, internal evils showed themselves which demanded prompt attention and remedy. Complaints were made to Nehemiah by large numbers of the lower orders, both men and women—the shrill voices of the latter rising to the intensity of a "great cry" (verse 1)—to the effect that the oppression of the rich and great, combined with some other permanent or temporary causes, was depriving them of their houses and plots of land, and forcing them to sell their sons and their daughters into slavery (verses 2-5). According to the existing text, the primary causes of the general poverty were three:—

1. Over-population (verse 2);

2. A recent famine (verse 3); and,

3. The weight of taxation, arising from the large amount annually demanded from the province by the Persians in the way of tribute (verse 4).

As there is no reason to suppose that the tribute had been augmented recently, this cause must be viewed as constant. The over-population may have arisen, in part, from the influx of immigrants, in part from the narrow extent of the territory which the returned tribes had been allowed to occupy. The famine, which has been attributed to the calling off of the people from their ordinary employments, can scarcely have had this as its main origin if the whole work was begun and ended, as Nehemiah tells us it was (Nehemiah 6:15), in less than two months; but supposing that already there was a scarcity produced by bad harvests, as in Haggai's time (Haggai 1:9-11), it may have been aggravated by this circumstance. The entire result was that the poorer classes were compelled, first of all, to mortgage their houses and such lands as they possessed (verse 3), and secondly to pledge the persons of their sons and daughters (verse 5), in order to raise money, with the near prospect of having to allow them to become slaves if they were unable to repay their creditor at the time appointed. Under these circumstances they appealed to the new governor, probably not long after his arrival, for relief. The appeal placed him in a position of great difficulty. He was not rich enough to take upon himself the whole burthen; and though he himself, and also his brothers and personal attendants, did lend freely, out of their private store, money and grain (verse 10, with comment), yet this was far from being enough—it did not go to the root of the evil Had he stopped at this point and done no more, the distress would have continued, and with it the discontent the mass of the population would have held aloof from him in sullen anger, and his whole undertaking might have been frustrated. On the other hand, it was impossible for him, under the Persian system of government, to carry matters with a high hand, as a Grecian lawgiver might have done, and order a general can-ceiling of debts. He could only have recourse to persuasion, argument, and per sonal influence. He therefore, first of all, spoke to the "nobles," who were the moneylenders, rebuked them, and endeavoured to induce them to desist from their malpractices (verse 7); but failing to produce in this way any considerable effect, he brought the matter before an assembly of the people (ibid.). There, he first shamed the nobles by alleging his own contrary example, and then called on them, "for the fear of God and because of the reproach of the heathen," to restore the forfeited lands and houses to their former owners, repay all that they had received in the way of interest on the money lent, and give up the entire practice of lending money upon pledge or mortgage (verses 7-11). Moved by this public appeal, the nobles intimated their consent, whereupon he made them clench their promise by an oath (verse 12), adding on his own part a malediction if the oath were not observed, which was hailed with acclaim by the people. Thus the whole matter was brought to a happy conclusion—the promise made was kept—"the people," i.e. the whole nation, nobles included, "did according to this word" (verse 13).

Nehemiah 5:1

A great cry. Compare Nehemiah 5:6, 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 (Nehemiah 5:5). Their brethren the Jews. i.e. the richer Jews, who had adopted the practice of lending upon pledge.

Nehemiah 5:2

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 (Nehemiah 5:11).

Nehemiah 5:3

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, Haggai 1:9-11; Haggai 2:16-19.

Nehemiah 5:4

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,

Nehemiah 5:5

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.

Nehemiah 5:6

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 (Nehemiah 5:11), 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 (Le Exodus 25:10). Land too might be either mortgaged or sold (ibid. Exodus 21:14-16), but under the condition that it returned to the seller, or at any rate to his tribe, in the jubilee year (ibid. Exodus 21:10, Exodus 21:13). The spirit, however, of the law—the command, "Ye shall not oppress one another" (ibid. Exodus 21:14, Exodus 21:17)—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 (verse 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.

Nehemiah 5:7

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.

Nehemiah 5:8

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 Nehemiah 5:10), 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.

Nehemiah 5:9

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!

Nehemiah 5:10

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.

Nehemiah 5:11

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.

Nehemiah 5:12

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.

Nehemiah 5:13

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" (Psalms 76:10—Prayer-Book version).

HOMILETICS

Nehemiah 5:1-13

Extortion rebuked.

Rulers of men have no easy task. No sooner have they provided a remedy for one evil than another presents itself. Nehemiah found this to be the case. He had preserved the city from the enemies outside, and was fast proceeding with the fortifications which would be a permanent protection; but before they were completed a cry arose within which called his attention to dangers quite as threatening. Of what avail to have secured the people from the foreign foe if they were to destroy one another by extortion and dissension? The wisdom and courage of the governor, however, proved equal to the occasion. Observe—

I. THE LOUD COMPLAINT MADE (verses 1-5). A large number of the people "and of their wives" came to Nehemiah and complained bitterly of their condition, and of the extortion to which they were subjected by their rich and noble brethren. The complainers were of three classes. Some who were originally poor found themselves, with large families, unable to obtain food for them on account of the pressure of the times. They desired that corn might be distributed among them. Others had borrowed money to obtain food, and given up their lands and houses in pledge. A third class had taken a like course to enable them to pay the taxes of the Persian monarch. Some (of each class probably) had already been compelled to obtain supplies by selling sons, and even daughters, as servants, and saw no resource but to sell others of their children. Moreover, contrary to the Mosaic law, heavy interest was being charged for the loans. The rich were taking advantage of the necessities of their poorer brethren to enrich themselves yet more, regardless of the suffering and humiliation they were inflicting. The sufferers felt and said that they were of the same flesh and blood as their rich oppressors, and their children as dear to them.

II. THE EFFECT ON NEHEMIAH OF THIS COMPLAINT. "I was very angry" (verse 6). A very just anger; the anger of a righteous man at flagrant wrong; of a noble and generous spirit at base rapacity; of a lover of the people, who was making great sacrifices for their good, against those who cared not for the welfare of the community, so that they could accumulate wealth for themselves and their families; of one who feared God, that his name should be dishonoured by the very people whose mission was to exalt it.

III. THE COURSE HE TOOK.

1. He carefully considered the matter (verse 7).

2. He rebuked the offenders (verse 7).

3. He called an assembly upon the case.

4. He publicly remonstrated with the offenders.

IV. THE RESULTS.

1. The self-conviction of the offenders (verse 8).

2. Their promise to comply with his proposals (verse 12). A promise solemnly ratified by—

(1) An oath administered by the priests.

3. The joy and thankfulness of the people (verse 13). They responded "Amen" to the malediction, and "praised Jehovah.

4. The performance of the promise (verse 13).

Lessons:—

1. The hideousness of avarice. "The love of money is the root of all evil." It here appears as inhumanity, oppression, violation of Divine law, disregard of the claims of patriotism. Especially odious and injurious in nobles and rulers, who ought to be examples of generosity, protectors of the poor, and promoters in every way of the general good.

2. The duty of discountenancing and suppressing this vice. Rulers and magistrates are peculiarly bound to do so.

3. The power of good example. Gives confidence in reproving iniquity and urging amendment, and force to reproofs and appeals.

Nehemiah 5:5

Human equality.

"Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children." The doctrines of the kinship and equality of all classes of men have a terrible sound when they come from the lips of a starving multitude in times of general distress, and are likely to assume in their minds an exaggerated form, and be pushed to dangerous extremes; but they contain substantial truth, notwithstanding, which, in order that it may not be perverted to evil in troublous times, should be well learnt, and pondered, and applied to practice in quiet times by those who are raised above their fellows in wealth and position.

I. THE ESSENTIAL EQUALITY OF MEN.

1. In nature.

2. In relationships.

3. In affections.

4. In prospects. Must alike die and appear before the bar of God. Will, if accepted, occupy the same heaven; if condemned, be consigned to the same hell.

5. In rights. Which follows from what has been said. The poor and the rich should be "equal before the law," as they are in every well-governed community, civil or ecclesiastical. They are entitled to equal social justice; they should receive like sympathy and brotherly consideration and help in times of loss and suffering.

II. THE DUTIES WHICH ARISE FROM IT.

1. What they are.

2. By whom owing. The poor are bound thus to feel and act to the rich, as well as the rich to the poor; the employed to the employer, as well as the employer to the employed, and the former are as likely to neglect these duties as the latter. Selfishness is not confined to any class. Those, however, who from their circumstances have acquired most of intelligence and culture, and have most power individually, may be expected to take the lead in the understanding and practical application of the truths and duties just stated. In doing so they will show a tender consideration for the feelings of the poor; they will be concerned for their elevation, improvement, and salvation; they will not use their advantages selfishly or hardly (even though legally); they will not push too far the doctrines of political economy, and feel quite content to swell their own fortunes by giving helpless people starvation wages, or lending money at rates ruinous to the borrower, merely because the law of "supply and demand" justifies them; their power will be used to rebuke, restrain, and remedy oppression; to protect and aid the weak; to soften the inequalities of life by kindness and thoughtful charity; and, generally, to bless others rather than aggrandise themselves. In thus acting they will obey the dictates of prudence as well as those of Christianity, and will aid in uniting society by bonds stronger far than Acts of Parliament, armies, or police regulations—bonds which the strain of the most calamitous times will not burst asunder.

Nehemiah 5:6, Nehemiah 5:7

Righteous anger.

"And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words. Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers." Anger is always dangerous, often evil. The anger is sinful which has its root in selfishness, which is excited by slight causes, or is blended with hatred, or issues in malice or revenge, or lasts long in any form. But there is an anger which is righteous, and the absence of which, so far from being a commendable meekness, may be occasioned by indifference to great principles, and to the general welfare of men. The text illustrates—

I. THE NATURE OF RIGHTEOUS ANGER.

1. Whence it springs. Love to God and man; love to righteousness, hatred of sin.

2. By what it is excited.

II. ITS USES. To stimulate to—

1. The rebuke and restraint of evil-doers.

2. Efforts for their reformation.

3. The discovery and application of remedies for the mischief they have wrought.

III. ITS BEST PRESERVATIVE FROM EVIL. Reflection before acting. "I consulted with myself." No passion more demands self-control, that it run not to excess, nor hurry into unwise and sinful words and deeds. A pause to consider, and the exercise of reflection itself, will supply the needful corrective, and enable us so to govern and guide our anger that it may subserve the ends for which this passion was given.

Nehemiah 5:7

Self-consultation

"Then I consulted with myself." The power of con-suiting with himself is one of the chief things which distinguish men from brutes. A man can be both the subject and the object of his own thought; as if there were in him two persons—one thinking, feeling, suggesting, etc.; the other observing the processes, judging of their worth, and determining accordingly. "My heart consulted with me," says Nehemiah (translating literally). "Commune with your own heart," says the Psalmist (Psalms 4:4). The exercise of this power of self-consultation, or reflection, is of the utmost importance to the wise direction of our lives. "A reflecting mind," says an ancient writer, "is the spring and source of every good thing;" although it must be acknowledged that it may become the source of the worst wickedness. For the evil which is deliberately planned is far worse than that which is unpremeditated.

I. ON WHAT WE SHOULD CONSULT OURSELVES.

1. With respect to personal religion. Our condition before God, and in view of eternity. Our sins—their peculiar nature, aggravations, etc. Our duty to God and ourselves in view of them—repentance, confession of sin, faith in Christ, self-surrender to God, a new life. Or, again, a higher and fuller Christian life than we have hitherto lived. What we must encounter if we adopt the better course. A Christian life growing out of reflection will be richer, nobler, more decided, and more stable than one which springs merely from emotion.

2. With respect to our work. What we are best fitted for, and have opportunity to do. How it can be best done. What are its difficulties, and how they can be surmounted. Motives to its performance. Work thus begun and conducted will be done wisely and confidently, and be likely to succeed.

II. THE CONDITIONS OF SUCCESSFUL SELF-CONSULTATION.

1. That it be conducted with the aid of the best advisers. The two within us consulting must call in a third—the all-wise God (comp. Psalms 25:4, Psalms 25:5; Psalms 139:23, Psalms 139:24). And all that can help us to the understanding of his will should be welcomed.

2. That it be accompanied with serious purpose. To do what is seen to be right and wise. "If any man wills to do his will, he shall know," etc.

3. That it be followed by corresponding practice. Consideration may be too prolonged. Some go through life "considering,'' or pretending to do so, as to the plainest duties; perhaps also they "resolve and re-resolve," yet "die the same."

Nehemiah 5:9

Avoidance of reproach.

"Ought ye not to walk?" etc. The "reproach" spoken of here is supposed by some to be that arising from the feeble condition of the Jews, which the conduct of these extortioners was likely to perpetuate and increase. Better, however, to interpret it of the just reproach which such conduct would occasion.

I. REPROACHES OF MEN WHICH ARE NOT TO BE REGARDED. Those which are directed against—

1. The Christian faith.

2. Christian confession. The bold acknowledgment of Christ.

3. Christian life and work. "Fear ye not the reproach of men," etc. (Isaiah 51:7. See also Romans 15:3; Hebrews 11:26).

II. REPROACHES THAT SHOULD BE REGARDED. Those which are directed against manifest inconsistencies between our faith and our life, our professions and our practices. Men of the world can understand our religion sufficiently to discern wherein we fail. Their judgment of some things in our conduct may be just, and is then fitted to quicken our consciences and lead us to improvement. "Fas est et ab hoste doceri." We should be careful not to give just "occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme," for the sake of the credit of religion, the good of enemies themselves, and of other men who may be well disposed, but to whom our inconsistencies are a stumbling-block. Amongst the occasions of just reproach may be named—

1. Untruthfulness and dishonesty in worldly transactions.

2. Insincerity and cant in religious utterances.

3. Selfishness and self-indulgence.

4. Dissension and contention among Christians.

5. Censoriousness.

6. Gloominess. As contrasted with our representations of the happiness of religion.

7. Worldly ambition or policy in Church life and work.

III. THE SUREST WAY TO AVOID JUST REPROACH. "Ought ye not to walk in the fear of God." Genuine, habitual piety, actuating our whole life, will produce such fruits as will commend themselves even to the irreligious who are not malignant foes of what is good, and "put to silence the ignorance of foolish men." Thus fearing God we shall not need to be much concerned about the judgment of men. Finally, those who reproach Christians with their inconsistencies condemn themselves. The light by which they do so reveals their own duty. They are as really bound to be genuine and consistent Christians as those whom they reproach. The obligation to piety and goodness does not spring from the profession of religion, though this may add strength to it; it rests on all to whom the gospel is known, and if you know enough to condemn others, you know enough to teach you what you ought to be, and to leave you without excuse.

Nehemiah 5:13

Promise-keeping.

"And the people did according to this promise." Nehemiah wrote this, we may be sure, with peculiar satisfaction. It would be well if the history of all promises of amendment, etc. could be thus concluded. But it is far otherwise. Men often "say and do not." Even vows made to God in secret or before the Church, and with solemnities resembling those recorded here, are, alas, often broken. In view of such failures it may be profitable for those who are contemplating a solemn profession of religion to consider how they may best Secure that they shall fulfil their vows.

I. BY CARE IN MAKING THEM.

1. With right understanding of their import.

2. With deep conviction of the truths and duties to which they relate.

3. With due deliberation. Not hastily, under the influence of passing emotion, but carefully considering what they involve, and counting the cost of keeping them.

4. Of free and hearty choice. Not merely because of pressing solicitations from others.

5. In dependence on the grace of the Holy Spirit. With consciousness of weakness, and humble reliance on God and prayer to him.

II. BY FREQUENT REMEMBRANCE AND RENEWAL OF THEM. "O my soul, thou hast said unto the Lord, Thou art my Lord." "Thy vows are upon me, O God." "I have sworn, and I will perform it, that I will keep thy righteous judgments." Such exercises are especially suitable:

1. In anticipating and celebrating the Lord's Supper.

2. When assailed by powerful temptations.

3. When called to difficult duties. Such as, though requiring toil and self-denial, are involved in our professed consecration to God.

III. BY CONSTANT WATCHFULNESS AND PRAYER. In conclusion, notice—

1. The blessedness of those who do according to their promises to God. He will fulfil his promises to them.

2. The guilt of unfulfilled promises.

3. The comfort, under the sense of partial failure, which arises from the Divine compassion and readiness to forgive. "For in many things we offend all." But our God knows and values sincere purpose and endeavour. He knows also our weakness. He accepts imperfect service, and forgives the imperfections of his true-hearted servants.

4. Obligation to piety and holiness is independent of our promises. These recognise obligations, do not create them. Those who "make no profession" must not, therefore, console themselves as if they were guiltless.

HOMILIES BY J.S. EXELL

Nehemiah 5:1-13

The rich rebuked for taking advantage of the poor.

I. THE POOR.

1. Numbers tend to poverty. "We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live" (verse 2).

2. Borrowing tends to poverty. "We have mortgaged our lands" (verse 3).

3. Taxation tends to poverty. "We have borrowed money for the king's tribute" (verse 4).

4. Poverty may sometimes have cause for protest against injustice.

5. Poverty is experienced by the people of God who are engaged in holy toils.

II. THE RICH.

1. The rich must not take undue advantage of calamitous circumstances. "Because of the dearth" (verse 3).

2. The rich must not be inconsiderate. "Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren" (verse 5).

3. The rich must not be cruel. "Our daughters are brought unto bondage" (verse 5).

4. The rich must not violate the law of God. "Ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God?" (verse 9).

III. THE REBUKE.

1. Angry. "And I was very angry."

2. Reflective. "I consulted with myself" (verse 7).

3. Impartial. "The nobles and the rulers."

4. Sustained. "And I set a great assembly against them."

5. Argumentative (verse 8).

6. Unanswerable. "They held their peace, and found nothing to answer."

7. Successful. "We will restore."—E.

HOMILIES W. CLARKSON

Nehemiah 5:1-13

Error and return.

In the very midst of apparent success, when the Church is building its walls and seems likely to be triumphant and secure, there may be an aggravated evil springing up and spreading to its very heart. Such was the case at Jerusalem when the walls of its defence were rising. When priests and people were repairing the defences, there was circulating a deadly mischief within the whole body. We look at—

I. THE WORST EVIL FROM WHICH THE CHURCH OF CHRIST CAN SUFFER (Nehemiah 5:1-5).

1. An internal evil, always more dangerous and deadly than an external one. Better a hundred carping or even conspiring Samaritans than ten Jews inside the walls carrying a curse within their breast. Better an army of Canaanites in battle array than one Achan in the camp.

2. The evil of discord. One Jew was complaining of another, one class of another class; seeds of dissension and strife were springing up and bearing bitter fruit. Internal evil in a Christian society may take many forms—error, sloth, pride, etc.—but the worst of all is discord. The Master is never so grieved as when his first commandment is broken, and when they who are specially bound to love one another are indulging' in "bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, malice."

3. Discord springing from oppression. The richer Jews had made use of a time of want, arising from dearth (Nehemiah 5:3), to compel the necessitous to (a) mortgage their children (Nehemiah 5:2) and (b) their ancestral property (Nehemiah 5:3) in order to save themselves and their families from starvation (Nehemiah 5:2, Nehemiah 5:3), as well as to pay the tribute to the king of Persia (Nehemiah 5:4). What naturally afflicted them the most was, that through the cupidity and hardness of the wealthy they had been obliged to sell into servitude their own sons and daughters; said they, in their forcible lament, "Yet our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren: our children as their children" (Nehemiah 5:5). Nor were they able to redeem them (Nehemiah 5:5). There is great bitterness of soul when one member of a Christian Church is heedless of the natural human affections of any of his brethren: guilt can hardly go further.

II. ITS DEPLORABLE CONSEQUENCES (Nehemiah 5:1, Nehemiah 5:9).

1. Misery (Nehemiah 5:1). "There was a great cry of the people and of their wives" (Nehemiah 5:1). When one part of a society is sinning and the other part "sinned against," when the Church is divided into wrong-doers and wrong-sufferers, misery sinks to its depth. There is no gladness of heart so great as when harmony and love prevail; so, there is no wretchedness of soul so complete as when hatred and injury abound.

2. Reproach (Nehemiah 5:9). "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 our enemies?"' It is our primary duty, and should be our most earnest desire, so to let our light shine that men may glorify Christ, to "adorn the doctrine" of our Saviour; when we so act as to cause the enemy of God to blaspheme, we are "verily guilty before God."

III. THE WAY OF ESCAPE AND RECOVERY (Nehemiah 5:6-13). Happily, in this instance, it did not go too far, because it was not allowed to .do its work too long. There was—

1. An appreciation of its enormity (Nehemiah 5:6). Nehemiah was "very angry when he heard their cry and these words." Angry, but certainly not sinful (Ephesians 4:26); angry with a holy wrath, roused by a profound sense of the magnitude of the guilt and the danger.

2. Self-control (verse 7). He "consulted with himself." Instead of acting with injurious haste, he waited till he had well considered the best course to take. When wrath is roused, it is well indeed to "consult with ourselves" before we speak to others or act on others.

3. Concerted action (verse 7). "I set a great assembly against them." Nehemiah directed against the evil the full force of public sentiment—the national conscience.

4. Boldness on the part of the leader. There is a time for decided speech and action. "I rebuked the nobles" (verse 7). "We … have redeemed our brethren; … and will ye even sell your brethren?" (verse 8). "Restore their lands, their vineyards," etc. (verse. 11). "I shook my lap," etc. (verse 13). In times of great defection or oppression, when things are going ill with the cause of God, it is not honied words, but the language of reproach that is wanted. "Reprove, rebuke, exhort," though "with all long-suffering" (2 Timothy 4:2).

5. Repentance on the part of the erring. This includes—

(a) Conviction of sinfulness—having "nothing to answer" (verse 8), under a sense of guilt.

(b) Acknowledgment and promise of reform (verse 12). This may well be accompanied by the most solemn vows uttered before God (verse 12).

(c) Amendment (verse 13). And the people did according to this promise.

HOMILIES BY R.A. RADFORD

Nehemiah 5:1-19

An example of successful activity for God.

A great practical reformation carried out by a religious ruler on the highest religious principles, and by the strength of religious character. No more difficult task than to deal successfully with such circumstances in which men's selfish interests were involved, .and the monied classes would be against reform. Nehemiah, by his wisdom, boldness, and simple-minded appeal to God, achieved a marvellous success. Notice—

I. The direct appeal to great MORAL AND RELIGIOUS PRINCIPLES. We cannot do better than bring men face to face with conscience.

1. Humanity.

2. Patriotism. They are brethren.

3. Fear of God, who is no respecter of persons.

The Jews all professed to be rearers of God. All civil law and common life were based upon the Divine law. That which was manifestly displeasing to God could not be legally right. We acknowledge the same principle. All human law rests on the word of God. We cannot directly appeal to the letter of Scripture in dealing with ungodly men, but we may use it to make the law of nature clearer.

4. The universal conscience. "I set a great assembly against them." No wrong-doers can withstand the appeal to the common sentiment of right. Educate the moral sentiment of society. and it becomes a protection against the self-will of individuals. Vox populi should be vox Dei. In a truly progressive society it will be more and more so. The great leaders of thought and action should not be afraid of making their appeal to great assemblies, in Nehemiah's spirit.

II. AN EXAMPLE OF WISE METHOD. Much depends on method in every successful reformation.

1. The means used were moral. Remonstrance, persuasion, appeal to the heart and conscience. No violence. No craft. No resort to mere worldly expediency. No compromise of religious position. No truckling to rich men.

2. Personal character was brought to bear upon those whose conduct must be changed. Nehemiah's moral indignation had great influence. His bold challenge of the wrongdoing. His appeal to his own example and that of others. His tender interest in the poor, and imploring earnestness in their cause.

3. While acting as a ruler, and with a ruler's authority, the public feeling, is enlisted in support of reform. It is a great matter to enlist the sympathy of the majority.

4. In all practical measures and social reformations we should endeavour to unite the two forces of religious and civil law. "I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise." With solemn appeal to God, and in the presence of all the congregation, who "said Amen, and praised the Lord," Nehemiah bound the wrong-doers to carry out their word.

III. An illustration of the BENEFICIAL EFFECT of decisive and speedy reform when effected on religious principles and by wise methods.

1. Liberation of human energy, both for the Church and for the state. What could the people do when they were so oppressed? How could they work with men who treated them so cruelly? All real reformation is the setting free of power for the future. We must not look at temporary inconveniences, but at permanent benefits.

2. The value of great moral and political precedents. Such an instance of heroic championship in the cause of God and humanity becomes an inestimable treasure for future generations. What power there is in the histories of all great reformations!

3. We cannot doubt that, under the guidance of the Spirit of God, the moral and social work which Nehemiah accomplished was intended to prepare the way for that more directly religious work which followed. All true reformation is a preparation for advancement. John the Baptist heralds the kingdom of God.

4. An immense service to the cause of righteousness when governors and statesmen identify their names with great movements for the lifting up of the people. Their self-sacrifice, their faithfulness, their victory become part of God's word. God thinks upon them for good, and will make the world think of them. The best monument to a great man is "what he has done for the people."—R.


Verses 14-19

EXPOSITION

GENERAL ACCOUNT OF NEHEMIAH'S GOVERNMENT (Nehemiah 5:14-19). 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 (verse 14). This was quite contrary to the previous practice of Jewish governors (verse 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 (verses 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. 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 (verse 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 (verse 19). "Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people."

Nehemiah 5:14

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 (Nehemiah 1:1-11.-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.

Nehemiah 5:15

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.

Nehemiah 5:16

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.

Nehemiah 5:17

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.

Nehemiah 5:18

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 verse 4, must have been felt as a heavy burthen at this period.

Nehemiah 5:19

Think upon me, my God. Compare Nehemiah 13:14, Nehemiah 13:22, Nehemiah 13:31. This is no "prayer for posthumous fame", 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.

HOMILETICS

Nehemiah 5:14-19

An example of disinterestedness.

In contrast with the selfishness of others Nehemiah sets his own generous conduct.

I. HIS NOBLE CONDUCT.

1. He forewent the usual allowances to the governor, for twelve years ruling without charge for his services (verses 14, 15).

2. He restrained those under him from oppressive and extortionate rule (verse 15). Although preceding governors had permitted such rule on the part of their servants.

3. He and his assisted the needy without exacting possession of their land (verse 16). Such is perhaps the meaning of the words "neither bought we any land" (comp. verse 10).

4. He and his servants did their full share of work at the wall (verse 16).

5. He kept open table at great expense to himself (verses 17, 18). Thus, not only did he take nothing from the people, but he spent his own fortune freely in their service. That he had the means for so large expenditure makes the more conspicuous his piety and patriotism in leaving the court of Artaxerxes, and undertaking work so arduous for the benefit of his fellow Jews.

II. THE PRINCIPLES ON WHICH HE ACTED.

1. The fear of God (verse 15).

2. Pity for the overburdened people (verse 18).

3. Hope of Divine recompense (verse 19).

Nehemiah 5:15

The practical power of the fear of God.

"But so did not I, because of the fear of God."—"The fear of God," as a description of piety, is more common in the Old Testament; "faith" and "love" in the New. But each includes the other. For this fear is not mere dread, but reverence.

I. THE FEAR OF GOD IS A PRACTICAL PRINCIPLE. It rules the life.

1. As a motive, He who fears God must be concerned to please and obey him. All that is included in such fear tends to this result.

2. As it will secure Divine assistance.

II. THE FEAR OF GOD AS A PRACTICAL PRINCIPLE IS SUPREME AND PREDOMINANT. It recognises God as supreme, regards his favour as most to be desired, his displeasure as most to be dreaded. Hence it raises at once above self-will, the desire to please men, and the influence of human examples and customs. It follows that it will—

1. Rule those whose position renders them largely independent of men. Well is it for the feeble when the mighty govern themselves by this fear; well for nations when their rulers, especially where despotic government prevails, answer to the description of a good sovereign given in the last words of David (2 Samuel 23:3).

2. Restrain from common sins. Such as are not generally condemned, or are very leniently regarded by society.

3. Incite to uncommon virtues. Nehemiah's conduct supplies an illustration and proof of all three propositions.

III. THOSE WHO ARE GOVERNED BY THE FEAR OF GOD WILL ENJOY HAPPY REMEMBRANCES. Nehemiah records with emphasis and evident pleasure," So did not I," etc. Such remembrances are pleasant, as they—

1. Give satisfaction to the conscience, which pronounces the conduct right and good.

2. Afford evidence of sincere piety.

3. Strengthen the hope of future acceptance and recompense.

4. Awaken thankfulness to God. Let the young begin early to live in the fear of God, and they will live pure and noble lives, on which, in old age and in the prospect of death, they will be able to look back with satisfaction.

Nehemiah 5:19

Prayer for Divine remembrance.

"Think upon me, O my God," etc. This and other similar prayers of good Nehemiah strike us at first as unseemly; and certainly they are more consonant with the spirit of the Old Testament than that of the New. Our Lord teaches us to say after our best works, "We are unprofitable servants, we have done that which was our duty to do." Besides which, the sense of sin on the one hand, and of entire indebtedness to Divine grace for all the good we have and do on the other, foster a humility which prevents the complacent thought of our good deeds, especially before God. Still the doctrine of reward according to works belongs to the Christian equally with the Mosaic religion. We are taught to hope for future recompense of the good we have done; and there can, therefore, be no essential impropriety in at times praying for it. It is a probable supposition (Ewald) that Nehemiah Wrote these prayers after he had learned by painful experience how little of appreciation, gratitude, or reward he could expect from men. "They forget or neglect me, or requite me evil, but do not thou be unmindful."

I. WHO MAY OFFER SUCH A PRAYER. Those who have served God's people, and therefore God himself—

1. With sincere regard for God. His will, approval, recompense. They whose good works are done" to be seen of men" "have their reward," but may not look to God for it.

2. Disinterestedly. Not from selfishness or ambition.

3. Devotedly. With great zeal.

4. Abundantly. Rendering great service.

5. Self-denyingly. At considerable sacrifice of ease, time, strength, substance, etc.

6. Un-weariedly.

II. WHEN SUCH A PRAYER IS SUITABLE.

1. When reward cannot be expected from men. Either on account of their want of appreciation of what is done for them, or inability from poverty or otherwise to requite it suitably.

2. When men show positive ingratitude, or return evil for good.

3. Even when men remember and reward. For the godly man feels that without the Divine favour all that man can give will be vain and unsatisfying.

III. WHY A FAVOURABLE ANSWER MAY BE EXPECTED. Because of—

1. The relation of God to his praying servant. "My God."

2. The Divine character. Righteous, and loving righteousness; good, and approving the good (see Hebrews 6:10).

3. The union which exists between God and his people. So that he regards what is done to "this people" as done to himself.

4. The Divine promises. Such as Matthew 10:42; Matthew 25:34-40.

HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON

Nehemiah 5:14-19

Self-regard and magnanimity.

In each one of these verses Nehemiah makes a personal reference. He, the writer, is the theme of his narrative. He writes of himself more than is customary with the sacred authors. We consider—

I. THE SELF-REGARD WHICH IS NOT SELFISHNESS. Though Nehemiah writes about himself, there is no painful egotism in his record. He does not obtrude himself. There is a self-regard which is not selfishness. It is right and needful that we should

(a) think much and highly of our spiritual nature. Not to do this is the sin of the thoughtless multitude. Every man's first duty is to consider how he himself stands before God, and whether he is entering in activity and life into all the holy possibility of moral character. It is sometimes right that we should

(b) speak or write about ourselves. Our Divine Master without egotism spake much concerning himself. He could not possibly have wrought his redeeming work with any completeness had he not so done. His great apostle had occasion to write much about himself in order to make clear the truth, and "for the furtherance of the gospel." So Nehemiah writes, using often the first person singular, but in no egotistic vein. We may sometimes aid the cause of Christ and serve our fellow-men by an effective personal narration of motive, experience, and work. Only we must remember that this is an alluring path, and we may easily go too far in it. It is not every one who can be as autobiographic and as unselfish as Nehemiah. Often it is our duty to

(c) pray for ourselves (verse 19). Often should we utter such a prayer as "Think upon me, my God, for good." Though assured that "the Lord thinketh upon us in our poverty" (Psalms 40:17), and greatly encouraged thereby, we must ask him to have us in his gracious and bountiful remembrance. And it is right that we should

(d) hope for a personal reward for our labours (verse 19), "according to all that I have done for this people." We cannot be more evangelical than Paul, but with him we may hope that after the "fight is fought" and the "course is finished," the "righteous Judge" will give the "crown of righteousness" (2 Timothy 4:7). Like Moses, we may "have respect unto the recompense of the reward" (Hebrews 11:26). But we have our attention called also to—

II. THE MAGNANIMITY WHICH IS CHRISTIAN (verses 14, 15, 16, 17). Nehemiah was totally unlike those governors who had regarded their office as a means whereby to secure emolument. His thoughts rose high above the line of the mercenary and the perfunctory. There was a large-mindedness, and therefore an openheartedness about him worthy of all admiration and imitation. He not only did his own appointed work faithfully and energetically (verse 16), but he declined to receive the usual remuneration. For twelve years he "did not eat the bread of the governor" (verse 14). Beside this, he kept a very hospitable table, entertaining daily "an hundred and fifty of the rulers of the Jews, beside those that came from the heathen" (verse 17). Generosity may be shown in many ways:

It is sometimes

(a) the overflow of natural disposition. We find in some ungodly men this open-heartedness and nobility of conduct. With Nehemiah it was partly, indeed largely,

(b) the outcome of genuine godliness (verse 15). "So did not I, because of the fear of God." If animated by this motive, we shall not live to ourselves, but shall

that God may be glorified, and the welfare of his people promoted.—C.

HOMILIES BY J.S. EXELL

Nehemiah 5:14-19

A man of public spirit.

I. THAT HE HAS MORE REGARD FOR THE PUBLIC WELFARE THAN FOR PERSONAL REMUNERATION. "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" (Nehemiah 5:14).

II. THAT HE HAS MORE REGARD FOR NECESSARY REFORMS THAN FOR TRADITIONAL CUSTOMS. "But the former governors that had been before me were chargeable unto the people" (Nehemiah 5:15). Men are chargeable to their fellows—

1. In the state.

2. In morals.

3. In society.

4. In the family.

5. In the Church.

Men have often to pay and suffer for their governors.

III. THAT HE HAS MORE REGARD FOR POPULAR LIBERTY THAN FOR OPPRESSIVE EXACTIONS. "Yea, even their servants bare rule over the people: but so did not I, because of the fear of God" (Nehemiah 5:15, Nehemiah 5:18). Nehemiah would not allow the few to oppress the many; he made his servants work (verse 16).

IV. THAT HE HAS MORE REGARD FOR EARNEST INDUSTRY THAN FOR LUXURIOUS INDOLENCE. "Yea, also I continued in the work of this wall" (verse 16).

1. Personal work.

2. Continuous work.

3. Effective work.

4. A good example.

V. THAT HE HAS MORE REGARD FOR WISE BENEFICENCE THAN FOR A MEAN POLICY. "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).

VI. THAT HE HAS MORE REGARD FOR THE DIVINE BENEDICTION THAN FOR HUMAN PRAISE. "Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people" (verse 19).

1. The Divine contemplation of man.

2. The beneficent regard of God for man.

3. God will reward those who aid his people.

4. The measure of the Divine favour not according to what we have done, but according to what Christ has done in, by, and for us.—E.

 


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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Nehemiah 5:4". The Pulpit Commentary. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/tpc/nehemiah-5.html. 1897.

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