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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 5

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



There are conflicting views of reputable scholars regarding the nature of this chapter. Whitcomb labeled it “parenthetical”;(F1) but Williamson divided the chapter into two sections, making Nehemiah 5:1-13 a description of a crisis that came during the building of the wall, but admitting the rest of the chapter as a later parenthetical addition. Of the first section he wrote that, “The wives… were more conscious of the approaching calamity, because they were having to manage at home while their husbands were engrossed in the wall-building.”(F2)

There are a number of reasons why this writer accepts the viewpoint that the whole chapter is parenthetical and that it was included at this point in Nehemiah’s memoirs for reasons which we believe will appear later in the narrative.

“This parenthetical chapter describes how Nehemiah succeeded in stopping the practice of usury, which resulted in extreme poverty and even bondage for many Jews. There is also a record here of Nehemiah’s example of unselfishness and generosity during his twelve years as governor.”(F3)

It seems to this writer that Nehemiah might well have included this chapter just here as an advance glimpse of the evil nobles who, along with the priests, would eventually vigorously oppose Nehemiah’s reforms.

Verses 1-5


“Then there arose a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews. For there were that said, We, our sons and our daughters, are many: let us get grain that we may eat and live. Some also there were that said, We are mortgaging our fields and our vineyards, and our houses: let us get grain, because of the dearth. There were also those that said, We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute upon our fields and our vineyards. 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 into bondage already: neither is it in our power to help it; for other men have our fields and our vineyards.”

There are three classes of protesters here: “These were (1) the landless who were desperately short of food (Nehemiah 5:2), (2) the landowners who, because of famine had been compelled to mortgage their properties (Nehemiah 5:3), and (3) those who had been forced to borrow money at exorbitant rates to meet the Persian king’s property taxes (Nehemiah 5:4).”(F4)

Man’s inhumanity to man is tragically visible in the sad circumstances that precipitated this uprising of the people.

There are also three causes of the situation, as enumerated by Rawlinson. “These were over-population (Nehemiah 5:2), recent famine (Nehemiah 5:3), and heavy taxation (Nehemiah 5:4).”(F5)

“Because of the dearth” “Dearth is the usual word for famine, as in Genesis 12:10, and in many other places.”(F6)

One reason for accepting this chapter as a record of events unrelated to the wall-building, is this mention here of a widespread shortage of food, due to famine. There was no hint of such a shortage during the building of the wall; besides that, “The wall-building did not take long enough (less than two months) to cause widespread suffering.”(F7)

“For other men have our fields and our vineyards” Keil explained the tragic significance of these words: “Since our fields and vineyards belong to others, what they produce does not come to us, and we are not in a position to be able to put an end to the sad necessity of selling our sons and our daughters for servants.”(F8)

Verses 6-13


“And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words. Then I consulted with myself and contended with the rulers and the nobles, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother. And I held a great assembly against them. And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, that were sold unto the nations; and would ye even sell your brethren, and should they be sold unto us? Then held they their peace, and said never a word. Also I said, The thing that ye do is not good: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God, because of the reproach of the nations our enemies? And likewise, my brethren and my servants, do lend them money and grain. I pray you, let us leave off this usury. Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their fields, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the grain, the new wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them. Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do, even as thou sayest. Then I called the priests and took an oath of them, that they would do according to this promise. Also, I shook out my lap, and said, So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labor, that performeth not this promise; even thus be he shaken out and emptied. And all the assembly said, Amen, and praised Jehovah. And the people did according to this promise.”

“I was very angry when I heard these words” Nehemiah restrained his anger, very wisely, and by his skillful handling to the situation, “He avoided personally alienating the rulers and nobles, who after all were the leaders of the community, and the men upon whom he relied for the support of his administration.”(F9)

“Then I consulted with myself” This means that Nehemiah disciplined himself in the control of his anger. He carefully laid the plans by which he would put an end to their abuses.

“Ye exact usury, every man of his brother” This was a heartless violation of God’s law (Exodus 22:25), which forbade God’s people to charge interest on any loan to a brother Israelite. “He reminded the rulers and nobles that his own conduct had been the opposite of theirs; and that when he had seen Jewish slaves offered for sale in Gentile markets, he would pay the ransom price and give them their liberty. But those nobles and rulers were Selling their poverty-stricken fellow Jews to heathen masters, knowing that Nehemiah would buy them back.”(F10) That procedure, obviously, amounted to their selling their brethren to Nehemiah, as indicated by the terse words in Nehemiah 5:8, And should they be sold unto us?

“Would ye even sell your brethren” It was against the Law of God for an Israelite to sell even a servant as a bondman, much less a brother (Leviticus 25:42). It is apparent that Nehemiah’s inclusion of this episode parenthetically at this point in his book was due to his purpose of exposing the character of the rulers and nobles as an advance explanation of trouble he would have with them later.

“They held their peace, and found never a word” Nehemiah had completely checkmated any public opposition by the rulers and nobles by his confronting them before a general assembly of the whole population. They had no excuse whatever for their wholesale violations of the Mosaic Law. Their own consciences condemned them. “And I likewise, my brethren and my servants do lend them money and grain” (Nehemiah 5:10). Nehemiah said nothing at all here about charging interest on such loans; and this writer does not believe that he was guilty of violating the Moasic instructions against such charges. If Nehemiah had been charging his brethren usury, why would he have been so angry with the nobles and rulers for doing so? The scholars who make the word likewise in this verse prove that Nehemiah was a usurer are in error.

“Let us leave off this usury” Ah! But does not this clause prove that Nehemiah was doing the same thing? Williamson so understood it, “Nehemiah here candidly admits having been involved in these same practices.”(F11) No! This was merely a tactful identification of himself with the violators, in order to promote good will and to avoid antagonism; and this is by no means the only example of a Biblical writer’s using that very same device for the sake of avoiding unnecessary bitterness. “Ezra identified himself with the marriage offenders (Ezra 9:6) although he had not contracted an illicit marriage.”(F12) Did not the apostle Paul write:(F13)

“Let US press on… not laying again a foundation of repentance,… and this will WE do, if God permit (Hebrews 6:1; Hebrews 6:3)?

In this passage, Paul used the first person plural twice (capitalized words in passage above); but he was not confessing that he himself was guilty of the same errors he was attempting to correct in the recipients of his letter. In the same manner, here, Nehemiah’s use of the first person plural was not a confession that he was the same kind of heartless usurer as the rulers and nobles.

“Restore unto them their fields… the hundredth part of the money… and of the grain,” This was a public request, backed up by the support of the general assembly that all the abuses be ended at once. Several types of oppressing the poor are in evidence in this blanket request. (1) There was the interest charge (a hundredth part of the money. “This was a monthly charge, amounting to 12% a year.”(F14) (2) Then there were the fields confiscated through foreclosures, and (3) the extravagant rental charges “in kind,” the grain, wine, oil, etc.

“Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them” Wonderful! So far, so good. But Nehemiah knew the character of the evil men with whom he was dealing; and he moved at once to “swear them in” to do what they promised to do.

“Then I called the priests and took an oath of them” With honest men, this would have been unnecessary; but Nehemiah moved to thwart any violations of this agreement by swearing them in before the whole assembly.

“I shook out my lap, and said, God so shake out every man… that performeth not this promise” The `lap’ that Nehemiah shook out was an improvised one, made by gathering up his robe in a fold, and then shaking it out as if he were emptying out things contained in it. This was a symbolical action, as were the deeds of many of the prophets, designed to emphasize their words. It was an appeal that God would drastically and completely punish and remove all violators of the promises they had sworn to honor.

“And the people did according to this promise” Nehemiah’s precautions assured a full compliance with the public promises; and the people were relieved.

Verses 14-19


“Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even to 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. But the former governors that were before me were chargeable unto the people, and took of them bread and wine, besides forty shekels of silver; yea, even their servants bare rule over the people: but so did not I, because of the fear of God. 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. Moreover there were at my table, of the Jews and the rulers,(F15) a hundred and fifty men, besides those that came unto us from the nations that were round about us. Now that which was prepared for one day was one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and once in ten days stores of all sorts of wine; yet for all this, I demanded not the bread of the governor, because the bondage was heavy upon this people. Remember unto me, O God, for good, all that I have done for this people.”

“That is, twelve years” “These years were 444 to 432 B.C.”(F16) This verse is clearly retrospective, and from this the usual understanding is that this chapter was written some twelve years after the building of the wall. Shortly before this first term of Nehemiah as governor ended, “He returned to Babylon for a visit.”(F17) Many scholars have marveled that the “time” set by Nehemiah for his return to Babylon (Nehemiah 2:6) could have included the entire twelve-year term as governor. Evidently, there had been some other arrangement with the king in Babylon that would have extended the time. As Oesterley said, “If more fragments of Nehemiah’s memoirs had been preserved, this would have been explained.”(F18) This is a wise observation, and it would be encouraging if more scholars took into account the fact that all the difficulties which we find in the Bible would doubtless disappear altogether if we had all the facts.

“I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor” This simply means that Nehemiah and his staff did not accept the usual allotments of food and money that the state provided for governors. He was a truly patriotic soul, much as was George Washington, who during the Revolutionary war built and outfitted three naval ships, at his own expense; and he did not seek a reimbursement after he became president. What a pity that the birthday of a president like that should not be accorded a separate celebration, apart from all others.

“The former governors… were chargeable unto the people” We agree with Whitcomb that, “These were probably the Persians who did not fear God, and we are sure that the one’s meant by Nehemiah did not include Zerubbabel.”(F19)

“Those at my table were a hundred and fifty men” “This included his entire staff, and additionally there were Jews from the surrounding area, who as yet had no homes, who ate at his table, and all of this at his own expense. Compare that with the entertainment by Jezebel of 400 prophets of the Asherah `at her table’, besides all of the provisions for their upkeep and livelihood (1 Kings 18:19).”(F20) Also Jezebel did that at the expense of the people; and that says nothing of the far greater extravagant expenses of Ahab.

“Besides those that came unto us from the nations that were round about us” This not only meant those who voluntarily elected to return, but it also included those Jews whom the rulers and nobles had sold to the heathen neighbors as slaves, and whom Nehemiah, a wealthy man in his own right, had purchased back and restored to their liberty.

“One ox and six choice sheep” We learned in 1 Kings 4:22-23, that Solomon at his table served thirty oxen and one hundred sheep every day!

“Remember, O my God, for good, all that I have done for this people” Naturally, Nehemiah desired that the people would remember what he had done for them; but, “He wanted God to remember too.”(F21) It is certainly not sinful for a Christian to pray that God will remember the good that he might have done.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Nehemiah 5". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/nehemiah-5.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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