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Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Nehemiah 5

In this chapter, the account of the reconstruction of the wall is interrupted for a moment to reflect on the internal situation. It is not the joint action of the people against the enemy from the outside that is the focus of our attention here, but how the people behave among themselves, or rather, misbehave. This chapter warns that it is possible to be diligent in the separation from pernicious teachings and erroneous religious connections, while at the same time allowing abuses within one’s own ranks to continue.

The enemy is tireless in attacking the work of God. If he does not succeed in attacking the people from outside, he seeks other ways. In this chapter, the enemy does not attack from outside. We hear nothing of the enemies who have played such an important role so far. This kind of henchman does not need to use the great enemy, under whose leadership all attacks on God’s people and God’s work happen, in this case either. He is pleased to see how an internal battle arises. The enemy’s ally here is the feeling of discontent that prevails among the people.

Verse 1

Discontent Among the People

The good features present in the previous chapter cannot prevent what lies beneath the surface of injustice from being revealed. Under Nehemiah’s command a powerful attitude has been taken against the enemy from the outside, but at the same time an evil of selfish oppression is raging within. The wall of separation from the world does not prevent the spirit of self-interest from taking possession of those who live within it. Where self-interest is pursued, it always damages and impoverishes others.

These abuses among the people are also an effective means of preventing work. Rulers and nobles have placed burdens on the poor of the people. While other dignitaries leave the work to others (Neh 3:5), these rulers and nobles add to that. Not only do they not help themselves, but they also make the work harder for others. The contrast between rich and poor becomes a matter that threatens division among the people.

Social issues can now also paralyze the church. When the church has just come into being, people share everything with each other (Acts 4:32-36). But soon “a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews” (Acts 6:1). The discontent there is taken away by a wise decision of the apostles. They propose that men should come “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task” (Acts 6:3). Such men are also needed now if, for any reason, there is discontent among the people of God.

The root of the evil is that the rich do not think that the poor are their brothers. In brotherly relations there is no longer love for the needy, but rather exploitation (1Jn 3:17; Jam 2:15-17).

It is a deeply sad thing that such abuses occur among those who boast of having returned to the Divine foundation. This applies both literally to Israel and spiritually to those who confess to come together as a church.

Verse 2

The Need to Stay Alive

The call of the afflicted is a call to God for righteousness (Jam 5:1-6). God gives them justice through Nehemiah (Neh 5:6), who also heard the cry. God sees “the tears of the oppressed” (Ecc 4:1).

In Neh 5:2-5 we hear three complaints, expressed by three different groups.
1. The first complaint concerns a lack of food (Neh 5:2).
2. The second complaint concerns the loss of property by exchanging that for food (Neh 5:3).
3. The third complaint concerns the loss of property in order to pay taxes (Neh 5:4). Neh 5:5 is a summary of the suffering one experiences.

It is a great thing that among the people there are families with many sons and daughters. A people without sons and daughters dies out. But if those sons and daughters are not fed, the people also die out. That is the danger that threatens here. The country has become overcrowded by the returning of large families. As a result, there isn’t enough food for everyone. Has the land not yielded enough? Perhaps the fields have not been cared for, partly due to the enthusiastic building on the wall, so that there is no yield.

There is work and fighting to be done, but agriculture also has to be considered. You can only work and fight if you regularly feed yourself with the yield of the land. For us it means that we must take the necessary time to feed ourselves with God’s Word and its rich fruit.

Fortunately, there are still Christians who dedicate themselves to the church in addition to their regular daily tasks. They are also often away from home and family in the evenings. The downside is that the wife and children receive less attention than in an ‘ordinary’ family. A lot is invested in other families. That is also necessary, but there are limits. This work for the Lord, this battle that must be fought, must not be at the expense of one’s own family. In such situations there is a danger that those who stay at home will starve to death.

The complaining begins. First, which is to be hoped for, against the so often absent husband and father. If he doesn’t listen, which is not to be hoped for, the wife and children look elsewhere for a listening ear. Well if they do that to people like Nehemiah. Unfortunately they are not always there or they are not looked for and they seek salvation with others who abuse the situation. There is a breach between the man and his wife and children, a breach that is not healed lightly.

Verse 3

Mortgaging Properties

Another group has properties such as fields, vineyards and houses, but no grain. In order to stay alive there is nothing else to do but mortgaging these properties to the rich, who do have grain, in order to get it that way. Everything the rich can earn anything from, they demand as security. What the fields and vineyards yield, will also end up in the pockets of the rich. In this way, the rich will also have access to all the valuables present in the house. In this way, the rich will become richer and the poor will become poorer.

This second group of complainants has possessions, but no food. Driven by hunger, they have to mortgage their property. This means they have lost the real pleasure of it. Someone can become so mentally impoverished that he surrenders what he still possesses in terms of spiritual wealth. In exchange for some spiritual food for the maintenance of his spiritual life he surrenders himself to someone who only wants to enrich himself at his expense.

They own fields, but they have not cultivated them, so that there is no fruit. If they mortgage them, they even lose the opportunity to get fruit from them. They do have vineyards, but they don’t produce enough to buy corn for them. They have lost the joy the wine speaks of. They do have houses, but even the rich demand them in exchange for grain. In this way, their environment will be controlled by those to whom they are indebted.

Whoever becomes dependent on people for (spiritual) food will lose everything: his hope, his joy and his home.

Verse 4

Money for Tax

Yet another group lost the use of the fruit of their fields and vineyards. They had to borrow money to pay tax. The king, who let Nehemiah go, still has his grip on the land, as it is still under his authority. The people are still subject to a strange ruler. This pressure is especially felt in the high taxes (cf. Ezra 4:13; 20; Ezra 6:8; Ezra 7:24). Partly because of this there is not enough money left to buy food.

Paying tax to a foreign ruler must make the people realize that this is the result of their unfaithfulness. The fact that money has to be borrowed for this makes them slaves in two ways. They are servants of the king of Persia and now also of the man from whom they have borrowed money.

As members of the church, we are strangers and sojourners on earth. We are reminded to be in subjection to the governing authorities (Tit 3:1; Rom 13:1). In that position we are told: “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax” (Rom 13:7). But it is not God’s intention that we make ourselves dependent on others to fulfill our obligations. If we do, we will lose our spiritual freedom and sell ourselves to people from whom we expect salvation.

Verse 5

Children Hired Out as Slaves

The misery painted in the previous verses led to even greater misery. Earlier Nehemiah addressed the people with encouraging language to fight against the enemy for the freedom of “your sons and your daughters” (Neh 4:14). Now it appears that those same sons and daughters are made slaves by their own flesh and blood, as it were, behind his back! The people in debt have seen no other way out. And the leeches show their complete insensitivity by simply accepting this extreme means of settling the debt. He who is overcome by greed for money, loses every sense of humanity and will stop at nothing (1Tim 6:9-10).

The mentioned abuses are found among the people of God, among members of the same people. They complain their need to Nehemiah. Surely it should not be the case that one member rules over the other and abuses him. But there are always people who try to take advantage of the misery of others. They use the misery of others to gain for themselves. For such people it means nothing that the other is family, of the same flesh and blood.

The victims are powerless. They are in a position that makes it impossible for them to do anything to get themselves out of this situation. Yet there is a way out. That is: face the situation honestly, acknowledge the cause and bring it to the right person.

In the church it also happens that some members try to favor themselves at the expense of others. Favoring oneself can be material, but also spiritual. Someone who seeks recognition and honor also seeks his own benefit. This should not be the case, but our hearts are no better than those of the Israelite of old. The dispensation may have changed, but man by nature has not changed. Lying to each other and stealing from each other occurs even in the church to whom the highest blessings are spoken (Eph 4:25-28).

Verse 6

Nehemiah Gets Very Angry

Nehemiah gets very angry because of the great social injustice that is being done. It is a righteous anger (Eph 4:26). He sees the danger that the need among the people may cause a division, and that it will do great harm to the work. The call from need, heard by God, leads him to act on God’s behalf.

Nehemiah does not rely on rumors. He also does not rely solely on the cries. The cry can be an emotional expression as a result of experienced injustice, and experienced injustice does not have to be an actual injustice. However, the facts cannot be denied.

We can get angry about things that others tell us about injustice that people think has been done. Still, before we make our judgment, it is good to let the facts convince us, not just the story. We tend to believe the story when it is told to us by someone we trust completely. However, we should only be guided by the facts in our judgment and any subsequent action.

Verse 7

The Action of Nehemiah

When Nehemiah heard the shouts and the facts, he let it all sink in. He does not act directly and he also does not “consult with flesh and blood” (Gal 1:16b). Here is another lesson we have to learn. Even if we know the facts that compel us to act, our actions must fit with what we know about the injustice. We should not allow ourselves to be tempted to be partial in our actions. We can be partial in favor of the wronged person because we have sympathy for him, or we can come up with a heavier judgment than is justified because we find the culprit unsympathetic.

That is why we must learn from Nehemiah, who first looks at himself and considers everything and only then proceeds to act. We must not allow ourselves to be swayed by these feelings, and in doing so, we will come to a hasty and wrong action. This ‘consulting with oneself’ can also be translated as ‘becoming master of one’s feelings’.

With Nehemiah there is no regard for persons. He does not care whether he is dealing with enemies of God’s people, or with ordinary members of the people, or with the dignitaries of the people. His reproach is firm. He accuses the nobles and rulers of taking usury from their fellowmen. He does not speak of ‘poor’ or ‘subordinates’, but of ‘your brother’. With this he emphasizes that they do injustice to brothers (1Cor 6:8). This is an additional evil.

Nehemiah leaves the building for a while to deal with this situation. He sees that the complaint is justified and organizes a large meeting against the nobles and leaders. Without any fear of these distinguished people, he denounces the wrongs they have caused to the gathered people. He appeals to them for the excessive interest they ask. Asking for interest is even forbidden, let alone asking for usury (Exo 22:25; Lev 25:35-38; Deu 23:19-20). It is permitted to borrow money in case of poverty (Deu 15:7-8).

Nehemiah knows how to act against external enemies. He also knows what to do with the abuses that reign internally. In both cases he acts with great determination. Nehemiah is a man who has an answer to the impending decline of the work to which he has been called. This confirms his vocation through God. Every work to which the Lord calls will be attacked. The worker called by the Lord may be confident that the Lord will give wisdom and clarity as to how to respond to each attack.

Verse 8

Charge of Nehemiah

Nehemiah testifies to the great assembly how his conduct and that of his brethren were in exile. They set their brethren loose (Lev 25:47-55) to the extent that they were able to do so. How great is the evil that, in the very country in which the Jews were bought to free them, they are sold again and lose their freedom. And not by enemies, but by their own flesh and blood!

Being ‘on holy ground’ does not mean safekeeping for the most unholy actions. Those who have adopted the right position can sometimes act more wickedly than those who are still in the foreign land. The Jews of Jerusalem are in the better “church” position, while their brothers who are still in Babylon are in a purer moral state. In assuming the right church position, there is no certainty that there will also be a good mind toward one another. Both are important. You cannot do one without the other.

Nehemiah can point to his own example. This gives him moral authority and strength to his words. Paul can point to his own example as a support for what he tells others (1Thes 1:5b; Acts 20:34; Phil 3:17). The people can say nothing of Nehemiah’s charge (cf. Acts 15:12). That points to acknowledgment. As long as there are objections, it is not possible to correct evil. But when God’s thoughts are passed on and the people listen, they bow to the reproof. They seek no excuses. Nehemiah here shows himself to be “a wise reprover to a listening ear” (Pro 25:12). When people bow before the Word of God, the way to blessing is opened.

Verse 9

The Solution

It is not just an accusation. Nehemiah also holds out the solution to all. The first condition is to “walk in the fear of our God”. When a person comes to put his trust in God, to obey and serve Him, all wrongs are eliminated. Then the enemy also has nothing left to scorn over. At this present state of events in Jerusalem, the enemy has nothing to do. He can even enjoy what is happening among the people of God. Nehemiah wants to undo this situation with all his might. It is a false testimony to the world.

As Christians, we are guilty of the same as well when we subject our needy fellow brother or sister to us. We can do this by mercilessly imposing the law and preaching precepts to them. But instead of obliging them to obey us, we are called to serve them “through love” (Gal 5:13). Instead of imposing burdens on them, we are called to bear the burdens of others (Gal 6:2).

Verses 10-11

Nehemiah Calls for Remission

After Nehemiah has openly named the evil and given a first clue to the way to recovery, he personally will be the first to remit debts. He will also have given money on loan, which is permitted. In order to persuade others, he now sets an example by voluntarily giving up his right to repayment of the loaned money. How selfless this man is again to preserve the unity of his people.

Nehemiah also speaks on behalf of “my brothers and my servants”. He has people around him who act like him. Nehemiah’s selflessness has a good effect on the company he has directly around him. A good example tends to be followed.

We must not wait for the restoration of the damage that evil has caused. It had to be done immediately, “this very day”. Those who know the human heart know that in case of conviction the deed must follow immediately. There is a danger that, with the passing of time, a conviction will lose its strength and one will no longer be able to act according to that conviction. There are things that cannot be postponed.

Nehemiah also fills in what is at issue. He helps to ‘confess’. No one is allowed to hide behind ignorance of what it is all about. When it comes to our own failure, we are very forgetful. It takes a lot of persuasion if we want to make up for something that also involves compensation. God’s Spirit has a lot of work to do on us.

Verse 12

The Remission Promised

The transgressors respond to Nehemiah’s preaching of penance by saying that they will do as he has said. They will give everything back. They even say that they will claim nothing of the guilty. Nehemiah wants even more assurance that they will do what they promise. He makes them swear in the presence of priests whom he has called for this occasion. Priests, as representatives of God, give the necessary solemnity to this event. It should make the transgressors aware that they swear their oath before God.

Verse 13

Ratification by Nehemiah and All the People

As they so stand before God, Nehemiah makes the people aware of the serious consequences of disobedience. Shaking the front of his garment , which also serves as a bag, has the same meaning as shaking off the dust of the feet (Mt 10:14; Acts 13:51; Acts 18:6). The speaker who makes this gesture thus symbolizes the rejection of the spoken word by those who have heard it, and that he himself is free from the consequences it has for those who reject it.

God blesses Nehemiah’s approach. Nehemiah has spoken plainly. There is a need for this in a time of woolly, diplomatic language. The people of God deserve a clear message. It must have done Nehemiah good that all agree. That consent does not take place through applause or other enthusiastic expressions. That would be inappropriate given the seriousness of the matter. Consent is given in the expression of an audible “amen” in one voice.

Then the LORD is praised. He has worked this willingness in the hearts and gets the honor for it. The people act according to the agreement made. That is better than what their ancestors did. At first they released their slaves, but sadly, later they enslaved them again (Jer 34:10-11; 18). Such a way of doing things resembles that of Pharaoh who first let the Israelites go, but then chases them to enslave them again. Such a course of action invokes God’s judgment.

Verses 14-15

What Nehemiah Doesn’t Do

Nehemiah renounces what would be lawful in itself. As governor he has the right to demand food from the people. Governor at that time – Nehemiah served as governor of Judah from 444 to 432 BC – was the highest office to be held in the Jewish nation. Instead of demanding food, he distributed food. He makes himself one with his needy people. In doing so, he shows mercy that surpasses the law.

Such acts are the consequence of the fear of God (Neh 5:15). It is the fruit that adorns a righteous and holy walk. It has nothing to do with the generosity that sometimes characterizes benefactors in the world. With this he is a picture of the Lord Jesus Who as the Lord and the Master during His life on earth is also the One Who serves (Jn 13:14; Lk 22:24-27).

Nehemiah’s behavior is very different from that of the rulers of the people and former governors. He might have thought, which happens a lot: “Every governor has always done it this way, so why shouldn’t I?” But he has not eaten the bread of a governor because the fear of God leads him. He is not going to quibble about the difficulties, or organize things, but he is leading a walk of life above all suspicion.

He gives up his personal rights as governor to be simply and completely the servant of God and His people. Likewise, Paul also gives up personal rights towards the Corinthians to serve God and His church (1Cor 9:11-12; 2Thes 3:8). His example and that of Nehemiah is worth following. They are “examples to the flock” (1Pet 5:1-3). Such behavior gives moral preponderance, which makes admonitions have results.

It also occurs in the church that families of those who have a prominent position in it, claim a prominent place themselves for this reason. Because of a certain natural connection one thinks one is entitled to spiritual advantage and demands this. Skills and gifts, however, are granted by God and are not transferable or claimable because a friend or family member possesses them. Even Samuel does not act correctly in this matter (1Sam 8:1-5).

Much inner discontent and strife stems from a wrong lifestyle, rather than from attacks from outside. Only if we walk in fear of God can we fight this danger. In the first place, we will not participate in adapting to the times in which we live, we will not follow the masses. It is so easy to do what others do. Sometimes we participate because we are cowards, sometimes because we secretly wish to be like others.

Secondly, we will avoid the nature of the world. Many Christians make sure the world doesn’t notice how different they are. They are not out to give the impression that they are different from others in practical life. What used to be a disgrace, everyone now finds normal, for example sex before marriage. But for the Christian it should remain a disgrace. He should be able to say: “But I didn’t act like this.”

Maybe we have lowered the standard of our own behavior and thinking unconsciously. How have we behaved towards the opposite sex in recent years or months? In our premarital lives, have we allowed things to happen that shouldn’t have happened and that we should be ashamed of now?

Verse 16

What Nehemiah Does

Just as Nehemiah does not do certain things for fear of God, so love for the Lord Jesus must determine our actions and conduct. But not only does Nehemiah not do things, he is also positively building the wall. In no way does he want to use his position as governor to enrich himself. Instead, he cooperates with the people. He gives himself to work and does not seek earthly possessions. He is in Jerusalem to help his people, not to exploit them. His servants are of the same spirit.

Verses 17-18

The Table of Nehemiah

Is Nehemiah so wealthy? Does he still receive his possibly generous salary from the king – not unpaid, but paid leave? We don’t read it here. Therefore, it is good to assume that God provides him with what he needs to provide all these people with food and drink. What he gets from God he does not keep for himself, but serves others with it. He would rather pay for everything out of his own pocket than impose a burden on the people.

Nehemiah has a large company to eat at his table every day, but there is enough every day. So may we also know that the Lord gives enough for every day. In addition, every ten days there is wine of all kinds and in abundance. This indicates the abundant joy that is associated with a life of dependence on the Lord.

Verse 19

Prayer of Nehemiah

Nehemiah does not pray this prayer out of self-congratulation. He is not a spiritual relative of the Pharisee who commends his own actions to God (Lk 18:11-12). Nehemiah does not thank, he prays, not a proud, but a humble prayer. He is engaged in God’s work and is well aware that God works through him. Therefore, the good that he may do is the good that God does through him. But there is so much more to be done. He asks God to remember him, because it is about the welfare, the good for His people.

Nehemiah can pray in this way because his life is in accordance with the content of his prayer. He prays the “prayer of a righteous man” (Jam 5:16b).

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Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Nehemiah 5". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.