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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Nehemiah 5

Verses 1-5

The Problems Facing The Poorer People (Nehemiah 5:1-5 ).

The three examples that follow are representative of a whole range of problems rather than being specific, but underlying them are the problems that the poor faced, especially when there was drought or famine. Compare the situation in the time of Haggai over seventy years previously (Haggai 1:6; Haggai 1:10-11). These poor consisted of day-labourers who had no land (see Matthew 20:1-15), and subsistence farmers with meagre strips of land.

Nehemiah 5:1

‘Then there arose a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brother Jews.’

The taking of the adult males to work on the walls left many families, which were already struggling to survive, in a parlous situation. (A similar situation would arise during warfare). They would have to depend on the labours of their wives and children. This would explain why the wives are particularly mentioned as being vociferous. They were bearing the brunt of the situation. Thus the families were complaining about the harshness of their fellow-Jews who were taking advantage of the situation to increase their own wealth, rather than obeying the Law which said, ‘you shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your needy, and to your poor in your land’ (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Nehemiah 5:2

‘For there were those who said, “We, our sons and our daughters, are many. Let us get grain, that we may eat and live.”

The first complaint is on behalf of those who were starving because they could not afford to buy food. Their breadwinners, who would normally be acting as day-labourers for wages, were not available, and yet they still had to support large families. Losing them for even a period of less than two months was disastrous. They needed grain simply so that they could eat it and survive. There is no mention of them possessing land. We must therefore assume that they were landless.

Nehemiah 5:3

‘Some also there were who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, and our vineyards, and our houses. Let us get grain, because of the drought.”

The second group did own a small amount of land. But they were subsistence farmers, struggling to produce enough to eat. However, the harvest had been poor, and their adult males had neither been present to help with the meagre harvest, nor to act as part-time labourers, earning wages so as to supplement the little that they produced. Thus in order that they might obtain food to eat, and grain which would have to be sown to produce the following year’s harvest, they had mortgaged their tiny fields and vineyards. Repayments were becoming due and in order to pay them they would have to sell some of their children into debt-slavery (Nehemiah 5:5), or lose their land, which would then put them in the position of the first people.

Nehemiah 5:4

‘There were also those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute on our fields and our vineyards.’

The slightly larger fields and vineyards of the third group had also not been productive because of the drought, and the position had been made worse because their adult males were not there to help but were taken up with building the walls. Thus they had had to borrow money to pay the king’s tribute, based on land ownership, thereby mortgaging their future. These loans would have to be paid back, seemingly with interest (which was actually forbidden - Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36-37; Deuteronomy 23:19-20), and this would have to be paid out of future produce. Financially things were difficult.

Nehemiah 5:5

‘Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, 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), nor is it in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.”

All three groups were concerned about the possibility of eventually having to sell their children into debt slavery, whereby their children would become unpaid servants, with payment for their services being given up front as the ‘purchase price’ of the young virtual slave. This slavery would last for seven years (Exodus 21:2-11; Deuteronomy 15:12-18). And this was being done to them, not by foreigners, but by their fellow-Jews who were of the same stock as they were. Indeed some of their daughters had already been brought into such bondage (girls would be sold first as they were not so useful in the fields). Nor could their parents do anything about it as their fields and vineyards were under the control of others, either through sale or mortgage, with the result that there was no other way of obtaining money.

Verses 1-13

One Unforeseen Consequence Of The Concentration On The Building Of The Wall Proves Nehemiah’s Worth (Nehemiah 5:1-13 ).

Nehemiah is now revealed, not only as a great leader, but as a man of compassion. Like many rich men he had probably not considered the effect on the poorer Jews of the concentration of their menfolk as labourers on the building of the walls, no doubt without payment. For many poor families, struggling to survive even before this happened, losing their adult males for nearly two months was turning out to be a catastrophe. There would be three types of people involved:

1) The landless Jews who depended on a daily wage for the existence of themselves and their families at a very low level, eking out a living from day to day.

2) Jews with only a tiny amount of land struggling at subsistence level when harvests were bad, and having in bad years to borrow in order to buy next year’s grain, because they had had to consume all that had grown.

3) Jews with a larger amount of land who were being caught out by the Persian taxes, who, because of the lack of productivity of their fields, were falling into debt.

For the first group, the requirement for their menfolk to work on the walls meant that the poorest families had no income coming in from their normal work as labourers on other people’s fields, apart from what the wives or children could earn which was insufficient. In consequence they were having to sell their children into debt slavery or worse, in order even to obtain food. For the second group failing crops (‘because of the drought’ - Nehemiah 5:3), and the lack of the adult males to either wring from the fields what could be obtained, or work for others in order to be able to earn food, was resulting in some having to mortgage their lands so that they could afford to buy grain, both to eat and to be sown in the coming year in order to continue to survive. Another poor harvest would also result in debt-slavery for their children. For the third group there was the problem that shortage of harvest had meant that they had to borrow money to pay their taxes. This could bring them under a continual debt burden and eventually they also could be in danger of losing their land if harvests continued to be bad. Their plight was the least of the three, but it was serious non-the-less.

This was another side to the problems described in chapter 4. There it was problems without. Here it is problems within. For these people morale, which was already low, had become even lower.

With great vigour Nehemiah deals with the problem. He calls on the wealthier Jews to treat their fellow-Jews as brothers, remembering that they are all YHWH’s servants (Leviticus 25:53; Leviticus 25:55), and providing for their needs rather than exacting from them as much as they could. And he himself supplies the example.

Verses 1-19

Continual Opposition To The Building Of The Wall And Problems Related To It (Nehemiah 4:1 to Nehemiah 6:14 ).

Meanwhile the work did not go on unopposed. Powerful men were involved in seeking to ensure that the walls were not rebuilt, and that Jerusalem was not re-established. We have already had three of these described to us in Nehemiah 2:19. They were formidable opponents. We now learn about their activity in more detail.

o Initially they operated by using ridicule and threats (Nehemiah 2:19; Nehemiah 4:1-3). They had grave doubts about whether the objective would be achieved. It was after all a massive operation, and there was no one with the authority to enforce the rebuilding by using slave gangs and taskmasters. That was not within Nehemiah’s remit. It depended on voluntary cooperation and popular enthusiasm. They could not believe that the initial enthusiasm would be maintained. But as things progressed they began to fear that they might be wrong.

o Thus when that failed they turned to the idea of using extreme violence (Nehemiah 4:7-11). But that too failed because of the vigilance of Nehemiah, and the stout-heartedness of God’s people, who worked with their swords in their hands.

o Then they five times (Nehemiah 6:4-5) sought to entice Nehemiah to a place where they would be able to do him mischief (Nehemiah 6:2). But he was no fool and once again they found themselves thwarted.

o As a consequence they resorted to suggestions to Nehemiah that in their view treason was involved in the building of the walls which they intended to report to the king of Persia himself along with a report of the activities of treasonable prophets (Nehemiah 6:6-7). To these suggestions Nehemiah gave short shrift. He was confident that his royal master would rely on his trustworthiness.

o This was followed by an invidious attempt through someone who pretended to be friendly to persuade him to act in a cowardly way in order to protect his own life by taking refuge in the Temple along with him (Nehemiah 6:10). But Nehemiah was no coward and roundly dismissed such an idea.

Combined with these activities was the problem of the extreme poverty that resulted for many due to their dedication to the building of the walls. Many had been living on the breadline for decades, scratching an existence from their limited resources, but now the concentration on the building of the walls had tipped them over the edge. They found themselves hungry, and even enslaved by debt, and that by their fellow Jews (Nehemiah 5:1-6). This too was something that Nehemiah had to remedy (Nehemiah 5:7-13).

Meanwhile the work on the wall progressed until it was finally accomplished. Jerusalem was once more a walled city, with its gates secure.

Verses 6-13

Nehemiah Expresses His Anger, Admits His Own Part In Causing The Problem, And Propounds A Solution (Nehemiah 5:6-13 ).

When Nehemiah heard their pleas, he was angry, both with himself and with others. He immediately recognised that he and other comparatively wealthy Jews had, probably mainly inadvertently, but some out of sheer greed, been overlooking the needs of the poor. Now he called on them to put this right. The fact that the wealthy responded so readily does suggest that most of their behaviour was unthinking. Nehemiah calls partly on the teaching of the Law about usury (claiming back extra on top of basic loans, something forbidden in Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36-37; Deuteronomy 23:19-20) and partly on the contradictory nature of their behaviour. This latter point was based on the fact that they had generously paid to redeem their brothers from slavery while in Babylonia, and were doing the same in Judah, but were now themselves enslaving those same brothers, and others like them.

It is true that the Law did require that at the end of every seventh year all debt should be ‘released’ (Deuteronomy 15:1 ff), and that all Hebrew slaves should also be released (Exodus 21:2-11; Deuteronomy 15:12-18), but we do not know how far these requirements were being fulfilled. And it did not solve the current situation. Thus Nehemiah went a step further. He called on the wealthy, in view of the circumstances, to make that release immediately. And it was to their credit that they were willing, even though it might be that many were willing simply in order not to lose face before their fellows.

Nehemiah 5:6

‘And when I heard their cry and these words, I was very angry.’

The sad tales that came to him made Nehemiah angry, both with himself and with others. How could they have overlooked the needs of the families of those who had worked so willingly on the walls, presumably without pay? And how could they have overlooked a genuine situation of such extreme poverty? It is always the problem of the comparatively well off that they do not appreciate the position of those at the lowest levels of poverty. They just assume that they will get by, as they do themselves.

Nehemiah 5:7

‘Then I consulted with myself, and contended with the nobles and the rulers, and said to them, “You exact usury, every one of his brother.” And I held a great gathering against them.’

As a consequence Nehemiah first of all examined his own conscience, (‘he consulted with himself’) for he recognised that he had been equally guilty of ignoring the situation, by lending money to the poor on interest. And then he argued with the wealthy among the people, the aristocrats and rulers, and pointed out that they were doing the same. They were ‘exacting usury from their brothers’, contrary to the Law. And he organised ‘a great gathering’ where the matter could be considered. He knew that men were more disposed to charity if it was required of them in public.

Nehemiah 5:8

‘And I said to them, “We after our ability have redeemed our brothers the Jews, who were sold to the nations; and would you even sell your brothers, and should they be sold to us?” Then they held their peace, and found never a word.’

He then called on them to consider the contradictory nature of their behaviour. While in Babylonia they had paid good money to redeem from slavery fellow-Jews who had been enslaved by foreigners, so that they could return with them to the land, and they had also paid local foreigners a redemption price for Jewish slaves in the land, and yet they were now themselves in the contradictory position of enslaving those same brothers, and others like them, selling them to themselves. Did they consider that this was pleasing to God?

This idea of the deliverance of Jewish slaves out of the hands of foreigners was prescribed in the Law, although the principle there was applied to those ‘in the land’ where the idea of the year of Yubile applied, and the idea was that those ransomed would then serve off their debt as hired servants, not as slaves (Leviticus 25:47-55). It was, however, a practise that had been extended to include the ransom by generous Jews of any Jews in foreign hands.

Nehemiah was heard out in silence. All felt guilty. They recognised their own inconsistency, so much so that not one spoke up in his own defence. They acknowledged that they had no excuse for what they had been doing.

Nehemiah 5:9

‘Also I said, “The thing which you do is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God, because of the reproach of the nations our enemies?”

He stressed that what he and they were doing was not good. Should they not rather be fearing God, recognising that by their behaviour they were bringing the reproach of the nations round about, ‘their enemies’ previously mentioned (Nehemiah 4:7), on themselves and on their God? They were proclaiming that their God was different from the gods of the nations, even from the YHWH of the syncretists, and yet they were demonstrating by their behaviour that it made no difference to the way that they lived, thus giving the impression that their God was in fact no different after all.

Nehemiah 5:10

‘And I likewise, my brothers and my servants, do lend them money and grain. I pray you, let us leave off this usury.”

To his credit Nehemiah did not excuse himself. He and his retinue (his ‘servants’, those who were helping him to run the country), and even his own relatives (his ‘brothers’) were equally guilty of such behaviour, lending money and grain in order to obtain a return on them. They were following Persian and Babylonian ways. As they had, however, only been in Judah a short time, they could not actually have caused much hardship as the loans must have been very recent. But he admits that the intention had been there. By this means he took away the offence that otherwise his words may have caused. He was not being ‘holier than you’. It should be noted that this practise was not forbidden in itself, only when it was with regard to fellow-Jews (Deuteronomy 23:20). Thus he calls on them to cease the practise, as he intended to do. It was to be a permanent arrangement for the future, not a temporary measure.

It should be noted that this does not condemn the modern commercial practise of lending money on reasonable interest. But it does suggest that personal loans to fellow-Christians and relatives, and to those in real poverty, to meet personal need, while being willingly given, should not be offered on the basis of obtaining a return.

Nehemiah 5:11

“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 you exact of them.”

Nehemiah now calls on them, therefore, to restore to those from whom they had exacted them, their fields, vineyards, oliveyards and houses, together with any liability for interest and return of capital. It was to be a kind of instantaneous year of release and year of Yubile, with all debts cancelled, and all property restored, in order to start the new nation off on the right basis now that Judah was an entity in itself (albeit in the Persian empire).

Some see ‘the hundredth part’ as possibly the interest for one moon period, indicating an interest of 12%. If so, this had seemingly been generally agreed previously, and was in fact in terms of those days, very generous. We know that during the Persian period nearer to 20% was usually exacted by money lenders, and often much higher. Nevertheless Nehemiah called for it to be cancelled. In other words that part of the loans which had not yet been repaid were to be looked on as gifts, and the interest being exacted had to be cancelled.

But this may be a little too technical. The description may rather suggest a different rate. It may well be that each moon period they were expected to return one hundredth part of the money, thus slowly paying off the loan, plus one hundredth part of whatever was produced.

Nehemiah 5:12

‘Then they said, “We will restore them, and will require nothing of them, so will we do, even as you say.”

To the credit of the wealthy Jews their response was positive. They would restore all property, cancel all debts, and cease exacting interest, in accordance with Nehemiah’s suggestion. Any who had reservations on the matter, as there would almost inevitably have been, were seemingly ashamed to go against the generosity of the majority. We can understand how this would have given the workers on the walls a new impetus, and how it would have raised Nehemiah’s authority among the poor (the majority). It will be noted that nothing is said about the provision of food for the poorest (Nehemiah 5:2) but that was not part of the long term deal which was being recorded here. Provision was no doubt made for that. It could hardly have been overlooked.

Nehemiah 5:12

‘Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they would do according to this promise.’

Nehemiah then called on them to confirm what they had promised on oath before the priests. This made the whole thing legally binding. From then on they could not go back on it. This was not a sign that he did not trust them, but a making of the whole arrangement legal, removing any qualms that anyone might have, and any danger of anyone later changing their mind. It made the arrangement firm and sure. Were anything to arise in the future these priests and their fellows would also be the judges.

Nehemiah 5:13

‘Also I shook out my lap, and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, who does not fulfil this promise. Even thus be he shaken out, and emptied.” And all the assembly said, “Amen,” and praised YHWH. And the people did according to this promise.’

Nehemiah then made a symbolic act by ‘shaking out his lap’ (we would say ‘turned out his pockets’) declaring ‘so may God shake out from their house and from their work any who does not fulfil his promise’. Personal items were carried in a fold of the cloak, held in by a belt. It was these that he shook out as a prophetic gesture. Such an overt act was seen as sealing whatever had been spoken, and as guaranteeing the carrying out by God of any penalty.

That those gathered did not see it as a rebuke, but as a sealing of the position comes out in their response. All were in agreement and all said ‘Amen’ and praised YHWH. They clearly saw it as a new beginning, and rejoiced in a new unity. Dissension among them had been removed. And finally we are assured that all the people did as they had promised. All cooperated in carrying out Nehemiah’s proposals.

Verses 14-19

Nehemiah Continued On As Governor In The Same Spirit That He Had Exhorted On The Wealthy, Refusing To Allow His Position To Be A Charge On The People (Nehemiah 5:14-19 ).

It is probable that having fulfilled his original intention of restoring the walls of Jerusalem Nehemiah returned to the king accompanied by his escort, and this may well have resulted in his preparing a report which makes up a large part of the first section of the book of Nehemiah. But it appears that the king then appointed him as Governor over Judah, a position which he held for twelve years. This may well have been because there had been unrest in Egypt under Inaros, followed by a rebellion by Megabyzus, the then governor of Syria (in 449 BC), with the consequence that the king wanted to ensure Judah’s loyal support in such a sensitive area at such a crucial time, especially now that Jerusalem had been fortified. It could well be that he wanted to ensure that Jerusalem was in safe hands, providing a steadying influence in the area.

In what is probably a section added to his earlier report Nehemiah now goes on to describe how he himself during that twelve years sought not to be a financial burden on the Jewish people. He was clearly, as we would expect of a person in his high position, a very wealthy man, and he was prepared to use that wealth in the service of God by ensuring the financial stability of His people. As a consequence he did not call on the normal perquisites available to a Persian governor. And in true Nehemaic fashion he calls on God to witness that fact for his good.

Nehemiah 5:14

‘Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even to the thirty second year of Artaxerxes the king, that is, twelve years, I and my brothers have not eaten the bread of the governor.’

This is our first indication that Nehemiah was appointed governor, and it is interesting to note that in spite of the fact that Nehemiah speaks of earlier governors (Nehemiah 5:15), none, apart from Sheshbazzar in Ezra 5:14, are mentioned as such either in Ezra or Nehemiah (nor are we told what Sheshbazzar was ‘governor’ of, the returnees or the district). It has been suggested that this was because, since the previous attempt to build the walls of Jerusalem, Tobiah had been acting as deputy governor, under the governorship in Samaria of Sanballat. This could well explain their hard feelings towards Nehemiah, and would tie in with Tobiah’s cosy relationship with leading men in Judah (Nehemiah 6:17-19). Zerubbabel was called governor by Haggai, but he is not called governor in Ezra. This does, however, demonstrate the danger of an argument based on silence. If we had had Ezra alone we would not have seen Zerubbabel as sole governor as he constantly acts in unison with others.

We are not told whether Nehemiah was appointed as governor from the start. The suggestion that he had appointed a time to the king for his return (Nehemiah 2:6) would militate against the idea. Thus it may well be that after the completion of the building of the walls he returned to Persia, only to discover that the king wanted him to return as governor because of the political situation, a post which he then held for twelve years. And he points out here that over that whole period of twelve years he and his family had not ‘eaten the bread of the governor’, that is, had not called on the people of Judah to provide him and his house with food in the way that a governor would usually expect.

Nehemiah 5:15

‘But the former governors who were before me were laid a charge on the people, and took from them bread and wine, besides forty shekels of silver. Yes, even their servants bore rule over the people, but I did not do so, because of the fear of God.’

This was in contrast to former governors who ruled before him, who were a charge on the people and took from them food and drink as well as forty shekels of silver, presumably yearly. Given that their food and drink was also supplied to them forty shekels of silver was a goodly sum. These former rulers of Judah may or may not have held the same full governorship that Nehemiah enjoyed, but whether they did or not, they had been rulers of the people and responsible to the Persian authorities. The term ‘governor’ (pecha) is a general one and is therefore not decisive. But it would seem that these governors took advantage of their position, so that even their ministers and advisers (‘their servants’) were also a charge on the people. Nehemiah, however, refrained from all this because he was ‘God-fearing’. He is a good example of the Old Testament equivalent of a man who loves God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and his neighbour as himself.

Nehemiah 5:16

‘Yes, also I continued in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land, and all my servants were gathered there to the work.’

His attitude was demonstrated by the fact the he continued to work on the wall until it was completed, as did his ‘servants’. Nor did he acquire any land by any means whatsoever. He was not out to enrich himself.

Nehemiah 5:17

‘Moreover there were at my table, of the Jews and the rulers, a hundred and fifty men, besides those who came to us from among the nations who were round about us.’

And all this was in spite of the fact that, in accordance with recognised Persian custom, he continually entertained numerous guests at his table. Thus he constantly welcomed at his table 150 prominent Jewish officials, including their rulers, as well as important officials from nations round about, thus maintaining the prestige of the empire.

Nehemiah 5:18

‘Now what was prepared for one day 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 I demanded not the bread of the governor, because the bondage was heavy on this people.’

He makes clear what this involved. Every day one ox and six choice sheep were slain and prepared for the banquet, together with numerous birds. And every ten days the wine cellar was restocked. Yet in spite of these charges on his purse he made no demands on the people by claiming ‘the food of the governor’, because he recognised the financial burdens that they were carrying. Seemingly he met the whole out of his own family estates. He was in complete contrast with the general run of rulers who used their offices in order to obtain whatever they could get.

Nehemiah 5:19

“ Remember to me, O my God, for good, all that I have done for this people.”

And he did it consciously out of love for God. Thus he called on Him to remember for good all that he had done for God’s people. This was the only reward that he sought, to please God and be approved by Him. Note that Nehemiah 13:22 makes clear that he did not thereby think that he was earning God’s favour. He was fully aware that he was dependent on His mercy.

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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Nehemiah 5". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.