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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

Nehemiah 5

Verses 1-13

Nehemiah 5:1-13

And there was a great cry of the people.

The friend of the poor

The complaint of the poor. It is sometimes alleged the poor have a morbid disposition to complain of their indigence and sufferings; and this may be true of certain classes of them. The ignorant and vicious, the idle and intemperate, are prone to bewail their hardships in querulous words. They complain bitterly of the miseries of their lot, and perhaps charge those with having a hard heart who do not give them the relief they desire. They try thus to excite the pity of the benevolent, or to extort the gifts of charity which they do not deserve. But it is altogether different with the industrious and pious poor. The poor of the children of Judah are manifestly brought to the very extremity of suffering before they disclose their sorrowful circumstances; and when they are compelled to make them known, it is in language remarkable for dignified sobriety and true pathos. The complaint of these poor Israelites unveils their varied load of sorrow.

1. Some complained of the extent of their necessities. “We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live.” The calls of hunger were many; the means of supply, on their own inheritance, were small; and they required to purchase corn for bread from others. Their straits, too, were increased by the present dearth. It is one of the many glories of the religion of the Bible that it makes a benevolent care of the poor a paramount duty in all who have it in their power to relieve their necessities, and enforces this duty by threatenings for its neglect, and by promises of reward for its observance.

2. Some of the poor here also complain of the severity of public burdens. They were still subject to the Persian king, and to secure the continuance of his favour to Jerusalem they had made every possible effort to pay his tribute. Their more wealthy countrymen met this tax without abridging their home comforts, but the burden was heavy on the poor.

3. The sorrows of the poor were in this case deepened by the thought that they were occasioned by the ungenerous conduct of their own brethren. “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, neither is it in our power to redeem them.” They possessed a common relation to the covenant inheritance. They had left the land of their exile animated with the same faith, and embarked in the same enterprise. Many of them had quitted comforts in that foreign land, out of love to Jerusalem, and were now enduring the first trials of returned captives. They had laboured, too, by their united endeavours, to restore the city of their fathers, instead of seeking every man his own things in the care of his patrimonial inheritance. It might have been expected that, thus labouring for a common object, they would have shared a common sympathy, and been free from the grasp of selfishness.

4. How mysterious are sufferings like these, especially of the poor people of God engaged in His service. We do not wonder that those Jews who remained in the land of idols, after they were free to return to Judah, might suffer adversity. They despised the Lord’s goodness in offering deliverance from exile, and preferred ease in a strange country to spiritual blessings in the holy land. It is not wonderful though they might be visited with trials in providence, and be made to read their sin in their suffering. But here those endure affliction who willingly left the land of the heathen, and they are involved in deep trouble while doing a service to the city of God. Shall we think that they disprove either the wisdom or goodness of God’s providence to His people? Do they not rather show His thoughts to be far above our thoughts, and His procedure in carrying out His great plan to be too high for us to understand? Do they not clearly indicate that He tries the faith of His servants in the very moment of accepting their love, and rewards their affection, not in the comforts of earth, but in the glories of immortality? It is thus that the world in which we dwell is still a place of weeping, where the poor and needy pour out their tears in floods. Thousands of righteous ones languish in poverty, or are persecuted for their fidelity to the truth of God.

Nehemiah’s expostulation with the nobles. The promptitude with which he listens to the complaint of the poor does honour to his heart, and the courage with which he proceeds to redress their wrongs sheds a lustre on the justice of his administration. The cry of the lowly for relief from distress or opposition is often disregarded, yea, proves the occasion of augmenting their misery. And in his very first step for reform of these abuses in Judah he evinces again the self-reliance of a great mind. “Then,” says he, “I consulted with myself.” To this, indeed, he was shut up by his peculiar and trying circumstances.

1. He “rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother.” To see the full force of this charge, it must be borne in mind that the Israelites were forbidden in the law of Moses to lend money to the poor on interest. With strangers, or perhaps with the rich, they might trade in this way; but this is the law interdicting such a practice with their poor brethren:--“If thou lend money to any of My people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.” This, then, is a grave charge against the nobles of violating the Divine law; and it falls on ears not accustomed to such plain words. Men of rank and affluence seldom hear this language of remonstrance addressed to them, and they can ill bear such reflections on their honour. But no earthly station exempts wrong-doers from just reproof; and Nehemiah’s zeal for God, as well as his love to His people, inspires him with faithfulness. True kindness to them, not less than compassion for the lowly objects of their exactions, prompted his faithful expostulation. The reproof here was administered with firmness, yet it was accompanied with the prudence of wisdom, adopting a course fitted to fortify remonstrance, and to secure its desired effect. “I set,” says he, “a great assembly against them.” What was the object of this concourse? We cannot suppose that the servant of God intended, through this means, to overawe the nobles by numbers, or to constrain them to a decision contrary to reason. He appears rather to have convened this assembly to allow the free expression of sentiment on the evil complained of, and to bring all under the salutary influence of public opinion. In no free community can public opinion be set at defiance with either justice or safety. It may, indeed, be sometimes corrupted by designing men, and it may for a season be swayed by impulses perilous to the common-weal. It requires, then, to be corrected and regulated by the power of truth. But a healthful public opinion, wisely formed, rightly guided, freely expressed, is the bulwark of national liberty, and an essential condition of the progress of mankind.

2. Nehemiah addressed to the rulers of Judah persuasive argument. The arguments he employed are threefold. He first of all pleads the efforts already made to redeem Judah from captivity. And on this ground he asks if it is right they should be again sold into bondage. “We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, who were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren?” This appeal reminds believers in Christ of their duty, not to come again into bondage to sin. “Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made you free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” Nehemiah, moreover, pleads the exposure of the common cause to the reproach of the enemy as a reason for the nobles ceasing their oppression. “Also I said, It is not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?” This is a powerful argument for watchfulness and consistency in all who love Zion. Many are jealous for their own reputation, and quick to wipe off any reproach from themselves, while they have little care for the honour of God. Nehemiah, once more, appeals to his own conduct as an example of a generous spirit to his poor brethren. He, too, might have exacted money and corn, but he freely surrendered his private rights for the sake of the public good. It is not in a boastful spirit that he thus refers to himself and the course of self-denial he pursued. Perhaps, also, he wishes to suggest that he gained far more in enjoyment than he gave up in substance. The powerful and persuasive appeal was crowned with complete success. The result of this appeal also proves the power of religious motive in remedying social evils. These often grow and spread in face of all arguments deduced from considerations of humanity and justice. But here, in Jerusalem, religion pours the oil of love on the troubled waters; she addresses a winning appeal to open hearts, and at once the grasp of oppression is relaxed. If any great social evils are allowed to prevail where religion is professed, it is only by neglecting or denying its power. Christianity will either destroy every iniquity that abounds in a land, or itself will decline and depart from a people who will not hear its voice, to break off their sins by righteousness.

Nehemiah’s testimony to his own disinterested conduct. (W. Ritchie.)

Brave compassion

Now Nehemiah, as we have seen, was a business man--a man of great energy and prudence; and it would not have been strange if he had postponed the consideration of the complaints thus brought before him. He might naturally enough have been afraid lest, by now finding fault with the nobles and rulers, he should alienate them from himself, and thus hinder the completion of his great enterprise. And so he might have said to these poor people, “You see that my hands are full of work; I cannot attend to this matter now--one thing at a time. No doubt you have a grievance, but let us get the wails finished first, and then I will see what can be done.” It is thus that many men of business act in daily life. Their very energy leads them to brush aside everything that threatens to interfere with their present work. They cannot bear interruptions, and are so eagerly bent on reaching their end that they cannot pause to do good on their way. But Nehemiah was more than a mere man of business; he was a man with a tender heart. (T. C. Finlayson.)

A great schism averted

That social injustice may exist even amongst fellow-workers in a great and good cause.

That social injustice, if not corrected, will undermine the stability of any cause, however righteous.

That social injustice should be regarded by all good men with feelings of righteous indignation.

That social injustice, whenever discovered, should be calmly, yet promptly, dealt with.

That conciliatory appeals are sometimes more efficacious than coercive measures in dealing with social injustice. (Homiletic Commentary.)

The accusing cry of humanity

The unending struggle. Wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, brain and brawn, capital and labour--when in all ages have not these come into collision?

Elements of bitterness in this struggle.

1. On the side of the oppressors there is power (Nehemiah 5:7).

2. The oppressed are the brethren of the oppressors.

3. They were engaged in a common cause.

Light in dareness.

1. Christ cams to proclaim the brotherhood of humanity.

2. Signs of the times. The teacher is abroad. Society is tending towards redress. (Homiletic Commentary.)

Verses 3-5

Nehemiah 5:3-5

We have mortgaged our lands.

The miseries of debt

Mental unrest.

Social degradation.

Family ruin.

A disregard of a Divine command: “Thou shalt not steal.” Application--

1. Christians should set the world an example.

2. Watch the beginnings of extravagance.

3. In small things as well as in greater act on Christian principle. (Homiletic Commentary.)

The blessing and curse of mortgages

The history of the mortgage would be the history of the domestic, social, financial, political, and ecclesiastical progress of all ages. It will be useful if I can intelligently and practically speak of the mortgage as a blessing and as a curse. There is much absurd and wholesale denunciation of borrowing money. If I should request all those who have never asked a loan to rise, there would not out of this audience be one get up unless it were some one who had acted so badly at the start that he knew no one would trust him. At the inception of nearly all enterprises, great or small, a loan is necessary. Years ago an Irish man landed with fifty cents in his pocket on the Battery, asked the loan of one dollar from an entire stranger, and now is among the New York princes. A mortgage is merely borrowed strength of others to help us in crises of individual or national life on the promise that we will pay them for the help rendered. But what is true in secularities is more true in ecclesiastical affairs. If churches had not been built till all the money could be raised, tens of thousands of our best churches would never have been built, and millions of those who are now Christians on earth or saints in heaven would never have been comforted or saved. The old Collins’s line of steamers went into bankruptcy, but that does not change the fact that they transported hundreds of passengers in safety across the sea; and if all the churches in Christendom to-morrow went down under the thump of the sheriff’s hammer, that would not hinder the fact that they have already transported thousands into the kingdom, and have done a stupendous good that all earth and hell can never undo. All consider it right to borrow for a secular institution. Is it not right to borrow for a religious? It is safer to borrow for the Church than for any other institution, because other institutions die, but a Church seldom. When the Israelites of my text wanted to rebuild their homes, and wanted to borrow money for that purpose, the mortgagers did well to let them have it, though I wish they had not asked twelve per cent. But after a while the mortgage spoken of in the text ceased to be a blessing, and became a plague. It had helped them through a domestic and ecclesiastical crisis, but now they could carry it no longer, and they cried out for rescue. If a blessing lies too long, it gets to be a curse. At the first moment the farmer can get the mortgage off his farm, and the merchant the mortgage off his merchandise, and the citizen the mortgage off his home, and the charitable institution the mortgage off its asylum, and the religious society the mortgage off its church, they had better do it. I have heard people argue the advantage of individual debts and national debts and Church debts; but I could not, while the argument was going on, control my risibilities. It is said that such debts keep the individual and the Church and the State busy trying to pay them. No doubt of it. So rheumatism keeps the patient busy with arnica, and neuralgia keeps the patient busy with hartshorn, and the cough with lozenges, and the toothache with lotions; but that is no argument in favour of rheumatism, or neuralgia, or coughs, or toothache. Better, if possible, get rid of these things, and be busy with something else. (T. De Witt Talmage.)

Verse 7

Nehemiah 5:7

Then I consulted with myself.

Precipitate anger avoided

But, though very angry, he nevertheless “consulted with himself.” Even righteous indignation is often too precipitate in its expression, and vents itself in a fuming and storming which does little or no good. But the fervid feeling of Nehemiah was blended with practical wisdom. He took counsel with himself as to what was best to be done. (T. C. Finlayson.)

And I set a great assembly against them.

An assembly convoked against sinners

I wish to show impenitent sinners how great an assembly may be set against them. That so large a majority of mankind are on the side of irreligion, tends powerfully to preserve a majority on that side, for a large proportion of the youth in each successive generation will enlist under the banner of the strongest party. The same circumstance operates to weaken the force and prevent the success of those means and arguments which God employs for the conversion of sinners. When the man who neglects religion looks around him and sees wealth, rank, power, and influence all ranged on his side, he secretly says, “I must be right, I must be safe. If I fare as well as the great mass of my fellow-creatures, I shall fare well enough.” This being the case, it is important that sinners should be made to see what a great assembly may be set against them. Among those who are against them, we mention--

The good men now in the world. God has not a servant, Jesus Christ has not a friend on earth who is not against you. Their example is against you, their testimony is against you.

All the good men who have ever lived in the world, the spirits of just men made perfect.

All the writers of the old and new testaments. With one voice they cry, “Woe to the wicked! it shall be ill with him, for the reward of his hands shall be given him.”

The Holy Angels.

The Lord Jesus Christ. Every doctrine which He promulgated, every precept which He enjoined, every threatening which He uttered, every action of his life, is against you. Christ meets all the impenitent, and says, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” He meets the unbelieving, and says, “He that believeth not shall be damned.” He meets all the unholy, and says, “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” He meets all the unregenerate, and exclaims, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye be born again, ye cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”

God the Father. (E. Payson, D. D.)

Witnesses against you

Some persons are deaf to the voice of justice until it is repeated loudly by thousands of their fellow-men. The silent voice of principle and right they will not hear, and the gentle rebuke of some one faithful friend they will despise; but when righteousness enlists public opinion on its side, when many are seen to be its advocates, then these very persons will show that they have relics of conscience left, and they yield to right demands because they see them not only to be just, but to be popular. This is the main point with those of the feebler sort, and we turn the scale if, like Nehemiah, we “set a great assembly against them.” I set a great assembly against--

The unconverted.

1. The great assembly of all the godly that are upon the earth. They all testify against you.

(1) By their consistent life.

(2) By their joy in God.

(3) By their very horror at your sin.

They cannot bear to think of that which awaits you. Holy Whitfield, when he began to touch upon that subject, would, with the tears streaming down his cheeks, cry, “The wrath to come! the wrath to come!” It was too much for him. He could but repeat those words and there cease.

2. All the inspired writers of the Bible.

3. The departed saints.

4. The whole company of the angels.

5. God Himself. “The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.”

6. Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Those who say that sin is a very pleasnt and profitable thing. Oh, what an assembly it would be if I could bring up from the hospitals the wretches who are suffering an earthly hell from their sins I Go over the casual ward, enter the union-house, spend an evening in a low lodging-house, and sit down and hear the tales of sons of ministers, of sons of gentlemen, of sons of noblemen, of men that once were merchants, traders, lawyers, doctors, who have brought themselves down by nothing else than their own extravagance and sin to eat the bread of pauperism.

Those who say that true religion makes people miserable. I have suffered as much of bodily pain as most here present, and I know also about as much depression of spirit at times as any one; but my Master’s service is a blessed service, and faith in Him makes my soul leap for joy. I would not change with the most healthy man, or the most wealthy man, or the most learned man, or the most eminent man in all the world, if I had to give up my faith in Jesus Christ. It is a blessed thing to be a Christian and all God’s people will tell you so. By the living saints that do rejoice, and by the dying saints who die without a fear, I set an assembly against the man who dares slander true religion by saying that it does not make men happy. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

Verse 9

Nehemiah 5:9

Ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God, because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?

Jealousy for the honour of God

There was much good sense and Christian wisdom in the reply which was once given to a dignitary of our Church by a simple rural pastor. The latter had said to the former, “If you act so, what will the people say?” The reply was, “Do you care what the people say?” The rejoinder of the plain man was, “I care as little as any man what the people say; but I care a great deal what the people have a right to say.” How just the distinction! Human opinion ought to have no weight with us when it contravenes duty; but it ought to weigh much with us when we incur its censure by the violation of duty. The ungodly will judge chiefly of Christianity by those who profess it, and be largely won or scandalised by the manner in which it is adorned or disgraced by them. (Hugh Stowell, M. A.)

Verse 10

Nehemiah 5:10

Let us leave off this usury.

Wise rebuke

He did not stand on a pedestal and look down on them with scorn and contempt; he rather placed himself alongside of the offenders, that he might lift them to a higher level. Let us learn from this beautiful example how best to rebuke and restore an erring brother or sister. (W. P. Lockhart.)

Verse 15

Nehemiah 5:15

But so did not I, because of the fear of God.

A motto for a manly life

The self-regulative power of a manly motive. “The fear of God”; “the love of Christ”; “religious principle”; “conscience”; “the sense of duty”; “the instinct of right,” are all variations of expressions of the same motive.

The courage to be singular is here implied.

Applications of this principle to the commonplace life of all men.

1. To himself a man must say, “No!”

2. To the world a man must say “No!”

3. This is the motto for youth.

The simplicity and directness of this life-motto,

This motto is our guide in doubtful matters. (Homiletic Commentary.)

The fear of the Lord

Wholesome self-restraint. There is always a temptation to run with the multitude. It was particularly so with Nehemiah.

1. His superiors were evil. A man is fain to follow his employers or masters.

2. His surroundings were evil. A person gets his tone from his surroundings.

3. His temptations were to evil. He would have gained the applause of his fellows by sinning.

4. He was singular in his convictions, also almost alone in an idolatrous land.

An all-powerful motive. “Because of the fear of the Lord.” All the more powerful because unseen--the mightiest forces are those the eye cannot trace. The fear of the Lord is--

1. A safe guide. It is sure to be right.

2. A powerful incentive. He has power to cast into hell, and He will reward.

3. A plain directive. The wayfaring man, though a fool, shall not err therein. Men who are independent in their purpose of rectitude are, earth’s true nobility. Learn to stand alone for the cause of truth. (Homilist.)

Nehemiah’s master principle

The religion of the Bible is not a sickly plant which requires the forcing-house to keep it alive. It is a hardy tree which flourishes best in the open field. The servant of God anywhere is the servant of God everywhere. Few notions have done more mischief than the imagination that godliness belongs to the closet and sanctuary, the cloister and the cell, and that it is too ethereal to be interfused into the occupations of secular life. To refute such fallacies nothing is more effectual than holy example. Example shows what can be done, and at the came time points out the way in which it may be accomplished. For those occupied in the busy pursuits of the world there is no more appropriate example in the Scriptures than that of Nehemiah.

His ruling motive. The whole tenor of his conversation bespoke the supremacy of the fear of God in his soul. This chapter contains an impressive exercise of this principle. Of those returned from the captivity, many were destitute and distressed; their poverty made them a prey to their richer brethren. Nehemiah’s predecessors were most rigorous in their exactions, and failed to let mercy temper justice. Nehemiah, on the contrary, not only refrained from oppression, but did not even require his dues. Had he not disclosed the principle which actuated him, we might have filled up the blank in this way: Because of the promptings of generosity; or because of my high sense of honour; or because of the patriotism that fired my breast; or because of the compassion which melted my heart. Thus, however, spake not Nehemiah, but he said, “So did not I, because of the fear of God.” This gave the character of godliness to his conduct; this transmuted what would otherwise have been no better than fair tinsel into the fine gold of the sanctuary.

The nature of the fear of God. The fear of God in the Old Testament is equivalent to the love of God in the New. The former indicates the severer aspect of the one economy as compared with the more gracious aspect of the other. What viewed in one light is love viewed in another is godly fear. They are but different aspects of the same principle. If there be genuine love of God, there cannot fail to be s holy fear of offending Him. This fear is therefore the beginning of wisdom; the guardian of holiness; the seal of adoption. What need there is for this principle to pervade the mercantile world! Examined in the light of Scripture, the morals of that world, even in our own favoured land, would be found to be fearfully faulty. Along with much that is honourable and of good report among our merchant princes, if you penetrate into the recesses of commerce, you will frequently detect a low and shifting standard of equity--you will discover that a thousand practices are connived at and pass current in business which when in the balances of the sanctuary are found utterly wanting.

The salutary effects of the fear of God. It gives to mercantile morality--

1. Intrinsic worth.

2. Strength.

3. Stability.

4. Universality.

(1) Taking the morality of the commercial world at the highest, how much of it is genuine? If men are upright in their dealings merely because they have a conviction that honesty is the best policy, and that fairness will answer better than fraud, or if they act justly simply from a sense of honour or from a pride which raises them above being guilty of a low and disgraceful transaction; or if they do right because they instinctively recoil from all that is base and equivocal, from whatever would degrade and disturb their mind, then all their imposing array of mercantile virtues are after all of the earth earthy, hollow at the core and unprofitable in the sight of God. It is the fear of God alone which can impart to mercantile morality its intrinsic worth.

(2) Even the virtuous qualities which exalt men in the commercial world must lack reality and consistency when they rest on a lower ground. Hence it is no uncommon thing to find a man who was at one period distinguished for honour and integrity at another period making utter shipwreck of character; whilst his barque glided along in smooth water and his sails were filled with prosperous gales, he steered an undeviating course, but when storms arose and his vessel drifted among quicksands and shallows, he soon abandoned the compass of honesty and yielded himself to the force of the current. His rectitude was the creature of circumstance: sustained by success, with success it fell. Fragile at best are the virtues which spring from the unregenerated heart.

(3) The energy of this principle will exert strength and universality of influence which nothing else can command. God, being everywhere, the man who fears Him will fear Him everywhere. It is impossible to delineate fully the breadth and expansiveness of this principle of action. It will go with a man into the little as well as the great, into the hidden as well as the open; it will tell upon him with equal force whether others dissent from or concur in his course of conduct. It will elevate him to freedom and independence of character. He will not be like the sundial, useless save in the light; but he will be like the timepiece, which keeps the tenor of its way alike in the shade as in the sunshine. The saint, like the sunflower, owns the centre of attraction when clouded as well as when clear.

(a) It will keep a man undefiled amid the defilements of public life like the pure stream that is said to pass through the salt lake and yet retain its freshness. It is a safeguard against the tone, the spirit, and the practices of business, and it will prevent compliance with the expedients, manoeuvres, and subterfuges of trade.

(b) A trying ordeal for a godly tradesman is to be reputed soft and behind the age because he will not overreach his neighbour. When he sees competitors prospering by doubtful expedients, or hears them glorying in their equivocal gains, his reflection and joy will be, “So did not I, because of the fear of God.”

(c) It will restrain from the unhallowed indulgences of worldlings,

(d) It will guard against the desecration and profanation of the ordinances of the Lord’s Day. (Hugh Stowell, M. A.)

Uprightness in dealing

If you wish to apply a touchstone to character, take this as the most searching--the exercise of those graces which a man is most tempted to neglect, and the eschewal of those iniquities which a man is most tempted to indulge. He who can stand this test is sterling in the sight of God. Consider--

Some great principles which ought to obtain in mercantile transactions.

1. A Christian tradesman ought to love his neighbour as himself.

2. “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” This is a code of morals condensed into a sentence.

3. You must be faithful in the little, even as in the great.

Some of the less obvious deviations from these principles which pass current in the mercantile world.

1. How common is it for men to defraud society by idleness and self-indulgence!

2. By selfish extravagance, or rash speculations, what numbers subject themselves to liabilities which their resources do not warrant, or plunge into debts which they have no prospect of discharging!

3. How diversified the deceptions practised in trade for the purpose of taking advantage of the purchaser! (Hugh Stowell, M. A.)

The fear of God

A few principles, realised in the heart, will generate this blessed fear. Let us consider--

God’s majesty, and this will provoke the fear of reverence.

God’s providence, and this will induce a fear of dependence.

Our advantages, and this will induce a fear of diffidence.

Our obligations, and this will induce a fear of gratitude and love. (J. M. Randall.)

The fear of God a real principle of life

It puts a difference between the world and the servant of God--

As it regards choice.

As to service.


As to affliction. The worldly man will fret and murmur; not so the godly.

As to the practical conduct of daily life. (J. M. Randall.)

So did not I

Let me put the main principle that lies here in these words: nothing will go right unless you dare to be singular. “So did not I.” How soever common the practice, howsoever innocent and recognised the source of gain, the multitude that approved it, and adopted it, was nothing to me. Everything will be wrong where a man has not learnt the great art of saying, “No.” Resolute non-compliance with common practice should be exercised--

1. In the field of opinion. If we are building on traditional opinion, we have really no foundation at all. Unless the word received from others has been verified by ourselves and changed, as it were, into part of our own being, we may befool ourselves with creeds and professions to which we fancy that we adhere, but we have no belief whatsoever.

2. In the daily conduct of life. There are many beckoning hands and enticing voices that seek to draw us away. Sturdy resistance is necessary--

(1) From the very make of our own natures. There is a host of inclinations and desires in every man which will hurry him to destruction unless he has a strong hand on the brake. “God gave them to thee under lock and key,” and it is at our peril that we let them have sway.

(2) From the order of things in which we dwell. We are set in the midst of a world full of things which are both attractive and bad, and which are sternly prohibited and lovingly forbidden by God. And if you go careering among the flowers and fruits that grow around you in the life that is opening to you, like town children turned loose for a day in the woods, picking whatever is bright, and tasting whatever looks as if it would be sweet, you will poison your selves with nightshade and hemlock.

(3) From the fact that every one of us is thrown more or less closely into contact with people who themselves are living as they should not, and who would fain drag us after them. For us all, then, in every period of life, the necessity is the same. We must learn to say, “No.” Like Joseph, like Daniel, like the three Hebrew youths, like Nehemiah, we must dare, if need be, to be singular.

(4) Non-resistance or compliance is in itself weak and unworthy. What a shame it is that a man possessed of that awful power which, within limits and subject to conditions, God has given him, of shaping and deter mining his character, should let himself be shaped and determined by the mere pressure of circumstances and accidental associations! What a shame it is that a man should have no more volition in what he does and in what he refrains from than one of those gelatinous creatures that float about in the ocean, which have to move wherever the current takes them, though it be to cast them on the rocky shore with an ebbing tide. That “circumstances make character” should have its vindication in the actual lives of the great bulk of men is only another proof of the weakness and depravity of humanity, in which the will is paralysed, and the conscious choice is so seldom exercised, and a man lets the world do what it likes with him.

(5) Vigorous non-compliance with the temptations that are around us is enforced by the remembrance of what a poor excuse for wrong-doing they will be found to be at last.

Consider that you cannot resist the evil around you unless you give yourselves to God. No man will ever for a lifetime resist and repel the domination of evil unless he is girded about with the purity of Jesus Christ, as an atmosphere in which all poisonous things fade and die, and through which no temptation can force its way. The only means for steadfast resistance is a steadfast faith in Jesus as our Saviour.

1. In Christ we have an all-sufficient pattern. The one command which contains the whole of Christian duty, the whole law of moral perfectness attainable by man, is--“Be ye imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk as Christ walked.”

2. That fear of God which is all transfused and mingled with the love of Him, gives us next an all-powerful motive. Love delights to please; fear dreads to disobey.

3. The fear of God strengthens us for resistance, because it gives us an omnipotent power within ourselves whereby we resist. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” (A. Maclaren, D. D.)

Resistance to evil

Nehemiah is an illustrious example of a courage that is within reach of us all, a courage that dares to be true when truth is unpopular, and to do that which is right when right is scorned. Like some unfailing river which defies the heat and the drought of the longest summer because its sources lie on the margin of perpetual snow, this courage in its noblest form is independent of circumstances because it has its spring in the presence of God.

Why should we dare to stand alone, and to say to evil, “So will not I”?

1. Because in the end it is the safest course. Life is a probation and an education. None of us can escape temptation. It moulds and tests our character and fits us for service. There are but two courses open--compliance or resistance. Many a man makes shipwreck on the very verge of manhood for the want of courage to say, “No,” and of the resolution to stand alone.

2. It is the manliest course. What do we think of one out on a wide sea in an open boat who, when the storm gathers and the waves run high, drops his oars, fastens up his helm and lets himself drift. He is the brave man who, undaunted by the dark sky and the angry waves, toils at the oar and makes for the land. And he who, caught by sudden and sharp temptation, allows himself to drift helplessly with the tide, excites only scorn and compassion, while he who, like Nehemiah, faces the temptation in the strength of God, and cries, “So will not I,” is a true man, a real hero, and a worthy follower of Jesus Christ.

3. It is the wisest course. We escape thereby the consequences of sin, and the very temptation we resist becomes the means of strengthening our character.

The secret of this courage “So did not I, because of the fear of God.” In the realisation of the Divine presence Bishop Latimer forgot his fear of the King of England, and spoke brave and strong and faithful words of warning and remonstrance. In the fear of God lived Lord Lawrence, the great British Pro-Consul as he has been called, who saved India in the day of mutiny, and his marble in Westminster Abbey tells us “He feared man so little because he feared God so much.” (F. J. Chavasse.)


1. Our text contains the regulative spring of a noble life. The words mean most to the young. Will the coming generation prefer conscience and convenience and make God the pole-star of their life? Every one of us is important to God, and the consciousness of this is the parent of virtue and the inspiration of heroism. God wants us. When Augustine was in disquiet of mind, he said, “Soul, what aileth thee?” And he seemed to hear a Divine voice within answer, “Look above.” Turning upward and noting the stars looking down on him, he said, “Stars, can you tell me the meaning of my unrest?” And the stars whispered, “Look above.” Remembering the angel-hosts of God marshalled for service or watchfulness, Augustine cried, “Ministers of God, can ye minister to a restless mind? “And they chanted, “Look above.” “Maker of all things,” said the reverent though unabashed inquirer, “tell me the meaning of this unsatisfiedness?” And God responded, “I have made thee for Myself, and thy soul can find no rest till it find rest in Me.” When Samuel Webster was asked, as he sat at dinner, what was the most formative influence that entered his life, he replied, “The greatest influence that ever touched my life was the sense of my responsibility to God.”

2. Doing right means sometimes being unfashionable. A business man died the other day. Writing to his travellers, he was accustomed to add a sentence like “Go straight.” He knew that both right and wrong doing were contagious. Dr. Bushnell said to a young man who was consulting him as to the calling he should pursue, “Grasp the handle of your being.” Your taste or fitness is as a handle to your faculties. Find your course and go right ahead in the teeth of opposition, in spite of the stings of sarcasm or the bitterness of temporary forsakenness. Remember Him who said, “I am alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.”

3. The power of numbers is magical, and we are so often bidden to do as others do. Said an avowed and educated infidel to a Christian apologist. “Let the final issue be what it may, the majority is against you, and I go with the majority.” But the world has not always been saved by majorities. Reformers, statesmen, saints, singers, prophets, priests, believers in God and duty--these have been the saviours of society.

4. It is a moment of moral victory when a young man dares to say, “I cannot afford it.”

5. A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of things that he possesseth, nor in the outward success of his noblest efforts; it does consist in his harmony of conscience with the fear of God, in the peace that is born of obedience. Whitfield and a companion were much annoyed one night by a set of gamblers in a room adjoining that in which they slept. Their clamour and their horrid blasphemy so excited Whitfield that he could not rest. “I will go and reprove their wickedness,” said he. His companion remonstrated in vain. His words of reproof were apparently powerless. His companion asked him, “What did you gain by it?” “A soft pillow,” he said, and soon fell asleep. Duty looks upward; duty implies God. Jesus Christ incarnated duty. Duty is the minister of heaven. This prayer was found in the desk of a schoolboy after his death: “O God, give me courage to fear none but Thee.” (John H. Goodman.)

The fear of God

What it is to fear God.

1. In general it is a passion of the soul whereby a man doth flee from imminent evil.

2. In particular it is--

(1) Servile.

(2) Filial.

That a man who fears God will not do as others do.

1. In the matter of their choice (Matthew 14:7-8; Hebrews 11:25).

2. In the matter of their worship (Joshua 24:15).

3. In their business calling.

4. In what they are entrusted with.

5. In their refreshments.

6. In their afflictions.

7. In their right and propriety.

Lot would not let Abraham have his right, though it was his right, yet Abraham, because he feared God and for peace sake, gives up his right.

What is there in this fear of God that should balance the soul, and cause it not to do as others do. A man that fears the Lord--

1. Has different ends from others.

2. Has a tenderer conscience.

3. Has different restraints.

What is the issue and consequence of the fear of the Lord?

1. God deals well with the man who fears Him (Psalms 112:6-8).

2. God will delight in him.

Conclusion: If you would fear the Lord in truth--

1. Be humbled for the want of it.

2. Ask God to fulfil His promise, “I will put My fear into their hearts.”

3. Observe what that is that is nearest and dearest to you, and give it up.

4. Worship God according to His own appointment.

5. Take heed of sinning when you have the opportunity.

6. Labour to strengthen your love to God.

7. Live much in and study much upon dependence wholly upon God. H a man be upon a high tower, and another holds him from falling by the hand only, he will certainly be very fearful of offending him that holds him so.

8. Use the world as not abusing it. Deal with men as in the presence of God.

9. Labour after more communion with Him. We used to say, “Too much familiarity breeds contempt”; but here it is not so, for by familiarity and communion with God we shall have more sweetness and more delight in His ways, more strength in His service, more comfort in our afflictions. (W. Bridge.)

The fear of God the touchstone

That in the Christian religion it is the motive that gives worth to the action.

Nehemiah here ascribes his own conduct to the motive from which every action must spring that obtains the approval of God. He might have displayed the same absence of self on quite a different principle.

1. Patriotism.

2. Desire for popularity.

But his refusal of the emoluments of office was “because of the fear of God.” This is a kind of summary of character which includes the various features of spiritual excellence. It is a Divinely implanted principle which makes Christ the motive and God the end of every particular of conduct. The man that fears God labours to act up to the measure of the revelation with which he is favoured; to appropriate the privileges, to act upon the motives, and to perform the duties of the dispensation beneath which he is placed. A fear such as this cannot subsistunless there be a consciousness that “now are we the sons of God.” It may have been through “the terror of the Lord” that we were first brought to serious thoughts, earnest resolutions, and fervent supplications, yet when we have felt somewhat of the consciousness of danger there will be a thousandfold more motive to us to strive after holiness, in the love and grace exhibited on Calvary.

Some prominent instances of this general truth. No action can be approved in God’s sight which may not be traced to His fear.

1. Attention to the outward duties and forms of religion may arise from, the custom of society, the mere force of habit, compliance with the wishes of friends, or the desire of setting an example to others, without there being the slightest vestige of vital Christianity.

2. When we tell the man of high morals and unflinching integrity and high generosity, but who is a stranger to Christ, that he can no more be saved in his present condition than one of the worst profligacy, we are not representing morality, integrity, and generosity as things to be dispensed with by the inheritor of the kingdom of heaven; we are simply affirming that they are of worth only as fruit of a Divinely implanted principle, and that if they have any other origin, they may indeed be beneficial to society, but they cannot promote salvation. Who knows not that there is in many men a kind of philosophical sense of the beauty and dignity of virtue, a native repugnance to what is gross and dishonourable, and a fine sympathy with suffering, which will go far to the producing what is regarded as exemplary in character, although there may be at the same time an utter ignorance, and even contempt, of the doctrines of Christianity? We must be good on good principles. (Henry Melvill, B. D.)


The guiding principle of Nehemiah’s conduct--the fear of God.

1. The fear of God, as a principle of action, is at once simple and potent. Look at the machinery in some of your mills. You have there a forest of shafts, an army of wheels, a perfect maze of cunningly invented instruments requisite for carrying out the various processes of manufacture. But how simple and how mighty the power which moves and controls the whole machinery--the power of steam! How immensely superior to any other motive power as yet brought into general use! What steam is in this relation, so is the fear of God to morals. The religious principle in its influence on this complicate mechanism termed man, and on these intricate and bewildering human affairs, has a simple efficacy not only unsurpassed, but with which no other principle can vie.

2. The superiority of this principle appears also in its wide-reaching sphere of action. This sphere comprises every thing great and small that relates to human conduct. It embraces life in all its aspects. We cannot thus speak of other principles of action which men acknowledge. Take public opinion, for instance. If it be this which influences us in the course we pursue our morality may prove a very precarious thing. A life regulated by the opinion of one’s fellow-creatures is likely to be well-ordered only so far, and for so long, as it shall be under the public eye; whereas the fear of God affects us as truly in the gloom of night as in the brightness of meridian day; affects us as really when remote from the city’s hum and the crowded mart as it would in the midst of them; affects us as powerfully in mountain solitudes and on watery wastes as when the gaze of assembled thousands is upon us. “The morality,” says a writer previously quoted, “the morality that is based upon self interest or the opinion of men, will not endure the severest tests. For what if a man should be beset by a temptation so great as to buy over his supposed self interest, and render it in his view more profitable to defraud than to be honest?

The operation of this principle as seen in the chapter before us. It impelled Nehemiah to rectify abuses. Nehemiah discharged a disagreeable duty with all fidelity. “I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them,” etc. Hitherto the fear of God has acted on Nehemiah as an impelling principle. We come now to the incident with which the text stands immediately connected, and we see the operation of this principle as a restraining force. “So did not I, because of the fear of God.” It held Nehemiah in check. (T. Robson.)

An ancient Nonconformist

The words that I have read are a little fragment of his auto biography which deal with a prosaic enough matter, but carry in them large principles. When he was appointed governor of the little colony of returned exiles in Palestine, he found that his predecessors, like Turkish pashas and Chinese mandarins to-day, were in the habit of “squeezing” the people of their government, and that they requisitioned sufficient supplies of provisions to keep the governor’s table well spread. It was the custom. Nobody would have wondered if Nehemiah had conformed to it; but he felt that he must have his hands clean. His religion went down into the little duties of common life, and imposed upon him a standard far above the maxims that were prevalent round about him.

The attitude to prevalent practices. That non-compliance with customary maxims and practices is the beginning, or, at least, one of the foundation-stones, of all nobleness and strength, of all blessedness and power. Of course, it is utterly impossible for a man to denude himself of the influences that are brought to bear upon him by the circumstances in which he lives, and the trend of opinion, and the maxims and practices of the world, in the corner, and at the time, in which his lot is cast. But, on the other hand, be sure of this, that unless you are in a very deep and not at all in a technical sense of the word “Nonconformists,” you will come to no good. It is so easy to do as others do; partly because of laziness, partly because of cowardice, partly because of the instinctive imitation which is in us all. Men are gregarious. A great many of us adopt our creeds and opinions, and shape our lives, for no better reason than because people around us are thinking in a certain direction, and living in a certain way. Now, I ask you to take this plain principle of the necessity of non-compliance and apply it all round the circumference of your lives. Apply it to your opinions. There is no tyranny like the tyranny of a majority in a democratic country like ours. “What everybody says”--perhaps--“is true.” What most people say, at any given time, is very likely to be false. Truth has always lived with minorities. If you have honestly thought out the subject to the best of your ability, and have come to conclusions diverse from those which men like me hold dearer than their lives, that is another matter. But I know that very widely there is spread the fashion of unbelief. So many influential men, leaders of opinion, teachers and preachers, are giving up the old-fashioned, evangelical faith, that it takes a strong man to say that he sticks by it. It is a poor reason to give for your attitude, that unbelief is in the air, and nobody believes those old doctrines now. An iceberg lowers the temperature all round it, and the iceberg of unbelief is amongst us to-day, and it has chilled a great many people who could not tell why they have lost the fervour of their faith. On the other hand, let me remind you that a mere traditional religion, which is only orthodox because other people are, and has not verified its beliefs by personal experience, is quite as deleterious as an imitative unbelief. It is no excuse for shady practices in your trade to say, “It is the custom of the trade; and everybody does it.” Nehemiah might have said: “There never was a governor yet but took his forty shekels a day’s worth”--about £1,800 of our money--“of provisions from these poor people, and I am not going to give it up because of a scruple. It is the custom, and because it is the custom I can do it.” “Oh,” but you say, “that involves loss.” Very likely! Nehemiah was a poorer man because he fed all these one hundred and fifty Jews at his table, but he did not mind that. It may involve loss, but you will keep God, and that is gain. Do not be tempted to follow that multitude to do evil. Unless you are prepared to say “No I” to a great deal that will be pushed into your face in this great city, as sure as you are living you will make shipwreck of your lives.

The motive that impels to this sturdy non-compliance. NOW, my point is this, that Jesus Christ requires from each of us that we shall abstain, restrict ourselves, refuse to do a great many things that are being done round us. I need not remind you of how continually He spoke about taking up the cross. I need not do more than just remind you of His parable of the two ways, “Enter ye in at the strait gate, for strait is the gate.” Just because there are so many people on the path suspect it, and expect that the path with fewer travellers is probably the better and the higher. But to pass from that, what did Jesus Christ mean by His continual contrast between His disciples and the world? Society is not organised on Christian principles; we all know that. And until it is, if a man is going to be a Christian he must not conform to the world. “Know ye not that whosoever is a friend of the world is an enemy of God?” I would press upon you that our Christianity is nothing unless it leads us to a standard, and a course of conduct in conformity with that standard which will be in diametrical opposition to a great deal of what is patted on the back, and petted and praised by society. Now, there is an easy-going kind of Christianity which does not recognise that, and which is in great favour with many people to-day; and is called “liberality” and “breadth,” and “conciliating and commending Christianity to outsiders,” and I know not what besides. Well, Christ’s words seem to me to come down like a hammer upon that sort of thing. Society does not think much of these trimmers. It may dislike an out-and-out Christian, but it knows him when it sees him, and it has a kind of hostile respect for him which the other people will never get.

The power which enables us to exercise it. “The fear of God,” or, taking the New Testament equivalent, “the love of Christ,” makes it possible for a man, with all his weakness and dependence on surroundings, with all his instinctive desire to be like the folk that are near him, to take that brave attitude, and to refuse to be one of the crowd that runs after evil and lies. Christ will enable you to take this necessary attitude because, in Himself He gives you the example which it is always safe to follow. The instinct of invitation is planted in us for a good end, and because it is in us examples of nobility appeal to us. He makes it possible for us, because we have the strongest possible motive for the life that He prescribes. As the Apostle puts it, “Ye are bought with a price, be not the servants of men.” There is nothing that will so deliver us from the tyranny of majorities, and of what we call general opinion and ordinary custom, as to feel that we belong to Him because He died for us. Jesus Christ being our Redeemer is our Judge, and moment by moment He is estimating our conduct, and judging our actions as they are done. The servant of Christ is the master of all men. “All things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas--all are yours, and ye are Christ’s.” (A. Maclaren, D. D.)

Fear expels fear

How often we see fear expel fear. The fear of being burnt will nerve a woman to let herself down by a water-pipe from the upper storeys of a house in flames. The fear of losing her young will inspire the timid bird to throw herself before the steps of a man, attracting his notice from them to herself. Oh! for that Divine habit of soul which so conceives of the majesty, and power, and love of God, that it does not sin against Him, but would rather brave a world in arms than bring a shadow over His face. (F. B. Meyer.)

The Christian in commerce

It is a noble sight to see a man, moved simply by religious considerations, departing from customs sanctioned by society; going against the tide of opinion and practice; foregoing worldly profits; deaf to the pleas that satisfy the multitude, meekly asserting a spiritual independence; silently rebuking the sinfulness and servility of the times; only careful of acquitting himself to God, and realising his ideal of moral integrity. He is like a spring in an arid desert. He is like a star shining brightly amid dark clouds. Our subject is, “The Christian in commerce.” The Christian tradesman must assume the attitude of Nehemiah. His principles must take the form of reform and opposition. Consider--

What Christianity requires of a man in his deaings with his fellow-men.

1. The most rigid adherence to the principles of moral integrity in commerce.

(1) Truth. This is the basis of all intercourse; society would be impossible without it. Truth is a most comprehensive virtue. It takes in far more than the literal statement of the fact. It condemns--

(a) All positive misrepresentations.

(b) All the arts by which one thing is palmed off for another.

(c) All deficient scales and measures.

(d) All pretences, when unfounded, of special bargains, etc.

(e) All promises which cannot be or are not meant to be kept.

And on the part of the purchaser it condemns all pretences--

(a) That what is wanted is not wanted.

(b) That it has been purchased more cheaply elsewhere.

(c) That it is very inferior to what it really is. “It is naught, it is naught, saith the buyer, but when he is gone his way he boasteth.”

(2) Honesty. This involves the meeting of all equitable claims, the fulfilment of all engagements voluntarily undertaken or assumed, the most rigid respect for the rights of property.

2. The exercise of love and kindness in commerce. This will preserve from exclusive dealing, etc.

3. That a man should preserve his soul in peace and patience in commerce.

4. That commerce should be consecrated and elevated by the spirit of holiness.

Why this conduct is necessary in commerce.

1. Commerce is a most important part of our life.

2. Commerce is a most influential part of our life.

3. Commercial holiness is imperatively required by the character and temper of the times, (A. G. Morris.)

Verse 16

Nehemiah 5:16

Neither bought we any land.

Nehemiah an example of unworldliness of mind

The people of God maintain a certain unearthly peculiarity throughout all their relationship to earth; they do not become assimilated to the crowd through which they hold the tenor of their way. Like that limpid stream of which we are told that, entering a salt and bituminous lake, it clears its way through the uncongenial waters, untainted and uncommingled, so that it issues forth below as pure as when it entered, so the current of God’s people, passing through the dead sea of this world, does not blend with its waters, but speeds on undefiled to the clear ocean in heaven. Consider how this unworldly spirit will tell on your every-day course.

It will restrain you from intimacy, though you cannot avoid intercourse, with the ungodly.

You will be distinguished from the world by the moderation with which you will form your plans and prosecute your undertakings.

You will show “another spirit” in the friendships which you form and the associations which you choose.

You will be restrained from that greediness of gain which, more than ever, characterises the world in this present age.

You will have a large and open hand for the claims of god, the service of his church, and for the relief of the poor and needy.(Hugh Stowell, M. A.)

Verse 19

Nehemiah 5:19

Think upon me, my God.

The saint’s support

The person petitioned.

1. General title: “God.”

2. Special relation: “My.”

The point prayed for. Lessons:

1. God the support of His saints.

2. Peculiar God to believer: “My.”

3. God hath remembrancers.

4. God is soonest drawn to His own.

5. Prayer proper for one’s own good.

6. Works may be pleaded before God.

7. Man’s works are the rule of God’s reward.

8. Everything well done shall be rewarded.

9. Good done to God’s people is most acceptable. (Wm. Gouge.)

The remembrance of good deeds a pillow of rest for a good man

Life’s review will be a review of the whole of life.

Life’s reward will be rendered according to its deeds. (Homiletic Commentary.)


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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Nehemiah 5". The Biblical Illustrator. 1905-1909. New York.