And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews.Nehemiah 5:1. There was a great cry of the people, &c. — Of the poor against their rich brethren, who had oppressed them; for though the people in general were cured of their idolatry by their captivity, yet they were not cured of their other sins, but loved strange women, as we read before in the book of Ezra; and were so covetous that they oppressed the poor and needy; and this at a time when their enemies threatened the destruction of them all. This crime was the more heinous, because the twentieth of Artaxerxes, when this was done, began about the end of a sabbatic year, (as Dr. Alix observes,) which raised the cry of the poor to a greater height against their creditors, who exacted their debts of them contrary to the law, Deuteronomy 15:2; which was read to them publicly in such a year, Deuteronomy 31:12.
For there were that said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live.Nehemiah 5:2. We, our sons, and our daughters, are many — Which indeed is in itself a blessing, but to us is turned into a curse. The families that were most necessitous were most numerous. Those who have great families and little substance must learn to live by faith in God’s providence and promises: and those who have little families and great substance must make their abundance a supply for the wants of others. We take up corn for them, that we may eat and live — That is, we are compelled by our and their necessities to take up corn on unreasonable terms. Or, the sense of the words may be, Where, or how, shall we get corn, that we may eat and live?
Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth.Nehemiah 5:3. Because of the dearth — Not long before this, there had been a great scarcity of corn through want of rain, which God had withheld as a punishment for the people’s taking more care to build their own houses than his temple, as we read Haggai 1:9-11. And, in this time of scarcity the rich had no compassion on their poor brethren, who were forced to part with all they had for bread. And this dearth was now increased, from the multitude of the people in and near Jerusalem; from their work, which wholly took them up, and kept them from taking care of their families; and from the expectation of their enemies’ invasion, which hindered them from going abroad to fetch provision, and the people round about from bringing it to them.
There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king's tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards.Nehemiah 5:4. We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute — Which was laid upon them all, Ezra 4:13; Ezra 7:24. Houbigant renders the last part of this verse, for the king’s tribute on our lands and vineyards.
Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards.Nehemiah 5:5. Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren — We are of the same nature, nation, and religion with them; nor is there any other difference between us, but that they are rich and we are poor; and yet they treat us as if we were beasts or heathen, forgetting both humanity and God’s law, Deuteronomy 15:7. And our children as their children — As dear to us as their children are to them; and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and daughters — We are compelled to sell them for our subsistence. In case of great necessity this was lawful: but those Jews were very void of compassion who forced their brethren to do what was so much against nature. And it was especially distressing that they were driven to such an extremity as to be under a necessity of selling even their daughters for slaves, being more tender and weak, and unfit for servitude, and more exposed to injuries than their sons. Neither is it in our power to redeem them — None being willing to lend us money, and our lands being mortgaged to our oppressors. It was an aggravation of the sin of these oppressing Jews, that they were themselves so lately delivered out of the house of bondage, which surely obliged them in gratitude to undo the heavy burdens, Isaiah 58.
And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words.Nehemiah 5:6-7. Then I was very angry — Grieved exceedingly at this sin of the nobles. Then I consulted with myself — I restrained the emotions of my mind, being afraid to do any thing in a fit of anger or vexation and coolly considered, and deliberated with myself, what was best to be done. And I rebuked the nobles and rulers — Who were the moneyed men, and whose power, perhaps, made them more bold to oppress; and said, You exact usury every one from his brother — Which was against the plain and positive law of God, (Deuteronomy 23:19-20,) especially in this time of public calamity and dearth. And I set a great assembly against them — I called a public congregation, both of the rulers and people, the greatest part whereof were free from this guilt, and therefore more impartial judges of the matter, and I represented it to them, that the offenders might be convinced and reformed; if not for fear of God, or love of their brethren, yet at least for the public shame, and the cries of the poor. Ezra and Nehemiah were both good and useful men; but of how different tempers! Ezra was a man of a mild, tender spirit, and when told of the sin of the rulers, rent his clothes and wept. Nehemiah forced them to reform, being of a warm and eager spirit. So God’s work may be done, and yet different methods taken in doing it; which is a good reason why we should not arraign the management of others, nor make our own a standard.
Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them.
And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us? Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer.Nehemiah 5:8. We, after our ability, have redeemed our brethren — Nehemiah and his predecessors had used their utmost interest and power with the kings of Persia, that their brethren might be redeemed from bondage, whereby they had been restored both to their liberty and to their own country. And it is probable they had, with their money, procured the freedom of such as were slaves to some of the Babylonians, who would not part with them without a price paid for them. Shall they be sold unto us? — Do you expect that we should pay you a price for them, as we did to the Babylonians? Or must we use as much importunity to solicit you for their redemption as we used with their enemies? Then held they their peace — They made no reply, because they could neither deny the fact nor justify it, an express law of God being against them.
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?Nehemiah 5:9. It is not good that ye do — Though you get money by it, you contract guilt, and expose yourselves to the displeasure of God; ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God? — Certainly you ought, for you profess religion and relation to him; and if you do walk in his fear, you will neither be covetous of worldly gain, nor cruel toward your brethren. They that live in the fear of God, will not dare to do an ill thing. Because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies — Who are round about you, and are enemies to us, our God, and our religion. They observe all your actions, and will reproach both you for such barbarous usage of your brethren, and religion for your sakes.
I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury.Nehemiah 5:10. I likewise, and my brethren — In office; who are employed with me in the government of this people; and my servants — In my name and for my use; might exact of them money and corn — As a just recompense for our pains and care for the public good, to which we wholly devote ourselves, even to the neglect of all our private concerns. But I freely remit my own right, and therefore you also ought to remit yours, seeing I lay no burden upon you but what I am willing to bear a part of upon my own shoulders.
Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them.Nehemiah 5:11. Restore their land, &c. — Give them up their mortgages, put them again in possession of their estates, remit the interest, and give them time to pay the principal. I pray you — Though he had authority to command, yet, for love’s sake, he rather beseeches. Also the hundredth part of the money — Require not this, as the next verse explains it, where it is expressed in their grant of this desire. The hundredth part of the money lent was wont to be required every month for the use of it, according to the custom then prevailing in those countries, and afterward adopted by the Romans. So that every year an eighth part of the principal was paid for interest, which was a very extravagant usury.
Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest. Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise.Nehemiah 5:12. Then said they, We will restore them — Namely, the houses and lands; and require nothing — Demand no interest. Thus he got a promise from them, and proceeded afterward to bring them under the obligation of an oath to do as they had promised. Then I called the priests — As witnesses; that the oath being taken before the priests, who acted in God’s name, it might make the more deep and durable impression upon their consciences.
Also I shook my lap, and said, So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, and emptied. And all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the LORD. And the people did according to this promise.Nehemiah 5:13. Also I shook my lap — The extreme parts of my garment, which I first folded together, and then shook it and scattered it asunder. This was one form of swearing then in use. So God shake every man from his house, &c. — Thus he represented, by an external sign, as the manner of the prophets often was, how God would cast them out of their possessions, and of the fruit of their labours, who did not observe this oath. And all the congregation said, Amen! — God so influenced the people’s hearts, that even they who had been guilty of taking usury consented to this imprecation, and wished this mischief to themselves, if they did not do as he required. And praised the Lord — So far were they from promising with regret, that they promised and even took an oath to do as he desired, with all possible expressions of joy and gladness, and with thankfulness to God for giving them such a good governor, and inclining them to submit to him.
Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that is, twelve years, I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor.Nehemiah 5:14. Moreover, from the time that I was appointed governor — He had mentioned his own practice, as an inducement to the nobles not to burden the poor, no, not with just demands; and he here relates more particularly what his practice was, not through pride or vain glory, but to excite both his successors, and the inferior magistrates, to be as tender as might be of the people’s ease. Twelve years — Not that he had continued so long at one time at Jerusalem; but he had so long governed the Jews, by himself when present, and in his absence by deputies. I and my brethren — My fellow-officers and deputies, who, as they were to do my work, might have required my rights; have not eaten the bread of the governor — Have not taken that allowance which, by the laws of God and nations, and of the king of Persia, the governors might require. It is perfectly reasonable that they who do the public business should be maintained at the public charge. But Nehemiah would not accept that maintenance, because he saw it would be burdensome to his countrymen; but either lived upon his own estates, which he had in Judah, or upon the riches he had acquired in Babylon, when he was the king’s cup-bearer.
But the former governors that had been before me were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver; yea, even their servants bare rule over the people: but so did not I, because of the fear of God.Nehemiah 5:15. The former governors — Not Ezra, who was no governor, nor Zerubbabel, but others between him and Nehemiah, whom he forbears to name; were chargeable unto the people — How chargeable they had been, and how dear the country had paid for the benefit of their government, the people well knew. It is no new thing for those who are in places of trust, to seek themselves more than the public welfare, nay, and to serve themselves upon the public loss. Besides forty shekels of silver — Which they required of the people every day, to defray their other expenses. Yea, even their servants bare rule over the people — Ruled them with rigour and cruelty, and demanded of them what they pleased, while their employers connived at their exactions. Thus the fault of the servants is charged upon their masters, because they did not restrain them. But so did not I, because of the fear of God — He had an awe of God’s majesty, and a fear of offending him, and therefore he had not done as the former governors did. Those who truly fear God will not dare to do any thing cruel or unjust. And this is not only a powerful, but an acceptable principle, both of justice and charity.
Yea, also I continued in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land: and all my servants were gathered thither unto the work.Nehemiah 5:16. Yea, also I continued in the work — Overseeing, directing, and encouraging the workmen, which was my whole business; and this at my own cost. Neither bought we any land — Of our poor brethren, whose necessities gave abundant opportunities of enriching myself by good bargains. And all my servants were gathered unto the work — They also were constantly employed in the same work, and received no pay for their labour, though they could not be so employed without the neglect of my own private business.
Moreover there were at my table an hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers, beside those that came unto us from among the heathen that are about us.Nehemiah 5:17. There were at my table a hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers — Not only Jews of the inferior sort, for whom meaner provisions might have sufficed; but also their rulers, for whom better provision was to be made; who resorted to him upon all occasions, either to pour out their complaints to him, or to receive his orders. Besides those that came from among the heathen — Strangers, who came about business, and perhaps brought him intelligence concerning the state of the neighbouring people, and of their designs.
Now that which was prepared for me daily was one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and once in ten days store of all sorts of wine: yet for all this required not I the bread of the governor, because the bondage was heavy upon this people.Nehemiah 5:18. Now that which was prepared for me daily, &c., was one ox, &c. — “It is evident,” says Dr. Dodd, “from the great and daily expenses of Nehemiah, here mentioned, that either he had large remittances from the Persian court, besides his own estate, to answer them; or that he did not continue at Jerusalem for the whole twelve years together; or that, if he did, he did not keep up this expensive way of living all the time, but only during the great and present exigencies of the Jews, which ceased in a good measure after the walls were built, the act against usury passed, and the people discharged to their ordinary course of maintaining themselves and families.”
Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.Nehemiah 5:19. Think upon me, my God, for good — As I have done thy people good for thy sake, so do me good for thine own sake, for thou art pleased, and hast promised, graciously to reward us according to our works, and to mete to men the same measure which they mete to others. Thus he shows that he expected his reward only from God, who, he hoped, would show him kindness, similar to that which he had shown for his people. There is no reason to think he here speaks too much of himself, and his own worthy acts; for it was no more than was necessary in such a state of things, that posterity might be furnished with an example of extraordinary virtue; and no more than St. Paul was constrained to speak of himself in his second epistle to the Corinthians, of whom he would take nothing, that he might stop the mouths of false apostles, and covetous people.