Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
5. Difficulties within the Walls
(a) 1–13. Nehemiah’s measures to redress the wrongs of the poor: (b) 14–19. His self-sacrificing generosity to his countrymen.
And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews.1. And there was a great cry, &c.] R.V. Then there arose a great cry, &c. The R.V. rightly shows that the outbreak of the discontentment described in these verses was connected with the rebuilding of the walls. A general stoppage of trade must have resulted from the national undertaking. The presence of the enemy in the neighbourhood prevented free agricultural labour.
the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews] By ‘the people and their wives’ are denoted the poorer classes, the great bulk of the nation as distinguished from the nobles and the priests. ‘Their brethren the Jews,’ seem here to denote ‘the nobles and the rulers’ whom Nehemiah rebukes in Nehemiah 5:7. At any rate the cry proceeds from the poor, the multitudes who were driven in their need to borrow, against the few who could afford to lend. The actual expression ‘their brethren the Jews,’ as in Nehemiah 5:8, does not imply any particular section of the people, but is employed to contrast the true fraternal relation of fellow-citizens with the existing selfishness and oppression.
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.2. For there were that said] This and the two following verses describe the people’s complaint. Their misfortunes were brought to a climax by the condition of hostilities, which put an end to trade and threatened town and country with ruin. The class referred to in this verse are the labourers, who depended upon wages.
We … are many] The number of the poorer population in comparison with the wealthy was probably disproportionately large. The community since the return under Zerubbabel had never been prosperous. It had suffered much from the ill-treatment of the neighbouring peoples, more especially of the Samaritans. The pressure of the work on the wall, coupled with the expectation of attack, brought matters to a crisis. It was impossible to obtain regular employment, and prices had gone up. They had no property like those mentioned in Nehemiah 5:3-4, upon the security of which they could borrow money.
therefore we take up corn for them &c.] R.V. let us get corn &c. The words in the A.V. are ambiguous. The clause expresses the wish. It is the utterance of the poor who have grown desperate. They demand food for themselves and their families. They cannot acquiesce in starvation, when they know that wealthy capitalists—their own fellow-countrymen—have made money out of their necessities and could well afford in a time of common peril to render them relief. Hence the words have a ring of menace. ‘If we are not given corn, let us take it’. It was equivalent to a threat either to use violence or to surrender the city to its enemies.
The Vulgate ‘accipiamus pro pretio eorum frumentum’ gives a different interpretation of the words. It supposes that these poor starving people offered to sell their children as slaves in order that they might get money to buy food for themselves. This gives a sense approximating that of the conjecture to read ‘’orebhim’ for ‘rabbim’, ‘We give in pledge our sons and our daughters.’ In favour of this conjecture it is claimed (1) that the alteration is very slight, (2) that it brings Nehemiah 5:2 into close parallelism with Nehemiah 5:3, (3) that it obviates the awkwardness of the present text ‘our sons and our daughters, we are many,’ (4) that the present text is at variance with Scripture in making the size of families a subject of complaint. The conjecture is ingenious. But the existing text gives a good sense (see above), and is supported by the versions, which do not show any variation of reading. The position of the words ‘our sons and our daughters, we’ &c. emphasizes the thought uppermost in the people’s mind. The conjecture doubtless increases the verbal parallelism between Nehemiah 5:2-3. But this parallelism does not exist between Nehemiah 5:3-4, and the proposed alteration gives an artificial appearance to the language used. Lastly the conjecture anticipates the statement contained in Nehemiah 5:5. The fact that parents were on the point of giving their children in pledge as slaves forms the climax of the complaint. We should not therefore expect to find it mentioned in the present verse.
Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth.3. Some also] The complaint in this verse is that among the poorer classes, those who had a little property were compelled to mortgage it in order to obtain the bare necessaries of life.
We have mortgaged] R.V. We are mortgaging. The Hebrew verb expresses a state of things going on at the time.
our lands, vineyards, and houses] R.V. our fields, and our vineyards, and our houses. ‘Fields’ is better than ‘lands,’ which is too large and general a word. The three words refer to the corn-fields, vineyards, and dwellings, such as the poorer householders might possess.
For the tenacity with which the possession of house or land was retained in a family, cf. 1 Kings 21. In the Hebrew these three words stand emphatically at the head of the sentence corresponding to ‘our sons and our daughters’ in the previous verse.
that we might buy corn] R.V. let us get corn. The words are the same as in the previous verse. They express not the purpose of the mortgage, but the resolve of the people to obtain food. By mortgaging their property they had lost the little capital they had. They had not the means to pay the interest on the mortgage as well as to obtain food for their families. The prospect before them was the final loss of property and starvation.
because of the dearth] This might be rendered ‘in the famine.’ But the sense is hardly different. It was necessary to obtain food in the time of scarcity because of the dearth. Cf. ‘through the famine,’ Genesis 41:36.
There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king's tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards.4. Yet a third class is mentioned, who had been compelled to borrow in order to pay the taxes and, not having the means to pay their creditors, sold their children as slaves.
we have borrowed … for the king’s tribute] One special cause of distress seems to have been the heaviness of the royal taxes. Jews who were poor to start with and impoverished by recent circumstances, found themselves under the necessity of borrowing in order to pay the tribute levied by the Persian king from his foreign subjects. See on ‘tribute’ note on Ezra 4:13; Ezra 4:20; Ezra 6:8; Ezra 7:24. On the severity of this taxation in the Persian Empire see Nehemiah 9:37.
and that upon our lands and vineyards] R.V. upon our fields and vineyards. The poor people, in order to pay the tax, borrowed money upon the security of their small holdings. In this way a considerable portion of the property of the poorer classes had passed into the hands of the wealthy money-lenders, who exacted high usury (Nehemiah 5:11), and had no compunction in plying their trade, and visiting default of payment with seizure of a fellow-countryman’s few acres of field and vineyard. At a time when distress was due to the presence of a common foe, this want of generosity and patriotism excited the indignation of the working classes. Even in the more favourable cases, the necessity of paying the interest upon the mortgages deprived the poor Jew of any profits from his holding.
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.5. Yet … children] The argument is, the rich are our brethren; how is it right that our children should be made slaves by our brethren on account of the calamities which ought to fall evenly upon all classes? The rich should share and not make a profit out of the common trouble.
lo, we bring into bondage] i.e. we are on the point of selling as slaves in order to satisfy our creditors.
are brought unto (R.V. into) bondage already] A few instances of daughters being thus made ‘bondservants’ had already occurred. It was not contrary to law or custom. The complaint is that the distress arises from public causes, and that the rich creditors make an unfair use of the common crisis.
The Israelite laws upon this subject are not in perfect agreement. The earliest code of law contemplates the case of a Hebrew selling himself to be a ‘bondman;’ but he is to be released in the 7th year of his service. The special case of a man selling his daughter as a ‘bondwoman’ is dealt with and certain benevolent conditions imposed (Exodus 21:2-6). The Deuteronomic law (Deuteronomy 15:12-18) is in close agreement with this; it enjoins release to take place in the 7th year, and extends the favourable terms granted in Exodus to the ‘female bondservant’ so that they should be applicable also to the male.
The Priestly Law (Leviticus 25:39-41) forbids any Israelite to be made ‘a bondservant.’ There is no mention of release in the 7th year of service; but a general release is to be granted in the year of jubile (Leviticus 25:41). The Priestly Law contemplates a less rigorous degree of service, but is less favourable than are the other codes in the matter of release.
The present passage does not recognize the distinction between ‘the bondservant’ and ‘the hired servant.’ It assumes the condition of things permitted by the law of Ex. and Deut., which is also illustrated by 2 Kings 4:1; Isaiah 1:1; Amos 2:6; Amos 8:6; Matthew 18:25. The grievance is not so much that children are sold as slaves to Jewish creditors, as that the parents are compelled to resort to this extreme measure in order to pay the high interest exacted by usurers who were their own countrymen. That the extortion and not the slavery is the offence which excited the popular indignation is shown by the measures of relief recommended by Nehemiah in Nehemiah 5:11. The slavery of countrymen was unworthy of the people, but was not an offence against the Law (see Nehemiah 5:8).
neither is it in our power] The Hebrew idiom here is not common and deserves notice. The literal rendering of the words is sometimes thought to be ‘and our hand is not for (or to) God (Êl),’ ‘our hand is not in the place of God, our strength is but human.’ But it is more probable that we ought to render ‘and it is not for (i.e. within the measure of) the strength of our hand,’ the word ‘Êl’ not being used as a Divine title. For other instances of this idiom see Genesis 31:29; Deuteronomy 28:32; Proverbs 3:27; Micah 2:1.
to redeem them] R.V. to help it.
for other men, &c.] A general statement, describing the result which seemed inevitable. The poor Jews mortgaged their property. The interest on the mortgages was so high that they could not pay it or were compelled to sell their children into bondage. At this rate it would not be long before the mortgages were all foreclosed, and the property had passed into the hands of ‘other’ men.
It is clear that the Jews at this time either were not acquainted with the Priestly Law enacting the reversion of property in the ‘jubile’ year (Leviticus 25:25-28) or regarded it as a Utopian measure incapable of application to the actual needs of society.
And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words.6. I was very angry, &c.] Nehemiah’s indignation was excited at the excessive usury, which his own brethren and servants required (Nehemiah 5:10), but still more at the degree to which the brotherhood of Israel was forgotten in days of common peril and of which the sale of fellow-countrymen for debt (Nehemiah 5:8) and the alienation of the poor man’s inheritance (Nehemiah 5:11) were the worst symptoms. Cf. Psalm 119:53 ‘Hot indignation hath taken hold upon me, because of the wicked that forsake thy law.’
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.7. Then I consulted with myself] The word in the original belongs to late Hebrew usage, and is only paralleled in the O. T. by the word rendered ‘my counsel’ in Daniel 4:27. Literally the clause runs ‘then my heart took counsel within me.’
and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers] R.V. and contended with the nobles and the rulers (marg. ‘Or, deputies’). For Nehemiah’s use of the expression ‘contend with,’ see Nehemiah 13:11; Nehemiah 13:17; Nehemiah 13:25. It denotes the conflict of opinion as well as the administration of reproach. Cf. Jeremiah 2:9. ‘The nobles and the rulers,’ as in Nehemiah 2:16.
You exact usury, every one of his brother] The reader should refer to the passages in the Pentateuch bearing upon usury, (a) Exodus 22:25. This passage relates to the dealings between Israelites. The purpose of lending is to assist a brother. Interest is not to be exacted but pledges are permitted. The giving of pledges is regulated by principles of charity.
(b) Deuteronomy 23:19-20. The Deuteronomic law forbids interest upon loans advanced to Israelites, but permits them with foreigners. The principle of brotherhood is upheld in the nation. The rules regulating ‘the giving of pledges’ are repeated (Deuteronomy 24:10-13).
(c) Leviticus 25:35-37. This law treats only of dealing with Israelites, and prohibits all idea of making gain out of assistance rendered to brethren in distress.
In all three passages, the law contemplates the lending of money to the poor man in distress. The taking of a pledge or security is permitted, but not the exaction of interest from a fellow-countryman. Nehemiah himself exacted interest upon loans (Nehemiah 5:10). We are not therefore to suppose that his indignation was directed against the practice of usury, but against the hard-heartedness and covetousness of the usurers. Mere denunciation against them for these moral failings would have availed nothing. He wisely puts in the forefront of his expostulation the general statement that the Jews were practising ‘usury’ against their brethren. He implies that this was contrary to the spirit of the law and to good fellowship. He himself sought to relieve his brethren (Nehemiah 5:8), but he and his companions had, he confessed, given way to the custom of the time, and had lent on usury, although he had not been exacting in his demands. He and the wealthy professional money-lenders had both done wrong. He had been merciful and they had not This was the only difference. On the general principle he therefore proposed that all taking of interest from needy fellow-countrymen should be abandoned. His manner of approaching the subject conciliated the rulers, as he associated himself with their wrong-doing. He benefited the poor by procuring the abolition of usurious transactions. He upheld the charitable principle of the old Israelite law. The violation of it is the subject of rebuke in very different periods. Amos 2:8; Job 22:6; Job 24:3; Sir 13:22-23.
That the strict law of Israel forbade taking upon usury is shown by a comparison of such passages as Psalm 15:5; Psalm 37:26; Proverbs 28:8; Ezekiel 18:8; Ezekiel 18:13; Ezekiel 18:17; Ezekiel 22:12. But that these passages as well as the laws in Ex., Lev., Deut. refer primarily to usury upon charitable loans seems probable. Usury as a legitimate financial transaction between Jews seems to have been recognized by the Jews (cf. Matthew 25:27); but in the Talmud it is forbidden.
And I set a great assembly] R.V. And I held a great assembly. ‘Assembly.’ The word here used occurs elsewhere only in Deuteronomy 33:4, ‘the assembly of Jacob.’ Nehemiah’s object probably was to give a public hearing to the complaints, and by the largeness and importance of the meeting to establish beyond controversy an arrangement which was calculated to meet with disapprobation from an influential class.
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.8. We] ‘We’ and ‘ye’ in this verse are in emphatic antithesis.
after our ability] So Vulg. ‘secundum possibilitatem nostram.’ LXX. ἐν ἑκουσίῳ ἡμῶν. Another rendering is ‘according to the number of those that were among us.’
have redeemed] R.V. marg. ‘Heb. bought’, i.e. as many as were put up to sale we redeemed. Nehemiah apparently refers to what had been the merciful custom of himself and his countrymen when they were in exile; but possibly also to his action in Jerusalem since his arrival. The word for ‘redeemed’ here would be literally rendered ‘acquired’ or ‘bought.’ The word is used here presumably because the stress of the clause rests not so much on the slavery from which the Jews were delivered, but upon the price that Nehemiah and his companions willingly paid for them.
unto the heathen] Lit. ‘unto the nations.’
and will you even sell your brethren] R.V. and would ye, &c.
or shall they] R.V. and should they. Nehemiah’s indignant question contrasts the conduct of the wealthy money-lenders with his own practice and that of his friends. He in a foreign land redeemed every Jew he could that was being sold to the heathen, and here in Jerusalem itself he finds Jews selling their own flesh and blood, and the market in which they barter their brethren is within the walls of the Holy City. They not only sold Jews as slaves, but bought them as such. They were ready to buy them, not to redeem but to enslave them.
found nothing to answer] R.V. found never a word. There was no justification either in law or equity for their conduct, in making money out of their brethren’s misfortunes at a time of national danger.
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?9. Also I said] ‘And I said.’ The C’thib in the Hebrew text (which is probably due to an error of transcription) gives the meaning ‘and it was said,’ i.e. by Nehemiah. The rendering ‘and I said’ follows the reading of the K’ri, LXX., Vulg.
It is not good that ye do] R.V. The thing that ye do Is not good. The R.V. rendering is in itself preferable to that of the A.V. In addition it enables the English reader to recognize the exact correspondence of this clause with words in Exodus 18:17. The sentence is so simple that too much must not be made of the resemblance. But the supposition that Nehemiah’s words perhaps unconsciously repeated a familiar sentence from ‘the book of the law’ is not to be lightly dismissed. That the words of Jethro to Moses should be used by Nehemiah to the money-lenders indicates the courtesy of his expostulation. Fiercer language would have only exasperated them.
ought ye not, &c.] or ‘will ye, or should ye, not,’ &c.
walk in the fear of our God] This precise phrase does not, apparently, occur elsewhere in the O. T. It condenses the thought of Deuteronomy 10:12, ‘And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways,’ (cf. Nehemiah 8:6). We find it in the N. T. in Acts 9:31, ‘The church … walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost was multiplied.’ ‘The fear of God,’ cf. Nehemiah 5:15. ‘The fear of the Lord’ is the usual expression, espec. in Pss. and Prov. ‘The fear of God,’ cf. Genesis 20:11; 2 Samuel 23:3; 2 Chronicles 26:5, R.V. Marg. The fear of God’s hatred of oppression should be before the eyes of all. Cf. Proverbs 14:31, ‘He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker.’
because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies] Though the general sense is obvious, there is some uncertainty as to the exact shade of meaning to be attached to these words. (1) It may mean ‘on account of the reproach wherewith our enemies have reproached us; since, so long as we have not walked in the fear of our God, we have been feeble and weak and have deserved the reproach of our enemies. If we walk in His fear, He will bless us and remove the cause of their reproach.’ Cf. chap. Nehemiah 4:4. (2) It may mean ‘for fear of incurring the just reproach of our enemies,’ seeing that, if they hear of your cruel and ungenerous action to your brethren, they will have good cause to rebuke and ridicule our people. Cf. Nehemiah 6:13.
‘the heathen our enemies.’ On ‘the heathen’ see Nehemiah 5:8. The two words are only here combined in these books. For ‘our enemies’ cf. Nehemiah 4:15, Nehemiah 6:1; Nehemiah 6:16. For the general meaning see 2 Samuel 12:14, ‘thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme.’ Cf. Isaiah 52:5.
I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury.10. I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants] R.V. And I likewise, my brethren and my servants. We must conclude from this verse that Nehemiah himself lent ‘on usury’ to his countrymen. The words are not, as A.V., ‘I … and my brethren, &c.’, but ‘I, my brethren, &c.’ Nehemiah takes the reply out of the mouth of his opponents. He confesses he is himself not free from blame. For ‘his own kinsfolk and dependants’ lent ‘on usury,’ and he their head and representative was responsible for them. They may have been generous and forbearing, but they had violated the principle, which he was upholding: and in so far, Nehemiah accepted the blame of his house. Some suppose that Nehemiah in lending did not require a pledge, and thus differed from the regular money-lenders. ‘Brethren,’ ‘servants.’ See note on Nehemiah 4:23.
might exact of them money and corn] R.V. do lend them money and corn on usury. The rendering of the A.V. ‘might exact’ seems to be dictated by the desire to save the honour of Nehemiah and of his house. But the clause does not claim a privilege, but states a fact. By diplomatically accepting the responsibility of a share in the general guilt, he conciliates his hearers and disarms them of a retort. Nevertheless we gather from the clause that it was not so much ‘usury’ as the abuse of usury, the excessive and tyrannical rate of interest exacted from the poor, which excited his indignation against the rich.
I pray you] These words render a Hebrew particle adding urgency to the request, without introducing the idea of supplication, cf. Nehemiah 1:5. It might be rendered ‘Come now, let us leave off, &c.’
let us leave off this usury] Nehemiah invites his hearers to join with him in abandoning a custom which had been productive of such evil results. ‘This usury,’ i.e. requiring of interest or of pledges. LXX. ἀπαίτησιν. Not the lending but the plan of making a gain out of loans to the poor, whether by demanding interest upon loans or seizing the pledge which had been the security for an advance, is condemned.
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.11. Restore, I pray you, &c.] On ‘I pray you’ see note on Nehemiah 5:10. Nehemiah demands immediate redress for the wrongs done to fellow-countrymen. He demands restoration of property and remission of interest on loans.
even this day] The same Hebrew word as is rendered in 1 Samuel 9:13, ‘at this time.’ Literally = ‘as if to-day,’ i.e. ‘immediately.’
their lands … houses] R.V. their fields … houses. The first part of the demand is the restoration to the poor of the property which had been offered as security for the sums borrowed from the money-lenders.
also the hundredth part, &c.] This ‘hundredth part’ was in all probability reckoned by month. It corresponded therefore to the Latin ‘centesima usura,’ and represented interest at the rate of 12 per cent.
corn, the wine, and the oil] This exorbitant rate of interest seems to have been exacted in kind if cash was not forthcoming.
The second part of Nehemiah’s demand refers to the exaction of interest. It is impossible to suppose that he required the moneylenders to restore the sums which had already been paid in interest. The main verb ‘restore’ is only by ‘zeugma’ applicable to ‘the hundredth part;’ and the meaning is ‘do not exact,’ ‘remit your claim to the 12 p. c. interest which you are accustomed to levy in money or produce of the land.’
His twofold demand, for immediate restoration of property and for future renunciation of interest, corresponds to the twofold reply of the money-lenders in the following verse. It is probable that we are only to understand Nehemiah’s intervention to be made in the interests of the poor. The transactions of the wealthy with one another are not contemplated by the early Israelite or the Levitical laws, Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36-37.
An ingenious conjecture, which alters the text by the insertion of one letter only, would read, instead of ‘the hundredth part’ (um’ath), ‘the usury’ (umash’ath). The latter part of the verse would then only expand in greater detail the substance of the first. The LXX. ἀπὸ follows a different pointing of the word.
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.12. Nehemiah’s audience comply with his request. ‘We will restore’ refers to the fields, vineyards, oliveyards and houses seized in default of payment or as pledges; ‘will require nothing’ refers to the usury, i.e. the interest already due upon the sums borrowed.
as thou sayest] R.V. even as thou sayest.
Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them] Nehemiah takes measures publicly to bind the money-lenders before the impression had passed away. He summoned the priests to administer the oath. Thus the engagement was undertaken in the presence of public witnesses. The presence of the priests added to the solemnity of the transaction, and was of additional importance, since the priests were entrusted with judicial functions and would have to decide questions between debtor and creditor. On the judicial functions of the priests and their duties outside the Temple cf. Nehemiah 11:16; 1 Chronicles 23:4; 1 Chronicles 26:29.
took an oath of them] ‘Them’ refers not to the priests, but to the money-lenders. Nehemiah bound them by an oath which the priest solemnly administered, Ezra 10:5.
according to this promise] ‘Promise,’ as also in Nehemiah 5:13; literally ‘this word.’ The Hebrew language has no distinct word for ‘promise,’ cf. 1 Kings 8:56, ‘there hath not failed one word of all his good promise’ (lit. ‘good word’). Psalm 105:42, ‘For he remembered his holy word’ (A.V. ‘promise’). In Psalm 77:8, ‘Doth his promise fail for evermore?’ the expression used is different, and is more like our ‘saying’ or ‘utterance.’
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.13. Also I shook my lap] R.V. Also I shook out my lap. (LXX. ἀναβολήν. Vulg. ‘sinum’.) The word here rendered ‘lap’ only occurs elsewhere in the O. T. in Isaiah 49:22, R.V. ‘bosom,’ A.V. ‘arms.’ Nehemiah here employs a symbolical gesture, suiting his action to his metaphor. He pressed tightly to his body the loose fold of his mantle, so that it hung like a bag or wallet against him; then with a vehement motion of both hands he suddenly stretched it out and shook it in the sight of all the people, so that anything which it might have before concealed would have been jerked violently from him. Even so, he says, may God cast forth from His protection and love, in home and work, the man who fails to abide by the compact. Cf. Job 38:13, ‘That it might take hold of the ends of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it.’ Isaiah 24:1. The gesture was rhetorical. It would impress itself upon the audience, and emphasize the speaker’s words. For instances of symbolical action comp. 1 Kings 11:30; 1 Kings 20:35-43; 1 Kings 22:11; Jeremiah 13:1-14; Jeremiah 18:1-12; Jeremiah 19:1-13; Matthew 27:24; Acts 18:6.
that performeth not this promise] Lit. ‘that fulfilleth or establisheth not this word.’ The same phrase in the original as Deuteronomy 27:26, ‘Cursed be he that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them.’
from his house, and from his labour] This conjunction of words sounds proverbial, but does not occur elsewhere in the O. T. ‘His labour’ does not mean so much ‘his means of occupation’—the modern idea—as ‘the exercise and even the fruits of his industry.’ The word used is that found in the expression ‘the labour of the hands,’ Genesis 31:42; Job 10:3; Psalm 128:2; Haggai 1:11. Cf. Deuteronomy 28:33, ‘The fruit of thy ground, and all thy labours, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up.’
promise, even thus] R.V. promise; even thus.
all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the Lord] The people said ‘Amen,’ ratifying the curse of Nehemiah and the condition of the contract: they praised the Lord, because the poor had been succoured and the division of the people healed. The ‘Amen,’ as the people’s assent to the ruler’s proposition, occurs again Nehemiah 8:6. Cf. 1 Kings 1:36; 1 Chronicles 16:36, and Deuteronomy 27:15.
And the people did, &c.] If we may press the distinction between the two words employed, ‘the people’ in the mass carried into execution the resolutions of ‘the congregation,’ that had approved Nehemiah’s measures.
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.14–19. Nehemiah recounts other measures by which as governor he endeavoured to relieve the condition of his brethren
14. Moreover, &c.] i.e. Here is another instance. During the whole tenure of his office, Nehemiah provided out of his own purse for the expenses of his official position.
from the time …, that is, twelve years] Nehemiah was governor or Pekhah of Judah for twelve years, apparently from b.c. 445 or 4 to b.c. 433 or 432, cf. Nehemiah 13:6 with Nehemiah 2:1. See however Additional Note, p. 320.
have not eaten the bread of the governor] i.e. the provisions usually supplied by the province for the maintenance of its Pekhah and his household. ‘Bread’ of course must not be understood literally. It is explained in the next verse by ‘bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver.’
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.15. the former governors that had been before me] R.V. the former governors that were before me. The governors or Pekhahs here referred to by Nehemiah are those of Jerusalem and the neighbouring district. Zerubbabel was the first. We do not know how many there had been in the interval, nor whether they like Nehemiah were Jews.
were chargeable unto] R.V. marg. ‘Or, laid burdens upon’. Literally the word means ‘made heavy;’ and we should expect here some such word after it as ‘their yoke’ or ‘burden,’ as in Isaiah 47:6. ‘Upon the aged hast thou very heavily laid thy yoke.’ Lamentations 3:7, ‘he hath made my chain heavy.’ 1 Kings 12:10, ‘Thy father made our yoke heavy,’ and 14; (2 Chronicles 10:10; 2 Chronicles 10:14); Habakkuk 2:6. The object is expressed in the other phrases, ‘harden the heart’ (Exodus 8:15; Exodus 8:32; Exodus 9:34; Exodus 10:1) and ‘make the ears heavy’ (Isaiah 6:10; Zechariah 7:11) in which this verb occurs. The only other instance in which this causative word is used absolutely appears to be 2 Chronicles 25:19, ‘to boast.’
had taken of them] R.V. took of them.
bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver] ‘beside,’ R.V. marg. ‘Or, at the rate of, Or, afterward.’ The expenses of the governor’s table were defrayed at the cost of the province or district. As may be gathered from the R.V. margin, there is considerable doubt with regard to the word rendered ‘beside.’ Literally the Hebrew runs ‘bread and wine, after forty shekels of silver.’
(a) The rendering ‘beside’ of the A.V. and R.V. can hardly be correct. There is no other instance of the use of the Hebrew preposition in this sense; and the addition of the statement ‘beside forty shekels, &c.’ conveys no meaning without the mention of the time, whether by day, month, or year, at which this extra charge was exacted.
(b) The rendering ‘afterward,’ which is maintained by Keil, is even more improbable. A sentence to the effect that the governors took from the people bread and wine, and afterwards took forty shekels of silver, conveys no intelligible meaning. Keil thinks that it ‘expresses the thought that this money was afterwards demanded from the community for the expenses of the governor’s table,’ in other words that the governor first exacted the food and then required its value in money.
(c) The rendering ‘at the rate of’ i.e. ‘at the price of forty shekels and over,’ which is certainly preferable, puts a severe strain upon the simple preposition ‘after.’ It explains the mention of the forty shekels. The sentence then means that the governor (daily, it must be presumed) required provisions to be supplied him by the province, the cost of which was never less than forty shekels.
(d) The rendering of the LXX. ἔσχατον ἀργύριον does not help us. The Vulgate ‘quotidie’ may imply a different reading. The Hebrew for ‘one’ (ekhâd) could very easily by a copyist’s slip be read ‘after’ (akhar). A very simple conjectural emendation would give us ‘bread and wine to the value of, in one day, forty shekels of silver’ (= ‘v’yayin yôm ekhâd’ instead of ‘v’yayin akhar’). Forty shekels of silver would amount to about £5: this sum shows clearly that a rate ‘per diem’ and not ‘per mensem’ is indicated.
yea, even their servants] Cf. Nehemiah 4:16, i.e. the governor’s household.
bare rule] R.V. marg. ‘Or, lorded over.’ The word probably conveys a sense of arbitrary exercise of authority. Cf. ‘have rule’ Esther 9:1; Ecclesiastes 2:19; Ecclesiastes 8:9.
but so did not I] Nehemiah neither exacted excessive charges from his countrymen as his predecessors in office had done, nor did he presume upon his official position in the way that his predecessors’ households had been apt to do. Like St Paul, Nehemiah could say, ‘Nevertheless we did not use this right’ (1 Corinthians 9:12), and ‘In everything I kept myself from being burdensome unto you’ (2 Corinthians 11:9).
because of the fear of God] See on Nehemiah 5:9. Nehemiah defends himself against a false supposition. His motive was not the desire for popularity with his countrymen; but the recognition of the Divine presence in all things quickened his sense of duty. Proverbs 16:6, ‘By the fear of the Lord men depart from evil.’
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.16. Yea also I continued in the work, &c.] R.V. marg. ‘Heb. held fast to’. It does not appear certain whether Nehemiah here refers to his continuous supervision of the building or to his personal share in the work of restoration at his own cost of some portion of it. The word rendered ‘continued’ (used in its literal sense of ‘held’ in Nehemiah 4:16) admits of either application.
neither bought we any land] In connexion with the previous and the following clauses, these words should be taken to mean that Nehemiah and his friends were too strenuously occupied to interest themselves in the purchase of lands. Former governors had possibly made investments in good land. Such transactions were incompatible with Nehemiah’s ceaseless devotion to the work. But it is necessary also to regard the words as an allusion to the substance of Nehemiah 5:10. Although they had abundant opportunity to make private gain out of mortgaged property, they withstood the temptation of enriching themselves out of their fellow-countrymen. The word ‘land’ is the same as that which in the Plur. the R.V. has altered to ‘fields’ in Nehemiah 5:3-5; Nehemiah 5:11.
all my servants were gathered] Their work at the wall and in Nehemiah’s employ was too incessant to permit of the inspection of purchaseable land or of its proper cultivation if they had purchased it.
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.17. Moreover] Nehemiah mentions another proof of his generosity as governor. He regularly entertained over 150 officials, and welcomed Jewish strangers to his table.
an hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers, besides those that came unto us, &c.] The English rendering which seems here to distinguish between ‘the Jews’ and ‘rulers’ (or ‘deputies’), and to speak of three classes (1) the Jews, (2) rulers, (3) strangers from outside Judæa, may be supported by the traditional interpretation preserved in the Hebrew accents.
From the position here assigned to ‘the Jews,’ the word, if taken to express a distinct class of the community, must be used of ‘the heads of the great Jewish houses or families’ (cf. Ezra 2) as distinct from the administrative officers (see Nehemiah 2:16). According to this explanation the heads of the houses and the rulers together numbered one hundred and fifty.
It may be questioned whether the expression ‘the Jews’ would ever be assigned to a section or class of the community. The word is used in Nehemiah 5:1 and Nehemiah 5:8 without any such limitation of meaning.
It is perhaps better to take ‘the Jews’ as the subject of the whole verse. ‘Moreover the Jews—I regularly entertained two classes, i.e. the 150 officials and those who had recently left their homes to join their countrymen at Jerusalem.’ This is the rendering of the Vulgate, ‘Judæi quoque et magistratus centum quinquaginta viri et veniebant ad nos de gentibus.’ The repetition of the copula in the Hebrew with ‘Jews,’ ‘rulers,’ and ‘those’ admits of this rendering as in Nehemiah 4:11.
The large number of the ‘rulers’ is not an insurmountable objection to this rendering. The central organization of the administration required a great deal of subdivision; and as all the officials were under the governor, he extended his hospitality to all alike.
besides those that came unto us, &c.] By this seems to be intended the somewhat numerous class of Jews, who, having resided among the neighbouring nations detached themselves from time to time, and came to join their brethren in or near Jerusalem. These were Jews, whose forefathers had never been carried captive to Babylon, but had settled in foreign lands either for purposes of trade or from fear of the invader. See note on Ezra 6:21.
that are about us] R.V. that were round about us. The past tense is required by the narrative style, which Nehemiah employs.
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.18. for me daily] R.V. for one day. Compare Solomon’s daily provision, 1 Kings 4:22-23.
choice] i.e. picked or chosen for their fatness and good condition. The word in the Hebrew is used of men chosen for a purpose, 1 Chronicles 7:40; 1 Chronicles 9:22; 1 Chronicles 16:41. In 1 Samuel 9:2 Saul is called a ‘choice’ (R.V. marg.) man.
once in ten days store of all sorts of wine] Literally ‘within the interval of ten days, of every wine in abundance.’ The construction is peculiar. The specification of 10 days and the preposition before ‘sorts of wine’ lead us to expect the mention of some particular quantity. The conjecture is possible that this was originally expressed by a word denoting a measure, unfamiliar to later copyists, who substituted a general expression for the word. According to the present text, fresh supplies of wine were furnished every ten days, i.e. thrice a month. LXX. ἐν πᾶσιν οἶνος τῷ πλήθει. Vulg. ‘Vina diversa et multa alia tribuebam.’
yet for all this] Lit. ‘with this,’ i.e. ‘in spite of this heavy outlay.’
required not I] R.V. I demanded not. The sense is ‘I did not demand my rights.’ At the time of the A.V. translation ‘to require’ was equivalent to ‘to ask,’ in which sense the A.V. employs it here; see Ezra 8:22; Psalm 38:16 (P.B.V.) ‘I have required that they, even mine enemies, should not triumph over me.’ The usage of ‘require’ for ‘demanding by authority,’ ‘making requisition for’ (see Wright, Bible Word-Book) is more modern. But inasmuch as ‘I did not require’ could now be understood to mean ‘I did not need,’ the change to the less equivocal ‘demand’ is a gain in clearness and accuracy.
the bread of the governor] See Nehemiah 5:14.
the bondage was heavy, &c.] i.e. the tribute exacted from the Jews by the Persian Imperial government. The word rendered ‘bondage’ occurs twice elsewhere in this book, Nehemiah 3:5, ‘the work of their lord,’ Nehemiah 10:37, ‘cities of our tillage.’ Used of oppressive ‘service’ it is familiar to us in Exodus (Exodus 1:14, (Exodus 2:23, Nehemiah 5:9, &c.).
Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.19. Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all, &c.] R.V. Remember unto me, O my God, for good, all, &c. ‘Remember’ is the natural translation here and in the similar passages, Nehemiah 6:14, Nehemiah 13:22; Nehemiah 13:29; Nehemiah 13:31. The A.V. unfortunately introduced the rendering ‘think upon’ as a variation. For the use of ‘remember’ in its application to the Deity, cf. 2 Chronicles 6:42; Jdg 16:28; Psalm 106:4; Jeremiah 15:15. Nehemiah’s prayer differs in a measure from the appeal for ‘remembrance’ in the last three of these passages. In these the prayer is that the speaker may not be forgotten and so left in his present distress. Nehemiah prays with frank simplicity that God will recognize and reward his services to the people of Israel. In our ears the self-complacency of the petitions strikes a jarring note. But the words must not be judged by our modern standard. Their quaint candour quite disarms the charge of vanity. It is the ejaculation of a practical man, keenly alive to the responsibility of his position, very conscious of his loneliness, and sensible of the moral effort which it costs him at every fresh endeavour to please Jehovah in the service of the people.
To illustrate the thought cf. Sir 17:22, ‘The alms of a man are as a signet with him, and he will keep the good deeds of man as the apple of the eye.’ Hebrews 6:10, ‘For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and the love which ye showed toward his name, in that ye ministered unto the saints, and still do minister.’