Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(1-13) Internal difficulties, springing from usury and oppression.
And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews.(1) Their brethren the Jews.—Nehemiah’s other troubles had come from the enemies without: he begins this account by laying emphasis on the hard treatment of Jews by Jews.
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) We take up.—Let us receive. This is a general appeal for the governor’s help.
Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth.(3) Because of the dearth.—Not any particular famine, strictly speaking, but their present hunger. The past mortgages had straitened their resources.
There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king's tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards.(4) We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute.—Literally, we have made our fields and vineyards answerable for the payment of the Persian tribute. They had pledged the coming produce.
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) We bring into bondage.—But the climax of the cry was the bondage of their children, especially of the daughters, whom they had been obliged to sell until the Jubile for money: children as precious to their parents as were the children of the rulers to them.
And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words.(6) And I was very angry.—Nehemiah, recently arrived, had not known this state of things. The common wailing and the three complaints in which it found expression are distinct.
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) I consulted.—But he mastered himself, and studied his plan of operation. The matter was complicated, as the transgressors had violated rather the spirit than the letter of the law. Hence the rebuke, that they exacted usury each of his brother, failed in its object; and the governor called a general assembly, not “against them,” but “concerning 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.(8) Will ye even sell your brethren?—The appeal is a strong one. Nehemiah and his friends had redeemed Jews from the heathen with money; these men had caused Jews to be sold to Jews.
Nothing to answer.—They might have replied had the letter of the law been urged; but this argument puts them to shame.
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) Because of the reproach.—The text of another strong argument used in the assembly. We learn in Nehemiah 6 how watchful the heathen were: all matters were reported to them, and every act of oppression would become a reproach against the God of the Jews.
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) Might exact.—We have lent them money and corn. By his own example the governor pleads with them: not “let us leave off this usury,” but let us all and together “remit the loans.”
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) Also the hundredth part of the money.—The monthly payment of one per cent. per month, twelve per cent. in the year, they were required to give up for the future.
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) We will restore.—The promise was given to restore the mortgaged property and to require no more interest. But Nehemiah required an oath to give legal validity to the procedure, and the priests’ presence gave it the highest religious sanction.
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) Shook my lap.—This symbolical act imprecated on every man who broke this covenant an appropriate penalty: that he be emptied of all his possessions, even as the fold of Nehemiah’s garment was emptied. And it is observable that the iniquity thus stopped is not referred to in the subsequent covenant (Nehemiah 10), nor is it one of the offences which the governor found on his second return (Nehemiah 13).
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’s vindication of his own conduct.
(14) I was appointed.—That he appointed me, viz., Artaxerxes.
Twelve years.—The whole narrative, thus far, was written after his return from Jerusalem, and on a review of his governorship; hence, “their governor in the land of Judah.” Of his second appointment the same thing might have been said: but that, at the time of writing, was in the future.
I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor.—At the close of the twelve years’ term, Nehemiah could say that he and his official attendants had not drawn the customary allowances from the people.
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) Besides forty shekels of silver.—Either in bread and wine over forty shekels, or, received in bread and wine, and beyond that, forty shekels. The latter, on the whole, is to be preferred; it would amount to about four pounds from the entire people daily.
So did not I, because of the tear of God.—Nehemiah contrasts his forbearance with the conduct of former governors; we cannot suppose him to mean Zorubbabel, but some of his successors. The practice he condemns was common among the satraps of the Persian princes. Note that usury and rigour were interdicted, in Leviticus 25:36; Leviticus 25:43, with the express sanction, “Fear thy God.”
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) I continued.—I repaired: that is, as superintendent. His servants and himself did not take advantage of the people’s poverty to acquire their land by mortgage; they were, on the contrary, absorbed in the common work.
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) At my table.—The charge on the governor’s free hospitality was heavy: “of the Jews a hundred and fifty rulers, besides those that came” occasionally from the country.
Because the bondage.—Rather, because the service of building was heavy.
The bondage.—Rather, the service was heavy.
Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.(19) Think upon me, my God.—Inserting the present prayer far from this people, Nehemiah humbly asks his recompense not from them, but from God. Nothing was more distant from his thoughts than the fame of his good deeds.