Lange Commentary on the Holy Scriptures
1AND there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews. 2For there were that said, We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore we take up corn [perhaps, our sons and our daughters we mortgage, that 3we might buy corn] for them, 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 4There were also that said, we have borrowed money 5for the king’s tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards. Yet [and] now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children [sons] as their children [sons]: and lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought into bondage already: neither is it in our power [and our hand is not to God] to redeem them; for [and] other men have our lands and 6vineyards. And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words. 7Then 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. 8And 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 9answer [and found no word]. Also [and] 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 10enemies? [And] I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants might, exact of 11[have lent] them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury. Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive yards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the 12wine and the oil, that ye exact of [lent] them. Then [and] said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest. Then [And] I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise. 13Also I shook my lap [bosom], and said, So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performest not this promise [word], even thus be he shaken out and emptied [empty]. And all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the LORD. And the people did according to this promise 14[word]. Moreover from the time that I was appointed [he (Artaxerxes) appointed me] 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 15brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor. But [And] the former governors that had been before me were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, besides forty shekels of silver; yea, even their servants bare rule over the people: but [and] so did not I, because of the fear of God. 16Yea, also I continued in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land: and all my 17servants were gathered thither unto the work. Moreover [And] there were at my table a hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers, besides [and] those that came 18unto us from among the heathen that are about us. Now [and] that which was prepared for me (i.e., at my expense) daily [for one day] was one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me (i.e., at my expense), and once in ten days store [large quantity] of all sorts of wine: yet [and] for all this required not I the 19bread of the governor, because the bondage was heavy upon this people. Think upon [remember to] me, my God, for good, according to [om. according to] all that I have done for this people.
TEXTUAL AND GRAMMATICAL
1 Nehemiah 5:5. The E. V. rightly supplies an equivalent to לִפְרֹתָם.
2 Nehemiah 5:6. וַיִּמָּלֵךְ. This Niphal evidently carries the Chaldee, Syriac, and Samaritan meaning of the verb. Comp. Dan. 4:24 (27) where the derivative noun is used. The literal translation here is “and my heart was consulted upon me.” Why the lexicographers give it a Kal meaning I know not.
3 Nehemiah 5:15. אַחַר is rightly rendered “besides.” After the forty shekels salary they received the bread and wine.
EXEGETICAL AND CRITICAL
Hindrances (2) from the Tyranny of Jews over one another
It might at first sight seem as if this episodical chapter was out of place, and should properly follow chap. 8; but there is no sound reason why we should not consider the complaint to have been made while all were engaged in the important work of fortifying the city, as a time when it would be the easier to remedy the evil under the pressure of the common danger.
Nehemiah 5:2. We, our sons and our daughters, are many,etc. The error of the Heb. text here in writing rabbim for orebim (requiring only one letter prefixed in the Hebrew) is very evident (according to Houbigant), so that it should read in English, we have mortgaged our sons and our daughters that we might buy corn. Compare the structure of the next verse. The complaint was three-fold: 1. We mortgage our children for food. 2. We mortgage our estates for food. 3. We mortgage our estates for the royal tribute. In all these their brethren were the exactors, not only acting tyrannically towards them, but breaking the written law of God in its spirit (Ex. 22:25–27) as well as in its letter (see Nehemiah 5:7).
Nehemiah 5:5. Neither is it in our power. Lit. “and our hand is not to God.” So Gen. 31:29.
Nehemiah 5:7. Then I consulted with myself.—The Niphal use of malak (wayyimmalek) is peculiar, and suggests a peculiar sense in this place. The Syriac use of the word as “consult” (see Dan. 4:24, 27) is probably the right one here. Ye exact usury.—The words refer both to the pledges and the interest (Nehemiah 5:11). And I set a great assembly against them.—In the midst of the necessity of the wall-building Nehemiah summons a great mass-meeting of the Jews (see the word Kehillah in Deut. 33:4) to have this fraternal outrage stopped instantly by the force of public opinion.
Nehemiah 5:8. The Jewish colony had probably often redeemed Jews from captivity.
Nehemiah 5:9. Because of the reproach of the heathen.—That is, so as to avoid giving them an opportunity to reproach us.
Nehemiah 5:10. I likewise, and my brethren and my servants might exact of them.—Rather: I likewise, that is, my brethren and my servants exact of them, or rather “lent them.” It is a confession of Nehemiah that he too was implicated from the fact that he had found his own family engaged in the oppression. Hence he says: “let us leave off this usury.” The law expressly forbade lending money to Jews on interest. See Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:36; Deut. 23:19. All the lands those rich men had acquired had been obtained in thisway.
Nehemiah 5:11. This hundredth part was probably a monthly interest, that is, an interest at the rate of twelve per cent per annum. That ye exact of them. Rather: “that ye lent them.”
Nehemiah 5:12. The moral force of the great assembly produced an immediate conformity to Nehemiah’s demand. His action was a master-piece of management. The oath would have greater solemnity as administered by the priests.
Nehemiah 5:13. My lap.—This is the bosom of the outer garment (sinus togæ), which was used as a pocket. (See for this significant action Acts 18:6.)
Nehemiah 5:14. This verse and those which follow form an interruption of the narrative. They show that Nehemiah was for twelve years governor of Judah, and did not write this history till the expiration of that time. The parallel between Nehemiah and Washington in refusing salary while saving the nation is striking.
Nehemiah 5:15. Forty shekels of silver.—This (like the interest in Nehemiah 5:11) is probably to be reckoned for the month. The former governors had received their table and 480 shekels a year as salary. The 480 shekels would be only $360 in amount of silver; but this would represent in value a large official salary in that day.
Nehemiah 5:16. A second point to which Nehemiah refers with satisfaction and as a proof of his disinterested conduct is his allowing no speculation in land on his own part or that of his immediate attendants.
Nehemiah 5:17. A third point is his free entertainment of a hundred and fifty Jews, and besides this visitors from surrounding nations.
Nehemiah 5:18. The bondage.—The service needed to the king of Persia and also that which was needed for the restoration of their national welfare.
Nehemiah 5:19. Think upon me, my God,etc.—Rather: Remember to me for good all which I have done to this people. It becomes necessary sometimes for a man of God to declare his integrity against the oppositions and insinuations of enemies. In such cases he can without presumption expect God to vindicate His faithfulness. See Paul’s words before the Sanhedrim (Acts 23:1), and compare also 2 Cor. 1:12; 4:4; 2 Tim. 1:3; Heb. 13:18.
HISTORICAL AND ETHICAL
1. The advantage taken in troublous times for men to prey upon their associates and kindred exhibits the deep depravity of human nature. The violence of open enemies and the presence of surrounding dangers should have encouraged the virtue and piety of the Jews by the odiousness of the opposite and their sense of weakness and need of the Divine help. But as often sailors on a wreck, or as men (e.g. the Florentines) in the midst of the plague, have given themselves up to debauchery and revelling, so the Jewish remnant, persecuted and straitened, oppressed one another. It was no little bravery in Nehemiah to face these tigers of his own nation, while guarding Jerusalem from the foreign foe. A weak spirit would have reasoned that it was enough to do the latter, and that domestic evils must be endured until a more propitious time for their cure. That “great assembly” was a grand token of Nehemiah’s marvellous energy and fertile resources.
2. Nehemiah’s refusal of official salary was. like Paul’s refusal of support at Corinth and Thessalonica (2 Cor. 2:9; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8), a waiving of an undoubted right for the sake of the higher good. Summum jus summa injuria is a sentiment which every tender conscience must often put into exercise. It sees that the only right is to give up right. A sublime spirit discerns when lex, no longer rex, becomes nex.
3. Nehemiah’s soul was frank with God. There is freedom of access to a throne of grace for every believer (Heb. 4:16). “Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people,” is not a presumptuous conceit, but a child-like simplicity. The gross mind of the world would confound the two. Where we know that God has led us in paths of righteousness, we may well use that knowledge and encourage our souls by it. Nehemiah had but few around him who could reach high enough to sympathize fully with him, and it was thus his great comfort to pour out his soul, according to truth, before the God, whose good hand had guided him. God wishes no mock modesty from us. His grace in our hearts and lives should be acknowledged (comp. 1 Tim. 1:12).
HOMILETICAL AND PRACTICAL
Nehemiah 5:1–13. The most powerful hinderances to the development of the congregation. 1) That they are discords and separations, but especially the complaints of the poor against the rich. 2) Whence they arise: from want of love. 3) What do they teach: they challenge to a more powerful proving of love, and lead, when such proof is given, to a new impulse in the life of the congregation, but particularly to new praising of the Lord in common.
The old, and ever new, need 1) In what it consists; want, poverty, and misery are ever in the Lord’s congregation. 2) Whence this arises, a) From sin (that of others, but also our own), from laziness, discontent, ingratitude, etc. b) From God’s wise intention: He knows the sins, and wishes to remove them; He wishes to give opportunity to the rich to exercise their love, and to the poor to struggle against their discontent. 3) How it is removed: not through all sorts of new social regulations and laws—not through home missionary societies, in so far as their work is scarcely experienced by the poor as a mark of love, and is easily looked upon by them as help owed to them, but through an awaking of the heart to the proving of true love and benevolence as the Lord ever anew renders possible.—STARKE: God scourges not alone with a single, but also at times with a double rod, and sends one cross and misfortune upon another. Job 10:17. But the godly have great consolations and promises on the other hand. Ps. 33:19; Ps. 37:19, 25. Usury against our poor brethren is forbidden. Lev. 25:36; Ps. 15:5; Ez. 18:13; 22:12; for whoever builds his house with the property of others, gathers stones for his own grave. Sir. 21:9. It is a bad case when we show ourselves to our fellow-Christians in such a way that they must sigh and cry to God against us. Gen. 18:21; Sir. 4:6.
Nehemiah 5:7–13. What renders the admonition to exercise love effective? 1) Mildness in example. 2) Readiness of the preacher and his friends to take precedence in the example of love (Nehemiah 5:10). 3) The assurance that God rejects the unloving from His communion, and robs him of His blessing (Nehemiah 5:13).
STARKE: Anger in office is not, indeed, forbidden, yet one should be angry so as not to sin, Ps. 4:5, and moderate himself properly. Sir. 30:26. As storming showers beat down the grain to the earth, but gentle drops, on the contrary, revive and ripen it, so is it also with speech. Friendly language has more effect than severe rebuke, particularly with the irascible and people of rank, who cannot submit to hard reproof.
Nehemiah 5:7–19. How important, but how difficult it is to go forward as an example in true proving of love. 1) How important (Nehemiah 5:7–13). a) When one condemns hard-heartedness, but is himself hard-hearted, he shows that he was not in earnest in his condemnation. b) When one makes claim to the God of love against the unloving, but is himself unloving, he shows that he does not really possess the fear and faith of God, but hypocritically pretends to have it. c) Those who support their word by their actions always make the greatest impression. 2) How difficult. It is not sufficient to exercise love in that one particular in which one desires proofs of love, much more must love, self-denial, and self-sacrifice be shown in every relation (Nehemiah 5:14), and indeed beyond common obligations (Nehemiah 5:15), in spite of particular deeds, on account of which one could be entitled to make claims (Nehemiah 5:16) in spite of the great sacrifice which the willingness for immolation imposes (Nehemiah 5:17, 18). SCHLUSS: The example of true deeds of love is (Nehemiah 5:19) particularly also so important on this account because it gives us the assurance and the joyful sentiment of the love and care of God, but it is always on this account so difficult because with sin is joined such want of love, so that we Christians can only find the prayer of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 5:19) justified in the mouth of Christ, and only for Christ’s sake are allowed to dare to beg for God’s care and love.—STARKE: When necessity or other cogent reasons demand it, one should willingly forego that which otherwise he would with good reason demand and take. Matt. 10:10; 1 Cor. 9:18; 1 Tim. 5:18. He never rules well who does not do everything he can. God will reward good works, not according to the worthiness of the merit, but from grace. Luke 17:18.
And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews.