Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
REFORMING OF ABUSES, Nehemiah 5:1-13.
1. A great cry — The outcry of poverty, oppression, and abuse.
Against… brethren — So there were troubles and abuses among themselves, as well as from their enemies.
2. There were that said — These seem to have been persons who held about the civil status of the Roman proletaries, who owned no property, but served the state with their children, and procured a livelihood by labouring for others. These were the lowest class of citizens.
Our sons, and our daughters, are many — That which was to the true Israelite the highest gratification and pleasure — a pledge that Jehovah’s blessing was with him — was in this case the occasion of oppression and sorrow.
We take up corn for them — The words for them should be omitted. To take up corn, means to receive or obtain it, not by violence, but by some specific arrangement with the wealthier classes who had corn to sell. How these poorer classes obtained their corn is not said, but the most natural inference is, (compare Nehemiah 5:5; Nehemiah 5:8,) that they sold themselves and their children as bond-servants to the richer Jews, according to the provisions of the law. Exodus 21:7; Leviticus 25:39.
That we may eat, and live — Better, thought they, are food and life in bondage, than starvation and death in freedom.
3. Also there were — Another class higher than those of Nehemiah 5:2, for they were the owners of lands, vineyards, and houses. These had brought themselves into distress by mortgaging or pledging their property for food.
Because of the dearth — Literally, in the famine. This famine or scarcity may have been occasioned, not by a pestilence or barrenness of their lands, but because so many of the people had been called from their homes to labour on the wall, and thus had failed to sow and reap their fields. The neighbouring nations, also, being hostile towards them, would be likely to hinder the importation of provisions from a distance.
4. We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute — These represent a third class, whose lands and vineyards seem to have afforded them food for their personal wants, but not money with which to pay the taxes assessed upon them. The princes and wealthier men among the Jews took advantage of this impoverishment of their poorer brethren to exact exorbitant and unlawful interest upon the money they loaned them. Nehemiah 5:7. This was expressly forbidden in the law. Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19. But to obtain this money these persons also had to mortgage or pledge their lands and vineyards. These last two nouns are to be construed, grammatically, as accusatives after borrowed, which verb has not only the sense of borrowing something, but also of pledging something for that which is borrowed.
5. Our flesh is as… our brethren — Having separately stated their several grievances, they now unitedly urge the common oppressiveness of them all. They are all one race, descendants of a common sire, and, therefore, brethren — of the same flesh and blood.
Bring into bondage… to be servants — Literally, tread down to servants; that is, subject to the condition of slaves. The law allowed such sale of children. See Exodus 21:7; Leviticus 25:39.
Some of our daughters — The subjection of these weaker and more helpless ones to the condition of bondmaids is emphasized as something specially severe.
Neither is it in our power to redeem them — Literally, and nothing to the power of our hand, or, nothing of power [is in] our hand, לhaving here its genitive, or possessive sense. The word אל, here rendered power, is commonly rendered God, and Bertheau translates and explains the words thus: And not to the God is our hand; that is, we have not the power, as that of a God, to change or put an end to our wretched condition. But the more natural and simple meaning is that given above; these oppressed ones had no power to help themselves. Comp. the same expression in Genesis 31:29; Deuteronomy 28:32; Proverbs 3:27; Micah 2:1.
6. Very angry — Highly indignant, to find that such abuses existed among a people so recently escaped from exile.
7. I consulted with myself — He would do nothing rashly, but carefully devise and adopt the wisest measures to reform these abuses.
Rebuked — Contended with them; strove with them by words, as the following sentences show.
Nobles… rulers — See note on Nehemiah 2:16.
Ye exact usury — Demand exorbitant and unlawful interest. This the law strictly prohibited. See Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36; Deuteronomy 23:19.
I set a great assembly against them — That is, assembled a great congregation of the people to sit in judgment on the deeds of the usurers.
8. We — Nehemiah and other nobles and influential Jews before him, who had been instrumental in procuring the release of the Jews from captivity and permission for them to return to Judea and restore their fallen state.
After our ability — Literally, according to the sufficiency in us. Nehemiah and others had used official position and personal influence, which they held with the kings of Persia, to secure the deliverance of their brethren the Jews from their exile among the heathen.
Will ye even sell your brethren — Will ye now take advantage of their poverty to involve them into slavery among their own nation and race?
9. Walk in the fear of our God — Have all your conduct show reverence for God, and fear to break his laws.
Because of the reproach of the heathen — That is, lest ye make yourselves an occasion of reproach among the heathen, and they say: These Jews despise their own laws by oppressing their own brethren.
10. I likewise — Nehemiah, like the true God-fearing ruler, conscious of integrity and honour, pleads his own example as one worthy of his people’s notice.
My brethren, and my servants — See notes on chap. Nehemiah 4:16; Nehemiah 4:23.
Might exact — Nehemiah and those whom he associates with himself had the same opportunity to oppress their poor brethren by usury as they, but he assumes that such action would grossly unfit him and them for the position they occupied.
11. Restore… this day — Wrongs cannot be too speedily righted.
The hundredth part — This is commonly supposed to mean one per cent. paid monthly, thus corresponding with the Roman centesimae usurae, or twelve per cent. per annum. We know not what rate of interest was legal among the Jews. It is said that the laws of Menu allow eighteen and even twenty-four per cent. This hundredth part, which these usurers were required to restore, may have been only the excess of the legal rate.
12. We will… require nothing of them — They volunteer now not only to restore what they had taken unlawfully, but even to take no interest at all. They will try to make some amends for past wrongs by relinquishing all claims even for legal interest.
I called the priests — To witness the oath of the offenders, and also to give dignity and solemnity to the occasion.
Compare Deuteronomy 17:8-10; 2 Chronicles 19:8-10.
13. Shook my lap — Or, shook my bosom; that is, the bosom of my garment. This was a symbolical act to designate, as Nehemiah immediately explains, the casting out from the covenant people those who performeth not this promise. The person using this sign gathered up his garment in his bosom, intimating that there was the seat of confidence and trust, and then, shaking it out, he represented the utter casting off and disowning of any that would violate such a solemn pledge.
The people did — They kept their promise by restoring all they had taken from their brethren.
NEHEMIAH’S EXAMPLE OF SELF-DENIAL, Nehemiah 5:14-18.
14. The time that I was appointed… governor — This was in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, the same year in which he was sent up from Shushan the palace. Compare Nehemiah 1:1; Nehemiah 2:1.
Have not eaten the bread of the governor — Have not received the customary salary and support which it is usual for a governor to receive of his people, and which he might have justly claimed. Compare the similar example of Paul. 2 Corinthians 11:7; 2 Corinthians 11:9.
15. Were chargeable unto the people — Literally, made heavy upon the people; that is, had made themselves burdensome.
Besides forty shekels of silver — This, we think, gives substantially the meaning of the Hebrew, which is more exactly rendered thus: had taken from them in bread and wine after forty shekels of silver. That is, after having received their salary of forty shekels (about $22) a day, (so the Vulgate,) they also took of the people gifts of bread and wine.
Their servants bare rule — They copied the example of their masters, and also assumed power to lord it over the people. Bitterly oppressed are any people over whom servants rule.
Compare Lamentations 5:8.
Because of the fear of God — Because of Nehemiah’s reverence for God.
16. Neither bought we any land — By taking advantage of the distress of the people, as the nobles and rulers had done. Comp. Nehemiah 5:10, note.
My servants… unto the work — And were not allowed to tyrannize over the people. Compare Nehemiah 5:15.
17. At my table — As courtly guests. Here was a great expense, which his official position involved, but which he would not tax the people to bear.
Jews and rulers — Holding official relations to the government, and so belonging to the court of the governor.
Those that came unto us from among the heathen — Ambassadors and persons on official business, who would, of course, be entertained at the governor’s table.
18. That which was prepared for me daily — To show what a burden he bore at his own expense, Nehemiah here mentions a few of the more important items that were daily required for his table. Yet to maintain all this he made no claim for official salary and expense, but met all himself through sympathy with the distressed populace and the cause of his God. Clarke here quotes Pococke’s description of “the manner in which the Bey of Tunis lived. He had daily twelve sheep, with fish, fowls, soups, oranges, onions, boiled rice, etc. His nobles dined with him; after they had done, the servants sat down, and when they had finished, the poor took what was left.”
Once in ten days… wine — Wine could be obtained in quantities, and kept for any length of time, but other provisions must be furnished every day.
19. Think upon me, my God, for good — The prayer of conscious innocence and self-sacrifice, such as any pure and lofty soul might naturally write down in his diary, if he were beset with the difficulties that surrounded Nehemiah.
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