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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Nehemiah 5

Verses 1-19

Administrative Difficulties (5:1-19)

The account of the difficulties encountered in building the wall is now broken by the report of difficulties of a different kind: those raised by economic and administrative problems. Since chapter 5 deals with an apparently extended period of time, it should be taken as referring to a general situation rather than a single incident occurring exactly during the building of the walls.

A group of the poor expressed to Nehemiah the extreme poverty in which they were forced to live and the fact that under pressure they were compelled first to mortgage their property and then to sell or pledge their offspring to pay debts. Verse 5 emphasizes the equality of members of the community and their unequal positions.

Once again Nehemiah acted as an able administrator. Distressed at this violation of the principles of community responsibility for the poor, he called together the officials. Identifying himself with the ones he charged (vs. 10 indicates that Nehemiah himself had followed the custom of charging interest and taking pledges), he proposed that the custom be dropped and further that there be a wholesale restitution. The principles he followed are clearly set forth in the Deuteronomic law, particularly with reference to the seventh-year restoration (Deuteronomy 15:12-18). "The hundredth" part (vs. 11) which is to be remitted sounds rather low (interest rates ran as high as twenty per cent). Many interpreters, by a slight change of the text, understand instead of this expression "the usury of."

When "the nobles and the officials" agreed to the proposal, Nehemiah sealed the bargain by requiring an oath. The priests administered the oath (vs. 12; see also Ezra 10:5). Finally a dramatic act symbolized the consequence of breaking the oath and provided the people, who had been witnesses, opportunity to add their confirmatory "Amen" (vs. 13; for a parallel to the symbolic action see Job 38:13).

Once again, behind the factual account of an emergency facing the little nation trying to establish itself, we ought to be able to see a profound religious faith at work. Although in the past it is doubtful whether the principles of the restitution of property and release of slaves in the seventh or fiftieth years was ever anything more than an ideal, in this little community it was put into practice, and that by the will of the people themselves. From every vantage point the community impresses the viewer as one anxious to find and do the will of God.

In connection with his testimony to the way he dealt with cases of injustice among the people, Nehemiah adds here the report of his stewardship of the office he held. Two examples are cited (vss. 14, 17-18), which were characteristic of the entire period of his governorship. The first had to do with the fact that he, unlike the earlier officials of the Persian bureaucracy, had not drained the public wealth for the expenses of his office. (The phrase "besides forty shekels of silver" in verse 15 is probably incorrect; something like "at the rate of forty shekels of silver" is called for.) The second example is drawn from his own household and the specific problem of providing food for an immense retinue (the number has been estimated at 400 or 500). For this extraordinary hospitality he had also assumed the financial responsibility.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Nehemiah 5". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/nehemiah-5.html.