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Bible Commentaries

Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible

Nehemiah 5



Nehemiah, having heard the complaints of the poor against the rich, calls an assembly, upbraids the rich, and persuades them to assist their brethren, and release them from their debts. An account of Nehemiah's generosity and hospitality.

Before Christ 445.

Verse 3

Nehemiah 5:3. Because of the dearth Not long before this, there had been a great scarcity for want of rain; which God thought proper to withhold, as a punishment for the people's taking more care to build their own houses than his, as we read, Haggai 1:9; Haggai 1:15. At this time the rich had no compassion on their poor brethren, but forced them to part with all they had for bread; and now, which made them still more miserable, another dearth was come upon them, which might easily happen from the multitude of people employed in the repair of the wall; from the building-work, which hindered them from providing for their families some other way; and from the daily dread that they had of their enemies, which might keep them from going abroad for provision, and the country people from bringing it in. Houbigant renders the last part of the fourth verse thus: for the king's tribute on our lands and vineyards.

Verse 7

Nehemiah 5:7. Ye exact usury, &c.— This usury was the more grievous, because it was not only contrary to their law, and demanded at a time when they were hard at work, and their enemies threatening to destroy them all; but, as some have observed, the twentieth of Ahasuerus, wherein this was done, began about the end of a sabbatical year, after the law, which forbad every creature to exact any debt of his neighbour or his brother, Deu 15:2 had been so frequently read. This raised the cry of the poor to a greater height, having been forced to sell their children, and being deprived now of all power to redeem them, because their lands were mortgaged to these oppressors. See Bishop Patrick.

Verse 11

Nehemiah 5:11. Also the hundredth part of the money And also a part of his money. Houbigant.

Verse 15

Nehemiah 5:15. And had taken of them bread and wine, &c.— And had taken from each of them, for bread and wine, forty shekels of silver. Houbigant. It is evident, from the great and daily expences of Nehemiah mentioned in the following verses, that either he had large remittances from the Persian court, beside his own estate, to answer them; or that he did not continue at Jerusalem the whole twelve years together; or that, if he did, he did not keep up this expensive way of living all the time, but only during the great and present exigencies of the Jews; which ceased in a good measure after the walls were built, the act against usury was passed, and the people were discharged to their ordinary course of maintaining themselves and families.

Verse 18

Nehemiah 5:18. Now that which was prepared for me, &c.— Bishop Pococke, in his Travels, vol. 1: p. 266, &c. has given us an account of the way in which the Bey of Tunis lived in 1733; not that his way of living differed from that of other Beys, it should seem; but merely as a curiosity for his readers. After describing some soups taken by him in the morning, he tells us, that he was wont to dine at eleven; that his grandees sat near him; that when they had eaten, others sat down, and the poor took away what was left. His provisions were twelve sheep every day, dressed in three different manners; with a rice pilaw,—with oranges and eggs,—and with onions and butter. Besides the mutton, there was wont to be cuscowsoe, which they ate with the broth; and also boiled fish or fowls, with lemon or orange sauce. An hour before sun-set they ate as before. But this account, beside the curiosity of it, may serve to illustrate what is said here, and in other parts of the Scripture, of some eminent personages; and the comparing the one with the other gives a very sensible pleasure. The Bey of Tunis is not a great prince; he is, however, at the head of a very considerable people; and yet Nehemiah seems to have equalled him in his way of living. For more on the subject see the Observations, p. 184.

Verse 19

Nehemiah 5:19. Think upon me, my God, for good See the note on ch. Nehemiah 13:31.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, We heard but lately the cry of fear, because of the enemy without; in this chapter we have the cry of the poor, because of the oppressor within. Two causes had contributed to their poverty and distress; the dearth of their land, and the tribute still lying on them, which must be paid. To satisfy the cravings of hunger for themselves and families, as well as the relentless demands of the tax-gatherers, they were obliged, not only to mortgage their lands and vineyards, but to sell their children (though of the same stock and family as the richest), to relieve their wants, without the power of redemption, because of the growing debt from the usury exacted by their hard-hearted brethren. Note; (1.) Among the most unhappy situations in life, we may justly reckon that of being in debt without power to pay. (2.) It is cruel to take advantage of our brethren's distress, and to make their yoke heavier by usurious exactions. (3.) When times are hard, the wants of the poor cry for relief: it becomes us to have our ears open to their application, and our hand ready to relieve their wants. (4.) Let those who grind the faces of the poor tremble at their cries, which enter into the ears of a compassionate God. (5.) The distress of his family is more grievous to a tender parent, than his own.

2nd, With tender sympathy for his brethren's distressed case, the good Nehemiah defers not to seek immediate redress. It was of more importance to secure the God of the poor for their friend, than to dwell in a city which had bars and gates.
1. He was angry: a holy indignation warmed his heart; yet, not hasty in his spirit, he bethought him how the grievance might best be redressed. Note; (1.) We may be angry without offending, when sin, and not the person of the sinner, is the object of our displeasure. (2.) Before we rebuke, we should deliberate; that we may speak, not the language of passion, but the word of meekness.

2. He openly rebuked the nobles, who had been the authors of the oppression; called an assembly to determine upon the case; or engaged the people in a body to bring in their complaints, that the offenders might be convicted, and the abuse reformed. Note; (1.) No man is so great as to be above the reproof of a faithful minister. (2.) Popular complaints, when just, demand speedy redress.

3. He remonstrates with them on the evil of their conduct; not merely to reform them by his authority, but to awaken their consciences to a sense of sin. They were their brethren, and therefore entitled to peculiar tenderness: many of them had been but lately redeemed from their heathen masters, to whom, at Babylon, and the countries around, they had been sold; and to bring them again into bondage would be very cruel. They who did such things must needs be destitute of the fear of God. Himself, and those who were with him, had shewn them a better example: besides, nothing would give the heathens around them greater cause for reproach. He therefore exhorts them to immediate restitution of the mortgaged lands and houses, and entreats that they will desist from their exorbitant usury. Note; (1.) The relation that we stand in to each other, as brethren, should engage our compassion. (2.) They who are once God's redeemed people, ought never more to return into bondage. (3.) They who have a zeal for God's cause will be tenderly careful to bring no reproach upon it. (4.) A worldly-minded and niggardly professor is the greatest scandal to religion. (5.) When we have done ill, it becomes us to labour to undo it. There can be no simplicity towards God, without restitution to the oppressed. (6.) They who themselves set a good example can speak with greater confidence. (7.) It is a wise man's maxim to entreat where he may command, and seek to engage a compliance rather than use compulsion.

4. As they could not answer his remonstrance, and professed their readiness to comply with his request, the priests are called to administer an oath to them, and with a solemn imprecation to bind them to be faithful thereto. Nor were they backward, but added their ready amen to the oath that he exacted, and praised the Lord; both those who were relieved, for the mercy they had received; and they who had yielded up the mortgaged lands, that God had given them such a heart; and their performance was as punctual as the oath was solemn. Note; (1.) It is a mercy when a wise rebuke finds an obedient ear. (2.) An oath is sacredly to be fulfilled: the perjured, God will judge.

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Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Nehemiah 5". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.