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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 5

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-19


Nehemiah 5:1-19

WE open the fifth chapter of Nehemiah with a shock of pain. The previous chapter described a scene of patriotic devotion in which nearly all the people were united for the prosecution of one great purpose. There we saw the priests and the wealthy citizens side by side with their humble brethren engaged in the common task of building the walls of Jerusalem and guarding the city against assault. The heartiness with which the work was first undertaken, the readiness of all classes to resume it after temporary discouragements, and the martial spirit shown by the whole population in, standing under arms in the prosecution of it, determined to resist any interference from without, were all signs of a large-minded zeal in which we should have expected private interests to have given place to the public necessities of the hour. But now we are compelled to look at the seamy side of city life. In the midst of the unavoidable toils and dangers occasioned by the animosity of the Samaritans, miserable internal troubles had broken out among the Jews and the perplexing problems which seem to be inseparable from the gathering together of a number of people under any known past or present social system had developed in the most acute form. The gulf between the rich and the poor had widened ominously: for while the poor had been driven to the last extremity, their more fortunate fellow-citizens had taken a monstrously cruel advantage of their helplessness. Famine-stricken men and women not only cried to Nehemiah for the means of getting corn for themselves and their families, they had a complaint to make against their brethren. Some had lost their lands after mortgaging them to rich Jews. Others had even been forced by the moneylenders to sell their sons and daughters into slavery. They must have been on the brink of starvation before resorting to such an unnatural expedient. How wonderfully, then, do they exhibit the patience of the poor in their endurance of these agonies! There were no bread-riots. The people simply appealed to Nehemiah, who had already proved himself their disinterested friend, and who. as governor, was responsible for the welfare of the city.

It is not difficult to see how it came about that many of the citizens of Jerusalem were in this desperate plight. In all probability most of Zerubbabel’s and Ezra’s pilgrims had been in humble circumstances. It is true successive expeditions had gone up with contributions to the Jerusalem colony, but most of the stores they had conveyed had been devoted to public works, and even anything that may have been distributed among the citizens could only have afforded temporary relief. War utterly paralyses industry and commerce. In Judaea the unsettled state of the country must have seriously impeded agricultural and pastoral occupations. Then the importation of corn into Jerusalem would be almost impossible while roving enemies were on the watch in the open country, so that the price of bread would rise as a result of scarcity. At the same time the presence of persons from the outlying towns would increase the number of mouths to be fed within the city. Moreover, the attention given to the building of the walls and the defence of Jerusalem from assault would prevent artisans and tradesmen from following the occupations by which they usually earned their living. Lastly, the former governors had impoverished the population by exacting grievously heavy tribute. The inevitable result of all this was debt and its miserable consequences.

Just as in the early history of Athens and later at Rome, the troubles to the state arising from the condition of the debtors were now of the most serious character. Nothing disorganises society more hopelessly than bad arrangements with respect to debts and poverty. Nehemiah was justly indignant when the dreadful truth was made known to him. We may wonder why he had not discovered it earlier, since he had been going in and out among the people. Was there a certain aloofness in his attitude? His lonely night ride suggests something of the kind. In any case his absorbing devotion to his one task of rebuilding the city walls could have left him little leisure for other interests. The man who is engaged in a grand scheme for the public good is frequently the last to notice individual cases of need. The statesman is in danger of ignoring the social condition of the people in the pursuit of political ends. It used to be the mistake of most governments that their foreign policy absorbed their attention to the neglect of home interests.

Nehemiah was not slow in recognising the public need, when it was brought under his notice by the cry of the distressed debtors. According to the truly modern custom of his time in Jerusalem, he called a public meeting, explained the whole situation, and appealed to the creditors to give back the mortgaged lands and remit the interest on their loans. This was agreed to at once, the popular conscience evidently approving of the proposal. Nehemiah, however, was not content to let the matter rest here. He called the priests, and put them on their oath to see that the promise of the creditors was carried out. This appeal to the priesthood is very significant. It shows how rapidly the government was tending towards a sacerdotal theocracy. But it is important to notice that it was a social and not a purely political matter in which Nehemiah looked to the priests. The social order of the Jews was more especially bound up with their religion, or rather with their law and its regulations, while as yet questions of quasi-foreign policy were freely relegated to the purely civil authorities, the heads of families, the nobles, and the supreme governor under the Persian administration.

Nehemiah followed the example of the ancient prophets in his symbolical method of denouncing any of the creditors who would not keep the promise he had extracted from them. Shaking out his mantle, as though to cast off whatever had been wrapped in its folds, he exclaimed, "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." {Nehemiah 5:13} This was virtually a threat of confiscation and excommunication. Yet the ecclesia gladly assented, crying "Amen" and praising the Lord.

The extreme position here taken up by Nehemiah and freely conceded by the people may seem to us unreasonable unless we have considered all the circumstances. Nehemiah denounced the conduct of the money-lenders as morally wrong. "The thing that ye do is not good," he said. It was opposed to the will of God. It provoked the reproach of the heathen. It was very different from his own conduct, in redeeming captives and supporting the poor out of his private means. Now, wherein was the real evil of the conduct of these creditors? The primitive law of the "Covenant" forbade the Jews to take interest for loans among their brethren. {Exodus 22:25} But why so? Is there not a manifest convenience in the arrangements by which those people who possess a superfluity may lend to those who are temporarily embarrassed? If no interest is to be paid for such loans, is it to be expected that rich people will run the risk and put themselves to the certain inconvenience they involve? The man who saves generally does so in order that his savings may be of advantage to him. If he consents to defer the enjoyment of them, must not this be for some consideration? In proportion as the advantages of saving are reduced the inducements to save will be diminished, and then the available lending fund of the community will be lessened, so that fewer persons in need of temporary accommodation will be able to receive it. From another point of view, may it not be urged that if a man obtains the assistance of a loan he should be as willing to pay for it as he would be to pay for any other distinct advantage? He does not get the convenience of a coach-ride for nothing, why should he not expect to pay anything for a lift along a difficult bit of his financial course? Sometimes a loan may be regarded as an act of partnership. The tradesman who has not sufficient capital to carry on his business borrows from a neighbour who possesses money which he desires to invest. Is not this an arrangement in which lending at interest is mutually advantageous? In such a case the lender is really a sort of "sleeping partner," and the interest he receives is merely his share in the business, because it is the return which has come back to him through the use of his money. Where is the wrong of such a transaction? Even when the terms are more hard on the debtor, may it not be urged that he does not accept them blindfold? He knows what he is doing when he takes upon himself the obligations of his debt and its accompanying interest; he willingly enters into the bond, believing that it will be for his own advantage. How then can he be regarded as the victim of cruelty?

This is one side of the subject, and it is not to be denied that it exhibits a considerable amount of truth from its own point of view. Even on this ground, however, it may be doubted whether the advantages of the debtor are as great as they are represented. The system of carrying on business by means of borrowed capital is answerable for much of the strain and anxiety of modern life, and not a little of the dishonesty to which traders are now tempted when hard pressed. The offer of "temporary accommodation" is inviting, but it may be questioned whether this is not more often than not a curse to those who accept it. Very frequently it only postpones the evil day. Certainly it is not found that the multiplication of "pawn-shops" tends to the comfort and well-being of the people among whom they spring up, and possibly, if we could look behind the scenes, we should discover that lending agencies in higher commercial circles were not much more beneficial to the community.

Still, it may be urged, even if the system of borrowing and lending is often carried too far, there are cases in which it is manifestly beneficial. The borrower may be really helped over a temporary difficulty. In a time of desperate need he may even be saved from starvation. This is not to be denied. We must look at the system as a whole, however, rather than only at its favourite instances.

The strength of the case for lending money at interest rests upon certain plain laws of "Political Economy." Now it is absurd to denounce the science of "Political Economy" as "diabolical." No science can be either good or bad, for by its nature all science deals only with truth and knowledge. We do not talk of the morality of chemistry. The facts may be reprehensible, but the scientific co-ordination of them, the discovery of the principles which govern them, cannot be morally culpable. Nevertheless "Political Economy" is only a science on the ground of certain presuppositions. Remove those presuppositions, and the whole fabric falls to the ground. It is not then morally condemned, it is simply inapplicable, because its data have disappeared. Now one of the leading data of this science is the principle of self-interest. It is assumed throughout that men are simply producing and trading for their own advantage. If this assumption is allowed, the laws and their results follow with the iron necessity of fate. But if the self-seeking principle can be removed, and a social principle be made to take its place, the whole process will be altered. We see this happening with Nehemiah, who is willing to lend free of interest. In his case the strong pleas for the reasonableness, for the very necessity of the other system fall to the ground. If the contagion of his example were universal, we should have to alter our books of "Political Economy," and write on the subject from the new standpoint of brotherly kindness.

We have not yet reached the bottom of this question. It may still be urged that, though it was very gracious of Nehemiah to act as he did, it was not therefore culpable in others who failed to share his views and means not to follow suit. In some cases the lender might be depending for a livelihood on the produce of his loans. If so, were he to decline to exact it, he himself would be absolutely impoverished. We must meet this position by taking into account the actual results of the money-lending system practised by the Jews in Jerusalem in the days of Nehemiah. The interest was high-"the hundredth part of the money" {Nehemiah 5:11} -i.e., with the monthly payments usual in the East, equivalent to twelve per cent annual interest. Then those who could not pay this interest, having already pledged their estates, forfeited the property. A wise regulation of Deuteronomy-unhappily never practised-had required the return of mortgaged land every seven years. {Deuteronomy 15:1-6} This merciful regulation was evidently intended to prevent the accumulation of large estates in the hands of rich men who would "add field to field" in a way denounced by the prophets with indignation. {e.g. Isaiah 5:8} Thus the tendency to inequality of lots would be avoided, and temporary embarrassment could not lead to the permanent ruin of a man and his children after him. It was felt, too, that there was a sacred character in the land, which was the Lord’s possession. It was not possible for a man to whom a portion had been allotted to wholly alienate it, for it was not his to dispose of, it was only his to hold. This mystical thought would help to maintain a sturdy race of peasants-Naboth, for example-who would feel their duty to their land to be of a religious nature, and who would therefore be elevated and strengthened in character by the very possession of it. All these advantages were missed by the customs that were found to be prevalent in the time of Nehemiah.

Far worse than the alienation of their estates was the selling of their children by the hard-pressed creditors. An ancient law of rude times recognised the fact and regulated it in regard to daughters, {Exodus 21:7} but it is not easy to see how in all age of civilisation any parents possessed of natural feeling could bring themselves to consent to such a barbarity. That some did so is a proof of the morally degrading effect of absolute penury. When the wolf is at the door, the hungry man himself becomes wolfish. The horrible stories of mothers in besieged cities boiling and eating their own children can only be accounted for by some such explanation as this. Here we have the severest condemnation of the social system which permits of the utter destitution of a large portion of the community. It is most hurtful to the characters of its victims, it dehumanises them, it reduces them to the level of beasts.

Did Ezra’s stern reformation prepare the way for this miserable condition of affairs? He had dared to tamper with the most sacred domestic ties. He had attacked the sanctities of the home. May we suppose that one result of his success was to lower the sense of home duties, and even to stifle the deepest natural affections? This is at least a melancholy possibility, and it warns us of the danger of any invasion of family claims and duties by the church or the State.

Now it was in face of the terrible misery of the Jews that Nehemiah denounced the whole practice of usury which was the root of it. He was not contemplating those harmless commercial transactions by which, in our day, capital passes from one hand to another in a way of business that may be equally advantageous to borrower and lender. All he saw was a state of utter ruin-land alienated from its old families, boys and girls sold into slavery, and the unfortunate debtors, in spite of all their sacrifices, still on the brink of starvation. In view of such a frightful condition, he naturally denounced the whole system that led to it. What else could he have done? This was no time for a nice discrimination between the use and the abuse of the system. Nehemiah saw nothing but abuse in it. Moreover, it was not in accordance with the Hebrew way ever to draw fine distinctions. If a custom was found to be working badly, that custom was reprobated entirely, no attempt was made to save from the wreck any good elements that might have been discovered in it by a cool scientific analysis. In The Law, therefore, as well as in the particular cases dealt with by Nehemiah, lending at interest among Jews was forbidden, because as usually practised it was a cruel, hurtful practice. Nehemiah even refers to lending on a pledge, without mentioning the interest, as an evil thing, because it was taken for granted that usury went with it. But that usury was not thought to be morally wrong in itself we may learn from the fact that Jews were permitted by their law to practise it with foreigners, {Deuteronomy 15:3-6} while they were not allowed to do any really wrong thing to them. This distinction between the treatment of the Jew and that of the Gentile throws some light on the question of usury. It shows that the real ground of condemnation was that the practice was contrary to brotherhood. Since then Christianity enlarges the field of brotherhood, the limits of exactions are proportionately extended. There are many things that we cannot do to a man when we regard him as a brother, although we should have had no compunction in performing them before we had owned the close relationship.

We see then that what Nehemiah and the Jewish law really condemned was not so much the practice of taking interest in the abstract as the carrying on of cruel usury among brothers. The evil that lies in that also appears in dealings that are not directly financial. The world thinks of the Jew too much as of a Shylock who makes his money breed by harsh exactions practised on Christians. But when Christians grow rich by the ill-requited toil of their oppressed fellow-Christians, when they exact more than their pound of flesh, when drop by drop they squeeze the very life-blood out of their victims, they are guilty of the abomination of usury in a new form, but with few of its evils lightened. To take advantage of the helpless condition of a fellow-man is exactly the wickedness denounced by Nehemiah in the heartless rich men of his day. It is no excuse for this that we are within our rights. It is not always right to insist upon our rights. What is legally innocent may be morally criminal. It is even possible to get through a court of justice what is nothing better than a theft in the sight of Heaven. It can never be right to push any one down to his ruin.

But, it may be said, the miserable man brought his trouble upon himself by his own recklessness. Be it so. Still he is our brother, and we should treat him as such. We may think we are under no obligation to follow the example of Nehemiah, who refused his pay from the impoverished citizens, redeemed Israelites from slavery in foreign lands, lent money free of interest, and entertained a number of Jews at his table-all out of the savings of his old courtier days at Susa. And yet a true Christian cannot escape from the belief that there is a real obligation lying on him to imitate this royal bounty as far as his means permit.

The law in Deuteronomy commanded the Israelite to lend willingly to the needy, and not harden his heart or shut up his hands from his "poor brother." {Deuteronomy 15:7-8} Our Lord goes further, for He distinctly requires His disciples to lend when they do not expect that the loan will ever be returned-"If ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive," He asks, "what thanks have ye? even sinners lend to sinners, to receive again as much." {Luke 6:34} And St. Paul is thinking of no work of supererogation when he writes, "Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ." {Galatians 6:2} Yet if somebody suggests that these precepts should be taken seriously and put in practice today, he is shouted down as a fanatic. Why is this? Will Christ be satisfied with less than His own requirements?

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Nehemiah 5". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/nehemiah-5.html.
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