Bible Commentary: Nehemiah 5

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Nehemiah 5

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Relief From Domestic Exploitation

No sooner is the external threat of attack staved off, at least temporarily, that another development threatens the progress of the Jews in rebuilding Jerusalem's wall and their well being in general—this time from within. It seems likely that the problems described in this passage had been brewing for a long time—well before Nehemiah ever arrived. And now, with the current prolonged period of hard work, constant alert, inevitable fatigue and diminished regular income due to time spent on rebuilding the wall, things at last came to a head.

Verse 3 mentions a famine. Perhaps it was not severe, but even a minor one would have produced food shortages, making available food more expensive. Exacerbating the situation was the outside enemy threat, which likely kept the people of Jerusalem pent up behind their new defenses—away from access to the produce of the countryside. Some now come seeking relief because they have large families, compounding their need for grain (verse 2). Even many landowners had mortgaged their lands and homes (verse 3), so the produce of even accessible lands probably went to other people as repayment. These other people were not foreign authorities but fellow Jews. The outcry of the people in verse 1 is "against their Jewish brethren." The rich were getting richer, and the poor were getting poorer.

Verses 4-5 describe some who borrowed money and even sold their children into slavery to pay property taxes to the king. This was not an unusual circumstance in the Persian Empire, which taxed excessively, removing vast sums of money from circulation and thereby running up inflation. "Documents from Babylonia show that many inhabitants of this satrapy too had to mortgage their fields and orchards to get silver for the payment of taxes to the king. In many cases they were unable to redeem their property, and became landless hired labourers; sometimes they were compelled to give away their children into slavery. According to some Egyptian data, the taxation was so heavy that the peasants fled to the cities, but were arrested by the nomarchs [regional governors] and brought back by force" (M. Dandamayev, "Achaemenid Babylonia," Ancient Mesopotamia, I.M. Diakonoff, ed., 1969, p. 308, quoted in Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 4). "The acquisition of land by the Persians and its alienation from production helped produce a 50 percent rise in prices" (note on verse 4).

Again, though, it is not the high taxes, inflation or famine that the people are complaining about. They are complaining about each other. More specifically, the poorer people are complaining about the rich nobles and rulers (see verse 7) in the matters of borrowing money and selling children into slavery with no means to redeem them. The problem in the first matter, as Nehemiah identifies it (verse 7), is the exacting of usury—interest. The law forbade the charging of interest to poor Israelites in need. "The O[ld] T[estament] passages (Exodus 22:25-27; Leviticus 25:35-37; Deuteronomy 23:19-20; Deuteronomy 24:10-13) prohibiting the giving of loans at interest were not intended to prohibit commercial loans but rather the charging of interest to the impoverished so as to make a profit from the helplessness of one's neighbors" (note on Nehemiah 5:7). Yet the latter is exactly what was happening. And this led to the second problem—Israelites having to hire themselves and their children out as servants to pay off debt. While this was permissible, it would not have been necessary if the people were not sinking further and further into debt because of the usury. Furthermore, the nobles and rulers were going beyond what was allowed with regard to Israelite servants. They were selling them as slaves (verses 5, 8), which the law expressly prohibited (see Leviticus 25:35-40).

Beyond these specifics, Scripture roundly condemned greedily profiteering at the expense of others (see Psalm 119:36; Isaiah 56:9-12; Isaiah 57:17; Jeremiah 6:13; Jeremiah 8:10; Jeremiah 22:13-19; Ezekiel 22:12-14; Ezekiel 33:31). The people were to be looking out for one another's welfare—not exploiting each other. And those more able to help had the responsibility to do so. Yet things were far from that ideal. "The ironic tragedy of the situation for the exiles was that at least in Mesopotamia their families were together. Now because of dire economic necessities, their children were being sold into slavery" (note on verse 5).

Nehemiah is outraged over this terrible, sinful situation (verse 6). It is clear that he knew nothing about it until this point, having only recently arrived.

After he rebukes the nobles, having given a lot of thought to the matter, Nehemiah convenes a "great assembly" against them. Often called the "Great Synagogue," Jewish tradition reckons this as the beginnings of a continuing authority to watch over Jewish religious affairs that persisted until Seleucid Greek times. Historian Alfred Edersheim writes: "It is impossible with certainty to determine, either who composed this assembly, or of how many members it consisted. {The Talmudic notices are often inconsistent. The number as given in them amounts to about 120....} Probably it comprised the leading men in Church and State, the chief priests, elders, and 'judges,' the latter two classes including 'the Scribes,' if, indeed, that order was already separately organised. {Ezra 10:14; Nehemiah 5:7.} Probably also the term 'Great Assembly' [beyond its introduction in Nehemiah 5:7] refers rather to a succession of men than to one Synod" (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, chap. 8). It is this body that is understood to have approved Ezra's canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Regarding the matter at hand, so obvious is the nobles' guilt that they have nothing to say by way of excuse or rebuttal (verse 8). Nehemiah points out two issues that should have been of concern to them in what they have done—showing a lack of appropriate fear of God in disobeying His laws and bringing the Jews and the God they worshiped into disrepute among the surrounding gentile nations (verse 9). Nehemiah classes himself, his relatives and his officials as among those who have been lending money (verse 10)—though he does not state that he himself has been charging interest. He calls for an end to the usury and a restoration of property, money and food with interest.

The nobles agree to Nehemiah's directive, taking an oath regarding the matter, as he requires—and then, encouragingly, they follow through on what they have promised (verses 12-13).

In verse 14, we see that Nehemiah served 12 years in his first term as governor of Judea (444-432 B.C.). At the end of this period he would be recalled to the Persian court (Nehemiah 13:6), after which he would return for a second term. It is surprising to see that during his administration, Nehemiah and his family did not eat the governor's provisions or tax the people though he had that authority. In verse 15, he mentions previous governors who had abused their authority in this regard. He is surely not referring to Ezra or Zerubbabel. Archaeology has revealed that there were at least three governors of Judea between Zerubbabel and Ezra: Elnathan in the late 6th century B.C. (as revealed on a bulla and seal); Yeho'ezer in the early 5th century (as revealed on a jar impression); and Ahzai in the early 5th century (also revealed on a jar impression) (see Expositor's Bible Commentary, footnote on verse 15). And it may have been that the Samaritan governor Sanballat and the Ammonite governor Tobiah were acting as de facto governors over parts of Judea prior to Nehemiah's arrival.

As for his own administration, Nehemiah made sure that it was upright and beneficent. Verse 16 shows that "Nehemiah had not acquired mortgages on land. As governor, he could easily have acquired real estate and sold it at great profit. But instead of making money for themselves, Nehemiah and his servants worked on the wall of Jerusalem for the protection of the people and the glory of God" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 16).

Nehemiah's refusal of the governor's provision so as not to further burden the people is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he regularly provided for so many at his table (verses 17-18). Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary states: "We have a remarkable proof both of the opulence and the disinterestedness [in it] of Nehemiah. As he declined, on conscientious grounds, to accept the lawful emoluments attached to his government, and yet maintained a style of princely hospitality for twelve years out of his own resources, it is evident that his office of cupbearer at the court of Shushan must have been very lucrative" (note on verse 14).

Indeed, Nehemiah was very wealthy—and yet very generous with his wealth. In verse 19, he prays that God will remember him for good—rewarding him for all that he has done for God's people—a prayer he repeats at the end of the book (Nehemiah 13:31). This shows what truly motivated Nehemiah. It was not to be revered by other people but to please God, who is "a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6). That should be our motivation too—in whatever we do.