COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 5:1 And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews. 2 For there were that said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live. 3 Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth. 4 There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king's tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards. 5 Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards.” (Neh 5:1-5)
Although the project has been inspired by God, eight formidable obstacles have been faced. 1. The mercy of a heathen king was required (1:11). 2. Sanballot and Tobiah were grieved to hear of Nehemiah’s coming (2:9-10). 3. The project is mocked by their enemies (2:19). 4. Sanballot and Tobiah again mock their progress (4:1-3). 5. Their enemies conspire to fight against them (4:7-8). 6. Judah is discouraged, strength is failing, there is much rubbish, and they think they cannot build (4:10). 7. The adversaries saw their condition and determined to secretly come among them and kill them (4:11). 8. The Jews who lived next to the enemies said things were hopeless (4:12). The work of the Lord is not accomplished in a moral vacuum. Part of Kingdom labor is learning how to face opposition, hardship, and discouragement. Now Nehemiah will face a different kind of challenge – one that comes from within the ranks – among the Jews themselves. This will prove to be a most serious threat to the success of the project.
HARDSHIP THREATENS THE PROJECT
“ 5:1 And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews. 2 For there were that said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live.” With remarkable progress, the builders are raising up the wall for the glory of God. But there are more Jews than the builders. The remaining people, together with their wives have fallen on hard times. Now an outcry against their fellow Jews is raised – strife within the ranks.
A GREAT CRY. Other versions read “a great outcry.” NKJV A “great cry” or “outcry” is a call of distress and pain. This is the kind of cry heard in Egypt when the firstborn were slain in all Egyptian houses (Ex 11:6; 12:30). It was loud – something like a shrieking sound, still common in the East, and filled with pain and sorrow. This cry arose while God-ordained work was being done on a God-appointed project. It arose after there had been fervent prayer, good preparation, and diligence and encouragement.
AGAINST THE JEWS. This is not a complaint about the activities of Sanballot, Tobiah, or the nations with whom they conspired. It was against their own people – their brethren, the Jews, who were among them. We will find that the people are being hurt by their own brethren! This is some of the most difficult of all hardship, when those closest to us cause life to be more burdensome – when they cause hope to languish. “Their brethren the Jews,” in this case, were the richer or more well to do Jews, as will be confirmed later. They were to their brethren like Joseph was to the Egyptians and his brethren, when he sold them corn in Egypt (Gen 41:56; 42:6). He did it fairly, these Jews were merciless in their dealings.
WE ARE MANY. The area was not sparsely populated. There were a lot of children – “sons and daughters,” and the people were many. The situation was similar to when Israel was in Egyptian bondage. There they multiplied, and their situation caused an outcry that reached into heaven itself (Ex 2:23-24). Then, it was because of the harsh treatment of the Egyptians. Now it is because of the abuse of their own brethren.
With all of the penchant men have for numbers, it should be remembered that there is a time when a lot of people are a liability! A lot of people in a famine are a hardship, as well as during times of war and other calamities. It is true that faith is equal to such occasions, and that God will provide wisdom during such times. We should, however, think of them ahead of time so they will not take us unawares and move us to speak and act in a foolish manner. A strong faith will know what to do when these times arise.
THAT WE MAY EAT AND LIVE. The KJV reads as though the people were merely gathering grain for themselves: “therefore we take up grain for them.” We will find, however, that this is not a report of what they were doing, but what they were finding it difficult to do. Other versions read, “therefore let us get grain, that we may eat and live,” NKJV and “in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.” NIV Paralleling this verse with verse five, we will find they had pledged their sons and daughters in order to get grain. At that time, a quiver full of children was not a blessing, as in Psalm 127:4-5. Included in this verse is the idea that these people had to pay exorbitant prices for their grain. Taking the next verse into consideration, I conclude that these people were not landowners, and had few possessions. Therefore it was the more difficult for them to obtain food, for they had nothing with which to barter, except to pledge their sons and daughters, according to Leviticus 25:39-41. That is, their sons and daughters would work to pay the created debt.
A SIMILAR SITUATION. It is interesting to note that the early church faced a similar situation. In the days “when the number of disciples was multiplied,” and the church was being built at a remarkable pace, “there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily administration” (Acts 6:1). Just as the work on the wall was challenged in Nehemiah’s day, so the building of the body of Christ was challenged in Jerusalem. From Satan’s standpoint, this was an attempt to turn the attention of the workers (chiefly the Apostles) to lesser things, and thus stop the spread of the Gospel. From the heavenly point of view, it was a test to draw out the wisdom of faith, thus providing for the needy without causing the work to cease. In Acts, as well as with Nehemiah, the Apostles responded appropriately, and “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
APPLICATION. Let no one suppose that a good work means there will be no obstacles. There are still professed Christians who can live unacceptably during a great work of God, thereby causing affliction and hardship for their brethren. In fact, most of us have found this to be the single most discouraging factor in accomplishing the work of the Lord.
DEARTH AND TAXES THREATEN THE PROJECT
“ 3 Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth. 4 There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king's tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards.” Times were not only difficult for the poorer of the land, but also for those who had possessions. In and around Jerusalem, while the wall was being built, there were some who were becoming poorer and poorer. Their lives had become complicated, even though a God-blessed work was going on in their midst. It was not the Lord’s work that brought the hardship, but the unfair treatment of their own brethren. There were, then, a number of leading people whose heart remained unaffected by the good work of Nehemiah’s builders, even though Nehemiah had come “to seek the welfare of the children of Israel” (2:10).
WE HAVE MORTGAGED OUR LANDS. In order for them to live, these people had to mortgage their lands, vineyards, and houses. That is, they offered their lands, vineyards, and houses as a pledge of payment. When Joseph ruled in Egypt, he took livestock and land from the Egyptians when their money ran out (Gen 47:15-25). Under the Law of Moses, the Jews were strictly forbidden to take advantage of their poorer brethren. They were to relieve them, charge them no interest on loans, and not sell them food at a profit (Lev 25:35-39). Those with possessions were to treat poorer brethren mercifully, not hardening their heart or shutting their hand from helping them. Neither were they to allow their poor to work without due compensation (Deut 15:7-9).
What is occurring in our text is that those with lands, vineyards, and houses, had pledged them for food, and still did not have adequate food. That is what caused their cry to erupt. Their own brethren had taken advantage of them.
BECAUSE OF THE DEARTH. A “dearth” is a famine, during which people are famished for hunger. Other versions read “because of the famine.” For the very first time, we find there was a famine, or the aftereffects of one, while the wall was being built. Some years before this, during the time when Zerubbabel was building the Temple, there was a famine (Hag 1:6,10-11; 2:16-19), but that was many years before this. We are not sure if this “dearth” was a present circumstance, or was a previous one that created the current crisis. Whatever the occasion, these people had already mortgaged their lands, vineyards, and houses, and had no further resources by which to procure food.
WE HAVE BORROWED MONEY. Here is yet another class of people who have borrowed money, not for food, but to pay “tribute,” or taxes. The taxes, the people said, were “upon our lands and vineyards.” Other versions state that the taxes were on the land and vineyards themselves: “We have borrowed money for the king's tax on our lands and vineyards.” NKJV It is also probable that the money was “borrowed,” upon the basis of the crops of the land being the means of paying off the debt. Again, this was probably a past activity that had created the present crisis. The resources of the people had simply dried up, so that obtaining food had become a problem.
FOR THE KING’S TRIBUTE. Earlier, in the days of Ezra, mention was made of paying tribute, or taxes, and revenue for the king (Ezra 4:13). In the days of king Ahasuerus, he also had “laid a tribute upon the land,” taxing the people (Esther 10:1). This was the manner of the Persian kings, and the people were living in the aftermath of those heavy taxes. Not only that, our text indicates that the condition was continuing. The NRSV emphasizes this in its translation: “We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king's tax.”
APPLICATION. From the standpoint of the flesh, this was certainly not a good time to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Not only were there enemies aligned against them, their daily circumstances shouted out for the work to stop. The people were extremely poor, and were having a most difficult time obtaining food. Their own brethren were taking advantage of the situation, their children were being subjected to slavery, and the taxing of the king was forcing them to borrow money to pay his tribute. Yet, this is the time during which Nehemiah was called to build the wall.
Those who imagine that everything falls into place conveniently when God calls someone to a work, do well to consider our text. Those who work for the Lord will face challenges, and often from their own brethren. Need can arise while the work of the Lord is progressing. Conflicts among brethren may surface even when attacks from the enemy are imminent. When Isaiah promised, “Say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with him” (Isa 3:10), he did not mean there would be no trouble. Yet, trouble will not overcome them.
BONDAGE THREATENS THE PROJECT
“ 5 Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards.” Here is a sad lament. We do not know how long this condition had existed, but now it had become overbearing to the people. This cry was not heard when Nehemiah first arrived in the land. The people had subdued their complaint, allowing the first phase of the wall to be completed without undue concern about the welfare of the people. But now, the lament erupts with power.
OUR FLESH AND OUR CHILDREN. This phrase, “Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children,” means, “we are just like our brethren, who appear to be much better off than we – the brethren who are causing us to mortgage our lands, vineyards, and houses. We are Jews just like they are!” The sense of the text is this: “We are one flesh with these abusing brethren – taken from the stock of Abraham!”
SONS AND DAUGHTERS INTO BONDAGE. Yet, they were unlike these brethren because their sons and daughters were having to become slaves in order to pay their debts – debts created because of the need for food, not luxuries. Technically, the Law did allow Jews to lend to their brethren (Deut 15:7-8). Yet, they were not allowed to charge them usury, or interest (Ex 22:25). The Law also permitted the poor to sell themselves and their sons and daughters to procure wages. Yet, those who received such a payment could not treat their brethren as slaves, but were to treat them as hired servants, or employees (Lev 25:39-40). Even under those circumstances, these people were to be released with their children in the year of jubilee (Lev 25:13-17,41). It appears from our text that no compassion was being shown to the people, but greed had moved the wealthy to take advantage of the poverty of their brethren. This violated the law of the Lord: “but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly” NIV (Lev 25:46)
SOME DAUGHTERS ALREADY SLAVES. At this very time, the daughters of some were already slaves because of the poverty of their parents. The Law did allow for daughters to be sold (Ex 21:7). Creditors were known to take children as slaves to work off a debt, as with the widow who petitioned Elisha for help (2 Kgs 4:1). The poverty of some was so bad, they were already seeing their daughters enslaved to pay off debts. Suffice it to say, times before Christ were difficult indeed. How grateful we should be for this day of grace – the “day of salvation” – for such practices are never mentioned as being among those in Christ Jesus.
THEY COULD NOT REDEEM THEM. The Law specified that a servant could be redeemed, or bought back, by paying off the debt for which they were enslaved. The redemption price could come from any relative. “After that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him: Either his uncle, or his uncle's son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be able, he may redeem himself” (Lev 25:48-49). But, alas, these people were not able to redeem their own daughters, but were forced to live apart from them.
OTHER MEN HAD THEIR LANDS AND VINEYARDS. Here is the reason for their inability: they had mortgaged their properties to obtain food, and now the fruits of their fields went to their debtors, and not to themselves. When the people were judged in the Babylonian captivity, the prophecy of Moses was fulfilled: “The fruit of thy land, and all thy labors, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up” (Deu 28:33). But now, that captivity had ended, and still the condition continued. But this time, it was not the Babylonians that reaped their fields, but their own brethren, and that in violation of the Law of their God.
The magnitude of these difficulties threatens the completion of the wall. Yet, faith will overcome even this challenging situation.
APPLICATION. Those who put their hand to the work of the Lord should not be surprised if challenges and great difficulties occur among their brethren. Some of the most formidable oppositions we face rise from those who wear the name of Christ. Such make it difficult for those belonging to Christ, just as certain Jews made it difficult for the poorer brethren of our text. We must learn to view the multiple divisions in the church, together with the serious differences in understanding, to be nothing more than the work of the enemy within. The work of the Lord not only faces the hostilities of Satan’s children, but the abuses and complaints of the brethren. It is quite possible that brethren will have to be rebuked like Nehemiah will rebuke the abusers of our text. He did so because the work had to go on. That is precisely what must drive us also. “The will of the Lord be done!”