COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 5:6 And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words. 7 Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them. 8 And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us? Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer.” (Neh 5:6-10)
Even though the Babylonian captivity concluded approximately eighty-five years before (517 BC), Nehemiah return to Jerusalem, the Jews were still struggling with its aftermath. The captivity had technically ended, but they had not fully recovered – or were anywhere near full recovery. By Divine direction, the Temple had been commissioned to be built by Cyrus in 536 BC, and completed by Zerubbabel and his colleagues about one year after the captivity had ended (516-517 BC). Thirteen years previous to Nehemiah’s return (458 BC), the scribe Ezra had led an entourage to Jerusalem to restore the spiritual order and appoint magistrates and judges in Judah. Yet with all of that, inequities and abuses still existed among the people of God.
The God-ordained work has now been threatened by inconvenient and unjust conditions among the people. The test will be whether or not Nehemiah can respond in godly wisdom. He must be able to resolve anything that is improper without it hindering the work on the wall. He must not get caught up in the problem itself, nor can he avoid it altogether as though it was not important. Also, his response must not be delayed.
NEHEMIAH’S REACTION TO THE COMPLAINTS
“ 5:6 And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words. 7 Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them.”
I WAS VERY ANGRY. Nearly every version reads exactly the same. Some variations are, “exceedingly angry,” DOUAY “it was very displeasing to me,” YLT and “I was much grieved.” Septuagint The idea is that the report kindled extreme displeasure in Nehemiah. He was incensed and vexed. The fact that the people were caused to cry out in pain angered him. Their words – the conditions they reported – caused great annoyance in the man of God. Those who suppose anger is never right greatly error. There are times when anger is not only in order, but is mandatory. This was one of them. Moses was angry with Aaron’s disobedient sons (Lev 10:16). Once the Lord Jesus looked upon a hard-hearted crowd “with anger, being grieved for their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). Frequently God is said to have been angry with people (Deut 1:37; 4:21 Moses, 2 Kgs 17:18, Israel 1 Kgs 11:9. Solomon The phrase “the anger of the Lord” is found 32 times in Scripture. There is a time to be angry. We are admonished, “Be ye angry, and sin not” (Eph 4:26), and godly leaders are to be “not soon angry” (Tit 1:7). This was not a carnal response on Nehemiah’s part. He had pity and concern for those abused, but anger toward those who did the abusing.
I CONSULTED WITH MYSELF. Other versions read, “After serious thought,” NKJV “I pondered them in my mind,” NIV “After thinking it over,” NRSV and “my heart thought with myself.” DOUAY This confirms Nehemiah did not simply fly into a fleshly rage, for that would not have allowed sound and profitable thought. The man of God did not speak until he had duly considered this matter in his heart and with his mind. The idea is not that Nehemiah festered with anger as he thought about these things. Rather, he pondered them in order to resolve them and keep the work on the wall going. The literal meaning of this expression is, “my heart took counsel upon it.”
We ought to note that godly thought is integral to spiritual life. During the time of Malachi, God was endeared toward certain people who “thought upon His name” (Mal 3:16). Nehemiah consults with himself as a godly man, whose trust is in the Lord. He is thus preparing to speak wisely and profitably. David confessed, “while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue” (Psa 39:3). This is precisely what Nehemiah is doing, and he will speak appropriately only after duly pondering the situation.
I REBUKED THE NOBLES AND THE RULERS. Other versions read, “contended with,” NASB “accused,” NIV “brought charges against,” NRSV “reprimanded,” NJB “spoke out against,” NLT and “made a protest to.” BBE This was a bold confrontation. A wrong had been committed, and it could not be allowed to pass without due correction. Even though these men were nobles and rulers, they were not above rebuke. Nehemiah now fulfills the solemn word of Moses: “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor” (Lev 19:15). Truth must prevail. Nehemiah’s action was in keeping with the wise counsel of Jehoshaphat: “Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for the LORD, who is with you in the judgment” (2 Chr 19:6).
YE EXACT USURY. Another version reads, “You are exacting usuryfrom your own countrymen.” NIV They had broken the law of Moses: “If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him; you shall not charge him interest” (Exo 22:25), and thus were soundly rebuked. Such action, Moses declared, revealed a lack of the fear of God (Lev 25:36). David said one of the qualifications for abiding in the Lord’s tabernacle and dwelling in His holy hill was not putting out ones money “to usury” (Psa 15:1-5). This was toward brethren, for the Law allowed an Israelite to obtain interest from a “stranger,” or non-Jew (Deut 23:19). Thus, these men had taken advantage of their own brethren in the time of hardship – a transgression God regards with utmost seriousness. Nehemiah would not allow such reprehensible conduct to continue.
I SET A GREAT ASSEMBLY AGAINST THEM. Other versions read, “I called a great assembly,” NKJV “I held a great assembly,” NASB and “I called together a large meeting to deal with them.” NIV This may involve calling those with complaints together to hear the charges, and to publically reprove the offenders. It also probably involved convening a large court to examine the charges and render a just verdict on the matter. It appears from the text that the nobles and rulers gave no heed to Nehemiah’s rebuke. Therefore, he was obliged to bring the matter before the people. Justice must be done, that the work not be hindered.
DEALING WITH THE ABUSERS
“ 8 And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us? Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer.” The man of God will now show how utterly unreasonable the conduct of the nobles and rulers had been. Instead of standing for the people, they had actually taken advantage of them. They had conducted themselves exactly as the shepherds against whom Ezekiel prophesied: “but the shepherds fed themselves, and fed not My flock” (Ezek 34:8). The Lord had commanded Ezekiel to speak against the shepherds saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks?” (Ezek 34:2). Now the nobles and rulers have committed the same trespass, learning nothing from the past. They have exploited their own people – the people of God – by fattening their own coffers at the expense of the increased poverty of the poor Jews. They had the same infectious spirit as the Pharisees, of whom Jesus said, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses . . . therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation” (Mat 23:14). The exploitation of any poor and needy is particularly reprehensible to God, and even more so when it is against His people.
WE HAVE REDEEMED OUR BRETHREN. Another version reads, “As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles.” NIV Nehemiah and those with him had made a practice of redeeming their brethren who had been sold to pay off debt, and it was apparently well known that they did so. That is, they had paid the debts their brethren owed. Long before the words were written, they were fulfilling the admonition of the Spirit through John: “and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). They had the same spirit as Paul, who wrote of Onesimus to Philemon: “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account” (Phile 1:18).
In this circumstance we are more fully instructed concerning redemption. The necessity of redemption is seen in a debt that is owed, yet cannot be paid by the debtor. Until that debt is paid, the debtor will remain enslaved. In our case, we were debtors to the Law, and enslaved by its condemnation. That Law condemned us because we had violated it, thus incurring a gigantic debt. Like Nehemiah, the Lord Jesus “redeemed” us, paying the debt we were powerless to pay. Thus it is written, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Gal 3:13). There is another sense in which we were enslaved. By committing iniquity, we had become obligated to it, and could not break free from that obligation. Again, the Lord Jesus is depicted as redeeming us. “Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14). In the “redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24), we are not only redeemed, or purchased again, from something, but TO Someone. Titus 2:14 declares Jesus redeemed us “unto Himself.” Revelation 5:9 affirms Christ “redeemed to God” by His blood. In all of these cases, the price was paid to God Himself, for ultimately sin creates a debt to Him that can in no way be paid off by the transgressor. In my judgment, a fuller awareness of the significance of “redemption” will greatly impact how we live.
WILL YE EVEN SELL YOUR BRETHREN? This is a rhetorical question. It is intended to provoke guilt, for the rulers and nobles were actually selling their brethren by creating debts among them they were unable to pay. This, in turn, was dearly costing Nehemiah and his brethren, for they were buying them back. The NIV shows this to be the meaning. “Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!.” Thus the greedy leaders had not only brought great sorrow upon their own brethren, but had created extra indebtedness for Nehemiah and his brethren. The irony of the situation is worth noting. The nobles and the rulers felt obligated to obtain interest from their poorer brethren, while Nehemiah and his brethren felt obligated to buy them back. Before the assembly Nehemiah had called, he charged the leaders with selling their own brethren, in sharp distinction to his own conduct, which was to buy them back, or pay their debts.
THEY HELD THEIR PEACE. The words of Nehemiah were so weighty, the leaders could not frame an answer to them. I do not doubt that Nehemiah’s own life had added weight to his words. He had proved in living that the Law was his delight, and that he was endeared to his brethren. We should learn from this that deviate spiritual conduct always neutralizes the words of those who take it upon themselves to speak for God.
REASONING WITH THE ABUSERS
“ 9Also I said, It is not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies? 10 I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury.” It is not enough to simply point out what the nobles and rulers have done. Their conduct must be judged, or evaluated, with righteous judgment. This requires the boldness of faith. Paul once told Timothy, “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (1 Tim 5:20). Again, Titus was told of those who were “subverting whole houses.” Solemnly Paul told him, “Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). Nehemiah is living this out centuries before those words were written.
IT IS NOT GOOD. Other versions read, “What you are doing is not good!” NKJV and “What you are doing is not right.” NIV Again, this is a statement of great boldness, but faith compels one to speak in this way. It is not fashionable to speak in such a manner, and some even consider it to be counterproductive. However, such words are spoken for the encouragement of the oppressed as well as the upbraiding of their oppressors.
There comes a time when leaders must be rebuked. God Himself rebuked the shepherds of Israel (Ezek 34:2-10). Elijah sternly rebuked Ahab, saying he had troubled all of Israel by not keeping the commandments of the Lord (1 Kgs 18:17-18). John the Baptist rebuked Herod, saying it was “not lawful” for him to have his brother Philip’s wife (Matt 14:3-4). The Lord Jesus sternly rebuked the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, and Lawyers (Matt 22:23-34; 23:13-29; Luke 11:46).
CONDUCT THAT HAS NO FEAR OF GOD. Other versions read, “Should you not walk in the fear of our God?” NKJV Because God is the only reason for the Jews having any distinction among men, Nehemiah refers to “our God.” In saying these words, Nehemiah confirms the nobles and rulers have not been thinking of God Almighty, but only of themselves. In what they were doing, the leaders had not the slightest thought about how the Living God regarded their conduct. Like the “wicked,” God was not in their “thoughts” (Psa 10:4). They did not consider His Person, will, commands, or benefits.
Conducting our lives in the fear of the Lord is frequently mentioned in Scripture. Those who rule “must be just, ruling in the fear of the Lord” (2 Sam 23:3). Solomon said,. “be thou in the fear of the Lord all the day long” (Prov 23:17). The early church is described as “walking in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31). Believers in Christ are admonished to “perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord” (2 Cor 7:1). The body of Christ is exhorted to submit “to one another in the fear of God” (Eph 5:21). This is a requirement that covers all time and spans both covenants. God will not bless a people who ignore Him in their living.
To “walk in the fear of the Lord” is to live with an acute awareness that His eye is upon us, and nothing is hidden from Him. It is to live with a mind to please Him, and zealously avoid being offensive to Him. His will thus becomes dominate in the individual’s life, and a determination is found to please Him in all things.
If Nehemiah rebuked people under the Old Covenant for not walking in the fear of the Lord, how much more is this in order in “the day of salvation,” when everything pertaining to life and godliness has been lavished upon us? Yet, such an attitude is becoming exceedingly rare in the churches. Such things ought not to be!
THE REPROACH OF THE HEATHEN. One version reads, “Shouldn't you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?” NIV (Neh 5:9). The idea is that the conduct of the nobles and rulers would give their enemies an opportunity to reproach, slander, or defame them. This was not mere human reproach, but involved slander against the God of the Hebrews. Isaiah spoke of this very condition through Isaiah. “they that rule over them (My people) make them to howl, saith the LORD; and My name continually every day is blasphemed” (Isa 52:5). It reminds me of the statement of Romans 2:24, which was also stated to Jews: “For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you.” The Gentiles, seeing the greed and inconsideration of the Jewish leaders, would conclude there was no real difference between the Jews and the Gentiles, and that their God was a mere imagination. Believers in Christ are solemnly warned not to live in such a manner as will provoke criticism of God and His Word (1 Tim 6:1; Tit 2:5).
WE HAVE LOANED MONEY TOO. “I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop!” (Neh 5:10). Nehemiah and his brethren had helped their brethren without charging them interest – in addition to redeeming them. They had lived out the example the leaders were now to follow.