COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 5:11 Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them. 12 Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest. Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise. 13 Also I shook my lap, and said, So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labor, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, and emptied. And all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the LORD. And the people did according to this promise.” (Nehemiah 5:11-13)
Having confronted a subtle enemy from without the camp, the workers have now encountered injustices and trouble within their own ranks. People have been living under extreme hardship because of the debts incurred to their own brethren. A sense of the glory of being God’s people, and the benefits that accrued from that status had eluded some of the people. Rather than restoring the Temple, the city, and the walls, some were only interested in making money, and thus were charging their brethren interest, and taking their property for pledges. This was not apparently known until there was an outcry among the people because they had no means to procure food for their wives and children. This was evidence of the working of Satan, who is against the work of God, from building a wall to teaching the Law. However, charged with the Spirit of God, Nehemiah will not allow the work to continue at the expense of the suffering of the people. The wall will be built, and the people will also find relief. Injustices will be resolved without jeopardizing the God-ordained work. Also, everything will be done in strict accord with the Law of God.
A TIME FOR RESTORATION
“ 5:11 Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them.” Not only was the practice of taking usury, or interest, from their brethren to be stopped, a restoration of what was taken from them was also required. Here we will see the principle of restoration put into use. There are often past things that must be corrected, and injustices made right. The wrongs of the past must be remedied, and the effects of them not allowed to continue as though nothing had happened. The people must be released from unnecessary sorrows and hardships while the work of the Lord continues. This same principle was lived out in Acts 6:1-10.
IMMEDIATE RESTORATION. There was to be no delay in restoring what was unjustly taken from the people – “Restore . . . even this day.” The more wealthy were in possession of properties that did not belong to them. They were gained during times of difficulty, and in an unjust manner. NOW was the time to restore them.
There is a certain immediacy associated with doing what is right. Delay, putting off, and hesitation, are to have no place in the lives of those associated with the Living God. “NOW,” for example is the time to yield our capacities in servitude to the Lord (Rom 6:19). “NOW,” is the time to awaken from spiritual sleep and lethargy, casting off the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light (Rom 13:11).
There is a certain mentality that is associated with much of the Christianity of our day. The things of God are often not perceived as critical, nor His commands seen as something to be obeyed now. Room has been made for delay and hesitation. However, when the Word is declared in truth, it is accompanied with a sense of urgency. When men know to do right, it is to be done immediately. Failing to do that constitutes sin (James 4:17).
PROPERTY RESTORED. In times of great duress the leaders had confiscated lands, fields, and houses – taking them in pledge for debts owed. As if the conditions of the people were not bad enough already, their nobles and rulers made them worse. Nehemiah urged them to return all properties being held. The fruits of the field must go to the people who worked them, and not to those who unjustly held them.
MONEY RESTORED. In this requirement, Nehemiah is careful to be righteous. He does not ask that the nobles and rulers return all of the money, but only “the hundredth part,” or the interest. One version reads, “and also the usury you are charging them – the hundredth part of the money.” NIV It is generally understood that this part was paid monthly, making an annual interest rate of 12% (12 X 1%).
As I have mentioned before, the Lord prohibited the Jews from exacting usury of their brethren. “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest” NASB (Exo 22:25). “And if thy brother be waxen poor . . . Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee” (Lev 25:35-36). Thus, the nobles and rulers had disobeyed God, taking interest from their brethren. They were to return it, and do it immediately.
GOODS RESTORED. When the people had no money to pay, it appears the nobles and rulers made them pay their interest in goods: “corn, oil, and wine.” That is, in grain, wine from the grapes, and oil from the olive yards. The goods taken in interest were also to be returned immediately to the people.
In doing this, the oppressed people would receive immediate relief. Their properties were returned to them so they could eat the fruit of their labors. They also received money, corn, oil, and wine for the assuagement of their grief. Indeed, this was an excellent procedure, driven by Nehemiah’s godly wisdom, faith, and a concern for his brethren. It is not frequently that such qualities are brought together.
THE YEAR OF RELEASE. (Deut 15:1-3). There are some who think the time during which all of this occurred was the “year of release,” which occurred every seven years. During that time every creditor was to release debts owed to him. This was called “the Lord’s release” (Deut 15:1-3). Whether or not this was actually the year of release, the people were asked to conduct themselves as though it was.
THE FAST GOD HAS CHOSEN. Isaiah spoke of a certain fast that the Lord had called – a fast of consideration. It included undoing “heavy burdens,” letting the oppressed “go free,” and bringing the poor into their own houses (Isa 58:6-7). Nehemiah was urging the nobles and rulers to conduct themselves in the spirit of that requirement. Thus, the Law and the Prophets fully supported what he demanded. It has a proper foundation.
AGREEMENT AND TAKING AN OATH
“ 12 Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest. Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise. ” The actions required by Nehemiah sharply conflicted with the spirit of greed and inconsideration that had dominated to that point. Would the abusers consent to do what he said? From the worldly point of view, ponder how unlikely it was that they would consent to Nehemiah’s word. After all, this would result in a sudden depletion of their capital – something covetous men will not consider for a moment. However, the Lord is in this matter. Nehemiah has asked nothing more than the “God of the Jews” has commanded – nor anything less.
WE WILL RESTORE. Immediately the offenders acquiesce to the word of the prophet: they will restore what he has demanded: their “lands, their vineyards and their olive yards, and their houses.” They will hold them no more as pledges. The people who lamented, “we have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses” (v 3), would have their mortgages burned, so to speak. Now, when they worked their fields, vineyards, and olive yards, they could keep the produce for themselves. Without delay, the nobles and rulers consented to do this. Truly, they were “willing” in the day of God’s power (Psa 110:3).
NOTHING MORE REQUIRED. The idea is that they would require nothing more from their debtors: “we will not demand anything more from them.” NIV No more interest, or “hundreth part” (12%), or security deposits or mortgages of any sort. Such procedures ended that day! They committed themselves to do precisely as Nehemiah had asked. They were no doubt sincere, for the power of the Lord was among them.
We should learn from this that it is possible for people to change their minds and make necessary restitution with
all possible haste. This is even more likely to occur in Christ than during the time of Nehemiah. You may recall that when he confronted Jesus Zaccheus said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” NIV (Luke 19:8). If ever we can get people to become aware of the Lord Jesus, they will be more apt to do what is right – even extending themselves in areas where they once lacked power. Of course, all of this postulates the faithful and powerful presentation of the Gospel, which is the appointed means of men confronting Jesus and becoming acquainted with Him.
THE PRIESTS ARE CALLED. Nehemiah knows all too well that flesh has a propensity to forget noble promises that are made in all sincerity. He will therefore take measures to ensure the nobles and rulers do not forget what they have promised. He does not call for a political official to ensure this remembrance, but “the priests,” who brought the knowledge of God to the people.
Vows are better kept when they are made and remembered before the Lord. This will accent that they are to be kept with the strength that comes from the Lord, and not merely in the energy of the flesh.
AN OATH IS TAKEN. The oath was not taken by the priests, but by the nobles and rulers in the presence of the priests. Thus the NIV reads, “Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised.” The Law called such a promise “an oath of the Lord” (Ex 22:11). This was a promise performed to the , with an acute consciousness that He had heard it, and could enable men to keep it.
Some teach it is now sinful to make oaths of any sort. They cite our Lord’s words in Matthew 5:33-37 as justification for this prohibition. There Jesus referred to what men had heard “of old time,” that they should not break their oaths, but honor them, before the Lord (v 33). He then says, “Swear not at all . . . ” Thus, men conclude it is altogether improper to take any oath. However, Jesus was not referring to what the Law had said, but to the interpretations men had placed upon it, thereby glibly excusing their conduct. These were hasty oaths, made without God in mind at all – precisely what the Law DID prohibit: “And ye shall not swear by My name falsely” (Lev 19:12). God Himself has taken oaths (Gen 26:3; Psa 89:35; Heb 6:17; 7:28). Paul also took oaths (2 Cor 1:23; 2 Cor 11:31). Paul also pointed to proper oaths as an end of all controversy (Heb 6:16). Modern examples of valid oaths include marriage and ordination vows.
THE ROLE OF COMMITMENT. Something is certainly to be said for commitment and firm resolve in matters pertaining to life and godliness. Many wayward souls have never made such a commitment. They have never pledged themselves before the Lord to do what is right. Perhaps that is one reason it is difficult for them to be consistent.
CONFIRMATION AND AFFIRMATION
“ 13Also I shook my lap, and said, So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labor, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, and emptied. And all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the LORD. And the people did according to this promise.” Notice the thoroughness of Nehemiah. In this we are getting a glimpse of faith at work. Faith never operates in a slipshod manner, but moves those possessing it to have a larger grasp of the situation than is otherwise possible.
I SHOOK MY LAP. Unlike the Western culture, those in the East wore loose-fitting garments. The term “the lap” was a part of the garment in which things could be carried, as in Second Kings 4:39: “and gathered from it a lapful of gourds.” This was a symbolic act in which Nehemiah vividly portrayed his word. He took hold of the fold of his garment and shook it, as though casting something forth from it.
A similar word was given by Jesus to His disciples. In that case, He did not refer to shaking out the lap, but shaking the dust from their shoes. “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet” (Mat 10:14). He said it would be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that city. Using a visible picture, Agabus the prophet also foretold the opposition of the Jews to Paul – how he would be bound and handed over the Gentile authorities. “And when he was come unto us, he took Paul's girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” (Acts 21:11). Godly men have always extended themselves to make the Word of God clear.
THE JUDGMENT. The word of Nehemiah was most arresting. Even as he shook his garment, removing anything that might have been held in it, so he declared God would do something to anyone who did not fulfill the promise they had made that day. There was nothing casual about his word. “May God thus shake out of house and possessions anyone who does not make good this promise; may he be shaken out thus and left empty!” NJB
Thus, the person who thought to go back on his word would himself become poor and without goods, like the persons he had abused. This would fulfill a word spoken by Ezekiel. “I will recompense their way upon their own heads, saith the Lord GOD” (Ezek 11:21). Truly, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31).
A word should also be said about those who commit their lives to the Lord, then go back on that word. Particularly in this area, there are many who have once pledged themselves to serve the Lord. In the process of time, however, they forgot their commitment, and began following their own fleshly desires. However, God still remembers their vows! The words of Solomon apply here: “Better not to vow than to vow and not pay” (Eccl 5:5). This was one of the sins committed by Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:4).
THE AGREEMENT. What Nehemiah has asked will require considerable effort. His demands have been confirmed by having them uttered before the priests, which stood for saying them before God. He has also pronounced a judgment on all who failed to fulfill their commitment. How will all of this set with the people? Was it too demanding or unfair?
“And all the congregation said, Amen!” That is, the demand was right, and should stand precisely as it was stated. When the blessings and curses of the law were spoken from Mounts Gerizim and Ebel, the people were required to say “Amen” as each was read (Deut 27:13-26). When David brought the ark of the covenant back, he delivered a stirring oration about the obligations of the people. They responded like those in our text: “And all the people said, Amen, and praised the LORD” (1 Chr 16:36).
“And all the congregation . . . praised the Lord.” That day, the abuses of the past had been corrected, and a way was made for a more tolerable life for those formerly oppressed. It was right that the Lord should be praised, for He had brought all of this to pass. Working through the faith of Nehemiah, a way was made to reverse the trend of many years. Those who had been unmindful of their brethren suddenly became mindful of them. Goods that had been exacted unjustly would now be returned. This was “the Lord’s doing,” and was marvelous in their eyes (Psa 118:23).
THEY DID ACCORDING TO THE PROMISE. The word was fulfilled with one accord, and exactly as promised – which is a remarkable occurrence of itself. Lands, vineyards, olive yards, and houses were returned. Interest that as paid in money, corn, oil, and wine was returned. Thus, what was initiated by the anger of Nehemiah concluded with the benefit of the people. Righteous indignation, mingled with faith, brought the answer.