COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 5:14 Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that is, twelve years, I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor. 15 But the former governors that had been before me were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver; yea, even their servants bare rule over the people: but so did not I, because of the fear of God. 16 Yea, also I continued in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land: and all my servants were gathered thither unto the work.” (Neh 5:14-16)
The person who labors together with God (1 Cor 3:9), being a faithful servant, is distinguished from all other workers. Faith produces qualities in human character that cannot be duplicated by any other means. Some of these qualities have already been seen in Nehemiah. His concern for Jerusalem, the city of God, and the people of God surfaced as soon as he heard of their condition (1:4-11). He conducted himself honorably before the king, thus clearing the way for the acceptance of his request (2:1-4). He knew what to ask for (1:7-9). He responded in faith to the discouraging sight of the wall (2:15-18). He refused to give in to the mockery of his enemies (2:19-20). He rallied the people to defend their work (4:8–13). He exhorted the people, calling them to remember their God (4:14). He heard the legitimate complaints of the people, and took necessary measures to correct those conditions (5:1-13). All of this was prompted by faith. It confirmed that God had called Nehemiah to the work, and that it was to be, and would be, completed.
TWELVE YEARS OF FAITHFUL GOVERNORSHIP
“ 5:14 Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that is, twelve years, I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor.” Having recorded the matter of discontent and abuse among the people, Nehemiah now speaks of his own faithfulness. He does not do this to boast, but to distinguish himself from current and previous rulers. They had not conducted themselves honorably before the Lord. These rulers might have responded that the times were bad, and they simply had to do what they did. Nehemiah will lay his own conduct beside theirs, showing there simply was no justification for their conduct. Remember, Nehemiah is writing this after the fact, being moved along by the Holy Spirit. This accounts for the unusual profitability of this book. It is an inspired account of one of God’s great works – the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls.
I WAS APPOINTED. This is the first time we are made aware of this appointment. The humility of this man of God is seen here. Flesh would have spoken of this assignment at the very first, holding it as a bludgeon over the people. But Nehemiah has done no such thing. His political capacity was kept in the background, and the accent placed upon the work he was raised up and inspired to do. God was the reason he was there.
“The land of Judah,” over which Nehemiah was made governor, is mentioned twenty-four times in Scripture. This is where Naomi returned with Ruth (Ruth 1:7). This was the “land” against which Nebuchadnezzar came, and which was punished in the Babylonian captivity (2 Kgs 25:22). In the New Testament Scriptures, “Judaea” refers to the same territory as “land of Judah” in the Prophets, and applies to the whole of Palestine west of the Jordan. Zerubbabel, under whose leadership the Temple was rebuilt, was also a “governor of Judah” (Hag 1:1). Interestingly, Pilate is also referred to as “governor of Judaea” (Luke 3:1).
In this we see how the Lord equips His servants for the work to which they have been called. Nehemiah did not crusade to become governor, but was “appointed” to that office. According to appearance, Artaxerxes did this, but actually the promotion came from the Lord (Psa 75:6). Thus God directed Nehemiah into the path He had assigned to him.
From the twentieth year. Nehemiah was appointed to be governor in the twentieth of Artaxerxes’ reign. The appointment, then, took place at the very first, before Nehemiah arrived in Judah. It was in “the twentieth year” that Nehemiah heard about the condition of Jerusalem and the Jews who had escaped (Neh 1:1-2). In “the twentieth year” he made known to the king his desires to rebuild the walls (Neh 2:1). This must have been a great encouragement to Nehemiah as he returned to do the work, confirming God was for him.
TWELVE YEARS. The thirty-second year marked the time when Nehemiah returned for a brief period to Shushan. Following that short amount of time, he obtained permission to return to Jerusalem. This is recorded in the thirteenth chapter. “ . . . But in all this time was not I at Jerusalem: for in the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon came I unto the king, and after certain days obtained I leave of the king: and I came to Jerusalem . . . ” (13:6-7). Now he relates one facet of his conduct during the 12 years.
NOT EATEN THE GOVERNOR’S BREAD. “I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor.” Other versions read “the governor’s food allowance,” NASB and “the food allotted to the governor.” NIV The idea is that Nehemiah, as the governor, and those with him did not take wages or supplies from the people. They did not live at the expense of the people, as politicians of all ages are expected to do. This was a most unusual thing, and that is why it is mentioned by the Spirit. Paul once said, “Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock?” (1 Cor 9:7). If this was true of soldiers, vineyard keepers, and shepherds, how much more was it true of governors. Ordinarily governors did not rule at their own expense, or pay for the needs related to their official duties.
Like Paul the Apostle, Nehemiah did not claim his right to support (1 Cor 9:18). As for Paul and Nehemiah, their works were different, and their reasons were not identical. However, their spirit was the same. Nehemiah knew the people were already under duress. They were a state of recovery, and additional burdens could break their spirit. Thus, he refused to take “bread,” or provisions, that were technically his by leal right. He refused to be the ordinary politician. He was not ruled by law, but by love.
Note, this was not something Nehemiah did only at the beginning of his governorship, but throughout twelve full years. His faith in God remained consistent, and thus his conduct toward his brethren was also invariable and considerate.
DISTINCT FROM FORMER GOVERNORS
“ 15 But the former governors that had been before me were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver; yea, even their servants bare rule over the people: but so did not I, because of the fear of God.” Writing by the inspiration of the Spirit, Nehemiah comments further on his conduct, comparing it with that of former governors. Again, this is not an expression of pride, but one intended to encourage future generations by showing how faith distinguishes men.
THE FORMER GOVERNORS. We do not know the identity of these governors, and it is not the purpose of the text to speak of specific men. Rather, Nehemiah is showing the practice that existed among governors before him. In other words, he had broken from the ranks, and chose to fulfil his governorship before the Lord, instead of in keeping with the customs of that office. Nehemiah was the kind of leader the people had not experienced in a long time. This was owing to his Divine commission, faith in God, and care for the city and people of God. He set the tone for a new and refreshing kind of leadership.
CHARGEABLE UNTO THE PEOPLE. The governors before Nehemiah were “chargeable unto the people.” It may sound as though they were accountable to the people, but that is not the meaning of the word, as the words that follow confirm. Even in modern English, the word “chargeable” means “financially burdensome.” MERRIAM-WEBSTER The idea is that the office of governor qualified those in it to lay charges upon the people. Thus, other versions read, “laid burdens on the people,” NJKV and “placed a heavy burden on the people.” NIV The Basic Bible English version gives the real sense of the words: “made the people responsible for their upkeep.” This they did by taking from the people “bread and wine.” They did not take grain and grapes, but “bread and wine.” That is, the people not only grew and tended to their crops, but actually refined the products before giving them to the governor. In addition to this, former governors also demanded “forty shekels of silver” (about one pound). This is understood to be a daily sum taken from the entire province. This was demanded in addition to the “bread and wine,” thus allowing former governors to live rather luxuriously – a pound of silver a day, 30 pounds a month, and 365 pounds a year. I am not able to determine the value of a pound of silver, but the text suggests it was substantial.
THEIR SERVANTS BARE RULE. Other versions read, “their servants domineered the people,” NASB “Their assistants lorded it over the people,” NIV “took advantage of the people,” NLT and “oppressed the people.” NJB This suggests the servants of the governors also exacted their needs from the people, fattening themselves at the expense of an already oppressed people. Prior to Nehemiah, things were in such a dismal state that the people were being oppressed by even the servants and assistants of their governors.
BECAUSE OF THE FEAR OF GOD. Nehemiah records, “but so did not I, because of the fear of God.” Other versions read, “But out of reverence for God I did not act like that,” NIV and “But I, fearing God, never did this.” NJB The Lord once said, “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God” (2 Sam 23:3). One of the indictments of the heathen was, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3:18). What is “the fear of God?” In Scripture, this phrase is synonymous with piety, or being pious. That is, it is living with an acute awareness of God, respecting Him, honoring His Word, and afraid to do anything that displeases Him. Such a fear is “the beginning of wisdom” (Psa 111:10) – that is, life is lived foolishly if it is not lived to please the Lord. Solomon declared, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov 8:13). In fact, “By the fear of the Lord men depart from evil” (Prov 16:6). Such fear also results in “strong confidence” (Prov 14:26). It is a “fountain of life” (Prov 14:27), promoting and sustaining good conduct. As you can see, “the fear of God” is not defined academically, but is known by its effects. It moves men closer to God and further from sin. Nehemiah affirms he did not conduct himself as previous governors because of His awareness of, and absolute respect for, God. He lived by faith. That means the governors before him did not fear God, and were not living by faith.
A WORD ABOUT TODAY. Governors before Nehemiah were living in the midst of spiritual squalor and the oppression of God’s people. Rather than improving conditions, they only made them worse. A similar condition exists in our day. Everyone who is spiritually sensitive knows we are living in “perilous times.” Yet, countless church leaders live as though these times did not even exist. The flock of God is under their care, but they do not feed them. Rather, they choose to feed themselves and better their condition at the expense of the sheep. They have learned to live in the midst of spiritual devastation without it bothering them. It is time to pray for a new generation of Christian leaders!
DEDICATED TO THE WORK OF THIS WALL
“ 16 Yea, also I continued in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land: and all my servants were gathered thither unto the work.” If Nehemiah had not been living by faith, the circumstances he faced would have beaten him down. What has any contemporary servant of God faced that compares with the things Nehemiah confronted. He learned of the condition of God’s people while in the palace of a heathen king. He had to obtain permission to rebuild the walls of God’s city from that king. He had to make a long journey to the place where the work was to be done. The appearance of the work-site was enough to thoroughly discourage most men. He had to rally a discouraged people. He had to face a mocking enemy. He had to alert and prepare the people to face an aggressive foe. He faced a discouraged people who said there were not enough workers, and there was too much rubbish. He confronted brethren who lived closed to the enemy, who said there was no hope of finishing the project. He even had to deal with brethren who had been abused and exploited by their own people. What impact did these have upon Nehemiah?
I CONTINUED IN THE WORK. “Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall.” NIV That is what God had called him to do, and that is what he did! He would not allow trials to turn him from the work. He would not permit challenging circumstances to push his main work into the background. Instead of making things better for himself by taking from the people, he continued working on the wall, which was making things better for his brethren. The wall was not yet finished, so he continued working. He even did his share of the work, beside being its superintendent and the governor of the land.
Faith produces endurance in the good work of God. It will not permit oppression to weigh down the heart so the work cannot be done. Even though there may be periods of discouragement, and even anger, as with Nehemiah, yet strength is renewed and the work goes on. That is involved in the wonderful promise, “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isa 40:31).
You must be able to take this text and let it open words addressed to those in Christ Jesus. “Continue in the grace of God” (Acts 13:43). “Continue in the faith” (Acts 14:22). “Having obtained help of God, I continue to this day” (Acts 26:22). “If thou continue in His goodness” (Rom 11:22). “But continue in the things thou hast learned” (2 Tim 3:14). You are also engaged in a work. You are building your faith, your character, and the strength of your brethren. Your work must be consistent to be profitable, both to yourself and others.
NEITHER BOUGHT WE ANY LAND. “ . . . neither bought we any land.” In a time of great hardship, land could probably have been purchased at a very low price – but Nehemiah and those with him did not take advantage of such an opportunity. They had not come to help themselves, but to “seek the welfare of the children of Israel” (Neh 2:10). This is, indeed, a rare spirit, but it need not be so. Those who put their hand to the work of the Lord are out of order seeking their own welfare – wanting only things that please themselves. Centuries before these words were written, Nehemiah was living them out: “Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth” (1 Cor 10:24).
ALL MY SERVANTS WERE GATHERED. “ . . .and all my servants were gathered there for the work” (Neh 5:16). NASB Those who were under Nehemiah’s care put their hand to the work also. Like the household of Lydia, they followed their leader into the will of the Lord (Acts 16:15). Those who served Cornelius, the Philippian jailor, and Crispus did the same (Acts 10:2; 16:34; 18:8). Thus Nehemiah set the example for all of the people, not only leading them, but showing them real commitment. I do not doubt there was some demand on the part of Nehemiah, that his servants put their hands to the work. But he was an exemplary leader, giving himself to the work as well. Such an attitude and conduct makes it easier for sensitive souls to join in the work.
TODAY. We are living in a time and place where self-interests are promoted. People have begun to think their own will is sovereign, and that they have a right to do whatever they please, without any regard to its impact upon those around them. But this is a devilish spirit, and will only yield harm. One of the very first prerequisites to being a follower of Jesus is to renounce self-will. “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mat 16:24). That is saying “NO!” to your own natural desires, in preference for the will of the Lord. That is the sort of spirit Nehemiah had. To be clear about this matter, a person cannot be saved without having this frame of mind. We are to bring the freshness of faith into our work.