Context of the Passage:
The rebuilding of the walls has passed the half-way mark. As the work progressed, in addition to the external threats from enemies, Nehemiah also faced internal threats. The needs were real and in part caused by Nehemiah’s insistence that the people live in the city while the walls were being built (4:16) and the taxes the people were required to pay (5:1-5). However, the problem was exacerbated by the uncompassionate interest charged by the leaders on loans given to their own people.
Outline of the Passage
- 1-5 – The outcry of the people
- 6-11 – Nehemiah’s rebuke and challenge to the leaders
- 12-13 – The response of the leaders and warning from Nehemiah
- 14-19 – Nehemiah’s exemplary self-sacrifice
Exegesis of the Passage
Five problems can be traced from the text that contributed to the problems of this chapter:
- Even though the Jews had been back in Jerusalem for nearly a century, the infrastructure was not sufficient to support the growing population (5:2)
- The needs of the people were exacerbated by a recent famine (5:3)
- Because of the workers working on the wall, there were not as many laborers to work in the fields (4:16, 22)
- The heavy taxes the people were required to pay (5:4)
- The leaders were taking advantage of the people for selfish benefit rather than helping those in need (5:7)
There are four groups represented in this passage
- Those with large families who struggled to buy food for everyone
- Those who were forced to sell property to buy food because of the famine
- Those who had no property to sell, but were forced to sell themselves and their children to pay the taxes and buy food
- Those leaders who were oppressing the people
5:1 – an outcry from the people and their wives
- Lit. “a great cry”
- The word (tseaqah) suggests an outcry of anguish or great pain (see Ex. 11:6; 12:30). This word is only used 19 times in the Old Testament and is often used as a cry especially heard by God (Gen. 18:21; 19:13; Ex. 3:7, 9; 1 Sam. 9:16; Job 27:9; 34:28; Ps. 9:12).
- Against their Jewish brethren (lit. “their brothers the Jews”)
- The emphasis here is people who should have been working together
- The unity and collaboration of chapters 3 and 4 should not be interpreted to mean that everyone was “together.”
5:2 – “Let us take grain that we may eat and live”
- This is a first group depicted in this section
- This may simply refer to large families who had difficulty providing food for everyone in their family.
- This could suggest that some of the workers began to realize that while they were away working on the wall, their families were in desperate need and they were considering leaving the work on the wall to return to help feed their families.
5:3– There were others … we have mortgaged our land …
- This is a second group described in this section
- This group of people expressed that in order to feed their families they were having to sell their property
5:4-5 – There were others … we have borrowed money to pay our taxes
- This is a third group described in this section
- In addition to the costs to feed their families, this group of people was unable to afford the king’s taxes. So, they had borrowed money to pay their taxes.
- When selling property was not enough, some had even sold their children into slavery to be able to afford to live
- Perhaps this group did not have property to sell, so their only recourse was to borrow money. And when that was not enough, they stooped to even more desperate strategies.
5:5 – Our flesh is like our brothers
- The people are suggesting that the people who are taking advantage of them are not any better than them. We are equal to them.
- This seems to be suggesting that the people are recognizing that their own people (Jews), who were just like them, were taking advantage of them.
5:6 – Nehemiah heard their cry
- This is the same word used for “cry” as in 5:1
- In the same way that God hears the “cries” of his people, Nehemiah heard them
- He heard their cry and their words
- He listened to them
- His response was anger
5:7 – I consulted with myself
- This is the only occasion of this word in Scripture
- Lit. “My heart gave counsel over me.”
- Nehemiah gave this serious thought
- Nehemiah did not act without thinking
- This problem needs my careful attention
- Apparently, there was not anyone else from whom Nehemiah could get counsel or with whom he could discuss this issue.
5:7-8 – I rebuked the nobles
- After giving this serious thought, Nehemiah concluded that this was a leadership problem
- The leaders were not leading
- Nehemiah leveled three charges against the leaders
- They were exacting usury (unjust interest)
- From their brothers
- It was heartless in how they were doing it – knowing that it was causing some of them to be enslaved
5:7 – I called (lit. “gave”) a great assembly against them
- The word for “assembly” here is from the Hebrew “qahal.” The word reflects a general assembly.
- Normally when Hebrew expresses a call to assembly (1 Kings 12:3; 2 Chron. 24:6; Is 1:13; Lam 1:15; Joel 1:14; 2;15) the verb “qarah” (“to call”) is used. Here the verb “nathan” is used for the calling of the assembly. It suggests that the assembly was called (given) for the specific purpose of an accusation against the leaders. The assembly meeting had an expressed purpose.
- The only other time where the Hebrew depicts the convening of a “qahal” using the verb “nathan” is Gen. 48:4 when Jacob recalled the Lord’s promise to make an assembly (“make of you a multitude of people”).
5:8 – We have redeemed our Jewish brethren
- Nehemiah used a word (qaninu) which literally means to buy back
- This may refer to the Babylonian captivity
- In such a case, Nehemiah would have been accusing them of going backwards; of undoing what God did in bringing the Jewish people back from captivity
- This statement may also refer to some of the Jews who were redeemed from surrounding nations. Such is not recorded in Scripture, but fits well with the context.
5:8 – They were sold
- Nehemiah used the word “makar” (sold) three times in this verse
- He is accusing the leaders of doing to their own people what other nations did to them
- They were selling them into slavery
- Thus, selling their own people into slavery to other Jews was no different then the Jews being slaves to foreign nations.
5:8 – They were silent and had nothing to say
- Lit. “They did not find a word.”
- They had no defense for their actions
5:9 – What you are doing is not good
- For other uses of this exact phrase, see Ex. 18:17; 1 Sam. 26:16
- Since the leaders had nothing to say in their own defense, Nehemiah added another consequence of their actions of enslaving their brothers – their actions demonstrated a lack of fear of God
- The fear of the Lord should be a motivating factor in our behavior
5:10-11 – Nehemiah presents a four-part solution
- He and others are lending the people money to buy grain and pay their taxes
- Stop exacting usury
- Give the people back their property
- Repay the usury that you charged
5:12-13 – We will do exactly as you say
- The people promised to obey
- But, Nehemiah still required a public oath from them that they would do it
- NOTE that the oath carried with it a curse (13)
- Nehemiah shook out his garment
- Often robes had something like pockets in the folds of the garment
- By shaking out his garment, Nehemiah is depicting the curse that would be upon any who did not keep their oath. If they failed to keep their oath, their curse would be like the emptying of his garment; they would be poured out.
- Nehemiah shook out his garment
- The people responded by saying, “Amen.”
- The word is a word of agreement. It is often translated, “so be it.”
- In other words, they agreed with Nehemiah’s conditions and also with the curse.
5:14-19 – Note the sacrificial example of Nehemiah rule as Governor
- Note that Nehemiah was not officially “appointed” as Governor by the king
- He served in that capacity for 12 years from approximately 445-433.
- During that entire time, Nehemiah refused to accept any personal privileges normally afforded to the Governor.
- Nehemiah also refused to add a tax on the people like former Governors
- His motivation was the fear of the Lord – the very motivation that he indicated should drive the actions of the leaders (5:9)
- Nehemiah remained faithful in his work
- He fed 150 leaders of the Jews as well as others from surrounding nations at his own table
5:19 – Remember me
- Here is another indication of Nehemiah as a faithful prayer warrior.
Sermon on the Passage – Overcoming Internal Conflict
- Be a Good Listener
- Nehemiah Listened to the Cries of the People (1-6)
- Address Sin Specifically and Courageously
- Nehemiah considered the situation carefully (7)
- Nehemiah rebuked the sin (7)
- Nehemiah challenged the leaders (7)
- Nehemiah appealed to the Fear of the Lord (9)
- Plan Carefully and Call for Commitment
- Nehemiah laid out a plan (10-11)
- Nehemiah required a verbal commitment from the leaders (12)
- Nehemiah reminded the people of the consequences of sinning against God (13)
- Set a Positive Example
- Nehemiah set a positive example (14-18)
- Nehemiah remained submissive to the Lord (19)