Book of Nehemiah Chapter Five Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
What's it like to be set free from some kind of slavery, but the freedom you rejoiced in briefly, became simply another kind of bondage? That's what is being eloquently expressed in Verses 1-5: "Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. 2 For there were those who said, 'We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live. 3 There were others who said, 'We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.' 4 Also there were those who said, 'We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. 5 Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others.'" Note carefully that it was former Jewish slaves of the Babylonian and Persian Empires who were placing their own countrymen into financial bondage. As it is in every generation, some are gifted in the understanding of trade, of money and how to use it. But the key word here is "gift." If you can direct others, if you understand how to make a profit when others can't, it is God's gift, not merely for you, but entrusted TO you, so you can help others who don't have that ability. God's gifts are like that—whether they considered "natural" or "spiritual," you are gifted for the benefit of those around you.
You can see Nehemiah's response to this information in Verse 6: "Then I was very angry when I had heard their outcry and these words." And he should have been angry because he could clearly see God's will for the people in Exodus 22:25—"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." A similar command is seen in Leviticus 25:35-37 and these moneylenders should have known it, or did know and didn't care. The returned exiles were part of the Persian Empire, had to pay local and imperial taxes, buy seed for crops, and had other normal expenses of life. They couldn't keep up, borrowed from their brethren at interest and ended up not only selling their land, but also sold some of their children into slavery in order to keep up with the payments. One bad practice leads to another bad practice.
Verses 7-8: "I consulted with myself and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them, 'You are exacting usury, each from his brother!' Therefore, I held a great assembly against them. 8 I said to them, 'We according to our ability have redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; now would you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us?' Then they were silent and could not find a word to say." Notice that Nehemiah thought first before he spoke. It's very likely he also prayed, for that's the kind of man he has proven to be in our study of him. And he was bold, very direct in his condemnation of the practice that was leading the people back into slavery, leaving his hearers with no words, simply because he was right in what he said.
Verse 9: "Again I said, 'The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies?" He basically said, "We, the Jews have had enough trouble through the centuries without adding to the problem by harming our own people. We should honor God and help one another." He continued in Verse 10: "And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury." Nehemiah and those around him were already helping the poor by lending to them at no interest, as he made this request in Verse 11: "Please, give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them." When possible, we are to restore to others what rightfully belongs to them.
Nehemiah simply told it as it was. His words were scripturally sound, filled with the wisdom that comes from God, and responsive to the poor and needy among them, resulting in Verses 12-13: "Then they said, 'We will give it back and will require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say.' So I called the priests and took an oath from them that they would do according to this promise. 13 I also shook out the front of my garment and said, 'Thus may God shake out every man from his house and from his possessions who does not fulfill this promise; even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.' And all the assembly said, 'Amen!' And they praised the Lord. Then the people did according to this promise." In Acts Chapter 5, we find Ananias and Sapphira, who made such a pledge before God, but then secretly held back part of what they promised. God knew and they both died suddenly as an example to others that we must not lie to the Holy Spirit. Ananias and Sapphira should have read these words in Nehemiah, and we should heed the words ourselves.
The record from Nehemiah's journal continues in Verses 14-15: "Moreover, from the day that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, for twelve years, neither I nor my kinsmen have eaten the governor’s food allowance. 15 But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people and took from them bread and wine besides forty shekels of silver; even their servants domineered the people. But I did not do so because of the fear of God." If you have been given a privilege, you should prayerfully consider God's intention for it—is this for me, or has God granted it so I will pass it on to someone who needs it more than I do? Nehemiah had plenty, and he learned from the past—unlike his predecessors, he helped others instead of only helping himself. His love for God, his "fear" if you will, caused him, enabled him to share.
Note in Verse 16 that he not only told people to work, he also did the work, becoming an example for those who knew him, and for us who read these words: "I also applied myself to the work on this wall; we did not buy any land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work." If God gives us words to share, we should not only say them, but if possible, act on those words in our own lives.
Verses 17-18: "Moreover, there were at my table one hundred and fifty Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. 18 Now that which was prepared for each day was one ox and six choice sheep, also birds were prepared for me; and once in ten days all sorts of wine were furnished in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the governor’s food allowance, because the servitude was heavy on this people." Nehemiah was a man who did not just keep it all for himself, he shared. We can all benefit from these verses and from Luke 6:38—"Give and it shall be given unto you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return." As it is in 2 Corinthians 9:7, "God loves a cheerful giver," and one way or another, He will show us the truth of that verse in our lives and for all eternity. Share as He leads and God will share with you.
Nehemiah may well have wept as he wrote the prayer of Verse 19: "Remember me, O my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people." And God does remember, just as we should recall the words of Isaiah 49:16, where the Lord cries out to us, "See, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands." God remembers and He knows, now and forever.
Oh Lord, I cried out—please remember me—but now I understand that you do remember. You have given Yourself for me. I am Yours, Lord. I will never be forgotten because You are God who loves me. Thank You. In Jesus Name. Amen.