Nehemiah 5 Study Notes
5:1-19 Nehemiah’s effort in rebuilding the walls was a crucial step in securing the safety and prosperity of Jerusalem and Judah, but the need for workers inside Jerusalem made an already bad economic situation even worse for the poor. The postexilic prophets attest to the difficult economic conditions during this era, with crop failures and Persian taxes adding to their troubles (Hg 1:6-11; Mal 3:7-15). As in the eighth century BC (Am 2:6-8; 4:1-5), so once again the gap between rich and poor grew worse—the very situation the OT law discouraged by assuring property rights and the Year of Jubilee.
5:1 The first group of people and their wives complaining were the landless poor, who depended on their husbands’ work as day laborers for their daily food. Their absence from the home to work in Jerusalem was causing real distress.
5:2 They complained that they needed to concern themselves with food rather than with building. “You can’t eat walls!”
5:3 The second group consisted of those who were forced to mortgage their property in order to survive. These loans would normally be paid back at harvest time in the fall, but with the men working in Jerusalem during August and early September, many were facing foreclosure.
5:4 The third group that brought their complaints had borrowed money to pay the king’s tax. Documents from Babylonia and Egypt during this period attest to families unable to pay their taxes and thus forced to sell their children into servitude. Many finally lost their land and became part of the landless working poor. During this period the interest rate for borrowing money to pay taxes was often between forty and fifty percent.
5:5 For all three groups (vv. 2-4) the result was the same: parents were selling their children into slavery. This was allowed under the OT law (Ex 21:2-11) but with some important qualifications (Lv 25:39-46). Often parents would sell their children before selling their property because the sale of property precluded the possibility of earning the money to buy the children back. The situation was even more critical for daughters sold into servitude because their master or his son could pressure them into marriage. Moreover, they were also more susceptible to sexual exploitation. Their daughters are described as enslaved, which is from a Hebrew term (kavash) that generally means “subdue,” sometimes used in the OT with sexual connotations (“violate” in Est 7:8).
5:6 Nehemiah was angered because the rich were taking advantage of the poor, and they were not working together for one purpose.
5:7 The translation of Nehemiah’s accusation here assumes the issue was usury: Each of you is charging his countrymen interest. But the terms used in this context may suggest instead that the issue was acting as a creditor and seizing the properties of those in default—“pressing claims” or “seizing collateral.” If this was the case, the actions of the nobles and officials were not illegal, but nevertheless unconscionable in light of the dire state of the people.
5:8 Most likely Nehemiah was not referring to buying back slaves while living in Babylonia, but recently having to buy back Israelites sold to neighboring nations. The nobles and officials were perpetuating the problem.
5:9 Nehemiah’s point was that they were being watched by the surrounding nations and needed to conduct themselves in a way that glorified God. See Dt 4:6; 1Pt 2:12.
5:10 It is unlikely that Nehemiah was confessing sin about these issues. It was considered an act of kindness to lend to the poor (Ps 37:26; 112:5; Pr 19:17). What was wrong was taking advantage of the poor (Dt 15:7-11; 24:10-13) and demanding payment in light of the severe economic situation. As in Neh 5:7, there is a translation issue in this verse. Nehemiah’s exhortation could be translated, “Let’s stop pressing our claims on these loans.”
5:11 Nehemiah demanded that they return property taken in pledge as well as the interest or income derived from that property.
5:12-13 The officials’ agreement to Nehemiah’s demands was followed by a solemn oath, the seriousness of which was reinforced by Nehemiah’s ritual act of shaking the folds of his robe while reciting a curse on those who failed to keep it. The folds of the robe were used as pockets. Nehemiah was comparing his pockets to the rooms of a house and bidding God to evict the disobedient from their houses. The people had ample reason to say Amen (which means “so be it” or “surely”). This issue of social injustice could have splintered the community and brought about the same consequences their enemies had failed to achieve, but by God’s grace Nehemiah produced a fair conclusion that allowed construction to continue.
5:14 This is the first mention of Nehemiah’s appointment as governor (Hb pechah) of the province. Moreover, his duration as governor is given—probably from 445 to 432 BC. Nehemiah distinguished his governance from his predecessors’ in that he declined to eat “the bread of the governor,” or the food allotted to the governor. Such a refusal was at great personal cost to him, as vv. 17-18 demonstrate.
5:15-16 The gap between Zerubbabel and Nehemiah was probably more than sixty years. Some scholars have argued that the governors whom Nehemiah criticized were the governors of Samaria, arguing that Judah (Hb Yehud) did not become a separate province until Nehemiah restored the city and its walls. Yet the historical evidence as well as the biblical record argues that Yehud had been a distinct political entity since the beginning of the Persian period. Archaeological finds have identified the names of some of the governors between Zerubbabel and Nehemiah on seals and coins, including Yeho‘ezer, Ahzai, several named Elnatan, and Yehezqiyah.
Unlike his predecessors, Nehemiah wanted to fulfill his mission from God in restoring Jerusalem without adding to the burdens of the people who were already hard pressed. Nehemiah and his subordinates (lit “my youths,” 4:10) instead devoted themselves to their task of rebuilding. His assertion that they didn’t buy any land is significant. Those at the center of power often use their power to get “sweetheart deals” to enrich themselves and their friends, but Nehemiah and his men did not take advantage of their power, especially when desperate people were willing to sell their properties for food.
5:17-18 On the food allotted to the governor, see note at v. 14.
5:19 Nehemiah’s succinct prayer has often been criticized as selfish or as “works righteousness.” But as J. G. McConville writes, “The invocation of God’s favour is not so much a plea for a reward as an emphatic way of claiming that he has acted in good faith and from right motives. It is a statement of confidence that God is judge, and judges favorably those who sincerely seek to do his will.”