E H E M I A H
bravely Nehemiah, as a wise and faithful governor, stood upon his guard
against the attacks of enemies abroad, we read in the foregoing chapter. Here
we have him no less bold and active to redress grievances at home, and, having
kept them from being destroyed by their enemies, to keep them from destroying
one another. Here is, I. The complaint which the poor made to him of the great
hardships which the rich (of whom they were forced to borrow money) put upon
them, ver. 1-5. II. The effectual course which Nehemiah took both to reform
the oppressors and to relieve the oppressed, ver. 6-13. III. The good example
which he himself, as governor, set them of compassion and tenderness, ver.
Complaints of the Poor.
1 And there was a great cry of the people and
of their wives against their brethren the Jews. 2 For there were
that said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take
up corn for them, that we may eat, and live. 3 Some
also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses,
that we might buy corn, because of the dearth. 4 There were also
that said, We have borrowed money for the king's tribute, and that upon
our lands and vineyards. 5 Yet now our flesh is as the
flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into
bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our
daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our
power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards.
We have here the tears of the oppressed, which Solomon considered, Eccl. iv.
1. Let us consider them as here they are dropped before Nehemiah, whose office
it was, as governor, to deliver the poor and needy, and rid them out of the
hand of the wicked oppressors, Ps. lxxxii. 4. Hard times and hard hearts
made the poor miserable.
I. The times they lived in were hard. There was a dearth of corn (v.
3), probably for want of rain, with which God had chastised their neglect of
his house (Hag. i. 9-11) and the non-payment of their church-dues, Mal. iii.
9, 10. Thus foolish sinful men bring God's judgments upon themselves, and then
fret and complain of them. When the markets are high, and provisions scarce
and dear, the poor soon feel from it, and are pinched by it. Blessed be God
for the mercy, and God deliver us from the sin, of fulness of bread,
Ezek. xvi. 49. That which made the scarcity here complained of the more
grievous was that their sons and their daughters were many, v.
2. The families that were most necessitous were most numerous; here were the
mouths, but where was the meat? Some have estates and no children to inherit
them; others have children and no estates to leave them. Those who have both
have reason to be thankful; those who have neither may the more easily be
content. Those who have great families and little substance must learn to live
by faith in God's providence and promise; and those who have little families
and great substance must make their abundance a supply for the wants of
others. But this was not all: as corn was dear, so the taxes were high;
the king's tribute must be paid, v. 4. This mark of their captivity
still remained upon them. Perhaps it was a poll-money that was required, and
then, their sons and their daughters being many, it rose the higher. The more
they had to maintain (a hard case!) the more they had to pay. Now, it seems,
they had not wherewithal of their own to buy corn and pay taxes, but were
necessitated to borrow. Their families came poor out of Babylon; they had been
at great expense in building them houses, and had not yet got up their
strength when these new burdens came upon them. The straits of poor
housekeepers who make hard shift to get an honest livelihood, and sometimes
want what is fitting for them and their families, are well worthy the
compassionate consideration of those who either with their wealth or with
their power are in a capacity to help them.
II. The persons they dealt with were hard. Money must be had, but it must be
borrowed; and those that lent them money, taking advantage of their necessity,
were very hard upon them and made a prey of them. 1. They exacted interest
from them at twelve per cent, the hundredth part every month, v. 11. If
men borrow large sums to trade with, to increase their stocks, or to purchase
land, there is no reason why the lender should not share with the borrower in
his profit; or if to spend upon their lusts, or repair what they have so
spent, why should they not pay for their extravagances? But if the poor borrow
to maintain their families, and we be able to help them, it is certain we
ought either to lend freely what they have occasion for, or (if they be not
likely to repay it) to give freely something towards it. Nay, 2. They forced
them to mortgage to them their lands and houses for the securing of the money
(v. 3), and not only so, but took the profits of them for interest (v.
5, compare v. 11), that by degrees they might make themselves masters
of all they had. Yet this was not the worst. 3. They took their children for
bond-servants, to be enslaved or sold at pleasure, v. 5. This they
complain of most sensibly, as that which touched them in a tender part, and
they aggravate it with this: "Our children are as their children,
as dear to us as theirs are to them; not only of the same human nature, and
entitled to the honours and liberties of that (Mal. ii. 10; Job xxxi. 15), but
of the same holy nation, free-born Israelites, and dignified with the same
privileges. Our flesh carries in it the sacred seal of the covenant of
circumcision, as well as the flesh of our brethren; yet our heirs must
be their slaves, and it is not in our power to redeem them." This
they made a humble remonstrance of to Nehemiah, not only because they saw he
was a great man that could relieve them, but a good man that would. Whither
should the injured poor flee for succour but to the shields of the earth?
Whither but to the chancery, to the charity, in the royal breast, and those
deputed by it for relief against the summum jus--the extremity of
Lastly, We will leave Nehemiah hearing the complaint, and enquiring into the
truth of the complainants' allegations (for the clamours of the poor are not
always just), while we sit down and look, (1.) With a gracious compassion upon
the oppressed, and lament the hardships which many in the world are groaning
under; putting our souls into their souls' stead, and remembering in our
prayers and succours those that are burdened, as burdened with them. (2.) With
a gracious indignation at the oppressors, and abhorrence of their pride and
cruelty, who drink the tears, the blood, of those they have under their feet.
But let those who show no mercy expect judgment without mercy. It was
an aggravation of the sin of these oppressing Jews that they were themselves
so lately delivered out of the house of bondage, which obliged them in
gratitude to undo the heavy burdens, Isa. lviii. 6.
of the Poor Redressed.
6 And I was very angry when I heard their cry
and these words. 7 Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the
nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his
brother. And I set a great assembly against them. 8 And I said
unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which
were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they
be sold unto us? Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer.
9 Also I said, It is not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the
fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?
10 I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them
money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury. 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 labour, 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.
It should seem the foregoing complaint was made to Nehemiah at the time when
he had his head and hands as full as possible of the public business about
building the wall; yet, perceiving it to be just, he did not reject it because
it was unseasonable; he did not chide the petitioners, nor fall into a passion
with them, for disturbing him when they saw how much he had to do, a fault
which men of business are too often guilty of; nor did he so much as adjourn
the hearing of the cause or proceedings upon it till he had more leisure. The
case called for speedy interposition, and therefore he applied himself
immediately to the consideration of it, knowing that, let him build
Jerusalem's walls ever so high, so thick, so strong, the city could not be
safe while such abuses as these were tolerated. Now observe, What method he
took for the redress of this grievance which was so threatening to the public.
I. He was very angry (v. 6); he expressed a great displeasure at
it, as a very bad thing. Note, It well becomes rulers to show themselves angry
at sin, that by the anger itself they may be excited to their duty, and by the
expressions of it others may be deterred from evil.
II. He consulted with himself, v. 7. By this it appears that his
anger was not excessive, but kept within bounds, that, though his spirit was
provoked, he did not say or do any thing unadvisedly. Before he rebuked the
nobles, he consulted with himself what to say, and when, and how. Note,
Reproofs must be given with great consideration, that what is well meant may
not come short of its end for want of being well managed. It is the reproof
of instruction that giveth life. Even wise men lose the benefit of
their wisdom sometimes for want of consulting with themselves and taking time
III. He rebuked the nobles and rulers, who were the monied men, and
whose power perhaps made them the more bold to oppress. Note, Even nobles and
rulers, if they do that which is evil, ought to be told of it by proper
persons. Let no man imagine that his dignity sets him above reproof.
IV. He set a great assembly against them. He called the people together to be
witnesses of what he said, and to bear their testimony (which the people will
generally be forward to do) against the oppressions and extortions their
rulers were guilty of, v. 12. Ezra and Nehemiah were both of them very
wise, good, useful men, yet, in cases not unlike, there was a great deal of
difference between their management: when Ezra was told of the sin of the
rulers in marrying strange wives he rent his clothes, and wept, and prayed,
and was hardly persuaded to attempt a reformation, fearing it to be
impracticable, for he was a man of a mild tender spirit; when Nehemiah was
told of as bad a thing he kindled immediately, reproached the delinquents,
incensed the people against them, and never rested till, by all the rough
methods he could use, he forced them to reform; for he was a man of a hot and
eager spirit. Note, 1. Very holy men may differ much from each other in their
natural temper and in other things that result from it. 2. God's work may be
done, well done, and successfully, and yet different methods taken in the
doing of it, which is a good reason why we should neither arraign the
management of others nor make our own a standard. There are diversities of
operation, but the same Spirit.
V. He fairly reasoned the case with them, and showed them the evil of what
they did. The regular way of reforming men's lives is to endeavour, in the
first place, to convince their consciences. Several things he offered to their
consideration, which are so pertinent and just that it appeared he had
consulted with himself. He lays it before them, 1. That those whom they
oppressed were their brethren: You exact every one of his brother. It
was bad enough to oppress strangers, but much worse to oppress their poor
brethren, from whom the divine law did not allow them to take any usury,
Deut. xxiii. 19, 20. 2. That they were but lately redeemed out of the hand
of the heathen. The body of the people were so by the wonderful providence
of God; some particular persons among them were so, who, besides their share
in the general captivity, were in servitude to heathen masters, and ransomed
at the charge of Nehemiah and other pious and well-disposed persons.
"Now," says he, "have we taken all this pains to get their
liberty out of the hands of the heathen, and shall their own rulers enslave
them? What an absurd thing is this! Must we be at the same trouble and expense
to redeem them from you as we were to redeem them from Babylon?" v.
8. Those whom God by his grace has made free ought not to be again brought
under a yoke of bondage, Gal. v. 1; 1 Cor. vii. 23. 3. That it was a
great sin thus to oppress the poor (v. 9): "It is not good that
you do; though you get money by it, you contract guilt by it, and ought
you not to walk in the fear of God? Certainly you ought, for you profess
religion, and relation to him; and, if you do walk in the fear of God, you
will not be either covetous of worldly gain or cruel towards your
brethren." Those that walk in the fear of God will not dare to do a
wicked thing, Job xxxi. 13, 14, 23. 4. That it was a great scandal, and a
reproach to their profession. "Consider the reproach of the heathen
our enemies, enemies to us, to our God, and to our holy religion. They
will be glad of any occasion to speak against us, and this will give them
great occasion; they will say, These Jews, that profess so much devotion to
God, see how barbarous they are one to another." Note, (1.) All that
profess religion should be very careful that they do nothing to expose
themselves to the reproach of those that are without, lest religion be wounded
through their sides. (2.) Nothing exposes religion more to the reproach of its
enemies than the worldliness and hard-heartedness of the professors of it. 5.
That he himself had set them a better example (v. 10), which he
enlarges upon afterwards, v. 14, &c. Those that rigorously insist
upon their right themselves will with a very ill grace persuade others to
recede from theirs.
VI. He earnestly pressed them not only not to make their poor neighbours any
more such hard bargains, but to restore that which they had got into their
hands, v. 11. See how familiarly he speaks to them: Let us leave off
this usury, putting himself in, as becomes reprovers, though far from
being any way guilty of the crime. See how earnestly, and yet humbly, he
persuades them: I pray you leave off; and I pray you restore.
Though he had authority to command, yet, for love's sake, he rather
beseeches. See how particularly he presses them to be kind to the poor, to
give them up their mortgages, put them again in possession of their estates,
remit the interest, and give them time to pay in the principal. He urged them
to their loss, yet, urging them to their duty, it would be, at length, to
their advantage. What we charitably forgive will be remembered and
recompensed, as well as what we charitably give.
VII. He laid them under all the obligations possible to do what he pressed
them to. 1. He got a promise from them (v. 12): We will restore
them. 2. He sent for the priests to give them their oath that they would
perform this promise; now that their convictions were strong, and they seemed
resolved, he would keep them to it. 3. He bound them by a solemn curse or
execration, hoping that would strike some awe upon them: So let God shake
out every man that performeth not this promise, v. 13. This was a
threatening that he would certainly do so, to which the people said Amen,
as to those curses at Mount Ebal ( Deut. xxvii.), that their throats might be
cut with their own tongues if they should falsify their engagement, and that
by the dread of that they might be kept to their promise. With this Amen
the people praised the Lord; so far were they from promising with
regret that they promised with all possible expressions of joy and
thankfulness. Thus David, when he took God's vows upon him, sang and gave
praise, Ps. lvi. 12. This cheerfulness in promising was well, but that
which follows was better: They did according to this promise, and
adhered to what they had done, not as their ancestors in a like case, who
re-enslaved those whom a little before they had released, Jer. xxxiv. 10, 11.
Good promises are good things, but good performances are all in all.
Generosity of Nehemiah.
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. 17 Moreover there were at
my table a hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers, beside those that came
unto us from among the heathen that are about us. 18 Now that
which was prepared for me daily was one ox and six choice
sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and once in ten days store of all
sorts of wine: yet for all this required not I the bread of the governor,
because the bondage was heavy upon this people. 19 Think upon me,
my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.
Nehemiah had mentioned his own practice, as an inducement to the nobles not to
burden the poor, no, not with just demands; here he relates more particularly
what his practice was, not inn pride or vain-glory, nor to pass a compliment
upon himself, but as an inducement both to his successors and to the inferior
magistrates to be as tender as might be of the people's ease.
I. He intimates what had been the way of his predecessors, v. 15. He
does not name them, because what he had to say of them was not to their
honour, and in such a case it is good to spare names; but the people knew how
chargeable they had been, and how dearly the country paid for all the benefit
of their government. The government allowed them forty shekels of silver,
which was nearly five pounds (so much a day, it is probable); but, besides
that, they obliged the people to furnish them with bread and wine,
which they claimed as perquisites of their office; and not only so, but they
suffered their servants to squeeze the people, and to get all they could out
of them. Note, 1. It is no new thing for those who are in public places to
seek themselves more than the public welfare, any, and to serve themselves by
the public loss. 2. Masters must be accountable for all the acts of fraud and
injustice, violence and oppression, which they connive at in their servants.
II. He tells us what had been his own way.
1. In general, he had not done as the former governors did; he would not, he
durst not, because of the fear of God. He had an awe of God's majesty
and a dread of his wrath. And, (1.) The fear of God restrained him from
oppressing the people. Those that truly fear God will not dare to do any thing
cruel or unjust. (2.) It was purely that which restrained him. He was thus
generous, not that he might have praise of men, or serve a turn by his
interest in the people, but purely for conscience' sake, because of the fear
of God. This will not only be a powerful, but an acceptable principle both of
justice and charity. What a good hand his predecessors made of their place
appeared by the estates they raised; but Nehemiah, for his part, got nothing,
except the satisfaction of doing good: Neither bought we any land, v.
16. Say not then that he was a bad husband, but that he was a good governor,
who aimed not to feather his own nest. Let us remember the words of the
Lord, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive, Acts
2. More particularly, observe here, (1.) How little Nehemiah received of what
he might have required. He did the work of the governor, but he did not eat
the bread of the governor (v. 14), did not require it, v.
18. So far was he from extorting more than his due that he never demanded
that, but lived upon what he had got in the king of Persia's court and his own
estate in Judea: the reason he gives for this piece of self-denial is, Because
the bondage was heavy upon the people. He might have used the common
excuse for rigour in such cases, that it would be a wrong to his successors
not to demand his dues; but let them look to themselves: he considered the
afflicted state of the Jews, and, while they groaned under so much hardship,
he could not find it in his heart to add to their burden, but would rather
lessen his own estate than ruin them. note, In our demands we must consider
not only the justice of them, but the ability of those on whom we make them;
where there is nothing to be had we know who loses his right. (2.) How much he
gave which he might have withheld. [1.] His servants' work, v. 16. The
servants of princes think themselves excused from labour; but Nehemiah's
servants, by his order no doubt, were all gathered to the work. Those
that have many servants should contrive how they may do good with them and
keep them well employed. [2.] His own meat, v. 17, 18. He kept a very
good table, not on certain days, but constantly; he had many honourable
guests, at least 150 of his own countrymen, persons of the first rank, besides
strangers that came to him upon business; and he had plentiful provisions for
his guests, beef, and mutton, and fowl, and all sorts of wine. Let those in
public places remember that they were preferred to do good, not to enrich
themselves; and let people in humbler stations learn to use hospitality one
to another without grudging, 1 Pet. iv. 9.
III. He concludes with a prayer (v. 19): Think upon me, my God, for
good. 1. Nehemiah here mentions what he had done for this people,
not in pride, as boasting of himself, nor in passion, as upbraiding them, nor
does it appear that he had occasion to do it in his own vindication, as Paul
had to relate his like self-denying tenderness towards the Corinthians, but to
shame the rulers out of their oppressions; let them learn of him to be neither
greedy in their demands nor paltry in their expenses, and then they would have
the credit and comfort of their liberality, as he had. 2. He mentions it to
God in prayer, not as if he thought he had hereby merited any favour from God,
as a debt, but to show that he looked not for any recompence of his generosity
from men, but depended upon God only to make up to him what he had lost and
laid out for his honour; and he reckoned the favour of God reward enough.
"If God do but think upon me for good, I have enough." His
thoughts to us-ward are our happiness, Ps. xl. 5. He refers it to God to
recompense him in such a manner as he pleased. "If men forget me, let my
God think on me, and I desire no more."