Nehemiah 5 Summary: Today we’ll be studying Nehemiah chapter 5. So let’s briefly survey how we got to this point in the story.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Chapter 1
The book of Nehemiah starts by describing the circumstances that brought Nehemiah to Jerusalem. Chapter 1 starts with Nehemiah discovering that Jerusalem was desolate and that the Jews were greatly distressed. So Nehemiah humbled himself before God and prayed. And we read his prayer. And based on the tone and content of that prayer I have a suspicion that Nehemiah thought that God may have been sending the Jews out of the land once again for their unfaithfulness.
Well maybe you say – how could that be? What did the Jews do that made Nehemiah think that God was sending them out of the land for their sin?? Throughout the the books of Ezra and Nehemiah it seems like the Jews are never far from total apostasy. For example, remember when Ezra came to Jerusalem just a decade or so before Nehemiah arrived? He found that the people had been engaging in sinful inter-marriage with the enemy! We saw the peoples’ propensity to slide back into sin in the time of Zerubbabel and Jeshua. Even at the end of the book of Nehemiah we see that when Nehemiah leaves for a little while the people go right back to their old sinful ways. So, we’re not told exactly what the people did to make Nehemiah think that they were being chastened by God. But given the Jews’ track record, you can imagine why Nehemiah might have feared that this was the case again.
At any rate, Nehemiah formed a plan to return to Jerusalem and to help God’s people. Artaxerxes approved that plan. And Nehemiah was off to Jerusalem!
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Stopping Sin
Now how would you help God’s people to stop slipping into sin if you were Nehemiah? Do you see a pattern to the Jews’ sin? I think we see that often the Jews are influenced to sin by the ungodly pagans around them. They intermarry with the pagans. We’ll see later that some of them have an alliance with an influential pagan. At the end of this book they let one of the pagans back into the city – into the Temple actually. So it seems like the Jews just couldn’t resist forming partnerships with their enemies. And unfortunately when this was happening it wasn’t the Jews who were influencing the pagans. It was the pagans who were influencing the Jews to break God’s law and adopt ungodly practices. Can you see now why the first thing Nehemiah does is to build a wall of separation between the Jews and their enemies? It’s as if he knew that keeping the ungodly influence out was essential if these people were going to have a chance of keeping themselves undefiled and clear of God’s anger and chastisement.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Walls Rebuilt
So Nehemiah started rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem with the Jews’ help. He hoped this would help keep the ungodly enemies out of God’s holy city. Now, how do you think the enemies felt about this? Well we don’t need to guess because we already saw the opposition that immediately met them as they tried to erect a barrier of separation between God’s people and the ungodly world around them.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Enemy Opposition
And the opposition was fierce. You remember all the enemies – Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem, and really all the nations surrounding Jerusalem. They were all ready to attack the poor weak Jews. And at this point the wall is still not fully re-built. So these enemies are still threatening to enter the city. Let’s see their next attempt to attack the Jews. Read 5:1… “And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against SANBALLAT AND TOBIAH… no — their brethren the Jews.”
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Internal Opposition
Whoa, that may have caught us off-guard! I wasn’t expecting this change of conflicts. I’m used to God’s people experiencing conflict with external opponents. But you just don’t expect it from internal folks who should be on the right side. But whether we expect it or not, that’s exactly what we have here – opposition: not from the external enemies but from folks who are among God’s people.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Fear God, Love His People
And so originally I thought that this passage was mainly focused on godly leaders dealing with internal opposition as opposed to what we’ve seen before with godly leaders facing external opposition. But I don’t think that’s the main point of chapter 5. And so I’ll give you the title of today’s message and see if it bears out throughout chapter 5 — Godly leaders fear God and love his people. I think this chapter is yet another opportunity for Nehemiah to showcase his actions as a godly leader. So let’s learn all we can from this godly leader. I think every husband, parent, teacher, and really everyone else who has some sort of influence over others – I think we all have something to learn.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Jew vs. Jew
So Nehemiah the godly leader is faced with internal strife. And this was a big deal. It was a great outcry. The people and their wives took issue with their Jewish brethren. It’s Jew versus Jew. And that’s all we know so far. Well what’s the big cause for the disturbance? Let’s read verse 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.
So here’s some of these people who were crying out.
And they were saying that there was a number of them. There were a good number of Jews in the land at that time. And for the most part it seems that each family had a number of children. So there were a lot of these people.
Well, that’s good. Part of God’s blessings to his people are that they would be abundant. So what’s the problem? The problem comes in the last half of that verse. They indicate that they don’t have anything to eat.
Let me clear up a few translation issues here. First, “corn” is a translation of a Hebrew word that can also mean “grain.” So these people need grain or food of some sort.
The second issue that needs explanation is the phrase “therefore we take up.” In the Hebrew text this verb communicates that these people are saying something like “therefore let us take up or get grain.”
These people are all together confirming the fact that there are many of them and that they are hungry and need some food!
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Why No Food?
Well, I don’t get it! Why don’t these people have food? Are they lazy or something? Let’s read verse 3.
Some also there were that said,
We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth.
So we’re presented two problems that are contributing to the Jews going hungry.
First they’ve mortgaged their property. Here’s what they did. They had a need for food and apparently their last option was to give up the only property they owned as collateral for a loan so they could buy some food.
The second issue brought up is this business about the “dearth.” This of course is a word that simply means a “lack” of something. Lack of what? Well, in the context they’re lacking food. And this is a widespread issue, at least in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. What do we call a widespread lack of food? Yes, a famine.
So we’re getting a more complete picture of what’s going on here. The people lack food because there’s a famine in the land. They don’t have enough money to buy food so they get a loan from their Jewish brethren to buy it.
The only problem is that they need to put their fields and homes up as collateral to get these loans. So they’re just on a downward spiral.
And really, some things are worth getting a loan for – like buying a house maybe or something that may increase in value. But food? Food just gets eaten and then it’s gone. It’s not as if the people who are getting these loans are going to be able to pay these loans off. Especially if they don’t have their fields anymore. How else would they have made money to pay their lenders back if not for their produce?
Do you see the hopeless downward spiral these Jews have descended upon? The situation is bleak. That’s how we ought to feel for these folks. Sympathize with their plight.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Taking Their Children?!
In modern times this would be akin to you having to put your grocery bill on the credit card and never being able to get enough money to pay off your credit card balance. Interest piles up. Bills go unpaid. Collection agencies start calling. Repossessing your stuff. Taking things that are valuable to you – maybe even your own children!
Well but that doesn’t happen in modern-day America!
You’re right. It doesn’t.
But it did in post-exilic Judah. Let’s read verses 4 and 5 for more details.
There were also that said,
We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards. 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.
So in addition to the famine that’s causing the Jews to mortgage their fields, there’s also this matter of paying the king’s tax on those fields. And the Jews are finding themselves unable to pay this tax.
So the result of this is not pretty. The Jews are starting to sell their children back into slavery in order to get some money to pay this tax – a tax on land that they don’t even own anymore!
Why don’t they own it? Because other men own that land now.
Well, who owned the land? The poor Jews allude to the answer as did Nehemiah in verse 1 of this chapter. The Jews say that they are just like their brethren and their children are like their children. Except now they are needing to sell their children… to their Jewish brethren.
But why? Because the wealthy Jews are doing something evil that’s leading the poorer Jews to need to start selling their children to them.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Verses 1-5
So here’s a summary of this situation.
Most all of the Jewish families would have owned land at that time. And they would live off the produce of their land typically.
But there’s a famine. And their fields aren’t producing like they usually would.
Add to this that the king is still taxing their land.
And so some of the poorer Jews are borrowing money from richer Jews to get grain and to pay this tax.
But the poorer Jews need to hand over their land as collateral.
And because their land is basically someone else’s they’re starting to resort to selling their own beloved children to try to make ends meet. And in fact some of them have daughters in particular who are already slaves – slaves to their own Jewish countrymen!
Nehemiah 5 Summary – His Reaction
So Nehemiah hears about this. How do you think he reacts? Let’s read verses 6 and 7.
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.
So Nehemiah was very angry. This is the same word (charah) that’s used of Sanballat’s feelings when he heard the Jews were succeeding in the work. Isn’t that interesting? The enemies are angry when the Jews are succeeding and Nehemiah is angry when the Jews are failing.
Nehemiah then consults with himself. And the picture I initially got of that was Nehemiah muttering to himself like a crazy guy. That’s not the picture we’re to have in our minds. The sort of mechanical way of translating this would be – “my heart took counsel upon me.” His heart counseled him or vice versa. What would that look like? He’s mulling this over. He’s carefully thinking about this situation and what he ought to do.
And he eventually figured out exactly what to do. He rebukes the nobles and rulers. Ah, so there’s the group that’s taking advantage of their poorer Jewish brethren!
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Usury
And what does he accuse these nobles and rulers of? Exacting usury. What is that? Usury is exorbitant interest. Like you see those credit cards out there and if you read the fine print some of these cards charge around 20% interest. This is in my estimation a modern-day example of usury.
Well, what’s the big deal? I mean, business is business, right? The poor Jews didn’t need to go to the rich Jews for loans. Well, maybe they did. But I mean, surely it’s not as if the poor Jews didn’t know the conditions of their loans with the rich Jews. Why is Nehemiah so upset? These poor Jews should just work hard and pay off these loans.
Well, do you remember what I think is Nehemiah’s mindset for coming to Jerusalem in the first place? Remember, the Jews are scattered out of Jerusalem for the most part. And I think Nehemiah is fearing that another exile is coming if these Jews don’t do right.
But by what standard can Nehemiah judge whether they’re “doing right” or not? What was the equivalent of the Jews’ national constitution? The Law of Moses, right? And wouldn’t you know it? The Law has something to say to Jews about charging interest to their Jewish brothers. Let’s turn to Leviticus 25. And we’ll read verses 35 through 38.
And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee. Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase. I am the LORD your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.
God’s command to Israel was to not lend to their brethren with interest. If a Jewish brother became poor his neighbors needed to help him. They could lend to him. But it would be a 0% APR, Free-Financing type of loan – no interest! His fellow Jews were not to become rich off their brethren.
In fact, if the poor Jew needed food, the rich Jew was commanded to not make a profit off of that. The purpose was so that the poor Jew would be able to regain his bearings financially and move on and keep the land that was allotted to him and his family continually throughout their generations.
What was the rich Jews’ motivation for doing this? He stood to gain nothing. He would have to lend his money and get nothing in return. What would motivate a man to do such a thing?
Look again at verse 36.
Take thou no usury of him or increase but… fear thy God.
That’s the key. And that alone is what would motivate anyone to do right despite financial inconvenience. The fear of God.
Remember that mention here as we move along back into Nehemiah. In fact let’s turn back there to Nehemiah 5:7.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Nehemiah Confronts the Sinners
So now we see why Nehemiah was angry.
The Jews were breaking God’s law. They were putting themselves in the cross hairs of God’s burning anger. The rich Jews were not obeying God and were oppressing the poor Jews. This could very well end in the Jews being deported once more by God.
And Nehemiah stood as the lone voice of reason – the one who would fill in the gap so to speak – and would try to divert God’s anger.
How would he do this? He would need to confront the ones who were doing wrong in a very public and solemn manner. And that’s just what we see at the end of verse 7.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – The Great Assembly
He calls a great assembly against the offenders. Can you imagine that? A GREAT assembly.
I’m not sure how many people we’re talking about attending this assembly. But I’m sure all the nobles and rulers were there. They were probably stationed in the middle where everyone could see them.
Then of course the oppressed poor Jews would have been there. This meeting was of special interest to them. Really, their lives depended on the outcome of this assembly.
Then of course Nehemiah was there serving as the prosecution and judge. And here’s what he says to the nobles and rulers. Verse 8.
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.
Here’s Nehemiah’s first round of questioning.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Buying Back Slaves
He reminds the nobles and rulers that the Jews by and large had been sold to the nations. After the exile they were scattered and many apparently were sold off as slaves to Gentiles.
And Nehemiah and some of his partners – maybe even including some of these nobles and rulers! – were active in buying back these Jews from the nations. We wouldn’t have known that unless he had just revealed it here.
Now, I’m sure that wasn’t cheap – buying back a person out of slavery. It’s something that Nehemiah didn’t need to do. No one was forcing him to buy back Jews from slavery. And yet he did it out of love for his fellow-Jews.
So in light of Nehemiah’s generous actions can you imagine how frustrating the actions of the rich Jews must have been. Now it wasn’t the Gentiles who were enslaving the poor Jews. It was the Jews themselves enslaving one another!
And here’s the most frustrating part of all. Nehemiah wouldn’t let this enslaving go on. He and his partners would buy back these Jews. And I’m guessing that some of these Jews Nehemiah had already emancipated from the Gentiles just a little while ago. And here they are again, needing Nehemiah to buy them back once more. Can you envision that? A Jew is bought back from slavery to a Gentile only to become a slave to a fellow Jew only to be bought back by Nehemiah. And the cycle continues. Isn’t that absurd?
Nehemiah 5 Summary – More Questions
How would these rich Jews defend themselves against this charge? Well we saw it already. They couldn’t find a word to say in their defense. They knew they had done wrong.
But that doesn’t stop Nehemiah from stating the obvious in verses 9 through 11.
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.
Here’s Nehemiah’s second round of questioning.
He asserts very simply that what they’re doing to their poor brethren is not good. He asks rhetorically whether they ought to walk in the what? The fear of God. That should remind you of the passage we read earlier in Leviticus. You remember that the motivation for the people not exacting usury or interest from their poor brothers was that they should be fearing God.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Why Fear God?
And what’s interesting is that in this passage we see deeper motivation to fear God in the first place. So, why should they not collect interest on their brothers? Because they should fear God. Why should they fear God? Well, in this passage he says the motivation to fear God should come at least from the fact that they have enemies around them that are reproaching them. Not just the poor Jews but also the rich Jews are being subjected to this ridicule and derision from their enemies. It’s like Nehemiah is saying, “Don’t you understand that we as the people of God need to be unified? The enemies know that we’re weak. They’d love to see us fighting among ourselves. And you rich Jews who are claiming to be God-fearers and servants of God – if you oppress your brother, what kind of testimony is that to these unrighteous enemies of ours?”
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Stop the Usury
And the end of verse 10 and into verse 11 is Nehemiah’s plea to the rich Jews – please stop charging interest to your poor brothers. Lend them money without interest. Give them food without making a profit off of them. Restore the land that you took from them. And stop taking the money and food that you are continually charging them.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – The Rich Respond
Now, this is the moment of truth. These rich folks probably held quite a bit of sway in the Jewish community. This series of questions from Nehemiah may have been humiliating to them. They may not have appreciated being the focal point of this great assembly that Nehemiah called against them. How would they respond to this call to action? This is really the most tense part of this scene.
Let’s see how the rich Jews respond in verse 12.
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.
Wow, the nobles and rulers humbled themselves and adopted Nehemiah’s plan. What a relief. Just what the Jews didn’t need was to be fractured any further in the midst of their hostile enemies.
And this shows again what we’ve seen already in this book – this tendency of the Jews after the exile to be pretty malleable when confronted with their wrongdoing.
And I’m sure Nehemiah was pretty relieved to hear their response. But he really wants to make sure they stick to their word. So he calls the priests to take an oath from the nobles and rulers that they would keep their promise.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Object Lesson
Then Nehemiah gives them an object lesson to help them remember to do right. Verse 13.
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.
Nehemiah takes his dusty old robe – a robe that had seen a lot of hard labor on the dirty wall – a robe that had been worn in the dusty, near-desert conditions of Jerusalem, spending numberless hours every day pulling dusty stones out of dusty piles of dusty rubbish.
Nehemiah takes hold of this dusty old robe and he shakes it. He shakes it hard.
I can imagine that when he did this, some dust probably just fell to the ground. The rest probably was launched into the air. Before that, that dust had settled pretty well on Nehemiah’s garment. But when he shook it out, some landed on the ground. The rest flew into the air. But none remained on Nehemiah.
And that was to be a solemn warning to those who would transgress this promise they made to not lend to their brothers with interest. They were settled in the land just like that dust was settled on Nehemiah’s clothes. But God would shake them out of the land if they disobeyed.
I think that got the point across. The people rejoiced that justice had been done. The nobles and rulers did according to their promise. Praise the Lord for a leader like Nehemiah. Godly leaders fear God and love his people. In this situation this godly leader was motivated to fear God even when those he was leading were not.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Love in Two Forms
And his love for God’s people took two forms.
How did he love the oppressed, disadvantaged, and offended among God’s people? He made matters right for them. He saw to it that they were no longer mistreated.
And how did Nehemiah show love to those who were doing the mistreating? He insisted that they stop their injustices against their brothers.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – More Love
And this isn’t the only instance of Nehemiah fearing God and loving God’s people. Let’s read verse 14.
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.
Alright, what do we have here? Nehemiah is refusing himself and his brothers the bread of the governor.
Who was the governor? Well, the beginning of the verse says that Nehemiah himself was the governor.
So what is this “bread of the governor?” Apparently as we learn in the rest of this chapter the governor had a right according to Persian law to eat his food at the expense of those whom he governed.
Nehemiah did not claim any such right. He could have done so lawfully. But he refused.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – A Love That Refuses Luxury
I wonder why. Keep reading – verse 15.
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.
So we see here that Nehemiah was acting in stark contrast to those who preceded him.
Who were these governors anyway? Well, we don’t know – at least I don’t. The Bible doesn’t say. Nehemiah surely isn’t talking about Zerubbabel. He had been gone for a number of decades by this point.
Well, whoever these former governors were they apparently liked to live at the expense of the destitute Jews. They took from the Jews. They took bread. They took wine. They took silver. And if that wasn’t bad enough even their lowly servants oppressed the Jews.
But Nehemiah was completely different.
And I just asked this before. But why was he so different? Look at the last four words of verse 15. There’s that phrase again! The fear of God. That’s what motivated Nehemiah to do right. This loving reverential fear of displeasing God. And whenever we’re truly fearing displeasing God, we’re bound to do right to his people. And this is what happened with Nehemiah.
Now really Nehemiah was in a pretty comfortable position. He could have just kind of coasted along at the expense of the Jews. But he didn’t. He testifies to that fact in verse 16.
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.
Do you see the singularity of mind that Nehemiah had? He was missional in his approach to life. He came to Jerusalem to work on that wall. And work on that wall, he did! He didn’t even busy himself with purchasing land.
And his servants? Well, they certainly weren’t slacking either. They were gathered to work right alongside this godly leader who feared God and loved his people.
Nehemiah 5 Summary – More to Love
And if these considerations haven’t made us love and admire Nehemiah enough we have the content of verses 17 and 18.
17 Moreover there were at my table an 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.
Imagine packing 150 plus people into your house for every meal! And imagine cooking all the things that Nehemiah provided for his scores of guests every day! Oxen, sheep, birds, wine to flavor and disinfect their water. I imagine they also had some vegetables.
This would be costly to Nehemiah. This would require his servants – because I’m gathering that he didn’t have a wife – it would require that his servants clean and prepare for each of these meals. This would be a lot of work and a significant expense.
But you don’t hear a hint of complaint from this godly leader. He says he didn’t take the governor’s food allowance as he mentioned earlier. I mean he had every right to take it. He was feeding a number of his subjects. But he fed them for free. Well, it was free to them. It cost him quite a bit I imagine.
And yet he gladly bore the extra expense. Why? He says at the end of verse 18 – he sympathized with the people. The burden was already very heavy on the people. They were maxed out physically and monetarily. They had nothing else to give.
So Nehemiah, who feared God and loved his people, he took the extra burden upon himself.
Again, I am really put to shame by Nehemiah’s example. What a godly leader. Oh that each of us husbands were this kind of leader to his wife. That us parents were this kind of leader to our children. That we would appreciate our own godly leaders who exemplify for us Nehemiah’s fear of God and love for people. God help us!
Nehemiah 5 Summary – Humility
I want to point out one last thing. Have you noticed who’s been writing this book thus far? You see a lot of 1st person personal pronouns – I, me, my, our, us. Nehemiah is writing this about himself.
Can you imagine being the kind of man that Nehemiah was and writing these glowing things about yourself? I personally do not doubt that I’d be lifted up with pride as I put my quill to parchment trying to describe what I did for God and his people.
But what’s Nehemiah’s attitude? What audience is he appealing to as he writes about these things that God had done through him? Let’s finally read verse 19.
19 Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.
Is Nehemiah recording these things for his own vainglory? No. That’s not what’s in his heart. He’s not doing these things, he’s not writing this book, for the sake of having men praise him.
He’s doing it in God’s sight alone. If others see, that’s fine. But he must have God notice. He wants praise from him alone. That’s his sole focus.
God help each of us who are leaders in any capacity to fear him and love his people just as Nehemiah did.
This was the most awesome commentary on Nehemiah that I have ever read. It put his story in such a clear perspective, and made it not only informative but exciting to read.
Thank you. Most helpful.
Wow. I love this book and have been moving through it slowly, but didn’t quite get what was happening in this chapter. This made me love it even more and understand. Thank you!