Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Abolition of Usury - Nehemiah's Unselfishness - Nehemiah 5
The events related in this and the following chapter also occurred during the building of the wall. Zealously as the rulers and richer members of the community, following the example of Nehemiah, were carrying on this great undertaking by all the means in their power, the work could not fail to be a heavy burden to the poorer classes, who found it very difficult to maintain their families in these expensive times, especially since they were still oppressed by wealthy usurers. Hence great discontent arose, which soon vented itself in loud complaints. Those who had no property demanded corn for the support of their numerous families (Neh 5:2); others had been obliged to pledge their fields and vineyards, some to procure corn for their hunger, some to be able to pay the king's tribute; and these complained that they must now give their sons and daughters to bondage (Neh 5:3-5). When these complaints came to the ears of Nehemiah, he was angry with the rulers; and calling an assembly, he set before them the great injustice of usury, and called upon them to renounce it, to restore to their brethren their mortgaged lands, and to give them what they had borrowed (Neh 5:6-11). His address made the impression desired. The noble and wealthy resolved to perform what was required; whereupon Nehemiah caused them to take a solemn oath to this effect, indicating by a symbolical act that the heavy wrath of God would fall upon all who should fail to act according to their promise. To this the assembly expressed their Amen, and the people carried out the resolution (Neh 5:12, Neh 5:13). Nehemiah then declared with what unselfishness he had exercised his office of governor, for the sake of lightening the heavy burden laid upon the people (Neh 5:14-19).
The people complain of oppression. - Neh 5:1 There arose a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews, i.e., as appears from what follows (Neh 5:7), against the nobles and rulers, therefore against the richer members of the community. This cry is more particularly stated in Neh 5:2, where the malcontents are divided into three classes by וישׁ, Neh 5:2, Neh 5:3, Neh 5:4.
There were some who said: Our sons and our daughters are many, and we desire to receive corn, that we may eat and live. These were the words of those workers who had no property. נקחה (from לקח), not to take by force, but only to desire that corn may be provided.
Others, who were indeed possessed of fields, vineyards, and houses, had been obliged to mortgage them, and could now reap nothing from them. ערב, to give as a pledge, to mortgage. The use of the participle denotes the continuance of the transaction, and is not to be rendered, We must mortgage our fields to procure corn; but, We have been obliged to mortgage them, and we desire to receive corn for our hunger, because of the dearth. For (1) the context shows that the act of mortgaging had already taken place, and was still continuing in force (we have been obliged to pledge them, and they are still pledged); and (2) נקחה must not be taken here in a different sense from Neh 5:2, but means, We desire that corn may be furnished us, because of the dearth; not, that we may not be obliged to mortgage our lands, but because they are already mortgaged. בּרעב, too, does not necessarily presuppose a scarcity in consequence of a failure of crops or other circumstances, but only declares that they who had been obliged to pledge their fields were suffering from hunger.
Others, again, complained: We have borrowed money for the king's tribute upon our fields and vineyards. לוה means to be dependent, nexum esse, and transitively to make dependent, like מלא, to be full, and to make full: We have made our fields and our vineyards answerable for money for the king's tribute (Bertheau), i.e., we have borrowed money upon our fields for ... This they could only do by pledging the crops of these lands, or at least such a portion of their crops as might equal the sum borrowed; comp. the law, Lev 25:14-17.
"And now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, and our sons as their sons; and lo, we are obliged to bring our sons and our daughters into bondage, and some of our daughters are already brought into bondage; and we have no power to alter this, and our fields and vineyards belong to others." "Our brethren" are the richer Jews who had lent money upon pledges, and בּניהם are their sons. The sense of the first half of the verse is: We are of one flesh and blood with these rich men, i.e., as Ramb. already correctly explains it: non sumus deterioris conditionis quam tribules nostri divites, nec tamen nostrae inopiae ex lege divina Deu 15:7, Deu 15:8, subvenitur, nisi maximo cum foenore. The law not only allowed to lend to the poor on a pledge (Deu 15:8), but also permitted Israelites, if they were poor, to sell themselves (Lev 25:39), and also their sons and daughters, to procure money. It required, however, that they who were thus sold should not be retained as slaves, but set at liberty without ransom, either after seven years or at the year of jubilee (Lev 25:39-41; Exo 22:2.). It is set forth as a special hardship in this verse that some of their daughters were brought into bondage for maid-servants. ידנוּ לאל אין, literally, our hand is not to God, i.e., the power to alter it is not in our hand; on this figure of speech, comp. Gen 31:29. The last clause gives the reason: Our fields and our vineyards belonging to others, what they yield does not come to us, and we are not in a position to be able to put an end to the sad necessity of selling our daughters for servants.
The abolition of usury. - Neh 5:6 Nehemiah was very angry at this complaint and these things, i.e., the injustice which had been brought to his knowledge.
"And my heart took counsel upon it (ימּלך according to the Chaldee use of מלך, Dan 4:24), and I contended with the nobles and rulers, and said to them, Ye exact usury every one of his brother." ב נשׁא means to lend to any one, and משּׁא, also משּׁאה, Deu 24:10; Pro 22:26, and mashe', is the thing lent, the loan, what one borrows from or lends to another. Consequently משּׁא נשׁא is to lend some one a loan; comp. Deu 24:10. This does not seem to suit this verse. For Nehemiah cannot reproach the nobles for lending loans, when he and his servants had, according to Neh 5:10, done so likewise. Hence the injustice of the transaction which he rebukes must be expressed in the emphatic precedence given to משּׁא. Bertheau accordingly regards משּׁא not as the accusative of the object, but as an independent secondary accusative in the sense of: for the sake of demanding a pledge, ye lend. But this rendering can be neither grammatically nor lexically justified. In the first respect it is opposed by משּׁאה השּׁא, Deu 24:10, which shows that משּׁא in conjunction with נשׁא is the accusative of the object; in the other, by the constant use of משּׁא in all passages in which it occurs to express a loan, not a demand for a pledge. From Exo 22:24, where it is said, "If thou lend money (תּלוה) to the poor, thou shalt not be to him כּנשׁה, shalt not lay upon him usury," it is evident that נשׁה is one who lends money on usury, or carries on the business of a money-lender. This evil secondary meaning of the word is here strongly marked by the emphatic praeposition of משּׁא; hence Nehemiah is speaking of those who practise usury. "And I appointed a great assembly on their account," to put a stop to the usury and injustice by a public discussion of the matter. עליהם, not against them (the usurers), but on their account.
In this assembly he reproached them with the injustice of their behaviour. "We" (said he) "have, after our ability, redeemed our brethren the Jews which were sold unto the heathen; yet ye would sell your brethren, and they are to be sold to us." We (i.e., Nehemiah and the Jews living in exile, who were like-minded with him) have bought, in contrast to ye sell. They had redeemed their Jewish brethren who were sold to the heathen. בנוּ כּדי for בנוּ אשׁר כּדי, i.e., not according to the full number of those who were among us, meaning as often as a sale of this kind occurred (Bertheau); for דּי does not mean completeness, multitude, but only sufficiency, supply, adequacy of means (Lev 25:26); hence בנוּ כּדי is: according to the means that we had: secundum sufficientiam vel facultatem, quae in nobis est (Ramb.), or secundum possibilitatem nostram (Vulg.). The contrast is still more strongly expressed by the placing of גּם before אתּם, so that וגם acquires the meaning of nevertheless (Ewald, 354, a). The sale of their brethren for bond-servants was forbidden by the law, Lev 25:42. The usurers had nothing to answer to this reproach. "They held their peace, and found no word," sc. in justification of their proceedings.
Nehemiah, moreover, continued (ויאמר, the Chethiv, is evidently a clerical error for ואמר, for the Niphal ויּאמר does not suit): "The thing ye do is not good: ought ye not (= ye surely ought) to walk in the fear of our God, because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?" i.e., we ought not, by harsh and unloving conduct towards our brethren, to give our enemies occasion to calumniate us.
"I, likewise my brethren and my servants (comp. Neh 4:17), have lent them money and corn; let us, I pray, remit (not ask back) this loan!" The participle נשׁים says: we are those who have lent. Herewith he connects the invitation, Neh 5:11 : "Restore unto them, I pray you, even this day (כּהיּום, about this day, i.e., even to-day, Sa1 9:13), their fields, their vineyards, their olive gardens, and their houses, and the hundredth of the money, and of the corn, wine, and oil which you have lent them." Nehemiah requires, 1st, that those who held the lands of their poorer brethren in pledge should restore them their property without delay: 2nd, that they should remit to their debtors all interest owing on money, corn, etc. that had been lent; not, as the words have been frequently understood, that they should give back to their debtors such interest as they had already received. That the words in Neh 5:11 bear the former, and not the latter signification, is obvious from the reply, Neh 5:12, of those addressed: "We will restore, sc. their lands, etc., and will not querie of them, sc. the hundredth; so will we do as thou sayest." Hence we must not translate בּהם נשׁים אתּם אשׁר, "which you had taken from them as interest" (de Wette), - a translation which, moreover, cannot be justified by the usage of the language, for ב נשׁה does not mean to take interest from another, to lend to another on interest. The אשׁר relates not to וּמאת, but to והיּצהר ... הדּגן; and השׁיב, to restore, to make good, is used of both the transactions in question, meaning in the first clause the restoration of the lands retained as pledges, and in the second, the remission (the non-requirement) of the hundredth. The hundredth taken as interest is probably, like the centesima of the Romans, to be understood of a monthly payment. One per cent. per month was a very heavy interest, and one which, in the case of the poor, might be exorbitant. The law, moreover, forbade the taking of any usury from their brethren, their poor fellow-countrymen, Exo 22:25 and Lev 25:36. When the creditors had given the consent required, Nehemiah called the priests, and made them (the creditors) swear to do according to this promise, i.e., conscientiously to adhere to their agreement. Nehemiah obtained the attendance of the priests, partly for the purpose of giving solemnity to the oath now taken, and partly to give to the declaration made in the presence of the priests legal validity for judicial decisions.
To make the agreement thus sworn to still more binding, Nehemiah confirmed the proceeding by a symbolical action: Also I shook my lap, and said, So may God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performeth (fulfilleth) not this promise, and thus may he be shaken out and emptied. חצן means the lap of the garment, in which things are carried (Isa 49:22), where alone the word is again found. The symbolical action consisted in Nehemiah's gathering up his garment as if for the purpose of carrying something, and then shaking it out with the words above stated, which declared the meaning of the act. The whole congregation said Amen, and praised the Lord, sc. for the success with which God had blessed his efforts to help the poor. And the people did according to this promise, i.e., the community acted in accordance with the agreement entered into.
Nehemiah's unselfish conduct. - The transaction above related gave Nehemiah occasion to speak in his narrative of the unselfishness with which he had filled the office of governor, and of the personal sacrifices he had made for the good of his fellow-countrymen.
The statement following is compared with the special occurrence preceding it by גּם. As in this occurrence he had used his credit to do away with the oppression of the people by wealthy usurers, so also had he shown himself unselfish during his whole official career, and shunned no sacrifice by which he might lighten the burdens that lay upon his fellow-countrymen. "From the time that he appointed me to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two-and-thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, I and my servants have not eaten the bread of the governor." The subject of צוּה is left undefined, but is obviously King Artaxerxes. פּחם, their (the Jews') governor. This he was from the twentieth (comp. Neh 2:1) to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes, in which, according to Neh 13:6, he again visited the court of this monarch, returning after a short interval to Jerusalem, to carry out still further the work he had there undertaken. "The bread of the Pechah" is, according to Neh 5:15, the food and wine with which the community had to furnish him. The meaning is: During this whole period I drew no allowances from the people.
The former governors who had been before me in Jerusalem - Zerubbabel and his successors-had received allowances, העם על הכבּידוּ, had burdened the people, and had taken of them (their fellow-countrymen) for bread and wine (i.e., for the requirements of their table), "afterwards in money forty shekels." Some difficulty is presented by the word אחר, which the lxx render by ἔσχατον, the Vulgate quotidie. The meaning ultra, praeter, besides (EW. 217, 1), can no more be shown to be that of אחר, than over can, which Bertheau attempts to justify by saying that after forty shekels follow forty-one, forty-two, etc. The interpretation, too: reckoned after money (Bttcher, de Inferis, 409, b, and N. krit. Aehrenl. iii. p. 219), cannot be supported by the passages quoted in its behalf, since in none of them is אחר used de illo quod normae est, but has everywhere fundamentally the local signification after. Why, then, should not אחר be here used adverbially, afterwards, and express the thought that this money was afterwards demanded from the community for the expenses of the governor's table? "Even their servants bare rule over the people." שׁלט denotes arbitrary, oppressive rule, abuse of power for extortions, etc. Nehemiah, on the contrary, had not thus acted because of the fear of God.
"And also I took part in the work of this wall; neither bought we any land, and all my servants were gathered thither unto the work." בּ החזיק = בּ יד החזיק, to set the hand to something; here, to set about the work. The manner in which Nehemiah, together with his servants, set themselves to the work of wall-building is seen from Neh 4:10, Neh 4:12, Neh 4:15, and Neh 4:17. Neither have we (I and my servants) bought any land, i.e., have not by the loan of money and corn acquired mortgages of land; comp. Neh 5:10.
But this was not all; for Nehemiah had also fed a considerable number of persons at his table, at his own expense. "And the Jews, both one hundred and fifty rulers, and the men who came to us from the nations round about us, were at my table," i.e., were my guests. The hundred and fifty rulers, comp. Neh 2:16, were the heads of the different houses of Judah collectively. These were always guests at Nehemiah's table, as were also such Jews as dwelt among the surrounding nations, when they came to Jerusalem.
"And that which was prepared for one (i.e., a single) day was one ox, six choice (therefore fat) sheep, and fowls; they were prepared for me, i.e., at my expense, and once in ten days a quantity of wine of all kinds." The meaning of the last clause seems to be, that the wine was furnished every ten days; no certain quantity, however, is mentioned, but it is only designated in general terms as very great, להרבּה. זה ועם, and with this, i.e., notwithstanding this, great expenditure, I did not require the bread of the Pechah (the allowance for the governor, comp. Neh 5:14), for the service was heavy upon the people. העבדה is the service of building the walls of Jerusalem. Thus Nehemiah, from compassion for his heavily burdened countrymen, resigned the allowance to which as governor he was entitled.
"Think upon me, my God, for good, all that I have done for this people." Compare the repetition of this desire, Neh 13:14 and Neh 13:31. על עשׂה in the sense of ל עשׂה, for the sake of this people, i.e., for them.