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Troubles for the Builders
Nehemiah Deals with Opposition Oppression of the Poor The Social Problems of Nehemiah, He Vindicates His Administration
5:1-5 5:1-5 5:1-2 5:1-5
5:6-13 5:6-13 5:6-7a 5:6-13
The Generosity of Nehemiah Nehemiah's Unselfishness
5:14-18 5:14-19 5:14-18 5:14-16
5:19 5:19 5:19

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Bible Interpretation Seminar")


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

  1. First paragraph
  2. Second paragraph
  3. Third paragraph, etc.


 1Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. 2For there were those who said, "We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live." 3There were others who said, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine." 4Also there were those who said, "We have borrowed money for the king's tax on our fields and our vineyards. 5Now 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."

5:1 "there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers" The term "outcry" (BDB 858) is used often of an outcry heard by God (e.g., Exod. 3:7,9; 22:23; 1 Sam. 9:16; Job 27:9; 34:28; Isa. 5:7; Zeph. 1:10). Often this is in a legal sense (cf. The Jewish Study Bible, p. 1694). Notice the legal term "contend" in Neh. 5:7.

The rich Jews were exploiting the circumstances of the rebuilding of the walls to gouge their Hebrew brothers (cf. Neh. 5:7) . This was a serious problem which was undermining the economic and military stability of the new nation.

5:2 For there were those who said" Their statement has two COHORTATIVES and an IMPERFECT used as a COHORTATIVE. There were three main complaints:

  1. the physical needs of a large population during a famine (cf. Neh. 5:3)
  2. they had mortgaged their property for food (the necessities of life)
  3. they had to borrow money to pay the king's tax (cf. Ezra 4:13)

The problem was not usury (Jews loaning money to Jews and charging interest, cf. Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:36), but that the rich Jews were demanding a pledge (a physical guarantee) until the loan was paid. This meant a forfeiture of property.

NASB, NKJV, TEV, NJB, REB, LXX   "mortgaging our fields"
NRSV   "having to pledge our fields"
JB   "have had to borrow money on our fields"
JPSOA   "must pawn our fields"
Peshitta   "to sell our fields"

This VERB (BDB 786 II, KB 876 Qal ACTIVE PARTICIPLE) means "to give in pledge." The common people were being forced to use their ancestral land, even their homes, as surety for a loan.

5:4 "the king's tax" If food (i.e., grain) was not the need then governmental revenue was. Persia expected revenue from her provinces (cf. Ezra 4:13) and assessed a land tax.

5:5 "we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves" The writings of Moses allowed Israelites in debt to sell themselves as servants, but not slaves (cf. Exod. 21:2-6; Lev. 25:39-43; Deut. 15:12-18).

Debtors also were forced to use their children as payment to creditors (e.g., Exod. 21:7-11; 2 Kgs. 4;1).

NASB   "forced into bondage"
NKJV   "are brought into salvery"
NRSV   "have been ravished"
TEV, NJB   "have already been sold as slaves"
REB   "already enslaved"
LXX   "making them slaves"
Peshitta   "to be servants"

This VERB (BDB 461, KB 460, Niphal PARTICIPLE) means "subdue" (cf. Gen. 1:28), but can mean "assault" (e.g., Esth. 7:8). The context already mentioned "slavery," so this is an intensified attack against selected young women (implication is that they were turned into sex slaves). Brown, Driver, and Briggs (p. 461, VERB kbs #2) says that this term is related to 'gh (cf. Ezek. 23:11).

 6Then I was very angry when I had heard their outcry and these words. 7I 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. 8I 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. 9Again 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? 10And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury. 11Please, 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." 12Then 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. 13I 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.

5:6 "outcry" This is a different term (BDB 277) from Neh. 5:1, but it is related (cf. Neh. 9:9). Nehemiah was extremely angry at these accusations and exploitations by the wealthy Jews. He himself was a wealthy Jew, but he did not take advantage (cf. Neh. 5:10,14-19).

5:7 "I consulted with myself" If mlk is taken in its Aramaic sense (cf. Dan. 4:24) then this is an idiom for "thought carefully" (BDB 576 III, KB 591, Niphal IMPERFECT); if in the Hebrew sense of mlk then "I controlled my feelings" (BDB 573 II, cf. REB).

NASB   "contended"
NKJV   "rebuked"
NRSV   "brought charges"
TEV   "demanded"
NJB   "reprimanded"
REB   "reasoned"
JPSOA   "censured"
LXX   "quarreled"

This term (BDB 936, KB 1224, Qal IMPERFECT) can mean

  1. bring a legal case against
  2. agitate the mind (Aramaic)
  3. cry, shout (Syriac)

In this context #1 fits best (cf. NASB, NRSV).

NASB, NKJV, NIV   "exacting usury"
NRSV   "taking interest"
TEV   "oppressing"
NJB   "imposing a burden"
NET   "seizing the collateral"
JPSOA   "pressing claims on loans"
REB   "as pledges for debt"

The term ms' (BDB 673), usually translated "usury," is used only in Nehemiah (cf. Neh. 5:7,10; 10:32). A closely related term, ms'h (BDB 673) is used several times in the OT for a pledge or security for a loan (e.g., Deut. 24:10). The question is then, does this context refer to

  1. charging interest to fellow Jews, which is a violation of Mosaic law (cf. Exod. 22:25-27; Lev. 25:35-37; Deut. 23:19-20; 24:10-13)
  2. quickly seizing the pledge of the poor and defaulting the loan

▣ "I held a great assembly against them" Nehemiah called a "town meeting" to settle (legal setting, "content") a community issue (cf. Neh. 5:3). He could have made a decision administratively, but hoped that the fear of God would cause true repentance and reform.

5:8 "redeemed" This term (BDB 888, KB 1111, Qal PERFECT) speaks of buying someone back from slavery or helplessness. Nehemiah admits that he was redeeming Jews from foreign bondage (cf. Lev. 25:48), but the horrendous setting of chapter 5 is that Jews were forcing their brothers into bondage!

Special Topic: Redeem/Ransom

5:9 "walk" "Walk" (BDB 229, KB 246, Qal IMPERFECT) is a biblical idiom for lifestyle faith. It develops from the concept of God's word as a path to follow (e.g., Ps. 1:1; 119:101,105; Pro. 1:15; 4:14). The first title for the church in Acts was "the Way" (cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22; and possibly 18:2-26).

▣ "in the fear of our God" One's knowledge of God must issue in an awesome respect for Him. To know Him and then act inappropriately (the actions of God's people reflect on the character of God Himself) is a serious violation of revelation (cf. Luke 12:48).

Special Topic: Fear

▣ "the reproach of the nations, our enemies" These wealthy Jews were playing into the hand of Israel's enemies (cf. Neh. 4:4). This was either (1) a known plot to undermine the new political structure set up by Nehemiah or (2) greed. Their reaction (cf. Neh. 5:11-12) shows #2 is correct.

5:10 Nehemiah and those associated with him are acting in exactly the opposite way from these wealthy, elite business men.

▣ "my servants" Literally this is the term (BDB 654) "boy," "lad," or "youth," but it is used regularly of servants (cf. Neh. 4:16,22,23; 5:10,15,16; 6:5; 13:19; Esth. 2:2; 3:13; 6:3,5).

▣ "Please, let us leave off this usury" This is a Qal COHORTATIVE. This may refer to (1) loaning money with interest (cf. Neh. 5:11) or (2) confiscation of pledges (cf. Neh. 5:7), which was legal, but was being abused at this point (cf. Exod. 22:25-27; Deut. 23:19-20). Because they could does not mean they should!

5:11 "Please, give back to them this very day their fields" The VERB (BDB 996, KB 1427, Hiphil IMPERATIVE) is often used for repentance (i.e., "turn back"), but here for "return" (cf. Neh. 5:12). Nehemiah was trying to embarrass these rich Jews in the presence of the assembled group to do that which was morally right. In a sense this was an enactment of Jubilee freedom (cf. Lev. 25:10). He is using himself and his associates as an example.

NASB, NKJV   "the hundredth part of the money"
NRSV   "and the interest on the money"
TEV      ---------
NJB   "cancel the claim"
JPSOA   "and [abandon] the claims the hundred pieces of silver"
REB   "as well as the income in money"
LXX   "from the money"
Peshitta   "pardon the debts of money"

This is a difficult Hebrew phrase. Some think it means

  1. a scribal error for the word "loan"
  2. a reference to a monthly percent of interest being charged (Rotherham's Emphasized Bible footnote, p. 483)
  3. the wealthy lenders were to give not only the land back, but the means by which the poor could live until the next crop was harvested

5:12 "took an oath" The VERB (BDB 989, KB 1396, Hiphil IMPERFECT) is always used of humans swearing to God. Nehemiah did not trust these wealthy Jews, but he demanded that they take an oath in God's name. What they said they would do (BDB 793 I, KB 889, Qal IMPERFECT), they now swore they would do (BDB 793 I, Qal INFINITIVE CONSTRUCT). This was connected with a curse if they did not perform what they promised. The curse of Neh. 5:13 (i.e., shaking out one's garment [cf. Acts 18:6], which is a play on "shake out" used twice of Nehemiah and God) is an acted out curse of emptiness and poverty.

5:13 "Thus may God shake out. . .even thus may he be shaken out" These are both IMPERFECTS used in a JUSSIVE sense seeking God's judgment for those who violate their pledge.

▣ "Amen" "Amen" (BDB 53) is a form of the OT word for "faith" (cf. Hab. 2:4). The root's original etymology meant "to be firm" or "to be sure." It primarily refers to the trustworthiness of God. The term developed in Jewish usage into an affirmation like we use it today and as it is used here (cf. Num. 5:22; Deut. 27:26).

Special Topic: Amen

▣ "they praised the Lord" "They" must refer to both the wealthy and poor Jews ("all the assembly").

▣ "Then the people did according to this promise" It is unusual that "the people" here refers to the wealthy Jews. The phrase is usually used of the people as a whole (cf. Neh. 5:15).

 14 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. 15But 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. 16I 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. 17Moreover, 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. 18Now 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. 19Remember me, O my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.

5:14 " for twelve years" This was 445 to 433 B.C. This was the time of Nehemiah as governor of Judah in Jerusalem. The following verses discuss his personal use of his privileges and fortunes during this period of governmental service.

▣ "I nor my kinsmen" This is another difficult phrase. It may refer to

  1. Persian officials
  2. blood relatives
  3. helpers

The same ones seem to be referred to in Neh. 5:10.

5:15 "laid burdens on the people" The VERB (BDB 457, KB 455, Hiphil PERFECT) is a metaphor derived from placing a heavy yoke on a domestic animal (e.g., 1 Kgs. 12:10,14; 2 Chr. 10:10,14; Isa. 47:6). This is the non-religious use of the root kbd for "glory," which means "heavy" and "dignity."

▣ "bread and wine besides forty shekels" This list of revenue can be understood in several ways

  1. as the daily requirements of the governor (LXX, TEV, NJB)
  2. as the yearly taxation on families
  3. or both (Peshitta, NKJV, NIV)

▣ "I did not do so because of the fear of God" This is a direct contrast to the wealthy Jews' attitudes and methods (cf. Neh. 5:9).

5:16 "we did not buy any land" Neh. 5:13-19 shows that Nehemiah did not abuse either his position or the circumstances of the Jewish nation during his time as governor.

▣ "all my servants" The phrase is much like "my kinsmen" in Neh. 5:14. To whom it refers is uncertain. This same group is mentioned in Neh. 4:16,21 ("we carried on the work") and Neh. 5:10,14.

Those related (by blood, office, or service) to Nehemiah acted in the same way as he did. This is exactly opposite of the previous governors (i.e., Neh. 5:15, "even their servants domineered the people").

5:17 Nehemiah as governor was required to entertain officials from other provinces and leaders from Judah. He did this

  1. at his own expense
  2. he did not partake of the food allotted

Because of Neh. 5:14 option #2 is best.

5:18 "the servitude was heavy on this people" Nehemiah explains why he acted with such selflessness during this period:

  1. the taxation was heavy (cf. Neh. 5:15)
  2. he wanted to please God (cf. Neh. 5:9,15,19)

5:19 This has been Nehemiah's prayer ("remember me," Qal IMPERATIVE) from the beginning (cf. Neh. 1:11; 13:31). Nehemiah was a man of integrity, faith, and prayer!


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. What were the rich Jews doing to their poor brothers in Nehemiah 5?

2. Was what they were doing legal or illegal according to Mosaic law?

3. Why did Nehemiah want them to promise with an oath and threaten with a curse?


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