Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
The people complain that they are oppressed and enthralled by their richer brethren, Neh 5:1-3. Nehemiah calls them to account; upbraids them for their cruelty; and obliges them to swear that they will forgive the debts, restore the mortgaged estates, and free their servants, Neh 5:4-13. Nehemiah's generosity and liberality, Neh 5:14-17. The daily provision for his table, Neh 5:18, Neh 5:19.
We, our sons, and our daughters, are many - Our families are larger than we can provide for; we are obliged to go in debt; and our richer brethren take advantage of our necessitous situation, and oppress us. The details which are given in the next verse are sufficiently plain.
Because of the dearth - About the time of Zerubbabel, God had sent a judicial dearth upon the land, as we learn from Haggai, Hag 1:9, etc., for the people it seems were more intent on building houses for themselves than on rebuilding the house of the Lord: "Ye looked for much, and, lo, it is come to little; because of mine house that is waste; and ye run, every man unto his own house. Therefore the heaven over you is stayed from dew, and the earth is stayed from her fruit. And I called for a drought upon the land, and upon the mountains, and upon the corn, and upon the new wine, and upon the oil, and upon that which the ground brought forth; and upon men, and upon cattle, and upon all the labor of the hands." This dearth might have been continued, or its effects still felt; but it is more likely that there was a new dearth owing to the great number of people, for whose support the land that had been brought into cultivation was not sufficient.
We have borrowed money - This should be read, We have borrowed money for the king's tribute on our lands and vineyards. They had a tax to pay to the Persian king in token of their subjection to him, and though it is not likely it was heavy, yet they were not able to pay it.
We bring in to bondage our sons - The law permitted parents to sell their children in times of extreme necessity, Exo 21:7.
Ye exact usury - This was expressly contrary to the law of God; and was doubly cruel at this time, when they were just returning out of the land of their captivity, and were suffering from the effects of a dearth. Some think that it was about the time of a Sabbatical year, when their land must have lain at rest without cultivation, and during which they were expressly commanded not to exact any debt. Deu 15:2.
I set a great assembly against them - Brought all these delinquents before the rulers of the people.
Ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God - If ye wish to accredit that religion ye profess which comes from the God of justice and mercy; should you not, in the sight of the heathen, abstain from injustice and cruelty? Can they credit your profession, when they see such practices? The inconsistent conduct of some professors of religion does much harm in the Church of God.
Also the hundredth part of the money - Houbigant contends,
1. That the word מאת meath, which we and the Vulgate translate one hundredth part, never means so anywhere; and
2. That it would have answered no end to have remitted to people so distressed merely the one hundredth part of the money which had been taken from them by usury.
He understands מאת meath as signifying the same as מן את min eth, contracted into מאת meeth, a preposition and demonstrative particle joined together, also a part From The money. Neither the Syriac, Septuagint, nor Arabic acknowledges this hundredth part. Some think that the hundredth part is that which they obliged the poor debtors to pay each month, which would amount to what we would call twelve per cent. interest for the money lent, or the debt contracted. See the introduction.
Also I shook my lap - This was a significant action frequent among the Hebrews; and something of the same nature was practiced among other nations. "When the Roman ambassadors entered the senate of Carthage, they had their toga gathered up in their bosom. They said, We carry here peace and war; you may have which you will. The senate answered, You may give which you please. They then shook their toga, and said, We bring you war. To which all the senate answered, We cheerfully accept it." See Livy. lib. xxi., cap. 18; and see Calmet.
I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor. - From what is related here, and in the following verse, we find that the table of the governor was always supplied by the people with bread and wine; and, besides, they had forty shekels per diem for their other expenses. The people were also greatly oppressed by the servants and officers of the governor; but, during the twelve years that Nehemiah had been with them, he took not this salary, and ate none of their bread. Nor were his servants permitted to take or exact any thing from them. Having such an example, it was scandalous for their chiefs, priests, and nobles, thus to oppress an afflicted and distressed people.
Neither bought we any land - Neither he nor his officers took any advantage of the necessities of the people, to buy their lands, etc. He even made his own servants to work at the wall.
A hundred and fifty of the Jews - He kept open house, entertained all comers; besides having one hundred and fifty Jews who had their food constantly at his table, and at his expense. To be able to bear all these expenses, no doubt Nehemiah had saved money while he was cup-bearer to the Persian king in Susa.
One ox, and six choice sheep - This was food sufficient for more than two hundred men.
Once in ten days store of all sorts of wine - It is supposed that every tenth day they drank wine; at all other times they drank water; unless we suppose the meaning of the phrase to be, that his servants laid in a stock of wine every ten days. Though the Asiatics drank sparingly of wine, yet it is not very likely that, in a case such as that above, wine was tasted only thrice in each month.
Bishop Pococke mentions the manner in which the bey of Tunis lived. He had daily twelve sheep, with fish, fowls, soups, oranges, eggs, onions, boiled rice, etc., etc., His nobles dined with him; after they had done, the servants sat down; and, when they had finished, the poor took what was left. Here is no mention of a fat ox; but there were six sheep at the bey's table more than were at the table of Nehemiah: so the twelve sheep were equal to six sheep and one ox. Probably the mode of living between these two was nearly alike.
Think upon me, my God, for good - Nehemiah wishes for no reward from man; and he only asks mercy at the hand of his God for what his providence enabled him to do; and which, according to the good hand of his God upon him, he had done faithfully. He does not offer his good deeds to God in extenuation of his sins, or as a compensation for the heaven he expected. Nothing of the kind: he simply says, what any good man might say, My God, as I have done good to them, so do good to me; or as the poet has sung: -
"Teach me to feel another's wo,
To hide the fault I see:
The mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me!"
This is according to the precept of Christ: "Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven; give, and it shall be given unto you."