Abuses Rectified

Nehemiah 5, 13

by John Kitto, Daily Bible Illustrations

Nehemiah’s high office, as royal cup-bearer, was not only most honorable, but must have been highly lucrative. This is shown by the fact that he was able, probably without any serious detriment to his fortune, to gratify his own generous and patriotic feelings by declining to receive the dues and supplies for his table to which he was entitled, and which former governors had received. He defrayed the whole expenses of his government out of his own private purse. This must have been at a great cost; for he not only maintained a large and liberal establishment, but entertained a hundred and fifty of the principal Jews frequently, if not daily, at his table—besides that on him devolved the expense of receiving and providing for the Jews who were continually coming into the city of their fathers from foreign parts.  Some idea of his expenditure in victuals alone may be formed from his own statement—“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.” This indicates a large expenditure—heavy for a private purse, and probably equal to that of some of the later kings. But it reads small beside the greatness of Solomon; and the comparison might suggest some curious reflections as to the relative condition of the nation at the two periods. Solomon required for his household daily thirty oxen and a hundred sheep, “besides harts, and roebucks, and fallow deer, and fatted fowl.”

Cares still more painful than those connected with the restoration of the wall soon engaged the attention of the Tirshatha. Usury, that great trade in money for which the Jews ever since the captivity have been notorious, was found to be in full vigor in Judah; and as there had been of late much scarcity, those who had any command of money reaped a rich harvest from the exigencies of their brethren. Some had sold or pledged the liberty of their children; others had mortgaged their fields, their vineyards, their houses—the heritage of their fathers; others had borrowed money at extortionate interest to pay the king’s taxes. Thus, in various ways, the body of the people were ground to powder, and all their available possessions went to add riches to the rich.

The grievance became intolerable; and the wretched people, whose confidence in Nehemiah gained strength every day, ventured to bring their complaints before him. His anger, when he heard of these doings, was very great, and he felt the necessity of dealing, with this great evil in the bulk. After having, therefore, sharply rebuked the chief persons and magistrates for the sanction they had given to this disgraceful traffic, he convoked a general assembly of the people. He then set forth the wrong of this oppression in such forcible language, that no one ventured to answer  him, or to gainsay his demand for the liberty of the enslaved Hebrews, the restoration of the heritages, the remission of the debts, and the foregoing of the enormous interest which had been exacted. They in fact promised to meet his views, and he made them confirm the promise with an oath. Perceiving, however, the visible, though undeclared, distaste of many to this proposal, Nehemiah significantly shook his lap, and said, “So God shake out every man from his house and from his labor that performeth not his promise, even thus be he shaken out and emptied.” All the people said “Amen;” and it is gratifying to learn that every one of the persons who had subjected themselves to this censure performed his promise. The act of Nehemiah in shaking his lap, resembles that of Paul, who shook his raiment, and said, “Your blood, be on your own heads; I am clean”—Act_18:6. Significant acts of this kind are still very common in the East. By shaking his garment, or his lap, as if to clear it from dust, a person expresses his dissent from, or reprobation of, that which is done, said, or asserted, and his disavowal of any responsibility in connection therewith. When performed inadvertently, in the presence of others, such acts are considered rude and ill-omened, and the person who shakes his garment subjects himself to sharp reproof. In their quarrels, both men and women accompany the curses they liberally bestow on each other by the shaking of their robes, and such expressions as—“They may it be with thee.”

In the present day, Nehemiah’s stringent measures would be regarded as an interference with the rights of property and of trade. But it is to be remembered that the Israelites were as a band of brothers, bound to assist each other freely in their distresses, and between whom such dealings as these were expressly forbidden. Usury in the abstract—that is, the trade in money—was not, as some suppose, forbidden by the law. Jews might lend money on interest to foreigners, but not to their fellow-Israelites, not only for the reason stated, but because this employment of money is mainly an  exigency of commerce; and the Hebrews were intended to be, not a commercial, but an agricultural people, each with his own landed heritage—and among such there could be little real need for this traffic in money. So we see that it was when they got to dwell among foreigners that they took up this trade; and they had now to be reminded that they were not to carry it on at the expense of their brethren.

Nehemiah gladly co-operated with Ezra, who remained as a great teacher of the law, in all his efforts for the instruction of the people, and the restoration of the Mosaical institutions. A large portion of the Book of Nehemiah is occupied with an account of the revival of the great and beautiful Feast of Tabernacles—preceded, on this occasion, by the public reading of the Law at the commencement of the ecclesiastical new year. This reading was, by the law, to take place at the commencement of every seventh year; but the wholesome custom seems to have fallen into entire disuse, until thus revived. It was done with great solemnity, and with an earnest desire that the people should be really instructed. The fact was, however, that during the captivity the people had materially altered their language; and although the pure old Hebrew was cultivated by and known to the learned, the mass of the people spoke the Chaldee dialect, which resembled the Hebrew pretty nearly, but was still so different from it as to render the old language only partially intelligible, to those who knew the Chaldee merely. So was Chaldee unintelligible to those who knew only the Hebrew—of which we have a remarkable instance in the time of Hezekiah, when the Chaldean general Rabshakeh refused to deliver his insulting speech in Chaldee (which it would from this appear the nobles of Judah understood), but persisted in speaking in Hebrew, avowedly that the people, who crowded the walls, might understand what he said. Now the case is reversed; and the people understand Chaldee, but cannot follow the Hebrew. And here also it may he noted, that the present handsome alphabetical character, in which Hebrew manuscripts are written and books printed, and which is probably  more gratifying to the eye and pleasant to a reader than any other alphabetical character in existence, was borrowed from the Chaldeans during the captivity—the old Hebrew character being far less handsome. This old character was, however, retained by the Samaritans in their copies of the Law; and it is hence known as the Samaritan character. Thus it curiously happened that the old people obtained a new written character, while the old form remained in possession of the new people.

It is clear that simply to read the Books of the Law in Hebrew would have been an unprofitable service; and yet Ezra did not feel authorized to translate the lections off-hand into Chaldee; in fact the Jews never have read the books in their public services in other than the sacred language. To meet the difficulty, Ezra, standing upon a raised platform of wood with several Levites, read the Law out in pure Hebrew—which was translated, sentence by sentence, to the people by the Levites into the vernacular tongue. Some, indeed, deny that the Hebrew was at this time unintelligible to the people, and hence urge, that the Levites did not translate what Ezra read, but made it intelligible by an explanation of all the difficult passages. It seems to its that, if the language of the people was at this time in such a state that in no long time later, as all admit, Chaldee became the vernacular tongue, that tongue must even at this time have been so much more familiar to them than pure old biblical Hebrew, as to have rendered some verbal explanations of the latter indispensable, if the people were to be “made to understand” what Ezra read. Those who have looked to the case of languages in a state of transition, will feel assured that much of what was read could not be understood by the people—owing to differences of pronunciation, of vowels, and of terminations—as well as from the occurrence of words and phrases which had gone out of colloquial use, and had been exchanged for Chaldean words and forms of speech; and such will conceive that the Levites’ labor of love consisted in repeating from different sides of the platform, to the people  around, what Ezra read in Hebrew, with the substitution of the corresponding Chaldee for such words and expressions as they felt to be in that language not easy for the hearers to understand. Whether they besides gave any exposition of the text, is a different question. They may have done that also; and it is not unlikely that they did, considering how ignorant of the Law the people had become. The scene must altogether have been highly impressive and interesting, the more so, as it seems to have become the model of the synagogue services. That it made a salutary impression on the minds of the people, is shown by the zeal and gladness of heart with which they forthwith applied themselves to the celebration of the long neglected Feast of Tabernacles; and once more the picturesque booths of green boughs appeared in their courts and upon their house-tops.