The Book of Nehemiah - "Searchlights from the Word" by G. Campbell Morgan.
I asked them concerning the Jews. - Neh. 1:2
An interval of about twelve years occurred between the reformation wider Ezra, and the coming of Nehemiah The story this book tells is that of the continuation of the work commenced by Zerubbabel in the matter of the rebuilding of the wall. It is intensely interesting, because in large measure it is autobiographical. Nehemiah tells his own story, with a freshness, and a vigour and transparent honesty which are full of charm. In these words we have a revelation of his patriotism. He held the position of cup-bearer to the king, which was one of honour, admitting him, not only into the presence of the king, but into relationships of familiarity. He had no inclination to forget or to ignore his relationship with his own people, for he spoke of those of them who found their way to the court as "my brethren." Moreover, his interest in them was sympathetic and vital. He made inquiry of them concerning Jerusalem. The news they brought was full of sadness, and his devotion was manifested in his grief. He carried his burden to his God in prayer. That prayer opened with confession. Without reserve, he acknowledged the sin of the people, and identified himself therewith. He then pleaded the promises of God, and asked that God would give him favour in the eyes of his master, the king. There was in his heart a resolve to do more than pity, if the door of opportunity opened. All this is patriotism on the highest level. It was based upon a recognition of the nation's relationship to God, and expressed itself in identification with her sorrows and her sins, and in a desire and determination to help her in ways according with Divine purpose and law.
So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king.
This was practical, and that in both facts. Prayer is always practical, for it reaches and apprehends the actual and final forces. Prayer ever demands action which is in harmony with its desires. Having sought the help of God, he spoke to the king with perfect honesty when the opportunity came. In the presence of the king, the sadness of Nehemiah's heart could not be wholly hidden. He had not been naturally or habitually a sad man, as he himself declares, but his sorrow for his nation was so real that it was manifest to the king. It has been suggested that this was part of his method, but such an interpretation strains the narrative, for he confessed that when the king detected the evidences of his sorrow, he was filled with fear. Yet, having had audience of God, courage splendidly overcame fear, and he told the king the cause of his grief and boldly asked to be allowed to go up and help his brethren. His request was granted, for his prayer was answered, and he took his departure for Jerusalem. All this is very illuminative. In all our endeavours, prayer is our first and principal line of activity. But more is necessary. God expects our co-operation. He will touch the heart of the king, but Nehemiah must make his venture. There is a profound truth in the commonplace and hackneyed statement that God helps those who help themselves. It is along the line of the use of our reason or common sense, that God works for us, and with us, for the accomplishment of all that we ask of Him.
Next unto him.
This is the first occurrence in this chapter of this phrase. It, or its equivalent, "next unto them," runs on through the first half of it, occurring no fewer than fifteen times. Then another pair of phrases "after him" and "after them" emerges, and one or the other continues to the end, occurring sixteen times. These phrases mark the unity of the work. By this linking up of groups of workers the whole wall was built. The description is in itself orderly, and proceeds round the entire enclosure of the city, including all the gates, and the connecting parts of the wall. Beginning at the sheep-gate, which was near the Temple, and through which the sacrifices passed, we pass the fish-gate in the merchant quarter, on by the old gate in the ancient part of the city, and then successively come to the valley-gate, the dung-gate, the gate of the fountain, the water-gate, the horse-gate, the east-gate, the gate Miphkad, until we arrive again at the sheep-gate, when the chapter ends. All this is supremely interesting in its revelation of method. The unifying fact was the wall. All were inspired by the one desire and intention to see it completed. In order to realization, the work was systematically divided. Each group was united, as to its own workers, in the effort to do the particular portion allotted to them. All the groups were united to each other in the effort to complete the wall. It is a striking picture of the unity of diversity, and has its lessons for us. There was no sense of separation. Each worked "next to," or "after" some other; and so the complete union of workers and work was realized.
We made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch.
That is ever the true attitude of those who are called upon to work for God in face of danger. As the work proceeded, the opposition of the enemies of the people, which first expressed itself in derision, passed to anger mingled with contempt. Nehemiah was conscious of the menace of this attitude to the work he had in hand, and lifted his heart in prayer, to his God. An illuminative sentence in the narrative at this point shows how completely Nehemiah had captured and inspired the people. It declares that "The people had a mind to work." Thus the work went forward, until the wall was raised to half its height. At this point the opposition became more fierce, and a determined attempt was made by conspiracy to stay its progress. With immediateness, and a keen sense of the necessity created by this fact, Nehemiah says, "We made our prayer unto our God and set a watch." In this method there was neither foolish independence of God, nor foolhardy neglect of human responsibility and precaution. Everything was done to insure that two-fold attitude of complete faith in God, and determined dependence upon personal effort, which always makes for success. How often God's workers fail for lack of one or the other of these important elements!
I consulted with myself, and contended with the nobles.
A new difficulty, constituting a yet more dangerous element, now presented itself. It arose within the borders of the workers, among the people themselves. The rich men among them exacted usury from their poorer brethren to such an extent as to oppress and impoverish them. Perhaps nowhere in the story does the nobility of Nehemiah's character shine out more clearly than in this connection. There is a fine touch in this declaration, "I consulted with myself, and contended with the nobles." His consultation with himself resulted in his determination to set an example of self-denial, in that he took no usury, nor even the things which were his right as the appointed governor of the people. This high and disinterested example produced immediate results, in that all the nobles did the same. Thus the people were relieved, and filled with joy, and consequently went forward with the work with new enthusiasm, ultimately completing it. It is from the vantage ground of personal rectitude that a man is really strong to deal effectively with wrong in others. Contention with nobles who are violating principles of justice, which is not preceded by consultation with self, is of no avail. When the life is free from all complicity with evil, it is strong to smite and overcome it in others. It is equally true that consultation with self which produces right personal action, is not enough. No man has any right to be satisfied with his own rectitude. In the interest of those who are being wronged, he must be prepared to contend with the nobles, or with any that are inflicting wrong.
So the wall was finished.
The significant word in the statement is the word "so," as it calls us to reconsideration of how the dangerous and difficult work was accomplished. Inclusively and exhaustively, we may at once say, the work was of God. That wall was the outward and visible symbol of the inclusion and guarding of the Remnant, until the Messiah should come, and the Faith should appear. From now until then, this remnant was to be kept in ward. The Law was the custodian to bring them to Christ. The wall was the material expression of that isolation and security. When we turn from that consideration of the building of the wall by the will and through the overruling of God, to the human agencies, we find that the wall was built through the patriotism and high devotion of one man; and through the fact that he was able, by his influence and leadership, to weld the people into a unity of heart and purpose and endeavour which carried the sacred work to completion. The efforts of this man and the people were characterized by caution and courage, and passionate persistence against all opposing forces. Perhaps this latter quality is the most outstanding. By all means the enemies of the work sought to prevent its carrying out. Having begun in contempt, and proceeded through conspiracy, they turned to subtlety. Against every method, Nehemiah and his helpers were proof. Nothing turned them aside until the wall was finished. This strength against opposition was the outcome of a clear sense of the greatness of their task. Thus God's walls are ever built, God's work is always done. He leads and guides and compels circumstances to aid His workers; and they respond in agreement with His purpose, and in resolute refusal to allow anything from without or within to hinder them.
For he was a faithful man, and feared God above many.
This is a description of the man whom Nehemiah placed in authority over the city of Jerusalem, after the wall was completed. The whole of the arrangements for the safety of the city, as here recorded, were characterized by statesmanlike caution. Through all the country round about there were enemies, and the position of the partially restored city therefore was one of perpetual peril. Nehemiah was conscious of this, and made the most careful provision as to the hour for the opening and closing of the city gates, and as to the arrangements for the watchers. No greater mistake can ever be made in connection with work for God in difficult places, than that of lack of caution. Carelessness is never the sign of courage. True bravery prepares for the possibility of attack. The man who had built, sword in hand, to completion, did not imagine that with the swinging of the gates on their hinges, the time for anything like relaxation in watchfulness had come. His choice of the governor was characteristic. He was chosen for two reasons; his fidelity to duty, and his fear of God. If we speak of these as two, they yet are but the two sides of one fact. Fidelity to duty is the outcome of the fear of God. The fear of God always produces fidelity. There is no sanction sufficiently strong to produce true fidelity other than that of this holy and loving fear. If a man is unfaithful to his appointed task, while yet declaring his loyalty to God, he lies, and the truth is not in him. The secret of the courage that is cautious, of the caution that is courageous, is ever that of a complete fear of God.
The joy of the Lord is your strength.
The material side of Nehemiah's work being completed, the spiritual and moral work of bringing the people back more intelligently under the influence of the Law, went forward. Ezra now appeared upon the scene, and we have the account of a most interesting and remarkable religious Convention. The first day witnessed the assembling of the people. The phrase "gathered as one man" indicates their unity of purpose. They had assembled to hear the reading of the Law. This was not merely the reading aloud of passages from the Law, or even the reading of the Law. It was reading, accompanied by exposition, which was undertaken by men specially appointed. It would seem as though there were, first, a public reading, and then a breaking up into groups under the direction of selected Levites. Their work was that of translation and interpretation. The Law was written in Hebrew, and the people spoke in Aramaic. Hence the need for translation. It was a day of conviction, resulting in great sadness, as the people discovered how serious their failure had been, and how severe were the terms of the Law of their God. It was to this state of mind that these words were addressed, and they constitute an interpretation of the real nature and value of the Law. The joy of Jehovah is that which gives Him satisfaction, and that was expressed in His Law. Thus the Law was their strength. Only as they obeyed it could they be strong. This surely was the thought of the Psalmist when he sang: "Thy statutes have been my songs" (119:54). Because the Law of Jehovah is the method by which He makes known to men the way of strength to them, it is the joy of Jehovah. When we discover that, the statutes which fill us with fear, become our delight, our song. They are indeed our strength.
Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting; and blessed be Thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.
The wall being completed, the Law expounded, the Feast of Tabernacles was observed. Then, after a brief interval, came a great Day of Humiliation. The people separated themselves entirely from all those who were not actually within the Covenant, and then gave themselves to humbling and confession before God. In all this they were led by the Levites, and this chapter is largely occupied with the great prayer they offered upon this occasion. It may have been a prayer specially prepared for them; or perhaps, in the form in which we have it, it is a condensed account of the line along which they proceeded in their approach to God. The remarkable thing about it is that a prayer of humbling and confession is largely an utterance of praise. Observe its movement. The first section was wholly of praise (5-15). It praised God; for what He is in Himself, in majesty (5-6); for His founding of the Nation through Abraham (7-8); for His deliverance of the people from Egyptian bondage (9-11); for His constant guidance (12–15). The second section sets forth His grace as in constant contrast with the repeated failure of His people (16-31). This section is a frank, full, and humble confession of repeated sin, and yet the burden of it is that of the readiness of God to pardon. The final movement was that of definite seeking for the continuance of His goodness and help, in the form of a new covenant (32-38). All this is most suggestive, as it gives us a true model of the way of approach to God in confession. The heart is strengthened in the contemplation of His essential glory, and His constant grace. To see God in glory and in grace, is to know our sin, and to be driven to confession and repentance.
We will not forsake the house of our God.
In this chapter we have some further particulars of the Covenant which the people made with Jehovah, following upon the great Day of Humiliation. This Covenant was sealed representatively by the priests (verses 3-8); by the Levites (9-13); by the rulers (14-27); and to its terms all the people agreed (28). These terms are set forth in general phrases and in some particular applications. Generally, the people promised "to walk in God's law ... to observe and do all His commandments." Particularly, the Covenant referred to matters in which the people had already failed - those, namely, of inter-marriage with the surrounding idolatrous peoples, of neglect of the Sabbath, of Temple maintenance and arrangement, and of the offering of first-fruits and tithes. It would seem as though Nehemiah laid special emphasis on these later things, and these concluding words give the reason for this stress. He knew the supreme importance of the house of God to the national life, and therefore he said: "We will not forsake the house of our God." The maintenance in strength of the worship of God is of supreme importance, principally for the sake of the worshippers. There is a very true sense in which it may be affirmed that our worship cannot enrich God. But there is yet another sense in which He is robbed if we cease to worship, for whenever we do, we suffer impoverishment in our deepest life, and that results in moral breakdown. Therefore let us also ever say, "We will not forsake the house of our God."
The people blessed all the men that willingly offered themselves to dwell in Jerusalem.
In this, and the next two chapters, the arrangements made for the settlement of the cities are set forth. These are the last pages of history in the Old Testament. Some revelations of later conditions are found in the writings of the prophets, but nothing more is distinctly historic until, after a lapse of four centuries, we have the events recorded in the New Testament. The first section of the chapter is devoted to the account of the settlement of Jerusalem particularly. It should be remembered that perhaps not more than fifty thousand, all told, had returned from captivity, and by no means all of these had come to Jerusalem itself. Many of them had taken up their abode in the surrounding cities. Jerusalem was particularly difficult of settlement, seeing that it was the centre of danger, and peculiarly liable to attack. It was, therefore, arranged that the princes should dwell in the city, and that 10 per cent. of the people, selected by lot, must take up their abode there. In addition to these there were some who voluntarily came forward to dwell in the place of danger, and these were specially honoured by the people. The statement is one which gives occasion for some heart-searching. It really is an easy thing, for those who do not volunteer for places of danger, to applaud those who do, but it does seem to be a somewhat unworthy proceeding. Applause of heroism is neither costly nor valuable. It is a good thing that great enterprises are not dependent upon such people. The heroes are always to be found. Their reward is in their deed, rather than in the approbation of those who admire, but who do not help.
The joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off.
In this chapter we have an account of the commencement of the solemn dedication of the wall. It would seem as though it had been postponed for some considerable time. Differences of opinion exist as to the length of time. Some place this dedication ceremony in immediate relation to that which is recorded in the following chapter, which would place it twelve years after the first coming of Nehemiah. Others say that the account given here has reference to what took place within a few months of the actual completion of the work. It is difficult to decide, and really the matter is of no vital importance. The ceremony, whenever it took place, proceeded in three stages. First, there were two great processionals, in which the appointed singers chanted the praises of God. This was followed by the reading of the Law, and the consequent separation of the mixed multitude from the people of God (chapter 13). The present chapter is principally occupied with the rejoicing, and in this connection the statement is made that "The joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off." It was a great day, greater even than these people knew. The reformers had sought to bring the remnant, weak and small though it was numerically, back to a recognition of the deepest truth concerning the national life that, namely, of its relation to God. Their joy that day was the joy of the Lord, and that was indeed their strength. All the pomp and pageantry and material splendour of the days of the monarchy had passed; but in that devotion to the Law, and to the purposes of God as manifested in the building of the wall, there was more of moral power than the old days had ever known, since the time when in their folly, the people had clamoured for a "king like the nations."
I came to Jerusalem, and understood.
This chapter records Nehemiah's last visit to Jerusalem. After the building of the wall, he had evidently gone back to the court of the king. Twelve years later, seeking permission, he returned, and his last deeds reveal the continued strength and loyalty of the man. Coming to the city, he understood. His viewpoint was still that of the Divine purpose, and therefore he was not deceived - he understood! There were four abuses which he discovered, and without the slightest hesitation or any sign of weakness, but with characteristic energy, he set himself to correct them. Eliashib, the priest, had given a place within the very Temple of God to the man Tobiah, who had done so much to hinder the work of building the wall. Nehemiah flung out the occupant and his furniture, and restored the chamber to its proper use. He found, in the second place, that the Levites, instead of being able to devote their whole time to the service of the Temple, had to earn their living, because the tithes were not being paid. He contended with the nobles and corrected this abuse. He found, moreover, that the Sabbath was violated, and restored the Divine order in this matter. Finally, he found that the people had again been making mixed marriages, and with unsparing force he dealt with the evil. The man who looks at conditions from the standpoint of agreement with the Divine intention, is ever the man who truly understands. Such a man is not careful to seek soft and easy methods in dealing with abuses. To be quick of understanding in the fear of Jehovah, is ever to be merciless to all that is contrary to the will of God.