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by Hamilton Smith
An Outline by Hamilton Smith
The story of the remnant of God's people who were delivered from the captivity in Babylon, and brought back to God's city in God's land is one of deep interest. The faith and zeal of this remnant, their failures and revivals, the work they accomplished, the opposition they encountered, and the difficulties they overcame, make their story rich with instruction for all God's people. Moreover, it has special instruction for the few who, in these last days, have been set free from the captivity of men's religious systems, wherein, alas, the vast majority of God's people are still held in bondage.
This story is unfolded to us in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and the prophecies of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. In the course of the story, the book of Nehemiah marks an important stage, for therein we have the last recorded revival that took place amongst the returned remnant. Throughout their history there had been several revivals, each having in view some special object, for with God there is no mere repetition.
The first revival was under the leadership of Zerubbabel, the governor, with whom was associated Joshua the high priest. In this revival the altar was set up and the foundations of the house were laid ( Ezra 3 ).
The second revival, seventeen years later, took place under the ministry of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, resulting in the building of the house being resumed and completed ( Ezra 5 ).
The third revival, some years later, under Ezra the priest, resulted in the revival of the law of God's house, or the insistence of holiness which becometh God's house for ever (Ezra 7-10).
The fourth and last revival, fourteen years later, under the leadership of Nehemiah, resulted in the building of the walls, the setting up of the gates, and the reassertion of the authority of the word of God.
Thus we see that this weak and feeble remnant, without any miraculous intervention of God on their behalf, was sustained in their position in God's land, and God's city, by these successive revivals in which God wrought in grace on their behalf. And yet in spite of every intervention of God, it is deeply solemn to note that their tendency was ever downwards to a lower spiritual level. The different revivals arrested the downward movement for a time, but directly the energy that brought about the revival waned, the downgrade tendency reasserted itself.
Furthermore, it is instructive to note the different instruments, or vessels, that God in His wisdom uses to bring about these different revivals. The first man God uses is Zerubbabel the grandson of Jehoiakin, king of Israel, a man of royal descent. Then, without setting aside Zerubbabel, God uses in the second revival Haggai and Zechariah, two prophets. Having delivered their message they retire into obscurity, and the third revival is accomplished through the instrumentality of Ezra the priest. Finally the last revival is brought to pass under the leadership of Nehemiah, who was neither noble, prophet, nor priest, but, as we may say, one of the common people pursuing his earthly calling as cupbearer to a king.
Thus we can trace the sovereign action of God choosing very different vessels to do very different work at different seasons; each vessel suited to the work, and the work suited to the time. On the part of these different men of God we see a spirituality that recognises any special servant that God raises up, and hence a readiness to give place to others, and to retire into comparative obscurity, when their own special work has been accomplished.
It is hardly possible to read the history of this returned remnant and note their revivals, the instruments used, and the work they accomplished, without seeing a striking analogy to those who, in these last days, have been set free from the great Babylonish systems of Christendom in which the Church has been taken captive. For do we not again see in those set free the story of man's failure in responsibility, checked again and again by God's intervention in sovereignty? And have we not to own, with sorrow and shame, that the tendency of this remnant (if we may so call them) has ever been downwards to a lower spiritual level?
Taking a general view of this particular movement of the Spirit of God in these last days, can we not see the revivals are analogous to those of the days of Ezra and Nehemiah? In the revival of the early part of last century, God used, as His instruments, men of great spiritual and intellectual endowments, men of great force of character, who, in any sphere of life, would have been leaders of men. Through these men the great truths concerning the Church were revived. Later there came to the front those who gave an immense impetus to the study of prophetic truth, and by their ministry the blessed hope of the coming Christ, and all the glories connected therewith, were revived to the Church. Later still, there came to the front those whose ministry was of a more priestly character, bringing before the saints their heavenly calling with the privilege of access to God for His pleasure, and the consequent necessity for holy separation from the corruptions of Christendom.
In more recent times God has used servants who are not of outstanding eminence as rulers, or prophets, or priests, but who can perhaps be described, like Nehemiah, as of the common people, and, in most cases, pursuing some earthly calling while serving the Lord. Their special work, like Nehemiah's, is to build the walls, set up the gates, and assert the authority of God's word. In other words, to seek to maintain all the light and privileges that have been given to God's people through the leaders, prophets, and priests that have gone before.
As the story proceeds, the necessity for and the use of the walls and gates will become clear; and when seen it will be easy to grasp the symbolic meaning they have for us in our day. Here it is only necessary to point out that the walls and gates were erected in connection with the house of God - the walls to exclude evil and evil persons from the house; the gates to give free access to all the people of God who came in integrity to the house.
To-day the conflict amongst those who have been led outside the system of men, is not so much as to the elucidation of the truth itself, but in regard to the walls and the gates by which the truth is maintained. If holy separation, of which the walls are the symbol, and the exercise of godly care in discipline and access to the privileges of God's house as set forth by the gates, are not maintained, the truth that has been recovered will soon be lost. And as in Nehemiah's day, so in our day, the attempt to build the walls and set up the gates entails conflict. As then, so now, it meets with strenuous opposition from within and from without. And as then, so now, every possible plea is urged against the maintenance of the walls and the gates. Latitudinarian flesh is ever ready to plead the demands of the service of the Lord, the liberty of the servant, the help of saints in the systems of men, the preaching of the gospel to the sinner - things so right in themselves - in opposition to the walls and the gates. And on the other hand let it be noted, that legal flesh is quite capable of mis-using the walls and the gates for sectarian ends and party purposes.
The conflict with which we are faced to-day has been endured by other men in other days. And hence the story of their experiences, the opposition they had to meet, the exercises they passed through, the circumstances of weakness in which they laboured and fought, the principles that guided them, their triumphs and their defeats become of the deepest interest to us, rich with instruction, warning and encouragement. And in reading their story, let us remember that "Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through endurance and encouragement of the scriptures might have hope" ( Rom_15:4 ).
Furthermore as we approach the study of this portion of God's word, let us keep in mind that the autobiography of Nehemiah is a record of the last revival in connection with the remnant of God's people who returned from the captivity, taking place some eighty years after the first return; and that the special object of this last revival was to rebuild the walls, set up the gates, and assert the authority of the word of God.
The general divisions of the book are plain.
1st. Nehemiah 1-3. The workman and his special work.
2nd. Nehemiah 4-7. The opposition to the work and the safeguards against the attacks of the enemy.
3rd. Nehemiah 8-11. The re-establishment of the authority of the word of God.
4th. Nehemiah 11-13. The administration of the city.
The Workman and his Work
Nehemiah 1 . The preparation of the servant, or the secret exercises by which the servant is prepared for his work.
Nehemiah 2 . The preparation of his way, or the circumstances by which the way is prepared for the execution of the work.
Nehemiah 3 . The performance of the work, or the building of the walls and the setting up of the gates.
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29