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The Work Finished
WE read that Sanballat and Tobiah, and the rest of the enemies of the Jews, invited Nehemiah to a conference in one of the villages in the plain of Ono.
"And I [Nehemiah] sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?" ( Neh 6:3 ).
Do we know what work is? Really very few people have an adequate conception of work. The difficulty which we feel in going through English life to-day is that certain persons are marked off as belonging to the working-classes. There is, in a certain well-understood sense, no higher aristocracy in any land than the aristocracy of labour; but we must come to something like a sensible and correct definition of work. We have known the secretary of a great religious institution to be at his desk, busy with the papers of the society, at eleven o'clock at night, and back again at his desk, busy with the same papers, at five o'clock in the morning, and this, with very rare intermissions, for weeks and months together. How should we define a man like that? He wears a black coat, he is generally very nice in his personal appearance, and on his hand there is no deeper stain than an occasional drop of ink. We may surely call him a working man. If we can only come to correct definitions of labour, there will be a unanimous sentiment that the working classes are the best classes of all. Nehemiah had a grand conception of work, and that conception was an answer to temptation was a shield in the day of assault was a pavilion in the time of peril.
Most people are idle, and when they are idle, what do they do? They look round for an opportunity of amusing themselves, frivolously engaging their attention, and elaborately doing nothing, and getting tired by the fruitless exercise. Do not ask the preacher to give you mere doctrine as an answer to temptation and to the lures of the enemy. Have work to do worthy of your powers. Give yourselves to it night and day: say you are engaged, occupied, forsworn, and have no time to attend to the invitations which may be addressed to you to leave the heights and go down into the valleys.
There are some people who cannot say "no" to an invitation. The fact that they have received an invitation seems to imply that they must accept it. Their reasoning is a very simple process it would stand roughly thus: "I have been asked to go out I have been invited to attend I have received a courteous and most respectful message requesting me to be there, and therefore I must go." Probably in most cases the reasoning is tolerably correct, because the people have nothing else to do. They are on the outlook for such opportunities they are listening at the gate for the messenger they say, "Why doth he delay?" The idle man is always exposed to temptation.
Work is an answer to temptation, work is companionship, work is rest. Let us have occupation, some labour to do: it is a delight to the mind to be conquering some new province of thought, to be preparing oneself for tomorrow's greater fight. We know of no gate so easily opened nay, verily, that needs no opening at all, for it stands open constantly, and on its bars there are large, loud welcomes as idleness. Nehemiah had a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other, and his whole soul was devoted to the building of a wall and to be asked to go down to chatter with Sanballat in the villages was an insult to his earnestness. It fell like a drop of cold water on the burning fire of his patriotic enthusiasm.
It was a stinging answer to Sanballat. Nehemiah magnified his work; he said it was a great work. Let a man get a poor conception of his work, and you may trifle with him, you may get at him through the medium of his vanity; you may say, "Occupation of this kind is unworthy of a man of your genius: why should a man of such herculean power as you possess devote himself to this frivolous engagement? A man like you should be occupied with some far higher concerns; leave this with the contempt it deserves, and seek a nobler sphere worthy of your blazing genius." But let a man feel that his work is the work, the right work, the supreme work, the God-given work, and he wears mail from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, which spear and dart and sword cannot penetrate. What is your work? Is it something to which you have to stoop very, very far? Say not so: if it be honest, honourable, there is no stooping about it: it will do to begin with. The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, and if that great kingdom can so contract itself as to take upon its glory a symbol so humble, surely there is nothing so very lowering in your honest occupation that you need fancy it lies infinite abysses below the capacity and the splendour of your unrivalled powers? He that is faithful in little will be faithful in much. Be right in the village, and thou shalt see the provincial city: be right in the provincial city, thou shalt see Rome also. The key of every metropolis is on the Master's girdle.
The answer which Nehemiah made to Sanballat, and Tobiah, and Geshem the Arabian, is the answer which Christianity makes to all controversy. Some men would like to see Christianity going up and down the world with a small weapon ready to assail everybody that had an evil word to say against it. Christianity does nothing of the kind; Christianity is a gospel, not an argument; Christianity is a revelation, not a contention only; Christianity is a redemption, a baptism of blood, not an unholy fray, a chatter with evil speakers, a war of words with souls that mistake their own ignorance for the philosophy of the universe. The preacher should meddle but little with merely controversial topics. We would have him true to his gospel; we would have him take up the silver trumpet and blow it sweetly, loudly, resonantly, that every soul might hear that the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which is lost; and we would have that word "lost" so rung out of the trumpet that on farthest shore and in densest forest the prodigal might hear it and accept it as a welcome to his Father's house. Are you somewhere down in the plain, pining over Christianity, and saying that you have doubts and difficulties in your mind regarding the philosophy of redemption, and you want some man to come and join you at your dinner in order to talk it out? The answer of the earnest man will be, "I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down." You must go up in your thinking, in your inquiries; you must lift up the whole level and scale of your nature, start your investigation from a higher point, if ever you are to get at the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. If you have felt the bitterness of sin, you have so far become prepared to taste the sweetness of grace; if you have known guilt as a burden, then you have so far prepared yourself to hear of this gospel "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." But if your guilt has not yet become a burden, if it is some cloud lying off on the far horizon at which you can take a furtive glance now and then and keep at a distance from you, then there is nothing in all the great swelling, bursting heart of Christ to touch such as you. When that cloud comes round, thickens, rolls out, shapes itself as if coming in your direction comes nearer, touches you, crushes you then you will be in the right mood of mind and heart to hear the gospel that Jesus Christ came into the world for the express purpose of lifting off such burdens as these, and you will be filled with great joy, as were those who listened to the annunciation song of the angels when they said that a Prince and a Saviour was born in the city of David.
We would have the Christian preacher keep to his doctrine, to his positive text, to his distinct and affirmative gospel, and we would have all men know that it is folly to forsake a positive advantage for an uncertain good. Let us leave it to fabled dogs to snatch the shadow in the stream. There are some three or four things about Jesus Christ that we do know concerning which there can be no controversy; with all the tendrils of your love, with all the energies of your mind, get hold of these, and say to carping Pharisee and to mocking pagan, "One thing I know, whereas I was blind, now I see." You know that Jesus Christ lived, and never lived for himself, and never shrank from labour never spake a belittling word, never took a narrow view, never sent a soul empty away, never spoke harshly to contrite hearts and to weeping eyes said to a poor sister, "Go, and sin no more." The Man that did these things must be saved from the blasphemy of tormentors, and must be saved from the vexation of merely technical controversy.
Sanballat, and Tobiah, and Geshem the Arabian, were not easily put off. Neither are our enemies. They sent four times to Nehemiah, and four times Nehemiah answered them after the same manner. Then they made a fifth attempt this time with an open letter in the hand of a servant. The fact that a letter was open had great signification to a Jew, for the Jew, having written a letter and closed it, wrote upon the outside, in Hebrew, curses, anathemas, maledictions upon the man that should trifle with the seal. In this case they did not use the seal they sent a servant with an open letter, intimating to Nehemiah that they did not care who knew the contents, because, as a matter of fact, the purposes of Nehemiah were very well understood to be purposes of high treason: that Nehemiah was making a throne for himself, preparing to ascend that throne as the king of the Jews, and making all arrangements consistent with the theory of his procuratorship. Nehemiah took the letter and read:
"It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu [or Geshem ( Neh 6:2 )] saith it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel: for which cause thou buildest the wall, that thou mayest be their king, according to these words. And thou hast also appointed prophets to preach of thee at Jerusalem, saying, There is a king in Judah: and now shall it be reported to the king according to these words. Come now, therefore, let us take counsel together" ( Neh 6:6-7 ).
Most men would have been alarmed by this letter. There is something alarming about a letter at any time. We never know what it may contain; and if we have reason to fear any person under the sun, it is impossible for us to look at a letter in the hands of the postman without beginning to tremble, and saying mentally, "It has come at last I thought it would."
Nehemiah took the letter without misgiving. The man who left Persia under the circumstances with which we have become familiar, to recover Zion from contempt and to rebuild Jerusalem, is not likely to be overawed by the letter of a pagan correspondent, and he sent this brave answer: "There are no such things done as thou sayest, but thou feignest them out of thine own heart." It was an answer that might have been shot from a musket. Never attempt to make graceful, apologetic, explanatory statements to your controversial and spiritual enemy. Short answers cannon-ball replies "It is written it is written " and the devil, Beelzebub, will reel under every blow. A long and elaborate argument is a long and elaborate opportunity for the devil to take advantage of. Let us give short, clear-cut, terse, concise answers, and we can find them ready for use in God's armoury: "Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and, having done all, to stand."
There are always people in the world who can explain everything, who can account for Nehemiah's industry, and trace a man's motive through all possible metaphysical labyrinths and windings. There are persons who know exactly why we attend this place and not that. There can be but one Omniscience; and in proportion as Sanballat attempts the blasphemous game of Omnisciency does he prepare himself for his last, his irrecoverable fall. If Sanballat had said that these reports were about, and he could not help hearing of them, he would have been very English in his method of escaping from an awkward position. There are friends of ours so called by a rare and cruel stretch of courtesy, who are always in the way of hearing disagreeable things. They are nice, innocent people, but somehow they always happen to be at the corner of that particular street where gossips most do congregate; and they, with touching innocence, with pathetic self-renunciation, tell us that they could not help hearing such and such reports. They could have helped repeating them!
What did Nehemiah do? He had another turn in prayer. Good old man brave old soldier-builder; always giving the upward look, always sending out of his heart a heavenward cry; so we hear him now, saying, "Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands." The inward man must be renewed day by day we must have little upon little, precept upon precept, line upon line, sermon upon sermon, prayer upon prayer; there is no one final exercise in the Christian economy; ours is an economy that rivals the Judaic ritual itself in the multiplicity of its details; in the constancy of its homage, in the fidelity and continuance of its oblations. Nehemiah did not live upon yesterday's grace: day by day he spoke his prayer, moment by moment he breathed the air of heaven. He prayed with ejaculation, that is with an out-throwing of the soul; with suddenness, as if he had surprised God by an unexpected cry. To live so is to do what the apostle enjoins us to do pray without ceasing.
He came to the house of a certain man, Shemaiah son of Delaiah, and that man proposed to Nehemiah that Nehemiah should go into the temple then he would be safe.
"Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple [inside the main building of the temple, which it was not lawful for any but the priests and Levites to enter], and let us shut the doors of the temple: for they will come to slay thee; yea, in the night will they come to slay thee" ( Neh 6:10 ).
Nehemiah will not go into the temple for an unworthy purpose. He says, "It is all temple, if I be right." "Should," said he, "such a man as I flee? I will not go in." The whole creation is God's pavilion if thou desire to be right and to be his servant; and if not, the universe will not give thee lodgment; the pillared firmament is rottenness, and earth's base built on stubble, if thy soul be not true to great principles and sacred convictions. Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? That is the question which terrifies the bad man. Whither shall I flee from thy presence? is an inquiry which is itself a sanctuary to the soul that is pure and just.
"So the wall was finished" ( Neh 6:15 ).
Nehemiah was but one man; he wept when he heard the tale which Hanani brought to him: he trembled when he went into the presence of King Artaxerxes and offered him the customary wine: he came out to work and he was encountered by hostility of the severest kind and we might have said, "In the hands of this man the great wall of Jerusalem never can be rebuilt." But he kept on and on, saying, So we laboured at the work; so we toiled at the wall; and so the wall was finished. How? By magnificent leadership, by cordial union, under the greatest discouragements and notwithstanding the fiercest hostility. To every man we say: Thou hast a wall to build; a wall thrown down, the copestone thereof lost it is the wall of thy character, the wall of thyself; and Sanballat, the enemy call him by what name you please, for he is a perpetual foe says thou shalt not build it with his consent. He will mock thee, taunt thee, tempt thee, curse thee; wilt thou be foiled? What is thy hope in thine own genius in thine own resources? Nay, say, constantly, toiling man, character-builder "My soul, hope thou only in God."
Nehemiah's great work was rebuilding, for the first time since their destruction by Nebuzaradan, the walls of Jerusalem, and restoring that city to its former state and dignity as a fortified town. It is impossible to overestimate the importance to the future political and ecclesiastical prosperity of the Jewish nation of this great achievement of their patriotic governor. How low the community of the Palestine Jews had fallen is apparent from the fact that from the sixth of Darius to the seventh of Artaxerxes there is no history of them whatever; and that even after Ezra's commission and the ample grants made by Artaxerxes in his seventh year, and the considerable reinforcements, both in wealth and numbers, which Ezra's government brought to them, they were in a state of abject "affliction and reproach" in the twentieth of Artaxerxes; their country pillaged, their citizens kidnapped and made slaves of by their heathen neighbours, robbery and murder rife in their very capital, Jerusalem almost deserted, and the Temple falling again into decay. The one step which could resuscitate the nation, preserve the Mosaic institutions, and lay the foundation of future independence was the restoration of the city walls. Jerusalem being once again secure from the attacks of the marauding heathen, civil government would become possible, the spirit of the people, and their attachment to the ancient capital of the monarchy would revive, the priests and Levites would be encouraged to come into residence, the tithes and firstfruits and other stores would be safe, and Judah, if not actually independent, would preserve the essentials of national and religious life. To this great object therefore Nehemiah directed his whole energies without an hour's unnecessary delay. [The three days, mentioned Neh 2:11 and Ezra 8:32 , seems to point to some customary interval, perhaps for purification after a journey.] By word and example he induced the whole population, with the single exception of the Tekoite nobles, to commence building with the utmost vigour, even the lukewarm high-priest Eliashib performing his part. In a wonderfully short time the walls seemed to emerge from the heaps of burnt rubbish, and to encircle the city as in the days of old. The gateways also were rebuilt, and ready for the doors to be hung upon them. But it soon became apparent how wisely Nehemiah had acted in hastening on the work. On his very first arrival as governor, Sanballat and Tobiah had given unequivocal proof of their mortification at his appointment; and, before the work was even commenced had scornfully asked whether he intended to rebel against the king of Persia. But when the restoration was seen to be rapidly progressing, their indignation knew no bounds. They not only poured out a torrent of abuse and contempt upon all engaged in the work, but actually made a great conspiracy to fall upon the builders with an armed force and put a stop to the undertaking. The project was defeated by the vigilance and prudence of Nehemiah, who armed all the people after their families, and showed such a strong front that their enemies dared not attack them. This armed attitude was continued from that day forward.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Nehemiah 6". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany