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Nehemiah 1:1. The words] (Heb. Divray). See 1 Kings 11:41, where the same word is rendered “acts.” Hachaliah] His ancestral home was Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:3). Hence he was probably of the tribe of Judah. Having amassed a fortune, and gained a position at Susa, he was unwilling to avail himself of the permission to return to his fatherland. By his influence he had probably opened a way for the advancement of his still more distinguished son. Ohisleu] The third month of the civil, and ninth of the ecclesiastical year, coinciding with parts of our November and December. In the twentieth year] That is, of the reign of Artaxerxes I., surnamed Longimanus (Long-handed), B. C. 446. Shushan] Sometimes called Susa or Suses, the capital of Persia, situated in the plains of the Tigris, was from the time of Cyrus the winter palace of the king, and residence of the Court. Xenophon, Plutarch, and others, mention both Babylon and Ecbatana as its seat during some part of the year. The province of Susiana is now called Kusistan. Shuster, its capital, contains 15,000 inhabitants. The Susian palace was a magnificent building, remarkable for its “pillars of marble, its pavement of blue, red, white, and black, and its hangings of white, green, and blue, which were fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to the pillars” (Esther 1:6). The palace was furnished with couches of gold and silver, on which the guests reclined when they banqueted. The drinking vessels were also of solid gold (Nehemiah 5:7). The present ruins of Susa cover a space a mile square, the portion of which near the river Shapur is probably “Shushan the palace.”
Nehemiah 1:2. Hanani] Brother by blood relationship (Nehemiah 7:1), afterwards appointed one of the assistant governors of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 7:2). That had escaped] They had been allowed to return by the edict of Cyrus (Ezra 1:0). Came] The distance from Jerusalem to Susa is more than 1000 miles, and at the usual rate of travelling would occupy 45 days. In winter it would occupy at least 2 months. Ezra with his caravan was four months on his journey from Babylon to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:9).
Nehemiah 1:3. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down] In ruins, not utterly razed, or it could not have been built in 52 days. Nebuchadnezzar had broken it down 142 years before (2 Kings 25:10), and the attempt to rebuild had been stopped by Smerdis 76 years before this date.
Nehemiah 1:4. God of heaven] (Elohe-hash-shamayim), a phrase not confined to writers of Babylonish period (Genesis 24:3; Genesis 24:7; Jonah 1:9). It distinguished Jehovah from the gods of earth formed of material substances. The style is repeated in Revelation 11:13 (ὁ θεὸ του οὐρανοῦ).
Nehemiah 1:5. Terrible] Awe-inspiring (Heb. Norah). That keepeth covenant and mercy] Lit. “that kept the covenant of mercy.” “The great and terrible God,” is borrowed from Deuteronomy 7:21, and “that keepeth,” &c. from Deuteronomy 7:9.
Nehemiah 1:6. Let thine ear be attentive, &c.] A phrase derived from Solomon’s prayer (1 Kings 8:29). Refers to the greater attention paid by the ear when the eyes are open towards the source of the sound.
Nehemiah 1:8. The word which thou commandedst thy servant Moses] Not the words, but the spirit of the promise, is given (Leviticus 26:39-42).
Nehemiah 1:11. The king’s cupbearer] (Heb. Mashkeh, one who gives to drink. Greek οἰνοχόος, wine-pourer). The office one of great honour and confidence, since it gave an opportunity of being near the king’s person. It gave Nehemiah an opportunity of increasing his fortune, a circumstance which afterwards very much facilitated his mission.—Hengstenberg. The chief butler or cupbearer to the king of Egypt was the means of raising Joseph to his high position. Rabshakeh, who was sent by Sennacherib to Hezekiah, appears from his name to have fulfilled a like office in the Assyrian court.—Gesenius. Cupbearers are also mentioned as amongst the attendants of Solomon (1 Kings 10:5; 2 Chronicles 9:4).
HOMILETICAL CONTENTS OF CHAPTER 1
Nehemiah 1:1-11. Characteristics of a True Reformer.
Nehemiah 1:1. Goodness superior to Circumstances.
Nehemiah 1:2. Aggressive Benevolence.
Nehemiah 1:3. The baneful consequences of Sin.
Nehemiah 1:4. Unselfish Sorrow.
Nehemiah 1:4. Fasting.
Nehemiah 1:5-11. Intercessory Prayer.
Nehemiah 1:5-11. Prayer for Church Revival.
Nehemiah 1:6. The Majesty and Mercy of God.
Nehemiah 1:6. Importunity in Prayer.
Nehemiah 1:7. Forgotten Sins remembered.
Nehemiah 1:8. God’s Memory.
Nehemiah 1:8-9. Punishment and Penitence.
Nehemiah 1:10. Electing Grace.
Nehemiah 1:10. Modest Goodness.
Nehemiah 1:11. Unanswered Prayers.
Nehemiah 1:11. Man’s Equality before God.
CHARACTERISTICS OF A TRUE REFORMER
Nehemiah 1:1-11. The words of Nehemiah, the son of Hachaliah
NEHEMIAH the civilian, as contrasted with Ezra the ecclesiastic, is brought forward in this Book as the patriot deliverer of his people. His training had fully qualified him for the onerous position he was called to occupy. He may be regarded as a typical reformer. No blot can be found on his character, no guile in his spirit. Note concerning this typical reformer:
I. His motives are pure. Personal ambition is sunk in desire for the public good. Selfish motives are abandoned for generous impulses. Reward is unthought of. Truth and freedom are sought for, oblivious of personal gain.
1. He accepts royal distinction that he may advance his people’s interests. He had risen from an exile captive to be a royal cupbearer by the force and moral worth of his character, in spite of jealousy and an alien creed. The title “Tirshatha,” or commander, had been given him, and he became one of the most powerful subjects of the Persian monarch. This honour, though won by personal merit, is not employed in the service of personal ambition, but in the interests of his oppressed kinsmen and fellow-citizens. Royal distinction may only be accepted by a true reformer conditionally,
(1) That no vital principle is sacrificed. The Jew must not become a heathen either in morals or worship. The mandates of a monarch must not override the monitions of conscience. Truth must not bow to expediency. The knee must not bend to either Baal or Dagon. The “Golden Image” cannot be recognized, even though the fiery furnace be the alternative. Nehemiah sacrificed no vital principle in accepting royal favour. He remained true to his nation and loyal to his God. He was known as a sympathizer with the cause of the oppressed exiles. The deputation from Judea came to him openly at the royal palace, fearing no molestation. Openly he received and welcomed them. Conditionally,
(2) That it is made subservient to his people’s good. Apart from this, Nehemiah’s exalted separation from his oppressed fellow-countrymen would have been unpatriotic and selfishly mercenary. At Shushan he was really serving them better than he could have done at Jerusalem. For
(1) he was learning the principles of government at the very seat and centre of the most powerful government of the world. In the royal palace, and under a right royal sovereign, he was gaining a royal spirit. Thus had God prepared other great leaders for their life work. Joseph and Moses in the court of Pharaoh learned lessons which were invaluable to the chosen seed.
(2) He had access to the monarch himself. Such a boon was no small privilege, and eventually led to events of the utmost importance.
2. He employs what influence he may possess for the benefit of his people’s cause. His position gave him considerable influence at Court, which he wielded, not, as most would have done, for his own personal aggrandizement, but for the benefit of his people’s cause. Thus, like Joseph and Esther, he was able to influence royal decrees in favour of the Hebrew exiles. Most of the Jews were unable to approach Artaxerxes’ person, but the office of Nehemiah gave him an introduction which he was not slow to use for his country and people. Some have opportunities of usefulness denied to others. They have the eye, the ear, the favour of the great. They should use these not for selfish purposes; but to mention truths which elevated persons seldom hear, to recommend religion which they generally misunderstand, to plead for those who are seldom represented in royal circles. Personal influence is one of the talents for which we are responsible to God. How are we using it? Jerome tells us that Nebridius, though a courtier and nephew to the empress, never made suit but for the relief of the poor afflicted. Terence, one of the generals of the emperor Valens, being bidden to ask what he would, asked nothing but that the Church might be delivered from her Arian foes. Thereupon, says Theodoret, the emperor tore into shreds his petition and bid him ask again, when he replied he would never ask anything for himself if he might not prevail for the Church. 3. He is always ready to relinquish personal luxury for the public good. If he enjoys honour and emolument on his brethren’s behalf, the moment their interests demand their surrender the sacrifice must be made. Herein consists difference between genuine and spurious patriotism. The one delights in self-sacrifice; the other feeds on ambition. Such self-denial is required
(1) if the suffering can be the better served. Hitherto it had not been so. The time had now come when Nehemiah can only serve them by coming amongst them. Duty summoned him from the ease and luxury, to the privation and ceaseless toil of Jerusalem, and he “conferred not with flesh and blood,” but gave up all at once. Such self-denial is required
(2) if personal honour be associated with the people’s oppression. The true patriot cannot serve two masters, or be loyal to two antagonistic principles. If the sovereign be a tyrant, his place is with the people. The side of the oppressed is alike the side of justice and of mercy. The bread of luxury is then mildewed with the tears of the slave, and the wine of the banquet mingled with the blood of the rack. Thus are all faithful servants of God called upon to lay down their goods, and their lives, if need be, in defence of the Church. For this cause Isaiah gave his body to be sawn asunder. For this cause Jeremiah was cast into a filthy dungeon, and Daniel into a den of lions. For this cause Paul pleaded his cause in chains at Jerusalem and Rome before Festus, Felix, and Agrippa; and Jesus before Annas, Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate; and for this cause John the Baptist lost his head. He that will lose his life thus shall certainly find it. In this respect Nehemiah was a type of Christ, who “though he was rich, for our sakes became poor,” &c. (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Illustration:—Turner, the greatest of English landscape painters, had a generous nature. He was one of the hanging committee of the Royal Academy. The walls were full, when Turner’s attention was attracted by a picture sent in by an unknown provincial artist. “A good picture,” he exclaimed, “it must be hung up and exhibited.” “Impossible,” responded the committee. “The arrangement cannot be disturbed; quite impossible.” “A good picture,” reiterated Turner, “it must be hung up;” and finding his colleagues as obstinate as himself, he took down one of his own pictures and hung up this in its place.
II. His sympathies are generous.
1. His ear is open to the cry of distress. Though rich he listens attentively to the story of woe: though occupying a high position he gives heed to the wants of his poorer brethren. Communion and sympathy are the instincts of a true and genuine patriotism. Nehemiah was not a mere passive listener, for he “asked them concerning the Jews.” He entered into particulars, and was minute in his inquiries. The inquiry of an uninterested or half-interested person, would have been alike curt and cursory. Court life and duties had not deadened his human sympathy. “The good man heareth the cause of the poor,” says Solomon (Proverbs 29:0). The duty of every good man to consider his complaint, and pity and help him.
2. His heart is deeply affected by the tidings which he receives. “The remnant are in great affliction and reproach,” &c. The tidings were not entirely new, but probably sadder than he had anticipated. Hence his great distress. His patriotism not a mental deduction only, but a mighty passion of the soul. He is not only a human, but a humane being. A prince, a commander he may be; put pre-eminently a man and a brother. “The enthusiasm of humanity” was not unknown even in this remote age. Here is
(1) a sudden outburst of generous sympathy and sorrow. “I sat down and wept.” Passionate grief usually the least enduring. Not so this.
(2) Sorrow increasing rather than diminishing as time wears on. “I mourned certain days,” i. e. four months, from November to April. Here is another Rachel weeping, &c.; another Jeremiah exclaiming “Oh that my head were waters,” &c. (Jeremiah 9:1).
(3) Sorrow accompanied by abstinence from food. “And fasted.” This another mark of the reality and pungency of his grief. Ahab may go to the mountain-top to eat and be merry. Elijah must go into solitude, and pour out his complaint to God. David finds “his heart is smitten and withered like grass, so that he forgets to eat his bread” (Psalms 102:4). A sorrow that rolls in luxury and revels in delightsome pleasure and appetizing food is but a poor counterfeit.
3. He resolves to identify himself with the cause of the oppressed. His sympathy does not effervesce in tears. His will is won, and he at once sets about planning their relief. A true reformer must not stand aloof. Isolation is the law of selfishness. Association is the secret of influence. The plans he forms may involve the sacrifice of all, a long and perilous journey, and even the monarch’s frown, but he shrinks from nothing that can advance his people’s cause.
Illustrations:—At the siege of Mons, during the career of the great Marlborough, the Duke of Argyle joined an attacking corps when it was on the point of shrinking from the contest; and pushing them open-breasted he exclaimed, “You see, brothers, I have no concealed armour: I am equally exposed with you: I require none to go where I refuse to venture. Remember you fight for the liberties of Europe, which shall never suffer by my behaviour.” This spirit animated the soldiers. The assault was made, and the work was carried.—Percy. “Sympathy is a debt we owe to sufferers. It renders a doleful state more joyful. Alexander the Great refused water in a time of great scarcity, because there was not enough for his whole army. It should be amongst Christians, as amongst lute-strings, when one is touched the others tremble. Believers should be neither proud flesh, nor dead flesh.”—Seeker.
III. His spirit is devout. Nehemiah no godless reformer seeking for his countrymen emancipation from an alien yoke and nothing more. He sought the moral, as well as the material welfare of the chosen seed.
1. He recognizes the existence and authority of the world’s Guardian and Governor. He who seeks to eliminate God from human affairs is no true patriot. This not a mere dogma, but a regulative principle with Nehemiah. Divine sovereignty not fiction, but solemn fact. He believed in a God of Providence. “To own God as fashioning every link in the complicated chain of our history; to discern his hand in the least as well as in the greatest; to realize a Providence which overrules what is evil, as well as orders what is good, a Providence which restrains the unwilling whilst it leads the obedient, a Providence so transcendent, that none and nothing can thwart it, so minute, that none and nothing can escape it, a Providence which directs the insect’s wing and the atom’s flutter, as well as the planet’s course and the archangel’s flight, to do this clearly, constantly, experimentally, is an attainment in the Divine life as rare as it is precious. We must interweave these assurances with the tissue and texture of our lives; they must enter as an essential element into the formation of our purposes, and into the conduct of our pursuits. It is thus that we must ‘walk with God.’ ”—Stowell.
2. He acknowledges Divine aid to be superior to all other.
(1) As the most powerful of all. If Omnipotence be on his side nothing can withstand. So reasoned Nehemiah. Hence he flies to the source and fountainhead of all power. He appeals to the throne of the universe before appealing to any lower tribunal. He who enlists the aid of the Lord of Sabaoth commands not only myriads of ministering spirits, but all the forces, destructive and benignant, of the universe.
(2) As controlling all other aid. Nehemiah will presently approach the earthly monarch, whose spirit is in the hands of the King of kings. This he knows, hence seeks Divine assistance in making successful suit. He desires God’s aid that he may ask (a) for the right thing, (b) at the right time, (c) in the right manner. He who thus seeks human interposition through Divine agency will find the Divine will working in his favour through human instrumentality. No aid can be so effectual as that of Omnipotence.
3. He regards prayer as the appointed means by which Divine aid is to be secured. Does not make his belief in the omniscience of Divine Providence a ground for personal indolence, or restraining prayer. The true patriot no fatalist. By prayer and supplication he makes known his request unto God (Philippians 4:6). This prayer, recorded for our instruction, is one of the model prayers of the Bible.
(1) Reverent in its attitude towards God (Nehemiah 1:5).
(2) Persistent in pressing its suit (Nehemiah 1:6).
(3) Penitent in tone and temper (Nehemiah 1:6-7).
(4) Scriptural in argument (Nehemiah 1:8-9).
(5) Child-like in spirit (Nehemiah 1:10-11).
(6) Definite in aim (Nehemiah 1:11).
Illustrations:—Augustus Cæsar possessed such an attachment to his country that he called it his own daughter, and refused to be called its master, because he would rule it not by fear, but by love. After his decease, his disconsolate people lamented over him, saying, “O would to God that be had never lived, or that he had never died.” A Lacædemonian mother had five sons in a battle that was fought near Sparta, and seeing a soldier that had left the scene of action, eagerly inquired of him how affairs went on. “All your five sons are slain,” said he. “Unhappy wretch!” replied the woman: “I ask thee not of what concerns my children, but of what concerns my country.” “As to that all is well,” said the soldier. “Then,” said she, “let them mourn that are miserable. My country is prosperous, and I am happy.” (a) A great chasm opened in the Roman Forum, which the soothsayers said could not be filled but by that which was most valuable to the State. Marcus Curtius, an eminent soldier, mounted his war-horse, and full-armed rode into the gulf, a noble sacrifice for his country.
GOODNESS SUPERIOR TO CIRCUMSTANCES
Nehemiah 1:1. I was in Shushan the palace
I. High social positions are not generally favourable to eminent piety.
1. Because luxury and liberty tend to lust and licence. Court morals are proverbially corrupt. When wealth to purchase is united with authority to command, selfish ambition and sensual indulgence too often ensue. In high life the temptations to self-pleasing are generally too strong for unaided human nature. Long prosperity breeds a plague of dust, as does prolonged fair weather in the Italian valleys. Dust that blinds the eyes of the soul, and chokes the spirit with earthly cares.
2. Because the pride of human pomp is inimical to the spirit of true religion. Palaces are above most places theatres of human exaltation and proud display. Religion does not flourish amidst human pomp and pride. By the lowly birth of the Son of God, heaven has poured its contempt upon the mere accidentals of greatness. True religion is by the very humility of its nature antagonistic to the spirit of the world. Nebuchadnezzar could not withstand this spirit. In his prosperity and pride he exclaimed, “Is not this great Babylon that I have built,” &c. (Daniel 4:30). In his humiliation he regained that religion which he had lost in his exaltation.
3. Because affluence is apt to beget independence of God. When Jeshurun waxed fat he kicked (Deuteronomy 32:15). When God’s chosen people prospered they forgot God (Isaiah 51:13; Judges 3:7). A sense of need brings men near to God. When the lap is full, God is forgotten. Hence the words of Christ, “How hardly shall they that have riches,” &c. (Mark 10:23). Rich men have often to be made poor before they will acknowledge God. Merchant has most reason to watch and pray in the day of his prosperity. Easier to bear the ebb of disappointment than the flood-tide of success. Most reason to watch when we think ourselves most secure. A poor Christian remarked when receiving unexpected relief, “Oh! what a blessed thing it is to be poor, that one may see the hand of God so plain.” The hand of God often concealed from the rich in the very affluence of its gifts; whilst to the pious poor quite naked. Hezekiah was humbly grateful when he exclaimed after the slaughter of the hosts of Sennacherib, “The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day” (Isaiah 38:19); yet the sad record of his after days is, “But Hezekiah rendered not unto the Lord, according to the benefit done unto him: for his heart was lifted up” (2 Chronicles 32:25). “It was as much as we could do to keep our feet upon the splendid mosaic floor of the palace Giovanelli, at Venice; but we found no such difficulty in the cottage of the poor glass-blower in the rear. Observation shows that there is a fascination in wealth which renders it extremely difficult for the possessors of it to maintain their equilibrium; and this more especially where wealth has been suddenly acquired; then, unless grace prevent, pride, affectation, and other mean vices, stupefy the brain with their sickening fumes, and he who was respected in poverty becomes despised in prosperity. What man can help slipping when everybody is intent on greasing his ways, so that the smallest chance of standing is denied him. The world’s proverb is, “God help the poor, for the rich can help themselves;” but it is just the rich who have most need of Heaven’s help. Dives in scarlet is worse off than Lazarus in rags, unless Divine love shall uphold him.—Spurgeon.
4. Because the multiplication of cares tends to deaden spirituality. Increase of wealth means increase of anxiety. Milton has taught us by his picture of the man with the muck-rake that secular cares readily become all-engrossing, and turn the eyes away from the crown of life. The Hebrew word for riches signifies “heavy,” for riches are a burden, and they that will be rich do but load themselves with thick clay. “There is a burden of care in getting them, of fear in keeping them, of temptation in using them, of guilt in abusing them, of sorrow in losing them, and a burden of accounts at last to be given up concerning them.”—Henry. “As poison works more furiously in wine than in water, so corruptions betray themselves more in a state of plenty than in a state of poverty.”—Seeker. Mr. Cecil called to see a rich hearer, and said, “I understand you are very dangerously situated.” The man replied, “I am not aware of it.” “I thought it probable you were not, and therefore called upon you. I hear you are getting rich; take care, for it is the road by which the devil leads thousands to destruction.”
5. Because the commands of an earthly monarch are liable to clash with the mandates of Jehovah. The earthly king who has no fear of God before his eyes, will not be likely to respect the claims of a Higher Court. He will consequently have no conscience for sacred things, and will be likely to ignore such conscience in his subjects. But the servant of Jehovah has no choice. He must say with the noble three, “We will not serve thy god” (Daniel 3:18); and with Peter and John, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye” (Acts 4:19). With Daniel and John the Baptist he must obey God rather than man, though death be the consequence. Thus is the path of the just beset with perils in the high places of power and pomp.
Illustration:—“Philip, Bishop of Heraclea, in the beginning of the fourth century was dragged by the feet through the streets, severely scourged, and then brought before the governor, who charged him with obstinate rashness in disobeying the imperial decrees; but he firmly Answered, ‘My present behaviour is not the result of rashness, but proceeds from my love and fear of God, who made the world, and whose commands I dare not transgress. I have hitherto done my duty to the emperors, and am always ready to comply with their just orders, according to the doctrine of our Lord Jesus Christ: but I am obliged to prefer heaven to earth, and to obey God rather than man.’ The governor on hearing this speech immediately passed sentence on him to be burnt, and the martyr expired, singing praises to God in the midst of the flames.”
II. Piety is not impossible in any position of life.
1. Inward grace is stronger than outward circumstances. The temptations to slothful ease and self-indulgence may be fearfully strong, but not stronger than Divine grace. The seductions of luxury and the witchery of pleasure may charm with enticing subtlety, but cannot ensnare the man who is faithful to his God, and like Nehemiah recognizes “the good hand of his God.” “Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). “In the world ye shall have tribulation, but in me ye shall have peace” (John 16:13). Illustrate by Bunyan’s picture, in the Interpreter’s house, of fire on which Satan poured water and Christ oil. “If a letter were to be addressed to that most influential word, circumstances, concluding thus:—‘I am, Sir, your very obedient, humble servant,’ the greater part of the world might subscribe it.”—Horace Smith.
2. The God of providence is also the God of grace. Where he places, there he can and will sustain. If God puts Nehemiah into the Persian palace, he will support him there. Nowhere are faithful witnesses more needed than in the high places of the earth. The nearer the fount of social influence, the greater the power for good or evil. Grace is adapted to providential circumstances.
Illustration:—The trees are adapted to the demands of their position. The fir of the northern hills defies the wintry blast by reason of its strong roots which penetrate the crevices of the soil. The tall palms send their roots down three feet into the earth, and then spread out, securing a firm anchorage, and are able to stand the sweep of the desert winds. The roots of the pine are spread over the surface, but it grows in less exposed situations. The mangrove which fringes the estuaries and lagoons of the tropies, exposed to the tides, on a shifting soil, supports itself by sending roots from its trunk and lower branches down into the muddy ground, so that the whole has the appearance of a tree propped up by artificial stakes. We may infer that a like adjustment of strength to situation pervades the moral world.
3. Many of the holiest characters in history have been found in the most unfavourable situations. Joseph in Pharaoh’s court with an adulterous queen; Moses in the same court; Obadiah under Jezebel and Ahab; David exposed to the evil influence of Saul; Daniel and Mardocheus in the court of Ahasuerus; all served God faithfully though exposed to the most trying ordeals. In the New Testament we find Christians in every station of life: Zenas the lawyer, Erastus the chamberlain, Paul the tent-maker, Luke the physician, Zaccheus the tax-gatherer, Peter the fisherman, and Joseph the carpenter. Learn from this fact,
(1) not to condemn bodies and professions of men indiscriminately.
(2) Not to make our business an excuse for ungodliness. Some lines of life are indeed much less favourable to morality and religion than others; they afford fewer helps and more hindrances than others; and this consideration should powerfully influence those who have the disposal of youth. But where the providence of God places us, the grace of God can keep us. “These,” says God, “had the same nature, were partakers of the same infirmities, and placed in the same circumstances with yourselves. But they escaped ‘the corruption that is in the world, through faith.’ They found time to serve me. ‘Go thou and do likewise.’ ”—Stowell. “Amidst the sternest trials, the most upright Christians are reared. The Divine life within them so triumphs over every difficulty as to render the men, above all others, true and exact. What a noble spectacle is a man whom nothing can warp, a firm, decided servant of God, defying hurricanes of temptation!”—Spurgeon. Grace makes itself equally at home in the palace and in the cottage. No condition necessitates its absence, no position precludes its flourishing. One may compare it in its power to live and blossom in all places, to the beautiful blue-bell of Scotland, of which the poetess sings:—
“No rock is too high, no vale too low,
For its fragile and tremulous form to grow:
It crowns the mountain with azure bells,
And decks the fountain in forest dells:
It wreathes the ruins with clusters grey,
Bowing and smiling the livelong day.”
III. Positions perilous to piety should be avoided except at the special call of Providence.
1. Material prosperity should always be regarded as subordinate to spiritual vitality.
(1) It really is so. It matters little what be our position in this world. It matters everything what is our position in the next. “What shall it profit,” &c. (Mark 8:36). Things which are seen are temporal, things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). What man thinks, of no consequence; what God thinks, everything. The life of earth, whatever be its character, soon terminates; the life of eternity never.
(2) He who acts upon this principle gains in the end. Lot chose the fertile plain of Sodom, and preferring temporal gain lost all. Moses “chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God,” &c., and became their chosen leader (Hebrews 11:25). Solomon asked neither long life nor riches, but he lost neither in choosing religion (1 Kings 3:11).
(3) Through neglecting to act upon this principle piety has often been lost. Many a worldly marriage has ruined a promising Christian. Many a hopeful life has been wrecked upon the rocks of uncurbed ambition. He who places the world first and heaven second will soon make ambition everything and religion nothing. “Caligula with the world at his feet longed for the moon, and could he have gained it, would have coveted the sun. It is in vain to feed a fire which is the more voracious the more it is supplied with fuel. He who seeks to satisfy his ambition has before him the labours of Sisyphus, who rolled up a hill an ever-rebounding stone, and the task of the daughters of Danaus, who are condemned for ever to fill a bottomless vessel with buckets full of holes. Could we know the secret heart-breaks of those who have forsaken religion for the sake of gratifying ambition, we should need no Wolsey’s voice crying, ‘Fling away ambition,’ but should flee from it as from the most accursed blood-sucking vampire which ever uprose from the caverns of hell.”—Spurgeon. Pope Adrian VI. had this inscription on his monument, “Here lies Adrian 6., who never was so unhappy in any period of his life as at that in which he was a prince.”
2. No one has a right to tempt God by unnecessarily exposing himself to temptation. This sin of presumption, against which Paul warned Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:9). Christ met it in the wilderness in the form, “Cast thyself down.” God will not protect those who rashly presume upon his guardianship. Mockery to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” if we run into it unbidden. When we needlessly expose ourselves we entice sin and court failure. “Temptations are enemies outside the castle, seeking entrance.” If there be no false retainer within who holds treacherous parley, there can scarcely be even an offer. No one would make overtures to a bolted door, or a dead wall. It is some face at the window that invites proffer. The violence of temptation addressed to us is only another way of expressing the violence of the desire within us. It costs nothing to reject that which we do not wish: and the struggle required to overcome temptation measures the strength in us of the temptable element. Men ought not to say, “How powerfully the devil tempts!” but, “How strongly I am tempted.”—Beecher.
3. Providence will protect those whom it calls to perilous duty.
(1) The path of duty is sometimes a path of danger. Christian visitors at home endanger their lives amongst the poor, and Christian missionaries abroad amongst the heathen. Not only bodies, but souls are endangered through the prevalence of surrounding vice, which Christian workers must come into contact with.
(2) Special guardianship is exercised over those whose providential path is one of danger. God will not leave them. Disciples in storm were not deserted because they had gone at Christ’s bidding. Nehemiah, Daniel, Joseph were untainted by court life because they were surrounded by Jehovah’s Shield.
(3) We should be careful not to mistake presumption for providential guidance. Many have done so and fallen. Peter walking on the water an instance.
Illustration:—A gentleman who wished to test the character of some men who had offered themselves for the situation of coachman, took them to a narrow road which bordered on a deep precipice, and inquired of them how near to the dangerous verge they could drive without fear. One named a few inches, another still fewer. The gentleman shook his head, and dismissed them. He could not risk his life with them. A third was asked, “How near this edge can you drive in safety?” He drew back replying, “I should drive as far from it as possible. The place is dangerous. I should avoid it altogether.” He was employed, because he could be trusted not to run into needless peril.
Illustration:—A soldier named Miller felt a strong desire to be a minister though still unconverted. After his conversion he felt a renewal of this desire. In the battle of Wilderness he was badly wounded, and remained 24 hours on the field. The surgeon refused to operate upon him, because death was inevitable. He was removed to Fredericksburg, again examined, and his wounds pronounced fatal. To a friend he said, “The surgeon says I must die; but I do not feel that my work is done yet. When I gave myself up to God last winter I promised him that I would labour for his cause in the Gospel ministry. I feel that he has a work for me to do, and that man is immortal until his work is done.” A few days after a third consultation of doctors was held, whose decision was, “You will recover; but it is the most miraculous escape we have ever seen.” After many months’ confinement he was able to begin his preparation for the ministry.
Nehemiah 1:2. I asked them concerning the Jews, &c.
I. True Benevolence is an active principle.
1. It seeks that it may save the lost. Not content with remaining at home, it goes after the suffering. Nehemiah not altogether ignorant of state of Jews, nor accurately acquainted with it. He solicits particulars. Goes out of his way to discover need that he may assist it. The close cross-examination to which deputation were subjected proved the thorough earnestness of questioner. Christ great example of active benevolence, alike in the whole work of redemption, and the details of his mortal life. The Church works in same spirit. It comes “not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” The true Christian cries out, “The love of Christ doth me constrain, to seek the wretched sons of men.”
2. Its motive therefore is love rather than duty. Benevolence without love is cold as ashes. Uncharitable charity a ghastly mockery. Stern duty seldom prompts true charity. This must spring from love alone. Benevolence follows the example of him who “was rich, but for our sakes became poor,” &c. A child looking into the face of a lady who had relieved and nursed her in sickness artlessly asked, “Are you God’s wife?” God is love, and true benevolence is lovingly God-like.
II. True Benevolence is not deterred from painful investigation through fear of possible sacrifices.
1. It seeks to know the worst. Nehemiah not satisfied with superficial knowledge. He probed the national sore. True benevolence acts in the same spirit. It fathoms the abyss that it seeks to close; it probes the wound it seeks to heal.
(1) Philanthropy deals with the worst human ailments. It shrinks from no contagion, and shuns no patient however loathsome. Its home is the hospital and fever ward.
(2) It grapples with the blackest facts of human history, and sheds light upon darkest, foulest blots in human nature. Nothing daunts, nothing drives it to despair. For the most hopeless there is hope; for the worst there is mercy.
(3) It seeks to alleviate the direst sufferings of the Church. No breach too wide to be healed. No Church too dead to be revived. No persecutions too cruel to be endured. It seeks not to heal lightly or suddenly, but thoroughly.
2. It shrinks from no sacrifice. Nehemiah was aware that he could not relieve his brethren without great personal sacrifice. Not only wealth, but probably position, and perhaps even life, would have to be surrendered. This did not deter him. Self-sacrifice the mark of true benevolence. Hireling charity shuns this test.
(3) Personal ambition all freely given up for the sake of the suffering Church.
Illustration:—When a teacher was wanted by Dr. Mason of Burmah for the war-like Bghais, he asked his boatman, Shapon, if he would go; and reminded him that instead of the fifteen rupees a month which he now received, he could only have four rupees a month as teacher. After praying over the matter he came back; and Dr. Mason said, “Well, Shapon, what is your decision? Can you go to the Bghais for four rupees a month?” Shapon answered, “No, teacher: I could not go for four rupees a month; but I can do it for Christ.” And for Christ’s sake he went.
III. True Benevolence is not easily discouraged.
1. It regards no case as absolutely hopeless. Jerusalem and its inhabitants were in a pitiable plight, yet Nehemiah did not sit down in despair. He wept, it is true, but he prayed, and for four months he continued to pray with an importunity that nothing could discourage. Humanity may be very corrupt, but not hopelessly so. The Church may be at a low ebb, but the lowest ebbing point is nearest the flowing point. The night was very dark, but ’tis ever darkest before the dawn. Benevolence knows that what is impossible with man, is possible with God.
(1) It helps not only the needy, but the most needy.
(2) It believes in the possible regeneration of human nature, however degraded.
(3) It believes in the possible revival of the Church, however encrusted with superstition or formalism.
2. It recognizes the infinite resources of Jehovah. If looked earthward only, been discouraged. Would have exclaimed mournfully, “Who is sufficient,” &c. But looking heavenward its eye rests upon the unspeakable riches of God in Christ. Remembering the Divine omnipotence it has no fear. It remembers the infinite resources,
(1) of Divine pity,
(2) of Divine power,
(3) of Divine pardon. None need despair, even when engaged in the most arduous work for such a master as God. (a) His wealth is boundless. The universe belongs to him. (b) This infinite wealth is treasured up for the benefit of his needy servants. (c) This boundless wealth is accessible to all who need it, and apply in faith.
Illustrations:—(α) “It is said of the Lacedæmonians, who were a poor and homely people, that they offered lean sacrifices to their gods; and that the Athenians, who were a wise and wealthy people, offered fat and costly sacrifices; and yet in their wars the former always had the mastery over the latter, Whereupon they went to the oracle to know the reason why those should speed worst who gave most. The oracle returned this answer to them—That the Lacedæmonians were a people who gave their hearts to their gods, but that the Athenians only gave their gifts to their gods.” Thus a heart without a gift is better than a gift without a heart.—Secker.
St. Theresa, when commencing her homes of mercy with only three half-pence in her pocket, said, “Theresa and three half-pence can do nothing, but God and three half-pence can do everything.” Dr. Judson laboured diligently for six years in Burmah without baptizing a convert. At the end of three years, he was asked what evidence he had of ultimate success. He replied, “As much as there is a God who will fulfil all his promises.” A hundred churches and thousands of converts already answer his faith. We will suppose that some opulent person makes the tour of Europe. If his money fall short he comforts himself with the reflection that he has a sufficient stock in the bank, which he can draw out at anytime by writing to his cashiers. This is just the case spiritually with God’s elect. They are travellers in a foreign land remote from home. Their treasure is in heaven, and God himself is their banker. When their graces seem to be almost exhausted, when the barrel of meal and cruse of oil appear to be failing, they need but draw upon God by prayer and faith and humble waiting. The Holy Spirit will honour their bill at first sight; and issue to them from time to time sufficient remittances to carry them to their journey’s end. “I have heard of a Spanish ambassador, who, coming to see the treasury of Saint Mark in Venice, fell a-groping at the bottom of the chests and trunks, to see whether they had any bottom; and being asked the reason why he did so, answered, “My Master’s treasure differs from yours, and excels yours in that his have no bottom, and yours have.” All men’s mints, bags, purses, and coffers may be quickly exhausted and drawn dry; but God is such an inexhaustible portion that he can never be drawn dry: all God’s treasures, and his mints and his bags, are bottomless. Thousands of millions in heaven and earth feed upon him every day, and yet he feels it not: he is still giving, and yet his purse is never empty: he is still filling all the court of heaven, and all the creatures on earth, and yet he is a fountain that still overflows. There are some who say, that it is most certainly true of the oil at Rheims, that though it be continually spent in the inauguration of the kings of France, yet it never wastes: but whatever truth is in this story, of this I am most sure, that though all the creatures in both worlds live and spend continually on Christ’s stock, yet it never wasteth.—Brooks.
THE BANEFUL CONSEQUENCES OF SIN
Nehemiah 1:3. The remnant that are left … are in great affliction and reproach, &c.
This state of things would never have come to pass, but for the disobedience and idolatry of the children of Israel. It was the natural and inevitable fruit of their own sin. Not mere unfortunate calamity, but punitive and penal discipline. From the text we learn,—
I. That sin brings misery upon human souls. “In great affliction,” i. e. misery, want, privation. Suffering always follows sin in the nature of things.
1. Because sin is a violation of law. Sin transgresses the eternal law of righteousness, which cannot be broken with impunity. Its penalty is pain, and eventually death. Law-breakers everywhere must suffer.
(1) See this in relation to laws of health. Violate those laws by unwholesome food, self-indulgent excesses, absorption of poison, and derangement or death will ensue.
(2) See this in relation to the laws of society. Ill-manners provoke exclusion. None defy these rules without paying penalty.
(3) See this in relation to national laws. “What mean our courts of justice, our prisons and penal settlements, but that law cannot be transgressed without suffering (β).
2. Because sin separates from God. Its very nature, essence, is antagonism to God. Wherever it reigns it produces tastes and dispositions contrary to the will of God. Now God is the author of all happiness. The opposite of happiness is misery. Man severed from God like branch cut from tree, or limb torn from body. The man who has not made peace with God cannot be happy, because the “wrath of God abideth on him.” No real peace when hostile to God.
3. Because sin creates discord. Where there is discord there is misery. Sin works discord—
(1) In the individual. It stirs up evil passions against the reign of conscience. No internal peace until the Stronger has cast out the strong man armed who usurps his place in the heart. Christ alone can “say to our warring passions, peace.”
(2) In the Church. It provokes enmity between man and man, and different sections of the one great body of Christ.
(3) In the world. It lifts up the war sign, and mingles nations in the bloody embrace of strife. When sin comes to an end men shall learn war no more. Want of harmony always painful. Inharmonious colours pain the eye, and inharmonious sounds jar upon the ear. All discord is the enemy of peace and pleasure.
II. Sin brings reproach upon the Church. “In great affliction and reproach.” The Jews were not only in a desolate condition, but were taunted by the Samaritans with being in that condition. “Sin a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34), especially to the Church—for,
1. It destroys her power, and paralyzes her efforts. Spirituality secret of Church’s power. Stripped of this, she is like Samson shorn of his locks. An unholy Church is a mournful spectacle, a miserable ruin. The Church at Jerusalem was now demoralized through her unspirituality and want of faith.
2. It provokes the taunts of blasphemy. Church’s enemies always vigilant. Did not hesitate to throw insinuation in her teeth. “Where is now their God?” “As it is a pitiful sight to see a prince or nobleman cast from his dignity, spoiled of his honour, lands, and goods, and forced to become a carter, and drive the plough, or lie in prison; so surely it must needs move any heathen man, to see the city where he and his elders were born and buried to be overthrown, lie open to all enemies, unfenced with walls or gates, and inhabited only by a few cottagers, and no better than the poorest ragged hamlet in the country.”—Pilkington.
3. It encourages the growth of infidelity. Sceptics, both intellectual and sensual, not slow to point to Church’s failure in support of their boastful pretensions. Perhaps the Church’s failures and discords have done more to strengthen atheism than any books or arguments levelled against religion.
III. Sin removes national defences. “The walls are broken down.” This material dismantling only a type of the national demoralization which had taken place.
1. Unity is a national defence.
(1) A nation divided against itself can no more stand than a city, whereas a thoroughly united people can resist almost any attack from without.
(2) Sin undermines national unity by sowing discord and jealousy, and creating party feeling. It sets all the classes of society against each other (masters and servants, landowner and labourer), and seeks to stifle charity and forbearance.
2. Bodily vigour is a national defence.
(1) It saves from poverty in time of peace. Strong manhood a security against penury if united with temperance and industry.
(2) It enables resistance to become effectual in time of war. Sensuality under mines manhood, and unfits for arduous toil in peace or war. Refer to Franco-German war as instance. French people were socially demoralized by vice. Their manhood was undermined. Religion teaches the sanctity of the human body, and thus preserves it from premature corruption.
3. Domestic, purity is a national defence. What the family life is, the national life will soon become. Domestic fidelity begets a sense of re sponsibility. It promotes healthy moral tone. This, backbone of a nation’s vigour. Sin encourages lust and breaks down all social barriers, and thus robs a nation of one of its most powerful bulwarks.
4. Force of character is a national defence. This made England what she is, and America. It is this which gives weight to our words and actions in foreign courts and countries. Force impossible where sin reigns. Why? Because no true cohesion where no godliness. An unholy life is under no regulating principle, but at the mercy of passions and desires. Where there is internal anarchy, and no central principle of rectitude ruling the conduct, there can be no true decision or moral force in the life. (α)
IV. Sin dishonours national government. “The gates thereof are burned with fire.” City gates not only for resistance, but also the seat of government. There the assembly of chiefs gathered; there criminals were tried; there justice was administered, and important subjects discussed. Compare “Ottoman Porte,” where word for gate is synonym for government; also, “on this rock will I build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Here “gates” equivalent to kingdom. The demolition of the city gates suggests—
1. That the administration of justice was neglected. Crime ran riot. There was no security, no confidence, no defence, therefore none dare seek redress where none could be obtained. Bribery and terrorism the offspring of lax morality. The moral sense deadened, justice impossible.
2. That the inroads of enemies were unchecked. No barriers to midnight marauders. Whole nation manifestly paralyzed and dispirited. National honour and independence trodden in the dust. “The walls are destroyed, and the gates burned,” when the rulers and ministers do not their duty, but care for other things. And as this wretched people had justly, for their disobedience, neither walls left to keep out the enemy, nor gates to let in their friends, but were all destroyed; so shall all godless people be left without godly magistrates to govern them, and live in slavery under tyrants that oppress them, and be led by blind guides that deceive them.—Pilkington. The Jews to this day when they build a house (say the Rabbins) leave one part of it unfinished in remembrance that Jerusalem and the temple are at present desolate; or they leave about a yard square unplastered on which they write the words of the Psalmist, “If I forget Jerusalem,” &c. (Psalms 137:0); or else the words, “Zechor Lechorbon,” “The memory of the desolation.”
V. Sin brings a blight upon the whole land. When Adam sinned, the earth, which was before decked with fruits, brought forth weeds. The wickedness of Sodom punished not only by the destruction of its inhabitants, but by the desolation of the land, so that even the air is so pestilent that birds fall dead as they fly over it. The whole country of Palestine, “a land flowing with milk and honey,” for the sins of the Jews has become barren, as David said, “The Lord turneth a fruitful ground into a barren, for the wickedness of the dwellers in it” (Psalms 107:0). Jerusalem was not only destroyed now, but afterwards by Vespasian, whose general, Titus, left not “one stone standing on another” (Matthew 24:2). “Herein behold the vileness of sin, that not only man, but the earth, stones, cities, trees, corn, cattle, fish, fowl, and all fruits are perished, punished and turned into another nature, for the sin of man: yea, and not only worldly things, but his holy temple, law, the ark, the cherubims, mercy-seat, Aaron’s rod, and holy jewels, are given into the hands of a heathen king, because of the disobedience of his people.”—Pilkington.
Illustrations:—(α) When Nicephorus Phocas had built a wall about his palace for his own security in the night-time, be heard a voice crying to him, “Oh! emperor, though thou build thy walls as high as the clouds, yet if sin be within it will overthrow all.”
(β) “Suppose I were going along the street, and were to dash my hand through a large pane of glass, what harm should I receive? You would be punished for breaking the glass. Would that be all the harm that I should receive? No, you would cut your hand with the glass. So it is with sin. If you break God’s laws, you will be punished for breaking them; and your soul is hurt by the very act of breaking them.”
Nehemiah 1:4. I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days
I. The occasion of his grief. “When I heard these words I sat,” &c.
1. Not personal loss. Men mourn when death enters the home and robs them of their loved ones; when privation comes and strips them of their luxuries; when disappointment blights their ambition; when disease or accident deprive them of vigorous health. Nehemiah’s grief not caused by any of these things. He was in no danger at present of losing either friend, or substance, or good name. Nor would he thus have mourned if he had.
2. Not spiritual despair. He certainly discovered imperfections in his life not before observed, but nothing to drive him to religious despair. Condemnation and shame follow the awakening of conscience. His not asleep. Religious declension had not estranged him from God. He had walked with God even in the palace.
3. But public calamity. “When I heard these words I sat down and wept.” What words? Those by which his brother had just described the “affliction and reproach” into which the Church at Jerusalem had fallen.
(1) His brethren were in distress. His human sensibilities not blunted by the formalities of court life. Poor relations not to be forgotten when fortune favours us.
(2) The Church was desolate. This as important to a good man as if his own home was burnt or wrecked.
(3) The holy city was in ruins. Other cities had been razed to the ground, and he felt no grief like this. Babylon, a much greater city, had been taken by Cyrus not long before; Samaria, their neighbour, by Sennacherib and Shalmaneser. But this was “the holy city” (Matthew 4:0). Over its final destruction Christ wept (Luke 19:0). It had been beautified with temple, priests, and holy ordinances; and strengthened by many worthy princes and laws, and was a wonder to the world. Its fall was synonymous with the disgrace of true religion.
(4) Sin was triumphant. The sin of unbelief and moral impotence within, and of blasphemy and boastful arrogance without. Persecution and poverty are the Church’s glory; but impotence and discord her eternal shame. “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” her enemies asked; and in bitter irony are ever ready to exclaim, “See how these Christians love one another!” When God’s cause languishes and his Church is dishonoured it is time for good men to weep. In time of common calamities “Should we then make mirth?” (Ezekiel 21:10).
Illustrations:—“The Romans severely punished one that showed himself out of a window with a garland on his head in the time of the Punic war, when it went ill with the commonwealth. Justinus, the good emperor of Constantinople, took the downfall of the city of Antioch by an earthquake so much to heart that it caused him a grievous sickness, A. D. 527. When Pope Clement and his cardinals were imprisoned by the duke of Bourbon in St. Angelo Cæsar in Spain forbade all interludes to be played. In England the king was exceedingly sorry, and Cardinal Wolsey drained the land of twelvescore thousand pounds to relieve and ransom the distressed pope, for whom he wept grievously.”—Trapp.
II. The characteristics of his grief.
1. It was intense. “I sat down and wept.” Probably he had stood to hear their story. Now his heart melts like wax. His grief is overwhelming. Falling into his seat he gives vent to a flood of weeping. Not the transitory ruffling of the emotions, nor mere sentimental sympathy elicited by a tale of woe. His brethren’s sorrows became his own. Jeremiah’s prayer answered, “Oh that my head were waters,” &c. (Jeremiah 9:1). With David, he “watered his couch with his tears.” The sins of his people became in some measure his own. In this see faint type of Christ, who “bore our griefs,” &c. Faint anticipation of that “man of sorrows,” who “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears” (Hebrews 5:7) in the garden of Gethsemane.
2. It was enduring. “And mourned certain days.” Not the evanescent passion of superficial sorrow, but the deep soul-stirring grief of a noble and generous nature. Blind and violent sorrow generally dies away like the noisy crackling of thorns in the fire. Its very intenseness makes its brevity. Grief that has a deep and abiding provocation dies not thus. It contemplates the future as well as the present. The past it mourns, but seeks help for the future. Nor can it be appeased until the disgrace is wiped away, and deliverance found. Like Mary, it waits at the sepulchre until the angel appears to assure it of the resurrection of buried hopes.
3. It was self-denying. “And fasted.” Not the comfortable and self-indulgent grief that makes the very sorrow an excuse for sottish excess. All such grief bears a lie upon its face. The mind affects the body. Severe mental strain, whether of agony or rapture, weakens appetite and kills desire. Real heart-pain is always ascetic in its bodily aspect. The grief of the hypocrite or half-hearted is self-indulgent and short-lived because superficial. The grief of an earnest man of truth is terrible and irresistible because of its self-forgetfulness. Fasting is
(1) Often associated with profound grief in Scripture (2 Samuel 1:12; 2 Samuel 12:16-21; Psalms 35:13; Psalms 69:10; Daniel 6:8; Jonah 3:5).
(2) May be the natural attendant of grief, or the outward symbol of its presence.
(3) Is recognized and commended in Scripture as a religious exercise (1 Samuel 7:6; Jeremiah 36:9; Matthew 6:17; Acts 10:30; 1 Corinthians 7:5).
III. The issue of his grief. “And prayed before the God of heaven.” Herein consists difference between godly and selfish sorrow. The one ends in blank despair, the other finds relief in prayer. The passionate writhing of a rebellious heart dares not look up. It leads to suicide and madness. Note,
1. Grief is sanctified by prayer. Pain no inherently sanctifying or softening virtue. Only when borne in faith and godly resignation does it leave a blessing. It then becomes sacred, and softens the heart, like dew upon mown grass, or showers on the thirsty soil. Submissive and prayerful sorrow one of the most gracious experiences that can happen to man.
2. Grief is relieved by prayer. “Be careful for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication,” &c. (Philippians 4:6). In prayer the burden is cast upon One who is able and willing to bear it. If men find their burdens and anxieties lighter when they speak of them to their fellows, surely the relief must be greater when they unburden their mind to God, who is not only willing, but able to succour. Pent up mountain torrents are turbulent and furious; open streams are calmer, and more placid in their flow.
3. Grief is made fruitful by prayer. Sorrow without an outlet produces not good, but harm. It renders the spirit morose, and comforts no mourner. Only when grief is poured into the ear of God can it bear any good fruit. A saint’s tears are better than a sinner’s triumphs. Bernard saith: “Lachrymæ pœnitentium sunt vinum angelorum.” “The tears of penitents are the wine of angels.” St. Lawrence Justinian, Patriarch of Venice, says: “He cannot help sorrowing for other people’s sins, who sorrows truly for his own.” St. Augustine: “We mourn over the sins of others, we suffer violence, we are tormented in our minds.” St. Chrysostom: “Moses was raised above the people because he habitually deplored the sins of others. He who sorrows for other men’s sins, has the tenderness of an apostle, and is an imitator of that one who said: “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is offended, and I burn not!” (2 Corinthians 11:29).
Nehemiah 1:4. And fasted
I. Occasions of fasting.
1. Afflictions of the Church (Nehemiah).
2. National judgments (Joel).
3. Domestic bereavement (David).
4. Imminent danger (Esther).
5. Solemn ordinances (Paul and Barnabas set apart).
II. The design of fasting.
1. To assist penitence. “To afflict the soul,” a phrase often employed in connection with abstinence (Leviticus 16:29; Isaiah 58:5). Without spiritual repentance bodily mortification worthless, and meaningless.
2. To mortify bodily lusts and promote heart purity. Fasting not end, but means. Not essential to holiness; only an accidental of our fallen state. No fasting in heaven, because no fleshly corruptions. Without falling into Manichean heresy, which makes sin necessarily inherent in the human body, we must regard the body as an enemy to spirituality. Paul did; hence, “I keep under my body,” &c. (1 Corinthians 9:27).
3. To humble and gire sympathy with the poor. Opulent classes sympathize too little with struggling poor, because do not understand meaning of want. If practise occasional abstinence, and really suffer hunger, can better understand what others suffer constantly.
III. The duty of fasting.
1. Forms part of general principle of self-denial essential to true discipleship. “If any man will be my disciple let him take up his cross daily,” &c. (Luke 9:23). This duty not to he despised because some abuse it. Because some make it meritorious, no reason why we should neglect it altogether. Most sacred ordinances (Lord’s Supper) have been most grossly perverted, and most gracious privileges most grossly abused. Counterfeits only prove the value of true coin.
2. Implied, and therefore enjoined, by words of Christ. “This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).
3. Enforced by the example of Christ. In all things he our pattern. What Christ sanctioned by his own act cannot be considered as either superfluous, or superstitious. Point all objectors to him.
4. Associated in Scripture with the bestowal of great blessings. Nineveh spared when the inhabitants prayed, and mourned, fasting (Jonah 4:11). Ahab pardoned when he humbled himself with fasting (1 Kings 21:29). Christ promises heavenly reward to those whose fasting is sincere (Matthew 6:16).
IV. The manner and degree of fasting.
1. Sometimes total abstinence from food for a time (Esther 4:16).
2. More often abstinence from superfluous food (Daniel 10:3).
V. The spirit in which to fast.
1. With sincere humility. Ostentation condemned by Christ (Matthew 6:16). Uncharitableness or peevishness often accompany the exercise and deprive it of all sweetness and profit. It may become a source of pride and a cover for sin.
2. With true repentance. This the essential principle of all abstinence. The sacrifice of the will is the truth forthshadowed. This only one outward sign of the complete surrender of the will in all things. Nothing meritorious. Only means to an end. That end the complete subjection of flesh to spirit, of the carnal nature to the spiritual. If it be objected, “You should pay attention to the weightier matters of morality and benevolence,” we reply: “These ought ye to do, and not to leave the others undone.” These outward things, as kneeling, weeping, and fasting, are good helps and preparations unto prayer. As Sarah continued three days in fasting and prayer, that the Lord would deliver her from her shame (Tobit 3); so Tobias maketh it a general rule, saying: “Prayer is good joined with fasting.” Ecclesiasticus says (Sir. 30:5): “The prayer of him that humbleth himself pierceth the clouds, and she will not be comforted until she come nigh, nor go her way until the highest God have mercy upon her.”
Illustrations:—Neander says, “Although the early Christians did not retire from the business of life, yet they were accustomed to devote many separate days entirely to examining their own hearts, and pouring them out before God, while they dedicated their lives anew to him with uninterrupted prayers, in order that they might again return to their ordinary occupations with renewed zeal and earnestness. These days of holy devotion, days of prayer and penitence, which individuals appointed for themselves, were often a kind of fast days. They were accustomed to limit their corporal wants on those days, or to fast entirely. That which was spared by their abstinence was applied to the support of their poorer brethren.”
“There are Christians whose ‘flesh,’ whether by its quantity, or natural temperament, renders them sluggish, slothful, wavering, and physically by far too fond of the ‘good things’ of the table and the wine-cellar. That sort of Christian pressingly needs fasting, ay, thorough fasting. Brave, large-hearted Martin Luther nobly confessed his need, and nobly acted it out, not without strife and ‘lusting.’ Of fasting as a whole, and as applying to all, it may be said that while it has been perverted into a pestilent superstition, yet, in the words of Bishop Andrews, ‘There is more fear of a pottingerful of gluttony, than of a spoonful of superstition.’ ”—Grosart.
Nehemiah 1:5-11. And prayed before the God of heaven
Prayer variously designated invocation, petition, supplication, or intercession, according to the aspect in which it is regarded. The subject of this paragraph is intercessory prayer, i. e. prayer offered by one human being on behalf of another. That such intervention is admissible, and effectual in the Divine economy, is evident from the teaching of Scripture.
1. It is frequently enjoined (Numbers 6:23-26; Job 42:8; Psalms 122:6; Jeremiah 29:7; Joel 2:17; Matthew 5:44; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Timothy 2:1; James 5:14; James 1 John 5:16).
2. Illustrations of its efficacy abound. Abraham (Genesis 17:18-20; Genesis 18:23; Genesis 20:7-18). Moses (Exodus 8:12-31; Exodus 9:33; Exodus 17:11-13; Exodus 32:11-34). Jacob (Genesis 47:7; Genesis 49:0). David (2 Samuel 12:16). Ezra (Nehemiah 9:3-15). Job (Job 1:5; Job 42:10). Elijah (1 Kings 17:20-23). Peter (Acts 9:40). Paul (Acts 28:8).
I. Here is intercessory prayer, based upon a true conception of the Divine character.
1. It regards him as the majestic ruler of the world. “O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible God.” Great in power and government. Terrible in judgment and punishment. Such views of the Divine majesty calculated to inspire reverence and wholesome fear. Would check any tendency to presumption, and place the suppliant in a true position at the Divine footstool (Psalms 99:5; Psalms 132:7).
2. It regards him as the faithful and compassionate Father of his children.
(1) Faithful, “that keepeth covenant.” Some parts of covenant unconditional; a promise concerning seasons (Genesis 8:22); destruction of the world (Genesis 9:14-17). Some conditional upon moral conduct (Joshua 7:11; Joshua 23:16).
(2) Compassionate, “and mercy” (Exodus 20:6).
(3) To his children. “Them that love him, and keep his commandments.” This, beautiful description of filial spirit. The motive principle and the manifest conduct both indicated. First, inward affection, “that love him;” then, outward obedience, “that keep his commandments.” The first revealing itself by the second. The second the offspring of the first. “That he may at once both tremble before him, and trust upon him; he describeth God by his goodness as well as by his greatness, and so helpeth his own faith by contemplating God’s faithfulness and loving-kindness.”—Trapp.
II. Here is intercessory prayer, untiring in its importunity and unselfish in its benevolence.
1. Unwearied in its importunity. “Which I pray before thee now day and night” (Nehemiah 1:6). Four months elapsed between the commencement of his intercession in Chisleu (Nehemiah 1:1), and the beginning of its fulfilment in Nisan (Nehemiah 2:1). Night and day, i. e. unceasingly, did Nehemiah press his suit. Such importunity sure to prevail. Inspired by the Holy Ghost, commended by the Saviour, and encouraged by the word of God, it cannot fail eventually (Acts 12:5; 2 Corinthians 12:8; 1 Thessalonians 3:10). “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence,” &c. (Matthew 11:12). Parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:5). Perseverance necessary not because God reluctant to hear, but because men are slow to value his gifts. When we rightly appreciate God’s mercies he bestows them freely, not before. The “Jews divide their day into prayer, work, and repast; neither will they omit prayer for their meat or labour. The Mahommedans, what occasion soever they have, either by profit or pleasure, to divert them, will pray five times every day; and upon the Friday (which is their Sabbath) six times. How few and feeble are our prayers in comparison, either for ourselves or our brethren in distress.”
2. Unselfish in its benevolence. Much anguish of mind, and self-sacrifice, accompanied the urging of this prayer. Rest forsook his frame and slumber his eyelids (Psalms 132:4; Proverbs 6:4). His whole soul so thoroughly stirred that he cared neither for sleep nor food. Such intercession has all the marks of sincerity, and every probability of success.
III. Here is intercessory prayer, accompanied by self-abasement and contrition. “And confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee; both I and my father’s house have sinned” (Nehemiah 1:6). From the spirit and language of this prayer we learn—
1. That close approaches to God reveal unsuspected moral defects in the character even of good men. “I and my father’s house have sinned.” Though a sincere believer and servant of Jehovah, Nehemiah now discovered and remembered personal and family sins which bowed him to the earth in sorrow. The more closely he approaches the “Holy One who cannot look upon sin” (Hebrews 1:13), the more distinctly and painfully does he perceive his unworthiness and demerit. Thus was it with Manoah (Judges 13:0), and Isaiah (Isaiah 6:0), and St. John (Revelation 1:0). When want real power in times of urgent need they discover their weakness. When daring suppliants press up to the steps of the mercy-seat they discover stains previously unsuspected. Comparatively innocent they may be (as Nehemiah was), but not without sin, and such as needs to be confessed and pardoned.
2. That the discovery of moral defects teaches good men their common depravity and mutual need of Divine mercy. “Confess the sins of the children of Israel which we have sinned” (Nehemiah 1:6). He discovers that in God’s sight there is “no difference.” He needs mercy and deserves wrath as much as they. Their sins are identified with his own. The suppliant who pleads for others’ sins, as though he had real contact with them, and felt their burdensomeness, will prevail. He who pharisaically thanks God that he is not as other men, in his prayers will not succeed much. When we can say, “of whom I am chief,” God will pardon both us and those for whom we intercede.
3. That the discovery of moral defects deprives good men of all right to intercede for others on the ground of their own merit. The holiest may not approach the throne of Mercy in his own name, or make his relationship to God a ground of appeal. Only one name, one plea, will avail. The name and blood of Christ are our grounds of appeal. The promise and character of God were theirs of old. “For thy name’s sake” was the Old Testament form of “For Christ’s sake” in the New. When we have done our utmost we are only unprofitable servants dependent upon Divine forbearance, and can perform no works of meritorious supererogation.
4. That the discovery of moral defects brings good men into that state of humility which is essential to success in prayer. “To that man will I look; even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). Self-sufficiency renders God’s arm powerless to hear or help. Self-despair, which casts itself at the feet of God, saying, “If thou canst do anything, have compassion,” is sure to meet with a ready response. Human weakness commends itself to Divine omnipotence and compassion. Our impotence is our strongest recommendation to God.
IV. Here is intercessory prayer fortifying itself with strong arguments, and appealing to the most powerful motives.
1. It makes the promise of God its ground of appeal. “Remember, I beseech thee, the word which thou commandedst thy servant Moses” (Nehemiah 1:8; Deuteronomy 4:25-31; Deuteronomy 30:1-10). No argument so powerful with God as “Remember.” When men honour God’s Word, he will not he slow to hear their words. When the prayer of faith builds upon the word of promise it rests upon a sure foundation. “God not a man that he should lie, or the son of a man that he should repent” (Numbers 23:19).
2. It regards the verification of one word as a reason for expecting the fulfilment of another. “If ye transgress, I will scatter you … If ye turn, I will gather you” (Nehemiah 1:8-9). Half the prophecy had been carried out; Nehemiah claims the fulfilment of the other half. “All the promises of God are yea” (2 Corinthians 1:20). “No variableness or shadow of turning with God” (James 1:17). He who kept his covenant with Noah will keep it with his posterity to the end of time.
3. It regards the verification of maledictions as a ground for expecting the still more certain fulfilment of benedictions. If the curses were literally carried out, how much more willin ly will the great Father bestow the promised blessings. If in chastising he was faithful, surely he will not be less so in healing and restoring. The fact of their dispersion becomes the basis of his claim for their restoration: He who is faithful in that which he does unwillingly, will not be less faithful in that which he delights to do. If, because of his word, he punished, because of his word he will show mercy.
4. It appeals to the relationship existing between God and his chosen people. “These are thy servants, and thy people” (Nehemiah 1:10). Can he who has borne with them so long and so tenderly desert them now? The paternal heart is appealed to. If an earthly parent acknowledges this as the most powerful sentiment in his nature, how much more the heavenly. Had he not said, “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee” (Isaiah 49:15).
5. It repudiates a disloyal or presumptuous motive. “Thy servants, who desire to fear thy name” (Nehemiah 1:11). Not that they might boast and defy the God who had delivered them, as their fathers had done; not that they might free themselves from a heathen yoke only; but that they might fear and worship the God of Israel. Blessings that are to be laid on God’s altar when received will not be long withheld.
6. It makes past deliverance the ground of present expectation. “Whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand.” The memory of the exodus from Egypt, and the victories of the wilderness and Canaan, excites the hope that God will again interfere on behalf of his people. The remembrance of those years of the right hand of the Most High, stimulates Nehemiah’s prayer. Thus should the past ever instruct the present. He who studies the Church’s history will find ample material for the nourishment and strengthening of his faith in God.
V. Here is intercessory prayer accompanied by diligence in the performance of daily duties. “And grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king’s cupbearer” (Nehemiah 1:11). The most earnest supplication not exonerate from personal effort, and the discharge of necessary duties. Prayer not to be made a substitute for work. The suppliant must relax no painstaking effort, and watch for the openings of Providence. Every step must be taken as though all depended on our own effort, and yet in entire dependence on Divine guidance. Thus may we in a sense answer our own prayers. Not necessary to leave ordinary spheres of work. Nehemiah asks Divine guidance in regular duty, that the monarch may be induced to grant him the petition which he was anxious to present at the first favourable opportunity.
Illustrations:—One of the holiest and most devoted of modern missionaries, who after surmounting almost insuperable obstacles, at length completed his translation of the Scriptures into a language of surpassing difficulty, inscribed upon the last page of his manuscript these words:—“I give it, as the result of long experience, that prayer and pains, with faith in Christ Jesus, will enable a man to do anything.”
Æschylus was condemned to death by the Athenians, and about to be executed. His brother Amyntas had signalized himself at the battle of Salamis, where he lost his right hand. He came into court, just as his brother was condemned, and without saying a word, held up the stump of his right arm in the sight of all. The historian says that, “when the judges saw this mark of his sufferings, they remembered what he had done, and for his sake pardoned the brother whose life had been forfeited.”
“At the time the Diet of Nuremberg was held,” says Tholuck, “Luther was earnestly praying in his own dwelling; and at the very hour when the edict was issued, granting free toleration to all Protestants, he ran out of his house, crying out, ‘We have gained the victory.’ ”
Rev. Charles Simeon wrote to a friend: “With the hope of ultimate acceptance with God, I have always enjoyed much cheerfulness before men; but I have at the same time laboured incessantly to cultivate the deepest humility before God. I have never thought that the circumstances of God having forgiven me, was any reason why I should forgive myself; on the contrary, I have always judged it better to loathe myself the more, in proportion as I was assured that God was pacified toward me (Ezekiel 16:63). Nor have I been satisfied with viewing my sins, as men view the stars on a cloudy night, one here, and another there, with great intervals between; but have endeavoured to get, and to preserve continually before my eyes, such a view of them as we have of the stars in the brightest night: the greater and the smaller all intermingled, and forming as it were one continuous mass. There are but two objects that I have desired for these forty years to behold; the one is my own vileness, the other is the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; and I have always thought that they should be viewed together, just as Aaron confessed all the sins of the children of Israel, whilst he put them on the head of the scape-goat. The disease did not keep him from applying the remedy; nor the remedy from feeling the disease.”
PRAYER FOR CHURCH REVIVAL
Nehemiah 1:5-11. And prayed before the God of heaven, &c.
I. Prompted by love for the Church. 1. Therefore persistent. “Day and night.” This love not fickle, or easily discouraged. “Many waters cannot quench love” (Song of Solomon 8:7). Not fruitless emotion, but practical in its aim.
2. Therefore fervent. “Wept and mourned.” The love deep, not superficial; therefore the prayer was fervent. This love, previously slumbering, now fully awakened; therefore prayer intense. This love, now sorely tried; therefore fervent prayer required.
II. Recognizes the personal unworthiness of the petitioner. “Both I and my father’s house have sinned.” This confession consistent with the priestly intercession of those who stand before God in the people’s name. Jewish high priests “offered sacrifice first for their own sins, and then for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 7:27). Must come not as having any right to intercede, but as magnifying God’s mercy.
III. Is full of faith. “Remember the word” (Nehemiah 1:8).
1. Notwithstanding the Church’s declension. Sin not overlooked, or ignored; but viewed in the light of Divine mercy. Confessed, pardoned, and forsaken, it no longer becomes a hindrance. God will not remember against them his people’s sin when they repent thereof.
2. Because of the veracity of the Divine promise. “I will gather.” This, basis of all hope then and now. When pleading the promises, should do so in faith, nothing doubting, for “God hath magnified his word above all his name” (Psalms 138:2). This promise embraces—
(1) The assurance of mercy after chastisement. “I will scatter … I will gather” (Nehemiah 8:9).
(2) The renewal of former kindness. “Whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand” (Nehemiah 1:10).
(3) The vindication of the Divine name and honour. “These are thy servants, and thy people” (Nehemiah 1:10).
Illustrations:—It is related of an ancient king that he never granted a petition that was offered with a trembling hand, because it marked a want of confidence in his clemency. “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22).
A pious sick man in the western part of New York, used to pray for the preachers and the churches of his acquaintance daily at set hours. In his diary were found entries like this, “I have been enabled to offer the prayer of faith for a revival in such a place.” So through the list. It is said that each church was soon enjoying a revival, and nearly in the order of time named in the diary.
THE MAJESTY AND MERCY OF GOD
Nehemiah 1:5. The great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy
From this sublime invocation we gather—
I. That there is perfect harmony in the attributes of the Divine nature. God is one. His nature indivisible. Men speak as though justice were necessarily opposed to mercy. No necessary antagonism. A God all mercy would be a God not only unkind, but unjust. Mistake to speak of mercy triumphing over justice. Mercy harmonizes with justice, never annihilates it. God is just, and “yet the justifier of him that believeth” (Romans 3:26). In the pardon of a sinner we see the vindication of Divine justice no less than the magnifying of Divine mercy; and Divine mercy unites with Divine justice in the destruction of the finally impenitent. No wrath so fearful to contemplate as “the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16).
II. That the Divine attributes are equally enlisted in the work of human salvation. Salvation as much an act of justice as of mercy. The holiness of God an important factor in the production of both repentance and regeneration. By the view of holiness, sin is discovered in its true colours. By the indwelling of the spirit of holiness, sin is destroyed and eradicated. “Mercy and truth are met together” (Psalms 85:10). Hence Watts has truthfully sung—
“Here the whole Deity is known; nor dares a creature guess,
Which of the glories brightest shone; the justice or the grace.”
III. That the harmony of the Divine nature is the only true basis of moral goodness.
1. The contemplation of Divine compassion alone tends to antinomianism. Mercy may be magnified at the expense of the moral law. God willing to forgive, but equally willing to defend against and deliver from sin itself. Guard against danger of so magnifying Divine mercy as to make sin a light offence. God’s law is, “Sin shall not have dominion over you.” “Reckon ye yourselves to be dead unto sin” (Romans 6:0). Then, as a merciful provision, “If any man sin we have an advocate,” &c. (1 John 1:0).
2. The contemplation of the Divine holiness alone tends to legalism. By viewing the spotless purity of the Divine character, and the rigid requirements of Divine law, apart from the gracious promises of Divine mercy, a spirit of legal bondage, or self-righteous asceticism, is engendered. Hence spring meritorious works, penances, and self-inflicted flagellations and other useless tortures. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he hath saved us” (Titus 3:5).
3. The contemplation of the unity of the Divine nature is essential to the formation of a true moral character. The spotless purity and immaculate holiness of the Divine nature deter from iniquity, and the violation of God’s law; whilst the tender mercy and loving-kindness of his nature encourage the penitent to crave pardon and grace.
IV. That the harmony of the Divine nature furnishes the only true ideal of moral goodness.
1. Human goodness is at best one-sided. Some virtues developed at expense of others. Few Christians are fully and evenly matured. One aspect of moral goodness cultivated to the exclusion of others. Men follow too much their natural disposition in this. The gentle are apt to cultivate the passive graces alone, whilst the bold forget to clothe themselves with the meekness and gentleness of Christ.
2. Divine goodness alone is perfectly impartial. God both majestic and merciful; infinitely high, yet infinitely condescending. No exaggeration, nor inequality, nor partiality characterizes his nature or his government. His purity unsullied, his peace unruffled, his dignity uncompromised, his fidelity unchallenged, &c.
V. That notwithstanding the harmony of the Divine nature, men come into contact with different aspects of that nature according to their moral condition. As the magnet draws to itself certain metals similar in nature, and rejects certain others alien from it; so do men in their various characters attract different phases of God’s nature.
1. A penitent spirit is necessary to the experience of Divine mercy. Only such will seek it; only such require it: only such are capable of receiving and living in the enjoyment of it.
2. An obedient spirit is necessary to the continued experience of God’s favour. Paternal benedictions only promised to those who possess a filial spirit. “If ye love me, keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father,” &c. (John 14:15). Disobedience always incurs Divine displeasure, and obscures the light of the Father’s countenance.
3. A rebellious spirit will infallibly provoke the exercise of Divine wrath. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). “God cannot look upon iniquity” (Deuteronomy 32:4). His character is pledged to active antagonism to evil. Sin not punished now as it deserves, because this is “the day of salvation;” and the mediatorial intercession of Christ holds back the thunderbolts of righteous anger.
Illustrations:—A Jew entered a Persian temple, and saw there the sacred fire. He said, “How do you worship fire?” He was told. Then the Israelite replied, “You dazzle the eye of the body, but darken that of the mind; in presenting to them the terrestrial light, you take away the celestial.” The Persian then asked, “How do you name the Supreme Being?” “We call him Jehovah Adonai; that is, the Lord who was, who is, and who shall be.” “Your word is great and glorious; but it is terrible,” said the Persian. A Christian approaching, said, “We call Him Abba, Father.” Then the Gentile and the Jew regarded each other with surprise, and said, “Your word is the nearest and the highest; but who gives you courage to call the Eternal thus?” “The Father Himself,” said the Christian, who then expounded to them the plan of redemption. Then they believed, and lifted up their eyes to heaven, saying, “Father, dear Father;” and joining hands, called each other brethren.—Krummacher.
IMPORTUNITY IN PRAYER
Nehemiah 1:6. I pray before thee now day and night
1. If it be the expression of real need. When children want, they ask; when they feel deeply, they ask earnestly. This prayer protracted through four months; yet not mere repetition of words. Difference between real and artificial want: one listless in prayer, the other importunate. Conscious want asks and asks again. Prayer not to be regarded as end, but means. Many reverse this order. Nehemiah did not pray for sake of prayer, but for sake of object sought.
2. If it be the expression of urgent need. When we suffer pain we cry out. Starving man always importunate. The more needy the more earnest. Sinners under conviction of sin, groan and wrestle in agonizing importunity until they find relief. Christians wrestle with “strong crying and supplications” until they prevail. Sailors in a sinking vessel and miners in the prospect of certain death pray with real importunity because they are in urgent extremity. In the same spirit should we approach the throne of grace; for our need is the same, though we may not feel it.
3. If it be the expression of hopeful need. None can persevere earnestly in a cause known to be hope less. Hope cheers on the most despairing. Without hope nothing arduous could be undertaken. This inspires prayer. It looks to the goal, and anticipates eventual success. This hope must have a true foundation, and not rest on desire or possibility only. The word of God is the only secure foundation on which it can build (Nehemiah 1:8).
1. In order that the suppliant may be rightly affected. Nothing truer than that success in prayer depends on spirit of suppliant. Importunity promotes—
(4) Zeal. Often the petitioner is not morally fit to receive the grace or gift desired. Prayer purifies the heart, sanctifies the will, and removes hindrances out of the way.
2. In order that the gifts may be rightly appreciated. God will not cast his pearls before swine. He will only give when his gifts are valued. What we seek for long and earnestly, we value highly when we gain. What easily won, lightly esteemed and easily lost. This true of money, lands, home, child, &c. The more hardly money is earned, the more carefully it is used. Those who have never earned, but inherited wealth, generally become spendthrift, because ignorant of value of money. Home only possesses its full significance to those who have crossed oceans and continents, and endured perils on land and sea to reach it. That life the most precious to the parent which has been oftenest snatched from the jaws of death. Gifts nearly lost, or dearly bought, are counted to be most precious and priceless.
3. In order that God’s conditions may be fulfilled.
(1) Faith required. “He that cometh unto God,” &c. (Hebrews 11:6).
(2) Whole-hearted earnestness required. “When they seek me with their whole heart” (Psalms 119:2).
(3) Submission to the Divine will required. “Thy will be done.” All these conditions are promoted by continued importunity.
1. The Bible enjoins it by precepts the most explicit. (Deuteronomy 4:7. 1 Chronicles 14:11. 2 Chronicles 7:14.Job 8:5; Job 8:5.Psalms 1:5; Psalms 1:5; Psalms 81:10; Psalms 145:18. Proverbs 2:3.Isaiah 30:19; Isaiah 30:19; Isaiah 58:9. Jeremiah 31:9. Lamentations 2:19. Matthew 7:7. Luke 18:1.Romans 12:12; Romans 12:12.Philippians 4:6; Philippians 4:6. 1 Thessalonians 5:17.)
2. The Bible encourages it by examples the most striking. (Genesis 18:32; Genesis 32:26. Exodus 32:32.Deuteronomy 9:15; Deuteronomy 9:15.Judges 6:39; Judges 6:39. 1 Samuel 1:10; 1 Samuel 12:23.Ezra 9:5; Ezra 9:5.Psalms 17:1; Psalms 17:1; Psalms 22:2.Daniel 6:10; Daniel 6:10; Daniel 9:3.Matthew 15:23; Matthew 15:23; Matthew 20:31.Acts 6:4; Acts 6:4; Acts 12:5. 2 Corinthians 12:8. 1 Thessalonians 3:10.
IV. Successful. Though long delayed the answer came, and Nehemiah’s importunity was amply rewarded.
1. Not in the sense that God’s will can be affected by man’s importunity. That will is perfect and immutable. “I am God, I change not” (Malachi 3:6). If that will were variable there could be no confidence amongst men. The government of the world would rest upon no firm and solid foundation. Whilst the Divine will can never be changed, the exercise of that will may be affected by human conditions. The Father’s will is to save the whole race; for “he willeth not the death of the sinner;” but according to the laws which he has appointed for man, his will is limited by certain conditions which must be fulfilled before he can exercise that will. The same occurs in earthly relations. A wise father has a spendthrift son, whom he loves and would gladly treat with lavish generosity, but that he knows it would be his ruin. That son becomes reformed, and (not the father’s will, for that has re-remained the same, but) the father’s treatment of his son is altered accordingly. He can now do what he had the heart and will to do before, but not the judgment.
2. Not in the sense that God is reluctant, and can be overcome by human persuasion. This, a common error. Seen not so much in distinct affirmation as in public prayers, religious literature, and devout conversation. For our sakes, not for God’s sake, importunity required. Parable of unjust judge only designed to teach one salient truth, viz. the necessity for unwearying devotion in prayer, not the unwillingness of God to hear. The Old Testament passages (Genesis 18:32; Exodus 32:32), which represent God as apparently reluctant, and eventually persuaded, are anthropomorphic. God’s actual, practical government of the universe is amenable to the intercessions of the righteous. Certain blessings are promised only in answer to “effectual fervent prayer” (James 5:16).
3. In the sense that importunity and prevalence are mysteriously, but certainly, connected. The “how” we may not be able to define; but the fact we cannot deny. The process here as elsewhere is mysterious, but the result is patent to all thoughtful and devout minds. Who can explain the connection between the seed and the plant, or between mind and matter? The presence of a mystery does not destroy our faith in the fact. “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are; yet he prayed,” &c. (James 5:17). Let them deny the facts who can; and they are worth many arguments.
Illustrations:—Prayer pulls the rope below, and the great bell rings above in the ear of God. Some scarcely stir the bell, for they pray so languidly; others give an occasional pluck at the rope: but he who wins with heaven is the man who grasps the rope boldly, and pulls continuously with all his might.—Spurgeon.
“If from the tree of promised mercy thou
Wouldst win the good which loadeth every bough,
Then urge the promise well with pleading cries,
Move heaven itself with vehemence of sighs;
Soon shall celestial fruit thy toil repay—
’Tis ripe, and waits for him who loves to pray.
What if thou fail at first, yet give not o’er,
Bestir thyself to labour more and more;
Enlist a brother’s sympathetic knee,
The tree will drop its fruit when two agree;
Entreat the Holy Ghost to give thee power,
Then shall the fruit descend in joyful shower.”
FORGOTTEN SINS REMEMBERED
Nehemiah 1:6. Both I and my father’s house have sinned
I. Sins forgotten are not necessarily sins forgiven.
1. Wicked men soon forget their sins. This arises from indifference to the nature and consequences of sin. Sin becomes a trifling matter easily committed, readily forgotten. Not therefore either forgotten or forgiven by God. “I have spilled the ink over a bill, and so have blotted it till it can hardly be read, but this is quite another thing from having it blotted out, for that cannot be till payment is made. So a man may blot his sins from his memory, and quiet his mind with false hopes, but the peace which this will bring him is widely different from that which arises from God’s forgiveness of sin through the satisfaction which Jesus made in his atonement. Our blotting is one thing, God’s blotting out is something far higher.”—Spurgeon.
2. Good men may forget their sins. They often do. Nehemiah had done. Not heinous and wilful sins, for such they do not commit. “He that committeth sin is of the devil” (1 John). Sins of ignorance and of inadvertence, as well as of unbelief, &c., may be committed even by believers, and then forgotten—
(1) Through neglecting faithful self-examination,
(2) Through an uneducated or half-enlightened conscience,
(3) Through a low moral sense.
II. Forgotten sins often hinder prayer. They did so in Nehemiah’s case. Not until his own and his father’s sins had been acknowledged and pardoned could he prevail in prayer. What earnest Christian not had similar experience? The spirit of prayer mysteriously absent; oft repeated requests strangely unanswered. On carefully searching have found the hidden sin and put away the hindrance.
(1) They deprive the soul of the spirit of supplication.
(2) They act as barriers preventing access to God.
III. Forgotten sins often interfere with Church prosperity. No blessing for the Church at Jerusalem until these sins and theirs had been confessed and put away. Achan and his wedge of gold brought shame and defeat upon the armies of Israel. Secret evils cherished often cause great disaster and moral feebleness to the Church. 1. By depriving her of that joy which is her strength. “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Without the clear assurance of the Divine favour joy impossible. When Church depressed and doubting, her work languishes.
2. By hindering God’s blessing from attending her efforts. Without his benedictions all the Church’s enterprises must fail. Paul may plant, Apollos may water, but God gives the increase.
IV. Forgotten sins are often remembered in seasons of gracious visitation. When God comes near and manifests himself as refiner’s fire, his servants are quick to discern, and sensitive to feel their most hidden faults, for—
1. Revivals of religion promote self-examination and abasement.
2. Revivals of religion create a higher moral sense.
V. Forgotten sins must be confessed when brought to remembrance.
1. Vicariously. Not only own sins but sins of brethren and family, and Church. If we pray for them God will give them repentance and they will be saved. “They shall be made willing in the day of his power.”
2. Separately. As, in the text, Nehemiah confesses their sins by name, so should all earnest suppliants acknowledge their failures, not in general terms only, but in detail and separately. This will produce clear views of sin in all its reality, and will deepen the sorrow of a sincere repentance.
3. Accompanied by prayer for mercy. This, great end of confession, viz. that guilt be cancelled, and sins remitted. Confession in itself no virtue, unless it spring from a desire for pardon, and a determination to shun the cause of sin in the future.
Nehemiah 1:8. Remember, I beseech thee, the word that, &c.
I. God’s memory is infallible.
1. Its records are accurate. No human records are so. Errors in everything human. Memory of man fails, and deceives him. God’s memory absolutely infallible, because he alone can see things as they really are.
2. Its records are impartial. Prejudice and personal bias enter into all human histories. This bias often quite unconscious and unavoidable. Perfect disinterestedness impossible under existing limitations of human life. God only can look down from the serene heights of immaculate purity, and impartially record the transactions of men.
3. Its records will form the basis of man’s acquittal or condemnation at the Day of Judgment. The verdict pronounced by Christ in the case of the seven Asian churches, a prelude of the General Judgment of all churches and peoples. Each letter commences with, “I know thy works” (Revelation 2:0), implying that the judgment pronounced is infallibly true. Such momentous issues, as eternal life and eternal death, could not depend upon anything less than an infallible record of the whole period of earthly probation; and none but God can furnish such a record. Not one shall be unrighteously condemned. No miscarriage of justice can possibly occur at that tribunal.
II. God’s memory is omniscient. Hence the appeal, “Remember.”
1. It takes cognisance of the most obscure events as well as the most public. No deed of darkness or act of cruelty unobserved. No cup of water or widow’s mite given without the notice of at least One Eye. “What was done in secret shall one day be proclaimed on the housetop.” “All things are naked and open to the eyes of him.” “Hell is naked before him, and destruction” (Job 24:6).
2. It is acquainted with the most microscopic details of human life. Not only does he observe and regulate suns and starry systems in their orbits, but the most infinitesimal animalculæ live and move and have their being under his eye. If he be anywhere, he is everywhere; if he be in anything, he is in everything. If he order the seraph’s flight, he ordains the sparrow’s fall: if he tells the number of the stars, he numbers the very hairs of the heads of his saints. The minuteness of Providence its perfection. Since he is above all, and through all, and in all, let us look to him for all, let us look to him in all.
3. It fathoms the most secret thoughts and motives. “Thou compassest my path,” &c; “for there is not a word in my tongue, but lo, O Lord, thou knowestit altogether” (Psalms 139:0). Thoughts unbreathed in word are recorded in his memory; and motives unsuspected by the most intimate friend are there written down.
III. God loves to be reminded of h is word. “Remember, I beseech thee, the word which thou commandedst thy servant Moses” (Nehemiah 1:8).
1. Not that he needs to be reminded of it. Strictly speaking God can neither remember nor forget, for all things are present with him. Figuratively he is said to do both (Isaiah 62:6-7).
2. Not that he desires to forget. He delights to honour the word of his promise, and is “Dot slow concerning his promise, as some men count slackness” (2 Peter 3:9).
3. But because he loves to see his children believing his word. All men love to be trusted. Parents especially delight to see their children exercise the most implicit trust in their veracity. God also seeks to be trusted, and is pleased when his word is believed. Christ’s upbraiding couched in these words: “O slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25).
Illustration:—“There is a recent application of electricity by which, under the influence of its powerful light, the body can be so illuminated as that the workings beneath the surface of the skin may be seen. Lift up the hand, and it will appear almost translucent, the bones and veins clearly appearing. It is so in some sense with God’s introspection of the human heart. His eye, which shines brighter than the sun, searches us, and discovers all our weakness and infirmity.”—Pilkington.
PUNISHMENT AND PENITENCE
Nehemiah 1:8-9. If ye transgress, I will scatter you, &c.
Here we trace that sequence which is everywhere taught in Bible, viz.:
I. That sin is invariably followed by punishment.
1. Sometimes with loss of temporal good. “I will scatter you abroad.” The loss of national status and social integrity followed loss of God’s favour. They are to-day a standing witness to all the world of the faithfulness of Jehovah’s word. Josephus says that in his time they had grown so wicked, that if the Romans had not destroyed and dispersed them, without doubt either the earth would have swallowed them up, or fire from heaven would have consumed them. This kind of punishment not always inflicted. Wicked men flourish and grow rich, yet their end is miserable enough.
2. Always with loss of spiritual blessing. “Friendship of world enmity against God.” God’s favour only secured and continued by separation from sin. Withdrawal of Divine approval must follow deviation from path of Divine precepts.
3. Hereafter with the loss of all good. Hell is most frequently referred to as a loss, the negation of all that is dear and sweet and to be desired; loss of heaven, of peace, of God’s presence, of opportunity, of gracious influences of the Holy Spirit, in word, the loss of the soul. The loss of hope bitterest ingredient in cup of despair. Sin not always manifestly punished in this world; but always really so. In the next life the punishment will be manifest to all the universe. Sin shall not go unpunished. “The thought of the future punishment for the wicked which the Bible reveals is enough to make an earthquake of terror in a man’s mind. I do not accept the doctrine of eternal punishment because I delight in it. I would cast in doubts if I could, till I had filled hell up to the brim: I would destroy all faith in it: but that would do me no good; I could not destroy the thing. Nor does it help me to take the word ‘everlasting,’ and put it into a rack like an inquisitor, until I make it shriek out some other meaning; I cannot alter the stern fact.” “The pea contains the vine, and the flower, and the pod in embryo: and I am sure when I plant it, that it will produce them and nothing else. Now every action of our lives is embryonic, and according as it is right or wrong, it will surely bring forth the sweet flowers of joy, or the poison fruits of sorrow. Such is the constitution of this world; and the Bible assures us that the next world only carries it forward. Here and hereafter ‘whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.’ ”—Beecher.
II. That true penitence is invariably followed by pardon. “But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments,” &c. The sequence carried out in this history. National repentance was followed by national restoration to God’s favour and forfeited privileges.
1. True repentance implies the forsaking of evil. This, first step. Greek words (metameleia, and metanoya) signify change of purpose, and change of thought. Not mere desire or emotional sorrow: but deep contrition resulting from clear view of heinous character of sin. Only when Jews abandoned idolatry and heathen associations could they be received again as God’s heritage.
2. True repentance implies turning to God. By sin do men turn from God: by repentance they return and cleave to him. Judas an instance of insincere repentance; he turned from his sin, but turned not to God, but went straight into arms of despair. Peter’s true repentance urged to the feet of his offended Saviour, where he found mercy.
3. True repentance includes a determination of future obedience. This mentioned as a condition in God’s promise, and quoted in Nehemiah’s prayer, “if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments,” &c. Evangelically keep them, for with a legal obedience none can do so. The penitent must have at least an earnest desire and firm resolve to do them as far as he can by God’s grace.
4. Pardon is as certain to follow true penitence as punishment sin. Both rest upon God’s “I will.” His threatenings and his promises both stand true. If he fulfil the curses, he will certainly fulfil the benedictions. If punishment has followed sin, we may confidently look for mercy to follow the forsaking of sin. God not less ready to restore than to scatter.
5. Pardon is accompanied by the restoration of forfeited privileges. “Yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them into the place which I have chosen, to set my name there” (Nehemiah 1:9). Not only would they be redeemed from exile and captivity, but re-established in Jerusalem, and enjoying all the privileges of God’s special providence and protection. When sinners turn to God they receive all the evangelical blessings of the New Testament Covenant through Christ. Adoption, assurance, sanctification, heirship, heaven, are all theirs, through faith in Jesus Christ.
Illustrations:—“ ‘Let him take hold of my strength, that he may make peace with me: and he shall make peace with me.’ I think I can convey the meaning of this passage by what took place in my own family within these few days. One of my children had committed a fault, for which I thought it my duty to chastise him. I called him to me, explained to him the evil of what he had done, and told him how grieved I was that I must punish him for it. He heard me in silence, and then rushed into my arms, and burst into tears. I could sooner have cut off my arm than have struck him for his fault; he had taken hold of my strength, and had made peace with me.”—R. Tolls.
The first physic to recover our souls is not cordials, but corrosives; not an immediate stepping into heaven by a present assurance, but mourning and lamentations, and a bitter bewailing of our former transgressions. With Mary Magdalene, we must wash Christ’s feet with our tears of sorrow, before we may anoint his head with “the oil of gladness.”—Browning.
Like Janus Bifrons, the Roman god looking two ways, a true repentance not only bemoans the past, but takes heed to the future. Repentance, like the lights of a ship at her bow and her stern, not only looks to the track she has made, but to the path before her. A godly sorrow moves the Christian to weep over the failure of the past, but his eyes are not so blurred with tears, but that he can look watchfully into the future, and, profiting by the experience of former failures, make straight paths for his feet.—Pilkington. Repentance without amendment is like continual pumping at a ship, without stopping the leak.
Nehemiah 1:9-10. Now these are thy servants, and thy people
I. A chosen place. “The place that I have chosen to set my name there.”
1. Historically, Jerusalem. By God’s appointment this city is called the “holy city;” because he chose it for the dwelling-place of his people, and the site for his temple. Hence the Psalmist: “The Lord hath chosen Zion, he hath chosen it for a dwelling-place for himself: this is my resting-place for ever: here will I dwell, because I have chosen it” (Psalms 132:0). For this reason it was holy, though the people by their wickedness had defiled it. Other towns and countries have been chosen by God to play an important part in working out his gracious purposes in the redemption of man, as Bethlehem, Nazareth, Babylon, Rome, &c. Jerusalem exalted above all other cities. The place, however, can make no one holy or acceptable before God: for “he chose not the man for the place’s sake, but the place for the man’s sake.”—Pilkington.
2. Typically, the Church militant. The Christian Church is now to the world what the holy city was of old. There God dwells, and appoints his ordinances and manifests his glory. As in the holy city so in the Christian Church, there may be worldlings and aliens who nominally belong to the Church, but really have no right or portion therein. Membership in the Church does not necessarily involve spiritual life in the New Testament any more than it did in the Old Testament dispensation. “The Church is God’s workshop, where his jewels are polishing for his palace and house; and those he especially esteems, and means to make most resplendent, he hath oftenest his tools upon.”—Leighton. “Hypocrites are not real members, but excrescences of the Church, like falling hair or the parings of the nails are of the body.”—Salter.
3. The Church triumphant. The Church militant and the Church triumphant really one; like a city built on both sides of a river. There is but a stream of death between grace and glory. Heaven is the final home of God’s chosen people. There he has recorded his name, and there doth he dwell in unclouded light. Often called the New Jerusalem.
II. A chosen people. “These are thy servants and thy people.” His by separation from the surrounding heathen, by redemption from Egypt, by special and unnumbered favours. From these words we may gather who are God’s elect.
1. God’s elect are they who recognize him as Lord. “Thy servants.” Entering his service they obey his behests, and in all things submit to his will. As servants who are diligent and dutiful have a right to the care and protection of their masters, so Jehovah’s servants may reckon upon his providence and grace. Let the obedience and joyfulness of our lives proclaim the character of the God we serve, else the world may say of us, as Aigoland, king of Saragossa, said of certain lazars and poor people, whom he saw at the table of Charlemagne when he came to be baptized, “that he would not serve a God who did no more for his servants than had been done for those poor wretches.”
2. God’s elect are they who recognize him as their king. “And thy people.” As such they render him regal homage, and honour all his laws, because they love his person. And as earthly subjects look up to their monarch and his government for protection and relief, so do the subjects of the King of kings look up to him for assistance and deliverance in their extremity.
3. God’s elect recognize him as their great Redeemer. “Whom thou hast redeemed,” &c. Israel only thus redeemed, none others could claim this mark of electing grace. If not redeemed, then non-elect. Same mark of Divine election still holds good. Whatever men may imagine, only those are elect who show by their life that they have come out of spiritual bondage. Note concerning this redemption,
(1) That it was a Divine work. “Thou hast redeemed.” An act worthy of God: impossible to any one but God: reflecting highest glory on the character of God. Nothing less than Divine power, joined with infinite love and unerring wisdom, could have accomplished the world’s redemption through the atonement of Christ.
(2) That it was a work of surpassing difficulty. “By thy great power and by thy strong hand.” The redemption from Egypt was difficult because of the waywardness of the Israelites, and the opposition of Pharaoh. The ransom of the race from the penalty of sin still more difficult, on account of the depravity of fallen humanity, and on account of the claims of God’s inviolable law. The provision and subsequent government of Israel a work of gigantic and humanly insurmountable difficulty. Yet as Jehovah fed and led, and settled his people not only in the wilderness but in Canaan, so will he supply all the need of all his children. “He is able to save them to the uttermost, that come unto God by him” (Hebrews 7:25).
(3) That it was a work accomplished through human agency. Moses was the leader and deliverer of Israel under God’s direction. “Thy strong hand” may refer to his agency, as “thy great power” indicates the source of his strength. The second redemption required a human agent. Christ came as God’s “strong hand” to lift up and lead out of captivity the enslaved human race.
Illustrations:—A senator related to his son the account of the book containing the names of illustrious members of the commonwealth. The son desired to see the outside. It was glorious to look upon. “Oh! let me open it,” said the son. “Nay,” said the father, “ ’tis known only to the Council.” “Then,” said the son, “tell me if my name is there.” “And that,” said the father, “is a secret known only to the Council, and it cannot be divulged.” Then he desired to know for what achievements the names were inscribed in that book. So the father told him; and related to him the achievements and noble deeds by which they had eternized their names. “Such,” said he, “are written, and only such are written in this book.” “And will my name he there,” asked the son. “I cannot tell thee,” said the father; “if thy deeds are like theirs, thou shalt be written in the book; if not, thou shalt not be written.” And then the sonconsulted with himself; and he found that his whole deeds were playing, and singing, and drinking, and amusing himself; and he found that this was not noble, nor temperate, nor valiant. And as he could not read as yet his name he determined to make “his calling and election sure.”
We may adopt Archbishop Leighton’s beautiful illustration of a chain, which he describes as having its first and last link,—election and final salvation,—in heaven, in God’s own hands; the middle one—effectual calling—being let down to the earth into the hearts of his children; and they laying hold of it, have sure hold of the other two, for no power can sever them.
“Though the mariner see not the pole-star, yet the needle of the compass that points to it, tells him which way he sails. Thus, the heart that is touched by the loadstone of Divine love, trembling with godly fear, and looking towards God in fixed believing, points at the love of election, and tells the soul that its course is heavenward, towards the haven of eternal rest. He that loves may be sure that he was loved first; and he that chooses God for his delight and portion, may conclude confidently that God hath chosen him to be one of those that shall enjoy him for ever; for that our love, and electing of him, is but the return and re-percussion of the beams of his love shining upon us.”—Salter.
Suppose a rope cast down into the sea for the relief of a company of poor shipwrecked men ready to perish, and that the people in the ship, or on the shore, should cry out unto them to lay hold on the rope that they may be saved; were it not unreasonable and foolish curiosity for any of those poor distressed creatures, now at the point of death, to dispute whether the man who cast the rope did intend and purpose to save them or not, and so minding that which helpeth not, neglect the means of safety offered? Thus it is that Christ holdeth forth, as it were, a rope of mercy to poor drowned and lost sinners. It is our duty then, without any further dispute, to look upon it as a principle afterwards to be made good, that Christ hath gracious thoughts towards us: but for the present to lay hold on the rope.—Rutherford.
Nehemiah 1:11. Thy servants, who desire to fear thy name
I. It counts it an honour to serve God in any capacity. “Thy servants.”
1. It regards God as Master as well as Father. Dutiful obedience to explicit commands, required no less than filial to devotion. It surrenders not only affection, but will.
2. It regards the meanest task in God’s service as an unspeakable honour. The lowest office in the court of an earthly monarch is a post of honour; how much more so the lowest footstool in the house of the King eternal. The service not a task, because offspring of love. (α)
II. It makes very humble professions before God. “Who desire to fear thy name.”
1. It dares not mention faultless conduct. With Abraham it says, “I, that am but dust and ashes, have taken upon me to speak unto the living God” (Genesis 18:27); with Jacob, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies” (Genesis 32:10); with Asaph, “So foolish was I, and ignorant, I was as a beast before thee” (Psalms 73:22); and with Paul, “I am less than the least of all saints” (Ephesians 3:8). The Pharisee appealed to his virtuous conduct, and was rejected; the publican, to his unworthiness, and was accepted. This, a sphere of action and of trial, rather than of rapture and triumph. “Blessed is the man that feareth always.”
2. It makes profession only of good intentions. “Who desire to fear thy name.” Even Nehemiah can boast of nothing higher. The whole life of a Christian is nothing else but sanctum desiderium, a holy desire; seeking that perfection which cannot be fully attained on earth (Philippians 3:12).
3. It does not remain satisfied with good desires. Many there are who cannot speak with assurance of any higher experience than the presence of holy purposes and intentions. They cannot yet say they do fear, or love him, but that they desire to do so. Encouraging promise for all such:—“Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteous ness,” &c. (Matthew 5:0). These desires are proofs of something good, and pledges of something better. They are evidences of grace, and forerunners of glory. They are the pulse of the soul, indicating the state of spiritual health. But these desires must be active ones, issuing in realized power and purity, and Christlike gentleness. Desires which issue in no effort to attain them are like the vain prayer of Balaam, who could say, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his” (Numbers 23:10); but who had no concern to live their life. Herod wished to see our Saviour work a miracle, but would not take a journey for the purpose. Pilate asked, “What is truth?” and would not wait for an answer. Desires are nothing without endeavours. (β)—Jay.
III. It cherishes a reverent fear of God. “Who desire to fear thy name.”
1. Not fear of punishment. Such fear cast out by love. All fear that hath torment eradicated in the believer by the “expulsive power of a new affection.” (γ)
2. The filial fear of grieving an infinitely tender Father. “God has three sorts of servants in the world; some are slaves, and serve him from a principle of fear; others are hirelings, and serve him for the sake of wages; and the last are sons, and serve him under the influence of love.”—Seeker.
Illustrations: (α) When Calvin was banished from ungrateful Geneva, he said, “Most assuredly if I had merely served man, this would have been a poor recompense; but it is my happiness that I have served Him who never fails to reward his servants to the full extent of his promise.”
(β) Sir Joshua Reynolds, like many other distinguished persons, was never satisfied with his own efforts, however well they might satisfy others.” When M. Mosnier, a French painter, was one day praising to him the excellence of one of his pictures, he replied, “Alas, Sir! I can only make sketches, sketches.”
Virgil, who was called the prince of the Latin poets, was naturally modest, and of a timorous nature. When people crowded to gaze upon him, or pointed at him with the finger in raptures, the poet blushed, and stole away from them, and often hid himself in shops to escape the curiosity and admiration of the public. The Christian is called upon to “let his light shine before men:” but then it must be with all meekness, simplicity, and modesty.
(γ) Pagan nations have always stood in awe of deities, whose wrath they have deprecated, and whose love they have never hoped for. Their worship is one of slavish joy-killing dread. In the East India Museum, in London, there is an elaborately carved ivory idol from India, with twelve hands, and in every hand a different instrument of cruelty. On the door of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, in Friburg, Switzerland, is a notice requesting the prayers of the charitable, for the souls of the departed, who are represented as being surrounded by purgatorial flames. Underneath is a contribution-box with this inscription, “Oh! rescue us; you at least who are our friends.”
Nehemiah 1:11. Prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, &c.
Here is help urgently needed, earnestly solicited, yet unaccountably delayed. The prayer does not seem to have been answered until four months later, though offered continually. Prayer may remain unanswered—
I. Through some defect in the spirit of the suppliant.
1. Want of submission. The Lord’s prayer is the model for all prayer. There we find three conditions preceding the only petition for temporal good, viz. “Hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done,” &c. These implicitly precede all true prayer. Unsubmissive prayers sometimes answered to teach men their folly in choosing their own way in preference to God’s. Payson was asked, when under great bodily affliction, if he could see any particular reason for this dispensation. “No,” he replied, “but I am as well satisfied as if I could see ten thousand; God’s will is the very perfection of all reason.” It is said that Dove, the Leeds murderer, was preserved from what appeared to be the certain fatal termination of an illness, by the passionately unsubmissive prayers of his mother, who lived to see her son led to the gallows.
2. Weakness of faith. “He that cometh unto God must believe,” &c. “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). This truth illustrated by most of Christ’s miracles.
3. Self-seeking motives. God regards the spirit, and will grant nothing to gratify unhallowed and selfish ambition. We ask amiss if we seek for good that we may consume it on our lusts (James 4:3). Thus did Simon Magus desire the gift of the Holy Ghost for the sake of personal gain and fame, but was detected and punished (Acts 8:9-13). (α)
4. An unforgiving spirit. “Let us lift up holy hands, without wrath,” &c. (1 Timothy 2:8). An uncharitable spirit condemns itself whenever it repeats the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.” “If we regard iniquity in our heart God will not hear us” (Psalms 66:18). The importance of a forgiving spirit in approaching the throne of mercy is fully and clearly expressed in the opening sentences of the Communion Service. “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, draw near,” &c.
5. A superficial sense of want. God only promises to satisfy real, not fancied wants. Until we come to feel the pain of want, not able fully to value heavenly gifts. God bestows few blessings where not wanted, or not valued.
II. Through some defect in the nature of the petition.
1. It may be unsuitable. This, not cause of delay in Nehemiah’s case. The king’s favour was necessary to the success of his enterprise. Good men err in judgment. God may answer prayer, but not as we expected. The means desired may not be the most suitable for the attainment of the end contemplated.
2. It may be harmful. Child may ask for a razor to play with. Father refuses because life would be endangered. Our Father loves his children too well to grant them what he knows would ruin both body and soul.
3. It may be impracticable. Whilst true that nothing is impossible with God, also true that he has chosen to govern the moral and material universe by certain fixed laws, some of which he never interferes with, and others only for very momentous reasons. Our prayers may require the over-riding of these laws on insufficient grounds; hence their failure. This he will make known to the sincere suppliant by the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Ghost.
III. Through immaturity in the conditions required to give full value to the blessing sought. This probably the cause of the delay in Nehemiah’s case. He was a good and upright man, and his petition was unimpeachable, for it was eventually granted. Circumstances were not ripe. Answers are sometimes delayed:
1. Because God’s agents are not yet in full sympathy with the work. King not yet in favourable mind, people not yet driven to extremity. All God’s agents are to be educated in his school for his work. When their training complete he brings them forth and uses them, not before. Thus Moses, David, Paul, &c. were educated.
2. Circumstances are not yet congenial. Every great enterprise needs favourable surroundings for its inception, as much as the seed requires good soil. Bury the acorn in the sand, and it remains barren. Cast the corn-seed into the ocean, and it produces no harvest Even so, the most laudable enterprise, the most desirable reformation, planted in the midst of unfriendly circumstances will come to nought. Germany was ready for Luther, England for Wesley, Scotland for Moody, hence their success where others failed.
3. Because the time was not opportune. The hour had not yet come. God’s times are in his own hands. Of the times and seasons knoweth no man. Having done all, it is our duty to wait the moving of the pillar. At the right moment God will manifest himself, and appear on behalf of his people.
Illustration:—(α) It is recorded of an architect of the name of Cnidus, that having built a watch-tower for the king of Egypt, to warn mariners from certain dangerous rocks, he caused his own name to be engraved in large letters on a stone in the wall, and then having covered it with plaster, he inscribed on the outside, in golden letters, the name of the king of Egypt, as though the thing were done for his glory. He was cunning enough to know that the waves would ere long wear away the coat of plastering, and that then his own name would appear, and his memory be handed down to successive generations. How many are there who, whilst affecting to seek only the glory of God and His Church, are really seeking whatever is calculated to gratify self-love. Could the outer coat of their pretences be removed, we should see them as they really are, desirous not of God’s glory, but of their own.—Trench.
MAN’S EQUALITY BEFORE GOD
Nehemiah 1:11. In the sight of this man
The familiar way in which Nehemiah speaks of the king before God suggests—
I. That the greatest earthly potentates are themselves subjects of a higher King. They equally under his laws and subject to his will. (α) They and their meanest subjects on a perfect level in the heavenly court. God no respecter of persons. This thought should enable us to conquer the fear of man. This thought should make us satisfied with our lot Their Master and Judge and ours the same. (β)
II. That the most powerful monarchs are but men. “This man.”
1. Fallen men. “All we like sheep,” &c. “There is no difference,” &c. “None righteous, no not one” (Psalms 14:2; Romans 3:9; Isaiah 53:6; Psalms 143:2. All needing the same mercy; all requiring to seek it in the same way (humbly), and on the same terms (repentance and faith). “All stand before judgment-seat of Christ” (Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10).
2. Suffering men. Liable to same pains, infirmities, bereavements, accidents, &c. One touch of nature makes all the world akin. One pang of suffering too.
3. Dying men. All amenable to king of terrors. He enters the palace as well as poor-house. Queen Elizabeth begged for another hour to live, but death was inexorable. It lays the monarch low with the same stroke that smites his meanest subject. Honours thus fleeting not to be compared with the everlasting joys which are at God’s right hand.
III. That God is no respecter of human distinctions.
1. Not that he disapproves of the ordinary distinctions of social position. This inevitable. If all men made equal to-day, some would have risen and others have fallen by to-morrow. Masters and servants, monarchs and subjects, teachers and taught, there must of necessity be as long as human society exists. The ideas of the socialist contrary alike to Divine law and practical utility. Only before God are men in any sense equal.
2. But that he regards character as everything; the accidentals of social position as nothing. What a man is, not what he has, commends him to God. (γ)
IV. That the best means of influencing earthly monarchs is to secure the aid of Jehovah. So did Nehemiah. The propriety of this act seen in his management of the undertaking. Intercourse with God will best prepare for dealings with men. When we thus address ourselves to God, difficulties vanish. “His kingdom ruleth over all.” Every event under his direction; every character under his control. When Herod imprisoned Peter, the Church assembled together, not to draw up a petition and address it to the king; but to seek God’s interposition. They applied, not to the servant, but the master; to one who had Herod completely under check: “Prayer was made, without ceasing, of the Church unto God for him.” What was the consequence? “When Herod would have brought him forth,” &c. (Acts 12:6). Solomon says, “The king’s heart is in the hands of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). Eastern monarchs were absolute; yet God had them more under his command than the husbandman has a direction of the water in a meadow. There is a two-fold dominion which God exercises over the mind of man.
1. By the agency of his grace, as in the case of Saul of Tarsus. From a furious persecutor, he becomes at once an apostle.
2. By the agency of his providence. History is full of this.—Jay.
Illustrations:—(α) What are they when they stand upon the highest pinnacles of worldly dignities, but bladders swelled up with the breath of popularity? nothings set astrut; chessmen, that on the board play the kings and nobles, but in the bag are of the same material, and rank with others.—Bp. Hopkins.
(β) King Canute was one day flattered by his courtiers on account of his power. Then he ordered his throne to be placed by the sea-side. The tide was rolling in, and threatened to drown him. He commanded the waves to stop. Of course they did not. Then he said to his flatterers, “Behold how small is the might of kings.”
(γ) With God there is no freeman but his servant, though in the galleys; no slave but the sinner, though in a palace; none noble but the virtuous, if never so basely descended; none rich but he that possesseth God, even in rags; none wise but he that is a fool to the world and himself; none happy but he whom the world pities. Let me be free, noble, rich, wise, happy to God.—Bp. Hall.
ADDENDA TO CHAPTER 1
Nehemiah 1:3. SIN RUINS A KINGDOM
I. If there be a moral governor of the universe, sin must provoke him. A righteous God must love righteousness; a holy God, holiness; a God of order, order; a God of benevolence, benevolence; and accordingly he must” abhor all that is opposite to these. Hence, it is said, that “God is angry with the wicked every day; the wicked shall not stand in his sight; he hateth all workers of iniquity.” And this is essential to every lovely and reverential view we can take of God. For who could adore a being who professed to govern the world, and suffered the wicked to go on with impunity.
II. If sin provoke God, he is able to punish it. He is “the Lord of Hosts, the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.” All the elements are his. Every creature obeys his nod, from an archangel to a worm. How idle therefore to talk of armies, navies, and alliances, and say after comparing force with force, “Oh! the enemy cannot come!” He cannot come unless God send him; but he can come easily enough if he should. Is anything too hard for the Lord, when he would either show mercy or execute wrath.
III. Bodies of men are punishable in this world only. In eternity there are no families, churches, nations. If therefore a country is to be destroyed, it is tried, condemned, and executed here. When we see an individual sinner prospering in the world, and not immediately punished, our faith is not staggered; for we know that “his day is coming.” But if a wicked people were allowed to escape, we should be confounded, we should ask, “Where is the God of Judgment?” For in this case they are not punished now; and they cannot be punished hereafter.
IV. There is a tendency in the very nature of sin to injure and ruin a country. It violates all the duties of relative life. It destroys subordination. It relaxes the ties which bind mankind together, and makes them selfish and mean. It renders men enemies to each other. Social welfare cannot survive the death of morals and virtue.
V. God’s dealings with guilty nations are confirmed both by his word and all human history. He has invariably punished them in due time. Witness the state of Nineveh, Babylon, and others. Thus the nation Samuel addressed put his declaration to the trial and found it true. A succession of severe judgments befell them, till at last wrath came upon them to the utter most, and “the Romans came and took away both their place and nation.”
VI. God always gives previous intimation of his coming to judge a nation. So that were men not blind and deaf, they must see and hear his coming. When you see the body wasting away by disease, and every complaint growing more inveterate, you suspect that death will be the consequence; it is already begun. Christ said, “When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is … Ye hypocrites! ye can discern the face of the sky, and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time?”
VII. If God has favoured a nation with the revelation of his will, their sins are aggravated by means of this light. “Where much is given, much will be required.” “He that knew his Lord’s will, and did it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Thus, a heathen country committing the very same sins with a country enlightened with the Gospel, is far less criminal. A country overspread with superstition, where the Bible is scarcely known, would be far less guilty than a country favoured with a purer worship, and where evangelical instruction is open to all.
VIII. When God has distinguished a people by singular instances of his favour, that people will be proportionally criminal, unless they distinguish themselves by their devotedness to him. Thus God from time to time aggravated the sins of the Jews. “He made them ride upon the high places of the earth,” &c. “But Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked,” &c.
IX. When a nation is under the corrections of the Almighty, they are eminently sinful if they disregard the tokens of his wrath. Hence Isaiah says, “In that day did the Lord God of Hosts call to weeping and to mourning, &c., and behold joy and gladness; let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” Jeremiah also says, “Thou hast stricken them, but they have not grieved; thou hast consumed them, but they have refused to receive correction; they have made their faces harder than a rock; they have refused to return.”
X. Shameless sinning is a sure proof of general corruption. And where is there a man who is not more ashamed of a threadbare coat than a dishonest action? To fail in business, and defraud innocent sufferers of their lawful property, is no longer scandalous. Impurity is tolerated. Behold the experiments which fashion has tried upon the reserve, the decency, the purity of woman! Learn—
1. Who is the worst enemy of his country—the sinner.
2. Who is the best friend—the Christian. “By the blessing of the upright the city is exalted: but it is overthrown by the mouth of the wicked.”—Jay, abridged.
Nehemiah 1:7. FORGOTTEN SINS REMEMBERED
I. We are all chargeable with faults. Testimony of Scripture and conscience are both against us. “There is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good and sinneth not.” “They are all gone out of the way: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:12). David feared God, and hated evil, yet needed to pray, “Cleanse thou me from secret faults” (Psalms 19:12). James, though an apostle, affirms, “In many things we offend all.” John was beloved above all the apostles, and bore most of his Master’s image, yet he declares, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” This fact is confirmed by everything we feel within us, and observe without us. What faults? We have forgotten the Son of God, the Lord of life and glory. We are chargeable with ingratitude, not against an earthly benefactor, but a heavenly one. Every forbidden action that we have done, every sinful word that we have spoken, every irregular thought that we have entertained, or unhallowed wish that we have harboured in our breast, accumulates our load of guilt.
II. We are liable to forget our faults. Men have convictions of sin, but they stifle them. Amidst the pleasures or employments of time, they lose even the recollection of their guilt; and go forward in the same course, suspecting no danger, till utter destruction overtakes them.
1. Through ignorance of the true nature of sin. Its malignity is not properly understood. Men think of sin as a light matter: if it inconvenience them, they exclaim against it; if not, they practise it with little compunction or concern. They do not reflect on what sin is in the sight of God, nor think as they ought of its result in a future world; and hence they forget it.
2. Through self-love. Self-love when regulated is laudable and useful; because it leads to the hatred of what is evil, and to the pursuit of what is good. But that love of self which possesses and actuates thousands, is little different from the love of sin; they love indolence, sensual gratification, and ease; they resemble a man with a diseased limb, who chooses death by fatal degrees, rather than amputation.
3. Through hurry of business.
4. Through elevation in worldly circumstances. Great numbers, from the pressing importunity of their secular concerns, from the eager desire of getting forward in the world, forget their souls, forget their sins, forget the Saviour, and abide in the most dangerous state of folly and insensibility.
III. Various circumstances are adapted to remind us of our faults.
1. Providential occurrences. These regard ourselves, the affliction of our persons, or our immediate connections. The case of the widow of Zarephath an illustration. She had one son; the prophet Elijah resided in her house; no affluence was there: but by him, the Lord made her barrel of meal not to waste, and her cruse of oil not to fail. Suddenly her son was taken from her by the stroke of death; hear what she said to the prophet, “Art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?” (1 Kings 17:18). Had her son lived, and Providence continued to smile, probably her convictions would have remained asleep. Other providential occurrences regard the condition of those about us, and thus strike our observation. We witness sometimes the difficulties in which others are involved; we think of what occasioned such difficulties, and are reminded of similar causes in ourselves, which might have produced similar effects. An idle man sees in another the effects of indolence,—that he is reduced to poverty, and clothed in rags; a drunkard observes in another the effects of intemperance,—that his health is impaired his circumstances embarrassed, and his character ruined. These things are adapted to awaken conviction, to bring a man’s own faults to remembrance. Illustration furnished by the account of “the woman taken in adultery” (John 8:7-9); Joseph’s interview with his brethren (Genesis 42:21), and Belshazzar’s feast (Daniel 5:1-7). In each case the men remembered their faults.
2. The ministry of God’s word. This word is profitable not only for “doctrine and instruction,” but also for “correction and reproof.” See this in the case of the Jews who stoned Stephen. “They were cut to the heart” (Acts 7:45). The case of Felix also another illustration in point. Whilst Paul “reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled” (Acts 24:25). When Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, “they were pricked in their hearts, and said unto Peter, and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). David and Nathan (2 Samuel 12:7-12). “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
IV. When we are reminded of our faults we should be ready to confess them. “Confess your faults one to another” (James 5:16). This gives no countenance to the arbitrary practice of popish confessions; for according to this passage the people have as much right to demand confession from the priests, as the priests have from the people. It enjoins candour, and open confession of blame, when professing Christians have offended one another. Confession also must be made to God. “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). This clearly implies that they can have no mercy who do not confess their sins. Let a man proudly persist in maintaining his innocency; let him think highly of what he calls his moral rectitude; let him vainly imagine that his good deeds outweigh his bad ones; or let him sink into a state of obstinate indifference—that man is certainly not in the way of mercy. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:8-9). What sins? Lament before God a hard heart, a proud heart, a corrupt heart. Lament before him a fretful temper, a peevish, a passionate temper. Lament the weakness of your faith, the deadness of your hope, the languor of your love, the coldness of your zeal, the inefficiency of all your desires and resolutions.
V. Confession of faults should always be attended with real amendment. This is an incumbent duty; for what is repentance? It includes a disposition to undo all the evil which we have done. Zaccheus’ repentance was of the right kind, for he offered to make restitution. “Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation I restore him fourfold” (Luke 19:8). Repentance is nothing without reformation; and reformation, in many instances, is a mere name without restitution: “Surely it is meet to be said unto God, I have borne chastisement, I will not offend any more. If I have done iniquity, I will do no more” (Job 34:31-32).—Kidd, abridged.
Nehemiah 1:10. AN ELECT PEOPLE
I. True believers are the objects of a special choice. Note—
1. Its author. “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation.” We cannot, without contradicting Scripture, dispute the fact that God’s people are a chosen people—chosen of God. Do not object to the term; remember where you find it; seek rather to understand the subject, and objections will subside. Whilst God injures none, surely he may confer special benefits on some. Let it be granted that the choice of some implies that others are not chosen; yet who can gainsay the language of St. Paul, “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” &c. (Romans 9:20). “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Doubtless he shall!—of this we may rest assured: “The Lord is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works.”
2. The date of this choice. “From the beginning.” This expression must be explained by similar passages which relate to the same subject. St. Peter says, “Ye are a chosen generation, elect according to the foreknowledge of God” (1 Peter 2:9; 1 Peter 1:2). St. Paul, “whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate.” Foreknowledge leads us back to some period previous to the existence of those persons; and there is no text more explicit than that which occurs in the Epistle to the Ephesians, “According as he hath chosen us in him (Christ), before the foundation of the world.” Now, what was before the foundation of the world must have been in eternity; for we cannot conceive a point of time, before time commenced. Time is a parenthesis in eternity; a limited duration which regards creatures. Here then is taught the freeness of this choice. If it was from the beginning, it was before man had his being: consequently there could be no worthiness in us, or any of our race, influencing the Most High to such a choice.
3. The end of this choice. “To salvation.” The Israelites as a nation were chosen of God, but not all of them to salvation, for many fell; and we are admonished to take heed lest we “fall after the same example of unbelief” (Hebrews 4:11). The twelve were chosen to the office of apostleship, but not all of them to salvation, for Judas was of their number. “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (John 6:70). Do you ask, “What is salvation?” It is heaven. It includes the complete deliverance from all evil, and the full possession of all good; it includes an entire freedom from sin, and the constant enjoyment of purity and peace; it includes an everlasting release from all that is painful and distressing, and the endless fruition of whatever can satisfy and exalt the immortal mind, the eternal fruition of God himself.
II. True believers are persons of a peculiar character. The people of God are “predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son.” They are chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, “that they should be holy and without blame before him in love” (Ephesians 1:4).
1. They are believers of the truth. Chosen to salvation, “through belief of the truth.” Not possible to give a more concise definition of faith than here—“the truth;” hence our Lord said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Believing the truth is receiving it as the record of God, in such a way as to feel affected and influenced by it according to the nature of the things which it regards. Are we believers of the truth? If not, we have no Scriptural evidence of our election of God to salvation.
2. They are partakers of the Spirit. “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ he is none of his” (Romans 8:9). A man is not born again but of the Spirit; and the new birth or regeneration is the commencement of the new life. “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Not without reason are we admonished, “Quench not the Spirit.”
3. They are the subjects of sanctification. The Holy Spirit produces it, and gradually promotes it; they are chosen to salvation “through sanctification of the Spirit.” Sanctification is holiness, and there is no way of attaining holiness but by “the Spirit of Holiness.” Sanctification is the best evidence of faith; it is also the best possible mark of election to salvation. We have proof that we are “of God,” only so far as we are like God. Is he our Father? Where then is resemblance to him? If multitudes of professors examine themselves by this test, it is to be feared they will have little hope left of their interest in everlasting love.—Kidd.
1. It is said of Lord Chief Justice Hale, that he frequently invited his poor neighbours to dinner, and made them sit at table with himself. If any of them were sick, so that they could not come, he would send provisions to them from his own table. He did not confine his bounties to the poor of his own parish, but diffused supplies to the neighbouring parishes as occasion required. He always treated the old, the needy, and the sick with the tenderness and familiarity that became one who considered they were of the same nature with himself, and were reduced to no other necessities but such as he himself might be brought to. Common beggars he considered in another view. If any of these met him in his walks, or came to his door, he would ask such as were capable of working, why they went about so idly. If they answered, it was because they could not get employment, he would send them to some field, to gather all the stones in it, and lay them in a heap, and then paid them liberally for their trouble. This being done, he used to send his carts, and cause the stones to be carried to such places of the highway as needed repair.
2. “I often think,” says Coleridge, “with pleasure, of the active practical benevolence of Salter. His rides were often sixty, averaging more than thirty miles a day, over bad roads, and in dark nights; yet not once was be known to refuse a summons, though quite sure that he would receive no remuneration; nay, not sure that it would not be necessary to supply wine, or cordials, which, in the absence of the landlord of his village, must be at his own expense. This man was generally pitied by the affluent and the idle, on the score of his constant labours, and the drudgery which he almost seemed to court; yet with little reason, for I never knew a man more to be envied, or more cheerful, more invariably kind, or more patient; he was always kind from real kindness and delicacy of feeling, never being even for a moment angry.
Prayer must be submissive.
1. A Christian widow in London saw, with great alarm, her only child taken dangerously ill. As the illness increased she became almost distracted from a dread of losing her child; at length, it became so extremely ill, and so convulsed, that she kneeled down by the bed, deeply affected, and in prayer said, “Now, Lord, thy will be done.” From that hour the child began to recover, till health was perfectly restored.
2. Lord Boling-broke once asked Lady Huntingdon how she reconciled prayer to God for particular blessings, with absolute resignation to the Divine will. “Very easily,” answered her ladyship, “just as if I were to offer a petition to a monarch, of whose kindness and wisdom I had the highest opinion. In such a case my language would be,—I wish you to bestow on me such or such a favour; but your Majesty knows better than I, how far it would be agreeable to you, or right in itself, to grant my desire. I therefore content myself with humbly presenting my petition, and leave the event of it entirely to you.”
3. The late Mr. Kilpin of Exeter writes, “I knew a case in which the minister praying over a child apparently dying, said, “If it be thy will spare—” The poor mother’s soul, yearning for her beloved, exclaimed, “It must be his will, I cannot bear ifs.” The minister stopped. To the surprise of many the child recovered; and the mother, after almost suffering martyrdom by him while a stripling, lived to see him hanged before he was twenty-two! It is good to say, “Not my will, but thine be done.”
1. Two or three years before the death of John Newton, when his sight was so dim that he was no longer able to read, an aged friend and brother in the ministry called on him to breakfast. Family prayer succeeded. It was the good man’s custom to make a few remarks upon the passage read. After the reading of the text, “By the grace of God I am what I am,” he paused for some moments, and then uttered the following affecting soliloquy:—“I am not what I ought to be! Ah, how imperfect and deficient. I am not what I wish to be. I am not what I hope to be. Soon, soon, I shall put off mortality, and with mortality, all sin and imperfection. Yet though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say I am not what I once was, a slave to sin and Satan, and I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’ Let us pray.”
2. “An individual,” says a missionary, “employed in the translation of the Scriptures at a station where I resided, on arriving at the passage, ‘Now are we the sons of God’ (1 John 3:2), came running to me in great haste, exclaiming, No, no, it is too much; allow me to render it, ‘Now are we permitted to kiss his feet.’ A simple and beautiful representation of those feelings with which Christians should ever contemplate the dignity of their character, and the honour conferred upon them.”
3. Dr. Lathrop was a man of generous piety, but much opposed to the noisy zeal that seeketh the praise of men. A young divine, who was much given to enthusiastic cant, one day said to him, “Do you suppose you have any real religion?” “None to speak of,” was the excellent reply.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Nehemiah 1". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Easter