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Nehemiah 2:1. Nisan] Called Abib in Exodus 13:4, first month in Hebrew national year. Corresponds to parts of our March and April.
Nehemiah 2:3. Let the king live for ever] (Heb. hammelek l’olam yihyeh.) (Comp. 1 Kings 1:31; Daniel 2:4; Daniel 6:6-21.) The mere formula of address, like our “God save the Queen.” Even Daniel used it without compunction. The place of my fathers’ sepulchres] The Persians regarded their burial-places as peculiarly sacred.
Nehemiah 2:6. The queen also sitting by him] Some have thought this was Esther, but “Shegal” refers to the principal wife of the king. Damaspia was the name of the chief wife according to Ctesias.
Nehemiah 2:7. The governors] (Heb. pahawoth, modern pacha.) Oriental name for viceroy. Beyond the river] i. e. Euphrates.
Nehemiah 2:8. Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest] may have been a Jew. Name, Hebrew. Word translated “forest” is “pardes,” our “paradise.” It signifies a walled round place, a preserve of trees. Probably a royal park of which Asaph was keeper. The palace which appertained to the house] Probably Solomon’s palace, situated at the south-east corner of the temple-area, was next to the house; i. e., the temple as the house of God (2 Chronicles 23:12-15). The house that I shall enter into] Some think this refers also to the temple, which Nehemiah would enter into to inspect; more probably the house where be would dwell during his stay in Jerusalem.
Nehemiah 2:10. Sanballat the Horonite] (Beth-horon, in full.) Two Horons in Palestine, a few miles north of Jerusalem; also Horonaim in. Moab. Sanballat, probably a native of the last mentioned, was a Moabite; and satrap of Samaria under the Persians. Tobiah, his vizier or chief adviser. Origin of name Sanballat uncertain. Tobiah, the servant, the Ammonite] Tobiah, a Jewish name (Ezra 2:60; Zechariah 6:10). Probably a renegade Jew, who had become a slave, and had risen by his talents and cunning to be Sanballat’s chief officer, hence the epithet, “Tobiah, the slave.”
Nehemiah 2:13. The gate of the valley] (Heb. Sha’or haggai.) Probably overlooking valley of Hinnom, called in Jeremiah 2:23 simply “the valley.” It was about 1200 feet south of the present Jaffa gate. The Septuagint calls it Portam Galilæ; the gate of dead men’s skulls, because that way they went to Golgotha. The dragon well] So called either because some venomous serpent had been found there, or because the waters ran out of the mouth of a brazen serpent. (Heb. Fountain of the sea-monster.) The dung port] (Rather, Rubbish-gate.) The gate near which the refuse of the city was cast, and burned. Directly before that part of Hinnom known as Tophet (Jeremiah 7:31-32; Jeremiah 19:6-14).
Nehemiah 2:14. The gate of the fountain] A gate in front of the pool of Siloam (Nehemiah 3:15). The king’s pool] (Berechath hammelek.) The pool of Siloam, so called because it watered the king’s garden. There was no place for the beast that was under me to pass] The ruin was great, and the rubbish so accumulated, that Nehemiah could not pursue his course along the wall any further, but was obliged to go down into the valley of the brook Kidron (Nachal, the brook.)
Nehemiah 2:15. And viewed the wall] That which was left of it.
Nehemiah 2:16. The rulers] A Persian word (Seganim) signifying the executive officers of the colony. Nor to the nobles] (Heb. white ones.) Among the Jews great men robed in white, as among the Romans in scarlet or purple. Herod and Christ (Luke 23:11; Matthew 27:28).
Nehemiah 2:19. Geshem the Arabian] Lieutenant of Arabia under the king of Persia, or chief of those Arabs whom Sargon had settled in Samaria (Rawlinson’s Anc. Mon., vol. ii. p. 146).
HOMILETIC CONTENTS OF CHAPTER 2
Nehemiah 2:1-8. Divine Interposition.
Nehemiah 2:1-8. Disinterested Love for a suffering Church.
Nehemiah 2:1-2. Subject and Sovereign.
Nehemiah 2:4. Spiritual Recollectedness.
Nehemiah 2:5. Ejaculatory Prayer.
Nehemiah 2:7-8. Religious Prudence.
Nehemiah 2:8. The Hand of God.
Nehemiah 2:9-20. The Incipient Stages of a great Reformation.
Nehemiah 2:9. Secular Aid for Spiritual Work.
Nehemiah 2:10. First Hindrance.—Secret Jealousy.
Nehemiah 2:11. Preparatory Retirement.
Nehemiah 2:12-16. The Walls inspected.
Nehemiah 2:12. A Time for Silence.
Nehemiah 2:17-18. An Appeal for Help.
Nehemiah 2:18. The Strength of Unity.
Nehemiah 2:19. Second Hindrance.—Open Derision.
Nehemiah 2:20. Confidence in God, an Incentive to Work.
Nehemiah 2:20. The miserable condition of the Church’s enemies.
Nehemiah 2:1-8. And it came to pass in the month Nisan, &c.
THE first chapter occupied with account of state of Jerusalem and Nehemiah’s grief and prayer. This opens with the relation of those circumstances which led to the fulfilment of his desires, and the accomplishment of his purposes. We learn from text—
I. That God’s interposition was opportune. “It came to pass in the month Nisan” (Nehemiah 2:1). The best month, because the one chosen by God. Chosen by God because the best. Note—
1. That God’s plans are worked out with the utmost precision. Trace this in Bible. Often find expressions such as—“In due time,” “Fulness of time,” “Appointed time,” “Mine hour is not yet come,” “A set time,” &c. God’s timepiece never gains or loses. All his plans carried out with unfailing accuracy. He is neither slack, “as some men count slackness,” in fulfilling his threats or his promises. Many details, apparently insignificant, combine to work out the most magnificent plans. A loop is a small thing, yet most gorgeous tapestry woven in single loops. A link a small thing, yet chain depends on support of every link. Trifles are links in the chain of God’s providential government, or rather there are no trifles. Illustrate by complex machinery of Lancashire cotton, or Coventry silk, or Kidderminster carpet machinery, which whilst wonderfully intricate, works out the appointed pattern with utmost precision and accuracy. Yet all human exactness fails in comparison with God’s perfect accuracy.
2. That God often interferes on his people’s behalf when they least expect it. Through not discerning God’s methods of working, they get discouraged, and think themselves overlooked. Whilst we look for him to appear in one way he comes in another, and whilst we mournfully strain our eyes down one path, lo, he comes by another. Our most unlikely times are God’s most favourable ones.
3. That God generally interferes on his people’s behalf in their most urgent extremity. It was so here. Nehemiah so distressed that his countenance was sad for first time. The case of the Jews was becoming desperate. God interferes in their extremity as he had done on the shores of the Red Sea—
(1) To try their faith,
(2) To elicit their gratitude,
(3) To impress upon them their dependence upon him. The text suggests—
II. That God’s interposition required human co-operation. God’s agents are of two kinds, willing and unwilling, allied and non-allied. Both of these found in this history.
1. Allied. As Esther came to the kingdom, so Nehemiah to his office, for such a time as this (Esther 4:14). Though he was a prisoner, a stranger, of an alien religion, yet is he God’s agent as well as the king’s servant. Note concerning him,—
(1) That he was duly qualified for his appointed work. Mentally be possessed forethought (Nehemiah 2:5), tact (Nehemiah 5:5), and ingenuity (ch. 3). His address to Artaxerxes a marvel of clever pleading. Words carefully chosen, respect humbly paid to rank, superstitious reverence for burial-grounds introduced. No argument more powerful with an Eastern monarch. Spiritually, he was richly endowed with every grace required in so difficult a work. Courage, sympathy, generosity, and profound piety all combined to make him an eminently spiritual man. Such agents God chooses for important enterprises, utilizing great endowments for arduous tasks. Note,
(2) That he was favourably situated. When God has work for his servants to do, he by his providence places them where they can do it. Nehemiah evidently a favourite with Artaxerxes, from fact of his having chosen him to this important office, over the heads of the Persian nobles. Had he been otherwise situated, or appointed to any other office, he would not so readily have found access to the king’s ear. God appoints our lot and circumstances, and requires us to make the best of them, and not seek to leave them, with the idea that we can best serve him elsewhere. Note,
(3) That he was rightly actuated. No personal ambition inspired his petition, but pure, unalloyed, unselfish desire for the prosperity of God’s Church, and the holy City. No desire for gain, for he used his fortune in feeding the poor, and entertaining the returning exiles in his own house at Jerusalem. They who are engaged in God’s work must lay aside all thoughts of worldly gain or personal honour. Reward there is, but not usually of a worldly sort.
2. Un-allied. God employs unconscious agents as well as willing ones. “As he put small thoughts into the heart of Ahasuerus for great purposes” (Esther 6:1), so here he caused a heathen prince to favour a hostile religion, and to defend a people whom his subjects hated. God even employs his enemies (though not in the same sense in which he employs his friends), to carry out his purposes. Pharaoh, Philistines, Chaldeans, Romans, &c.
III. That God’s interposition was accompanied by providential coincidences. All these known to Divine omniscience and taken into account.
1. Nehemiah was unusually sad. “I had not been beforetime sad in his presence.” No mourner might be seen in Ahasuerus’ court (Esther 4:4). Momus wished that men had windows in their breasts, that their thoughts might be seen. This not necessary, for “a merry heart maketh a glad countenance; but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken” (Proverbs 15:13). Nehemiah had been afflicting his soul for four months. No wonder he betrayed it in his countenance. The Hebrews say that a man’s inside is turned out, and discovered in oculis, in loculis, in poculis, in his eyes, purse, and cup.
2. The king was unusually friendly. Most Eastern monarchs would have condemned him at once either to banishment or death. Artaxerxes might have done so at another time. Sad looks were, in their eyes, bad looks, and savoured of assassination: but love thinketh no evil, and the king had confidence in his servant.
3. The queen also was present. Not Esther, the queen-mother, for Hebrew word signifies wife. “Because ‘the queen sat by,’ it is probable that there was some solemn feast that day; for the queens of Persia used not to come into the king’s presence, but when they were called by name, as it is written in the book of Esther.” This might be the cause of Nehemiah’s great fear: but would also be in his favour. The presence of a woman, even without her personal intercession, would temper any harshness the king might feel, and thus aid the suppliant’s suit.
DISINTERESTED LOVE FOR A SUFFERING CHURCH
Nehemiah 2:1-8. And it came to pass, &c.
I. Its sorrow. “Why is thy countenance sad?” &c. (Nehemiah 2:2).
1. In spite of personal prosperity. This often hardens heart and deadens sympathies. So long as their own homes are flourishing many care little how God’s house fares. This cannot satisfy a truly good man who has the welfare of God’s cause at heart. No measure of personal prosperity will compensate for spiritual dearth and deadness in the Church. 2. In the very midst of social festivities. The revelry of the banquet could not repress the wretchedness of his heart, for whilst he was in the midst of rejoicing and mirth his spirit was not there. The inward grief was stronger than outward surroundings, and broke through all restraint. The wound of a broken heart cannot be healed by any outward gaiety of circumstance.
II. Its confession. “Why should not my countenance be sad?” (Nehemiah 2:3).
1. It is not ashamed of the people of God. “The city the place of my father’s sepulchres.” Surrounded by Persian nobles not an easy matter to thus avow friendship for an alien and oppressed people. Many temptations to expedient silence would have to be overcome. Much was risked by this avowal. Much probably to be gained by ignoring them. True piety is courageous. It says, “Thy people shall be my people” (Ruth 1:0), for richer for poorer, for better for worse, at all hazards and in all times. “A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). “There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).
2. Not ashamed of poor relations. When men rise from a low estate into high circles they readily forget those who once were equals, unwilling to betray their humble origin. Such pride always despicable as useless. No disgrace to have poor relations. The disgrace is in disowning them. Nehemiah not guilty of such folly or cowardice. He not only acknowledges, but pleads for them.
3. Not afraid of personal danger. Royal displeasure no trifle under the sway of Oriental despots. Witness recent events in Turkey. Thrones overturned by plots and intrigues continually. The nearer the throne, the more likely to incur suspicion. Artaxerxes had come to the kingdom through intrigue and bloodshed. Would be naturally vigilant and wary on this account. Hence the danger incurred by one even so favoured as Nehemiah, when he dared to avow sympathy with a captive and recently conquered people inhabiting a neighbouring province. Fervent love always self-forgetful. It confers not with flesh and blood, but willingly incurs danger for sake of its object This, type of Christ’s love for his Church.
III. Its petition. “And I said unto the king,” &c. (Nehemiah 2:5).
1. It seeks help from God. “I prayed unto the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 2:5). This, first step. God has more interest in his Church than any other, and can do more. If his aid be secured, it matters little who else fails. If his denied, none can do much. 2. It craves human assistance. “If it please the king, let letters be given me,” &c. (Nehemiah 2:7). Recognizes the principle that God always works by human agency, and helps man by man, to teach him lessons of mutual sympathy and mutual dependence.
3. It asks permission to give its own aid, and that with self-denial. Nehemiah not one who would only work at others’ expense. No bargain for costs or travelling expenses. He asks that he may be permitted to engage in an enterprise that will considerably diminish his private resources, and involve constant and heavy personal sacrifices. If we desire success in great reformations we must be prepared to make great sacrifices. Our gifts joined with God’s, will accomplish almost anything. We have no right to expect God to render his assistance where we withhold our own.
IV. Its joy. “So it pleased the king to send me” (Nehemiah 2:6).
1. Its prayer is granted. Both Jehovah and Artaxerxes looked favourably upon his request. When prayer is thus graciously answered, men should rejoice and speak good of the name of the Lord. Thus did the royal Psalmist often extol Jehovah’s name.
2. Its way is providentially opened. And this more prosperously than he could have anticipated. Not only permission granted to leave Persia for a time, but also to take with him an escort; and full authority to build, and command supplies, when he arrived at Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:7-8). Thus does God cause our cup to overflow with mercy, giving us far more than we deserve, and more than we either asked or had reason to expect. Not only out of, but according to, his riches in glory, does he supply his children’s wants. A millionnaire might give a penny out of his abundance; but not if he gave according to (in proportion to) his riches. Then must he give what would be a fortune to a poor man. Even so, God gives not grudgingly, or stintedly, but royally. “It was but ask, and have; and so it is betwixt God and his people. When there was a discussion amongst some holy men as to which was the most profitable trade, one answered, beggary; it is the hardest, and the richest trade. Common beggary is the commonest and easiest, but he meant prayer. A courtier gets more by one suit often than a tradesman or merchant haply with twenty years’ labour; so doth a faithful prayer.”—Trapp.
SUBJECT AND SOVEREIGN
Nehemiah 2:1-2. And I took up wine, and gave it to the king, &c.
I. He did not allow his duty to God to clash with his duty to his sovereign. His religion not diminish his civility. “If it please the king.” “Fear God, and honour the king,” both enjoined in apostolic precept. He had been taken from his native land and placed under another king, whom it was his duty to serve and obey, in all quietness and meekness, until God ordered his lot otherwise. So lived Pharaoh, Daniel, Mardocheus, Ezra, and others. Jeremiah and Baruch taught the Jews thus to pray for those under whose sway they were living as captives, “Pray for the life of Nebuchadnezzar, and Belshazzar his son; seek the peace of that country whither ye be carried away captives” (Jeremiah 29:0; Baruch 1). St. Peter taught the Christians that servants should not forsake their masters, though they did not believe (1 Peter 2:0). Both St. Peter and St. Paul command the faithful wife to abide by her unfaithful husband (1 Corinthians 7:0; 1 Peter 3:0; 1 Peter 3:0). The Scriptures enjoin faithfulness, duty, and obedience toward all men, so far as we offend not God thereby. Duty to God and duty to man two aspects of same life. One requires the other. Each incomplete, being alone. The more efficiently we discharge one, the more perfectly do the other. Neither may be made a substitute for the other. “This ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”
II. He did not allow spiritual exercises to interfere with the discharge of secular duties. He prayed incessantly, yet failed not in discharge of duties as cupbearer. The believer should be “diligent in business,” as well as “fervent in spirit,” lest he bring reproach upon religion. Spiritual activity no excuse for neglecting secular duty. To be slothful in business will quench devotion as fatally as to pursue business with inordinate affection. The hardiest devotion healthiest. The devotion of the cloister, for the most part, like the ghastly light that hovers over decomposition and decay; the devotion which characterizes the diligent, spiritually-minded man of business, resembles the star which shines on in the storm as in the calm, when the sky is clouded as when it is serene.
III. He regarded the path of duty as the path of providential blessing. Not forsaking the common duties of his daily calling, he waited for the opening of his providential path. The faithful discharge of duty itself a blessing. This, the channel through which special grace most likely to flow. Men need not leave the world to find the secret of holiness; or their ordinary sphere of work to find the secret of blessing. The patient, conscientious discharge of life’s ordinary tasks, always the safest path to pursue. (α)
IV. He found the favour of his sovereign of great service in carrying out the work of God. His civility and humble demeanour had won the confidence and esteem of his royal master. This friendship now stood him in good stead. Yet he presumes not upon this regard, but approaches the throne tremblingly, as a subject should, even the most favoured. Monarchs like not presumption even in their courtiers. Diogenes says, “A man should use his prince or peer, as he would do the fire. The fire if he stand too near it will burn him; and if he be too far off he will be cold. So to be over-bold, without blushing or reverence, bringeth into discredit of both sides; for the king will think him too saucy, and the subject will forget his duty.” Courteous and kindly behaviour has nothing to lose, and much to gain. Civility costs little, and is often worth much.
Illustration:—(α) Mr. Carter, a pious minister, once coming softly behind a religious man of his own acquaintance, who was busily engaged in tanning a hide, and giving him a tap on the shoulder, the man started, looked up, and with a blushing countenance said, “Sir, I am ashamed that you should find me thus.” To whom Mr. Carter replied, “Let Christ, when he cometh, find me so doing.” “What!” said the man, “doing thus?” “Yes,” said Mr. Carter, “faithfully performing the duties of my calling.”
Nehemiah 2:4. So I prayed to the God of heaven
This, a remarkable illustration of religious presence of mind.
I. The outcome of a consecrated life. Unless he had been in the habit of making everything a matter of prayer, would not have been able thus to collect himself whilst trembling with excitement, fear, and suspense before the king. Having formed the habit of doing nothing without consulting God, had no difficulty in acting upon it. Agitated and affrighted, it would have been perfectly natural for him to have stammered forth his appeal in some incoherent manner. But here the irrepressible spirit of devotion, which permeated his whole life, revealed itself. If a man never prays anywhere save at stated times, and on public occasions, there is reason to fear that he never prays at all. If a man lives in the spirit of prayer, sudden emergency will spontaneously summon the familiar habit to his aid. Special prayer should be the outcome of constant prayerfulness. The way to have the heart in harmony with the worship of the sanctuary, is never to suffer its chords to be jarred. It was said of a distinguished Christian that he lived on the steps of the mercy-seat. It was said of a recent Bishop, who was sent to Western Africa, that “he lived upon his knees.” This is to live safely. This is to live in the porch of heaven. Hence it was said of a dying saint, “I am changing my place, but not my company.” Like Enoch, he had walked with God, and death was to him only like passing out of the vestibule into the inner sanctuary.
II. The result of long habit. Holy recollectedness not come naturally, nor easily, even to good men. Repeated action becomes habit. Practice makes perfect in this, as in other things.
III. A mark of self-distrusting humility. He dared not ask, without seeking wisdom higher than his own, in matter of such momentous issues. Self-diffidence impelled him to cast the burden of his responsibility upon one who was an unerring counsellor. “Travellers make mention of a bird so timid in disposition, and so liable to the assaults of unnumbered enemies, that she almost lives in the sky, scarcely ever venturing to rest her wings; and even when forced through very weariness to repose, she seeks the loftiest rock, and there still keeps her eyes only half shut, and her pinions only half folded, in readiness, on the first sign of danger, to spread her wings, and soar away to the heavens for safety.” True emblem of how the child of God should “pass the time of his sojourning here in fear.” Seldom should the wing of his devotion droop, or the eye of his watchfulness close; and even when he must repose it should ever be in an attitude of vigilance and prayerfulness.”—Stowell.
IV. A source of incalculable blessing.
1. It imparts confidence. “He that believeth shall not make haste” (Isaiah 28:16). He shall not be afraid of evil tidings, whose heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed upon thee,” &c. The calmness which comes from reliance upon a wisdom that is superhuman; the consciousness of Divine support.
2. It preserves from missing the providential path. The God of providence will direct those who cast themselves upon his care. Such “shall not full direction need; nor miss their providential way.”
3. It conduces to the accomplishment of God’s will. When everything is submitted to that will, and the stumbling-blocks of self-will, pride, ambition, &c. are removed, nothing can hinder the fulfilment of the purposes of Jehovah.
Nehemiah 2:4. So I prayed to the God of heaven
I. It was suddenly required. A question addressed to Nehemiah by the king, point-blank, upon which hung, possibly, not only issues of life and death, but the success or failure of his long-prayed-for object. Great emergency. Great benefit to be able to seek aid of Omnipotence. Long formula impossible. No audible petition could be offered. Quick as thought the silent prayer of the heart flew to the ear of God, and not in vain. “He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him” (Psalms 145:19). “The devout spirit, like the well-strung Eolian harp, not only gives out sweet sounds when woke by the gentler breathings that steal over its chords, but when vibrating under the ruder blasts that sweep across its strings.” “On many occasions the servant of God requires special assistance, care, and counsel. Men of business are frequently called upon to decide summarily on questions big with importance, to make up their judgment at once on measures the issues of which they can neither over-estimate nor foresee. How commonly is the physician forced to form his conclusions in a moment; yea, to form them on uncertain grounds, and indeterminate symptoms. Yet a mistaken conclusion may endanger the life of his patient. Now if in such circumstances the medical man, or the merchant, rely simply on his own skill, and confer simply with his own judgment, to the neglect of calling in the wisdom and blessing of the Almighty, what a fearful risk and burden does he bring upon himself! But let his heart breathe forth the aspiration to God—‘Lord, direct me.’ Will he not then, having cast his burden on the Lord, having invoked unerring skill, be able to act with faith, and nerve, and calmness? Call ye this fanaticism? The grossest fanaticism is that which leaves out God.”—Stowell. (α)
II. It was silently offered. No opportunity for audible vocal prayer. This, good when alone, or in public assembly for worship, but not possible now. A sudden and secret desire darted up to heaven. Thus Moses cried unto God, yet said nothing (Exodus 14:15). Hannah was not heard, yet she prayed (1 Samuel 1:0). Austin reports it to be the custom of the Egyptian Churches to pray frequently and fervently, but briefly and by ejaculation, lest their fervour should abate. It is the praying and crying of the heart that God delights in. Let no man then excuse himself and say he cannot pray; for in all places he may lift up his heart to God, though in the market, or on the mountain. (β)
III. It was suitably addressed. “To the God of heaven.” Ezra had previously used this expression. (See explanatory notes). It recognized the supremacy of Jehovah, and his power over human hearts and events. Thus calculated to impart confidence, and destroy the fear of man. The expression is similar in meaning to “Lord of Sabaoth,” or “Lord of Hosts.” “All power is given,” &c.
IV. It was very brief. Yet quite long enough. Not time for much. A question had been asked and an answer was required. Yet, between question and answer, was ample time for sending prayer to heaven, and receiving a reply. Length no virtue in prayer. Faith and fervour the two principal elements of success. St. Augustine says, “He that carrieth his own temple about with him, may go to prayer when he pleaseth.” How quickly thought can fly many thousands of miles in a minute. Prayer can travel as rapidly as thought towards heaven.
V. It was completely successful.
1. In that wisdom to ask aright was given. Nehemiah’s petition was marked by—
(1) Becoming humility. “If it please the king.”
(2) Tact. “The place of my fathers’ sepulchres.”
(3) Forethought. “Let letters be given me.”
2. In that the king’s heart was favourably disposed towards him. “And the king granted me,” &c. This, God’s doing, in direct answer to prayer. Nehemiah confesses this when he adds, “according to the good hand of my God upon me.”
Illustrations:—(α) “Sudden extremity is a notable trial of faith, or any other disposition of the soul. For as, in a sudden fear, the blood gathers suddenly to the heart, for guarding of that part which is principal; so the powers of the soul combine themselves in a hard exigent, that they may be easily judged of.”—Bp. Hall.
(β) “As the tender dew that falls during the silent night makes the grass, and herbs, and flowers to flourish and grow more abundantly than great showers of rain that fall in the day, so secret prayer will more abundantly cause the sweet herbs of grace and holiness to flourish and grow in the soul, than all those more public and open duties of religion, which too often are mingled with the sun and wind of pride and hypocrisy.”—Brooks.
Nehemiah 2:7. Moreover, I said unto the king, &c.
Not satisfied with bare permission to go to the relief of his co-religionists at Jerusalem, he makes provision for all contingencies, and anticipates every difficulty that is likely to arise. From this learn:—
I. That prudent forethought is essential to success in spiritual as in secular enterprises. For,
1. God has nowhere commended rashness. The reverse of this enjoined and approved in word of God. “He will guide his affairs with discretion” (Psalms 112:5). “The fool shall be servant to the wise of heart,” (Proverbs 11:29). “A prudent man,” &c. (Proverbs 12:23; Proverbs 14:15). “He that handleth a matter wisely shall find good” (Proverbs 16:20). “Give not that which is holy” (Matthew 7:6). “Which of you intending to build,” &c. (Luke 14:28). Examples.—Jacob (Genesis 32:0). Joseph (Genesis 41:0). Jethro (Exodus 18:0). David (1 Samuel 17:0). Abigail (1 Samuel 25:0). Paul (Acts 16:0). Town-clerk of Ephesus (Acts 19:0).
2. Pains-taking effort is at the foundation of all human success. “By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread” (Genesis 3:19), is the curse pronounced upon all human labour. Even the curse turned into blessing, for labour is not necessarily an evil. “No gains without pains,” under present social laws. No reaping without sowing. No permanent and substantial success in business, or art, or literature, or religion, without earnest, patient, unremitting diligence (2 Peter 1:10). This inexorable law-reigns in the spiritual realm as in the secular, for—
3. Spiritual work as well as secular is amenable to natural law. Miracles wrought now in the moral rather than in the physical universe. Not obsolete in the latter, more frequent in the former. Natural law is no respecter of persons. It demands allegiance from the saint and sinner alike. Errors in spiritual work are as surely followed by penalties as in secular. Sloth and senility undermine the success of religious as certainly as profane enterprises. Here, as elsewhere, “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
II. That prudent forethought is not opposed, but helpful, to spiritual faith.
1. It furnishes a rational basis for expecting success. No right to expect success, merely because we hope for and earnestly desire it. “We are saved by hope;” but it must rest on a solid foundation. Hope without faith is dead. If there is a living, there is a dead, hope (1 Peter 1:3). The one stimulates, the other seduces. Faith must have a rational basis to distinguish it from credulity. The basis may appear irrational to men who do not acknowledge God or the supernatural.
2. It acts upon the supposition that mental powers were given to be employed in the service of God. The use of this faculty no more opposed to strong faith and intense spirituality, than the use of other mental powers, as memory, imagination, perception, &c. All powers are to be consecrated to holy purposes, and diligently employed in assisting faith.
3. It takes no step without seeking Divine guidance and approval. Nehemiah used every precaution to ensure success, and made every needful arrangement beforehand, but not without previous thought and earnest prayer. Even so must we take each step, in religious work especially, depending on the Holy Ghost for direction. He committed himself to God; yet petitions the king for a convoy; teaching that in all our enterprises God is so to be trusted as if we had used no means; and yet the means are so to be used as if we had no God to trust in.
Illustrations:—As the hermits were communing together, there arose a question as to which of all the virtues was most necessary to perfection. One said, chastity; another, humility; a third, justice. St. Anthony remained silent until all had given their opinion: and then he spoke. “Ye have all said well, but none of you have said aright. The virtue most necessary to perfection is prudence; for the most virtuous actions of men, unless governed and directed by prudence, are neither pleasing to God, nor serviceable to others, nor profitable to ourselves.” Juvenal speaks to the same effect: “No other protection is wanting, provided you are under the guidance of prudence.” Bishop Hacket bears similar testimony:—“He that loves to walk dangerous ways shall perish in them. Even king Josiah, one of the most lovely darlings of God’s favour among all the kings of Judah, fell under the sword for pressing further against his enemies than the word of the Lord did permit him. The ancient Eliberitan Council enacted, that all those who plucked down the idols or temples of the heathen should not be accounted martyrs, though they died for the faith of Christ, because they plucked persecution upon themselves, and provoked their own martyrdom.”
THE HAND OF GOD
Nehemiah 2:8. According to the good hand of my God upon me
The hand sometimes used in an ill sense, for inflicting punishments (Ruth 1:13; Jeremiah 15:17), for we strike with the hand. Sometimes in a good sense, for helping others, for we bestow favours with the hand. In Psalms 88:6, “Cut off from thy hand,” means fallen from thy favour. Pindar uses the expression, “θεῶ σὺν παλάμᾳ,” in the sense of “by the aid of God.” Thus Nehemiah is to be understood. By the Divine favour, which inclined the king to do what he desired, his suit had prevailed.
I. The hand of God is with his people for protection. Nehemiah’s life was in jeopardy in God’s service. Hence God’s special protection.
1. He was protected from the wrath of the king. Had the king been in an angry mood Nehemiah might have paid for his temerity with his life. “The wrath of man” doth he restrain. David delivered from the outburst of Saul’s murderous anger. Nehemiah saved from the outbursting of Artaxerxes’. God will ever defend those who trust him and seek his glory, from the malice of evil oppressors.
2. He was protected from the hostility of his enemies. The Samaritans and surrounding heathen would have not only hindered his work, but probably taken his life, but for the military guard which the king granted, through God’s gracious influence. Thus will the Lord “make a hedge about his people” (Job 2:0), for “the angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him” (Psalms 34:0).
II. The hand of God is with his people for providential guidance.
1. The hand of God guided Nehemiah to the Persian court.
2. To the official position which brought him into the presence of the king.
3. The providence of God directed him when to speak, and
4. what to say. “If it please the king,” &c. “Silken words must be given to kings, as the mother of Darius said (ἤ δισία, ἥ ἣκιστα); neither must they be rudely and roughly dealt with, as Joab dealt with David (2 Samuel 19:5), who therefore could never well brook him afterward, but set another in his place.”—Trapp.
III. God’s servants should thankfully acknowledge the good which they receive from him. Nehemiah does not take any credit to himself, but gives all glory to God. This conduct requires—
1. Genuine humility. He might have boasted of his services to the king, of his place and authority in the Persian Court, and arrogated to himself the credit of success; but he was of another spirit, and ascribed all to the “good hand of his God.” Ingratitude is the child of pride; thankfulness the offspring of humility. A proud man will never be truly grateful; a humble man possesses the first element of gratitude. Benefit a vain man, and he will ascribe the service to his own desert, he will regard it as no more than a just tribute to his excellence; but serve a lowly man, and he will attribute the service to the kindness of his benefactor. A proud child thinks that he has laid his parents under obligation; a lowly child feels that he can never liquidate the debt of gratitude he owes to them. The same holds good in relation to God. We must be lowly to be grateful. The lark hides her nest in the grass, but her flight is far up in the heavens. This spirit continually exclaims, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed,” &c.; and, “I am less than the least of all his mercies” (Lamentations 3:22). Paul a striking illustration of it: “To me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given,” &c. David also exclaims when the splendid offerings had been collected for the erection of God’s house: “Thine, O Lord, is the greatness,” &c. (1 Chronicles 29:11).
2. True faith. The believer in chance who ascribes everything to fortune, or fatality, cannot own a Divine hand. Faith, discerning the Almighty hand within the machinery of second causes, actuating, controlling, determining all, is the parent of sincere gratitude. Men of business, from the very nature of their occupations, specially liable to lose the lively exercise of this practical faith. “Hard by the altar of incense in the ancient temple, stood the altar of burnt-offering. As the one signified the atonement to be made by Christ, and the other the fragrant merits of that atonement; so did the latter represent also the offering of prayer to God through Christ’s mediation by his faithful people, and the former the oblation of praise, presented through the same intercession, as a sweet-smelling savour to God. Prayer and praise are twin services. They should always go hand in hand. Praise is the fragrance breathed from the flower of joy. He is happiest who is thankfullest. This lesson taught by the brute creation. Morose and unkindly animals express as little of enjoyment as they do of gratefulness by their snarling and growling sounds. The beasts and birds of night are rarely gladsome. But the lambs which sport and gambol in their green pastures, and the birds which in the early morning wake the echoes of the woodland with their songs, all tell most unmistakeably that they are happy. How much more then must it be the blessedness of man ‘to look through nature, up to nature’s God,’ and glorify the giver in all his varied gifts.”—Stowell. (See Addenda.)
Illustrations:—“Your father had a battle with Apollyon,” said Great-heart to Samuel, “at a place yonder before us, in a narrow passage, just beyond Forgetful Green. And indeed the place is the most dreadful place in all these parts; for if at any time pilgrims meet with any brunt, it is when they forget what favours they have received, and how unworthy they are of them. This is the place, also, where others have been hard put to it.”—Bunyan.
Luther said when he heard a little bird sing, when he was out in the fields one morning, “The bird had no storehouse or barn, and did not know of any provision for the future, and yet it seemed to sing, ‘Mortal, cease from toil and sorrow, God provideth for the morrow.’ We do not find any sparrows with large storehouses, or any swallows with a great quantity of grain laid by for the morrow; yet never find a sparrow starved to death, or a swallow that has perished from cold. God ‘careth for them, and are ye not much better than they?’ ”
THE INITIAL STAGES OF A GREAT REFORMATION
Nehemiah 2:9-20. Then I came to the governors, &c.
I. Great reformations often have an insignificant commencement, and are slow in developing their true proportions. Who would have expected such great things to spring from that interview in the palace, and now from the visit of this one man to Jerusalem? Yet who dare “despise the day of small things”? How slight the first streak of dawn! How minute the grain of mustard-seed! Some of the noblest exploits of the Church have had the feeblest beginnings. A few Christian men met together in the vestry of a plain chapel; they pondered and prayed over the state of the heathen world; they conceived and planned the glorious enterprise of evangelizing all pagan lands. They arose and built. The Church Missionary Society is the result. Not only small at beginning but slow in developing. May travel rapidly on land or by sea, but in morals must be content to proceed gradually. Deep-rooted evils, profligate and abandoned habits, not to be eradicated in a moment; nor are excellent characters manufactured in a moment, as a piece of work from the loom. The restoration of God’s image rather resembles the growing likeness to its beautiful original in the canvas of the artist. At first the outline, and slowly the form and features, of the human face appear; gradually they assume more distinctness and expression, and the likeness stands confessed. So does the Holy Ghost restore the waste places of Christ’s Church, and the moral deformities of his children.
II. Reformation work requires a vigorous leader. Nehemiah eminently qualified for the post, for—
1. He occupied a commanding social position. The office of cupbearer a very honourable one with the Persians. A son of Prexaspes, a distinguished person, was made cupbearer to Cambyses. The poets make Ganymedes to be cupbearer to Jupiter, and even Vulcan himself is put into this office. It gave him influence with king and court, and status amongst even Persian nobles.
2. He was inspired with intense enthusiasm. Without this fire no hearts melt, no great work accomplished. It burns up all evil sordid desires, and kindles all goodness. Jeremiah was influenced by it. Kept silence for a time, but was constrained to break out again, saying the word within him was like burning fire (Jeremiah 20:0). To the same effect Elijah cries out: “I am very zealous for the Lord of Hosts” (1 Kings 19:0). Moses prayed to be blotted out of God’s book, rather than his people should be destroyed (Exodus 32:0). St. Paul “counted not his life dear unto him,” &c. (Acts 20:0). Phineas, when none else would take the sword to vindicate the outraged laws of Jehovah, himself slew the offenders (Numbers 25:0). Our Lord himself, moved with indignation, drove out the profaners of his sanctuary (John 2:0). Such holy enthusiasm glowed in Nehemiah’s heart, and urged him to undertake this difficult and dangerous work.
3. He possessed unwearied energy and perseverance. His enthusiasm not fitful, but patient. He had calculated the difficulties of his undertaking, and was prepared to carry it through. No great work will succeed without plodding. A great statesman once answered a friend who inquired to what he attributed his great success in life, thus—“I know how to plod.” Without this virtue Nehemiah must have succumbed to the almost overwhelming difficulties that beset his path.
III. Reformation work should not be undertaken without a deliberate estimate of its magnitude and difficulty. Blind courage that counts no costs always short-lived. This stood the tests which it had to endure because founded upon intelligent and mature conviction.
1. Nehemiah forestalled opposition. An escort had been asked for and granted (Nehemiah 2:10). Forewarned is forearmed. Thus did he fortify himself against failure from this quarter. Christian soldiers “must put on the whole armour of God” (Ephesians 6:11), and expect to be assailed. No mistake greater than presumption. To despise or ignore an enemy sure sign of weakness.
2. He carefully examined the work to be done. “And I arose in the night,” &c. (Nehemiah 2:12). Wise proceeding before engaging in a work that might prove to be impracticable. Accurate knowledge helps the judgment and stimulates courage.
3. He weighed the matter before proceeding to action. “So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days” (Nehemiah 2:11). Days spent in seclusion not spent in vain, if time be occupied in thought and prayer. (See outline on “Preparatory Retirement.”)
IV. Reformation work in its initial stages is almost certain to provoke opposition. “When Sanballat the Horonite,” &c. (Nehemiah 2:10).
1. This often proceeds from a misconstruction of the nature of the work. “Will ye rebel?” (Nehemiah 2:19). Bad men always ready to attribute evil motives. Sometimes springs from ignorance, more often from wilful malice. Charges of treason more frequently brought against reformation work than any other. Insinuation often more deadly in its operation than open calumny.
2. This often springs from aversion to self-sacrifice. For this reason the men of Jabesh-Gilead stood aloof when Benjamin was to be punished; and were afterwards destroyed for their neutrality (Judges 21:0). Work that requires self-denial and hard toil cannot be good in the eyes of those who have no love for any but themselves.
V. Reformation work cannot be carried on without mutual co-operation. “So they strengthened their hands for this good work” (Nehemiah 2:18). Necessary as a security against discouragement. Individual workers labouring in isolation always liable to discouragement. “Not good for man to be alone.” Christ recognized this principle in religious work, when he sent his disciples by twos. Mutual sympathy and counsel will often cheer faltering courage, and strengthen failing hope.
2. Necessary as a safeguard against combined opposition. Good men must combine, and present a united front to the combined forces of wickedness and opposition. Unity is strength in all work, and in all conflict.
VI. Reformation work cannot succeed without the Divine blessing. “The God of heaven, he will prosper us” (Nehemiah 2:20). When every precaution has been taken, and all available human aid enlisted, still all depends on God for success.
1. Because the forces of evil are too strong for the unaided powers of man. Melancthon found this by experience, when he thought to convert the world to Christianity in a very short time. “Without me ye can do nothing.” “Not by might, nor by power,” &c.
2. The blessing of God will compensate for any amount of opposition. “If God be for us,” &c. “Greater is he that is in you,” &c.
Illustrations:—(α) The artist Correggio, when young, saw a painting by Raphael. Long and ardently did the thoughtful boy gaze on that picture. His soul drank in its beauty as flowers drink moisture from the mist. He waked to the consciousness of artistic power. Burning with the enthusiasm of enkindled genius, the blood rushing to his brow, and the fire flashing from his eyes, he cried out, “I also am a painter!” That conviction carried him through his initial studies; it blended the colours on his palette; it guided his pencil; it shone on his canvas, until the glorious Titian, on witnessing his productions, exclaimed, “Were I not Titian, I would wish to be Correggio.”
(β) In the museum at Rotterdam is the first piece painted by the renowned Rembrandt. It is rough, without marks of genius or skill, and uninteresting, except to show that he began as low down as the lowest. In the same gallery is the masterpiece of the artist, counted of immense value. What years of patient study and practice intervene between the two pieces! If all have not genius, all have the power to work; and this is greater than genius.
(γ) Coleridge, one day when some one was enlarging on the tendency of some good scheme to regenerate the world, threw a little thistle-down into the air, which he happened to see by the roadside, and said, “The tendency of this thistle-down is towards China! but I know, with assured certainty, it will never get there; nay, it is more than probable, that after sundry eddyings and gyrations up and down, backwards and forwards, it will be found somewhere near the place where it grew.” Such is the history of grand schemes of reformation apart from Divine power and benediction.
(δ) William Rufus, having seen the coast of Ireland from some rocks in North Wales, is reported to have said, “I will summon hither all the ships of my realm, and with them make bridge to attack that country.” This threat being reported to Murchard, Prince of Leinster, he paused a moment, and then said, “Did the king add to this mighty threat, if God please?” and being assured he made no mention of God in his speech, he replied, rejoicing in such a prognostic, “Sure, that man puts his trust in human, not in Divine power, I fear not his coming.”
SECULAR AID FOR SPIRITUAL WORK
Nehemiah 2:9. Now the king had sent captains of the army, &c.
This martial escort granted to Nehemiah in response to his own request. As an official dignitary, had right to public honour and body-guard. Learn—
I. That the Church may employ secular power for purposes of protection. When one has suitable means at hand for avoiding danger, he must not despise them (Joshua 2:15; 2 Corinthians 11:33).
1. Every law-abiding subject has a right to claim the law’s protection. This holds good except in the case of conduct which is likely to provoke a breach of the peace.
2. It is a good man’s duty to seek the protection of secular power rather than rashly to expose himself to danger. Paul sought the shield of the law when certain men had taken an oath to kill him (Acts 23:0).
3. When secular aid is denied, or granted only on terms inconsistent with righteousness, the believer may confidently cast himself upon the protection, of Jehovah. “When my father and mother forsake me,” &c. Under such circumstances the three Hebrews and Daniel committed their case to God. “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him” (Psalms 34:0).
II. That the Church may not employ secular power in matters of faith. Ezra’s work had been more purely spiritual than Nehemiah’s now was, hence he sought no such aid as this. Both sought the religious reformation of the people, but Nehemiah’s chief mission was to restore the city of Jerusalem and rebuild the walls.
1. God has never authorized the use of any but moral means in spiritual work. All coercion inadmissible. “My kingdom is not of this world.” “Go ye into all the world,” is the commission which follows upon the proclamation of Divine sovereignty. “All power,” &c. “He that winneth souls is wise.” The fire and the rack may command submission, but will never win the heart, or convince the conscience. (β)
2. The employment of secular power in matters of faith has always been productive of disastrous results. This method predominated over all others in the dark or mediæval ages. Hence the war and bloodshed, strife and controversy, hatred and heresy that prevailed. A notable exception was Stephen, king of Poland, who when urged by some of his subjects to constrain certain who were of a different religion to embrace his creed, nobly answered, “I am king of men, and not of conscience. The dominion of conscience belongs exclusively to God.”
Illustrations:—(α) An old lady taking a long railway journey, prayed almost all the time that God would protect her from harm. When she reached the last platform, and was but a few minutes walk from her home, she felt that now she could take care of herself; but just here she fell, and received an injury from which she was a long time recovering. We must trust in God at all times.
(β) The missionaries to the Fiji islands were threatened with destruction by the enraged natives, and had no means of defence except prayer. Their enemies heard them praying, became fearful, and fled. The reason was given by one of themselves. “They found you were praying to your God, and they know your God is a strong God; and they are gone.” St. Augustine was saved from death by a mistake of his guide, who lost the usual road, in which the Donatists had laid wait to murder him.
FIRST HINDRANCE.—SECRET JEALOUSY
Nehemiah 2:10. When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah, &c.
The name Sanballat signifies a pure enemy; for he belonged to a spiteful people who had always been troublesome to the children of Israel, and did constantly vex and provoke them to evil (Numbers 22:3-4).
I. Here is jealousy tyrannical in its spirit. The Hebrews in Palestine had been hitherto poor and helpless. They were anxious to improve their condition, but these enemies were eager to keep them poor that they might be able to oppress and plunder them. Jealousy naturally cruel, inasmuch as it feeds upon the poverty and destitution of others, and fears their prosperity, lest it should lose its food. They probably heard of this new enterprise through their wives, who might be Jewesses. Among the Turks every vizier used to keep a Jew as private counsellor, whose malice was thought to have had much to do with the Turks’ bitter persecution of Christianity.
II. Here is jealousy anti-religious in its attitude. Grieved that any should “seek the welfare of the children of Israel” (Nehemiah 2:10). Their opposition doubled by the fact that this was God’s work, and these were his people. They hated the name and worship of Jehovah. The malice of unbelievers and scoffers against the kingdom of God can never be satisfied. If envy had not blinded these men, they might have seen that they meant them no harm. As the building of this Jerusalem had many enemies, so the repairing of the spiritual Jerusalem (the Church) by the preaching of the gospel hath many more.—Pilkington.
III. Here is jealousy covetously selfish in its motives. Samaria had become the leading state west of Jordan, and any restoration of Jerusalem might interfere with this predominance. The fear of losing their gains had much to do with the acrimony of their opposition. Hippocrates in his epistle to Crateva gives him this good counsel; that if it were possible, amongst other herbs, he cut up that weed covetousness by the roots, that there be no remainder left; and then know certainly that together with the bodies, he would be able to cure the diseases of the mind.
IV. Here is jealousy self-torturing in its effects. “It grieved them exceedingly” (Nehemiah 2:10). The expression a very strong one. (Compare Psalms 112:0) “The wicked shall see it, and be grieved; he shall gnash with his teeth.” Keen mental torture implied. Envy compared to a poisonous serpent. Because it cannot feed upon other men’s hearts it feedeth upon its own, drinking up the most part of its own venom, and is therefore like the serpent Porphyrius, which was full of poison, but wanting teeth, hurt none but itself. Austin describes it as a “madness of the soul;” Gregory, as “a torture;” Chrysostom, “an insatiableness;” Cyprian, “blindness, a plague subverting kingdoms and families, an incurable disease.” A disease that neither Esculapius nor Plutus could cure; a continual plague and vexation of spirit, an earthly hell.
Illustrations:—The poets imagined that Envy dwelt in a dark cave; being pale and lean, looking asquint, abounding with gall, her teeth black, never rejoicing but in the misfortunes of others, ever unquiet and careful, and continually tormenting herself. (See Addenda.)
“The Bible abounds with instances of this sin. We find it in Cain, the proto-murderer, who slew his brother in a fit of jealousy. We find it in the dark and gloomy and revengeful spirit of Saul, who under the influence of jealousy plotted for years the slaughter of David. We find it in the king of Israel when he pined for the vineyard of Naboth, and shed his blood to gain it. Yea, it was envy that perpetrated that most atrocious crime ever planned in hell or executed on earth, on which the sun refused to look, and at which nature gave signs of abhorrence by rending the rocks; I mean the crucifixion of Christ; for the Evangelist tells us, that for envy the Jews delivered our Lord.”—J. A. James.
The infatuated Caligula slew his brother, because he was a beautiful young man. Mutius, a citizen of Rome, was reputed to be of such an envious and malevolent disposition, that Publius, one day observing him to be very sad, said, “Either some great evil hath happened to Mutius, or some great good to another.” “Dionysius the Tyrant,” says Plutarch, “out of envy punished Philoxenius the musician, because he could sing; and Plato, the philosopher, because he could dispute better than himself.” Cambyses killed his brother Smerdis, because he could draw a stronger bow than himself or any of his party.
Nehemiah 2:11. So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days
God’s servants frequently thus retired for deliberation before entering upon arduous tasks. Moses had a forty-years half-involuntary preparation for his life work, in the wilderness of Midian. Paul spent three years in Arabia before commencing his career as a missionary. The disciples were commanded “to tarry at Jerusalem until,” &c. Our Lord himself, at the commencement of his public ministry, was “led of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” And here we see Nehemiah spending three days in retirement, before entering upon a work that would tax all his powers and graces to the very utmost. Consider the reason of this—
I. It gave him time to look round. Jerusalem altogether strange to him. Unacquainted with the exact state of affairs or parties in the city. To have rushed headlong without premeditation into so gigantic an enterprise would have been madness. Probably made secret inquiries as to vigilance of foes, and spirit of people, as well as their numbers, character, and wealth. Knowledge always source of power to workers and leaders. Knowledge of human nature, human history, and character, of great service in Christian work.
II. It gave him time to look forward. Evidently a man of wise foresight. Could see both difficulties and the way to meet and overcome them. Careful, yet not over-anxious, because made God his counsellor and guide. Neither optimist nor pessimist. By anticipating difficulties we may obviate them, and so make them comparatively harmless when they do come. Guard against other extreme, of making them when there are none, and magnifying them when they are insignificant. Such pre-vision not inspiriting, but disheartening.
III. It gave him time to look within. Now was the time for self-examination. Motives tested, heart probed. Trying moment to faith. Looking at self alone drives to despair. “Who is sufficient for these things?” the cry of one burdened with such tremendous responsibility. Luther spent the night before the Diet of Worms on the floor of his little chamber, humbling himself before God, and laying hold on Divine strength. No wonder he triumphed.
IV. It gave him time to look upward. The contemplation of his own faults and frailty alone would have completely unnerved him for the work he had come to accomplish. His eye would turn from personal demerit to infinite perfection; from personal impotence to infinite strength. From penitence to prayer a single step, thence to confidence and hope. Such preparation necessary for all who would achieve great works for God. Careless self-confidence as sure to meet with failure as humble and contrite faith to be crowned with success. (See Addenda.)
Illustrations:—“Domitian, about the beginning of his reign, usually sequestered himself from company an hour every day; but did nothing the while but catch flies, and kill then with a penknife. God’s people can better employ their solitariness, and do never want company, as having God and themselves to talk with. And these secret meals are those that make the soul fat. It was a wise speech of Bernard, that “Christ, the soul’s spouse, is bashful, neither willingly cometh to his bride in the presence of a multitude.”—Trapp.
The noblest works, like the temple of Solomon, are brought to perfection in silence.—Sir A. Helps.
Solitude hath been the custom not only of holy men, but of heathen men. Thus did Tully, and Anthony, and Crassus, make way to that honour and renown which they afterwards obtained by their eloquence; thus did they pass a solitudine in scholas, a scholis in forum, “from their secret retirement into the schools, and from the schools into the pleading place.”—Farindon.
THE WALLS INSPECTED
Nehemiah 2:12. And I arose in the night, &c.
I. A work involving considerable danger.
1. From the rained state of the walls (Nehemiah 2:13-15). No safe path. Stones scattered along road made travelling dangerous. God’s servants often required to traverse perilous roads. Missionaries often wonderfully preserved when journeying.
2. From the enmity of the Samaritans. Had they known would probably have waylaid so small and defenceless a company. Exposed to the midnight marauders who lurked about the city, taking advantage of its open condition. This danger did not deter. God often protected his servants from malice and bloodthirstiness of hostile nations. Missionary annals of Church furnish many instances of sublimest heroism and hair-breadth escapes from threatened destruction.
II. A work requiring personal sacrifice.
1. He gave up his much-needed rest. The physician will watch by his patient all night. The captain will not think of sleep if his vessel be in danger. So should the Christian forego his rest in times of danger, that he may call upon God in faithful prayer. David “rose at midnight to give praise” unto the name of the Lord (Psalms 119:0). Our mortal enemy, Satan, sleepeth not night or day, but continually “goeth about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour;” and had we not an equally vigilant watchman we should be destroyed. “Behold, he neither slumbereth nor sleepeth, that is the watchman of Israel” (Psalms 121:0). Christ himself set us an example of self-denying vigilance; prayed the whole night before sending forth his disciples (Luke 6:0). Joshua marched all night to conquer the Amorites (Joshua 10:0). Gideon arose in the night to pull down the altar of Baal (Judges 6:0).
2. He laid aside his official dignity. Might have sent a deputy, or gone attended by strong escort, or numerous retinue; but preferred to go himself, to teach us that nothing should be painful or degrading to any man, however exalted his station, which concerns the prosperity of God’s City and Church David, when the ark was brought out of Abinadab’s house, played on instruments, and after casting off his kingly apparel, danced before the ark in his ephod. Michal mocked, and was punished; but David declared that he would yet “more lowly cast himself down,” and was blessed of the Lord (2 Samuel 6:0). Moses forsook the dignity and pleasure of Pharaoh’s court to become a tender of sheep, that he might serve the cause of God (Hebrews 11:0). Christ washed the disciples’ feet, and humbled himself to the death of the cross, that he might effect our redemption. Such humble self-abasement is the greatest honour that can come to a man. Pride has its own reward, and a paltry one it is; but humility shall be rewarded by the great Father in heaven.
III. A work requiring great moral courage. The view of such a wreck likely to dishearten. The magnitude of the task would appear all but overwhelming. Would serve to impress him with a sense of personal insufficiency for so gigantic a work. Ezekiel, surrounded by the valley of bleached bones, when suddenly asked, “Son of man, can these bones live?” in despair could only reply, “O Lord God, thou knowest.” Nehemiah, surrounded by a ruin equally hopeless, can only cast himself and his work upon the strength of the Omnipotent. (a)
IV. A work which had an important bearing upon subsequent operations.
1. It furnished accurate information of the work to be done. Some render the words, “viewed the walls,” “broke the walls” (i. e. broke off a piece of the wall), to try the soundness of it, that he might know whether it required to be pulled down entirely, or might be repaired on the same foundation. Must have been moonlight, or could not have seen to do this; as, to have carried torches or lamps would have betrayed their presence. Knowledge obtained by personal investigation always most valuable. Illustrate this in the case of pastors, sick visitors, and Sunday School teachers. They who come into personal contact with human nature in its varied phases know best how to remedy its ills, repair its losses, and alleviate its woes. In all religious work knowledge is power.
2. It kindled his enthusiasm for the performance of the work. The greater the ruin, the greater the work of restoration. Small works require commonplace zeal; but great enterprises demand extraordinary grace. Two truths brought home to him by sight of ruins.
(1) How faithful God is. He threatened that Jerusalem should become a heap (Isaiah 25:2). Here was the manifest fulfilment of the threat. Surely, if God be faithful in punishing, he will not be less faithful in healing.
(2) How vile sin is. This desolation the result of Israel’s disobedience. The restoration of the city should be a sign of Israel’s return to obedience; these thoughts would serve to inflame Nehemiah’s zeal. The same thoughts are calculated to stimulate all Christian effort.
Illustration:—(a) As Luther drew near to the door which was about to admit him to the Diet of Worms, he met a valiant knight, the celebrated George of Freundsberg, who four years later drove the French into the Ticino. The brave general, seeing Luther pass, tapped him on the shoulder, and shaking his head, blanched in many battles, said kindly: “Poor monk, poor monk! thou art now going to make a nobler stand than I or any other captain have ever made in the bloodiest of our battles. But if thy cause is just, and thou art sure of it, go forward in God’s name, and fear nothing. God will not forsake thee.” He went forward and won a glorious victory.
A TIME FOR SILENCE
Nehemiah 2:12. Neither told I any man what God, &c.
There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Taciturnity in some cases an eminent virtue. He is a wise man who can discern the proper season for its exercise. Jerome says, “Let us first learn not to speak, that we may afterwards open our minds with discretion.” Solomon puts silence before speech, as a virtue rarer and more precious. Learn—
I. Good intentions are best kept secret until they are ascertained to be practicable. Nehemiah would only have marred his work by disclosing his intention before he was sure it was worth disclosing. Ideas are prolific as insects, but few of them are fit to live. When Nehemiah had viewed the walls, he was able to render a reason, and expound his plan for their restoration. A good rule for all who contemplate any work of importance. They should first consider, then speak. Rashly to enter upon a crude enterprise is to court failure. A wise man will not open his mouth to others until he has formed some plan for the accomplishment of his purpose. Guard against other extreme of obstinate persistence in a course condemned by others as unpractical.
II. Good intentions are best kept secret until they can be carried out with decisive energy. Great enterprises demand great faith, and intense enthusiasm. Many a grand reform has prematurely failed through the half-heartedness of its chief supporters. Had Luther been less bold he would have been unfit for the work which God entrusted to him. Courage is contagious, and cowardice too.
III. Good intentions are best kept secret from those who are likely to oppose them. Nehemiah aware of the vigilance and enmity of Sanballat and his party. Careful to avoid betraying his purpose to those who were related to them by inter-marriage. Herein we see the prudence of this great man. In this, worthy of our imitation, who are engaged in good works for God. Take no counsel with scoffers, nor give them any advantage in their profane opposition. Caution and forethought as necessary in this warfare as in carnal. We must not cast pearls before swine.
IV. Good intentions are best kept secret until the co-operation essential to success can be relied on. This work impossible without co-operation. Useless to attempt it until this secured. By personal effort and interview we prepare the way for united action and ultimate success. The soldiers must be enlisted one by one, then the battle-cry may be sounded. Workers in the Church must be secured one by one, then the work may be openly announced. This preparatory work done in silence and secresy, afterwards declared openly.
Illustration:—“When Homer makes his heroes to march, he gives them silence for their guide; on the contrary, he makes cowards to babble and chatter like cranes. The one pass along like great rivers, letting their streams glide softly with silent majesty; the others only murmur like bubbling brooks. A sign of not being valiant is to strive to seem valiant.”
AN APPEAL FOR HELP
Nehemiah 2:17. Then said I unto them, &c.
I. The ground of the appeal. “Ye see the distress that we are in” (Nehemiah 2:17). An appeal to their patriotism, their pity, and their piety. God’s city is desolate, your city is in ruins. “We (putting himself along with them) are in distress.” A reproach to the Church, an object of derision to the world, shall we rest satisfied where we are? “Ye see.” The fact is patent, it cannot be concealed. No need to expatiate on this point, for you are mourning on account of it every day. See here model for all Christian appeals. Shame a powerful motive. To this Nehemiah appealed. What inconsistency in their conduct!—that they who boasted of the greatness and goodness of their God should be living in this miserable plight, as though he could not or would not deliver them! For very shame we should arise and build the waste places of Zion; strengthen her stakes, and lengthen her cords; then shall her converts be multiplied.
II. The nature of the appeal. “Come, and let us build.”
1. It solicited personal effort; “let us build.” Time for debating and discussing past. Time for work had come. Nehemiah not satisfied with their good wishes, or money, or prayers; but sought their personal assistance. Every Christian is called upon to take his share of work in the Church. Not all adapted for same kind of work. All kinds of work, intellectual and manual, may be sanctified to the cause of God. In Israel’s battle with Midian, when Sisera was defeated and slain, we find all kinds of work recorded and commended (Judges 5:14). Meroz was cursed for its cowardly neutrality. We may not substitute money, or prayers, or good wishes for work. “Every man’s work shall be tried,” &c. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works.” “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The child and the invalid, the school-girl and maidservant, the merchant and his errand-boy, have all some work to do for God. To every believer he says, “Go work to-day in my vineyard.” At our peril do we say “I go,” and go not.
2. It promised personal aid. “Let us build.” Not go, but “come:” not go ye, but come, “let us build.” An example as noble as rare, to see a courtier leave that wealth, and ease, and authority in the midst of which he was living, and go to dwell so far from court in an old, torn, and decayed city, where he should not live quietly, but toil and drudge like a day-labourer, in dread and danger of his life. Yet they who are earnest in God’s work think not of ease, and bid none go where they are unwilling to go themselves, or do work which they are too proud to touch. Personal example in workers, and soldiers especially, far more powerful than personal authority. Come, always more successful than go.
III. The motive urged. “That we be no more a reproach” (Nehemiah 2:17). Here we see the misery they were in urged as a motive for action. Several years had elapsed since Cyrus gave them permission to return, and yet hitherto they had been unable to rebuild the walls. This plea often occurs in the Bible. “For thy great Name’s sake,” an argument often employed by eminent pleaders. (2 Kings 19:4; Psalms 42:10; Psalms 74:18; Psalms 79:12; Psalms 89:51; Proverbs 14:31; 1 Kings 8:41-42; 1 Chronicles 17:24; Psalms 25:11; Psalms 74:10; Jeremiah 14:7.) Jehovah jealous for his name, and will vindicate his character. When his Church is reproached and scorned he is assailed, and in jealousy for his honour will defend his own. Christ said to Saul of Tarsus, “Why persecutest thou me?” The wounds inflicted upon the members of his body on earth, were felt by him, the living head, in heaven.
IV. The encouragement offered. “Then I told them of the hand of my God,” &c. (Nehemiah 2:18). The time for silence now past, and the time for speech come. The walls inspected, the work carefully planned and thoroughly resolved upon, it only remained to make a bold appeal for immediate help, and commence forthwith, before the enemy could muster their forces or mature their plans. Note, promptness in religious work will often sweep away like a tornado all obstacles, and baffle all opponents. He assured his co-patriots—
1. That God was the instigator of the work. “I told them of the hand of my God, which was good upon me” (Nehemiah 2:18). In previous verse the law was preached, here the gospel. First, he set forth their misery, then encouraged them by the promise of God’s mercy. This order the true one for all teachers and ministers. They are the best scholars who will work without the rod: yet none so good but need the rod sometimes. A wise schoolmaster will make such use of both gentleness and severity as to gain his point with the least possible friction.
2. That the king approved of the work. “Also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me.” God had given him such favour in the king’s sight, that as soon as he asked licence to go and build the city, where his fathers lay buried, it was granted; and the liberality and goodwill of the king were so great that he granted him soldiers to conduct him safely to Jerusalem, and commission to his officers for timber to build with. Why should they mistrust or doubt! With both God and the king on their side, what needed they more? God’s servants should always seek to make themselves agreeable to those in high station, that they may receive their help in doing his work. Learn to be thankful for wise and benevolent rulers, and pray for their conversion (1 Timothy 2:2).
V. The success of the appeal. “And they said, Let us rise and build” (Nehemiah 2:18).
1. The response was prompt. Without delay or discussion they entered with spirit upon the work there and then. Would that all congregations were equally prompt in accepting the invitations of the Gospel! “Now is the accepted time, behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Would that all Christians were as ready to work!
2. The response was practical. “Let us rise and build.” Not propose substitute, or alternative, but undertook the work required of them. Example for all Christian workers, not to go round difficulties, but meet them in the face. Practical work must be done in a practical way. Fancy and flimsy methods break down, whilst simple and personal effort accomplish great results.
3. The response was unanimous. “Let us rise and build.” Even the listless were stirred for the time (Eliashib for instance). All with one accord undertook to carry out the work by God’s blessing, and the king’s favour. Cooperation necessary to the success of any large undertaking. World never converted until the churches are united.
THE STRENGTH OF UNITY
Nehemiah 2:18. So they strengthened their hands for this good work
I. Consists in its power to protect individual workers against discouragement.
1. Isolated workers are always liable to depression. This, the result of bearing alone the burden of care and duty incident to their work. Few men have the indomitable courage of a Nehemiah, a Paul, a Luther. Most spirits quail when unsupported by the aid and sympathy of kindred workers.
2. Mutual sympathy and conference relieve mental strain, and renew exhausted energy. “Iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (Proverbs 27:17). Burdens confessed are half removed. Mutual counsel will cheer the drooping spirit, and stimulate to increased effort. Christ recognized this when he sent out his disciples two and two. It is not good for man to be alone. “Where no counsel is the people fall” (Proverbs 11:14). “Two are better than one, for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).
Illustration:—There are stragglers in the Church as well as in the army, who fall out of the ranks and are lost. Sometimes they manage to subsist for a while, living on the charity of the people and the scraps left by those in camp, but generally fall a prey to their isolation and exposure. One such found his way, during the American war, to the hospital at Sedalia. He was dying then, and could not give his name or regiment. He was a mere boy, and unequal to the toil of marching. He was wet and cold and weary, and in a few hours died, and was buried in a nameless grave. So do many fall out of the Church’s ranks, and soon faint by the way. Pliny writes of a stone in the island of Scyros, that if it be whole, though a large and heavy one, it swims above water, but being broken it sinks. So long as saints keep whole, nothing shall sink them; but if they break up, and divide, they are in danger of going down.
II. Consists in its power of resisting combined opposition from without.
1. The full force of individual strength only awakened by the enthusiasm of united action. Men are like the stone pyrites, which is cold and dull until well rubbed; then it becomes so brilliant and hot as to burn the hand. Intense earnestness only kindled by the contagion of glowing spirits. Coals need to be pressed together to become thoroughly hot. So do souls require to be brought into very close contact, and inspired by one common impulse, to be fully roused to fervour and self-sacrificing devotion.
2. In unity, the full force of individual strength is directed against the common enemy. Not as separate individuals, but as forming one combined and glowing mass. Such union is resistless as a stream of glowing lava.
Illustrations:—The sand-reed, which grows on the sandy shores of Europe, represents the influence of religion and the Church upon society. Its roots penetrate to a considerable depth, and spread in all directions, forming a net-work which binds together the loosest sands; whilst its strong tall leaves protect the surface from drought, and afford shelter to small plants, which soon grow between the reeds, and gradually form a new green surface on the bed of sand. But for the sand-reed, the sea-wind would long since have wafted the drift-sand far into the interior of the country, and have converted many a fruitful acre into a waste; but that invaluable grass opposes its stubborn resistance to the most furious gale. So does the united front of Church organization present an insuperable barrier to the aggressions of profanity and unbelief.
Standing one day before a beehive, Gotthold observed with delight how the little honey-birds departed and arrived, and from time to time returned home laden with the spoils of the flowers. Meanwhile a great yellow hornet, the wolf among bees, came buzzing up in eager quest of prey. As it was evening-tide, and the bees after the heat of the day had settled about the mouth of the hive to breathe the cool air, it was amusing to observe that their fierce adversary lacked courage to attack their combined host and serried ranks. True, he often advanced for the purpose, but seeing how densely and compactly they were sitting, was forced to retreat empty-handed. At last, a bee, somewhat belated, arrived by itself; and on this straggler he instantly seized, fell with it to the earth, and instantly devoured it.
III. Consists in its power to cope with the inherent difficulties of the work, which otherwise would be insurmountable.
1. Work which cannot be done by few may be accomplished by many. This true of the wall-building. A small company of workers, however willing, would have been altogether inadequate for the work to be done. True of many other large Christian undertakings. Especially true of church or chapel building where the workers are mostly poor.
2. Work which cannot be done by many acting separately, may be accomplished by the same acting in unison. Unity is strength. It doubles the capacity of each individual worker. A hundred separate links or threads will accomplish nothing; but join into a chain or a cable, and they may save a hundred lives.
Illustrations:—“Separate the atoms which make the hammer, and each would fall on the stone as a snow-flake; but welded into one, and wielded by the firm arm of the quarryman, it will break the massive rocks asunder. Divide the waters of Niagara into distinct and individual drops, and they would be no more than the falling rain; but their united body would quench the fires of Vesuvius, and have some to spare for other volcanoes.”—Guthrie.
“Union is power. The most attenuated thread when sufficiently multiplied will form the strongest cable. A single drop of water is a weak and powerless thing; but an infinite number of drops united by the force of attraction will form a stream, and many streams combined will form a river; till rivers pour their water into the mighty oceans, whose proud waves, defying the power of man, none can stay but he who formed them. And thus, forces which, acting singly, are utterly impotent, are, when acting in combination, resistless in their energies and mighty in power.”—Salter.
“A thousand grains of powder, or a thousand barrels, scattered, a grain in a place, and fired at intervals, would burn, it is true, but would produce no concussion. Placed together in effective position, they would lift a mountain, and cast it into the sea. Even so, the whole Church, filled with faith, and fired by the Holy One who gave the tongues of fire on the Day of Pentecost, will remove every mountain, fill up every valley, cast up the highway of the Lord, and usher in the jubilee of redemption.”—Boardman.
SECOND HINDRANCE—OPEN DERISION
Nehemiah 2:19. They laughed us to scorn, and despised us
I. Here is an attempt to stop the work of God by the combined opposition of wicked men. “When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah,” &c.
1. The work of God is sure to meet with opposition from wicked men. They must hate and hinder it, because they are opposed to all that is good or godly. The triumph of good means the overthrow of evil. They will find some excuse for their oppression, and thus endeavour to make their conduct appear reasonable.
2. The work of God will often provoke the combined hostility of those who have nothing else in common. Thus did the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, &c., combine for the destruction of Israel, but in vain, for Jehovah brought to nought their evil counsels. Such opposition Luther met with when he began to reform. The pope excommunicated him; the emperor proscribed him; Henry, king of England, and Lewis, king of Hungary, wrote against him; but the work prospered, because it was of God.
II. Here is an attempt to stop the work of God by pouring contempt upon it. “They laughed us to scorn.”
1. They despised the workers. “As a company of fools, who could never effect what they attempted. So Erasmus and Sir Thomas More thought to ridicule the Lutherans out of their religion. This the Scripture calls cruel mocking (Hebrews 11:36), and ranks it with bloody persecution. The bitterest persecution which man can inflict is that of cruel taunts and scurrilous invectives: but the least harmful also. Jude, Peter, and Paul, all foretold that in the last days there should come mockers (2 Peter 3:0; 2 Timothy 3:0; 2 Timothy 3:0; Jude). Christ thus spitefully treated by Herod, Pilate, the priests, and the people. Solomon says, “He that mocketh shall be mocked” (Proverbs 3:0). David thus describes the reward of mockers, “He that dwelleth in the heavens shall mock them, and the Lord shall have them in derision” (Psalms 2:0). Michal was childless all her life as a punishment for mocking David (2 Samuel 6:0). The children that mocked Elisha were devoured by bears (2 Kings 2:0). Belshazzar, king of Babylon, was destroyed with his kingdom when he despised the warnings of God (Daniel 5:0).
2. They ridiculed the work. “What is this thing that ye do?” Scoffingly they asked the question, as Pilate asked, “What is truth?” Wicked men will never be fast for a taunt. If the Church’s character be above reproach, the Church’s work is ridiculed as impossible or useless.
III. Here is an attempt to stop the work of God by insinuating an evil design. “Will ye rebel against the king?”
1. When a good work cannot otherwise be hindered an evil motive is sure to be suggested. The work is open, the motive secret. More easy to explain and defend former than latter. Men fear what is secret. Wicked men employ this dread for their own ends.
2. Disloyalty to the State has always been a favourite charge with the Church’s enemies. Elijah is accused by Ahab of being a troubler of Israel (1 Kings 18:0). David was persecuted by Saul because the people sung, “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:0). Daniel was accused of disobedience, and consigned to the lions’ den, because he prayed to the God of heaven (Daniel 6:0). The Israelites were persecuted in Egypt lest they should rebel against Pharaoh (Exodus 1:0). Herod sought to slay the infant Christ, lest He should dethrone him (Matthew 2:0). Christ was accused and executed as a malefactor guilty of treason (John 18:0). The Apostles were accused of teaching sedition, and subverting the commonwealth (Acts 5:0). St. Paul was charged with the same crime, at Athens (Acts 17:0). Luther was called a “trumpeter of rebellion.” To excuse the shameful massacre of St. Bartholemew, a medal was struck with the inscription, Valour against the rebels, on one side, and on the reverse, Piety hath excited Justice.
IV. Here is an attempt to stop the work of God utterly frustrated. “Then answered I them, and said,” &c. (Nehemiah 2:20). The boastful arrogance of Sanballat nothing daunted Nehemiah; and as they were not ashamed to charge him and his people unjustly, so he is not ashamed to step forth boldly in defence of the work they had undertaken. Thus Moses bearded Pharaoh; thus Jephthah withstood the Ammonites (Judges 11:0); thus Hezekiah defended the Jews from the blasphemies of Rabshakeh; thus David stood up against Goliath (1 Samuel 17:0); thus did Moses and Aaron withstand the reviling and calumny of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16:0). Nehemiah here in the same spirit appeals to God as the ground of his hope, and the source of his confidence. Balak, the king of Moab, hated the camp of Israel, and bribed Balaam, a prophet, to curse them. Just so does the world hate the Church, and is never happier than when it can hire the ministers of the Church to turn against it, and betray its interests. But it can no more succeed by its curses than the wicked Balak could; it must seduce Christians to sin, and then it prevails; not by its own power, but by tempting the Church to provoke the anger of God. (See Addenda.)
Illustrations:—(a) Pliny, governor of Pontus, under the emperor Trajan, was appointed to punish the Christians, but seeing their great number he doubted what he should do, and eventually wrote to the emperor that “he found no wickedness in them, but that they would not worship images, and that they would sing psalms before day-light unto Christ as God, and did forbid all sins to be used among them.” The emperor hearing this became a great deal more gentle to them (Euseb. Lib. 3 cap. 33). Sallust, tormenting Theodorus, a Christian, in various ways, and for a long time, to make him forsake his faith, but all in vain, went to the emperor Julian, and told him what he had done, counselling him that “he should prove that way no more by cruelty, for they got glory by suffering patiently, and he got shame in punishing so sharply,” because they would not yield to him.
CONFIDENCE IN GOD AN INCENTIVE TO WORK
Nehemiah 2:20. The God of heaven, he will prosper us, therefore, &c.
“Knowledge is power,” says the philosopher; “faith is power,” says the saint. And what is faith? Confidence in God, in his almighty power and faithfulness; a confidence which nerves the soul for every task. No principle can brace a man like the principle of implicit trust in God. It leads not to indolence, but to effort, because—
I. It suggests almighty protection. “The God of heaven.”
1. It regards Jehovah as King of the celestial universe. “Lord of Hosts,” one of God’s most frequent names (Psalms 46:7; Isaiah 1:24; Jeremiah 46:18; Zechariah 1:6; Malachi 1:14). “All power is given unto me in heaven” (Matthew 28:0). When the God “who rolls the stars along,” and “upholdeth all things by his word;” the God who doeth according to his will amongst the armies of heaven, and controls the hidden forces of the universe; the God who is Almighty, and Omniscient, and Eternal, to whom every celestial knee bows in willing homage and adoration; when this God is on our side, who can be afraid?—what can hinder?
2. It regards Jehovah as the providential ruler of the terrestrial universe. This implied rather than expressed. “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth.” In earth because in heaven. All destinies in his hand, all events under his control.
II. It suggests providential direction. “He will prosper us.”
1. The way may be dark, but God will unfold it. When we have, like Nehemiah, done our best, and given our utmost, then we may safely commit our cause to God and patiently await the issue. Thus Abra ham followed the leadings of Providence (Genesis 12:0). Thus confidingly did he place his son Isaac on the altar (Genesis 22:0), saying, “God will provide himself a sacrifice.” Thus the apostles went at the Saviour’s bidding without scrip, &c. (Luke 22:0). In this spirit let all who fear God boldly begin his work, and continue it steadfastly, looking for his guidance, and they shall not be disappointed.
Illustration:—A Swiss chamois hunter, crossing the Mar de Glace, fell into one of the enormous crevasses that rend the ice in many places. He fell a hundred yards without serious injury: but his situation seemed hopeless. He could not climb out; and the cold would soon freeze him to death. A stream of water ran down the crevasse; he followed it, wading, stooping, crawling, or floating as best he could. At length he reached a vaulted chamber from which there was no visible outlet. The water heaved threateningly. Retreat was impossible. Delay was death. Commending himself to God the hunter plunged into the whirling flood. Then followed a moment of darkness and terror; then he was thrown up amid the flowers and hay-fields of the vale of Chamouni. Thus mysteriously are we led by a gracious Providence to safety and success.
2. The way may be crowded with difficulties, but God will remove them. “He will prosper us.” Difficulties as many as Nehemiah encountered may beset our path and work, but not more or mightier than God can remove. How deliverance shall come we know not, and must leave to God. All we know is that it will come in due time. On one occasion Luther was very importunate at the throne of grace to know the mind of God, and it seemed to him as if God spoke aloud and said: “I am not to be traced.” We can trust where we cannot trace. The Almighty has his “times and seasons.” An eminent saint thus wrote to a friend: “It has frequently been with my hopes and desires in regard to providence, as with my watch and the sun. My watch has often been ahead of true time; I have gone faster than providence, and have been forced to stand still and wait, or I have been set painfully back.” Flavel says, “some providences are like Hebrew letters, they must be read backwards.”
III. It suggests Divine benediction. “He will prosper us.”
1. It matters not how men may hinder if God prosper the work. “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
2. It matters not how the king’s favour may fluctuate if Jehovah’s remain the same. He is the Unchangeable One. Man’s favour may be fickle, and therefore little to be relied upon. God’s never fails, therefore with confidence his saints may say, “He will prosper us.”
IV. It anticipates ultimate success. “He will prosper us.”
1. It concludes that what God initiates he intends to complete. A good beginning is a strong reason to persuade a man that God will grant good success in the end. David comforted himself when he met Goliath by the thought that be who had delivered him from the lion and the bear, would now continue his gracious interposition. God’s plans never fail.
2. It concludes that what God commences he is able to consummate. When God said to Paul that all the souls with him should be safe, there were various means used; all were not able to swim to the shore, and the ship was not able to bring them all to shore, but yet by broken boards and by one means or other, all got to shore. So the Lord brings things to pass in a strange, but a sure manner; sometimes by one way, sometimes by another. He breaks in pieces many ships, that we think should bring us to shore, but then he casts us on such planks as will eventually bring us there.
Illustration:—“I looked upon the wrong side of a piece of tapestry and it seemed to me a continued nonsense. There was neither head nor foot therein, a company of thrums and threads, with many pieces and patches of several sorts, sizes, and colours, all which signified nothing to my understanding. But then looking on the reverse, or right side, all put together did spell excellent proportions, and figures of men and cities; so that indeed it was a history, not wrote with a pen, but wrought with a needle. So, if men look upon some of God’s providential dealings with a mere eye of reason, they will hardly find any sense therein. But alas! the wrong side is before our eyes, whilst the right side is presented to the God of heaven, who knoweth that an admirable order doth result out of this confusion; and what is presented to him at present, may hereafter be so showed to us as to convince our judgments of the truth thereof.”—T. Fuller.
THE MISERABLE CONDITION OF THE CHURCH’S ENEMIES
Nehemiah 2:20. Ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, &c.
I. They are excluded from the Church’s pale.
1. Jerusalem a type of the Church militant and the Church triumphant. There God’s name recorded.
2. From which sinners are self-excluded. By their country, creed, and conduct Sanballat and his friends were excluded from communion with the true Israelites. Scoffers by their own conduct condemn themselves to separation from the true spiritual Church of God. Idolaters can have no part with those who worship the true God, for he will be worshipped in “spirit and in truth.”
II. They are cut off from the Church’s privileges.
1. The privilege of Church membership. “No portion.” This a privilege which many ignore. If the Church is the Body and the Bride of Christ, surely it must be an honour to belong to it.
2. Privilege of Church support. “Nor right.” To the poor and afflicted this a great boon. As in the Apostles’ days, so now the Church undertakes to care for its poor.
3. Privilege of ancestral reputation. “Nor memorial.” The Samaritans endeavoured to claim Jewish ancestry, but unsuccessfully. Saints are held in sweet remembrance in the Church. Their name is often “as ointment poured forth.” This honour denied to the families of those who have no fellowship with the Church.
III. They are forbidden to participate in the Church’s work. As they feared not their threats, so now they would have none of their help. “Be ye not unequally yoked,” &c. God’s servants are knit together by two bonds; the one is Christ their head; the other, brotherly love. Neither of these exist amongst idolaters. This work is—
1. The most exalted in which any human being can engage. Work for God, for human souls, for the Church which Christ has redeemed by his own blood, for all eternity, cannot but exalt and ennoble those who take part in it.
2. The most remunerative in which any human being can engage. All is pure gain without any loss. The gain is not temporal, but eternal. The reward is found in the glory that is brought to Christ, the salvation that is brought to men, and the reflex benefit which descends upon the soul of the worker.
3. Work which requires moral qualifications possessed only by the true servants of God. Hence the unfitness of the Samaritan unbelievers. God never sends men out into the world as apostles until they have become true disciples in heart and life.
ADDENDA TO CHAPTER 2
Nehemiah 2:8. THE HAND OF GOD,—THANKSGIVING
I. The duty of thanksgiving. “Giving thanks,” a duty commanded (Ephesians 5:20). When thanks are given thankfulness is implied, or it is mere formality. The seat of thankfulness is the heart; there it ought to be cherished with the utmost care, and every motive remembered by which it is enlivened and increased. If the heart be thankful, it is perfectly reasonable and proper that its feelings be expressed. The most powerful arguments enforce this duty.
1. Its antiquity. It is as old as the creation. No sooner did intelligent beings exist than gratitude was expressed: “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). Paradise was the seat of thanksgiving before man fell; and consequently before the voice of prayer was heard, or the sigh of penitence was known.
2. Its perpetuity. It not only commenced sooner, but will continue longer than other duties; it will survive most other acts of service. Prayer will cease; repentance will be no more; faith and hope, as to their present use, will terminate; but thanksgiving will be the delightful business of the upper world, and will extend to the countless ages of eternity.
3. Express injunctions to give thanks are numerous in Holy Scripture. “O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good” (Psalms 107:1). “Praise ye the Lord, for it is good to sing praises unto our God” (Psalms 147:1).
4. Example of the best men. What good men have lived without gratitude? What eminent characters are recorded in the Bible who abound not in thanksgiving? Nature conspires to engage us in this employment. “All thy works praise thee, O Lord, and thy saints shall bless thee.” “Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion; bless the Lord, O my soul.”
II. To whom thanksgiving is to be offered.
1. To men. We ought to give thanks to men for the favours we receive from them. So far as they are our benefactors they are entitled to grateful acknowledgments, and ingratitude is justly marked as one of the worst of crimes, and as evidencing the basest disposition of heart.
2. To God. He is our greatest benefactor: every other is but his instrument and agent. The Most High is our best Friend; for other friends we are indebted to him, and they are all of his sending. Hence the injunction, “Offer unto God thanksgiving; and pay thy vows unto the Most High” (Psalms 50:14). “Giving thanks unto God, even the Father.” Here we are reminded of his paternal character. He has the heart of a father, the tenderest feeling, the kindest affection. “Like as a father,” &c. Such is the God to whom our thanksgivings are offered.
III. The time when thanksgiving is seasonable.
1. When we enter the sanctuary. “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.”
2. When we are the recipients of abounding mercies. And who is not? He daily loadeth us with benefits.
3. When we have received some special favour, or been delivered from some great calamity. Hannah prayed and wept, and returned to offer thanksgiving in the place where she had prayed (1 Samuel 1:0). The lepers were reproached by Christ for not returning thanks for their miraculous cure. Nehemiah acknowledged “the good hand of God,” which had been over him for good, opening alike the king’s heart, and his own providential path.
4. Always. “Giving thanks always.” “I thank my God alway, on your behalf.” “I will bless the Lord always; his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Psalms 34:1). Saints are not to be always singing praises, or with their lips expressing gratitude; yet there is a sense in which they are always to be “giving thanks.” They ought to cherish a thankful heart, a disposition of gratitude; and should frequently take occasion, by every suitable means, to manifest and express it. Thanksgiving should therefore be offered to the end of life, and in every changing circumstance of life. “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving,” &c. (Philippians 4:6). This service is never unseasonable; and sometimes it is peculiarly appropriate.—Kidd.
Nehemiah 2:11. PREPARATORY RETIREMENT
The pleasures and advantages of solitude have been often admired, and recommended. All love the world; yet all complain of it; and whatever schemes of happiness are devised, the scene is always laid in a withdrawment from it. It is there the warrior feeds his courage, and arranges the materials of victory. It is there the statesman forms and weighs his plans of policy. There the philosopher pursues his theories and experiments. There the man of genius feels the power of thought, and the glow of fancy. And retirement is friendly to communion with God. Consider—
I. The duty of retirement. Premise two things—
1. The place, is indifferent. It matters not whether it be a private room, or an open field.
2. It is not a state of absolute retirement. Man was made for society as well as solitude. A great part of our religion regards our fellow-creatures, and can only be discharged by intermixing with them. What our Saviour thought of hiding in woods and cells, appears obviously from his words, “Ye are the light of the world. Let your light so shine before men,” &c. It is therefore possible for a Christian to be alone, when he ought to be abroad. It may be much more pleasing often to sit alone, reading or reflecting, than to be called forth to give advice or to visit the afflicted. What God requires is comparative and occasional secession for moral and spiritual purposes. “Stand in awe, and sin not; commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” “Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.” This duty enjoined by example as well as by precept. “Isaac went out into the field at eventide to meditate.” “Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled with him a man, until the dawning of the day.” “Then went king David in, and sat before the Lord, and he said, Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house,” &c. Daniel retired three times a day. Peter went up to the house-top to pray about the sixth hour, and received a Divine communication. Of our Saviour, whose life has the force of a law, it is said, “In the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.” At another time, “he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.” The Sabbath brings us immediately into the presence of God, and gives us an opportunity to examine our character and condition, such as cannot be obtained during the six days of toil. It renews those pious impressions, which our intercourse with the things of time and sense is continually wearing off. This retirement often enforced by the dispensations of Providence. Affliction both disinclines us to social circles, and disqualifies us for them. Sickness separates a man from the crowd, and confines him to his bed that he may ask, “Where is God my maker, who giveth songs in the night?” A reduced condition will diminish your associates. It will drive away the selfish herd, who think that a friend is born for prosperity. This retirement produces—
1. A devotional temper. There we can divulge what we could not in the presence of the dearest earthly friend.
2. A desire to rise above the world. This will induce a man to retire. Where is the world conquered? In a crowd? No—but alone. In the midst of its active pursuits? No—but viewed in the presence of Jehovah, and in the remembrances of eternity. Then its emptiness appears. Then the fascination is dissolved. Then we look upward, and say, “Now what wait I for? my hope is in thee.”
3. A wish to obtain self-knowledge. Only when alone can he examine his state, estimate his attainments, explore his defects, discern the source of past danger, or set a watch against future temptations.
4. Love to God. When we are supremely attached to a person, his presence is all we want; he will be the chief attraction, even in company. Friendship deals much in secrecy; kindred souls have a thousand things to hear and to utter that are not for a common ear. This pre-eminently the case with the intimacy subsisting between God and the believer. “The heart knoweth his own bitterness, and a stranger intermeddleth not with his joy.” “Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and there will I speak comfortably unto her.”
II. The advantages of retirement.
1. It furnishes opportunity for communion with God. “Arise, go forth into the plain, and I will there talk with thee” (Ezekiel 3:22). We admire the nobleman that kindly notices a peasant; and the sovereign who deigns to converse with one of his poorer subjects. But here is the Creator talking with his creature. Some of us cannot aspire after intercourse with many of our fellow-creatures by reason of our condition, and our talents. But whatever be our condition, or our talents, we have a free and invited access to God. The subject of this communion is variously called “his secret,” and “his covenant.” “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him, and he will show them his covenant.” “He will speak peace unto his people.” “The meek will he teach his way.” The mode of this communion is not supernatural, as of old. God talked with Moses, as a man talketh with his friend. It is mere fanaticism to expect God to commune with us in dreams, visions, sudden impulses, and audible sounds. He opens our understandings in the Scriptures. He leads us into all truth. He applies the doctrines and promises of his word by his Spirit. The result and evidence of this communion will be that our hearts will burn within us. Other effects produced by this communion are—
1. A deep and solemn sense of our vanity and vileness. Fellowship with God, instead of encouraging unhallowed presumption, gives a man such intimate views of the peculiar glory of God as fill him with godly fear. Thus was it with Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Job, Isaiah, and Peter.
2. An unquenchable desire for closer communion. That which contents the believer makes him insatiable. He desires no more than God; but he desires more of him.
3. An ever-increasing likeness to God. “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise.” Some boast of being much with God; but so censurable are their conduct and temper, that fear of their fellow-creatures would like to have much to do with them. “The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.”—Jay.
Nehemiah 2:19. OPEN DERISION
I. The sin of mocking weakens every virtuous restraint. There are restraints of education, of example, of regard to reputation. But when a man becomes a mocker, such restraints are relaxed; they gradually lose their hold. With every advance in levity and jesting, a sense of shame subsides, the fear of incurring censure abates, respect for the authority of parents and for the opinion and expostulation of friends declines, custom degenerates into habit, and habit becomes settled and easy.
II. The sin of mocking strengthens vicious propensities. This naturally results from the preceding. As the one declines the other gains ground. Let a man become indifferent to what is right, and he will practise what is wrong; let him cease to do good, and he learns to do evil. Is a bad temper, for instance, which is never repressed, no worse after years of indulgence? Does harmless mirth never proceed to profaneness? Does the habit of loose talking never lead to falsehood, nor settle in deceit? You cannot mock at the Bible without your regard for the sacred Book sinking in proportion. You cannot mock at sin but your aversion to sin dies and your love to sin revives.
III. The sin of mocking gives great advantage to your worst enemies. Such are improper companions. Go with them one mile, and they will easily induce you to go two. Every compliance only emboldens their demands, and facilitates their conquest; and every victory they gain only throws you more completely into their power. Walk in the counsel of the ungodly, and stand in the way of sinners, and ere long you will sit “in the seat of the scornful.” But there is a worse enemy than these; “the spirit which now worketh in the children of disobedience,” “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world.” Resist him, and he will flee from you; but invite his attacks, and you inevitably fall into his hands. We read of those “who are taken captive by him at his will.” These are they who indulge the tempers he would have them indulge, who practise the works which he instigates and approves.
IV. The sin of mocking exposes to peculiar marks of God’s displeasure. Witness the destruction of the youths who mocked Elisha (2 Kings 2:23). Some who have scoffed at the Bible and blasphemed its author have been struck dead in a moment. Persistence in sin has more often been followed by judicial hardness. Men who have begun with jesting at the things of God, and sporting with their own iniquity, have been given up to strong delusions and final impenitence.
V. The sin of mocking terminates in remediless ruin. There is a world beyond the present. There mockers of every class have their full recompense. “They have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations; I also will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears upon them.” “Ye have set at nought my counsels, and would none of my reproof; I also will laugh at your calamity, I will mock when your fear cometh.” “Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish” (Isaiah 66:3-4; Proverbs 1:25-26).—Kidd.
The hand of God. Protection.
1. John Knox, the celebrated Scotch reformer, had many remarkable escapes from the malicious designs of his enemies. He was accustomed to sit at the head of the table in his own house, with his back to the window; but on one particular evening he would neither himself sit in his chair, nor allow any one else to do so. That very evening a bullet was shot through the window, purposely to kill him; it grazed the chair in which he usually sat, and made a hole in the foot of the candlestick.
2. Posidonius, in the Life of Augustine, relates that this good man, going on one occasion to preach at a distant town, took with him a guide to direct him in the way. This man, by some unaccountable means, mistook the usual road, and fell into a by-path. It afterwards proved that in this way the preacher’s life had been saved, as his enemies, aware of his journey, had placed themselves in the proper road with a design to kill him.
Envy. “Dionysius the tyrant,” says Plutarch, “out of envy, punished Philoxenius the musician, because he could sing, and Plato the philosopher, because he could dispute better than himself.” Cambyses, king of Persia, slew his brother Smerdis, out of envy, because he could draw a stronger bow than himself or any of his followers; and the monster Caligula slew his brother because he was a beautiful young man.
“Base envy withers at another’s joy,
And hates that excellence it cannot reach.”
Derision. A poor man who had heard the preaching of the gospel, and to whom it had been greatly blessed, was the subject of much profane ridicule and jesting amongst his neighbours. On being asked if these persecutions did not sometimes make him ready to give up his profession of religion, he replied, “No. I recollect that our good minister once said in his sermon, that if we were so foolish as to permit such people to laugh us out of our religion, till at last we dropped into hell, they could not laugh us out again.” Admiral Colpoys relates that when he first left his lodgings to join his ship as a midshipman, his landlady presented him with a Bible and a guinea, saying, “God bless you, and prosper you, my lad; and as long as you live never suffer yourself to be laughed out of your money or your prayers.” The young sailor carefully followed this advice through life, and had reason to rejoice that he had done so.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Nehemiah 2". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26