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Nehemiah 5:1. Against their brethren] i. e. the richer portion (Nehemiah 5:7).
Nehemiah 5:2-16.5.4. There were that said] Keil divides into three classes. (a) The workers, who had no property. (b) Those who had mortgaged their fields, vineyards, and houses. (c) Those who had borrowed money for the king’s tribute upon their fields and vineyards.
Nehemiah 5:2. We take up corn] Not by force. The words mean, We desire that corn may be provided.
Nehemiah 5:3. Because of the dearth] Probably Sanballat and his army intercepted the supplies.
Nehemiah 5:4. For the king’s tribute] We have made our fields and our vineyards answerable for money for the king’s tribute (Bertheau), i. e. We have borrowed money upon our fields for tribute. This they could only do by pledging the crops (comp. the law, Leviticus 25:14; Leviticus 25:17).
Nehemiah 5:5. “Our brethren”] The richer Jews. The sense of the first half of the verse is, We are of one flesh and blood with these rich men. The law not only allowed to lend to the poor on a pledge (Deuteronomy 15:8), but also permitted Israelites, if they were poor, to sell themselves (Leviticus 25:39), and also their sons and daughters, to procure money. It required, however, that they who were thus sold should not be retained as slaves, but set at liberty without ransom, either after seven years or at the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:39-3.25.41; Exodus 21:2 seq,). It is set forth as a special hardship in this verse that some of their daughters were brought into bondage for maidservants.—Keil. Neither is it in our power] Lit. Our hand it not to God (Genesis 31:29). Keil explains thus: The power to alter it is not in our hand. Our fields and our vineyards are in the hands of others.
Nehemiah 5:7. I consulted with myself] My heart took counsel upon it. Ye exact usury] Usury and injustice are closely allied.
Nehemiah 5:8. We redeemed. Ye sell] Strong contrast. The sale of their brethren for bondservants forbidden (Leviticus 25:42).
Nehemiah 5:11. Hundredth part] Probably a monthly interest.
Nehemiah 5:12. I called the priests] To witness the oath.
Nehemiah 5:13. I shook my lap] A symbolical action. “The lap of the garment, in which things are carried (Isaiah 49:22), where alone the word is again found.”—Keil. See for this significant action Acts 18:6; Acts 18:14.] Crosby says this verse and those which follow form an interruption of the narrative. They show that Nehemiah was for twelve years governor of Judah, and did not write this history till the expiration of that time. The bread of the governor] The food and wine with which the community had to furnish him.
Nehemiah 5:15. Even their servants bare rule] Arbitrary, oppressive rule. Abuse of power for extortions.
Nehemiah 5:17. The rulers] The heads of the different louses of Judah.
Nehemiah 5:19. Think upon me] (Comp. Nehemiah 13:14; Nehemiah 13:31).
HOMILETICAL CONTENTS OF CHAPTER 5
Nehemiah 5:1-16.5.19. Greed corrected.
Nehemiah 5:1-16.5.19. Godless Rich Men.
Nehemiah 5:1-16.5.13. A Great Schism averted.
Nehemiah 5:1. The Accusing Cry of Humanity.
Nehemiah 5:3-16.5.5. The Miseries of Debt.
Nehemiah 5:6. Righteous Anger.
Nehemiah 5:7. Introspection.
Nehemiah 5:7. An Assembly convoked against Sinners.
Nehemiah 5:8. Inconsistency without Excuse.
Nehemiah 5:9. God’s People under the Eye of a Critical World.
Nehemiah 5:10. What Others do no Excuse for My doing.
Nehemiah 5:12. Clenching a Good Resolution.
Nehemiah 5:13. The Terrors of the Lord persuading Men.
Nehemiah 5:14. A Man foregoing his Rights for the sake of his Duties.
Nehemiah 5:15. A Motto for a Manly Life.
Nehemiah 5:19. Conscious Integrity.
Nehemiah 5:19. The Saint’s Support.
Nehemiah 5:19. The Remembrance of Good Deeds a Pillow of Rest for a Good Man.
THE chapter is complete in itself. It is not only a story, but a parable of everlasting suggestiveness. In the history of every generation we find some situation similar to the one recorded here. The great humanness of the Bible is not less striking than its divinity. God’s book is sublimely crowded with pathetic interest in man’s life. Here is a picture of the desolations of greed and their correction.
I. The desolations of greed. The cry of the people in the first verse is a note in the “still, sad music of humanity” which has rung out in every age. The cry of the people in the days of Norman tyranny; the wail of nations in the priest-ridden dark ages; the lamentations of the negro race in the slaveries of the last century; the shriek of the despised people prior to the bloody struggle of the French Revolution; the clamour of the English poor in the days of the Corn Laws,—are all re-echoes of this old cry. “So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold, the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter” (Ecclesiastes 4:1). Such was the melancholy view which made Solomon praise the dead, whose eyes were shut upon the scene, and the unborn, who had the chance of coming to look upon a better spectacle. In this fifth chapter of Nehemiah we have the whole of the dark parable of poverty and oppression—hunger debt, mortgage, serfdom. Jesus Christ redeemed poverty by himself becoming poor; not to show that poverty is a good, but to show that the highest moral conditions of man’s soul may co-exist with these hard conditions. He, Jesus of Nazareth, was (temporally speaking) a vassal of Rome, and had not where to lay his head. This story of the earthly sojourn of the mighty God is a golden ray which gilds the deep valley of humiliation, where millions walk all through their threescore years and ten; but woe to those who help to deepen the gloom of that dreary place by their own narrow and damnable selfishness. “I was angry,” says Nehemiah, “when I heard their cry” (Nehemiah 5:6); and he did well to be angry.
1. WANT. Bread! bread! bread! what a cry is that to be the chief cry of immortal creatures. Yet such is and will yet be the wail of the hungry. “God deliver us,” says Isaac Walton, “from pinching poverty.” “Feed me with food convenient for me,” meekly said the good man in olden days. By industry and frugality let us offer this prayer.
2. DEGRADATION is the result of this want. Great are thy temptations, O Poverty. What will not the poor man in the wilderness, with hunger in his body and the devil beside him, do to make stones into bread? How can a man be a man while he is kept in slavery to his pinching need? Again let the woe, woe, woe go forth upon those whose selfish greed breaks the staff of bread for the people.
3. HOPELESSNESS. Here is a picture from one of Thomas Carlyle’s graphic books. “Passing by the workhouse of St. Ives in Huntingdonshire, on a bright day last autumn” (about 1840), “I saw sitting on wooden benches, in front of their Bastille, and within their ring-wall and its railings, some half hundred or more of these men. Tall, robust figures; young mostly, or of middle age; of honest countenance; many of them thoughtful and even intelligent-looking men. They sat there, near by one another; but in a kind of torpor, especially in a silence, which was very striking. In silence; for, alas, what word was to be said? An earth all lying round, crying, Come and till me, come and reap me;—yet we here sit enchanted! In the eyes and brows of these men hung the gloomiest expression, not of anger, but of grief, and shame, and manifold, inarticulate distress, and weariness. They returned my glance with a glance that seemed to say, ‘Do not look at us. We sit enchanted here; we know not why.’ There was something that reminded me of Dante’s hell in the look of all this, and I rode swiftly away.” What a dark outlook utter want has! what a dreary nightmare to lie on a human spirit! In the poor wretches whose condition stirred Nehemiah’s anger with their want and their hopeless debt and their heart-breaking family separations, as son and daughter went in pawn for bread, there is a scene to smite the buried conscience of the grinding oppressor, and to call forth some natural tears from the eyes of onlooking philanthropists. “Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.”
II. The corrections of philanthropy. Like a Howard moved with pity and shame for the prisoner as if he had been his own mother’s son, or a Wilberforce making his vow to break the iron chain of the negro, Nehemiah rose up to mend the evil. It was a monster that would have frightened back to Persia a less dauntless man, but fear and discouragement were his playmates. Nehemiah proceeded to correct this evil by his exhortation and by his example.
1. Echortation. He rebuked the greed of gain. In Nehemiah 5:6-16.5.8 we have the grand outpouring of his aroused sympathies. “Then they held their peace, and found nothing to answer.” Read from Nehemiah 5:12-16.5.13. Knowing how subtle is the devil of greed, Nehemiah called the priests to a religious solemnity, that the promise of the repentant oppressors might as it were be written down in the great doom-book of God, so that each man might go back to his money-bags with his own Amen! with the curse on greed ringing in his ears. Here is an example. What is good to be done should be done in the solemn name of God. Strike the iron of a good resolution while it is hot. Second thoughts are selfish thoughts in all Divine things. Bind the soul while it. is willing fast to God’s altar. Pledges, vows, oaths; let those mock these who will. Our evil nature is a Samson, who snaps cords like tow; nay, a demoniac whom no man can bind, no, not with chains. If the obligations of a solemn pledge to God can do it, let it be done. “I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise.” You who are meditating surrender to Christ, or reformation from drunkenness, or abandonment of some evil thing or associate, go and do likewise.
2. Example. Grand as was Nehemiah’s exhortation, his example is still grander. He enforced his sermon by living it out before his congregation. The perquisites of his office he abandoned for the sake of example (Nehemiah 5:15); what he might have regarded as a right he surrendered in order to be himself a type of unselfishness. His chances of gain were many. He knew what his plans were, and could have invested well in the new city; but, says he, “Neither bought we any land,” a suggestion to public persons whose office gives them the chances of gain. “I took no advantage of my opportunites.” Besides his servants, he maintained himself. The men he had brought to do the noble work of renovation were men who had claim to reward; and what was needful Nehemiah gave them out of his own private means. He wanted to build Jerusalem as Michael Angelo said he would build St Peter’s—“for the glory of God.”
1. Have an ear for the cry of the poor and oppressed. Keep a heart alive for such as be prostrate.
2. Emulate Nehemiah’s self-sacrifice. Do not say, “He was a hero.” His character made him a hero. His sublime fear of God and pity for man did not flow from his heroism so much as make it. He was but a cupbearer to the king, and had a snug birth and a good stipend and great expectations, but these were chaff when compared with an opportunity of making a good mark in his generation, and of writing his name in the book of life. “By faith he obtained a good report!”
Illustrations:—“Every grain of riches hath a Vermin of pride and ambition in it.” “Oppression is a bony sin” (Amos 5:12-30.5.13). “As God hath enlarged any man in his outward estate, he must be answerably enlarged in works of mercy.” “It is one thing to be rich in this world, and another thing to be rich towards God, as our Saviour phraseth it; to be rich in knowledge, as St. Paul hath it; rich in faith, as St. James.” “Highmindedness, causing men to think great things of themselves, and to seek great things for themselves, is a blab that the devil will easily blow up in rich misers, to think themselves simply the better men because richer than others, which is all one as if the silly ant, the higher she gets upon her hillock, the greater she should conceit herself.”—Trapp. “Poverty,” it has been said, “has many wants; but avarice is in want of everything.”
“The sense to value riches, with the art
T’enjoy them, and the virtue to impart,
Not meanly nor ambitiously pursued,
Not sunk by sloth, nor raised by servitude;
To balance fortune by a just expense,
Join with economy, magnificence;
With splendour, charity; with plenty, health;
O teach us.”—Alexander Pope.
GODLESS RICH MEN
This is not the only page of the Bible on which the sins of covetousness, oppression, and luxury are linked together and denounced. Isaiah represents the Lord of Hosts looking for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry; and then hurls a Divine woe against those that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth; that rise up early in the morning that they may follow strong drink, &c. (Isaiah 5:7-23.5.12). Amos speaks of those who cause the seat of violence to come near, that lie upon beds of ivory (Amos 6:3-30.6.4). Micah utters a woe against those who covet fields and houses, and take them by violence (Micah 2:2). Even Christ takes up his parable against those who devour widows’ houses (Matthew 23:14). The apostles follow his example. But they remind us that other gifts may be misused—power, beauty, any gift of God.
I. The value of wealth. The word of God does not despise wealth. The references to riches and rich men are no fewer than one hundred and seventy—descriptive, regulative, corrective.
1. Riches are God’s gift. Not invariably. He has not ordained that right and riches should be inseparable, or that wrong and want should be invariably cause and effect. Still it is true that “the Lord maketh poor and maketh rich.” “Riches and honours come of him.” “The earth is full of his riches.” The virtuous he “maketh fat and flourishing.” He has not made poverty the outward and visible sign of his displeasure, nor wealth of his favour. Had he done so the Church would have been sectional. Large numbers would have been shut out by circumstances. It would have been in antagonism to human weal. There is a working force and a conserving force.
2. Wealth is man’s glory. With it he can surround himself with all that is ennobling in science and art, the conveniences of life. With it he can rule men. It elevates. Prosperous families and prosperous nations become refined.
II. The responsibility of wealth. We take this responsibility to be personal and relative.
1. A man owes a duty to himself. The first contrast here is between getting and covetous hoarding. The Bible preaches no Crusade against getting. It does not say, “Take no care for the morrow.” It does say, “Take not anxious, boding thought.” Christianity is a system of prudence. It imposes restraint because license leads to ruin. It gives a premium to diligence. Idleness is treated with scorn by the inspired writers. The sun shines on no fairer prospect than a diligent person; whatever his station, whatever his aim, the first condition of success is toil, the second is toil, the third is toil. But the crucial test is, “Are we getting to live?” or, “Are we living to get?” Do we lay up or lay out? At every step in our inquiry we are upon the horns of a dilemma. The breakers are on every side. The vessel needs careful piloting. Laying up is not wrong, and nature as well as revelation teaches that he that does not provide for his own house is worse than an infidel. “Naked came we into this world, and naked shall we return thither;” but we do not read that we must leave those naked whom we leave behind. For the majority this must be so. The law of life for most is from hand to mouth. Very literally their prayer is answered, “Give us this day our daily bread.” But for the middle and upper classes John Wesley’s famous rules apply. “Get all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” At eighty years of age he thus narrated his own experience. “Two-and-forty years ago I wrote many books. Some of these had such a sale as I never thought of, and by this means I unawares became rich. I gain all I can without hurting either my soul or body. I save all I can, not willingly wasting anything, not a sheet of paper, or a cup of water. I do not lay out anything, not a shilling, unless as a sacrifice to God. Yet by giving all I can I am effectually secured from laying up ‘treasures upon earth.’ And I am secured from either desiring or endeavouring it as long as I give all I can. But my own hands will be my executors.” Generally no better executors can be found. The Peabodys and Burdett-Coutts act on this principle, and their memorial remains in model cottages and Christian sanctuaries. Howard’s rule was “that our superfluities give way to other men’s conveniences; that our conveniences give way to other men’s necessities; and that even our necessities sometimes give way to other men’s extremities.” “Charity,” says Chrysostom, “is the scope of all God’s commands.”
2. A man owes a duty to others. “No man liveth to himself.” (a) We have spoken of the kingly rule of wealth. A king’s is a noble office. But sometimes kingship becomes kingcraft. Kingship rules for the good of the subject; kingcraft rules for personal ends, and then power becomes tyranny. To rule well is a difficult task. In most men the love of power is a ruling passion. In no form is it stronger than in ruling men. The pages of history are stained with the blood shed by the oppressor. But there are other thrones than that on which the monarch sits. Every master is a king. Let him never forget that kingly honours imply kingly reponsibilities. “Read the indictment in Epistle of James 5:1-59.5.6.” The “labourers” are dependent on you—their masters. The moral claim is stronger than the legal. There are forms of oppression which are too subtle for the coarse instruments of law. But God has a special controversy with the oppressor. “He raiseth up the poor out of the dust.” “The poor, and him that hath no helper,” find a helper in God. One duty of a Queen’s Counsel is to plead the cause of the queen’s subject, who would otherwise be defenceless. The queen is the defender of the weak. “Now will I arise,” saith the Lord, “for the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy” (Psalms 12:5); “He shall judge the poor of the people” (Psalms 72:4); and, not to quote passages, he is the Advocate of the poor, the Elevator of the poor, the Satisfier of the poor, the Deliverer of the poor. The sin of oppression is the child of covetousness. Ye exact usury! Sins which are passed by because of the power of those who commit them, or passed by because of the poverty and powerlessness of those who suffer from them, are said to cry to God. There are many species of slavery below the actual thing. When we get from our servants more than they are well able to do, when remuneration is insufficient, when in any way we prey upon their necessities we are slaveholders in all but the name. Remember, “the Lord of Hosts” is the poor’s Avenger. What hosts he can send against us. Wilt thou contend with God? “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). It is hard to possess riches without sin. They are called “the mammon of unrighteousness.” They are often possessed by the wicked, much admired by them, and not seldom gained by fraud. Many a fortune is built on wrong, and wrong is a foundation of sand. It is not easy to have them and not be hindered by them. A ship that takes in too much cargo is liable to sink. Many rich men bend under their mountain of gold. A man who should bear this burden should be a very Atlas for moral strength. The beasts become fierce when well fed. And it is hard for the purse-full to be other than purse-proud. God can best be served by a mean, “Give me not riches, lest I be full and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord?” “Give me not poverty, lest I take the name of God in vain.” If riches increase, set not thine heart upon them. “Possess them; let them not possess you.” “God gives riches to the good lest they should be thought evil; he gives them to the bad lest they should be thought the only good.” It is not impossible for a rich man to be virtuous. Abraham and Job were the wealthiest men of the East. In the highest circles the fair flower of piety flourishes. Those, however, who have so much to keep them here may well find it difficult to be absorbed in the contemplation of a hereafter. Prosperity begets security.
III. The punishment of misused wealth. Nehemiah cites them, as it were, to God’s judgment-seat. They are called upon to plead their cause.
1. The punishment is self-caused. “Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days,” as the New Testament apostle teaches (James 5:0). The punishment grows out of the gain. The wind shakes the tallest trees. The willow bends under the storm and rises when the gust is over; the oak stands until endurance is no longer possible. Men fall from eminences. He who keeps on the ground has generally secure foothold.
2. The punishment is self-inflicting. All speech is translatable by God. The young lions’ cry for prey is an appeal to God, and he gives scent and swiftness. The parched ground speaks to him and pleads that the windows may be opened, and the rain-drops fall from the closed storehouse. There is something terribly suggestive in the RUST of wrongly-withheld gain, and the helpless CRIES of the defrauded poor passing up through distant space and taking their case to the highest tribunal, pleading with an earnestness akin to that of the woman who came to the unjust judge, but, unlike her, pleading with the Judge of the whole earth, the only absolutely righteous Judge, who will surely avenge his own elect. Heard by God, it becomes the instrument of the punishment. “The canker and rust shall witness against you.” “Miseries shall come upon you.” Calamities everywhere attended the Jews soon after the ascension of Christ. Proverbial for their wealth, they were ransacked and punished. From then till now they have been a persecuted people, and mainly through their wealth. Every one remembers Shakespeare’s Shylock, and Sir Walter Scott’s Isaac of York. Covetousness brings God’s curse on our estates. He sends putrefaction, the rust, and the moth. Ill gains are equivalent to losses, because providence often scatters them. There is a “withholding that tends to poverty.” “He that will save must lose” is the gospel riddle. The best way of bringing in is laying out. What is given to the poor is lent to God, and he is a safe banker; he repays with interest. God can easily corrupt that which we lay up, and make the worm breed in manna. God is in no lack of servants to carry information or effect his purposes. Corruption, canker, moth, all are at his beck and call. Some rise from within, as corruption; some attack from without, as the moth; the rust corrupts the substance, eats it away. He can arm the elements of fire, wind, and water. He can take the lightning into his hand. The stormy wind and vapour fulfil his word, and these he can bring at last as witnesses against us. Sealed volumes. God breaks the seal, and each circumstance becomes an unbribed witness. Many things now fair-seeming will show rottenness in the day of judgment. Vividly does the prophet tell us of the houses built by oppression coming as witnesses against the owners. “The stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it.” The stones will say, “We were hewn by violence,” and the timbers, “We were inlaid by fraud.” Many of the great works of ancient times, i. e. the pyramids, many colossal fortunes and magnificent mansions of modern times, were built with bones and cemented with blood—the blood and bones of the men who built them, or the men from whom the wealth was obtained. The circumstances of sin are so many memorials to put us in mind of guilt and to put God in mind of vengeance. Conscience writes when it does not speak. There is a book of remembrance. All conceptions of torment indicate a relation between sin and punishment not only in justice and duration, but in kind. In this world each sin has its own avenger; many sins are their own avengers. Anger—the agitation and unrest, are not they like whips whose lashes are weighted with lead?
1. Let us learn to weep tears of penitence, that we may not have to shed tears of remorse. After great showers the air is clear. It is better to weep in a way of duty than to weep in a way of judgment.
2. Let us learn the secret of happiness. The saint in the Old Testament commanded his soul to be merry because God was the light of his countenance; the fool in the gospel because he had much goods laid up for many years.
3. Let us learn to provide ourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth nor moth corrupteth. For all that is in the world is not of the Father. And the world passeth away, but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
The rich man’s empire.—“The empire which a rich man exercises finds no nation or tribe that wishes to resist it. It commands the services of man wherever man can be reached, because it offers to the desires of man the power of acquiring whatever objects of external enjoyment he is most eager to acquire. From the north to the south, from the east to the west, everything that can be rendered active is put in motion by him, who remains tranquilly at home, exciting the industry of those of whose very existence he is ignorant, and receiving the products of labour for his own use without knowing from whom he receives them. It is almost as in the magic stories of romance, in which the hero is represented as led from the castle-gate by hands that are invisible to him, ushered to a splendid banquet, where no one seems present, where wine is poured into the goblet before him at his very wish, and luxurious refreshment after refreshment appears upon the board, but appears as if no hand had brought it. To the rich man, in like manner, whatever he wishes seems to come merely because he wishes it to come. Without knowing who they are who are contributing to his idle luxury, he receives the gratification itself, and receives it from hands that operate as invisibly as the fairy hands at the banquet. He gathers around him the products of every sea and every soil. The sunshine of one climate, the snows of another, are made subsidiary to his artificial wants; and though it is impossible to discern the particular arms which he is every instant setting in motion, or the particular efforts of inventive thought which he is every instant stimulating, there can be no doubt that such a relation truly exists, which connects with his wishes and with his power the industry of those who labour on the remotest corner of the earth which the enterprising commerce of man can reach.”—Dr. Thomas Brown.
Possessions.—Possessions distinguish man from the brute, and civilized man from the savage. Labour finds in possessions its normal fruit; possessions are labour as having become reality. The brute is possessionless because he does not labour. In property man ceases to be a mere isolated individual of his species; he creates for himself a world about himself which he can call his own; his property is the outward manifestation of his inward peculiarity. The fact that he who possesses much is also much regarded and esteemed in the world is indeed often very hollow and baseless, though in reality it springs from the correct consciousness that possessions are the fruit of labour, the result of moral effort. He who acquires nothing for himself passes in the world, not without reason, for unrespectable. Of a special virtue of possession-despising, as with the mendicant monks, there can, in the ante-sinful state, be no question; and even after the fall possessions are presented as a perfectly legitimate end of moral effort, and their being increased as a special Divine blessing. Cain and Abel possess already personal property; and the God-blessed possessions of the patriarchs occupy a very large place in their morally religious life [Genesis 12:5; Genesis 12:16; Genesis 13:2; Genesis 14:14; Genesis 24:22; Genesis 24:35; Genesis 24:53; Genesis 26:13-1.26.14; Genesis 27:28; Genesis 30:27; Genesis 30:30; Genesis 30:43; Genesis 31:42; Genesis 32:5; Genesis 32:10; Genesis 32:13 sqq.; Genesis 33:11; Genesis 39:6; Genesis 49:25; Exodus 23:25; Leviticus 25:21; Deuteronomy 2:7; Deuteronomy 7:13; Deuteronomy 15:14 sqq.; Deuteronomy 16:15; Deuteronomy 16:17; Deuteronomy 28:3 sqq.; Deuteronomy 33:13 sqq.; Deuteronomy 24:22 : comp. 1 Kings 3:13; Psalms 107:38; Psalms 112:2-19.112.3; Psalms 132:15]. Property being the enlarged life-sphere of the moral person,—in some sense his enlarged personality itself,—the moral phase thereof lies not merely in its antecedent ground, namely, labour, but also in its moral use and application. To its enjoyment man has a moral right, as such enjoyment is the reward of labour; but to the exclusive enjoyment of it for himself alone he has no moral right, seeing that he is bound to other men by love, and love manifests itself in communicative distribution.”—Wuttke’s ‘Christian Ethics.’
A GREAT SCHISM AVERTED
Nehemiah 5:1-16.5.13. And there was a great cry of the people, &c.
The paragraph teaches—
I. That social injustice may exist even amongst fellow-workers in a great and good cause (Nehemiah 5:1-16.5.6). The complaint of the poor was forced from them. Wrong may be long endured; but it will find a voice, a cry “not loud, but deep.”
II. That social injustice, if not corrected, will undermine the stability of any cause, however righteous. Sanballatʼs army less fatal than the nobles’ avarice.
III. That social injustice should be regarded by all good men with feelings of righteous indignation (Nehemiah 5:6). From a realization of the brotherhood of men; of interdependence; of a Divine purpose in the elevation of the downtrodden.
V. That social injustice, whenever discovered, should be calmly yet promptly dealt with (Nehemiah 5:7). The prudent Nehemiah brought a moral force to bear upon the offenders. “Set an assembly.” The courageous Nehemiah rebuked the offenders, albeit they were highest in name and station. The far-seeing Nehemiah discerned ruin if internal wrongs remained unredressed.
V. That conciliatory appeals are sometimes more efficacious than coercive measures in dealing with social injustice (Nehemiah 5:8-16.5.13). Nehemiah used persuasive arguments.
1. The efforts already made to redeem their captive brethren (Nehemiah 5:8).
2. The exposure of the national cause to reproach (Nehemiah 5:9).
3. His own unblemished life and fit example (Nehemiah 5:10).
THE ACCUSING CRY OF HUMANITY
Nehemiah 5:1. There was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren
THE ACCUSERS.—“The many” who lack bread (Nehemiah 5:2). THE ACCUSED.—“Their” richer “brethren,” “the nobles and the rulers” (Nehemiah 5:1; Nehemiah 5:7). THE ACCUSATION.—“Ye exact usury. Ye have our lands and vineyards.” A story of the olden time of ever-new significance. A twice twenty-times told tale.
I. The unending struggle. Wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, brain and brawn, capital and labour—when in all the ages have not these come into collision? Communists, Socialists, Nihilists—are not these today voices from many lands (whether rightly or wrongly); the “great cry” of the poor of many nationalities against their richer brethren? The prayer of the philanthropists of every age has been expressed by a poet of our own:—
“Ring out the false, ring in the true;
Ring out the darkness of the land;
Ring out the fend of rich and poor;
Ring in redress to all mankind;
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring in the love of truth and right;
Ring in the common love of good.”
THE HEBREW PROPHETS declare that they that be slain with the sword are better than they that be slain with hunger; for these pine away, stricken through for want of the fruits of the field (Lamentations 4:9). They tell how God’s judgments came upon the land because the righteous were sold for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes (Amos 2:6). The scathing words of JESUS CHRIST were reserved for those who used the pride of place to oppress the poor and him that hath no helper. The EARLY PERIOD of English history is associated with William the Conqueror. The DARK AGES had light enough to show the few how to prey upon the many. Through much tribulation NATIONS have emerged into the light, and CLASSES burst the shackles of slavery and proclaimed their freedom. With a great sum England obtained the freedom of the WEST INDIES. The blood of AMERICA’S sons wiped out the stain of slavery which disgraced the greatest republic the world has seen. A great cry has gone up to God as our poor world has struggled on towards knowledge and liberty.
II. Elements of bitterness in this struggle.
1. On the side of the oppressors there is power. They are “the nobles and the rulers” (Nehemiah 5:7). “The names of king and priest are the most appalling in history.” So perverted have they become. Anciently to rule was also to feed (Psalms 78:71-19.78.72). A bishop is a shepherd. The pastoral staff is the shepherd’s crook.
2. The oppressed are the brethren of the oppressors. “Our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children.” Same blood, same love of children, same sensitiveness to pain. Hath not a poor man eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Is he not fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a rich man? If you prick a poor man, will he not bleed? if you tickle him, will he not laugh? if you poison him, will he not die?
3. They were engaged in a common caus—rebuilding God’s chosen city. To make this world a paradise; to compel all kings to recognize the King of kings; to set up a kingdom of righteousness and peace, is not this the task given to humanity, the goal toward which our world should move?
III. Light in the darkness. “Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh.”
1. Christ-came to proclaim the brotherhood of humanity. His Beatitudes direct men to look to character, not to position, for Divine approval. The strait gate must be passed through by rich and noble as well as by poor and unknown. Jesus spoke to the poor, felt for the degraded, raised hope in the oppressed.
2. Signs of the times. The “many” (Nehemiah 5:2) are not unheard; their influence not unfelt. There is wrong, but society tends towards redress. Ignorance abounds, but the teacher is abroad. Many rich forget their duties—not all. Tennyson’s Sir Walter Vivian is not the creation of a poet’s fancy.
“Sir Walter Vivian all a summer’s day
Gave his broad lawns until the set of sun
Up to the people: thither flocked at noon
His tenants, wife and child, and thither half
The neighbouring borough, with their Institute,
Of which he was the patron.
Why should not these great Sirs
Give up their parks some dozen times a year
To let the people breathe?”
Tennyson’s vision will one day be actualized.
“I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the havens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging through the thunder-storm;
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the parliament of man, the federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.”
“How long, O Lord?”
The passion for power.—“Christianity has joined with all history in inspiring me with a peculiar dread and abhorrence of the passion for power, for dominion over men. There is nothing in the view of our Divine Teacher so hostile to his Divine spirit as the lust of domination. This we are accustomed to regard as eminently the sin of the arch-fiend. ‘By this sin fell the angels.’ It is the most Satanic of all human passions, and it has inflicted more terrible evils on the human family than all others. It has made the names of king and priest the most appalling in history. There is no crime which has not been perpetrated for the strange pleasure of treading men underfoot, of fastening chains on the body or mind. The strongest ties of nature have been rent asunder, her holiest feelings smothered, parents, children, brothers murdered to secure dominion over man. The people have now been robbed of the necessaries of life, and now driven to the field of slaughter like flocks of sheep to make one man the master of millions. Through this passion government, ordained by God to defend the weak against the strong, to exalt right above might, has up to this time been the great wrong-doer. Its crimes throw those of private men into the shade. Its murders reduce to insignificance those of the bandits, pirates, highwaymen, assassins against whom it undertakes to protect society. Power trampling on right, whether in the person of king or priest, or in the shape of democracies or majorities, is the saddest sight to him who honours human nature and desires its enlargement and happiness.”—W. E. Channing.
THE MISERIES OF DEBT
Nehemiah 5:3-16.5.5. Some also there were that said, &c.
Dr. Jamieson, the Bible interpreter, thus writes on this passage:—“The poor made loud complaints against the rich for taking advantage of their necessities, and grinding them by usurious exactions. Numbers of them had, in consequence of these oppressions, been driven to such extremities that they had to mortgage their lands and houses to enable them to pay the taxes to the Persian Government, and ultimately even sell their children for slaves to procure the means of subsistence.” Generalizing this particular instance, we have the subject of debt and its miseries.
I. Mental unrest. Credit is necessary. The world’s business could not otherwise be carried on. The every-day word trust is, like most every-day words, suggestive. It is confidence between man and man. It supposes an honourable undertaking. Faith is not only a theological word; it is a force in this working-day world. No man ought to receive credit without a prospect of being able to pay. The violation of this rule is dishonest. To take a man’s purse is stealing. So is taking up goods without paying for them, and receiving wages for which the stipulated labour has not been given. Unless hardened through a long series of dishonesties, a man cannot be contented who does not obey the New Testament law, “Owe no man anything.”
II. Social degradation. It is pro verbial that to be in debt is to be in danger; danger of detection and exposure. Do not pretend to be what you are not; do not keep up a style and scale of cost beyond your means.
III. Family ruin. A man owes a first duty to his own house. The helpless hang on him. He may bring ruin through extravagance.
IV. A disregard of a Divine command. “THOU SHALT NOT STEAL” was written with the finger of God. This law has not been abrogated.
1. Christians should set the world an example.
2. Watch the beginnings of extravagance.
3. In small things as well as in greater act on Christian principle. “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much; and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.”
Illustrations:—“The Persians reckoned these two very great sins.
1. To be in debt.
2. To tell a lie; the latter being often the fruit of the former.”
“By the twelve tables of Rome, he that owed much, and could not pay, was to be cut in pieces, and every creditor was to have a piece of him according to the debt.”
“We read of a certain Italian gentleman who, being asked how old he was, answered that he was in health; and to another that asked how rich he was, answered that he was not in debt. He is young enough that is in health, and rich enough that is not in debt.”—Trapp.
Nehemiah 5:6. And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words
“Ezra and Nehemiah were both of them very wise, good, useful men; yet in cases not unlike theirs there is a great deal of difference between their management. When Ezra was told of the sin of the rulers in marrying strange wives he rent his clothes and wept, and prayed, and was hardly persuaded to attempt a reformation, fearing it impracticable; for he was a man of a mild, tender spirit. When Nehemiah was told of as ill a thing he warmed presently, fell foul upon the delinquents, incensed the people against them, and never rested till, by all the rough methods he could use, he forced them to reform; for he was a man of a hot and eager spirit. Very holy men may differ much from each other in their natural temper, and in other things that result from it. Again, God’s work may be done, well done, and successfully, and yet different methods taken in doing it; which is a good reason why we should neither arraign others’ management nor make our own a standard. There are diversities of operation, but the same spirit.”—Matthew Henry. Nehemiah’s soul was stirred within him as he saw the oppression of his voiceless brethren. But they who were not able to help themselves were not therefore to remain unhelped.
“The voice of their indignation
Rose up to the throne of God.”
They bore long, until suffering was no longer endurable; and then they appealed from Festus unto Cæsar, from the nobles and rulers who were set over them to Nehemiah under whom they all served. The longer Nehemiah mused the more fiercely the fire of his anger burned. There cannot be supreme love of right without bitterest hatred of wrong. Admiration of virtue and scorn of vice are correlative. There is such a thing as righteous anger.
I. The righteousness of anger depends upon its cause and occasion. “What is anger? It is displeasure felt in a high degree; a feeling which is awakened when we think ourselves injured. It is usually attended with a restless uneasiness of mind, and frequently with something worse. But is anger in no case allowable? Perhaps it is. ‘God is angry with the wicked every day’ (Psalms 7:11); that is, he is highly displeased with their sinful conduct, and resolved to punish them on its account; yet anger in God is infinitely remote from anything of turbulence and malevolence. We read of our Lord Jesus looking round on the people, particularly on the Pharisees, ‘with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts’ (Mark 3:5); but this anger was perfectly consistent with the purest benevolence, with the tenderest, the most disinterested kindness. Anger in depraved creatures is certainly very different from what it is in God, and from what it was in Jesus Christ; and we should be cautious how we give the least allowance to so dangerous a passion. It has been judiciously remarked, when anger ‘proceeds from pride, or from selfishness; when it rises high, or continues long; and when it is accompanied by anything like hatred or ill-will towards the person who is its object, then it is sinful and hurtful. But whatever we may think of the lawfulness or unlawfulness of anger in itself, and how difficult it may be to ascertain in what cases and in what degree it is allowable, one thing is evident—we cannot be too cautious of yielding to its influence. It is a passion so difficult to be regulated and so dreadful often in its effects; so destructive of that meekness, gentleness, and love which form the very essence of the Christian character; so expressly forbidden in various passages of the New Testament, and so carefully guarded even in those where it seems to be in some measure allowed, that we have much more reason to restrain than to encourage it even in the smallest degree.’ There is one object against which anger may be innocently directed, and this object is sin; either sin in ourselves, or sin in others. Peter was angry, exceedingly displeased with himself, when, at the recollection of his sin in denying his blessed Lord, ‘he went out and wept bitterly.’ The brethren of Joseph were angry with themselves, displeased at their base behaviour, when convinced of their cruelty towards an unoffending brother; and doubtless the feeling was laudable. The soul of righteous Lot was ‘vexed;’ he was angry with the filthy conversation of the wicked among whom he dwelt; and as we dwell among a people of unclean lips and unholy conduct, our blame would be great if we felt not displeasure at what we hear and witness.”—Kidd. We read of the fierce anger of the Lord when Israel joined himself unto Baal-Peor (Numbers 25:1-4.25.9). Pronounced upon disobedience (Deuteronomy 29:20). When Jesus Christ looked upon his spying enemies with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, which predominated, the anger or the grief? Contrast the anger of Sanballat (chap. 4) with the anger of Nehemiah (chap. 5); how different the occasion, how unlike the cause. For a good work Sanballat was prepared to stone the Jews; for an evil act of oppression Nehemiah rose up to rebuke the nobles. Be ye angry and sin not in reference to cause.
II. The righteousness of anger depends upon its spirit and limitations. Note, especially, the anger of Jesus Christ had reference to the evil, the hardness of their hearts. Righteous anger is against wrong, not against wrong-doers. Must have in it no personal malice, no spleen. Must not cross the line to revenge. Anger is the basis of magistracy, the support of laws, and the pillar of decency and right conduct. “Magistrates are mortal gods, and God is an immortal magistrate; therefore, as the merciful God heareth in his holy habitation in heaven the cry of the miserable, oppressed people in earth, so should every godly ruler hear and relieve the pitiful cry of the oppressed, being his brethren, seeing he is God’s lieutenant, and hath the sword and law in his hand to bridle such ill-doers, and must not for favour, gifts, nor fear suffer it unamended; else he doeth not his duty unto the mighty Lord, who set him in that place, gave him the authority, and will ask a strait account how he hath used it to the relief of the oppressed. Some be of opinion that a magistrate should not be moved with anger in doing his office, but give every man fair words, pass over matters slowly, please all men, though he do them little good; but, the truth being well considered, it may be judged otherwise. Lactantius writeth a book wherein he proveth that God himself is angry, and every anger is not sin. If God then be angry against sin, why may not a good man in God’s cause then do the same? Hate not the man, but his ill-doing; be not angry without a just cause unadvisedly; keep not thy anger long, that it grow not into hatred; let it be no more nor no less than the fault deserveth, and let it be without raging, fuming, fretting, swelling, and raving and disquieting of body or mind; not for malice of revenging, but for pity or justice to correct and amend; and anger well qualified is not ill. This is not spoken to give liberty to anger, for we are too ready to it by nature; but rather to bridle it, seeing it standeth on so narrow a point to keep measure in. This qualifying of anger is declared in the Scripture as that it should not continue. St. Paul saith, ‘Let not the sun set upon your anger;’ and that it should not be rashly, without cause, nor more than the cause requireth. The gospel teacheth, saying, ‘He that is angry with his brother without a just cause is guilty of judgment.’ This anger of Nehemiah was just in all circumstances, and kept the rule of St Paul, ‘Be angry and sin not,’ which is a hard point to keep.”—Pilkington. He who hates sin will escape it. An extreme sentimentalism would make all virtue consist in amiability. Men have proclaimed the love of God as if it denied his justice. “God is love.” “Our God is a consuming fire.” The two poles of the Divine character.
1. Temperamental anger to be subdued by holy thought, prayer, and effort. Lay aside every weight, and the sin that doth so easily beset.
2. Distinguish between the wrong and the wrong-doers. Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
3. Remember Christian doctrine of forgiveness. If thy brother trespass against thee and return, saying, Repent, forgive him. Let the daily prayer be, Forgive us our trespasses, and help us to forgive them that trespass against us. For this doctrine of forgiveness is one of the hard sayings of Jesus Christ.
Nehemiah 5:7. Then I consulted with myself
The position was perilous. The nobles and the rulers were powerful; their services were needed. The toilers were embittered; the common cause endangered. Too little courage or too much prudence, cowardice or temporizing, would prove fatal. “Then I consulted with myself.” His heart took counsel upon the injustice. From this instance of introspection or self-communion let us consider self-communion generally.
I. The value of self-communion. Thought comes in solitude. Character is formed by self-communings. A preacher must return sometimes to “fructifying silence.” We are not enough alone. Our age is restless. It craves results—speedy and sure. Too much bustle and hurry. Duty treads upon the heels of duty. Moses, Elijah, John Baptist, Paul, yes, and Christ himself, lived in the wilderness alone with God. Cecil, Scott, Newton, Wesley, the spiritual giants, were men of solitary hours. Too much familiarity with men breeds contempt and distrust. Know thyself! “Come ye yourselves apart,” said Jesus to disciples flushed with success (Mark 6:0). Need of rest and self-communion evident in all spheres of life. Restlessness characterizes most men. Space and time are nearly annihilated. Parliamentary speech spoken in the early hours of the morning is printed and transmitted to the breakfast-table. Markets of Odessa, Alexandria, New York, Calcutta, and Sydney hardly closed ere the electric current has flashed the quotations. Best and time to think almost denied many commercial and professional men. It was the sin of Israel. “My people doth not consider.” “Consider your ways”—there speaks a prophet. “Think on these things”—there speaks an apostle. “Hear ye the word of the Lord” ushers in the Old Testament. “He that hath ears to hear let him hear” introduces the New. He who pleads the pressure of business has too much business. Men must find time to prepare for eternity. Too much religious work dangerous. “They made me the keeper of the vineyards, but mine own vineyard have I not kept” (Song of Solomon). “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (Paul). “Nothing is so important as to keep an exact proportion between the interior source of virtue and the external practice of it, else, like the foolish virgins, we shall find that the oil in our lamps is exhausted when the bridegroom comes” (Chrysostom). Is this the meaning of our Lord’s solemn words, “Many will say to me,” &c. (Matthew 7:22-40.7.23)? Christian charity begins at home. It is possible to build reformatories and be ourselves unreformed; possible to send the Bible to others and ourselves forget to read it; possible to lay costly gifts on God’s altar and not bow in penitence at his footstool. The Christian life a growth. It is the burden of direct precept. “Grow in grace and in knowledge” (2 Peter 3:18). “Add to your faith” (2 Peter 1:5). It is variously illustrated. “The righteous shall hold on his way, and he that hath clean hands shall be stronger and stronger” (Job 17:9). “He shall be like a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out its roots by the river” (Jeremiah 17:8). It is the subject of apostles’ joy when Christians “stand fast in the Lord” (Philippians 4:1). Can this be effected without time and thought? Does not the garden of the soul require culture? Do the flowers of humility and charity grow wild? Does business demand application, but the soul’s commerce none? Must the children’s minds be educated and their hearts remain untrained? Each must come into some desert place and rest awhile with Christ.
II. The dangers of self-communion.
1. Morbid religion. Don’t be always a spiritual anatomist. Too frequent looking within brings depression. Religious depression arising from neglect of duty or commission of sin cannot coexist with spiritual life. But very much depression is needless or self-induced. We may say sometimes, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” (Psalms 42:11). A man feels forsaken, and, projecting his own feelings, imagines God has forsaken him. Do not rashly imagine that because you cannot every hour “read your title clear” that therefore your name is erased from the book of life.
2. Out of undue self-communion arose asceticism of middle ages; arises some conventual tendencies of our own. Dream not of becoming unworldly by escaping from duty. “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (John 17:15).
III. The safe-guards of self-communion.
1. Action. From the temple to the city.
“ ’Twixt the mount and multitude,
Doing or receiving good.”
Thought the basis of action. Acts become habits. “I must work the works of him that sent me” (John 9:4). “As the Father hath sent me into the world, even so have I sent them into the world” (John 17:18; John 20:21). Do not put asunder what God hath joined together. Different temperaments will give varying prominence to contemplation and action; the inward and the outward. But woe to those who neglect either. A pure heart the indispensable condition of a noble life.
2. God’s word. Make that the only guide.
AN ASSEMBLY CONVOKED AGAINST SINNERS
Nehemiah 5:7. And I set a great assembly against them
Partly because persons implicated were numerous and powerful to show them that greater numbers disapproved, and partly to cause such shame and remorse as might lead them to renounce their criminal practices. The measure was successful. Show impenitent sinners how great an assembly may be set against them. Sinners rely on being a majority. They are decidedly superior to the servants of God; not only in number, but in wealth and power and influence. Were the great question What is truth? to be decided by numbers, they could easily determine it in their own favour. Show that those whose opinions and approbation are more important are against them.
I. The good men now in the world. Not necessarily professors of religion. Many professors not good men. By good men is meant men whom God will acknowledge to be good.
II. All the good men who have ever lived. These compose an assembly far exceeding in number all the good men who are now alive. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, John Baptist, disciples of Jesus, early Christians, martyrs, reformers, men of ‘May-Flower.’
III. All the writers of the Old and New Testaments. They are good men; they are more—they are inspired men. Being taught by the eternal Spirit of God, with one voice they cry, Woe to the wicked; it shall be ill with him! Heaven and earth shall pass away, but God’s words never.
IV. The holy angels. Consider number, character, and intellectual rank. Perhaps exceed in number the human race. “An innumerable company.” In comparison with the least angel the wisest human philosopher is a child. Their holiness is perfect, spotless. They execute the will of God.
V. The Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord of angels and men, the appointed Judge, who will pronounce a sentence on both.
VI. God the Father. Sinners strive with their Maker. Survey the whole assembly which is arrayed against evil and evil-doers. Terrible to sinners; consolatory to Christians.—Dr. Payson, abridged.
INCONSISTENCY WITHOUT EXCUSE
Nehemiah 5:8. And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us? Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer
They found nothing to answer. For what answer could be given? They which heard Nehemiah’s accusation were convicted by their own conscience. Brotherhood, memories of bondage, the great price at which they had redeemed their brethren from Persian masters, the inspiration of their journey to the decayed city, the work God had given them to do—these rose up like prophets of evil tidings to second the noble censures of Nehemiah. Their inconsistency was without excuse.
I. The admirableness of consistency. It is manly. Everybody reverences it. Even in an unworthy cause it extorts a momentary recognition. In a worthy cause all bow the knee and do it homage. The heroes of history by flood and field, the redressers of human wrongs at home and abroad, the characters of Bible story, were consistent. They had a purpose and stuck to it. Despised of men, mocked at by demons, are those whom the inspired apostle describes as “wavering like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed; the double-minded, who are unstable in all their ways” (James 1:6-59.1.8). Dignity is robbed of its excellency and power of its strength in the Reubens who are “unstable as water” (Genesis 49:3-1.49.4). Be persistent. Be consistent. Is it consistent for Christian men to enter into partnership with those who work without a conscience? Ought Christian parents to consult first and foremost the worldly convenience and advantage of their children? If religion be true, should it not decide the just weight and the true measure? In business, in pleasure, at home, abroad, through the week as well as on the Sabbath, be consistent.
II. The inexcusableness of inconsistency. Has nothing to recommend it. Nothing gained. Brings discredit upon any cause. The inconsistent man has no faith in his position. An inconsistent Christian may profess but does not possess a good creed. The creed which influences conduct is not that which a man holds, but that which holds him. Life is the expositor of doctrine. Nehemiah’s nobles called the workmen brethren. But that was only a word of the lip. The deed of the life made them slaves and foreigners. For a time the nobles prospered. Success smiled upon oppression. But a reckoning day came. Summoned to Nehemiah’s bar, they “found nothing to answer.” A New Testament parable is recalled. The man who had not on a wedding garment was “speechless” (Matthew 22:1-40.22.14). Profession and possession, reality and hypocrisy, are not always distinguishable here and now. Parable of tares: “Let both grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:24-40.13.30). In earlier times men strove for a pure visible Church. That impossible. Our eyes cannot distinguish true from false in every instance. By-and-by inconsistency will stand self-convicted. At heaven’s judgment-seat every one must give an account.
1. The supreme importance of character. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
2. The value of self-reliance. Wrong-doing is contagious. One noble imitated another in exacting usury. Those who were half conscious that they were doing wrong were encouraged by the evil example of others. Trust thyself when thou hast the approval of thy own conscience.
3. Remember the bar of God. He who made Nehemiah upright “is a God all whose ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity” (Deuteronomy 32:4). “He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? he that formed the eye, shall he not see?” (Psalms 94:9).
The marvellous personal power of Nehemiah. Great individuality triumphs over all things. Napoleon laughed away the pretensions of rank by saying, “I am an ancestor.” The force of personal character makes all other forces give way. Especially when the individuality is a good individuality; when the strength of manhood is backed by the strength of right. Illustration of this in the text, where the dumbfounded nobles stand ashamed before the challenge of the man who has come to spy out their faults and to mend them at all costs to himself. Subject, the inexcusableness of inconsistency.
I. The inconsistency. Define inconsistency. Want of harmony in the parts of a man’s life. The presence in a man’s being of two things which cannot be together. A man who swears the British oath of allegiance and takes the pay of the English state would be an inconsistent man if he betrayed state secrets to a hostile country, or gave guidance to an invading foe. That would be treason. Religious inconsistency is treason against the King of kings—treason and treachery against the truth.
1. Worldly inconsistency. Worldly men point sneeringly to any little deviation from consistency in Christian people; but if Christian charity did not forbid the sneer might be returned. The cant and pretence and selfish departure from avowed principles which fills the life of the children of this world may well creep a little into the Church. A politician who loves liberty, and is at the same time a tyrant in his household and to his servants; a man who loves to read and to talk fine sentiment, and whose common life runs along a low level of worldly meanness, are examples of inconsistency. The world had need to pluck the beam out of its own eye before meddling with the mote in the eye of the Church. 2. Religious inconsistency. Example of Balaam, who prayed, “Let me die the death of the righteous,” and who died with a sword drawn against God; the Puritan, who fought for liberty to worship God, and then would not grant toleration to his brother’s creed; the professing Christian of even late years, who bought and sold men, women, and children as slaves, are glaring instances of contradictions in character and conduct. Enumerate common forms of inconsistency in the ordinary life of professedly Christian people.
3. Injurious effects of inconsistency. (a) To self. It blunts the conscience, and so damages the finer spiritual perceptions as to deprive the soul of the perfect peace of those who are in perfect truth. (β) To others. It seems a contradiction of religion, a confession of its inadequacy to master the sin in a man, and shakes the faith of an on looking world in the power of the gospel.
II. The inexcusableness. With heads hanging like bulrushes the dumbfounded men stood before Nehemiah, as now the inconsistent stands before the convictions of God’s Spirit and the reproach of the world.
1. Infirmity is often pleaded as an excuse. The follower of the meek and lowly Jesus so excuses his outbursts of violent passion. The man who hides his convictions in a worldly circle so excuses his want of religious courage. The man who grasps at some questionable advantage of the world so covers the selfishness which has shown itself mightier than his Christian self-denial. It is dangerous to so shake hands with our own infirmity.
2. Ignorance is another excuse. Want of true perception of God’s law and lack of thoughtfulness concerning the true significance of his own actions are a reason, but not an excuse, for much inconsistency among the professed servants of God. As some uninstructed persons are not sure of the difference between green and blue, and are not pained by want of harmony in colours that are joined but not reconciled to each other, so a blunt moral sense may not detect all the contradictions of his own religious character.
3. But infirmity may be strengthened and ignorance may be instructed. These are not excuses. “Truth in the inward parts” is the requirement of him “whose we are, and whom we serve.” To be sanctified wholly (not one-sidedly or partially) is the Christian’s prayer—body, soul, and spirit all penetrated through and through with holiness.
1. Do not leave to others the task of detecting your inconsistency. Find it out yourself.
2. Do not weakly reconcile yourself to things which can have no place in a complete Christian character.
3. Seek more of that freedom of the truth which liberates a man from these reproaching faults.
GOD’S PEOPLE UNDER THE EYE OF A CRITICAL WORLD
Nehemiah 5:9. Also I said, It is not good, &c.
The world has a spleen against the Church. The Church is an incarnate condemnation of the world. “I have saved them out of the world.” However full of charity the elect of God may be, they stand rank on rank, by their creed and their practice, witnessing with silent censure against all ungodliness. Hence in self-defence the world watches for the Church’s faults, “rejoicing in iniquity”—the discovered iniquity of the professedly good. Our religious self-government is watched by a critical “opposition,” ever ready with its “reproach.” Nehemiah asks a fair question: “Ought ye not to walk in the fear of God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?”
I. The reproach of the enemy. The world’s criticism of God’s people is very merciless and very unfair. It makes no allowances. It does not “remember that we are dust.” It has no place for the extenuations of charity. The world will not under-rate, but over-rate, the defects of the good. Malicious rumour makes a mountain out of a molehill; like photography, it exaggerates every freckle or scar on the countenance of a good man’s life. Beware of the reproach of the world our enemy.
1. Accept this condition of life. It is useless to kick against the pricks. We may be moved to scorn by the mean carping of the foe; but it flings back its motto, “All’s fair in war.” If you contend with an uncivilized enemy you get ready for uncivilized deeds. Give mercy, but expect none. Do not call the world hard names; the world is simply the world, and no more. “Fret not thyself because of evil-doers,” nor because of their evil tongues.
2. Do not despise this power of enmity. (a) There is a noble scorn of the evil-tongued society. Here is an old motto of an independent mind. “They say! What do they say? Let them say!” Do not be afraid to live. Let us not creep apologetically through the world. We owe no one an apology for our fear of God. It is they who are wrong, and most of them know it very well. If you carry the Christian flag as if ashamed of it the world will despise you all the more. It likes out and out manhood. Do not “liberalize” your creed, or conceal your conviction, or blush at your good deeds for fear of reproach. “Whosoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will I be ashamed.” Be no “reed shaken with the wind.” (β) But there is an unwise scorn of the world’s opinion. A thing lawful for me as a man may be inexpedient for me as a Christian man. Many good men are doing hurt to Christ’s cause by a reckless bravado, which flows out of an uncontrolled independence or out of an unthinking foolishness. A man in ambush may show he is no coward by exposing himself to danger before the enemy, but he may show that he is a fool by revealing the position of his comrades and involving them in peril. “Walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise.”
3. For the world’s own sake have a care of the world’s reproach.
(1) You may make the evil man doubt the God you fear. “Another saint unmasked,” says the world, as it exults over the declared inconsistency of a Christian. “By one judge all,” says the critic. You cast a veil over God’s face, and put truth at the bar “on suspicion,” when you do not walk before the enemy in the fear of God.
(2) You may hurt the conscience of the worldly man. To let him see his own fault in you is to justify his fault to his pliant conscience. When you do an ill thing you endorse the ill things another does.
(3) You cast away your influence for good. All things are possible to you if the world believes in you. You can cast out its devils and tread on its serpents and scorpions, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. But if you cast away the confidence of your unconverted brother you can do nothing with him because of his unbelief. We want to have faith in God and to make the world have faith in us.
II. The caution of the godly. “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: … having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.”
1. Elements of caution. (α) Be strong in the fear of God. Let the solemn thought of his watchfulness guide your steps. Remember the one omnipresent Witness whose eye shines like a star over the darkest gloom of secrecy. “Fear him, ye saints, and ye shall then have nothing else to fear.” Cultivate the sentiment of that ancient saying, “Thou God seest me!” If clear of his reproach, the reproach of the enemy shall be but as a hailstone against the flint. (β) Be rigorous in self-condemnation; Be charitable in judging others; be just in judging thyself. If you are lax, let it not be with self. For your own sake be what you would seem. Above all fear of the world’s reproach, fear the reproach of an indignant self. “To thine own self be true, and it shall follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
2. Spheres of caution. (α) Personal life. In all those elements of life which are “your own business,” and not the world’s affair, be on your guard. Reverent behaviour, amiable temper, truth and kindness of tone and speech in conversation, godly direction of your habits and your household—let these be above suspicion. Your habits are the atmosphere and your home the environment of yourself; let them become you. (β) Public life. Though in Rome, despise the ill-doer’s motto. In the world; be not of it. Where association makes you unable to prevent be no advocate of evil. Do the world’s work and change the world’s gold with Christian fingers. (γ) Church life. Remember that in all Church life higher maxims and nobler usages than those of the world should predominate. Do not blare out the faults of fellow Christians. For Christ’s sake, for the world’s sake, cast a cloak of charity over the misunderstandings and the misunderstandable doings of the household of faith. Do not tell your enemy how weak your own brother is. In private life, in public life, in Church life, walk in the fear of God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies.
1. Pray. “Who is sufficient for these things?” Draw deep inspirations of the Holy Spirit of God.
2. Watch. Keep open eyes on yourself and on your temptations.
WHAT OTHERS DO NO EXCUSE FOR MY DOING
Nehemiah 5:10. I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might, &c.
Nehemiah’s great strength of goodness and his nobleness of mind made him in his historic conduct a law unto himself.
1. He rose above all example. The contrast between himself and the common run of his contemporaries is evident throughout the story. “He heard a voice they could not hear.”
2. He rose above all the bare requirements of law. “Is it so nominated in the bond?” is never the question of a heroically good man. Not what I am required to do, but what I am able to do; not what I am commanded, but what I can, is his rule of action.
3. His generous goodness made him a law unto himself. See this illustrated in the text. What others do is no excuse for my doing the same. “I might exact of them.”
I. Common contravention of this rule.
1. A common reason for wrongdoing is that others do it. Easy to find precedent and example for anything we wish to do. In the practices of the world and in the faults of good men we can find, if we are perverse enough, plenty of examples of evil.
2. A more powerful reason still is the fact that it will be done, so I may as well do it, and have the benefit of it. This will justify anything to a man. The schoolboy in Cowper’s story robs the orchard because his companions will go even if he should remain away. The business man contents himself with iniquitous action because others would do it in any case, and he may as well have the benefit as another. The legislator enacts an unrighteous statute or favours an unholy conquest because these things will be done.
II. Vindication of this rule.
1. Not another’s conscience, but his own conscience, is a man’s guide. If every one descended to the lower level of his neighbour, the world would go with swift slide into the bottomless pit. To stand faithful where others fail is the glory of the servant of the Lord. “They do it, and will do it:—let them do it; I will not.”
2. The evil doings of others will not save a man from the doom of his own wrong-doing. “Thou hast delivered thy soul.” That surely is some consolation for the man who stands aloof from evil. “I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn,” if this wrong exaction by others might justify it in us.
CLENCHING A GOOD RESOLUTION
Nehemiah 5:12. Then said they, We will restore, &c.
“In a time of danger we understand a general interest. Every one is called in to take a part in the struggles that we make for liberty. And yet when the toil was a little over some of them acted as if they thought that Providence was not a public friend, but only a sort of a factor to a few private families. It is a misrepresentation of him who gives us the mercy if we do not make it extensive. He accepts not the persons of princes nor regards the rich more than the poor, for they are all the work of his hands. You must not think he is so lavish of his bounty to the great men of the earth merely that they may glitter upon a throne, but be his ministers for good; and this they cannot be if they resolve to confine their influence. Princes love to be called God’s representatives, but they usually understand it in no other attribute than his power; whereas that is incommunicable; it is a glory that he never gives to another. The chief titles in which he would be represented by them are those of justice and mercy.” These strong, brave, and true words were written by Thomas Bradbury more than a century and a half ago, and applied to his own times. The human heart is the same in all ages. It is treacherous. Nehemiah knew this. The words of the oppressors were fair-seeming. “We will restore.” “We will require nothing of them.” “We will do as thou sayest.” But the very greatness of the promise constitutes its danger. It is too good to be true; needs binding force. The priest’s presence will give the oath “legal validity for judicial decisions.” It will also impart solemnity. If tempted to oppress again the awful oath will rise to recollection. There is the truth of life in this old-world scene. Men need all the helps they can get.
I. In the resistance of temptation. The balance of our lives has need of one scale of reason to poise another of passion. The proverbs of many peoples speak of the fragile nature of promises and vows. He who stands on his unaided resolution has insecure footing. Forgetting is easy. Self-interest is powerful. The present moment outweighs the future hour. Philosophy would teach us to forego a moment’s rapture for lifelong peace; but we are not all philosophical. The now is here, the rapture is possible; the future is uncertain, the peace is contingent. All experience of life teaches that men will barter future blessedness for present happiness. “The things which are seen” bulk larger in the eyes of men than “the things which are not seen.” We cannot afford to neglect (a) the daily reading of the word of God; (b) private and ejaculatory prayer; (c) covenant engagements with God. Many Christians have found it helpful to enter into a written covenant. The signature has had the same effect as Nehemiah’s oath. Any system of spiritual mnemonics is valuable. What is wanted is quickness to discover temptation, and firmness to resist it. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psalms 119:11). “It is written!” Jesus answered and said to the tempter (Matthew 4:0). “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). All inspirations that are available are needed.
II. In the performance of duty. Doing good is a more comprehensive phrase than easy task. “Virtue is its own reward.” Possibly, but not always so regarded. A hard task trying to help those who hinder. He who will serve must suffer. Let him despise not the smallest strength from any quarter. Bind thyself to God’s altar with any cords thou mayest obtain. Reliance on God will bring the only safe self-reliance. For each day’s task God has promised daily strength. For rugged paths he has provided wear-resisting shoes. Lift up thy burden. Put thy foot forward along the path God has marked out. “Trust in the Lord and do good.” “Thy God hath commanded thy strength.”
THE TERRORS OF THE LORD PERSUADING MEN
Nehemiah 5:13. Also I shook my lap, and said, &c.
This text describes a solemn scene. A reformer with a stern, hard nerve of righteousness arraigning a guilty band of fellow mortals before God. The nobles feel the spell of Nehemiah’s strong conscience and the still stronger spell of Jehovah’s threatening, and have promised to reform their deeds. Their ruthless friend, having compelled them to swear to their resolves, turning upon them, exclaims, “Now you are committed to your course.” “I shook my lap, and said. So God shake out every man that performeth not this promise. And all the congregation said, Amen.” A similar scene is recorded in Deuteronomy 27:0, where the curses of God were read as the doom of those who broke the laws solemnly repeated before the people, and where, like the murmur of a surge on the coast, the deep Amen of the people rolled back in acceptance of the stern alternative—obedience on the curse. Twelve times over from the slopes of Ebal rang the “Cursed be he” of the officiating Levite, and twelve times was flung back the united Amen of Israel. In a similar spirit Nehemiah extemporized this solemn binding ceremony of the text.
I. The doom of unrighteousness acknowledged. Amen in one significance means “verily,” “truly,” “so it is and shall be.” The Lord will shake out from his lap the wicked like a man shaking the worthless dust from his garment. It is even so. Amen! Say to the wicked, It shall be ill with him.
1. Natural instinct asserts this. By natural instinct one holds no precise philosophical dogma. This is enough for our purpose. Every rational mind in a land of light and knowledge has the deep, inwrought conviction that doom must follow misdoing. Fiery sentences asserting this are written in legends of the heathen world. Nemesis, like a bloodhound, follows the wrongdoer. Ancient poetry grows terrible in its tragic representations of this great belief. “Our heart condemns us.” God’s warning words are answered by the soul’s Amen! It is even so!
2. The operation of natural law exhibits this great principle, that God must one day shake away the worthless. “Nature gives us a word and a blow, and the blow first.” Excess or transgression of physical law threatens us as with fixed bayonets. Put a bound upon thy lust and appetite, or beware, is the voice of all experience. No less a human than a Divine proverb is the saying, “He that breaketh the hedge, the serpent shall bite him.” The sensual, who has lost his health; the drunkard, who has pulled down the pillars of his home; the dishonest, who is cast out a despised and characterless thing, all point one way. It is nature’s Amen to the Bible curse—It is so.
3. History fills her picture-galleries with illustrations of this point. The history of nations is a story of well-doing and its reward, prosperity, and of ill-doing and its sure-footed vengeance. History puts her brazen trumpet to her lips and blows out an assenting Amen! It is so. God will shake out as he has shaken out the wicked. You cannot argue with or alter this stable law of life. You may lay an unbelieving hand upon the letters of doom, you may cast doubt after doubt into the bottomless pit, but not one jot or tittle of the world’s law which is God’s law can be affected thereby. “Be sure your sin will find you out.”
II. The doom of unrighteousness accepted. Amen not only means “It is so,” but, “So let it be.” By their Amen the people signed their agreement to the conditions, their acceptance of the pains and penalties of the transgressor. The repentant people said Amen to the curse. They indignantly denounced their baser self. “If I could be so base as to neglect my vow to God, let it be even thus—let me be shaken out of God’s lap of rest and blessedness.” That is the significance of their Amen!
1. Yet it is dangerous to misunderstand this. Many a struggling man, after being repeatedly vanquished by a bad habit, has in an hour of despair clutched at something like this as if to frighten his own soul. He has invoked a conditional curse upon his head. “If I repeat this let me perish by it!” has gone from the half-maddened mind in the hour of self-disgust. Then there has come the repetition of the sin, “for the strongest oaths are straw to the fire in the blood,” and the poor sinner has settled down with the thought that his doom is sealed. There is not a little of this practical fatalism. Avoid it! “That way madness lies!”
2. But there is no need to pray for a curse. If we sin the curse is sure; and the Amen of the repentant soul, whose only wish is for well-doing, is merely a waking up of the conscience to this gloomy fact. Let it sink into the soul. Our God is a consuming fire, therefore know “the terrors of the Lord.” We may look at the mild glories of mercy until we forget the sterner side of life. Brace the soul by meditations on the deep, inexorable sternness of offended law.
3. When engaging in formal covenant with God, when taking the pledge of conversion, when engaging in the solemnities of public or private worship, we virtually bind our souls with this curse. To give ourselves up to blessing is to denounce upon our backsliding self the curse. When a soldier takes his oath he insures his fidelity of the reward and prospective promotion, and by that same act says Amen to the law, “Thou shalt be shot for desertion or for treachery!” It is the same in citizenship. All well-doing, right-loving citizens agree to the pains and penalties which await their possible malefactions. It is thus that life is girdled with a deep gulf of doom. Evil to the evil-doer is the proposition. It is so. Amen! says every voice that can argue with man. So be it. Amen! says the soul that rises up to follow good.
III. The doom of unrighteousness avoided. “And the people did according to their promise.”
1. The good man shuts himself up to his course. Like Simon Peter, he can turn nowhere. “To whom shall we go” but unto Thee. No turning, like Lot’s wife. The fire of doom is the end of all backward steps. Paul-like, let us “leave the things that are behind.”
2. The good man must not depend upon the mere binding force of his oath. Pledges and prisons are but geeen withes on the strong man of sin if there be no other bond. Goodness by the ROD is not safe or real or lasting. The commandment often arouses the contrary desire.
3. “My grace is sufficient for thee.” The vow of the soul is its warrant of sincerity; the steadfast faith of the soul in the grace of Jesus Christ is its defence against temptations to desertion and disobedience.
1. Ponder the inevitable terrors of the Lord against all unrighteousness.
2. Vow solemnly the vow of repentance and reformation.
3. Pray for hourly strength to do according to this promise.
A MAN FOREGOING HIS RIGHTS FOR THE SAKE OF HIS DUTIES
Nehemiah 5:14. Moreover from the time that I was appointed, &c.
Nehemiah was a law unto himself. Refused to be guided by others’ example. “I might exact of them money and corn” (Nehemiah 5:10). Rose superior to insistence on his own rights. “The former governors were chargeable unto the people” (Nehemiah 5:15). The principle is this:—A man must sometimes forego his rights for the sake of his duties.
I. Rights must be asserted. It will not do to weakly allow selfishness to trample upon the too submissive soul. St. Paul’s insisting on his privileges as a Roman citizen an example.
II. Rights must not be pressed too far. A man has prejudiced views of his own worth and deserts. According to his self-importance will be the large ness of his views of his own rights. “The rights of man” is frequently a hollow cry of selfishness.
III. Rights must be tempered by considerations of duty. Duty is a grand governing word. It sways men more than we think. The holiday-maker is restless after a while to get back to the routine of his duties. Duty is our home; pleasure is the place we take a trip to now and then. Our happiness is more bound up with our duties than with our rights. We can survive being cheated of a right, but we cannot escape if we have neglected our duties. It was such considerations as these which swayed the Jewish liberator.
IV. The due adherence to this principle is the self-sacrificing spirit of Christianity. “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” The crowning glory of the redemptive life of Jesus is, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor. In the second chapter of the Philippian Epistle we have the Christian setting of this doctrine. The example of Nehemiah, who came among the miserly, selfish Jews, and flung back to the people even the dues and monies which were properly his, in the greatness of his self-sacrifice shrinking from insistence on his own rights as he would from sin, was like an incarnation of nobleness for the fallen minds of his contemporaries to look at and emulate. In the sweet story of old this same grand law is carried higher. In the life of St. Paul it is repeated. In the story of missionaries and martyrs there is a prolongation of this line of light. Blessed are they who reflect its blaze and join this glorious succession.
1. Guard against the selfish spirit of the world.
2. Seek and show the unselfish spirit of Christ.
A MOTTO FOR A MANLY LIFE
Nehemiah 5:15. So did not I, because of the fear of God
There is a motto for a manly life. The key-note of his character was not fear of the crowd, but fear of his own conscience. What a noble thing is the iron sense of duty. This was the strong sinew of the Duke of Wellington’s great nature. Whether in the Church or the world, every circle feels the presence and reverences the career of one who bears this hall-mark of duty. So will not I, for conscience’ sake. Briefly sketch the story of Nehemiah, as illustrating his adherence to his self-chosen motto. It was the banner of his whole life-battle, and he held it with a clenched hand in every high place of temptation.
I. The regulative power of a lofty motive. In manifold forms the firm and heroic have ruled their lives by a power superior to their own lower nature.
1. “The fear of God” is Nehemiah’s phrase. That reverential, loving awe of the all-holy Father and Ruler of men.
2. “The love of Christ” is the warmer sentiment which corresponds to this in Paul’s phraseology. Fuller light brought a deeper sentiment. The thought of Christ’s love awakening love for Christ, and becoming in man an incarnation of heavenly inspiration.
3. “Religious principle” is another colder, broader, yet noble expression of the same animator of good men.
4. “Conscience,” “the sense of duty,” “the instinct of right” are less precise variations of the motives which sway all whose lives are redeemed from the ignoble.
II. The courage to be singular is implied in this motto of the Jewish liberator.
1. Let there be no singularity for singularity’s sake. Opposition may be our misfortune, but must not be our ambition. To sing out of tune for the sake of having your voice heard is weakness, not strength.
2. Yet this world has always rested as on granite pillars on men who could be singular. Moses refusing to be identified with the godless nationality of Egypt. The three Hebrew children standing upright in Babylon like watch-towers of truth. Peter and John giving their summary answer to the council: “We ought to obey God rather than man.” Luther at Worms crying out, “It is not wise or safe for a man to do anything against his conscience.” These men and their heroic brethren in resistance have all glorified their lives by this motto: “So did not I.”
III. Applications of this principle in the commonplace life of all men.
1. To HIMSELF a man must say NO! “Let him deny himself” is a precept we must practise if we would even live. It is also a necessity of our happiness. “True quietness of heart is gotten not by obeying our passions, but by resisting them.” It is essential to our self-respect in “the struggle of the instinct that enjoys with the more noble instinct which aspires.” The mastery of self is the foundation-victory. “To thine own self be true, and it shall follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
2. To THE WORLD a man must say NO! Prevalency of temptations for a man to let himself down, to barter purity for pleasure and honour for gold. How many poor men sell their birthright of immortality for some animal gratification! How many sell their Lord for thirty pieces of silver, more or less.
3. “So did not I” is the YOUTH’S motto. “If sinners entice thee, consent thou not.” It is a manlier and a stronger thing to go right than to go wrong. “Stand thou firm as an anvil that is beaten.”
IV. The simplicity and directness of this life-motto. Nehemiah’s reason for his nonconformity was a very simple one. “In my view this practice is not right!” You cannot be always arguing a thing. You cannot be “seeking truth” (to quote the world’s cant expression for moral irresolution) all your life. Find it quickly, and stick to it always. Pro viding a man’s heart is bad enough, his head will usually be clever enough to argue for his defence. The devil is said to be the best of advocates, and can quote Scripture to his purpose. But in plain matters of right and wrong “there is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding.” Nehemiah’s reason for not pocketing the money as others had done was a very simple answer—“I fear God.”
V. This motto is our guide in doubtful matters. Many bad things are doubtful for want of a sensitive nerve in the soul. That which to one is “but a choleric word, to another is flat blasphemy.” To Nehemiah’s contemporaries and predecessors this practice of money-making had seemed a lawful one, but Nehemiah said that it was one in which a man could not keep clean hands. The scrupulous has the solution of his difficulties in his own conscience. Forego the doubtful for God’s sake. Make your self-denial in that matter a sacrifice to God, and it shall be to him as the odour of incense.
1. Let us understand and acquire this great life-principle. The fear of God is not fear or dread of a Being outside us, but reverence and submission to a holy Spirit within.
2. Let it be our strife, at whatever sacrifice, to reverence this powerful sentiment. “Hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”
“Brother, up to the breach
For Christ’s freedom and truth;
Let us act as we teach,
With the wisdom of age and the vigour of youth.
Heed not their cannon-balls,
Ask not who stands or falls,
Grasp the sword
Of the Lord,
Brother, strong in the faith
That “the right will come right,”
Never tremble at death,
Never think of thyself ’mid the roar of the fight.
Hark to the battle cry
Sounding from yonder sky!
Grasp the sword
Of the Lord,
Brother, sing a loud psalm;
Our hope’s not forlorn.
After storm comes the calm,
After darkness and twilight breaks forth the new morn.
Let the mad foe get madder;
Never quail! up the ladder
Grasp the sword
Of the Lord,
Brother, up to the breach
For Christ’s freedom and truth;
If we live we shall teach,
With the strong faith of age and the bright hope of youth.
If we perish, then o’er us
Will ring the loud chorus:
Grasp the sword
Of the Lord,
And forward!—Norman Mac Leod.
Singularity.—“We must learn to say ‘No.’ We must dare, if need be, to be singular. Like the young Joseph, when you are tempted astray by seducing voices, let your answer be, ‘How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?’ Like the young Daniel, when forbidden pleasures and questionable delights are urged upon your appetites, be ‘purposed in’ your ‘heart that’ you ‘will not defile’ yourself with them, and choose pulse and water with the relish of a good conscience rather than such dainties. Like the same Daniel, when the crowd are flocking at the sound of the sackbut and psaltery to worship some golden image, keep your knees unbent amidst the madness, learn to stand erect though you alone are upright in the midst of a grovelling multitude, and protest, ‘We will not serve thy gods nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.’ Like Nehemiah, dare to lose money rather than adopt sources of profit which others may use without a thought, but which your conscience shrinks from; and to all the various enticements of pleasure, and gain, and ease, and popular loose maxims for the conduct oppose immovable resistance, founded on a higher law and a mightier motive. ‘So did not I, because of the fear of God.’ ”—A. Maclaren, D.D.
The mighty motive. “So did not I, because of the fear of God.” “The heart cannot be prevailed upon to part with the world by a simple act of resignation. But may not the heart be prevailed upon to admit into its preference another, who shall subordinate the world, and bring it down from its wonted ascendancy? If the throne which is placed there must have an occupier, and the tyrant that now reigns has occupied it wrongfully, he may not leave a bosom which would rather detain him than be left in desolation. But may he not give way to the lawful sovereign?”—Chalmers.
“By his place Nehemiah had an advantage of oppressing his brethen, if he durst have been so wicked; and from those that had before him been honoured with that office he had examples of such as could not only swallow the common allowance of the governor without rising in their consciences, which showed a digestion strong enough, considering the peeled state of the Jews at that time; but could, when themselves had sucked the milk, let their cruel servants suck the blood of this poor people also by illegal exactions; so that Nehemiah, coming after such oppressors, if he had taken his allowance, and but eased them of the other burdens which they groaned under, no doubt might have passed for merciful in their thoughts. But he durst not go so far. A man may possibly be an oppressor in exacting his own. Nehemiah knew they were not in a condition to pay, and therefore he durst not require it. But as one who comes after a bad husbandman, that hath driven his land and sucked out the heart of it, casts it up fallow for a time till it recovers its lost strength, so did Nehemiah spare this oppressed people. And what, I pray, was it that preserved him from doing as the rest had done? We have the answer in his own words: ‘But so did not I, because of the fear of the Lord.’ The man was honest, his heart touched with a sincere fear of God, and this kept him right.”—Gurnall.
Nehemiah 5:19. Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people
Nehemiah’s appeal to God to deal with him according to the integrity of his life is several times repeated in this book (Nehemiah 13:14; Nehemiah 13:22). “He fed the people in the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands.” God-fearing, faithful, and unselfish, in every step he could boldly look back upon his progress and take the satisfaction of an approving conscience. There is something noble and something dangerous in this sentiment.
I. The habit of righteousness. To some men it is given to possess great accuracy of character, to others it is given to be exposed constantly to a course of honest blundering. Illustrated in the sphere of intelligence. One man can never write a letter to satisfy him the first time—he must re-write it; while another lays a firm hand on the paper and never writes anything that he needs to erase or be sorry for. Among men of genius there are some who are dashing and brilliant in their thoughts and deeds, but now and then their work is weakened by the mistakes found therein; while there are others who seem never to be inaccurate in thought or blundering in deed. “The Duke of Wellington is, I believe (says Niebuhr), the only general in whose conduct of war we cannot discover any important mistake.” The mind of such men is a chronometer as compared with the cheap clock-work of less careful and less certain minds. So it is in the moral sphere. One has a severely even and consistent nature, another full of moral eccentricities. Bursts of virtue and of faultiness alternate in these last-named so as to make them a continual perplexity to their friends. Goldsmith happily touches this in his pleasantry on a contemporary.
“Here lies Edmund Burke, whose genius was such
We scarcely can praise it or blame it too much.”
Yet when we consider how an hour’s fault may undo a week’s virtue, how by one error or sin you may put back your nature or your work more than you promote it by many excellences, it is wise to be severe upon “faults,” especially upon our own. To be “without fault in the day of God is the mark of all Christian longing; to have “neither spot nor wrinkle nor any such thing” in his glorious vesture the Church is the desire of that Lord of whom it was said while he tabernacled among men, “I find in him no fault at all.”
1. Aim at a perfect walk with God. “Search me, O God, and see if there be any wicked way in me.” See Nehemiah 5:9 : “Ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies.” “Ye are the temples of the Holy Ghost” is the restraining thought to keep us from fault. “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin” is our refuge in our stumbles.
2. Strine to remedy the faults of your brother. To mend his character is better than to mend his fortune; to perfect him is better than to perfect the surroundings which he must leave behind him.
3. At the same time, cover with charity and bear with patience the failures of weak human nature. You cannot measure the greatness of his inward difficulties.
“What’s done you partly may compute,
But never what’s resisted.”
Be severe on your own fault; be gentle with the fault of your brother.
II. The noble refuge of the righteous. A little poem, whose every line is a thread of gold, speaks of the man “whose conscience is his strong retreat.” In every circumstance and crisis of life this is a safe place for the thoughts to dwell.
1. In prosperity. It is a joy to know that good has come by good means. The rich man whose moneybags are all witnesses of iniquity, whose every gain signifies dishonour, must have a wasp-sting in every fruit he tastes. Accumulated wealth is but an accumulation of doom to the man who prospers wrongfully. But to have a good conscience as the companion of good fortune is to drink of the sweetest cup of earthly happiness.
2. In adversity. When other miseries are upon a man it is glorious to be free from that archangel of misery, a guilty conscience. The drunkard, who looks upon the desolation of his family, and who knows that his own trembling hands have pulled down the pillars of his home; the extravagant and reckless, who see in their ruin the ripe harvest for which they sowed, sit in the dark place with no consolatory light at all. If I am bereft of my integrity I am bereaved. Sweet it is in adversity to sit without the whips and scorns of self-accusation.
3. In the relationships of life. To know I have not wilfully hurt the health, or conscience, or happiness of my fellow is an angel remembrance as life’s evening comes on. Guilty men have repented and found a Saviour’s mercy before now whose after-thoughts have been gloomy with remembrance of injuries done to their fellows. So St. Paul meekly sorrows over the madness which had in former days damaged the flock of God.
4. In death. O death, where is thy sting if the soul is found in Christ, and the memory plays like a setting sun on a well-spent life? “All that I have done for this people.” The good deeds of a well-spent life are shining companions to the soul as it goes through the windings of the last dark valley. Contrast with all this the guilty thoughts of the bad king.
“I have lived long enough; my way of life
Is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age
I must not look to have; but in their stead
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny, but dare not.”
III. The dangers of the righteous. To stand upon our righteous habits is to select a wrong basis. Goodness is rather the buttress of the wall than its foundation.
“Nor alms or deeds that I have done
Can for a single sin atone;
To Calvary alone I flee;
O God, be merciful to me.”
Self-righteousness brings pride and uncharitableness. When Archbishop Whateley lay dying some one said, “It is the greatness of your lordship’s mind that supports you.” “No, it is not” (he said); “it is faith in Christ that supports me.” That is the Rock of ages.
1. Strive after such integrity as will bring satisfaction to the soul in the great review at the last.
2. Let no thought of your own goodness come as a shadow in front of the cross to rob the Redeemer of the glory of his salvation.
THE SAINT’S SUPPORT
Nehemiah 5:19. Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people
Two motives induced Nehemiah to pray thus: the many great and good things he had done for Church and state; the many great and desperate dangers he had already met with, and would still have to encounter. There were three solemn comings of three famous persons to Jerusalem—Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. The secret of Nehemiah’s courage—his heart was on his God.
First, of the sense of the text. “Think,” properly “remember.” To remember is (a) to keep and hold fast in memory; opposed to forgetting. (b) To call to mind forgotten things. A word derived from this root is put for a memorial (Exodus 28:12) and for records (Esther 6:1). Remembering is in Scripture applied to
(1) God and
(2) man. To God properly in first signification. God never forgets. “Known unto him are all his works” (Acts 15:18). Remembrance is also applied to God in the second signification (Job 7:7; Job 9:9; Job 14:3). He has a book of remembrance (Malachi 3:16). These are to be taken “tropically,” by way of similitude. Nehemiah’s “remember” means, “May I have assurance and others’ evidence.” “My God,” an appropriating particle (“God”—Heb. Elohim), a plurality of persons, a unity of nature. “For good,” i. e. goodness. The saint’s support is God.
1. The person petitioned.
2. The point prayed for.
I. The person.
1. General title. “God.”
2. Special relation. “My.”
II. The point prayed for.
1. The kind of it
2. The end of it.
1. The kind.
(1) An act desired of God. “Think upon.”
(2) The special object. “Me.”
2. The end.
(1) Generally. “For good.”
(2) Particularly. (a) The ground—“that I have done.” (b) The rule:—“according to.” (c) The extent—“all.” (d) The limitation—“for this people.” Observations hence arising.
1. God the support of his saints.
2. Peculiar God to believer. “My.”
3. God hath remembrancers.
4. God is soonest drawn to his own.
5. Prayer proper for one’s own good.
6. Works may be pleaded before God.
7. Man’s works are the rule of God’s reward.
8. Everything well done shall be rewarded.
9. Good done to God’s people is most acceptable.—Dr. Wm. Gouge, 1642.
THE REMEMBRANCE OF GOOD DEEDS A PILLOW OF REST FOR A GOOD MAN
Nehemiah 5:19. Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people
“Nehemiah’s soul was frank with God. There is freedom of access to a throne of grace for every believer (Hebrews 4:16). ‘Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people,’ is not a presumptuous conceit, but a childlike simplicity. The gross mind of the world would confound the two. Where we know that God has led us in paths of righteousness, we may well use that knowledge, and encourage our souls by it. Nehemiah had but few around him who could reach high enough to sympathize fully with him; and it was thus his great comfort to pour out his soul, according to truth, before the God whose good hand had guided him. God wishes no mock modesty from us. His grace in our hearts and lives should be acknowledged (comp. 1 Timothy 1:12).”—Crosby. The personal pronoun is very prominent in David’s autobiography. “I have preached.” “I have not refrained my lips” (Psalms 40:0). “My defence is of God” (Psalms 7:0). “Thou hast tried me, and shalt find nothing” (Psalms 17:0). St. Paul boldly cites his own example. Readers of his epistles note his self-consciousness. “Whatsoever things ye have learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do” (Philippians 4:9). “Brethren, be followers together of me” (Philippians 3:17). “I beseech you be as I am” (Galatians 4:12). “These hands have ministered to my necessities” (Acts 20:34). “I have fought a good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7).
I. Life’s review will be a review of the whole of life. Its good as well as its evil. When “backward are our glances bent” we shall need the recollection of every pure thought, guiding word, kindly deed. When we lie down in the long sleep men call death may no pleasant dreams come?
II. Life’s reward will be rendered according to its deeds. God will “give every man according as his work shall be” (Revelation 22:12). We are saved by grace, “looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 1:21). But there is a rewardableness of works. “We must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body” (2 Corinthians 5:10). “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord; their works do follow them” (Revelation 14:13). “We carry nothing out of the world with us but the conscience and comfort of what we have done for God.”
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Nehemiah 5". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany